Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sectarianism: How long will it continue to poison Middle East politics?

Destruction of Saudi Shi'a town, al-Awamiya, by Saudi military, August 2017
Why does the Middle East continue to suffer from sectarianism?  Is it, as Orientalists have argued, an integral part of Middle East culture and the region’s dominant religion, Islam?  Or are there more complex processes at work?  What are the causes of sectarianism and where is it leading the Middle East?

The short answer to these questions is that sectarianism is a function of the collapse of politics in the Middle East.  It is charitable to refer to the MENA region as being comprised of political “systems.” However, almost no polity offers its citizenry effective political institutions, a civic political culture and the rule of law.  

Without democratic political leadership, functional political institutions, a vibrant civil society and an independent judiciary to provide checks and balances on executive and legislative power, all else vanishes into thin air.  There can be no effective social services, no high quality education, no civic pride and inspiration, no independent associational behavior, or economic development as long as sectarian politics dominate a country’s landscape.  Sectarianism represents the antithesis of a political culture of trust.

Why has politics in the Middle East collapsed?  The long road of the 20th century was filled with countless political potholes.  Crisis after crisis struck the region.  Colonial powers – Britain and France - combined with rapacious elites in the region to thwart progressive social and political change.  Post-WWII military coups, which sought to address problems of rising political unrest based in socioeconomic inequality, only “spread the poverty,” to quote a biting Egyptian comment.   

Wars – including the destructive conflict with Israel, especially in 1967 – undermined the legitimacy of the one party states which came to power after WWII, whether based on  Nasirism in Egypt, Bacthism in Syria and Iraq, the National Liberation Front in Algeria, or Qaddafi’s transformation of Libya into a “People’s Jamahiriya.”  

To be sure, there was impressive cultural production during the 20th century which was inherently anti-sectarian.  Taha Husayn’s literary criticism, Iraq’s “Free Poetry” movement in (al-shicr al-hurr), Umm Kalthum’s incredibly creative music, the novels of Najib Mahfuz and Orhan Pamuk, the films of Muhammad Makalbaf and Salah Yasin, Jawad Salim’s architecture, the political treatises of Muhammad cAbid al-Jabari, Husayn al-Muruwwa’, Sadiq al- cAzm, and cAbdallah al-cUrwa (Laroui), and the critique of Islamic thought by Muhammad Arkoun and Ali Shariati all sought to promote critical thinking and the betterment of society.  However, these intellectual efforts to promote tolerance and inclusivity could do little to overcome the forces which led to the rise of the authoritarian regimes.

Perhaps nothing did more to promote sectarian identities in the MENA region than the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79.  The revolution which subsequently established the Islamic Republic of Iran signaled the death knell of secular nationalist ideologies, especially Pan-Arab nationalism, and led to two of the most destructive wars of the 20th century, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and the 1991 Gulf War.  Under the slogan, The State of the Supreme Jurisprudent (waliyat al-faqih/vilayet e faqih), the revolution was appropriated by a sectarian version of Shiism which paraded as religion
Iranian sectarian entrepreneur - Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei
Even though it initially attracted the support of many Sunni Muslims, Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious dictatorship, which replaced the secular dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, set the stage for the rise of sectarian tensions and ultimately a Saudi-Iranian “Cold War.”  Iran's effort to export its revolution and creates links with Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon elicited a frightened response from regimes with Sunni Muslim majority populations.  This fear was best verbalized by Jordan's King cAbdallah who spoke of Iran's effort to create a "Shica Crescent" which would stretch from Teheran through Iraq, Syria and into southern Lebanon.

The perceived threat which republican regimes posed to monarchical rule, especially the Nasir regime in Egypt, provoked a vigorous Saudi reaction. The Saudi monarchy used its oil wealth to disseminate a poisonous distortion of Islam to the far corners of the world (including the United States) in the form of Wahhabism – a vicious ideology which, in the name of Islam, promoted violence, intolerance, misogyny and the destruction of critical thinking.

Saudi sectarian entrepreneur
Prince Muhammad Salman
Wahhabism was even more pernicious than Khomeini's transformation of Shiism in Iran into a political ideology. Following the defeat of Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Saudis began to provide foreign aid to Egypt after the closing of the Suez Canal cost the Nasir regime large sources of revenues and added costs to support Egyptians who had been forced to move to leave cities along the canal for other cities to the West.  The Saudis exploited Egypt's post-1967 economic travails to sponsor radical Islamists in Egypt.

These developments might lead some to ask – isn't Islam in fact at fault?  Before arriving at this conclusion, we need remember why a revolution occurred in Iran in 1978-1979 (and, for the majority of its supporters, a revolution which did not seek to replace a secular tyrant with a “religious” one).  Very rarely do analysts choose to recall that it was the United States which supported the Shah of Iran from the time it reinstated him to the Peacock Throne in 1953 until his overthrow in late 1978.  His extremely repressive rule, which included massive imprisonment and torture, made the Shah one of the most hated rulers in the Middle East .

Had the United States used its influence to force the Shah to enact political and social reforms during these 25 years – certainly not unreasonable policy option given that his military weaponry and the training of his intelligence services were all gifts of American taxpayers - we probably would not have to have faced the enmity of the Islamic Republic, its efforts to destabilize the eastern Middle East, or be confronting a potential nuclear arms race in the region.

Nor did the US use its influence to prevent Saudi oil wealth from being used to support terrorism. The US never went public in denouncing the dissemination of Wahhabism around the world to establish mosques where Wahhabi “preachers” spread their virulent propaganda which inspired countless terrorists to action.  Their Friday “sermons” and media pronouncements castigated “Crusaders,” Shica, Jews, and Christians, while promoting the suppression of women, democratic values, humanist education and freedom of artistic expression.  As long as Saudi oil flowed to the West, the US and its allies said nothing.

In contemporary Iraq, political forces which seek to promote democracy and tolerance are faced with a political elite which is increasingly subservient to Iran.  How did that happen?  There is a very simple answer: the US installed a sectarian elite after its 2003 invasion which included political forces loyal to Iran, namely SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq  which later changed its name to the more benign, Supreme Iraq Islamic Council) and the Islamic Call Party (al-Dacwa al-Islamiya).

Iraqi sectarain etrepreneur
Nuri al-Maliki
 As the regime of Islamic Call Party member, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, stepped up its sectarian policies after the US helped the Iraqi leader cement a second term in 2010, the US increasingly withdrew from Iraqi affairs.  The most serious outcome of this shortsighted policy was the fall of Mosul to the nefarious “Islamic State” (Dacish) which caused more Iraqi blood to be shed as well as waste more US taxpayer dollars on top of the trillion dollar plus cost of the Iraq war and US occupation from 2003 to 2011.

In Egypt, we find an ironic situation where the Coptic community supports  the rule of President cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi because he removed former president Muhammad Mursi, a Muslim Brother.  Nevertheless, restrictions on the building and repairs of Christian churches in Egypt still remain. The failure to allow Coptic and other Christians their religious freedoms, guaranteed under the Egyptian Constitution, sends a message to sectarian Islamists that attacks in the print and visual media on Christians are acceptable.

Perhaps the most infamous act of sectarian politics was Bashar al-Asad's release of radical Islamists from Syrian jails after the beginning of the Arab uprising.   Through this cynical act, Asad sought to transform the political narrative from peaceful demonstrators seeking to bring a multi-ethnic and multi-sect democracy to Syria, to one that portrayed the conflict as "order and stability" against radical terrorists.

As political institutions have degenerated in the MENA region, they have been replaced with patronage systems based on the personalization of individual leadership.  The al-Asad family in Syria, Libya’s Mucammar al-Qaddafi, Yemen’s cAli cAbdallah Salih, Saddam Husayn in Iraq all promoted a cult of personality.  Political institutions, namely parliaments and judiciaries, existed in name only.  These and other authoritarian leaders have promoted vertical identities which have enabled them to eliminate civil society institutions built according to horizontal identities. 

With the effective end of civil society, and its replacement with vertical identities based in patronage systems in the Middle East, corruption and nepotism have flourished.  As ever larger social groups become tied to the dictator du jour, these groups' interest in promoting sectarianism is likewise tied to a strong material incentive, namely access to state wages, to soliciting bribes and finding jobs for members of their extended families. 

Framing the current political crisis facing the MENA region in terms of “Islam” tells us very little about the region or its future.  Without a doubt, sectarianism is often expressed using a religious discourse or idiom.  Often this discourse is embedded in coded language, e.g., referring to the Shica  "rejectionists" (al-rawafid), or al-nasrani (Nazerenes or Christians).  Nevertheless, the terms are almost always used in a political context where the effort is meant to enhance the solidarity of groups organized according to vertical identities by demeaning a hated Other.

If most of the problems of the MENA region can be explained by economic and political decay, why has this discontent not been expressed through other categories, especially social class?  The short answer is that social class is in fact embedded in sectarian discourse. Sectarianism builds on socioeconomic fears and resentments, but frames these feelings in cultural terms based in ethnicity and religion.  Sectarianism fails to address social, political and economic inequality.  Instead, it instills the types of  fears in marginal groups designed to prevent them from thinking in social class terms, namely horizontal identities.

The corporatist world view promoted by both Pan-Arab nationalism (we are all Arabs and any dissent threatens to disrupt Arab unity and hence is treasonous) and radical Islamism (we are all Muslims and any effort to disrupt the unity of the Islamic umma is treasonous) suppresses the idea of the individual and her/his ability to engage in critical thinking.   Lacking educational systems which discuss concepts and categories, such as civic responsibilities, citizenship and democracy, civil society organizations and labor unions, the peoples of the MENA region have been cut off from thinking of society in terms of socioeconomic hierarchies.

Sectarian discourse deploys a number of tools to enhance its oppressive politics.  One of those tools is based in a rigid patriarchy which attacks women’s rights and ability of women to negotiate the public sphere and become active citizens.  Another is the effort to create a sharp binary pitting the “West,” against the authenticity of the "true Islam.” 

While the true Islam is left undefined, the message that you had better obey those who claim to be its guardians or face serious consequences is not.  To challenge any of the outer trappings of sectarian identities could lead to fines, jail or worse. If you are a Saudi woman, don’t attempt to drive an automobile.  If you’re an Iranian woman, don’t pull your hijab too far back from your forehead and don’t hold hands in public with a male who isn’t a member of your immediate family.
Syrian sectarian entrepreneur
President Bashar al-Asad

Despite the power of sectarian identities in the politics of the Middle East, it offers no solutions to the region’s problems.  Indeed, we need to consider the ideology of sectarianism a politically passive “place holder,” which ignores the problems it purports to address, as they continue to intensify.  The outcome for the MENA region is more civil strife and political instability, with the potential for more failed states like Syria and Yemen, and the fragmentation of existing nation-states into a multiplicity of small fiefdoms such as we see happening in Syria and Somalia.

Is there anything that can be done to address the curse of sectarian identities?  The United Nations and supportive states, including the United States and European Union, could convene a highly publicized summit meeting to bring the problem into the open.  At the very least, such a conference would be educational for the peoples of the region – especially youth – if it were disseminated through social media platforms.  It would also put “sectarian entrepreneurs” on the defensive.

Further, external powers, including the US, EU, Japan and even China, could make their foreign assistance, both funding and technical support, contingent on states who receive it reducing the scale of sectarian politics.  Why would powers outside the Middle East want to follow such a policy?  The answer is simple: there is an inverse relationship between sectarian politics, and the instability it causes, thus undermining economic opportunity for foreign investors in the MENA region.

Foreign aid should likewise be correlated with the freedom of citizens to form civil society organizations.  Efforts to criminalize civil society organizations which receive legitimate funding from foreign sources, whether the US government, the UN or private foundations, should be roundly condemned.  More funds should be allocated to train youth leaders in the MENA region in the importance of civil society and to give them the tools to form new, civic associations.  These training efforts should be publicized in the Middle East, especially in social media platforms used by youth.

A global fund to promote “Tolerance in Religion” should be funded by the UN and the Organization for the Islamic States to train more Muslim clerics in how to more effectively combat radicalism among youth.  Fighting extremism not only benefits the West,but even more so the Middle East, where terrorism has killed far more people than anywhere else in the world.  Once again, the publicizing of this effort would send an important message to the large youth demographic in the MENA region (in many countries 70% of the population under 30).

The struggle against sectarianism and its purveyors in the Middle East is not an easy task.  However, the stakes for the Middle East, and for those nation-states, IGOs and NGOs with strong interests in the region, are too high for the continuation of a policy of "benign neglect."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent article! I also would be interested to how gender improprieties levied historically on the female population may be contributing to the problem?