• Current Edition

Interviews

The Ubiquity of Ideology

An interview with Hazem Saghieh, Lebanese journalist
An interview with Hazem Saghieh, Lebanese journalist
An interview with Hazem Saghieh, Lebanese journalist

An interview with Hazem Saghieh, Lebanese journalist

Hazem Saghieh is a senior columnist and editor at Al-Hayat daily. He is also the author of many books that range in topics from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, to the Lebanese Civil War, to Hezbollah and its arms. He lives in Beirut and is also one of the founders and writers of Kalamon, a quarterly Beirut-based cultural publication that covers political, cultural and social issues in Lebanon and in the wider region.

The Majalla: How do you see the uprisings in the region and where do you think they are going to lead?

I believe the uprisings are the product of many factors. One of them is the contradiction between very aging regimes and a very youthful population. Our societies nowadays resemble kindergartens in the sense that between 60 and 70 percent of the population are less than 25 years old. At the same time, all the rulers are either dying or hospitalizing themselves. The Ba’athist regime in Syria was established in 1963; in Libya, the Qadhafi regime was imposed in 1969; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak took rule in 1981 but he goes back to the 1953 July coup d’état, and so on. So, this contradiction is quite natural to explode.

The main factor that helped this explosion to take place is also composed of many aspects. One is the globalization revolution. This globalized dimension made people worldwide closer to each other, and able to see what is going on in the rest of the world, and to draw comparisons among different countries and societies. Two, because of the size of the youthful population, and because the youth are very much identified with pride, and individualism, it became much more difficult to accept inheritance of power in supposedly republican regimes. Three, the economic problem has reached unprecedented levels. And then, there is the national humiliation. For example, a country like Egypt looked as if it has no foreign policy, and the main concern for Egypt was how to fight Sudan, the problem regarding Gaza, or networks related to Hezbollah. The Egyptian regime very much belittled Egypt, and you can feel the bitter reality that Egypt is not anymore an actor in engineering the picture of the Middle East.

Hazem Saghieh is a senior columnist and editor at Al-Hayat daily. He is also the author of many books that range in topics from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, to the Lebanese Civil War, to Hezbollah and its arms. He lives in Beirut and is also one of the founders and writers of Kalamon, a quarterly Beirut-based cultural publication that covers political, cultural and social issues in Lebanon and in the wider region.

Q: What is the future of these uprisings, are they going to result in modern states based on real democracy and reforms?

This is a very difficult question, because dealing with these movements as if they were one is a bit exaggerated or at least not as accurate as it should be. There is a certain level of harmony between the compositions of the populations, but there are differences. In Egypt, the small but sizeable Coptic minority, which amounts to 10 percent of the population, could create a problem in building a future for Egypt, a future based on certain consensus. The same could be said about Tunisia where there is a regional contradiction between the coastal area and the desert, but it seems that the Tunisians are going to surpass this problematic issue, maybe because of the progress that was achieved by the Bourguiba era, which empowered the Tunisians to bridge this gap.

When it comes to societies like Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it is different. They resemble Sudan much more than they do Egypt and Tunisia, in the sense that in these societies, the sectarian, religious and regional contradictions are much bigger than in Egypt and Tunisia. The Bahrain problem is between Sunnis and Shi’ites. In Yemen, you have the South and North Yemen problem, and also inside North Yemen there is this conflict between the Hashid and Bakim tribes. In Libya, you have the Benghazi—Tripoli schism. So, the corrupt and despotic regimes put real effort to keep these contradictions, to perpetuate them, and to accentuate them, and unfortunately they succeeded in doing so, making it much easier for them to survive and much more difficult to make changes. For this reason, I do believe that those regimes can simultaneously harm the past because they realized history, the present because they rule people in a very despotic and corrupt way, and also the future because they make movement towards the future much more difficult with the current problems.

Q: In your youth you supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and last year you wrote a book criticizing the culture of arms and resistance. How do you think the culture of resistance changed during these years, and is it becoming an end in itself?

I believe that between the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and nowadays, there were some very important events which reveal some truth which we were blind to. One of them as far as we are concerned has to do with the Iranian Revolution itself, because it turned out to be a theological regime, which has minimal link with the outside world. It is very repressive, semi-totalitarian and at the same time defends itself by using two main instruments, arms and ideology.

I believe that between the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and nowadays, there were some very important events which reveal some truth which we were blind to. One of them as far as we are concerned has to do with the Iranian Revolution itself, because it turned out to be a theological regime, which has minimal link with the outside world. It is very repressive, semi-totalitarian and at the same time defends itself by using two main instruments, arms and ideology.

And don’t forget the great event of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, which was very strong militarily, but as it turned out its strength was made on the expense of every other aspect, leading to its fall.

So these militaristic phenomena are not able to survive in a post-industrial world based on instruments of communication, which are very smart and individualistic, and young people who face violence with non-violence. You can’t overlook this tendency when you see the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, and their peaceful slogans. So if you take all these experiences and add them to my own personal experience, what I have read, and what I have thought of, I think it wouldn’t be very farfetched to reach the conclusion that I reached regarding the Resistance today.

Q: So what really is the difference between resistance and civil war? Where does one end and the other one begin?

Resistance is always the potential of a civil war. The idea that a certain unified nation that is invaded by another nation and this invaded nation is being unified under the banner of resistance to fight the outside invader is a total myth. You don’t find in history a credible example which would endorse it. I think the reason is the lack of national consensus among the population themselves. In the post-independence era, the effort which was put to build real nation states was very minimal. The contradictions which were inherited from the pre-colonial era were kept, preserved and reproduced, and we reached a point that there’s barely anything common between us, so when an invader comes from the outside some sects and populations would find it a pretext to hold arms, defending itself by a modern ideology: liberation, and then use those weapons if not against their compatriots at least they use it as a leverage which would give them the upper hand in articulating the political situation and controlling it. Others would feel threatened and afraid. And if this didn’t create civil war it would be a permanent potential.

The problem in totalitarian ideologies is that they make from killing a glorious act. It is the difference between saying that I am pushed to do this and saying resistance, death, and martyrdom are my aim in life. In democracy your aim is to live better, to work better, to achieve more, to have, if not you then your kids, a better education, a better environment. If someone wanted to prevent you from doing this, then you have to fight it. But this is a non-starter; you start from what you want to achieve. On the other hand, in the totalitarian and semi-totalitarian camp, the starter is that you want to fight the enemy, imperialism, America, Israel and so forth, and this fight is glorious and desirable.

Q: You went through different ideologies and concepts during your political life in Lebanon, do you think there is still place for any ideology in the region, or should we be looking at politics from a different angle? Can ideologies still work?

I think everything is ideological, but the problem is that ideologies in the modern sense, be it right or left, nationalism, patriotism, democracy, or socialism, are the products of modernity. In Lebanon and some Arab countries, we are living in a pre-modern era, but for me, this is more about our individual taste than it is about programs which could be executed in reality. I will give you an example: Take socialism. Socialism means a certain way of distributing wealth, but in order to be socialist, you have to have a state. We don’t have such a thing. The almost comic aspect of this is that almost every Sunni in Lebanon is neo-liberal in economics, because Hariri’s economy is neo-liberal, while every Shi’ite could be a socialist. Neither the Sunni has a relation with neo-liberalism nor has the Shi’ite with socialism.

Q: So what has the individual’s strive towards an identity become?

The prerequisite for the rise of individualism is the existence of the state, and of national consensus. Without a state no one could protect the individual.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire we moved, theoretically speaking, to nation states, but we had a split between reality where there are nation states with education curriculums, flags, parliaments, a national economy, but at the same time, they don’t recognize this. For this reason they keep saying Arab nations, Arab homeland, Muslim nations, etc. I feel it is enriching to feel pride for belonging to supposedly Arab culture, Islamic traditions, your own region, your own family and your own country. Each of these levels of belonging is important, provided that each level is important in its own domain. For example, when it comes to politics, you are first Lebanese, when it comes to culture, you are first Arab, when it comes to theology, you are Sunni, Shi’ite or Christian, when you speak about region, you say I prefer my region, south, or north, but you have to be very decisive and resolute when it comes to the political level. The political level means the nation state, and priority should go to your national belonging.

Q: What about secularism? Is it becoming a requirement for the emergence of a strong state?

If you want to go secular, or have a civil state, you have to get rid of the influence of religious sects, and you have to get rid of the weapons of Hezbollah. You can’t get rid of the weapons of Hezbollah without sorting out the sectarian question. Even if you militarily could, which is a very farfetched possibility, if you don’t besiege sectarianism and prevent it from having the upper hand in society, you will always have a sect that wants to protect itself, which could be armed and then wants to impose its agenda on the whole society. You have to build a real state accompanied with national consensus; you have to give your priority to the national not the tribal or the religious loyalty.

Q: Regarding Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and different Salafist groups in the Arab world, are these stable cultural and social phenomena, or are they temporary? What can be done to combat them?

Well, these are combined phenomena. They are cultural, economic, demographic, and educational. You cannot isolate one aspect from the rest. This would help us to diagnose the salvation or the solution. I think this phenomenon could be combated only if a multi-dimensional program is developed by the cultural, economical and political elites in the region. This agenda as I see it should be based on the sense of patriotism, and by patriotism I mean that you give your political allegiance to a nation state. This patriotism is not chauvinistic, racist or aggressive. It is the only feasible way to live in a modern society, where one fabric would bring you with your compatriots all together. You can’t live without the rule of law, and you can’t live without a passport, and for this reason you need a state, and the world is composed of states. In the United Nations you are represented as a state, you are not realized as an Arab nation, or an Islamic nation. This is the reality of our modern world. You also have to stress stability, and then wars, battles, tension, and all the radical ideas would fall.

Wars need men not women; they need fighters not intellectuals, and what’s more important is that they need a significant link with authenticity and heritage, because when you go militant you have to highlight everything in your past associated with authenticity. Islam is in the heart of this album of memoirs, so you cannot say that I’m going to go secular and at the same time militant, and all the experiences in the Arab Muslim world tell us that during wars, tensions, agitations, the religious and the fundamentalists won the wars against the seculars, liberals and the left, and all those that are the offspring of modernity.

Moreover, you need to rehabilitate the slogans of secularism. In order for this to work, you have to be forthcoming when it comes to welfare. I mean you have to deal with the problems of poverty and economic unevenness in society. For example, you learn that Hosni Mubarak stole 70 billion dollars, you cannot help but think that this money could have developed Egypt. When I think of that, I think about this stupid anti-imperialist propaganda that the West is stealing us, when actually it is our own rulers who are doing it. The huge amounts of money stolen by these Arab dictators would create an economic revolution that is unprecedented in the region.

Q: What about the Sunni-Shi’ite strife created by these fundamentalist movements in the region? How politically valid is that now?

The Sunni-Shi’ite problem is not a religious problem. It is sectarianism, and there’s a difference here. You could be atheist and sectarian at the same time: atheist in the sense that you don’t believe in god but you stick to your group.

It has to do with a certain mechanical solidarity between certain groups, a sort of enlarged kinship between one group which wants a better share and more recognition. In this sense, I tend not to talk about the Sunni-Shi’ite problem as a religious thing; I tend to see it as one of the results of having no state and having no national consensus.

Q: In the midst of all this, what is the role of the intellectual?

To say as much as could be said, to say what they see as the truth, and not to follow populists by theorizing for them and for their militant tendencies just because they are popular, or because it is what those with power want. Intellectualism in the Arab world should bring back at least the ideas of enlightenment, progress, building nation states, equality between sexes, the rule of law, and peace, because intellectualism only thrives when there is peace. Wars are the worst enemies of intellectualism as no ideas would be developed, and stability is the byproduct of peace; you cannot have stability when you are waging a war. So, peace and subsequently stability are the ideas which should be defended and promoted by intellectuals, and unfortunately this is not the case in the Arab world.

Q: On a related note, who do you consider the intellectuals, foreign and Arab, who shaped your thought? Are you following on any young writers?

Among the classical names in the field of political theory, Hannah Arendt is my favorite. Among Arab political intellectuals, my favorites are my friends. And there are certain books I like coming back to, in particular the books of Carl Popper and Talmond.

Interview conducted by Hanin Ghaddar.

Published: Wednesday 06 April 2011 Updated: Wednesday 06 April 2011

Previous ArticleNext Article
Hanin Ghaddar
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr [https://twitter.com/haningdr]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *