Saturday, November 1, 2014
7

The Middle East Crack-Up

JERUSALEM – The horror stories emerging from northern Iraq, as well as the continuing slaughter in Syria’s civil war, point to a tectonic shift in the Middle East. Almost 100 years after World War I, the regional state system established after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire is unraveling.

The contemporary map of the Middle East was drawn by the victorious Western imperial powers, Great Britain and France, during and after WWI. While the war was still raging, they signed an agreement drafted by the diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François George-Picot, which delineated their respective spheres of influence across the Levant – an agreement that entirely disregarded the region’s history, ethnic and religious traditions and affiliations, and the will of local populations.

The modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon thus arose as separate, independent entities. Their borders were arbitrary and artificial, and none had ever existed in such form. (The case of Palestine was even more complicated, owing to Britain’s conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews.)

Eventually, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon became independent countries, modeled on the Westphalian idea of the modern nation-state. Their leaders maintained this system – and its borders – as the best available. None of these rulers, especially the authoritarian ones who emerged after independence, had an interest in rocking the boat.

That Western-imposed system is now unraveling. Nation-states cannot be sustained when they do not reflect the wishes of their populations.

The United States-led invasion of Iraq put an end not only to Saddam Hussein’s rule, but also to Sunni-minority control, established by the British generations ago. The Shia majority, once unleashed, viewed US-backed democratic elections as a vehicle for imposing hegemonic control over the country.

Iraq today is not the unitary Arab nation-state that it was, and it is doubtful whether that state can be restored. The Kurdish Regional Government in the north is a de facto state, with its own army, border authorities, and control (up to a point) of the natural resources located on its territory. Foreign consulates in the KRG’s capital, Erbil, effectively function as embassies.

In Syria, what started as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations deteriorated quickly into an armed insurrection of the Sunni majority against the hegemony of the Alawite sect, led by the Assad family. As with Iraq, it is difficult to see how Syria can be reconstituted as a unitary Arab nation-state.

The de facto dismemberment of both countries’ central state authorities gave rise to a totally new player – the Islamic State, which has announced the establishment of a caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, totally disregarding the old Sykes-Picot arrangement.

The Islamic State, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, probably will not succeed in creating a viable, cross-border entity, but its brutal effort and Islamist ideology certainly suggest that the old borders, and the states delineated by them, are on their way out. Indeed, the group’s recent incursions into Lebanon may also undermine the fragile inter-communal balance there.

The unraveling of the Western-imposed state system is taking place elsewhere in the greater Middle East. Sudan – a vast, multiethnic, and multi-confessional country, established as a political entity by the British in the 1890s – is continuing to fray. The emergence, after a prolonged and bloody civil war, of an independent South Sudan in 2011, freed the local Christian and animist population from the Arab/Muslim yoke. But Darfur is still bleeding, and South Sudan is far from being a stable polity.

Libya, too, is disintegrating. The two provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which Italy wrested from the Ottomans just before WWI, were forced together into an entity called “Libya,” despite their profound historical and cultural differences. Since Muammar el-Qaddafi’s demise in 2011, Libyans have failed to establish a coherent state structure of any sort, cycling through six prime ministers. Pious Western sermons about the need to form a unified, democratically elected government sound utterly irrelevant, given the extent of social and political fragmentation.

There is one exception to this regional development: Egypt. For all of its internal tribulations, there is no doubt that Egypt is a coherent entity, deeply anchored in history and in the consciousness of its population. For all of the problems confronting the Coptic Christian community, no one doubts that they are as Egyptian as the Muslim majority.

But Egypt, too, has followed a defining regional pattern. Whereas secularism in the West arose with the emergence of liberal and democratic forces inspired by the Enlightenment, in the Muslim Middle East it has always been imposed by authoritarian rulers: the Shah in Iran, Atatürk in Turkey, Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and Nasser and Mubarak in Egypt. This explains why Syria’s Christian and Druze minorities now support Assad, and why the Copts in Egypt support military rule: democratic majoritarian rule means Muslim hegemony.

Europe endured centuries of violent religious and national struggle, culminating in the horrors of the two world wars, before achieving its current stable state system. The Middle East probably will pay less in terms of time and violence; but the idea that what emerges will necessarily be European-style nation-states may turn out to be a Western conceit. The late literary theorist and public intellectual Edward Said might even have called it an example of paternalistic Orientalism.

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  1. CommentedHussein Ramadan

    I am surprised that someone like Mr. Avineri will make such a statement:
    "in the Muslim Middle East it (secularism) has always been imposed by authoritarian rulers: the Shah in Iran, Atatürk in Turkey, Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria ..."
    If secularism was practiced in any of these states, it wold have probably saved these states from their current fate and may have produced some modern states. Furthermore, in the case of Syria, the only thing that the Assad regime introduced in its 46 years in power, is the hegemony of a mafia like rule, with a guise of an Alawite hegemony over a multicultural state.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Shlomo Avineri, the "crack-up" in the Middle East sees a new social-political movement emerging - to right a wrong, done nearly a century ago. The infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement had created multi-ethnic, religious and cultural states - "entirely disregarded the region’s history, ethnic and religious traditions and affiliations, and the will of local populations". For decades autocrats had been able to keep a lid on the pot, but in recent years the liquid boiled over and this "Western-imposed system is now unraveling". In the course of turmoil and sectarian violence, many in the region dream of redrawing the artificial borders and opt for homongeneity, hoping this would create a unitary state. The ISIS has gone to extreme lengths to realise this dream.
    Even in unitary states like Egypt and Libya peace and stability leave much to be desired after the ouster of long-time dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Regime change in 2011 provided a historic opportunity, but Libya has ever since been embroiled in violence and the West doesn't like the direction Egpyt is heading. Iraq and Libya are oil-rich countries and have potential to develop into stable countries, instead oil has come to be more a curse than a blessing.
    Yet most leaders in the region - especially the Sunni monarchs - are in a state of denial. Living in ivory tower, they are blind to grievances and refuse to acknowledge the social, demographic shift and forge political reforms. The political culture there has largely been dominated by either Arab nationalism or Islam of one form and another. This has been an obsession to the exclusion of everything else. It explains why politics there is at times both obstructive and destructive, with actors opting for zero-sum game. Whatever comes out of the Arab Spring it will be an illusion to wish "European-style nation-states" emerge in the Middle East.
    Mr. Avineri mentions Edward Said, whose book "Orientalism" had influenced generations of scholars with its ideas about how the West sees Islam and the Middle East. In Orientalism, he argued that the entire Western academic discipline of oriental studies was based on imperialist and racist myths about the Middle East. Said took a hard line against Israel, accusing the Jewish state of displaying xenophobia towards the Arabs. So Mr. Avineri has all reasons to call Said's Orientalism "paternalistic".
    It's true that "secularism in the West arose with the emergence of liberal and democratic forces inspired by the Enlightenment". Yet it is also an irony to see secularism forming an unholy alliance with authoritarianism: "the Shah in Iran, Atatürk in Turkey, Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and Nasser and Mubarak in Egypt. This explains why Syria’s Christian and Druze minorities now support Assad, and why the Copts in Egypt support military rule: democratic majoritarian rule means Muslim hegemony".

  3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I am a little bit afraid, about to write this comment, as I have read Mr. Rodrigues's comment to The Overstretched West, "You don't offer any solutions, only historically one-dementional criticisms."

    "Nation-states cannot be sustained whey they do not reflect the wishes of their populations." And the wishes of people are, as Mr. Sime0nov said, a direct result from their historical experiences. A lot of legacies went into the making of democracy in the modern West, such as Greek city-states, Roman republicanism, Christianity, medieval contractual feudlism, etc. Though the United States and the West are constrained by financial difficulty and lack of a unified political will, they could do conciderably a lot to prevent more bloodshed and to give food, shelter, and medical care. Knowing that instability in the Middle East is at least half-indigenous will make us more careful and circumspect in intervening; we should avoid our usual bad habit of dichotomizing pro-democratic and undemocratic groups or of 'which group is pro-Western and which one is pro-Russian,' as I think Russia can be induced to cooperate in bringing about social and political order in the Middle East.

  4. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    Great article, the last bit, where the author "suggests" that a western style liberal nation state might be impossible at present in the region is very important. Finally policymakers are waking up to the idea that our political system might not be a "one solution fits all", and completely useless in the Middle East. Our socio-political system is a direct result from our historic experience, wars, religious strife and so on. The historic experience in the Middle East is markedly different so it naive to expect that our political system will gain natural traction with people whose history and thus internal impulses diverge significantly from our own. It is crucial that policymakers finally break from their dogmatic approach towards world affairs and assume a much more pragmatic approach. Otherwise we will all suffer the consequence of our shortsightedness and intellectual stiffness.

  5. CommentedJonathan Lam

    gamesmith94134: the Middle East crackup
    I would appreciate the whisper on the western conceit and orientalism; and I would expect a solution to the caliphate or Islam states. I always admire Ben Gurion in his appeal to UN and more of his success. He said."The most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security."Quoted in Supreme Command : Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (2002) by Eliot A. Cohen, p. 172
    Al Qaeda, caliphate sound homeland to me; and I would expect more of Israel's offer in Um-shmoom.
    May the Buddha bless you?

  6. CommentedJonathan Lam

    gamesmith94134: Putin is key to avoiding a new cold war
    There is hope like David Owen said, we can gather our senses on sanction which is for fools; French and Brits were not happy for the Iranian deal and they argue on the oil in North Sea. Now, everyone is suffering oil or produce. Who is gaining in all these sanctions? We all lost. American may not eat cheaper chicken or fruit as Putin restricted import or trade. Are they going to punish Poland for being the middle man? Does Ukrainian feel safe to live under the show of missiles on both sides as an umbrella by telling Russian to get out? Get real......

    It remind me of the situation in Hong Kong that many believe they deserve democracy that politics allows them to be independent. I think some are ruthless and reckless only because some are financially sound; but more are not. Hong Kong is striving on a borrowed time through the generosity of China and others with it supply of survival. Ukraine may be different; but the separation would not only bring hardship to Ukrainian but also EU. Does Hong Kong survive without Chinese? or in this case, where should the Russian go? In extend, Mr. Putin might as well bring back the Eastern Block to stop integration or trade as revive its iron curtain like Brezhnev just before the falling down of the Berlin Wall. Reviving the Iron curtain is bad for Ukraine and EU, Cold war is dangerous for the health of the global. However, Ukrainian must consider their prosperity comes from the melting pot or cornucopia of cultures and the mainstay of composition of who they are as well including Russian; that democracy or freedom is not solely the right on individuals only; it only happen when communities and sovereign rights are restored including neighbors which is how we integrated in present global community including Ukraine.
    Nonetheless, I would endorse the view of Mr. David Owen in the Crimea and ISIL Crisis; and Mr. Putin is the key to reintegration of the global community. Such resolution may not be the best choice for Ukraine; but it does make sense to me that the sacrifice Ukraine government made exchange for its oil and goods if only if they, including Russian residents can have peace through integration of communities and sovereignties. Many may not agree of the successor of Assad if it is his choice; but the choice may be limited too if ISIL or IS won. In retrospect, there are more of communities like al-Waite or Christians and more to consider. How the composition can void genocide; if Assad is not stepping down to his successor; and Syria turns to an entity may not be acceptable in the global community, and revolts inside are infinite under a singular rule as by religion.
    Eventually, we must make tough choice and sacrifice for sake of this integrated world; but it is a better view of the future if only we understand better in the melting pot system of the modern politics; otherwise, it claims in democracy or freedom is just in vain.

  7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    A very important sentence from the article:
    "...That Western-imposed system is now unraveling. Nation-states cannot be sustained when they do not reflect the wishes of their populations..."

    Moreover even in the very same Western countries the "ideal liberal democracy" is unraveling, perhaps not so suddenly, openly and drastically as in the Middle East, but the recent scenes from Ferguson, USA, violent riots in the UK in recent years, mass scale protests in many European countries and the growing dissatisfaction, strengthening fascistic movements, anti-immigrant sentiments, unemployment, global crisis all point to an unsolvable system breakdown.

    The point is that it does not matter what system we force on populations, we can try the most optimal, idealistic looking one, but as long as we do not correct the "user", we do not get on top of our inherently self-serving, egocentric human nature we will fail again and again.

    But in order to "ride " on top of our own nature, to start acting primarily not for our own sake, but for the sake of the collective, as it is necessary in a global, integral world in complete inter-dependence, we need a practical method, education program that is unprecedented.

    This method, program has to be rooted in science but be also fully emotional since we are sentient beings. And it has to be based on practice, giving taste of achievements at every step so with the positive feedback we would be able to counter the opposition of our protesting ego.

    And most of all it has to be a collective, mutual learning experience since the problem, the breakage is primarily in the inter-relationships in between people.

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