Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Sectarian and Ethnic Sobriquets

However much you re-label the jar, the contents remain the same, writes Azmi Bishara

There must be some deeply ingrained sectarian/tribal dimension to Arab society that impedes democratisation and the evolution of a modern state. As if it is not enough that doctrinal differences within the same religion escalate into sectarian divides, political differences are almost invariably cast and played out as tribal or sectarian rivalries. Clearly such "support your brother right or wrong" attitudes are at odds, not only with conceptions of the modern polity but with the codified value systems of universalist religions that hold the individual responsible for his conduct before God.

Arab societies face enough problems of their own making -- the transition to modernism, to the nation-state, and to the concept of the individual as citizen -- without having to contend with the attempts of colonialist powers, since Sykes-Picot and San Remo, to fragment the only historical basis -- the cultural and geographic bond -- upon which the Arabs could build a nation.

The colonialists took a straight-edge ruler in order to carve up the region into separate political entities which they administered by relying on existing organic tribal and sectarian affiliations, some of which they elevated over others by granting them positions of power and influence in the government and the army.

There is no denying the existence of sects, denominational groupings and the like. However, the task of modern democratic nation- building is not a cloning process that can take place in sub-regional "homogenous" political test tubes. As history has shown, such an approach only obstructs the evolution of the modern democratic nation. No nation has existed since the beginning of time and none will last until the end of time. But rather than belying the necessity of the modern nation, sectarian and tribal entities confirm it. No nation emerged without overcoming the challenge of welding such entities into a cohesive whole. Converting kinship and religious based bonds into political units and using these as substitutes for voluntary organisational structures coalesced around political, ideological or economic interests and agendas distorts the process of nation building, subverts plurality and paves the way for civil war and national disintegration.

Israel, which originated as a colonialist entity that perceived itself as a nationalist movement that espoused an ideology that secularised religious affiliation and molded it into a basis for national affiliation, divides its Arab citizens -- the original inhabitants of the country -- into Arabs, Druze and Bedouins. These it refers to as "the minorities". Their history is divided and taught to them accordingly. The "Druze educational curriculum" is designed and administered only to the Druze. Otherwise it would be impossible to sustain the separation of Druze Arabs from other Arabs in the military recruitment system. In keeping with the colonialist mentality that gave rise to it, Israel entered the regional game as a country which transformed religious affiliation into the basis for affiliation to the state. Though Pakistan followed this historical precedence a year later Israel remains unique for having been founded as a settler colony. More importantly, it was Israel's sectarian-based concept of nationhood that drew the attention of Muslim fundamentalist movements in the Arab world, and Israel's victory in 1967 strengthened these movements' arguments and impetus against the "secular" regimes that were defeated by Israel that year. Numerous Muslim fundamentalist writers, at the time, homed in precisely on the religious dimension that, they maintained, endowed Israel with such power over Nasserism, Baathism and other secularist Arab ideologies.

Israel perceives itself as a modern national entity that confers upon its citizens rights and liberties that transcend the scriptural and that bring it into tandem with other modern democratic nations. But according to Israeli logic the Arabs are not entitled to nationhood on the basis of an overarching Arab ethnic affiliation and are thus to be treated as disparate sects, denominations and kinship groups. That the US and Europe have also adopted this approach, and intervene in Arab affairs on the basis of these divisions, through the representatives of these groups or those that claim to represent them, has contributed to entrenching resistance to modernisation.

Israel's anti-Arabism underlay a creed of establishing diplomatic relations with non-Arab countries and political movements. In an attempt to create a cordon around the Arab world it developed relations with the Kurdish liberation movements, with Iran under the Shah, with Haile Selassie's Ethiopia (and then with Eritrea against Ethiopia following the coup). It also sought alliances with what it regarded as "Arab minorities" in order to entrench and expand the notion of religious minorities who needed Ottoman, French or British protection against the majority Sunni populace. For the most part, Israel's attempts "to get between the onion and skin" resulted only in tears, as the Arab saying has it. However, these attempts nevertheless contributed to the process of fragmentation and to nourishing political divides on the basis of sectarian affiliations.

Israel has never dealt with the region in any other way, although it introduced a major modification following the Iranian revolution. Suddenly it elevated Shia Islam, which it had barely mentioned in the past, to enemy number one, which it tried to offset by trying to establish channels of communications with the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. It even attempted to court Iraq, though for the most part these efforts failed, even at the point when Iraqi-US relations were at their best. The nationalist outlook and ideological source of legitimacy of the Iraqi regime stood in the way and nothing the Americans offered could entice it to take on the role previously played by the Shah.

To the north, even at the time when Lebanese Sunnis regarded themselves as pan-Arab Muslims, Israel could not bring itself to establish contact with them. After all, how could it demonstrate any form of solidarity with a social base that embraced both the Palestinian resistance and Nasserist ideology? But nor did it meet much success with the Lebanese Druze. Kamal Jumblatt regarded himself as an enemy of political sectarianism and he, in turn, was regarded as an Arab nationalist leader at the Lebanese and regional levels. He, therefore, would entertain no discussion on the concept of a distinct Druze-oriented political entity. The same applied to the famous Arab nationalist figures Shakib Arslan and Sultan Al-Atrash.

So one can only rub one's eyes in disbelief upon reading a commentary in Haaretz (4 December 2006) by Shlomo Ben-Ami, professor of European history and former minister of public security under Barak, arguing in favour of an Israeli alliance with "moderate Sunni regimes" or "moderate secularist dictatorships" against "Islamist democracy" (meant to be pronounced with the same sneer that was given to the people's democracies of Eastern Europe), which would mobilise an Islamist grassroots movement hostile to Israel, and against the Iranian Shia axis. Shlomo believes that confrontation with Iran is inevitable. However, rather than putting all other issues on hold and focussing solely on Iran, Israel should use the present time to neutralise the Arab world, and the obvious means towards this end is to defuse the Arab-Israeli conflict and, thereby, deprive Iran of one of its major instruments for mobilising support. Accordingly, he urges, Israel should strive to reach a settlement with the Arabs and give serious consideration to the Arab peace initiative. Otherwise put, Israel's motive for taking the Arab peace initiative seriously (which is not the same as agreeing to it, of course) is to be able to strike a cordon sanitaire around Iran.

Are those in Lebanon who rely on sectarian tactics to drum up support against their opposition aware that Israel and the US will drop them in a moment in order to please a regional power, such as Syria, should the latter be willing to quit its alliance with Iran, abandon its support for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, and enter into a peace on Israel's terms? Of course they're aware. That's why they mouth the necessary pieties in response to every call for national dialogue. It is, then, not so much a question of Sunni versus Shia or of national solidarity than a game of shifting alliances beneath new sobriquets. "Sunni", "Shia", "Christian" -- these are now the pseudonyms with which traditional leaderships sign their messages to their constituents in order to rally them behind policies that represent neither their interests nor their opinions. Now, instead of an identity that appeals to a certain set of principles, we have calls to rally around sectarian leaders who can alter their positions by 180 degrees without summoning a single decision-making body to meet or being held accountable for their shifts in any way. This type of plurality has nothing democratic about it.

No Arab even vaguely familiar with Israeli politics would have been surprised by the Israeli government's decision of 13 August 2006, adopting Resolution 1701. All Israeli newspapers the following day reiterated the three ideas upon which this decision was based: first, eliminating Hizbullah by military means is not possible; second, the resolution weakens Hizbullah by demanding the end of its existence as a state within a state; and, third, strengthening the Lebanese government (the "Siniora" government as Israel and the US refer to it) to accomplish this end will work in Israel's favour.

Sectarianism by any other name: now the idea is to support "moderate Sunnis". But several problems muddy this tidy picture. Michel Aoun and the Free National Movement has aligned itself with the resistance, as if to deliberately expose the fallacy of the new nomenclature. Hamas (the Sunni-affiliated Palestinian resistance movement) is allied with (the Shia) Hizbullah and the fact that it has been labelled "terrorist" does not obviate the blurring of the Sunni-Shia divide that Israel and the US are playing on. Then there is the Iraqi resistance, which defies any neat categorisation.

In all events, in adopting the resolution on the basis of the above- mentioned logic, Israel hoped to sustain its fight against the Lebanese resistance by other means. Not that the Israeli invasion helped, or the subsequent positions of the Israeli and Lebanese governments; Hizbullah and its allies emerged from the war politically stronger and their supporters emerged charged with a vengeful fury. But, regardless of these stark realities, new rules were called into play. The Lebanese authorities had to renounce the alliances that gave rise to the current parliament, which implicitly meant creating a gap between the current parliamentary majority and its constituents, and the resistance, its allies and supporters, had to be routed so that the parliamentary majority could take control over all the reins of government, including the presidency. By means of this elegant shortcut Lebanon was delivered into the hands of a ruling axis supported by foreign forces and the commitments of regional powers, all of whom brook no room for the resistance. From here it was only a short step to incessant mass demonstrations and civil disobedience, which in any other country would be called a popular uprising though when it comes to Lebanon many prefer to term it a "coup".

Israel could not conceal its dismay at this phenomenon, whatever you call it. It wrung its hands over how best to help the Lebanese government, which Israel and its brutal war had debilitated beyond all measure and whose weakness was made all the more glaring by the valiant defence put up by Hizbullah.

"We want to help the Lebanese government, but how?" Olmert asked his cabinet in its weekly meeting on 3 December. Participants at that meeting voiced all sorts of suggestions. They deliberated over how, perhaps, the US and Europe could be pressured to stand by the Lebanese government to the bitter end. They even discussed a European proposal that Israel offer political concessions, with regard to Shebaa Farms, for example, in order to strengthen the hand of the Lebanese government (if only the demonstrators in Martyrs' Square in Beirut knew that they were liberating that patch of Lebanese territory way to the south). But if the war against the resistance is continuing by other means, apparently the resistance is also continuing by other means. That, certainly, appears to be implied by the view expressed during 3 December meeting by former Israeli military intelligence chief Ze'evi Farkash that Israel should not even try to help the Lebanese government because that would only embarrass the government and weaken it further. At the same time he cautioned that if the Lebanese government collapsed, this would increase the risk of war next summer -- the same "war" we heard about week after week just before the recent uprising.

Just as Lebanon has not reverted to what it was before the Israeli offensive of 12 July, it will not revert to the Lebanon that existed before the current mass protest movement. But in order to see that clearly we must set aside all the various euphemisms, pseudonyms and sobriquets that are being bandied about and call things by their true names. Israel is not interested in supporting the Sunnis out of any affection for Sunnis and its hostility towards the Shias has nothing to do with any fear of the Shias per se. As for the Lebanese, they have no need for these labels in their dialogue over national unity; indeed, that dialogue probably will not stand a chance of succeeding if it lends itself to such labels.