Dubai eye

In a tribute to the inimitable Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on his 10th death anniversary last week (November 11), veteran Palestinian journalist and analyst Abdel Bari Atwan lamented the fact that the Palestinians today cannot claim a leader of Arafat’s stature, his charisma and vision, and above all, his commitment to the cause.

In his Gulf News piece, Atwan writes: “With every passing year since we lost Yasser Arafat, the lack of a powerful, charismatic Palestinian leader stands in ever sharper relief and compounds the nation’s misfortune. Under Arafat’s watch, the Palestinian cause was constantly under the global media spotlight and we Palestinians were perceived by the rest of the world as wronged, proud and tough.

“Arafat was a great individual and a charismatic personality. He understood the power of his own image; his trademark outfit of camouflage jacket and keffiyah told the world, and his own people, that he was a warrior and a nationalist. He had only one real ambition in life: To liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation.”

Referring to the heightened tensions and recent attempts by Zionist extremists to target Al Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest mosque, Atwan notes: “Unlike Abbas, Arafat would never have accepted last week’s storming of Al Aqsa Mosque by Israeli colonists, backed by police, without a fight. Nor would he have passively watched Israel’s illegal colonies mushroom to the extent that they now house 700,000 Jewish colonists on Arab land.”

The observations by Atwan, one of the first journalists to interview Osama Bin Laden before he turned into a fearsome legend, reminded me of the words of Palestinian scholar, Dr Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who had complained with some bitterness some years ago that Palestinians have no leaders; only representatives.

But then this is not a problem exclusive to the Palestinians, although given their peculiar predicament and never-ending suffering they feel and pay for the leadership vacuum more than others. Indeed, this is the fate of the whole of the Arab and Muslim world.

Of course, there is no dearth of politicians, intellectuals and scholars in our midst. But true leadership and integrity and an ability to look ahead and guide in times of crises is something that is increasingly hard to come by. Heroes like Arafat are even rarer.

Even in the face of great adversity and threats to our collective existence, if we cannot speak in one voice, let alone join hands to confront the dangers staring us in the face, there’s something seriously wrong with us.

Look at the Muslim world today. It presents a picture of a house hopelessly divided and broken into many parts. While the goal of the glorious unity of the Ummah has long remained elusive, never in its history has it fought so many firestorms all at the same time.

As though long years of economic and political exploitation and machinations by world powers, coupled with the self-serving timidity and corruption of our own, weren’t enough, in the casual savagery of groups like the Daish and Boko Haram and a million sectarian and tribal conflicts, we are now faced with a challenge never before seen in Islamic history. Compared with the deadly ways of the Daish, Al-Qaeda looks almost Gandhian in its approach.

Not a day passes without some spine-chilling execution, suicide bombing or some such abomination, making all Muslims cringe in shame and withdraw into their collective shell. Our scholars of course dutifully condemn the violence, rejecting it as ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘against the teachings of the faith’. But who cares? As far as the world is concerned, these denunciations are not worth the paper they are printed on.

Meanwhile, the tentacles of the empire continue to grow far and wide and deep into the heart of the Islamic world. On the sidelines, Israel is busy expanding its own little evil empire. The battle for global control and resources proceeds uninterrupted, under one pretext or another – in the name of avenging 9/11 attacks, finding Saddam’s legendary weapons and now fighting Isis, which, it is becoming increasingly clear, is nothing but a monster of the west’s own making.

If our elites are alive to the deepening shadows and noise of sharpening knives, they are yet to show it. In the face of the gathering storm, it is business as usual with relentless plots and counterplots against each other.

The Arabs are pitted against fellow Arabs. The Sunnis are ranged against Shias and Islamists against secular militants and Baathists. Iran, Assad and Hezbollah seemingly belong in one camp. Hezbollah, which bravely fought Israeli aggression, doesn’t see anything odd in fighting those confronting the Baathist tyranny.

Turkey and Iran, on the one hand, and Turkey and Arabs on the other cannot see eye to eye on a host of issues, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas. The Turks and Kurds are facing each other even as they all take on Isis. There are turf battles going on even within the Gulf Cooperation Council grouping.

Next door, it is routine for Iran and Pakistan to exchange fireworks and casualties from time to time along their long border. On the other hand, Pakistan and Afghanistan accuse each other of conspiracies and sponsoring terror. The so-called Ummah bleeds from a million wounds.

And it’s not just the ruling elites and political and military establishments that are engaged in these low-intensity, debilitating battles for geopolitical clout; their media, intellectuals, and public figures are all expending their energy battling it out in open. My friend Ramzy Baroud did a fine piece last week lamenting the state of Arab media.

In the words of Naipaul, it is a million mutinies among the believers. And with so many wars to fight within and settle scores with your own brethren, who needs the services of external foes? No wonder Netanyahu cannot stop grinning, from ear to ear, proudly unveiling one settlement after another and setting his sights on Al Aqsa, the prized catch.

To an external observer, especially a non-Arab Muslim, all this is truly bewildering. In the last century, a sage asked: ‘Tum sabhi kuch ho, batao ke Musalman bhi ho?’ (You boast myriad identities but are you Muslim too?)

The question has never been more relevant. If Arab and Muslim nations recognise that they all face the same monsters and common existential threats, what prevents them from coming together and putting up a collective front? Instead of endlessly bickering and fighting among themselves, wouldn’t it make sense to save their energy and resources to confront the common enemy?

They say great necessities call forth great leaders. And, as Truman warned, in periods of great crises where there is no leadership, society stands still. Perhaps that explains our drifting and aimlessness as a people. Where are our leaders when we need them the most?

The writer is a Middle East based columnist and editor of 'Caravan',an online news magazine.