Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, July 11, 2002
I want to elaborate a bit more on one particular point below. Derb points out, correctly, that many of the most oppressive regimes in the Muslim world are the secular dictatorships. But while this is true, I don't think it's the right typology. What plagues the Muslim world - and particularly the Arab world - is a crisis of legitimacy, and it is this crisis which is behind the worst regimes in the region. And I believe that this crisis is deeply linked to the failure to articulate an authentic nationalism.

I have argued before that there are only four nations in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Iran. To these, one could add at least four states that are highly traditional and therefore have an older if precarious basis for legitimacy: Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan (and the last must be qualified by saying that it has traditional legitimacy primarily among the Bedouin minority, and is therefore always vulnerable to overthrow by the Palestinian majority). These states are congenitally weak because they do not inspire national loyalty among their people, but they are relatively stable because of the well-established nature of their authority. Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia are probably the least legitimate regimes in the region, and are also the least stable and the most oppressive; Pakistan could potentially be added as a fourth. There is no Syrian nation, no Iraqi nation, and certainly no Saudi nation, and Pakistan is similarly a patchwork of peoples. These states are the consummate colonial creations, without historic basis, and so all - except Pakistan, which continues to benefit from the distant echo of direct British rule - have come to be ruled by totalitarian ideologies based on terror. That the ideologies differ between them is secondary.

(It might be objected that Iran belongs in the rogues gallery, but this would be incorrect. Iran is in the grip of a clique of murderous ideologues, as Russia was under the Soviets and as Germany was under the Nazis. But while Iran's regime may have a legitimacy problem - the people have roundly rejected it - Iran itself suffers from no such problem. It is very easy to imagine Iran being liberated by its own people, and becoming a close friend of the West. Iran's ideology, like Nasser's, was a tool for asserting leadership among states and for aggrandizing power internally to a clique. That ideology could fall without threatening the state itself in any wise. Iraq, by contrast, is held together only by murder and the fear of murder. Without Baathism, the state might well disintegrate entirely. The same is true for Syria, and the same is true for Saudi Arabia should the Wahhabi ideology of the House of Saud collapse.)

The radically evil nature of so many regimes in the Middle East, then, is rooted in the illegitimacy of these states. And the only states that are legitimate are those with an authentic traditional or national basis. As it is exceedingly difficult to implant traditional legitimacy (remember King Farouk of Egypt? King Faisal of Iraq?), the only prospect for future stability and freedom in the failed states is from the development of an authentic nationalism.

There are many obstacles to the development of such a nationalism. But two factors that have not gotten enough attention are the pan-nationalist movements that have often been mis-identified as nationalist movements, but which are in fact evasions of the challenge of building a nation. These are: Arab "nationalism" and the idea of the "nation" of Islam.

So-called Arab nationalism is not a nationalism at all. There has never been an Arab nation covering all the varied lands that call themselves Arab, and logistically it's hard to imagine that there ever could be. Talking about Arab nationalism makes about as much sense as talking about European nationalism, and as many Arabs have proved willing to die for the cause of Arab unity as are likely to be willing to die for the honor of the twelve-starred flag of Europe. But nationalism first arose in the Arab world under the banner of Arab nationalism, of liberation of the Arab peoples - from Morocco to Mesopotamia - from the yoke of Turkish rule. And very quickly, this turned into a racial ideology dedicated not to forging a nation out of disparate elements - the process that took place in Italy during the Risorgimento - but to the ethnic purification of a continent-wide area, driving out Greeks, Jews, Turks and all others who necessarily cannot claim membership in the mythical Arab "nation." This movement, like the Slavophilism that gripped 19th century Russia, is nothing but an evasion of the challenges of truly forging a nation, and has set up impossible political expectations for the people of these countries that actually form a substantial obstacle to the development of nations.

Meanwhile, the reference to Islam as a "nation" is either an ominous new development or evidence of a further serious confusion of what a nation is. Islam is a fellowship of believers, governed as a radically decentralized theocracy. Such a system can, I'm sure, coexist with nations, and maybe even in union with a nation (as was attempted in Iran, for example, where Islam has taken on the heirarchical aspects necessary to a government, and bearing more resemblance to the Catholic or Anglican Church's organization than to traditional Islam). But it is in no sense in itself a nation. Calling it a nation is again an evasion of the challenges of true nationalism, and a more dangerous one than the evasion of Arab nationalism - more dangerous because it implicitly turns Islam into a radical political ideology, subversive of non-Islamic regimes, and seriously obstructs the ability of Muslims to join in larger national polities (for example, in France, or in India).

I'll return to this theme again and again, because I don't feel it's getting enough attention. We have heard a lot about how failed states contributed to the nightmare of Islamic terrorism, with the implication that with the right constitution or the right amount of foreign aid, these states could become successes and the swamp from which terror emerges would be drained. But nation-building is an ideological project, one that can only be undertaken by national elites themselves, and what we are dealing with in the Middle East are failed nations, not merely failed states.