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Looking for an Arab Herzl

As Arabs continue to agitate for freedom in their nations, no leading Arab or Muslim intellectual has been able to articulate a well thought-out program for the future of his or her country, let alone for the amorphous entities known as the Arab and Muslims worlds. Plenty of euphoria is being generated by getting rid of despots, but the expectations generated by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as structural reforms in other places, have been limited to the language of morality, whose champions, as is amply evident by now, are Muslims wearing various garbs of moderation to reassure secularists in their midst and assuage the rest of the world’s apprehensions.

Many Muslim citizens seem to trust pious politicians to establish a culture of accountability and transparency, fight corruption, institute democratic reforms, guarantee impartial justice, rebuild their nations’ abysmal infrastructure, reduce unemployment, and lead their countries to a new age of prosperity. In their view, the miracle of development would happen magically, through no more than the strict adherence to Islamic ethics. No manifestos or declarations are needed to chart a clear path; faith, and faith alone, would be enough to cleanse Arab societies of decades of decadence. Constitutions are being written or rewritten, to be sure, but such documents don’t convey the power of vision embodied in other forms of narrative, like the American Declaration of Independence (1776) or, better still, Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1896) and his not-so-utopian novel Old New Land (1902).

Theodor Herzl may strike Arabs and Muslims as an odd choice to invoke in these heady days of freedom and hope.  He is, after all the leading figure of modern Zionism and the architect of the State of Israel. He is also blamed for uprooting Palestinians from their native land and condemning them to a tragic fate.

These are all understandable feelings. However, my goal here is not to talk about the effects of Herzl’s ideology on Arabs and Muslims, or to share my opinion on the supercharged Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to learn from a man whose vision turned a group of undesirables and refugees into one of the most powerful nations in the world today.

Herzl’s call for restoring Jews to their historic homeland in Palestine was not a call for the return to a purer Jewish faith.  It was an attempt to provide justice to a long persecuted people. It was a project that was aimed at benefiting all oppressed minorities. His plan depended on establishing a modern nation, with first-rate education and health systems and the right to employment for all citizens, regardless of their faith or ethnicity, including criminals who have paid for their crimes. In a passage from The Jewish State that could have described the incident that sparked the Tunisian revolution in December 2010, Herzl says “starvation must never be allowed to drive men to suicide; for such suicides are the deepest disgrace to a civilization which allows men to throw tid-bits to their dogs.”

Herzl’s imagined society keeps religion and the army out of state affairs and makes room for freethinkers, whose work is vital for the progress of humanity. Such ambitions could only be possible through a cosmopolitan outlook, one that allows Zionists to draw from all world civilizations, including the Islamic one. If the Egyptian Khedive Ismail’s policy of encouraging settlement through easy home ownership works, then it is a model to be emulated.

Herzl imagined a society where knowledge is supported and revered and the stranger is at home.  In his prophetic novel, the old land of Palestine is transformed into a predominantly Western nation with nice parks and beautiful streets, where the Chinese, Persians and Arabs stroll with their Oriental costumes, and no one asks “to what race or religion a man belongs.” It is a land of equal opportunity, where a once downtrodden people rise to great heights of scientific accomplishment. This new society has no toleration for ethnic supremacist attitudes and is, in fact, committed to restoring the rights of the long-oppressed Africans.

Despite centuries of exclusion, persecution, and dashed hopes for his people, Herzl didn’t limit himself to a narrow national or religious vision. It seems to me that, in our uncertain times, Herzl’s liberal imagination offers a valuable template not just to Muslims and Arabs emerging out of a long and dark period of authoritarianism, but also to progressive Israelis and Americans wrestling with their own darker forces to establish a more humane and sustainable future.

About the Author

Anouar Majid is editor of Tingis. This article was first published in Tabsir.

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