Saying the Unsayable

Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World

by Kanan Makiya
Norton, 367 pp., $22.95
Kanan Makiya
Kanan Makiya; drawing by David Levine

“As he has been a target for the Iraqi police, he will now be the target for Arab and pro-Arab intellectuals. The book will drive them crazy.”

—A.M. Rosenthal,
The New York Times,
April 13, 1993

Personally I should fear the Iraqi police much more than the Arab intellectuals—though the audacity of Kanan Makiya’s argument lies precisely in the connection he draws between the two. But I think if I were an Arab intellectual (and Makiya clearly sees himself as one) the praise of A. M. Rosenthal is what I should fear most.

Rosenthal enlists Makiya in support of his argument that “no matter how much land Israelis surrender for peace, the next day they will wake up still surrounded by regimes that survive by hate and sword,” and he recommends Cruelty and Silence “to Israelis or friends of Israel who persuade themselves to forget that until the Arab world is guided toward freedom by men like Kanan Makiya, Israel will be dancing with rulers who slaughter their very own.” In other words, because an Arab writer has had the courage to attack head-on the perversions that have grown up in his own culture, Israel is exempt from any obligation, whether moral or prudential, to negotiate a peace settlement based on withdrawal from occupied Arab territory.

Makiya was probably well aware when writing his book that it would be exploited in this way. But he did not allow that thought to deter him from writing it, because it is precisely that kind of inhibition that he is attacking. It is all too easy to foresee how the Arab intellectuals he criticized will belabor him with Rosenthal’s column and others like it. “Makiya must be well pleased with himself,” they will sneer. “Look who his friends are now. Look whose cause his self-hating diatribe has served!”

I think of that argument as Stalinist. It was extensively used by Stalin himself and by his myriad acolytes and imitators, some of whom even succeeded in foisting it on well-meaning liberal peaceniks in the West. (“Do you really think publishing this sort of thing in a Western newspaper serves any purpose, other than to fortify the cold war establishment?” a Czech dissident friend of mine was asked in the early 1970s by a prominent British journalist to whom he had submitted an account of the Husák regime’s latest human rights violations.)

But of course this style of argument was not invented by Stalin. It has probably been used by every side in every conflict since human beings first acquired the ability to criticize and ask awkward questions. “How dare you wash the family’s dirty linen in public?” it says. “Don’t you realize you are serving the interests of the enemy? In fact, if you persist in doing it there will be only one word for you: traitor.” It is working overtime…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.