Political and religious currents in the Middle East
|Cours||The Contemporary Middle East: States, Nations, and Communities|
- 1 Arab nationalism
- 2 Pan-Arabism
- 3 Baasism
- 4 Nasserism
- 5 The League of Arab States (Arab League)
- 6 Pan-Islamism
- 7 The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- 8 The Kurdish case
- 9 The Persian Gulf
- 10 Political Islam
- 11 Annexes
- 12 References
Arab nationalism[edit | edit source]
Arab nationalism is an ideology according to which Arabs constitute a people united by the specific characteristics (cultural, religious, historical) that bind them and which must be constituted at the political level: cultural/ethnic boundaries must correspond to political boundaries. Arab nationalism has been called into question since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Ba'athism represents the Ba'ath party movement, popular, while Nasserism represents it from above, the elite.
Its origin dates back to the Arab revolt of 1916, although the beginning of the process goes further back in time: in 1517, the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt (capture of Cairo); in 1533, Baghdad (now Iraq) was taken by the Ottomans, who then controlled all the Ottoman territories; 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, which marked the beginning of the Ottoman-British alliance; etc. The Ottoman Empire was the first Arab country to be conquered by the Ottomans.
Another source of this process is the revolution of the Young Turks. From 1909 onwards, the movement fell into authoritarianism (Cf. massacre of the Armenian population). Moreover, the Turkish language was put at the centre of the institutions and interests of the movement. A certain number of westernized Arab intellectuals organised the first general Arab congress in Paris in 1913. The Egyptian delegate went there as an observer and did not consider himself an Arab, for cultural reasons, which had evolved differently because the Egyptians were under British domination.
Nevertheless, the Arabs, like the territories, were divided. But because of the First World War, as well as because of Nazi propaganda in the region and the influence of intellectual activities in Europe, pan-Arabism is emerging. Nevertheless, the failure of pan-Arabism left a vacuum that allowed Islamism to develop.
Pan-Arabism[edit | edit source]
The traditional notables, in the context of the First World War and a centre/periphery perspective, will try to create alliances with Westerners: we can speak of the Sheriff Hussein of Mecca - his attempt to create an Arab kingdom will fail in favour of several mandates. The disappointment is great. At the end of the war, Faisal was accompanied by Sati Al Husri, who became the minister of education and the first theoretician of Arab nationalism. He was influenced by the German conception of the nation, he favoured the linguistic and cultural aspects as determining elements of what is Arab and what is not.
This evolution will continue during the inter-war period as a result of the breaking of promises made during the conflict - the Sykes-Picot agreements are a good example of this. Some elements will accelerate this process: fascist or Nazi propaganda - a pro-Nazi coup d'état is emerging in Baghdad. There is also a lot of debate about Arab independence.
Baasism[edit | edit source]
The annexation of Santiago de Alexandria (Syria) by Turkey will provoke the emergence of Ba'athism, the Arab resurrection. The first congress of the Ba'ath Party took place in 1947 and placed great emphasis on unity (territory), independence (autonomy) and Arab socialism (reforms to achieve the modern state). Another characteristic remains the non-confessional and therefore secularist approach of the movement, as well as the fact that minorities must assimilate to the Arab nation and a predominant anti-Zionism.
Michel Aflak (1910-1989), a Greek Orthodox from Damascus, founded the Baath Party in 1943. He will hold the post of general secretary of the party in both Syria and Iraq.
This ideology will evolve and we are witnessing the development of national sections in different countries. As soon as Ba'athism was assimilated to power, reforms were present, as well as a form of violence (division, war, repression). As early as 1958, the Ba'athist project took shape through the foundation of a United Arab Republic (which failed in 1961). In March 1963, the Baath Party came to power in Syria with the same consequences - including confessionalization.
Nasserism[edit | edit source]
It is an Arab political ideology based on the thinking of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is about strengthening the unity of the Arabs, the total independence (1922 in Egypt) of the Arabs by focusing on Arab socialism. An ideology that emerges after the establishment of power (unlike Ba'athism). The foundation in 1958 of the United Arab Republic is one of the expressions of Nasserist thought. One of the aims of the United Arab Republic was to establish Syria as an Egyptian province. The Camp David agreements signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 marked the end of pan-Arabism according to some experts. Egypt will be excluded from the Arab League.
The League of Arab States (Arab League)[edit | edit source]
In 1944, the Egyptian government considered a structure for the development of a federation of Arab countries. Several projects were proposed: that of Greater Syria (West Bank and Transjordan), the Fertile Crescent, the creation of a league, etc.. The Alexandria Protocol laid the foundations for the future association which would become effective one year later, in 1945, under the acronym of the League of Arab States. Its founding members are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and North Yemen. Its system makes decision-making complicated. The Arab world is characterized by a very great diversity, which makes any regional initiative very complicated. In addition, there is little economic exchange between Arab countries.
In 1971, the creation of the Union of Arab Republics did not lead to any concrete consequences. In the Maghreb, attempts were made to bring states together, without success. After the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Gulf countries set up a consultative council, but without success.
Pan-Islamism[edit | edit source]
Wahhabism[edit | edit source]
One of the sources of Arabism or Arab nationalism is particularly important: Wahhabism, which can be defined as the will to purify Islam, the conquest of souls, according to the original principles, the salaf ("ancestors", "predecessors"), the first three generations of Islam. Its protagonist Mohammed Ben Abdelwahhab (1703-1792), preaching a reformist and puritanical Islam, allied himself with Mohammed Ibn Saud (1710 - 1765) in this project and challenged the Ottoman Caliphate, leading to a growing politicization on this issue. The pact would lead to the creation of the first Saudi emirate, that of Dariya. Ben Abdelwahhab would be in charge of religious matters and Ibn Saoud would be in charge of political and military matters. This agreement became a "pact of mutual support" and power-sharing between the Al Saud family and the followers of ben Abdelwahhab, which remained in place for almost 300 years, providing the ideological impetus for Saudi expansion.
Arab modernism or "nahda"[edit | edit source]
The Arab renaissance or Nahdah is taking shape in Egypt: Al Afghani (1839-1897), the leading theorist of Arab modernism, settled there at the age of 33. With the help of Mohammed Abduh, mufti (interpreter of Muslim law), he founded Islamic modernism with the aim of reforming many institutions. This process will also lead to a cultural development based on the historical rediscovery of the Arab world: a cultural Arabism marked by a return to the historical and glorious heritage. In this movement, no confessional distinction is made, the emphasis is on language. Political parties are created, associations, leagues and organizations are created.
The pan-Islamicism of Abdülhamid II (1842-1918) represents a more political aspect of Arab nationalism. Procedures of centralization, investigation and repression are put in place. Some activists are exiled to Egypt.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict[edit | edit source]
The notion of Palestine predates the Ottoman Empire: it comes from antiquity. During the period of Islamic expansion, the Holy Land was referred to as the Holy Land. As time went by, especially after the European conquests, the term Palestine was used. The inhabitants of this region will then use this term to define the territory where the future Arab state will be established.
In the 19th century, many rivalries claimed the territory (churches, states, powers, etc.), which led to conflicts taking place in the holy places. This is why, in the case of Jerusalem, the city was placed under the direct authority of Constantinople, whereas this was not the case in the rest of the Ottoman Empire.
Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the British continue to use the word "Palestine" or "Southern Syria" to define their mandate. On the side of Israel, they speak of an "Arab state", which has yet to come into being. The process of Arab nationalism is not very clear at the beginning - we note the waves of migration as well as the politico-religious stakes as determinants of the latter. The defence of the land is done in the name of Arabism.
The balance of power on the ground is clearly in favour of the Zionists. Tensions between the two sides will lead to massacres, assassinations and attacks. During the Great Uprising of 1938-1939, the Israeli ruling class is assaulted by the Arabs. The British, taking into account the difficulties, ask for the help of the League of Nations, which will set up the Peel Commission to carry out, in 1937, the first partition plan between the two states. It is refused by the Arab side, as are the Jewish revisionists - while the Jews in general accept it. Tensions continue until 1947, when the British hand over their mandate to the UN, which will propose a second partition plan.
The Palestinian exodus of 1948 or Nakba ("catastrophe") refers to the civil war which causes the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the territory. On the other hand, the refugee issue is linked to the formation of the Palestinian diaspora. The movement therefore redefined itself around the years 1958-59 to emphasize Palestinian identity - and to detach itself from Arab leaders. Yasser Arafat, who dominated the movement, no longer had as his objective the defence of Arabism or the creation of an Arab state, but rather a claim by the diaspora for the creation of a Palestinian state. From then on, the armed struggle becomes the means for the liberation of Palestine.
As early as 1963, military operations were conducted from Jordan against Israel. Arafat is beginning to be appreciated by Arabs in view of its military successes. Quickly, the Israeli retaliation forced Jordan to expel the Palestinian fighters, who would settle in Lebanon. Things changed there as well: several events, including the assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador in London, led to Operation Galilee Peace, with Israel invading Lebanon in June 1982 to divert rockets based there and repel the Syrian army. Moreover, the image of the Palestinians in Lebanon declined as they also found themselves involved in the civil war. The movement moves its headquarters to North Africa. While it was revising its objectives downwards - even considering the idea of two states - it was saved by the intifada, a popular movement to revitalise Palestine. At the end of the Cold War, this will lead to the Oslo agreements, Yasser Arafat is praised.
On the other hand, the negotiations with Israel fail, particularly on the question of settlements and refugees. The nationalist milieu, and Hamas in particular, accuses Arafat of incompetence, corruption and nepotism. As a result, Hamas gains political power, although it advocates a more Islamic approach to the Palestinian movement: this is the transition to the third phase.
The armed struggle is resumed, just like the intifada, in a desire for jihad against the Jews. In 2006, Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist movement composed of a political and an armed wing, won elections, but is also regarded as terrorist by European countries and the United States. In particular, the notion of two governments within Palestine is emerging. Nowadays, the territory is fragmented, unemployment and corruption make the authority fragile.
The Kurdish case[edit | edit source]
The movement has to fight against the states resulting from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The word "Kurdistan" has existed since at least the 12th century. The war between the Sepheviks (Iranians) and the Ottomans in 1514 marked the first fracture in the land of the Kurdish people. It is all a question of what is at stake: some Kurds side with the Shah and some with the Ottomans. In 1639, a treaty in principle established the borders of the territory: de facto, they had only existed since the 1940s.
A new political era took place under the sign of pan-Islamism and the autonomy of the Kurds was abolished, although certain benefits and rights were created for the said population (tribes). This did not prevent rivalries between them and neighbouring populations, such as Armenia, for example.
In 1919, the Kurdish political organisation was newly created: this was the first sign of Kurdish nationalism. The Treaty of Sèvres provides for the autonomy of the Kurdish territory, which could lead to independence. However, the state will not come into being:
- The settlement areas were divided (France, GB, Russia) and the Allies were not willing to question their plan.
- Armenian autonomy raised conflicts over the targeted territories.
- Kurdish nationalism is weak and cannot mobilise the masses. The community is undermined by indecision: the possibility of refusing Sèvres to link the community to Turkish nationalism for a single territory is one of them.
Turkish Kurdistan[edit | edit source]
In 1924, the words "Kurdish" and "Kurdistan" were banned in Kemalist Turkey as part of a process of assimilation and acculturation: populations were displaced, theorising that Kurds were in fact "mountain" Turks - which explains the differences at the linguistic and cultural levels. A context of permanent revolt is thus emerging. But Turkey's identity crisis at the end of the Second World War was to lead to the development of an interest in the Kurdish language, culture and history, a revival of Kurdish nationalism. In the end, coups d'état and repression with nationalist tendencies during the following years undermined the interests of the Kurdish community.
The armed struggle began in 1984, at the instigation of the PKK (the Kurdish Labour Party), supported by the Russian communist left. Since 1946, the Soviet Union has taken a close interest in the situation in this region: the Communists support Iranian Azerbaijan, self-proclaimed autonomous republic against the Iran of Rezah Pahlawi (son) - Cf. Iranian-Soviet conflict. Since the 2000s, tension has been rising again because of Shiite Islam in Iran, whereas the Iranian Kurds are mostly Sunni.
Iraqi Kurdistan[edit | edit source]
Iraqi Kurdistan is linked to the question of the Mosul villaet (see British Mandate). In 1925, the League of Nations decided to annex Mosul to the Iraqi mandate. The resurrectional movement never dried up in Iraq, which represents the specificity of Kurdish nationalism in the country. Nevertheless, the agreements with Iraq are a failure, especially with the fact that Iran no longer supports Kurdish nationalism. In 1991, when Saddam Hussein lost the war, the Kurds took the opportunity to establish de facto autonomy: the constitutionalisation of this autonomy took place as soon as Saddam Hussein's regime fell. However, since the American withdrawal in 2009, the Kurds have suffered pronounced marginalisation from central Iraq. Even more recently, the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017 was opposed by Baghdad.
Syrian Kurdistan[edit | edit source]
In the 1960s, the Syrian nationalist government aggravated the division between the different Kurdish communities - along the lines of a railway line. In the 2000s, the first demonstrations for an autonomy for Syrian Kurdistan emerged: the Kurds took advantage of the chaos in the country to establish a de facto one.
Since the Anglo-American intervention on Iraqi soil in 2003, aggravated by the ensuing civil war - including the Syrian crisis since 2011 - the hope of creating stable nation states has become very fragile, if not non-existent, in the Middle East. Paradoxically, the borders are still there, witnessing a very strong geopolitical history.
Ralph Peters believes that the reality on the ground (political, cultural and religious differences) calls into question borders that do not meet the expectations of the societies on the ground: countries find themselves shaped according to national, ethnic and religious criteria. This map was the subject of much debate, including within NATO.
There is a broad consensus that the national experiment has failed. Although Bashar Al-Assad is winning the war, the Syrian nation will no longer exist in the same way as before the conflict (as will the way of governing). Moreover, borders do not demarcate communities: they are linked, if not territorially, through the notion of religion, historical heritage, etc. The Syrian nation will no longer exist in the same way as before the conflict (as will the way of governing). The concept of diaspora includes all these elements.
The Persian Gulf[edit | edit source]
Some states prefer to call it "Arab Gulf". Today, the Gulf is a symbol of prosperity and luxury. It includes Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. To understand its evolution, one has to look at British policy in the region.
Historically, the Gulf was linked to Mesopotamia with the pearl trade, with centres in Bahrain and Oman. Poor regions traded in pearls, fishing and sea trade. The region experienced a certain boom with the Abbasids, but as soon as they declined, the situation became problematic again. This void was soon replaced, as from the 15th century, the European powers invested in the region: the spice trade and maritime trade in general were the main vectors. With the arrival of Great Britain, trade was strengthened through the intensification of trade with India.
British policy was abused by pirates and by the various princes who fought each other in war. From 1798, the threat also became French. From then on, Great Britain concludes special pacts with local players - the treaty with Oman to prevent French expansionism. The same procedure will be applied in relations with pirates. These treaties, which appeared in the 19th century, would determine British economic and strategic policy insofar as their renewal made it possible to secure the Gulf: although the region was unstable, more and more privateers and princes pledged not to wage war against each other.
Some states took advantage of the outbreak of the First World War to strengthen their international position: Kuwait signed an agreement with Great Britain to strengthen the protectorate. After the independence of India and Pakistan, the British decided to withdraw from that region in the 1960s. All the local princes, having made alliances with the British, were going to ask themselves the question of the future of the region: the creation of the states we know today was taking place at that very moment. Shortly afterwards, the discovery of oil changed the situation and led to renewed Western interest in the region: the second wave of independence took place in the 1970s.
Political Islam[edit | edit source]
It is an ideology, a political programme, whose aim is to conquer power in order to Islamize society according to the reading of certain religious sources and texts by the actors of the said ideology.
It appeared as soon as pan-Arabism (a movement of opposition to Western domination) failed. The destruction of Israel, symbol of foreign power, also returns in this imaginary. According to specialists, this era began in 1979, when the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed: the Egyptian "betrayal" only reinforced the antagonisms towards the Jewish state.
Several characteristic features:
- Fundamentalism is also part of political Islam (and in the Muslim world since the 8th century). Wahhabism (18th century), a very rigorous, revolutionary fundamentalism, plays a very important role.
- Fundamentalism is a will to make history in order to return to the foundations of religion.
- Colonization, a concrete manifestation of European domination over the Arab world, is an integral part of the political imagination.
- The struggles for independence as a reaction to Western penetration: the Islamic tradition is strongly imprinted in it, and the religious concept will contribute a great deal to it. The ideology of national liberation.
The origin of this movement, in our century, can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt, 1928), whose protagonist is Hassan Al-Banna. This organization will appear on the political scene to support the Islamization of Egyptian society. The originality of the movement lies in the fact that this political organization has a paramilitary force - the presence of the military tradition and the British on the territory. It considers the Koran as its constitution. The movement will have its ups and downs. Although it is not in favour of armed action, it will still take part in the 1948 war (pretext of treason) as well as in the 1952 revolution.
Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the theoretician of a potential Islamic state, was to play a very important role in the role of political Islam: tortured, repressed because he was a dissident, he theorized that such societies - westernized, led by the pan-Arab nationalist - could not be built on the basis of Islam. They have fallen into "Jahiliya", thus legitimizing the use of violence (against a Muslim ruler). He will be condemned to death and will decide not to resort to the decision in order to reactivate the imagination of the martyrs.
While his thinking remains marginal, things change in 1979. The ideological plan was upset by the pan-Arab failure, as was the symbolic, affected by the agreement with Israel. Elsewhere, the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan would lead to a war lasting from 1979 to 1989, pitting the USSR against the Mujaheddin ("holy warriors"). The notion of martyrs became widespread in the struggle against any power (Western, communist...), contributing to the development of the movement. Some states want to react by promoting Islamist policies, taking advantage of the context to establish their monopoly of authority (in unstable regions).
In the 1990s, specialists concluded that political Islam had failed because Islamist movements had not succeeded in taking power. It soon became clear that the conclusion was too hasty: once the war was won against the Soviets leaving Afghanistan, the jihad would be launched against the United States and its crusader allies, Israel.
The rhetoric, approaches and tactics are different, because violence is now sacrificial. We are moving beyond the stage of martyrdom, it takes a completely different form: the appearance of (suicide) attacks, the use of terrorism. The actors have evolved: activist elites are joining Al Qaeda. We are also witnessing the relocation of these actors, which will mainly take place in Iraq. The situation in the country is peculiar, because the Shiite minority is regaining power in a context of total chaos - the Baath Party has been banned since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. With the Sunni population pushed out of power, the Shiites become the first target of al-Qaeda (see al-Tawihd de al Zarqaoui) in Iraq. From 2014, the formation will be designated as an Islamic state.