The Arab Spring: Tribute to People Who Value History

By Jamil Toubbeh

In his review of Margaret MacMillan’s book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2009), David Kennedy writes: humans live in history, a few write it, others read it; some are made or broken by it, most try to make use of it, “usually by ransacking the past for analogies to explain the present and to predict the future,” but most routinely botch it.

The late distinguished scholar, Ben E. Perry (1915-1970), had a passion for history, cultures, languages and a penchant for detail. In his excavation of cultures and languages he had the discipline of a humanist, perhaps matching that of Ibn Khaldun or Ibn al-Muqaffa. If the three were living today, they would  conclude that the Arab Spring represents a prelude to democracy and human  rights in the 21st century—the value in history to advance rather than destroy humankind.  

I met Perry in a small Spartan office in one of the old University of Illinois (Urbana) buildings, he and I separated by years of maturity, experience, wisdom and renown. I was a graduate student needing part-time employment and he, a world-renowned Professor of Classics, in need of someone versed in the Arabic language, culture and calligraphy. It was a good match and for me, a rare opportunity to access the mind and talent of someone who could become a mentor in a field as esoteric as Classics, though in my Arab veins Aesop’s fables, Bach’s lute music and Obama’s didactic orations intersect—a mindset not unique among Arabs in general.  Arab history lies between China and Spain (al-Andalus) and beyond.  Perry’s academic pursuits fell within the range and scope of that history, but he was also a model of the American I came to know during my years of acculturation and before America closed its book on international law and succumbed to corporate single-issue lobbies—creating an environment for nurturing institutional and human dinosaurs.

In 1955, Perry was working on his book, Secundus the Silent Philosopher (Cornel University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1964) and other texts that included Sindbad and Luqman, each with Arabic Christian or Muslim traditions. Perry was, by any measure of humanity, a cultured and civilized being whose greatest asset was his astute ability to differentiate between those who benefited from human history and those who trashed it—the human and institutional dinosaurs. He and I lived through those dinosaur periods. The secret Protocols of Sèvres that precipitated the Suez Crisis of October 29, 1956, was one such period

During this short historical period a herd of old and young dinosaurs congregated on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to topple Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and to reclaim Suez and beyond. The flags of Israel, France and the United Kingdom were hoisted over Egyptian sovereign land.  Apologists in the West–and there were many–welcomed the event: Nasser was selling body and soul to communism, ergo, he was viewed as a threat to world security.  (In 1956, the phrase “take’im out” and its variant “regime change”, were  not in the lingo yet).The crisis, a euphemism for aggression, was short-lived, Nasser was not toppled and Egypt survived as a nation. One of the few professors who had not supported the attack, Perry would not live to know that Eisenhower would be the only US president ever to order the aggressors, US allies, to retreat–and to survive the presidency. 

Perry was aware of his counterparts in history, one, a Muslim, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).  Ibn Khaldun is known to European scholars as one of the forerunners of modern history (especially political history), sociology, economics and jurisprudence. He and Ibn Khaldun shared a critical vision of human history and creativity, as well as the value of scientifically-driven inquiry. Ironically, Ibn Khaldun lived during the dawn of Western global colonization, especially of the Americas, while Perry, during the waning years of modern colonialism and the rise of US global neo-colonialism and hegemony, to wit, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, as well as the US involvement in Israel’s 1967 preemptive attacks on Egypt, Jordan and Syria. These attacks altered Arab perception of and trust in US foreign policies). Ben Perry died at a time when US-Arab and US-Muslim relationships were just a snowball rolling down the steep slopes of Mount Washington on its way to Israel River.  He died before the Stars and Stripes acquired a different shade of blue and long before the US Congress and the White House embraced virtual reality, the reality that neither he nor Ibn Khaldun would or could ever have entertained.  [Mount Washington and Israel River are located in the State of New Hampshire where the first primary elections for nominees for presidential elections are held].

Virtual reality informs of an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user/observer in such a way that he/she suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment. Throughout millennia, virtual realities have been created for deceased emperors, pharaohs or loved ones with elegant and costly hardware to ease their passage to the afterworld.  Egyptians sailed their unloved King Farouk to his virtual reality in Italy within, what Egyptian humorists would describe as “a decent trek for weight loss to the Riviera”. There are however, inherent dangers in virtual realities of past and present.  In Egypt some of the pharaohs lost some of their accoutrements before sailing into the sunlight of their respective hereafters. Today, creators of virtual realities would add heavenly-charged navigators to guide the human brain, soul and conscience to money and fame—all for the asking, with a commitment and a yea or a nay vote as ordered. 

To the unenlightened or to those who fear reality, virtual reality is the comfort zone of existence or even survival. This is true in charged political environments that create unlikely political allies to oppose a political system or policies. Before the advent of software, a large chunk of our lives was (and still is) a kind of virtual reality.  Televangelists use myths, legends and fables to create virtual realities for their faithful.  The Christian Right and Zionism with diametrically opposed agendas become allies on Jewish settlement in Palestine. Historic US policy opposes the settlements.  Obama’s eloquent Cairo address to the Arab and Muslim worlds was a virtual reality for US citizens. To his intended listeners, it was a Washington-made violin that lacked the timber of a finely crafted ‘oud (lute); his next stop, an extension of that virtual reality, proved it.  

Virtual reality induces euphoria, sometimes pathological, in exaggerated states as in the disorderly and uncivil execution of Saddam Hussein before the condemned was allowed to utter words of atonement, or his final wish. In a charged political arena where morality and money are currencies of exchange, a master of the virtual reality art can create an environment in which even the most enlightened are forced to toe the line.  In this regard, AIPAC is in step with the tobacco and oil industries, with one exception: drugs and oil don’t mix as well as religion or belief–in politics.  In the West, AIPAC has thrived on fundamental beliefs: America is the most religious country in the world.

On May 24, 2011 a human dinosaur, known for periodic hibernation in New York and Washington, DC, descended upon Capitol Hill to address the most prestigious body of legislators in the world, the US Congress. He was backed by AIPAC’s army of publicists and apologists trained in virtual reality, especially in the art of rewriting history, creating historical, cultural, or political parallels where there are none. The ears of his audience had already been fine-tuned to the nuances of his vocal cords.  He was a Menachem Begin lecturing President Jimmy Cater, a devout Christian and humanitarian, on the content of The Book.  AIPAC’s annual gathering had preceded Netanyahu’s well-crafted message lacking speakers’ occasional stammers. The PM was writing the history of Zionism and Israel and reciting it to an audience generally insular in and ignorant of world history and affairs but religiously inclined to accept myth in a virtual reality context.  AIPAC, Netanyahu’s home-away-from-home, is no longer an acronym for a goodwill organization: it is Washington’s giant Israeli baseball bat. And the PM was holding it in full view of his audience and the millions of listeners beyond awaiting visas to Heaven. Constructed on principles of virtual reality in days preceding the establishment of the Jewish state, AIPAC’s agendas are Israel’s, but the organization also serves as a beacon for the states on matters that affect Israel, regionally and globally.  Although originally registered as an organization that represents other than US direct interests, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has all the rights and privileges of any other single-issue organization, e.g. the American Federation of the Blind or the Susan G. Komen organization.  In terms of punch, its accessibility to power in Washington and big voter states competes with the best in the lobby industry.  AIPAC’s site home page defines chutzpah: it displays the Stars and Stripes and the Star of David side by side over Capitol Hill.

In addition to being a symbol of AIPAC’s power, Netanyahu’s message to the Congress echoed the somber tenor of a medieval Miracle Play and the exuberance of a Brazilian Carnival in Washington’s conservative attire, both of which combined to make myths reality and history a trash bin of human intellectual endeavors.  Each of the 29 standing ovations represented a “Hail Mary” (in American football) that bounced off the goal posts of the world and landed in the Field of Apartheid on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.  The incongruous is an important element in comedy, but when the surreal displaces the incongruous, the comedy loses its intrinsic value, the moral. In Netanyahu’s virtual reality, America’s democratic ideals are Israel’s ideals; in fact those ideals are anachronistic. A more appropriate analogy would be the ideals of an Arab demonstrator in any capital of the Arab world. Israel’s racism is an institutional dinosaur trapped in a time warp.   

Some 1200 years ago, Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s constructed and reconstructed fables from the past in his famous Kalila wa [and] Dimna, a book that inspired, 800 years later, Jean de La Fontaine’s fable, ands perhaps still l later, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  The authors had a sense for humanity that could capture the interest of a Ben Perry or an Ibn Khaldun. The animals in Kalila wa Dimna and Animal Farm are terrestrial creatures with human traits. The fables are a record of sorts of human history with a moral, a value.  Although these elements may comprise a virtual reality, the underlying purpose of the former is clearly to educate and present reality in a context that is easier to understand and use, especially in one’s formative years.  One can understand the irony in Netanyahu’s address when he uttered the virtual reality myth that a return to the 1967 borders would jeopardize the state’s security at a time when the state has state-of-art weapons of mass destruction.  The statement is not only a myth, it is botched history of UN resolutions and stated policies of the US—Israel’s “sugar daddy”.  The myth, unfortunately, drew the longest standing ovation, underscoring the US Congress’ irreverence of the UN and Geneva Protocols.   

Although human dinosaurs have common traits, a few are trapped in unusual time warps where their virtuosity as dinosaurs surpasses all other like dinosaurs.  The 20th and 21st centuries had witnessed a few. In less than 50 years Mao Tse-Tung, Stalin, Hitler etal caused, directly or indirectly, the death of an estimated 100 million people. Mao topped the list with 25 million.  Estimating correlate human miseries, including disinheritance, would only place the dead at risk of being insignificant.  Nearly all Israeli leaders have been and still are, caught in unusual time warps. The Zionist slogan, used also by Christian Zionists, “a land without a people for a people without a land” inspired Jabotinsky’s call to ethnic cleanse Palestine because he, and other Zionists before and after him, knew that 95 percent of the land of Palestine was owned and inhabited by Palestinians, whether under Ottoman or British rule.  The violence associated with ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, past and ongoing, has been overlooked by Western governments and societies either because of historic treatment of Jews in the West (and in the Soviet Union/Russia) or because of religious beliefs. This cultural-political phenomenon has become one of the accepted anachronisms in modern democracy, especially in the US.  The cultural-political element was apparent in the US Congress’ response to Netanyahu’s message (he received four more standing ovations than President Obama) and the White House’ rejection of the Goldstone report on the consequences of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza as well as the author’s subsequent reconsideration of his own facts and findings. A corollary of this cultural-political phenomenon is the tendency among some Western leaders to displace Israel’s violence (or political aims) on victims of the state’s violence, using presumed surrogates of these victims, Lebanese/Hezbollah, Palestinians/PLO-Hamas, Iraqi/Hussein, Muslims/bin Laden-Taliban, etc.   

The Arab Spring has been successful in ridding the Arab world of at least two human dinosaurs nurtured for decades by the West.  Syria’s human dinosaur, Assad, is demonstrating his virtuosity as a dinosaur equal to that of the best modern dinosaurs.  His brutality against his own unarmed countrymen is now proverbial.  While he may not wish to be associated with his neighbor to the south, he is nonetheless contributing to his rival’s hegemony in the Arab world.  As a resident of one of the oldest extant cities in human history, he continues to write his own vacuous history in blood while botching Syria’s contributions to modern history. Assad’s personal history, by contrast, gives deeper meaning to freedom, democracy and human rights, and underscores the relevance and significance of the Arab Spring.  Assad’s center of power, Damascus (the City of Jasmine”, carbon 14 dating to 6300 BC and evidence of existence dating to 9000 BC) has a reputation for being a center of learning matching that of Baghdad, Alexandria and Cairo, Kairawan (Tunisia) and Cordoba (Andalusia, Spain).  That history runs deep in the veins and sinews of Syria’s and Arab demonstrators elsewhere in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring will outlast institutional and human dinosaurs. Because humans live in history, there will always be a Ben Perry to explore and document it, an Ibn Khaldun to expound on it, and an ibn al-Muqaffa to humanize it and draw moral examples from it.  To date, the Arab Spring has shown that institutional and human dinosaurs are self-destructive.

– Jamil Toubbeh is author of Day of the Long Night, (McFarland & Co. Publishers), a Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the Eagle Feather for work on Native American disability policy. He is currently Senior Researcher in cancer health disparities at Center for Asian Health, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. He contributed this article to

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