We are at a critical juncture in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. The continuing and oftentimes violent debate over Iraq’s national and religious identity has revived the fortunes of die-hard Arab nationalists, who are now clamoring for a return to the old formula of identifying Iraq as a purely Arab country.
The irony of this is the obvious unsuitability of any ethnic-based ideology for the multi-ethnic societies of the Middle East and North Africa. If Ottoman Islam proved unviable as a political bond because not all people in this region are Muslim, and not all Muslims religious, how can Arab nationalism be any good for non-Arab citizens of the region, or even Arabs who do not identify strongly with their ethnicity? Fully 20% of Iraqis are not Arab, as is the case with a similar percentage of Algerians, half the Sudanese population, and the majority of Moroccans. Syria and Egypt also are home to significant non-Arab minorities, Kurds and Copts respectively. Yet all these people are officially relegated to second-class status.
The solution to such systemic discrimination is abandoning the idea that the state must be Arab or Islamic or anything else. After all, coloring the state with any ethnic or religious hue serves to legally create at least one social underclass.
Though the problem is to a large extent marginalization of non-Arabs and non-Muslims in a predominantly Arab and Muslim region, this is not the whole story. Even minorities that are both Arab and Muslim, like the Shiites of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, have been oppressed for decades in countries which derive their legitimacy from Sunni Islam. Similarly, certain Arab nationalist regimes have oppressed not only non-Arabs, but fellow Arabs of a different sectarian persuasion. The Shiite Arab majority in Iraq was disenfranchised under the Baath party, despite the latter’s Arab nationalist orientation. In Syria, run by a rival wing of the Baath, the political participation of the Sunni Arab majority remains carefully restricted.
Non-Arab countries like Israel, Turkey, and Iran, where the state also identifies itself with one specific ethnic or religious group, are no better. Israel discriminates not only against Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, but even its own Arab citizens, who comprise 20% of the Israeli population. Modern Turkey was built on genocide against Armenians, and has in the name of Turkish nationalism sought to erase the cultural identity of Kurds, who constitute 25% of the population. Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect, make up 20% of the Turkish population, and like Kurds have traditionally gone completely unrecognized. Islamic Iran not only persecutes Bahais and assigns an inferior status to its Christian and Jewish citizens, but also discriminates against non-Shiite Muslims. There is not a single Sunni mosque in all of Tehran, despite the presence of a large Sunni Muslim minority in the Iranian capital.
As for Arab nationalism, it began as an attempt to forge an alternative socio-political bond to that represented by Islam, the ideological underpinning of the Ottoman Empire. Many of its earliest proponents were Christians, who as subjects of the Ottoman realm had two principal reasons for being disaffected; they were neither Muslim nor Turkish. Though it ended up undergoing a process of Islamization itself, this was but one of many self-defeating characteristics ingrained in an ideology based entirely on ethnic affiliation. For while Arabism may have theoretically succeeded in placing Muslim and Christian Arabs on an equal footing, and can be credited with making possible the rise of individual Christians to positions of prominence in countries such as Syria and Iraq, it proved a disaster for non-Arabs.
Non-Arab Muslim minorities such as the Amazigh (Berbers), Kurds, and Turkmen suddenly found themselves officially out of favor, and faced with the prospect of Arabizing or being deprived of political and even civil rights. Groups that identified themselves as neither Arab nor Muslim had it even worse; officially shorn of any redeeming qualities, Southern Sudanese, Copts, Jews, and Assyrians now plunged into a protracted nightmare that saw their communities ground into anonymity or forced to emigrate permanently. Even Maronites, whose retention of political power in Lebanon immunized them from direct suffering, watched with alarm as Arab nationalist propaganda increasingly portrayed them as a foreign and sinister element in the heart of the Arab nation.
Arab nationalism, along with Syrian social nationalism and communism, quickly proved to be just as tyrannical and intolerant as the political Islam of the Ottoman Empire, which was supposed to be replaced with a more enlightened form of rule. Despite this inherent inconsistency, many Arabs continue to cling to these ideologies as the only buffer against resurgent Islam. Indeed, too often Christian Arabs and secular Muslims have gravitated toward nationalism and communism as an attempt to banish the terrifying specter of an Islamic state. After all, when democracy is allowed to flourish, they argue, it results in successes for intolerant Islamic parties in Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt.
Are we forever doomed, then, to fight one totalitarianism with another? Will we always be obliged to choose the lesser of two evils? Not necessarily; though it is unwise to ban political parties with clear religious and ethnic biases, we can ensure that the state remains above the fray. We can make it unconstitutional for any party, regardless of popularity and election results, to associate the state with one particular religion or ethnicity. Indeed, the state should studiously avoid identifying itself with Arab or Turkish or Jewish ethnicity, and the Islamic or any other religion. Only then will everyone, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, attain freedom and equality. Only then will the state become a state for all its citizens.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer in Beirut, Lebanon. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2006 edition of the Beirut-based Daily Star.
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