Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam looks at the unsettling events in West Asia-North Africa and tries to see where things would, and should, go.
The fall of old regimes in the West Asia and North Africa region, like the proverbial nine pins cannot be understood without putting everything in the colonial context.
It is specially important in view of the unsettled and uncertain situation in the countries which have seen regime change. We have to remember that the despots had been able to provide their countries with a semblance of relative peace and tranquility, at least when compared to the violence that preceded and followed the change.
Nobody holds a brief for dictators, oligarchs and megalomaniacs. However, it is important to look at the post-colonial dispensations and the phenomenon of the rise of maniacal dictators in the former colonies by placing today’s events in the colonial context.
The late 18th and the whole of 19th century saw European colonial expansion in Africa and Asia at a furious clip. It was a “scramble for empire”, as it is rightly called.
The imperial juggernaut rolled into these Muslim lands, leaving behind great destruction and dislocation. Among the casualties of the imperial invasions and colonial rule were the human dignity and cultural identity of the enslaved people. Their physical freedom was destroyed and existing modes of production and the economic system were replaced by a system that made the locals economically dependent on, and subservient to, the colonisers’ economic needs and their industries and businesses.
Over the decades (and centuries) these enslaved peoples were reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Another alarming trend was the deracination and deacculturation of generations born under colonial order. Gradually, through a process of slow Westernisation the best were drawn to European cultural preferences, lifestyles and worldview, and away from their Islamic moorings.
Naturally, as contemporary cultural theorists argue, colonial dominance is a function of power of the victors. Conversely, resistance is a function of the “power” of the apparently “powerless” defeated people. Over the course of time these colonised people exercised the power to resist and drove their colonial masters away.
When freedom came, it was freedom from white rulers in a physical, crude sense only. They withdrew from the scene, but left behind their proxies who ruled the masses on behalf of the former colonial masters, shedding the blood of their own people to appease the former colonisers, working in their economic and strategic interests.
This was a particularly nasty sort of internal colonialism, or surrogate colonialism, for that matter. The popular struggle against foreign rule did not stop even after its end and its replacement with West-sponsored rule. Even the so-called “rejectionists” of Western dominance like Saddam, Assad and Gaddafi had been silently obliging them.
In the struggle for true independence and dignity for the people, groups with different shades of “Islamist” political opinion have been there consistently. A good percentage of the liberationists today can be described as people who have an Islamic perspective on issues. Thankfully, a majority of them are what the West calls “moderates” even though they argue that their description is inaccurate as Islam itself is moderate (wastiya).
Interestingly, virtually the entire Muslim world subscribes to a system of governance which, in some measure, derives its ethos from the Quran and Sunnah. Virtually every Muslim country’s Constitution is officially said to have been “inspired by the Quran,” except Saudi Arabia’s, which has adopted the Quran itself as the Constitution.
Another exception (of an entirely different kind) has been Turkey, which, too, has of late veered to a centrist position, making itself a model for the emerging dispensation in the Arab world to follow. However, I must clarify here that no two countries (Islamic or not) are identical, as no two human individuals are identical. Hence, quite understandably, every Muslim country is distinct in its Constitution and system of governance.
Hence, nobody is, or should be, arguing for any model beyond a certain point as the final arbiters of their fate are the people themselves.
The Arab world, or Arabic-speaking world, to be precise, has a wide menu to choose from. It has also got a long experience of different political systems to help it along in its choice.
The Arab world has seen it all: monarchies, military dictatorships, Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, and experiments with secularism and limited democracy. Nothing has worked ultimately.
The most fascinating model has been that of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt that caught the Arab imagination in the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of 1955. The invaders were forced by President Eisenhower to withdraw, but the Arabs thought (and some even today think) that Nasser’s forces had “defeated” the three armies. That was the high point of Arab secular nationalism that pitted itself against Islam as an alternative.
The coming decades saw the rise of other Arab military officers inspired by Nasser’s image: Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Jaffer Numeiry of Sudan and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. These men looked at Nasser as their hero and role model, and they too had come to power illegally by replacing the governments they served. Like Nasser, they would have been hanged if their conspiracy failed.
However, by 1967 the fad of Arab secular nationalism and Arab socialism had faded with the crushing defeat of the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan at the hands of Israel. Egypt lost the vast Sinai, Syria lost the Golan Heights (and Lebanon’s Sheba Farms) and Jordan lost Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. With that the romance with Nasserism was over for most Arabs even though the proteges of Nasser sat light on Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
Governments of Syria and Iraq, hostile to each other as well as to the proponents of Islamic way of life in their own country, were run by rival factions of the Baath (Renaissance) party, founded by Michael Aflak. This ideology had no place for Islam in it.
Now that all of them have failed in every respect, a new dispensation is emerging in those unfortunate lands. There is very little clarity about what kind of a political system will finally emerge. Experiments of different kinds have failed, as stated above, simply because none of them reflected the cultural preferences of their people.
Ultimately, the people should and, hopefully, will, decide what system of government they like. But, one thing is sure: the Arabs have lived with Islam over the last fourteen centuries, and dragging them away from their roots has not worked.
What follows from here is being written with the acceptance and recognition of the fact that democracy is about choice: the wider the choice, the greater the democracy. Arabic-speaking people are as diverse in their choices, including political choices, as any other large group.
One can say without fear of contradiction that within the consciousness and racial memory of a vast majority of Arabs is the idea of a universal God, Who is the “Lord and Nourisher of the Worlds” (Rabbul-Aalameen) and they see the Prophet (PBUH) as “Mercy unto the worlds” (rahmatul lil aalamen).
These are the contours of an Islamic consciousness within which reside the ideas of humanity’s unity, human dignity, human fraternity (and sororiety), human freedom, compassion and altruism. And, above all, the security of life, honour, wealth and future generations.
These basic building blocks of the Arab consciousness and personality should be kept in mind and accommodated within the larger governing ethos and the constitutional order emerging today. This has to be part of the larger picture, rather than the picture itself. Surely, the time of denial of these truths has passed with Mubarak, Saddam, Gaddafi and Ben Ali.