Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Two authors offer prescient looks on the Arab Spring

Rayyan Al-Shawaf examines two books started before the Arab Spring began to unfold, both focusing on socio-political attitudes among Arabs and Muslims.
The "Ugly American" 
in the Arab Mind
Mohamed El-Bendary
Potomac Books
The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind Mohamed El-Bendary Potomac Books Dh144

We will soon be inundated with titles about the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world. Regardless of their merits or lack of, these books will have been written after the start of the Arab Spring. In the meantime, however, it is fascinating to examine those books that were begun before the onset of the region's awakening, but whose authors scrambled to incorporate it into their narratives.

Two such titles are Robin Wright's Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World and Mohamed El-Bendary's The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America? Both titles focus on socio-political attitudes among Arabs and Muslims - whether towards radical Islam, as in Wright's book, or towards the West, as in El-Bendary's - and both attempt to bring the Arab Spring into the picture.

While Wright's book, which examines the multifaceted "counter-jihad" - the phenomenon of moderate Muslims confronting violent and authoritarian interpretations of Islam - is consistently engaging, it too often feels more like advocacy than analysis, and tends to be overly coloured by optimism.

El-Bendary's book, which is basically a monograph bringing to light rampant anti-Americanism in the Arabic media, emerges as uninspired, but sounds a cautionary note regarding the Arab Spring and the Islamists in its midst.

Wright's Rock the Casbah - taken from the title of the famous Middle East-themed song by The Clash - picks up where her earlier Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East left off. And that's the problem. Wright finds new reform-minded Muslims to praise, but conceptually, this book is almost identical to her previous one.

An award-winning journalist, Wright originally set out to write about the counter-jihad in both the Middle East and the West. (The book's working subtitle - still found on some websites - wasHow Sheikhs, Comedians, Rappers, and Women Are Challenging Osama Bin Laden.) Her overview of this subject proves quite appealing.

Wright shows how radical Islam, Arab authoritarian regimes, and western bigotry are receiving a verbal thrashing at the hands of Muslim playwrights, poets, comedians, and gay activists. Oh, and don't forget the rappers: "Rap spawned a new sass in countries where the state controlled the media, banned the opposition, orchestrated elections, and arrested the outspoken - conditions that have in turn fostered alienation and extremism."

But the author displays a worrisome tendency to ignore the "sword that cuts both ways" aspect of certain trends in the Arab world.

She asserts that the "counter-jihad's most critical components ... were the clerics who originally inspired and conferred legitimacy on al Qaeda" but who now chastise the monster they helped create. However, continuing to invest such people with power is problematic. What if some of these clerics change their minds yet again - say, when they are released from Egyptian prisons, from which many of them have recently and perhaps not coincidentally begun denouncing terrorism? Wright apparently does not realise that the counter-jihad's best chance of long-term success lies in its ability to break Muslim clerics' stranglehold on interpreting Islam.

A similar case of selective observation occurs in Wright's analysis of how the headscarf has become "a kind of armour for Muslim women to chart their own course, personally or professionally", in patriarchal Arab countries such as Egypt.

By donning the headscarf, many women have silenced their male would-be guardians and enabled themselves to participate more fully in the social and even political spheres. However, Wright fails to note that in using conservative Islamic dress as their means of socio-political advancement, they have simultaneously marginalised Christian and secular Muslim women.

Wright deals with the Arab Spring by collapsing it into the counter-jihad. This does not always work, because the masses of moderate Muslims in Arab countries who non-violently opposed quasi-secular and militaristic dictatorships were not actively engaged in a struggle against radical Islam.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether or not they will accommodate or confront the Islamists who also opposed the dictatorships. Wright issues a few perfunctory warnings regarding tough times ahead, but is otherwise breezily confident that moderate Muslims will succeed in forging a more tolerant and democratic Arab world.

Think of El-Bendary's short book as a clash between the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and the American songwriter and performer Billy Joel. At one point, the author quotes a Yemeni newspaper that criticises America's involvement in Iraq by drawing on an unrelated poem by Qabbani: "Whoever opened the doors should close them; whoever set the fire should put it out." To which an indignant American might borrow lyrics from a Billy Joel song: "We didn't start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world's been turning / We didn't start the fire / No we didn't light it / But we tried to fight it."

The "Ugly American"in the Arab Mind - which derives its title from William J Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American, an influential 1950s political novel set in South-east Asia - consists in large part of an endless string of quotes culled from the Arabic media, with virtually no analysis by El-Bendary until the very end.

While useful as a reference on (largely negative) depictions of the US in the Arab media during George W Bush's second term as president, El-Bendary's book remains dogged by an important question: to what extent can a study of the Arab media's anti-Americanism truly gauge public opinion?

After all, the author reminds us that "most of the Arab media are government-owned or are controlled by government; they reflect governments' policies and influence and are influenced by them". One is inclined to agree with El-Bendary that "anyone who lives in the Arab world today can easily sense that anti-Americanism stems from ordinary Arabs themselves", but such impressions remain hard to prove.

El-Bendary, an Egyptian-American academic, wrote his book between mid-2004 and mid-2009, during which time the Arab media were in an uproar about the largely American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, softening their criticism only when Barack Obama was elected president.

In 2011, he added a postscript briefly discussing the Arab Spring, in which he forthrightly admits that he was wrong to say that Arab democrats would not make themselves heard anytime soon.

But significantly, he cautions that the Arab Spring could lead to the "ascendance of Islamism and rise of hardliners in politics". And he reiterates one of his main points; in order for the US to improve its standing in the region, it will have to revise its wholesale support for Israel and become a balanced broker between the Israelis and Palestinians.

El-Bendary is right about the importance of the Palestinian cause. It may not be a priority for the various Arab peoples, but it remains the rare political issue uniting them. Strangely, however, the author does not grasp that some resentment of America runs deeper than disagreement over foreign policy. Two recurring themes in the anti-American broadsides of Arab journalists that he cites are an obsession with Arab unity and a fear of the erosion of the Arab and Muslim identity. Such existential insecurity likely has more to do with globalisation and American cultural reach than anything else, and will not be much ameliorated by changes in US foreign policies.

At any rate, it should not escape the careful reader of either El-Bendary or Wright that even their strengths in analysing, respectively, the counter-jihad and anti-Americanism, do not enable them to predict the Arab Spring's impact on such phenomena. (To their credit, neither attempts to do so - although Wright comes close to forecasting peace and prosperity for all.)

Setting aside the question of whether US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians will eventually change, there are a number of questions concerning the immediate future. Will anti-Americanism diminish in those countries - such as Libya - where the US played a direct role in aiding the opposition? Will it increase in Bahrain, where the US urged protesters to reconcile with an autocrat, and in Yemen, where the US supported a proposal that would see an autocrat yield power but be granted immunity from prosecution? And what of the counter-jihad? Will its partisans pursue their struggle against certain of their own compatriots, with whom they stood shoulder-to-shoulder against a brutal quasi-secular regime, but who now agitate for an Islamic state?

Indeed, the Arab Spring remains an unknown quantity. One must not forget that it encompasses several countries, meaning that developments could differ drastically from one to another. To be sure, it probably heralds good things in the long term. The era of the Arab autocrat is ending, and his future incarnation will find it increasingly difficult to suppress a politically aware and energised populace. But in the short term, the situation is murky. More than one Arab country will witness a struggle over the role of Islam in political life, and there is no guarantee that this struggle will remain civil or democratic.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.