The Return of Avishai Margalit


Almost one year after a blizzard forced the cancellation of his scheduled talks at the University of Montana, Avishai Margalit returned to Missoula on 19 February 2015. One of the world’s foremost living philosophers and particularly prized as a brilliant commentator on contemporary moral issues facing Western societies, he gave a lecture the next day on the theme of “The Arab Spring and the Israeli Spring.” He had chosen the same title for his storm-cancelled 2014 lecture. As the coordinator of the lecture series, I accompanied him to the hall where he would be speaking. On the way, I asked if he was more or less pessimistic about the Middle East than he had been the previous year. “Much more pessimistic—the situation continues to deteriorate,” he said. I would get a fuller answer to my question in the lecture that he gave.

Standing on a raised platform in the university’s biggest venue, Professor Margalit spoke before an audience of more than five hundred people. A man in his mid-seventies, he looked like my idea of an Old Testament prophet. An image of Jeremiah castigating the authorities of his day came to mind. Professor Margalit expressed himself in a soft voice and with restraint, but it at once became clear how disappointed and angry he was with the authorities of our day insofar as the handling of Middle East affairs went.

He began by stressing the importance of the connections between politics and religion in the Middle East. Such connections, according to him, are persistently evident in Muslim culture. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, professes as its slogan, “Islam is the answer.” What, then, is the question, Professor Margalit asked? To Muslims their faith is the answer to all questions. Nothing valuable or meaningful can exist outside the faith. It is a total religion, without even the conceptual possibility of the Western separation between church and state. From the Muslim perspective, politics never could be anything but the exercise of religion by other means.

The Arab spring, which had excited such fantastic hopes particularly with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, fundamentally had changed nothing, according to Professor Margalit. He had said this much the previous year to a group of us over lunch while the blizzard raged outside. The ballyhooed appearance of Arab democracy had resulted only in a sequence of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence followed either by the re-imposition of authoritarian government, as in Egypt, or a descent into utter chaos, as in Libya. It seemed to him then that the economic and demographic problems of Arab peoples admitted of scant hope for the future.

Speaking in 2015, Professor Margalit pointed to the pervasive feelings of humiliation in the Arab world as a source of aggravation for all of the region’s problems. The Arabs see themselves as the victims of Western control and exploitation. He specifically noted the special problem of Israel for the Arabs, who view the American-backed challenge of six million Jews to the entire Muslim world as an insufferable affront. The struggle between Jews and Muslims over Israel had acquired a unique and frightening salience in world affairs.

The challenge of ISIS, itself a radical offshoot of Al-Qaeda, had to be understood as a scream of rage and pain from people with no hope of redress for accumulated Arab grievances. Professor Margalit spoke at some length about the origins of Al-Qaeda and its victory over the Russians in Afghanistan, the most spectacular Muslim victory in modern times, he called it. Ever since, Al-Qaeda has sought to replicate its success against the Russians, as a means of defeating the United States, the main author of Muslim humiliation and degradation, in the view of Osama bin Laden. Professor Margalit thought it tragically ironic that American foreign policy had created a base for Al-Qaeda in Iraq where none had existed before. Worse, the even more radical ISIS now held the field in vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. We in the audience were left to understand that solving the problems of the Middle East could not be listed among the competencies of the United States government.

As for the Israeli spring, we actually learned more from Professor Margalit the previous year at our snow-bound luncheon meeting than we did in his February 2015 lecture. He had been pessimistic in 2014 about any real changes in Israel. Reformers faced insuperable obstacles from the deeply entrenched and increasingly powerful conservative status quo, made up of strongly religious elements, xenophobic settlers, and a repeatedly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu government committed to maintain and augment the subjugation of the Palestinians. Professor Margalit added in 2015 that the absence of any serious pressure on Israel from the United States would keep the current situation securely in place.

The current situation in the Middle East means, most crucially, the Occupation, which consists not only of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the military presence necessary to maintain them, but also Israel’s draconian control over Gaza. The Occupation did not come up in the evening lecture, but earlier that day, in a seminar devoted to a discussion of Professor Margalit’s current research on a book about betrayal, a questioner in the audience asked him, somewhat inappositely but most fortuitously as the day turned out, for his views about the current scene in Israel. The Occupation, Professor Margalit replied, is a moral and political disaster for Israel and, by far, the country’s worst problem. He could not see a way out for Israel. The Israelis, in overwhelming numbers, did not believe in the alternatives to the current Likud policies. As one of the founders of Peace Now, he spoke in a spirit of resignation. No efficacious help would be coming from the United States. Long ago, the United States had ceased to speak to Israeli leaders in a realistic way about Middle East affairs and for domestic political reasons had accepted its role as partners—or better, accomplices—in the Occupation.

Struggling to find a positive note on which to end the afternoon seminar, he made an observation that we would hear again toward the close of his evening lecture. We are not good at predicting things, he said. Predictions in the Middle East are especially difficult to make. Maybe, he wistfully speculated, something positive not visible to us now will happen to change things. On such a slender hope depend such alternatives as might still exist for a humane reordering of Middle East affairs.

Richard Drake
25 February 2015

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