The Lessons of History: Thoughts on the events in Gaza (part I)

While Israel is pounding Gaza and killing in the hundreds, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and Hamas’ fight are taking place all around the globe. Of course this doesn’t reflect dominant public opinion in the West that still is apologetic of Israel’s actions. Not one official state declaration has condemned the Israeli attacks. If anything, the few who bothered to issue a statement reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself as it was perceived to live under a constant threat of rocket shower. Check here if you want to have goose bumps.

But there is one place where no demonstrations are in sight: the Arab world. Also, not one condemnation was issued by any Arab government, not one declaration. It is taken for granted that no Western government has condoned Israeli attacks either. But how can we explain this apathy sweeping the Arab region? Surely, they have their own problems all linked to one or other form of occupation. But this conflict used to be called the Israeli-Arab conflict for crying out loud!

A couple of centuries ago, the situation in the region looked very similar: the crusaders were well entrenched on the coast of the “fertile crescent”, and the rest of the Muslim world was completely paralyzed, accepting, if not complicit, in the status quo of occupation until Nur ad-din and his successor Saladin challenged the paradigm. This is at least what the history books say. Some of this dominant cultural apathy or nonchalance, the surrender and normalization, must have existed so that these two individuals and the movements they represented have gone down in the books as changing the face of history.

Modern Arabs have not used their historical consciousness as an agent of ideological change or political action. The basic nationalistic experiments that were fashioned by colonial encounters left Arabs struggling over questions of terminology and then categorizing history in one way or another. Devising points of reference and of origin. The crusades episode was barely glossed over (until now the only book that presents an interesting take on that episode is Amin Maalouf’s. That tells you about the state of the literature).

On one hand, Arab leftist movements were too busy looking towards a brighter socially more “evolved” future and being ashamed of their Islamic heritage, helplessly wanting to teach social and political “progress” of the West. On the other hand, nationalist movements were quarreling amongst each other finding all kinds of identitarian anchors to justify their causes (the Omayyad period was a favorite as it looked the most “secular”, but also anything pre-Islamic).

No one thought of approaching history as giving lessons for political practice. More recently but still a couple of centuries ago, the “Renaissance” Italian writer Machiavelli looked at the history of the Roman Empire in this particular vein as he hoped to provide advice to unite the various Princedoms feuding over Italy. Interestingly, Machiavelli was categorized as ushering a new era of thinking politics outside the scope of religion, a state that had lasted since the advent of Catholic Christianity in Europe.

In modern times, we have fallen in to the trap of categorizing Machiavelli a secular thinker as opposed to one that was just opposed to dominant categories of analysis that happened to be held at the time by the Catholic Church with its particular understanding of history. The point of thinkers such as Machiavelli was to say that the Catholic Church could not provide the needed leverage to create political unity. Ideologically speaking, there was a need to produce new categories of thinking. Machiavelli called for a new political science, one that does away with traditional categories of analysis, not because they were bad or “backward”, but because the institutions backing them did not have anymore the means to create new political realities.

All this is to say that Arabs have been obsessed with categorizing things as either secular or religious as intellectuals of all creeds desperately clung on to the categories of colonial heritage. How could they have done otherwise? The colonizer had also captured their texts and by this token had controlled the creation of knowledge emanating from these writings! The primary victim of this reversed Orientalism espoused by Arabs was historical consciousness. The past became a cumbersome process that was only used to create identities, differences and reactionary discourse and not be a repository for good action.

The rise of Political Islam was a direct reaction to this awkward and clumsy attitude towards history. Suddenly the past was all important. But what kind of past? For example, during the Lebanese “civil war”, the crusader episode was visited in history by various Muslim groups but only to identify them to the contemporary Lebanese Christians who they were fighting between 1975 and 1990. Even though one could retrieve lessons in political practice from these uses of the past they were also creating group differentiation (here Christian VS Muslims).

And every time history was revised it was to create identitarian differences. Such as fomenting trouble between Sunni and Shia denominated groups. Books and articles, talk-shows and documentaries, all proliferate on relentless questions and searches of authenticity, developing either an alleged Sunni or Shia take on the Islamic tradition. No wonder we’ve been busied away from other conflicts.

As I looked for what was written on Nur ad-din, most of what I found was how much he was a great Sunni leader who opposed Shia Fatimid Egypt of the time. In effect, this is not incorrect. But that’s not what the prevailing historians of the time want us to remember, at least in the aftermath of the defeat against the crusaders. The point here is not that the “right” conflict is looking for the right identity to conflict with. The point is to look at the location of forms of occupation, oppression, unjust violence, etc. and understand how to remedy that through the legacy of others who did before us. How can one create the necessary form of consciousness through learning from the past in order to produce community change?

With technological revolutions and every single group or individual having a media channel of his own this ideological rallying is an immense challenge. It is ironic that Arabs are said to be closer to democracy or accountability given that they don’t even pressure their government to do something about Palestine. Is this a sign of apathy, a change of heart, or just a failure to understand and return the debt to the past?

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Who’s reading what and how?

Mali rebels torched library of historic manuscripts
Fleeing Islamist insurgents burnt two buildings containing priceless books as French-led troops approached, says mayor

Beyond the tragic implications of such an event, a small anecdote:

The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.
The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

Women’s rights? Was this “topic” added to suit the modern mind? I did not know there was a discipline as important as astronomy or poetry, music and medicine called “women’s rights”? Is it now a science of some sort?

A Christmas Lesson

In Christian festive times, Al Manar TV uses such rituals in order to focus attention on a political cause either pertaining to internal Lebanese issues (Jesus and messages of co-existence), regional (usually related to the Palestinian cause) or even international. On Christmas Eve for example, the seven o’clock news broadcast has most of its content devoted to the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and the various political performances around that event: Interviews with Palestinian leaders, review of the history of Palestine and specifically Jerusalem as center of Muslim and Christian co-existence. As a comparison, if there is a mention of some Christian symbolism in Christmas, and not just the usual global-market-legitimated consumerist style in the event of Christmas, it is in general simply about abstract concepts of love and tolerance that Jesus is supposed to have upheld. How many times have we watched on LBC and other Christian affiliated channels the different Hollywood productions of the life of Jesus and other figures of his time? When was this guy born? Bethlehem? Where is Bethlehem? In occupied Palestine. Where did Jesus make his most important appearance? Jerusalem. Where is Jerusalem? In occupied Palestine.

Why haven’t Lebanese Christians, so proud of their “Christianity” never made this link when celebrating Christmas? Whenever focusing on Christian related rituals or when simply referring to Jesus’ legacy, Hizbullah’s related media operationalizes these concepts in order to derive political engaged statements about certain forms of injustices in the world. When “Christianity” isolates itself in Lebanon by becoming a localized, privatized, and a-historical form of thinking ethics, some ways of re-thinking Islamic heritage shakes Christianity out of its torpor and tries to put it back in one of its historical continuum.

A note on the power of images

The most disturbing aspect of the Gaza assault is that it is proof once again that the more you are considered ‘civilized’ or ‘righteous’, the more you can get away with the most atrocious acts.

But it seems that it is not just the ‘western’ sphere, the international community, the Islamophobes, the western media, history books, movies, etc that are contributing to that.

I may go out astray here but I worry that the Arab media are contributing to this asymetry in human ‘value’. Showing all these dead Palestinian bodies, children and others, although shocking and moving to all types of audiences,  paradoxically helps these audiences grow immune to them.

One thing to learn from certain types of Islamic practices, and that Islamic movements are drifting away from in their own construction of modernity is that not showing faces is crucial to create respect, legitimacy and authority.

God, his Laws, his prophets and his leaders, are never more powerful than when they become an idea completely devoid of illustrations. This is one thing we can learn from tradition for concrete political action.

Clarification

This post is undergoing severe re-Clarification! It is the writers opinion, following his enlightened readers, that the terms used obscure more than clarifies the meanings he is trying to propose…

It is not “religion” that makes people more “conservative” and sexually less “liberal”, but it is the capitalistic system, and the emergence of a bourgeois society. So Religion, or religious institutions in a capitalist system, religion under the watchful eye of the State can project more “conservative” practices.

Yet “conservative” does not mean much, and the management of the body is a much more complex issue than being “free to do whatever I want”. Because “free” and thinking that one knows what he/she “wants” are conceptual illusions that blind you from seeing how enslaved one is by the power structures in place. And that’s the merit of the liberal system.

Sense and non-sense about “Political Islam”

Those studying what is commonly refered to as political Islamic movements should know that the paradigm of the Nation-State is here to stay, and quite for some time and with all its institutional and politically practical consequences. The whole ‘secular VS religious’ debate begs the question. It is all an endlessly renewed effort to find a discursive envelope to the same infernal machine called the modern State with its projected population/territory/etc. It does not mean that alternative to the classical European narrative to the nation is not possible. “Islamism” is one such. And I’m not saying that the Nation-State cannot be challenged by “Islamists”. It can actually be challenged by any politically relevant actor/organization when the latter can challenge on a large scale the economic and cultural logic of the capitalist system and all of its institutional (legal for example) ramifications. Although “Islamists” branch out and create at times slightly different type of institutional structures they by and large stay very much fall prey to the cultural logic of the system no matter how hard they officially fight the ‘nationalist’ paradigm because their political calculations cannot but be national, geared towards using the structure of this pre-established colonial State.

It is in the music

There is a mass on LBC for some saint, and there is a choral playing the most horrible type of badly westernized melodies. Major and minor scales with little sharps and flats thrown in really awkward places. It is so ironic to think that a couple of decades ago you could still find traditional Maronite mass sung based on Arabic maqams. I loved the little part in Aramaic about the blessing of the bread and wine that was meditatively uttered in the maqam of Bayati. For those interested, in Arabic music there is no minor and major scales, intervals are much more subtle and based on smaller tonal changes.

You know how you can tell that Maronites were the most “Arabic” of all Christians in the Middle East? They were the only ones whose music was traditionally integrally faithful to Arabic musical modes. The only ones. And what a beautiful mass that was. Fortunately, you have good recordings of how it sounded. Not much different from any good Muslim inshaad or azaan. Alas, it does not exist anymore. The Maronite Church has completely altered the musical melodies/structure/lyrics (I don’t even want to talk about the new texts that are of such a bad taste), ‘westernizing’ the mood.

And rest assured, most of the songs composed by the “Islamic” artistic sphere among the Shi’a of Lebanon (and Iran) is following similar structures, although for totally different reasons. But will talk about that some other time.