Politics & Policy

The Ideas Battlefield

Restoring civil society.

While it’s too early to envisage the shape of a future Iraqi state, we may already be witnessing the bankruptcy of a model of statehood that was developed in several Arab countries during the 20th century.

The model was presented under such labels as qowmi (“nationalist”) and ishtiraki (“socialist”) or, sometimes, “nationalist-socialist.” But a more apt label for it might be “zaimist” — a regime centered on a charismatic and brutal “strongman.” (The Arabic word zaim means “chief” or “caudillo.”)

Most of the states where the model developed came into being following the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. They were created by Britain and France, the colonial powers that had inherited the Arab provinces of the Ottomans.

These states were almost invariably shaped as instruments for protecting and/or furthering some specific strategic interest of the colonial power concerned. Iraq was created around the oilfields of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Egyptian state was intended to help protect the Suez Canal. Transjordan was a British outpost to keep an eye on the Arabian peninsula and provide a base for intervention in the Levant.

These new states were built around an army created by the colonial power. With the advent of decolonization, the states lost their original function.

Anxious to protect its power and privilege, the Arab military elite adopted a nationalist discourse. In practice, however, it would not join the struggle for independence until the colonial powers had indicated a readiness to withdraw. After independence, the elites found themselves without a role.

They sought a role by seizing power in a series of coups d’etat. Armies that had been created as colonial instruments now redefined themselves as standard-bearers of Arab nationalism. The excuse they found for their intervention in politics was the Arabs’ defeat, in 1948, at the hands of the newly created Israeli state. They blamed their poor performance on incompetent or treacherous political leaders and vowed that, once in power, they would restore the Arabs’ honor. In most cases, the military overthrew a traditional type of regime, often in the form of a monarchy backed by tribal structures.

Because the traditional system of rule had based its legitimacy on Islam and tribal loyalties, the new military regimes adopted nationalism, and in some cases socialism, as counter-themes. The nationalist theme was attractive because it cut across religious divides and legitimized rule by officers subscribing to creeds other than mainstream Sunni Islam. The socialist theme appealed to the urban poor and to secular intelligentsia who wished to distance themselves from “feudal” structures.

The army’s direct assumption of power led to a gradual militarization of Arab politics in which violence soon became the main source of legitimacy.

The military rulers did what they knew best: Wage war. They began by waging war against civil society with the aim of destroying all potential sources of alternative authority and legitimacy. They disarmed as many of the tribes as they could and executed, imprisoned, exiled, or bought most of their leaders.

Next it was the turn of religious authorities to be brought under state control and deprived of the independence they had enjoyed for over 1,000 years. Traditional religious organizations such as Sufi fraternities, esoteric sects, and charitable structures were either infiltrated or dismantled. The new state assumed control of the endowments (awqaf) — property worth billions — depriving civil society of an important economic base.

The army-backed state also annexed the educational system, nationalizing thousands of private Koranic schools and setting the curricula. The traditional guilds of trades and crafts, some with centuries of history behind them, were attacked and disbanded.

Nor did political parties and cultural associations escape the destructive urge. In the 1950s, some of the newly independent Arab countries were home to genuine political movements representing the various ideologies of the 20th century. By the end of the 1970s, all — including parties such as Baath, which were nominally in power in Syria and Iraq — had been destroyed.

The elimination of the independent press, the ownership and control of radio and television networks by the state, and the vast resources allocated to “information” ministries enabled the new Arab regime to stifle dissident voices and impose its own version of reality.

Evolving towards a totalitarian model, the new, army-based Arab state soon embarked upon a program of wholesale nationalization. The fact that the state controlled the biggest sources of national revenue — e.g., the canal in Egypt, and oil in Iraq — facilitated the imposition of a command economy.

In most cases, the state had no real need of the population. It drew little or no revenue from taxes and met its budgetary revenue by drawing on national assets such as oil, the canal, and, beginning in the 1950s, foreign aid. Nor did the new Arab state need the people to run an economy in which vital sectors were managed and operated by foreign experts and workers.

The new regimes, holding no real elections, did not need the people to vote for them either.

By the start of the 1970s, traditional Arab civil society had been all but destroyed. A totalitarian state — ideologically confused, unsure of its legitimacy, addicted to violence, and ridden by corruption — dominated all aspects of life.

In time, the Arab military developed into a new caste of rulers that controlled most decision-making positions: ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, chief executives of state-owned companies, and even media editors were recruited, as were both active and retired officers. The new caste was further reinforced by an even more tightly knit sub-caste: the intelligence and security services (mukahaberat), which established themselves as the veritable sources of power.

The emergence of this new monster-state apparatus was accompanied by tens of thousands of executions, the imprisonment of countless people, the flight into exile of millions, and — last but not least — the destruction of the moral fabric of Arab society. From the start, the new Arab regime was not only at war with its own people. It also provoked some 20 external wars — none of which reflected the national interests of the countries concerned.

Additionally, some military-based regimes used terrorism as an instrument of policy. One can hardly find a terrorist organization — from the Japanese Red Army to the Irish Republican Army, and passing by the Basques ETA and the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso — that did not, at some point, forge a link with one or more of the Arab military regimes.

Depending on the Soviet bloc for aid, protection, and diplomatic guidance, the army-based Arab regimes closed their societies to influences from the West, thus reversing a trend that had started in the 19th century. The result was a deepening of the culture of totalitarianism under which the ruler lies to the people and is, in turn, lied to by the people. By the mid 1970s, the last representatives of Western-style liberal thought that had persisted in the Arab world were either dead or dying. This in turn opened the way for the emergence of Islamic extremism as an alternative to the mukhaberat regimes.

Today, the Islamist movement is also in crisis as a result of the failure of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the tragic experience of Islamism in the Sudan, and the dismal end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The emergence of al Qaeda and its terrorist leadership as the most potent symbols of Islamism also weakened the movement, by alienating key elements within the Arab urban middle classes.

What could be the key elements of a new Arab state model?

The failed model was a power-state, known in Islamic literature as saltana, in which legitimacy is based on the control of the means of violence.

The alternative to this failed model is a state in which legitimacy emanates from the free exercise of the will of the citizens. That model is based on a civic bond among citizens. Its features include pluralism and accountability.

Islamic political literature offers a wealth of ideas that could be deployed in any battle of ideas against both the Islamist and secular enemies of pluralism.

Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) showed that there need be no contradiction between revelation and reason in developing a political system that responds to the earthly needs of its citizens. On the contrary, because Islam strictly limits the powers of the ruler (sultan or hakim), it is — theoretically at least — impossible to use it as a basis for tyranny.

The new state model for the Arabs should revive and reassert those limits. It should help the civil society to reorganize and reinvigorate its institutions. There should also be a massive program of privatization, to reduce the role of the state in controlling and dictating economic policy (and the allocation of natural resources in general). Early privatization of the media should also be a priority, as it was in post-WWII Germany and Japan.

The liberation of Iraq provides an historic opportunity to open up the Muslim world. Winning the military phase of the war against Iraq’s despotic regime may well turn out to be the easiest part of a larger campaign. Once it has been defeated in war, despotism must also be defeated politically. The hardest battles remain to be fought — in the field of ideas.

Amir Taheri, Iranian author and journalist, is based in Europe. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.


The Latest