Friday, February 09, 2007

Kassir: On Being Arab

I must admit that prior to his assassination, I knew little about Samir Kassir. The short biographies about him suggested a man of great intellect and wide breadth of knowledge and interests in history and politics. He was a vocal critic of the Syrian government yet by no means was he reflexively anti-Syrian. Born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, Kassir was close to Syrian intellectuals of the Damascus Spring.

It is unfortunate that after his assassination politics and propaganda have distorted his image by conflating his ideas with those of the Lebanese right, like the Lebanese forces, who now sing his praises just because he opposed Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. I have even seen a Lebanese blogger put his picture next to that of Bashir Gemanyel under the heading of Lebanese martyrs. Samir Kassir would have been offended .

Being Arab is more a long essay than a book and is divided into seven chapters with titles that would suggest utter desperation and disgust with the state of the Arab world. With titles such as The Arabs are the most wretched people in the world today, even if they do not realize it, you would think that it is an all out attack on everything Arab. It is nothing of the sort. Kassir sets out to analyze what he calls Arab malaise and its root causes. This is an impassioned, honest analysis by someone with a clear sense of what his Arab identity means and who cares deeply about the future of this part of the world. Unlike many critics these days, Kassir does not believe that Arabs are intrinsically programmed to fail.

Kassir re-examines current perceptions of Arab history and its trajectory from the Islamic golden age, the long age of decline, the 19th century reawakening (Nahda) and into the twentieth century. The perceptions of what these periods of Arab history mean depend on one's political and religious affiliations. On the one hand, purist Islamic fundamentalists recognize only a very brief golden age and recognize no positive accomplishments of Arab history or culture subsequent to that. At the other end of the spectrum, and interestingly, coming full circle to meet the fundamentalists, are some Western anti-Arab propagandists who recognize no Arab accomplishments even dismissing the accomplishments of the Golden age. One of the cornerstones of current criticism of Arab society is the failure of the Nahda to propel Arab society into modernity. Kassir, showing a profound understanding of Arab history and culture of the last one hundred and fifty years, begs to differ. He spells out the many accomplishments of the Nahda and argues that its positive impact started to wane only in the past generation.

The reasons for the waning modernizing influence of the Arab Nahda are many according to Kassir. The persistent meddling of the superpowers, either directly or indirectly through the unconditional support of Israel, geography and geology (oil), the rise of religious fundamentalism and too narrowly defined, exclusivist, nationalist impulses. This book reminds me of another by Fouad Ajami I read a couple of years ago
The Dream Palace of the Arabs. I never liked Fouad Ajami, having been irritated by his statements whenever I saw him interviewed by the American media. Yet I thought the book's analysis to be brilliant though I did not agree with his conclusions that invariably exonerates the West from any culpability in the calamities that have befallen he Middle East. In Ajami's pessimistic outlook is a sense that there is an incorrigible aspect to Arab intellectual thinking, an intrinsic defect. It is easy for him, sitting, as he is, far from the Arab "street", in an American ivory tower, to cast asperions about the Arab mind. Kassir, writing as an Arab intellectual from within, does not succumb to such deterministic cultural labels. That is not to say that Kassir shies away from self-criticism:
"So it is not just that the West needs to re-examine its stance. The Arab world in particular needs to make a profound effort to eradicate the ambiguities that encourage a logic of cultural confrontation. This mean first putting victimhood into perspective. We must replace Arabs' customary assumption of victim status not by cultivating a logic of power or a spirit of revenge, but by recognizing the fact that, despite bringing defeats, the twentieth century has also brought benefits that can enable the Arabs to participate in progress."

In the end, despite the many gloomy chapter titles, Kassir's manifesto is actually one full of hope for the future. He reminds us of the many accomplishments of the last century that have been overshadowed by the many defeats. His last chapter is full of optimistic signs of change such as the development of a more cohesive and inclusive Arab culture brought about by the communications revolution which has bypassed traditional state imposed barriers.

I highly recommend this book. It is a heartfelt plea for change and reform by a great Arab intellectual who will be sorely missed.


Philip I said...

Abu kareem

Thank you for this interesting book review. I am genuinely intrigued to find out more about the accomplishments of the last 150 years and what persuaded Kassir to think that modern communications would bring about a more cohesive and inclusive Arab culture.

Golaniya said...

I was hesitant to write this comment, as I thought I should be sure about what I am about to say..

I have a theory about Syrian opposition, some of them, well most of them..
But let me first say my theory on Kassir, though he was THE voice of Syrian opposition activists in Syria and Lebanon through Annahar Lebanese journal, yet I think his Arabism is not quite as that of Nahda as some might think.

Kassir though is a leftist, used to a communist, and one of the rare who recognize their Arab cultural heritage, is projecting, again my theory, a universal, sometimes Imperialist values on Arabism in order to renew it.

You might see it as a mistake when seeing 14th. March loving Kassir while Arabists as Nasri Sayegh, Azmi Bishara, Nahla Shahhal whom I think ARE renewing Arabism, do not share Kassir any of his Arabist ideas.

I think Kassir is another example of the bourgeoisie intellect who project on the "local" a form of a "universal" which is dangerous in the Arab World. Why? Simply because it is ahistorical projection.

I am doing, nshalla, my MA thesis on this very problem of renewing Arabism, how can we do it and detach ourselves from the international?

The reason that Lebanese Forces would recall Kassir's name is simply because he's Assad hater, the primer if not only bases of 14th. March Movement.

I am not of course trying to view Kassir as an evil man:) I hang his picture in my room in Ashrafieh, I sympathize with couple daughters, and reject his assassination, whom ever it might be.

I might post couple posts on him, you promised you would so on AUB Abu Karim, shu nsina??

sorry for making this long..

Abu Kareem said...

Philip I,

Thanks for your comments though I sense some skepticism in your comment about Arab accomplishments. I guess it is a matter of seeing the glass half empty or half full. I don't necessarily share Kassir's theory that the disintegration happened only in the last twenty years. The seeds of this had been planted before. We need a positive Arab image to move forward, not one based our real not imagined history.

Sham in Ahrafieh,

I appreciate your comments. You don't have to hesitate about writing what you think on my blog. I guess I don't quite see the universal as being necessarily imperialist or anti-Arabism. There are universal, humanistic values that all political and religious ideologies share. Part of the failure of old style Arabism is its chauvinism excluding from its narrative important cultures and ethnicities in our midst. Our diversity is our history and our strength. Although I definitely agree that we need a homegrown rather than an imported model, reflexively dismissing any idea from abroad as imperialistic is counterproductive. Should we not learn from the experiences of other societies?

Wouldn't it have been great to have Samir Kassir and Azmi Bshara, another great intellect, debate these issues.

I would love to read your thesis; when it is done and presented, of course.

Wallah nseet. I don't remember promising to write about AUB.

Philip I said...

abu kareem

I am truly interested in learning about our accomplishments in the last 150 years. I have to confess ignorance and shame at not taking the trouble of finding out for myself.

I have not read the book so I would not wish to do Kassir's arguments injustice.

My scepticism relates to the idea that modern communications would bring more cohesion to Arab culture. Technology may help, eventually, but I expect further fragmentation to occur first. A myriad of cultures are beginning to re-surface after having been submerged for centuries in our region. People are searching for their identities and roots as Arabism, moderate Islam, socialism and other unifying beliefs and ideologies have failed to bring cohesion and empower the Arab world, despite sharing the same language. Theocracy and despotism naturally try to fill the void but succeed only in deepening the divides.

To my mind, cohesion evolves naturally as free thinking societies beging to look for ways of minimising potential conflicts and see benefits in integrating their economies, legal systems and social norms (e.g. the 25-member countries of the EU). We are a very long way from that. The starting point is more economic integration. Political and cultural cohesion will naturally follow.

Abu Kareem said...

Philip I,

I think the old idea of the Arab idendity tried to squeeze everyone into the same mold which didn't quite work. There are huge differences if you go from the Levant to the Maghreb in history culture and language but there are also a lot of common threads. When I was growing up, we were fed a diet of pan Arab nationalism yet each country eyed all other Arab countries suspisciously. It was easier for an Arab to get a visa to go to Europe than it was to go the "brotherly" Arab neighbor.

Today with satellite TV, the internet and cellphones the various Arab countries are more interconnected than ever. A Syrian who has never left the country can now watch Egyptian or gulf satellite stations. Game shows and talent shows attract participants from across the region. During Ramadan, numerous people across the region are simultaneously watching Syrian TV productions. The internet has also provided another way for people across the region to connect. This type of cultural exposure across the area is unprecedented and breaks down the physical barriers imposed by paranoid governments. I think the net result will be positive. It will highlight differences among the various countries but will also help cement what people have in common. So I would argue that despite the absence of economic or political integration, culturally, the Middle east is more integrated than it was 20-30 years ago.

Philip I said...

abu Kareem

I think you have a point. I have not thought about it in this way. Perhaps there is more ground for optimism than I had imagined.

Nouri said...

I too enjoyed Kassir's book. It offers a bit of hope while reading it (especially towards the end), especially for younger people, as it reminds one of the fact that Arabs were once far more culturally and artistically productive than they are today and were not always so thoroughly sectarian and divided as nowadays. It is a good work, I think.

Restless in Dubai said...

Abu Kareem and Philip I

You both have a point here.

What I want to ask you guys is the following:

When did we start to call ourselves Arabs?

PS: A Syrianist is speaking here! lol


Philip I said...

restless in dubai

Most people would agree that Arab nomads have, for thousands of years, travelled north from the desert to Syria to trade and rest and some will have simply decided to stay. The Omayyad Caliphate (from around 750) allowed many more Arabs to settle in our region (remember Syria since Biblical times, has included Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon). After that the Suljuk Empire (which spread from Persia from around 1100) and the Crusaders starting in 1140, brought their own people, some of whom intermarried with the local population. Salahuddin's Empire was established around 1190 after defeating the Crusaders. He was a Kurd from Takrit! But he settled in Damascus and attracted many more Arabs from the south into the region.

So, to answer your question, it is probably safe to assume that during the 350 years of the Islamic Caliphate more than half of the population in our region must have originated from Arabia. Since then, we have had many waves of settlers from the east and north with mixed ethnic backgrounds. We are a pretty mixed up bunch! I think only a minoriy can now claim to be pure Arab ethnically.

You posted a comment on my blog about Emperor Philip I and wondered why he was called Philip the Arab by historians. The reason was that his facial features were more Arab than European and he came from Shahba, south east of Damascus. So it is quite likely that he had Arab blood in him.

Sorry abu kareem to veer slightly off topic here.

Leafless Eve said...

Great post... I just have one comment though: I don't see why you think that: Samir Kassir would have been offended if he saw his picture next to Bashir Gemayel under the heading of Lebanese martyrs?
According to those who believe S. Kassir was killed by the Syrians, having a picture of all the "martyrs" of Lebanon who were killed by the same regime is normal. Even if you don't believe the Syrians killed either one, still, i don't see why "linking" him to Gmayel or any other politically assassinated figure is a big deal. He was killed because of where he stands, regardless by who. That would make him a "martyr" of his words, or what he stands for.

Abu Kareem said...


Philip I provided you -thank you- with a much more knowledgable answer than I would have. I would have said that we Syrians are a hodgepodge of cultures languages and ethnicities. The other factor that Philip I did not mention is that Damascus was the last stop on the way to the Hajj and many people from the Caucasus and elsewhere came and never left. Ulfat Idlibi, the Syrian novelist, is of Daghestani extraction as she told us in Hikayat Jiddi.

Returning to your question RnD, I would love to go back to 1800s and wander the streets of Damascus and Beirut and figure out how people thought of themselves when it came to their identity.

Leafless Eve,

Thank you for your comments. There is nothing, aside from having been assassinated, that Samir Kassir and Bashir Gemayel have in common. Kassir is a left wing, liberal intellectual who believes in diversity and democracy. Bashir Gemayel was a ruthless militia leader of a party that was in part based on a fascist ideology.

Fares said...

Remembering Hariri

Abu Kareem, I am surprised you are debating Gemayel from the Civil war when the true FASCIST Is clearly the ASSAD Family. Bashir Gemayel might have commited a lot of crimes and atrocities but that was during an era of civil war.
The guy was tragically killed and so did his 2 years daughter.

Also the Kataeb are not as fascists as you think compared to Hizballa for example. Just because they did not care about Israel does not make them bad.

In a free society you can be right wing left wing islamic wing christian wing but people should respect each other despite their differences.

I admire Amin Gemayel and how he talks, the guy is super diplomatic and he also comes from the Kataeb. His brother was crazy but he lived in crazy times. Just like a lot of people like or hate Kamil Shamoun. For the record though I think Aoun is much more fascist than Gemayel and much more lunatic as well. I don't see you attack him???

I don't know why Arabs are confused about their identity when in reality they do have it: it is called live a better life and show sincere and generous qualities. Arabs always succeeded when they opened up to the exterior but when they isolate themselves and think about themselves as targets and everyone want to humiliate them: ie live an isolationist mentality then they have no one but themselves to blame. It is time to be less idiological and change the way the masses think for any chance of progress.

Abu Kareem said...


My friend, you know very well what my stand is on the Assads and the Lebanese opposition. I brought up Bashir Gemayel only because a Lebanese blogger had his picture on their blog beside Kassir. Crazy times or not, there are many people with blood on their hands from that time. The images of Karantina (for those of us who are old enough to remember)are still vivid in my mind. I bet, in fact I know, that the blogger was not even alive at the beginning of the civil war. I don't like it when people romanticize an ugly past instead of learning from it.

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Kareem,
Your last comment is so poignant, particularly in the light of today's tragic events in Bekfayyah.. It hurts to see that we are still glorifying and 'romanticizing the ugly past instead of learning from it'..
Along a similar vein, I find increasingly frustrating that people fail to accept that you can simultaneously hate the Syrian Regime AND oppose the US invasion of Iraq.. that you can disapprove of Phalangist right-wing extremism, AND Hizbullah's radicalism.. that you can speak out about the suffering in Iraq and Palestine WITHOUT being a Saddamist or a Hamas fanatic!!..
Thank you for your measured and enlightened views..

Ms Levantine said...

Many good points in the post and the comments. I guess this is still part of what Abu Kareem called our hyphenated identities in a previous post.

Samir Kassir had his contradictions, but he was undoubtedly the main mover behind the original March 14 movement, before the old leaders took over and blew it.

I believe that what we all do at the end of the day is project ourselves in our actions (and our blogs). Kassir like the rest of us was trying to find a system where he could fit. It suited me fine, but unfortunately that might not have been the case for the rest of the Lebanese population.

Talking about fitting, I guess this is what makes Fuad Ajami so annoying: he always give the impression that he is some WASP from New England. Neverthless, there are a few good ideas in "Dream Palace".

As for Arabism, it depends how you define it. The concept has been massively discredited over the years. I must be a hopeless romantic, but I still thinks it has merits.

The next step for me is to read Kassir's book I guess.

Abu Kareem said...


Thank you, my friend, for your support. We seem to be on the same wavelength. I think the trouble is that when people take sides, they seem to lose their ability to reason: you are with us or against us. Old hands like us ;) know that things are never that simple.

Ms Levantine,

Thanks for your comments. I guess we all have our inner contradictions. Read the book, it is written with passion and conviction and you will get a good sense of the man.

Anonymous said...

Surprise to hear about Kassir, I did not know this about him. However my two cents goes like this:
Arabism should be put to rest as the last century has taught us that it is just a vehicle for dictators and nationalist fascist to ride. It is their vehicle doze people into dreaming to divert the attention from the real thing such as citizenship and human values and their duties to serve these values. When I read the origin of Arabs by Mr. Horani, I got to know that we are a mix of people from all over the Middle East. The previous migration starting from Greaks and Roman to Muslim empire have changed the people combination that there are only citizens with no real origin in the whole area. There are more differences inherited from history based on race, sects, areas, clans, and so on so on. It is time to call for citizenry to make everyone feel that he belongs. What is happening now in Iraq, Sudan or our relationship to Turks, Egyptians or what ever should teach us a lesson?
I hope to see more people getting off the nationalist wagon and get into real life.

Yazan said...

I too share SB's thoughts about the last comment.

The Lebanese civil war left everyone, and let me stress on everyone, with blood on his hands... I was only 6years old when it ended. but I remember vividly how my mom used to smuggle me across the border, some flashbacks of horrible moments that coincided with me being there to visit my dad, who was himself a labor-communist party fugitive himself... and then in the years that followed, the talks about that civil war never really left our house.
The only thing that i can draw from what I've been told, read, watched... is that most if not all of today's so-called politicians.. from Berry to Jeajea were at some point nothing but war criminals... these are the people that survived the war, not Hussein Mrwweh, and not Mehdi Amel, and now, obviously Samir Kassir...
Samir's death, regardless of his political affiliations [even though until the moment he died his main political affiliation was inspiring the young people of march 14th...] is what basically made create my blog all along.

When it comes to identity in general and Arabism in particular... my thoughts always take me to Amin Maalouf's Murderous Identities, thats probably one of my favorite books.
I will never deny that part of me that is Arab, as an individual... instead, I embrace it, I'm proud of a lot of stuff... but it will never take over the other parts, being syrian for instance is a whole different thing, with its own culture, being levantine... and in general just as important, as being an Atheist, and just as important as admitting to my islamic background, just like 90% of syrians... not as religion, but as a culture...
if u look at it from this perspective, we can stop taking arabism as an ideology for granted. and probably start embracing Globalism... in our own senses...

I think that Arabism ideology now, is chauvinist, and exclusive, in a way that is univiting to most people, including myself... because I personally think that this will not survive, [and it's actually not surviving already] in this world of ours... just as much as Kurds dreams of the Iraqi Kurdistan is chauvinist, closed minded and stupid at best...

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