Struggling over civilisation

Struggling over civilisation

A Lebanese fundamentalist group signs a document of understanding with Hizbullah. Syria and Russia are snuggling up to each other. Iran is allying with Hamas and Hizbullah (and, perhaps soon, with all other politically and culturally anti- Western forces) while its cultural and media elites declare their solidarity with Russia, against Georgia, for no other reason than to irritate the West and the US in particular.


Our conflicts and alliances are not sectarian or religious, as natural as this would seem, but rather determined by civilisational motives to the core. Perhaps this explains that “amazing” convergence between opposites and why Iran and its Arab neighbours are as remote from each other as Russia and Georgia — geographically contiguous but culturally and ideologically miles apart.


But how do we account for the meeting of opposites (fundamentalists and Shia) and the mutual repulsion of likes (Hamas and Saad Al-Hariri”s Future Movement)? How can we understand the Turkish-Israeli “alliance” in contrast with Arab-Iranian “tension”, or the Qaeda- Afghani “rapprochement” versus the Afghani- Pakistani “enmity”? In short, how can we explain this perplexing mosaic in the Islamic world?


Common interests alone are not sufficient to grasp these conflicting and intricate relationships. The convergences are by their very nature temporary and fluctuating in view of the lack of anything solid upon which to build cooperative relations and in view of the fluctuating nature of the “interests” themselves. Nor does religious- sectarian attraction or repulsion explain the mosaic. Indeed, the patterns of “cooperative” interplay are proof that this dynamic is not a key to unravelling the mystery.


The essence of this mosaic goes deeper than mere temporary interests or customary sectarian tensions. It is to be found in the ethical and philosophical framework of these relationships or, otherwise put, in the “civilisational” component that seems to regulate the patterns of cooperation and conflict in the Arab and Islamic world. Specifically, it is to be found in the disparities in the ways the various units in the mosaic (governments, movements, organisations and other political forces) understand and handle this component.


If we enlarge the picture, it appears that our current alliances and conflicts have entered a phase of fermentation in which likes and opposites within the same civilisation are surfacing as separate “civilisational” entities, each fanatically seeking to attain its own objectives. The Arab and Islamic world is in the grips of a conflict over the region”s civilisational heritage. Moreover, the conflict appears to have less to do with the “grand battle” between civilisations that Samuel Huntington predicted a decade and a half ago as it does with fighting “peers” within the same Islamic culture. It is about Iran“s desire to revive its faded Persian “glory”, about the desire of Al-Qaeda and the fundamentalists that are clinging to its coattails to reinstate the “House of Islam” versus the “House of War”, and Turkey“s desire to clutch the Arab world”s “waist”.


This “internal” civilisational conflict is governed by four factors, the first and foremost being religion. A huge battle is raging over the monopoly on religious capital in the Arab and Islamic world. The arenas are scriptural interpretation and rival claims to represent it politically and culturally. The contestants, in general, are four “versions” of Islam: the Iranian, the Turkish, the Arab and the Pakistani (to which some add a fifth, the Asian version), all bound solely by a common root (Islamic scripture) but divided by their diverse interpretations into conflicting opinions and applications ranging from the ultra right to the far left.


In addition to the fight between the proponents of these versions to impose their vision on all others, the proponents of each version are fighting among themselves over who has the right to act as its spokesperson. For example, we have inter-Shia controversies over such questions as the rule of the clergy, the anticipated appearance of the Mahdi — the prophesied guide of Islam — and the higher aims of Islamic law. In Pakistan, ideological tensions are rife between radical Islamists and other Muslim denominations, notably the Sunni Barelvi and Deobandi schools and the Shia. In Turkey, there is considerable distance between the Justice and Development Party and other Islamist organisations. Whether these consist of the remnants of the Party of Prosperity or Virtue, or such Sufi orders as the Norusiya and Naqshabandiya, they generally do not feel that the Justice and Development Party represents their utopian vision. Finally, throughout the Arab world there is a deep gulf between Salafi Islamists, in all their diverse shades, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other proselytising movements.


The second governing factor is the minority structure in Arab societies. It has long been a shaky structure, not only because of spurts of political and religious fanaticism, but also because of the general lack of a climate of tolerance and the failure of the attempts on the part of Arab and Muslim regimes to forcefully integrate their minorities. This minority structure is, thus, rife with ethnic and sectarian time bombs throughout the length and breadth of the Islamic world. Some of these tensions have flared into open conflict, as is the case with the Ahmedis, Christians and Hindus in Pakistan; the Ahwaz Arabs, Balushis, Turkomen and Kurds in Iran; the Kurds, the Donmeh Jews, and the Alivites in Turkey; the Copts in Egypt; and the Berbers in Algeria. In short, the Arab and Islamic world sits atop a minority volcano that could erupt at any moment.


The third factor is the despotic structure in the Arab and Islamic world, a structure that has become so embedded that it has been transmitted from the head to the body, which is to say from prevailing regimes to the societies in which they operate. The expansion of the despotic structure benefited, of course, from the first two factors. At first glance, this trait seems to offer a window onto much of the interplay in the Arab world. Does not the despotic rigidity, demagoguery and inability to compromise form an “underlying” common denominator between all extremist forces? Is there not a powerful bond between the forces of “moderation” in their chauvinism and their desire to monopolise power forever? Do not both “extremists” and “moderates” conjure up the image of two bulls butting heads over an inert cadaver, this being Arab society?


In this regard, it is possible to understand all this rooting for Russia (and for China in the future), in spite of its chauvinism and heavy- handedness on the Georgia question. The authoritarian root of the sympathy is one factor, albeit strengthened in this case by the anti- American Schadenfreude stirred by the sting Russia delivered to the US and its version of modernism. Against this backdrop, criticising and opposing Russia on the Serbian question emerges as one of the flagrant manifestations of authoritarian hypocrisy (as well as substantial proof of the fickle nature of cooperative or adversarial relations).


The fourth factor is the civilisational perception of the West. Here, there is a vast distance between those who want to sustain the greater civilisational confrontation against the West, which, for many of them, is lucrative political capital that earns them great kudos in their conflicts with domestic political elites, and those who seek to sustain a “scratch my back, I”ll scratch yours” connection with the West in the hope of perpetuating their power and influence without having to pay the political and cultural “price” of real modernisation and democratisation.


Naturally, this adversarial structure did not suddenly spring up; it has been around for decades. However, it appears to be a more powerfully and intricately involved factor than ever before, and there are more and more indications that it is on the verge of exploding in the Arab and Islamic world. What may hasten the explosion is that the conflicting parties have no agreed-upon rules of play and that some are manoeuvring to outbalance and unbalance the others.


Iran is not seeking a harmonious and balanced relationship with its Arab neighbours; it wants to change the rules of the game and force the others to accept these rules. Syria does not just want its occupied territories back and recognition of a respectable regional role for itself. It wants to have continued access to the Lebanese courtyard and, through that, to the Palestinian backyard. Hizbullah is as interested in maintaining equilibrium in the Lebanese electoral system as it is in expanding its space in that system and setting its keel as it sees fit. Hamas does not just want to liberate the occupied Palestinian territories but the entire area. The Muslim Brothers do not merely want recognition as a legitimate political force. They want to project their vision onto Arab religious space, as do all other Islamist organisations, militant and non- militant alike.


The Islamists in Pakistan would like to usher in a non-corrupt democratic government, but on the condition that it is an Islamic “nuclear” government capable of liberating India and Kashmir from the “contamination” of the Hindus. The Islamic Liberation Party has its heart set on ridding the Islamic nation of heretic and treacherous scum, whose heads will be raised on their spears as they proclaim the rebirth of the Islamic caliphate in Indonesia, Tajikistan, London and Berlin. The aspiration is shared by Al-Qaeda Organisation for the Islamic Maghreb, which is prepared to burn the ground and everyone on it in order to establish its Islamic “emirate” in North Africa.


If, as some Westerners claim, democracies don”t fight each other, authoritarian entities do. And the authoritarian entities we are talking about are currently thriving on religious and cultural fanaticism, their mutual animosities heightened by the profound economic and social disparities that riddle the Arab world from east to west as well as by the nature of their relationships with the West, which some regard as sufficient justification for attacking others on the grounds that this is a part of the holy war against heretics and secularism.


Ending this inevitable internal “civilisational clash” seems almost like reinventing the wheel. The civil wars in Europe (or more appropriately the sectarian clashes there) only came to an end with the universal acceptance of religious and ethnic plurality and with an agreement over civilised rules for promoting and sustaining social harmony based on the principles of mutual acceptance, equality and citizenship. In the US, the civil war proved sufficient cause to amend the constitution so as to guarantee the equality of all individuals regardless of race and creed. In both cases, no party attempted to change the rules of the game in their own favour, as the parties to the clashes here are doing.


* The writer is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.