Horror and Hope
It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.
Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).
But, as the great Egyptian columnist Hani Shukrullah argues in this piece, the people themselves must also take responsibility. The so-called Islamic ‘revival’ certainly has some positive aspects (such as Turkey’s ruling party, and Lebanon’s Hizbullah) but it has been accompanied by a popular upsurge of sectarian hatred, mixed-up religio-nationalist chauvinism, and plenty of plain stupidity. Far too many Arabs are falling into the trap of blaming their neighbours for their leaders’ crimes, and of retreating from analysis into creaky myths. The Arab world is experiencing the politics of civilisational failure, the politics of despair.
Yet even now there is a glimmering hope. Remarkable and very brave resistance to the Tunisian dictatorship has been catalysed by a young man’s suicide attempt in Sidi Bouzid. Hard to find this in the mainstream Western media, for Tunisia is an obedient client. The Egyptians know about it, however, and many are declaring their solidarity. The courage of those prepared to fight in the streets for a better future, against state machineries which enjoy killing and raping, is sobering and inspiring. Those of us in more comfortable locations can do our bit by publicising these people’s struggle. The only answer to the barbarism creeping across this historially most civilised part of the world is common struggle to force political, social and economic change.