Friday, 10 January 2014

The danger of seeing the Middle East exclusively in 'religious' terms

Georges Corm
Lebanese economist and historian Georges Corm's latest book criticizes the essentialist and reductionist perceptions of the Arab and wider Muslim world held by my many Middle East of observers and policy-makers dealing with that region. In his Pour une Lecture Profane des Conflits, he reflects on the debilitating effects the 'Clash of Civilizations Thesis' has had as the ideological driving force behind the 'War on Terror'.

At present this is hindering an appropriate understanding of what is at stake since the seismic shifts that have changed the political landscape in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world, with regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the troubled state of affairs in Iraq, the protracted civil war in Syria, and lingering unrest in countries such as Bahrain.

Because of the way these conflicts are reported and approached by outsiders dealing with the recalibration of policy-making or mediation in ongoing conflicts, the pervading view is:
that even after revolutions that were initially inspired by secular issues, the countries of the Arab world cannot shake off religion as the dominant force in politics. With its excessive political energies, political Islam remains the dominant power factor in the region.
Former Finance Minister Corm's book proposes a different way of looking at developments in the Middle East at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century; turning the gaze away from the erroneous view that gives undue privilege to the religion factor.
In actual fact, he explains, the Arab world is concerned with very different issues: the just distribution of power and resources, a functioning state based on the rule of law and democratic participation. However, Corm elucidates, an adequate language has not yet been found for these concerns, or rather, it has not yet been able to make its voice heard over the dominant religious discourse.
Over the course of three or four decades, he writes, every significant political opposition in the Arab world has placed itself in the religious camp. That has left traces that cannot be erased from one day to the next.
Central to Corm's analysis is the destructive influence of reactionary Islamic ideologues fueled by Saudi oil money, who reject the in themselves laudable ideas that underlie the Enlightenment:
The motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) was once very closely observed when it came to distributing power and wealth. Who gets what, and in whose favour do the distribution mechanisms work? It is not long ago, writes Corm, that questions like these were a fundamental part of every political science degree in the West, but that is no longer the case.
Instead, these have been replaced by a focus on culture, a factor that underlies both Huntington's new model of global order and the in Corm's equally mistaken foregrounding of multiculturalism, which has attained the status of ideology, but which is also  'discreetly similar to religious fundamentalism'. According to one reviewer:
Corm's culture-based interpretation of the Western perception of the conflicts currently permeating the Near East is fascinating. The only question is whether it still holds true. After all, many people in the West have indeed learned to take a closer look, to take the demands of the first protesters seriously and at face value.
Many now also share Corm's assessment that Arab secularism has sacrificed its own good reputation. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad Senior and Junior in Syria – all of them built up dictatorial regimes that trampled their citizens' rights underfoot and unleashed their secret services on all those who dared to question their rule and demand reform. And where words like democracy and the rule of law have not only lost all value but even have to serve as excuses for the crimes of allegedly progressive regimes, promising political ideals are turned on their heads.
Western observers and policy-makers should stop hiding the cynicism of their decades-long support for Arab autocrats  behind a facade of supposedly culturally sensitive explanations and boldly promote the reappreciation of democratic and humanitarian principles because of their normative validity.

To read the full article click here.

Below is a clip of a lengthy discussion with Corm on the situation in the Middle East:

1 comment:

Mohammed Amin said...

Interesting piece. I have just tweeted the original book review.