Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Hazem Saghieh

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : And They Keep Rambling on About Cultural Colonialism and Invasions 

What Iraq and Lebanon have in common today is that both are the target of a combined assault: on the one hand, the lynching of the nation-state and the burial of its corpse deep beneath the ground to avert resurrection; on the other hand, the erosion or distortion of national history and culture, coupled with the denial of any chance for renewal and revival.

A century ago, when these two countries emerged, the prevailing inclination was to reach a historical and cultural compromise that would accompany the compromise to create political concord. For instance, official history books covered all the historical episodes that unfolded over the territory of the two countries, from before the emergence of Christianity to after the Arab conquests. In terms of culture, in the broadest sense, efforts to revive Arab heritage - its literature, poetry, and Sufism - coexisted with an openness to Western culture and various schools of experimental art.

In parallel, both during French and British mandates and after gaining independence, two interconnected concerns reigned supreme: one was the mosaic of diverse communities that made up both nations, which demanded speaking to their sensitivities and historical references, and another aimed at securing a place for both countries on the global cultural map. Thus, this cultural output sought to describe "what we are" and, at the same time, "what we share with others."

Before Iranian Khomeinism took on the mantle of leading the assault on the Levantine nation state, its culture, and its historical narrative, this role was assumed by the frustrated Arab nationalist movement. Influenced by the German-Italian nationalist narrative, the latter raised the banner of a triumphalist, single, unifying nationalism seeking to establish the state it sought through the destruction of existing states. Thus, in the name of this identity, other identities were dismissed, and in the name of the Arab conquest, all the history that preceded it was dismissed.

This climate gave rise to a denunciation, tinged with ridicule, of the Phoenicians, Assyrians, and Pharaohs, as well as the rejection of any creative endeavors that sought to lessen the burden of weaving politics and grand questions into literature and culture. Dialects that seemed somewhat Westernized were not spared ridicule and scorn, especially when those who spoke them tried to mix foreign terms into their spoken Arabic.

However, this pluralism and freedom endured in Lebanon for longer than it did in Iraq, primarily because the Lebanese managed to avoid ideological military coups. Even when the civil war erupted in 1975, various groups managed to resume this trajectory, albeit in a fragmented, intermittent, and highly selective manner.

In Iraq, in contrast, this trajectory that King Faisal I had promoted was shaken by the ascension of his son, Ghazi I, to the throne in 1933, and throughout the reign of this troubled and volatile Arab nationalist who was fascinated by fascism, which ended with his death in 1939. Later on, the plunge into darkness resumed with the series of Baathist and non-Baathist military coups that began in 1963.

The drive to undermine the political concord, and to prevent the formation of a national community within a sovereign nation-state, fueled this isolationist bent opposed to pluralism and freedom. This destructive tendency stems from the notion that annihilating a body necessitates, among other things, distorting its meaning and erasing the depth that stems from its diverse, and perhaps contradictory, dimensions.

We have seen this process play out particularly clearly in Lebanon and Iraq, but the same happened in Egypt, where Islamist forces initially had taken on the task of repressing society before the Nasserist state apparatus took over. In Syria, despite the country’s political erasure in 1958 and its subjugation to successive military regimes, there was no parallel need for cultural erasure. If we exclude the already marginalized and excluded Kurdish community, allegiance to a particular framing of Arabism remained a matter of consensus taken for granted, which was not the case in other countries.

Overall, this intention to culturally exterminate "indigenous populations" reflected a broader intention, exterminating episodes of national politics that embraced and fostered culture. After the success of the Khomeinist Revolution in 1979, these two desires grew sharper and stronger fangs. Amid the melodrama of resistance, blood, and dismemberment, the process of turning a particular interpretation of the self and the world into the only one, an interpretation that cannot be contradicted or contested, has begun. It is as though citizens are children whose bodies have fully developed but whose minds have not. Life is inundated by commands and prohibitions dictating what was permissible and what was not, with all the contemptible frivolity that comes with them, such as one’s stance regarding the head of Abu Jaafar al-Mansur or the translation of a book written by an Israeli.

What is happening today, in Lebanon as well as in Iraq, is that both countries are being founded once after having been founded for the first time a century ago. However, this time, they are being founded through dismantlement: subjugation is the guiding principle of this second founding, whereas compromise was the guiding principle of the first. And subjugation leads to civil wars or, at the very least, an appetite for them.

Measured against the current narrative about cultural colonialism and invasion - which often contains a great deal of misguided rhetoric - it could be said that what the Iraqis and Lebanese are enduring now is not cultural colonialism and invasions. On one hand, some citizens of these countries have volunteered to do the job. On the other, they seem to be entirely empty-handed, precisely when measured against everything colonialism had in its pocket.