Excerpts from The Invisible Arab

The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Perils of the Arab Revolution will be published on January 31 by Nation Books.

From the book’s front flap:

The Invisible Arab is a brilliant essay from Marwan Bishara,  one of the Arab world’s leading public intellectuals, on how the Arabs broke their own psychological barrier of fear to kindle the greatest revolutionary transformation in recent memory. It explains why the West was completely surprised by this and will continue to be surprised by the Arabs as long as the West is captive to the age-old stereotypes about the region and its people.

In much of the world’s media, the narrative of the Arab revolutions went like this: an oppressed people who have suffered passively suddenly decided that enough was enough and, thanks to Western technology and inspiration, spontaneously rose to reclaim their freedom, inspiring the Arab Spring. But like most revolutions, this one was a long time coming.

The historic takeover of Tunis’s November 7 Square, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and Manama’s Pearl Square, among others, were the culmination of a long social and political struggle – countless sit-ins, strikes, pickets, and demonstrations by people who risked and suffered intimidation, torture and imprisonment. It was aided by the dramatic rise of satellite networks like Al Jazeera, which, Bishara argues, are as important to the present Arab revolution as Nasser was to the rise of pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, Bishara argues, for decades these Arab citizens and their social and political movements and their new media have been unfairly demonised or rendered invisible in the West who saw the region through the prisms of Israel, oil, terrorism, or radical Islamism. Arab underdevelopment was blamed on cultural backwardness and dreamy pan-Arabism or insolent Islam. The events of September 11, 2001, compounded this.

But, as Bishara shows, today’s Arab’s are presenting a stark contrast to the distortion, disinformation and outright humiliation heaped upon them. Long characterised as unreceptive to democracy and freedom, they are now giving the world a lesson in both.

Refreshingly contrarian, The Invisible Arab is a major contribution to our understanding of the Middle East from one of its brilliant new voices. Showing how the Arab revolutions evolved, what has gone right, and how it could all still go terribly wrong, Bishara – Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst – argues that the Arab revolutions will be judged by how they realise freedom and justice, and how they can pave the way for reconciling and accommodating nationalism and Islam with democracy.

Excerpts from the book:

It’s my contention that the roots of Arab problems are not civilisational, economic, philosophical, or theological per se, even if religion, development, and culture have had great influence on the Arab reality. The origins of the miserable Arab reality are political par excellence. Like capital to capitalism, or individualism to liberalism, the use and misuse of political power has been the factor that defines the contemporary Arab state. Arab regimes have subjugated or transformed all facets of Arab society.

Since gaining liberation from Western colonialism, the Arab world has been ruled mostly but not entirely by regimes whose practice has been antithetical to any sense human progress, unity, democracy, and human rights. Those who tried, albeit selectively to chart a better way forward on the basis of national security and national interest, were dissuaded through pressure, boycotted, or defeated on the battlefield. The political backwardness of the larger postcolonial transformation soon became the plague that infected everything else. The guardians of the state who were entrusted with the welfare of their nations monopolised power, controlled the economy, and ignored the civil liberties of the majority in order to privilege the few.

That is why twenty-first-century Arab revolutionaries need to go beyond changing leadership and actually reinvent state structures if they want to transform Arab society.

Historically, the Arab national identity was not born out of economic transformation and integration, or statehood. It evolved through political awareness anchored in their resistance against foreign intervention. And by resistance, I am not referring to the means applied, such as civil disobedience, armed struggle, or outright terrorism. In speaking of resistance, I am referring to a social and political culture that struggles against any injustice, one that transcends geography, class, race, and religion. In a sense, today’s upheavals and revolutions are the natural, albeit belated, continuation of the resistance to colonialism and foreign occupation – two aspects of the same journey to freedom.

The anti-colonial resistance led to collective self-determination in sovereign independent (or dependent) states, and the ongoing civic revolutionary resistance to dictatorship aimed to attain self-determination of Arabs as individual free citizens in their homelands. Indeed, today’s Arab generations are finishing the job their grandparents started several decades ago by extending the liberation of the land to its people, and in the process, recovering their personal and national dignity. That’s why today’s revolutions are the culmination and embodiment of the social and national consciousness that rejects the repressive Arab state order and favours democratic change. Those rushing to count the losses and gains and to judge the casualties of each passing Friday are missing the point about the historic transformations sweeping through the region. Regardless of barriers and setbacks, the genie has now left the proverbial bottle. This break with the past may not necessarily bring about positive and/or immediate change, but the decisive break has been made.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst and the editor & host of “Empire”, a programme on the channel that examines global powers and their agendas. He was previously a lecturer of International Relations at the American University of Paris and a fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes et Sciences Sociales. Bishara’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, The Guardian, Le Monde, Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Hayat, and The Nation, among other outlets.

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