May 4, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 499

A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance

May 4, 2003
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 499

In two articles that appeared on the liberal website Elaph, [1] Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar analyzed and criticized dominant values in the Arab world. Lafif Lakhdar, currently residing in Paris, was a regular columnist for the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, but was fired at the instruction of the paper's owner, Saudi Prince Khaled ibn Sultan, for saying during a talk show on Al-Jazeera that Saudi practices such as amputating body parts render the regime "barbaric." [2] In the first article, Lafif Lakhdar sets out the logic and goal of the attack on Baghdad, as "told" by the missiles as they fall on the city; in the second, he looks at deeply rooted thought patterns and values in the Arab world. The following are excerpts from the two articles:

I. 'What Did the Missiles Falling on Baghdad Tell Me?' [3]

"...All the peoples of the world are moving forward along the course of history towards globalization, a society of knowledge, and political modernization – all but you, who race in the opposite direction."

"The Eastern European countries have moved peacefully and with lightning speed from murderous Stalinist totalitarianism to democracy, and from economic backwardness to continuing economic growth that amazed even the most optimistic predictions. As for you, you're moving in rapid steps from backwardness into sub-backwardness, and from poverty into sub-poverty. As population growth and weapons acquisitions increase, economic growth and education decline into degradation. The peoples of mankind are governed by the law of progress, while you are governed by the law of regression."

"You replaced the dictatorship of the Shah for the theocracy of [Ayatolla] Khomeini, from the pores of whose skin the blood was dripping. In Sudan, Hassan Al-Turabi – nicknamed by our media 'the pope of world terror' – turned against Al-Sadeq Al-Mahdi's elected government after he was toppled by free elections, and established on the ruins [of Al-Mahdi's government] a militaristic and bloody Islamic regime, unique of its kind in the annals of this country, that set it back decades in all spheres."

"Febrile and delusional with the solitary, fixed idea of military vengeance for their two centuries of defeat at the hands of the West and Israel, your political and intellectual elites became crippled. [This is] instead of restoring your legitimate rights through negotiation, as is being done by your contemporaries – except for you who are resolved to achieve through terror what others have achieved through diplomacy."

"This insane obsession with vengeance has robbed your minds of the ability to think reasonably. That is why you are incapable of identifying your real problems and defining your political, economic, social, and educational priorities. In contrast to almost all other societies, your societies are… completely closed. We [missiles] are resolved to purge your madness of vindictiveness and [cure] your historical castration complex by lancing your narcissistic, putrid wound…"

"The neutral, and at times even sympathetic, disregard shown by vast sectors of the Baghdad populace and Iraqi intelligentsia – whom Saddam tortured… for 35 years – towards the fall of Baghdad, was an incentive for us [the missiles] to expand our plans to retake [Iraq] and to intervene in the domestic affairs of other Arab capitals as well, since they refuse to open their societies to political and media pluralism and to respect human rights… as long as they consider – like Baghdad did – acquiring WMD so as to ruin their own people, first economically and then politically and militarily. This is what the moronic and despotic Saddam regime did, more than any other regime in the Arab world and the entire world."

'The Missiles Will Force You - as They did Nazi Germany and Militaristic Japan - to Open to Democracy and Moderation'

"We know that your obscurantist religious culture is a terrible obstacle hindering your transition to a society less closed, less oppressive, and less hostile towards the individual, the woman, the non-Muslim, the rational, the modern, and toward life itself. We also know that your political imagination has learned nothing, from the days of Caliph 'Uthman [the third caliph after Prophet Muhammad's death] to the days of Saddam, except for this saying: 'Nothing can remove a caliph except for death or complete heresy' – but not his oppression [of his people]. We, [the missiles] are targeting this obsolete political imagination so as to force it to open to democracy and its helpmeet, moderation. We know that with you, success cannot be guaranteed, but the experience is worth a shot…"

"We would be lying if we told you that we want you to be realistic, rational, open-minded democrats and modernists for love of your beautiful eyes, because on the scale of our values you will always be a mere mustard seed. [No,] we do this for the sake of our strategic interests in the Middle East and in the oil fields, and for the sake of our security – at which you struck [as soon as you realized] you were capable of doing so, with terror and a frantic race to obtain WMD. This is an explosive mixture that we can't let you play with."

"Our decision – that is, bringing you into modernization, against your will and in the service of our interests – suits the interests of important sectors of your enlightened elites and those who listen to them. [These range from] the elites and the people of Iraq to the elite and the people of Iran, who entertain vain hopes of granting civil and human rights to those whom you have deprived of these rights – like the Sunnis in Iran, whom Khomenei considered 'impure' and who are denied all rights, so that even Friday prayer and burial services for their deceased are held in one single mosque in Tehran."

"[Another example is the] Shi'ites of Iraq, outcast although they are the overwhelming majority, and the same discrimination is applied to Shi'ites of Saudi Arabia, whom the jurisprudents of Wahabbi terror call Rawafidha[4] and issue Fatwasprohibiting Sunnis from consuming meat slaughtered by Shi'ites. The same is true also for the non-Muslims whom you have cast into a 'ground-zero' of civil rights. And for women who you degraded to a status half that of men in judicial [affairs] and [in matters of] inheritance, and into nothing at all in matters of civil rights. You even deprived them of the right to drive a car (as in Saudi Arabia) or of the right to a passport without their husbands' permission (as in Jordan and Algiers – although President 'Abd Al-'Aziz Buteflika has formed a committee to prepare a bill on personal status like the law in Tunisia. So, welcome to the club of modernization)."

"Why don't you consider solving your real problems while you squander out of unique stupidity all your material and human resources, thus compounding fourfold this [vicious] circle. Perhaps your fabricated problems have overwhelmed the remnants of your intelligence."

"We have efficiently dealt with a similar crazed obsession with vengeance by means of occupation, in Nazi Germany and in militaristic Japan. Today, the Germans and Japanese have completely forgotten the idea of wasting their resources for the sake of acquiring conventional and non-conventional weapons. They have learned to allocate their resources wisely so as to modernize their economy, [upgrade] their educational [system], and [improve] their political establishments. Similarly, through bombs, we also dealt with Serbia's madness for ethnic purging and taught it how to play the game of democracy and moderation in statesmanship and how to extradite its Saddam… to the International Criminal Court, to stand trial as a war criminal. And here we are, attempting this same bitter treatment with you, lest perhaps… In any case, this is your last chance, O masters of the missed opportunity..."

II. 'Why Does the Arab Sisyphus Lift the Heavy Rock Only to Drop it on His Own Feet?' [5]

"There are white days and black days in the history of people. Their white days are those that give them their founding myths – that is, historical and symbolical events that shape their collective human imagination, like the [French Revolution's 1789] Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. There is no substitute for these founding myths in inspiring the [human] imagination and in setting the [peoples'] creative energies in motion."

"The black days are those on which these peoples suffered defeats that they were incapable of absorbing, psychologically or intellectually, in such a way that they could derive the real conclusions. In this situation, people tend to curl up within themselves like frightened snails, to brood about their dark thoughts – their catastrophes and their collective obsession with vengeance – and to use them as a pivot that diverts them to suicidal political and militaristic decisions. [They do this] instead of [using] the same circumstances to elevate themselves by way of dignified and creative collective action, aimed at rehabilitating their self-confidence, and triumphing over those thoughts."

"Throughout modern Arab history, the collective Arab imagination has needed a healthy and inspirational founding myth. Yet this imagination has suffered defeats disproving the Arabs' self-deceiving notions about themselves as 'the best nation that has been delivered to mankind.'[Koran] [6] They were struck by impossible obsession with avenging [each of] their defeats, from the days of the Mamluk defeat at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 1700s to the defeat of [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat at the hands of [Israeli Prime Minster Ariel] Sharon at the beginning of the 21st century. [This] in addition to two centuries of defeat by [Western] imperialism, that left its open, festering wounds."

'The Tribal Arab Culture of Vengeance Transmuted their Defeats into a Fixated, Vengeful Mentality'

"This deep-rooted culture of tribal vengefulness in the [Arab] collective consciousness is a fundamental driving force. [This driving force] has transmuted this consciousness into a fixated, brooding, vengeful mentality, instead of transforming [that kind of culture] into a [source of] far-sighted thought and self-criticism, as a grasp for a spring board for a consciousness of the vital necessity to emulate the enemy, that is becoming like him in modern knowledge, thought and politics, so as to reshape the traditional personality and adapt it to the requirements of the time, as did Japan in the aftermath of its unprecedented defeat in the history of mankind in 1945."

"The culture of tribal vengeance haunts… not only in our relations with the other but also our relations with each other, between Arab countries and within each country, from honor crimes [i.e. murder of women] to tribal and factional strife. Rightly, Muhammad Hasannain Haikal [7] called the 20 years of war between the Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad organizations and the [Egyptian] police 'the blood vengeance war between the police tribe and the Islamist tribe.'"

"The hysteria of vengeance on the West and on its protégée Israel has disastrous results – for example, the Arab traditional elite's phobia of Western modernism. The Western imperialism that followed this Western modernism crippled this elite, depriving it of the ability of rational statesmanship. [Statesmanship] that includes [the adoption of] constructive [Western] innovation; setting realistic aims; playing the political game rationally; realistically interpreting the [global or regional] balance of power and harnessing [this interpretation] in the decision-making [process]; managing crises sensibly by peaceably bringing the conditions of its solution into fruition; and, finally, developing decision-making procedures."

"The policy of vengeance that prevails today, especially among the influential elites in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, has banished any rational policy from their domestic decision making. In their domestic policy, these elites dismiss all public discussion. In their foreign policy, they refuse to negotiate. This is how these elites increase the likelihood of implosion [i.e. domestic strife] and war. It [also] explains their careening from one domestic outbreak [of violence] into the next, and from one destructive war into the next, much fiercer war."

"These traditional leaderships, saturated with collective narcissism, have undergone the same experience as people afflicted with depression. They are driven by their guilt-struck emotions to self-punishment, which is likely to end in suicide. This collective self-punishment is revealed in many cases, which I will summarize in two [phenomenon]: a) an 'all or nothing' policy, and b) a cult of armament and violence aimed at salvaging the injured face of this collective narcissism through martial victory, hoping that this would wash out the disgrace of military defeats."

'The Neurotic Tenacity of an 'All or Nothing' Policy and Its Consequences'

"The 'all or nothing' policy was behind [Jerusalem's Grand Mufti] Haj Amin Al-Huseini's rejection of the Peel Commission [1937] [decision] to grant the Palestinians 80% of the land of Palestine, and of the 1947 UN resolution to grant the Palestinians 45% of Palestine. This policy also motivated Hafez Al-Assad, at the end of the summit conference with president Clinton in 2000, to refuse [the offer to] regain the Golan Heights except for 200 meters on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, claiming that when he was in the army, he used to wade and fish in the lake! And what was the result? Great difficulty for his successor in regaining even a single meter in the foreseeable future, save for concessions that the Israeli leadership only ever dreamed of."

"The cult of arming with WMD drove Saddam Hussein into delirious... decisions. [Such as the decisions] to strike the Kurds with chemical weapons; shoot tear gas at demonstrators – [tear gas] produced from aflatoxins that cause liver cancer… as revealed by Saddam's former scientific advisor Dr. Hussein Al-Shahrastani; attack Iran with chemical weapons; invade Kuwait; in addition to wasting - over 35 years - his country's material and human resources on the altar of his vengeful obsession and insane passion for martial victory."

Currently, Iraq's resources, which include the second largest oil reserves in the world, qualify this country, economically and scientifically, to be the Japan of the Arab world. [Instead, it] became one of the poorest, most despotic and bloodiest countries in the world."

"The fanatical and neurotic tenacity of the [policy of] 'all or nothing' and martial victory are, without a doubt [the source] of Hamas's program to 'liberate Palestine to the last grain of earth and to restore it as a Waqf [religious endowment] for all the world's Muslims' – and [the factor] behind [Hamas's] insane refusal to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem."

"And what was the result, after the suicidal operations had failed to fulfill this impossible aim? Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, appealed to Israeli PM Sharon for a 10-year truce [Hudna], in the aftermath of which [the circumstances would be reassessed]."

"This kind of suicidal policy was also behind Yasser Arafat's unexpected shift from promising negotiations to futile armed struggle and Intifada, that has proven no less futile."

"And why is that? It was because Chairman Arafat envied Hizbullah's success at 'expelling' the Israeli army from the Israeli security zone [in Lebanon]. Overnight, he decided to shift from negotiating with to expelling the occupying Israeli army, and unilaterally declaring a fully sovereign Palestinian state without [paying] the price of recognizing Israel – as Egypt and Jordan had already done. And what was the outcome of this vengeful and suicidal decision? Unprecedented self-punishment: The occupying army [Israel] returned to 42% of the territories liberated through negotiation."

"By the same logic, Chairman Arafat turned down president Clinton's proposal to regain 97% of the occupied territories, with a promise of $40 billion to resettle the Palestinian refugees within the promised Palestinian state. And what was the outcome of this decision, which was in disregard of any consideration of Palestinian national interest for establishing a homeland and a lasting state? The outcome is that Arafat and his people are today in grave danger."

'The Arabs and Muslims - Both Masses and Elites Alike - Believed in Bin Laden and Acclaimed Him'

"The last 'hero' of the Arab and Islamic nation, the Wahabbi terrorist Osama bin Laden, wanted to avenge his Arab and Islamic nation on the 'Crusaders' by attacking New York and Washington, D.C. The Arabs and the Muslims, both elites and masses, believed in him and acclaimed him. And what was the result? The complete opposite: The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and expelled bin Laden and his patrons, the Taliban, from the country, with determination to uproot them. In addition, our 'hero' [bin Laden] provided the neoconservatives in the American administration the chance they longed for to implement their geopolitical vision: to redefine and reorganize their priorities independently of their European allies. Abandoning the formalities of international law – which was for a long time a shield for the 'oppressed ones,' of whom bin Laden was the self-appointed spokesman – put an end to the prospects of the emergence of an economically and militarily unified Europe as [another] global pole, [a vision] of which the Arabs dreamed night and day."

"Finally, bin Laden also inadvertently helped [the neoconservatives] to reshape international relationships in accordance with the [new] global balance of superpowers that brought about the U.S.'s ascendancy as the most powerful superpower in the world, economically and militarily. Now, this superpower insists on unilaterally controlling international decision-making in an attempt to curb the proliferation of WMD and liquidate Islamic terror by pursuing it and monitoring the countries that generate terror through religious Jihad education – an education which all Arab countries implement, except Tunisia – and replacing the regimes that arm and shelter terror."

"These are the disastrous outcomes that the Arabs themselves produced with their own hands, because of their obsession with vengeance..."

[1] The Elaph website is the first daily Arab independent on-line newspaper. It was established by Saudi businessman, journalist, and author Othman Al-Omeir, former editor of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat as well as former editor of the Saudi papers Al-Jazira, Al-Riyadh, Al-Yawm, and Al-Majalla. (

[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 439, Liberal Journalist Fired from Al-Hayat


[4] "The recalcitrant," a term of abuse used by the Sunnis to describe those who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr and 'Umar.


[6] Koran, Surat Aal-'Imran [3], verse 110.

[7] Prominent Egyptian editor of Al-Ahram and advisor to former Egyptian president Nasser.

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