Today's date:
Winter 2002


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 irrationality.

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 fire.

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 greatest destructiveness.

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 the norm.

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 hotel.

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 like victims.

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 apologetics.

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 toleration."

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.