Rayyan Al-Shawaf / Jan 11, 2007

Few regions surpass the Middle East and North Africa in terms of the number of failed states they have produced. The advent of the modern state in that troubled part of the world, a phenomenon which can in large part be traced to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, failed to enshrine citizenship as the primary index of identity. As a result, the state more often than not has yet to become the locus of citizens’ loyalty. Partly as a means of acquiring legitimacy, but also as an effective control mechanism, the various cliques that have all too frequently monopolized political power in Middle Eastern and North African countries have sought to append an ethnic or religious identity, or both, to the states they govern. That this has disenfranchised large swathes of the population should come as no surprise.


Religious and ethnic nationalist ideology, hardly the stuff of equal-opportunity societies to begin with, further exacerbates matters by functioning as a screen behind which one faction seeks to oppress rivals within the same religion or ethnic group. For example, Arab nationalism, the equivalent of one long nightmare for non-Arabs such as Africans in Sudan and Mauritania, Amazigh (Berbers) in North Africa, Copts, Jews, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and others in the Middle East, has also harmed many Arabs themselves. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority has not only used Arab nationalism to oppress Kurds (the obvious targets), but also to keep the country’s majority Shiite Arabs at bay. And in Syria, the Alawi minority has similarly cloaked itself in Arab nationalism when disenfranchising Kurds (again the obvious targets), but also when constricting majority Sunni Arab political expression.


The Islamic Republic of Iran does not stop at persecuting Bahais, but even discriminates against non-Shiite Muslims. Indeed, the Sunni Muslim minority in Iran has been unable to obtain permission to build a single mosque in all of Tehran. Similarly, the ethnic Turkish nationalism upon which modern Turkey was founded (with horrific consequences for Armenians and Pontic Greeks) has served systematically to eradicate the cultural identity of non-Turks (especially Kurds, the perennial victims), but also the sectarian identity of ethnic Turks who do not subscribe to mainstream Sunni Islam. Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect similar to Syria’s Alawis, constitute 20% of the Turkish populace, yet have never been granted recognition as a distinct religious community. And Israel, which marginalizes the Arab fifth of its citizenry (and has historically subjected the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to even worse treatment), also interferes in matters concerning its Jewish citizens’ religious inclinations. Both Reform and Conservative Judaism are officially shunned in Israel, where the Orthodox branch of the faith alone enjoys legitimacy. 


Of course, such discriminatory behavior does admittedly have an internal logic to it. Insofar as one ethnicity or religion is held to encapsulate the identity of an entire country, it is natural that any assertiveness on the part of other groups be viewed as a threat to the state, and that the favored community itself suffer internal schisms over which faction best embodies the country’s character. If the basis of Saudi Arabian identity is Sunni Islam—and an austere Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunnism at that—then it is inevitable that the country’s Shiites be considered heretics, and duly distanced from the centers of power. Indeed, much of the ethnic and sectarian wrangling we see in Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere becomes perfectly understandable in light of this unfortunate reality.


Disentangling national identity from both ethnicity and religion, then, would remedy a good deal of the region’s maladies. While the allure of ethnic nationalism seems to be on the wane, making it easier for heretofore marginalized ethnic groups to re-emerge from oblivion in countries like Iraq and Algeria, loosening Islam’s stranglehold on the political life of most states remains a major challenge. One approach that has recently gained currency among Western proponents of Middle Eastern reform is a painstaking effort to depict all Western-inspired change as meshing perfectly with Islamic principles. The hope is that such an approach will mollify conservative Muslims suspicious of Western calls for reform. Yet this ill-advised strategy is fraught with complications.


In addition to seriously compromising the secularism of Western countries, which today need to emphasize to their own Muslim communities that national law takes precedence over Islamic law, such an approach also effectively stymies the emergence of any hint of secularism in the Islamic word. As every reformist measure must be couched in Islamic terms and demonstrated to dovetail with Quranic injunctions, political discourse in its entirety undergoes a process of Islamization, and Islam—not secular law—is further reinforced as the final arbiter of right and wrong, legal and illegal.


Far from heralding real change, this ironically perpetuates what already exists in much of the Arab world, where citizens’ rights are all too often deemed to be derived from Islam, not secular constitutions. Indeed, it is the reason Christians suffer varying degrees of discrimination in all Middle Eastern countries except Lebanon. In a fair and just majority-Muslim society, non-Muslim citizens would enjoy equal rights irrespective of what the Quran decrees. Holding the rights of women and non-Muslims hostage to whimsical interpretations of Islamic texts contradicts the notion of inherent equality among citizens.


Worse, such a strategy renders virtually impossible any free and objective discussion of Islam on the part of non-Muslims, for fear that this may redound to their harm. The issue is clearly existential; why would any Coptic Christians in Egypt, where Islam is the state religion, speak their conscience and argue that Islamic law treats Christians unfairly, when official acceptance of such an interpretation would lead to yet further oppression of Copts? In such a scenario, self-preservation understandably trumps objectivity, making it incumbent upon the Egyptian Christian to assert that Islam is scrupulously fair toward adherents of other faiths. After all, Egyptian Christians’ rights depend on precisely such an interpretation of Islam.


The sooner this is understood, the faster Western-backed reformists can set about dissociating the state from both ethnic nationalism and religion. Demolishing these twin pillars of totalitarianism must be done simultaneously if the region is to have any hope of transcending narrow identity politics. Too often, hapless citizens are forced to select the lesser of two evils, choosing between the quasi-secular fascism of something like the Arab nationalist Baath, and the apocalyptic religious fervor of a Sunni or Shiite Islamist party. Too often, people fall into the trap of using one totalitarianism to fight the other; Christians and secular Muslims in Arab countries cleave unto Arab nationalism in the hope of fending off an Islamic state, while pious (and plain disaffected) Muslims raise the banner of Islam against the secular despotism of the nationalists. Weakening one simply strengthens the other. Only secular democracy wedded to a sacrosanct set of human rights laws can break this cycle.

To begin with, it should be made unconstitutional for the state to associate itself with any religion or ethnicity. Such a measure would firmly establish secularism and a non-ethnic nationality as foundational pillars of the state’s identity. Secondly, the state must consecrate as immutable law a code of citizens’ rights that guarantees individual freedoms, gender equality, and minority privileges. This way, democracy will not lead to the tyranny of the majority. For example, Islamist parties, while free to derive their inspiration from Islam, would be legally prohibited from imposing restrictions on women, Christians, atheists, rival Muslim sects, gays and lesbians, and so on. Similarly, ethnic nationalist parties steeped in the culture of a particular ethnic group would have no right to impose this culture on other ethnic groups. It is only in such a scenario that the region spanning the Middle East and North Africa can extricate itself from the morass of inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian strife in which it has for so long been embroiled. Only in a secular democratic state that ensures the rights of all, regardless of their status as majority or minority, can citizens of disparate religious, ethnic, and other persuasions finally feel safe, secure, and patriotic.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon. This article first appeared in Issue 2.3 (November 2006) of The Civility Review, quarterly newsletter of The Civility Programme, dedicated to promoting reform in the Middle East. The Civility Programme is part of The Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank in London, UK.


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