Violence between Arabs and non-Arabs fills the news from the Middle East. But a larger, longer story comes into focus whenever you try to grasp the history of the region. Arabs killing Arabs: That's the undeniable theme running through the record. It confronts us at every turn in The Arabs: A History, a newly published 553-page chronicle by Eugene Rogan, the director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford.
So far as he can, Rogan sees the world the way Arabs see it (he's fiercely anti-Israel) and does his best to sympathize with them as an oppressed race. But his book demonstrates that, while Arabs have surely been exploited, they routinely destroy their own chances of emerging from the coma of stunted development.
Consider political freedom. On Wednesday, Rami Khouri of Beirut's Daily Star noted that the Berlin Wall anniversary passed mostly unnoticed among Arabs. They don't understand the meaning of the wall's destruction because they don't understand the freedom that 1989 brought to eastern Europe. Khouri speculated that freedom might come to the Arabs as a spark ignited in one country that then spreads to others -- like Solidarity in Poland, he suggested.
That's a spectacular case of wishful thinking. The parallel doesn't exist. Poland, like most of the countries trapped for 40 years in the Soviet empire, already had experience with democracy. The Arabs have no such experience and, if we believe Rogan, no interest in acquiring any. Rogan predicts that if a truly free election were held in any Arab state today, a radical Islamist party would win for certain. This means that the Arabs, if given a taste of democracy, would vote for parties whose first order of business would be eliminating democracy. Apparently, they aspire to the present condition of poor, isolated but definitely anti-American Gaza.
He describes a culture obsessed by self-pity and anxious to fix blame, above all on the United States. Arabs could never vote for a party that would co-operate with the Americans. That means they are left with the Islamists and the inevitable nightmare that follows an Islamist victory.
Arabs, as Rogan argues, have been kept in colonial servitude for more than half a millennium. The Ottoman Empire conquered the Arab lands around 1515, which meant that they were ruled by Turks from Istanbul for four centuries. When the empire fell in 1918 Arabs speculated about an independent future. That turned out to be a vain hope. France and Britain carved their region into pieces and the stirring story of Lawrence of Arabia ended up as no more than a melodramatic fantasy. Later, the Arabs were manipulated during the Cold War. Now, they feel intimidated by the only remaining superpower, the United States.
A few years ago, nine public figures in Lebanon died in a wave of assassinations. Among them was Samir Kassir, a history professor and journalist who advocated secular democracy and criticized Syrian influence in Lebanese politics (everyone worth listening to believes that the Syrians killed him). Rogan quotes evocative lines Kassir wrote not long before he died. He described the "Arab malaise" and asked, "How did we become so stagnant? How has a living culture become discredited and its members united in a cult of misery and death?"
Kassir noticed a deep, pervasive disquiet: "It's not pleasant being Arab these days." Arabs were "haunted by a sense of powerlessness," pawns on the global chessboard in the game of nations, playing by alien rules. Rogan says the Arabs, after trying for generations to shape their own destiny, believe that they are now farther from that goal than ever. (Sadly, Rogan's Arab-centred approach makes him provincial; he doesn't seem to realize that most people on the planet have similar complaints about their destiny.)
Arabs can blame foreign interference, but the central problem may be the failure of the Arab states to develop a sense of citizenship. Rogan quotes Faysall I, whom the British appointed king of Iraq in 1921. Faysall realized that his subjects didn't even see themselves as Iraqis. In 1933, not long before he died, he described the population as "unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea ... connected by no common tie, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."
When the Americans arrived 60 years later, the Iraqis hadn't much changed. In a sense, the Arab states haven't yet invented themselves as nations. As Faysall put it, "There is still no Iraqi people." Sadly, the problem is hardly limited to Iraq.