Established by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud 2005 - Homs

Inside the Arab mind: Questions on Syria and beyond

Opinion | 2017-04-18 07:32:34
Inside the Arab mind: Questions on Syria and beyond
(The New Arab)- Over the past two centuries, Arabs have asked themselves an endless stream of questions.

The appropriate role of Islam in politics; the dialectic relationship between tradition and modernity; the pros and cons of liberalism and socialism; the meaning and purpose of a true Arab or Muslim identity and the challenge of how to bring to Arab societies the light of renaissance out of the squalor of backwardness, are - to name a few - some of the theoretical debates that have preoccupied Arabs since the dawn of the 19th century.

In addition, the question of how to manage the relationship with the West and, after 1948, Israel has also been a central issue.

Hardly any of these questions have been put to rest, adding to the travails of a nation seeking to come to grips with its wretched present and future. 

Still raging in the Arab mind, these open questions are causing confusion, the lack of a vision and the absence of a true sense of direction. Now, additionally, the powerful winds blowing from the civil war in Syria have triggered a number of political questions that could have far-reaching ramifications on the region's state-society relations, interstate dynamics and international affairs.

First, with the escalation of the civil war in Syria, Arabs have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, supporting Bashar Al-Assad or jeopardising Syria's territorial integrity. 

The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had put down the roots of the modern Arab state system, carving new political entities in an area brimming with a jumbled mix of identities and peculiarities. Yet, after around 100 years of state ideology indoctrination and simmering nationalism, the artificial borders of Arab states are seen as deep-rooted, almost sacred.

Even new states like Jordan (established in the 1920s) and the oil-rich Gulf states such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (born only in the 1970s), have forged a formidable national identity despite their late entry into the realm of nation-states.

Although challenged by a number of sub-state and supra-state affiliations, the Arab state has prevailed, physically and psychologically. There is a belief in the region that Arab states are immortal, their land is sacred and their present-day borders will never change.  

But then came the stalemate of the Syrian civil war, which pitted the state against a motley group of militias that aspire to change the country's political map. The kaleidoscopic nature of the combatants, and the many claimants to Syrian land, led to a situation summarised by the famous catchphrase "there will be no Syria after Assad".

In the scheme of things, indeed, the chances of maintaining Syria's integrity are slim if the Alawite-led regime of Assad is jettisoned. For Syrians and Arabs in general, this situation poses a political and moral dilemma. Is it morally right to support a dictator as ruthless as Assad in order to maintain Syria's territorial integrity and avoid its partition? 

Or isn't opposing a regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its people, and displaced millions, a moral obligation?

Second, the war in Syria pitted two nefarious parties against each other: A tyrant regime and fanatic Islamic groups. 

To be sure, in the course of the war, both parties looked in many respects like they were cut from the same cloth. Both demonstrated that they are enemies of freedom, committed hideous crimes against humanity, stirred sectarianism and exacerbated the Sunni-Shia rift. Both are the past. There is no shred of doubt that neither, in the judgement of any sensible mind, can ever lead the way to a better future.

The same dynamics are at play in various, if not most, Arab states. In power, there is usually an autocratic regime - sultanistic, dynastic or theocratic – that has a long history of oppression and socioeconomic mismanagement. 

In the opposition, there is an Islamist party whose ideas are incongruent with liberal democracy and whose cadres are short on the skills of governance. Without other alternatives, Arabs are confronted with hard choices. 

In Syria's current "dance of death", the choice has been between despotism and religious fascism, Mukhabarat barons and warlords, a republic of fear and a dystopian caliphate, or, more simply, between Assad and IS. 

In such a tradeoff between hell and inferno, neither predator is entitled to "the lesser evil" status.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 had offered a rare opportunity, a clear path out of the dilemma. In Cairo's Tahrir Square, Bourguiba Street in Tunis, the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, and other sites brewing with fury and hope, the pro-democracy activists raised the banner of reform. They advocated the creation of a humane and just political order that is neither autocratic nor Sharia-based.

But the torch of revolution was quickly snuffed out, perhaps laid to waste by these two potent forces in Arab politics: Tyrannies defending entrenched interests, and Islamist parties, long waiting in the wing for a cunning takeover. 

Six years after the so-called Arab Spring, Arab peoples wonder: Now what? Where is the way forward? And what kind of future lies ahead for Arab societies if the choice remains confined to these two forces of the past?

The third question raised by the war in Syria is whether resistance to tyranny by force is legitimate. Peaceful forms of dissent are unquestionably legitimate, both legally and politically. But taking up arms against a dictatorship is entirely different.

Obviously, no such debate would take place in an established democracy, where peaceful dissent is tolerated, and where the system's constitutional and legal lines are clearly demarcated. But when it comes to a regime as that of Assad - whose ruthlessness is unparalleled even by Arab world standards - a window for debate has opened.

This question is rooted in old philosophical debates about the state's monopoly of the use of coercion, which Max Weber argued is "one of the defining characteristics of the modern state". But Weber's theory has many detractors. Frantz Fanon, for instance, posited that violence can have a cathartic and liberating effect; only violence pays, he said.

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