The 3-R Dilemma: Religiosity of Peace, Realism of War, and Regressed Sub-identities in the Middle East

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui, Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and senior fellow at Aljazeera Center for Studies

The following paper wasa lecture delivered by Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg in GermanyOctober 25th, 2018.

North Africa and the Middle East are struggling with their present; let alone how to shape their future. The promise of the 2011 uprisings has turned into growing malaise and widespread deception by the poor performance of Islamist, secular, military, nationalist, and other brands of Arab governments. After seven years of high expectations, the Arab story of reform and democratization has become a daunting cliffhanger. The main question now is how we got here. Why there is so much concentration of conflict and violence in this strategic region located at the heart of the world with enormous natural and human resources. Why is there still dire shortage of democratic steps and civility in the Arab public discourse across the region? One good example in Saudi Arabia, Tweeter has served as the best weapon of mass stigmatization of Qatari officials and their allies. Another intriguing question; what prevents Arab societies from forging a smooth path to modernity, welfare, and democracy? Are there any real prospects of an Arab age of enlightenment to help address this difficult Arab pregnancy of democracy?

The ongoing civil wars, civilian devastation, and the political struggle of states and non-state actors alike across the region do not have one set of deep-rooted causes, but a diversity of economic, geo-strategic, cultural, ethno-nationalist, historical, and sometimes tribal factors. Therefore, academic tools of analysis require a multi-disciplinary approach and crossing over to other fields of knowledge. Moreover in the field of conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and cultural studies, He argued for a “cross-disciplinary pursuit of deconstructing the drivers of extremism, Jihadism, and other forms of political violence amidst the debate over the significance of the multi-disciplinarily approach versus the inter-disciplinary approach.” He organized his paper around three themes: a) religiosity as new geopolitics within the advocacy of the political Islam movements across the region; b) new Arab realpolitik in terms of the reemergence of Arab deep states stronger after the turmoil of 2011; and c) regressed Arab sub-identities while national identities have taken the back seat behind the power of sectarianism. I will also propose a few reflective conclusions on the new age of Arab sectarianism and the struggle for modernity and democratization.

One of the challenges now is how address the divergence between the religiosity of peace, as a central pillar of the Islamic discourse, and the civility of religion in shaping the political system in the region. The question remains: how to organize the interconnectedness between the mosque, the church, the temple, the ministry, the parliament and the public opinion, and promote openness, diversity, and global values. Most of the political actors in the region have had a religious platform -Islamic or Islamist – and a favorable discourse of religiosity.

My hope is to help streamline the tools and concepts of various social sciences, including social psychology, political sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, economics, and international relations, to help provide a well-nuanced science of conflict, or what peace theorist Johan Galtung likes to call ‘conflictology’, in the study of both structure and agency. Why individuals kill in the name of defending the virtues of their holy books, and, as followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, still insist they are activists for peace. I have not mentioned the big elephant in the room, terrorism and counterterrorism, since the United Nations, the European Union, the Pentagon, and other governments and international institutions, have not reconciled their differences on what ‘terrorism’ is out of the 109 circulating definitions; and how it should be addressed as one specific category of political violence.

A Brief Diagnosis

To say the Middle East is in crisis at these turbulent times is an understatement. Three nations Syria, Yemen, and Libya are now synonymous to vicious civil wars, shrewd politics of super and regional powers and armed militias, increasing deaths among civilians, and struggle of the United Nations peacemaking missions in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Now, the calculation of the Russian, Iranian, Turkish, Israeli, American strategic interests in the province of Idlib in particular, and in Syria in general, may lead to a regional war if these players fail to hold a stable balance of power in the future. The classical hatred between Israel and Iran and their race for nuclear armament remain more alarming than ever. Last May, Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the seven-nation-signed Nuclear Deal and to impose sanctions on all businesses and governments that have invested inside Iran. During the United Nations General Assembly last month, he expected “all nations to isolate Iran’s regime”. (1) These developments have given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more hope to neutralize Iran, and rejoice a would-be Israeli military supremacy in the region.

Other nations like Iraq and Lebanon are captive of sectarian politics and stubborn rivalries that seek to dominate the parliament and other government agencies. To the south, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have exhausted their sense of alliance, and turned against each other. The personal animosity between Mohamed bin Zayed of the Emirates, Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Tamim of Qatar has taken the new crisis to uncharted territories. Sixteen months into the blockade of Qatar, the Kuwaiti mediation is still struggling to hammer down the Emirati-Saudi-Qatari differences, and President Trump has failed to host a US-Gulf summit amidst his pursuit of mobilizing the six Gulf nations, Egypt, and Jordan into the formulation of an Arab NATO Alliance. One most recent crisis is the Saudi monarchy controversy and the immorality of a crown prince who is allegedly involved in ordering the killing of Saudi journalist and intellect who opted for self-exile in the United States in 2017. This kind of assassination has undermined the most conservative political systems in the region, and has effectively destabilized the notion of an Arab model of governance. It has also raised new challenges for the political theory as well as the field of international relations.

Egypt is an interesting case of the militarization of politics and society. The recent court sentences of death penalty for 75 activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood is another indicator of shortsighted politics of President Sisi, who believes in the eradication of his opponents Islamists, secularists, modernists, and otherwise. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the powerful military institution in Cairo, continues to benefit from the monopoly of 40% of the national economy. Sudan and South Sudan are still in a deadlock of more than one conflict: there has escalation of three disputes over Abyei border and the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Earlier this month, the Sudanese government requested the Security Council to speed up its approval of doubling the regional protection force, from 4000 to 8000 soldiers with Sudan, Uganda, Djibouti and Somalia contributing troops, with the hope rival leaders in South Sudan would “give peace a chance.”(2)

In North Africa, the situation is not rosy either. Libya is a complex case of struggling political transition, renewed violence, uncontrolled migration, and the reemergence of slavery. A number of African refugees were sold for the equivalent of $800 to do farm work in certain tribal-controlled areas. In the last six years, the United Nations has deployed four envoys for the Libyan conflict after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. Accordingly, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has hosted scores of meetings with various Libyan leaders in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. However, the political deadlock and sporadic violence remain the talk of the day either in the two centers of power: Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the east, with different affiliations of support with certain regional and international actors, namely France, Turkey, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

In neighboring Tunisia, which is considered the only hope of the Arab uprisings, or the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, domestic politics has been captive, in the last few months, by a show of force between Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of the president and leader of the ruling party, Nida Tounes, and prime minster Youssef Chahed. The Prime Minister, who has been in office for more than two years, “has led an aggressive reform program, backed by the IMF, to control Tunisia’s deficit. But, his privatization plans have been rejected by the powerful General Labor Union (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens, UGTT), which has backed Essebsi’s calls for his resignation.”(3) Moreover, there is an emerging rift within the post-2014 election alliance between the ruling party Nida Tounes and the Islamist party Ennahda. Ennahda has rejected calls “to replace Chahed out of fear of a collapse in the economy, not least because Chahed is Tunisia’s ninth prime minister in only seven years.” (4) However, President Baji Caid Essebsi asserted in a recent TV interview, “The consensus and relationship between me and Ennahda has ended, after they chose to form another relationship with Youssef Chahed.”(5)

Photo 5

Recent protests in Tunisia: The slogan reads “2018: The shopping bag is empty” (Getty)

Algeria in another interesting case of economic despair, societal malaise, and the extension of the mandate of an invisible and ailing president. There has been heated political debate among many Algerians about one dilemma: who really runs Algeria? The de-facto decision-making is presumed to reside among a small circle of shadowy politicians, military leaders, and intelligence officials, collectively known as le pouvoir (French for “the powers that be”), amidst an open-ended battle for influence within the political and military establishment. During Chancellor Merkel’s recent visit to Algiers, President Bouteflika, who has been in a wheel chair since his crippling stroke in 2013, could not mumble more than a few words. Still, the official narrative echoing in the corridors of the presidential palace in Zeralda, west of Algiers, is that Bouteflika “is well”! His entourage is pushing for his presidential bid for the fifth time in the upcoming elections scheduled for April 2019. Algeria represents an ironic contrast: it is North Africa’s oil superpower, and the unemployment, particularly among the youth, rate exceeds 20 percent, while the country ranks among the world’s 10 most corrupt.(6) As one Algeria observer points out, “In light of the dire situation facing the country from the economic, political, and security sectors, nominating Bouteflika for an illegal fifth term would likely serve as a catalyst to much larger instabilities than the regime is currently combating.” (7)

To the west, the riots in Rif in northern Morocco after the killing of fishmonger Mohsen Fikri in the port-city of Al Hoceima October 28, 2016, mining workers’ protest in Jerada, and the open-ended boycott of certain brands of gas, water, and milk, have revealed the struggle of the police-intelligence apparatus in containing a bad situation of popular resentment movement. The protests have showcased deepening fragmentation between state and society, and led to significant loss of the Monarchy’s credibility and social capital. Makhzen, the local term for deep state, has positioned itself as the guardian of the monarchy in Morocco; and seems to have exhausted its tools of power politics. Makhzen’s tactics derive from the classical text of realpolitik and the top-down structural paradigm. They do not show real adjustment, or realignment, to the twenty-first reality and nuances of the emerging bottom-up collective action, power of social movements, or people politics. The draconian verdicts of twenty-year sentences against Nacer Zefzafi and forty-nine other Rif activists in July have triggered an outcry of denunciation from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and world defenders of individual liberties and freedom of speech.

On the Western coast of the Atlantic, Mauritania’s recent parliamentary elections results have empowered the ruling party, the Republican Party for Democracy and Renewal, and President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to declare a direct crackdown on Islamic educational institutions. Earlier this month, student demonstrations erupted in the capital Nouakchott in protest against the closure of the University of Abdullah ibn Yasin (UAIY) and the Centre for Training Islamic Scholars (CTIS). President Abdel Aziz cautioned against political Islam, and stated it “was dangerous, as its ideology had “destroyed whole nations.” (8)

In retrospect, North Africa and the Middle East are struggling with their present; let alone how to shape their future. The promise of the 2011 uprisings has turned into growing malaise and widespread deception by the poor performance of Islamist, secular, military, nationalist, and other brands of Arab governments. After seven years of high expectations, the Arab story of reform and democratization has become a daunting cliffhanger. The main question now is how we got here. Why there is so much concentration of conflict and violence in this strategic region located at the heart of the world with enormous natural and human resources. Why is there still dire shortage of democratic steps and civility in the Arab public discourse across the region? One good examplein Saudi Arabia, Tweeter has served as the best weapon of mass stigmatization of Qatari officials and their allies. Another intriguing question; what prevents Arab societies from forging a smooth path to modernity, welfare, and democracy? Are there any real prospects of an Arab age of enlightenment to help address this difficult Arab pregnancy of democracy?

Photo 4

Freedom in the Arab World (Freedom in the World Organization)

How Did We Get Here?

First, I would like to argue against the assumption of one factor of this Arab decline, or the singularity of a driving force, behind what qualifies as semi-anarchy of the Arab system in 2018. There is no much choice in either categorizing Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, South Sudan, and Libya as fragile states or failed states. Most of these Arab nations rank among the top fifteen on the 2018 Fragile States Index. (9) Other states in the region cannot claim much stability even the monarchies in Morocco and Jordan, which thought they could jump over the turbulences and protests that were loud in public squares in spring 2011.

I perceive Arab societies now as being stuck inside a dark and suffocating triangle. There is tightening force within the three sides from which I have constructed my suggested scope of analysis: “The 3-R dilemma: religiosity of peace, realism of war, and regressed sub-identities in the Middle East”. My presentation this evening focuses on the structural and socio-cultural dynamics. My aim is to address what has pushed the Middle East and North Africa into this challenging pitfall by deconstructing the three sides of the metaphorical triangle. I have organized my paper around three themes: a) religiosity as new geopolitics within the advocacy of the political Islam movements across the region; b) new Arab realpolitik in terms of the reemergence of Arab deep states stronger after the turmoil of 2011; and c) regressed Arab sub-identities while national identities have taken the back seat behind the power of sectarianism. I will also propose a few reflective conclusions on the new age of Arab sectarianism and the struggle for modernity and democratization.

Second since the beginning of the new century, Arab societies have witnessed a collision between two forces: status quo versus calls for change. The first camp, which includes politicians, financers, top ranking military officers and other profiteers, has pushed hard to maintain the status quo to help prolong their interest and political survival. Moreover, deep state agents have reemerged stronger with a staunch will to protect their affiliated centers of power and are less enthusiastic to consider the ethics of legitimacy or moral politics. In contrast, the disgruntled educated youth majority and resentful middle-aged Arabs have sustained the call for change, and pushed the envelope for comprehensive and tangible change. What happened in early 2011 can be perceived as a rare moment of an Arab pure reason, as I adopt Emmanuel Kant’s terminology. Overall, each camp is well equipped with various justifying narratives; and tends to manipulate the socio-cultural reservoir of the respective society.

On the extreme spectrum of politics, militant groups are getting more sophisticated and more determined to destabilize the Arab states’ grip on power and resist the intervention of foreign powers. For example, Hutis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hashd Ashaabi in Iraq, and scores of armed groups in Libya and southern Algeria have often outperformed the local governments by pushing their action capabilities into a merely reactive mode of salvaging bad situations and enduring the political calamities of political violence. Now, the impact of non-state actors is on the rise and decides most of the political agenda across the region, whereas most Arab states remain on the receiving end. This situation reminds me of the old saying of Thucydides, historian of the Peloponnesian War some 2400 years ago, when he wrote, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Photo 6

Arab Spring Economic Impact (Novosti)

Third, one of the challenges now is how address the divergence between the religiosity of peace, as a central pillar of the Islamic discourse, and the civility of religion in shaping the political system in the region. The question remains: how to organize the interconnectedness between the mosque, the church, the temple, the ministry, the parliament and the public opinion, and promote openness, diversity, and global values. Most of the political actors in the region have had a religious platform -Islamic or Islamist – and a favorable discourse of religiosity. With the exception of Turkey, all the countries of the Middle East have opted for a religion-centric Muslim-Arab identity. With the claimed religious tolerance and multiculturalism in the Middle East, these majority identities have become expansionist among Arab communities abroad. Ironically, some leaders of the extreme left communist parties, as is the case of the Party of Progress and Socialism in Morocco, have come closer to the religious discourse to help compete with the mainstream Islamist movement parties that were top winners in the 2012 elections in several Arab countries. Let me address the religiosity of peace, or what I call alarming religiosity.

Alarming Religiosity

To be a religious person, eithera Muslim, Christian, or Jew, is a positive drive for spirituality and societal tolerance. However, religiosity tends to have wider connotations and unlimited reverberations. It includes experiential, ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, consequential, creedal, communal, doctrinal, moral, and cultural dimensions, as Barbara Holdcroft argues in her essay published in the Journal of Inquiry and Practice. (10) Religiosity can be a loaded term with several synonyms such as ‘religiousness’, ‘orthodoxy’, ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘piousness’, ‘devotion’, and ‘holiness’. As you notice, these alternative terms derive mostly from an English dictionary and a Christian context. I must admit it has not been an easy task, for me at least, to decide the best translation of ‘religiosity’ into Arabic; and whether the word ‘tadayoun’تديّن (devoutness) would fit in this context. Other alternatives would go as far as ‘zouhd’الزهد(asceticism), ‘taqwa’ تقوى (piousness), or ‘tasawwof’ تصوّف (Sufism). This could be a lost-in-translation dilemma.

Religiosity remains a complex construct across all religions and a challenging research subject for social sciences, not because of its theological value alone, but rather for its ideological and cultural load as manipulated now by most militant non-state actors. Scholars like Gerhard Lenski identified four different ways in which religiosity might be expressed: associational, communal, doctrinal, and devotional. (11) In their book “Religion and Society in Tension”, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark defined five dimensions of religiosity: experiential, ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, and consequential.

Current waves of extremism are not to be blamed on Koran or any other holy textbook. Instead, we need to probe into the mental and psychological residue of any Islamic, Christian, or Jewish religiosity under the effect of culture of extremism and the claim of peacemaking. This brings us to the dilemma of religious congruence, since I assume that religious beliefs and values are neatly integrated in our minds and souls. There has been continuous fragmentation within each local culture while animosity has deepened among various cultures in the region. As Duke University professor Mark Chaves poked into what he called ‘the religious congruence fallacy’, he proposes a good example of religious congruence. He wrote, “Observant Jews may not believe what they say in their Sabbath prayers. Christian ministers may not believe in God. And people who regularly dance for rain don’t do it in the dry season.” (12)

The Institute for Economics and Peace, which pursues proper ways to quantify peace and its benefits, has tackled the question: is religion the main cause of conflict today? After studying thestate of thirty-five armed conflicts in 2013, the Institute concluded that religious elements did not play a role in fourteen, or 40 percent, of these conflicts. It also found that “religion was only one of three or more reasons for 67 per cent of the conflicts where religion featured as a factor to the conflict.” (13) However, Douglas Johnston, president of the International Center on Religion and Diplomacy, has identified conditions in several conflict situations that lend themselves to faith-based intervention:

  • First, religion is a significant factor in the identity of one or both parts to the conflict;
  • Second, religious leaders on both sides of the dispute can be mobilized to facilitate peace;
  • Third, protracted struggles between two major religious traditions transcend national borders, as has been the case over time with Islam and Christianity; and/or
  • Fourth, forces of realpolitik have led to an extended paralysis of action. (14)

Within this concept of faith-based conflict transformation, Berlin hosted the conference on the Responsibility of Religions for Peace Last year. Dirk Lölke, head of the task force at the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication at the Federal Foreign Office stated that “if foreign policy fails to leverage the potential (of listening to different views on conflict from representatives of religious communities), we will miss out on an important part of discourse in other countries.” (15)

What is of interest in the case of North Africa and the Middle East is two specific dimensions. The first is the ideological dimension that is “constituted by expectations that the religious will hold to certain beliefs” (i.e., professed doctrines). The second is the intellectual dimension which has to do, as Glock and Stark would argue, with the expectation that the religious person will be informed and knowledgeable about the basic tenets of his faith and sacred scriptures” (i.e., history, sacraments, morality…)” (16)

I like to go back to the fourth point Douglas Johnson makes about how “forces of realpolitik have led to an extended paralysis of action.” Among these forces of realpolitik are the religiously defined non-state actors, such as the Hutis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and its military support for Al Assad regime in Syria, Al-Hashd Ashaabi in Iraq, and Ansar Al sharia in Libya, which imply some ‘divine’ reason and ‘mystic’ will in waging war against the so-called ‘infidels’ internally and externally. They tend to sugarcoat their discourse of using lethal force against their enemies with some overstretched interpretations of selected religious texts, either from Koran and Hadith. Most Islamist parties have relied on the religiosity, not only at the individual level, but also at the collective and societal level. The shift from western-designed clothes to hijab حجابand abayaعباية among the majority of Arab women, the rise of faith-based TV shows, and the rise of worshippers in Mosques in recent years are goof indicators of this trend of not only spiritual religiosity, but also political religiosity. Along this transformation of Arab societies, religiosity has become the new geopolitics of the Islamist movement.

Photo 8

How Much Democracy? (Freedom House)

Religiosity as New Geopolitics

One should consider the temporality of the Arab uprisings vis-à-vis the revival of the fifty shades of Salafisms and Islamisms across the region. I am using both terms, Salafisms and Islamisms, in plural. One good example is the leaders of the ruling party in Morocco, Justice and Development, reject the notion they are an extension to the Justice and Development party in Turkey or an affiliation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As Islamist movement scholar Geneive Abdo points out, “Today’s charismatic religious ideologues first began to make their presence felt during the 1970s, laying the foundation among Arab societies for a religious revival that continues to the present. Shi’a and Sunni communities—the former in reaction to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the latter in response to the developing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—began to associate their long-established religious beliefs and practices with personal identity, supplanting a largely manufactured and fragile loyalty to the relatively new phenomenon of the nation state.”(17)

These frameworks of analysis can be promising in the study of both Islamic religiosity as mainstream balance between civil state and mosque in moderate societies, and Islamist religiosity as an exclusive and puritan models of Wahhabism, Qaeedism, Daeshism and other trends of Jihadism in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The associational, communal, doctrinal, and devotional drivers of these radical Islamisms are necessary to dissect the momentum of these militant groups, not solely in their relationship with holy textbook, but also in their political and ideological dimensions. As a result, the religious-political connection has become a strategic asset in public life. Shlomo Ben-Ami, vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, has recently proposed a revealing example of Iraq as a Middle Eastern country that is “choosing politics over religion.” He noticed Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shia cleric who previously led deadly attacks against US troops, is now emerging as America’s best hope of containing Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq.” (18)

In retrospect, one can argue this has been an era of engineering a prototype of political Islamists, who believes in not only the sanctity and religiosity of their beliefs, but also in solidifying their political view as a trajectory of their religiosity for reshaping identities and reorganizing society. According to them, the spread of a militant or intolerant discourse is logical by necessity, and even the use of violence becomes a ‘noble tool’ for achieving a ‘noble cause’. This justification implies the attachment to their religious-cultural filters. This brings us to the question: why Arabs resort to violence; and why some analysts have argued for a correlation between Islam, Arab culture, and Arab violence in a post-911, post-Iraq War, and post-uprising Middle East.

I have come across all sorts of interpretations and misinterpretations. One provocative opinion essay published last year had the title “Are the Arabs violent because they’re religious or religious so they’re less violent?” The author argued, “The genius of religion is that it overcomes tribalism. It universalizes certain key principles and thereby achieves a greater unity. So, who clings to religion most? Peoples who are deeply fractious and have a tendency to resolve their differences through extra-judicial killings.” (19)

One of the promoters of the hypothesis of a violence-inspired Arab culture is Lee Smith who spent several years in the Middle East. In his new book “The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations”, he argues “violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and that Arab politics is driven by the ‘strong horse’ principle.”(20) Smith builds his argument on Osama bin Laden’s assertion that “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” (21) However, Smith’s argument seems to be an overstretched projection of Samuel Huntington’s controversial clash-of-Civilizations concept.

Let us address the other side of the equation: the transformation of Arab states; and how the political and financial elites seek to maintain their power monopoly.

New Arab Realpolitik

North Africa and the Middle East are enduring two parallel highly glorified wars. One declared by religious fanatics and jihadists who believe in the might of the sword and home-made explosives, and expect a divine blessing for their pursuit of restoring the ‘golden Islamic age’, in reference to the times of prophet Mohammed and four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. This age which expands from the year 610, when the prophet received his first revelation from God, and the death of the fourth caliph Ali ibn Talib in the year 661, remains idealized and often romanticized as the purity of Muslims and good implementation of the divine message. This is a common theme among all kinds of Islamists from Tehran to Tetouan and from Samarra to Saouira.

In contrast, Arab governments have waged a counter war within their societies. This counter war has become so sacred within the growing security paradigm, as promoted by several governments in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Algeria, which have adopted less religiosity of the public sphere and state. The holiness of this counterterrorism war derives from the semi-sacred imperatives of protecting the national security and eradicating terrorism and other forms of extremism in the region. It started with the well-orchestrated show of “Military and People together” scene amidst the protests in Tahrir squarein January and February 2011. Late US Senator John McCain visited Cairo at the peak of the crisis and stated he wanted democracy in the region, not out of ‘some misplaced moralism’, but because the resultant stability would help the United States. He said, “The greatest guarantee of stability is democracy … Our national interests demand it (in the Middle East)”, he said.(22) At the same time, John Chipman, Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, saw the idea that the only alternative to Mubarak was Islamist as a “totally out of date mantra.” (23) Moreover, Sisi’s coup in Egypt in June 2013, and has energized a keen interest among other Arab leaders and profiteers of civil wars to secure their survival at all cost.

The new Arab realpolitik has nurtured a new trend of Arab Machiavellism in dehumanizing opponents as ‘terrorists’ or ‘foreign entity agents.’ A good example is how Al-Assad regime in Damascus has squeezed his foes in the Syrian opposition and diaspora as well into this negative label. Sisi has famed his second electoral campaign last march around the national security imperative and eradication of the so-called ‘terrorist cells in Sanai’. Last August, the Egyptian army announced it had killed 52 individuals perceived as “highly dangerous terrorists” in North Sinai province as part of the ongoing “Sinai 2018” anti-terror campaign. (24)

On the 2nd of the month, my friend Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul as a punishment for his critical opinions of the current Saudi line of politics. He was a moderate intellectual who pushed for critical thinking and freedom of expression. He wrote October 31, 2017, “Prince Mohammed is right to go after extremists. But, he is going after the wrong people. Dozens of Saudi intellectuals, clerics, journalists, and social media stars have been arrested in the past 2 months — the majority of whom, at worst, are mildly critical of the government… How can we become more moderate when such extremist views are tolerated? How can we progress as a nation when those offering constructive feedback and (often humorous) dissent are banished?”(25)

In Egypt, more than forty thousands of activists and journalist remain under arrest with no due process before the national courts of justice. In the Maghreb, Moroccan editor-in-chief, Taoufik Bouachrine, remains in prison in Casablanca while facing a host of charges including human trafficking, exploitation of people in need, and abuse of power for sexual purposes. These are recent examples of how most Arab regimes have relinquished their sense of moral politics in silencing voices of enlightenment and modernity. They are no longer concerned with possible criticism, or the possibility of being reprimanded, by Western countries, especially the United States, whose foreign policy had been saturated, for decades, with the rhetoric of protecting human rights and spreading freedom into undemocratic regimes in the region and beyond.

As one Arab analyst argued, realpolitik is a polished name for political immorality. “waging of ruinous punitive wars, military incursions, annexing territories of bordering countries and other belligerencies, “he wrote, “ are excusable to most politicians and analysts as long as they are executed in the name of fighting foreign evil forces, or to extirpate alleged WMDs, or to ensure ethnic privileges for compatriots.”(26)

Photo 2 Categorization of Arab States (United Nations)

Let us try to contextualize this Arab new Machiavellism. The Riyadh summit held in May 2017 between Donald Trump and leaders of fifty Arab and Muslim nations has solidified the centrality of counterterrorism in contemporary international relations. The eradication of ISIS, or Daesh, and other extremists groups in the region, has been the top priority of the Trump’s strategy in the Middle East. Consequently, many Arab governments have manipulated this counterterrorism discourse and the protection of national sovereignty to justify their illegal crackdown on progressive movements and imprisonment of activists. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia are good examples.

In his recent address at the United Nations, Trump sounded rather as an advocate of free-style world politics. He favored states to go separate ways under the banner of protecting their sovereignty. He asserted, “America is governed by Americans”, and “it is up to the nations of the region to decide what kind of future they want for themselves and their children.”(27) In the battle for legitimacy and popular representation, the lines between activism, terrorism, and authoritarianism have become blurry. The use of force remains a necessary strategy to justify the claimed pursuit of peace, as ideologues on both sides would argue. The whole causality of this escalation is survival. In his paper essay “Realpolitik, Failing States and the Arab Citizen” published by the London-based Muslim Institute, Mohammed Moussa points out that “perceived existential threats to the status quo in the Middle East were at the top of domestic and foreign policy agendas. The backlash against Islamists is accompanied by the rolling back of the victories of the Arab Spring, motivated by the fear of the domino effect of democratic transitions, whether revolutionary or reformist.”(28)

Now, Egypt, Syria, and Libya are examples of these parallel wars. Most Arab governments have failed in their socio-economic policies. The rate of unemployment remains high between 15 and 20 percent across the region. These governments do not take responsibility for neglecting the basic human needs of their young-majority populations, which adds not only to the complexity of the ongoing civil wars, but turns them into protracted social conflicts (PSC) borrowing the language of late conflict theorist Edward Azar. While developing his new PSC theory in 1990. He argues, “Protracted social conflicts occur when communities are deprived of satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity. However, the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages. Furthermore, initial conditions (colonial legacy, domestic historical setting, and the multi-communal nature of the society) play important roles in shaping the genesis of protracted social conflict.’(29)

Consequently, social malaise has spread deeply into the hearts and minds of the majority of the Arab youth. One anecdotal recent statistic showed that 69 percent of the Moroccan youth are anxious to leave their country and seek better opportunities abroad. A sizable number of migrants end up losing their lives in the so-called ‘death boats’, while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Moreover, “the process of protracted social conflict deforms and retards the effective operation of political institutions”, as Azar explains,“It reinforces and strengthens pessimism throughout the society, demoralises leaders and immobilizes the search for peaceful solutions. We have observed that societies undergoing protracted social conflict find it difficult to initiate the search for answers to their problems and grievances.”(30)

The mix of failing socio-economic policies, religiosity, and realpolitik, has led to significant shifts in the societal cohesion within the multi-communal Arab societies. Since the mid-1990s, there has been deepening disarticulation between state and society. As Azar’s asserts, “With the state usually dominated by a single communal group or a coalition of a few communal groups that are unresponsive to the needs of other groups in the society.”(31) This brings us to the third theme of this presentation: regressed Arab sub-identities

Regressed Sub-identities

In 2006, an Asian scholar published an essay entitled “Who Am I? The Identity Crisis in the Middle East”. He wrote, “Each state would have to evolve an identity that is neither parochial nor confessional, but rather a territorial identity that recognizes and encompasses their individual distinctness and variations. Each state would have to recognize the need for and eventually evolve an inclusive identity.”(32) He was referring to a post-colonial age of an Arab identity formation. Since the eighties, there was a heated debate about an Arab crisis identity, while societies in the region were taken by surprise by the arrival of globalization. French Arabist and sociologist Jacques Berque (1910-1995) noticed then the Arabs were still trying to restore their ‘personality’.

Fast forward to the present, German analyst Stefan Buchen raises some provocative questions: “Does an Arab identity survive? What about Arab culture? In view of the political and social downward spiral, all of this is now at stake.Civil wars can be ended, political expectations of freedom and justice can theoretically be fulfilled a little later. But is the devastation in reality not already so profound, so as to prevent the new formation of a contented Arab society?”(33)

These reflective questions are valid since they call for an assessment of the overall transformation of Arab societies. I argue there is a complex crisis of identities and sub-identities across the region amidst various tendencies of Wahhabism, Salafism, Brotherhood, secularism, modernism, and all other fifty shades of religiosity in between. In his book“Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World”, historian Peter Demant explains how certain Islamist puritanism has deepened in the region. He wrote, “Psychological mechanisms facilitate the transition to Islamism. People look for an ideological compass, but not in isolation. The defeat of rival ideologies raises the psychological and social price for those who would embrace such discarded alternatives as Marxism or liberalism… Material riches are scorned in favor of dedication to God. Islamism returns to the non-material, pre-capitalist values of honor, obedience, solidarity, and mutual aid. Islamic puritanism strengthens the ideological defenses against the permissive West’s temptations.”(34)

Instead of the solidification of a Pan-Arab identity in an upward mode, as Nasserism, Baathism, and other doctrines of Arab nationalism aspired to achieve in the sixty-eight years, the post-uprisings era has witnessed a downward swing toward alternative sub-identities. The construct of a well-integrated Arab identity has lost momentum as local politics has nurtured the narcissism of small differences. As you may recall, this concept of narcissism of small differences can be traced back to the works of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and anthropologist Ernest Crawley in the early twentieth century.

Now, let’s see how Arabs identify themselves: Iraqis no longer perceive each other as Iraqis; instead, they are either Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, or other small denominations. Palestinians have also broke their identity tent to emerge as Fathawis (pro-Fatah) or Hamsawis (pro-Hamas). In most cases, the Egyptians are identified as either Ikhawani or Ilamani (pro-Muslim Brotherhood or secularist). A similar split of identity is creeping into the discussions among the elite and diaspora in North Africa. There is an unsettled debate in Morocco about the real anthropological origin of the Moroccan identity: is it Arab or Amazigh if we consider the existence of Amazigh tribes in North Africa before the arrival of the first Muslim envoy General Oqbah ibn Nāfi during the reign of Caliph Omar in 644 in the region? As you can tell, I have avoided the word ‘Berber’ for the sake of being historically correct.

In short, this implosion of the Arab identity has led to several ‘we’/’they’ dichotomies. This inward transformation of the presumed Arab identity seems to correlate with several deceptions. Social psychologist and founder of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI) at the University of Virginia, Vamik Volkan, has written extensively about this eclipse of the national identity at times of crises and wars. In one of his lectures entitled “Large-Group Identity, Large-Group Regression and Massive Violence”, he focused on ethnic, national, or religious large groups, and the role of leaders. His argument derives from the imagination of “a canvas extending from the pole out over the people, forming a huge tent. This canvas represents the large-group identity.”(35) He concludes“essential ethnic, national or religious large-group activities center around maintaining the integrity of the large-group identity, and leader-follower interactions are just one element of this effort.”(36)

Volkan relates this identity shift to what ancient Greeks used to call ‘Megali Idea’, or ‘Great Idea’, as a political ideology with some cultural amplifiers. He wrote, “Such political ideologies may last for centuries and may disappear and reappear when historical circumstances change.”(37) While studying how the large group identity deals with various threats including the group’s enemy, he found 20 signs and symptoms of societal regression.(38)

Why have I brought up Vamik Volkan? His fieldwork has proved two interesting points: a) the split between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a sign of societal regression, and b) the correlation between regression and mourning of large groups. He argues societies mourn like individuals; “mourning over the loss of loved ones, lands, and prestige after a war or war-like situation will appear in large-group processes on a societal level. For example, after a major shared trauma and loss at the hand of enemies, a political ideology of irredentism —a shared sense of entitlement to recover what had been lost—may emerge that reflects a complication in large-group mourning and an attempt both to deny losses and to recover them.”(39)

These two processes occur under what he terms as massive introjections,in reference to “the population’s “eating up” political propaganda without making much of an effort to analyze whether what is coming into their inner world is poisonous or not.”(40) The notion of massive introjections captures the cultural war between two parallel public discourses in the region. It has derived from the cultural war between the proponents of Islamism and the protagonists of secularism over a century. The split of Arab identity is not a new phenomenon in recent years. In my obituary of Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Abed Al-jabri in May 2010, I wrote a short piece with this title: “‘Muslims’, ‘Islamists’, and ‘Islamics’: The Dilemma of ‘Sacred’ Interpretation”.

Let me quote myself, “In addition to several inter-and/or intra-state conflicts expanding from Morocco to Indonesia, most Muslim countries have been engulfed in a mega-conflict of the 21stcentury between Islamist minorities and Islamic majorities over the ‘best’ course of governance. From a parallel perspective, Western societies have wrestled with the disparities among millions of Euro-Muslims and American Muslims across the labels of ‘moderate’, ‘militant’, ‘radical’, ‘extremist’, or ‘terrorist’ Muslims.

The irony is that the same Salafi (fundamentalist) approach, that was dominant in the discourse of the Arab ‘nahda‘ (renaissance) movement at the beginning of the 20th century, has come back stronger, a century later, as a radicalized and polarizing force of exclusion along distant interpretations of religious texts. According to Al-jabri, this extremism justifies itself in economic disparities, democracy, and other things. He also argued that the Arab mind has failed to achieve its ‘scientific revolution’ because it has internalized the systems of religious interpretation.Accordingly, the gap has been growing between the ‘Islamists ‘, as the guardians of tradition trying to produce a straight line between the present and the Prophet Mohamed’s era, and the ‘Islamics’ as the importers of the Western model of modernization with different variations.

Since they decided to enter the ballots in the last two decades on the principle of political ‘purity’, Islamist elites have tried to create a sense of new collectiveness around the notion of the ‘exclusive’ Umma (nation), while developing counter-narratives of ‘morality’, ‘justice’, and ‘organic’ connection between the mosque and the state, vis-à-vis others labeled as ‘less devoted’ Muslims. The struggle for an anti-colonial Islamist/nationalist culture by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt since 1928, and their affiliations throughout the Middle East and South Asia, has transformed into a contestation of the political identity of Muslims.

Subsequently, Freud’s reflection about the narcissism of minor differences has been full swing as a search for self-identification among Muslims from all streams. Now, most of them pray in either Sunni or Shia mosques, send their children to separate schools, and bury their dead in exclusive cemeteries. These tendencies have brought to the fore some fragmenting, backward-looking, and exclusive identity politics, which at best involve psychological discrimination against those labeled differently.

Consequently, several Sunni-oriented states have tried to contain what they perceive as the Shia ‘danger’, which has sought mobilization in remote Sunni ‘territories’ such as Morocco, Yemen, and Pakistan. This Islamist-Islamic meta-conflict also entails the dynamics of failed ‘national’ identities in 57 Islamic countries, and opens up space for a collective agent of a “we” who can do something in the name of the “true” and therefore only Islam.But, does this simplified duality of ‘Islamists’ versus ‘Islamics’ capture the dynamics of the conflict?

Al-jabri argued that the rigidity of difference between the two sides has formulated a third stance of compromise. Moreover, these ‘Compromisers’ have differed among themselves; and subsequently turned into “Salafists with liberal tendencies, Liberals with Salafi worldviews, Arab Marxists, Liberal Nationalists…and other complex ‘mixing’ variations.”In short, this meta-conflict encompasses the failure of the Enlightenment in the Islamic world, as well as the unfulfilled modernization of Islamic institutions.”(41)

The combination of this mega-conflict and regressed identities has energized more than one Megali Idea, and subsequently, pushed most Arab societies to the cliffhanger of sectarianism. We are at the new age of Arab sectarianism.

The New Age of Arab Sectarianism

In her new book, “The New Sectarianism: The Arab uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide”,Geneive Abdo whom I mentioned earlier points out that “the Arab uprisings brought identity and religion once again to the fore. A core issue in the post-Arab uprising era is the question: Who is a true believer and who is a nonbeliever? This exclusionist mind-set is most evident in the sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, which poses a serious threat to the stability of regional states and to stakeholders in the wider world, including the United States and its allies.”(42)

If we subtract the Sunni-Shia rivalry from the geo-political equations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain as well as the adjacent Saudi-Iranian show of force in these countries and beyond, the day-to-day management of local and regional politics would be less irrational, and the peace dividend would higher. The impact of deepening sectarianism is well-constructed in various political discourses across the region. Two years ago, Jamal Khashoggi, argued that “Sunnis” were targeted as a group and called on them to ‘defend themselves as a sect.”(34) Sociologist Rima Majed at the American University of Beirut acknowledges “sectarianism is real. It is neither a myth, nor an illusion. It is real in its implications and its revelations in our everyday life.”(44) She argues, “The formation of “sects”, as political groupings, is probably the results of sectarianism, or sectarian politics, and not its cause.”(45) A growing number of scholars, including Vali Nasr and Geneive Abdo, predict the conflict between Sunnis and Shias will shape the future.

However, I argue sectarianism is one of several challenges to advancing toward an Arab age of modernity. The post-Arab uprisings years have become of a sour taste to the majority of Arabs who have changed their lexicon from Arab spring to Arab winter. Several complexities of Arab change are still lingering in the horizon and new questions are lurking in the larger picture: will these Uprisings lead to an institutionalization of Arab political freedoms, accountable and transparent politics, rationalization of the public sphere under the growing bottom-up forces of change vis-à-vis the declining power politics and traditional leadership? What are the prospects of modernity, democracy, and functionality of Arab institutions and societies in the years ahead? Al-Jabri illustrates how the relation between religion and the state, as it was transferred to the Arab sphere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “has not yet been acclimatized to suit the Arab intellectual and civilizational reality to a degree that makes it really expressive of the aspirations of that reality, and not the aspirations of the European reality from which it was transferred.”(46)

Conclusion

The main challenge now is how Arabs reorganize the relationship between religion and state and who should be the guardian of whom. There are rebuttals of what Islamists, fundamentalists, or otherwise, mean by their principled interpretation that Islam is din wa dawla (that is religion and state). This brings us to the question: are the Uprisings an Averroist response to underdevelopment through the historical and civilizational connection with European Enlightenment philosophers like Immanuel Kant? Are they driven by a pursuit of an Arab enlightened modernity in a similar pattern of the French Revolution of 1789 which was energized by the Enlightenment values? Or will they reject such a projection and define their tanwiri (enlightenment) with their own integration of faith and reason, Sharia and democracy, and mosque and state?

As I wrote in my recent book, “the Enlightenment philosophy is anchored in the principle of rationalizing the relationship between state and religion, and calls for their separation. Kant argues that “a greater degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s spiritual freedom; yet the former established impassable boundaries for the latter; conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom provides enough room for all fully to expand their abilities.”(47) However, both Kantianism and Averroesim do not draw clear lines for that separation which has remained quite blurry in all Enlightenment-based reorganizations of societies.”

Some scholars accentuate this transition, or a series of transitions, within modernization “from primitive, subsistence economies to technology-intensive, industrialized economies; from subject to participant political cultures; from closed, ascriptive status systems to open, achievement-oriented systems; from extended to nuclear kinship units; from religious to secular ideologies; and so on.”(48) Accordingly, one needs to make a leap of the historical imagination to bring an eighteenth-century philosopher like Kant to reflect on the realities of the twenty-first-century Arab societies. The current public debates in the entire region from Morocco to Iraq; and also among Diasporas in distant continents pivot around freedom, human rights, and equal economic opportunities, and the advocacy of critical thinking. Kant stands out as the philosopher of freedom and “the possibility of freedom is the political question par excellence.”(49)

There is also an Arab struggle with the freedom-from/freedom-to question that implies some challenges; how can Arabs shift from a descriptive freedom, which they were missing under their outgoing regimes, to an evaluative freedom under the post-Uprisings governments?After experimenting with the Uprisings, most Arabs are hesitant in front of the second part of the binary framework of the intended freedom: freedom to

[positive freedom]

after pushing for their freedom from

[negative freedom]

. This dyadic concept can be traced back to Kant’s works in the late eighteenth century, primarily The Metaphysics of Morals. It was also developed later by social psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) in Escape from Freedom in 1941, and political theorist Isaiah Berlin [1909-1997) in his Two Concepts of Liberty lectures he delivered at Oxford University in 1958. Berlin defines liberty, in the negative sense, as “an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject—a person or group of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons’.”(50)

In retrospect, the post-Uprisings era will navigate through various tendencies of the new political actors toward a variety of fundamentalisms, neo-authoritarianisms, or modernities in formulating hopefully or resisting an Arab democracy theory. They will also face the challenge of an estimated time period before genuine change can materialize in sound structures, well-informed leaderships, and positive interaction between the bottom-up demands and expectations and top-down policies and capabilities in the region.

The future of Arab societies will be shaped by the outcome of what call the New Dialectic between Islamocracy and Demoslamic Politics. The oversimplification of “confrontation” between Islamism and secularism tends to overshadow the fifty-shade question of traditionalism within the Islamist discourse as well as that of modernity within the counter arguments. Still, non-Islamists remain Muslims maintaining their mainstream Islamic view of liberty, society, and state with an open mind for the civilizational transformation of global modernity.

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