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Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Strong Horse and Arab Society

I have just completed reading a book by Lee Smith titled “The Strong Horse.  Power, Politics, & the Clash of Arab Civilizations.”   I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Near East and the greater issue of Arab politics. I have quoted extensively from the book.  Anything in quotation marks is either sourced from Lee Smith's book or a quotation from him.  However, I have also added my own thoughts on this subject below:

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”  (Osama Bin Laden) What stands out from this quote is the lack of any hint of compassion or mercy and if it encapsulates Arab thinking then everything that comes after, is merely an excuse for Arab and Muslim history.

Arab Nationalism is defined as “A political and cultural doctrine holding that the Arabs by virtue of a shared language constitute a separate and single people.” Arab nationalism is an “elevated tribal covenant” with Islam as its engine and because of its theology of pristine 7th Century religious perfection it is unable to confront its ethical failures.  An allegedly homogeneous Arab identity is a relatively modern concept but behind this super-tribal branding is the idea of a superior racial uniqueness and it drives an Arab need to exercise power over its rivals, all of whom are identifiable by their inferior faith, sex or race.

It is a Sunni Arab world view the glue of which is Islam, created in Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia, spread by an aggressively assertive and colonialist ideology and justified by religious authority. Of the 300 million Arabs, 70% are Sunni.  The Sunni reliance on violence is the central motif in a pattern that existed before Islam and it informs the regions social and political relations. “bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm.”

The “Pact of Omar” established the laws and regulations by which Jews and Christians were awarded both protection and inferior status (the pact defined the relationship with all infidels). It defines the racial aspect of Arab superiority over all others at the same time as codifying the hierarchical position of Islam against all others.

For the Arab, God “is not the agent of history but a narrative detail, the protagonist of one story that manages to motivate groups of men to kill and die.”  If the pact of Omar was intended to regulate the relationship with conquered nations and their people, it also created an apartheid faith that is religiously unable to accept the basic humanity of the other.  It condemns the Muslim faithful to eternal jihad.

Arab nationalism has sought to erase Arab crimes against humanity by portraying a heroic legendary vision of a homogeneous Arab identity and by blaming every non-Arab for its failures.  Nazism used a motto that Germany had been “stabbed in the back.” It did so, to soothe inflated German egos and to focus the energies of the people against a mythical enemy. It exploited the prejudices of the people to unite them behind a common enemy.  Similarly, Arab nationalism uses betrayal (‘foreign’ interference) to explain Arab weakness. It exploits the failure to encourage internal debate to paper over massive inequality and to explain the disjuncture between a self-image of global power and the reality of Arab fragmentation and discord.

Arab politics is defined by a passion that is irrational, “maximalist and millenarian.”  It means that there is room only for short term, tactical back-room compromises and therefore there is little reason for public debate.  Ideas like legitimacy and authenticity have significance only between those that rule because “Arab politics is an affair between armed elites, the regimes and their insurgent rivals, who will kill and die for their cause.”

If strong tactics are not used to discourage violence then violence wins (the strong horse). It is a testosterone charged contest that the women of society are committed to upholding even as it disadvantages them.  If fear of violence is the only proven guarantee of fidelity and protection from rivals then the structure of society is determined by the hierarchical dominance of the strongest.

The perceived logic in the West is that if an organization or a person has a wide enough base of support they can not possibly be on the extremist fringe. It supplies the superficial reasoning behind the support that so many people on the parliamentary Left, those who at least in theory support democracy, use to back Hamas in Gaza.  This is the unreasoned argument made by Western supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the worst case scenario, the thinking holds that a choice between fascism and democracy is unimportant because all ideological paths eventually moderate by convergence. The specious logic (not borne out by historical precedent) is that by its nature, power is a leveler, a force for moderation.  The narrative dished out to the doubters is that the business of governance leaves little time for extremism; that funding a revolution forces the radical to focus on administration; and that greed seeks out popular approval in order to maintain its hegemony.  The sophistry in the theory is in the paucity and the pain of historical precedent.  The case of Egypt and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood disproved that theory in less than a year as Egypt tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. The Muslim Brotherhood motto in response to Western calls for democracy has always been that “the Quran is our constitution.”

It does not automatically follow that support for the electoral process equates with support for democracy or allegiance to concepts of either human rights or equality. A propensity towards the use of violence or risk taking is not the behavior of those who believe in the intrinsic nature of democracy.

“Democracy is not an application, but the manifestation of a worldview that holds certain values dear, values that, since they were fought and sacrificed for, cannot be easily transferred from one culture to another.”

The goals of Arab Society should be the same as the idealised benchmark we all share in the Western World: energy stability, food security, employment, stable health care and crucially, the social contract that theoretically undertakes to keep us safe. Given the current state of Arab society few Arab nations can deliver that promise to their people.  Democratisation of the Middle East and beyond must be an overarching security strategy for both the USA and Europe because without it, the instability that afflicts the Arab world will inevitably spread past its borders, infecting any society with which it comes into contact.

Perhaps the only lever we in the West can effectively utilise is to offer the Arab world a path forward based on self-interest rather than despair.   But if that is to happen we will need to re-awaken in our own societies a robust assertiveness about what defines us and what makes us worth emulating, and we will need to exclude those people who actively work against our vision.   

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