The Historic Memory

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Bill Moyers presents the long history of the Arab world, from the time of the pharaohs through Western colonization. The program features noted historians and scholars, who inform the viewer of some of the historical events and myths that have defined the culture and politics of the Arab world.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Our story, history, began in the Valleys of the great rivers — the Nile, the Tigress and the Euphrates — what is now the Arab world. History happened there yesterday, too, on the battlefields of Kuwait and Iraq. In this broadcast, we’ll look at some of the historical events that have shaped the Arab world and our world-at-large.
The Arab world stretches across almost two dozen countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa, a region about one and a half times larger than the United States, containing approximately 185 million people. Although they do not make up a single race of people, history has given them a sense of shared memory, and that’s the subject of this discussion on the Arab world.

With us are Yvonne Haddad, who was born in Syria and studied in Beirut and the U.S. and now teaches history at the University of Massachusetts; Michael Suleiman, professor of political science at Kansas State, who was born in Palestine and educated in the U.S.; and Afaf Marsot, who was born in Egypt, educated in Cairo and England and who now teaches history at UCLA. Dr. Marsot, when Arabs talk about the “glories of the Arab past,” what are they talking about?

AFAF MARSOT, Professor of Near and Middle Eastern History, University of California at Los Angeles: They’re talking about the 8th and 9th centuries, the glories of Baghdad, the age of translations, the age of discoveries, the age of experimentation, when things like pharmacology, algebra, chemistry were all set up by the Arab or Islamic civilization as the basis of the culture.

BILL MOYERS: We Americans like to talk about defining moments, like the settlement at Jamestown and Plymouth, about the Revolutionary War, about the Constitutional Convention, the Civil War. Were there defining moments and events, specifically, in the history of the Arab peoples, Dr. Haddad?

YVONNE HADDAD, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst: There are quite a few. It depends whether you’re talking about as they look back now at their history or in the development of their history. In the development, probably the most important one was the migration of-you know, the beginning of Islam, which gave Arab history a context, an Islamic civilization in which Arab civilization, Islamic civilization became interchangeable.

If you’re talking about the present consciousness of the Arab world, there are other defining moments that are very important, also, including the Crusades, including the loss of Arab power with the fall of Baghdad, including the formation of the Ottoman Empire. And then you come into the modern period — the occupation and colonial suppression of the Arab world and then, the formation of the state of Israel and then, as they look back, they begin to see that there is this confrontation with the West that they have had to deal with and have to deal with 1991 today.

BILL MOYERS: What about-what about words, Dr. Suleiman? Americans talk about being a people of the word, the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution — “We, the people”; the Gettysburg Address — “Of, by and for the people.” When Arabs look back over their history, do they talk about being a people of the word as well?

MICHAEL SULEIMAN, Professor of Political Science, Kansas State University: They certainly do. Of course, the most important word is the Koran itself. It is the word of God, as far as Muslims are concerned, and it is written in Arabic. Arabic becomes, then, a very important, not only tool, but, actually, almost sacred text. And the Hadith, then, also — the sayings by the Prophet to his companions, his own tradition. Yes, very much so, the word then becomes, also, important so far as the texts themselves are concerned, so far as poetry, writings in philosophy and so on.

AFAF MARSOT: The law, that’s


AFAF MARSOT: The law-[crosstalk]

BILL MOYERS: — the holy law. What’s the word?



AFAF MARSOT: It’s based on four foundations that are the roots of the law, and one of them is the Koran. What’s in the Koran is unchangeable. The second one is the sayings and actions of the prophets. The other two are consensus and consensus of whom is not quite sure at what period of time, and then analogy, so that-People assume that this is a hide bound law, when, in fact, it’s a very changeable law, because there is no stare decisis in Islamic law and, therefore, it’s the interpretation of the judge at the time.

BILL MOYERS: No-no precedent that binds irrevocably.

AFAF MARSOT: No precedent. There is no binding precedent. You just have the opinions of all the learned.

YVONNE HADDAD: I think that’s true of ethics.

BILL MOYERS: So who evolves the law?


AFAF MARSOT: The judge.

BILL MOYERS: The judge. In response to a particular issue at the moment.


AFAF MARSOT: That’s right.




YVONNE HADDAD: Just the judge.

AFAF MARSOT: And they have several schools of jurisprudence, not just one. In Sunni Islam, you have four accepted schools of jurisprudence. You have two or three or four in Shiite Islam, and they’re all equally valid.

BILL MOYERS: So this gives even more weight to the role of the authority in Arabic culture-


BILL MOYERS: — just as Mohammed-just as the Koran has this injunction about obeying the Prophet, the messenger, so you must also obey those who are in authority.


BILL MOYERS: And those include-

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Yeah, there is, of course, the question of “Do we take the words of the Koran as they are, literally, or should there be some leeway and some interpretation that uses rationality or reason as the method to try to figure out what, in fact, is there. Or is there more than one meaning?” As, for instance, Shiites-or at least some Shiites believe that there are two meanings to every word, practically, of the Koran, one esoteric, one that is clear to everyone — exoteric — and among the reformers, there is the feeling that, perhaps, if we are going to live in the 20th century, there should be some kind of leeway that we can interpret the Koran and the Sunna — the Hadith — in a way that gives us the use of reason more than merely the literal interpretation of what was in the Koran.

BILL MOYERS: So, when we look back-when Arabs look back — like Americans look back on the last 200 years, Arabs look back over thousands of years — what’s the answer to the question, “Well, OK, who are the Arabs?”

AFAF MARSOT: Those who speak Arabic.

BILL MOYERS: That’s essentially the-

AFAF MARSOT: That is the-[crosstalk]

YVONNE HADDAD: And identify with Arab history.


MICHAEL SULEIMAN: And, today, yes, I think that that is it. Of course, the Arabs originally, supposedly, came from what is today the Arabian Peninsula. They became the people that-from which Islam originated. They’re the ones that fanned out to the-to the all the areas that became the province of Islam. Some of these people, then, became Arab-ized and started to speak Arabic and, today, yes. Today, the people who speak Arabic, which means the people that, perhaps, also are to be included in the Arab League-and, today, there are some 20 countries and, of course, the Palestinians, who are also included as a country and as a nation in the Arab League.

BILL MOYERS: Why is it, given this history-and I think I understand something when you talk about the authoritarian background-I mean, the power and significance of the Koran, but why is it that democratic institutions have not evolved in this long history?

AFAF MARSOT: Oh, that’s an easy and a difficult question. The easy part is because most of these countries have been colonized and the trauma of colonization is very deep. In fact, we’re still suffering the trauma of colonization.

BILL MOYERS: What did it do to the Arab imagination?

AFAF MARSOT: First of all, it caused the Arabs to distrust the West, because all the promises that had been made by the West in 1919 — none of them ever came true, so the first word is, “Don’t trust the West. They’re going to lie to you.” The second thing is, “Economically, they’re going to dominate you and there is going to be a dependence on the West who are going to exploit you for their own purposes.” And then, you come down to ’48 and the creation of the state of Israel, which has allowed totalitarian rulers to continue to rule in the Arab countries because their only raison d’etre — their only excuse for being there — is, ”We’re protecting you militarily from Israel and, perhaps, we’re going to even recover Arab domination.”

YVONNE HADDAD: Yes, but there is also the fact that the United States, which has become dominant in the Arab world since the ’50s — after, you know, the United States declared that there’s a vacuum there and we had to fill it in, and, before that, the British and the French, as they colonized the area — they found it much easier to deal with one leader than with a group of-democratically elected Parliament and, so, you will see that, if you look at the history, they bribed the Parliament people; they used blackmail; or, some way or another, the foreign powers have subverted the democratic system in order to maintain their dominance of the area.

BILL MOYERS: And there is this tradition — is there not? I mean, there is the past of tribalism, of personal loyalties to a particular kalir or-[crosstalk]

AFAF MARSOT: That’s a stereotype.

YVONNE HADDAD: But there is also the consensus

BILL MOYERS: Is that a stereotype?

AFAF MARSOT: That’s a stereotype, yes, because in a place like Egypt, there are very few tribal connections and the idea that all the Arabs have tribal linkages — that’s not the case. That’s one of the easy things that gets thrown around.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I wanted to add to what Dr. Marsot was saying about the West — and Dr. Haddad. There is also the feeling among intellectuals in the Arab world that they have really wanted to move — or at least, many of them in the liberal democratic tradition and they have admired much of what is written in the West about liberal democracy and in the end, they-many of them discovered that what intellectuals as well as political leaders in the West say about democracy, they want to include in the West as democracy.

But when it comes to dealing with the Arab countries, as has been said, they have found it not only easier to deal with one particular leader, but, often, more economically advantageous. In other words, where there are democratic movements, these movements have asked for the use of the economic means of the Arab world for the benefit of the Arabs and including the present situation, where, in fact, there is a concern about the oil-producing countries investing most of their wealth in the West rather than in the Arab countries. And it is the groups that ask for this that often are suppressed, with the help of outsiders.

BILL MOYERS: Well, let me see that, if what I’ve heard you say so far is that the first recent historical event that had an impact on the Arab world was the drawing of boundaries by the European powers after the end of World War 1

YVONNE HADDAD: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: — and so the West found it much easier to relate, as you said, to individual leaders than to democratic institutions. So, are you saying that the West — Europe and the United States — deliberately made it difficult for democracy to take root in these countries?

YVONNE HADDAD: I think they claimed that they were setting up democratic systems, but if you look at some of the letters that-even some of the residents, you know, from the colonial rulers, whenever the parliaments asked for something, they used to mock them and say, “They think that now they can have democracy,” ’cause they were holding the West accountable to the values that had been proclaimed. The West proclaims values, but does not live up to them. In the relationships, they deal very differently with the people of the Arab world.

BILL MOYERS: And the boundaries that were drawn were artificial and imposed boundaries-

YVONNE HADDAD: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: — they didn’t respect natural divisions of geography or religion.


AFAF MARSOT: There are no natural divisions. There’s a desert. How do you have a natural division in the desert? Which block of sand is yours and which is mine? And that’s why there was always the concept of a greater Assyria, which doesn’t mean centered in Damascus, but this whole Fertile Crescent has some kind of unity.

YVONNE HADDAD: Yeah. In the 16th century, there were three Islamic empires — the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid empire, and the Mughal Empire. When the West was done, it-the Arab-the Muslim world was divided into 44 countries. There are about a billion Muslims in the world. In 44 countries, they are the majority, but there are-one-third of the Muslims of the world live in minority status in other countries — you know, like Russia, China, Africa, where they are a minority group. And, therefore, what you have is the dismemberment of the Muslim world and out of these 44 Muslim countries, only 21 are Arab, so that the Arabs are only a minority within the whole Muslim world.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I wanted to say that, yes, I think the West has played a part in both dismembering the region and, also, often, in suppressing or helping some leader suppress their own people. But, also, I think democracy doesn’t mushroom-doesn’t come out of nothing and, in a very real sense, the Arab world — or the different countries that make up the Arab world — have not yet had the means to actually bring about a true revolution that would allow them to be democratic. For instance, Gamal Abdel Nasser, when he was president of Egypt, talked about a social revolution, an economic revolution and a political revolution — three of them not being possible — for him, anyway-to bring them about at the same time — and talked about social revolution and economic revolution coming first because, otherwise, the people would not know what democracy’s all about, that it would be corrupted, that they would be bought by outsiders and so on.

So, the roots for a democratic system have not really been very well watered to strike a very strong basis in the region and, in a very real sense, this has yet to come, although, I must say that we cannot completely avoid the fact that there have been some democratic regimes in the Arab world. We need to say that Lebanon, for instance.

AFAF MARSOT: Well, I tell you, it’s a good-

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: — and Tunisia, sometimes in Egypt.

YVONNE HADDAD: If you compare Europe in the 19th century and the Middle East in the 20th century, it’s almost the same thing.

BILL MOYERS: In what sense?

AFAF MARSOT: The amount of uprisings in Europe in the 19th century, the similar amount in Egypt; the amount of disturbances, I mean, in the Arab world, the amount of disturbances in all of Europe in the 19th century. You can almost have a computer match of the two. And the end results of the use of force to create states and what have you — that’s happening. So you might say that we’re getting to the 20th century in terms of institution-making, in terms of state formation.

BILL MOYERS: You said the seminal modern event, if I heard you correctly, was the founding of Israel, when Palestine was petitioned in two with 56 percent of the land going to the Jewish state, even though two-thirds of the population was Arab. Why is Israel held responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in the Arab world?

AFAF MARSOT: Very simply, because by creating the state of Israel, you’ve been able to polarize the Arabs. You’ve been able to account for the rise of dictators, because these dictators were military oligarchs and the army, therefore, was regarded as the sole bulwark against the expansionist tendencies of Israel and as the sole bulwark for recovering Arab lands in the region, although no state nowadays talks about recovering Arab lands. They’d only be too happy if the Palestinians have a little something of their own. It’s one of the reasons for the massive armaments, the wasted money that’s been put into or din ants and armaments and bombs and machinery — and that is the reason for the poverty of the Arab world, amongst other things, for its disruption and for the rise of the totalitarian rulers.

BILL MOYERS: What about — You said — you were talking about the economy and about oil. Surely, another recent event that has informed the Arab history today, the Arab imagination today, it was the oil boom 50 or 60 years ago which catapulted some — not all — of the Arab world into a global, capitalist society. What do you think that has done in terms of dividing the Arab world between rich and poor?

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: It has greatly sharpened the difference between the haves and the have-nots in the area. It has made it difficult for even the countries that have the oil, that have the money from the oil, to actually use it in a responsible manner, because it has come rather suddenly, with great wealth which has had a corrupting influence on some of the leadership. It has also aroused the interest in the rest of the world — particularly in the West — to be protective of specific leaders that are more conducive in their treatment and dealings with the West to get some of that wealth not utilized in the Arab world, not invested in the Arab world, but outside of the Arab world.

It has also made it more mandatory for some of the leaders to suppress their own people, because, otherwise, their people would be a lot more wanting of democracy and better wealth-excuse me, better economic conditions, not only for themselves, in those countries, but for their fellow Arabs in the rest of the Arab world.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Haddad, let me ask you a tough question. I clipped out an article-a letter to the editor of The Washington Post from a staff consultant on a House committee saying, “In reality, much in Arab culture” — what we’ve been talking about here — “explains Saddam and the prevalence of other Saddams in the Arab world and throughout modern Arab history. Such motivators as the shame/honor concept go a long way in helping us to understand the Arab world, explain the spectacle of Palestinians standing on rooftops in the West Bank cheering Iraq Scuds launched at Tel Aviv. They help explain why Jordanians and other Arabs believe that Saddam was lured into Kuwait by the West as part of a diabolical conspiracy. The Arabs are no better and no worse than any other people, but they’re not just like us-

YVONNE HADDAD: Here we go again.

BILL MOYERS: “-very real characteristics of their culture cause them to behave as they do.” What’s your response to that?

YVONNE HADDAD: I’m-You know, this is as stereotypical as possible, and racist, also, because it says, “They’re different and, therefore, we can treat them differently.” It justifies a lot of stuff. It justifies our killing them, because they don’t think like us. They don’t value life like us and that kind of stuff.

BILL MOYERS: But if I say the people in Louisiana are different from the people in East Texas, where I grew up, I don’t mean that meanly.

YVONNE HADDAD: Maybe not, but that’s what it implies to people. ”They’re different, and so it’s OK to do things to them.” But, you know, this has all the stereotypes. Maybe some of the Palestinians stood and cheered for the Scuds falling. How many Americans cheered when our, quote, unquote, “ordinances” killed all these Iraqis? What’s the difference? In fact, there are some people that are asking, ”Why were the Americans so hyped up about the fact that the Scuds, you know, didn’t kill a few people-” There were-some people were killed, but people were upset about that and there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that were killed. Nobody cared. And, so, is there a difference in the value of life? This is what the Arabs see.

You see, our world has become one in which the Arabs watch American TV. They watch CNN and some of the others and they see that we look at Arab life as something different than Jewish life. But if you-you know, if you look at it, it is true that some of the Palestinians — but not only the Palestinians; a lot of Arabs — are beginning to talk about Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm as “Operation Desert Trap” and they believe that Saddam Hussein walked into a trap that was prepared for him by President Bush, that President Bush did not-

BILL MOYERS: Now, why would they believe that? Tell me

YVONNE HADDAD: Because President Bush used language right from the beginning that was very abusive and belligerent and challenging, that-Saddam Hussein could not back out and-

BILL MOYERS: So that does go to the issue of honor-

YVONNE HADDAD: Honor. But so did George Bush-He had a lot of honor. He was responding to the same shame/honor thing as Saddam Hussein. There was no difference.

AFAF MARSOT: Of course. Exactly. And he was not negotiating. He was laying down ultimatums.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I think that that is basically the point to be emphasized. It is not a cultural thing. It was a power element.


MICHAEL SULEIMAN: It is political. We give you an ultimatum exactly because if you accept it, then you are humiliated. If you do not accept it, then it gives us an excuse to go in and bomb Iraq and destroy it. I wanted to get back to the quote that you gave.

BILL MOYERS: The author-the writer of this letter said, “There is something in Arab culture that produces a Saddam Hussein.” Now, do you agree with that?

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Right. OK. No, I do not agree with that. In fact, I wanted to address the issue, again, in political terms. What is really being said there is that Palestinians stood there and cheered when the Scuds came to attack Israel because of a cultural factor. It is not a cultural factor. What is really happening here is a political factor. What is being hidden is the fact that the Palestinians have a legitimate case against Israel. They have lost their country. Israel occupies now the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon. They have been very frustrated that the world has not really dealt with their problem. There have been many United Nations resolutions on the issue. The United States did not feel that it had to go in quickly and implement those resolutions. The Palestinians were frustrated to see that the United States and the West actually went in very, very quickly and passed some dozen resolutions in the United Nations when Iraq attacked Kuwait and they’re seeing a double standard and, in essence, they’re expressing their frustration. Finally, something happens to Israel that is inviolate, that nobody touches. They really are not expressing the-the pleasure that somebody is going to get killed. They’re saying, ”Why don’t you do something about us?”

AFAF MARSOT: Well, also, they’re expressing the fact that the Israelis have been killing any number of Arabs with the Intifada over the past three years.


YVONNE HADDAD: And nobody cared.

AFAF MARSOT: And many of these people who stood on rooftops cheering the SCUDS probably had had children of their own being killed, had had parents being killed, had had their houses blown up.

BILL MOYERS: We have about a minute and a half. Let me ask each of you, beginning with you,

AFAF MARSOT:. What’s the most important thing about Arab culture that you think we Americans, we Westerners, ought to know?

AFAF MARSOT: The diversity. There are many Arab countries. They have different foreign policies. They have different interests. They have one thing that draws them together and that is a joint culture and a joint language, but they do have different interests.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Haddad, what do you think is the one thing you’d most like us to take away about Arab culture?

YVONNE HADDAD: I’d like Americans to know that there are Arab Christians. There are about 14 million of them and the reason they exist there is because they have lived in peace with the Muslims. There are some Arab Jews. There are about two million Arab Jews, also. They are the people that were welcomed-the Jews that were welcomed when they thrown out of Spain by the Arabs. And that-it is not true, what a lot of, you know, the press usually says, that the Arabs are against the Christians and the Jews.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Suleiman, you have the last 30 seconds. Tell us what we ought to take away.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I think I would emphasize the family and the very strength that is in the Arab family, the fact that people care about each other. They’re very much concerned about the welfare, not only of their family — which is often mentioned — but also about the community. They’re concerned about their neighbors. Maybe this is not done in terms of organizations as such, but very much the charity toward others and the family bond is very strong.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we’ll come back in our next broadcast and talk about religion and culture and some other aspects that we’ve only raised briefly in this program. Thank you very much, Dr. Suleiman, Dr. Haddad, Dr. Marsot. Thank you for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 13, 2015.

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