Book Review: Contextualising the Arab Spring Within the Legacy of Resistance

25 Mar, 2013    ·   3852

Prof. Anwar Alam reviews “Martyred but Not Tamed: The Politics of Resistance in the Middle East” authored by Ram Narayan Kumar

Martyred but Not Tamed: The Politics of Resistance in the Middle East
Kumar, Ram Narayan
New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2012

At a time when all eyes are cautiously watching the rapidly changing socio-political paradigm in the Middle East, the book “Martyred but Not Tamed: The Politics of Resistance in the Middle East”, authored by late Ram Narayan Kumar, incidentally gives a historical picture of the legacy of resistance rooted in the battle field (the Middle East) of political war of ‘titans’ fought to secure, maintain, and sustain their imperial designs and interests over a century and a half. The book provides a historical backdrop against which the still unfolding events of resistance, the Arab Spring (as it came to be metaphorically known), must be seen, analysed and understood. The only difference between the on-going resistance and what the book has talked of is that the former is a consequence of misuse of power by domestic despotic oppressors, whereas the latter is necessitated by their foreign counterparts. However, this distinction is delusional, as in both cases, resistance is directed towards the power and not the powerful. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) in the first volume of History of Sexuality said that, “Where there is power there is resistance”.

Often, resistance lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the state and its institutions, but it is just a one-way claim; similar allegations are also made against the legitimacy of the state’s actions from the resistant quarters. It reminds one of the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asks him, “How dare you molest the whole world?” The pirate replied, “Because I do with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor.” The necessary existence of resistance vis-à-vis power does not imply its rightness and acceptance, be it violent or even non-violent.

The author, following the Marxist’s conflict paradigm, provides a chronicle of historical accounts of resistance as explained to him by his four Arab interlocutors to the tyranny of both internal and external suppressors, and appropriators of their just share and rights to the hilt of their lives, i.e., martyrdom. The author was quick to mention twice in the beginning what Cicero asked, “What can be done against force without force”.

The Creation of Resistance

The politics of resistance in the Middle East is an outcome of imperial engagement of the Western powers with this volatile region. The book specifically focuses on four most politically happening and sensitive countries of the Middle East - Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The very name, Middle East, reflects imperial designs rather than geographical reality. Initially, their engagement was the territorial protection of the routes to Far East colonies, but the discovery of oil in the region invited an ever increasing and unrelenting quench for it, which in turn warranted the Western Powers to do whatever it took to ensure their supremacy remained intact in the region, and the supply of oil perpetual. Winston Churchill, the first lord of Admiralty during World War I, is reported to have said, “We are prepared to shed a drop of blood for every drop of oil”.

With innovations in the field of science and engineering, the use of oil soon spread from just lighting the lamp, to being used in military, automobiles, navy and other emerging areas of industry. The second chapter, “The Discovery of Oil and the Geography of Imperial Conquest”, has presented a very informative picture of the dynamics between the empire’s interests and oil companies’ stakes. This cumulatively led to several stealthy agreements and promises between Britain and France; and between Britain and various tribes of the region such as al- Sabah of Kuwait, Hashemite of present Iraq, and Saud of present Saudi Arabia who were aspiring to get rid of Ottoman rule, and defeat their rival tribes in the struggle for dominance in respective areas. All this resulted in the creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Transjordan, and the partition of Syria and Palestine. Britain demonstrated extreme astuteness to ensure that the installed kings of its choice remained loyal to the British government, even if that greatly undermined the socio-cultural ethos of these newly carved out nations. The popular voices started asserting their resistance; they were swiftly suppressed using coercion only to then get consolidated and rejuvenated to launch a new resistance.

Shia's Resistance
Shias constitute a majority only in four countries of the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. However, not even in these countries they could manage their rule of majority, whereas Sunnis aptly moulded the opportunity in their favour. The reason was simple; it was the Sunnis who befriended the British agents in the Middle East, such as T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, who in turn, reported to their godfathers that the minority rule in Iraq would be in the best interest of the empire. The move to install minority government in Baghdad was motivated by ‘tactical’ considerations– “Should that government ever try to assert its independence, popular opposition could be stirred up at short notice to make it see reason.”

The Shias, on their part, never accepted the idea of a British Mandate that undermined their rights and claims over their land and resources. It marked the beginning of Shia’s resistance not only in Iraq, but also in Lebanon, albeit at different points of time. The resistance was not only directed towards external power, but also posed serious challenges to the minority Sunni regime. Despite brutal crackdowns, the Shia resistance continued and got consolidated in the form of a political force, such as the Dawa party in Iraq, and Amal and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The growing popularity of Hezbollah as a political party, and its unequivocal support to the Palestinian cause, highlights its underlying principle and commitment to “Resist imperial occupation, outside interference and all sorts of tyranny”
in the Middle East. The last chapter in the book, “The Hizbullah Model: Militant Tactics and Political Savvy”, apart from providing a historical context that eventually lead to “martyrdom missions”, which according to the Western media are “suicide bombings”, also gives a detailed account of discrimination that endorsed the occupation of the Orient by Occident by invoking the thesis of “superior civilisation”. It also delineates how the changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East compelled it to change its ways of action as well, and how it is pursuing its path of liberation for the people of Lebanon and its neighbours.

Arab Nationalism and the Palestine Crisis
The book provides a nice opportunity to revisit the Arab Nationalism movement from the perspective of an Arab, since the interlocutor of the author on this subject happens to be an Arab, Prof. George Jabbour, who has long been associated with the movement and was close to late Hafiz al Assad of Syria. Arab Nationalism, as an ideology and social movement, was deeply rooted in the glory of Arab civilisation, its culture, art and language. Challenges and dilemmas that it has faced at different points of time are well narrated in the third chapter of the book, “The Ordeal of Arab Nationalism: A Discussion in Damascus”. One of the most formidable challenges to Arab Nationalism was of course posed by Israel, which intermittently played all the tricks at its disposal to destroy the possibility of an Arab reunification.

The Palestinian Crisis is an undying geo-political-religious problem; a seemingly endless armed conflict, with diplomatic machinations driven solely by contemporary concerns and little regard for long-term effects. It was an ill-thought-out military intervention foredoomed to fail, with subverted agreements, a difficult peace process, senseless brutal clashes that left thousands of civilians dead, and the original question unresolved. Much of this summarises the current situation of the Arab-Israel conflict. However, it all started even before the birth of Israel. For example,
Safad, an important city of Palestine and the highest point of Galilee, became the first centre of clash between Zionists and Muslims in 1929, but was lost to the Palestinians even before Israel was formally established.

The plight of Palestinian resistance, presented in the fourth chapter, “
Refugees in Resistance: Memories and Dreams from Exile”, revolves around the incidents that are very crucial indeed as far as the Arab-Israel conflict is concerned. However, the treatment of this subject matter requires a much deeper analysis than merely presenting the issue in terms of the scenario of hardship and resistance that the refugees were condemned to undergo. The first massive exodus of Palestinians was a well-organised evacuation plan of Israel; code-named, Plan Dalet, under David Ben-Gurion’s direct supervision. Nearly 700,000 Arab Muslims were expelled, which made possible the establishment of a Jewish Majority State. The establishment of PLO in June 1964 as an umbrella organisation with the objective of “liberating Palestine through armed Struggle”, together with the disaster of the 1967 War unleashed the second wave of expulsion of Palestinians, displacing more than 300,000 of them.

Initially, Jordan allowed the PLO to operate from its territories, but under the duress of Israel compounded by the fear of the rising popularity of Yasser Arafat as PLO chairman, King Hussain of Jordan ordered the expulsion of the PLO from its territories. The PLO shifted its base to Lebanon only to be demoralised later; thus, we see an exodus within an exodus planned to suppress the resistance. The result, however, was more resistance because Hamas, a radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad, gained popularity in the 1980s and emerged as a serious threat to Israel. Hamas won the election in the 2006 polls and has a control over the Gaza Strip. Most of the Hamas leaders are “ordinary Palestinians expelled from their land to remain homeless and stateless ever since.”

Written in a lucid and readable manner, the book easily catches the imagination of the reader, and takes them to West Asia where they find an unadulterated account of historical events from the Arabs’ perspective. Though the book suffers from one-sided representation of peoples’ resistance against imperialism and its domestic agent in the Middle East, often couched in Marxist framework, it nonetheless retains the attention of the reader. The significance of the book lies in the fact that it does not weigh heavily on the reader by claiming to offer a complex analysis. Rather, it aspires to develop a dispassionate narration of all the major events that had a bearing on the political and military course of the conflict, and succeeds immensely in that aim. This highly informative historical chronicle would be of great help to students who want to study the political history of the Middle East.