All Writings
April 3, 2005

Prisoners of The Past–Part II

Intellectuals have traditionally forged ahead as a force of social and political change, rejecting the oversimplifications, empty slogans, and sweeping generalizations that are the domain of the propagandist. Intellectuals act as the surveyors of past and present generations, and through clear thinking, they preserve unbiased judgments while shining light on current public affairs. That is not what is happening with the majority of Arab intellectuals today, who, in my view, have forfeited that obligation to their public by allowing themselves (by choice) to become propagandists for their governments.

Surely not all Arab intellectuals fall into this category, but unfortunately enough do. In the first part of this article, I discussed those Arab intellectuals who opted to resettle mainly in Western nations, where they joined the ranks of intellectuals in academia and thinktanks. Many in this group have become radically vociferous in their attacks against Israel and the United States. The second group (the subject of this article) are those intellectuals who, co-opted by their respective governments, have become these regimes' mouthpieces and chief propagandists.

Over the years, and especially since 9/11, I have had the opportunity to discuss Middle Eastern affairs with scores of Arab and Muslim scholars both in person and through the electronic media. Unfortunately, I found that, regardless of the passage of time, these academics and scholars remain entrenched in their old positions as if nothing has changed. In fact, of all the better organized professional groups in countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and certainly Saudi Arabia as well as the other Gulf states, intellectuals remain adamantly opposed to any opening toward Israel and continue to propagate Israel's illegitimacy. Furthermore, they see no point in negotiating or dealing with the Israelis on any level unless Israel meets certain conditions, knowing full well, that if it accedes to them, Israel will no longer exist, certainly not as a Jewish state.

A few days ago I had an extensive discussion with two eminent scholars, Abd el-Halim Mohammed, Assistant Director of the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, and Hisam Sweylim, a strategic analyst at Cairo University which offered an insight into this type of thinking. Both insisted that Israel should not have been invited by Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidin to the Second World Summit on the Information Society in November. From their perspective, Israel had to evacuate all territories, including Jerusalem, and allow Palestinians refugees to return to the homes they had prior to 1948 before it could be formally invited to such events. I tried to explain that unilateral concessions such as these will not be possible for Israel to make, especially in the wake of the second Intifadah and because mutual confidence must be rebuilt first. I also asked, "When will you ever understand that repatriation of Palestinian refugees is simply a nonstarter for Israel?" For Mr. Abd el-Halim Mohammed, this question offered the opening he was waiting for, and he eagerly jumped in, contending, "This shows that Israel is an apartheid state; otherwise, if Israel were a true democracy, it should grant the rights of return not only to the Jews but to the Palestinian as well." In making this statement, Mr. Mohammed was ignoring the fact that repatriation of Palestinian refugees would simply obliterate the Jewish identity of the state almost overnight which is the reason why Israel was created in the first place to provide a home, a refuge for the Jews. But Palestinian intellectuals like Mr. Mohammed, and political leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, continue to advocate the impossible. They know that raising false hope among Palestinians making future concession on this issue, which will be necessary, extremely difficult. In another conversation I had on the same subject with Taha el-Mutawakel a Palestinian poet from Ramallah, the same mindset was evident: He dismissed prime minister Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, arguing that "Sharon's plan is simply designed to mislead the Palestinians and Israel has no intention of ever leaving the West Bank, let alone allowing the Palestinians refugees to return to their homes." The irony here is that even when there are genuine efforts on the part of Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territory, which the Palestinians have been demanding, these are projected as a part of some unsavory scheme, and as having nothing to do with any Israeli recognition of Palestinian rights.

In another example, both Abd el-Halim Mohammed and Hisam Sweylim were extremely critical of the United States for its insistence that Syria comply with UN resolution 1559 and withdraw its forces from Lebanon, when Washington is not making the same demands on Israel to withdraw its troops from Arab-occupied lands. I tried to explain that even though the United States has been generally supportive of Israel, there is a stark difference between the two resolutions: Resolution 1559 simply "calls upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon," and "for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" without any qualifications or preconditions. In contrast, UN resolutions 242 and 338 call for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" (1967), but with such withdrawal is conditional on "termination of all claims of state of belligerency, and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the areas as their right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders free from the threat or act of force." To equate the two resolutions, especially in the context of the indiscriminate violence of the second Intifadah and the existence of extremist Islamist groups such as Hamas, who are sworn to liquidate Israel, is both dishonest and misleading. But for the average Arab in the street, America's lack of evenhandedness remains in play while the so-called Zionist-American conspiracy to dominate the Arab world is the "ultimate design" of both nations. And of course the people cite the Iraq war and the Palestinian struggle as a clear evidence of this conspiracy at work.

On a recent trip to Jordan, a group of academics from New York University and the World Policy Institute, we met in Amman with a number of politicians and academics for a roundtable discussion about the Arab-Israeli peace process. During the meeting I asked Mr. Marwan Dubin, a former minister of Information, Agriculture and Labor in various Jordanian governments, why Jordan's diplomatic and trade relations with Israel are conducted in a hush-hush manner, as if the government is trying to keep the Jordanian public in the dark. "The reason" Mr. Dubin explained, "is that the Jordanian public is against open-ended, and for that matter, visible relations with Israel, and we have to pay attention to public opinion." And how is this public opinion formed, I asked, doesn't the Jordanian government largely control and filter what the media does or does not report, especially on matters related to Israel? And who engages in public discourse and writes opinion pieces and commentaries, if not your intellectuals? You shape public opinion through your handpicked mouthpieces and then you use public opinion as an excuse for resisting full normalization of relations with Israel, even though the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty is ten years old!

When the meeting was finally adjourned, a young Jordanian professor approached me and said, "You're so right, I wish I could say something during the discussion, but you can understand, I just couldn't because I need my job." Of course I understood, but I was also saddened to see a young professor shackled by his elders, the keepers of the past, instead of being encouraged by them to shine a light on current public affairs for the good of the public.