Jonathan Wright writes:
Even in a moment of joy and triumph for millions of Arabs, Fouad Ajami cannot wholly renounce one of his favourite themes – that the political behaviour of Arabs has been driven by inherited pathologies which set them apart from the rest of mankind. Even when he revels with Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans at their liberation from old tyrannies, he cannot resist the temptation to hold them responsible for their own long oppression. Their liberation, he writes in the New York Times, came when they finally saw the light – his own very idiosyncratic light, abandoning Arab nationalism and the cause of Palestine:
These rulers hadn’t descended from the sky. They had emerged out of the Arab world’s sins of omission and commission. Today’s rebellions are animated, above all, by a desire to be cleansed of the stain and the guilt of having given in to the despots for so long.
There is no marker, no dividing line, that establishes with precision when and why the Arab people grew weary of the dictators. To the extent that such tremendous ruptures can be pinned down, this rebellion was an inevitable response to the stagnation of the Arab economies…Then, too, the legends of Arab nationalism that had sustained two generations had expired. Younger men and women had wearied of the old obsession with Palestine.
I disagree, not on some technicality, but profoundly and thoroughly. Individuals may sin, but to project those sins on to the whole Arab world – millions of people across several generations and more than 20 countries – is more than they deserve. Such a theory of collective guilt makes for powerful rhetoric, well-tuned to the preconceptions of Ajami’s audience, preconceptions that he has made a good living out of humouring. But it’s a little too close for comfort to some discredited 20th-century ideas that led to the deaths of millions. What sins did the young Egyptians who came out on the streets on January 25 have to expiate? Their failure to overthrow Hosni Mubarak when they were in their teens? Even the older generations, the ones who applauded the initiative and determination of their descendants, did not feel guilt, only regret that they had lived under tyranny so long. Most of them never connived in their own oppression. On the contrary, the main forces that conspired to oppress them were the very ones that Ajami serves and that he does not mention – the United States, the oil companies, the arms dealers, and all those who believed that ordinary Arabs should pay any price necessary for the sake of cheap oil and Israel’s immunity from accountability.