Friday, 28 September 2012

Identity politics is refashioning the Middle East

Amid the rubble, a product of Syria's civil war.
There can be no denying the sense of a broad, global community of souls uniting Muslims wherever they live. Or, at least, uniting a proportion of Muslims in countries across the world. What proportion? We see it happening in respect of the video trailer titled Innocence of Muslims, the release of which on YouTube led to violent protests across the world last week. One Australian commentator, a Muslim, talked about this phenomenon in the wake of a protest held in the city of Sydney:
[M]any Muslims in Australia do not simply give up their identity as belonging to a global community merely because they happen to live in Australia. Many have not bought the liberal idea of individualism, and so see events happening on the other side of the planet as personally related to them.
Rather than being excessively alarmed by this phenomenon we should be aware that the dynamic of identity politics, or public action that reflects personal values, cuts both ways. So we also see this pan-Islamic identity kicking in strongly, and with positive effect, in the wake of the protest of one man, in December 2010, in Tunisia, against police corruption and ill treatment. Bang! And then Egypt's new president, Mohamad Morsi, installed in office following a popular ballot in that country after the regime of the caudillo Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011, is suddenly visiting New York to speak with other world leaders at the UN headquarters on behalf of his country. It is clear by any reckoning that Morsi is the legitimate leader of a sovereign people.

The case of Morsi is particularly relevant because his political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, which began life in 1928 as a pan-Islamic movement. Conservative opinionators in the West cautioned us when Egypt's elections started to look like a certainty but Morsi so far appears to have acquitted his role with moderation. No sign yet of Teheran on the Nile. But how would we really know what is happening in Egypt? It's difficult. Perhaps we should remember that the provocative video trailer I mentioned earlier was purportedly made by a US citizen who is also a Coptic Christian. After the protests against it started I heard that Egypt's Copts, who comprise 10 percent of the population, feared reprisals at home.

It certainly is remarkable that Middle Eastern identity politics has turned out to be something that can play itself out globally, and US President Obama might want to think about how this pan-Islamic identity actually works before he gets up on stage to talk in high tones about the spread of democracy in the Middle East. How many US presidents glad-handed Mubarak, a regional ally for so many decades, all the while funnelling tonnes of cash into Egypt to prop up his corrupt regime? Egyptians may have wanted democracy but the majority of them also now want their own brand of democracy, and since their identity is so clearly, on a personal and intimate level, associated with Islam, there is no doubt that Egypt's lawmakers are going to be consulting religious leaders in Cairo and elsewhere when they start to formulate the laws that are going to be used to govern Egyptians.

Global phenomena and identity politics can of course also be said to have led to the current impasse in Syria, where the non-democratic Assad regime is being supported by Russia and China at UN headquarters, preventing the use of UN forces to remove Assad.

The UN, founded in the aftermath of WWII, is a historical relic reflecting the state of international relations that briefly held true before the Cold War started, which was let's say in 1950 with the start of the war in Korea. Russia's seat on the UN Security Council, like China's, is permanent in fact but also contingent by the logic of a deeper understanding. It is contingent upon the result of the global struggle between democracy and fascism that culminated in the end of hostilities in 1945. How legitimate is it then? We can consider the role of identity politics in that war. We should also think about the Cold War that followed. In eastern Europe people living in Warsaw Pact countries can hardly be said to have always willingly embraced Russian overlordship during the years prior to 1989. On the other hand, in Asia, there is no doubt that people living in countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia often thought that adopting Communism could help to improve their quality of life at home. But matters have changed with time and of those two Communist governments only one survives. Calls for democracy in China have led its government to moderate its behaviour and embrace capitalism, and in Russia some form of democracy has taken hold.

But the problem with Russia and China supporting Assad is that, at home, their leaders are often required to use force in order to maintain the integrity of the government. You really have to wonder what individual Russians and Chinese think of what's happening in Syria at the moment. Russia's Vladimir Putin apparently recently won an election, but how legitimate is that result in the absence of a free media? And are Chinese people in general happy with the position their government has taken vis-a-vis Syria? It is very difficult to know because the media is entirely state-controlled in China and so stories issuing from Chinese media agencies cannot be relied upon to accurately reflect popular opinion.

Getting back to the actions taken by the US government in its role as global police enforcer there is little doubt that most people in the West cheered when US and French jets began their UN-backed assault on Libya in March 2011 that aimed to remove from power the caudillo Muammar Ghaddafi. It was a short war, unlike the civil war in Syria that began with protests in the streets in the same month. While we cannot really know what the majority of Russians and Chinese think of the deplorable state of internal relations in Syria it's unquestionable that most Westerners want Assad removed from power.

Images such as the one that accompanies this post are all-too-common in our media. We see Syrian refugees, including of course thousands of children, moving into Turkish camps to live. In cities and towns across the Syrian countryside government jets shell dwellings into rubble, there are reports of torture being used, and we can only imagine what other atrocities are being perpetrated against individuals. On the one hand rebel fighters represent the democratic urge that characterises the Arab Spring and on the other government units fight to prop up a regime that is clearly illegitimate according to the values of the popular movement that is altering the political landscape right across the Muslim world. In the absence of a way to stop the bloodshed we are left with only one option: to personally judge the state of affairs in Syria.

Recourse to this kind of moral calculation on a personal level must also bring to mind the future. What kind of things are people in countries like Egypt talking about when they contemplate their futures? Are there elements in Egypt that will disagree with the passage through the parliament of laws that are based on sharia? How are these debates to be handled within Egypt? Is there a free media that can reliably function as a vehicle for community debate so that individuals have the opportunity to participate in government in the years between elections? As we saw in Sydney and of course elsewhere after the anti-Islam video was made public on YouTube, by the personal calculation of many Muslims the freedom to speak publicly is a highly questionable matter, and hardly a right. But when it comes to identity politics and the necessity for individual participation in the political process, at least a certain number of Egyptians may find that they are in conflict with the tenets of the very religion that enabled them to acquire the means to choose who they are governed by.

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