Adonis Diaries

The Barbarians Within Our Gates? Has Arab civilization collapsed?

Posted on: January 5, 2017

The Barbarians Within Our Gates

Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime.

By HISHAM MELHEM. History Dept.

September 18, 2014

With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama is doing more than to knowingly enter a quagmire. He is doing more than play with the fates of two half-broken countries—Iraq and Syria—whose societies were gutted long before the Americans appeared on the horizon.

Obama is stepping once again—and with understandably great reluctance—into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down. (Obama finally backed down for a full-fledge intervention, but continued to supply the terrorist factions)

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. (Chomsky believe that the “Arab” States, after the “Arab Spring” upheaval, are going through the phases of Latin America toward stable institutions)

With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries? (This mess is being cleansed with stable and rejuvenated armies and institutions in Iraq and Syria)

No one paradigm or one theory can explain what went wrong in the Arab world in the last century.

There is no obvious set of reasons for the colossal failures of all the ideologies and political movements that swept the Arab region: Arab nationalism, in its Baathist and Nasserite forms; various Islamist movements; Arab socialism; the rentier state and rapacious monopolies, leaving in their wake a string of broken societies.

No one theory can explain the marginalization of Egypt, once the center of political and cultural gravity in the Arab East, and its brief and tumultuous experimentation with peaceful political change before it reverted back to military rule. (Sadat was the wrong person at a critical period after Abdel Nasser)

Nor is the notion of “ancient sectarian hatreds” adequate to explain the frightening reality that along a front stretching from Basra at the mouth of the Persian Gulf to Beirut on the Mediterranean there exists an almost continuous bloodletting between Sunni and Shia—the public manifestation of an epic geopolitical battle for power and control pitting Iran, the Shia powerhouse, against Saudi Arabia, the Sunni powerhouse, and their proxies.

(Note that it was the Shah of Iran, puppet of USA, who was afraid of Islam Shia rise to power, who instigated the ancient fear of Persia hegemony)

There is no one single overarching explanation for that tapestry of horrors in Syria and Iraq, where in the last five years more than a quarter of a million people perished, where famed cities like Aleppo, Homs and Mosul were visited by the modern terror of Assad’s regime and the brutal violence of the Islamic State. (Bashar Assad is but the symbol of unity and the regime is no longer the one at the onset of the civil war)

How could Syria tear itself apart and become—like Spain in the 1930s—the arena for Arabs and Muslims to re-fight their old civil wars?

The war waged by the Syrian regime against civilians in opposition areas combined the use of Scud missiles, anti-personnel barrel bombs as well as medieval tactics against towns and neighborhoods such as siege and starvation.

For the first time since the First World War, Syrians were dying of malnutrition and hunger. (Syria was the only State with no foreign sovereign debt and developing at great pace, a pace that worried Erdogan for viewing Aleppo as the main competitor to Turkish industries)

Iraq’s story in the last few decades is a chronicle of a death foretold.

The slow death began with Saddam Hussein’s fateful decision to invade Iran in September 1980. (At the request and vehement insistence of USA, France and Saudi Arabia).

Iraqis have been living in purgatory ever since with each war giving birth to another. In the midst of this suspended chaos, the U.S. invasion in 2003 was merely a catalyst that allowed the violent chaos to resume in full force.

The polarizations in Syria and Iraq—political, sectarian and ethnic—are so deep that it is difficult to see how these once-important countries could be restored as unitary states. (This war is merging the two States into a strategic alliances against terror)

In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 42-year reign of terror rendered the country politically desolate and fractured its already tenuous unity. The armed factions that inherited the exhausted country have set it on the course of breaking up—again, unsurprisingly—along tribal and regional fissures.

Yemen has all the ingredients of a failed state: political, sectarian, tribal, north-south divisions, against the background of economic deterioration and a depleted water table that could turn it into the first country in the world to run out of drinking water. (And yet defied Saudi Kingdom and its allies for over a year and a half and winning the war)

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based satellite channel. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Follow him on Twitter @hisham_melhem

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January 2017

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