A political scientist at the American University of Beirut known for his quantitative analyses of public opinion in Lebanon and elsewhere, Hilal Khashan has written a courageous and objective book on the congeries of problems that currently beset the Arab world. Arabs at the Crossroad is far more ambitious than anything the author has published previously, assessing as it does Arab history, society and values since the nineteenth century. Many are likely to dissent from particular arguments or conclusions, but few will deny that Professor Khashan has written a volume with which all who wish a better future for the Arab world must come to terms. And the latter, surely, is the hallmark of an important contribution.
Primary attention is given in this book to Arab politics and political economy, with particular attention to Arab nationalism, the (second) Gulf war, Islam and the contemporary Islamic revival, and the putative challenges which resistance to secularism and the weight of tradition now present to the Arab peoples. Unlike the apologetics that often pass for scholarship, Khashan's friendly but unsparing critique argues persuasively that "cooperation, rationality, [and] ideological flexibility" are "essential criteria" if Arabs are ever to "reenter history" (p. l). The author scores the ideological repression ram pant in large parts of the Arab world, and deplores what he considers the consequent inability of Arab elites to identify and achieve proclaimed objectives. In Khashan 's opinion, Arab society is in "crisis," its intellectual life characterized by "stagnation," and its entry into modernity frustrated by a retreat into the consoling universe of "past glory" (p. 128). The author observes: "The Arabs today seem confused. They loathe their political systems and distrust the ruling elites. They desire reform but disagree on the course of action. Thus political quandary and regime failure currently prevail in the Arab world" (p. 2). Above all, Arab leaders never "[broaden] the base of the political system'' (p. 2). Perhaps most courageously, Khashan states baldly that Arab failures are the ''result of their own evolutionary processes," and are "mostly unrelated to Western influence" (p. 63). The ultimate objective of this book is to prescribe medicines that will enable Arabs to recover from their present "coma" and successfully make the transition to "modernity and beyond" (pp. 128, 139).
Professor Khashan maintains that both political and economic development in the Arab east are now frozen, and no easy exits present themselves. The Arab political order currently consists of “thick walls of illiteracy," "declining rates of economic growth," and a "socio-politically unintegrated population" (p. 86). Almost everywhere, the author maintains, progress toward democratization and the rule of law has been aborted, civil society is close to non-existent, and cultural authoritarianism reigns unchecked. Ignorant army officers attempting to institutionalize socialism and equally unenlightened bureaucrats attempting to foster capitalism, he believes, have proven a fatal combination. Today, Khashan asserts, Arab political orders are confronted with a "state of siege" (p. 86) that will not easily be lifted.
Perhaps the author's most courageous analysis is of the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of Arab nationalism, as manifested in the historical laboratory of the past half century. Khashan speaks unsparingly of the "limitations of Arab socialism," the authoritarianism and ineptitude of the Arab military elite, and the "fascistic demeanor" that ultimately came to characterize the Arab national movement (pp. 7, 12, 16). In the author's opinion, the fact that Arab nationalism lacked any "doctrine of beliefs and shared values" scarred it from its birth to its demise (p. 34). Conceptually thin as Khashan argues it was, Arab nationalism always remained an elitist phenomenon which soon enough degenerated into the abolition of political parties, the suppression of interest groups and the silencing of public opinion (p. 70). Every country ruled by Arab nationalists was eventually "battered by regional and international wars, civil strife, U.N. sanctions, or isolation" (p. 68). Both diplomatically and militarily, Khashan asserts, nationalist Arab regimes have always "performed dismally," as demonstrated in particularly poignant fashion by their disunity and assorted betrayals during the first and second Gulf wars (pp. 15, 68). Of course, the most egregious and longstanding failure of Arab nationalism, as the author emphasizes, has been its spectacular incompetence in the confrontation with Israel. Today it is difficult to argue with Professor Khashan's conclusion that in failing to achieve economic development, implement democracy or defeat Israel, Arab nationalism has simply struck out.
Khashan is sympathetic to the Iraqi economic plight at the end of the eight long years of war with Iran and highly critical of the refusal of both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to consider any additional financial assistance for Iraq or to support the establishment of oil production quotas with Iraq's pricing needs in mind. In this regard, Khashan draws on the work of such American policy analysts as Jeffrey Record and Edward Luttwak and deplores the American media campaign in the late 1980s that denounced Iraq for attempting to acquire a nuclear capability. Note is taken of Israel's determination to abort any diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Iraq and its activation in 1989 and 1990 of the Zionist lobby in the United States to portray Saddam Hussein as America's international public enemy number one. The author observes: "The synchronization of Kuwaiti oil policy and the Israeli media war suggested a conspiracy...to the Iraqi leadership" (p. 102). The result of all these factors was that the outbreak of military conflict between Iraq and Kuwait constituted a "war that could not possibly have been averted" (p. 99).
However, the much larger war against Iraq orchestrated by the United States and its international coalition constituted, in Khashan's opinion, not only an enormous tragedy but above all a "war that did not need to happen" (p. 94). The reason it did not need to happen, the author maintains, was that Iraq was well aware of America's oil requirements, had no intention of threatening them, and was open to a diplomatic solution. The author is unsparing in his criticism of the American preclusion of any attempt to achieve a settlement through Arab initiatives and suggests that the United States convinced Iraq it planned to go to war whether Iraq withdrew its occupation troops from Kuwait or not. Thereby, the United States stiffened Iraqi determination to keep its forces in place. "Once the lopsided war started," Khashan notes, "the United States waged it...with maximum force that far exceeded the requirements for reclaiming Kuwait. The massacre of thousands of retreating Iraqi troops...opened a window on the magnitude of the unscrupulous use of overwhelming firepower to achieve stated war aims" (p. l 08). In fact, what the United States decided to do in the case of Iraq was to "accept the demand of the strong pro-Israeli lobby to dismantle Iraq as a regional power" (p. 103). Today, "Arabs bear the full weight of American might," the author writes, "as [the United States] presides on the top of the world in a unipolar international system" (p. 98). This summary description of the causes and consequences of the second Gulf war is perhaps the best that has been published anywhere and certainly constitutes one of the strongest portions of Khashan's book.
The author also gives attention to the contemporary Islamic revival, which he attributes to "repression, economic crises, [an] unresolved [Arab] identity crisis, and defeat in war with Israel and the West" (p. x). He endorses Issa Boullata's observation in 1990 that Islam is an "inalienable part of Arab culture," and "secularist Arab moderates who have ignored this truth...have continuously seen their projects dashed on its reality" (p. 26). Importantly, Khashan makes clear that the majority of Islamic groups are not militant radicals constituting "only a fraction of the Islamic movement" (p. 120). Indeed, "pacifist Islamic groups demonstrate a desire to cooperate with the state," he notes, "often taking upon themselves the task of performing functions that are normally administered by the public sector or agencies of civil society" (p. 120). Many Islamist groups, as the author explains, function as political parties that provide an outlet for public opinion and a framework for collective action. These peaceful Islamist groups, the author observes, are spreading more rapidly than those committed to violence. On the whole, Khashan believes political Islam constitutes a "benign societal movement" that provides a "proper linkage" between governments and "increasingly religious Arab-Islamic publics" (p. 119). He is especially critical of such scholars as Martin Kramer who maintain that militant Islam constitutes a "potent threat" but give no "evidence or documentation of any sort" to support their assertions (p. 122).
Nevertheless, careful attention is given to those Islamist groups that indeed are committed to violence. Such groups may be identified, Khashan notes, by their commitment to "application of Sharia, institution of Khilafa, denouncement of territorial nationalism, and rejection of democracy" (p. 115). Extremist Islamist movements have sought refuge in "obscurantism," he argues, and have utterly failed to offer workable solutions to outstanding political, economic and social problems. Indeed, radical Islamism has "aggravated" such problems in most cases (p. 121). Over time, Khashan suggests, the appeal of extremist groups will fade as the bankruptcy of their political posture becomes evident and the counter productivity of violence in realizing social change becomes undeniable.
In his discussion of the Islamic revival, the author gives substantial attention to what he argues is the Muslim understanding of Jihad. In Khashan's opinion, the notion of Jihad is "central" in Islamic teachings and calls for "constant confrontation with perceived infidels, oppressors and evil doers" (p. 113). Muslims "from different walks of life, irrespective of their politics," he maintains, accept the idea that "Muslims are a community of fighters" (p. 113). Nowhere in this discussion is any mention made of the traditional Islamic distinction between the "greater" and "lesser" Jihads, and the heavy privileging of the former over the latter. The greater Jihad, of course, relates primarily to the spiritual struggle of each human being against evil and against the sinful inclinations of his or her own nature. And nowhere does Professor Khashan point out that most Muslims have always held that the lesser (or military) Jihad relates only to defensive warfare against aggressors specifically attacking the Muslim community. Failure to include discussion of these matters is unfortunate, since what in fact is said may all too easily be seized upon by anti-Muslim propagandists to claim Arab and Islamic "authenticity" for denunciation of Islam and Muslims as incorrigibly violent and dangerous to the West.
Curious also, given Professor Khashan's powerful deconstruction of classical Arab nationalism, is his wistful hope that some new form of Arab nationalism, now respectful of individual liberty, constitutional government and human rights, might yet be conjured into being to solve what he considers the great outstanding problem of a lack of true Arab identity. However "improbable" and "impractical" (pp. 36, 44) the claims of earlier Arab nationalists were, the author apparently believes that they may somehow be redeemed in our own time. He insists that Arab nationalism remains a "compelling need" for all Arabs, and urges Arabs everywhere to "believe in the myth of Arab nationalism" (p. 141). Today or in the foreseeable future, what real likelihood is there that Arabs will listen to this particular invitation or that the Arab states will form any sort of "viable bloc" (p. 143), especially given the fact that territorial nationalism (as Professor Khashan himself points out) continues to strengthen? Specifically, the author seems to believe that a new breed of Arab nationalists may somehow be able to achieve "unity of vision and solidarity in action," obtain "quick and peaceful resolution of inter-Arab conflicts," form an "all-Arab military command capable of deterring possible foreign encroachments," and succeed in "dealing with foreign powers as a solid front" (p. 145). Nice work, if you can get it. But, really, don't hold your breath.
Finally, this reviewer must confess to being considerably less entranced than is professor Khashan with modernity, secularism and antiseptic rationality and much less convinced that tradition constitutes an impediment to a good society. What the author condemns as "nonrational religious belief' (what other sort of religious belief is there?) and "denial of secularism" (p. 133) will certainly not prove convincing to most other Muslims for precisely those reasons that the author earlier so convincingly adumbrated. Surely, professor Khashan would not wish for the Muslim world a future as Godless, materialistic and morally flawed as the situation that currently prevails in much of the West.
At the same time, one can only endorse professor Khashan's call for greater Arab understanding of Western mechanisms of democratic governance, meaningful political participation by the Arab masses, and establishment everywhere in the Arab and Islamic world of the rule of law. Legality, indeed, is a “sine qua non for stability, a guarantor of peace, and a promoter of vibrant economic activity" (p. 149). These three goals are certainly as realizable by Arabs and Muslims as they have proven for others. Professor Khashan is correct that the Arab train, seriously damaged as it may be, is still repairable. But the time for such repairs to begin, as he observes, is long overdue. Khashan does a service to remind everyone of the hard truth that "unrepaired trains end up in junkyards" (p. 149).
This book deserves the widest possible attention, and merits translation into Arabic as soon as possible. It may serve as one fundamental text in contemporary debate over the nature of the illnesses afflicting contemporary Arab and Muslim society and the prospects and perils of assorted proposed remedies. For that, Arabs, Muslims and their friends everywhere can only extend to professor Khashan their most heartfelt thanks.