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 in search of exotic causes in distant lands. It was for an Anglo-American audience that Antonius had written his book. He had told that defective tale of Western betrayal that lies at the heart of Arab nationalist historiography-the partition of the Arab world in the diplomatic settlement that followed the First World War-but he had written it as an appeal to the judgment of the West. It could not have occurred to him that a way-or a world-could be found beyond that of the West. It was in the schools of the Anglo-American missions, and in the flagship of those missions, the Syrian Protestant College (later renamed the American University of Beirut) that Arab nationalism had its start.

The dream of that national "awakening" had been a dream of social emancipation as well. Ten years prior to the appearance of Antonius' book, a Muslim woman of Beirut, Nazira Zayn al-Din, a child of the upper bourgeoisie, had written a daring book of her own, al Sufur wa al Hijab, Unveiling and the Veil. In her book she had staked out the right of Muslim women to shed their veils yet remain within the faith. Nazira had not given an inch to the religious obscurantists. There were four veils in the land, she had written: a veil of cloth, of ignorance, of hypocrisy, and of stagnation. She wanted no favors; she wanted for her land, and for the women in her land, the freedom of "civilized nations." There was nothing shameful to her and her generation about this quest for modernity. They wanted to find their way out of poverty and out of "the past." Not far from her was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's project of remaking a Muslim society, and Nazira Zayn al-Din wanted for the Arabs the political and cultural renewal the Turkish leader had introduced in his land.


For a young Arab, it was heady in the 1950s and 1960s to come into this tradition that the early modernists had worked out. To be awakened to politics by the Suez War of 1956 was to be given a dream of social and political renewal, to partake of a new psychological order of things. But this was not destined to last. The beginning of the end came with the Six Day War in June of 1967. That defeat wrecked the hopes of one generation, and branded a younger one raised in its shadow. The universal truth of Arab nationalism-that large idea of a common political inheritance and a common destiny, that belief that the national boundaries of the Arab world were contrived-had cracked. That truth had only itself to blame. It had been willful, it looked past historical facts and realities it did not like and could not cope with. It papered over the antagonism between Muslim and Christian Arabs, it looked away from the "compact communities" in the Fertile Crescent and the Gulf-the Alawis, the Druze, the Shia. A project of the cities, it had been silent about the hinterland and its people. Having relied on the power of Egypt in the preceding decade, it was devastated by Egypt's retreat into its own world.

There was a partial recovery in October of 1973-the windfall of oil wealth, the decent military outcome of the war with Israel. The pull of money seemed as if it might deradicalize the political tradition. But by the end of that decade, a pied piper had risen in the East. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rallied the excluded in Arab politics and exposed the terrible secret that lay at the heart of Islam in the Fertile Crescent and the Gulf-the fault-line between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Beyond the Shia who saw the "armed Imam" as their avenger, Khomeini made theocratic politics glamorous for all Arabs. By the time Khomeini made his appearance, the secular nationalist movement in the Arab world had long cast aside its liberal beginnings and been overtaken by the autocrats. Arabs were delivered into a world that the likes of Antonius had not foreseen: the political culture of charismatic command that prevailed in Egypt and the unbridled military autocracies of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Two French-educated pundits and intellectuals had conceived of the Baath party. They could not have imagined the regimes in Syria and Iraq that their movement had hatched.

A brigand's gift was offered to the Arabs in August of 1990 when Saddam Hussein swept into Kuwait with, amidst the pillage and terror, a dream of historical revisionism. His soldiers' drive to the gold souk of Kuwait was an offering to all those Arabs thwarted by an era of wealth that had taunted and then denied them. A hound with an instinct for his own small world, the Iraqi had been a faithful son of the clan. He had held up a mirror to that Arab era. A decade earlier he had treated Arabs to an anti-Persian, anti-Shia campaign. He had been the "sword of the Arabs." No limits had been drawn for him. Now he struck again; it was the "springtime of nations," that annus mirabilis in Eastern Europe, and the Iraqi despot intuited the Arab despair and confusion in that time of change. But Saddam was defeated and despair persisted.

We cannot forget another player in the sands of the Middle East, the successor to the British Empire. The doors were flung wide open in Arab lands: from one side entered Pax Americana, from the other political Islam. The foreigner had called up the ancestors, as it were, and the writ of the ancestors was sharpened like a sword by men and women who insisted that they could cut the tradition to their own needs. This was the break with the nationalism of the preceding era. The hero who had dominated Arab politics, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the man at the helm of the Egyptian state from 1954 to 1970, had fought both at once political Islam and American primacy. He had all but decimated the Muslim Brotherhood in his own country, showing it no mercy. The West and the past had both been kept at bay, but that battle was now lost, and the secular project had come apart. The secular nationalists were on the run. Arabs had traveled far only to arrive at desolation.

Arabs had known troubles aplenty, but there had been political and cultural-and moral-limits, notions of what was halal (permissible) and haram (impermissible). Now these limits were transgressed with abandon. In Syria and Iraq, in the city of Hama and in the hill country of Kurdistan, Arabs saw levels of violence they had not known in earlier times. In Beirut, a city of the Arab liberal age, once a showcase of Arab enlightenment, they saw communal carnage and religious vendettas that had been covered up by a veneer of modernity and worldliness. The great Arab inheritance had wound its way to two destinations: autocracy and political Islam. Cynicism and nihilism overtook the political world. Arabs took to the road, to Europe and the United States. The castaways who had made Beirut their home were forced into a second migration. An émigré journalism put down roots in Paris and London. In exile, that journalism grew shrill and embittered, as though to compensate for the distance from home. A century ago, in the long twilight of Ottoman despotism, an Arab political and literary tradition had also thrived in exile. A circle was closed.


"They are sons without fathers," the Lebanese Waddah Chrara has written of the theocratic brigades that had risen in Beirut-a Mediterranean parody of the events in Iran. The sociologist could have cut a wider swath with that description, taking in the boys of the intifada in Gaza and the West Bank; the activists of Hamas, and, on the other side of the Arab world, in North Africa, the armed Islamists of Algeria who had launched a deadly war of their own, a second battle of Algiers, against their rulers. The Islamists have described it as a battle between Hezbollah, the Party of God, and Hizb Franca, the Party of France, the pious against the wicked. The sociologist's observation was true as well for that smaller war in Egypt between the inheritors of the Nasserist legacy and the Islamists, who broke with the "godless" revolution of the Free Officers and let loose their uncompromising notions of theocratic politics.

The boys of the intifada and the suicide drivers in Beirut were embraced by their weary elders. A thwarted generation of secular nationalists now offered the cruel, angry young the homage of a generation that conceded its own defeat. "The children of the stones have scattered our papers, spilled ink on our clothes, mocked the banality of our old texts," wrote the Syrian-born Nizar Qabbani, the Arab world's most widely read poet. "What matters about the children of the stones is that they have rebelled against the authority of the fathers, that they have fled the house of obedience, disobeyed our commands and our wishes . . . Oh children of Gaza, don't refer to our writings. We are your parents, don't be like us; we are your idols, don't worship us." Qabbani was giving voice to the abdication of the secularists. The thwarted generation was writing its own political obituary, ceding the political domain to the wrath of the new theocrats.

There is a portrait that bears an uncanny resemblance to the generational war that beset the Arab world in the 1980s: Ivan Turgenev's arresting novel, Fathers and Sons, published in 1862. In that work, Turgenev sketched the struggle in mid-nineteenth-century Russia between a feeble liberalism and a merciless Jacobin revolt. In Bazarov, the novel's central character, Turgenev left a universal portrait of the confident young-cruel, fanatical, and unbent. Bazarov scorned the accomplishments that a westernizing elite had secured in Russia against the background of autocracy and a peasant culture steeped in custom and superstition: "Aristocratism, liberalism, progress, principles-think of it, what a lot of foreign and useless words! To a Russian they are not worth a straw," Bazarov rails to Nikolai Petrovich, a middle-aged provincial notable of a "liberal" outlook. The ground had to be cleared, Bazarov believed, for there was nothing in public life "which does not call for absolute and ruthless repudiation." Turgenev had no illusions about Bazarov: "I conceived him," he wrote, "as a somber figure doomed to destruction because he still stands only in the gateway of the future."

The Arab Bazarovs could not win: they, too, were only in the gateway of the future. In time the intifada would drown in its own blood and degenerate into a Night of the Long Knives, a hunt for demons and collaborators, and the millennium in Beirut would end in stalemate and in the triumph of the cold-blooded soldier next door, the Syrian ruler, who stepped in and inherited the ruins. The young bearers of this new politics of cruelty and wrath had bloodied the status quo; they had trampled over precious things and fed off the self-doubts of the generation that preceded them. But they could not prevail in the test of arms against the regimes in power.


We have exaggerated the strength of the brigades of political Islam. All they could do was mount a rear-guard action against an encircling civilization they could neither master nor reject. Much to their own pain, no doubt, they had that dominant civilization of the West under their skin. It was from France that the Algerian Islamists wanted to wage their campaign against the regime of the military and the ruling party; it was from Jersey City and Manhattan that the blind preacher Omar Abdel Rahman and his band of young followers wanted to unseat the regime of Hosni Mubarak. And it was from London, by fax, from bilad al Kufr (the land of unbelief) that Muhammad al-Mas'ari, a German-trained Saudi dissident with an American wife, plotted against the House of Saud. That dissident vowed to extirpate the power and presence of the "infidel" from the sands of Arabia. But the rebel was fooling himself: the self-sufficiency of that desert world now belongs to an irretrievable past.

We have looked to the heavens, and we have looked in the scripture, for explanations for the appeal of political Islam. We have spent a generation speaking of "Islamic fundamentalism," of that theocratic force that has come into Arab life. But the truth lies in material circumstances. Theocratic politics blew in when economic growth faltered. As an authoritative World Bank report, Claiming the Future, documents, 1960-85 was a "golden age" of economic growth and income equality in Arab lands. Infant mortality halved, life expectancy rose by ten years, primary school enrollment increased dramatically from 61 percent in 1965 to 98 percent in 1985, and adult literacy rose. The levels of poverty were far lower in Arab countries than in East Asia and Latin America. Oil prices quadrupled in that great event in October 1973-perhaps the single largest transfer of world wealth in modern history. The place was living beyond its means and its skills. Urbanization was in full swing: the share of agricultural labor had declined from 50 percent to 30 percent in the span of three decades. But the urban population's hold on the new prosperity was tenuous. When a deep recession hit in the mid-1980s, due to the fall of oil prices, a politics of panic and resentment overtook the newly urbanized and newly prosperous. The population had been growing at 2.7 percent a year (the highest of any developing region), the working age population at 3.3 percent. In the cities and in the no man's land trapped by the recession, the newly urbanized were strangers living on their nerves. Their children were available to the politics of millenarianism and turmoil.


In the privacy of their own language, when "Orientalists" and other "enemies" are not listening in, in their searing fiction and poetry Arabs today circle their own tradition. Round and round they go in their attempt to divine the causes of their malady. They are not blind to what has befallen them. They may take the consoling testimonies of their "foreign friends," who tell them of the "moderation" that lies deep inside these Islamic movements, but they know better. They know of the men and women of letters and culture who have quit Arab lands and taken their work and their memories to distant shores. Over the last decade, the poet Nizar Qabbani has left for London, the celebrated Syrian-Lebanese critic and writer Adonis for Paris, and the Egyptian philosopher Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid for the Netherlands. Arabs can see that broken chain of transmission between the modernism of the interwar years and the political and cultural thought of today. The plain truths that earlier generations had seen-the separation between religion and politics, the primacy of reason-were lost in the decade now behind us. In allegory, the men and women of the secular tradition have struck back of late, traveled into the turath (heritage) itself in search of their own ancestors-philosophers and thinkers who upheld the rule of reason and honored the place of dissent in public and intellectual life. Once proud of their place in the world of nations, Arabs are well aware of the sea of autocracies surrounding them. It was not for political orders like those that prevail in the national security states-Iraq, Libya, Syria-that the early generation of nationalists had toiled. A modern political tradition that begot the rulers of these states, that begot the terror of Algeria, is clearly a tradition gone awry.


For the fourth time in 30 years, Arabs face a moment of truth, a turning point, forced on them this time by the global marketplace. In many ways, this fourth crisis is the most difficult. The first moment of truth was the outcome of the Six Day War of 1967, and it was handled with skill. The "Arab Cold War" between the republics and the monarchies was liquidated, a new war was launched six years later, and a cunning ibn balad (son of the land), Anwar al-Sadat, proceeded to use the verdict of that war to extricate his country from the captivity of pan-Arab politics. Egypt came to terms with the world after 1973, and a measure of inter-Arab peace prevailed. The stridency of pan-Arabism and its challenge to the ruling regimes were moderated.

The second crisis was the Iranian Revolution and its war against the dominant order. The Arabs waited out that revolution, bought time for themselves, paid off the gendarme in Baghdad who stepped forth and offered his services as a man who would quarantine the theocratic upheaval. The strategy worked. The enthusiasm of that revolution blew over: a revolt that could not offer happiness to its own people could hardly export it to others. But the strategy had a price. The gendarme was emboldened.

The third challenge came with Saddam Hussein's bid for mastery of the Gulf in 1990. In retrospect, this crisis ended up as a war between a local despot and a foreign savior (Pax Americana). What truth came with this war, what lessons the Arab should have drawn from it-the shattering of the legend of Arabism-soon dissipated. The region worked its will on the foreign power's victory, and five or six years later, there emerged in Arab lands second thoughts about the foreigner's rescue and about the foreign power that had won that brilliant military campaign. There was new sympathy for Iraq, there was a sly suspicion of the foreign protector. "Each stranger made his own poor bed among them," T. E. Lawrence once wrote of the Arabs, and the great power standing sentry in the Gulf was to prove no exception to this rule. A power that had let a dictator off the hook but maintained an embargo on his people could not convince others of its wisdom. The solitude of that foreign power, and the doubts about its intentions, were laid bare in a crisis in the summer of 1996, when Saddam Hussein struck into Kurdistan, into the "safe haven" that American power had marked out for the Kurds after Desert Storm. This time, America was on its own. The earth had shifted: the two volleys of missiles that were fired against Iraqi air defense installations had to be launched from American ships in the Persian Gulf and B-52 bombers flying in from Guam. Those missiles were fired in the hope that America would hear no more from its nemesis in Baghdad. No one was fooled, no one believed that American power would be deployed to unseat the Iraqi leader. The people of those skeptical lands had a knack for knowing when strangers fire their guns as a cover for their retreat back to their own world.

This fourth crisis is made of different material. The very political economy that saw the Arab world through that quarter-century of growth (1960-85) will have to be cleared away. The bases of that political economy-the bias against agriculture, protected markets, the public sector, a top-down educational system-have eroded. This massive adjustment to a new world will have to be done in a merciless era of capital. The balance of skills and the terms of trade have turned against the lands of the Middle East and North Africa. The World Bank report sounded the alarm: the economies of the lands of the Middle East and North Africa have stagnated. Some 260 million people in that region, we are told, export fewer manufactured goods than Finland's five million people. The average laborer was earning no more in real terms in the mid-1990s than in 1970. A mere one percent of the private capital flowing into the developing world finds its way into these lands. And the crisis is endemic: since 1986, per capita income has fallen by two percent a year, the largest decline in any developing region. Not even the oil countries have been spared: the GDP per capita in these countries declined by four percent a year between 1980 and 1991. These Arab states of the Gulf have run down their foreign reserves, and their populations have doubled over the last two decades. Poverty had not come to the oil lands, but the ability of these states to maintain the entitlements of the past and absorb the surplus labor of their neighbors has come to an end.

This economic decline is a cruel twist of fate for a region with a deep mercantilist tradition. The cultural interpretation that attributes Russia's economic troubles to the absence of a capitalist tradition does not hold for the Arab lands. The fault lay not in scriptures and traditions but in public policies. The regime of state ownership, subsidies, and protectionism is in part to blame. The ruin caused by the wars and violence of the last two decades drove some $350 billion of private capital for deposits abroad, closing the circle of misfortune.

Last time that the age of capital intruded into Muslim domains their bureaucratic states had not been able to hold their own against the political power and cheaper manufactures of Europe. Foreign debt overwhelmed them; then came political subjugation. "What wealth we have we spend on injuring one another," a Druze emir of Mount Lebanon told a foreign visitor in the mid-nineteenth century, when the European economy was devastating the traditional crafts in Ottoman domains. That lethal tradition has yet to end. In the tradeoff between the interests and the passions, the latter -- sectarian, nationalist, ethnic -- have had the upper hand. Nations beget the history they deserve and want. Arab society has sought from its politics satisfactions more precious than social peace and economic welfare.

There is a danger worse than subjugation in this new era of capital: irrelevance, the danger that capital will have no interest in these lands, that their labor cannot be productive enough, that their products cannot be competitive enough. A sobering lesson is supplied by Algeria: while the dirty war rages in the north and in the cities between the "eradicationists" of the regime and the terrorists of the Armed Islamic Group, the work goes on in the oil and gas fields of the Sahara, and the oil production zone has been cordoned off by the army. Algerians need special passes to enter that zone. Whole countries could be written off and forgotten, their skills overtaken, in this new era of global capitalism. No incantations about authenticity will stop the slide into obsolescence.


The authoritarian state, the nihilistic opposition: the middle ground has been scorched in the two decades behind us. The ruler claiming everything, the oppositionist dispensing with all that has been built and secured by those who came before. On pain of poverty and decay, nations can persist with ruinous ways. An encrusted tradition has its own ways, a thicket of consolations and alibis shelter it from the world. Beyond economic repair (really a precondition of it), a modernist impulse will have to assert itself if rescue is to materialize. "We can't look for the future in the caves of the past, and we can't make the future with ready-hewn stones," an Egyptian thinker, Mahmoud Amin al-Alim, has written in a recent book on Arab thought between "authenticity" and "globalization." The romance with the Islamic past is illusion, a detour: that romance had filled the void when a national tradition faltered, when new classes, half-educated and bewildered, sought to simplify the world around them.

If the French scholar of Islam, Gilles Kepel, is right, a "post Islamist" phase is on the horizon. Kepel wrote this of Egypt, the most worldly of the Arab states, but his observation is true of other Arab countries as well, and this phase will not have come too soon. A generation after Iran's upheaval, after the Islamist insurgencies and counterinsurgencies in Arab lands, good riddance to all that. The interpretation that reduces politics to religious categories (not surprisingly an interpretation popular with the Islamists and Westerners who study political Islam) hides the society from itself and from outside scrutiny. A nemesis has overtaken this politico-religious alternative: routine, the ways of a stubborn tradition, the persistence of an Arab political order of officers and monarchs who survived and outwitted (and outgunned) their challengers. After the brigades of Hezbollah laid claim to Beirut, the old materialist city rose again from the ruins, and the enforcers of Hezbollah themselves have found their way into the order of commerce and protected turfs.

It could be tougher going for the rulers of the Middle East in a post-Islamist phase: on the whole, their present modus operandi -- counterinsurgency -- is easier than economic and political reform. A frightened middle class, desperate to hold on to its small cultural liberties against the Islamists' reign of virtue and terror, is willing to sanction and live with autocratic rule. Reform of the Arab political culture will begin when a system of limited authority encounters the oppositionist with limited, realizable goals -- half-steps of reform. The one Arab land that offers the best chance of a political reclamation of this sort is Egypt. It is there, in a society with genuine political experience, an innate temperament of moderation, and the security of centralized rule, that a politics of restraint and pragmatism could break the vicious circle of total rule and nihilistic opposition. Arabs would then have a model of their own of a more accommodating, more merciful political world. To be in Egypt, as I was last May when Iran voted in a presidential election, was to see an Egyptian yearning for a politics of normalcy and democratic rule. Egyptians are not fooled; they do not want for themselves the theocratic culture of Iran. But they are wistful about their own condition and there lies deep within them a reverence for the parliamentary politics they had known in the interwar years.


Failure can drape itself in ways both religious and secular. For a modernist Arab alternative to work and stick, the obsessive themes of the Arab political tradition -- a historiography that lays every blame at the doorstep of the West -- will have to be shed. It will not be easy, and the odds weigh against a modernist path. There is a widespread belief that the new global order and its civic religion of fiscal rectitude, privatization and competitiveness, and high tolerance for inequality is made in America's image and cut to its needs. In the workshops of the Pacific, this perception has no resonance. There is a self-confident swagger in East Asia, a belief that the "East Asian way" -- markets, political autocracy, and a hierarchical social order -- is made out of that region's own cultural material. No such confidence is to be found among the Arabs.

The shadow of American primacy lies on Arab lands; inescapably, onto the new reforms, onto the whole structure of contemporary international order for that matter, are projected the resentments that the intellectual class harbors toward Pax Americana. The Egyptian Mohamed Heikal, perhaps the most influential expositor of the tradition of pan-Arabism and Nasserism, gave voice to this distrust of the new order of things: nothing of value could come out of this American primacy, he recently wrote. A "new order" was being hatched for the region that could bring in its train greater ruin for the Arabs than the diplomatic settlements that carved up the Arab dominions of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of the First World War. Arabs could come out empty-handed, he warned, in this new order of nations, let down by feeble states, and "kept in the dark in this age of satellites and mass information." No wonder the economic reforms that the Egyptian state undertook in the last two years -- slashing the budget deficit, a beginning to privatize public sector companies, liberalizing the land rent laws in favor of the landholders -- are written off by economic nationalists as a capitulation to an American policy bent on dismantling the public sector and undoing what had been built during the high tide of Nasserism and Arab nationalism.

It is a curious presence that America casts across the Arab landscape. America is simultaneously the agent of political order and social revolution. It has befriended the status quo and has, for good reasons, taken a skeptical view of the oppositionists in Arab lands. The irony has not been lost on those on the receiving end of American power. The twin deities in this American civic religion, ballots and markets, have been decoupled in Arab lands. The American enthusiasm for the forms of democracy in other lands has been reined in here. (That enthusiasm is kept in check in the case of Turkey as well, and for the same reasons: fear that secularism may lose out, in open contest, to the Islamists.) Clarity will begin when the political class acknowledges the true and modest dimensions of the American role in Arab public life. The American presence in the Arab world has a long trail behind it: it stretches back to the late years of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the missionaries and the educators. In the intervening decades, America has been the thing and its opposite: Satan and redeemer; it has nurtured Arab nationalism and sustained Israel; its pop culture and media have disseminated social emancipation while its official weight has been thrown on the side of the ruling orders. But this American imperium is now part real, part pretense. No imperial vocation beckons America in Arab lands.

The Arab political imagination will also have to steal away from Israel. That grand alibi for every failure under the sun has worn thin and ought to have lost what force it had in the time of the wars and of nationalism. But a foul wind has greeted Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the Arab intellectual class has, by and large, taken a dark view of the peace of Oslo and of the wider process of normalization with Israel. To the critics, this peace of Arafat, the Egyptian state, and Jordan is one large deed of surrender to American designs, an acknowledgment that the race with Israel has been lost. Palestine has become another Andalusia, one writer, Anton Shammas, mourned, a lost homeland, "a construct of nostalgia, a territory without a map."

The accommodation with Israel was delegitimized, branded as the rulers' peace. That peace could not be overturned, but the keepers of the Arab political truth -- the men and women of the professional guilds, the émigré intellectuals, the world of letters, secularists and Islamists alike -- would not sanction or embrace this peace. To its opponents the peace was a Pax Hebraica or a joint Israeli-American project that a feeble Arab world had been unable to resist. An odd, ironic destiny had overtaken Yasir Arafat after Oslo: the man who had been followed through thick and thin by his own people as he took them on endless detours had lived to see the same charges of "treason" leveled at him that had once been the unhappy possession of men like King Abdullah of Jordan and Anwar al-Sadat. After settling for what he could get, Arafat had walked away from the refugees of 1948 who had been his old constituency and from their claims to Jaffa and Haifa and Acre to lead the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Now that old pre-1948 Palestine rose like an apparition to rebuke this practical peace.

A messy history was in the making west of the Jordan River in the aftermath of Oslo; a Palestinian political enterprise had risen in the West Bank and Gaza (a state in all but name), and Israel had outgrown the tower-and-stockade Zionism of its youth. But the dominant stream in the Arab intellectual world looked past all those changes because the peace had come during a time of sorrow and disarray. The old pan-Arab truth could not be reconstituted, and the émigrés could not find their way back to their old homes and lost cities. The intimacy of the Arab past and the cozy certainties of nationalism could not be retrieved. The one sure way to the old fidelities was the enmity with Israel, which harked back to a past that memory has rearranged and turned into a time when the world was whole and right. As the world makes obsolete all the rest of the Arab inheritance, this one -- anti-Zionism -- becomes too precious to cast away.

In the memory of a simpler time, there were collection boxes in the schools of the Arab east for money to contribute to a struggle that raged in a distant Arab land, that first battle of Algiers against French rule, and there were celebrations when the colonialists had packed up and left and a proud Algerian state emerged and strutted on the world stage. An altogether different terror stalks Algeria today. The pain of the Arab condition in the modern world persists. But this time, one undeniable truth the early Arab nationalists had yearned for has come to pass: What destiny awaits the Arabs, what history comes their way, is now made with Arab hands.

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  • Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
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