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  Vol. 2  /  2004                                A JOURNAL OF POLITICS AND THE ARTS      


The Closed Circle:
An Interpretation of the Arabs*

David Pryce-Jones

* Originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK, 1989),
Reprint editions: Phoenix Books (UK, 2002),
Harper and Row (US, 1989), Ivan R. Dee (US, 2002)

Elie Kedourie:

“As the violence of the Middle East has come to America, many Westerners are stunned and confounded by this new form of mayhem that appears to be a feature of Arab societies. This important book explains how Arabs are closed in a circle defined by tribal, religious, and cultural traditions. David Pryce-Jones examines the forces that drive the Arabs in their dealings with each other and with the West. In the postwar world, he argues, the Arabs reverted to age-old tribal and kinship structures from which they have been unable to escape. In tribal society, loyalty is extended to close kin and other members of the tribe. The successful nation state – the model that Westerners understand – generates broader loyalties, but the tribal world has no institutions that have evolved by common consent for the common good. Those who seek power achieve it by plotting secretly and ruthlessly eliminating their rivals. In the Arab world, violence is systemic.

“As with the best historical works, The Closed Circle is the outcome and the resolution, of a puzzlement. David Pryce-Jones has been observing the Arab world for many years... The reader...will find himself in contact with an original and reflective mind, the product of which is refreshing and most stimulating.”

Postscript 1990-2003

In the Arab world, the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991 had momentous and immediate implications. Arab power holders had long been accustomed to extracting arms and subsidies in pursuit of their personal policies by taking positions or maneuvering between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. In the first decade or so of his rule, Saddam Hussein had been able to profit by playing one superpower against the other. Hafez Assad in Syria, and Yasser Arafat for the Palestinians, had staked their future on Soviet supremacy in the Cold War; Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family had on the contrary aligned themselves with the United States. American moral and political support for Israel complicated the choices open to Arab power holders, and the relationships between them. Nonetheless, a time has arrived quite unexpectedly in which the bitter cycles of enmity in the whole Middle East might ease, and even come into realignment. Arab power holders who correctly calculated the shifts in the balance of power could expect rewards, while whoever miscalculated would be punished.

The far-reaching might of the Soviet Union, moreover, and the tens of millions of victims left in its wake, had long appeared to testify to the efficacy of the premier example of the single-party police state. But now this archetype of despotism had imploded in a welter of elections, parliaments and assertions of democracy. The immense Soviet security apparatus could not save Mikhail Gorbachev from Boris Yeltsin. In one sense, Yeltsin was utterly familiar in Middle Eastern perspectives as a careerist challenger, a former colleague who aspired to absolute power; in another sense, Yeltsin offered a dire warning that people would reject absolutism and tyranny if only someone had the strength of character and the appeal to mobilize them.

With his unlimited appetite for power, Saddam Hussein was quick to grasp that the ebbing of the Cold War offered opportunities for independent action and aggrandizement hitherto blocked by the superpowers. Early in 1990, he sent for the American ambassador, April Glaspie, and in somewhat veiled terms revealed that he had a grievance with Kuwait. Afterwards, the ambassador stressed her opinion that she had not mislaid Saddam Hussein, but he at least drew the conclusion that the United States would adopt no position in any inter-Arab dispute. That August, he invaded Kuwait, driving its ruling family into exile, arresting many men, some hundreds of whom were never seen again, pillaging the national museum and the national bank, and finally declaring that henceforth, Kuwait was to be an integral province of Iraq.

Had integration been a peaceful process agreed between the parties, then of course everyone else would have had to accept a fait accompli. Commentators began to speak of Saddam as an Arab Bismarck. He preferred to let it be known that he saw himself as a pupil of Stalin’s. The elimination of one member state of the United Nations by another had no precedent. Intelligence reports further indicated that Saddam was within measurable distance of acquiring a nuclear weapon, thus perpetuating at least a regional balance of power in his favor. The United States, under President George Bush, formed a coalition, moved troops to Saudi Arabia, and in a swift campaign in March 1991, liberated Kuwait. In a way that would have been unimaginable only a few years earlier, the fading Soviet leadership and the rising Russian leadership both accepted without demur this dramatic projection of American power in the Middle East.

The more or less general expectation was that the United States would, without delay, advance on Baghdad, eliminate Saddam one way or another, and free the people of Iraq to choose a regime for themselves. In anticipation of such moves, the Iraqi Shi`a and Kurds rose in rebellion. Abstaining from assisting this uprising, the United States surprisingly allowed Saddam to retain his elite military formations and helicopters, in effect leaving him a free hand to do his worst. Soon Saddam’s forces had killed many tens of thousands more Shi`a and Kurds, shelling historic mosques in the process. They further drained the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates, putting an end to the ancient way of life of the Marsh Arabs.

President Clinton inherited this stand-off from President Bush. Very much a man of the 1960s, he believed in making love, not war. American policy dwindled to “containment” of Saddam, with such expedients as sanctions and a no-fly zone for Iraqi aircraft, and expensive and abortive attempts by the CIA to mount a coup. The United Nations succeeded in sending inspectors to Iraq to search out Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Quite what proportion of these weapons they destroyed remains uncertain, but in any case, by means of extended manipulations and deceptions, Saddam weakened their mission, and finally expelled them from the country. Outstandingly illustrating how the will of an absolute ruler can triumph over half-hearted democratic procedures, Saddam had managed to convert a shattering defeat into victory.

In Arab and Muslim eyes, the United States had proved not only weak but also devious and unpredictable. The crushing of Saddam was understandable as an exercise of power, but what could be the purpose of despatching half a million men around the world only to leave him in place? The answer came from an unexpected source. Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors in Iran were certain that the United States was out to destroy Islam, and was seeking a firm base in the region for that purpose. To them, the Americans were in the age-old image of crusaders. Again, there was no rational motivation for the supposed anti-Islamic crusade, and the only possible explanation of it was the innate bad character of Americans. The ayatollahs disposed of the resources of an oil-rich state to spread an ever more generalized fear and hate of the entire West, and to mobilize the whole of Islam against it with whatever tactics of terror were available. They sent hit men to assassinate opponents or critics at home and abroad, they aided Muslim extremists in the civil wars in Sudan and Algeria, they armed and directed groups such as Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, and finally they embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons.

The natural counterweight to Shi`a Iran in the Gulf is Sunni or Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. In earlier Cold War years, both countries had been considered “pillars” of American foreign policy. Iranian anti-American animus increasingly drove the United States to rely on Saudi Arabia and the garrison maintained there. Tension grew between Iran and Saudi Arabia to the point that Iranians were forbidden to make the pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. But the Saudi royal family and its beneficiaries also paid the ayatollahs the compliment of imitation in the name of Islamic solidarity, spending billions of their petrodollars on building mosques and paying the salaries of propagandizing Wahhabi imams in Christian as well as Islamic countries, financing religious schools or madrassas which fuelled religious fanaticism – 7,000 in Pakistan alone, almost as many in Indonesia, and some as far afield as Bosnia, Chechnya and the Philippines.

Worldwide competition of the kind encouraged all those Muslims who believe that Islam is more a political ideology than a religious faith. Their Islamism demands militancy, jihad against unbelievers (a category which includes Muslims of whom they happen to disapprove as either heretical or Westernized). Blending expectations with threats, they have appropriated a high proportion of the available Iranian and Saudi dollars, and supplemented their funds by other criminal means, including drug running. Islamist ideology overwhelmed Algeria in a civil war which had claimed perhaps as many as 200,000 victims. For the 20 years and more during which he has ruled Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has resorted to military law to keep local Islamists in check. Every Muslim country now has its Islamist groups along the lines of the Taliban, al Qai`dah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizbullah. R. Hrair Dekmejian, an expert on the subject, has identified no less than 175 such groups. Some are out in the open, others secretive, not to say conspiratorial. “Islam will dominate the world” is a popular Islamist slogan. This appeal may lack the universality of Communism, but organizational methods and belief in the legitimacy of force to gain their ends are common to the two ideologies.

Many Muslims have ambiguous feelings about the West. The wish to share Western standards of living goes with bitterness about the poverty and inequality of their own societies. Islamism appeals directly only to a minority of Muslims, but it has altered the social climate. In the course of the 1990s, immense sums of money which could have been spent on development instead served to inflate a generalized resentment of the West and its friends into an armed cause. Put at its simplest, Western demand for oil returned to the West in the form of violence and terror.


* * *


Yasser Arafat’s miscalculations were multiple. In the 1991 Gulf War, he backed Saddam Hussein vociferously. “Oh Saddam, strike Tel Aviv,” Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza accordingly chanted when a number of Scud missiles were fired over their heads at Israel, in fact doing little damage. In retaliation, some hundreds of thousands of unfortunate Palestinians were then summarily expelled from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A friendless and exposed Arafat consented to a peace process, initiated and negotiated secretly through intermediaries in Oslo, and culminated in a grand ceremony in September 1993, with the signing of agreements on the White House lawn under the expectant eye of President Clinton. On behalf of the PLO, Arafat was to renounce violence, while Israel agreed to withdraw according to a somewhat complicated time-governed agenda from territories which had fallen into its hands as a result of the 1967 war. As envisaged since the days of the British Mandate, there was to be a two-state solution. Arafat and his interlocutors from the Israeli Labor Party, Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, duly received the Nobel Peace Prize. Arafat himself returned from exile in Tunis to headquarters in Jericho, then Gaza City, and finally Ramallah. Hope triumphed briefly over experience.

A public relations maestro, Arafat has been all things to all men, and it may prove impossible ever to establish whether he was sincere in embarking on a peace process, or duplicitous. Critics certainly existed within the PLO, and in Hamas, which only a few months after the White House ceremony once more resorted to violence. In New York, Edward Said set what became increasingly the fashion among intellectuals when he condemned the peace process as the “Palestinian Versailles”. (In much the same spirit, an Israeli fanatic was to assassinate Rabin as a “traitor”.) In 1996, Arafat was elected head, or President, of the Palestinian Authority. The rival candidate was an elderly lady, but the election nonethless gave Arafat an aura of legitimacy to speak for the Palestinians, and engage them in peace-making, if he so chose. Certainly nation-building was hardly his first preoccupation. According to estimates, he has siphoned off sums of the order of millions, if not billions, of dollars into accounts on which he has the signature, and he uses this money for his own political ends, including the buying of favors and paying the various security services on which his power depends. Imprisonment and even murder await those who overstep the limits in expressing opinions against Arafat. Although small-scale, the PA is as authoritarian and corrupt as any fully fledged Arab one-man regime.

Terror attacks against Israel also turned 1996 into a bloody year. In other parts of the world, and at other times, there had been suicide bombers. Some sheikhs and imams have glorified suicide bombers, but others have condemned them on the grounds that suicide is prohibited in Islam. Furthermore, whoever kills himself or herself in such a way cannot ascertain whether the sacrifice of life has promoted the cause, or on the contrary led to revulsion against it, and so stiffened the opponents’ resolve. Dealing with the phenomenon, one Israeli government after the other has gone round in circles: Arafat was responsible for law and order, they maintained, and so they cracked down on him to fulfil the obligations to which he was ostensibly committed. Arafat replied that the majority of the suicide bombers were Islamists (though there is evidence of co-ordination with PLO groups), and Israel should strengthen rather than weaken him if he is to police Hamas or other jihadists.

Ehud Barak became Prime Minister of Israel in 1999, and one of his immediate decisions was to withdraw Israeli forces and Lebanese proxies from a buffer zone which they had been occupying in southern Lebanon, and where they were in almost daily conflict with Hizbullah, the proxy of Iran and Syria. The withdrawal occurred in haste and confusion, but Barak presented it both as prudent and an expression of good will. To Hizbullah, Hamas and the PLO, Israel appeared to be making a concession in return for nothing, that is to say on the run. To President Clinton, here was an opening for a revived peace process, and the implementation at last of the two-state solution. Summoning Arafat and Barak to Camp David in July 2000, he exerted maximum persuasion. Improvising as he went along, Barak offered concession after concession (which the Israeli electorate might well have rejected) to find that Arafat pocketed them and asked for more. The negotiations petered out inconsequentially and rancorously. At the end of the process, Arafat praised Clinton as a great man, and Clinton is alleged to have replied, “I’m a colossal failure and you made me one.” The United States might be the one and only superpower, Islamists and their supporters concluded, but it still could not achieve its declared aims.

Evidence again suggests that Arafat believed peace would bring him only some agreed share of Palestine, whereas by means of war, he could hope to shatter the Jewish state, turn the clock of history back and rule over the whole of Palestine. At his instigation, a second intifada began in the aftermath of the Camp David fiasco. “The flag of Palestine will fly over Jerusalem,” he proclaimed tirelessly to all willing to listen, calling for “a million martyrs”. The undisputed national leader who could have brought into being a Palestinian state instead chose to undo the work of his career, leaving his people to pay the price. His historic role, then, has been to avoid compromise.

Over a period of three years, rather more than 100 suicide bombers and other terrorists have killed not far short of 1,000 Israelis, and wounded many more. Palestinian casaualties have been three or four times higher. The suicide bombers for the most part are young, well-educated students or sometimes professional people; very few of them are from the poorer strata of the society. Committing themselves to their lethal mission, they make a confessional video on behalf of those who have recruited them. These films reveal intense one-dimensional or brain-washed personalities, far outside the realm of reason or humanity, in the grip of a death cult. They are consummating the terrible saying often heard in Palestinian circles: “The world is ruined, let it be more ruined.” This despair is presented as heroic, to that the younger generation is educated and conditioned to hate Jews, and from there it develops into a generalized anti-Semitism in the wider Arab and Muslim world. No state, nation or constructive future of any kind can come out of such nihilism, only nothingness.


* * *


Like Soviet dissidents before them, Arab intellectuals have to go in fear of their liberty and lives. Many have found refuge in exile. Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi, is one, an academic in America and the author of two courageous and coruscating books, Republic of Fear in 1986, and Cruelty and Silence in 1993. More than anyone else, he brought to public attention the anfal, or campaign of atrocities which Saddam Hussein waged against his own people, with the officially sanctioned murder of at least 100,000 non-combattant Kurds. (Edward Said, himself an academic in America, accused Makiya of being a Mossad agent.) Makiya was the first to ask the crucial question, “What historical function did all this extra violence serve ?”

One and all, the Arab states are incomplete, partially formed, neither defined nor defended by proper institutions or jurisdictions, and therefore at the mercy of the power holder. “What is law?” Saddam Hussein once asked rhetorically, to give the answer, “Two lines of writing above my signature.” Violence is inescapably a prime instrument of government, and it has the very clear historical function of perpetuating power, endlessly renewing itself in repetitive cycles of bloodletting. In one perspective, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat are inhuman killers; in another perspective, they are only doing what the incompleteness of the state and its social ties would oblige anyone else in their position to do.

Long ago, al-Hajjaj, a notoriously cruel governor of Baghdad, warned his subjects against having a will of their own: “I see heads before me that are ripe and ready for the plucking, and I am the one to pluck them, and I see blood glistening between the turbans and the beards…I swear by God that you will keep strictly to the true path, or I shall punish every man of you in his body.” Makiya also quotes a Baathist official addressing a crowd in a Baghdad square in 1969, where corpses were dangling on lamp-posts:

The Iraq of today shall no more tolerate any traitor, spy, agent or fifth columnist! You foundling Israel, you imperialist Americans, and you Zionists, hear me! We will discover all your dirty tricks! We will punish your agents! We will hang all your spies, even if there are thousands of them.

Ayman al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian doctor who has become Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Afghanistan with al Qai`dah. In a recently published booklet with the title, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, he writes,

Tracking down the Americans and the Jews is not impossible. Killing them with a single bullet, a stab, or a device made up of explosives or killing them with an iron rod is not impossible. Burning down their property with Molotov cocktails is not difficult. With the available means, small groups could prove to be a frightening horror for the Americans and the Jews.

An essential component driving this violence continues to be the appeal to honor, and the corresponding disavowal of shame. In the absence of socially and politically agreed possibilities of self-expression, the individual needs to rescue his dignity, at whatever level of the society he finds himself. Otherwise, he has no identity, he becomes an object, perceiving himself as unworthy, fit to be abused. Saddam Hussein told an American television interviewer, “We will maintain our honor, the honor that is required in front of our people.” In the course of a pre-war broadcast, a sentence of his such as “May the infidels, the enemies of God and humanity be shamed,” takes for granted a popular appeal. So too an Iraqi tank commander destroying a statue of Saddam could say conversely, “What has befallen us of defeat, shame and humiliation, Saddam, is the result of your follies, your miscalculations and your irresponsible actions.” Arafat can count on the appeal to “daily humiliations”, saying with marked exaggeration that “the Palestinians are the only people in the world still living under foreign occupation,” and going on to ask, “How is it possible that the entire world can tolerate this oppression, discrimination and humiliation?” The rhetoric of shame and honor particularly infuses his speeches. Questioned about his possible expulsion by Israel from the West Bank, he indulged in a classic example of the style: “To a remote area! To the desert! They are most welcome. ‘Oh Mountain! The wind cannot shake you.’ They will not take me captive or prisoner, or expel [me], but as a martyr, martyr, martyr. ‘Oh Allah, give me martyrdom.’” In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei describes the intifada as “a blessing from God that fittingly humiliated the power-mongering Zionists”.

Cartoons regularly depict Israelis and Americans as cowards or as Nazis. A senior official of Islamic Jihad spoke of a suicide bombing which killed 15 people in a Jerusalem pizza restaurant as “a successful operation against pigs and monkeys”. One day in August 2003, an Israeli force including tanks occupied a part of Jenin, in the process incurring 13 casualties and killing 52 Palestinians, most of them armed terrorists whom they were seeking out. When the operation ended and the Israeli troops withdrew, the crowd rushed out shouting, “Victory is ours.” The secretary-general of the Palestinian cabinet said on television, “We hope that the Israelis have learned the lesson,” and the local leader of Islamic Jihad exclaimed, “We fought very bravely and forced the Zionist soldiers to retreat in disgrace.” And the mother of a recent suicide bomber, a lawyer by profession, characteristically greeted her daughter’s death with the words, “May God bless her; she made us raise our heads high.”

An Arab intellectual in exile observed in a letter to a British newspaper in March 2003 that all Arab countries are “undifferentiated cruel despotisms”. In this plight, he continued, what is left to people is honor. Their identity is at stake, even at risk, until such time as political processes evolve, and successful power-sharing and nation-building introduces values more open to compromise, not requiring defense through violence.


* * *


Nineteen ninety-three saw a preliminary bomb explosion against the World Trade Center in New York which claimed only a handful of victims; those who committed it were arrested and sent to prison. There followed attacks on American soldiers in a barracks in Saudi Arabia, on embassies in East Africa, and on a warship. Loss of life mounted. Slowly, Osama bin Laden emerged as the organizer of this sustained campaign, the first person to use Islamism as the pretext to mount a careerist challenge against the United States.

He began to issue fatwas or declarations of war, as in this example in 1998: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country.”

In his late 40s, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, one of the many sons of an entrepreneur who had close ties to the Saudi royal family and had made a fortune as a building contractor. Tall, well-mannered, speaking and writing a stylish Arabic, Osama bin Laden had some familiarity with the West. As an adult he seems to have been influenced by the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of Sayyid Qutb in particular. Such sources convinced him too that Christians and Jews are in unholy conspiracy against Islam. But Islamism had defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, he held in flat rejection of the American input to that campaign, and would surely prove irresistable everywhere. Broken after the fighting and the consequent civil war, the country was in the grip of Mullah Muhammad Omar and the Taliban, enforcing an Islamist dictatorship as cruel as any. In concert with Mullah Omar and the Taliban, bin Laden sought refuge in Kabul and built up al Qai`dah. It is said that he may have trained as many as 50,000 followers recruited from the whole range of Muslim countries. The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a specific grievance, and it may well be that his ultimate objective was to seize power in his own country.

To President Clinton, this challenge appeared too improbable, too unequal to take very seriously, and he ordered only token gestures of self-defense. In reality, bin Laden was preparing meticulously to strike the United States. On September 11 2001, 19 al Qai`dah terrorists, all but four of them Saudis, hijacked aircraft and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; targets carefully selected for their prestige. Rather more than 3,000 people were killed indiscriminately.

Not just a massive act of terror, here was a rejection of America, its way of life, and everything it stood for. In bin Laden’s imagination, as he reiterates in videos which he releases, Christians and Jews are engaged in a conspiracy against Islam, and Muslims therefore have the God-given duty of killing them. For him, here is a true war of civilizations. Saddam Hussein did not share bin Laden’s nightmare, but for power and political reasons was every bit as willing to support violence against the United States. It fell to the second President Bush to correct his predecessor Clinton’s superficiality concerning bin Laden, and his own father’s heedlessness of Saddam Hussein. In swift and successive campaigns, American forces occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. In the latter case, the official Egyptian newspaper al Ahram crowed about “heroic Iraqis ready to fight to the last drop of their blood”, while a commentator on Syrian television said, “Iraq has inflicted major losses on the coalition forces, and the Americans and British are suffering a defeat they will never forget.” The demands of honor are shown to be capable of nothing less than the negation of reality.

In the manner of past imperial powers, the United States is now in civil and military control of Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike previous imperial powers, however, the United States is not bent on conquest but aspires to remake those countries into independent nation-states, if possible democratic or pluralist in some form or other, at least with decision-making not exclusively the prerogative of the strong. The Islamist depiction of the world – so static, so schematic – is likely one day to vanish, as fantasies do. Absolutism is another matter. In Iran, in Saudi Arabia and Syria, absolute rulers give every indication that they will fight to the death against reform which introduces power-sharing. Should the United States succeed in endowing Iraq with some form of democratic self-government, then the example must transform the society and its values far and wide. Israel and the Palestinians are folded into this self-same position. Each in its way, the United States and Israel are exerting a very real pressure on Arabs and Muslims to define what it means to be a Muslim in today’s world. If this involved mere conspiracy, Arabs and Muslims could safely ignore it; actually here is the search for the identity on which their future depends.