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    Middle East
     Jun 13, 2012

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Towards a new Arab cultural revolution
By Alastair Crooke

Salafism both of the Saudi, and the of radical, orientation are being fired-up in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon [8], Egypt, north Africa, the Sahara, Nigeria, and the horn of Africa. No wonder Russia is concerned: Central Asia [9] is unlikely to prove immune either. Its leaders do recall, only too well, the impact on Russia's backyard, of that earlier "stirring" associated with Afghanistan.

They find it difficult to understand how Europeans can again "look aside" from what is occurring for the transient domestic "pleasures" of been seen to "take-down dictators", when this new radical stirring across the Middle East, Africa and tentatively Central Asia, is happening right on Europe's own doorstep - just across the Mediterranean.

The evolving cultural shift has another dimension - one first


pinpointed by the Turkish foreign minister more than a year ago: The "Awakening", the minister said, marks the end of a historical chapter of the divisions imposed on Muslims by the great powers when they fragmented, and divided up the old provinces of [Sunni] Ottoman rule. Ahmet Davutoglu saw the "Awakening" principally as a "coming together" again of Muslims - an "undoing" of an historic fragmentation.

Not surprisingly, this theme of a pan-Muslim community, and the reclaiming of the Sunni sphere, is increasingly heard today. [10] Davutoglu did not mention the word umma ; or community of believers, but many now are. And it is a discourse that greatly frightens the many in the region , who do not want to be labelled or treated as "minorities"; and thus forfeit their self-identity as equal citizens - with all its eerie echoes of the Ottoman Sunni Muslim hegemony. [11]

This cultural shift toward re-imagining a wider Muslim polity (no one for now is suggesting dissolving their own nation-states, although the prime minister of Tunisia has suggested he anticipates the beginning of the Fourth Caliphate) holds important implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict too.

Over recent years we have heard the Israelis emphasize their demand for recognition of a specifically Jewish nation-state, rather than for an Israeli State, per se. A Jewish state that in principle would remain open to any Jew seeking to return: a creation of a Jewish umma, as it were. Now it seems we have, in the western half of the Middle East, at least, a mirror trend, asking for the re-instatement of a wider Sunni nation - representing the 'undoing' of the last remnants of the colonial era.

What will this mean for Palestine? Will the demand for Palestinians' legal rights to a nation-state, be affected too by this cultural impulse towards a wider Islamic nation and polity? Will we see Palestinian rights , grounded in the nation-state concept gradually metamorphosize into a more explicit, meta-national Islamic aspiration? Will we see the struggle increasing epitomized as a primordial struggle between Jewish and Islamic religious symbols - between al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount?

It seems that both Israel and its surrounding terrain are marching in step toward language which takes them far away from the underlying, largely secular concepts by which this conflict traditionally has been conceptualized. What will be the consequence as the conflict, by its own logic, becomes a clash of religious poles?

This prospect may sound gloomy to some - perhaps even a little threatening - but this is largely because the Middle East is so often approached without any real homework being done; without regard for international law; without regard for the UN charter, and without regard for the rights of nations to be themselves in their own way.

Inherently unsound and inflated Western expectations - when they implode - always have resulted in the ubiquitous call for "something to be done" which now has come to mean "something being done" through by-passing international law, sovereignty and the UN, and dictated by an Orwellian, self-selecting, "Friends of …" grouping - however disastrous the consequences of "that something" may turn out to be.

Syria has become the crucible of these external coercions; with events in Syria [12] being defined by this hugely potent deployed Gulf power for the purpose of building their "new Middle East"; rather than being defined by some over-simplistic narrative of reform versus repression, which sheers Syria away from its all-important context.

Many Syrians see the struggle now not so much as one of reform - though all Syrians want that - but now as a more primordial, elemental fight to preserve the notion of Syria itself, a deep-rooted self-identity amidst fears that touch on the most sensitive, inflamed nerves within the Islamic world. Not surprisingly for many, security now trumps reform.

Undoubtedly the region is entering a profound and turbulent struggle to define its future, and that of Islam. But this phase may not prove as defining as some may think (or hope): Whilst the Gulf has pursued its objectives a outrance, it is also vulnerable.

The Saudi king may aspire to unify the Sunni world to his vision, but he is unlikely to succeed in this way: his harsh vendetta towards Assad is not unifying the region, it is souring it; and the recourse to militant Sunnism is fomenting civil, violent struggle in many states: in the Levant, and beyond, it is already pitting Sunni against Sunni.

Syrian self-identity, as for many others in the region, was never a sectarian one, but was rooted in a belonging to one of the great nations of the region with a "model of society" which had "more religious freedom and tolerance … than in any other Arab country". [13]

Syrians did not view themselves as primarily identified by sect. Wahhabi-style sectarian intolerance is foreign to the Levant, even to Levant Sunnism. We are already witnessing, in Egypt, for example, push-back against movements seen to be motivated primarily by considerations of sect - even from those who see themselves as Islamist. They seek not another type of strait-jacket. The question is being asked: has the Brotherhood switched from "patience" to "domination"? There is a sense now of something fundamentally lost: with this authoritarian re-culturization - where now is any real reforming, revolutionary zeal?

Alastair Crooke is founder and director of Conflicts Forum and is a former adviser to the former European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana from 1997-2003.

1. The Ottomans are back! Well, not really where they wanted to be…, Hurriyet Daily News, April 27, 2012
2. The Dangers of a Protracted Crisis in Syria, Al Arabiya English, March 3, 2012
3. The Two Faces of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Der Spiegel, May 22, 2012 4. Saudi Arabia Embraces Salafism: Countering The Arab Uprising? - Analysis, Eurasia Review, Jan 13, 2012
5. Arab World: Qatar, Midwife of the new Arab world, Jerusalem Post, Jan 20, 2012
6. A Sunni Emirate in the North, Al-Akhbar English, May 18, 2012
7. The Two Faces of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Der Spiegel, May 22, 2012 8. Lebanon's Sunni Street Takes Charge, Al-Akhbar English, May 21
9. SCO struggles to counter Arab Spring, Russia & India Report, May 14, 2012
10. Questions over Arab states' legitimacy, Gulf Times, May 23, 2012 11. Do Arabs want Turkey to lead the Arab awakening?, Hurriyet Daily News, May 1
12. Tripoli Becoming Staging Area For Jihadists en Route to Syria, Al Monitor, May 23, 2012
13. The Lebanonization of Syria, French Center for Intelligence Research, Jan 2012

(Copyright 2011 Alastair Crooke.)

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