Friday, October 21, 2011

Twilight of the Arab Dictators - A Brief Examination of Failed Ideologies

We are living in an age of extraordinary change, perhaps even more so than when we witnessed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. This is because whilst the ideological component of the Cold War might have died with the end of the Soviet Union, much still remained the same behind the scenes. The game might have ended, but the players were still on the field, so to speak. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, Russia was still a key component in a bloc that found its interests directly opposed to those of the West, and a complicated dance took place across the world's international organisations as they frustrated the new Western unilateralism that tried to impose its order on the post-cold war landscape. From Serbia to Syria, across two decades and a war on terror, this bloc of countries continued to operate as they did during the Cold War.

What is remarkable about the Arab Spring is that all the dictators who have fallen so far belong to that old, Cold War era ideological mould of radical socialism and leftist politics. Each of these dictators took power at a time when such ideas genuinely threatened to change the conservative, liberal economic world order. Here I want to show that the dream which promised to liberate the poor and the downtrodden, itself became a nightmare orchestrated by the former champions who believed ardently, almost religiously, in the inevitability of historic change that they were embarking upon. By 2011 each of those champions, now ruling their own individual fiefdom's, became selfish, tyrannical, and anti-thetical to everything that they once claimed to stand for. The radical leftist politics of intellectual and academic circles in Western Europe. At the root of this politics was a radical vision of liberating the human being from the shackles of tradition, tyranny and oppression, and those who adhered to this vision found the strangest of champions to cheer for, whether that was Slobodan Milosovic, Saddam Hussein, or the Assad Regime in Syria.

Each of these unlikely heroes of the left found that they were able to maintain an iron grip on their respective countries whilst championing a liberation ideology and proclaiming that they were defending their people against imperialism and exploitation. Each of these figures appear to have genuinely believed that the choices they were making were justified with regards to their ultimate goals. But these goals became something vague and unreachable, and like the religions that many of them scoffed at, they ended up selling a dream to their people of a blessed utopia that none of them would see in their lifetimes, a dream that was meant to distract them from the totalitarian reality that was being imposed on them. In the West, an unlikely network of prominent public personalities continued to adhere to the strange liberation ideology which, in a way, plays the devil's advocate for these dictators. One need only look at the likes of Jacques Verges or John Laughland to see a trend of intellectual and legal protection provided for those former rulers who fall from grace. With Jacques Verges in particular, I am reminded of a truly existential individual who rises above the conventional morality expected by the average person in every sense of Nietzsche or Sartre's philosophy. Verges rose to fame when he volunteered to defend Klaus Barbie, a former Nazi in court. Asked in an interview whether he would have defended Adolf Hitler in court, he famously replied that he would have even defended George Bush. At the heart of their slightly leftist, mostly existential, view of the world is a harsh, unforgiving perspective in which life is seen as a constant struggle against a ruthless capitalist enemy that has alienated humanity, and in which necessary and painful sacrifices must be made in order to achieve victory.

The story begins with a philosopher in France, Jean-Paul  Aymard Sartre, who, during the second world war, was briefly imprisoned by the Germans before resuming teaching again. Sartre was an existentialist philosopher who was heavily influenced by a German philosopher, Husserl, and his ideas of consciousness and imagination. For Sartre, the imagination was one of the foundations of a truly free consciousness and an expression of free choice. As such, it was this imagination which could be used to construct an ideal world unrelated to the actual world. Politically, Sartre had a rather odd relationship with Communism, joining the party during the Korean War, but leaving it after the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Unable to digest him, the Communists could never quite decide what to make of his ideas, and ultimately rejected him, as he did them. But Sartre was to have a lasting influence on the liberation ideology that was forming in the post-war and post-colonial era of Western Europe. Strongly supportive of the Algerian Revolution, Sartre once said that every single French citizen was collectively responsible for the crimes that were taking place in that country. In 1960 he went to Cuba to meet Che Guevara, whom he described as the world's most complete human being. Here is a picture of them together, along with Sartre's wife, Simone de Beauvoir:

It was Sartre's political activities, and his concern with liberating the third world countries from what he saw as the oppressive capitalist system of the West which form an ideal starting point for understanding the ideological underpinnings of the bloc we see today. Sartre held quite interesting philosophical views about the way in which an exploited and oppressed people could react to their oppression, and this was based on the 'existentialist' idea of bad faith, "human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is". His most famous example illustrating this was of a waiter in a cafe. That waiter was eager to please his customers, submissive and helpful, and flattering in his mannerisms and words. The very fact that he was play-acting at being a waiter, for no person could possibly behave in such a contrived and artificial manner without realising it, was proof that he was aware that he was not simply a waiter, or object. In essence, he was ultimately free to do whatever it was that he wished, and he freely chose to objectify himself as a waiter, thus applying bad faith. But he was still a free being, and free to define himself whichever way he chose to be. His reality was that he was not a waiter, and though he was a waiter, he was not. This confusing idea of negative reality was to have far reaching consequences with regards to how occupied peoples were to view themselves, and it was to have a strong influence on the liberation ideologies that were spinning into existence in the radical political climate of the nineteen sixties. More importantly, his early thoughts on individual freedoms opened up a vista of radical reinterpretation of the traditional moral systems by which human beings normally judged their actions against. In a truly changing human consciousness that exercises its fundamental freedoms, says Sartre, there is no need to constantly refer back to constitutions, laws and religious or moral codes to justify one's actions, and each individual action was to be judged based on its own merits and justifications at the time. In a sense, this was a morality beyond morality, a demolition and existentialist rejection of the hitherto existing models of morality and behaviour that mirrored Nietzsche's writings in the previous century.

In the Paris of the nineteen sixties, these ideas were to have a profound impact on a strange collection of thinkers and future political leaders who would come to define third world politics for decades to come. Like many philosophers, Sartre analysed and was influenced to a certain extent by the thought of Martin Heidegger, whose horrendously complicated thought and in particular his theory of being we will, thankfully, not relate here. Of marginal note is that Martin Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party during the war, and is alleged never to have apologised or renounced his support for the party, or things that he had said about Adolf Hitler. Ideologically motivated commentators of the radical left and the existentialists would be quick to try and draw a line between Nazism and Iranian Islamic political philosophy or the radical leftist, and socialist -style third world countries that were particularly opposed to Israel. I think that is intellectually dishonest although I cannot discount it entirely. Regardless, Sartre was in fact very enthusiastic about the creation of the state of Israel, calling it the crowning of the Jews' sufferings and their 'heroic struggle' and a step towards a humanity where "the future of man is man". I would, therefore, hardly call Sartre a closet Nazi.

One person who was heavily influenced by Sartre was the psychiatrist and physician Frantz Fanon. Fanon had fought for the French in the second world war and was profoundly affected by the racism he saw and experienced both before and during that period. As a member of the FLN he was actively involved with the Algerian Revolution and was exiled for his activities. His most important work, the "Wretched of the Earth", was widely distributed and originally banned in France. In it, he advocated the use of violence by peoples who were suffering under colonialism, arguing that violence as a means to an end was justified completely in the struggle against an oppressor and occupier who was inherently violent and relied on military might to maintain their occupation. It was this ruthless approach of meeting fire with fire that charged the FLN's struggle for independence, portrayed critically in the famous film, "The Battle of Algiers", which depicts a bomb exploding in a packed cafe, and numerous attacks upon civilians. Fanon was honoured by being buried in Algeria, where his family continued to live. Today, Algeria is dominated by the same generals who were central in the FLN's struggle against French colonial rule, however, their iron-fisted control of the country and corrupt rule are typical of everything that Sartre had also found wrong with the Soviet Union. In a sense, the same structures which were intended to liberate the peoples became themselves an instrument of their oppression, and often in crueller and more intolerable ways. In the nineties of the last century, Algeria was subjected to a vicious civil war in which the government forces applied a brutal policy of extermination and terror in order to stamp out the Islamists who had won the elections. In Algeria today, an Orwellian 1984-esque regime exists, where the 'disappeared' are not just taken away forever, but their official records, from school attendance to their identity cards and birth certificates, are purged completely. The 'country of a million martyrs' lives under a system that is as brutal and inhuman as anything its people had experienced under French rule. It was almost as if, unsure of what to do after acquiring independence, the new rulers of Algeria gave up on the idea of liberation and instead sought to exist simply to maintain power and accumulate wealth.

The Palestinian cause as it came to be expressed through the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and other radical leftist spin-offs could all directly be traced back to the radical, Fanonite thought, which helped the Palestinian people put the occupation of their land in perspective, and also inspired them to carry out numerous attacks and bombings throughout the world against targets that they deemed to be legitimate in their final struggle to liberate Palestine. Ironically, the Palestinian cause resulted in some very strange bedfellows for the Palestinians, from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to Assad's Syria, to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and, most recently, Iran and its patronage of Hamas. This brings us to the next point of interest in the chain of thought that began, or more accurately, was influenced heavily, by Sartre's philosophy.

Another person who was influenced by the Third World Socialist movement that had its heart in nineteen sixties France was a fascinating, and little mentioned, professor and intellectual by the name of Ali Shariati. The son of an Islamic scholar and exposed during his time at university in Iran to Western philosophical ideas, Shariati was profoundly affected by existentialist and Sartrian ideas of a liberated personality, free from the shackles of oppression and control, which would redefine itself in a brave new world. Shariati, coming from a Shia Islamic perspective, excitedly applied these ideas to Islam itself, arguing that Muslims who awaited the arrival of the Islamic "Mahdi" a saviour of sorts who would right the wrongs of the world along with the returned Messiah, were mistaken, and that they were actively supposed to fight oppression and injustice throughout the world. He called his brand of Islam, "Red Shiism", as opposed to the clerical, conservative and stagnant "Black Shiism" that was predominant in his time. Shariati believed that, "every day was Ashoura; every day was Karbbalah" and a Muslim was obligated to actively fight against oppression. Building on the existing idea of "Occidentosis" (Gharbzadigeh) he sought to purge his fellow Iranian Muslims from the cultural and mental oppression that he believed had afflicted them from the West. Most profoundly he would translate Fanon's the "Wretched of the Earth" into Persian where it would go on to have an enormous affect on Iranian revolutionaries who were struggling to overthrow the Shah, a staunch Western ally and enormously corrupt ruler of Iran.

Amongst these revolutionaries was a religious scholar and leader by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini, who not only absorbed the ideas of the oppressors and the oppressed into an Islamic discourse, but also applied the same vicious methods to ensure that the revolution which overthrew the Shah was to be an "Islamic" revolution, and not an atheist, leftist one. His former leftist allies were, one by one, arrested, imprisoned, and forced to "confess" their betrayals on television, before they were duly hung or shot. Shariati died before the revolution could materialise, and was buried in the Sayideh Zeinab cemetary in Damascus, Syria. Today, Syria under the Alawite Assad regime has been a staunch ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran almost from its inception, and at the time of writing, this regime is reported to have killed or imprisoned thousands of Syrians who have been protesting for greater political freedoms.

The Syrian Baathist ideology, though not related to the Sartre school of thought, did have its ideological beginnings in Western European positivist thinking, and interestingly both Salah al Din Bitar and Michel Aflaq both studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, like Shariati. The central premise of Baathism was that a resurrection of the Arab nation was long over due, and needed to be strived for in order for the Arabs to take their rightful place back in history. It was a strange mix of socialism and Arab nationalism, and it was based on the fundamental belief that in order for the Arab nation to be resurrected from the ashes, a new kind of Arab consciousness needed to be created that transcended the tribal, ethnic and religious baggage of the Arab regions. Being the radical challenge to conservatism that it was, it found its most enthusiastic support in the villages and rural areas of Syria and, later, Iraq. As a result of the peculiarities of the post-colonial Middle East, the Baathists eventually found themselves first in control of the military and then, almost inevitably, in control of the government. What happened next was a radical transformation of society and education along lines that were similar to Eastern bloc communist countries, and with whom the Baathists found much affinity, though they would repress communist parties in their own country. As a result, Syria found itself in the same political current, albeit via a slightly different route, and found that there was already an international political system to which it could integrate without being dominated by the West.

But Shariati's influence was not just limited to Iran, as another prominent Iranian cleric was also heavily influenced by his liberation ideology imbued into Shia Islam. This cleric was Moussa al Sadr, an Iranian who settled in the predominantly Shiite south of Lebanon, and who would electrify those who came into contact with him into organisation and action. In 1974 he formed the "Movement of the Deprived" which, as the country descended into civil war, developed an armed movement that is today referred to as Amal. It was from Amal that a disaffected and more fundamentally Islamic organisation was formed, in order to fight against the Israeli army which invaded Lebanon in 1982. This organisation was called Hezbullah, and the reason that many of the former Amal members, including its present Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, decided to defect was because the leadership of the group had passed on from Mousa al Sadr to the more secular and pragmatic Nabih Berri. Sadr, in 1978, disappeared whilst on a trip to Libya - widely accepted today as having been murdered by Gaddafi's regime. The founders of Hezbullah believed that Amal had moved away from the original Islamic, but also revolutionary, spirit intended by Musa Sadr. One need only read Naim Qassem's, "Hezbullah: The Story Within" to see the enormous influence of Shariati and Sartre, filtered through the thought of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, upon the newly formed movement. Today the discourse of the "Party of God" can only truly be understood from an ahistorical, existentialist perspective that has rejected entirely all manifestations of Western political and cultural influence and has reinterpreted modern life through the lense of Shiite Islam. All of this, of course, was still far into the future when Colonel Gaddafi ordered the execution of Musa Sadr and his two journalist companions in Libya.

One would think that this act would have put Gaddafi out of this unique bloc of socialist inspired countries. He was certainly eccentric and unpredictable, but the bizarre Third Universal Theory, a bizarre mish-mash of socialist, Arab nationalist and Islamic ideology that he expounded in his "Green Book", was - apart from incoherent - a perverse and amateurish attempt to express the very ideas of self actualisation and liberation that Sartre was talking about. This was imbued with Gaddafi's own, schizophrenic twist, but it was a stillborn ideology from the same womb as the revolutionary politics of violent resistance advocated by Fanon, or the revolutionary "red Shiism" of Shariati. In all likelihood his ideology has already died with him, if ever it had inspired anybody, though heaven knows what kind of person could have taken it seriously. Still, the network of contacts and affinity, if one could describe relationships between such individuals and countries as such, shows a remarkable web of solidarity that was only slightly exposed as the NATO campaign against Libya progressed. A post-Soviet Russia, capitalist China, and most African countries, themselves run by dictators, did everything in their power to delay the fall of Gaddafi, and to shelter him from a concerted Western effort to have him removed. Ultimately that failed and his capture and death will, like that of Saddam Hussein, earn him the title of martyr amongst the left-wing acolytes who have provided the intellectual justification for his actions, justifications that can be traced all the way back to the existentialist and radical ideologies of post-war Western Europe at a time when colonialism was still alive and real.

The philosophical and political climate that resulted from the radical politics of the sixties produced the classic template for what would become the future archetype of the Arab dictator. Young, idealistic and ideologically motivated men would seize the opportunities to escape their impoverished backgrounds and attempt to level the playing field for future generations. The death of Gaddafi has motivated and united this bloc of 'radical' countries in a way that their hostility with the West never could. When the seat of their power was itself at threat, the ruthlessness that they had achieved power with was used once again in order to maintain it. But it seems that they are only fighting off the inevitable. This is because as they and their revolutions grew older, more jaded, and as corrupt and oppressive as the systems they once sought to replace, they transformed their countries into personal ranches, and unwittingly became the dry straw that would ignite as the frustration of their people sparked. Granted, an unprecedented economic recession proved the catalyst, but a long simmering resentment of their failed promises and now empty slogans meant that a revolution was long overdue.

What is remarkable about the Arab Spring is that, for the first time in that region's history, the people themselves have taken to the street in revolutions that can be called neither capitalist nor communist, and are 'Islamic' only by an enormous stretch of the imagination. The radical politics of the nineteen sixties can be said to truly be running their course today, and these exhausted ideologies of a previous age are now being rejected by the disillusioned people who believed that its champions could free them and improve their lives. From the streets of Paris to the various Arab capitals, this radical liberation ideology has been adapted, twisted and manipulated into the present regimes we see today. The gradual fall of each marks the twilight of the Arab dictators and the failure of the radical politics which have defined the Middle East for over half a century. The real question is that if conservatism and radicalism have each, in turn, failed to deliver for the region, then what next?

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