“Beyond Sunnis and Shiites, understanding the violent reconfiguration of citizen, sect, tribe and states in the Arab World”, held on 21 January 2015 at the Mosaic Rooms, London. A lecture by the director of the Issam Fares Institute, Dr Rami Khoury.
Such was the conclusion of the passionately-presented public lecture by Dr Rami Khoury, which attracted a large audience to the high-ceilinged Mosaic Rooms last week. The director of Beirut think-tank Issam Fares Institute gave an insightful perspective on the current testing transitions in the Middle East. The “dangers” of the region; its “spill over” of ancient colonial borders, rising like a “dark cloud” come to “disturb” a European utopia; an image generated by Western media; this was all called in to question.
Dr Khoury sought to suggest that the current situation in the Middle East is one of reconfiguration rather than fragmentation through sectarian conflicts. Regional struggle is “expected” as the Arab Spring marks the first chance in history, after a century of lost opportunities, for the people of the region to re-think their societies on multiple levels; to be given a voice and opportunity to shape their own nation-states.
He presented a comprehensive contextualisation of the, often overlooked, problematic Western legacy of geopolitical and graphical consequences leading to the current clashes between the national and transnational trajectories of various factions. These hegemonic structures, most prevalent in the borders drafted with basic disregard for vital economic and social ties existing at the time, is merely one of the “established orders” that the Arabs are reconfiguring. Initially successful, the nationalist and developmental currents post-Second World War, attempted state-building projects that satisfied neither the West nor the USSR and thus came to play out the Cold War in the region, took place regardless of what the local people wanted. The co-option of the leadership of oil-rich or well-connected Arab elites and monarchies post-seventies, represented the security state process in which a very few charismatic leaders – supported by the West – came to signify entire national states. The birth of the family-run, privatised, consumer state was initiated, pushing tens of thousands of Arabs to search for a life elsewhere. The Arab Spring seeks to reconfigure these structures in a process similar to that which took Europe 200 years to manage, and thus it cannot be expected to be successful in a relatively brief timespan.
When we discuss the recent transformations in the region, the historical context is an uncomfortable component for the West, especially with regards to the role of Western policies. As Khoury argued, we need to end the Western media’s essentialist representation of the situation in the Middle East as a simple patchwork of “sectarian” friends and foes; instead, we must accredit the opportunity for serious transformation and reshuffling of all elements of Arab society, of which these “spectacles” are merely symptoms.
With his self-immolation, the Tunisian vendor “ignited” the sentiment that millions of people felt, and thus catalysed an enormous revolution in a time and place where the wants of the Arab people had been neglected for decades. The “frail” modern Arab state had seen mass migrations, shifting and contested borders and, as a result, an undignified life trying to make sense of it all. The massive project to break down such established order is also in the interest of wealthy Arabs for whom, despite being economically better-off, transparent reforms and the rule of law remain essential to a nation-state. The Arab world has to introduce changes whilst simultaneously conjuring up national sentiment, a feeling that was manifested gradually in Europe in response to constitutions and rights, over two centuries. Furthermore, as Arab states are embarking on the re-configuration of society, the fact remains that many actors who benefit from the oppressive regimes have to be “convinced” of the vitality of an accountable and transparent state.
Rami Khoury gave a somewhat contested account of the “silent Arab” finally getting a voice in the public squares whilst adapting and getting on with everyday affairs in the hope of structural change. The arguably “local level peace” between neighbours, sects and tribes in those everyday lives was contested by many in the predominantly Arab audience at the Mosaic Rooms. The practice of kinship-ties determining religious inclination, and even geographical location, continues to be deep-rooted in unstable societies, as do the rifts from relatively recent civil wars as we can observe in Lebanon. Dr Khoury pointed to these relationships as a natural resort in times of scarce, legitimate state protection, services and opportunities.
Presenting ISIS as a fringe cult-like movement Khoury suggested that first and foremost it represents the failure of the modern state order. The movement has filled state-created vacuums in the region, and along with other Islamist movements tried to change the world order through Islam-based politics. However, he insisted, this threat will be ended when local governments combine with international forces. The self-proclaimed “state” is not rooted strongly but attracts many with symbolic anti-Western practices and demonstrations, such as “moving” the Iraq-Syria border last year. The challenge is to find a way in which militant Islamist movements will not proliferate and attract members through disproportionate Western crack-downs.
The main actors in the dynamics of reform are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. Recent financial influence has rendered vital the role of Qatar and the UAE to the facilitation and privileging of certain groups. Dr Khoury concluded that the Arab Spring is both a resumption and reversal of the history that should have seen Arab civilisation rebuild its own societies after World War One transparently. He emphasised that the latter process is a short phase of gradual social fragmentation, different from the shaping of European states, where groups moved in a unifying stream to form primordial national identity.
In this context, the push for decentralisation after a hundred years of missed opportunities by a people trying to claim their own land becomes an essential element for identity production. It’s a question of whether religious, sectarian and tribal loyalty can be channelled in the hands of a transparently-elected government and invoke, or perhaps continue, people’s unification against a government and its foreign patrons as we saw on Tahrir Square, to a collective national sentiment within new legitimised states.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.