Joseph Samaha's reflections on nationalism, the left and Islam

Joseph Samaha's reflections on nationalism, the left and Islam
17 min read
12 Apr, 2016
A rare interview has been unearthed from the archives, nine years after the intellectual's death. We bring it to you in full.
Joseph Samaha was an influential intellectual across the Arab World [Onsi el-Haj/Facebook]

In the Lebanon of the 1990s and 2000s, Joseph Samaha was an influential intellectual figure. On the ninth anniversary of this death, As-Safir published an interview with Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, which took place in 2006, the translation of which is below.

While the political landscape has changed since his death, it is still worth revisiting the thoughts of a left-wing Lebanese intellectual concerned with "the question of the nation" and attentive to the future of political Islam.

Joseph Samaha died of a heart attack on 25 February 2007 in London. A left-wing intellectual, a former activist with the Communist Action Organization in Lebanon (Organisation d’action communiste au Liban, OACL), also claiming to draw inspiration from the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, he was engaged in a dialogue with political Islam. In the Lebanon of the 1990s and 2000s, Joseph Samaha was an influential intellectual figure, and his work was known across the Arab world.

Former editor-in-chief at the daily As-Safir, he founded the newspaper al-Akhbar in summer 2006, at the peak of the Israeli war against Lebanon.

Let us cast our mind back to 17 February 2006. The Israeli war in Lebanon has since come to an end, and Joseph Samaha had not yet founded the daily newspaper al-Akhbar. And yet, his ideas take on an uncanny resonance, even if only in hindsight: the Arab uprisings of 2011 were yet to come, and the Syrian crisis had not yet separated the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizballah - to whom Joseph Samaha often makes reference.

The "confessionalisation" of politics had also not yet arrived at what it is today. Yet Samaha, primarily concerned with the "national question" and the "social question", and conscious, at the time, of the future of a political Islam that he saw as both plural and hegemonic.

Political journey: 1967-1995

At first I was very influenced by Nasserite thinking, but went through a period of doubt between 1968 and 1969, because of the Arab defeat in June 1967 by Israel.

We were all in a state of shock; it's a time I'd rather forget. I was young, in my twenties. As of 1969, I'd been mainly interested in a school of thinking that had unfortunately not had much of an influence on the Arab left, which was embodied by two Syrian thinkers, Yassin Hafez and Elias Morqos[i].

These two thinkers tried to develop a Marxist reading of Nasser, or a Marxist reading of Arab nationalism. It formed part of a wider debate, with three other schools of thought at the time.

Firstly, the traditional communist parties in the Arab world, the pro-Soviets. Secondly, Arab nationalist thinkers from the Ba'ath party. And thirdly the extreme left movements, that were called "the new left", particularly those supporting Palestinian resistance, and all the incarnations of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM)[ii], the birth of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and of the Democratic Front (FDLP) in 1967 and 1969, but also that of the Communist Action Organization in Lebanon (OACL).

It was Yassin Hafez and Elias Morqos who influenced me the most.

There were small groups around them, in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, with a political trend, which unfortunately never took off: the Arab Revolutionary Workers Party. I participated in the movement until 1972.

We were young, Lebanon was buzzing, there was the workers' movement, the peasant movement, the student movement, and universities were very active places.

Then, in 1972, I became a member of the OACL, which was on the margins of the new radical left movements and Arab nationalism. I joined the management of the organisation until 1980, as a member of its political bureau. But I was critical of their strategy, tactics and way of running things, and people at the top threatened to expel me on many occasions.

Our various political disagreements never affected our personal relationships

In 1980 I was expelled from the OACL, following a series of articles criticising not just the organisation, but also Walid Joumblatt[iii] and the Lebanese National Movement's general strategy. I always felt I was "left-wing", but I was trying to put forward a critique of practices of the Lebanese left.

At one point, Walid Jumblatt suggested that we write a programme for a new Socialist Party which was different to the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP); a wider party, but it failed.

Our various political disagreements never affected our personal relationships: I continued working with Fawaz Traboulsi[iv], I always talked with Walid Joumblatt.

Then there was the Israeli invasion of 1982. I stayed on for two years in Beirut, then I left Lebanon to go to France for a time. Intellectually and politically it was a profound experience for me: along with a few others I set up a weekly publication that was in some ways, close to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

We called it The Seventh Day (al-Yom al-sabi)[v]. That period in the mid-1980s was difficult; there was the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, but also warring between Palestinians and the shia Amal movement. Our paper was quite critical of Syrian policy in Lebanon, and for that reason I couldn't return to Beirut.

So I stayed in Paris for 11 years, until I returned to Lebanon in 1995. I was only able to do so because the Syrians no longer had a veto on me. The context had changed with the Oslo accords. I had been very critical of the accords, which helped.

I wrote several pamphlets on the Israeli-Arab conflict, the "Rafiq Hariri system"[vi] and the "post-Taif reconstruction"[vii], of which I'd always been critical.

Political Islam and the relevance of history

I'm not a member of any political party anymore. I've adopted a position of left-wing independent commentator, who tries, through journalism, through editorials, through taking a public stand, to develop ideas and paths which in my opinion are left-wing - but closely linked to the national question, in that it's not enough just being left-wing, the left must see that what matters in this region is foreign interference and the duty to oppose it.

And so, the further the left strays from this battlefield, the more it looses sight of the national question, leaving room for others, particularly the Islamists, to occupy this ground and garner influence.

Let's take the example of two Islamist organisations that have, over the years, become emblematic not just of political Islam, but also of the resistance against Israel. As a left-wing figure, concerned with the national question, I think that politically, they are going in the right direction. Hizballah, more so than Hamas; but still, Hizballah and Hamas.

We might disagree with their religious ideology, disapprove of certain aspects of their strategy, their tactics and even the slogans they use.

But if we take an honest look at the situation, a clear-sighted assessment of the Arab world, we see that Arabs have high hopes for nationalism and patriotism. And after the defeat of the Arab nationalist movement, many of us thought, for a time, that the left could fill this void.

But that's not what happened. It was the Islamists who gradually filled the void, in all their different incarnations, especially in the 1990s and in a totally new context: the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the war in Afghanistan, aggressive American policy.

The Islamists sometimes inherited former leaders from the left movement and from the Arab nationalist movement; Mounir Chafiq[viii] comes to mind, for example - a Palestinian intellectual from the left of Fatah who turned to political Islam.

I wondered: is this just an example of entryism; is he really convinced of what he's saying? But whatever the reality, he succeeded, along with others, in guaranteeing the survival of a national discourse in Palestine, with all the changes that Hamas experienced in the 1990s, and in Lebanon with Hizballah.

It seems to me that this Islamist thinking, which has adopted the discourse of national liberation, is the only one that really has the potential to get the Arab people on board. At the moment, no other line of thought has managed to do that; not the left, not the democrats and unfortunately not the liberals.

The Islamists in Lebanon and Palestine have benefitted from a certain democratic and pluralist political framework, in negotiating with the other political currents; I think they benefitted from that and it contributed to their respective progress.

Democracy should make the most of these currents. Every time the opportunity has presented itself, from Nasser to an autocrat like Saddam Hussein, Arabs have expressed what it is they really want: a policy that stands up to the threats they are experiencing, to this American hegemony and increasingly expansionist policy… as in Palestine for example.

Arab nationalism, the left and political Islam

I had conflicting feelings in January 2006 when Hamas won the legislative elections in Palestine. I was a little scared, but deep down, I was happy that Hamas had won. Just looking at what Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of Fatah had done to the movement, to Fatah, to the Palestinian National Authority: historically, it's a catastrophe.

And yet, from the basic point of view of the national question, Hamas succeeded in defeating Fatah and carrying a nationalist message against the renunciations of the Authority.

There really needs to be an understanding of the different fragments of the Islamic movement

In Lebanon the context is different: the left's discourse was completely eradicated by the hegemony of Hizballah. But Hizballah knew how to open up and integrate ideas coming from other political approaches. It's their real strong point.

I know Hizballah well, I know the managers and leaders. Every time I talk to them I feel as though they are true nationalists. Yet paradoxically, if I compare with the past, I also say to myself sometimes that the raw material of this movement, of its leaders, could have been, in another era, that of a successful patriotic and progressive movement.

There really needs to be an understanding of the different fragments of the Islamic movement. The Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, Egypt, Sudan or Algeria.

There isn't just one kind of political Islam. But the political Islam I'm interested in is the one carrying the nationalist message that was once carried by the Arab nationalists and the left. At its root, it is Arab nationalism expressed through Islam; which is now the dominant hegemonic ideology.

We should be wary of the contradictions: there is perhaps quite a backward-looking discourse, which could be considered reactionary, but it is based on a progressive attitude and is headed in a direction of which I can only approve.

That said, I'm not a fan of ideological compromises. Let me just explain what I mean: For me, certain strains of political Islam carry the discourse of national liberation. But I don't believe that we can manufacture a mixture of Arab nationalism, the left and political Islam.

I don't like that kind of ideological compromise. I, for example, could be an Arab nationalist and left-wing and talk about a political party like Hamas: I would be taking into account the positives and negatives of their experiences. But not to the point of preaching an ideological mixture that sometimes just results in a mess.

My concern is double-edged: both Arab and anti-imperialist. In such a context, I'm always a little scared of a purely Islamic benchmark, which leads nowhere. I don't believe in Islamic solidarity.

Let's take a look at the Nasser period, for example. The criteria for forming an alliance were anti-imperialist, not cultural or religious. We were with India against Pakistan, and with Greece against Turkey. Simply because Turkey and Pakistan were clearly in the imperialist camp.

The approach that consists of, "for us, as Arabs - what are our national interests?" is different from, "for us, as Muslims…".

Many Arab countries have been allies of the Soviet Union, as Arabs, even though the USSR represented a model of society that differed from our aspirations. Nonetheless, the USSR was an ally to Arabs in the context of the international balance of power. 

I don't understand those Arabs who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets: it wasn't their job to go there. Sheikh Abdullah al-Azzam[ix] was so close to Israel, and he left to go and fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's one thing to say "I defend Islamist parties who are fighting for the Arab nationalist cause," it's quite another to say, "I support the Islamist parties because they are Muslim."

So I see things from a very pragmatic and realistic point of view. At the moment, we're experiencing a period of history where Islam is dominating and will dominate political and cultural life. That's a fact and it's going to stay like that for many years to come.

Political Islam is still in its rising phase. We might only even be at the beginning of it. Yassin Hafez once said, "you'll never be able to do economics with Islam, Arabs will never manage to do economics with Islam". And he was right.

The intellectual crisis in the Arab world

I'm not a believer of deep-reaching intellectual revolution in Islam, simply because I don't believe in a deep-reaching intellectual revolution, today, in the Arab world.

The intellectual crisis is affecting everyone. From an intellectual point of view, I'm pessimistic. Everything is in decline, and this is true of political Islam too: I sincerely believe that Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was much better than Mohammed Abdu[x], that Mohammed Abdu was better than Rashid Rida and Hassan al-Banna[xi], who were better than Sayyid Qutb.

Eventually, we end up at Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi![xii]

The liberal Arabs, for example, have nothing in common with the liberal Egyptians of yesterday

The crisis that Islam is going through is a crisis in thought on a more general level. It's not restricted to the Islamists, and it's structural.

The liberal Arabs, for example, have nothing in common with the liberal Egyptians of yesterday: in terms of liberal thinking, it can be traced historically from Taha Hussein to Ayman Nour[xiii], among the Islamists, to al-Afghani to al-Zawahiri. The same can be said of the left and the Arab nationalists: these lines of thought are experiencing a profound crisis.

That's not to say that the outlook is entirely negative. There are some things going on in certain circles of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are working to mature, and with Hizballah this is clearly underway.

In Shia thinking in general, there are the writings of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah[xiv] that are interesting. There is perhaps something, in the movement close to the Muslim Brotherhood, someone like the Egyptian Sheikh Youssef al-Qardawi. He is a extremist sheikh, who is fundamentally backward looking; but from another point of view, he is advanced, because he positions himself light years away from some religious leaders.  

Among the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, things have changed a bit over the past few years: the last two or three documents they have produced have been quite modern.

If I had to choose a label, I'd say I am, in my own way, Nasserite. And left-wing.

Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi[xv], the leader of the Ennahdha movement in Tunisia is trying something interesting, in terms of intellectual revitalisation and dialogue with the secular thinkers. Rashid Ghannouchi was in the past associated with the Ba'ath.

He knows Syria and has a certain sensibility to the Arab question, an Islamist outlook that is not tunnel vision. Munir Shafiq is trying to develop an interesting standpoint, Fahmi Howaidi[xvi], too.

But all of this is so scattered. The region is so tense. I don't know if it'll be possible to bring about the cultural revolution which is necessary within Islam, if the current state of play prevails. Because there's no social class pushing for a historic agenda. From that point of view, I'm still quite Marxist.

Forging a 'political collectivity'?

If I had to choose a label, I'd say I am, in my own way, Nasserite. And left-wing. I've written a lot of articles about my vision of Nasser's experiment, and I've always said that, at least in within the main lines of thought, in the Arab world, among the Islamists, the liberals, the Marxists and the nationalist current – in particular Ba'ath - Nasser was the only one, thanks to his pragmatism and experience, who was at least able to ask the right questions.

Nasserism is not necessarily a kind of thought, like Ba'athism or Marxism, but a practical, even affective experiment, which profoundly modified the Arab world at the time. It changed the way in which Arabs saw themselves regarding the West.

It found answers, more or less decent ones - after all, we saw what happened subsequently in Egypt - but at least, if we're talking about these main lines of thought in the contemporary history of the Arab world, he's closest to what needs to be done in terms of independence and social content.

When I say I'm a Nasserite, it's a way of saying I'm not Ba'athist. Because if we are unable to differentiate between Nasser and Ba'ath, we’ll never understand what Nasser's experience meant for the Arab world.

How, using the questions Nasser was asking as a base, should we think about certain contemporary questions we are facing? What might a widespread movement for national liberation in the Arab world look like today? For Nasser, it was, in some respects, the combination of three things: the buying of arms from Czechoslovakia (1955), the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company (1956) and the construction of the Aswan High dam which began in the 1960s.

This was able to happen within a certain world order, an international balance of power that was different from the one we have today. The idea of the state having an important role in the economy, that of development that was sensitive to the interests of the popular classes, has completely vanished from everyone's agenda: the Islamists, the liberals, the democrats and even the Arab left-wing.

This left wing speaks of democracy, of human rights, but the question of development, the question of the state, has gone off the radar.

All of these movements, whoever they are, identify to some extent with the recognition of a unipolar, homogenous world, and a globalisation seen uniquely as liberal, economically speaking. What might the social content of a movement for Arab national liberation look like today? I don't know - the balance of power has deteriorated so far.

It is not by coincidence that there has been a drift, in the Arab world, towards cultural content. When I talk about Arabs, I'd like to do so in political terms, about a political collectivity.

But it's now just a cultural brand, like Islam. Because for all the types of political thought in the Arab world, they are incapable of giving political, economic and social content to their programme. As a result, we are living in a time of cultural isolationism, as far as our identity as Arabs and Muslims is concerned.

We are Arabs or Muslims, but never in the political, strategic or economic sense. Just in terms of culture. Across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Lebanon, the only thing we have in common is culture. We have the same writers, films, cultural sensibilities, helped by new media, especially television.

But that's where it stops. Culture, identity and religion are, for the moment, all that take precedence today.



[i] Yassin Hafez, was born in 1930, died in 1978, and came from the Syrain town of Deir al-Zor. Elias Morqos was born in 1927 and died in 1991. He hailed from the village of Lattakia.


[ii] Inspired by the ideas of Constantin Zureik, the ANM was founded at the beginning of the 1960s by the Palestinian Georges Habache.


[iii] Walid Joumblatt is the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party est le leader du Parti socialiste progressiste (PSP), who are mainly Druze.


[iv] Fawaz Traboulsi is one of the former leaders of the OACL. Today he is a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and directs a left-wing quaterly review, Bidayat.


[v] The historian Samir Kassir was assassinated in Beirut in June 2005, and was a regular contributor to the weekly The Seventh Day.


[vi] Rafiq Hariri was Prime Minister of Lebanon several times before being assassinated in February 2005.


[vii] The Taif agreement put an end to the Lebanese civil war and was sigend in Saudi Arabia in October 1989.


[viii] Munir Shafiq was a member of Fatah, running one of its left wing branches, and was director of the PLO’s Planning centre in the 1980s. He grew closer to political Islam after the Iranian révolution in 1979.


[ix] 9 Abdullah al-Azzam is a Palestinian Sheikh who founded the Afghan Services Bureau (Maktab al-Khadamat) in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984. It was intended to help foreign fighters who had come to assist the Afghan mujahideen. He was a member of Fatah Palestine for a short period at the end of the 1960s. He was assassinated in 1989.


[x] Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) was one of the founders of Pan-Islamism. Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905) is an Egyptian Muslim reformist.


[xi] A disciple of Mohammed Abduh, Mohammed Rashid Rida (1865-1935) was a Muslim reformist of Syrian origin. Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.


[xii] Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) is considered the ideological father figure of radical Islam. The Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is today one of the key leaders of al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, was the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.


[xiii] Taha Hussein (1889-1973) was an intellectual Egyptian novelist, considered the godfather of Arab modernism. Ayman Nour is an Egyptian politician, leader of the al-Ghad party.


[xiv] Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (1935-2010) studied religious sciences in Najaf, Iraq. In Lebanon, he was one of the main religious figures to the Shia community.


[xv] Rashid Ghannoushi founded the ‘Movement of Islamic Tendency, (MIT)’ at the beginning of the 1980s in Tunisia, which later became Ennahdha. After the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, he has remained its main theoretician.


[xvi] Fahmi Howaidi is an Egyptian intellectual and journalist who for a long time wrote for the newspaper al-Ahram.


This is an edited translation originally published in Arabic at Assafir and in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.