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On Dignity in Arab Politics: From Abdel Nasser to Hezbollah

On Dignity in Arab Politics: From Abdel Nasser to Hezbollah

Monday, 19 October, 2020 - 10:45

Dignity, Karama in Arabic, is a concept related to individuals.


The modern individual reclaims his dignity by taking it back from temporal or metaphysical forces that appropriate it. He owns his dignity and his dignity is exclusively his. He translates it in a respectable manner, whereby it becomes an expression of what he is, what he does and believes in and how he leads his life. Dignified people treat others the way they want to be treated. They respect others’ opinions and defend, when they can, others’ right to dignity and freedom.


The word is derived from the Latin word Dignitas, which translates to a person’s value or worth; i.e., the concept refers to a particular individual and is not linked to politics, states, nations, militaries or conflicts.


With military and security regimes and their weak legitimacy and need to sustainably orchestrate rallies, this notion was snatched from individuals and consigned to the nation, politics and war. Dignity no longer referred to what one is and does. It came to refer to what one fights and resists. According to the original old meaning, one could have dignity while one’s nation is abased or submissive, and one could also lack dignity though one’s nation is militant and victorious. The notion now no longer springs from individuals’ relationships with themselves. It is determined on the basis of a relationship with a real or imagined enemy.


Gamal Abdel Nasser, as the godfather of the modern Arab military-security state, coined the famous slogan: “Lift your head up, my brother,” construed as a call to dignity in the new sense of the word. But the slogan implicitly went on: worship the leader and lower your head to the officer and jailer.


Dignity has become a collective and political notion, as is the case for freedom, which has been said not to be an individual’s freedom, but that of the nation. At the time, it was not clear that what had been called the nation’s freedom could only be attained by violating individuals' freedoms.


Since this nation is necessarily coupled with an immortal leader, the new notion of dignity exempts an individual’s submission to this leader. In practice, the opposite materializes: This individual, under a security and military regime, becomes extremely susceptible to being imprisoned for no other reason than holding his opinion and to being summoned to rally in city squares and applaud the leader. Constantly worshiping the leader is required, as is demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for him: “Our blood, our souls, we would sacrifice for you ...”, as the famous chant goes.


In other words, this novel notion of dignity comes to define the complete antithesis of dignity, the first requisite of which is one’s sovereignty over oneself, in mind and body. One is insulted, imprisoned, tortured in jail and dehumanized, and is, of course, banned from joining a party that is not approved of by the regime, never mind forming a party or advocating ideas different from official ideas. Nevertheless, he is credited with having dignity and dignity is ascribed to him, merely because his leader fights, threatens to initiate conflicts, confronts the West or tussles with Israel.


The most extraordinary thing about all of this is that defeats do not undermine this notion of dignity. The resounding defeat of 1967 did not deter many from reiterating the daft phrase: “Nasser lifted up the Arabs’ heads.” Since defeats are an almost assured consequence of taking the path of a military security regime, dignity, per the new notion, comes to have a duple function: convincing the vanquished he is victorious and that his dignity has increased rather than decreased.


Thus, it is not without indication that among the first slogans launched by the Syrian revolution and chanted by the Syrians was: “The Syrian people will not be abased.” This slogan – chant constituted a reconsideration of the original notion of dignity.


Not very differently from how it does with dignity, militant politics has also hijacked a similar concept: Honor. The honorable are longer those who live and behave honorably, but those who adopt a political stance aligned with the leader’s desire or a particular militant doctrine. Here, the new definition coexists with the tribal concepts and behaviors, that is, those that venerate bloodlines and “authenticity,” as well as “honor crimes”, which the new “honorable” folks do not see as dishonorable. The same is true for the new meaning of dignity, whereby the use of tribal heritage is also apparent, like Amr bin Kulthum’s pre-Islamic poetry and his arrogance, not to mention ancient Arab history with its heroes and conquests.


This inversion of definitions takes its most glaring form in today’s Lebanon. For in the face of an economic and political collapse, dignity and honor call for continuing to resist and condemning anything that may seem like a concession or a step back. As for those who refer to the resistance’s role behind the current collapse, they are told: “Let it all be sacrificed to Nassrallah’s slippers.”


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