Saturday, January 28, 2012

Arabs are Stuck in a Guantanamo of Thought

The theories and the realities of geopolitics are always on my mind when I write my blog posts and my twitter tweets. One of the foremost thinkers in geopolitics is Georges Corm, a Lebanese professor, author and former minister of finance. I very much liked the interview Georges Corm gave to Al-Akhbar last week. As kind of a guest post on this blog, I want to share Georges Corm's insights on the Arab world, the Arab Spring and the relationship between philosophy and geopolitics with you. 
Al-Akhbar (AA): Geopolitics is present in most of your work, can you define it for us?
Georges Corm (GC): Geopolitics is a compound word meaning: an approach to situations that are often conflictual in nature having to do with the geographical location of a nation-state and with the essence of its body politic. It combines, therefore, a geographical approach with a political approach.
AA: What can this approach add to an understanding of the Arab world and its problems?
GC: I see developments in the Arab world as connected to the geographical conditions of the Arab region, in addition to Iran and Turkey – if we adopt the idea of a “Middle East.”
The region has three features that elicit foreign intervention. One, it is the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions that have spread globally. Two, it has a strategic location. And three, it has a lot of oil which is coveted by the big and rich colonial powers.
There is another problem. Unlike the Turks and the Ottomans, the Arabs, after the decline of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), no longer played a role in the political history of the world. The Persians and the Turks became masters of the region.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Arab societies felt orphaned after they had been used to living in the shadow of the Muslim caliphate. These societies lacked any experience in self-rule.
In addition, Arabs were divided between British and French colonial rule and the Zionist entity was planted in the heart of the Arab world dividing the Arab east from the Arab west.
Yorikirii (Y): "divide and rule" seems to me one of the most often used principles of political strategy. A definition and further explanations can be found here.
The Arabs became dispersed and fragmented after the end of the Nasserist era which had united Arabs at one point. Each Arab country allied itself with an external power instead of forming an alliance among Arab regimes.
As such, the Arab region witnessed a power vacuum which attracted at the time the Soviet Union and the United States. After the collapse of the USSR, Iran emerged as a significant regional power hostile to the US, while divisions among Arab regimes persisted.
Now we are witnessing the rise of Turkish power. It is not clear whether this rise is part of an agreement with the US whereby Turkey acts as as a proxy for US interests, or whether it is a self-propelled movement of Turkish society.
Y: In 2010, the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davotoglu introduced "Turkey's Zero-Problems Foreign Policy". I think it's a great and well reflected concept but history and life will usually prove that there is no such things as "zero problems". Right after Davotoglu had presented Turkey's new policy, the Mavi Marmara (Flottila I) was stopped by Israel on its way to Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists on board. You might read my piece "Turkey's got Rhythm, but will anyone dance along" from 2010 again.
no subordination to a Western system of thought: Georges Corm
AA: Is there a link between philosophy or philosophical methodology and geopolitics?
GC: The link is direct and fundamental but unfortunately, most specialists in International Politics and International Relations seldom give adequate attention to the role that the philosophical understanding of the world plays in shaping policies of world powers.
Often, colonialism and settlements hide behind noble goals that are philosophical in nature. When Europeans invaded the world, it was in the name of people’s religious enlightenment, so they would be exposed to Christianity.
In the 19th century, conquest was carried out in the name of civilization, to help people whose civilizations were not advanced. Marxist thought also contributed to supporting this kind of philosophical rationale. Karl Marx believed that “backward” countries needed to open up to modern capitalism in order to hasten the process of transformation from a bourgeois capitalist system to a proletariat socialist system.
We have two philosophical sources, Hegel and Marx, and together they rationalized colonial campaigns. Lately, we’ve had the neoconservatives in the US like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who invaded Iraq in the name of democracy.
Philosophical rationales deployed by countries that wage wars of conquest need to be deconstructed because such endeavors always require some kind of philosophical or religious justification.
Y: Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel's dialectics, but turned his concept "on his head" to argue that the thesis-antithesis contradiction arises from material conditions (such as the means of production), not from ideas. For a better understanding, see these diagrams. 
AA: What are the major components of your thought?
GC: I wanted to address two complementary issues. First, my studies in Paris made me keenly aware of the European claim that, unlike other people, they possess wisdom, philosophy, and humanism. I was shocked by this kind of narcissism among European nations. That long road led me to write my book Europe and the Myth of the West: The Construction of a History.
Second, as I dove deeper into contemporary Arab culture, it became clear to me the extent to which it is dependent on Western thought. Also, we, as Arabs, lack knowledge of Chinese thought or Indian thought or the philosophies of non-Western civilizations.
We are sort of locked in a face-to-face encounter with the West – Europe and the US – that puts us in a kind of prison, an intellectual Guantanamo of sorts. Because the idea of philosophical independence, advocated by our friend Nassif Nassar, for example, has no momentum in the Arab world.
Y: the Lebanese philosopher and professor Nassif Nassar, b. 1967, has studied the relation between politics and religion "in the light of the logic of power". Here, you will find an abstract of his theory.
Even Islamist movements which are supposed to represent the most hard-line positions are in the end a product of a pathological relationship with Western philosophy and a Western world-view.
What do we see among the Arab intellectual elite? Either complete prostration before the Western cognitive view of the world or a kind of hysterical rejection of it. There is indeed a state of subordination to the Western system of thought in the Arab world.
I have been calling for an end to this state of dependence and subordination in order to establish an Arab cognitive system of knowledge that takes into consideration our history and builds an epistemological system on it.
For example, the most important question that no one has explored is, why did the rule of the Arabs or Arab power end? As long as we do not have an answer to this question, we cannot build a better future. How did Arab conquests that built Muslim civilization end up with the Arabs locked out of history?
Since the destabilization of the Ottoman Empire in the last century, Arabs have faced an identity crisis between adherence to a religious legacy and entering secular history.
The battle still rages at the heart of the Arab revolutions which we are witnessing today. They can be summed up as a competition between the concept of a civil secular state and a state governed by religious authority.
from state to class: the philosophy of Hegel and Marx
AA: What are the prospects of the Arab Spring in your opinion?
GC: There is no doubt that major historical events took place that are self-generated. The Arab people did not revolt because of a foreign conspiracy as some would like to argue.
Nevertheless, Western superpowers were quickly struck by a new colonial fever. They were aided by the conservative forces hostile to political modernity and human freedom, which we used to call the Arab reactionary forces in the past.
The Turks also entered the scene presenting an Islamist model as a guide to the Arab revolutions. This of course will alienate these revolutions and we have seen painful results in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. It remains to be seen how far the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia will go.
In any case, revolutions come in circles and a revolutionary circle opened up in the Arab world. But it is hard to predict where it will end up.
I always say the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and bore its final fruit a century later, when the third republic was established, monarchical rule ended, and republican principles were secured.
The revolutionary cycle takes a long time and it is not a magical wand that changes everything all at once. I think we are at the beginning of the road.
Falling into religious and sectarian discussions is bad publicity for the revolutions. Viewing what happened in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen from a sectarian prism is wrong.
Analyzing in the absence of an independent and philosophical thought system is a pathology. We analyze according to the tools and style of Western propaganda, the Western academy, and Western media, and we do so from a sectarian point of view.
A few months before invading Iraq, the US started to spread the view that the issue in Iraq is that a Sunni minority persecuted a Shia majority. The similarly simplistic way in which the situation in Syria is being depicted today is highly regrettable and will lead to doom and disaster.
We should abandon analysis based strictly on viewing Arab people as religious and sectarian beings. Let’s examine the real factors on the ground, such as issues of corruption, social justice, and the rentier economy that perpetuates tyrannical regimes.
The path of democracy indicates that democracy relies on destroying the rentier economy. And unfortunately, most Arab economies are rentier economies.
Y: An excellent book for starters in geopolitics is Colin Flint: Introduction to Geopolitics. For everything on Georges Corm, please go to his website.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article as usual. And Georges Corm is always a treat to read. In my mind, Georges Corm is one of the last representative of a pure Baathist ideology. Certainly not the worst of ideologies, fusioning a vision of Arab socialism and nationalism. Too bad the ideology got somewhat perverted on its way through Iraq and Syria. For more on Ba'athism like it once was thought to be: