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.