Can Tolerance Be Born of Cruelty in the Arab World?
KANAN MAKIYA is the Iraqi expatriate author of Cruelty
and Silence: War, Tyranny and Uprising in the Arab World (1993) and The
Republic of Fear (1989) under the pseudonym Samir Al Khalil. He is presently
teaching at Brandeis University.
In October 1992 Makiya was convenor of the Human Rights Commission of
the Iraqi National Congress, which opposes the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Makiya's television documentary, Saddam's Killing Fields, won the Murrow
Award for best TV documentary of 1992.
Cambridge, Mass. - In circumstances of war, or
seemingly irrational violence, human beings can lose their bearings. They
lose their bearings in the sense that they can be driven to enter the
vicious circle of reaction and counter reaction that is opened up by a
welter of confusing reasons-like religious intolerance, wanton state violence
or instantly resurrected tribal or ethnic hatreds. Ideologically, they
turn in on themselves, becoming more regressive and irrational in their
justifications and often more cruel in their political actions.
There was a time when all one had to say was "Beirut" to summon
up an image of what I am talking about. Today one has to add Beirut, Sarajevo,
Ayodhya, Mogadishu. Each case is different in its origins and in its implications,
but the list as a whole feels like it is growing by the day and is finally
all about different forms of intolerance. Today, we need to add Algiers
to the list. Tomorrow, will we have to add Baghdad and maybe even Cairo?
Even in the desperate circumstances of virtually complete political impasse,
however, it is useful to remind ourselves that the experience of cruelty,
of reaching the bottom of the abyss, can also have the opposite effect:
it can turn those who are subjected to it outward, imbuing individuals
with an urge to remake their shattered world. "In a dark time, the
eye begins to see," wrote the poet Theodore Roethke.
As but one example of this possibility, look at what happened following
the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992. A nationwide
initiative was undertaken by a voluntary organization calling for creative
solutions to the problem of how to deal with the site.
By April 21, 1993, according to the magazine India Today which sponsored
the campaign, 1,618 proposals in six languages came from artists, architects,
artisans, children and, even in one case that I know of, an auto-rickshaw
driver. One of my favorites among these was the idea to transform the
site of the destroyed mosque into a so-called "home" for those
children who had been "orphaned by religion." The submission
included elaborate architectural drawings produced in record time, depicting
a new mosque and temple built on a common raised plinth, which was in
turn the ceiling for an orphanage for children who had lost their parents
during the riots which followed the Ayodhya incident.
In itself, of course, the experience of cruelty does not offer guarantees
for anything, much less for the emergence of toleration. But, as I think
the example of the "Solutions to Ayodhya" campaign suggests,
the possibility exists of allowing the experience of cruelty to open a
window otherwise closed to us, a window through which to consider turning
around the rules by which we organize our lives.
Cruelty, the most "extreme of all vices," to
quote Montaigne, who thought about cruelty more than anyone else, is emotionally
transforming. In Haiti, for instance, to denounce the abuses of government
soldiers, or to discuss politics freely, or simply to move around at night,
is to experience what people call a skipping heartbeat, or a heart that
misses a beat out of sheer terror of what might be about to come. Imagine
those skipping heartbeats sustained over a long period of time and in
a changed context, like Sarajevo in June 1992, or Lebanon through its
civil war, both of which, when lived through, give the appearance of complete
It is hardly possible for individuals or whole peoples and cultures to
sustain such suffering without becoming more and more aware of the radical
contrast between what is and what ought to be. Such needless suffering
can-I don't say will or must-bring about an interruption in our customary
methods of apprehending the world around us and of coming to terms with
how it works.
THE RISE OF TOLERANCE IN EUROPE | A useful precedent for our modern
times is the experience of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Parts
of Europe, it is worth recalling, were very wild and cruel places in those
times. The continent was engulfed in a welter of small and not-so-small
religious wars. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the archetypal form
that religious intolerance took was, of course, anti-Semitism. But ever
since the Reformation, and the revival of spiritualism as a reaction to
the materialism of the Renaissance, religion had become a great political
force no longer restricted to persecuting small minorities. That force
ushered in one of the most fanatical periods in European history.
Did all this fanaticism and destruction in Europe usher in a new age,
"teaching mankind by the rudest possible process the hard lesson
of toleration," as one writer put it? Hardly, since national wars
very quickly replaced religious ones and ideological wars soon found their
way back into European affairs.
The wars, civil wars, revolutions and holocausts of our 20th century have
brought infinitely more suffering than anything experienced in the 16th
and 17th centuries. Moreover, before toleration was consciously articulated
as a doctrine, several regimes behaved more tolerantly in practice than
some which came later, and which claimed to be founded on the principle.
All we can say with some assurance is that the forms of intolerance tended
to change in Europe. Cruelty and forms of punishment, for instance, became
an issue. And if a kinder, less cruel age was not ushered in, it is fair
to say that a new idea was born.
Today we no longer think of intolerance as only being religious intolerance.
We think of it as being national, ethnic, tribal, communal, ideological,
political, racial, personal and sexual in form. Intolerance has all of
these different forms in the sensibilities of a modern man or woman. Or
rather, let us say, it should have. But that was not always the case,
and the original form in which human beings appropriated politically the
idea of toleration, making it part of their common cultural inheritance,
as was a reaction to religious intolerance.
This new idea, tolerance, came into the world rather suddenly, hard on
the back of Europe's woes. But within a relatively short time, it seems
to have taken root. The new idea was and remains deceptive in its utter
simplicity. If religiosity could not be suppressed, the thought went,
maybe it could be accommodated in a new kind of political structure, one
which separated out the spheres of private belief from political obligation.
This new idea, articulated in different ways by philosophers and writers
from Locke to Voltaire, suggested placing a much higher value on forbearance,
or sufferance, in matters political. The word toleration comes from the
Latin tolerare, which means to endure. The fundamental impulse involved
is that of putting up with something that one does not actually like,
and may consider to be immoral, possibly even evil in some way.
For political toleration to arise, the thought went, two things need to
combine in a person's mind: First, my belief that your soul is in grave
danger of eternal damnation because of the false gods that you happen
to believe in. Second, I must also believe that there is a higher value
in my putting up with this sorry state of affairs than there is in my
attempting to save your soul through the application of my steel and my
In other words, the modern idea of toleration begins with the impulse
for survival-survival in the face of a dramatic upward surge in the periodic
tendency of our species to rush pell-mell toward its own self-destruction.
Voltaire put it beautifully: Toleration, he said, arises as a necessary
consequence of our being human. We are all products of frailty: fallible
and prone to error. So let us mutually pardon each other's follies. This
is the first principle of all human rights. Toleration in its deepest
essence is founded on this view of human nature, a view that, in the nature
of things, impresses itself most urgently upon us at the moments of our
During the 1980s and 1990s, countries like Iraq, Lebanon,
Somalia and the former Yugoslavia have become, at times at least, as violent
and wild as Europe ever was in the 17th century. Cruelty is also rampant
in those countries of the modern Middle East that experienced wars, civil
wars, occupations, collective punishments, armed guerrilla organizations,
national liberation movements, terrorist attacks, mass deportations and
expanding state bureaucracies for whom the principle of torture is always
Consider the Lebanese civil war. In the 15 years of civil strife, 3,641
car bombs exploded; 144,240 people were killed; 197,506 wounded and 17,415
are still missing. All this in a tiny country of three million, one-third
of whom have now emigrated to the West.
In the progressive and forward-looking country of South Yemen, on the
morning of January 13, 1986, while tea was being served to the 15 members
of the ruling Politburo, President Ali Nasser initiated a gangland-style
massacre of his rivals. One of the guards, holding the leader's Samsonite
attache case, whipped out his Skorpion machine pistol and began raking
the minister of defense up and down his back with bullets. Two weeks of
street fighting then ensued, which left 13,000 dead, many of whose bloated
bodies were left lying in the streets.
In Syria, during one month in Hama in 1982, 20-40,000 people were killed
when the army encircled the town, supposedly to crush an Islamic rebellion.
The rebels and ordinary citizens flooded into the old quarter known as
the Kaylania district. This was a beautiful part of the old city, with
catacombs and twisted alleyways, a casbah of the eastern Mediterranean.
There the people hid. The army surrounded them and pounded the area with
artillery until it all turned to rubble.
A friend of mine, a Hamawi who had fled the destruction and stayed abroad
for 10 years, finally plucked up the courage to return to Hama. He went
to Kaylania where he had been brought up as a child. He looked at what
he thought was his neighborhood from the other side of the river. At first
he thought he was in the wrong place. The sight that confronted him was
both familiar and terribly unfamiliar. He shut his eyes and tried to imagine
the scene in his mind's eye as he knew it ought to look. Then he opened
them and looked once again. Yes, no doubt about it, he was looking at
the old neighborhood of Kaylania. But instead of seeing the beautiful
old houses with their twisted alleyways and underground pathways, there
was a bald hill; a modern Syrian urban park. And rising up out of the
middle of this hill, which entombed 20-40,000 dead Hamawis, many of whom
he might have known in happier days, was a brand-new 11-story Meridien
And what of Kuwait? After liberation, not only did Kuwait expel its 300,000-strong
Palestinian community-most of whom never knew Palestine or any country
other than Kuwait-but semi-official vigilante groups hunted down hundreds,
if not thousands of Palestinians after liberation and arbitrarily arrested
them. If they did not "disappear" it was because they had been
gunned down in public or tortured and killed. It is as though the Kuwaitis
were intent on doing to the Palestinians what the Iraqis had done to them
during the occupation.
This brings me to the subject of Iraq. Over an eight-year period, the
Iraq-Iran war killed half a million to one million people. These numbers
are proportionally the same as the number of French dead in World War
I. If any of you have ever visited those extraordinary cemeteries in France,
with their rows of perfectly planned white crosses stretching out into
the horizon as far as the eye can see, you will have some sense of the
scale of the human devastation caused by this terrible war.
While these Iraqi and Iranian dead were accumulating, thousands of Kurdish
villages were being wiped out by the Iraqi government in a zone 140 kilometers
from Baghdad. Between 1986 and 1988, just under 2,000 villages were destroyed.
Altogether, since 1975, around 3,500 villages were wiped out in northern
Iraq. During a period of seven months in 1988, in the course of the so-called
Anfal operations, incontrovertible evidence shows that at least 100,000
noncombatant Kurds were routinely murdered in a systematically organized
government campaign which bears the classic hallmarks of genocide.
What is going on here? What is the meaning of this apparent
summum of cruelty and intolerance reached in the modern Middle East? It
was not always like this and there are many, many factors involved which
I do not have space to go into. But I do want to ask whether we Arab intellectuals
confronted this rising curve of cruelty in the Mashriq in anything like
the way in which our 17th-century counterparts did. Have we responded
to our own drive toward self-destruction with anything like the thoughts
of a Voltaire?
Unfortunately the answer is, by and large, and until very recently, we
have not. Instead of recognizing our own fallibility and frailty, we Arab
intellectuals-secular and non-secular alike-have, on the contrary, been
perfecting in the last quarter of a century a different kind of language,
one that is constantly preoccupied with blaming others for problems that
are largely-although not completely-of our own making.
This language of blaming everyone other than oneself for one's tragic
plight has intersected in a doubly tragic way with rising cruelty in the
Middle East. As in Europe, when cruelty and fanaticism were rampant, everyone
in the Middle East today feels threatened: not only religious minorities
and ethnic groups but also entire religious majorities and ethnic groups
(Shi'ites in Iraq; Sunnis in Syria; Kurds everywhere; Israelis; Palestinians
under Israeli occupation and all over the diaspora; Maronites; Shi'ites
in Lebanon; Copts in Egypt). When one feels threatened, regardless of
whether or not the perceived threat is real, one has the choice of responding
by reaching out in a spirit of reconciliation as Voltaire and others did,
or by turning inward in a spirit of bitterness and recrimination. Unfortunately
the Mashriq today is a world in which everybody is a victim, but more
importantly most people, not excluding the intellectuals, still think
In spite of the numbing silence of intellectuals of recent
years, there are signs that the Arab world is beginning to break out of
the vicious dead-end cycle. Since the Gulf War, in particular, a curious
thing has begun to happen which is strikingly reminiscent of what happened
in Europe two or three centuries ago. A number of articles have begun
to appear in the Arabic press discussing the word toleration, what it
means, and whether or not the Arab-Muslim tradition can be said to have
been tolerant. This is a small, but growing phenomenon, with no precedents
that I can recall in recent decades.
The modern idea of toleration, the idea of putting up with something that
one actively does not like, was not among those many new words and ideas
(like nationalism, socialism and different forms of democracy) which were
fought over in the 19th and 20th centuries by the great Arab reformers
and linguists. Toleration as an idea was generally ignored, overlooked,
or, more likely, it was simply taken for granted as though there were
no real issues at stake. Before the Gulf War, the common way one came
across the idea of toleration was in what I would call a literature of
Let me give an example taken from a pamphlet issued in Egypt by the Union
of Arab Lawyers. The pamphlet was produced in the wake of an upsurge of
religious militancy and growing attacks on Copts by Muslim fundamentalists.
"Through the tolerant religion of its majority, Islam, (the Arab
nation) was always able to provide for its sons of all faiths and racial
origins, unity and togetherness-a life of love and peace. Therefore, historically
the issue of religious toleration was overcome and is not so sharp in
our nation. However, the complications of modern life, and the actions
of enemies have-here and there-begun to threaten this togetherness and
This kind of apologetic language is more than just a matter of tactical
flexibility in an obviously highly charged political situation. It represents
a flight from the reality of intolerance-not a facing up to it. The absence
of the modern idea of toleration as a consciously articulated force in
modern Arab cultural discourse is a grave problem facing us Arabs today.
It is as though we were bereft of the tools with which to confront the
problems of the day.
TOLERANCE STIRS | Maybe it makes perfect sense that these tools-the
idea of toleration in its modern, post-17th-century form-didn't become
an issue earlier. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, intellectuals
of the non-Western world were concerned with "modernization,"
in the sense of emulating the economic and technological success of the
West, or they were concerned with "national liberation" from
outside political control. Neither of these paradigms, as necessary and
progressive as they were for their times, contain the toleration of minorities.
Toleration is a new and additional idea that has to be actively and self-consciously
appropriated by Arab-Muslim culture in order for it to work and take hold.
It cannot and should not be taken for granted.
The curious consequence has been that until the Gulf War-when a spate
of articles in the Arabic press on toleration began to appear-toleration
in the modern, Western sense had not been reconstructed or re-created
into a discernibly Arab shape to become an integral part of modern Arab
cultural discourse. This is what may be beginning to change today. Toleration,
in the sense in which we know it from the Western political experience
of the 17th and 18th centuries, is an idea whose time has come. Let me
quickly survey those new articles.
"Do the People of Iraq in Fact Need a Neutral State Whose Slogan
Is Toleration?" asks the Iraqi playwright and novelist Arif Alwan
in an article published in 1991. The Libyan lslamicist writer, Muhammad
Al-Naku'a, asks in an article surveying the positions of various people,
"How, from an Islamic point of view, should we conduct the dialogue
between ourselves, and with the other?"
A more negative view of toleration in Arab-Muslim practice is presented
in articles such as that of the Sudanese writer Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad,
currently a refugee in Sweden from the Islamic National Front which took
power in the Sudan and has been waging a brutal civil war against the
predominantly Christian south of the country. "Has Toleration Become
Associated With the 'West' and Repression Turned Into the Symbol of Our
People's Tradition?" he asks angrily.
Kamal al-Manofi, in an article titled "Tolerant Manners in Arab Political
Culture," sees the problem as one of "structural distortions"
in sociological realities. "Our lived reality," he writes, "screams
of the absence of reciprocated toleration." We are dealing, he thinks,
with a "disease" in society at large.
These are strong words. In a more cautious and academic vein, the Egyptian
scholar of the Arabic language, Gaber Asfour, thinks that the idea of
toleration as developed by Locke and later by John Stuart Mill ?rst entered
Arab intellectual discourse at the hands of Farah Antun, one of the key
figures of the Arab nahda, or renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. It did so, he claims, in the course of a debate Antun was having
on the nature of the modern secular state with the great Muslim reformer
and Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Muhammad Abdu.
If there is a common denominator to these writings, it is that they are
preoccupied with what is suddenly being perceived to be a new problem
by many people, the problem of toleration. Toleration was not an issue
in the early modern period, when revolutionary social movements focused
on anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and national liberation were growing.
These reinforced the idea that the masses in motion inexorably produced
both revolution and democracy.
They hailed "class struggle," or "national liberation"
or "social revolution," along with democracy as though these
were simply different expressions of the same thing. But, of course, they
aren't, and so the exercise increasingly had to be done through the production
of myths; myths having to do with one's greatness, uniqueness, or, in
later decades, after the levels of suffering really began to mount, myths
having to do with how much more one has suffered than anyone else.
Farcical variations on these myths were still being generated during the
1990-1991 Gulf crisis in the form of the support extended to Saddam Hussein
by so many Arabs and Arab intellectuals. Nothing could be less conducive
to the emergence of toleration.
Reality intervened, however, to bring about a change. You might even say
it came crashing down on people's heads as it had come crashing down on
European heads during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Call that intervening reality "cruelty."
THE END OF CRUELTY? | Throughout the world, and not only in societies
that have been ripped apart, ideologies which obliterated the distinction
between revolution and democracy have been in a state of decline. "Cruelty"
may be inadequate as a rubric covering cases ranging from Latin America
to Eastern Europe and China. Nonetheless it has become obvious that suffering
in general was on a vast scale not only under what has passed for communism
in the 20th century, but also under what has passed for nationalism in
the Third World. The failure of so many post-colonial nationalisms to
produce stable and healthy polities and economies has given rise to widespread
disillusionment, frustration and fear of what the future might hold.
In the Arab world, reality can be said to have finally descended in the
wake of the Gulf War. The occupation, annexation and sacking of Kuwait
by Saddam Hussein, and his ouster from that country by an Allied coalition
of 30 nations which left the aggressor state broken and rotting, were
a greater shock to the Arab political system than even the collapse of
the former Soviet Union. Moreover, it came in the wake of 15 years of
wars, civil wars, intifadas, extermination of minorities and increasingly
brutalized state machineries. These compounded cruelties came to a climax
during the Gulf crisis in the shape of the rise of Saddam Hussein.
It is as though the slime and the rot at the bottom of the swamp had risen
to the surface. In a whole variety of ways it was no longer possible for
things to go on as before. Frustration, disillusionment and above all
a fear of the future began to galvanize people to write, question and
think as they had not done before. Much of this writing is still bitter
and negative. People are scared, or simply tired of thinking about big
questions. But they know, in their bones so to speak, that there are no
more Saladin-like saviors out there. This is the context within which
a preoccupation with toleration has begun to appear.
Does this mean that we can be sanguine about the prospects for toleration
in the Middle East? Following the poet one might hope that in this dark
time, the eye begins to see. But it is not enough to see. Countries like
Iraq and Algeria are today standing on the edge of a precipice. Their
future might yet look like Lebanon's past. It is necessary to act, and
act fast. That is the crossroads we are standing at in Arab politics today.