Popularly known as the 'Angry Arab', As’ad AbuKhalil told me it was a name that was meant to be taken ironically.
“The name doesn’t bother me, I would rather be known as the angry Arab than the docile Arab, the submissive Arab and all these terms that do apply to some of the Arabs who live in the West who are so intimidated.”
AbuKhalil is a distinguished and controversial Professor of Political Science from Stanislaus University, and I meet him amidst the preparations for the fourth leg of his UK university tour.
He has come to Edinburgh to speak out for the rights of the Palestinian refugees who live in close proximity to his birth town of Beirut, and elsewhere. He is vehemently against the state of Israel, a nation he compares to apartheid South Africa (“What is the difference? I see absolutely no difference”). He has long called for it to be replaced by a non-religious nation that gives equal rights to the Palestinians. “The fact that there exists American support or British support should in no way obscure the extent and the magnitude of Israeli war crimes. It should be de-legitimised and that is why I am doing this tour”.
AbuKhalil is motivated by the plight of the Palestinians, and speaks and writes prolifically on the issue of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. He is, however, also an academic intellectually active in the other debates raging around the Middle East.
“I think my purpose is to in some way express to Western audiences the underlying causes for Arab political anger and my argument is that the underlying causes of such anger or antipathy to the West are not of a religious nature but socio-economic and political”.
He is best known for his blog, The Angry Arab News Service, that began in 2003 as an email service. “After 9/11 I felt a lot of Arabs were intimidated and I wanted to provide alternative perspectives and I started sending out to a group of friends and it started to grow”, he said.
His years in the US have shown him the great discrepancies between responses from the US and European public to the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The difference - the major one - is that you can have a debate in the UK or in France or European countries but you cannot have a debate in the United States”.
He feels that in the US there is no possibility of a public debate on the question of Israel due to the establishment of a one-party line.
“I think the Zionists in the US - but not in Europe yet - have succeeded in conflating anti-Semitism with an opposition to the state of Israel and its war crimes”. Categorically against anti-Semitism, he emphasises his fears that the same may become true of Europe.
The Arab Spring has brought greater media attention to his region of interest – however, he abhors the term. “There is a lot of blood in the streets of Yemen and Damascus and elsewhere so it is not a spring, and these terms are being applied by the US for ideological purposes to make them akin to the anti-communist movements of the Prague Spring”.
AbuKhalil believes the democratic revolution to be long overdue, and not because of a lack of trying on the behalf of the Arabs, but accuses the US and its Western allies of hypocrisy.
“I mean, how can the American government and the British government dare speak to us with any credibility about their support for the Arab Spring when they just this week signed these exorbitant arms deals with Saudi Arabia, one of the most monstrous oppressive governments on the face of the world?”
On the topic of Iran - now very much in the news due to its supposed nuclear ambitions - he tells me, “The question now being posed is do I see a potential nuclear weapon by Iran to be more threatening than the actual 200 nuclear warheads in Israel along with a massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons? Can we match a potential weapon with an actual weapon? To that I say, most Arabs and Muslims say no”.
He is adamant that US moves to secure democracy in the Middle East are an unwilling response to undesired circumstances. “I don’t think they support democracy, I think they oppose it in all cases. If there is a pro-American potentate, Western governments are totally supportive that they should repress the people.”
AbuKhalil has been called a “perfect example of the supremely principled and supremely irresponsible Arab intellectual” by fellow blogger Martin Kramer. Asked about the role that intellectuals play in Middle Eastern politics, he gave a response laced with cynicism.
“Lately I have been calling on Arab youth to never follow any Arab intellectuals. Many of them are weak when it comes to political power.” In his view many become corrupted by proximity to power, let alone seizing it.
Anti-Zionist, anti-US foreign policy, anti-Islamist; he seems to be against all established ideology or power: “I don’t speak for anyone; I speak for myself, and barely that.”