Perspective on the Arabs
The Middle East in Transition.
by Walter Z. Laqueur.
Praeger. 564 pp. $8.75.
The confluence of the Arab renaissance and Soviet policy, a central factor in world politics, is the dominant theme of this latest compilation of Middle East studies, edited by Walter Z. Laqueur. A collection of articles, some previously published and others specially written, it is the most intelligently organized book on the subject to appear in a great many years. Israel is fully discussed in a brilliant article by Isaiah Berlin, but is otherwise referred to only obliquely; the book deals primarily with the internal evolution of the modern Arabic-speaking world and with the role of the Soviet Union and the Communist movement.
Many articles in the second half of the book refer to this crucial question of the interaction of Arab nationalism and Soviet Communism, but none so pithily as those by Sir Bernard Lewis and A. V. Sherman. In different ways, both make the same point: that there is nothing in Islamic or Arabic-speaking society per se that makes it inaccessible to Communism. They both dismiss as a foible the recent tendency of treating modern Islam as somehow “inherently” anti-Communist because of a presumed “philosophical irreconcilability” between Islam and Communism. Just as scholars and commentators have clung to an outmoded view of Communism as a coherent body of doctrine that is exactly the same today as in Lenin’s lifetime, so they have assumed that Arab nationalism is identical with historic Islam and is, moreover, the same sort of movement as the recent nationalisms of Europe and the United States.
Now the most obvious characteristic of the torrent of affirmation generally accepted as Arab “national ideology” is its utter emptiness. As Sherman points out in discussing the most coherent and recent book (1957) on the meaning of Arab nationalism, by Hazem Nusseibeh, “we are hardly wiser at the end than at the beginning.” This is not surprising, for the entire doctrine of Arab nationalism is exhausted by the simple affirmation that “the Arabs are a nation.” Musa Alami, for instance, the most practical of the Arab nationalist ideologues, says that the “Arab people are in great need of a myth,” but he gives no indication of what the myth is or how it should be created. The naive acceptance by Western commentators of statements like these as facts utterly warps any perspective.
A similar acceptance of propaganda as fact is evident in the general discussion of Communist activity. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, the party of ideologues became a corps of administrators and practice began to remake theory. Now that Soviet influence has engulfed more than a third of the human race, and the administrative functions of the leadership have expanded correspondingly, what is put forward as doctrine is more obviously than ever a hotch-potch of ad hoc tactical devices.
The question, accordingly, of the vulnerability of Islam to Communism is really one of the convergence of Soviet and Arab “national” interests—which has nothing to do with any harmony between Islamic and Communist “thought.” If we think of events in the Middle East in terms of functioning institutions, it will be simpler to assess the sources of the collaboration between the Arab nationalist movement and the Soviet regime. Sherman makes the point graphically in describing the attraction felt by the Nasser junta for Communism, not as a doctrine but as a mechanism of practical politics: “They began to discover that the Soviet Union offered them techniques for bureaucratic anti-capitalism and new justification for confiscating property, procedures for economic control and organization; it offered methods of building up a party-state apparatus and manipulating the masses, or organizing propaganda at home and abroad.” “A Textbook for Dictators in Backward Countries” might well be composed of extracts from actual Soviet administration. The only thing, indeed, that Arab nationalists agree on, when they get down to brass tacks, is the necessity of state economic control, an idea with which they are infatuated. And it is this notion that may well turn out to be the basis for the aggrandizement of the leadership of the Arabic-speaking countries. It also obviously facilitates a relatively frictionless, large scale Soviet intervention in the Middle East.
It does not matter that the practical stages in the development of state economic control are for the time being naively disregarded; that the sudden passion of Arab intellectuals for state control has all the earmarks of a Levantine love for the highfalutin catchwords of an Occident they affect to despise; it does not even matter that the middle class from which nearly all the intellectuals come might be hamstrung by any such program if it were made effective. What does matter is that at the present stage of Arab political development this acclamation of state control, however irresponsible, is less so than anything else in the official propaganda of the movement.
The state of the actual Communist parties in the Arabic-speaking countries may thus be relatively unimportant from a Western point of view; whether Nasser sponsors Communist parties or eliminates them, it still remains the strongest possibility that the fate of the area will be determined by bureaucratic collaboration between the already centralized administrations of the Arabic-speaking countries and the U.S.S.R. The institutions already functioning enable the elites of the various Arabic-speaking countries to manipulate their own masses and to collaborate with the appropriate agencies of the Soviet Union.
What really counts, in short, is what has taken place lately—the transport of equipment and technical personnel from the Soviet Union to Egypt at the very moment that Nasser was intensifying his repression of the Egyptian Communist party. The fact that Soviet Russia has taken responsibility for Egypt’s supply needs in her recent spurt of modernization is just as important as the more dramatic political upheaval in Iraq, which took place after the present anthology was published.
Moreover, as Sherman points out, because of the uninterrupted Islamic tradition of authoritarianism, there is even a structural similarity between Islamic society and Soviet-style Communism which facilitates collaboration. And since Islamic society has always rested on three pillars—the army, the bureaucracy, and the clergy—the first two of which have proven only too susceptible to Soviet influence, the Communists would only need to “come to terms” with the clergy to have a free hand.
Though Sherman and Lewis make this point most explicitly, it is borne out by the background material provided in many other articles. Sir Hamilton Gibb has an erudite and perceptive account of the dynamics of social reform in the Modern Middle East; Morroe Berger gives an excellent analysis of the Arab middle class, while Charles Issawi and Said Himadeh, both economists, present an unusually readable discussion of the interaction between the economic development of the Middle East and the social upheaval of modern times. An article by Hal Lehrman shows us the potentialities of Iraqi resources, now doubtless to be exploited by the new Soviet-oriented groups in power, while the meagerness of the nouveau Egyptian intelligentsia is described in an excellent essay by Georges Ketman, an intellectual profile of the new rulers and their social milieu.
The anthology is surprisingly free of the usual partisanship, pedantry, or effusiveness that afflicts so much comment on the Middle East, though there is a whiff of the first in an article by Stewart Perowne on the refugees, of the second in one by Sylvia Haim on Islam and the theory of Arab nationalism, and of the third in the articles by Muhammad Ayyad on culture in Arab society and Gebran Majdalani on Arab socialism.
It is regrettable that Western observers have been distracted by Arab rhetorical effervescence from studying the actual mainsprings of contemporary Middle Eastern society. From its very inception, the Arab national movement has developed contrapuntally, in reaction to something outside itself: first to the Turks, then to the British and the French, in the last ten years to the tiny State of Israel. This has partly been the result of its lack of any social program: that is, any “real” objectives. It is thus a pity that the American press has simply neglected the specific material aims, or rather the necessary directions, of any Arab nationalist movement, in favor of its intellectual superstructure. By providing a concentrated, dynamic analysis of an evolving society from different points of view, The Middle East in Transition is an invaluable antidote to popular journalism.