By Sharmine Narwani
Popular revolts may be spinning through the Arab world with a fervor and determination not seen in decades, but efforts to sidetrack the reform momentum are also gaining strength.
Three issues have plagued the region for decades and threaten to derail progress at every turn. I call them the Mideast’s “Stink Bombs” – hyper-divisive issues that inflame passions and serve a politicized minority only: 1) Religious vs. Secular; 2) Sunni vs. Shia; 3) Arabs vs. Iranians.
While protestors have been cautious in avoiding confrontations on these issues (who said the Arab Street is not smart?), political figures inside and outside the Mideast, and extremists on all sides, have sought at regular intervals to undermine national and regional unity with these polarizing issues.
The Stink Bombs have subverted the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, al Nahda in Tunisia, the Ikhwan in Jordan, and stirred sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni in Bahrain and Yemen – two countries that also depend on the Iran card to justify all their unlawful actions against civilians. The Stink Bombs have worked to prevent common cause on the Palestinian issue, and to undermine regional resistance to US, Israeli and western hegemonic designs, by keeping populations divided and in conflict.
Confidence in government authorities is at such a low ebb among Arab populations, that in some cases, these threats are being ignored or challenged head on. But that will not always be the case, and protestors and reformists alike will need to be vigilant in guarding against attempts to hijack progress with these long-held dogmas.
Let’s look at the Stink Bombs in more detail:
Stink Bomb #1: Religious versus Secular
This one has been played out skillfully through narratives that have long sought to associate Islam with extremism and terrorism. Washington’s close friends in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria and other places have exploited the “Islamist” narrative to put a lid on moderate Muslim groups within their countries and gain unfettered US political and financial support for their elite.
For decades, grassroots Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been either banned outright or subjected to intimidation, detentions and political machinations that have deprived them of fair participation in governing bodies. After September 11, Washington’s narratives on Islamists held them all to be one and the same – on virtual par with America’s greatest enemy, Al Qaeda – and any effort to differentiate between groups was largely ignored in the political mainstream.
Any non-ideological US area specialist could have pointed to half a dozen groups on the US list of terrorist organizations that should not have been featured in that unfortunate blacklist, but they would have been fighting a tidal wave during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq occupations, the 2006 Lebanon war, and the orchestrated removal of Hamas after its election victory.
When the Bush administration failed to achieve even its most elementary war goals, then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband took a half-hearted shot at pointing out the obvious:
Miliband wrote in the Guardian in January 2010 that efforts to “lump” extremists together had been counterproductive, playing “into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common.”
But instead, the West stood aside during recent elections in Egypt and Jordan when the ruling secular establishments absolutely undermined the participation of their respective Islamist political candidates and parties.
Copts forming protective circle around praying Muslims
During the wave of protests in Tahrir Square in January and February, the world witnessed the schism between populations and their rulers on this hot-button issue. After attacks on politically-secular Coptic Christians who make up ten percent of the nation’s populace, Egyptians demonstrated their skepticism about the source of this sectarian strife in a startling display of unity. That Friday, Copts linked arms to form a protective circle around praying Muslims. On Sunday, Muslims returned the favor for Christians.
To be sure, secularists and religious minorities don’t face an easy time in the Middle East, particularly with the boom in Salafist extremism and growing conservatism experienced, in particular, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the three Stink Bombs, this is the one that has some legs in a troubled Middle East where foreign intervention and autocratic rule has ensured stagnation on the political and social fronts. But this does not negate the very real threat that religious and secular groups – both ideologues in their own way – can be exploited to divide and manage populations.
Stink Bomb #2: Sunni versus Shia
With roots in an age-old rivalry between those who believed the Prophet Muhammad’s successors should be selected from among his faithful companions (Sunni) and those who believed that Muslims should be led by members of the Prophet’s family (Shia), this issue is essentially a political one – the Sunni and Shia share the most fundamental Islamic beliefs and articles of faith, after all. (more…)
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