Gaza and the De-Colonization Narrative
Western views of Arab society often get one major thing wrong – Arab agency.
My Jewish-American neighbor was born and raised in California. Her hatred toward Israel is on par with Hamas’ own. While visiting us, a book in my library caught her eye: The Arab Mind. Printed in 1976 and reprinted in 2002, Raphael Patai’s classic was reportedly one of the favorite books of Bush administration neocons, so much so that copies were distributed to the military, to be used as a guidebook in the war on terrorism.
“Why would you buy and read such a racist book?” my neighbor asked. After seeing all the negative reviews, she’d decided not to buy the book or to read it. My neighbor had spent time in Syria and learnt some Arabic.
In his book Orientalism, Palestinian-American academic Edward Said criticized The Arab Mind for eradicating “the plurality of differences among the Arabs (whoever they may be in fact) in favor of one difference, the one setting Arabs off from everybody else.” Said grew up in an English-speaking house, left the Arab world before high school, learnt Arabic at age thirty, and lived all his adult life in New York.
And here I was—born Muslim and raised Arab in Baghdad, Baalbek, and Beirut, until I moved to the United States in my thirties—being lectured by Americans on which books offend my race. Even though a bit outdated, The Arab Mind is a work of sociology that meticulously captures Arab societal behavior.
Neither my neighbor nor Said cared about the academic veracity of the book. They only cared that it stood at odds with their theory that any criticism of the Arabs was racism if written by non-Arabs; and self-hate, if by Arabs. It looked inconceivable to these Americans that Arabs are smart or capable enough to look inward, to practice self-criticism, and to call for social and political reforms. In their minds, the Arabs had no agency whatsoever. Their ills were entirely inflicted on them by outsiders. These would end only when the outsiders were beaten.
But history shows that Western colonialism of Arab territory, which arguably started with Napoleon’s 1798 landing in Egypt, did not alter the course of a centuries-old downward Arab trend. If anything, Western colonialism helped halt the decline a bit, saving Arab heritage by decoding ancient languages and preserving archaeology. Without Europeans colonizing, creating Arab states, then giving them their independence, the Arabs would almost certainly still have been living in Turkish provinces up until today.
Napoleon’s invasion had the effect of opening Muslim eyes to the gap that had opened between them and the advanced West. A debate ensued, which came to be known as the Age of the Arab Renaissance or Nahda (roughly 1870-1950), that produced two “teams” of intellectuals: The progressives argued that Islam should be modernized, mainly by placing holy texts in their 7th century context and not applying them to modern times. The conservatives believed that Muslims had fallen behind because they had abandoned their religion; to reverse their decline, Muslims had to revive Islam’s Golden Age by restoring the orthodox faith. The conservative school birthed what came to be known as political Islam, or Islamism, which strives for the creation of Islamic government, usually under a philosopher-king type, similar to that imagined by Plato.
Arab progressives, meanwhile, connected with the Global South movement and adopted an anti-Western rhetoric, beginning in 1955 when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser joined the influential Bandung Asian-African Conference. Responding to that dynamic, Arab conservatives allied with the capitalist West to defeat their rivals—the secular Progressives, who were often sponsored by the “atheist Soviet Union.” When the conservatives prevailed, they turned their attention against the “infidel West.” The end result was that Arab intellectual trends, both secular and religious, blamed the West for all Arab ills.
Conservative Arab thinking is identical with that of my progressive Jewish-American neighbor: The imperial West, and not the Arabs, is responsible for Arab misery. De-colonization is the solution for this situation.
But Western (mainly European) powers left the Middle East and North Africa over half a century ago. For the Arab spectator, Israel became the befitting substitute for Arab rage against the West. Anti-imperial progressive Arabs saw Jews as alien colonials who had immigrated from Europe to Mandate Palestine. It did not matter that in 1950, already half of the Jewish population of Israel had relocated from Arab countries.
Meanwhile, conservative Islamist Arabs were finding in Islamic scripture and tradition what they needed to vilify the Jews. And while Arab progressives and conservatives have been engaged in bloody wars against one another, blaming Israel for their ills has always trumped their internal divisions, bringing them together.
An intractable Arab-Israeli conflict has given the Arabs the best tool to deflect attention away from their own failures, and to blame them on a non-Arab power. Israel became the rug under which the Arabs swept their failures. The First Lebanon War is a case in point.
In 1982, to stop attacks on its northern border, Israel occupied Lebanon, ejected Palestinian militias to Tunisia, and established a security zone in the south. Until Israel withdrew in 2000, the Lebanese blamed both their inability to stand up a capable government and the unconstitutional existence of the Hezbollah militia on the Israeli occupation. When Israel withdrew from the regions, the UN demarcated the border. Former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud formally signed on to what came to be known as the Blue Line, a quasi-official border.
The end of official hostilities between Lebanon and Israel took away Hezbollah’s raison d’etre. The party thus came up with a new scheme—claiming that Shebaa Farms, which Israel calls Har Dov, was Lebanese territory that was still (unlawfully) under Israeli occupation. Hezbollah argued that accordingly, it had to maintain its armed militia to liberate the small piece of land that Israel had captured from Syria in 1967. Hezbollah thus moved the goal posts of the debate. They kept Lebanon on a war footing by not disbanding, and by not allowing Beirut to grow the economy and prosper.
In 2005, Israel repeated its unilateral withdrawal exercise, this time from the Gaza Strip. Instead of building a capable government that could have expanded its authority to the West Bank, Hamas—an Islamist pro-Iran militia just like Hezbollah—overran the strip in the 2007 Battle of Gaza after the Fatah party lost in the 2006 elections, in a coup in which Hamas killed over 300 officials from the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza Strip has not witnessed an election since.
If Israel was the reason behind Arab problems, then its withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza should have led to the improvement in government and living standards in these two territories. What happened was the opposite.
Between 2000 and 2023, the Lebanese economy collapsed as the country slid downwards on every governance indicator. In 1996, Lebanon ranked 109 of 191 countries in the “rule of law” category according to data service The Global Economy. By 2006, Lebanon had dropped to 126, and in 2021, Lebanon had slipped as far down as 162. Similarly, Lebanon has suffered the spread of corruption. In 2004, Lebanon ranked 97 out of 145 on the Corruption Perception Index. In 2022, Lebanon ranked 150 out of 180.
Like Lebanon, Gaza’s economy and governance performance indicators have fallen on every level.
Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya have exercized sovereignty over every inch of their land for the past fifteen years or more. Yet all five countries are failing states. Their citizens are risking their lives, on boats of death, to cross the Mediterranean in order to live in the very same European countries against whose rule their own Arab ancestors fought decades ago. When French President Macron visited Lebanon in 2020, more than 50,000 Lebanese signed a petition addressed to him, in which they called on France to restore its mandate over Lebanon, which ended in 1943.
Arab failure in governing their sovereign countries is evidence that their problems stem from within, and that any real or constructive solutions will require a shift from blaming the West and Israel to a concerted effort of applying self-criticism and reform.
In so far as the de-colonization narrative of Western progressives insists on robbing Arabs and other natives of agency by exclusively blaming European colonialism, it fails to help the Arabs address their shortcomings. If anything, Western progressive rhetoric actually delays the desperately needed Arab day of reckoning. And it only reinforces the conservative Islamist agenda, the one championed by Islamist Iran and its protégé militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza—all five, failing Arab states without a glimmer of hope for reform or improvement.
New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings. Such can be the future of Israel’s current war for the decimation of Hamas. Once this Iran-backed militia that opposes any peace arrangement with Israel is eliminated, there will be space necessary for clear-eyed Arabs to step up, to look within themselves, to debate, and to advocate for reform, capacity building, and good governance.
It is unfortunate that so far, the Arab reaction to the Gaza War is being managed by the mob and dominated by its populist rhetoric. Only with the defeat of conservative Islamist Hamas, can Arabs and Palestinians make a better choice for their present and future, by embracing the opportunity and building anew, and this time—by addressing their internal weaknesses instead of obsessing over external reaction to their Arab failure.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on X @hahussain
Image: A man wearing a headscarf in Algeria. (Unsplash: Houssam Korichi)