In general I am a big fan of Christopher Hitchens and I envy the elegance, force, and clarity of his arguments. I am always impressed, even when I disagree with him, with his uncompromising stands and vast erudition. Often he provides red meat on issues where my own certainty has wavered. But his recent piece on Gaza is off – way off. While unsparing in his criticism of Hamas, but he seems to think that Palestinian elections were a key factor.
…this month is the one where new elections for the Palestinian Authority have to be called by President Mahmoud Abbas, if not actually held. Before the new year, I talked to one or two knowledgeable Palestinians who argued that, under then-present conditions, Hamas had to hope that such elections would not soon take place. Life in Islamic Gaza was not such as to induce ecstatic happiness and prosperity among the populace… It seems improbable that we’ll ever know what would have happened in a free vote, but I think it’s safe to say that recent events have further postponed the emergence of a democratic and secular alternative among the Palestinians. I even think it’s possible that some people in Israel and some other people in Gaza do not want to see the emergence of such a force, but let me not be cynical.
Hitchens was a friend of the late Edaward Said and also of Rashid Khalidi. (The redoubtable Martin Kramer takes on Hitchens overwrought sympathy for Khalidi’s dispossession.)
Said, Khalidi, etc. have long championed the emergence of a secular, progressive Arab movement. But Khalidi has some limitations as a Middle East analyst. For example (see Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America – download it here) he predicted the first Gulf War would be long and bloody (it wasn’t) and, after being wrong on that front he nonetheless boldly predicted that Saddam’s generals would remove him from power to save themselves. Here he demonstrated ignorance of both Iraq’s military and political situation. Despite his experience with the PLO, his take on the worldview of Gaza’s inhabitants seems similarly skewed.
Leaving aside the difficulties of conducting real elections in Gaza (without having to invade to ensure the elections fairness) or the dubious merits of Hamas’ rival Fatah, the idea that the people of Gaza would be secular and progressive is not for real. Gaza is a clan-based society, not dissimilar to the rest of the greater Middle East. The lineage segmentation system that shapes these societies places a premium on personal honor and conflict. Consider this insightful essay (written in April 2000), by a (and possible the) Gaza-based psychiatrist Eyad el-Sirraj (no friend of Israel by any measure) on the role of anger in Palestinian society:
What brings a high-ranking official to beat his superior or even his minister to overrule a decision? Why does a student throw stones at his professors, or at students from another university? How can we explain an assault against a member of the Legislative Council? How can the murder of an oppressed woman be explained? And what about the popularity—[only] sometimes—of the death penalty? And, what is the common denominator between all these and the torture in the [PA] prisons?
….Searching for the reason, I do not ignore the depth of rage that was inflicted on our lives because of the [Israeli] occupation; but I do not want to hang everything on this peg, [a complaint] that is like a broken record in which Zionism, or the great imperialism, or even petty bourgeoisie, are blamed [for everything]. I want to be clear: one of the main reasons is within us, the result of the education in our homes. Aren’t you, my dear reader, one of those fathers who are filled with happiness when your beloved two year old child pronounces the expression “… [damn] your father?!” Don’t you dance with joy when he proves his virility by beating another child?
….Don’t be surprised, my dear, if you see a student beating up his professor, an official beating up his minister, a soldier beating up his parliament member, a teenager beating his mother or killing his sister, or university students fighting with stones and clubs.
We teach our children that it is permitted to express anger with muscle; we even encourage them to do so in the belief that it is part of the meaning of courage and honor. By doing so, we forget the best part of our Arab heritage and Islamic religion, as well as all that is in Christianity: forgiveness, self-control, overcoming feelings of rage, patience, restraint, and using the mind….
Of course, on this front Hitchens has an idée fixe that religion is the root of all evil. But the clan-based social structures have proven tremendously resistant to all forms of modernity (see this article by Stanley Kurtz). Islam is the product of Middle Eastern society, and while Islam may “seal in” the clan values that dominate the region, Islam is not necessarily the origin of these values.
Many analysts, academics, pundits, and policy-makers have bet on a the emergence of a “new” Middle East. While I support this, and remain hopeful, one should carefully consider what the barriers to this reform are and how deeply they are entrenched.