The tyranny of the past, the uncertainty of the future

The essence of the current Arab predicament is that the West cannot save the Arabs from themselves

Hisham Melhem

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The past is never dead. It's not even past.
-William Faulkner

The debates, discussions and reflections in the United States and Europe that followed the terror attacks in Paris and later in Belgium covered the whole political spectrum.

There were those who said that the conflict with radical Islamists should be framed as a ‘religious war’ and those commentators and academics who claimed that the terror of ‘radical Islam’ is, on the whole, animated by Western, mostly U.S. military interventions in the Arab/Muslim lands.

Some British journalists placed the violence at the core of European, mainly French colonialism in Africa particularly the ‘savage war’ for Algeria’s independence. Former president Jimmy Carter invoked the Palestine cause as one of the reasons explaining the violence. However, a lot of commentary cautioned against falling into the trap, that the ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula AQAP and the other Jihadist fanatical groups are setting for the U.S. and Europe, which is to lash out militarily against targets in the Muslim world, and/or to further alienate and suppress their Muslim communities. Even those who would accept that the western response should include a military component, warned against precipitous or ad-hoc military reactions, and called for a thoughtful collective Western-Muslim strategy that would include political, economic, cultural as well as security components.

Arab reaction

The reaction in the Middle East was mainly defensive. There were few unequivocal condemnations of the violence against civilians, and many ‘we condemn but..’ where the blame was placed also on Charlie Hebdo for what they saw as its deliberate and repeated ‘insults to Islam’ under the guise of ‘freedom of expression’. Some blamed the victims outright. The decision by the publication, in its first issue after the attack to have on its cover a caricature of Prophet Muhammad was roundly condemned throughout the Arab/Muslim world. There were those, who pointed out French double standards in dealing satirically with religions and their sacred texts, prophets and symbols, when most of the publication’s satirical arrows were pointed at Islam and Prophet Muhammad; and how one columnist was fired because of comments that were perceived as anti-Semitic. Also France’s law against holocaust denial was invoked as another example of double standards.

Of cynicism, hypocrisy and denial

Of course there were disingenuous and cynical Arab leaders whose hands are dripping with the blood of their opponents, denouncing the attacks. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon – a fierce supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose late leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 issued a fatwa urging Muslims to kill novelist Salman Rushdie- criticized extremists killing people they consider infidels saying that they distort Islam, without explicitly condemning the Paris attack.

The essence of the current Arab predicament is that the West cannot save the Arabs from themselves

Hisham Melhem

Nasrallah, whose forces occupied Beirut briefly in 2008, and is suspected of ordering the killings of those politicians and journalists who dared to challenge him, has dispatched his forces to do battles in Syria against Assad’s opponents. In 2006, a satirical television sketch about Nasrallah on LBC station led to riots in Beirut by Nasrallah’s supporters, something that would not happen without his approval. But, the most outrageous reaction came from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who said ‘we are against the killing of innocent people anywhere in the world’.

The man who used chemical weapons against his own people, and who is still brutalizing civilians with his barrel bombs, had the temerity to claim that the Paris violence is a result of western support for ‘terrorists’ in Syria. Many Arab governments and religious institutions like the al-Azhar University condemned the Paris attack, with the usual caveat about the cartoons. In general, the reaction in the Middle East brought to the fore the depth of estrangement between many Arab and Turks and Europeans on vital values such as the freedom of expression, blasphemy, and the rule of law. Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdogan was probably echoing the sentiments of many in the region when he blamed ‘Western hypocrisy’ and French Intelligence services for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Erdogan went further, making the outlandish claim that ‘as Muslims, we have never taken part in terrorist massacres,’ ignoring the death of untold numbers of civilians in the violence that marred the recent history of the region, between Turks and Kurds, Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Iranians and Arabs against Arabs.

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

It is practically impossible for Arabs and Europeans to discuss the problems of the present without being burdened by their complex, torturous and violent past. Increasingly, the last few decades have created somewhat of a similar predicament in the relationship between the U.S. and a growing number of Arabs.

For centuries, the Mediterranean basin was the arena where armies and navies from Europe and the Middle East (Arabs and Ottoman Turks) moved back and forth; Crusades to the East, Ottomans knocking at the gates of Vienna, Arabs and Berbers creating the great cities of Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula, European colonial enterprises in North Africa and the Arab East. In an incredible historic and long cultural and demographic transformation of two peninsulas, the Ottomans completed their control of Asia Minor, (with the fall of Constantinople in 1453) and few decades later the Spaniards finished their Reconquista of most of the Iberian peninsula (minus Portugal) with the fall of Granada in 1492.

All that complex history (which includes lots of positive aspects that are not always recognized) sits atop the last century, of colonial control and divisions, wars of independence, Western political intrigues and coups, economic tension and military interventions. The United States inherited the influence of the waning French and British empires after the Suez crisis in 1956, and began its own complex and tangled history with the modern day Arabs and their brittle states. It is that recent legacy, mostly bitter in the eyes of many Arabs that is usually dusted off in times of crisis between Arabs, and the Europeans and Americans, and invoked to justify real and imagined fears and concerns. William Faulkner’s great observation about the tyranny of the past is at the heart of the current tensions. How many times in the last few years, scholars, historians, journalists and politicians invoked the Sykes-Picot agreements, Western sponsored coups, the pain of decolonization, the wars with Iraq, and American and European military interventions?

The inability and unwillingness of many Muslim immigrants to assimilate in European societies, and the resistance of these societies to fully embrace them as full citizens, are in part a function of this torturous past. President Obama, was partially correct when he noted recently that ‘our biggest advantage...is that our Muslim populations…feel themselves to be Americans...there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition..’ President Obama could have added, that for a long time, from the middle of the 19th century until the 1960s there was a huge reservoir of good will towards the United States in the Arab world, for many reasons chiefly among them the fact that the U.S. had no bitter colonial legacy in the Middle East. U.S. support for Israel after the 1967 war, and close collaboration with repressive Arab governments, became sources of new tensions.

The limits of military power

Confronting the rise of a nihilistic and atavistic strain of Jihadi Islamists – the sea of global Jihad includes ISIS, al-Qaeda branches, the Talibans, al-Shabaab, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, and other groups seeking to establish, by force an Islamist entity—cannot be successfully achieved by relying solely on military means, particularly Western military power. The recent history of Western, mainly American military intervention in the region clearly shows that hard power either backfired or achieved at best very limited or tentative results; the 1991 war with Iraq saved Kuwait, but led eventually to the disastrous 2003 invasion, this is also true of the interventions in Lebanon, Somalia and Libya. The current limited war with ISIS is a case in point.

This is a limited war, that is not an integral part of a whole strategy to eradicate the scourge of ISIS and al-Qaeda through the use of both hard and soft power, by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies, a strategy with political, economic, social, ideological and media component. U.S. military intervention is a necessary component but not sufficient to achieve the goal of ‘degrading then destroying ISIS’. To do so require a collective commitment to wage a ‘long war’, something the Obama administration is loath to do. The current policy in Iraq and Syria is to keep the pressure on ISIS, prevent the collapse of Iraq, but basically to keep kicking the can down the road, until it becomes the responsibility of the next administration.

The Arab predicament

Challenging the malignant ideology of these death cults masquerading as Islamist movements, require going beyond acting incredulous each time Islamist fanatics commit an atrocity against civilians, and going beyond easy verbal condemnations. For the ‘moderate’ Muslims to take on the fanatics, they have to do so through viable, independent institutions, be they educational ones, such as universities and research centers, religious institutions and political movements. The bitter reality is that these institutions either they do not exist, or the states control all of them. Much has been made in the U.S. recently about Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s call for a ‘revolution’ or a reformation in Islam when he addressed the clerical establishment at Al-Azhar university saying that it is inconceivable that the ‘thinking we hold most sacred should cause the entire Umma to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world’. It was clear that the former Field Marshal was strengthening his religious Bona fide in his ongoing struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood that he crushed violently in 2013.

The Al-Azhar University, whose leadership is appointed by government cannot engage in such reforms and keep its discourse limited to the religious domain, in an autocratic country where there are thousands of political prisoners, and what seems to be a campaign of intimidation against the media and the NGOs. In this world there is no room for critical inquiry, introspection and self-criticism.

To deal with those who are promulgating wild, radical and poisonous interpretations of sacred Muslim religious texts, one has to deal also with that cumulative inheritance of decades and generations of autocracy, bad governance, an entrenched culture of corruption, sectarian practices that created the current broken societies, that are literally disintegrating in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen with others like Lebanon sliding towards the same abyss. It is worth repeating, that it took the Arabs decades to reach this nadir, and it will take them many years to come out of the heart of darkness. The essence of the current Arab predicament is that the West cannot save the Arabs from themselves, and the Arabs are unable or unwilling to exorcize their demons on their own.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.