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A Ukrainian Lesson to the Arabs?

A Ukrainian Lesson to the Arabs?

Sunday, 3 April, 2022 - 10:15

Many traits have been attributed to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, with views on the man ranging between extremely positive, deep appreciation to deeply negative, sharp condemnation. One thing, however, is beyond doubt. He has put and continues to put exceptional effort into winning the world’s hearts and minds and influencing the governments that could play a role in shaping the course of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

To this end, we have seen him, on an almost daily basis, appeal to the governments and peoples of the countries that are assumed to have the ability to make a difference. Through their parliaments, he addressed each of them individually, as both states and peoples, emphasizing what they share, referencing each countries’ particular experiences and positions, and citing excerpts from their leaders’ speeches as he tries to convince them that giving up on his country undermines their interests and contradicts the values they claim to hold. From the US to Sweden, from Australia to Canada and from France to Israel… He turned his attention to each of them individually, tailoring his message to their sensitivities and particularities.

Other politicians, intellectuals, writers, and artists from his country did the same, writing for global newspapers or speaking to international broadcasters to make the case for supporting their country. They didn’t seem “servile” or “undignified” as they told their audience that it is their duty, and in their interest, to side with Ukraine. Like their president, they have criticized their audience, but from within the prism they share, blaming them for what the Ukrainians consider to be a failure on the part of these countries to fulfill their duties, or their supposed duties.

Regardless of the degree to which Ukrainian appeals hit the mark or extent of Ukrainian themselves believe them, these appeals have emphasized shared ethical and humanist values, like rejecting oppression, fighting on the side of justice, and condemning aggression, especially when the big prey on the small and the strong on the weak.

In the Arab world, we have never doubted the impact that some countries around the world have on the conflicts that concern us, especially the Palestinian problem. Arabs never doubted in particular the significance of US influence, and to a lesser degree that of Western Europe.

The October 1973 war, through which the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat hoped would push the “United States to pay attention to the region” is one example. Many see the fight of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a means to obtain the recognition of the US and other influential states. Even the stupid idea of hijacking planes was, according to its authors, aimed at “bringing our cause to the world’s attention.” The popular theory among Arabs of "Western double standards" was, and still is, a testimony to this acknowledgment in the grievance it expresses. Those who are fond of poetic citations kept reminding us of the poet Al-Mutanabbi's description of his prince Sayf al-Dawla as both a rival and arbiter at the same time. By that Hamadani prince, Arabs meant exclusively the West.

At any rate, this recognition was not complemented by continuous, meticulously prepared appeals to those assumed to carry influence. Except perhaps in the narrow diplomatic circles, similarities in culture, values, or experience, and shared interests were not emphasized. Even within these narrow diplomatic circles, only leaders and politicians have been addressed, while those shaping public opinion and civil society, in all its levels, have been ignored.

Moreover, there has always been a problem related to the language: for example, some of the critics of the Camp David negotiations between Sadat and the then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin noted the former’s inability to speak in political terms: During moments of accord, Sadat would address Begin “like a brother,” and during moments of disaccord, he would threaten resumption of war. There was a discourse for fraternity and another for war, with nothing else but a void.

There is also a history of addressing, which we have not yet critiqued in any sense, arguing that “imperialism and Zionism” are one and the same, meaning that the West that we want to see intervene on our side and stop applying “double standards” is in the same category as the enemy we are fighting. Acting on this logic, those who hijacked planes chose to capture the West’s attention by kidnapping its civilian passengers! We thus, in the best of cases, relieved the West of having to worry about whether or not to intervene in our favor after having expanded the front of our enemies. In the worst of cases, we were feeding the West’s inclination to intervene in Israel’s favor.

Some have called upon the West to interfere to stop butchery in Syria or Libya throughout the past decade. Nonetheless, they followed up on this demand very timidly and inconsistently, with past experiences and fears of being accused of treason weighing heavily.

Today, some might say: there is no point. Ukraine is European, and we are not. Westerners listen to Ukraine and don’t listen to us. In all likelihood, there is some truth to this argument because of the differing sentiments, interests, and degrees of being influenced by events. Nevertheless, this is all the more reason to put more effort into being heard and appeal to those capable of making an impact without necessarily agreeing with them on much else.

Of course, doing so demands overcoming several obstacles:

We have a deep sense of belonging to the periphery of the world that feeds on the conflicts of the past helping to undermine any universal awareness from emerging. We also have a conception of politics that limits it to what happens between a ruler and another, and very little discourse filling the gap between fraternity and war, and of course there is this imperial notion about ourselves that makes us believe that asking for help is begging, and the dignified don’t beg.

Overall, these forms of consciousnesses reinforce each other, and they do nothing for the defeated except deepening their defeat.

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