By Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond explores the continuities and new developments in representations of Islam, politics and violence in the Middle East.
This piece is the first chapter in the E-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was revolutionary on a number of fronts, but it had two particularly profound consequences in terms of Western discourse on Islam and political change. On the one hand, it signalled the death knell of modernization theory’s rejection of religion as an organizing force in society, which still retained currency at that time in scholarly discussion of the Islamic world.
What was termed “radical alterity” became the rage as anthropology took its “cultural turn” and Middle East Studies, and other disciplines focussed on the Islamic, refracted into various approaches, from the reduction of Islam to unsalvageable fundamentals to the search for an Islamic liberalism (viz. Leonard Binder’s Islamic Liberalism).
On the other hand, historians and social scientists began to look anew into questions of radical change and responses to oppressive power systems, from James Scott’s “peasant resistance” to Asef Bayat’s notion of “everyday resistance” in urban Iran.
“Most subordinate classes throughout most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized political activity,” Scott wrote in Weapons of the Weak (1985), and since rebellion invariably fails, it would be wiser to focus on “everyday forms of peasant resistance – the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them.”
Similarly declaring that he wants to “deemphasize the totalizing notion of ‘the revolution’ as the change par excellence”, Bayat argued in Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (1998) that in their drive for autonomy non-elite groups may succeed in subverting the domination of the modern state.
A s Iran came to replace one form of repressive system with another, its popular revolt became paradoxically emblematic of all that was wrong with violent change.
Marxist and post-colonial studies scholars influenced by Michel Foucault’s theories on knowledge and power did not like this new trend, which was at one with ascendant neoliberalism and its treatment of man as a consumptive rather than political animal, but the fact is that from that time revolution became distinctly unfashionable in how the Arab world was discussed in Western public discourse.
These two developments – renewed emphasis on the essence of Islam and questioning the efficacy of violent revolt – came sharply into focus again with the popular uprisings that spread across countries of the Middle East region in late 2010 and throughout 2011, collectively referred to in media as the Arab Spring.
Against the grain of policy discourse and social and political science theory, masses of ordinary people risked their lives in taking to the streets to effect forms of political and economic change that it had not been possible to realize through the established means within state structures. Moreover, they did so as “Arabs”, a flexible taxonomy propagated by 19th century European politicians and scholars in the imperial metropole whose many, contradictory characteristics included, as Edward Said so lucidly outlined in Orientalism (1978), both passivity and propensity to violence.
As they staked their place as global citizens (speaking the universal language of rights espoused by the West), there was little to be gainsaid about the hundreds of thousands who engaged in protest in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Morocco once their popular mobilizations had made their way into international media and tapped into the universal discourse.
But this was no small feat. The array of coercive, economic and discursive forces ranged against the protesting Arab were considerable, and the success of these mechanisms, which were lodged in processes of globalization, seemed to be both long-term and consistent with the notion of the submissiveness of the political culture.
Brutal police states were sustained through extensive political and diplomatic, military and security, and economic support from Western powers, whose first concern when protests broke out in Tunisia was to preserve order in the World Bank’s model Arab economic reformer. The reform narrative was so prevalent that it took a news agency such as Reuters several weeks to move beyond dismissing protesters as damn meddling kids and passé leftists from the interior wastelands.
The French foreign minister of the time Michèle Alliot-Marie even offered to help the regime restore order, then spent a Christmas holiday in the outremer province as the uprising unfolded.
However, Orientalism’s other Arab – the barbarian given to violent urges – was to return in the strange case of Western revival of the defunct category of violent revolt. After the initial confusion over how to compute popular revolt against regimes understood as Western allies and made respectable through narrative artifice, the 2011 movement shifted towards militarization under the guidance of outside forces.
The process began with Libya, where then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw an opportunity to install a regime more appealing to US interests through the cover of Arab League sanctions for NATO operations in which Qatar and the UAE played a key role.
While for the UAE this was the first try out for a new policy of Little Sparta extensions, for Qatar it was the continuing roll-out of a wider project to bring to power political groups whose ideological lexicon was based in the “Islamic reference”.
The innocence of a region-wide popular movement, untainted by foreign manipulations and agendas, that would win or lose and live to fight another day in other forms and contexts, was lost.
The basics of that model were to be reproduced in Syria where a provincial protest movement that braved the worst forms of repression from a regime too paranoid about collapse and accountability in the face of an emboldened populace was fatally transformed into an armed uprising dominated by the Islamic reference.
This was not the work of domestic forces alone, but produced by their backers, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, guided by the crude and parvenu notion that “majority Sunnis” were determined to reclaim their historical patrimony from the manufactured secularism of rule by minorities.
Organized opposition forces abroad where secular voices were prominent formed a convenient front for what was increasingly sold in the Gulf arena where the money was coming from as unofficial jihad against an infidel regime.
Of the dozens of fighting groups, some emerged from the Brotherhood fold, others from the diverse ideological movement referred to widely in Arabic since 1980s Afghanistan and in English since 9/11 as “Salafism”, and it was Salafism that was to win out in Western media and policy circles as the normative ideological descriptor of choice for this Islamic moment.
So in the face of a regime with no red lines in terms of the type of warfare it would engage in to retain control, protesters were replaced with insurgents, both Syrian and foreign.
Violent revolution was suddenly in vogue and Islamic again. Yet no thought was given to the death, the displacement and the destruction of neighbourhoods that was inevitably going to ensue.
The lessons of the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq war, the Russians in Chechnya or Israeli wars in Gaza were not enough to stop the madness in its tracks: where Hamas has never fought beyond one month because it knows Israel will continue flattening urban districts one by one, the insurgency continued inexorably in the constant hope that the regime was just one atrocity away from a new US war.
To prosecute such a strategy against a regime of consummate cruelty with a proven track record stretching back over decades (the CIA didn’t send suspects there for nothing) was by one reading an unethical act of striking naivety.
For affluent Gulf states the jihad functioned as a diversion from the dangers of the Arab Spring, which touched in different ways Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Cheerleaders among the think tank community lobbied for a cause rather than rationally ponder the consequences of policy and action.
With the tragedy of Syria, Islam as the key vector of identity for Arabs and Muslims has been reinforced in the English and Arabic public arena. The secular nature of Syrian society under the Baath regime is presented by pro-rebel politicians and commentators as an aberration from the norm of Arab countries returning to their Islamic self after the failed experience of secular Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s.
Countries with a simplistically tabulated “Sunni majority” must be ruled by “Sunnis”, and if Syrians, with their mosaic of confessional communities, don’t think of themselves in such a manner, that simply reinforces the deviant character of Assad family rule (which in simplistic sectarian terms is described as “Alawi”).
Andrew Hammond is a doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, and author of Popular Culture in the Arab World (forthcoming in 2017).