‘Meet the Author’: As’ad AbuKhalil
Published Friday, October 17, 2014
On October 16, 2014, Al-Akhbar English held the first session of its “Meet the Author” series over Facebook with Professor As’ad AbuKhalil. AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. Below is an edited selection of reader-submitted questions.
On the question of Palestine
Michael Karam: What makes you think that Israel will no longer exist in the future?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I feel that it is the historical trend. There are no foundations for Israel to last in our region. You can take it only from a demographic point of view: that within decades the percentage of Arabs inside so-called Israel will outnumber the Jewish population and they will not democratically opt to maintain the Jewish state. But aside from that, things could change in a shorter period of time: my outlook after the July war is that the shelf-life of Israel will be shorter than expected – at least from my standpoint. Israel has been imposed on our region by force, an overwhelming force. This formula of imposing an entity on top of an existing nation, and in a region that detests this entity, it is not tenable. The ability of Arabs to counter the overwhelming force of Israel and to subvert it has been increasing over time. The recent war in Gaza is another example: people of my generation remember that the Israeli terrorist army used to be able to settle things on the battlefield in a matter of hours and days. Things have changed. Lastly, how could Israel last in our region? For how long can the state survive purely by virtue of an external factor (i.e. American unconditional support)? That is the only factor that has prevented the Zionist occupation of Palestine from being ended by Arabs, once and for all.
Christina Murphy: In your writing, you frequently stress that the complete demise of Israel is inevitable. I agree with you, but I wonder how do you think this will come about? Through violence, or through a recognition by the Jewish population of Israel that they can no longer lord it over 'the natives'? In other words, do you envisage an Algerian or a South African scenario?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I don’t wish to see blood spilled but I do anticipate that the demise of Israel will come about through a violent process. The Israeli terrorist state has spilled too much blood, and committed to many massacres, and resorted to too many war crimes to produce a peaceful outcome to the conflict. The Zionist leadership is far more obstinate and far more racist and far more blinded by hate than the former South African leadership to allow that scenario to develop. This is a state that will not abandon its nuclear arsenal willingly, but would even use it if it felt the need to (as it considered using that arsenal in 1973). Furthermore, the Israeli state has sown too much hatred in our lands and will reap the consequences of this hate.
Kamel Bshara : If you were a president of Palestine, what would you change and what would be your vision for it?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I don’t seek any political office and “intellectuals” – as much as I abhor that label – should stay out of political office. The experience of al-Marzuki in Tunisia does not present a good example at all. Intellectuals only reach power as tools of other powers, even those who are not on the same page with them. If I were a president of Palestine, I would resign immediately but only after renaming the Ben-Gurion Airport, the George Habash International Airport. My vision is the full liberation of Palestine and the return and compensation of all refugees and the celebration of a secular state in all of Palestine in which neither Zionism nor religious ideologies would be allowed to prevail.
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Apologist for or critic of Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran?
Augiedamous: How can you consider yourself anti-Assad when you spend 99 percent of the time bashing the Syrian revolution and apologizing for Hezbollah?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I consider myself what I consider myself. I have been opposed to the Assad regime all my life, since my early youth in leftist movements in Lebanon. Unlike many of the recent converts to the cause of the Syrian opposition, I never ever said one word of praise about the Syrian regime, and have been attacked on Syrian regime TV and accused of getting paid for speaking out against the Syrian regime. In the 1990s, I could not go to Lebanon because of a chapter I wrote in a book published in the West about Syrian foreign policy. There is a lot of documentation of Syrian regime repression and oppression, and I spoke about that and wrote about that. But there is precious little about the war crimes and atrocities of the Syrian rebel groups who are getting fawning and glamorizing coverage in the Arab and Western media. For that reason, I choose to focus on those rebel groups and Syrian exile opposition. But I still write regularly against the Syrian regime and many notice that rarely is there an article of mine in Al-Akhbar which does not mention the Syrian regime critically or mockingly. As for the percentage of attacks, I don’t count and I decide how and how much I direct my guns, so to speak.
As for apologizing for Hezbollah: as a leftist, I am not on the same page with the ideology of Hezbollah, but I believe that leftists can’t but support resistance to Israeli occupation and war crimes, especially when that resistance is very effective and skillful. I have been critical of Hezbollah over the years but some people read what they want.
Ahmad Tannir: How can you be critical of the Saudi and Gulf regimes, but not be critical of Hezbollah?
As’ad AbuKhalil: As I have said before, I am critical of Hezbollah and have been critical of them in Arabic and English. An anarchist, like myself, has little in common with the ideology of Hezbollah. Furthermore, the political performance of Hezbollah in the Lebanese political scene has been quite abysmal. But I never regarded Hezbollah as a progressive party. Having said that, I can’t but be impressed with the model of resistance to Israeli occupation as exhibited by Hezbollah (and by its communist predecessors) but Hezbollah established standards of resistance that have now become quite admired in the Arab world. And Israel is an ally of Gulf regimes, while Hezbollah is an enemy of Israel. So am I supposed to side with the allies of Israel? Is that the logical stance for the left?
Kamel Bshara: You comment mostly on Gulf regimes but you never talk about the Iranian regime. What is your opinion of the Iranian regime?
As’ad AbuKhalil: It is true that I mostly comment about the Gulf regimes but I have often written in Arabic and English against the Iranian regime. I have opposed the Iranian regime since my youth when I was a radical Marxist activist in Lebanon. The Iranian regime and the ideology of Khumayni are antithetical to my beliefs, at every level. I also wrote a critical assessment in Arabic in Al-Akhbar of the Iranian regime. Having said all that, I ask myself: who of the Iranian regime or the Gulf regimes is doing more damage to the Arab world and to the primary Palestinian cause? In my mind, there is no comparison, because the Gulf regimes are now working as allies of Israel and they all serve the interests of the American empire. Some might say that the Iranian regime is negotiating with the US over nuclear production and that the Iran-contra scandal revealed a level of hypocrisy on the part of the Iranian regime. But if one measures today, by the standpoint of the Palestinian problem, the Iranian regime is arming and financing Palestinian resistance groups (including the communist PFLP) while the Gulf regimes are squarely in the same trench as Israel. On the level of sectarian warfare, I look at the Iranian media and the statements by Iranian officials and I find none of the grotesque sectarian rhetoric coming out of the Saudi, Qatari, and Bahraini regimes. For those reasons, I choose to direct most of my fire at the allies of Israel in the Arab world. Nevertheless, I support the struggle of Iranian leftists (and not cheerleaders of Bush there) for a revolutionary change in Iran, just as I support revolutionary change in all Arab countries.
Wasem Khir: The word "moderate" is thrown around a lot when the press or opposition to the Syrian regime describes certain rebel factions in Syria. Are there any moderate or secular rebels fighting in Syria?
As’ad AbuKhalil: There are of course moderate Syrian dissidents and moderate Syrian opponents to the repressive regime of Syria, but there aren’t moderate Syrian rebels. One has tried in vain to find evidence of the so-called moderate rebels to no avail. Moderation in this context is defined by the criteria of the US government, which considers the Saudi Wahhabi regime to be moderate. How can the Syrian rebels be moderate when those armed groups are sponsored by the likes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the US, Turkey, and even Israel?
From Jack McGinn: What is your short-term prognosis for Syria? Is it possible to envision a near future free of the regime and of fundamentalist groups, within a united Syria? And in a post-Assad and post-ISIS Syria, which parts of the left are best placed to influence events: the Kurdish resistance, the student radicals, Haytham al-Manna, etc.?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I don’t believe that there is any short-term for Syria. The American and Arab Gulf intervention will ensure that Syria undergoes one of the most protracted conflicts in history, perhaps. There will be a very long war in Syria and the course and outcome of the war will, to a large degree, be determined by enemies of the Syrian people. If it is up to me, I will rule out both the Syrian regime and the rebel groups from shaping the future of Syria. Both sides have engaged in too much bloodshed and destruction to be qualified to have a role in the future of Syria. I have a great respect for Haytham al-Manna and for other leftist opposition groups and members (many of whom remain in jail), but who have little say about what is happening. The Syrian conflict is no longer in the hands of the Syrian themselves, and I wish for the Syrian people to realize that.
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The state of the region
Said Rami In the past, political activism was based on ideology, and that’s why we had Ba’athists, nationalists, socialists, communists, liberals, reformists, conservatives etc. However, today, politics is solely based on sectarianism, hence making the survival of a political ideology that is not bound by geographic boundaries or religious doctrine very challenging, if not impossible. How can we save our region from the toxic mentality of sectarianism? What mechanisms should we adopt in order to dismantle and overcome this way of thinking?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I do believe that the left in the Arab world has a chance to rejuvenate itself and to resurrect a once powerful movement. This is an opportunity to present to the people ideologies that don’t speak on behalf of the sect/tribe/ethnic group or upper classes. It is a chance to present the real true alternative to the dominant sectarian landscape. Unfortunately, the orthodox (Leninist) communist parties of the Arabs are in a state of a coma and refuse to exit that state. They even seem embarrassed by the very ideology of communism and are always on the defensive. We need a new left, something the dominant version of Arab communism (championed by the likes of Hawi, Shawi, Ibrahim, and Bakdash) never allowed at the urging of the Soviet Union. If Arab communist parties don’t want to act and don’t want to press their demands against the dangerously right-wing movement and regimes, they should step aside and allow others to take over.
Ahmed K. al-Shehmani: What circumstance would be better for Iraq: the current map under the guise of a federalists government or a partition that could lead to proxification I.e the north to US/Israeli interests the west to the gulf monarchs and the south to Iran?
As’ad AbuKhalil: No, I am in favor of more integration of the Arab world. The West allows itself to integrate politically and economically while they insist on partition and secession in our region. It is time that we reject the partition and fragmentation of our region in the name of Western-imposed self-determination, which (for the West) only means the ability of the West to impose its will. Self determination has been thwarted by the West more than by any other power. Having said that, it is time that Arabs, Iranians, and especially Turks admit the historical injustices inflicted on the Kurdish people and to respect the rights and culture of the Kurdish people. Having said that, the Kurdish people should realize that the alliance between the Kurdish tribal leaders and the enemies of the Arab people (like Israel) will not bode well for the future of Kurdish-Arab brotherhood. The Kurdish tribal leadership of Barazani is spoiling the future of relations between the Arabs and Kurds. I also worry about the sectarian role of Sistani and the sectarian Shia government. I worry that the continuation of the sectarian arrangement that the American occupation brought to Iraq will make the reintegration of Iraq quite difficult. A new political system is needed in Iraq but not one devised by Joe Biden.
John Oshana: Do you think what happened in Latin America over the past few decades could serve as a model for the Middle East?
As’ad AbuKhalil: I am not an expert of Latin America, but the US still exercises too much hegemony over Latin America to want to copy that model in the Middle East. There are some courageous governments in Latin America who stand up to US hegemony. We have none of that in the Middle East. The Latin American path of development remains largely capitalist and largely influenced by Western lending institutions. As for democratization, I don’t believe that this should be the slogan of the moment because the West will not allow true democratization in the region and wishes to use the facade of democratization to shape election outcomes and run the economies and impose normalization with the Israeli enemy.
Abu Hassan Kabran: What is your speculation concerning the future of the Middle East on the short-run? Do you see any correlation between the volatile consequences of the Arab Spring and the Palestinian conflict with Israel?!
As’ad AbuKhalil: The Middle East will be undergoing a thorough transformation for years, decades, to come. We have entered a process the outcome of which is not clear yet. If this is a revolutionary period – and I can’t say it is – it will be years before it takes its final shape and form. Of course the Arab-Israeli conflict is relevant to the Arab uprising; Israel has been freaking out and worried about the outcome. For that it has entered into an alliance with Gulf regimes to lead the deadly Arab counter-revolution. The war against Arab regimes is not separate from our war against Zionism in the Middle East. Israel will not allow democracy to prevail in the region and for that the struggle for Palestine is, or should be, concurrent, with the struggle for Arab freedom.
AB Shaker: How do you view the current state of Middle Eastern Studies in the US? Do you lament the paucity of students of Middle Eastern origins in that field? Or in other way, do you consider their flocking to technical non-humanitarian fields of studies lamentable?
As’ad AbuKhalil:The state of Middle Eastern studies in the US is not in good shape at all. There has been a decline in support for Middle Eastern studies and this has been reflected in decline of funding, except for programs that don’t offend the political sensibilities of the Empire and of Zionists. The Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown was one of the only centers that was created in disregard of Zionist premises and it has been in a state of decline since the death of Hisham Sharabi and the retirement of Michael Hudson. Furthermore, Saudi money has entered the picture and it ensures that centers don’t do work that would challenge the interests of US hegemony or of Gulf political interests in the region. I see a decline of interest in Middle East specialization except for those who want to work for the US government. I am not sure whether there is a measure of the supply of specialists in academia. I personally don’t think that the national origins matter at all in Middle East specialization. If anything, many Arabs in the US have been working hard to inherit the Likudnik mantle of Ajami. And there are specialists of non-Middle East origin who do very good work. I don’t draw that distinction, and that distinction was never on Edward Said’s mind – the claims of his detractors notwithstanding.
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Taking the fried eggplant to the next level
Nazih Nahle: Do you support the notion of bringing the fried eggplant to a new level such as breaded fried eggplants, eggplant nuggets etc.?
As’ad AbuKhalil: That is an excellent question. I have sampled enough breaded eggplants to give this categorical answers: as an eggplant fanatic, I am not inclined to favor breaded eggplants but some Asian cuisines have incorporated lightly breaded eggplant (fried) and I have enjoyed them. But the full flavor of eggplants is even better without breading. The nuggets idea is great and in the US there is a frozen box of breaded nuggets of eggplants at Trader Joe’s, but they are not good because they are submerged in tomato sauce, and tomatoes kill any flavor, no matter how strong (this is why we can’t use saffron with tomatoes). I also recommend that when the eggplant nuggets are offered a sauce made of mint yoghurt is offered for dipping. Please be advised: those recipe ideas are registered with the US Patent Office.