Courtesy Reuters

The Arab Inheritance

It is time that Saturns ceased dining off their children; time, too, that children stopped devouring their parents . . .

by Alexander Herzen

It was a generation ago, in the mid-1980s, that a whole world slipped through the fingers of the Arab elite, formed on the secular ideals of nationalism and modernity. A city that had been their collective cultural home-Beirut-was lost to them. A political culture of nationalism that had nurtured them had led to a blind alley, and been turned into a cover for despotism, a plaything of dictators. A theocratic temptation blew into the political world like a ferocious wind, and the secular Arabs were left thrashing about. Nothing today, no ship of sorrow can take these men and women of the secular tradition back to the verities of their world. A political inheritance has been lost.

Modern Arabs came into that secular inheritance with relative ease. It came to them the way dominant ideas are transmitted and received when they are ascendant. The labor that had gone into that grand edifice reached back into the late years of the nineteenth century. In the academies and the barracks, in al mahjar, the lands of emigration in Europe and the New World, and in Cairo, a national movement had taken shape, a product of the cities and of the intellectual class. And though anti-Western in its rhetoric, it was given force and expression by thinkers who had been formed by the ideals of the West. When George Antonius gave this national movement its manifesto, The Arab Awakening, in 1938, he was true to all that: he was a son of Mount Lebanon, a Greek Orthodox from a trading family, raised there and in the polyglot world of Alexandria, and educated at Cambridge. He had behind him years of service in the British colonial administration. He had written his famous tract thanks to the financial patronage of Charles R. Crane, a Chicago industrialist and philanthropist, a dilettante and crank who always seemed

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