Saturday, July 23, 2011

Arabs Are Defeating Sectarian Blackmail

By Rami G. Khouri  
One of the striking contrasts between current political tensions and clashes in the Arab world and the tone of the many demonstrations for freedom and democracy across the region involves the role of sectarian and ethnic identity.
We are reminded of this again in Syria these days, where brutal killings in the city of Homs last week seemed designed to inflame destructive passions between the majority Sunnis and the minority Alawites who dominate the ruling power elite. In the past year Egypt similarly experienced ugly incidents that seemed to target or provoke the Coptic Christian minority. Bahrain and Yemen also have experienced serious ethnic- and sectarian-based tensions recently. Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan have endured their own sectarian problems, conflicts and occasional atrocities for years, to the point where Iraq and Lebanon have seen most of their once integrated populations separated into “neater” and “purer” demographic zones, and Sudan has registered the first case of secession from a modern Arab state.
This list is long, depressing and profoundly revealing of deeper problems in the region that transcend immediate political rivalries or longer-term competition for control of state resources.
Sectarian-religious-ethnic tensions across the Arab world primarily reflect deficiencies in two important and related arenas: the legitimacy and structure of statehood, and the nature and quality of political governance. Arab countries have denied their people credible democratic political participation and accountability; therefore their citizens do not enjoy the bounty of state services, security, equality and opportunity that should accompany real citizenship. Instead, individuals turn to their ethnic-religious group for identity, representation, services and protection, while Arab autocrats and foreign powers alike manipulate sectarianism for their own ends.
The millions of Arab men and women who have been demonstrating in the streets for seven months now instinctively understand the direct relationship between sectarianism and governance: When countries are well managed and citizens feel they have a say in political and economic developments, sectarian identities and tensions decrease and eventually disappear. However, when authoritarian gangs, oligarchs and ruling families plunder their countries and treat their citizens like idiots without rights or feelings, sectarianism sprouts like a natural self-defense mechanism.
The demonstrators understand that their national challenges include not only ending corruption and instituting democratic governance, but also forging inclusive national coherence that allows all citizens to feel that they are equal members of a single country with a shared national purpose. So, we see many slogans proclaiming that all demonstrators are united as equal citizens. This includes heartening examples acknowledging the religious pluralism that is a strength of our societies, such as Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square taking turns praying and protecting each other’s prayer sessions, or the common symbol of crosses and crescent moons together.
Arab societies are enriched and strengthened by pluralism, and become poorer when some minorities fear for their future and start to emigrate en masse. The Arab-Israeli conflict has already seen the departure of most indigenous Arab Jews from the Arab countries where they had lived for centuries. Christians and other minorities seem increasingly worried in some countries, and their numbers may also decline due to permanent emigration.
The antidote, as the demonstrators are saying, is to fix the dysfunctional governments plaguing the Arab world. Most incumbent Arab regimes that are being challenged by their own people, however, consistently blame foreign conspirators for meddling in their affairs, and raise the specter of sectarian conflict if the existing regime or power structure is significantly changed. Some critics of Arab governments accuse them of stoking sectarian attacks as a means of heightening citizens’ fears. Citizens in countries like Syria, Egypt and Bahrain have witnessed the ravages of sectarian warfare in Iraq and Lebanon, and will go to great lengths to avoid repeating those experiences. Regimes that raise this frightening specter count on the fact that their citizens would refrain from challenges to the regime that could destabilize the country, and instead would opt for maintaining the current order because it is at least stable and secure.
This is a form of mass political blackmail that has worked for decades, but has now clearly reached the end of its useful life. Stable societies that are neither democratic nor economically and socially productive are decaying societies that end up being machines of mass corruption and dehumanization – which inevitably pushes citizens to seek refuge amid their sect or tribe. Demonstrators have declared their determination to end this ugly legacy. They counter regime sectarian scare tactics by affirming their commitment to fraternal and tolerant pluralism within democratic structures as their preferred operating system.
It is important to see the mass commitment among Arabs to sectarian and ethnic tolerance and even solidarity, which I believe are much stronger than the occasional bout of tension.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 23/07/2011

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