When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first questioned whether the Holocaust had taken place, in a speech last December, much of the Arab world (convinced that Israel exploits the tragedy to compel international support) cheered.
But in the pages of the London-based, Saudi-owned Arab daily, Al Hayat, senior columnist Hazem Saghiyeh once again assumed the mantle of a lonely Cassandra.
The reality of the Holocaust, he lectured, "is no longer tackled or discussed except in intellectually and educationally retarded milieus. When the denial is being uttered by Arabs and Moslems, this adds another dimension: the inability to achieve any progress in reality . . . contest[ing] history with myth."
Before Ahmadinejad, he lamented, the issue had been pushed to the "narrow margins that gather utter fanaticism with utter retardation." But lately, he said, "[It] has grown to occupy a dominant position in Arab and Islamic life." For this, Saghiyeh blamed "the heavy, poisoned Iranian rain that blew on us and was welcomed, quite avidly, by the eager Arab deserts."
For Saghiyeh, it was a familiar role. Dubbed by Al Ahram, the renowned Egyptian daily, paper as "the most prominent of the so-called Arab neo-liberals," the 54-year-old former Marxist has made a career out of skewering Arab shibboleths. At the same time, he has shown himself no less ready to criticize Israel, the West and the United States.
In the same piece, for example, Saghiyeh avers: "The stance towards the Holocaust is not linked to the stance towards Israel. Those who connect the two are either staunch Zionists who consider that the attitude towards the Hebrew state is automatically the same towards the Holocaust, and vice versa; or Jewish haters who consider that acknowledging the Holocaust is tantamount to supporting Israel."
In other articles, Saghiyeh has decried the Arab "tendency to reject all things American and push the relationship with the United States to a point of confrontation rather than dialogue" while at the same time lambasting "the right-wing groups taking over this [Bush] administration."
After 9-11, Saghiyeh ripped into the Al Qaeda terrorists and those who cheered them. Item-by-item, he reviewed the damage they had done to Arab causes on multiple fronts. He called for extradition of the terrorists.
"We are responsible," he wrote, "because [in our writing] we placed ‘terror’ in quotation marks. We praised suicide operations and described them as martyrdom operations. … We said that we would revive the war against Western civilization."
At the same time, referring to the United States’ support for Arab despots and dictatorships, and what he viewed as its unconditional support for Israel through occupation and settlements on Palestinian lands, he wrote, "The U.S.’s responsibility for the state we have reached is unquestionable." If this leaves Saghiyeh as, perhaps, the loneliest man in journalism, he does not complain. A native of Lebanon from a Christian family, Saghiyeh turned away from an early faith in pan-Arab nationalism, Marxism and revolution in the early 1980’s. Seeing revolution’s actual fruits up close during the civil war in Lebanon had a lot to do with this, he says; so did observing the course of the revolution in Iran.
"After the left in Lebanon was crushed by Syria in 1976, it was easy to see the left could not mobilize the masses, and Islam could" he said. "You could see it in Iran, where [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini used it to defeat the Shah. I thought then that we should use Islam, to get the people to our side. But this was foolish. We can’t play Islam. Islam plays us.
"His discovery of liberal writers such as French Jewish thinker Raymond Aron helped finally determine his future direction.
"It’s terrible to think that the only revolution that has happened in this part of the world was the Iranian Revolution," he said. "It took place exactly 150 years after the French Revolution. But instead of Liberte, Equalite and Fraternite, it imposed a new hierarchy with the religious people on top."
Below are excerpts of an interview with an Arab contrarian:
Jewish Week: What was reader reaction to your piece attacking Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust comments last December?
Saghiyeh: You could say, it was, maybe, 40 percent negative. The rest was split between those who were quite positive and another group who refused to accept Iran as representing the Arabs, who used conspiracy language talking about the Iranians. I have written many times about the Holocaust, apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular in a paper called "In Defense of Peace," in 1997. I keep writing in this direction. But things are coming almost to tragic point in this part of the world.
You believe things are worse than ever before?
On one hand, Arabs and Muslims going in a very nihilistic way. At the same time, we have two very right-wing administrations in Israel and the United States that are not helping at all. Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War was accompanied by the rise of the right in the Untied States, and those right-wingers are now playing a very terrible role in this region.
For example, look what has happened with Hamas in Palestine. Instead of nurturing democracy [the U.S. administration] put pressure on the Palestinians to simply implement it and totally failed to press Israel to implement the road map. Democracy is a process. You can’t turn into a democracy the way Sunday turns into Monday. You can look at its components (rule of law, empowering women, civil society) and help them to materialize, one by one. But this preaching spirit in United States, plus the militaristic spirit is terrible. It makes the job of any liberal in the Arab world almost impossible.
Has this caused you to rethink any of your own views?
No. Of course not. I still believe in liberal democracy. But I do believe there is a certain unevenness in the development of societies and nations. Every country a democracy, yes. But at a different pace and in a different shape. You can’t just copy things in a mechanical way.
I was once a Marxist. We used socialism in this magic way, the way democracy is being used now. This makes me anxious, this religious way (even when it’s secular) this religious, apocalyptic way of thinking, that there’s a certain magic key that will solve all those problems.
Progress is a Western concept. To adopt it, you must have certain things achieved, for example, a religious reformation, something similar to Luther. Islam is not touched by this. Even Judaism had the Haskalah in Germany, which affected Central Europe.
How do you view the neo-conservatives who have been a strong voice in administration foreign policy?
All of them are sort of disciples of historical pessimism, following the thinking of [University of Chicago philosopher] Leo Strauss. They have this hatred of the Enlightenment and all the great values of our existence. And they are not just rebels against the Enlightenment. Many are rebels against the progressive Jewish tradition in the United States. Historically speaking, Jews, especially intellectuals, were the vanguard of everything that was positive.
For my own readers, I have to keep explaining, that you have in the United States a right, a left and a center, and that I have my own reservations regarding certain U.S. policies. But at the same time, that anti-Americanism is very dangerous, a dangerous opium for the masses in our part of the world.
Do you have any problems expressing your views in Al Hayat? Are you ever censored?
No, I know the limits of the paper. And I don’t try to test them. I move within them.
What are some examples of these limits?
You know there are some sensitivities: some cultural, some political, so you try to avoid these things; for example, God, atheism and sex.
Do you still support a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Yes. But I don’t think it’s on the horizon now. The Palestinians are drifting toward radicalism and religious extremism, and the Israelis are drifting more and more to the right. Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza has not changed this. They are still attached to the principles of "practical Zionism": changing the reality of the land at the expense of the Palestinians.
Do you find over the years that you are persuading your audience? Are you finding supporters?
I’m very much in the minority. But there’s no tragedy about it.