An Unacceptable Helplessness

One opens The New York Times on a daily basis to read the most recent article about the preparations for war that are taking place in the United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft carriers and cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new contingents of officers are being moved to the Persian Gulf area. 62,000 more soldiers were transferred to the Gulf last weekend. An enormous, deliberately intimidating force is being built up by America overseas, while inside the country, economic and social bad news multiply with a joint relentlessness. The huge capitalist machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds down the vast majority of citizens. Nonetheless, George Bush proposes another large tax cut for the one per cent of the population that is comparatively rich. The public education system is in a major crisis, and health insurance for 50 million Americans simply does not exist. Israel asks for 15 billion dollars in additional loan guarantees and military aid. And the unemployment rates in the US mount inexorably, as more jobs are lost every day.

Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly war continue and continue without either public approval or dramatically noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference (which may conceal great over-all fear, ignorance and apprehension) has greeted the administration’s war- mongering and its strangely ineffective response to the challenge forced on it recently by North Korea. In the case of Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction to speak of, the US plans a war; in the case of North Korea, it offers that country economic and energy aid. What a humiliating difference between contempt for the Arabs and respect for North Korea, an equally grim, and cruel dictatorship.

In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more peculiar. For almost a year American politicians, regional experts, administration officials, journalists have repeated the charges that have become standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are concerned. Most of this chorus pre- dates 11 September, as I have shown in my books Orientalism and Covering Islam. To today’s practically unanimous chorus has been added the authority of the United Nation’s Human Development Report on the Arab world which certified that Arabs dramatically lag behind the rest of the world in democracy, knowledge, and women’s rights. Everyone says (with some justification, of course) that Islam needs reform and that the Arab educational system is a disaster, in effect, a school for religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded not just by crazy imams and their wealthy followers (like Osama Bin Laden) but also by governments who are supposed allies of the United States. The only “good” Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab culture and society without reservation. I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about themselves or their people and language, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves and pages of print. We lack democracy, they say, we haven’t challenged Islam enough, we need to do more about driving away the specter of Arab nationalism and the credo of Arab unity. That is all discredited, ideological rubbish. Only what we, and our American instructors, say about the Arabs and Islam — vague re- cycled Orientalist cliches of the kind repeated by a tireless mediocrity like Bernard Lewis — is true. The rest isn’t realistic or pragmatic enough. “We” need to join modernity, modernity in effect being Western, globalised, free- marketed, democratic — whatever those words might be taken to mean. (If I had the time, there would be an essay to be written about the prose style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami, Fandy et. al., academics whose very language reeks of subservience, inauthenticity and a hopelessly stilted mimicry that has been thrust upon them).

The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his minions are trying to fabricate as a cover for a preemptive oil and hegemony war against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic nation-building, regime change and forcible modernisation a l’americaine. Never mind the bombs and the ravages of the sanctions which are unmentioned. This will be a purifying war whose goal is to throw out Saddam and his men and replace them with a re-drawn map of the whole region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New Wilsonian 14 points. New world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi dissidents, will welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget entirely about their past sufferings. Perhaps.

Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in Palestine worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping Sharon and Mofaz, who bellow their defiance to the whole world. We forbid, we punish, we ban, we break, we destroy. The torrent of unbroken violence against an entire people continues. As I write these lines, I am sent an announcement that the entire village of Al-Daba’ in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be wiped out by 60- ton American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians will lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a mosque, and an elementary school for 132 children. The United Nations stands by, looking on as its resolutions are flouted on an hourly basis. Typically, alas, George Bush identifies with Sharon, not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid who is used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return to peacemaking, and presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years the first time, Arafat seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it. His faithful lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces for the press, suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more or less. Remarkably though, the great mass of this heroic people seems willing to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding, going hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and confidence in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to Israel, as their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?

In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The American government and its servants issue statement after statement of purpose, they move troops and material, they transport tanks and destroyers, but the Arabs individually and collectively can barely muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot use military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few days later.

Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness?

The largest power in history is about to launch and is unremittingly reiterating its intention to launch a war against a sovereign Arab country now ruled by a dreadful regime, a war the clear purpose of which is not only to destroy the Baathi regime but to re-design the entire region. The Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to re-draw the map of the whole Arab world, perhaps changing other regimes and many borders in the process. No one can be shielded from the cataclysm when it comes (if it comes, which is not yet a complete certainty). And yet, there is only long silence followed by a few vague bleats of polite demurral in response. After all, millions of people will be affected. America contemptuously plans for their future without consulting them. Do we reserve such racist derision?

This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to believe. How can a region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance and a loud proclamation of an alternative view? Has the Arab will completely dissolved? Even a prisoner about to be executed usually has some last words to pronounce. Why is there now no last testimonial to an era of history, to a civilisation about to be crushed and transformed utterly, to a society that despite its drawbacks and weaknesses nevertheless goes on functioning. Arab babies are born every hour, children go to school, men and women marry and work and have children, they play, and laugh and eat, they are sad, they suffer illness and death. There is love and companionship, friendship and excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed and misruled, terribly misruled, but they manage to go on with the business of living despite everything. This is the fact that both the Arab leaders and the United States simply ignore when they fling empty gestures at the so-called “Arab street” invented by mediocre Orientalists.

But who is now asking the existential questions about our future as a people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious fanatics and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the case. The Arab governments — no, most of the Arab countries from top to bottom — sit back in their seats and just wait as America postures, lines up, threatens and ships out more soldiers and F-16’s to deliver the punch. The silence is deafening.

Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in hundreds of prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies. For what?

This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction: it’s a matter of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate seriousness. Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation are not the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in our tradition an entire body of secular and religious discourse that treats of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of love and anger, of society and history. This is there, but no voice, no individual with great vision and moral authority seems able now to tap into that, and bring it to attention. We are on the eve of a catastrophe that our political, moral and religious leaders can only just denounce a little bit while, behind whispers and winks and closed doors, they make plans somehow to ride out the storm. They think of survival, and perhaps of heaven. But who is in charge of the present, the worldly, the land, the water, the air and the lives dependent on each other for existence? No one seems to be in charge. There is a wonderful colloquial expression in English that very precisely and ironically catches our unacceptable helplessness, our passivity and inability to help ourselves now when our strength is most needed. The expression is: will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? We are that close to a kind of upheaval that will leave very little standing and perilously little left even to record, except for the last injunction that begs for extinction.

Hasn’t the time come for us collectively to demand and try to formulate a genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to engulf our world? This is not only a trivial matter of regime change, although God knows that we can do with quite a bit of that. Surely it can’t be a return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to please accept our existence and let us live in peace, another cringing crawling inaudible plea for mercy. Will no one come out into the light of day to express a vision for our future that isn’t based on a script written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, those two symbols of vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is listening.

EDWARD SAID writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram.


Edward Wadie Said was a Palestinian American academic, literary critic and political activist. A professor of literature at Columbia University, he was among the founders of postcolonial studies.