Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Worst of Two Centuries

The Arab region suffers the mass self-abuse of police states and soft autocracies that are the legacy of the post-colonial period, alongside the renewed abuse of foreign armies that march into the region today.

The Worst of the
19th and 21st Centuries

Rami G. Khouri

February 25, 2007
Agence Global

Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
[Republished at GRBlog with AG permission]

DUBAI -- I had the pleasure last week of spending a few days in Doha and Dubai, two booming Gulf emirates that contrast sharply with the tensions and occasional turbulence of my home in Beirut. Without exception, on this trip and during our daily lives throughout the Middle East, the one theme that continuously reasserts itself -- especially in discussions among Arabs themselves -- is: Why is this region so volatile, violent, unstable, prone to extremist rhetoric and actions, and riddled with instability and militarism?

The opportunity to engage in long conversations with learned people and a few slightly more suspect political types in the heady, hyper-growth atmosphere of the emirates of Dubai and Qatar also offers a useful perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the entire Arab region. Qatar and Dubai have planned and implemented impressive developmental programs that have started to catch the attention of the world for more than only their dramatic architecture or occasional eccentricities. The order, excitement and ongoing expansion of these cities contrast starkly with the ravages and tensions that define much of the rest of the Arab world.

We are all well aware of the problems of grief-stricken lands like Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Yemen and Somalia, plagued by war, civil strife and perpetual stagnation. Even countries that are renowned for their stability and strict security, like Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, suffer a combination of intermittent political violence and terror attacks, alongside pent-up domestic political and social tensions. The latest example was last week's shootout between police and terrorists in Tunisia, which should only heighten our acknowledgement that even the most efficient police states ultimately generate their own forms of instability, insurrection and incoherence.

Why is this so? Why is the entire Arab world -- even some Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain -- susceptible to chronic tension that manifests itself in regular outbursts of terrorism or domestic strife? Simple and occasionally sinister minds in faraway lands would explain this by culture, religion or values, or by claiming that masses of ordinary Arabs have simply allowed their emotions to overcome them and thus have not permitted themselves to engage in the joys of modernity, democracy and liberty.

I think there is a better explanation, which will not please those far away who accuse us of blaming all our ailments on foreigners and history. I suspect that much of the Arab world is a chronic mess because it is the only region in the world that simultaneously suffers the debilitating consequences of two of the most wretched and wrenching forces in modern history: the distress and distortions of post-colonial societies the Europeans manufactured and then abandoned in the 20th Century, and the new stresses and dysfunctionalism of the neo-colonial policies the United States is spearheading in this region -- and only in this region -- in the wake of the Cold War and the advent of the post-9/11 “global war on terror”. For some reason, we in the Arab world must endure the worst of the 19th and 21st Centuries combined.

Only the Arab region in the entire world suffers the mass self-abuse of police states and soft autocracies that are the legacy of the post-colonial period in the 20th Century that brought into being the modern Arab political order, alongside the renewed abuse of foreign armies that march into the region today to repeat the state-making, regime-crafting mistakes of their imperial predecessors a century ago. The British, of course, get the prize here, having come into Iraq and other lands several times in the past century, and always with similarly negative consequences of chronic instability and national incoherence. Their shameful hallmark legacies are visible today in Palestine, Sudan, Iraq and other tortured lands. The Americans under George W. Bush seem to be learning the same awful game.

It is hard enough trying to sort out the lingering distortions and problematic legacies of 19th and 20th Century European colonialism, as some Arab societies are trying to do. It is impossible to attempt this, though, when these societies simultaneously are subjected again to military attacks, long-term occupations and strategies for regime change and social values reconfigurations by the American, British, Israeli and Micronesian political establishments. It is no wonder that our region is such a mess.

The single most important difference between this round of foreign assaults on the Arab world and the experience last century is that the natives are more aware, less willing to passively accept their fate, and more inclined to resist and fight back. This makes for a long period ahead of turmoil and confrontation, as we have witnessed in the past few years.

Will the Arab world be able one day soon to look forward to a century, even just a few decades, without foreign invasions, imperial conquests, colonial state-crafting, post-colonial police states, and neo-colonial threats, assaults and regime changes?

Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.

Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global

Released: 26 February 2007
Word Count: 806

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Advisory Release: 26 February 2007
Word Count: 806
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002,

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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, The American Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

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