The Time of the Assassins
The Arab world has no counterforce to the murderers in our midst.
By Hisham Melhem, Politico, January 09, 2015
There is something malignant in the brittle world the Arab peoples inhabit. A murderous, fanatical, atavistic Islamist ideology espoused by Salafi Jihadist killers is sweeping that world and shaking it to its foundations, and the reverberations are felt in faraway continents. On the day the globalized wrath of these assassins claimed the lives of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris, it almost simultaneously claimed the lives of 38 Yemenis in their capital Sana'a, and an undetermined number of victims in Syria and Iraq. Like the Hydra beast of ancient Greece this malignancy has many heads: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Sunni Salafists and Shiite fanatics, armies and parties of God and militias of the Mahdi. This monstrous ideology has been terrorizing Arab lands long before it visited New York on 9/11, and its butchers assassinated Arab journalists and intellectuals years before committing the Paris massacre of French journalists, cartoonists and police officers.
The devil's rejects of this ideology engage in wanton ritualistic beheadings while intoxicated with shouts of Allahu Akbar, oblivious to the fact that most of their victims are Muslims. They are perpetuating mass killings and rapes, uprooting ancient communities, declaring war on the great pre-Islamic civilizations and religions of the Fertile Crescent, and managing to turn large swaths of Syria and Iraq into earthly provinces of hell.
The time of the assassins is upon us. And the true tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world today is that there is no organized, legitimate counterforce to oppose these murderers—neither one of governments nor of "moderate" Islam. Nor is there any refuge for those who want to escape the assassins.
Instead, there is only the grim promise of further disintegration. Last year, the area stretching from Beirut on the Med to Basra at the mouth of the Gulf became a long front of Sunni-Shiite bloodletting. The religious and ethnic minorities in the region are cowering with fear and loathing. In this fragmented world identity politics and parochial loyalties are the powers that move the people. The region is being contested now by the Islamic State and Iran, which is for all intents and purposes a prominent, even if not fully recognized, member of the international coalition fighting the dark forces of the Islamic State. Just think of this surreal scene: Iran, the only Shiite theocracy in the region, is fighting the Islamic State, the radical claimant of an ephemeral Sunni Caliphate. In 2014 many Arab lands, from Yemen to Libya, oscillated between despair and disintegration. There is no room for moderation or reform or tolerance in theses societies. The weak nation-states are getting weaker and falling apart at the seams. Without reconstituted nation-states there can be no serious societal, political or religious reform.
Along with the disintegration of the states, and deepening sectarian conflicts, the various communities are not only clinging to their identity politics, but becoming more religious, though not necessarily more pious or spiritual. Islamization and attachment to religious symbols, dogmas and rituals are the dominant concerns of many youths, particularly those carrying out the military struggles. The Shiites of Lebanon and Iraq—two states that previously were known for their "secular" pleasures and rich cultural heritage and vibrancy—are abandoning these traditions. Lively music is shunned and replaced with religious songs, young men wear black and grow beards, and you rarely see uncovered women in most Iraqi and Syrian cities. In Iraq, movie theatres are disappearing in most cities outside Baghdad. Egypt has long since lost the once famed cosmopolitanism of Alexandria to the Salafists. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is turning Beirut into a Tehran on the Med, while the Sunni fundamentalists are turning the country's second largest city, Tripoli into their own Qandahar on the Med. Can we still talk about reform and moderation to challenge the murderous ideology intellectually?
After the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, Arab intellectuals, artists, political activists and exiles found themselves drifting towards Beirut, the only Arab equivalent of a shining city on a hill. As a teenager, I witnessed the incredible cultural and political ferment that dominated the debates about the real causes that led the Arabs to such a nadir. I attended debates, watched first-rate theatre, read real soul-searching articles and books. The best and the brightest of Arabs walked and graced the streets of Beirut. Poets, novelists and scholars I read from afar came to partake in the mission of a lifetime. Critical inquiry was the operating principle. That old defiant Beirut made it easier for my generation of Arabs to search and find some answers in those years that preceded the 1973 war, when the defeated Arab regimes were able to claim a partial victory of some sort and to restore the old order. It was a brief moment of hope and enthusiasm. That is all gone now.