Monday, 7 November 2011

Identity Theft and the Modern Middle East

Damascus. Baghdad. Beirut. Cairo. Tripoli. The list can go on of centers of civilizations past in the Middle East. Centuries later, after these civilizations have come and gone, the region that has served as the crossroads of cultures for millennia has been tamed into a narrow circumscription of its own reality. The search for identity and independence has too often meant the theft of the very pluralistic identity that truly reverberates in the countries of the modern Middle East. Shaking off the shackles of autocratic rule is assuredly a step towards building a truly open and just society in the region, particularly in the Arab world. However, what has yet to come is the embrace of the diverse identities - in ethnicity, in religion, and in philosophy - that already characterizes each country. Instead, what dominates is the pretense of a monochromatic mainstream that maligns difference.

Persian. Shiite. Jewish. Christian. Sufi. Atheist. Secularist. These words betray pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism, the dominant currents of the last several decades within the Arab world. There are illusions of potential purity that have no basis in the history of the region. This is true in the Gulf. It is true in the Levant. It is true in the Maghreb. It is true in Egypt. It is true across each country because each one has a unique ethno and/or religious-centric narrative of nationalism (one that requires much deeper introspection and exploration than this post will allow). They belie what are the interwoven origins of the populations within.

Today, for example, Persian influence is denounced. It is deemed treasonous. Ideas from Iran are treated with derision and distance. There is of course, no natural place within the Arab world for such an intellectual invasion. As if for centuries there was one clean divide between what was Persian and what was Arab. If you walk the streets of any capital in the Arab world and search for a pharmacy, you will likely find the name of Ibn Sina somewhere if not in the very name of the store itself. Who was Ibn Sina? He is the father of modern medicine, who published the 14-volume Canon of Medicine. Yet he was not an Arab. He was Persian! Born in Bukhara and buried in what is now modern-day Iran (Hamedan).

 Just five years ago, then Senator and now Vice President, Joe Biden, declared that Iraq must be broken apart into three because of the intractable conflict between oppositional identities. Who could contest that the Kurd and Arab were distinct identities? Perhaps the most quintessential leader of the Arab world would contest that: Salah al-Din. He led the Arab armies in recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders -- and he was Kurdish.

These are only two (but prominent) examples of how the historical and cultural fabric of the Arab world is a complex one (and more abound from contemporary and more mundane realities). Yet, what is more important than such cases is the fact that most modern societies have a multiplicity of concurrent ethnicities, languages, and religions as well as contesting personal and political philosophies. The imposition from one to another of a uniform identity is bound to end in discord and lead to bloodshed. Efforts to erase difference are a form of social fascism, whereby individuality is discounted. As Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and soon Syria and Yemen, unlock the political stranglehold of dictatorial regimes, societies will have a chance to define themselves democratically. The danger will be when there is an attempt at a tyranny of the majority. This is not simply a philosophical or existential concern. It goes to the very heart of peace and security. Turkey is an instructive model, where the pursuit of 'Turkishness' has never allowed the full legitimate space of rights for non-Turkish citizens of the country. Until today, the Kurdish rebellion - as well as cases of terrorism - remains a symptom of this long unreconciled situation.

The belonging or naturalness of identity does not relate to its prevalence in society. Take the minority Shiite population. Simply because the Shiite population is in the minority in the Arab world does not make it any less organic than the Sunni population in Iran. The Shiites cannot be erased from Saudi Arabia. They cannot be erased from the United Arab Emirates. They cannot be erased from Bahrain. They cannot be erased from Kuwait. Or Qatar. Or Oman. Or the entire GCC. They are there. They have been there. And they are not Persian fifth columns. In fact, it was a Shiite empire, the Fatimids, that founded Cairo or Al-Qahira as well as the centre of Sunni thought today, Al Azhar University. Moreover, when the Fatimids controlled lands from Morocco to Mecca, most of Iran was still Sunni!

It is a strange thought, that apostasy remains a capital crime (at least on paper) in Iran, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Qatar, and Yemen, in a region that gave birth to the three Abrahamic faiths, all of whom when they emerged were persecuted by the majority. The Jews fled Egypt. The Christians fled Jerusalem. The Muslims fled Mecca. Today, to convert to Judaism or Christianity can bring you a death sentence. What does that tell those minorities within their societies of their true worth? Officially in Saudi Arabia the birthplace of Islam, there are no citizens who are Christians and there are no official churches. Why?

The challenge will be in the coming years for leaders and followers alike, to arrive at definitions of their societies that while inspired by their constituent linguistic, ethnic, and religious identities and histories are not dominated by them and especially by only one amongst them and against another. Rather, the ability to find ideologies that forge a common path based on common values that promote public good, will be essential. If that does not happen, the fears of sectarian strife, tyranny of the majority, and political instability will be realized in full force.

1 comment:

  1. I do hope all this chaos in the Middle East gets resolved soon. The area has a lot of potential that is getting suppressed by everything that's been happening over the years.