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imperialism & war

The Arab masses’ cathartic tendency

Because this cathartic tendency is the strongest trait of mass action, the Arab masses in any one country demand more of other Arab peoples than they do of themselves. They are unable to understand resistance without the martyrdom of those others, even if that martyrdom becomes an end in itself.
The Arab masses' cathartic tendency
Muna Shuqair, The Daily Star, Lebanon

On the evening of April 9, the imam of an Amman mosque did not follow evening prayers with a special entreaty asking God to grant the Iraqi people victory against the Anglo-American invaders. The roar of the imams in Amman's mosques fell silent. For three weeks, they had all been beseeching God, almost simultaneously. But by noon on April 9, as indications that Baghdad had fallen strengthened, Amman sank into dumbfounded disappointment.

Like most other Arabs, Jordanians ­ irrespective of their position on Saddam Hussein ­ had wagered on a long Iraqi resistance that would exhaust the American and British forces and embarrass their governments.

The Friday, large crowds of worshippers did not congregate in the mosques of Arab cities following prayers. The masses did not fill public squares to call for the fall of "traitor" Arab regimes that have "betrayed their peoples," nor did they publicly invite people to jihad in support of the Iraqi people. The simmering anger in Arab capitals subsided as though the Iraqi crisis had ended with the liberation of the Iraqi people, the repulsion of the American-British invasion and the defeat of the invaders.

The mechanism that brings Arab masses together to demonstrate and protest ­ forming slowly and receding with surprising speed ­ merits some consideration and analysis to determine its nature, motivation and modus operandi.

The Arab masses are historically frustrated and deeply humiliated by successive Arab setbacks and defeats. They believe their unelected leaders are responsible for those thrashings. At a time when the masses are calling for permission for volunteers to sign up for jihad in favor of God and the nation, Arab rulers are conspiring against the interests of the masses, not only by shutting the borders, but by preventing them from demonstrating and forcibly and violently breaking up demonstrations.

However, the phenomenon in question cannot be explained by popular action and the government reaction it provokes or by the contradiction between the position of the Arab masses and the ruling Arab regimes on any given issue. The explanation lies in the cathartic tendency that marks collective behavior whenever an Arab political crisis occurs and an Arab people wages a struggle to resist invaders and occupiers.

Through the struggle of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples and the previous struggle of the Lebanese, the Arab masses regain their self-respect and are delivered from the humiliation in which they live. The struggle of the Palestinians and the resistance of the Iraqis thus translates into expiation for the deep-seated collective guilt of a (pan-Arab) nation that has been historically unable to achieve victory.

Although the masses express a willingness to struggle and fight to repulse aggression alongside their Arab brethren, their willingness remains theoretical and short-lived. It surfaces when the mass excitement climaxes, but soon peters out, ending in a state of complete relaxation in front of TV screens as people follow events and enjoy the spectacle of Arab military and popular courage shown by others.

The willingness of peoples to fight to achieve their national and pan-Arab objectives takes on a sacred quality, because it represents the highest form of self-sacrifice to free the nation from those who are occupying it. Therefore, the Arab masses demand that the peoples who are actually waging the struggle should exert all their efforts to resist because they are providing expiation for the entire disappointed nation, allowing it to regain its pride and purging the masses of disappointment and frustration.

So the Palestinians are required to draw on the utmost human and practical abilities to endure. And the abilities of the Iraqi people to remain steadfast and resist becomes unlimited and takes on mythical proportions.

No consideration is given to the living conditions of the people and regular and irregular forces expected to put up such resistance. Siege, starvation, terrorization and the absence of the most basic living requirements must not affect the ability of the people concerned to continue giving.

Martyrdom operations must continue, even when the homes of martyrs are blown up and their families made homeless and their mothers experience the bitterness of cumulative loss of their sons. Martyrdom must be turned into a wedding. The martyr goes to heaven, and a mother who is grieving for the loss of her loved one must turn her sorrow into joy.

The Iraqi people, with their supernatural abilities, must remain steadfast and continue resisting. As for its years under sanctions, the years of repression it has lived through, the periodic wars it has endured almost once every decade ­ all that must not weaken the Iraqi people and the willingness of its forces to resist.

As for the fact that the rest of the pan-Arab nation forgot the Iraqis while they were under embargo and the suffering and misery they experienced, that should have no effect on their steadfastness and resistance.

No one seems to realize that the capacity of peoples to endure, like that of individuals, can peter out, and that struggling peoples are not addicted to suffering and aspire to achieving their right to life without turning into permanent victims and into fuel that nourishes Arab pride with whiffs of victory.

Because this cathartic tendency is the strongest trait of mass action, the Arab masses in any one country demand more of other Arab peoples than they do of themselves. They are unable to understand resistance without the martyrdom of those others, even if that martyrdom becomes an end in itself.

What have the clutch of Arab volunteers who crossed Iraq's borders and went to Baghdad achieved, except to turn themselves into easy targets for American missiles? They are neither able to fight, nor to achieve a basic minimum of objectives that would justify martyrdom.

The role of the Arab masses must be changed through their organization into new structures and frameworks. Their modes of spontaneous and unplanned action must become methodical and more durable. And they must be educated about their multi-faceted role in building the pan-Arab nation. Without such restructuring and education, the masses cannot be effective.

Worshipping God and seeking heaven do not merely entail purposeless martyrdom. They involve building up effective strength and working consistently and sincerely to revive the nation. Without this, the Arab masses will remain a vocal phenomenon that blares out slogans, but is incapable of action to transform the pan-Arab nation's situation into one that generates pride and dignity.

Before the masses purge themselves of the guilt of defeat, they must purge their situation through constructive work and through organizing themselves into political and party frameworks that enable them to mobilize effectively and to act seriously.

Chanting in public squares will not topple a single Arab regime however weak it may be, nor will it change any facts on the ground unless it is linked with political action that organizes the masses into viable frameworks in an atmosphere of freedom that acknowledges their right to unfettered political action. Only then will imams in mosques pray without interruption for the pan-Arab nation's victory. But this can only happen if serious, organized and effective mass action does not fade when the roar of missiles stops.

Muna Shuqair is an Amman-based Jordanian political analyst. She wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

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