Home Political science Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity
Our Deputy Sheriffs in the Middle East
Last month [September 1997] saw the massacre of 200 innocent people in the Algiers suburb of Bentalha, but British newspaper headlines were taken up with more exotic matters: the sentences facing two British nurses apparently convicted of murdering a third at a hospital complex in Saudi Arabia. Executions and floggings are routine in the wealthy desert kingdom: a version, Aziz al-Azmeh suggests in one of the best essays yet written on Saudi Arabia, of the ‘bread and circuses’ principle favoured by the Romans. Until now, however, the victims of these popular spectacles have either been Saudi nationals or expatriate workers from poor countries such as Sri Lanka or the Philippines. The much more menacing situation in Algeria would have barely merited a mention had it not been for the fact that the latest massacre - the third in as many weeks - took place near the centre of Algiers, too close to the international communications networks to be ignored.
Both events, however, represent public relations disasters for their governments. Saudi Arabia, while holding executions and floggings in public to demonstrate to its own subjects that its legal system fully conforms to Islamic law, prefers to conceal the practical consequences of that system from the outside world, to which its suave and highly-educated Bedouin princes like to present the image of a uniquely harmonious blend of modernity and tradition. In Algeria, the government-controlled media studiously avoid drawing attention to the escalating chain of massacres, which are believed to have cost 100,000 lives since the war between the government and the Islamists began in 1992. On the night of this latest horror, the state television was showing coverage of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Both governments seek to present themselves as stable, civilised and modern, not only because such is the custom of governments everywhere, but because they depend on Western support. The Saudi regime, as shown with devastating clarity in 1991, is utterly dependent on Western military power. Like the other oil-rich sheikhdoms, it spends billions of petrodollars on highly sophisticated equipment, which it lacks the manpower, training or expertise to use itself. The tag of ‘medieval barbarism’ cuts to the quick.
The government of President Zeroual in Algeria, military in all but name, is sustained diplomatically and to some extent militarily by France. It was France which, fearful of a ‘fundamentalist’ regime on its doorstep, supported the Army’s decision to go against the will of the Algerian people, who voted in favour of the now banned Islamic Salvation Front in the first round of the elections of 1991. It is important for the Algerian generals to show the French government that they are in control of the country while demonstrating that their enemies, the Islamists, are beyond the pale of civilisation: hence the allegations of connivance, if not complicity, by the security forces in some of the worst atrocities.
Said Aburish is a persistent and informed critic of virtually all of today’s Arab governments, and the events of September  should provide plenty of grist to his mill. His previous book was entitled The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud. In his latest, which covers the Middle East but not Algeria, he pulls no punches. ‘Reporters,’ he writes, ‘know King Fahd to be lazy, corrupt, ignorant and a drunk, but little is written about these things and he is still the West’s man.’ He goes on to say that Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, is one of the Kingdom’s biggest ‘skimmers’, making billions out of arms contracts; King Hussein of Jordan is a playboy who protected his hashish-smuggling uncle, the Sharif Nasser, and misappropriated CIA funds for his personal use. Camille Chamoun, the former Lebanese President and the man largely responsible for launching the civil war in 1975, ‘dazzled Westerners with his wit and charm’ but was really ‘nothing but a skirt-chasing, narrowminded tribal chief who saw nothing wrong in lying, stealing and murder’. Aburish’s judgements of the Western actors who did so much to shape the region’s history after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire are just as jaundiced and, arguably, superficial: Gertrude Bell, Oriental Secretary in Mesopotamia, who had a crucial hand in the creation of modern Iraq, was ‘an example of the empty socialite managing to misjudge everything in her way and creating havoc in her aftermath’; St John Philby, the friend and supporter of Ibn Saud and father of Kim, was an ‘upstart contrarian ... bent on creating noise’.
What rankles is the absence of a broader historical and geopolitical analysis in which the actions of these individuals might be evaluated. True, British and French imperial interests were decisive in shaping the modern Middle East; and given the industrial West’s appetite for cheap oil, it is hardly surprising that Western interests still play an important part in sustaining current regimes, despite endemic corruption, a generally poor record on human rights and the absence of real democracy. The export of armaments far in excess of the external defence requirements of the autocratic regimes of Arabia and the Gulf, initiated quite cynically as a way of recycling petrodollars, raises important moral and humanitarian issues. Britain and the United States armed Saddam Hussein to the hilt, with devastating consequences for Kuwait, and later for the Kurds and Shi‘a of southern Iraq. Then UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s backtracking on the fate of the British nurses, after his indignant outburst to the effect that a sentence of 500 lashes has no place in a modern society, was not only inspired by the thought that shouting at Saudis is an unreliable way to persuade their monarch to exercise his prerogative of clemency; it was also intended to reassure the arms industry, on which thousands of British jobs depend. There is a significant irony in the fact that what has become one of Britain’s most successful export industries was assiduously featherbedded in the years of free-market Thatcherism, injected with government money and provided with lavish credit guarantees underpinned by the taxpayer.
For 70 years the West has used its position as the primary arms supplier in the Middle East to provide its deputy sheriffs with the ability to kill their enemies. They have used this ability to create phoney states, to maintain them against popular forces, to enforce Western designs to divide Palestine, to pressure unfriendly regimes into co-operating with them, to make money and corrupt leaders who became more dependent on them, and to sponsor minorities to stay in power and uprisings against unfriendly regimes or groups.
He supplies a wealth of detail to support his argument, including evidence of CIA involvement in the overthrow in 1963 of the Iraqi leader General Kassem, an honourable and genuinely popular figure, and of the Agency’s machinations in the run-up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (which led to the Israeli takeover of the West Bank). He sees the venality of some of the actors, and the opportunism of others, as sufficient explanation for the Arab world’s failure to realise the promise of independence and freedom that was held out after the First and Second World Wars.
That promise was embodied in the only hero of his book, Gamal Abdel Nasser - the one leader who came ‘very close to breaking the back of the abusive pro-West Arab establishment’. To Aburish, Nasser was
the only man who represented Arab dreams, complexes and foibles against Western hegemony. His quarrels with the West can be judged as an expression of the complex relationship between the Arabs and the West. The core of this relationship was an intrinsic desire on his part to be understood and respected and a consequent desire to be left alone and free. In this, he was the average Arab. And to this day the average Arab wants nothing more than a recognition of his or her rights against Western strategic interests and commitment to special interest groups.
But Nasser, and the hope he represented, was deliberately destroyed by Western support for his rival in the Arab world, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Had it not been for the West’s support for Saudi Arabia and Saudi support for the monarchists in Yemen, Aburish argues, 200,000 of Nasser’s best troops would not have been tied up in Yemen in 1967 when they could have been deployed against the Israelis.
There is much to be commended in the detail of this fascinating book. Its underlying theme of Western cunning and hegemonic control exercised through corrupt rulers and greedy arms merchants is not without its attractions. But again, on the broader themes, Aburish sometimes sounds naive and unacceptably partisan in an old-fashioned Arab nationalist way. In the light of the present struggle in Turkey can we really be expected to believe that ‘the Kurdish rebellions of 1948, ’56, ’67 and ’75, like the present one, have had little to do with Kurdish aspirations and more to do with Iraq’s unwillingness to follow a pro-West line’? Taking a similarly conspiratorial view, he suggests that General Kassem’s decision to go his own way after overthrowing the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 rather than join Nasser’s United Arab Republic - ‘the point at which’, he believes, ‘the Nasser movement lost its momentum and Nasser his chance to control the whole of the Arab Middle East’ - was influenced by the secret support he secured from Britain’s ambassador, Sir Michael Wright, in exchange for a promise not to join the UAR. Only Arab sources are cited for this interesting claim: according to Aburish, the relevant documents are not yet available [in 1997] at the Public Record Office. It is hard to believe that an Arab superstate comprising Iraq, Egypt and Syria would have been any more viable than the union between Egypt and Syria, which collapsed in 1961 when the Syrians seceded. Despite the rhetoric of Arabism, and that of the pan-Islamism into which it has recently been subsumed, the economic, religious and ethnic differences between the countries making up the Middle East have always been irreconcilable and will remain so, regardless of the machinations of the West. The territorial divisions agreed between the Great Powers after the First World War may be arbitrary, but in the modern world, territorial units are meshed into an international system and it is the primary interest of the elites controlling those units to weld them into states using whatever force is necessary and the best available ideological tools. The ideological nuances distinguishing ‘regional’ Syrian Baathism from ‘national’ Iraqi Baathism sustain the competing power structures of Syria and Iraq, just as the ideology of Wahhabism (a sectarian version of Islam distinguished by xenophobia, misogyny and intolerance) sustains the power of the Saudi dynasty. The elites Aburish so despises are not puppets: they are willing and active partners in a bilateral process that helps to keep them in power. If, as Aburish implies, ‘obsolete monarchies’, ‘special interest groups’ and military regimes continue to govern undemocratically, without genuine popular mandates, that is because (as he rightly points out) institutions which reflect the will of the people and protect their rights have yet to be created.
Unfortunately, Aburish fails to address the deeper reasons for the democratic deficit in Middle Eastern societies - the product of history, and to a considerable extent of Islamic law itself. The sociologist, Bryan Turner, refers to a ‘cluster of absences’ in Islamic history: no concept of liberty, no autonomous corporate institutions and assemblies, no ‘city’, no self-confident middle class. Many of the institutions through which popular power is channelled in Western societies originated in the Church, the paradigm for the corporate bodies through which power is now routinised and mediated in impersonal ways. Shari‘a, by contrast, remains uncompromisingly personal and unmediated - with the consequence that the public interest, in the form of city, state or any other institution standing between the individual and God, suffers from a lack of legitimacy. As Aburish points out, popular demands for representation throughout the Arab world are currently couched, not in the universal language of human rights, but in Islamist terms which most Westerners find incomprehensible, even repulsive. However, the absence of a democratic tradition in Islamic history should not automatically lead to the conclusion that Islam and democracy are incompatible, or that Islamists should be denied the right to stand in elections (as they are in Egypt and Algeria) on the grounds that once having come to power by democratic means, they will necessarily suppress democracy. Democrats of any political stripe deserve all the support they can get - even when they adopt the language of Islam. The only valid test for a democrat is a willingness to stand for election and to abide by a fair result. The alleged threat that Islamists pose to pro-Western and spuriously pro-democratic regimes is not a reason to supply those regimes with weapons of torture and internal suppression.
Published in London Review of Books, 16 October 1997.
The book reviewed was:_
Said Aburish (1997) A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite. London: Victor Gollancz.
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