Blogs > HNN > Some Thoughs on the 'End of Arab History'

Apr 11, 2005 8:52 am

Some Thoughs on the 'End of Arab History'

Sixteen years ago, as the Berlin Wall was crumbling and Eastern and Western Europe began the now well-worn (if as yet incomplete) process of reintegration, Western and especially American scholars began to celebrate the end of the Cold War as signifying what Francis Fukayama would famously call the "end of history." The idea of history having an end, or "telos," has a long provenance in Western thinking, going back to the development of the great "Axial Age" monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One of the crucial areas in which they differed from many other religions, whether major world religions such as Hinduism or local tribal beliefs, was precisely in the idea that the world—indeed, the cosmos as a whole—had a definite beginning and end, and that it was humanity's, and each individual person's, responsibility to work with God to ensure that the desired end came about.

As we all know, each person would be judged by God on their performance of this duty; yet as early as the Old Testament entire peoples could be judged so irredeemably out of sync with the desired "telos" as to warrant their erasure from human history. For Ancient Israelites, the Amalek was the symbol of what would happen to a people that deviated too far from the divinely ordained path. 2,500 years later, the great German philosopher GWF Hegel consigned the entire continent of Africa to a similar fate as a "people without history."

Indeed, one of the great epistemological accomplishments of modernity, without which it could never have competed with existing religious belief systems, precisely because it couldn't appeal to the same emotional, spiritual (actually, religious) needs, was that it took the notion of human history being linear and teleological, stripped it of its divine sanction (i.e., secularized it), and made humanity and human—or more precisely, Western/Northern European—social systems, the primary barometer of progress by which all other societies would be judged. That is, the new goal or telos was not eternal spiritual salvation but rather the salvation of becoming fully "modern," a concept whose definition has always remained (usefully) hazy except for the clear fact that modernity was what "we"—Europe, the West, later apotheosized by the US—had achieved, what "they"—the people's of the colonized world—lacked, and which could only be brought to them by the good offices of said West.

Not surprisingly, Hegel was the primary philosophical source for Fukayama's notion of the end of history, which for the philosopher signaled the final unfolding of Spirit through a fully mature humanity. As in any teleological system, the logic of Hegel/Fukayama's linear progression of history was somewhat tautological: whoever was ostensibly at the forefront of history at the moment of consideration—that is, whoever's society was most economically, politically and culturally dominant—was deemed to be closest to the end/ends of history. Naturally, their economic, political and cultural system would be considered the model for all other civilizations to follow; since there was only one end to history and only one road to it, whoever was in front surely must be most closely following history's pre-ordained path.

The teleological ideology of modernity (which in many ways reshaped and redirected rather than tried to subdue the older religious teleologies, especially their prosletyzing sprit) became one of the primary justifications for European colonialism and imperialism, as evidenced by such notions as the mission civilasitrice and the White Man's Burden. But for many non-Western peoples, the idea of a pre-ordained, Eurocentered notion of historical progress was deeply problematic. Especially for an Axial age civilization like Islam, which until recently could be said to have had history on its side vis-à-vis Europe, the idea that Muslim societies were literally behind the times, and that only by following Europe's example could they hope to catch up to their neighbors to the north and west, proved as difficult to swallow as it was seemingly self-evident.

And so the early Muslim reformers of the modern period saw as among their primary tasks the "modernization" of Islam, although soon this would change to a focus on the Islamicization of modernity. Either way, leading 19th and early 20th century Muslim thinkers accepted the notion that the Muslim world was backwards and needed to modernize; the main debates were about how much of the West's culture and political-economic systems could be adopted without challenging core Islamic tenets and social systems. But by the 1920s, with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a new trend could be observed whereby religious Muslims would become much more circumspect and limited in what they were willing to adopt from the West, and as the twentieth century wore on Muslim thinkers like Mawlana Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb and the Ayatollah Khomeini increasingly saw everything apart from Western scientific advances (which as far back as the great 19th century reformer Jama al-Din Asad-Abadi (al-Afghani) was seen to be at the heart of Europe's power rather than some inherent cultural superiority) as a threat to Islam that must be combated at all costs.

As the Berlin Wall crumbled and neoliberal globalization quickly became accepted as the new self-evident teleology for world history, most Arab/Muslim scholars felt they were forced to choose between an "inhuman globalism" and a "human nationalism" that their societies had yet to achieve. Because of this, most Muslim activists had strong reservations about the neoliberal global paradigm; and in the writings on globalization thinkers like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukayama (who in many ways held diametrically opposed views as to how history would unfold from this point forward if at all) were singled out as the proponents of a world-view that was a direct threat to the Muslim world precisely because it defined the end of history as lying outside it and unavailable to Muslims except by adopting core elements of the dominant political, cultural and economic systems of the "West."

Indeed, the rise of militant/extremist Islamic "fundamentalism" in the late 1960s has been directly tied—temporally and causally—to the slow transition out of the era of post-war high modernity and to the era of neoliberal globalization. So it's not surprising that groups like al-Qa'eda define themselves as anti-modern even as their methods of operation and in many ways their goals are fully modern, if modern of a very particular, Jacobin (post-French Revolution), type.

But if the majority of Muslim scholars have been loathe to accept Fukayama's notion of an end to history that signaled the achievement of liberal market democracy as the final standard for human historical and societal progress, something has happened in the last few years—something certainly tied to the post-9/11 world environment, although not only in response to it—that has led many scholars to adopt a position similar to those of their counterparts a century ago and therefore both to judge their societies by Fukayama's yardstick and begin debating how the Muslim world could achieve the democracy and development that has long eluded it.

This trend became most noticeable with the release of the first Arab Human Development Report, which I have critiqued at length precisely for adopting Fukayama's teleology and the view (most recently celebrated by Bernard Lewis, among others) that the reasons for the Arab/Muslim world's problems are almost exclusively internal. But now, with the spread of democratic processes to places such as Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Lebanon (or so the story goes) and seeming retreat of the "axis of tyranny" in the face of American-sponsored democracy and market economies (or so the story goes), we can observe some Arab commentators daring to question whether we have arrived at the "end of Arab history."

In future posts I'll explore this idea in more detail; here let me just summarize one recent article in the Arab press that symbolizes the emerging discourse. The article, titled "The end of Arab History" (Nihayat ta'rikh 'arabi)—and notice the lack of a question mark at the end—was written by al-Hayat commentator Abdel-Rahman al-Rahseed in March of this year. Taking its cue from the evolving situation in Lebanon sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, al-Rasheed argues that what is occurring in Lebanon signifies a process whose impact extends far beyond Lebanon's borders, and in fact heralds the "end of the era of Arab fascism in every place." While we can't generalize, he warns us, the evidence is quickly mounting that the Arab world has entered a new era with the end of Saddam Hussein's rule, as expressed primarily in political reforms and elections across the region.

For al-Rasheed, picking up on recent remarks by Lebanese Druse politician/warlord/emerging philosopher of history Walid Jumblat, while Eastern Europe has been hurrying to arrive at the destination of a fully neoliberalized global society and even countries like China have been moving "slowly but surely" towards the same goal (never mind whether this characterization of China's versus Eastern Europe's development is accurate), the Arab world has been stuck in time. One of the main reasons for this has been the "nationalist excesses"—which he compares to those of the Serbs, until recently perhaps the most "stuck in time" culture in Europe—that have plagued the countries of the region and have led to a "narrow-minded and closed Arab thinking" that is only now ending."

What is important for al-Rasheed is that the "historical illusions" of the region cannot exonerate the "crimes of the present in the name of Arabism or Islam or defending [our] rights." And so base nationalism can no longer suffice as a ruling ideology; nor can Arabism allow Syria to remain in Lebanon. What al-Rasheed doesn't say however, is where the weakening of such ideologies is supposed to lead: If for him, like George Bush or Thomas Friedman, Arab history is over and all Arab countries will naturally, if at varying speeds and with varying levels of difficulty, follow the peoples of China, Poland or Romania toward the promised land of neoliberal democracy, for Osama bin Laden and millions of like-minded people, the final chapter of Arab/Muslim history is just beginning, and their pre-ordained end is radically different than al-Rasheed, Bush or Friedman's.

On the other hand, for many younger Muslims, not tied to any particular ideology and just at the beginning of a long process of defining themselves and their futures, perhaps a more accurate representation of the situation would be to say that history itself (rather than its last chapter) is just beginning anew after being held in check for generations by foreign control and local authoritarianism and corruption, and that their political, cultural and economic horizons are still wide open. Indeed, this is the basis of the the slogan of the global peace and justice movement: that "another world is possible," one in which each society is free to chart its own course to a future or futures that best suits its needs and historical traditions. For the young protesters in Beirut, like the counterparts this week in Baghdad and across the region, the more open they are to the surprises that history inevitably will throw at them, the better the chance they'll be able to arrive at their still-to-be-decided destination without falling prey to the nationalist and religious excesses that frustrated their elders' attempts to achieve modernity, development and democracy.

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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

So how's the research on the ISM going?

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

see April 1 discussion

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005


While it might seem irrelevant to this discussion, it was part of an argument that LeVine has been avoiding for a month. You see, LeVine said, when confronted with his many distortions, that he'd be "looking into them" and then never did. I apologize for posting it here.
If, by the way, you can think of an organization that would pay me to do this, let me know!

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005


And what great works of yours have we been treated to? Far from "trolling" I've been trying to get Mark LeVine to stop lying about Israel on these boards for several months. You may disagree with that (lies about Israel might please you, in fact) but it's no less worthwhile than the ass-kissing you specialize in.

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Jerusalem----April 5......The Israel Beit She'an Magistrate's Court has dismissed a lawsuit for libel brought by a foreign International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist against an Israel journalist. The American plaintiff alleged that Jerusalem reporter, Judy Lash Balint had defamed her in an article posted on an Israel Internet website which maintained that members of the ISM were in close contact with the Palestinian terrorist organizations.

The Israel Prime Minister's Office declared in June 2003 that the International Solidarity Movement had been directly related to acts of terrorism. In describing the activities of the terrorists who took part in the Tel Aviv suicide bombing of the popular nightclub "Mike's Place", the Israel Security Agency stated: "the two terrorists were careful to base their presence in Judea and Samaria by forging links with members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM)."

The report continued: "ISM members take an active part in illegal and violent actions against IDF soldiers. At times, their activity in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is under the auspices of Palestinian terrorist organizations." "Foreign left wing activists, especially ISM members, who seek entry into Israel, often do so under false pretenses, via cover stories i.e. - entry for matrimonial, tourist, religious, etc. purposes which they coordinate prior to arriving in Israel," the Israel Security Agency reported.

Foreign volunteers in the International Solidarity Movement said in May of 2003 that they had tea with two Britons later involved in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing, but said they had no idea at the time of the assailants' intentions. One of the Britons, Asif Hanif, 21, blew himself up in a Tel Aviv bar in April, killing a waitress and two musicians. The second man, Omar Khan Sharif, 27, fled when his bomb failed to detonate and remains at large. Both were British citizens. Israel's defense minister said that in the wake of the bombing, Israel would have to tighten checks on foreigners visiting Palestinian territory. In recent weeks, Israeli officials have said they intend to be even stricter about letting these activists into the country. The ISM openly declares on it's web site that it recognizes the Palestinian right to resist Israel via 'legitimate armed struggle.'

In June 2003, the IDF arrested a foreign "activist" during its search for arms smuggling tunnels in the Gazan town of Rafah. Army sources said the woman was inside a house that was slated for demolition. The woman was later released and allowed to remain in the country, though she was barred from returning to Gaza. The IDF had also discovered and arrested a member of the International Solidarity Movement who was hiding an Islamic Jihad terrorist (wanted for planning and executing several terror bomb attacks against Israeli civilians) in Jenin.

The plaintiff claimed that Balint had implied in the piece that her presence in the territories assisted the terrorist groups in perpetrating attacks. Balint was defended in the case by Shurat HaDin Director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner. Balint expressed her satisfaction with the dismissal of the action viewing it as a confirmation of the accuracy of her reporting: "The judge's decision to throw the libel case against me out of court underscores my assertion about the true nature of the International Solidarity Movement. Hopefully this decision will prevent further frivolous legal action against reporters who try to tell the truth about extremist groups."

The case filed in December 2003, was initially delayed when the attorney for the plaintiff, Shamai Leibowitz, represented to the Court that he had served Balint with a complaint and not received an answer. At the time, however, the Israeli court system was on strike and the time periods for answering court papers had been suspended in place. Nonetheless, the Court mistakenly granted the plaintiff a default judgment. However, after the error was brought to the Court's attention it swiftly vacated the default. The defense then requested that the Court instruct the foreign plaintiff to post a bond to ensure court costs in the event that the case was to be dismissed, as is required by Israeli law. However, attorney Leibowitz boldly stated to the Court that under an "existing treaty" U.S. citizens were not required to post bonds in Israeli courts. The defense, however, researched the matter and discovered, in fact, that the U.S. was not a party to any such treaty.

After being presented with this finding, the Court ordered the plaintiff to post the bond in thirty days. When this period of time passed and the plaintiff still had failed to post the money, the defense moved to have the nuisance suit dismissed. In December 2004, Attorney Leibowitz inaccurately wrote to the Court that the two sides were negotiating a settlement, while in fact no such compromise would be entertained by Balint who insisted that she wanted to take the case to trial and publicly establish the accuracy of her article. Based upon Leibowitz' misrepresentation, however, the Court granted a further extension in time. In January, Attorney Darshan-Leitner wrote to the Court informing it that the defense would not accept a compromise in any event and asked that the suit be dismissed for the plaintiff's failure to post the required bond.

Finally last week, the Israel court dismissed the baseless lawsuit. Leibowitz is the grandson of the late controversial Israeli philosopher, Rabbi Yeshaiyahu Liebowitz. Since the outbreak of the current round of Palestinian violence in September 2000, Israeli troops have conducted thousands of counter-terrorism operations in the towns and villages of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, in the heart of hostile and dangerous Palestinian population centers.

The Israel Defense Forces' ability to operate effectively in these areas against the Palestinian terrorists has been systematically and intentionally obstructed by groups of foreign volunteers, who are used by the Palestinian Authority as "human shields". The most dangerous of these groups is the Palestinian-financed ISM The ISM recruits anti-Israel radicals, primarily from Europe and American college campuses, and sends them to Judea, Samaria and Gaza to disrupt Israeli military operations. The presence of these foreign civilians in the midst of the Palestinian population obstructs the IDF's ability to fight Palestinian terrorists. By interfering with Israeli counter-terrorism operations, the ISM directly endangers the lives of Israeli civilians. In April 2003, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that: "ISM members take an active part in illegal and violent actions against IDF soldiers. At times, their activity in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is under the auspices of Palestinian terrorist organizations."

In the past, ISM members have been arrested vandalizing and destroying Israeli security fences and equipment. In March 2003, fugitive Islamic Jihad terrorist, Shadi Sukiya, was arrested in a house in Jenin rented by the ISM Shurat HaDin is also representing the family of an Israeli soldier currently on trial for the alleged shooting of ISM militant, Tom Hurndall, in April 2003. The Israel Law Center has called upon the Knesset to outlaw the extremist ISM.

"We are at a time of war and they are going into enemy territory," said Tova Ellinson a spokesperson for the Israeli Interior Ministry, noting that this policy has been in effect for over a year and that dozens of people have been deported "for breaking the law." Danny Seaman, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office stated: "members of the ISM have been knowingly aiding and abetting terrorists and disrupting the activity of the IDF meant to prevent the murder of Israeli civilians." "Far from aiding peace, their behavior is encouraging the terrorist element in Palestinian society, " Seaman said. "Some of them are misguided and being cynically used by the Palestinians and many of them know exactly who they are supporting and what they're doing, and no country facing the terrorist threat of the proportions such as Israel can tolerate this kind of behavior," Seaman concluded. According to a senior security government source, the International Solidarity Movement receives funds from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

P. E. Bird - 4/15/2005

Sandor - do you get paid to trolls boards you disagree with and cut and paste irrelevant news items?

P. E. Bird - 4/15/2005

Mark - it's unnecessary, 1) we've all "read" Sandor's troll comments in the past, 2) the more you acknowledge trolls the more they return. Leave him be and he'll either go away or become completely irrelevant as well as ridiculous.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 4/12/2005

thanks for your comment. i agree that all states have to adopt "some aspects of market capitalism" but that's a very different thing than adopting wholesale the main policy presecription of the washington consensus. but in the end, the fact is--although most people don't know this fact--that the main indicators of economic globalization have largely bypassed the middle east other than the small gulf principalities. indeed, the region has largely been marginalized from the kinds of global integration of markets, financial systems, production regimes and large-scale advances in/widespread adoption of the newest communications technologies that define contemporary economic globalization.

as to the radical islamists' economic program, well, it depends on how you define radical. most islamists have not developed any kind of alternative economic system beyond the mainstream islamic banking and finance systems that depending on the particular system may or may not be capitalism as usual with an islamic veneer. some radicals like sayyid qutb and others specifically took on both capitalism and socialism, but never put forth a coherent alternative. to the extent that such discussions are happening it seems that people are following the lead of the alternative/critical economists in the west in trying to figure out what kind of alternative to neoliberal globalization exists economically.

but the more interesting case is in fact cultural globalization, as in the absence of significant economic globalization it is culture rather than economics that defines the experience of globalization in the muslim world.

mark safranski - 4/12/2005

Mark LeVine wrote:

"As the Berlin Wall crumbled and neoliberal globalization quickly became accepted as the new self-evident teleology for world history, most Arab/Muslim scholars felt they were forced to choose between an "inhuman globalism" and a "human nationalism" that their societies had yet to achieve. Because of this, most Muslim activists had strong reservations about the neoliberal global paradigm; and in the writings on globalization thinkers like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukayama (who in many ways held diametrically opposed views as to how history would unfold from this point forward if at all) were singled out as the proponents of a world-view that was a direct threat to the Muslim world precisely because it defined the end of history as lying outside it and unavailable to Muslims except by adopting core elements of the dominant political, cultural and economic systems of the "West."

Well, unless the growing, young, Muslim demographic is going to accept a decline to subsaharan African per capita GDP in their lifetimes, the states of the Arab-Islamic world are going to have to adopt some aspects of market capitalism in order to have sufficient economic dynamism to meet the basic needs of their people. Socialism, incidentally, is just as much a " Western" import in this context as globalized free market capitalism.

As a form of political economy, the radical Islamists are offering little other than economic decline and, on the margins, starvation.

Jennifer S. Johnson - 4/12/2005

I like your wit. You have a sharp writing style that is direct and to the point every time. I've enjoyed reading your articles. And I agree with much of what your write about. I look forward to reading more and hope I have something a bit more useful to say next time but it is almost 6 a.m. here and I have yet to sleep. Until then, good morning.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 4/11/2005

As readers of comments on earlier posts already know, I no longer answer--or even read--questions/comments posted by Mr. Lopescu because of his use of his use of derrogatory language and unwillingness to stay within the bounds of civil discourse. i will be posting this message periodically so new readers understand why I am not responding to him.