World

The Ever-Elusive Idea of Freedom in the Middle East

Demonstrators shout slogans during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, January 10, 2020. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)
Liberal democrats, Islamists, ethnic and religious minorities, majorities not in power — all define the concept differently.

The past decade of conflict in the Middle East has exposed a gap in the understanding of freedom and of what the idea means in the varying communities, societies, and countries of the region. This misunderstanding has been between the Middle East and the rest of the world (primarily the West), between countries within the region, and within countries themselves, as the concept of freedom has continued to develop over the past century in the region. As layers of “non-freedom” have been peeled back, new barriers to freedom emerge. While this misunderstanding of an idea is not uniquely the cause of the region’s turmoil, it is indeed in the background of most conflicts there, particularly those defined as an oppressed people against a dictatorial regime or aggressive enemy.

Early in the 20th century, freedom in the Middle East was primarily thought of as freedom from colonization — e.g. the freedom of the Turkish people from being divided up by Greece, Russia, France, etc., and the freedom of the Arabs from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and then from European colonialism, and so on and so forth. The success in gaining freedom from colonialism led directly to the nationalist era in Middle Eastern politics, which in many ways has lasted to today, though it is arguably weaker than it has been since its inception, at least in the Arab countries of the region. Nationalism in its modern form is mostly a foreign concept to the Middle East, existing seriously only since the mid-19th century or so. It is an attempt to import a model that worked in Europe — the nation-state — into a region with a fundamentally different national and social history.

More so than Europe, the Middle East is a patchwork of ethnicities (nations) living on top of, rather than next to, one another. While the European nation-state often subjected those at the periphery to adopt the national identity of the center — as the culture and language of Paris and Madrid, for example, were imposed on Basques and Catalans — in the Middle East such various groups often live within the same city and overlap in ways that make it impossible to draw a map separating people along ethnic lines. The creation of the nation-state in the Middle East led to a zero-sum game of winners and losers, with competing groups fighting for absolute control over the same territory. After a successful military campaign against Greece, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, Turkey won its independence and created a state of, by, and for the Turkish people. Through genocide, they eliminated other populations living in the same geographical space — the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christian communities that formed a demographic threat to the Turkishness of Turkey. The Kurdish population, which became demographically dominant over areas once mixed with Christians, has been suffering the same fate as Turkey’s attempt to Turkify every corner of the country continues.

Since the de facto elimination of Turkey’s Christian population, the Turkish state has made token gestures of outreach to the remaining minuscule communities, because they no longer represent a serious threat to the Turkishness of Turkey. Promoting the small remaining minorities allows Turkey to maintain its standing in the international community, even as it continues its campaign to Turkify public and private life. Last year, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a big show of announcing the construction of a new Syriac Orthodox church in Istanbul. Erdogan is unlikely to make the same gesture to the Kurdish community in the near future, although Kurds had a lot of hope in Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) when they first took power. As the situation stands today, however, Kurdish nationalism and Turkish nationalism are competing forces that cannot exist side by side, and Turkish nationalism is one and the same as the state of Turkey. And so the Kurdish struggle for freedom in Turkey, as in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, remains a national (ethnic) struggle for collective freedom.

In the Arab-majority countries of the Middle East, the postcolonial trajectory went strongly in the direction of pan-Arab nationalism. Arabs in the 19th century had come to resent Ottoman (Turkish) rule over Arabs. The nahda, or renaissance, the intellectual reawakening of the Arab world in the 19th century, started as a cultural movement but by the turn of the 20th century had taken on a political tone as well. In Le Réveil de la Nation Arabe (1905), one of the founding texts of the political Arab nationalist project, Negib Azoury (writing in French, probably showing that his primary audience was foreign governments, soon to become colonial rulers over the region) laid out the vision: “The Arab countries to the Arabs, Kurdistan to the Kurds, Armenia to the Armenians, the Turkish countries to the Turks, Albania to the Albanians, the Islands of the Archipelago to Greece, and Macedonia split between the Greeks, the Serbs, and the Bulgarians.” In World War I, this idea of (collective) Arab freedom culminated in the support of Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca, for the British side against the Ottoman Empire, in exchange for the promise of (collective) Arab freedom after the war, in the form of a unified Arab nation with Hussein as monarch. The Brits, however, abandoned the promise, and the Arab world, split between French and British colonization and influence, was divided into the countries we know today. Freedom meant Arab freedom from the Ottomans first, then from the British and French.

As the countries won independence from the European colonial powers, the powerful appeal of pan-Arab nationalism grew across the region, whose people felt that the contemporary map represented an arbitrary division of Arab people (nation). The most potent manifestation of this sentiment as a political project was the United Arab Republic, in which Syria and Egypt joined to form one country from 1958 to 1961. While the project was supposed to be the first step toward the unity of the Arab world, the reality was that Syria became an Egyptian colony under Gamal Abdul Nasser. The unity project was undone by a coup of Syrian officers who restored Syria’s independence.

Although Syrian governments continued to proclaim Arab unity as their stated objective, particularly after the Baath party came to power in 1963, pan-Arabism was essentially dead as a practical political project, living on only as a sentiment to rally the masses. Syria’s situation was similar to that of many other Arab countries. The ideological struggle that characterized the first several decades after independence from European colonization was replaced by authoritarian dictatorships still espousing Arab unity, but focusing inward on the project of subjugating non-Arab peoples to Arab domination, and of subjecting all dissenters — Arab or otherwise — to the authority of state (often one and the same as the ruling party).

Ethnic struggles (such as that of the Kurds) for collective freedom remained potent, but now the majority-Arab populations of countries such as Syria and Iraq identified a new barrier to freedom: dictatorial regimes and their leaders. Dissent was suppressed to terrifying degrees, resulting in various forms of resistance emerging from different corners: liberal democrats, Islamists, ethnic and religious minorities, majorities not in power, etc. Also contributing to this new understanding was the importation of liberalism with its emphasis on individual rights. Again, people sought to bring to the Middle East a model that worked in Europe, where governments treated citizens as individuals and guaranteed their rights regardless of their religious or ethnic identity. The first barrier to freedom was removed, that of foreign domination, but, peeled away, it only exposed further layers of oppression. The principle of individual rights has a powerful appeal, however, and won’t be written off by people in the region even as the Middle East descends further into chaos, and, viewed from the outside, events seem to be driven more by ethnic and sectarian divisions than by struggles for liberal democracy.

In Syria, for example, where the struggle for collective Arab freedom from Turkish and European colonization had succeeded, those dissatisfied with Baathist rule transitioned to a struggle for different freedoms. For some, the struggle was for individual freedom, such as political freedoms and freedom of expression. For others, the struggle for religious freedom was paramount. In practice, that latter struggle often meant the replacement of authoritarian pseudo-secularism with authoritarian and majoritarian religious rule. In 2011, those two struggles — for individual freedoms and for religious freedoms, causes often integrated in the minds of those who fought for them — moved against their common enemy: the oppressive Baathist state. Their proponents did not, however, have a shared vision for the post-Baathist Syria, and, of course, the lines between the two strains of thought were blurry. Did freedom mean individual rights, particularly in the political realm? Or an increased role for the majority-Sunni religion in the public realm? In working against Baathist repression, what the liberal intellectual elite sought was very different from what, say, the Muslim Brotherhood sought.

Meanwhile, in a parallel development, non-Arab ethnic groups continued to pursue the collective freedom that Arabs had already gained. In Iraq, the Kurds had fought a long, on-again, off-again battle for collective rights against the Iraqi state. Working to secure the rights of their people to be recognized as non-Arab populations, Kurds and Syriacs in northeastern Syria founded several new political parties. In 2003, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded to represent Kurdish political rights, though Kurdish political parties had long existed. Likewise, the Syriac Union Party was founded in 2005, seeking recognition for the Syriac (Christian) minority to be recognized as non-Arabs.

For these movements, the struggle for freedom was primarily a struggle for the recognition of the existence of non-Arab peoples within the Syrian Arab Republic, as the country is officially known. From 2012 onward, these parties came to power in Syria’s northeast and eventually formed the Autonomous Administration, which governs the areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance representing multiple ethnicities. The most fundamental principle of the Autonomous Administration has been that each ethnic or religious community has the right to exist within a common polity. Critics see it as a Kurdish nationalist project disguised as pluralism and simply replacing the existing “Arabistan” with a Kurdistan, but its defenders say it is the only system to recognize the equality of the Kurdish, Syriac, and Arab communities (alongside smaller minorities including Armenians, Turkmen, and Circassians). More so than the Syrian opposition, it has also recognized that Syrians see themselves first as members of a group and then as individuals, at least on a political level. And individual rights can be guaranteed only when the rights of the various collectives within Syria have been firmly established.

This project was protected by the Western military presence in Syria’s northeast but now faces an existential threat from both Turkey and the Syrian government. Following President Trump’s decision — now again reversed — to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Turkey invaded the area (or, more accurately, Turkish threats of an invasion prompted the U.S. withdrawal). Turkey’s opposition to the Autonomous Administration comes primarily from the fear that this model could embolden the Kurdish community, whose collective rights continue to be denied by the Turkish government. The majorities in Turkey (Turkish) and Syria (Arab) have little sympathy for Kurdish aspirations and demand minority submission to the larger nationalist project. It is no surprise, then, that the largely Kurdish political party in Turkey, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), quickly denounced the attempted military coup of July 2016 in Turkey, despite their strong opposition to Erdogan’s AKP government. Had the coup succeeded, they would merely have been switching one Turkish nationalist oppressor for another. Likewise, the Kurdish community of Syria’s northeast was slower to call for the fall of the regime in 2011, as a simple switch from the Baathist regime to the opposition would have been trading one Arab nationalist entity for another, so deeply is pan-Arabism engrained in the Syrian national psyche, regime and opposition alike.

The conundrum, then, for those calling for and seeking “freedom” in the Middle East is that, as layers of “nonfreedom” are peeled back, new layers of nonfreedom appear. Sometimes the layers remain unpeeled and their contradictions unexposed. For Palestinians, for example, the struggle for freedom remains a collective one, and the barrier to that freedom remains Israel and Zionism. But if those barriers were removed, perhaps in the form of an independent Palestinian state, would the Palestinian people be free? Maybe yes, maybe no. They would find themselves in the same situation as that of their Arab neighbors who have long had freedom from a colonial power. Still, they can hardly be considered free, if the last decade of unrest in the region is any indication that the people have not considered the status quo to be “freedom,” however defined.

Each country in the Arab world has its own distinct history and unique political structure, so generalizations across the region are difficult. However, it is striking to note that, almost without exception, the Arab countries with a monarchical system have not experienced serious threats to the state’s power since the start of the Arab spring: Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. Bahrain is a tricky example, but it can be included as well for now.

In contrast, the republics of the region have all seen either governmental collapse or serious threats to the state’s hold on power: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq. Here, Lebanon presents a tricky example, but ongoing protests there against the government show that the system in Lebanon is vulnerable as well; it can be included here, despite its unique demographics and history, which set it apart from other countries in the region.

This contrast between the monarchies and the republics (a couple of anomalies notwithstanding) opens up the question of legitimacy and power and of how they relate to freedom: Is it possible to create a legitimate system that guarantees the rights both of the individual and of the various collectives in these diverse countries? The monarchies have created legitimacy but are mostly not free. Some of the republics, including Iraq and Lebanon, are “free” to a point of anarchy. Finding the right system, one that can provide both freedom and legitimacy, is the primary task facing the Arab world today, and is relevant to non-Arab countries of the region as well.

A legitimate political system that can guarantee freedom remains elusive in the Middle East. Identifying such a system, and figuring out how to implement it, should be the primary task of serious thinkers in the region. Can protesters in Beirut and Baghdad provide an answer to the problem? It is probably not on the front of their minds as they dodge bullets from their elected governments. However, the success or failure at creating a legitimate, free political system will determine the future of the region more than anything else as the Middle East enters the third decade of the 21st century, stumbling along, bloodily.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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