Abbas Beydoun

"A Whole Culture Has Collapsed"

In his essay, the Lebanese intellectual Abbas Beydoun talks about globalisation and alienation, about how developmental aid can confirm a feeling of inferiority, and about how the Middle East conflicts fits into all of this

photo: Larissa Bender
For Arab intellectuals, Globalization means an increasing feeling of lagging behind, Abbas Beydoun asserts

​​The McDonald's brand is not alone in offering a source of provocation to our Arab farmers and intellectuals. It is, in fact, not the first of the many foreign brands to have effected profound changes, within a few decades, to our eating habits, clothing, furniture, architecture, life-style and leisure time. The trouser revolution is just one example of a western product, whose influence was certainly more far reaching than that of McDonald's.

And it took the tarbush longer to die out than was the case with the traditional, loose-sleeved garment. The resistance against such foreign influences has been much less effective on the materialistic level which has meant that it has become greater on the abstract level.

Self-loathing for accepting the Western virus

The change in the way of life was not very hard, but it was accompanied by an increased hatred against the "conquering West" and probably too with a degree of self-loathing for having accepted and nurtured the Western virus and allowed it to spread within us.

McDonald's might represent a provocation for Europeans but it makes little difference to Arabs who already, long ago, surrendered to the influence of European products. In this regard, American products will not make things much worse.

A whole culture has collapsed within a few decades. The change has also influenced our literature, arts, music and thought. But we have become neither Westerners nor part of the West. It is as if we had been asleep during the process of change; as if it were not our own history; something that does not reflect our own identity.

The portrayal of forcible cultural violation, widespread in much of our literature, illustrates this concept of helplessness, i.e. our involuntary acceptance of the seed of the West, which eventually led to our own alienation. In other words, we have changed, becoming neither one thing nor the other; neither Arab nor Western.

The division of society into modern and traditional parts is not due to economical or cultural criteria. Farmers who left their villages to live in poverty belts around cities may have forgotten their rural origin but they cannot easily become urban either. When they die, they are usually buried in their villages, near the piece of land they deserted because it had become too small for them.

The impossibility of return

If we think, for instance, of relationships within a tribe, a family or a community, we will find that they themselves change and cause change as well. Such relationships will be coloured by political, social and ideological factors that alter them so thoroughly that it becomes impossible for them to return to what they once were. And this is the case with the authority, the army, the party and the trade union, too.

We are left with forms that do not completely recognise themselves, with a game of mirrors, which produces mixed up and distorted pictures of the traditional and the modern as well as of the social and the ideological. This makes a classification or identification no longer possible.

The only description, if any, of those forms is that they are continuously transitional. Moreover, they change rather than develop. These identities often do not posses a horizon or a strategy for reform. They can, therefore, be spoken of as forms without traditions, i.e. they do not have the ability of accumulation or adaptation; they have no attitude. In other words, it can be said that they have no modern memory.

It seems that they are not actually aware of their present history. Furthermore, it can be said that their primary characteristic is the forgetfulness of the present or considering it as a future vision.

No memory of past or present

Forgetfulness of the present is manifested in many important, as well as trivial matters. There is no real library for the present culture, no actual memory of its visitors nor a real continuity in keeping its records. For the time being, it seems as if there are just the attempts of dedicated individuals.

On the other hand, we do not stop asking where to start, as if nothing at all has been achieved yet. We are very good at suggesting how to begin, but we often do not learn from experience, we go on harping on the same string. The Islamist-movement is an example of such sterile repetition, a continuous, never-ending start. The history of all Arab political systems, however, offers a very similar pattern.

Let us talk, then, about the loss of the present instead of talking too simplistically about tradition and modernisation.

There is, in fact, a sort of controversy between the lived reality and the world of thoughts. The lived reality is always in a state of forgetfulness, whereas thoughts start off needs and wishes that have no real or historical counterparts.

Ideology beyond any test of applicability

Conventions collapse but the idea and principle of tradition remain. Therefore, it is not the happy, severed past that counts but rather the notion of the past. Similarly, it is not modernisation as a possibility that is important but as a principle. In a situation like this, ideology can prevail, free, independent, beyond any test of applicability, and above experience and reality. Ideology can get hold of reason and be converted then into words repeated as thoughtlessly as they are religiously, parrot-fashion, by the masses.

The reason that this process produces is purely ideological, controlled only by its own inclinations and urges.

There are no pure ideas to be found at this point. Instead, there is passion, fragility, inferiority, hatred, self-realisation and megalomania. The inner urge is the basis rather than practical consideration. This is the point which encapsulates our relationship to the West. It is the polarisation point which attracts all these contradictory passions of ours.

The West is the usurper, from the wounds of its assault there is no remedy. It is the example to be followed, though there is neither a way to reach the same level nor a way to destroy it, whether symbolically or actually, the only thing which might bring an end to this impossible competition.

It is the centre of legitimacy and recognition. We entreat it for recognition while we give full rein to our megalomania. Entreaty, destruction or the display of megalomania – are matters involving partly emotional responses – that do not need practical consideration. In this way, Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden, for example, may imagine they can wage war against the rest of the world. The history of colonialism can provide reasons for all these feelings. It is a history of plunder, contempt, decline and expulsion, sometimes covered with a façade of civilisation.

Aid confirms continuing feeling of inferiority

It seems, however, that the problem with the West is a much more complicated one. It is a problem within the individual who feels himself assaulted, disabled, violated by the power of an enemy he can neither name nor identify. The problem with the West is also a symbolic one and requires a solution on the same level. In this respect, neither the example of civilisation nor the cultural and humanitarian aid offered by the West can provide any real solution. Such aid is received with suspicion because it confirms our continuing inferiority to the West.

What the West does in this regard may be important to intellectuals and politicians but it does not penetrate to the deeper, more profound symbolic levels, which form the ideological and political structure of peoples. These peoples have been deeply humiliated by the West, whose negligence has made the humiliation even worse.

That such humiliation has been so easily accepted must be put down to a sense of fragility and inner torture but this must be made up for. Attempts, proposals or plans to civilise the Islamic countries tend to increase suspicion, as the peoples of those countries consider such proposals, no matter how they are worded, as serving the logic of the coloniser.

Globalisation - an increasing feeling of lagging behind

For those peoples, Globalization does not mean an American cultural provocation as it may mean to Europeans. This is a war that was lost a long time ago. To the intellectuals here, Globalization means an increasing feeling of lagging behind and being unable to keep up.

While the Europeans are threatened with second-class status in a globalized world, the peoples here see their case as completely hopeless. This means that Globalization increases their feelings of fragility, inferiority and megalomania and adds to a sense of alienation and insecurity.

Suicidal behaviour might be just an expression of being completely lost. If the West is the great symbolic enemy for many people here, the secondary importance of the West to the USA makes it no longer a symbol of strength or weakness. And once a symbol no longer exists, only the absolute loss can follow.

The matter should, in fact, be dealt with on the same symbolic level. It requires some thought and a real alternative answer through an ideological and political approach. The cultural and economical aid to the Islamic peoples will remain meaningless until an ideological and political approach has been developed.

Globalisation and the Middle East conflict

More accurately, it could be said that aid will remain meaningless as long as the international preference for Israel continues to present an image of continuing colonial aggression and increasing contempt for the Islamic peoples. Strictly speaking, for the peoples of the Orient, Israel is not an oriental country but an instrument of the West. The preference given to Israel means a continuous reinforcement of the supremacy of the West and its denial of Arab rights.

It can even be said to represent repetition of the invasion by the West which brought about the Arab and Islamic weakness and paralysis. Israel, for many Muslims and Arabs is a symbol and the preference given to it makes new psychological-ideological complications for the West inevitable. The obvious supremacy of Israel is a kind of a daily live show, a reminder of the triumph of the West.

As long as this remains unchanged, the problem will get worse and the sense of injury Moslems and Arabs feel will increase with the perceived scorn of the response. The discourse on the equality among different cultures and civilisations makes no sense for those who believe that the preference given to Israel is a daily, tangible declaration of inequality and that this preference is, in a way, a sort of self-preference and a confirmation of supremacy, too.

I do not wish to elaborate further on this point. If we are to put the West on trial, however, then it makes sense to raise the question of Jerusalem and Palestine. This is the point to start from, if we really want a reconciliation with Islam. The symbolic inheritance must be dealt with if we want to make it possible to deal with the details of reality.

Abbas Beydoun

© 2003

This article was first published in the German magazine for cultural exchange, Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch.

Abbas Beydoun is considered one of Lebanon's most prolific intellectuals. Beydoun (b. 1945) has gained his reputation as journalist and poet and is currently editor-in-chief for the cultural pages of As-Safir, one of Lebanon's daily newspapers.

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