Make no mistake, democratic deliberations will always be inversely related to community formation and actual political action. What we see taking place in Syria, Egypt, and in other countries of the Middle East all bear witness to the fact that there is no such thing as democracy if there isn’t prior to that, a non-democratic (meaning non-negotiable by the public) set of rules that inform community bonds.
Don’t be fooled by thinking that Western (and other) democracies around the world permit a public to deliberate freely about all sorts of problems without resorting to violence in the absence of that functioning State that, as it happens, has already laid out the rules of the game. See how France gets crazy just from seeing a veiled woman strolling around a “public space”. See Belgium forbidding the construction of mosques, or British “public” vehemently opposing UK’s involvement in the Iraq war but in vain. Certain demands simply cannot be made democratically or involve one community of people or “interest” imposing their views on another as it may jeopardize the very existence of the State in place or change its nature, its “raison-d’être”.
The particular properties of these community bonds vary from country to country, but there is one thing that does not vary the least, the presence of a strong (Nation)-State with a monopoly over the means of coercion, a very sensitive security network or alignment with another greater neighboring power. Once these things exist, and evidently are established through non-democratic means, then one can play the game of what people mistakenly call today democracy, which could more accurately called an oligarchy if one wants to stick to using Greek terms, as is fashionable in the modern age.
Why do we have an “authoritarian” ruler in Syria highly determined to crush an opposition while the latter can only express discontent through the use of arms? Why do we have a government army pitted against a social movement in Egypt to the point where they freely open fire at demonstrators and have the president declaring that the political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, should simply be abolished? Because in both instances, the conflict is about the very crafting of the rules of the game that would serve as a guide for community building and maybe future “democratic” negotiations. However, the terms of these negotiations will be revolving around the views of the prevailing party that become “raison-d’Etat” (the translation adopted in English is “National Interest” but seem to lose the original meaning of “reason” or logic, or even views that the State reserve itself the power to enforce).
This reinforces my intuition that some Islamists mix up “traditions” they think are “Islamic” because belonging to local social practices with actual Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) – of which they are ignorant of – that escape proper territorial affiliations. It turns out that cutting the clitoris of young girls comes is an “African” practice that goes back to Pharaonic times, contradicting the Muslim brotherhood claim that it was “An Islamic matter”. It is counted as a crime today by Egyptian law.
This type of Islamists are simply trying to protect and fall back on “what we do in the community we identify with”. Simple conservatism? I’m not yet sure although definitely one type. But notice that, for it to be passed by law, it had to be proven that such practices are ‘unislamic’ imputing the blame on some alien ‘African’ ritual that has made its way into Islamic practices. Representation of the self in the Middle East will more and more be framed around what is Islamic and what is not, a mechanism that reminds one of European formations of what is the secular in the age of the nation.
How did the “Lebanese” discover that they had a Phoenician tradition? Or for that matter how did the Arabs discover that they had some past glorious tradition that was decimated by the Ottomans? Don’t we read Arabic history as one that stops around the Abbasid era, and that then picks up around the end of the nineteenth century with what is called the “Nahda” (a concept copied from the European “Age of Enlightenment“). This reading of history finds its most perverse account in the writing of people like Samir Kassir who longs for another enlightenment Arab style.
This is the unearthing of civilization, of golden ages. In his study Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani nation, Christopher Stone ( 2008 ) makes this argument forcibly. He draws on other post-colonial scholars like Chatterjee ( 1993 ) on India who argued that the “national” paradigm has been unescapable by present post colonial polities. Stone has an excellent way of formulating this dynamic at the heart of this “classicization of tradition”:
the same historical construct that paved the way for colonization could, ironically, do the same for independence: “You were once great and need our help to become so again,” becomes tweaked to read, “We were once great without you and can become so again.” (p.14)
I would argue, that Islamic movements are totally in line with this process of recuperating history, contrary to Chatterjee idea that ‘Islamists’ are breaking out of the ‘national’ paradigm. Wherever there is State, there is Nation or a discursive efforts at producing a historically continuous imagined community, or different attempts at justifying the presence of the State.
Of course, it does not mean that “Islamists” are conventional nationalists, quite the contrary, and that is the historically unprecedented aspect about them: How are they struggling to make sense of these discursive contradictions? Read Tariq el Bishri in this case for interesting conscious elaboration (especially this one) of state territory and tradition in Egypt. Hizbullah’s intellectuals is a completely different story, that I may tell later.
Don’t you often hear people say “Christian in Egypt are persecuted”? This is one of the many nice little bullshit myths one hears on the Middle East or on “Islamic” practices. Copts (Christian sect in Egypt) are actually significantly present in parliament (much more relative to the size of their community), and the few Egyptians I know to seem to agree on the idea that there are no sectarian animosity there. In a recent discussion, my Egyptian musician friend Mohammed (who studied for a long time Coptic musical liturgy) explained to me how often enough the media feeds the public with the news of ‘sectarian clashes’ breaking out and once some honest reporter tries to entangle the real cause of a fight he would find behind the ‘sectarian’ element some tribal, social, or personal issue at stake that has nothing to do with the fact that the people were Coptic or Muslims.
Not only that but Coptic Pope Shenouda III has made it clear that the biggest problem in the Middle East is divisive American foreign policy and the growing ego-centric urges of some Copts (Check the rare gem that is Pope Shenouda, here, here, and here are the enemies of Shenouda). For a nice comparison check History of the Maronites in Lebanon 101.
See, American policy have this really nice special feature in that they create new ‘substance’ to re-actionary identities. Thanks to NGOs of all kind and religious rightist groups Christians in Egypt are starting to feel they are in danger because hell they’re Christians. To make sure these fears are crystallized, they are simply financed.
Come on marNasrallah Boutross Sfeir, that is the best role model you can get in this par of the world.
In contrast to our dear Lebanese zombies, in certain Arab countries, workers are trying to do stuff:
The longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt. In March, the liberal daily al-Masri al-Yawm estimated that no fewer than 222 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations had occurred during 2006. In the first five months of 2007, the paper has reported a new labor action nearly every day. The citizen group Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch documented 56 incidents during the month of April, and another 15 during the first week of May alone.
Check in this article the seriousness of labor unions’ historical work. The media should take note of that instead of administering us the usual “Islamic” (or West VS East) rhetorical morphine. (Thanks Nicholas)
Update: Instead, this is what you get on the news… For a land that is disputed in the first place, news agencies saw some kind of a “Muslim anger” that “sparked” “violence”, and took this opportunity to feed you ‘background’ information on long-time struggles between Copts and Muslims.
Apart from the despicable attitude of Egypt prevalent in this information, notice something else in this lead:
Egypt has imposed severe restrictions on Hamas officials crossing into the country, sources close to Hamas told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
I wonder who are the sources close to Hamas that speak to the right wing Israeli rag.