by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
The Arab Spring that freed some of the peoples of the Middle East from state imposed fear produced an existential challenge for increasingly heterogeneous communities, forcing people to define the nature of the state and the character of the country where they live. It is true that self-rule and self-determination require a sense of self. However, building stable countries in the new Middle East is tied to the peoples’ level of awareness of the genocidal impulse espoused by certain social groups amongst them.
The old Middle East was built on an artificial foundation imposed by Western colonial and protective powers in the form of superficial liberal thought, imported Marxist ideas, petty ethnic identities, niggling tribal structures, and a variety of downwardly managed and imposed ideas. The regimes and political forces of the pre- and post-colonial periods exerted virtual monopoly on governing institutions in most Arab countries. During the second half of the twentieth century, Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, began to challenge nationalist, monarchical, and clannish regimes arguing that Islamism provides a more inclusive political ideology for the peoples of the Middle East than alien ideas or narrow Arabism.
Consequently, Islamists clashed with secularists (consisting of Arab nationalists, liberals, Marxists, leftists, etc.) and monarchs and sheikhs. Secularists opposed Islamists on the basis that only a “neutral” secular state could guarantee equality among all citizens. Monarchs, on the other hand, either created their own versions of Islamism or co-opted existing ones to offset the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arab Spring amplified the tension between these competing trends. The future of the Middle East in particular and Islamic societies in general will depend on the outcome of these contestations. Specifically, political actors must address the place of religion and ethnicity, as defining identity markers, in the post-Arab Spring countries.
In Tunisia, for instance, all political debates were reduced to two competing propositions: the civil state versus the shari`ah-compliant state. It would seem that the consensus, as expressed in the new constitution, was in favor of a civil state where respect for religion, not any particular interpretation of Islam, is honored by all and imposed on none.
In Egypt, however, and immediately after the fall of Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies used their dominant organizational advantage to privilege a particular interpretation of Islam over all other interpretations and religions. That project failed and Egypt reverted to a Mubarak-like regime, for now. Importantly, the opportunity given to all Islamists to participate in representative governance and the subsequent failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to foster pluralism relativized the religious political discourse to the extent that even Salafis embraced realpolitik and sided with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria, all armed groups were united in their goal to overthrow the Ba`ath regime but they did not have a unifying vision for the future. Indeed, the Ba`ath government, as a post-colonial regime, is outdated. However, based on their own statements, the ideology of the most powerful opposition groups, the Islamic State (formerly, ISIL), al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front, and many Islamist groups is beyond outdated. Their ideology is genocidal. These groups call for an Islamic state that is deviants-free, where non-Muslim citizens are reduced to a subordinate class, where non-Arabs are perpetually treated as inferior, and where secular Muslims are designated blasphemous enemies of God. A state built on these ideas is irresoluble, impracticable, and paradoxical for it violates the very basic understanding of the universal prohibition on genocide let alone the universal commitment to honor human dignity everywhere and under all circumstances.
The implicit support and tolerance of groups like the Islamic State are utterly disturbing. The lack of outrage towards ISIL’s actions against vulnerable sectarian and ethnic minorities is shocking. Not only did ISIL express its intend to kill all those who do not submit to its will, but it broke new grounds by committing retroactive genocide when it destroyed mosques, graveyards, churches, and iconic religious and cultural structures that echo the presence of diverse communities from thousands of years past. In a sense, ISIL and its supporters are committing two-way genocide when they kill or displace minorities and destroy their ancient historical sites. Considering the atrocities ISIL and al-Nusra inflict even on each other when they disagree, it becomes clear that these groups embody unmatched brutality and stunning lack of respect to human dignity enshrined in universal declarations and treaties prohibiting cruelty and genocide.
The commonly agreed upon definition of genocide is clear. It is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” International law provides specific examples of acts that are genocidal like killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Moreover, international law punishes those who commit genocide, conspire to commit genocide, directly and publicly incite committing genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and being complicit in genocide.
With these definitions and examples in mind, the perpetrators of genocide in places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya become numerous. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of the actual actors who commit these crimes as well as on the shoulders of those who are complicit—those who are supporting ideologies that promote and sustain genocidal thought and inspire genocidal acts.
Post-Arab Spring countries could overcome the genocidal impulse and combat state imposed fear at the same time when they reject ideological purity in favor of absolute respect to human dignity. The Arab Spring, after all, may have signaled the beginning of the end of the precursors to ideological purity namely exclusionary models of nationalism such as Arabism, Turkism, Kurdism, Zionism, Berberism, Persianism, Islamism, and all other forms of ethnicity- and religion-inspired isms. A stable and peaceful future can be achieved through national identities that are more inclusive and more egalitarian in terms of respect to rights and dignity.
It is difficult to predict the specific future of the new Middle East. But it is not difficult to predict that the new Middle East will be better than the old one. Too much blood and agony have been spent to revert to the old Middle East or build a mediocre one. In this interconnected global community, no country can exist in isolation from its neighbors. With that being the case, the religious and ethnic state models become ethically, legally, and politically unsustainable. The peoples of the Middle East, therefore, must reject the proposition that only an Arab state can protect Arabs, only a Kurdish state can protect Kurds, only a Persian state can protect Persians, only a Shi`ite state can protect Shi`as, only a Sunni state can protect Sunnis, only a Christian state can protect Christians, only a Jewish state can protect Jews, and so-on. Because these ideas eventually lead to genocidal attitudes and acts. Peoples in that region must learn to confront their fear of each other and work together to build alliances on the basis of mutual respect and mutual commitment to dignity. They must commit to the principle that surviving or fearing a genocide does not give any community a legal or moral license to preemptively commit one.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.