Address: 4/2, st 216. Degla, Maadi. Apartment 34. Cairo, Egypt.
Amr is a Middle East expert and writer. His expertise include geopolitics, history, Islam, comparative culture, and Middle Eastern politics. He authored a book and several international studies on energy. His articles on Islam and the Middle East are quoted by several Phd dissertations.
Amr used to be a jack of all trades that has had his experiences merging into Middle East expertise and self-orientalism. He studied Electrical Engineering, environmental engineering and innovation. He worked for several years in the technical and business fields and have gathered hands-on experience on institutional set-up in the Middle East and business culture. He has travelled extensively to gain a comparative perspective on the region.
Scroll down to read a selection of his writings in chronological order.
Historical Patterns in the Near East
Many have tried to derive laws from the movement of history, but the involved complexity eludes theory. In the Middle East, however, some patterns almost take an eternal metaphysical dimension.
Ever since the domestication of wheat then the inception of village life followed by the domestication of wolves, a certain dynamic has seemed to be repeating itself for eternity in this weird region. Settled rural communities evolve into feudal kingdoms in fertile lands. Nomads roam on the fringe, gather power disrupt the kingdoms only to be assimilated by them. The Semites invaded Somer. An unknown change occured in Egypt’s old kingdom.
Syria for some reason stood out with some independent mercantile cities.
Sometimes, out of context forces like climate change, or influx of Central Asians and Indo-Europeans totally disrupt the order.Farmers turn into Nomads and new peoples and confederations are formed. The order ,however, finally recreates itself. It happened thousands of years B.C with the arrival of Indo-European Hittites, and maybe some predecessors like Mittanies. They were followed, however, or were concomitant with the Semtic Ammorites and Arameans.
The Persian empire was an episode in this pattern that ushered in the Greco-Roman period. The pattern, however, endured, as we could see from the mysterious revolts in Syria against Romans, and new settlements in the Persian Mesopotamia.
Islam was a quantum leap that endowed the region with a prevalent city culture and somewhat reconfigured the dynamic, which persisted, nevertheless. One of Islam’s greatest achievements was fusing the Aryan Persia with the Arab World.
Under the Ottoman empire and following a century of efficiency and centralization, the region turned into stagnant backwaters and the same dynamic played out again. Albanians, Mamlouk groups, Kurds, Bedouins, bandits, wandering outcasts, Turcomen, formed quasi-independent fiefdoms and principalities.
With the end of the modern period in the Middle East, which comprised the Colonial and postcolonial periods, in the 21st century and with the Arab revolts, we jaw-droppingly witness the ancient dynamic replay. Warring bands under various Islamic banners, tribal confederations, rebel peasants, semi religious cults are vying for power in the Levant with Turkish, Russian, and Western powers instituting a new order.
Egypt due to its unique geography in the region has always remained intact with its own laws of gravity despite its inevitable interconnection with its Near Eastern destiny. The Pharoanic system was made up of tiny military-bureaucratic complex hemmed by the pharaoh and counter-balanced by a priestly/wisemen caste. They both ruled over a tranquil, harmonious farming population. The pharaonic civilization collapsed when the priestly caste took the upper hand. For some period in the Islamic middle ages under the Fatimids, Ayoubids, and to some extent the mamlouks, Egypt regained its dynamism with the unique character of Cairo city.
The rising potential of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, Nasser, and hopefully under Sisi, rested on sidelining the sclerotic priestly/wisemen caste and the receptibility of the military-bureaucratic complex to radically new ideas and blood.
Islam and Curiosity
Abhorring questioning is ingrained in the Islamic World. The rich traditions of philosophy, science, and renewable legal reasoning had came to a halt by the 15th and 14th centuries. Islamic teaching became confined to memorizing original works and reciting them by heart without any critical addition which was frowned upon. Meanwhile, mainstream Islam became confined to superstition-laden Sufi orders with quasi-divine debilitating hierarchies.
During the Ottoman period, Persia and the Arab World turned into backwaters and a wedge was driven between the two poles of Islamic World. The Islamic institutions couldn’t assimilate the new sciences which are based on constant questioning and modernity was not understood by rulers despite several references to and reports about the new sciences in the Ottoman empire.
With the colonial takeover in India and later in the Ottoman empire, a clear vision of the effects modernity came in, and some institutions were upgraded. A reform nucleus was formed throughout almost the entire Islamic World. Alas, the underlying entrenched cultural bias against questioning remained pervasive and mainstream.
Throughout the 20th century strides have been covered in the Islamic World and Muslims spread all over the globe. Nonetheless, the anti-questioning stance remained recalcitrant and rooted in the Muslim family, with loads of exceptions and shining examples.
Secular, atheist or whatever, Islam remains the initial seed from which the minds of more than one billion people spring. Igniting an Islamic reformation by reintroducing a rigorous questioning culture into Islam should be the stepping stone out of the deadlock.
It is also a bit of a paradox that despite the dogmatic Islamist regime in Iran, a culture of questioning and dialectics is found in Iran. It is easier for Iranians to question basics and part with old structures. tc
The most attractive American cultural product is superheroes. The most obvious Middle Eastern cultural product is proselytizers and prophets. The most enchanting Latin American cultural product is revolutionaries. Europe’s greatest contribution to culture is its thinkers and philosophers. China has its bigger than life emperors. Japan’s resounding cultural icon is the mechanical Samurai. India’s main cultural product is the concept of warmth.
Islam and Dogs
One of the mysteries of Islam is the contempt for dogs and their association with uncleanliness. It is a mystery because the name ‘Kalb’, which means dog in English, was so common among pre-Islamic Arabs and was actually a prestigious name.
So.. maybe things changed after the birth of Islam. But actually no.. this is not the case. 250 years after the Muhamedean message one of the major Arab tribal configurations in Syria under the Ummayids and the Abassids was called kalb or dog.
The most internationally acclaimed Egyptian novelist is the Noble laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. In most of his novels which took part in the Islamic districts of Cairo, he exposed the stagnation of the Islamic civilization: the dual morality, anti-science attitude, and extreme communalism. Alas, there was an air of hoplessness permeating his works, an undertone of contempt, and he offered no alternative roads. In his personal life he was an embodiment of this ethic.
To my interested friends, I recommend the Egyptian short story writer, Youssef Idris who was one the world masters of short story writing in the 20th century. Particularly, in his two short stories, The Summons ( El Nadaha in Arabic), and the Cheapest Nights he reached the deepest core of the malaise in the region.
Islam and Fatalism
An unfair charge often aimed at Islam is fatalism. Obvious facts dismiss such claims. For example, in the Middle Ages a Muslim man ducked when struck by a sword. Indeed, it is true that the predominant Sunni Islamic school believes in Maktoob which is a form of absolute pre-destination in every single detail of the life of any human.
However, many other religions and denominations believe in pre-destination as well. Buddhism, which is a religion-like belief and social system, is at core about giving up desire and a sort of a natural flow with nature. No concept of free will is found there.
Besides, Shiites who are influenced by the free will doctrine of the Mo’tazila are not fundamentally different from Sunnis. Also, oriental Christians don’t seem different from Muslims and are as much fatalistic though they believe in destiny based on work.
The truth of the matter is that Muslims are fatalistic but not Islam. Why so? I wish I knew. Maybe due to centuries of stagnation, extractive system, inferiority complex. I don’t know.
Hegel’s theorization about thesis, antithesis and synthesis is the mother of innovation. His endless master/slave game is probably a law of physics, but thank god we have quantum mechanics.
The North Korean Riddle
The Soviet Union had a global ideological project that carried beneath it a more aggressive form of Russian imperialism following the industrialization of Russia.
The driving force behind communist China was bringing it to par with the West in order to reclaim its Asian domain.
Iran’s Islamic regime stands for the cultural independence of Persia and fusing it with the Arab World.
What I can never understand is what North Korea stands for.
Jordan is a maginficent country in the Middle East. It boasts a royal family that descends from one of the most ancient families in the region. The monarchy in Jordan is mimicked after the British one. The upper cadres of the state are usually British trained. The population has a Palestinian component that is skillful and hard working. They are usually good technicians. The original portion of the populace is proud and honourable with business acumen.
The country is fairly liberal– for an Arab country of course. However, the society is too closed with clan identity putting restrictions on entrepreneurship.
Jordan is unfortunately doomed to be a country with minimal resources and a single small port.
Historically, it has been a stabilizing force in the Arab/Israeli conflict: a role that has been a national asset.
Now it is facing serious problems because of the drying up financial resources. Nonetheless, the country has serious potential to become a business and industrial center at the spacial center of the Middle East.
What is missing is an inrush of huge investments. Putting aside nauseating Arab emotionality, Trump’s deal can be construed as an opportunity to create a prosperous triangle in the region of Jordan, Palestinian territories, and Israel of city states, business centers, and industrial parks
Identity In the Near East
The Pahlavis in Iran have brilliantly revived the Persian identity and construed Iran as a universal land for the Aryan culture. The project instilled in the Azeri and Persian components of the land a sense of belonging to historical entity with a mission. The Islamic revolution has further strengthened the Iranian identity by emphasizing the distinctiveness of shia Islam.
Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, followed a different trajectory. Since the dawn of history, the charming and ingenious spot of the fertile crescent has been a colourful and dazzling mosaic of subtly differentiated tribes, peoples or clans that nevertheless functioned within one overarching civilization. This structure continued into the Islamic era and found expression in the multitude of sects and tribes crammed homogeneously in this small region. Paradoxically enough, they were highly differentiated yet also integrated from a certain perspective.
Following the fall of the Ottoman empire and inception of resistance to the colonial rule, the idea of Arabism gained wide currency among the middle classes of all sects with counter-currents of Islamism among the rural elements and native nationalism among the underbelly of different sects. It was thought of as new basis of identity in the newly-found countries.
The Charm of Nasser of Egypt and his pan-Arabist orientation gave the idea a further impulse.
The Baathist regimes that came in the 60s aggressively highlighted Arabism as a societal cement and an ideological project. The high ambiguity of the term Arab and the overlapping, sometimes contradictory, meanings associated with it was never capable of penetrating the sectarian core.Also, the lack of sophistication on the part of rulers and disregard of abstract principles of citizenship sowed simmering resentments.
The rise of Gulf states in the 70s, and the ascent of political Sunni and Shiite Islam further gnawed at the idea of the Arab foundation of the state, and increasingly started to associate the idea of Arabism with one societal component: the bedouin one. Eventually, the societal cement of Arabism couldn’t stand the test of time in the 21st century.
At present, the Near East is in a fluid state where competing Ottoman, native, regional/sectarian identities are at play trying to forge order. Iran, Turkey, Russia, and West all have sometimes intersecting, sometimes opposing visions for this age-old weird region.
Alienation in Different Civilizations
I’m as far as anybody can be from any sort of dogma, especially Marxist one which jangles my nerves. However, I still find some Marxist insights useful. An interesting Marxist concept is alienation. As opposed to orthodox Marxists in the Soviet Union, Western Marxist traditions played a lot with the ideas of individual alienation, perhaps due to an inherent civilizational bias towards individualism.
A matter that is totally overlooked is the alienation of the Middle Eastern man. Intimate and confidential communication with individuals from the region shall reveal a pervasive state of alienation that is not easily detectable and is buried layers and layers under the surface. Communal and tribal appropriation of individual work, scarcity of conduits for funneling individual urges, traditional and religious constraints on expression, exploitative culture lead to deep and highly suppressed alienation. This alienation, in turn, might be a partial explanation of some visible social characteristics such as apathy, abstinence from cooperation, stealth tendencies towards sabotage, and stealing each other’s work and ideas.
In the East Asian civilizations, intricate societal machinery, bee-like organization, and a different mind-set regarding the nature of reward moderate any alienation tendencies that arise from communal pressure. Also, bouts of intense expression in pleasure time vent negative accumulations.
Going to the Roots in Islam
One of the most understated aspects of Islam is a democratic potential laden in it. Though the chronicles of the early Years of Islam are a bit mysterious, it remains certain that it was a radical movement calling for communal solidarity, regulation of mercantile ways, egalitarianism, and Arab imperialism. Of course it developed in the later centuries into a cosmopolitan civilization with equal contribution and weight for numerous peoples.
With the successful Arab conquests over a short time span, a schism occurred between the monarchic Ummayids following in the traditions of Persians and Byzantines and the House of Muhammad represented by Ali and his sons. It is not clear what the Alids really stood for. They, however, rested their claim for power on kinship to the prophet. Seemingly, they initially attracted a certain portion of the Arab tribes in the south of Iraq which was a bit remote from the Arabian core, in addition to those who lost out in the scramble for spoils after conquests.
Later on the the Alids developed into theological, spiritual, more syncretic branches of Islam with an aristocratic caste at the helm: Shia Islam. Anyway, in the initial years, the whole schism was merely political.
What concerns me here, is a renegade group that splintered off the Alids and attracted individuals and whole clans called the Khawarij. The Khawarij rejected the monarchy of the Ummayids and claims of holy descent from the Alids. They called for austere frontier existence, working by hand, absolute egalitarianism, accountability of the ruler who can be questioned by any individual member of the group. The Khawarij movement lasted for several centuries. In the 10th century it somehow partly influenced the Shiite Ismailis which had several branches. In the 10th century the Qarmatians and other Ismaili groups in the Levant and East Arabia, established socialist , egalitarian, raiding independent communities.
It is worth mentioning that later on Ismailis went through several phases and finally landed as a spiritual, tolerant, esoteric and closed liberal branch of Islam.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Turkish frontier warriors of Asia Minor who augured the Ottoman empire were less ideological and highly affected by the Mongol and Sufi stratification of the Middle East.
In the 18th century, a Muslim awakening movement started in the Middle East and central Asia. One of its basic tenets was going back to the initial egalitarian and basic pristine principles of Islam along Khawariji lines. These attempts to resuscitate a distant past unleashed a zombie. This is mainly, unlike the protestant movement, I ponder, because of the intellectual decline in the Muslim World and the lack of high-functioning institutions. The going to the roots movement didn’t stimulate a civilizational spark; On the contrary, over the course of two centuries, it spawned dangerous, time-warp, barbaric versions like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Queda and the latest offspring of that line, ISIS.
Numerous routes for reforming Islam have been under consideration for several decades. Perhaps a new route could be carved from the Khawarij movement through filtering out the pugnacious tendencies and emphasizing the democratic values of individual rights and responsibility that are laden in the movement.
Although I’m not fond of President Sadat for his anti-science and anti-intellectual orientation, I have to admit that he had a visionary project for the region that was commensurate with reality. Palestinians missed out on a golden chance by not joining him.
That said, it’s all past tense now. The alternative for Trump’s plan will be worse for the region as a whole in the mid and long terms. Arabs must trump their emotional reading of reality and adjust to circumstances through long-term planning.
With perseverance, vision, and intelligent use of what is available, the West Bank could turn into a hub of prosperous city states.
Psychology is perhaps one of most misunderstood disciplines ever, especially its supposedly outdated psychoanalytic branch, Which is dismissed sometimes as not empirical .
The truth of the matter is that every single person on earth is a psychoanalyst of sorts because otherwise relating to others would be driven by chaotic instincts. The psychological insights of ancient mythology have been validated time and again.
Psychoanalysis is widely utilized professionally in management, love, war, marketing,politics, law, and even engineering. Alas, with the deluge of information about psychoanalysis in culture and media, it has actually become a tool of misunderstanding due to too much reduction. It should, however, be placed in its right place as just a single explanatory factor or tool in the immensely complex social world.
A salient problem with psychoanalysis in the Arab World, whether popular or professional, is that concepts originating in the West are wrongly extrapolated. The staunch communal pressure, intense conformity, religious sentiments lead to the misuse of concepts and terminology intended for something different in situations that are irrelevant to the original concepts. Whilst it is true that the alphabet of psychoanalysis is universal, the definition of deviance is culturally dependent. For example, criticism, independence, sexual freedom are explained away in psychoanalytic terms that are only applicable on other ‘deviances’ somewhere else.
Art and AI
One of the peculiar traits of homo sapiens is the use of metaphors, art, and symbols in communication, creating pleasure and affecting sensations, that is, despite the presence of evolved concise language and logic. That art has persisted and evolved over tens of thousands of years up till the 21st century could be taken as an indicator of an infinite complexity in reality of which life is a part. Else, it could just be an evolutionary left over in an automatic process.
Will artificial intelligence ever have the need to create art and use metaphors? It can solve problems the human mind can’t, yet it doesn’t have an urge to unravel the universe and self-reflect. Perhaps with the increasing complexity, it will one day have similar urge and then it will create its own symbols.
Chinese Soft Power
Despite the much hyped propositions that the 21st century will be Chinese, I doubt that it will ever be so. Soft power which comes from the power of ideas, art, cinema, attractive gear, and continuous innovation is a pointer to the material and actual reach of a certain power.
The overly centralized system in China, where people are mere cogs in the economic machine of the celestial kingdom, and ideas are heavily regulated, management and organization are rigid lacking flexibility, puts limits on imagination, individual impulses and the capacity to generate art, ideas and new technology. It is possible to reverse engineer, copy technology, invest heavily in futuristic trends; however, China can never be a trend setter. That’s why we don’t see works akin to Korean pop and soap operas, J-rock and Japanese cartoons coming from China.
In pre-modern times, the rules were somewhat different as it was organization and stability that pushed innovation though the overarching ideological and thought systems put hard limits on where humanity could go. The relation between soft power and material one remained valid though. The Egyptian gods, order, harmony and peace captured the heart of Asians up to the South of Syria and down deep into Sudan and were consummerate with Egypt’s weight. The Babylonian architecture and mathematics and way of life reached the Aegean sea.
The Roman way of life and law with its twin flip of Greek free thought homogenized the Mediterranean along with the Roman military technology.
Muslim science, mercantile values, and law extended the Iranian/Arab way of life to South East Asia and the borders of Mongolia.
So, soft power is not just a pointer to material one, it is also both a tool of material power and a stabilizing mechanism. That’s why the Mongol conquest of the world was a fleeting moment.
In modern times, emancipatory ideologies, rational thought, science have made a sharp break with anything that had gone before. Rules are radically different. The edge will always be for the freer system that can respond flexibly to change and toy freely with the environment.
Maybe that’s why we will never see Chinese movies capturing the hearts of the globe. However, if it ever happens, it means that China will have seized to be different from the expanding free core.
The Illusions of a Different Middle Eastern Mind
One of the debilitating leftovers of the decolonization era in the Middle East is the insistence on the presence of a distinct Middle Eastern way of thinking or general methodology for conducting operations, solving problems, and design. This conviction is actually no more than verbiage.
Whilst culture is expressed in tastes, art, social and business inclinations, organization and it also affects competitiveness, leading to visible variations between different regions- such as Japan, China, India, North America, Europe, etc- the common denominators facilitating positive sum exchanges is the reign of rational modernity in which technical rationality takes precedence and analytic rationale is not blocked by preconceived moulds, prefabricated ideas, or herd drives. Whether in democratic or non-democratic authoritarian reigns, the marker of modern authority is meritocracy. Modernity of the enlightenment remains, however, an ideal at the end of a spectrum.
That said, ancient civilizations in the region achieved mathematical and engineering feats driven by a mythological society with organization that relatively speaking was a reasonable adaptation to environment.
In the Greco-Roman period, Greek reason and Roman organization prevailed in Eurasia. Tribal movements and political erosion put an end to that line.
In the Islamic middle ages in Persia and the Arab world, Greek philosophy, seedlings of experimental science, rational commercial reason took hold. Alas, that line didn’t, for a myriad of reasons, develop into modernity. Mongols, intellectual decline, and chaos had a toll.
The conclusion then is that this illusion of a middle eastern distinctive way is actually an illusion imposed by the shackles of the mongol yoke, superstition and pre-modern prohibitions on the thinking process in the middle east. This is not an argument for copycat, but rather for realigning the Islamic civilization with the age.
Middle Eastern Emotionality
Whilst it is true the Middle Easterners are indeed emotional, this is not the end of the story. Their emotionality is quite complex, unlike the case with other peoples with more vibrant, outwardly-expressed emotionality. They might sound posed and centrists in their own way, yet a sea of tumultuous emotions is always roaring beneath the surface.
Their complex emotional makeup is best revealed in the phenomenon of Tarab. On listening to Arabic music, which is full of intricate, decorated details and smooth yet sudden transitions from sombre to ecstatic tones, a state of Tarab is induced and is catalyzed by the interaction with the persona of the performer . Tarab is trance-like euphoria with undertones of sweet pathos. It is different from the sober satisfaction in East Asian music, the mathematical appreciation in classic Western music, and the discrete enthusiasm and enjoyment of pop and rock.
This emotionality reflects in management, planning, and design. The mathematical faculties of middle easterners are no less than those of any other people as proven by pyramids, Babylonian engineering, Islamic and Persian architecture and innovations. However, a blind spot always erupts and blocks a full comprehensive image, leading to sudden catastrophes at some point in time, unresponsive management, or low efficacy of plans. The blind spot, I speculate, comes from the manifestation of a deep and all-grasping emotional core that creates optical illusions in the picture.
Sin in Different Religions
The roots of the notions of sin in the Islamic orient are centered around the contempt of breaking communal solidarity and harmony. This, in turn, explains the dualistic morality in the Islamic World. For example, many people indulge in corporeal pleasures while preserving the image of a puritanical society. Sin stems from exposure and shaming.
In the Orthodox orient obedience is the utmost virtue, thus explaining the relative tranquility of those communities. In Catholicism breaking order is evil. In the protestant world sin stems from feelings of guilt and not achieving.
In the Buddhist orient sin stems from failure to fit in one’s place in the intricate gear.
Middle Eastern and Perception
One of the good traits of people in Middle East is that generally speaking people tend to be excessively perceptive.
No wonder than that for long centuries during the Islamic middle ages, the Middle East was a center of trade that spanned the globe.
A problem with many people in the region now a days is that they rely too much on perception without due attention to facts and systematic tools with the inevitable consequence of less than optimal long-term results and even myopic vision, whereas it would be a competitive advantage in business and trade if a way was found to streamline perception with systematic tools.
Love in the Middle East
Self-induced infatuation that fills empty spaces is often mistaken for love in the Arab World, as the infatuation wears down when the partners proceed with their lives. Sexual addiction is another form of love because the prohibitions on cohabitation and open sex turn the hedonistic relation into fierce attachment.
The most common form of love is the one that ensues from a semi-arranged or bureaucratic marriage. success hinges on the ability to maintain a Freudian dynamic though well-off girls are no longer content with such roles, under the effect of Hollywood. Also, strangely enough, it is the women who often become the dominant partner as men become highly pressurized because of the immense pervasive authoritarianism in region’s social world. If a partner is considerably richer or of a higher status, they immediately become dominant, whereas the other augments the Freudian factor as self-defense.
In rare cases there is a mix of friendship and sex that sometimes leads to marriage. Alas, the marriage becomes subject to the same erosion factors common in the West.
In the world of media and cinema everything goes and sex is basically the most effective tool in career advancement. In business, playing with sexual fantasies is a control mechanism. It is not uncommon among powerful or well-off men to have a lover whom they cherich and look down upon at the same time. The woman could be an unsatisfied married woman or a an adventerous and daring woman who, nonetheless, never imagines another dynamic.
The peculiar thing about love in the Arab world is that mystical elements are invested in it. Arabs in pre-Islamic times lived in dangerous, arid, cruel deserts where constant raiding was the norm. They found solace in star gazing and reciting weeping poems on the remains of the dwellings of the lover. Majnun Layla saga is the most common example. The concept seeped into Islam and found expression in Sufism which started off with Al-Halaj, Junaid Al-Baghdadi and Rab’a Al-A’dawiyah. They all made epic poems about divine love that had many parallels with worldly love. The tradition affected the troubadour culture in the Mediterranean and may have had an effect on the tales of courtly love in medieval Europe
There is lots of controversy about the state of sexual freedoms in the Islamic civilization. It is certain, however, that women of the merchant, artisan and bourgeois classes had considerable leeway in choosing their mates and that divorce was common. Freewheeling, intense , sometimes unconventional, sexual affairs were common among both the lowest and highest orders.
With advent of Christian Victorian values that came with colonialism, conservative, or even puritanical, norms took over the upper and middle classes. Hollywood and globalization, in an Arab world that hasn’t industrialized, have turned the love scene in the region into the hodgepodge discussed earlier. The hodgepodge often leads to misunderstandings and confusions in inter-cultural love affairs.
The phrase oriental despotism might sound like a racist cliche, but, unfortunately, it is true. The good news is that it is not and should not be destiny.
Despotism has always been a facet or maybe even a precondition for civilization.There might have been exceptions. During the short stint of the Greek city states signs of freedom erupted within civilization though the order was a far cry from modern notions of freedom. The poets of the wandering pre-Islamic Arabs embodied a strange freedom ideal that was, nevertheless, highly constrained by communal pressure. The individualism in Cairo and Baghdad during the golden age of Islam was an aberration.
Freedom in its modern sense– which in 20th century terminology is ambiguously termed democracy– came about within a nucleus in cities of Western Europe and the vast territories of North America with the inception of modernity and capitalism. The nucleus kept expanding into the 21st century.
Accordingly, the oriental civilizations looked despotic in comparison because they lacked the technical rationality and individualism of the West.
In our modern times, China, the Islamic World, and India are partly modern with varying degrees between and within them. So, are they free? Or in other words democratic? only partly. Tribalism, hierarchical communalism, and Asiatic authority in the Islamic World go against democracy. Caste, tradition and community check democracy in India. Enforced despotic harmony in China makes the Chinese experience with modernity an artificial or even idiosyncratic. Oriental despotism is therefore a solid reality in the lands of ancient civilizations. However, history, globalization of modernity, and a considerable nucleus in the orient tell that it is not destiny.
Only a full onslaught of modernity can obliterate despotism. Will it happen? Only time can tell.
The cowboy has shot the hat (turban) off the Mullah’s head.
Quassem Suleimany is basically a manufactured myth because the revolutionary guards is an intricate, highly institutionalized parallel army. He, however, played a significant psychological role in the region.
Iran’s retaliation will be limited because, paradoxically enough, an all out war is Iran’s sole serious deterrence due to the horrible repercussions setting the Gulf ablaze will have for the global economy.
Meanwhile, some role for Iran is tolerable in the region, especially with recent Turkish expansionism. Alas, attacking the American embassy was a sign of desperation. The symbolic act of shooting Suleimany will compel Iran to reconfigure its role in the Levant. After all, Hezbollah is a viable deterrent against Israel’s mass destruction.
Paths to Modernity
Superimposing modernity on tribal structures leads to fascism, corruption, and power intoxication. Sustaining tribal structures and traditions with a modern façade leads to disorientation, uncontrollable corruption and delicious stagnation, as is the case with Islamic countries. Change must be organic, coming through economic freedoms and intelligently designed institutions. South Korea and Singapore are valid examples for the last case.
The persistence of Monotheism
Christianity played a role in laying the foundations of Western civilization. Islam inspired a homogeneous civilization in the region stretching from Morocco to Pakistan. Judaism preserved the history of a group that is defined by an ethno-centric religion for at least the past 1000 years. But over the course of the 20th century physics has undermined the abstract notion of god, biology has debunked the idea of the god inside man, historical analysis and anthropology have shown that holy books are akin to folk tales. In the 21st century technology is even promising the emergence of different species in a stark challenge to anthropocentrism.
The persistence and even resurgence of religion in the 21st century is therefore a sign of malaise in the modern capitalist civilization (I’m not a communist). This might be grudgingly accepted in secular societies despite the debilitating institutions and social relations inspired by religion, which go against genetic tendencies and are no longer justified by culture.
In the Middle East, however, where communities are still defined by religion and sect, religion sounds like a recipe for endless strife, and the cause of a smouldering fire that can go ablaze at some point in future time under certain conditions because it is impossible for believers to bring together the Islamic, Jewish and Christian narratives, except perhaps for those who perceive the stories of the holy books as metaphorical or allegorical which is still a flimsy stance because God[s] don’t need to speak in riddles. Besides, this conception of holy books neither negates the exclusiveness of truth by their respective creeds, nor does it render outdated the definition of communities and even nations by, among others, religion. And even secular projects in the Middle East– though promising in the start– were always intertwined with religion in one way or another.
Perhaps it’s about time atheism was made popular and the arguments against religion found their way into pop culture.
Change in the Middle East
Some of my old Egyptian colleagues and friends accuse me of self-hatred, which is in all objectivity a way- off- the- mark charge. It is just that the concept of self-criticism is alien to the region.
Due to some unusual circumstances and experiences, as well as an unconventional upbringing, I have had ample resources and time to reflect on structures and society in the Middle East.Looking at the brighter aspects of affairs, I would say that there is a positive development in the region.
Arabs and Iranians haven’t had experience with self rule for long centuries. In the golden age of Islamic civilization there were open borders, capitalist cities, trade and cosmopolitanism. The universal Islam provided identity and a legal and institutional system.
The Arab World and Iran turned into backwaters during the Ottoman, Safavid, and Qagar era. The old institutions gave way to superstition laden Sufi orders with hierarchy driven from divine decrees. At the helm was an extractive, alien, unruly military caste with no sense of belonging to land.
The short stint of colonialism gave the region a jolt to a modern age in which there were no local institutions capable of adopting to it and upgrading themselves. People were and still are in a sort of limbo plunged into a modern era with no political system with enough roots and even legitimacy to engineer a transition.
The extremely long-term folk memory of the Middle East and rich historical experience created, however, a ferment of modernity in the 20th century that culminated with end of colonialism. The weakness of institutions, disorientation of the successive postcolonial ruling castes lead to a lurch from one experiment to the next and constant blundering without being able create a system both stable and inherently dynamic that can process the signals of the times to achieve a transition to a higher state. That said, innovations in music, art, culture, food have been impressive though understated internationally, which is indeed a sign that bottom up change is taking place.
The turmoil, chaos, violence and anxiety that followed the Arab Spring have shifted the region into a boiling fluid state. This time round, however, is different. because in a short time time-span of more than a century, loads of institutional , political and social experiences have been accumulated. Eventually the region will crystallize into a modern state with its own indigenous letters.
The thorny question that remains is: will a world in the transitional period of a new phase of human evolution give the region ample to time to be able to join the global train?
What is an Arab
The word Arab though commonly and frequently used is in fact shrouded in ambiguity. It can mean so many different things to different people. It could mean by some Middle Easterners those in the Middle East whose culture is Arabic in the classic sense, and/or those who speak an Arabic dialect. In the context of Arab countries it is sometimes used to refer to some local groups though, strangely enough, it is never used with those who are strictly Bedouins.
It is used by Islamic countries to designate the people of the Gulf states. This designation is also used by some Westerners who know the region. In the Western mainstream it is often a lazy term applied on all Middle Easterners including Iranians. In the Gulf states it refers to those whom they consider racially Arab, if there ever is such a thing. It is used by Turks and Israelis to refer to all people from Arabic-speaking countries
For ethnic and religious minorities in North Africa and the Middle East, it refers to either Semitic nomads, Arabic speakers with no lineage to non- Arab ethnicities, or just the descendants of the first Muslim conquerors.
The ambiguity is also more pronounced when used in historical contexts. It can refer to the inhabitants of Arabian Peninsula and Levantine deserts starting from the middle of the first millennium. In centuries B.C, the Romans and Greeks used the term collectively for Middle Eastern nomads though some of those nomadic groups didn’t speak Arabic and their link to Arabs of later ages is not well-established. It is certain, however, that the term was first coined in about the 10th century B.C..
For sophisticated Pan-Arabists the term refers to the indigenous civilizational pattern that has been prevalent in North Africa and Middle East for thousands of years.
Corruption in the Middle East
The word corruption in the Middle East is basically a ‘Western construct’. This is because it is not an organic term in the region, as the phenomenon of corruption is not about some oligarchs misusing connections or officials amassing public funds. Instead, it stems from patrimony and patronage in business, political and institutional workings. In a different sense, pre-modern traditions are the source of corruption. Modernity in the Middle East is therefore the antithesis of corruption.
What’s going on in Yemen
There is no Sunni-Shiite conflict in Yemen between the Saudis and the Houthi Yemenis. The warlike Northern tribes, lead by the Houthi house that is leading a religious awakening movement, are Zaydis: a branch of shiism that is almost indistinguishable from Sunni Islam.
The mountainous tribes of the North, called Arabs in the local slang, have dominated politics and government in Yemen for 1000 years. They played a pivotal role in spreading Islam with the Arab conquests of the first 2 centuries of Islam. The Houthi movement is just a recurrent tribal affair. The Saudis by their intervention have inadvertently boosted the Houthis through the injection of a regional dimension into a local affair and have lent the Houthi movement intellectual credentials.
The tribes have kept North Yemen uninvaded for 1500 years-except for a brief period of Ottoman rule- but paid in return a heavy price from its civilizational evolvement. A unique feature of tribalism in Yemen that sets it apart from the Saudi nomads is that tribes in Yemen farm, an anathema to Saudi tribes, and each tribe, clan, section and family has got its demarcated territories. The land is not communally held. Individuals within tribes own their own land. Yemenis Northern tribes have the oldest recorded lineage in the world. The present tribes have carried same names since centuries B.C
It’s a unique structure that is part sedentary, part nomad. Perhaps this donkey’s years old tribalism that has not been dissolved by settlement is what has held Yemen back.
The Egyptian invasion of Yemen in the 60s in support of a republican coup has catalyzed the emergence of town culture in Yemen and has given the North a jolt into the 20th century though, as the Houthis tribal movement has shown, the hidden, unfathomable laws that govern that important but forgotten land still defy the logic of times.
The mountainous North has historically been set against the indigenous feudal lowland South. The south, however, witnessed a 100-year British rule followed by a Marxist regime which augmented the dichotomy and entrenched the Southern resentment of the North which has lorded it over the South for centuries.
The war will end in peace settlement between the Saudis and the Houthis. It is impossible to invade Yemen. However, the Gulf states have secured a strategic victory by assuming control of the Southern ports which govern the link between the Chinese silk road and the Red sea.
Roots of Sectarianism
Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites in the Middle East are of the same cultural fabric. Putting aside the ritualistic differences, they all practice, for all intents and purposes, the same religion, as they share the same ideas of what is right and what is sinful. They have similar patterns in family relations, similar attitudes towards authority, same gender relations, identical images of society and state with similar conceptions of their roles in them. The tensions and rifts among those communities might therefore seem unfathomable
However, it shouldn’t be the case. The problem is basically political. During the past 500 years, some communities were more emancipated than their neighboring ones due to the level of autonomy they enjoyed from the central Ottoman authority, which, in turn, engendered feelings of communal superiority. Changing geopolitics in the 20th century and political intrigue shuffled the fortunes of the Middle Eastern religious communities several times, leading to simmering grudges and some racism.
The secular postcolonial regimes, regardless of how good or bad their intentions were, failed to instill in the region rule of law, and staunch principles of citizenship: two factors that over time could have changed the fortunes of the region by smoothing over religious and sectarian differences.
In the 70s and 80s, Islamization of Egypt by President Sadat; Palestinians in Lebanon; the increasingly proactive role played by the theocratic states of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Saddam Hussein’s excessive use of violence forged religion as the basis of identity in the region with the inevitable consequence of sectarian and religious resentments flaring up.
Lebanese and Iraqi uprisings
There is a golden rule of governance in the Middle East: those who carry the guns rule, and those who raise holy books capture hearts. The masses are not emancipated and thus are easily swayed by shoddy media. Accordingly, I don’t expect the uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon to render regime change.
Looking at the brighter aspects of the matter, however, the Iraqi uprising has shown that Iraqi identity is entrenched and resilient against both chaotic guns and holy figures. For Lebanon, the cross-sectarian demands of people are a historical development.
Only an exogenous force can bring change in those two countries that albeit plagued with sectarianism are ripe for change: a retrained and equipped internationally-supported Lebanese army in case of Lebanon, and a tribal force in Iraq supplemented with significant Shiite participation and a Western umbrella. The downside of the solution is that it makes the shadow of civil war loom larger and larger.
May Allah, Jesus, and Yahweh save our souls.
North African Hope
Can North Africa be the magic number that augurs a better future for the Middle East? Though on the fringe of the Islamic world, the regions of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria were interconnected with the flourishing Andalusian culture and had centers of learning akin to universities that produced vibrant Sufi streams, jurisprudence and classic gems in history and medicine.
The Fatimid dynasty in Egypt of North African background ushered in the first arts of distinctively Islamic character. The region was also a beacon of universalism where Arabs and Amazigh lived side by side, with ruling dynasties alternating from both groups, a phenomenon which despite the linguistic differences have somehow given the region a unique character: partly Arab, partly Amazigh and partly Mediterranean/Greco-Roman. Muslims and Jews coexisted for centuries in relative harmony. They still do, by the way, in Morocco.
Following centuries of deterioration with the decline of the Islamic civilization, the region received a new cultural impetus with the French presence in the 19th century.
Maintaining my neutrality on the debate regarding the civilizing mission of Western colonialism, I would certainty give the French credit for dissolving to a large extent tribal structures in North Africa. The preponderance of the nomadic element in Morocco and Algeria hampered the full of utilization of their agricultural potential and the formation of stable, centralized states.
In the 21st century, 60 or 70 years since independence, the region stands aloof watching the disintegration of the Middle East. Cohesive societies have been built with significant middle classes. Strides in education, modernization and women rights have been covered in Tunisia. Algeria over the past 20 years have resolved thorny questions regarding identity and an unhealthy cultural stratification in society. That is not to say that image is all rosy, as the region is plagued by same problems of the rest of the Islamic World: a strangulating oligarchy, a disconnected elite and destabilizing pockets in the Rif region in Morocco and the South of Tunisia.
The recent successful democratization of Tunisia offers a glimmer of hope for a democratic success story in the Arab world, once the political caste has reached a consensus on an economic road map for the country. Developmental economics should be the logical next step: exhorting entrepreneurship, industrialization, a level business playfield, social expenditure, and growth- oriented monetary policies.
Algeria also offers reasons for optimism, for despite the historical traumas witnessed by the country and the social and cultural tensions that generated a decade of Islamic terrorism, the country has seen a new, aware, moderate and rather homogeneous generation go out to the streets demanding an end to oligarchy and corruption. The measured and calm response of the authorities proves that against the yardstick of historical centuries, Algeria has matured in a miraculous pace, which can be taken as enough reason for optimism.
Democracy alone can bring transparency regarding the workings of its opaque ruling clique and re-institute developmental economics. Most of the Algerian interior is conservative, self-contained, insular and Islamic though way more moderate than its Saudi, Afghani, or central Asian counterparts. Entrenched Sufism– which is pit against salafism albeit not necessarily at loggerheads with formal political Islam, for Sufis can quite easily switch to the more puritanical political Islam– as well as expansion in and improvement of education should tamper the Islamist tendencies.
Political Islam, however, should not be confounded with militancy in Algeria, as the nation has already acted out the repressed violence of the war of independence in the dark 90s decade of Islamist insurgency. The social base of violence has been dismantled and is too fragmented. Also, specific to the Algerian case, unlike Tunisia and Morocco, there is no umbrella group creating a linkage for the scattered Islamists.
Nonetheless, an Islamist victory in free election remains a solid probability which could take the country back to square 1. It’s the Islamists now who must call the shots, following in the footsteps of the more sophisticated Tunisian ones, by asserting dedication to an inclusive regime. On the other hand, the Amazigh demands in Kabylie for some autonomy or cultural assertiveness are containable and manageable.
Morocco is not situated in a vacuum and what happens in its sister countries will reach it by osmosis. There are already signs there of some political reform and attempts at economic modernization.
Arab Left and the Way Forward
A big portion of the Arab left is a copycat of the European one, which is a bit ludicrous because it thus doesn’t consider the huge differences in economic and societal conditions, and the fact that Arab countries are still to a large extent pre-industrial. It is useless to advocate women and LGBT rights, and progressive social values while the social and political landscape is still pre-modern. They idolize the Scandinavian social democracy, but they turn a complete blind eye to Scandinavian value system and cultural background which spawn high levels of productivity.
The other portions of the Arab left hark back to the Nasserite era of the 60s with its huge public sector and state-owned industry. This, in fact, is akin to living in a time warp because the industralisation project of Nasser was totally reliant on Soviet investments, as the Russians wanted to put up Egypt and India as a model in the third world countering the Western one.
Meanwhile, the European left- the main source of ideas for progressives in the Arab world- is in double bind trying to preserve the welfare state while it realizes that the rising Asian competition require boosting competitiveness. The farther you go left the more you bounce into warmed over versions of popular democracy and Putinist patron state. The failure of Syriza and the Brexit referendum have demonstrated the impracticality of popular democracy. And the economic backwardness of Russia should hardly make it a model anywhere.
The Silicon Valley model, the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, carbon-silicon interface, and advancements in biotechnology offer glimpses of new era where man’s place in their environment will be altered.
Hence, the left’s grand intellectual project should be devising new forms of organization that ensure harmony in a novel era. At present, it should look for a nuanced recipe that balances private enterprise against the need for state guidance to steer the way into the new era.
Since emulating the wheel is always more rational than reinventing it, progressive politics in Egypt should focus on directing the biggest chunk of our GDP into investments in building knowledge networks in biotechnology, robotics and renewable energy accompanied by a program to modernise the social infrastructure in the country through reconstructing institutions and gearing the educational system towards culture change. Capital can be mustered through divesting resources from rent-seeking crony capitalists and oligarchs.
Good rulers make a difference as the experiences of Singapore, south Korea and Taiwan have shown. Let’s hope that the establishment in Egypt sheds its parochial interests and revolutionizes Egypt’s orientation, if only to preserve their vested interests with all the regional Tsunamis that are building up.
Political Islam: A Stumbling Block for Democracy
In all circumstances available under our sun, I’m against all stripes of Islamist movements and political Islam in the region. This is not because I hate Islam per se, or any other religion, for that matter. Rather, it is because political Islam, having its roots in the Islamic awakening movement of the 18th century, is a faulty response to stagnation and missing modernity in the Islamic World.
That being said, Political Islam has invariably been used by the ancien regime in the Middle East as a ploy to turn the relatively modern and powerful sections of society against democracy and as vehicle for pouncing back on power. The dogmatic rigidity of political Islam, lack of rational meta-evaluation, and inherent fascism scare off religious, ethnic, and sectarian minorities. Its alliance with the underbelly of society, which is the majority anyway, jangles the nerves of business, well-to-do professionals, and housewives with aspirations for their children.
The offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Enahda movement, is slightly more refined than the rest of Islamist movements in the region and the discourse of its leaders reveal more awareness and relative sophistication. Accordingly, they had no qualms about agreeing on secular consensus constitution, one that preserves the modernist conditions in Tunisia which is ahead of the rest of the Arab world in matters of individual liberty, women rights, etc.
Compare Tunisia to the Algerian case where the Sufis of Kabyle region (Amazigh), and the Mozabite Ibadites, a closed Berber community with a sect of Islam close in practice to Protestantism, are disconcerted about the recent political upheaval because the potential of its ending up with Islamists in power. Islamists in Algeria haven’t asserted their acceptance of and commitment to an inclusive state. In other respects, Algeria is, to some extent, similar to Tunisia, as over the past 20 years it has made leaps in education and openness leading to the formation of a tolerant, aware middle class that is secular in its own way and for the Arab World can be considered large.
Alas, the Islamists in Algeria are not of the same caliber of their Tunisian counterparts. They hover in the wings, watching the competition among the three factions of the ruling clique or pouvoir as it is called in Algeria: Security, army, and politically connected oligarchy. Meanwhile, the pouvoir as a whole is set against protesters who happen to be conscious, responsible, and rather secular. The Islamists are waiting out the unfolding of events without playing a proactive role, which in turn has given the pouvoir a chance to punch a hole in the popular upheaval capitalizing on fear from radical Islam.
Resistance to Change
Muslims (including oriental Christians) suffer from an inverted inferiority complex from the West, which is manifested in their stances on change and reform, an issue that has, strangely enough, been dominating politics and cultural discourse in the Muslim world starting from the time of Napoleon’s penetration of the Ottoman empire by his invasion of Egypt in the turn of the 19th century.
The first stance, which is predominantly middle/upper class mainstream, is for copying the technical aspects of Western civilization without a proper overhaul of the main institutions in order to fully assimilate the new methods. Resistance to change stems from a tenacious adherence to traditions. Paradoxically enough, an overt fascination with the modern institutions and traditions is expressed, which, if anything, points towards a blind spot in the collective mind. The inverted inferiority complex here is expressed in the belief in the superiority of traditions- despite the awe held at modern ones- and the origin of the modern technicalized methods in the Islamic world.
The second stance represented by Islamists of all stripes- whose base is the provincial middle classes- such as the Salafists and MBs, and even the cherished Sufis, is that of the rejection of the modern world accompanied by a futile attempt to resurrect a distant past and reinvent the wheel. MBs, however, and recently some Salafists, tend to overlap in some respects with the first group though their vision for institutions is of course more traditional. This rejection of modernity and feelings of superiority are self-evidently the markers of an inverted inferiority complex.
The working classes, which are the majority, tilt towards Salafism because of its egalitarianism, as the post world war 2 revolution in media and information , as well as the proliferation of socialism in the developing world for a short period, has directed their attention towards their miserable situation- relatively speaking of course.
On discussing the Middle East, Western media uses terms like liberal, left wing, socialist, secular, bourgeoisie, etc., to describe the different political factions and social portions in the region. The used terms can be sources of misunderstanding for readers not familiar with the Middle East because the terms stand for something totally different in the region.
Liberal stands for those who don’t oppose sexualized mingling, or dress codes that are not too conservative. They usually support policies that sustain the status quo provided that they include an outer look of a Western democracy. They are for freedom of expression that doesn’t border on blasphemy or call for sexual emancipation. They usually don’t mind alcohol so long as it is not served on religious occasions.
Secularists support freedom of belief but mostly for mainstream Abrahamic faiths. They oppose corporeal Islamic punishments but don’t mind incorporating elements of sharia into the law.
Socialist is either about hating the bourgeoisie and rich and calling for nationalizing the economy, or it is about not despising the poor along with some philanthropy. Developmental policies of the Brazilian type are totally off the agenda.
Left wing nowadays means a mix of elements of intersectional feminism, vague shouts about freedom, cries for the poor, and snide remarks about regimes.
Bourgeois means flaunting expensive gadgets and lavish brands on every possible occasion, tipping generously, talking about emigrating to Canada because the country has become unbearable, as well as showing off intimate knowledge about the private lives of Hollywood stars.
Time Bomb in Syria
American withdrawal from North East Syria and the expected subsequent Turkish invasion will have far-reaching implications on the convoluted and overlapped multiparty conflict in the Levant and wider Middle East. Turkey will most probably resettle Sunni Arab refugees in the area, which in a polarized Middle East with boiling religious and sectarian sentiments will give a breath of life to Sunni insurgency.
The wrath of Jihadism, whether from ISIS, Al-Queda, or the variety of clones they spawn, will be directed at Assad, Russia, and Shiite militias.
The dispersion of Kurds, though not numerically that significant to tilt balances, will have the effect of lumping Sunnis in the Levant and Turkey together; fueling grief and simmering anger among Kurds in Syria and Turkey. They might be left with no choice but go into a sort of tactical alliance with the Assad-Iran camp. Russia in turn might try to exploit the Kurdish grief.
The Turks have to be wary, however, because experience has shown that feeding the Jihadi beast doesn’t render one safe from its bites.
The new Sunni mass in North East Syria will form a backwall and a new vein to possible Sunni insurgencies in the North of Iraq.
The Libyan Dilemma
The clown Gaddafi turned Libya into a travesty of a country. Instead of learning from Norway on how to utilize the oil wealth sustainably into building indigenous capabilities and modernising the country, he wasted the wealth on bribing clans and cronies while leading a cosmic surreal battle against the reptilians who are suppressing the Arabs. I seldom watch TV, but I really miss my nights infront of my satellite TV set laughing like hell while being entertained by his speeches over gallons of scotch whiskey.
One good thing he did, however, is dissolving to a large extent the tribal structures in Libya by relocation policies and mixing people in different regions. Tribes were replaced by regional affiliation. A major dichotomy remained, however, between the Arabized Berber of the West, on whom he relied, and the South on the one side and the rather Egyptianized Arab tribes of the East on the other. The Eastern tribes have grievances against Gaddafi, as they were the bulwark of old royalist regime against which Gaddafi launched a coup in 1969. In Misrata there was a thorn to the side of his regime in the city dominated by a mixed Turkish and Arab stock presided over by Bazari conservative traders with Muslim Brotherhood affiliations. The Arab tribes in the central coast area remained loyal to Gaddafi.
The downside of the Libyan structure is the lack of overwhelming tribal leaderships that can reach a settlement for some sort of a decentralized state with functioning government. Instead, we have two loose coalitions of militias, one dominated by Misrata Islamists in the West, whereas the other is lead by the quasi-secular general Haftar, who was a dissident during the Gaddafi era, in the East. The Eastern bloc seem to favour a quasi-secular regime, the type prevalent in the Middle East. Some tribal affiliations remained strong in the East and seem to be main source of Haftar’s militias.
Apparently, none of the two loose coalitions can overwhelm the other and impose a status quo of order. The central coast tribes seem to have grievances against both camps and are not as well-armed as the Western and Eastern coalitions. They also lack the numerical power to tilt balances.
The Islamists are supported by Turkey and Qatar, whilst Haftar is supported by the UAE, Gulf states, and Egypt. None of the two big coalitions is a coherent force in the strict sense. Rather, we have lawless militias vying for resources and power. Once real power has been transferred to the forces of militias and regionalism, no political settlement can ever impose order because the final word will always be for the gun. What makes the situation in Libya even more complex is that different NATO powers lean towards opposite sides of the two loose coalitions.
The elections that followed Gaddafi downfall showed that a significant portion of Libyans, especially urbanized townsfolk, long for a stable non-religious government. This urbanization was partly the outcome of Gaddafi’s relocation policies. Alas, the voice of civility is silenced by gang and militia rule.
Nothing can rein in the militias and disarm the feuding factions except overwhelming force which can only by provided by NATO. Since it was the NATO which played the major role in toppling Gaddafi, it now has a moral responsibility to complete the unfinished job and restore order.
The Demons of Lebanon
The creativity of the Lebanese demonstrators is enchanting. It’s a flicker of hope in an otherwise gloomy Middle East. Digital and civilized boys and girls are parading in mass demonstrations that smack of irony and wit to ask for a functioning state and policies elevated above the parochial interests of oligarchs and militias. Alas, in the Middle East water always reaches its own level unless hydraulic pumps are introduced by outsiders. Hezbollah has the big guns, whereas Christian and Sunni seigneurs control the economy. It’s a symbiotic relationship– hectic though it is.
The young dudes know exactly what needs to be done to break the deadlock imposed by Hezbollah and the seigneurs over the country. Unfortunately, ending the gun law requires a regional settlement.
An argument for sponsoring such settlement by superpowers is the potential Lebanon has for turning into an ignition spark of wide regional cultural and religious reforms.
Egypt’s Fatal Mistake
At the core of Egypt’s intractable dilemmas lies a wrong strategic orientation which was decided upon by President Anwar Sadat in the 70s.
In the first half of the 19th century, Egypt was the first country in the Islamic World to introduce modern Western technical education, and to try to catch up with industrial revolution by building mechanized factories. Despite being way ahead of the Islamic world, the reforms didn’t work out. Partly because the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, failed to understand that to assimilate the new technology and science, social organization and cultural patterns had to change. His imperial ambitions which lead him to invade Turkey put him under European pressure.
In the second half of the 19th century, especially during a 40-year British occupation, Egypt turned into a cosmopolitan hub, a process which opened part of the gentry and educated middle class up to the ideas of nationalism, emancipation, and modernization.
The era culminated in Nasser’s revolution in 1952. In the 50s and 60s, Egypt witnessed unprecedented leaps in industrialization, socialism, education, and social modernization, wrapped under the cloak of nationalism, that put it at the forefront of the developing world. Alas, the revolutionary zeal pushed the country into risky geopolitical adventurism that was beyond its capacity and real power.
In the 70s, President Anwar Sadat concluded that two decades of adventurism and wild experimentation were just too much. The conclusion was not necessarily all wrong. The mistake was in the alternative which he carved out. He somehow came to believe that the problems Egypt faced were because of attempts to modernize too much under Nasser. He decided that the new route for Egypt would be capitalism with traditional values. Traditional values in the multilayered Egyptian society for him meant those of the pre-modern, tribal, religious village of the hinterland.
Accordingly, an unholy alliance was created between capitalism and traditional values that generated corruption, crony capitalism, and intellectual, social, and economic stagnation.
The catatonic Mubarak lacked the capacity to think intelligently or creatively and so he followed blindly in the footsteps of Sadat, leading to the dismal deterioration of the once promising Egypt in all fields.
In a previous post I mentioned one type of the opioids used by Muslims to spare them the heavy burden of reform, which is basking in the reflected glory of the illusion that the West is Muslim without Islam.
The second opioid is imperialism and imperialist conspiracy against Islam and Africa. So, let’s test the imperialist hypothesis against facts on the ground. Islamic World and Africa have been devoid of occupation for the last 60-70 years, except for some marginal pockets. The Iraq war- though a mistake as admitted by many in the West- was launched in response to demands from significant portions of population. In Syria and Libya warring local factions solicited the help of various foreign powers in a testimony to the failure of the local regimes in sound state and institutional building.
Further, most of the Southern countries are ruled by cliques that were spawned by the liberation and decolonization movements. Hence, it is difficult to buy into the notion that those cliques are clients of the West. The more viable explanation therefore for their unwillingness to implement the necessary reforms is parochial self-interest.
Some might argue that economic imperialism is the new game of the imperialists. This indeed is a strange argument because I can see no reason why Nigeria, Iran, Morocco, and Pakistan couldn’t build modern competitive economies following in the footsteps of China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile. In other words, only internal social and cultural factors can explain the egregious economic shortcomings.
That said, one has to acknowledge that the globe is not one happy big yellow submarine. Nations compete hard in trade and for resources in a rule-based world order. Accordingly, those who fall behind need to work harder to seriously address the root causes of their lack of competitiveness.
Evolution of Modernity in the Middle East
Erdogan’s sustained power in Turkey has proved that despite three quarters of a century of secularism, westernization, educational reforms, and modernization, the Islamic identity in Turkey has remained recalcitrant. Nonetheless, conservative Islamic trends and Erdogan’s aspirations for more radical Islamization have been met with fierce societal resistance, eventually leading to a fault line between a form of nominal Islam which is conceived as part of national history, heritage and a cultural impulse on the one side, and a conservative one similar to the one in Arab countries on the other.
The stability of Turkey, and the openness of its conservative masses to a more secular alternative of Erdogan have been enabled through the construction of a nationalist, ethno-centric history of the journeys of the Turkic tribes over thousands of years separate from Islam. Hence, with the presence of other bases of dignity and identity apart of Islam, lesser resistance is met against Turkey’s Western orientation.
In Iran, on the other hand, the Pahlavi dynasty embarked starting from 1925 on a project to modernize, industrialize, and secularize Iran which by the 70s had culminated in a secular and promising nation. Alas, one crucial difference between Iran and Turkey determined the aboutface in Iran and the Islamic revolution of 1979. Whereas the Turks throughout history have been mercenaries, professional military caste at the disposal of caliphs, and raiding nomads, the Persians stopped going to war since about 1000 A.D; instead they Persianised a strain of Islam going in parallel with the one in Arabic-speaking lands and have been first and foremost burghers, venturing traders, and intellectuals.
Although Iran has been ruled by Turkic tribes since the 11th century, the power of the Persian culture in its Islamic form Persianized the Turks and maintained an Islamic/Persian character of Iran. Accordingly, it was more difficult for the Pahlavis to separate the Persian identity from Islam, leading to the outbreak of an overwhelming Islamic revolution against the perceived degeneration of the secular Pahlavis.
In the Arabic-speaking lands, Arabization has not been complete as the original conquistadores went back to the desert after 200 years from the birth of Islam living as pirates, or mingled in cities leading the creation of a new, fluid basically Islamic identity. Some Arab tribes, however, played a military role along the Turks though not on permanent basis. The Westernisation or modernization of Arab countries therefore requires the region to reconcile itself with its history and geography as an open, diverse one at the intersection of three continents, and stressing the elements of continuity between its Islamic and Hellenistic Past. Alexander the Great is as much a part of our history as Muhammad is.
Israel for its part is a special case. The participation of the Ashkenazi jews in the European enlightenment and the creation of the Zionist project established them as a role model for Mizrahi and Sephardic ones, culminating in the creation of a Hellenistic civilization in Israel.
The Difference Between Latin America and the Middle East
It is misguided to apply conceptions about people, societies, and polities derived from Latin America on the Middle East. There are many similarities, of course, like extractive regimes, cronyism and strong conservatism. However, there are fundamental differences between the two regions. First, the dichotomies and cronyism in Latin America are more structural as they stem from certain population stratification that goes back to the founding conditions.
In the Middle East, different population layers and ethno-sects have been constantly reshuffling fortunes and relative weight over 1000 years. The communalism of Islam has always acted as a homogenizing force. The present outbreak of sectarian and class strife pertains to a large extent to the failure of the post- colonial regimes to instill principles of citizenship and strong rule of law. In a different sense, it is due to inadequate internalization of modernity. On the flipside, the communalism of Islam generates patronage and rule of infallible community leaders who play the role of absolute virtual imams, leading to economic inefficiencies and arbitrary power for the ‘Imams’.
An advantage for Latin America is that the anti-establishment forces have usually been leftist and internationalist, which infused a higher level of dynamism in the middle classes shown by the- generally speaking- better social and economic indicators in Latin America. In the Middle-East, on the other hand, reformers have almost always had their eyes on reincarnating a past era. Also, in Latin America there are no cultural stumbling blocks or civilizational sensitivities that block the introduction of modernity. In Brazil, Argentina, and Chile there have been indutralization ambitions on the part of the Bourgeoisie, which reflected in more metropolitanism, larger middle class, and a relative watering down of cronyism.
Conspiracy Theory Vis-a-Vis Reality in the Middle East.
Someone once asked me a question: “Why aren’t we getting lots of foreign investments that can transform the Middle East?”
My answer was straight. Overhaul the corruption nests that are our institutions and convert them into lean, efficient, thinking organizations which can plan and furnish investment opportunities. Address the monopoly on knowledge imposed by the oligarchs through investment in knowledge networks: research centers, technology transfer centers, information clearing houses, libraries, etc., Set legal and institutional checks on the power of the mafia-like crony capitalists who hamper entrepreneurship. Focus on teaching humanities and philosophy in secondary schools to address the enervate fatalism of the population.
I got no answer. It is easier to blame the West. What the friend couldn’t get is that it is entirely ridiculous to expect the West to help us while we are not helping ourselves.
There is no Western conspiracy against the progress of the Middle East. During the time of Iran’s shah, rates of technological progress were high, land reforms were enacted, and private and public investments in industry were record high. Iran now is trying to achieve on its own, with some Chinese aid, what was happening smoothly under the rational Shah when it was not acting as a crusade. But why act as crusade in the first place?
When Saddam Hussein acted rationally, the technological modernization of Iraq was backed by Paris and Washington.
In the 50s and 60s under Nasser, Egypt had rates of technological penetration and economic growth unmatched in China, India , and Turkey. Alas, our fortunes were squandered on tribal mountainous wars in Yemen near the Saudi oil fields, leaving Sinai defenseless in 1967.
Democratizing the Middle East
The Arab spring failed because Arab/Islamic societies are not democratic. Both the masses and elites are tribal with society and economy organized in informal patron-client networks- close in nature to mafia- bonded by absolute obedience to the patron. Hence, countries became liable to chaos and disintegration once the grip of authorities seemed lax. Democracy for the masses meant Sharia law and reign of the even more tribal men of Islamic letters, which turned the middle class supporters of change against it
The trend is enshrined in the Islamic culture. Societies in the Islamic world since the 13th and 14th centuries have been organized in myriad of extremely hierarchical Sufi brotherhoods, and Shi’a sects where the sheikh, Sharif, Sayid were delegated quasi-divine authority to even the extent that the leader could have sexual intercourse at will with his male followers who, even though they might not be gay, gladly indulged the whims of the patron because they had a holy provenance.
The Turco-Mongol military caste at the helm of the pecking order was extractive and estranged from the local environments, yet in many cases they had an alliance with the holy men as mechanism for mass control. So, all in all we had an excessively hierarchical socio-political order based on crazy blind obedience and extractive regime on top.
When Egypt Broke free from the Ottoman empire in the turn of the 19th century it initiated a trend throughout the Muslim world calling for change through opening up to the flourishing Western civilization. All the same, although western dressing ways were imported, and universities and schools moulded on the Western model, the underlying institutions and traditions remained the same. The upside, however, was the creation of tiny semi-Westernised middle class, which eventually lead up to the revolutionary and modernizing regimes of the 50s and 60s in the Arab World, Iran and Pakistan.
Alas, those regimes ultimately generated the dysfunctional Middle East of the present day. Despite the vast social mobility in the 60s, expansion in public education, industrialization projects and top-down push for the emancipation of women, the same governing logic remained intact. The national militaries replaced the Turco-Mongol caste, and corrupt, ‘dignified’ statesmen and business people assumed control of same patron- client networks which couldn’t respond to the challenge of technological and economic modernization and eventually globalization induced a chaotic, disorientated region rent by centrifugal forces with no compass for the future.
one also has to point out that ‘Islam’ was different in its first 6 centuries. The development of the Islamic law was to a large extent a bottom-up democratic process and cities throughout the Middle East were characterized by relatively high levels of individualism, dynamism, venture and economic enterprise.
Finally, the crucial question of which the answer is the key to the future: how can we make a socio-cultural change in the Muslim world without a resort to self-defeating fascism?
Middle Eastern Sexuality
An exorbitant amount of energy in the Islamic world is wasted on sex, either on securing it or sorting out psychological issues arising from the disproportionate reliance of notions of honour and self-esteem on the female figure. The metaphor of fucking and getting fucked is thus pervasive in social relations and in perceptions of others. Muslim women are partners in this dynamic as well, as they juggle the ideals of sisterhood and motherhood with sexuality to gain power in male-chauvinist society.
This highly sexualized world-view act as a barrier against the infusion of radically new ideas, change and even freedom because opening up is always synonymous with getting fucked. Under the right circumstances, exposure to a deluge of different ideas and perspectives leads to violent counteraction.
So, as many have pointed out, the key to reform in the region might be the emancipation of women. Women need to quit playing the double game and reconcile themselves with their sexuality. Lots of cultural and intellectual products therefor must be directed towards the issue of Muslim women and their emancipation, but they have to be tailor- made to resonate with their psyche.
It might be a tempting explanation, but I don’t think that Islam is the culprit when it comes to women’s problems- albeit it is the carrier of value and the compass guiding the lives of people in this region- because many cultures have been through this stage, and I suspect that similar problems exist in India as well.
The Significance of the Middle East
During the second half of the 20th century, Israel and Arabs had a beautiful symbiotic relation. Israel wouldn’t have had a privileged status in the Western world without Arab animosity towards it. Arabs, on the other hand, wouldn’t have had an excuse for their mishaps without Jews.
In the 21st century, the equation has changed. Now Turkey and Iran are bringing Arab officialdom closer to Israel, as both of them waste their energies, trying to dominate the center of gravity of Islam, which happens to harbour the largest share of global oil reserves. That Middle Eastern reserves are slowly declining in strategic significance, due to new drilling technologies, renewable energy and EVs, isn’t, in fact, helping much in alleviating the lure of the region.
Islam and Economic Modernisation in the Middle East
Despite the impressive success of democracy in Tunisia, an Arab/Muslim country, the economy is a disappointment. This is because democracy doesn’t necessarily obliterate oligarchy- Pakistan is a case in point, for although It is a democracy, it is still oligarchic as well as being semi-feudal- which stifles entrepreneurship, competitiveness, or even growth-oriented state investment, and leads to inefficient, skewed allocation of resources. Oligarchy in Islamic countries doesn’t spring out of a vacuum; it stems from societies organized on patronage and clientelism where there is not much emphasis on free association and individualism. Also, the concept of common good is not well-entrenched partly because there are no traditions of strong, impartial states.
East Asia is an exception: lacking in traditions of individualism, Intricate social organization, patriotic sense and strong states turned what might be termed oligarchies into engines of growth.
The organic nature of oligarchy in the Islamic world is best exemplified in Turkey. Having achieved impressive growth over the past 15 years through stemming the old oligarchy, attracting German investments, and a combination of low interest rates and economic freedoms; a new oligarchy has now taken place of the old one putting the brakes on Turkey’s previous exponential growth.
Still, being somewhat isolated from the destructive turmoil of the Middle East, North Africa (Tunisa, Algeria and Morocco), stands a chance of becoming a beacon of hope. The sustainability of democracy in Tunisia along with high literacy and education rates, as well as the emancipation of women gives democracy a chance to recalibrate economic policies over time. Algeria, though lagging behind Tunisia in human development indexes, stands even a better chance for a prospective boom if a democratic transition is achieved, as it boasts functioning institutions, lesser social stratification, relative rule of law, proud citizenry, and political maturity after a bloody decade. Another important factor contributing to the better prospects in North Africa is the fact that the French dissolved tribalism in it, setting its countries apart from countries like Jordan or Syria with similar socio-economic conditions. By osmosis, Morocco will be influenced by what happens in its 2 sister countries.
The Future of Turkey
Erdogan is emblematic of everything that went wrong with reform in the Islamic world. Reformers usually taken in by initial success end up losing touch with realty and failing to understand the challenges still facing them and so they overstep their limits, blunder, plunge their countries into risky strategic games, and fail to come up with a plausible roadmaps for the future.
Over the past 15 years Erdogan has presided over an impressive economic growth that transformed Turkey through stemming the old oligarchy, increasing economic competitiveness and attracting German investments. He empowered the peasants of Anatolia and set them against the old secular westernized elements of the old regime. Intoxicated by his success he set out to revive the old Ottoman empire in a new outfit. In the midst of his euphoria he overlooked the fact that Turkey is still a developing country that despite being the most industrialized country in the Islamic world, it doesn’t manufacture advanced arms and can’t make technology.
He stopped playing second fiddle to the West because of delusions of grandeur, neglecting the fact that the West is Turkey’s ultimate guarantor of security against its mighty Russian neighbour, as well as being the life vein of its economy and technology.
His adoption of a global Sunni Islamist project has distanced from him Azerbaijan, his closest ethnic relative, put him at loggerheads with the powerful classes in the Arab world, and eventually lead to his encirclement by Russia in Syria, the Mediterranean and Crimea. He is not strong enough to lure the Turkic Central Asians away from China and Russia. And the upshot of his adventurism in Syria has been the creation of a contiguous offshoot of the PKK along his Syrian borders. His outreach to the Uygur in China has antagonized China.
The phenomenon of Erdogan point to a fatal shortcoming of the modernist secular regimes in the Islamic world. The secular Turkish republic was controlled by an oligarchy that stymied the Turkish potential and neglected the development of the Anatolians. The same dynamic is also visible in North Africa. These secular models based on oligarchy can never be sustainable, as they carry with themselves the seeds of their demise by creating the enabling conditions for an Islamist take over.
I, however, believe that Turkey with its history, culture, highly developed strata and proximity to Europe is the last viable model for modernity in this part of the world and hence I sincerely wish that it could recalibrate its compass and lead the region in a different direction, for It is possible to be “neo-Ottoman”, secular and pro-west at the same time.
Sexual Revolution in the Middle East
Social and/or economic change usually precedes political change. Islamic societies are not democratic, as the social and economic structures of family, business, state institutions are repressive and tribal with cronyism and corruption being the inevitable outcome. Accordingly, any democratic experience in those countries could never be stable. However, 10 to 20% of the population are actually well-educated with secure jobs and stable income, yet they are socially conservative despite the fact they are immersed in Hollywood movies, follow and identify with the stars, and travel abroad quite often. All sorts of sexual relations happen under the table, but things never come to the surface or it would be akin to social suicide.
If this portion of the population in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Morocco, which is the role model for the rest, starts breaking the taboos of fornication, cohabitation, and parts with societal and family traditions, then within a generation all the authoritarian structures will fall.
Other undemocratic parts of the world have different problems. Russia which is an authoritarian and crony country is way more developed and industralized than the Islamic world, so its problem is about reaching a compromise for a political democratic formula and enhancing the rule of law. In China, there are relative economic freedoms, as well as sexual freedoms and so it is only a matter of time before democracy will ensue, especially with all the rising expectations, suppressed peasants and expected economic slowdown.