February 1, 2014

The Arab World in 2013: Forwards or Backwards?

Nationalism, Islamism and the mix of those two will remain the most important ideological forces influencing the Arab world and the Islamic nations in the near future.

“The last half- century of decline of Arab social and political culture has really curbed my enthusiasm. In the 1960s the majority of the Arab nations had gained their independence and the path was clear for peaceful and democratic development. In its stead, however, we have a bunch of failed states, each worse than the next. The last failure was the so-called Arab Spring, which the Western world completely misread. The Arab Spring means that Islamism is seizing power, as a result of which those nations will sink back into the Middle Ages.” -Otto Jastrow, Arabist and professor at the Institute of Humanities of  Tallinn University, private conversation, April 2012.
Regardless of the origin of the concept or the geographical and administrative location of its actual application, ideology is, in a nutshell, a system of ideas and ideals, particularly if the system forms a basis for an economic or political theory and its respective practice.
It is possible to categorize a social group, class, or  private individual according to ideological affiliation, based on the ideas and the ways of thinking that characterize the subject. The archaic meanings of “ideology” also include visionary speculations, often unrealistic or idealistic in nature, which had little to do with being rooted in reality or becoming reality.
The stem of the word originates from the Greek words idea (“model, pattern, mold”) and logos (“whole”, also “discourse”) and has reached the English language (both the written and the oral variety) via the French term idéologie.

Ideologies in the Middle East

In the spirit of correctness let it be noted that by Middle East I mean an expanded version  in which I include the Islamic nations of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco and Mauritania. I also have not intentionally chosen the ideologies for my microscope in such a shape and form that they can be officially dissected country by country. Instead, I  have  chosen to approach them in a generalized fashion, in such a way that they characterize the Arab world as a whole, given that the administrative borders between nations have emerged later than the actual existing lines of power. I will also try to delineate some important facets that characterize the Arab segment of the ummah –that is,  Muslim society as a whole.
It is a norm for most Muslims that “Islam is one nation”;  they find affirmation for this notion in all spheres and situations of life. On one hand, this increases the role of Islam in education, for (in the curricula of schools and institutions of higher education), while the state on the other hand increasingly tries to keep up with—and control— what is being talked about in the mosques. These factors, coupled with advances in technology, have led to a situation where propaganda has given a voice to groups and leaders that differ considerably from the traditional highly and deeply educated spiritual elite.
Within the context of the topic at hand, the ideological breakdown can be divided into five categories, as described below. I have not paid too much attention to the precise names of the ideologies; the point is in the explanation of the distribution and the highlighting of the principal basic characteristics.  In addition to the ideologies mentioned, neoliberalism, Salafism, secularism, socialism, and a whole slew of other -isms indeed exist in the Middle East, but introducing those would be a bit too specific here. It is important to understand that powerful ideologies – which perhaps do not yet have a name or a place in the classification – may already exist as a mix of the known and the unknown, and actually influence processes and history. To give a small parallel from Estonia: until the most recent elections for the European Parliament, the way of thinking that would consider independent candidates as something normal did not exist, whereas today the meaning of the now widespread adage ‘to pull a Tarand’ [Ed. note—in 2009, Indrek Tarand became the first independent MEP to be elected in Estonia] is clear and the adage is widespread.
As professor emeritus Michael Freeden has summarized, “[t]here is no such animal as post-ideology.” In any case, defining and understanding both the old and the new ideologies – secular, religious, and their hybrids alike – is a prerequisite for understanding the process that we have dubbed the Arab Spring since spring 2011. At the same time, it is not at all certain that the hapless episode with the Tunisian self-immolator, which in December 2010 set the whole aforementioned wave in motion, had an ideological background.

First: the mainstream of Islamism

This is the largest school of thought in the region, which unites relatively reserved, although in some isolated cases also violent, Islamist movements. Some of the most important ones worth mentioning include Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. The preparation for, and use of, violence  are meant to counter the external threat primarily anticipated from Israel. However, there have been attacks against local ruling regimes – in Algeria, Syria, and Egypt, as well as elsewhere.
There have also been cases where none of the movements has claimed responsibility for a particular incident involving the use of force and the loss of life, but all the known signs point to some of them, as the “signature” of such attacks is similar to some older crimes, the perpetrators of which have been proven guilty beyond doubt.
However, this line of thinking remains speculative, because the history of terrorism (and the history of intelligence and war in general) has seen  sufficiently many cases where the attackers disguise themselves as whomever they need to impersonate. The truth is difficult to determine, especially in non-democratic countries. For example, let us take the assassination of the unyielding former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The commission formed to investigate the assassination has reached its conclusions – the truth has been said to be “known” – but proving them formally has reached a dead end.
The majority of the organized Islamist movements attempt to gain  political power  in a peaceful (if not democratic) way by running in local and parliamentary elections. Beginning with approximately the middle of the last decade, one can observe that Islamists’  success o in free and open elections is no longer a miracle but a very probable outcome. Quite the contrary: these days, their omission from the ranks of the winners (not to mention their inability to cross an electoral threshold) would constitute a sensation.
The Islamists are also not democrats because it is in their interest to establish principles that guarantee the preservation of the power (and the privileges) of the ruling class. One of their special traits is that they try to attain a situation – under the guise of ostensibly providing religious education – where the dissemination of the religious truths of Islam and the formulation of opinions about it is also feasible for rank-and-file Muslims, not solely (religious) scholars. Such a development would also be dangerous to Islam itself in the long run, but it is still serving the interests of universal global Islamization. Is it possible that every taxi driver or market seller is competent to examine (and say something intelligent about) conclusions reached by the devout  over hundreds of years? I doubt it.
By the way, according to the Egyptian legal scholar Hussam ‘Issa, the Islamists are Muslims first and Arabs second.

Second: terrorist groups

How simple and well covered this subtopic seems to be, and how difficult it is to give a suitable short profile of this igni et ferro [Ed. note: Latin for “with fire and iron”]  way of thinking!
A small albeit quite weighty and influential group of Arabs, Pakistanis, Afghans and citizens of other Arab and African nations have distanced themselves from the mainstream Islamists mentioned in the previous subsection and have become proponents of an extremist, radical ideology. They have elected to use terrorism as a means to their ends and a tool for political self-expression. For example, Osama bin Laden and the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi can be considered charismatic and enchantingly cogent, undoubtedly smart (if not wise?!)  leaders. And unfortunately,  the list of such people is considerably longer.
Such terrorists do not reject any methods of attacking their targets either in the Arab world or outside it, all the while using the Holy Book to justify their inhumanity in a particularly cynical way. The Arabs’ feelings of bitterness and marginalization, which also feed the action plans of the Islamists analyzed in the previous subsection, are only grist to their mill. ‘Home turf’ support to a terrorist ideology is based upon the same mechanisms that cause a thirsty man in the desert desire any drink and make a main in pain welcome any analgesic.
A great shortcoming in both the terrorists’ and the Islamists’ way of thinking is an inability to formulate functional alternatives to the contemporary Western social order. One can however constantly observe a lack of (historic) precedents,  constructive political programs and logical thinking, as well as a deficiency in intellectual credibility.
Egyptian philosopher Tariq al-Bishri advises those who have been lured to extremist ideologies to realize first that religion is a matter of the private sphere – i.e., Islam is a religion, not a law (which is a classical secularist viewpoint). At the same time, radicals counter him with the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad ʻAbid al-Jabri’s assertion that Islam is not a church that could be separated from the state.

Third: America-centric and American-led Western hegemony

The ideology behind these forces has primarily been manifesting itself in the two and a half decades since the end of the Cold War,  particularly after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States.
The objective of this movement is to turn the Middle East into a sort of vassal of the United States of America in order to make use of the unlimited financial and other privileges that go with belonging in the top echelons of domestic power, such as familial power transfers, state apparatus based on tribal structures, the use of police and security forces according to one’s own better judgment, etc. To that end, they are ready to ignore the US-led terrorist hunt on their home soil, refrain from irritating Israel, and, at least officially, show an uncompromising attitude towards terrorists.
Democracy does not matter to them – the ruling class considers itself above the people and the law in any case – however, market economy and participating in international trade are important.
The disappearance (or inability to come into being) of  Arab unity, the collapse and the (forced) abandonment of  pan-Arabist ideals, the alienation from the masses of the ordinary Arabs, and the feeling of being oppressed coupled with habituation and increasing addiction  to Western amenities– all this serves the interests of the proponents of this ideology.

Fourth: anti-Americanism, rebellion against imperialism, nationalism

In my opinion, anti-Westernism and anti-imperialism can be considered one of the oldest manifestations of ideology in the Arab world, one which first became visible at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. At that time,  various Arab tribes opposed the domination of the European, Ottoman, and in some cases Zionist powers in the Middle East. Probably the most consolidating event was the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran, which crystallized common goals and demonstrated the feasibility of toppling ruling regimes.
Many a leader in the region has once again unfurled the battle flags carrying the old slogans aimed at the United States, which are particularly impressive to the masses if they are emotionally and politically well executed. Being adored by the masses in turn guarantees ideological leaders authority and lasting popularity in their home countries.
Pan-Arabist and anti-imperialist rhetoric still sounds plausible in regions that have for decades directly or indirectly suffered from Anglo-American and Israeli threatened or direct attacks , not to mention from the yoke of colonialism and occupation.
It is appropriate to mention that the current events and social movements of the so-called Arab Spring can also be classified as an ideological struggle on an axis between foreign and native , i.e. between what comes from the outside (al-wafid in Arabic) and what has been inherited (al-mawruth). This is a double dilemma, and possibly also a mutually-exclusive choice – what to adopt from either, and what to leave behind.

Fifth: the proponents of democratic Arab Rechtsstaats

I will  deliberately delve into this subtopic slightly longer than I did with,  for example, terrorism, a  topic on which there are sufficient deeply analytical articles. First, this is the newest ideology. Albert Hourani’s comprehensive work A History of the Arab Peoples, whose first edition reached readers at the close of the Cold War,  does not mention the term “democracy”’ even once in its more than half a thousand pages—and no wonder.
Islam and its legal system are based upon predestination and a set of rules that need to be followed in this world and that will help in coping with the next. Democracy, in both its original meaning (‘rule of the people’) and its modern modifications, is incompatible with the Islamic state in principle.
Modern Muslims have indeed told me that there is a definite sign of democracy coded into Islam; that sign is the Quran’s Sura 42,  The Council (“who obey their Lord and establish Prayer; who conduct their affairs by consultation, and spend out of what We have bestowed upon them” – 42:38) – but what guarantees does this offer in the context of applying democracy? I do not want to seem cynical, but I am fairly sure that there were “consultations” held in Syria last year before opening fire on the people.
Historically, the application of the term ijma (Arabic for consensus) constitutes a similar trap – if a decision has been reached by consensus, both Muslims and non-Muslims have to abide by it unquestioningly. Another argument that the Muslims propose to support their claim of a democratic element being present in Islam since its inception is that the prophet Muhammad did not appoint a successor before his death, leaving it for the people to decide instead. In addition, one of the prophet’s successors – who later became caliph – refused to accept his position in a hereditary way and only agreed to rule as caliph after the people had elected the suitable person for the post.
Let us return to the end of the Cold War and the resulting shift in the balance of power. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire so-called Eastern Bloc (the Warsaw Pact countries) and the nations’ democratization did not happen without causing temptations in the Middle East. Political and early democratic reforms initiated by both secular and Islamist organizations and parties met with limited success. Elections were held in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Tunisia as well as in Kuwait after the Gulf War, and finally also in Saudi Arabia. Until that time, the lack of democracy in the Middle East was even welcomed in the West, that bastion of democracy;  this made it easier for  oil-importing industrial countries to communicate with the old and trusted ruling clans who were their clients. The West also feared the rise of the Islamists if open and democratic elections were to be held in the Middle East. In short, the West thought that a lack of democratic tradition in the region was in itself reason enough to refrain from encouraging its development (in a sugar-coated manner of speaking).
Among the schools of thought analyzed in this article, striving for a democratic society in the Middle East is therefore the weakest. Its proponents are civil society activists, some of whom are extremely popular in the Arab world and who have also earned global recognition, as evidenced by an unprecedented global torrent of awards and the media attention that goes with it; one  contributor to this is Vogue, a magazine that usually does not follow the everyday politics of the Arab world overly closely.

A few more words about democracy

The main objective of the democrats’ campis certainly a desire to establish participatory democracy coupled with a modern open leadership. The ever-increasing numbers of the followers of this ideology are motivated by both indirect and direct factors – poverty, unemployment, stagnation, the widening gap between the developed world and the Arab world (and the loss of any hope that this gap will diminish  during one’s own lifetime), an atmosphere of fear characteristic of a police state, “holes” in state budgets, and the proportion of foreign aid in such budgets, which is accompanied by a dependency on foreign political elements.
On the other hand, an influential role is also played by individuals’ wish to do something by themselves,  youth trying to do and be something different from previous generations, the fact that all literate people have the opportunity to be thoroughly and directly informed about what is going on elsewhere and express themselves in real time if they wanted to,  the aspiration to break out of the periphery and be equal and comparable and compete with their peers in the outside world, etc.
Initially relying on a few principled fanatics – whom the authorities often silenced – this segment has been apparently growing faster than that of the Islamists. This process can be compared to the algae that spring up and live in their own secluded coves, but in the right conditions can multiply exponentially and cover a critical area of the water surface. The fall of the previous regimes during 2011 and 2012 has accelerated this spreading; the impossible has turned out to be possible after all.
However, one cannot help but remember the old truth that it is much easier to conduct a revolution than to hold on to what has been achieved by it. This means that it is entirely possible that the proponents of an ideology will change colors, and that somebody who leads a peace march today could tomorrow become a vociferous conservative in an Islamist government who no longer wants to know anything about the universalist worldview and way of thinking.
In 1997  the professor John Esposito  underlined in a private conversation that the democratic nations (and their dominant faiths) have for too long thought of Islam as an “other”’ or a “foreign” religion belonging in the same group as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and the like. However, when applied, democracy—being  supra-religious by definition—should  lead to a situation where the “other” or the “foreigner”  gradually becomes the neighbor. This in turn would serve as a prerequisite for a situation where “the  Muslims are us”, which we are, in both the theological and the demographic sense. Today, many years later, it may seem that Esposito’s viewpoint was naïve, but I agree with his vision.
In order to sum up this reflection on democracy it must be added that rigorous preciseness is necessary both here and in the future, particularly in academic writings, because democracy has embodied quite different concepts in different times and for different actors. Even the Christian church that used to support absolutism and claimed monarchs to be God’s vicars on Earth has adjusted itself to modern democratic ideals (and realities).
If even Europeans who are accustomed to democracy first need to agree upon a common sign system and common meanings so that their intellectual discourse could succeed, then what can we demand from  Muslims? Their reference system makes even understanding—let alone accepting or desiring for themselves—the elementary basic tenets of the concept of democracy considerably more difficult for them than for the Europeans.
Beginning with the middle of the previous century, nationalism, Islamism, and their combination have been the most important ideological forces influencing the Arab world and the Islamic nations, and will likely remain so in the near future.
At the same time, the past few decades have seen quite a few revolutionary changes, from the Gulf War in 1991 through the Iraq invasion in 2003 and up to the recent Arab Spring – and over this time there have been many changes in the viewpoints and attitudes of Arab liberals, socialists, and Islamists  regarding co-operation with Israel, bloodbaths, the persistence and the toppling of dictatorships, and many other key issues. The foundations of the worldviews of all the previously mentioned groups and ideologists are rooted in the past, which is why  future scenarios will not include anything completely new.
On one hand, none of the most important ideologies will disappear. On the other, their conflicts with other ideologies and  so-called extra-regional actors will remain. As long as Islam exists, there will be legions of peaceful believers, but  extremist views will always be represented.
Precisely defining, let alone predicting, the level of insanity of extremist views is also akin to walking on thin ice; as the Polish thinker Stanisław Lec has said, there is always an even greater degree of stupidity. However, the emergence of constructive pragmatism (although not an unknown notion in the Arab world) among the most important values of any ideology is something that I would not dare prognosticate – even if  I would  like to.
English translation: Raivo Hool.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.