Samir Kassir, Being Arab

Being ArabBeing Arab by Samir Kassir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this short but powerful evaluation of the Arab world in the 21st century in the summer of 2010 and have assigned it for my Middle Eastern history courses ever since. Kassir, a journalist and historian of Palestinian extraction who lived in Lebanon until his assassination in 2005, urges his fellow Arabs to rethink their conception of their own history as a consisting of a glorious past, a long decline, a failed revival (the nahda – rebirth – in the 19th century), and an inescapable malaise in the present.

He offers a new narrative instead, one in which the political and military failures of the 19th and 20th century are at least somewhat offset by the real participation by Arabs in the Enlightenment and modern culture. Rather than criticizing the impacts of modern, secular European thought, as many Islamists of different stripes have, Kassir praises Arab appropriation of these ideas, seeing them not as Western but as “universal.” Europeans might have gotten there first, one might say, but the values of democracy, science, and modernity are for all to participate in. “The universal” also includes post-World War II Third Worldist thought.

Kassir has no patience for Islamists, whom he likens to fascists, or for those who promote the idea of Arabs as the worst victims of the West’s aggression. At the same time, he bemoans the dominance of the United States and Israel in the region as well as Arab impotence in the face of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and he believes that Palestinian resistance to Israel is a bright spot for Arabs since World War II. He doesn’t support terrorism, but he doesn’t define the line between legitimate resistance and terrorism.

Kassir ends on an optimistic note, believing that an Arab culture that transcends political boundaries has developed and that Arabs are participating in globalized culture. The sad end to Kassir’s story is that he was killed by a car bomb in 2005, probably by Syrian security forces for his criticism of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

I really enjoyed Kassir’s book not because I agreed with it – I don’t think that secular humanism is the long term solution to the Middle East’s problems; the gospel is – but because it’s powerfully and passionately written and it’s unlike anything I’ve read about the Middle East before.

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