Ideological Divide in Arab World

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent

The Arab world is facing a major ideological divide and as long as a lasting solution has not been found to bridge this deepening gap, there would be no visible end to the ongoing crisis in the Arab world. The question, however, is why the Arab world is facing such a profound ideological divide? The reason should be sought in two important realities:

1. The issue of Palestine and the inability of the Arab countries to find a proper solution for it; and

2. The fact that the Arab world lags behind global civilizational progress.

In fact, the Arab world is experiencing the current ideological divide due to its inability to give a proper answer to these two major problems. In a preliminary analysis, one may claim that three different ideological currents which pursue almost the same goals are claiming that they have the exclusive solution to these two problems. The three currents include:

1. Arab nationalism pivoting around Egypt;

2. Radical Islam with Saudi Arabia at its center; and

3. Liberal democracy, which has no specific regional axis and exists in scattered cells among the middle class of almost all Arab countries.

The Arab nationalists experienced their main period of thrive following the military coup d’état conducted by [the former Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, who put an end to the monarchical rule in the North African country. From their viewpoint, Arab nations were considered powerful and united around the axis of their Arab identity. Proponents of this political current believed that the Western colonialist powers have divided the Arab world into smaller monarchial rules run by families. As a result, they argued, in order to rebuild and reinvigorate their innate power, Arabs should become united under the flag of nationalism in order to be able to address both major problems facing them; that is, the issue of Palestine and their civilizational lag. The way that Arab nationalism came into being barred it from going beyond the surface of nationalism from the very beginning because it was formed as a consequence of pressures resulting from the realities of the bipolar world system during the Cold War era. As a result, such nationalistic tendencies were laced with some sort of superficial socialism and more than finding a real maneuvering room to act, were restrained to populist slogans. The Baath parties in such countries as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan were touched by the socialistic Arab nationalism as a result of which their respective countries experienced the harshest form of military dictatorship. Those dictatorships not only failed to come up with a solution to the issue of Palestine and the civilizational lag of the Arab world, but also ended in the bitter experience of several military defeats at the hands of Israel, which further exacerbated the underdeveloped situation of their countries.

In fact, Arab nationalism had no real solution for the fundamental problems with which the Arab world was faced. On the contrary, it has simply served to exacerbate the ideological divide between nationalism and Islamism, on the one hand, and democracy seeking currents, on the other hand. At the same time, nationalist forces have faced strong resistance from both the Islamist and democracy seeking forces. The current situation in Egypt is the most objective example of this situation where nationalism has resorted to violence in order to banish both the Islamist and democracy seeking forces from the power. Under cover, however, both those currents have been growing with the strong notion that they have the clue to the exclusive remedy which will put an end to all suffering of the Arab masses.

After the Muslim Brotherhood started to grow in Egypt, its offshoots in other Arab countries also became more active as a form of ideological school of thought under the banner of Islam. As such, they managed to draw a lot of attention to themselves and their plans in the Arab world and even beyond that among the Sunni Muslims inhabiting the Indian Subcontinent and East Asia in the form of various Islamic groups. The Islamism, however, had another violent facet as well. It was the fundamental and radical Islam as preached by Salafist and Wahhabi groups based in Saudi Arabia. This radical force has currently turned into a powerful current which is playing its role in the ongoing developments of the Arab world. Its various tributaries include the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Al-Nour Party in Egypt, the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, Al-Shabaab militant group in Somalia, and so on.

After the failure of the power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the radical Islamist groups have reached the conclusion that now is their best chance to follow up on their goals. As a result, and in order to find a proper solution to the issue of Palestine, they have come up with their new specific strategy according to which they have divided their enemies into “near enemy” and “far enemy.” In line with this strategy, they argue that the priority should be given to fighting the near enemy because as long as the scores with this enemy have not been settled, it would not be possible to engage in all-out and serious confrontation with the far enemy and emerge victorious as well. The recent developments in the Arab countries, which are known as the Arab Spring, have provided a good breeding ground for further growth of this line of thinking. According to this viewpoint, as long as the Arab world has not become an integrated Islamic state, the occupation of Palestine cannot be terminated. They also maintain that the purported integration of the Arab world can be only realized when two major ideologies of democracy, which has its roots in the West, and the nationalistic tendencies, which they consider a deviation in the ideals of the Arab world, are totally phased out. As a result of this way of thinking, they believe that by eliminating these two ideologies, the existing ideological divide among the Arab nations will be annihilated as well. From the standpoint of radical Islamist forces, Arab nationalism is senescent and has been left with no more power to move on. The political forces seeking democracy, however, are considered the main antagonist, at least, in the cyberspace, as a result of the growing level of public awareness. The radical groups further argue that since political forces seeking democracy also enjoy the full support of the Western world and their mentality is basically Western, the Islamist front should be organized in order to do away with them.

In reality, however, such groups only serve to further widen the existing ideological divide in the Arab world without offering any practical solution to the issue of Palestine, or showing a way to the Arab nations to narrow their civilizational gap with the rest of the modern world. Judging by their slogans, they seem to be as resolute as other ideologies. In practice, however, they exacerbate the division within the Arab community by dividing their priorities into far enemy and near enemy, which is actually to the contrary of the main goals that they claim to be pursuing. At the same time, political forces seeking democracy are also facing similar problems as they have not come up with a clear plan to solve the main issues of the Arab world yet. Egypt is still the main center of the political developments in the Arab world, though it is not clear how the country will finally achieve stability and which ideological current will finally have the upper hand. However, one thing is certain: the developments in Egypt will leave their mark on the entire Arab world and will make the structure of the political power in Arab countries more transparent. Of course, there is not much optimism that Egypt will be finally able to offer clear solutions to the aforesaid two main problems which are currently plaguing the Arab world. At the same time, to think that Arabs would be able in short and medium terms to forge an independent structure for the political power, is not in line with the existing realities of the Arab world. Most probably, Arabs will have to struggle with the deepening ideological gaps for a long time to come. As a result, they will not be able to come up with a solution for the issue of Palestine, or find a remedy for the problem that they are lagging behind the global civilizational drive and that lag is getting gradually worse.

An even more serious threat to the Arab world is the possibility of the gradual deterioration of the existing ideological divide into full-fledged civil war, the examples of which we are currently witnessing in Iraq and Syria. In that case, the Arab nations will find themselves in a trap which has been laid for them by “others.” Such a civil war can rapidly evolve into an ethnic dimension in which case it will materialize the famous satirical maxim of the former Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who said, “Arabs have agreed never to agree.” Therefore, if Arabs really want to have a true Arab Spring, more than anything else they need to know one another and recognize other peoples’ right to have their own way of thinking and their own specific ideology. They should give up the idea that their ideology, and only their ideology, is the absolute truth.

Key Words: Ideological Divide, Arab World, Palestine, Civilizational Progress, Arab Nationalism, Radical Islam, Saudi Arabia, Liberal democracy, Muslim Brotherhood, Mollazehi

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