Book Review: The Real Price of Courage and a Tale of “The Levantine Option”
Samir Kassir, Being Arab, Translated from the French by Will Hobson, Verso Books, 2006
How should we identify human courage?
Current models of human courage do not comport very well with older ideals. Today, courage is identified with cruelty and violence rather than with wisdom and morality. Contemporary civilization makes heroes of those who rape and plunder rather than those who use their minds and their words to point the way to a better future. Classical ideas involving the absolute value of knowledge and humility have given way to the valorization of ignorance and brutality as a means of defining greatness. Such ideas are not lacking in classical culture which often pointed to military victors as paradigmatic of what it meant to be human. But classical civilizations, from West to East and back again, made certain that writers, poets and philosophers – men and women of spiritual leanings – were situated at the very epicenter of culture and would stand at the very apex of the human condition.
This sense of courage, the courage of speaking the Truth at whatever cost, a courage that may be gleaned from the Sacred Scriptures of the great world religions, of Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius and the rest of the great masters, is at its very root a courage that is borne by confronting the cruel and the wicked with the Holy Word of God.
Today we have a situation where the values of those great spiritual masters, carriers of God’s message, have been transformed into a brutal militarism which has redefined the codes and values of religious thinking and belief and turned them into a perpetual conflict. The emergence of secular sciences and philosophical rationalism has often sought to counter these religious systems in a way that has often led to violence within and without cultures.
The syncretistic culture of the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East, known as Scholasticism, sought to marry the classical religious texts of the monotheistic religions to the arch-rationalism of the Greco-Roman schools of philosophy, science and rhetoric. The emergence of an Islamic oikumene at the height of the Medieval age brought to the fore a working model of this synthetic civilization; a culture that absorbed the many civilizations in the Mediterranean basin and which permitted the free exchange of ideas by permitting a pluralism that served to germinate a new way of seeing things.
This new way of understanding culture was related to students as Religious Humanism; in the texts of its most brilliant expositors, Jews like Maimonides, Muslims like Ibn Rushd and Christians like Thomas Aquinas, particularity was infused with universalism. And while each of the three monotheistic faiths sought to parse their own religious tradition through a universalistic rationalism, each continued to demand priority for its own parochialism.
In the Middle Ages this story, which has been seen as an outgrowth of the Arabic oikumene that transmitted this complex civilization of Religious Humanism throughout the Mediterranean world, was counterbalanced by an ongoing military battle waged between a Europe that had absorbed much of the science and technology lost after the demise of Rome from the Arabs in Spain and the Levant, and an Arab-Islamic East that after its first centuries of conquest had fallen into the difficulties of maintaining its hegemony in the face of developments like the Crusades and its accompanying Inquisition.
So while violence and wisdom brokered an often tumultuous balance, the emergence of a hegemonic West in the aftermath of the Crusades and the centuries of Holy War in Europe – better known as the Wars of Religion – led to the difficulties that we are now all too familiar with regarding the state of Arab civilization.
Anglophone books on the true significance and meaning of Arab civilization are hard to come by these days. What we have in the literary arena is a replication of the embattled state of affairs that exists in the political arena: Writers have sharpened their axes and use books as a means to fight the battle by other means. Polemics and one-sided analyses of Arab culture in light of Western civilization have led to the oft-cited “Clash of Civilizations” as articulated by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis.
Such a “clash” reproduces the political positioning of think tanks in Washington and London which in turn prop up the various official positions of government officials and elected leaders who filter culture through perceived national interests. The actual study of literature and history is seen as mere window dressing to embroider and embellish such polemical writing in order to provide a veneer of learning to what is essentially, as I have already stated, the practice of war by other means.
Two books that can teach us a good deal about how we got where we are now are barely known to Western readers even though they remain in print and theoretically available to those who have the patience to seek them out.
The doyen of Arab historians, Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age outlines the emergence of a modernist movement in the Arab world which was forced to capitulate in the wake of the consistent attacks and depredations of the Western Imperial powers during the course of the 19th century. Just as the West looked to the Arabs for their “modernity” back in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, so too did Arabs look to Europe’s new ideas and trends, technological and conceptual, in order to redefine their understanding of a very complex and dynamic heritage. Hourani lovingly details the thought of Arab modernists such as Rifaa al-Tahtawi, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and Taha Hussein who sought to reclaim the traditions of the past and integrate them into the conceptuality of the new ideas of Modernism.
In the wake of this liberal movement of modernization, we can see the emergence of new nationalist ideas and of new literary and philosophical schools. The paradox of modern Arab culture was that it was dependent on the thinking of Europeans who were at the same moment seeking to occupy, exploit and colonize their very countries, countries that were emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire but which were soon to be taken by the European powers under the banner of a very different imperium.
In this context, we might see the 1938 publication of George Antonius’ English-language The Arab Awakening, one of the primary sources of Arab nationalist thought in the pre-War era, before Israel and before Petrodollars, as both the rightful heir of Arab modernism, what scholars have called the Nahda, as well as its antithesis, the beginning of the struggle against Western colonization and oppression in the region. Antonius held to the Nahda and was an Anglophile who continued to preach the need to trust Europe, but who laid out the first seeds of a discontent with the hypocrisy of the Imperial powers and which harbored the first stirrings of the Palestinian Question.
As the decades passed and Muhammad Abduh, George Antonius and the dozens of other figures of the Nahda became murkier and murkier figures while the predominance of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the centrality of Oil economics served to lift up what were once culturally insignificant parts of the Arab world, a new Arab civilization was emerging.
In a new book that comes as a complete revelation – not for what it says, but for the startlingly bracing and inspiring ways in which it says it – the late Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir lays out the case precisely:
The geography of oil wealth has also had a devastating effect on the internal balance of the Arab world. By an extraordinary quirk of nature, the main hydrocarbon deposits are in countries that have remained on the fringes of Arab history for centuries, and that have hence experienced an atypical political and cultural development… The manna of oil has given the governing elites of these countries the ability to intervene in inter-Arab relations, and so oil has ensured that the entire Arab world can share the backwardness of the Arabian peninsula. (p. 77)
Seeing both the clarity and brashness of Kassir’s writing, we can mark him as a figure of rare courage and character in the Arab world. While it has become commonplace to find Arab critics and dissidents co-opted into the Neo-Conservative camp, where they are often relegated to bearing witness to the demonization of their civilization and culture, it is equally disturbing to see Arab intellectuals fall all too easily into the traps laid for them by the reactionaries and the fundamentalists. Kassir avoids both of these destructive pitfalls in his book.
In Being Arab, a work that surely stands alone as a defining moment in modern Arab thought and an indispensable resource for those who are looking to better understand the current wars of civilization that we are now mired in, Samir Kassir tells the story of Arab culture in a way that is has never been told before: The book is an extended essay, clocking in at a mere 92 pages in the English translation, that articulates the key elements of Arab history in an astoundingly precise manner which never sacrifices its solid political understanding.
Having articulated the construct that I have called “The Levantine Option” I have learned all too well that too many people these days have bought into the debilitating hatreds and the prisons that have ensnared us and which has served to produce an apocalyptic fury that is characterized by the endemic and seemingly perpetual violence that grips the region.
“The Levantine Option” is modeled upon the pluralistic culture of the Middle Ages which marked its apotheosis in Muslim Spain in the 10th century; the world of a fragile entente between Christianity, Judaism and Islam under the banner of the Ummayad leader Abd-el-Rahman III. “The Levantine Option” had been passed along from 1st century Egyptian Alexandria the birthplace of the Jewish scholar Philo to 9th century Abbasid Baghdad under the legendary caliph Harun al-Rashid and on to Umayyad Andalusia and held within it the promise of a Humanism which was carried through the religious traditions of the various faith communities which all worked together to translate the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and applied their ideas to their Sacred Scripture(s).
In recounting this illustrious past, Kassir knows very well that the Arab present has been disfigured and is now almost completely dysfunctional. Brazenly, he titles the very first chapter of the book “The Arabs are the Most Wretched People in the World, Even if they do not realize it.” Rather than elide the most obvious problems that face Arabs today, Kassir breaks out of the mental chains that imprison many Arab writers, political leaders and intellectuals and provides us with a model of courage that is as noble as it is rare.
Spelling out the problem at the very start of the book, Kassir minces no words:
Do we need to describe the Arab malaise? A few statistics should be enough to convey the seriousness of the impasse in which Arab societies find themselves: chronic rates of illiteracy, inordinate disparities between rich and poor, overpopulation of cities and desertification of the land… What’s distinctive about the Arab malaise is that it afflicts people who one would imagine would be unaffected by such a crisis, and that it manifests itself more in perceptions and feelings than in statistics, starting with the very widespread and deeply seated feeling that Arabs have no future, no way of improving their condition. Faced with the protean and apparently incurable evil eating away at their world, the only remedy would be individual flight, if such a thing were possible. But the Arab malaise is also inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other – a gaze that prevents everything, even escape. (pp. 1-2)
With such impassioned prose, Kassir tears through the complexity not only of the Arab condition today, but restores to view the rich and often elusive reality of the Arab past.
Balancing what he calls the “malaise” of the impoverished Arab world today, an impoverishment which he clearly shows as growing out of a break in the organic development of the Arab intellectual tradition in light of the 19th century Nahda, Kassir argues that Islamic fundamentalism and its malignant culture of death that now permeates so many parts of Arab civilization represents not a failure of Modernism in the Arab world, but the lack of its progress:
As a constituent element of the Arab malaise, the illusion that political Islam could offer a way out of the crisis is striking. Generally speaking, we shouldn’t forget either the focus of religious thought, even before Bin Ladenist jihadism, is a regression in the literal sense of the word – that is, in terms of Arab history. Contemporary Islamism in fact wants to do away with all Arab history, recent and classical alike, in order to recover the forty or so years of ‘pure Islam.’ But it’s only when we can recover this history in its entirety, that we will be able to envisage an end to the Arab malaise. (p. 29)
Contrary to the common assumption that has been revived in the wake a new Orientalism inspired by the fierce polemics of Zionist thought and the wave of thinking that it has spawned, a type of thinking promoted by writers like Bernard Lewis, Arab civilization was in the midst of a modernizing movement that was interrupted by clashes of Imperialism with developing nationalisms that forced the modernists to abdicate their place in the cultural hegemony of the Arab world. The very figures responsible for reform and social advancement were stymied by the violence of the West whose values they were paradoxically trying to maintain.
In this context, the dissolution of this Arab liberalism, a precise modern example of “The Levantine Option,” damaged the various protagonists in what would emerge as a conflict of pathological dimensions whose bloody manifestations in New York, Madrid, Beirut, Kandahar, Jersusalem, Baghdad and other locations where terror and violence has struck down so many human beings, serves us as a warning as to what happens when cultures break down and when civilizations are not permitted to develop organically.
Kassir draws an unrelenting portrait of the current dysfunction which does not seek to spare either the Western Imperialists or their Islamist acolytes; two sides of a single coin whose spiritual malevolence seems to know no bounds:
This religious reflex is itself a sign of the Arab malaise. Of course, considering political Islam as one factor of the Arab impasse may be seen as fanatically secularist. If they have changed, there’s no need to insist on judging the Islamists by their past conduct, and by the fact that they played the Americans’ game, and in Palestine the Israelis’ for far too long. Everyone is entitled to change and one should no doubt concede the possibility that the Islamists’ transformation is permanent and their stand against foreign domination sincere. But this is still not enough to make one accept Islamism as the only possible way. For whether if is or is no longer a foreign agent, Islamism still reinforces the Other. In justifying or enacting the clash of civilizations, it gives supporters of the crusade their rationale and enables the West to use all the means afforded it by its technological capabilities to maintain its supremacy over the Arabs, and thereby to perpetuate Arab powerlessness. (pp. 12-13)
The deeply intricate way that Kassir articulates the problems of the Arab world stems from the great courage that he manifests as a writer and human being. This courage denies the efficacy of violence and the malignant cruelty that it perpetuates.
His answer to the violence that tragically and ironically killed him as he sought to tell the world about the Syrian assassins of Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri in the summer of 2005, a year after this book on the Arab condition was first published as Consideratons sur la malheur arabe by Sindbad publishers, was a restatement of the problem and its solution within the very frame of Arab civilization itself.
Again, after having articulated a very similar solution to the problem in my own writing, I have become well acquainted with the knee-jerk responses of those who would seek to deny history and to asphyxiate the present from the oxygen that a fresh reading of the past can provide. Instead, cloudy minds work doubly hard to reinforce the malignancies of the present and perpetuate the conflict by any means possible.
Rather than restoring a positive and hopeful vision of what is possible, too many out there fix their sights on the malevolence and the violence of the current moment and read this back into the past where history becomes a sign of the present. Such anachronistic modes of thought make a book like Being Arab that much more precious and valuable to us. Having recounted the Arab malaise and the causes and reasons for its existence, Kassir travels back in time to trace the age of Islamic cultural glory over the centuries which led to the Nahda.
This trajectory is one that is not meant in any way, as the students of Bernard Lewis are all too quick to insist, to pass over or minimize the importance of the malaise, but it also refuses to accept the thesis of the Neo-Conservative school led by Lewis and others such as Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and that great scholar of Islam Dennis Prager, that robs Arab civilization of its organic coherence with its wide reserves of rational and scientific thought.
As we have already pointed out, Kassir sees a symbiotic formation between the Islamist mindset and the Neo-Conservative mindset. Each demands an elimination of the Other and a restoration of a primal cultural purity. By returning to the locus of Muslim Spain and the later Ottoman glory, Kassir is not ducking or avoiding the problems of the present; he is simply trying to calmly deal with them outside the hysterical confines of the polemics that we are all forced to hear each day; polemics that serve to reinforce the clash of civilizations thesis and which damn us to live in a state of perpetual war and violent conflict.
Could it be that what appears to be courageous, the macho assertion of what is presented as a foregone conclusion, that the Arabs are mindless animals who need to be dominated and suppressed, is actually a manifestation of a cowardly ignorance which promotes the very violence that it ostensibly wishes to eradicate?
Is the rejection of an idea like “The Levantine Option” in the name of a realism whose origins lie in hate and racial supremacy truly a rational way of dealing with reality?
Kassir emphatically demands the return to a past that resonates with the freshness of “The Levantine Option”:
Within three decades of being galvanized by Islam, Arab history has merged with the history of the other peoples incorporated into the Muslim state – and subsequent Muslim states – to form a culture in which religion is but one among many shared values. With this in mind, it is much harder to assert the idea of this culture’s decadence without at the same time denying the reality of its golden age and all that period’s imaginative worlds.
This golden age would itself gain from being reappraised from this perspective. Any comprehensive assessment of these five centuries would require volumes; but for present purposes, two fundamental aspects of the period that need to be emphasized are the international presence Arab enjoyed and the gift for synthesis that they displayed. Politically, this meant world-power status and, at the same time, regimes flexible enough to accommodate ethnic and religious diversity at every level, and to do so on a scale comparable to the Roman Empire. Culturally, it meant universality and plurality. Arab society was able to absorb the cultures of the Islamized peoples and not negate them in the process. (p. 34)
Such a precious articulation puts into place the rich values inherent in “The Levantine Option”: Evolving out of a religious framework, the emergence of Humanistic pluralism consolidates the priority of a cultural perspective that is astonishingly modern and liberal. And this indeed was the universe that emerged out of the first centuries of Islam, the centuries that brought Islamic civilization into world culture, a civilization that restored the noble ideals of the Roman empire which itself was able to midwife rabbinic Judaism and Christianity after a rocky start.
Kassir, like the present writer, sees in this Islamic civilization the seeds of regeneration. Undeterred by the darkness into which this civilization has been plunged, by itself and by others, he is determined to tell the story of the Arabo-Islamic past without prejudice and without distortion. Unlike the perpetual Jihad waged against this history by many scholars, particularly those Ashkenazi Jews whose demonization of Sephardim comes from the same place as their hatred of the Arabs in a Zionist context, Kassir lays out the classical period of Arab history in a way that allows the reader to understand its role in the later period of Western Enlightenment and how that cultural history was appropriated to allow Arab thinkers to enrich their own program of modernization:
Refashioned by a host of nineteenth-century lexicographers, translators and polymaths, contemporary Arabic reflects the integration of the Other in obvious ways, such as its technical neologisms, and much subtler ones, such as its semiotics. Astonishingly, one of the modernizing influences on the sacred language of the Qur’an was the Bible’s translation into Arabic. Naturally the Christian missions – Protestant and Catholic – financed this project. There were three rival versions, and it was local Christians, including once again the formidable [Butrus al-]Bustani and al-Shidyaq, who did the bulk of the work, but nevertheless a Muslim religious dignitary was involved in one version. (p. 50)
We see here that the work of Arab modernity, as was the case with the classical Arab civilization, involved translation and cultural pluralism; a place where Arabs of different religions could work together and develop Arabic culture in a way that accepted difference yet promoted universal principles.
It was a movement whose signature moments continue to be the rights of the citizen and can be best understood in light of the women’s movement in the Arab world:
The battle of the veil, after Hoda Shaarawi’s declaration of independence and Ataturk’s programme in Turkey had dominated the 1920s, ended in victory for ‘deveiling.’ Not wearing the veil was an individual decision in Egypt, rather than an authoritarian government ruling like in Turkey, and this was what made it a real revolution that gradually spread to other countries until the veil had become sufficiently rare in the 1960s to make its appearance noteworthy. (p. 63)
The emergence of such forms of democratic pluralism in the context of Arab modernity was ironically eliminated by the ethnic nationalism and xenophobia that was all the rage in 19th century Europe; a world that gave us a mere century later the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi Holocaust, those markers of a Darwinism gone mad.
Being Arab is a work that must be read by every individual who seeks to better understand our contemporary world and the problems we face as a civilization. It is a book written by a man who was prepared to tell the truth whatever the cost. His murder at the hands of Syrian agents sent to cover up the crimes of Damascus paradoxically proves not only Samir Kassir’s own courage, but the correctness of the thesis in this most precious of books.
You see, it might seem logical to those who have rejected “The Levantine Option,” as they have rejected the universalism espoused by the Levantine culture it is based on, to look at the murder of Kassir in Beirut – the locus of much of Arab modernity in the 20th century – as a sign that the Arabs remain outside the bounds of civilization and decency. And yet we might more accurately see the figure of Samir Kassir, the dual aspect of his death and the publication of his epochal book, as an example of what true courage really is.
Courage is truly the ability to go on living day to day and tell the truth and live life in the service of others.
Courage is not the heroism of the cruel and violent. It is the heroism of the prosaic; the elevation of commonplace truths to the level of the sacred. It is the ability to continue telling the truth no matter what the cost; the tenacity of the individual never ever to give up in the face of hate and cruelty.
What is truly extraordinary about Being Arab, in addition to its passionate and lyrical commitment to the Truth as an absolute and enduring value that can never be relinquished, is that its very subject matter is redoubled by the real life of its author. The story of the Arab world is the story of Samir Kassir, the tragedy of the Arab world became the tragedy of Samir Kassir.
Rather than give into the blackmail and the malevolence of the spirit of violence and hate that infects almost all parties to the conflict, Kassir has left us all with a map of the way out of the dysfunction and the hatred. Being Arab is a book that is, simply stated, mandatory reading for every human being on this planet who cares about the future. It provides us with an epic perspective on the Middle East, a region that now lies at the very center of global concerns. It tells the story of the Arabs, their successes and failures, with no prejudice. It will infuriate those looking for a book that will slavishly reinforce their own parochial viewpoint and will certainly put into question the very coherence of their worldview.
As I have some experience with this literary-cultural dynamic in my own work, I know how difficult it will be for many readers to allow Kassir’s words to be heard and absorbed for the truths they represent. Too much of what Kassir says – as true as it is – does not follow the pre-programmed script that is currently used by the combatants. Armed with their Internet websites and their e-mail list-serves, a book like Being Arab, as brilliantly written a work as can be imagined, a work that lays out a very intricate history in a very compressed space without sacrificing either complexity or coherence, will act against their stagnant orthodoxies as an irritating provocation. Such a book functions as a corrective against the stifling rigidity of ignorance and prejudice in a world where such rigidity has become a de rigueur fact of life.
Samir Kassir was a true hero of our world; a man who woke up each day with a fierce dedication to tell the truth and to publish that truth for all the world to see. He was eventually killed by evildoers who wished to have his voice silenced forever. But in writing and publishing Being Arab, Kassir’s voice will never be silenced. It is a voice that is in its way prophetic and as wise as those of our illustrious Levantine past; a voice whose starkness and courageousness restores to us the wisdom of the past as a beacon lighting the way to our future.
Reading such a book will not only sanctify the memory of a man of courage and a man of peace, but will illuminate for all of us the great truths that have so far been made invisible by those who would prefer to live in perpetual war and to continue to objectify and demonize their enemies by denying them the agency of history and civilization.
Read this book as soon as you can.