Multicultural Iraq: possible?

A March 23 commentary from Lebanon’s Daily Star:

A foolish new attraction to oppressive Arab nationalism

By Rayyan al-Shawaf

We are at a critical juncture in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. The continuing and oftentimes violent debate over Iraq’s national and religious identity has revived the fortunes of diehard Arab nationalists, who are now clamoring for a return to the old formula where Iraq was identified as a purely Arab country.

The irony of this is the obvious unsuitability of any ethnic-based ideology for the multiethnic societies of the Middle East and North Africa. If Islam under the Ottoman Empire proved unviable as a political bond because not all the subjects were Muslim, and not all Muslims were religious, how can Arab nationalism be any good for the non-Arab citizens of the region, or even for Arabs who do not identify strongly with their ethnicity?

Fully 20 percent of Iraqis are not Arab, as is the case with a similar percentage of Algerians, half the Sudanese population, and a majority of Moroccans. Syria and Egypt also are home to significant minorities – Kurds and Copts respectively. Yet all these peoples are officially relegated to second-class status in their societies. The solution to such systemic discrimination is abandoning the idea that the state must be Arab or Islamic or anything else. After all, coloring the state with an ethnic or religious hue serves to create one or more social underclasses.

Though the problem is to a large extent the marginalization of non-Arabs and non-Muslims in a predominantly Arab and Muslim region, this is not the whole story. Even minorities that are both Arab and Muslim, for example Shiites in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf countries, have been oppressed for decades in countries that derive their legitimacy from Sunni Islam. Similarly, certain Arab nationalist regimes have oppressed not only non-Arabs, but fellow Arabs of a different sectarian persuasion. The Shiite Arab majority in Iraq was disenfranchised under the former, Sunni-led Baath regime, despite the latter’s Arab nationalist orientation. In Syria, which is run by a Baath regime under Alawite authority, participation by the Sunni Arab majority remains controlled.

Non-Arab countries like Israel, Turkey and Iran, where the state often identifies itself with a specific ethnic or religious group, are no better. Israel discriminates not only against the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, but even against its own Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population.

Modern Turkey emerged following the widespread massacre of the Armenian community, and has in the name of Turkish nationalism sought to erase the cultural identity of Kurds, who constitute 25 percent of the population. Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect, make up 20 percent of the Turkish population, and like Kurds have traditionally gone unrecognized.

Islamic Iran not only assigns an inferior status to its Christian and Jewish citizens, it also discriminates against non-Shiite Muslims. There is not a single Sunni mosque in all of Tehran, despite the presence of a large Sunni Muslim minority in the Iranian capital.

As for Arab nationalism, it began as an attempt to forge an alternative socio-political bond to that represented by Islam, the ideological underpinning of the Ottoman Empire. Many of its earliest proponents were Christians, who as subjects of the empire had two principal reasons for being disaffected: they were neither Muslim nor Turkish. Though Arab nationalism itself ended up undergoing a process of “Islamization,” this was but one of many self-defeating characteristics ingrained in an ideology based entirely on ethnic affiliation. For while Arabism may have theoretically succeeded in placing Muslim and Christian Arabs on an equal footing, and can be credited with making possible the rise of individual Christians to positions of prominence in countries such as Syria or Iraq, it also proved a disaster for non-Arabs.

Non-Arab Muslim minorities such as the Amazigh, or Berbers, Kurds, and Turkmen found themselves officially out of favor. They faced the prospect of becoming “Arabized” or of being denied political and even civil rights. Groups that identified themselves as neither Arab nor Muslim had it even worse: Southern Sudanese, Copts, Jews, and Assyrians were plunged into a protracted nightmare that saw their communities ground into anonymity, forcing many to emigrate permanently. Even Maronites, whose retention of political power in Lebanon immunized them from utter marginalization, watched with alarm as Arab nationalist propaganda increasingly portrayed them as a foreign and sinister element in the heart of the Arab nation.

So Arab nationalism, but also Syrian nationalism and communism (which were no less destructive), proved to be just as tyrannical and intolerant as the political Islam of the Ottoman Empire. Despite this reality, many Arabs continue to cling to these supposedly secular ideologies as the only buffer against resurgent Islam. Indeed, too often Christian Arabs and secular Muslims have gravitated toward nationalism and communism as an attempt to banish the terrifying specter of an Islamic state.

After all, when democracy is allowed to flourish, they argue, it results in successes for intolerant Islamic parties, whether in Iraq, Palestine, or Egypt.

Are Arabs forever doomed, then, to fight one totalitarianism with another? Will they always be obliged to choose between the lesser of two evils? Not necessarily. Though it is unwise to ban political parties with clear religious and ethnic biases, societies can ensure that the state remains above the fray. They can make it unconstitutional for any party, regardless of popularity and election results, to associate the state with a particular religion or ethnicity. Indeed, states should avoid identifying themselves with Arab or Turkish or Jewish ethnicity, and Islam or any other religion.

Only then will Arabs and non-Arabs in Middle Eastern societies, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation, attain freedom and equality. Only then will states become states for all their citizens.

See our last posts on Iraq and the crisis of Islam.