White supremacy’s inferiority complex

 
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By Khaled Diab

For an ideology which claims to stand at the pinnacle of humanity, white supremacy exhibits a paranoid sense of inferiority and persecution.

Popular radio host Laura Ingraham’s suspected Nazi salute at the Republican National Convention.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Hail Trump”. “Lügenpresse”. Nazi salutes. America and the wider world reacted with shock when video footage emerged of a fascistic speech by the darling child and poster boy of the so-called Alt-Right movement, Richard Spencer, given right in the heart of Washington DC.

Loaded with racism and dehumanisation, the Alt-Right leader declared: “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward.”

In his rhetoric, he echoed the “manifest destiny” expressed at the height of the white European conquest of America. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, wrote in White Jacket.

But today’s white nationalism is unlike the muscular, cocky, self-confident white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West pretty much ruled the rest, and required an ideology to justify this global dominance. In place of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden.

Behind the veneer of entitlement and under the thin crust of supremacist rhetoric lies a serious inferiority complex. “No-one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented, sounding remarkably like a jihadist ideologue. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

And Spencer is not alone. In a recent tweet, David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan – you know, the white supremacist organisation notorious for its history of lynching blacks – demanded that the Senate “stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites”.

The far-right movement in the United States and Europe – as well as mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree – seems to have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans or subject populations who lived under the yoke of colonial rule, not for a cultural collective still perched at the very top of the human power hierarchy.

In its efforts to recapture and reconstruct an idealised and distorted “golden age” before “decadence” and “decay” set in, it parallels and bears striking similarities to supremacist Islamist and jihadist discourse.

In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race through immigration and multiculturalism.

A recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees flooding into Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war but part of a crafty invading army bent on the destruction of Western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by another Spencer, Robert, the creator of the far-right Jihad Watch.

But what is driving this sense of victimhood among white extremists? After all, objectively speaking, whites remain dominant within their own societies and their countries still exercise a huge amount of global hegemony, especially the United States.

White supremacy is still dealing with the aftermath of the anti-racist struggles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, spearheaded by the black liberation movement, as well as the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles across the global South,” Matthew Lyons, an independent researcher into fascism, told me.

Most lynchings in the United States in the 19th and 20th century took place [when] white privilege and power was being eroded,” Barry Van Driel, vice-president of the International Association for Intercultural Education, explained to me. “That leads to, in my opinion, identifying with an authoritarian and strong white leader to protect white interests.”

Known popularly as a “whitelash”, this phenomenon saw the United States swing from electing its first African-American president, the most visible and symbolic sign of the advance of civil rights, to electing arguably its most unqualified white candidate ever.

Donald Trump epitomises the truism that hell hath no fury like a middle-aged white man scorned. Raised with a diamond-encrusted golden spoon in his mouth, Trump believes it is his inalienable right to be a master of the world – he is less neo-Nazi, more neo-Narcissist.

Imagine how galling and frustrating it must have been for The Trump that an uknown black senator became president before him – and to the adulation of the liberal set, to which Trump had once belonged, who quite literally sang Obama’s praises at a rock concert. Even now that he is President-Elect, Trump cannot emerge from under the shadow of his rock star predecessor, whom the liberal set regard as mixing cool with intelligence and vision.

But beyond the white privilege of the “old boy” network, there is the aspirational privilege of underprivileged whites. Like the patriarchy and the class system, race primarily serves the top dogs, not the lower classes.

In fact, racial supremacy has been used since its invention to control the anger and frustration of ordinary and poor whites in two ways. Firstly, although many whites have always been almost as economically disadvantaged as other “inferior” groups, their sense of belonging to the “superior” group helps distort their subordinate reality and absorb the frustrations this creates.

Secondly, when these frustrations threaten to bubble over, this illusion of superiority helps to channel anger away from the real authors of white underprivilege, towards softer targets, namely “inferior” ethnic, religious and racial groups. This is what the fascists and Nazis in Europe expertly did in the first half of the 20th century, to devastating effect.

As unchecked neo-liberal economics creates a growing underclass of unemployed and prospectless whites in the United States and many parts of Europe, the conditions are ripe for the rise of a similarly delusional and destructive white nationalism that can potentially wipe out everything multicultural progressives hold dear in its wake and lead to widescale conflict.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 30 November 2016.

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The empire must not strike back

 
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By Khaled Diab

Nostalgia for empire in the Middle East misses two points: we’re not witnessing the “final end of imperialism” and imperialism did not bring order.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Thursday 11 June 2015

When it comes to the Middle East, nostalgia politics is in vogue. While ISIS is busy “restoring” an a-historical caliphate, others are pining for the apparently lost innocence of empire.

Robert Kaplan expressed profound admiration for the supposed benefits that empire brought to the Middle East and some other parts of the world. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” the intellectual who was named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 global thinker in 2011 declared in the same magazine.

This supposed world-beating thinker seems convinced that “the age-old clusters of civilisations” has immunised Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to the worst excesses of the current upheavals. Kaplan fails to answer why it is that, if this were so, the region’s most ancient cluster of civilisations, namely Syria and Iraq, are currently experiencing the most devastating tumult, while civilisation’s traditional backwaters of the Gulf are, at least superficially, relatively stable, for now.

At a certain level, I can understand Kaplan’s nostalgia for the Ottoman, and before it Roman, empire. After all, despite their ancestors’ painful divorce from the Ottomans, some Arabs shared in Turkey’s new sense of “Ottomania” – at least when Erdogan was still considered an Arab hero.

And at its best, the Ottoman empire was a de-centralised empire of relative local autonomy, marked by tolerance, prosperity, multiculturalism and, hard as it is to imagine today, a borderless space not unlike the modern European Union. The Tanzimat of the mid-19th century, among other things, created a common citizenship, erased ethnic and religious inequality and even decriminalised homosexuality, though they marked the beginning of more direct rule.

The Ottoman empire’s status as the “sick man of Europe” infected all its provinces and its strident and toxic form of Turkic nationalism – epitomised by the Young Turks, who introduced democracy to the Ottoman empire but then briskly withdrew it – did not lead to stability but catastrophe.

The “Three Pashas” in charge not only disastrously decided to join World War I, precipitating the collapse of the empire, they also engaged in a fit of bloodlust against the Armenians that makes ISIS look like amateurs.

The region’s new imperial management did not fare much better. Though the British and the French accelerated the region’s modernising impulse, they only paid lip service to the vaunted values of modernity, and hardly brought the stability Kaplan so values.

The great distance from and the lack of shared history with their subjects resulted in a callous disregard for their needs. This was reflected in everything from the Sykes-Picot arbitrary drawing of borders and the brutal suppression of regular uprisings to the imperial assumption that the region’s resources were the sole property of London and Paris.

Likewise, independence and post-colonial leaders promises of freedom were dashed when the foreign elites that had previously ruled were largely replaced by, in many ways, an equally “foreign” domestic elite, who looked and spoke like the “liberated” populations but behaved like their former masters.

Arabs originally saw America as an ally and kindred spirit for its apparent support for national self-determination and opposition to Anglo-French hegemony in the region. But instead the US largely replaced the direct rule of its predecessors, with the client-state model in which those who behaved could literally get away with murder, while local leaders seen to step out of line were “contained” or eliminated.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today… is really about the final end of imperialism,” Kaplan claims.

I expect this declaration to go the same way as Francis Fukuyama’s the “end of history” or George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”, i.e. into the dustbin of history. Moreover, this nostalgia for past empire, like the clash of civilisations theory, not only misdiagnoses the disease but also prescribes the wrong medicine.

“The demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organising and stabilising the region,” Kaplan writes wistfully… and wishfully.

Any level-headed analysis of the US’s decades-long involvement in the Middle East will conclude that Washington has done little to organise and stabilise the region. From its traditional role of propping up “friendly” dictators and autocrats and its subversion of numerous independence movements, to its disastrous decision to return to the era of military invasion and direct rule in Iraq, Washington has been a major contributor to regional chaos and instability.

Far from marking the “end of imperialism”, what we are witnessing today, a century after the implosion of the Ottoman empire, is its resurgence. In this new scramble for the Middle East, we are witnessing the petty sultans of the region’s crumbling states trying to hold on to their micro-empires; non-state armed groups trying to usurp them; Iran and the emerging powers of the Gulf seeking to expand their spheres of influence; and America’s longstanding hegemony being challenged by the new-old kid on the block, Russia, and newcomer China.

As the old order collapses, perhaps the Middle East does needs a new “imperial” age, but along the lines of a people’s empire. Just like the member states of the European Union decided voluntarily and democratically to unite territory that had only ever been integrated through conquest, the peoples of the Middle East could benefit greatly if the current conflicts and crises push them towards a voluntary union of equals.

However, at every geopolitical strata, there are currently too many enemies stacked against such an endeavour. But just as the EU would have appeared to be a delusional fantasy during World War II, perhaps this indicates that there is hope for our troubled region yet.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 May 2015.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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The clash within civilisations

 
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the clash of civilizations theory, but Samuel P Huntington was wrong.

Thursday 28 March 2013

A decade has passed since the blood-drenched invasion of Iraq began, unleashing a wave of destruction not seen in that part of the world since at least the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century.

Unsurprisingly, the 10th anniversary has prompted immense media attention, in the United States and Europe, as well as in Iraq itself and the broader Middle East. In light of the carnage that has ensued following that fateful decision to invade, a lot of the public debate has focused on whether the war was justified and worthwhile.

The cheerleaders of the war argue that the invasion was just, the subsequent carnage was an unfortunate but collateral consequence of a benign act of goodwill, and that errors were made in the execution of the campaign but the principle was essentially sound.

Critics, like myself, see the wholesale destruction of Iraq and the chaos besetting it – which was chillingly illustrated by the deadly car bombings which rocked Baghdad on the 10th anniversary – as clear proof that the US-led intervention was not only unjustified but flawed.

In order to understand why, we need to rewind another 10 years, back to another important anniversary which has largely fallen under the media’s radar. Through some fluke of history, the theory which largely justified the Iraq war and provided it with its ideological underpinning was formulated exactly a decade earlier.

In an incredibly influential essay published 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P Huntington first outlined his clash of civilisations theory, which he later elaborated on and fleshed out in a book published in 1996.

Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural”. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued.

Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

On the 20th anniversary of this controversial theory and given how influential it has been and remains, it is useful to analyse whether or not Huntington was right. Has a clash of civilisations emerged, as Huntington predicted, over the past two decades?

Supporters of Huntington’s hypothesis answer with an unequivocal “yes”. They point to the inhumane atrocities committed in the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001, the subsequent clash with al-Qaeda, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Islamist parties during the “Arab Spring” as confirmation that a clash is underway.

Critics, like the scholar Noam Chomsky, have maintained that the clash of civilisations is simply the symptom of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The late Edward Said, the renowned author of Orientalism, saw in Huntington’s theory an extension of the pseudo-scientific Orientalist scholarship which had been used for at least a couple of centuries to justify European and Western hegemony. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorances¸ published shortly after 9/11, Said argued that Huntington ignored “the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation” and “the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture”.

Personally, I find that, though the idea, in one form or another, of a clash of civilisations is as old as the hills – examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by most dominant powers throughout the centuries – this does not make it any more valid or true.

Far more often than not, what has been dressed up as a clash of values is really just a clash of interests parading as something less selfish than it actually is. Although culture and ideology can, on rare occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

And in such a context, proximity is traditionally a far greater cause of friction than culture. That is why conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are often greater than those between them. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other, as the carnage of two world wars in Europe shows all too clearly.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports around the region and the world, and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September attacks.

And alliances which cut across supposed civilisational lines have an ancient pedigree. Examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans in World War I against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

Moreover, Huntington’s hypothesis is further undermined by what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Each so-called civilisation is actually a volatile, constantly changing hybrid of ideas and cultural influences.

In fact, if we must group civilisations together, then I would place the West and Islam in the same group because they both share common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, as well as the modern importance of the Enlightenment, not just for Western reform movements but also for secularising and modernising movements in the Middle East. I would go so far as to say that Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

So, if there has not been a clash of civilisations, what has emerged since the end of the Cold War?

At one level, there are the brewing clashes of interests between the great powers, as America tries to hold on to its waning global reach, Russia tries to claw back the influence it lost following the implosion of the Soviet Union and China, after years of quiet growth in the background, begins to flex its muscles on the foreign stage, both to advance its emerging “strategic interests” and for prestige.

On another level, cultures have clashed, but not between civilisations, as Huntington believed they would, but within them. This clash within civilisations is currently playing itself out most visibly in the Middle East.

In addition to the sectarian monster unleashed by the anarchy in Iraq, the revolutionary wave that has swept through the region has brought to the fore, and into sharp relief, the major fault lines and clashes within each society and, to a lesser extent, between them. There are the conflicts between the secular and religious, between majorities and minorities, between women and men, between the young and old, between modernists and traditionalists, between the haves and have-nots, and so on.

Although less pronounced, at least for the time being, these same internal tensions are being witnessed in the West, as reflected in the rising influence of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and the extreme right in Europe, as well as the large-scale social protests, from years of street battles in Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the “99%”.

In Europe, particularly, class conflict is intensifying on the back of the economic crisis triggered by neo-liberal excess, as the poor and middle-classes are forced, through bailouts and austerity, to finance what has effectively become a welfare state for the rich. This is putting in jeopardy not only the much-vaunted European social model but also the EU enterprise itself.

If the European Union is not reinvented along more equitable lines and emerges out of this crisis, instead, much weakened, then it will likely leave a petty-nationalistic sized hole in the European arena which could eventually cause the conflicts currently taking place within individual countries to spill across borders.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a major challenge facing us all is not the clash of civilisations but the clash within civilisations. This internal cultural struggle is largely caused by the growing socio-economic inequalities that have emerged in just about every country in the world.

If these inequities are not addressed effectively, at both the local and global levels, then intolerance will grow and conflicts will continue to consume individual societies, with the danger that they will spill over into other countries, potentially spiraling out of control.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 21 March 2013.

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Should Arabs treat Erdoğan as a hero?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome across the Arab world. But should Arabs welcome or be weary of Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East?

Friday 23 September 2011

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch. 

“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions. 

Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him. 

But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”. 

With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward. 

Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.

But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control. 

In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. 

The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire. 

So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.

Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.

Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.” 

Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order. 

Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.

In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.

Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness. 

Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.

Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved. 

After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?

I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East. 

But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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9/12: Turning over a new leaf in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 10th anniversary of the day after 9/11, it is high time to trash the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and the ‘war on terror’ and start a new chapter in the West’s relationship with the new Middle East.

Monday 12 September 2011

Most people recall vividly where they were on 11 September 2001, when four passenger jets were hijacked and used as highly effective targeted missiles, bringing down the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’ in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed, making this the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.

Sadly, the massive outpouring of global sympathy, support and solidarity – with people around the world saying “We are all Americans now” – was to prove short-lived, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies hijacked this monumental tragedy to serve their own narrow interests.

After apparently taking a break for over a decade, following Francis Fukuyama’s confident assertion that history had ended with the collapse of communism in 1989, history re-awoke on 9/12, to an apparently monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ – despite the abundant evidence that most clashes are those of interests and that ‘civilisations’ more often clash within their civilisational group than outside it – which pitted the enlightened West against the benighted forces of Islam(ism).

Equipped with a brand new enemy to replace the ‘reds under the bed’, Washington declared its ‘war on terror’ to hunt down those baddie Jihadis and launched a raft of initiatives to civilise the Muslim world.

Providing strong evidence of where the administration’s actual priorities lay, hours after the attacks, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already going out of his way to link the atrocity to Iraq, despite the secular nature of Baghdad’s Ba’ath regime and the mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Washington’s democratising and civilising mission focused mainly on invading and bombing to smithereens two countries: first Afghanistan (in October 2001) and then Iraq (in March 2003), not to mention the more recent involvement in Pakistan.

Despite at least a quarter of a million deaths and up to $4 trillion in costs to the US tax payer,  the decade-old war on terror has resulted in little but death, destruction and destitution, particularly in Iraq which was once one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East.

The true gains for freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been delivered – as critics of the War on Terror have long been arguing – by the peoples concerned themselves, as demonstrated by the ongoing Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

In fact, the Arab revolutions undermine many of the assumptions underpinning the US approach over the past decade, even under the Obama administration which took over many of its predecessor’s policies, namely that liberty and liberal values could be imposed from outside by a paternalistic West, that freedom is synonymous with free markets, and that democracy and free markets automatically bring greater prosperity and rights to the masses. Another shattered myth is that the United State is a benign power operating for the greater good and not out of the narrow self-interest of its economic and political elite at the expense not only of hundreds of millions around the world but also of ordinary Americans who have been left with a near-bankrupt system, as the recent “default crisis” frighteningly illustrated.

For the Arab revolutionary wave to succeed requires not only that Arabs successfully redefine and reinvent their relationship with those that govern them but also that the relationship between Arab, not to mention other developing, countries with the West and the wealthy industrialised nations.

Although the Arab uprisings are against dictatorship and despotism, they are also against the dictates of Western hegemony and have an economic bottom line. They are part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities triggered by neo-liberal economics and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young.

Tackling this not only requires deep domestic economic reform by Arab regimes but also the reinvention and reconfiguration of the global economic order – which is currently skewed towards the interests of he West, other OECD countries and, increasingly, the emerging might of China and a few other heavy hitters in the developing world – to make it fairer and more equitable.

If the second decade following the 9/11 attacks is to be a brighter one, then Washington and its Western allies need to abandon their paternalistic approach to the Middle East, see the region as more than the sum of its oil wells and allow its people to gain their fair share of the global economic pie.

But with a major energy crisis on the horizon and with Western economies on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention massive global and regional overpopulation, there are troubling signs that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the first post-9/11 decade. But here’s to hoping that enlightened self-interest will win out over destructive selfishness.

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Foreign hegemony or repressive self-rule?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world may debate the merits of external occupation versus repressive self-rule, but neither are acceptable.

24 February 2010

The al-Jazeera debate programme, al-Itijah al-Mua’kes (Opposite Direction), is well-known across the Arab world for tackling thorny, controversial and offbeat issues. Earlier this week, the show got stuck into the taboo question of whether Arabs, after decades of self-rule, were better off under the oppression of their current regimes or whether the yoke of the former imperial powers was preferable.

At one point, the programme’s moderator Faisal al-Qassem described the modus operandi of Arab leaders as a form of internal imperialism and said that some were of the view that home-grown colonialism, which consumes the body from within, was tougher to combat than foreign occupation, which behaves more like an external parasite.

As is the format of al-Itijah el-Mua’kes, the two guest panellists had opposing views on the topic. One, a member of an Arab parliament, was of the opinion that no matter how bad local rulers were, they were preferable by far to a foreign occupier whose sole concern is the pillaging of a society’s resources and the subjugation of its people. In contrast, local leaders ultimately have the interests of their society – or at least parts of it – at heart and, with reform, self-rule can be made to work.

 The other, a lawyer with the International Criminal Court, argued that the European powers brought the Middle East into the modern age and set it on the road to progress. In some cases, he opined, there had not been much progress since. As an example, he referred to the railways in Sudan, which were built by the British but have not been improved by the Sudanese.

 Despite the eccentricity of these views, they seem to have a certain resonance with ordinary Arabs. Surprisingly, some two-thirds of respondents to an online poll conducted by al-Jazeera were of the view that their countries had been better off under colonial rule.

 Of course, polls of this kind are unscientific, the make-up and demographic spread of the respondents are unknown and the sample size was too small (6,808). Nevertheless, the result is an interesting one, and it speaks volumes of the frustration felt by ordinary Arabs, caught as they are between the rock of repressive rule and the hard place of foreign hegemony. 

Long gone, it would seem, are the days of heady, post-independence optimism in which Arabs believed that, after shaking off the shackles of centuries of European and Ottoman rule, a new golden age was about to be born. 

So, which is better? Well, as with most things, the issue is neither black nor white because the track records of both imperialism and self-rule have been patchy. In addition, the diversity of imperial and post-independence experiences are enormous. Moreover, even within a single empire, performance changed dramatically over time and the colonial experience in each country was marked by key differences. 

In the Arab world, the early centuries of Ottoman rule, for example, were relatively benign, tolerant and prosperous, but the latter period was increasingly repressive and stagnant. In their favour, the European powers brought in ideas of modern science and the Enlightenment, helped abolish slavery and sparked Arab interest in modern technology.

 On the negative side, they often stripped countries of their resources, put in place repressive colonial power structures which were perpetuated by local rulers, and, intentionally or unintentionally, planted many of the seeds of the internal and cross-border conflicts that plague the region to this day.

 Algeria, for example, is still staggering from the wounds of having once been annexed by France, with the mass displacement of the peasantry and the marginalisation of the urban professional classes that this involved. In addition, the roots of the bloody north-south conflict in Sudan, and the massacres in Darfur, can be traced back to the destructive period of Anglo-Egyptian rule.

 The record of self-rule is also difficult to assess and compare, partly because the Arab world of today is so very different from that of colonial times. On the plus side, self-rule has led to massive improvements in such areas as education and healthcare. In addition, a number of post-independence regimes embarked on huge and ambitious programmes to industrialise, with mixed results.

 On the negative side, most domestic regimes have been as oppressive in their handling of the population as the former colonial powers, and human rights abuses in many countries are rife. An extreme example of this would be Saddam Hussein and his murderous rule. But, then again, those who dream of a return to colonial rule would do well to examine the case study of contemporary Iraq, where the US-led occupation is giving the country’s former dictator a serious run for his money in terms of destructiveness and malignancy.

 In fact, the question posed by al-Jazeera is perhaps the wrong one, since, in many ways, colonial rule has not ended. Although direct rule stopped more than half a century ago, with the exception of Iraq since 2003, indirect rule never ceased. In broad terms, the region’s regimes fall into two general categories: those who have accepted the role of client states and those who have opposed it and been punished and “contained” for stepping out of line. Then, there’s the privatisation and franchising of imperialism to multinationals.

 So, in reality, today’s Arabs are living under the crushing burden of domestic and foreign imperialism. To my mind, the issue is not which one is better but how to bring both to an end.

 This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2010. Read the related discussion.

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