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July 13, 2006 · Washington Babylon · Previous · Next  

“A Statue to Reason”

By Ken Silverstein

“A person in Lebanon who reads my blog,” wrote As'ad AbuKhalil, the person behind the provocative Angry Arab News Service weblog, “was surprised when I told her that I don't write my long rants under drug influence.” As a fan of AbuKhalil, I can empathize with that woman. Sometimes the Lebanese blogger can drift into a furious stream of consciousness that lacks paragraph breaks or other typographic niceties, so it wouldn't be illogical for a casual reader to assume that AbuKhalil is under the influence. But he's actually a terrific writer and an insightful political analyst—and he offers a viewpoint that's been all but shut out of mainstream coverage of the Middle East.

AbuKhalil, who moved to the United States in 1983 and earned his Ph.D. from Georgetown University, is now a political science professor at California State University and currently a visiting professor at Berkeley. At first glance, his political thinking is hard to categorize. First and foremost he is an advocate for the Palestinian people and scathing in his denunciations of Israel and of American foreign policy in the Middle East. “Israel and the U.S.,” he wrote in one posting, “will drag a deadly process (they will call it ‘peace process’ for sure) for years if not more, and Israel will continue what it has not stopped doing since 1948 (and earlier): killing Arabs at will.”

AbuKhalil also wrote a fascinating critique of the controversial paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. His analysis pointed out some of the contradictions in the paper—most notably that the authors seemed “intent on blaming all the ills in U.S. foreign policy on the Israeli lobby.” Nor is AbuKhalil indulgent of Arab governments or movements. He denounces the corruption of the Fatah party and the “vulgar anti-Jewish references” that come from Hamas's pronouncements and publications. Still, he adds, “If Hamas has practiced versions of indiscriminate and aimless violence—which I personally reject on principle—it should be pointed out that Israeli terrorism—in scale and in magnitude—by far exceeds that of Hamas, but nobody has noticed here in the U.S.”

I interviewed AbuKhalil by phone earlier this week, soon after he had returned from a trip to Lebanon. He described himself as a former Marxist-Leninist, now an anarchist, who has learned the “pitfalls of dogmatism.” He told me that he invariably upsets many of his readers, “including my Arab audience, which used to be the most enthusiastic and now are the most frustrated. They assume I should use my platform to espouse an Arab party line but—while I will never abandon my defense of Palestinian rights—I'll also criticize Arab anti-Semitism. I have no agenda other than to express my own views, as eccentric and unrepresentative as they are.”

AbuKhalil scorns the way the American left has addressed the problems of the Middle East. “It's not ignorance, it's malfeasance,” he said. “There's an obligation on the part of the left to critically evaluate American intervention abroad. During the 1980s, the left was quite vocal and active in [opposing] intervention in South Africa and Latin America. Compare that with its cowardly, weak and perfunctory expressions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. You hear people saying things like ‘why can't the Palestinians just compromise’ and ‘why can't everyone just get along.’”

The attitudes of the left, said AbuKhalil, reflect American popular and political culture, which he sees as anti-Arab and pro-Israel. A depressing example, he said, came in 1982 when he was 22 years old and living in Beirut. “The city,” he told me, “was being bombed and attacked [by Israel] and I read in the newspaper that Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda were on an Israeli warship entertaining Israeli troops.”

AbuKhalil believes that the media is also biased against the Arab viewpoint and shows “more than a tinge of racism” in its coverage of the Middle East. He discussed Israel's ongoing attacks in the Gaza Strip following the kidnapping of an Israeli solder two weeks ago: “The fact that the plight of one Israeli soldier has generated more press attention than around 10,000 Palestinian prisoners shows that some people are more [worthy] than others. For the media, Arabs are definitely cheaper than Israelis.”

The Middle East coverage of mainstream media like the New York Times and CNN annoys AbuKhalil more than the reporting of conservative outlets like FOX News or The New Republic. “With the blatantly politically advertised media, the consumer is alerted to the ideological agenda, but with the so-called ‘objective’ and ‘professional’ media, the ability to lie, deceive, and manipulate is greater,” he said. “This is why I worry more about CNN than about FOX News, as sinister as the latter is.” In a posting on Wednesday he wrote: “When editorials in even liberal pages mention Palestine, they always do so in the form of demands and expectations of the Palestinians. U.S. media succeed in helping Israel turn its killing and occupation into routine, a daily routine: the brutal venture of occupation is now routinized.”

AbuKhalil wants a secular state for Arabs, Jews, and Christians in the Middle East but said a one-state solution—an option that in the 1970s was seriously discussed—may no longer be realizable. “Israeli violence has made it impossible,” he said. “I worry about the future for Jews in the Middle East, that the actions of Israel have pushed [Arab] people to extremes.”

His views, he said, are also incompatible with those espoused by Hamas. “I'm neither a fan of Hamas's ideology nor of its practices,” he told me. “I don't believe it has credible solutions or an ideology that can unite Palestinians in a national struggle to regain their land. That said, in the current crisis I view Hamas as a victim, not a culprit.”

AbuKhalil is suspicious of all religious movements, whether Islamic, Jewish or otherwise. “During the French revolution, the Jacobins wanted to erect a statue to reason in place of a statue to religion,” he said. “That's an attitude that would be useful today, especially with all the religious fervor and fanaticism we are seeing.”


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