Sunday, February 4, 2007

Identity and Democracy

Azmi Bishara delves into the use and abuse of Arab, as adjective and identity

One cannot help but notice in the course of the ongoing debate on democracy and reform in the Arab world that those who are most adamant in denying the existence of such a thing as Arab identity are the quickest to lump all these countries together when it comes to criticising them. Arab, as a collective designation, is okay as long as it is used in a negative context. This raises the question as to what Arab identity might mean these days to those with good intentions.

I have no intention of resurrecting identity politics of any sort. Far better remain hungry for theoretical insight than gorge oneself on illusory answers that play on the emotions. Identity politics are disastrous. They blur differences between social and political forces. They give rich and poor a single identity, and allow the former to speak for the latter, happy to share an identity if not the nation's wealth.

Instead of civil rights -- the right of individual citizens -- to have their views and interests advocated on representative bodies, identity politics allows only for the representation of identities, for which purpose people are divided according to their ethnic or denominational affiliations rather than on the basis of their convictions and political beliefs.

The question of identity must, of course, be addressed. It must be addressed because the power that dominates the world is pursuing the most pernicious sort of identity politics, imposing a clash of civilisations where no such tensions had previously existed. It must be addressed because, among those who formulate the policies of the sole superpower, suspicious eyebrows are raised at the mere suggestion of an Arab identity.

Persistent attempts to refute an identity are the most telling confirmation of its existence. Such attempts also underline the existence of an ulterior motive for the refutation. Deconstructing theories in such a way as to pinpoint that motive is the challenge that faces all who want to seriously address the issues raised by identity.

There is no point in enumerating traits that make up Arab identity: that is a kind of knee-jerk self-defence. Rather, we should first ask what lies behind this scepticism over the very existence of an Arab identity. In this context, it is germane to wonder why in Iraq, after recognising a Kurdish identity, they now speak of a Shia-Sunni-Kurdish federation rather than an Arab-Kurdish federation. Why are the Kurds treated as though they are bound by an identity founded upon common ethnic and cultural origins, or upon a belief in their descent from a legendary forefather, whereas the Arabs are not allowed an ethnic affiliation, let alone national identity? People from more than a hundred different nationalities and as many cultural and ethnic origins were subsumed under a single national identity in Israel. It was a process that took place in the modern world and no one batted an eyelash. Moreover, today, the Arabs are being asked not only to recognise Israel but to recognise its national character as a Jewish state. Yet, the Arabs have to justify the existence of an Arab identity. How very odd indeed.

There is no reason why we should not discuss the benefits to be had from regarding our Arabness as a national identity that supersedes cultural bonds. Many democratically minded people admit to the existence of only a single nation, based on citizenship, the community from which the nation state arose or else itself created in the process of nation building. The existence of an Arab national identity without citizens hinders the emergence of any meaningful form of citizenship capable of taking the issue of democracy in existing Arab states seriously. If the aim of the state is to serve its citizens, then there are bound to be those who would rather wait until the Arab nations unite, postponing the task of democratisation and taking refuge in national causes in order to obstruct democratic rights and institutions and the sovereignty of law.

So what is and what is not meant by the notion of adhering to Arab identity? What, in so doing, is legitimate, and what is not?

It is alarming that when Arab states shrug off their Arab identity or withdraw their commitment to an overarching Arab nationality they continue to attempt to solidify a national identity that conforms with the boundaries of the state and that can serve as a foundation for building an overriding concept of citizenship. As a result the state disintegrates into a motley collection of sectarian, regional or tribal affiliations producing, at best, a state for sects or tribes rather than a state for all citizens. In other words, the juridical personality that stands before the state is not the individual citizen but the pre-modernist organic group. Since, in many instances, dictatorial regimes demolished the civil structures they inherited without providing alternative structures to establish the bond of citizenship people had no alternative, when these regimes collapsed or succumbed to outside pressures to reform, but to fall back on the only remaining social structures, the clan or the religious sect. These were the only structures that could mediate between the individual and the state, and the only structures to which the individual could turn for support and protection, even if this came at the price of individuality and the free and independent exercise of political will. These dictatorial republics also made their populations recoil from pan-Arabism, which had been co-opted as an ideological prop for the regime.

Just as it is useful to examine the political and economic interests that gave rise to pan- Arabism as a political identity in the reputedly liberal post-World War I period, and then as a political ideology following World War II and, specifically, after 1948, it is also useful to useful to examine the political and economic interests that are prompting the denial of Arab identity, or at least its depoliticisation, at a time when existing regimes and American hegemony are politicising kinship and sectarian affiliations and when their opponents are politicising religion.

The tragedy is that the identity of the regional state, as opposed to pan-Arab identity, is laden with -- indeed, perceives itself in terms of -- its indigenous and potentially politicisable tribal or sectarian composition. This applies even to those instances in which state boundaries have historical legitimacy and are not regarded as the product of colonialist partitions, as is the case with Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain and, to a certain extent, Lebanon if we confine ourselves to its status under the Ottoman Empire, which some posit as favourable to democracy. In fact, pushing regional state identity as the alternative to Arab identity, rather than as complementary with it, exacerbates the crises of identity allegiances within the region state.

The importance of Arab identity does not reside in the fact that it is an expression of nostalgia for regimes that once used it as an ideological prop. Rather, it resides in the fact that it has remained in the collective political memory as an expression of the dream that emerged among Arab elites and middle classes in the Levant and Fertile Crescent at precisely that period when succumbed to a modernist optimism. Since Arab identity was associated with the modernist project of the Arab middle classes, which envisioned a united Arab market and economy within the borders of a united Arab state, it was conceptually more open. In actual application it permitted for the inclusion of non-Arab peoples, whose actual origins are now obscure except perhaps to ethnologists, into the fold of urban Arabism, and by virtue of its inclusiveness it worked to politically neutralise their other identities. Arabism was not an ethnic, but rather a political and cultural construct. Because Arabism was associated with the drive to throw off Turkish hegemony, and then with the struggle against the partition of Arab lands according to the rulers of the colonialists, it has retained a cherished place in the hearts of the Arab peoples and a mobilising power that every progressive movement in the region has sought to tap.

There are several reasons for viewing the battle over democracy within this context. Only much later was Arab identity recruited into the service of conformist ideologies that negated the rights of non-Arab minorities, and the more fragmented the Arab world became the more strident and exclusivist these ideologies became, as if demagoguery could compensate for reality.

Arab identity continues to exist as a language, a shared history, a legal identity and a call for solidarity in the face of foreign intervention. Within a democratic programme it could become an instrument for uniting the Arab majority in every individual Arab state within the framework of a homogeneous cultural identity, without obviating the state's character as a state for all its citizens -- Arabs and non-Arabs alike -- and without encroaching on the collective cultural rights of non-Arab minorities. Such homogeneity works to neutralise sectarian differences in the political arena while providing the framework for the plurality of opinion and political platforms.

Would a common supra-national affiliation to Arab identity conflict with democracy? Not at all. Such an affiliation can still form the basis for realising the dream of a federal unity between democratic states, as occurred in Europe for example, even in the absence of a common national identity. Nor is there a reason why such a drive should not draw on the old dream of Arab unity, even if it is out of date and can no longer be put into effect in the fashion imagined in its heyday. It was an enlightened dream, foregrounding the right to self determination. It was also a dream for wresting control of the region's natural wealth and then using this wealth for the benefit of all its people instead of creating a statelet next to every oil well.

To strip the identity of the majority of the population of the adjective Arab can only work to hasten the disintegration of societies not only into fractured identity affiliations, but politicises these identities. At best this process produces denominational/sectarian quota systems (which for some curious reason are called consensual democracies) that entrench traditional, non-democratic sectarian leaderships. In the worst of circumstances it produces civil war. But it is civil war -- cold or hot -- that prevails in either case because politics in such societies -- and discrimination, oppression and other injustices -- does not revolve around policies, counter policies or the analysis of policies, but simply around identity affiliations and the pitting of one affiliation against the other.

What makes it easy for outside powers to neutralise Arab identity is that each regime has its own direct and unmediated link with American hegemony. This phenomenon is reflected in the way in which every Arab nation gives priority to its bilateral relations with the US and European countries over its relations with other Arab nations. It is also reflected in their readiness to improve relations with Israel, whenever circumstances permit, by ironing out their differences with Israel as if these differences had somehow sprung from their Arab identity.

Arab identity, here, is neither a cause nor an effect. It is a phenomenon associated with ruling elites and their policies. But there is no reason why it should not be asserted, as long as people realise that it does not hold all the solutions. Nationalism, as an ideology, has always been the property of right-wing movements, which take nationalism as a guise for identity politics, often of a fascistic bent, the most extreme examples of which could be seen in many European countries in the 20th century. However, nationalism is the framework for an affiliation that transcends local organic affiliations, and in the context of democratic thought there is scope for asserting national identity, so long as such confirmation promotes the processes of modernisation and democratisation and helps resistance against Western domination. There is nothing wrong, then, if an advocate of democracy and social justice in the Arab world appeals to Arab identity, for this helps create a climate inimical to American hegemony, as well as a climate obstructive to the fundamentalist anti-American response which emanates from an antagonism to modernism itself.

Arab democrats, or at least those that are not waiting for the American tanks to arrive, realise that democracy is a set of values given force by a set of principles and systems -- the peaceful rotation of authority though the electoral process, the separation of powers, the autonomy of the judiciary, mechanisms for checking and punishing the abuse of power, a range of civil rights, etc. -- and that together these make up a cause that has to be fought for and gradually won. However, one also presumes that they realise that democracy can only take root in a state grounded on popular legitimacy, for without this precondition only despotism can hold the state together. Either that, or the process of democratisation triggers the splintering of the country into petty entities. The presumption of a minimal common identity among citizens is crucial to establishing the legitimacy of the state. It also makes it possible for the citizenry to side for and against political and social programmes intended to promote the welfare of the whole, without such divisions degenerating into civil war.