Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Us and Them | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Media ID: 55342908

In this February 6, 2011 file photo, a Muslim holding the Koran (top-L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

“We have suffered more than you, and you deserve what is happening to you!”

This sentence pretty much sums up the general mood in more than one country in the Middle East when it comes to sectarian and ethnic conflicts, which have exploded in recent years and threaten these days to engulf everyone in the region in their midst.

Arab vs. Kurd, Sunni vs. Shi’ite, Christian vs. Muslim, Lebanese vs. Syrian, Arab vs. Persian—take your pick. But what is truly making this already unbearable situation worse is the involvement of a not inconsiderable portion of those who are in the public eye. It is not just politicians and militants, but journalists, writers, and so-called intellectuals who have now taken up this divisive baton, prolonging a never-ending and self-perpetuating cycle of justification and counter-justification, recounting the ills perpetrated against whichever group or faction they have chosen to identify with, and which are invariably committed by another group or faction. And so they use these grievances to sow the seeds of polarization and curry favor with those of their party, group, religion or sect. It is these facile prejudices which keep us in this seemingly endless cycle of problems—though also, according to some, supposedly keep us “safe” as well.

This general dialogue of justification and defensiveness stems at times from a victim mentally, which itself can sometimes be understandable. But in the current context in our region and the corresponding belittlement of the grievances of the “other,” it also represents the most intense of negative and atavistic sentiments related to the different groupings or sects which we all follow. Accentuating these feelings makes it increasingly difficult for those of us who wish to break out of this tribal mentality, to form our own positions—and to speak of them openly. We in the region now live in a milieu which seeks to curb our individual freedoms and keep us confined and segregated within the official “party line,” dissolving any intimation of diversity within a ubiquitous solvent of conformity in return for those delusory reassurances of “safety” and “security” within the flock.

It is within this general context that those who seek to polarize and inflame shamelessly fan their hateful and violence-inciting narratives, all in the name of defending the tribe, the group, the party, or the sect. How many journalists, writers or academics in the region have become embroiled within these narratives (though they usually present them in other garbs, invariably those which play on those pervasive feelings of victimhood and marginalization)?

This is how during this current era of sectarian–ethnic tension and conflict in our region that the boundaries between the repressive regimes that throttle our individual freedoms in the name of security and quelling conspiracies, and those religiously and ideologically motivated groups who are so quick to belittle any opposing voice by branding them as “misled” or in cahoots with “outside forces,” completely collapse.

In this way we can see how easy, safe and profitable a choice it is for such public figures to become polarized and biased toward a particular faction of whatever kind. But of course this polarization and blind followership simply inflame the sorry situation that we are in today.

The usual hesitation and suspicion we should feel when encountering such divisive and vengeful dialogue seems to have disappeared. And it has become completely normal to see what are certainly rightful grievances stemming from persecution or marginalization then appended with words that draw their water from that very same well, justifying violence or revenge and manipulating fervent language in such a way as to play on the emotions of the opressed and the angry.

Those embroiled in these narratives do not thereby put an end to the injustices about which they so vociferously complain, but in fact perpetuate them by justifying vengeful action. And in this hostile atmosphere, those brave refuseniks who oppose these narratives are—at best—branded as naïve simpletons or even traitors.

Truly, this is the era of “us and them,” “you are either with us, or against us.” And it poses a huge challenge now for all principled individuals in the region, for all those who refuse to down the Kool-Aid in one unthinking gulp. They face a formidable and seemingly implacable foe: the group, tribe, ethnicity, or religion. It is an intimidating challenge, yes, but one that must be decisively overcome if we are to carve out spaces for free expression in our region.