The one photograph that hangs in my office is that of the late Lebanese writer Samir Kassir. He was assassinated in June 2005, but his ideas are more relevant than ever as Lebanon, Palestine and the entire Arab world that defined his life, embrace greater tension and violence practiced simultaneously by the state, opposition groups and foreign armies. The British publisher Verso has just put out an English translation of an essay he wrote titled “Being Arab. Kassir’s enduring power reflects two core aspects of his life and work: his insistence on challenging the oppression and indignities that many Arabs suffered at the hands of their own regimes or foreign powers, while at the same time rejecting the tendency to wallow in a sense of victimization. Instead, he affirms faith in the modern Arab world’s capacity for national rejuvenation, cultural affirmation and humanistic progress. Kassir touched many people because these sentiments are not the lone thoughts of a maverick Arab writer. Rather, this conviction of one’s worth and potential is a prevalent attitude in the heart of hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women who, like him, refuse to submit to humiliation and powerlessness, and instead affirm their humanity and their rights as citizens. Arabs are “haunted by a sense of powerlessness and widespread malaise, which he succinctly surveyed in the sad condition of most Arab countries. He concluded that “the real crisis in the Arab world is the crisis of the state, whose institutions lack credibility and whose internal unity is routinely challenged. Autocratic and vulnerable, Arab states offer their people cosmetic reforms and liberalization without any real change in government or policies, while relinquishing economic sovereignty and thus perpetuating foreign hegemony.
The Arab world, Kassir lamented, is the only place where “lack of democracy is allied to a foreign hegemony. The prevalent, almost reflexive, response in the Middle East has come from local Islamist movements that were born “in response to what were considered to be inefficient, iniquitous, or impious, governments, rather than a reaction to the culture of modernism. Kassir pointed out that Arab and Islamic cultures repeatedly generated, absorbed and accommodated a diversity of divergent systems of thought and identity.
During the Renaissance, the Muslim World “more than held its own against Europe, until a technological gap opened up between the two societies in the second half of the 18th century. The urban centers of the Arab and Middle Eastern Islamic world relentlessly copied and emulated many aspects of Europe, spurring the modernizing revolution the Arabs called the Nahda. That revolution failed for various reasons: superpower domination, the burden of Israel, the emergence of Arab police states, and other maladies. For Kassir, the Arabs had to restore this era to its proper place in their own history, allowing them to reinterpret their current profound malaise as merely a momentary happening that could be overcome and left behind.
His writing and heart were full of hope, and riddled with pride, in the capacity of Arab-Islamic culture to revitalize its modernistic impulses with proven Western norms. He personally embodied that rich synthesis of Levantine and European identities and values, with his mixture of Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian and French identities and legacies. Kassir also reviewed how the impulses for regeneration during the Nahda comprised a beacon for progress that failed on the political-national level shortly after World War I; but “lived on as an attitude and an outlook on the world, manifested in art, poetry, theater, music, cinema, the role of women and other dimensions of life and culture. Yet this was all crushed by the onset of the Arab malaise in the last third of the 20th century, when Israel defeated the Arabs, oil wealth prompted a new American hegemony and reinforced the backwardness of the energy-rich states, and new Arab regimes “wasted no time putting their societies behind bars. Radical Islamism or “Islamic nationalism would not solve this dilemma, he boldly wrote, if it perpetuated a sense of Arab victimhood or explicitly set out to differentiate itself from the universal. Arabs had to avoid the danger of wallowing so deeply in their own malaise that they would replace it with something similar, namely a “culture of death which the union of fossilized Arab nationalism and political Islam calls resistance. Kassir concluded: “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 20th century has also brought benefits that can enable Arabs to participate in progress. Samir Kassir, even in death, radiates hope and self-confidence, anchored in that powerful, rich, irresistible combination of Arab-Islamic, Western and universalist values that still define most people in the Middle East. If you are perplexed by the turbulence of the Arab and Islamic Middle East, and seek signs of hope amidst the bombs, read this little book of big ideas. Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.