Thursday, May 26, 2011

the Arab Spring: Markets, Wasatiya and Federalism

The New York Times carried two articles this past Sunday, May 22nd, that point to the problematic way in which the Arab Spring is understood in the West. On the front page, headlines pronounced, "Promise of Arab Uprisings Is Threatened by Divisions." The article warns that the spirit of national unity that characterized the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere now threatens to devolve into social and political cleavages based in religion, tribe and ethnicity.

This doom and gloom tenor of this article stands in sharp contrast to an article in the magazine section, "The Hot Money Cowboys of Iraq," which describes the entrepreneurial spirit of Iraq's new business class. As these entrepreneurs press forward with numerous projects, they have little time to worry about social and political cleavages, or "religion, clan sect and ethnicity," to use the words of the front page story.

As Namir al-Akabi, one of the wealthiest men of the new business class, put it, "Iraq is a rich, virgin country!" While others view Iraq as an ethnically fragmented society, Iraq's new business class sees it as a great opportunity for economic reconstruction and profit.

The sense of individual initiative that characterizes the businessmen in "Hot Money Cowboys" recalls my interviews with Iraqi businessmen during the period when ethnic strife was still prevalent throughout Iraq. Interviewing one of Iraq's wealthiest Kurdish businessmen in Arbil in 2007, I asked him whether he had any problem working with his Arab partner who was sitting across the table from us. Both he and his partner looked at me quizzically. "We are trying to make a profit," they replied, "and if we can create some jobs in the process, so much the better." For them, they didn't have time to worry about ethnic differences.

Clearly, not all Arab countries possess the oil and natural gas resources of Iraq. However, the entrepreneurial spirit that I encountered in Iraq, even during the height of ethnic conflict, is not confined to that country. A new spirit of individual initiative, responsibility and openness to new ideas is spreading throughout the Arab world, especially among the young. This indeed was one of the findings of my recent research with focus groups of Iraqi youth.

The new spirit of individual initiative is reflected in the values of openness, toleration and moderation, not just among entrepreneurs, but in the interpretation and practice of Islam. One manifestation of this is the spread of al-wasatiya. Derived from the Arabic wasat, or middle, it connotes moderation in the interpretation and application of Islamic doctrine. This approach is often juxtaposed to more rigid and doctrinaire forms of Salafism.

For many Muslim clerics, the focus on wasatiya represents a return to the core values of Islam, which rejects extremism in all its forms (Qur'an 68:25). To be situated between extremes (al-awsat)leads the believer to a virtuous and fruitful life. Wasatiya does not represent a concession to modernity and a watering down of Islam as a religion, but rather the foregrounding of its true message for all humanity, namely an emphasis on the coming together of all peoples of good will, regardless of religion.

The threat with which authoritarian regimes have viewed wasatiya was evident in the refusal of the Husni Mubarak regime to approve a license for the "Middle Party" (hizb al-wasat). Founded in 1995 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, this party stressed tolerance and inter-religious reconciliation (even including a Christian as one of its founding members).

Husni Mubarak's regime prevented the Middle Party (excellently analyzed by A.R. Norton in his, "Thwarted Politics: The Case of the Hizb al-Wasat"*)from becoming an official political party because it wanted to restrict the the "official opposition" to the more radical Muslim Brotherhood. Any time Western countries pressed Mubarak to liberalize and democratize Egypt, he could point to the Brotherhood and ask: "If we hold the elections you suggest, do you want the Islamists to take power?" If a more moderate Islamic alternative had existed, such as the Middle Party, Mubarak's ploy would have lost its power of persuasion. Thankfully, the Transition Military Council gave the Middle Party a license after Mubarak was ousted.

If the spirit of individual thought and judgment rings true to many Arab businessmen and youth, the concept of federalism supports this frame of mind. Federalism offers a palliative to the centralized authoritarianism that characterizes most Arab states. Such authoritarianism is the logical outcome of the corporatist "group think" that military and single party regimes have forced on their unwilling citizenry.

In Iraq, federalism has devolved power to the provinces where governors and provincial legislatures not only often offer better services to the citizenry than the central government, but also provide a set of check and balances against the abuse of power at the center(see my posting "Local Control and Democratization in Iraq," Nov. 8, 2010). The effort to exercise local control within a federal political structure has infuriated Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has sought to centralize all power in his hands. Nevertheless, the federal political system represents one of the best hopes for building democracy in Iraq.

Federalism does not just apply to Iraq. In Yemen, it could be used to decentralize power and ameliorate much of the tension between the northern and southern portions of the country. As Dr. John Duke Anthony noted to me in a recent conversation, the concept of federalism is not alien to Arab political culture, despite arguments to the contrary. The United Arab Emirates (UAE)has existed as a federal state for over 40 years and tribes embody notions of federalism in their alliances (think of the Muntafiq, Shamar and other tribal confederations in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula).

Correspondents, Western, Arab or otherwise, have a responsibility to report on political conflict and to call our attention to potential looming crises. However, there is no society or human community in which the direction of social change is only going in a negative direction without that society or community likewise experiencing positive change as well. As I found while conducting research in Iraq during the 1980s, even under Saddam Husayn's brutal regime, Iraqis still found ways to resist (as I documented in Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq).

Let's hope that the media - press, television and social media - offer more perspectives on positive change in the Arab world. The spread of open markets, ideas such as al-wasatiya, and the institutionalization of federalism can help promote a more democratic Arab world. These develometns call out for more reporting.

The process of democratization in the Arab world is not a "spectator sport." Whether the Arab Spring is successful will depend on the extent to which social, political and economic forces - both in the Arab world and beyond it - give it their support.

*Augustus Richard Norton, "Thwarted Politics: The Case of Hizb al-Wasat," in Robert Hefner, ed., Remaking Muslim Politics, Princeton University Press, 2005, 133-160.

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