Seismic Shift
The possibilities for the Arab world.


The liberation of Iraq by the U.S.-led Coalition has triggered a cultural earthquake the effects of which are certain to be felt throughout the Arab world.

This earthquake has shaken the old edifice of a false culture build on the twin abstractions of pan-Arabism and Arab socialism.

That false culture became a prison for Arabs, including those who had fled to settle in the Western democracies. From the late 1940s the last embers of liberal thought in the Arab world were extinguished.

The Arabs were told that they had to unite against “imperialism” and its “Zionist vanguard,” i.e. Israel. During the 1950s our civil rights were abolished, often with our consent, and our destiny put in the hands of military dictators.

The brutality of the military despots meant that no liberal opposition could develop against them. The only opposition possible was that of the totalitarian left which could be as brutal as the despots in power. Until the 1970s, the Arab left was a power to reckon with, especially in the then potent “Arab street.” Soon, however, the Arab left discovered, perhaps to its surprise, that it was an historic twin of pan-Arabism. Thus the two became partners in crime.

In Iraq, for example, the Communists and the Socialists, using “the common struggle against Imperialism” as pretext, called on the intellectuals and the masses to support Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the 1980s a new brand of totalitarianism was added to the two existing one. This was Islamism, based on the claim that only by accepting a theological straitjacket would Muslims be able to break out of their poverty, weakness, and degeneration. It was to add this new ingredient to his deadly cocktail that Saddam Hussein had the slogan “Allah is the Greatest” inscribed on his flag in 1990.

It should be no surprise that the fall of the Baathist regime has had such a deep shock effect on so many Arab intellectuals and politicians nurtured by the three totalitarian ideologies. They realize that the liberation of Iraq could be the beginning of the liberation of all Arabs from the prison built over decades by nationalist and leftist totalitarian ideologies.

These totalitarian ideologies regarded human rights either as abstractions or as Western “imperialist” notions designed to confuse the Arabs. They put abstract ideas ahead of concrete flesh-and-blood realities of human existence. The individual was a cipher and “the masses” a figure of speech.

Since most Arab states maintained close ties with the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet bloc, or with France whose political culture bears the effects of its violent revolutions and the terrors they unleashed, there was little opportunity for the Anglo-Saxon culture of individualism, pragmatism, and pluralism to strike roots in our part of the world. The liberation of Iraq by an Anglo-American coalition could change all that.

The fact that both Russia and France opposed the war to liberate Iraq has dealt a major blow to the remnants of the Arab Left.

The pan-Arabists are discredited because their last “champion” ran away like a rat without a fight.

For their part, the Islamists, too, have been unmasked , though they tried to play their game of dissimulation, condemning Saddam in words but supporting him by deeds.

Outside observers are often surprised to find pan-Arabists, Arab leftists, and Islamists uniting to combat democratic ideas in the name of nationalism, class struggle, and religious piety.

The beauty of the liberation of Iraq is that it has revealed the hollowness of all three totalitarian ideologies with a single blow. The pan-Arabists, the Arab leftists, and the Islamists could do nothing but beat their chest as the people of Iraq refused to fight for Saddam Hussein and, then, welcomed their deliverance.

The totalitarian trio and its culture still exist. But, for the first time in decades, it feels threatened.

Free Iraq could offer an alternative culture of democracy, liberal values, and human rights to the Arabs. For Iraqis, and later perhaps for all Arabs, this may mark their reentry into history after decades of living outside it.

This is why it is important that Iraq be turned into a model for democratization within a liberal culture. The Arab ruling elite is looking to Iraq with a mixture of shock and awe, praying that the whole thing would blow over like a summer storm, leaving the palace of despotism intact. It is up to the Iraqi people and their new allies, the liberators, to prove otherwise.

Born in Hella in central Mesopotamia, Fadhil Assultani is one of Iraq’s leading poets and writers. His latest collection of verse is Burned By Water. He has translated Toni Morrison and R. F. Thomas into Arabic. Assultani is available through


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