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Identity Politics is not a Fatality

Middle East Plenary Speech by Dr Tarek Mitri

25 June 2016

WCC Central Committee meeting 2016 Middle East plenary: Dr Tarek Mitri

Five years ago, Arab uprisings initiated, in an unanticipated manner, transformations in a region that seemed resistant to change. For some time, expectations and hopes energized a large number of people, whether young or not-so-young. Today’s disillusionment, though understandable, is often rushed and at times engineered. It serves the purpose of justifying attempts to reverse transition, divert its course, and withdraw into defensive and regressive identity politics.

Disillusionment, uncertainty and fear not withstanding, the yearning for dignity, freedom, political participation which motivated revolutions against patrimonial authoritarian regimes could not be dismissed as ephemeral. The broad-based social demand for democracy, no matter how vaguely conceived, is often ignored by those who precipitously opt for an essentialist and culturalist explanation of the difficulty, or even the impossibility, of transitioning towards a democratic polity and society. Precarious national structures and the related fragility of national cohesion and identity, exacerbated further by the rapid and unanticipated collapse of the old order, favored a tendency to over-emphasize the strength of primordial ties in comparison with civic ties that are constitutive of a modern democratic society. One could not ignore the resurgence or reinvention of sub-national identities and the centrifugal forces at work in many Arab countries. Many members of communities, not only minorities, seem to have lost their aspiration to a state for all. They beg for a power structure that can protect them from another community. Weakened states and political and electoral strategies of mobilization accentuate communalism and encourage the surfacing of narratives of victimhood, often emotional and aggressive.

Ethnic groups, and religious groups, are both actors and victims of identity politics. Throughout the twentieth century, their members struggled to assert themselves, and be recognized, as citizens. But many retreated into minority-centered communities. Expression identity politics are intertwined with post-uprising conflicts. Many leaders across the region do little more than tap into the use of persecution felt by communities without offering them alternatives to fear and uncertainty. Many are victims but ethnic and religious minorities, Christians included, claim extraordinary victimhood, no matter if some, such as the Yezidis, have suffered far more than others.  

The very conflicts that undermine what is left of the state become, for many rulers of the region, a source of legitimacy, a cause for further entrenching and a distraction from addressing problems that they are not capable or unwilling to solve, such as in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. It is not therefore a surprise to see violence becoming a policy by default.

Some would argue that the USA political decision to retreat from the Arab World meant, in actual fact, endorsing the very forces fueling the Arab nations’ and states’ self-destruction. One could not ignore the extent to which the USA, despite its tendency to disengage, remains at the heart of Arab politics. Friends and foes alike continue to construct their narratives and define their courses of action on the basis of what they guess to be Washington’s intention. A striking example is the Syrian regime, pretending to confront the USA, keeps an eye on its response as it crossed every possible red line. Russia would not have launched its war on Syrian soil and lead the hesitant political process, were it not convinced that the Syrian opponents of the regime, unlike the Afghans of the 1980s, had no real support from their American rival. More importantly, the withdrawal sucked Russians into the void, exacerbating the deadly tensions.

In Europe, hesitant and incoherent attempts at pursuing democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging moderate Islamists, developing humanitarian responses, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being over shadowed by, or even subdued to one idea: accepting any power structure or initiative that might protect against Da’ish, or ISIS, and the continuing spillover of a massive refugee movement.

Looking back at the internal transformations in the Arab world, one has enough reasons to fear that many countries will continue to descend into disintegration, violence and chaos. However there are changes at work that could, I am not making a prediction here, open the way for regeneration. The state system has fallen in Iraq. In Lebanon, state institutions have become largely dysfunctional. In Palestine, with an ever-increasing Israeli intransigence, the continuing colonization in the West bank and the absence of an effective policy of the US, self-described as an honest broker, the two-state solution is increasingly more elusive. There is no peace process worthy of the name. It had become only a vacuous process.

Libya has not succeeded so far in re-emerging from its multiple civil wars. Tunisia is often regarded as a relative success in the post-uprising region. It has followed the path of a peaceful political transformation, bridging the gap between Islamists and secularists. A compromise transcending the political and ideological divide produced a progressive constitution.

Egypt is still prey to a polarization between army and Islamists depicted indiscriminately as terrorists with a bloody confrontation triggered by a reversal of the political process augured by the 2011 upraising.

In Syria, where a peaceful and rather secular uprising was militarized by necessity, once the civilian population was repeatedly targeted by bloody repression. Calls for decisive protection of civilians remained unanswered. The international community had no appetite for action. The Western military intervention in Libya, initially meant to protect civilian population in Benghazi and at the same time serve national interests of some European countries, failed in stabilizing Libya and facilitating its transition to democracy. Such failure was invoked as an argument for the justification of passivity in Syria.

The regime’s survival, largely attributed to Iranian and more significantly in recent times, Russian support, reveals an asymmetry that determines the course of a conflict which, more than anywhere else in the region, has extended beyond national borders. The massive influx of refugees into neighboring countries and its spill over into Europe as well as the control of Da’ish over swathes of territory are two illustrations of regionalization and internationalization of an internal conflict.

In conclusion, transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy has proved to be more arduous than anticipated, the Tunisian exception notwithstanding. Today the social demand for security and stability, in a context of a bloody disorder, is interpreted, in the case of Egypt and others, as a demand for return to an authoritarian rule. But it is not. Repression is far less tolerated than before. The call for political participation could not be silenced. The legacy of authoritarian regimes weighs heavily on political conduct and the management of transition nurturing suspicions and mutual fears. Rebuilding state institutions, left in desolation, is severely hindered. To be sure, the shortfalls of transition could not be overstated. The deficit in competence and experience of large segments of the new political elites, the weakness of political forces with a social base attached to democratic values or aspiring to a democratic order, all of those may explain the volatility of state building.

Progress on the arduous road towards democratic transformation could not be achieved by adopting a presumably universal model of transition. A paradigm for political change has to be better suited to the realities of today, not the lingering hope of an earlier era. Precipitation in moving forward did not adequately recognize the strength of sub-national identity assertion, nor those of cultural resistance to new norms of political practice. Inclusivity as an energizing principle is considered too costly for those in power. They refrain from reaching out to the fearful minorities- whether ethnic, religious or political. Equally, their inability to include contributed to the radicalization of the excluded.

For their part, Christians possess the intellectual tools and the moral motivation to discern and acknowledge the resistance of many of their Muslims compatriots to the hegemonic tendency of what is often called “radical Islam”. They have spiritual resources to resist the alarmism of fear. This is not an invitation to shy away from a serious recognition of threats and risks, nor is it an idealistic call to patience. It is rather an act of faithfulness to the values they have constantly upheld.

Throughout their recent history, many Christians refrained from overplaying minority militancy and identity politics. The notion of Christian presence was their antidote to both aggressive communalism and withdrawal from public life. In the same vein, the role of Church institutions was defined not only in terms of their functions of preservation but by the gospel-rooted imperative of witness and service to the neighbor. Churches never perceived Christians and Muslims as two monolithic blocks facing each other, nor did they oppose rights of the minority to aspirations of the majority.

There is another way in contrast with the paths walked by those who opt for an exclusively minority-centered militancy or by those who chose the silence of fear or resignation. It is opened by the reinvention, through political participation, of the pact of citizenship that binds Christians and Muslims together. True, the future of Christians in the Arab world does not only depend on them but also on their fellow Muslims and the ability of all to rebuild states based on citizenship and the rule of law, while recognizing the wealth of religious and cultural plurality that could spare the Arab world the sad face of uniformity.

My concluding and brief statement is about being called and calling oneself minorities. The notion is loaded with historical overtones. For some it evokes conspiracies, manipulation by foreign powers and subversion of majority role. For others, it is associated with religious or cultural rights and protection. In modern times, Christians learned to affirm their self-understanding as citizens rather than minorities. Voices suppressed today will not be voices silenced forever. To be sure, we live in times of suffering, fear and uncertainty. But they are also times of change. Christians are not only victims crying out their plight, they are also called to be faithful and hopeful actors.  

Tarek Mitri

Trondheim

June 2016