Edward Said: When will we resist?
- When will we resist?
Edward Said: The US is preparing to attack the Arab world, while the
Arabs whimper in submission
One opens the New York Times on a daily basis to read the most recent
article about the preparations for war that are taking place in the
United States. Another battalion, one more set of aircraft carriers
and cruisers, an ever-increasing number of aircraft, new contingents
of officers are being moved to the Persian Gulf area. An enormous,
deliberately intimidating force is being built up by America
overseas, while inside the country, economic and social bad news
multiply with a joint relentlessness.
The huge capitalist machine seems to be faltering, even as it grinds
down the vast majority of citizens. None the less, George Bush
proposes another large tax cut for the 1% of the population that is
comparatively rich. The public education system is in crisis and
health insurance for 50 million Americans simply does not exist.
Israel asks for $15bn in additional loan guarantees and military aid.
And the unemployment rates in the US mount inexorably, as more jobs
are lost every day.
Nevertheless, preparations for an unimaginably costly war continue
without either public approval or, at least until very recently,
dramatically noticeable disapproval. A generalised indifference among
the majority of the population (which may conceal great overall fear,
ignorance and apprehension) has greeted the administration's
warmongering and its strangely ineffective response to the challenge
forced on it recently by North Korea. In the case of Iraq, with no
weapons of mass destruction to speak of, the US plans a war; in the
case of North Korea, it offers economic and energy aid. What a
humiliating difference between contempt for the Arabs and respect for
North Korea, an equally grim and cruel dictatorship.
In the Arab and Muslim worlds, the situation appears more peculiar.
For almost a year American politicians, regional experts,
administration officials and journalists have repeated the charges
that have become standard fare so far as Islam and the Arabs are
concerned. Most of this predates September 11. To today's practically
unanimous chorus has been added the authority of the UN human
development report on the Arab world, which certified that Arabs
dramatically lag behind the rest of the world in democracy, knowledge
and women's rights.
Everyone says (with some justification, of course) that Islam needs
reform and that the Arab educational system is a disaster - in
effect, a school for religious fanatics and suicide bombers funded
not just by crazy imams and their wealthy followers (such as Osama
bin Laden) but also by governments who are the supposed allies of the
The only "good" Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying
modern Arab culture and society without reservation. I recall the
lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to
say about themselves or their people and language, they simply
regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves
and pages of print. We lack democracy, they say, wehaven't challenged
Islam enough, we need to do more about driving away the spectre of
Arab nationalism and the credo of Arab unity. That is all
discredited, ideological rubbish. Only what we and our American
instructors say about the Arabs and Islam - vague, recycled
Orientalist clichés repeated by tireless mediocrities such as Bernard
Lewis - are true, they insist. The rest isn't realistic or pragmatic
enough. "We" need to join modernity - modernity in effect being
western, globalised, free marketed, democratic, whatever those words
might be taken to mean. There would be an essay to be written about
the prose style of licensed academics like Fuad Ajami, Fawwaz Gerges,
Kanan Makiya, Shibli Talhami, Mamoon Fandy, whose very language reeks
of subservience, inauthenticity and the hopelessly stilted mimicry
that has been thrust upon them.
The clash of civilisations that George Bush and his minions are
trying to fabricate as a cover for a pre-emptive oil and hegemony war
against Iraq is supposed to result in a triumph of democratic nation-
building, regime change and forcible modernisation à l'Américaine.
Never mind the bombs and the ravages of the sanctions, which are
unmentioned. This will be a purifying war whose goal is to throw out
Saddam and his men and replace them with a redrawn map of the whole
region. New Sykes Picot. New Balfour. New Wilsonian 14 points. New
world altogether. Iraqis, we are told by the Iraqi dissidents, will
welcome their liberation, and perhaps forget entirely about their
past sufferings. Perhaps.
Meanwhile, the soul-and-body destroying situation in Palestine
worsens all the time. There seems no force capable of stopping Ariel
Sharon and his defence minister Shaul Mofaz, who bellow their
defiance to the whole world. We forbid, we punish, we ban, we break,
we destroy. The torrent of unbroken violence against an entire people
As I write these lines, I am sent an announcement that the village of
Al-Daba' in the Qalqilya area of the West Bank is about to be wiped
out by 60-tonne American-made Israeli bulldozers: 250 Palestinians
will lose their 42 houses, 700 dunums of agricultural land, a mosque
and an elementary school for 132 children. The UN stands by, looking
on as its resolutions are flouted on an hourly basis. Alas, George
Bush identifies with Sharon, not with the 16-year-old Palestinian kid
who is used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority offers a return to peacemaking
and, presumably, to Oslo. Having been burned for 10 years, Arafat
seems inexplicably to want to have another go at it. His faithful
lieutenants make declarations and write opinion pieces for the press,
suggesting their willingness to accept anything, more or less.
Remarkably, though, the great mass of this heroic people seems
willing to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding, going
hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and confidence
in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to Israel, as
their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging for the
average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than to see
his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?
In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the
utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole. The
American government and its servants issue statement after statement
of purpose, they move troops and material, they transport tanks and
destroyers, but the Arabs individually and collectively can barely
muster a bland refusal. At most they say no, you cannot use military
bases in our territory, only to reverse themselves a few days later.
Why is there such silence and such astounding helplessness? The
largest power in history is about to launch a war against a sovereign
Arab country now ruled by a dreadful regime, the clear purpose of
which is not only to destroy the Ba'ath regime but to redesign the
entire region. The Pentagon has made no secret that its plans are to
redraw the map of the whole Arab world, perhaps changing other
regimes and borders in the process. No one can be shielded from the
cataclysm if and when it comes. And yet, there is only long silence
followed by a few vague bleats of polite demurral in response.
Millions of people will be affected, yet America contemptuously plans
for their future without consulting them. Do we deserve such racist
This is not only unacceptable: it is impossible to believe. How can a
region of almost 300 million Arabs wait passively for the blows to
fall without attempting a collective roar of resistance? Has the Arab
will completely dissolved? Even a prisoner about to be executed
usually has some last words to pronounce. Why is there now no last
testimonial to an era of history, to a civilisation about to be
crushed and transformed utterly, to a society that, despite its
drawbacks and weaknesses, nevertheless goes on functioning?
Arab babies are born every hour, children go to school, men and women
marry and work and have children, they play and laugh and eat, they
are sad, they suffer illness and death. There is love and
companionship, friendship and excitement. Yes, Arabs are repressed
and misruled, terribly misruled, but they manage to go on with the
business of living despite everything. This is the reality that both
the Arab leaders and the US ignore when they fling empty gestures at
the so-called "Arab street" invented by banal Orientalists.
Who is now asking the existential questions about our future as a
people? The task cannot be left to a cacophony of religious fanatics
and submissive, fatalistic sheep. But that seems to be the case. The
Arab governments - no, most of the Arab countries from top to bottom -
sit back in their seats and just wait as America postures, lines up,
threatens and ships out more soldiers and F-16s to deliver the punch.
The silence is deafening.
Years of sacrifice and struggle, of bones broken in hundreds of
prisons and torture chambers from the Atlantic to the Gulf, families
destroyed, endless poverty and suffering. Huge, expensive armies. For
This is not a matter of party or ideology or faction: it's a matter
of what the great theologian Paul Tillich used to call ultimate
seriousness. Technology, modernisation and certainly globalisation
are not the answer for what threatens us as a people now. We have in
our tradition an entire body of secular and religious discourse that
treats of beginnings and endings, of life and death, of love and
anger, of society and history. This is there, but no voice, no
individual with great vision and moral authority seems able now to
tap into that and bring it to attention.
We are on the eve of a catastrophe that our political, moral and
religious leaders can only just denounce a little bit while, behind
whispers and winks and closed doors, they make plans somehow to ride
out the storm. They think of survival, and perhaps of heaven. But who
is in charge of the present, the worldly, the land, the water, the
air and the lives dependent on each other for existence? No one seems
to be in charge.
There is a wonderful expression that very precisely and ironically
catches our unacceptable helplessness, our passivity and inability to
help ourselves now when our strength is most needed. The expression
is: will the last person to leave please turn out the lights? We are
that close to a kind of upheaval that will leave very little standing
and perilously little left even to record, except for the last
injunction that begs for extinction.
Hasn't the time come for us collectively to demand and formulate a
genuinely Arab alternative to the wreckage about to engulf our world?
This is not only a trivial matter of regime change, although God
knows that we can do with quite a bit of that. Surely it can't be a
return to Oslo, another offer to Israel to please accept our
existence and let us live in peace, another cringing, crawling,
inaudible plea for mercy? Will no one come out into the light of day
to express a vision for our future that isn't based on a script
written by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, those two symbols of
vacant power and overweening arrogance? I hope someone is listening.
· Edward Said is professor of English and comparative literature at
Columbia University, New York. His books include Orientalism and
Covering Islam. His latest work, Parallels and Paradoxes, cowritten
with Daniel Barenboim, will be published by Bloomsbury in March