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May 12

WHITHER THE MIDDLE EAST: MODERNITY OR MEDIEVAL TIMES*WHITHER THE MIDDLE EAST: MODERNITY OR MEDIEVAL TIMES*

* Лекция, изнесена на 3 май 2016 г. в Интердисциплинарния институт в Херцлия от Н.Пр. Димитър Михайлов, посланик на България в Израел, пред студенти от специалността Diplomacy and Conflict Studies

 

 

The debate over the Middle East current changes (the “Arab Spring” that began as of December 2010) is still ongoing in full steam. It is more than obvious that the core of the matter relates to cataclysmic changes that are rapidly reshaping not only the surface landscape of the Middle East but also its deepest cultural and socio-political layers.

Quo vadis the Middle East, one may ask; what is next? Are these earthquakes a prelude to a new and more pragmatic societal order that would enable Middle Eastern societies to jump on the bandwagon of modernity, or it is a vicious circle, an agony of an ever-deepening crisis that will nail down the Middle East to the abyss of civil wars and chaos.

As of now five previous states are almost in collapse: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and—as a looming and upcoming danger—Lebanon. Epochal changes that were heralded with ”great expectations” did not come – instead nothing was brought but divisions, confrontations and destruction. As a well-known Arab journalist stationed in Washington DC announced in Politico magazine as of September 2014 – ”Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime”[i].

I will briefly outline several reasons why is so hard for part of the Middle Eastern societies to make a smooth transition to modernity. I would suggest five reasons with no claim, whatsoever, of holding the absolute truth.

  1. The first one I would call ”scars left by a trauma”. It is a deep-rooted sense of cultural difference and otherness reinforced by a traumatic memory of foreign domination, oppression and exploitation of natural and human resources. Of course, by the West, which appear both in Christian and Imperialistic garment? Whether such a perception is shored up by objective facts, or it is just a distorted or exaggerated reflection of the past is quite a different issue. This feeling is also nourished by different variations of conspiracy theories depicting the world in quite an agnostic coloration with complete victory of predestination over free will. Victimizers and victims – the White Man Burden of Kipling, against Venceremos speech of Ernesto “Che” Guevara: the two narratives are visible today, each one of them with its followers and fans.

There are two dimensions of the trauma theory’: one predominantly nationalistic whereas the other purely religious. In a resent writing, the former National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski views the ”currently violent political awakening among post-colonial Muslims” as a ”belated reaction to their occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers”. Of course, we should be very careful here not to rush toward a purely Marxist explanation of these events while neglecting the very complex nature of the facts we investigate.

The first one to take such a notion as a master key to explain the current upheavals in the Middle East was Bernard Lewis in his 1990 article Roots of Muslim Rage. Lewis gave a purely doctrinal explanation, from an Islamic point of view, stressing that the growing Western supremacy, felt by the Ottomans, significantly and noticeably, after the battle at Carlovitz in 1699, more and more contradicted the victorious and conquering nature of Islam, both as a creed and jurisprudence )best exemplified by the Quran verses: Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind 3:110).

  1. However, the trauma effect and scars from the past are not sufficient to explain why it is so hard for a significant part of the Middle Eastern societies to catch the train of modernity (comparisons should be done how Vietnam, and some Latin America states overcame this legacy from the past and now are well developed and modern). A current trend toward adopting somehow a medieval dogmatic worldview is, rather, a regrettable consequence of complete absence of reformism within Islam. Of course, a scholarly tradition would enumerate several prominent thinkers as al-Afghani, Mohammad Abdo, Rashid Rida as true reformers of the first half of XX century; modern scholars as Dale Eickelman, John Esposito and James Piscatori would bring – as we say in Bulgarian – water from nine wells to prove that the Modern Islamic world can walk confidently toward modernism.

Be it as it may, the mournful cry of the journalist Hisham Melhem, as quoted above, stating that modern Arab civilization has passed away, refutes emphatically these over-optimistic outlooks and opinions that somehow miss the deep essence of Islam, (which is not the only explanation of the current hapless situation – this will categorize us as ”essentialists”). The Modern Sunni and – to a lesser degree – Shi’a Islam badly needs a genuine reformist movement, away from the concept of ”renovation” (tajdid) which is a part of the Salafi movement.

The modern Islam badly needs a more humanistic and immanent, and not theocentric and transcendent, approach that will enable the creed in Allah and his prophet Muhammad to be еasily perceived and practiced by the Muslims of XXI century. In a modern and liberated way that will enable all Muslims to deal with people with other denominations in an effective, cooperative and modern manner.

  1. The third important problem, which stands in the path of Middle Eastern societies to modern time, is tribalism. Tribalism shouldn’t be understood solely as belonging to a nomad or semi nomad community but rather as devotion to a group, be it based on ethnic or sectarian underpinnings, and pledging not allegiance to the state with its natural human variety in all its racial, ethnical, religious and tribal components. Apart from the brutal way to melt down people in one melting pot (which is rather a distant historical echo), tribalism may be eradicated via adoption of a XXI century social contract; and not one developed in the West during the Enlightment: Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), even the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762). With few exceptions, however, as the case with the U.A.E. where law number of population combined with wise investment of hydrocarbon revenues produces a modern social contract, there are no such political practices in the Middle East.

Power, in most of the cases, is concentrated in a family, clan, clique or group of army officers, who abuse it to the extreme and up to the limits. Such societies are distinguished by sharp contrast of ”havers” and ”havers-not” and low efficiency of economy models, which usually are nepotistic and oligarchic, with no free initiatives and independent legal power whatsoever. In so far as tribalism will remain to be an outstanding societal characteristic, there will be no cohesion and synergy. That means – there will be little progress to modernity. The Middle Eastern social fabric needs a gradual and pragmatic approach to overcome the problematic inheritance from the past and to cross over the threshold to the future.

  1. The fourth huge problem in the Middle Eastern societies is the current split between the Sunni and Shi’a parts of Islam. From a historical perspective, Khilafah – the Sunni concepts of power, and Imamah – the Shi’a concept of power, is nothing but a blast from the past. The Sunni mainstream believes that the ruler, the caliph, should be elected by the elite of the community with shura [mutual consultation], whereas the Shi’a branch holds that only the descendants of Muhammad’s nephew, Ali ibn Abi Talib, must lead the community as infallible imams. Of course, these two fundamental postulates have been further elaborated and modified thanks to different historic developments: dogmatic and political philosophy is a bygone distant memory. Rather, the current split – seen vividly in Syria or Yemen civil wars – is an expression of geopolitical struggle for power and dominance. The great schism in Islam that divided the Muslim world onto two main streams as of VII century was also a split and contest for political power on the eve of the epochal conquest, which at that time would have conquered half the known world of mankind. It was, primarily, about power and influence; the religious message most probably was a secondary, albeit quite important, drive.
  2. Finally, the fifth problem that Middle Eastern societies face is the concept of power itself, considered not only as a general framework to hold a society functional and in order, but also on a very basic level, as a set of rules to organize the day-to-day life of a family or clans. Europe and the West went through multiple revolutions: not only political but also destroying the pillars of traditional societies and empowering each and every individual with the right to choose and be whatever he or she may wish to be.

Since power in the Middle East is – as a general principle – has always been autocratic and brutal, it usually needs justification. Even in their heyday, many of the Middle Eastern regimes, authoritarian, brutal and repressive as they happened to be, sought a moral reinforcement by religious institutions, somehow recognizing the deficit of legitimacy while having as their raison d’être only a poorly constructed and operated propaganda machines. Anwar Sadat, Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein used symbols of Islam thus keeping the religious trend alive and ready to react – even against them – when the right time has come.

However, on a very popular level, little has been done to change the paradigm of power. With no generational or sexual revolution, Middle Eastern societies will continue to be submissive, imitational, uncreative and more prone to be manipulated and driven by fears and obsessions.

***

The fact of the matter is that the Western world at the time being is completely aloof of different ideologies and grand narratives; our previous faith in progress, rationalism, and Enlightenment is gone with the wind but more problematic is that our conviction in inevitable victory of liberal democracy, in classical Fukuyamian sense, is also shaken.

As this sense is being opposed to the swirling pandemonium of the Middle Easter volcano – wars, destruction, fanaticism and waves of fleeing refugees, one understands that the linear aspiration toward “shining cites on the hills” is just an illusion.

With the two worlds, one bond to post modernism whilst the second badly dragged down to the swamp of medievalism, one asks him or herself where this interconnectivity may lead?

First, as condicio sine qua non, the Middle East needs security and political stability. Next step is to head toward construction of modern Middle Eastern states juxtaposed to patrimonial states.[ii] Whereas the modern state, in its public and political sphere, is run by citizens who take turns to exercise power, the patrimonial state is one of elites who deem the state as grandpa’s plantation, a cow you can milk as much as you want.

To reach to such point won’t be easy given also the multiple and diverging interests of many of the local factors. However, the Middle East now stands on a threshold and the clock is menacingly ticking – modernity or medievalism. Is such a transition possible?

[i]Hisham Melhem, “The Barbarians Within Our Gate”, Politico Magazine, September 18, 2014.

[ii] John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture: A Conversation with Francis Fukuyama, September 15, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/global/conversation-francis-fukuyama/p36973

* Лекция, изнесена на 3 май 2016 г. в Интердисциплинарния институт в Херцлия от Н.Пр. Димитър Михайлов, посланик на България в Израел, пред студенти от специалността Diplomacy and Conflict Studies

 

The debate over the Middle East current changes (the “Arab Spring” that began as of December 2010) is still ongoing in full steam. It is more than obvious that the core of the matter relates to cataclysmic changes that are rapidly reshaping not only the surface landscape of the Middle East but also its deepest cultural and socio-political layers.

Quo vadis the Middle East, one may ask; what is next? Are these earthquakes a prelude to a new and more pragmatic societal order that would enable Middle Eastern societies to jump on the bandwagon of modernity, or it is a vicious circle, an agony of an ever-deepening crisis that will nail down the Middle East to the abyss of civil wars and chaos.

As of now five previous states are almost in collapse: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and—as a looming and upcoming danger—Lebanon. Epochal changes that were heralded with ”great expectations” did not come – instead nothing was brought but divisions, confrontations and destruction. As a well-known Arab journalist stationed in Washington DC announced in Politico magazine as of September 2014 – ”Arab civilization has collapsed. It won’t recover in my lifetime”[i].

I will briefly outline several reasons why is so hard for part of the Middle Eastern societies to make a smooth transition to modernity. I would suggest five reasons with no claim, whatsoever, of holding the absolute truth.

  1. The first one I would call ”scars left by a trauma”. It is a deep-rooted sense of cultural difference and otherness reinforced by a traumatic memory of foreign domination, oppression and exploitation of natural and human resources. Of course, by the West, which appear both in Christian and Imperialistic garment? Whether such a perception is shored up by objective facts, or it is just a distorted or exaggerated reflection of the past is quite a different issue. This feeling is also nourished by different variations of conspiracy theories depicting the world in quite an agnostic coloration with complete victory of predestination over free will. Victimizers and victims – the White Man Burden of Kipling, against Venceremos speech of Ernesto “Che” Guevara: the two narratives are visible today, each one of them with its followers and fans.

There are two dimensions of the trauma theory’: one predominantly nationalistic whereas the other purely religious. In a resent writing, the former National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski views the ”currently violent political awakening among post-colonial Muslims” as a ”belated reaction to their occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers”. Of course, we should be very careful here not to rush toward a purely Marxist explanation of these events while neglecting the very complex nature of the facts we investigate.

The first one to take such a notion as a master key to explain the current upheavals in the Middle East was Bernard Lewis in his 1990 article Roots of Muslim Rage. Lewis gave a purely doctrinal explanation, from an Islamic point of view, stressing that the growing Western supremacy, felt by the Ottomans, significantly and noticeably, after the battle at Carlovitz in 1699, more and more contradicted the victorious and conquering nature of Islam, both as a creed and jurisprudence )best exemplified by the Quran verses: Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind 3:110).

  1. However, the trauma effect and scars from the past are not sufficient to explain why it is so hard for a significant part of the Middle Eastern societies to catch the train of modernity (comparisons should be done how Vietnam, and some Latin America states overcame this legacy from the past and now are well developed and modern). A current trend toward adopting somehow a medieval dogmatic worldview is, rather, a regrettable consequence of complete absence of reformism within Islam. Of course, a scholarly tradition would enumerate several prominent thinkers as al-Afghani, Mohammad Abdo, Rashid Rida as true reformers of the first half of XX century; modern scholars as Dale Eickelman, John Esposito and James Piscatori would bring – as we say in Bulgarian – water from nine wells to prove that the Modern Islamic world can walk confidently toward modernism.

Be it as it may, the mournful cry of the journalist Hisham Melhem, as quoted above, stating that modern Arab civilization has passed away, refutes emphatically these over-optimistic outlooks and opinions that somehow miss the deep essence of Islam, (which is not the only explanation of the current hapless situation – this will categorize us as ”essentialists”). The Modern Sunni and – to a lesser degree – Shi’a Islam badly needs a genuine reformist movement, away from the concept of ”renovation” (tajdid) which is a part of the Salafi movement.

The modern Islam badly needs a more humanistic and immanent, and not theocentric and transcendent, approach that will enable the creed in Allah and his prophet Muhammad to be еasily perceived and practiced by the Muslims of XXI century. In a modern and liberated way that will enable all Muslims to deal with people with other denominations in an effective, cooperative and modern manner.

  1. The third important problem, which stands in the path of Middle Eastern societies to modern time, is tribalism. Tribalism shouldn’t be understood solely as belonging to a nomad or semi nomad community but rather as devotion to a group, be it based on ethnic or sectarian underpinnings, and pledging not allegiance to the state with its natural human variety in all its racial, ethnical, religious and tribal components. Apart from the brutal way to melt down people in one melting pot (which is rather a distant historical echo), tribalism may be eradicated via adoption of a XXI century social contract; and not one developed in the West during the Enlightment: Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), even the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762). With few exceptions, however, as the case with the U.A.E. where law number of population combined with wise investment of hydrocarbon revenues produces a modern social contract, there are no such political practices in the Middle East.

Power, in most of the cases, is concentrated in a family, clan, clique or group of army officers, who abuse it to the extreme and up to the limits. Such societies are distinguished by sharp contrast of ”havers” and ”havers-not” and low efficiency of economy models, which usually are nepotistic and oligarchic, with no free initiatives and independent legal power whatsoever. In so far as tribalism will remain to be an outstanding societal characteristic, there will be no cohesion and synergy. That means – there will be little progress to modernity. The Middle Eastern social fabric needs a gradual and pragmatic approach to overcome the problematic inheritance from the past and to cross over the threshold to the future.

  1. The fourth huge problem in the Middle Eastern societies is the current split between the Sunni and Shi’a parts of Islam. From a historical perspective, Khilafah – the Sunni concepts of power, and Imamah – the Shi’a concept of power, is nothing but a blast from the past. The Sunni mainstream believes that the ruler, the caliph, should be elected by the elite of the community with shura [mutual consultation], whereas the Shi’a branch holds that only the descendants of Muhammad’s nephew, Ali ibn Abi Talib, must lead the community as infallible imams. Of course, these two fundamental postulates have been further elaborated and modified thanks to different historic developments: dogmatic and political philosophy is a bygone distant memory. Rather, the current split – seen vividly in Syria or Yemen civil wars – is an expression of geopolitical struggle for power and dominance. The great schism in Islam that divided the Muslim world onto two main streams as of VII century was also a split and contest for political power on the eve of the epochal conquest, which at that time would have conquered half the known world of mankind. It was, primarily, about power and influence; the religious message most probably was a secondary, albeit quite important, drive.
  2. Finally, the fifth problem that Middle Eastern societies face is the concept of power itself, considered not only as a general framework to hold a society functional and in order, but also on a very basic level, as a set of rules to organize the day-to-day life of a family or clans. Europe and the West went through multiple revolutions: not only political but also destroying the pillars of traditional societies and empowering each and every individual with the right to choose and be whatever he or she may wish to be.

Since power in the Middle East is – as a general principle – has always been autocratic and brutal, it usually needs justification. Even in their heyday, many of the Middle Eastern regimes, authoritarian, brutal and repressive as they happened to be, sought a moral reinforcement by religious institutions, somehow recognizing the deficit of legitimacy while having as their raison d’être only a poorly constructed and operated propaganda machines. Anwar Sadat, Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein used symbols of Islam thus keeping the religious trend alive and ready to react – even against them – when the right time has come.

However, on a very popular level, little has been done to change the paradigm of power. With no generational or sexual revolution, Middle Eastern societies will continue to be submissive, imitational, uncreative and more prone to be manipulated and driven by fears and obsessions.

***

The fact of the matter is that the Western world at the time being is completely aloof of different ideologies and grand narratives; our previous faith in progress, rationalism, and Enlightenment is gone with the wind but more problematic is that our conviction in inevitable victory of liberal democracy, in classical Fukuyamian sense, is also shaken.

As this sense is being opposed to the swirling pandemonium of the Middle Easter volcano – wars, destruction, fanaticism and waves of fleeing refugees, one understands that the linear aspiration toward “shining cites on the hills” is just an illusion.

With the two worlds, one bond to post modernism whilst the second badly dragged down to the swamp of medievalism, one asks him or herself where this interconnectivity may lead?

First, as condicio sine qua non, the Middle East needs security and political stability. Next step is to head toward construction of modern Middle Eastern states juxtaposed to patrimonial states.[ii] Whereas the modern state, in its public and political sphere, is run by citizens who take turns to exercise power, the patrimonial state is one of elites who deem the state as grandpa’s plantation, a cow you can milk as much as you want.

To reach to such point won’t be easy given also the multiple and diverging interests of many of the local factors. However, the Middle East now stands on a threshold and the clock is menacingly ticking – modernity or medievalism. Is such a transition possible?

[i]Hisham Melhem, “The Barbarians Within Our Gate”, Politico Magazine, September 18, 2014.

[ii] John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture: A Conversation with Francis Fukuyama, September 15, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/global/conversation-francis-fukuyama/p36973

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