An Arab Voice of Compromise

An Arab Voice of Compromise

Hazem Saghieh’s In Defence of Peace (1997)

Matthijs Kronemeijer

Supervisors:

Professor Dr Martin van Bruinessen

Drs Corné Hanssen

Utrecht University

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Institute for Foreign Languages

Department of Arabic, Modern Persian and Turkish Languages and Cultures

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments 4

Introduction 5

Chapter 1: An unknown Arabic pamphlet

1.1 The back cover 9

1.2 The table of contents 11

1.3 The introduction 12

1.4 Read it? 14

Chapter 2: Methodology

2.1 The problem 16

2.2 Cultural studies 20

2.3 Intellectuals and the life of ideas 22

2.4 Studying Arab thought and debate 26

2.5 Middle Eastern intellectual controversies 31

2.6 Economic backwardness and the life of ideas 35

2.7 Conclusion 36

Chapter 3: Community and writings

3.1 Community 39

3.2 Publications 41

3.3 “It’s not all America’s fault” 42

3.4 “Universalizing the Holocaust” 46

Chapter 4: Development and Media

4.1 States 51

4.2 Stagnation and development 53

4.3 Lebanon after the war 57

4.4 The Arab media 59

4.5 Evaluation: Media and development 69

Chapter 5: The Defence of Peace

5.1 background info 71

5.2 Summary and comments 72

5.3 Conclusion 93

Chapter 6: Encounter

6.1 Introduction 98

6.2 Hazem Saghieh 98

6.3 Transit Beirut 100

6.4 Interview (London, 2005) 102

Conclusion 112

Bibliography 120

Acknowledgments

This is now my third ‘scriptie’ (after work on Psalms and Midrash) and in all likelihood the last. If I put all three together in a book I could call it ‘challenging texts from three millennia’. No doubt my family and friends will be surprised I’m not working on one any more!

Just as the two other projects, working on Hazem Saghieh’s DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm has been an enriching experience, in spite of occasional setbacks. It has been great meeting him personally and receiving his feedback, and his text has kept growing on me throughout. It has proved a great stimulus to read up about intellectuals and the life of ideas, Israel, Lebanon, and the development of the modern Middle East. Also the support from my supervisors Martin van Bruinessen and Corné Hanssen has been excellent. Corné took me through the very complex Arabic text, and Martin provided me with clues to very valuable secondary literature. Although this project seemed less promising in the beginning than my other topics, for which I was better equipped, it is the one that I am most happy with now that it is finished. Even though always more should have been done.

Many thanks to the Department of Arabic, New Persian and Turkish, where I have spent so much time. Let us hope that at some point they may enrich the Dutch education system with their own MA programme in Middle Eastern studies. Hans Theunissen and Nico Landman helped shape the project in its infancy. Long before that Professor de Jong wrote a flamboyant letter of reference that enabled me to spend some time studying Italian in Bologna. The connection to this project shall remain inexplicit.

Without the generosity of many anonymous donors I could never have gathered the knowledge and experience to write this work. In particular I would like to mention the Humanity in Action Program, especially Judy Goldstein, Ed van Thijn, and Marcel Oomen; the sponsors of the CoME foundation and its executive secretary, Douwe van der Sluis; and the anonymous sponsor of my scholarship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies as well as its staff. I also remember gratefully my late Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Dr. Sjef van Tilborg msc, who even as a New Testament scholar read my essay about Arab intellectuals with great interest and no doubt amusement.

The recent merger of the three Utrecht faculties of Humanities nicely brings me back to where I set out in 1992, in Theology. But it is better to look forward. Whatever the future might bring, this text (published or unpublished) is dedicated to Cecile. Arab intellectual culture and an interest in Yiddish may seem far apart, but Saghieh for one has made a connection. I hope my finishing this will be an encouragement for you to write your book.

Introduction

The topic of my work is a small Arabic pamphlet with the title DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm: to defend the peace, in defence of peace, written by Hazem Saghieh in 1997.1 Hazem Saghieh is a senior columnist and editor of Al-ÍayÁt, a leading Arabic newspaper. A pamphlet in Arabic with such a title is likely to draw attention. It would be normal in the Arab world to find a defence of IslÁm, but of SalÁm?

I first saw this text mentioned in Professor Marcel Kurpershoek’s 1998 inaugural lecture, “Wie luidt de doodsklok over de Arabieren?”2 He mentioned it as an attempt to break the classic taboos that have paralysed Arab thought for decades, and to argue for a more pragmatic approach to the gigantic problems the Arab world has to deal with. In later communication he confirmed that in his opinion Saghieh was a trend breaker, and therefore potentially a trend setter for a new type of discourse. This was enough to get me going. From the start it was an open-ended project: I did not know what Saghieh was going to say or what kind of person he was. Reading the text and then trying to arrange a meeting with him in London, where his newspaper is edited, was the plan.

It became clear from the outset that Saghieh is a secular liberal intellectual, and very well informed about Israeli history and society. Contrary to my first expectations I found that the salÁm in the title referred to Israel-Palestine and the Oslo process, not so much to the social and economic situation of the Arab world. From page one it is evident that Saghieh deals with the Arabs’ share in the responsibility for the lack of peace in the Middle East. I also quickly found that he discussed the Holocaust and the relationship between Islam and Judaism at some length, in addition to other relevant issues such as the intifada, collective memory and the problem Arabs have with the existence of Israel. So when I started reading (that is, translating) I very soon felt the need to read up on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.3 This I did, on the basis of a large corpus of secondary literature: academic works, but also investigative journalism, novels, memoirs, and biographies. Then a completely unexpected turn of events enabled me to enrol in a Jewish Studies course at Oxford University. Even though my focus then was on the Greco-Roman period, my stay there was an invaluable help to understand Jewish-Israeli sensitivities relating to the conflict.

I have found Saghieh’s understanding of Israeli society, to the extent that it appears from the pamphlet, to be accurate and insightful. He systematically avoids discussing facts on the ground, in Israel or beyond: no Jerusalem, no Golan Heights, no refugee problem, no roadblocks, etc. Instead he discusses assumptions and attitudes that are widespread among the Arabs and block the road to peace and a political solution: their inclination to violence, their sense of self-righteousness, their distorted image of the past, their rejection of politics as the means of choice in conflict resolution. Occasionally he will make pejorative remarks about some facet of Israel’s behaviour. But in spite of these, in his pamphlet Israel is as much a potential partner for the Arabs as it is their political enemy. If we excluded Israel’s militaristic, nationalist and religious characteristics, of which the Arab nations have plenty themselves, we could even call it a model. Throughout his text Israel’s contribution to and part in the modern world is evident and contrasted to the Arabs. And although it is not the stated purpose of the pamphlet, Saghieh loses no opportunities to provide the Arab public with a more nuanced picture of the country and its history. This attitude is so rare among Arab shapers of public opinion that it is certainly worthwhile to look at his text even eight years later and to explore the avenues it opens.

All this meant that in my simple plan (reading the text and meeting the author) no less than four different angles had to be negotiated. Among many other things Saghieh is a secular liberal intellectual, and an important editor of a key Arab newspaper, so his work and views offer valuable insights in patterns and developments in Arab thought and media. Exploring these opportunities can be called the academic angle. Then there is the contemporary-political angle; the search for compromise and a lasting solution for the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict. Most of what Saghieh wrote remains valid even with the understanding of summer 2005, and deserves to be brought to the fore. Then there is an explicitly pro-Arab angle, one that is related to progress and development, in line with Kurpershoek’s argument: how can the Arab peoples move forward in the world? Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Saghieh’s text offers Jews and Israelis (as well as policy makers and intellectuals) a chance to assess the feelings and aspirations of the Arabs, both as Saghieh expresses them and as they are implicit in his text. It should be clear that these four angles do not operate in isolation. Academic politics, real politics, the Arab media and Arab intellectuals, and the concerns of Israel all mutually influence each other. And to be sure, none of these technical considerations should be allowed to overshadow the human dimension of the project. The four “angles” (for want of a better term) are all present but largely beneath the surface.

For this reason the purpose of my thesis as it finally developed is simply to present the pamphlet and the thought of its owner, bearing in mind these four angles and their interaction. Now, the academic framework I have chosen to do this can be defined as ‘the study of Arab intellectual thought, enriched and informed by cultural studies’. One of many problems is that the field of ‘the study of Arab intellectual thought’ hardly exists, except for Islamist thought: liberal and secular opinions rarely receive any attention at all, not least because they represent only a small minority of thinkers. For added support in finding a defensible academic approach I have turned to cultural studies. Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field in the Humanities that is well suited to bring together info from the various angles that are needed, and it is oriented towards action. Nevertheless it is not usually applied to the study of non-Western societies, and to make a convincing connection to Middle Eastern studies I had to develop a basic methodology of my own. The complexity of this enterprise is too great to be summarized here in a few words. So the reader will have to wait till the end of Chapter 2 to know what is really in store for him.

The structure of my thesis is as follows. For the purpose of building trust and allaying worries of those suspicious of any Arab I begin with translating and commenting on the cover, table of contents and introduction of his pamphlet in English (chapter 1). In the next chapter I move to questions of scholarly method and the history of ideas in the Middle East, and describe a recent controversy. The last section of this chapter concludes the methodology part. In chapter 3 the reader will find two significant texts that Saghieh published in English, again with some comments of mine and some information about his personal background, to illuminate the difficulties of intercultural understanding and to give a better idea of his outlook. Chapter 4 is a chapter with info about the Arab media landscape and the general problem of development, of which the urgency and relevance in this context will then have become clear. Chapter 5 is a summary of DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm with my comments. In chapter 6 I try to bring out Saghieh’s opinions and personal background in the most undiluted form, through data from interviews (one is given in full) and fragments of a recollection he wrote about his life during the Lebanese civil war. In the conclusion I summarize my findings and draw some lines of my own.

The importance of the cultural studies connection is different with each chapter, but it is strongest in chapters 1, 2 and 5 and in the arrangement of the whole. On the academic level the biggest omission is an investigation of how the pamphlet was received in the Arab press. The costs and effort needed to investigate that were beyond my means for this project. But of course I have asked Saghieh about it, and his answer suggests that it might not have been such a serious omission after all.

The transcription of Arabic names follows standard conventions; it has not always been applied to well known words. In most versions of my text the complete translation of DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm into Dutch is given in an appendix. No doubt this will seem weird since all other texts are in English. The underlying reason is that the translation is only a tool, not what I wanted to achieve in the first place. It is not quite ready for publication, but since I have it and have put much effort in it, it seemed a pity not to offer it to readers of Dutch as an added opportunity to check what they’re being told. But it did not yet seem feasible to translate the whole text again into English, even if I felt confident to do that well.

My title shows Saghieh’s pragmatism; we decided on it together. ‘Reconciliation’ instead of ‘compromise’ was my first suggestion. I’d like to note that even though this text is done as an MA thesis, I want to continue working on it and developing it. Comments and feedback are very welcome on mkronemeijer [et] .

Chapter 1: An unknown Arabic pamphlet

1.1 The back cover

DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm is a sky blue, soft cover booklet, 11x16.5 cm (4¼ to 6½ inches) in size, 110 pages, and all in Arabic. The back cover has the following info:

The zeal of Al-DaqÁmisa (the Jordanian soldier who murdered the Israeli girls) has shown that a deep flaw affects the Arab civilization. This is a question removed from politics, no matter here who gains in politics and who loses!

The translation of the passage is not that simple – the word for “zeal” (ÎamÁsa) also means enthusiasm or fanaticism, and instead of “flaw” (Ìalal) it could be e.g. weakness, damage, disorder (also psychic), or shortcoming. But in everyday English it means: ‘there is something deeply wrong with us’ (or: our culture, civilisation, society). The second sentence effectively means ‘this is a question that goes beyond day to day politics, and I’m not going to take a partisan view’. The example is rather typical for much of the pamphlet. The Arabic is complex, but begins to make sense once you try to move beyond the literal meaning of the words. The rhetorical vehemence of the text and the broad statements are also quite typical.

The words in parentheses are in a smaller type in the original. Saghieh here refers to an incident of that time, when AÎmad al-DaqÁmisa (a Jordanian border guard) killed seven Israeli girls on a visit to the border area at Naharayim. It appears that without any provocation, acting on its own initiative, he opened fire on them. The author reuses this instance of mindless violence a couple of times in the book as an example of a moral and political blind alley. The fact that the example is used in this way, without any further explanation, makes clear that the pamphlet was not written for eternity so to speak, but primarily to make an impact at its time of publication: 1997, just after Netanyahu came to power in Israel.

It is important to briefly recall the spirit of those days before the millennium. In Europe and North America, optimism ruled supreme. Economic prosperity seemed boundless, America’s political hegemony unassailable, benevolent, and generally quite convenient for Europeans. The end of (intellectual) history had been announced by Fukuyama, predicting the untroubled hegemony of liberalism exemplified by the United States. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, however difficult, seemed to be the last missing key in a near-perfect new world order. The tragedies that had happened recently (Srebrenica, the Rwanda massacre, the Rabin murder, the ongoing war in Bosnia) failed to shake this spirit of optimism, let alone to shatter the happy delusion, if we may call it that. Only in retrospect these events appear as warnings that should have been taken much more seriously, morally and politically.

In the Middle East there were many more events that shocked people. Apart from the Al-DaqÁmisa murder, it was the time of some of the most vicious suicide attacks and of the massacre at Qana, a UN compound where over a hundred Lebanese refugees died in Israeli shellfire.4 Not least importantly, it was when Israel for the first time experimented with completely cutting off the West Bank and Gaza from Israel proper.5 But in retrospect, it seems a very long time ago. The election of Barak, Camp David, the Second Intifada, the Kosovo War, the accession to power of Sharon, the election of George W. Bush, 9/11, the Euro, Iraq and the appearance of China as the world leader in economic growth were all hidden in the future. Only specialists had heard of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and even they did not care much.6

So much for the time frame and the description of the content of the book. The cover then tells us about the author:

‘Hazem Saghieh, Lebanese writer and journalist, born in 1951; editor of the page ÞafkÁr [thoughts] of Al-ÍayÁt Daily and redactor of the weekly political supplement TayyÁrÁt [currents]. He has published many books, including TaÝrÐb al-katÁ’ib al-LubnÁniyya, [The Arabisation of the Lebanese Falangists], DÁr al-JadÐd 1992, and Al-ÝArab bayna al-Îajar wa l-Æarra, [The Arabs between the Stone and the Atom], DÁr al-SaqÐ, 1992.7

Everyone in the Arab world with a proper education knows Al-ÍayÁt and its opinion pages. Al-ÍayÁt (“Life”, just as in France one would find “La Vie”) was begun in Lebanon, suspended for a few years during the Civil War, en then resurrected in London. It is one of three major newspapers that aim at a readership across the Arab world. Its editorial boards are in London because of the greater protection and freedom, but it is printed on location in the Arab world. It is slightly smaller than Al-Šarq al-AwsaÔ, but bigger than Al-Quds al-Arabi. Even though it is owned by a Saudi prince (just as Al-Šarq al-AwsaÔ) and has to toe certain lines, the al-ÍayÁt opinion pages are considered the best and most varied of all the Arab press (see section 4.4 below). This shows that the author of this pamphlet has a very important post in the Arab media landscape as editor of the opinion pages. The fact that he is Lebanese is no surprise: most of the staff of Al-ÍayÁt, and for that matter of most pan-Arab newspapers, are Lebanese. With Egypt, Lebanon is the Arab world’s most active publishing centre. The publishing house where DifÁÝan Ýan al-SalÁm appeared is DÁr al-NahÁr; this is affiliated to Lebanon’s best and largest newspaper, which also has an appeal beyond its home country.

Concerning Lebanon there are plenty of significant issues relating to peace and progress: its relationship with Syria, its social and economic development after the Civil War, its sectarian balance (notably, the role of Hezbollah), and recently its struggle for freedom after the killing of former PM Hariri. Neighbouring Syria is of course a horrible dictatorial state, which has dominated Lebanon militarily and politically for more than a quarter century. But, we should explain that the relation of domination is not as straightforward as it might seem; Syria has always been so much poorer than Lebanon and its regime too weak to risk too much in enforcing its ideology there, for example by limiting press freedom. In any case it always had to operate behind the scenes to pretend to respect Lebanese sovereignty.

Syria itself has a press law banning anything that might damage the public’s confidence in the Revolution. The Revolution stands for the regime’s ideology of course, but it is an ideology that is nothing more than an excuse for power politics: the dominance of minority groups, mainly President al-Asad’s Alawis, over the state at the expense of the Sunni Muslim majority. It is obvious that in both Lebanon and in Syria the political situation is instable and anything might happen there in the next couple of years, if not months.

1.2 the table of contents

Opening the booklet we would see the following table of contents:

Our Attractiveness in the World 11

The Language of Strength 21

Politics, Politics 33

Results of the Intifada 41

We and the Existence of Israel 49

We and the Holocaust 61

Islam and Judaism 73

“Memory” 81

The Discourse of Memory 89

Places of Alternative Models8 95

The titles of the chapters will sound strange for English readers: although the words are familiar it is difficult to make sense of them in these places, or how to see the logic of this order. But in fact the logic is clear enough, once one gets used to the theatrical quality of this kind of prose. ‘Our Attractiveness in the World’ is obviously ironic; even in 1997, it would have been clear to any Arab that they were not the most popular people in the world. ‘The Language of Strength’ (quwwa means power, strength, violence) deals with the endlessly repeated presupposition that Israel only understands force, not reason, and makes clear that the Arabs have no power worth the name. Chapters 3-7 address themes related to the Israel-Palestine conflict: the importance of politics instead of violence, the Arab rejection of Israel’s existence, memory as a social construct, and the importance of the Holocaust. Sometimes the titles fit the text only loosely, so that the argument is broader than the title suggests. The last section is dedicated (at least in part) to some places with a successful political compromise. The high intellectual register makes clear to the readers that the author wants to address issues beyond every day politics (just as the back flap indicated, of course), which means: common assumptions, stereotypes, and misconceptions that lie behind the public debate.

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