Across the Bay

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Middle East as It Really Is

I was going to address this in my upcoming post on Hizbullah (and I indeed will still do so), but Michael Young beat me to it at Hit and Run.

One of my points was going to be how the veil of Arab nationalism has been lifted from the ME to show what's been lying beneath all these years. As Michael put it:

The Arab states, in concealing for decades domestic sectarian and tribal divisions under an iron curtain of imposed nationalist unanimity (both inside states and within a broad purported "Arab nation"), must now look warily at a reality telling a different story, where sectarian and ethnic identities often prevail.

In Iraq, we're witnessing the consequences of this daily. In Syria, Alawites can no longer purport to be as one with Sunnis under the great Baathist tent, since the levers of power are not only in Alawite hands, but actually in the hands of the Assad family. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shiites remain second-class citizens, despite halting efforts to give them some rights. In fact, in many parts of the Arab world the nation-state format offers few convincing solutions to the myriad social and political cleavages.

One could add the recent clashes in Syria between Alawis and Ismailis. No wonder Buthaina Shaaban's been screaming Arab nationalism like there's no tomorrow.

But Anwar al-Bunni said it well in that interview with Joe Pace (see a couple of posts below):

The regime’s political strategy depends on planting landmines throughout society. But the mine doesn’t explode if you place your leg on it—it explodes when you remove your leg from it. The regime planted the land mines then placed their legs on them so that if the regime goes, the society will explode. We can expect the same thing that happened in Lebanon to happen here. We suffer from the same problems of competing nationalisms, sectarianism, and extremism. So we are held hostage by a regime that says to us “if I leave, the world will end. You’ll suffer through civil war. Best leave me in place.”

We need to mobilize the people to build a new society and minimize the potential for this explosion. But nothing is free. No country can progress without paying a price, be it blood or civil war. Even America had to undergo civil war before it could become a great power—hundreds of people had to die. Europe had to suffer through the Second World War to become what it is today. Big changes require big prices. But we need to work to minimize the price we will have to pay for progress.

Here's where the oft-maligned Lebanon comes in. Again, I quote Michael:

Lebanon alone, while suffering from the same problems as elsewhere, acknowledged this reality by creating a sectarian system. Though much maligned by Arab nationalists and their cheerleaders, it may be a way for the future.

To anticipate my upcoming post, I believe Hizbullah's weapons function in no small part within this matrix. That's why I think anyone speaking about deconfessionalization and majoritarianism doesn't understand Lebanon or the ME. Michael goes on:

Arab nationalism is pixie dust. That's why, even if the Americans screw up in Iraq, those who advised against a war find there themselves defending a mirage: America should have never stuck its hand into the hornet's nest, they argue, because what we have now is worse than what we had before. But the status quo they defended was itself aberrant and abhorrent. The idealists stupidly believed Arab nationalism could overcome sectarian, tribal and ethnic divisions, even as they thrived off them; the cynics argued: Let's stick with dictatorship to guard against sectarian breakdown and Islamism. Both approaches were examples of sins by omission.

The last part echoes Ian Lustick's 1979 World Politics article, "Stability in Deeply Divided Societies: Consociationalism versus Control":

[W]hereas consociationalism focuses on the mutual cooperation of subnational elites as decisive in this regard, a control approach would focus on the emergence and maintenance of a relationship in which the superior power of one segment is mobilized to enforce stability by constraining the political actions and opportunities of another segment or segments. (Lustick, p. 328)

Confronted with both, I invariably choose consociationalism.

More to come on this matter. But here's a preview, from Elie Kedourie's "Ethnicity, Majority and Minority in the Middle East" (in Esman and Rabinovich [eds.], Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East, pp. 25-31). Kedourie understood the ME incredibly well. The article puts so much, including, as I hope to show, the question of Hizbullah, in perspective:

If political legitimacy is conferred by the suffrage of the citizens, and if the majority of the citizens in a state are members of one "nation" among two or more inhabiting the state, the majority becomes a national majority -- that is, a permanent and fixed quantity -- which is pitted against other, smaller permanent, and fixed quantities, namely of national minorities. Nationalism, then, radically changes the concept of majority and minority. This is not only because majority and minority become permanent and fixed quantities, but also because the notion of consensus, without which the maior pars cannot be accepted as the sanior pars, is subverted and in the end destroyed. With the nationalist idea of the nation, and the existence of a permanent majority, majority comes simply to mean force, the force of number, and force gives no legitimacy. ... The transformation of majority and minority into national majority and national minority is fatal to the idea of government by consent. It is transformed in this way, and divorced from its conciliar and representiative matrix -- as a free-floating idea endowed with great dynamism -- that the notion of majority and minority came to the Middle East. (p. 29)

The echoes of consociationalism in Kedourie's article are unmistakable, even if he didn't address it directly. His contempt for Arab nationalism, however, continues to be validated.