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Opinion: The Scourge of Sectarianism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iraqi election commission official pulls ballot boxes at a polling station in the capital, Baghdad, on May 8, 2014, following the country’s general elections. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

The results of the Iraqi elections did not come as a surprise to me, not do I believe they would have surprised any shrewd observer of the Iraqi political scene. The regional project that these results betray is clear to see, and Iraq’s politicians are playing the game openly: the Shi’ites vote for the Shi’ite candidate, the Sunni Arabs vote for the Sunni Arab candidate, the Sunni Kurds vote for the Sunni Kurd candidate, and so on.

Iraq, which was first been “liberated” from Saddam Hussein and then from the Americans, is not an isolated case. Syria is also confidently and destructively moving towards a state of social division, despite the fact that the Assad regime—under both the father, Hafez Al-Assad, and the son, Bashar—have an ongoing tradition of erecting a democratic façade to cover up the most heinous of political and security practices. We have seen the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the displacement of millions, the killing of hundreds of thousands, and the changing of the country’s geographic map and demographic composition. Despite all this, the Assad regime continues to promote the lie that it is a “secular” institution, insisting on showing the world that it not only opposes sectarianism, but is also passionate about democracy and elections, even if the opposition has no candidate in the presidential election race. The regime, for its part, has synthesized not just one, but two candidates for Assad to defeat.

We also cannot forget to include Lebanon in this picture. Hafez Al-Assad once described the Lebanese and the Syrians as “one people in two countries.” Today, the Lebanese are in the process of selecting a new president—despite the fact that they are always the last to be consulted about their own affairs, whether they realize this bitter reality or not.

The only difference between the situation in Lebanon and that in Syria is that Lebanon is a country that has explicitly recognized power-sharing on a sectarian basis, in its National Pact and its constitution. Lebanon’s sectarian code is explicit and the Lebanese people harbor no delusions about Lebanon being a perfect democracy.

People in Iraq and Syria have faced numerous deceptions over the years, sometimes dressed up in pan-Arabist slogans and at other times secular ones. In fact, now that the nature of power in Iraq has been exposed, what is happening in Syria is tempting some of those who are naïve or who have bad intentions. They still believe the claim that the Baghdad regime is a bulwark against sectarian extremism.

In my own view, there is a huge difference between the role of Islam in the Arab Mashreq and in the Arab Maghreb. In the Maghreb, Islam was, and remains, a vital inclusive force that brings together the Arab and Berber communities, the people of the interior and those living on the coast, as well as the various tribes. There is also an Ibadi presence in parts of North Africa, particularly in Algeria’s M’zab region and Tunisia’s Nafusa Mountains. There are even small pockets of Christianity, as well as an ancient Jewish presence, although it has diminished greatly over the past few decades. The Maliki Madhab (School) of Islamic Thought, which is predominant in the Maghreb, and its paternal, tolerant and interactive nature, even towards non-Muslims, has ensured that differences of opinion have not escalated into full-blown religious conflict.

The situation there is completely different from the huge religious and sectarian diversity that can be seen in Iraq and the countries of the Levant. Here, a different unifying identity is required, and that is why the pan-Arab nationalist “option” emerged so strongly, although it quickly veered into racism against ethnic minorities. This completely fragmented pan-Arabism’s original nationalist tendencies, resulting in the establishment of ethnic and sectarian enclaves protected and ensconsed by foreign assistance.

Political Islam in the Arab Mashreq failed in the Cold War era, when the pan-Arab nationalist option was strong. This was when the confrontation in our region was in its early stages.

The “June Defeat”—as the Six-Day War is known in some parts of the region—physically put an end to the credibility of the pan-Arab nationalist option. Nasserism stumbled, and it ultimately collapsed just a few years later.

The effective end of this political ideology—based on pan-Arab, not religious or sectarian rhetoric—came at the hands of the dictators who were most committed to the legacy of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who promoted and impersonated the pan-Arab ideology they claimed the Egyptian president had entrusted to them.

That is how Iraq’s Ba’athists could promote Saddam Hussein as the new Nasser, while their “comrades” in Syria did not hesitate to compete for the Nasserite mantle and the corresponding leadership of the Arab world. It was the same case with Sudan’s former president, Gaafar Nimeiry, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. They all deceived themselves into believing that they were the legitimate heir of an era that had long since passed. Nimeiry, who came to power on the back of Soviet support, retreated from his latent pan-Arab ideology and rushed towards the Islamization of politics. Gaddafi replaced his pan-Arab nationalism—which he never understood in the first place—with pan-Africanism, ultimately proclaiming himself the continent’s King of Kings.

Political Islam has always been the only real alternative to all of these options. One could speak about the tragic situation in Libya and Sudan for a long time on this basis. As for the circus of elections in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—both those completed and those set to take place in the near future—they can be viewed as part of a wider, self-sustaining inter-Islamic civil war that is escalating as time goes by, pushing each of these countries towards collective suicide.

Earlier this week, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, which is fighting in Syria, refused to sign the “Revolutionary Honor Code” drawn up by other Islamist factions. These same Islamist factions, including the Al-Nusra Front, had previously agreed that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not a true rebel faction but an organization working for the Assad regime and Iranian intelligence. Alongside ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, there is a proliferation of organizations that claim to represent “true Islam” and to be fighting a predominately Islamic war. At the same time, the Assad regime, along with its Iranian backers, is gaining ground and momentum. After all, the rational and moderate Syrian opposition has been in decline both politically and on the ground, due to their own inability to convince the international community of the necessity of providing them with arms.

The international community, and particularly the United States, has put forward false pretexts to justify the failure to support the revolution. Unfortunately, the consequences are slowly becoming, day by day, the accepted reality in the eyes of many—particularly in light of the hegemony of this alien extremist Islamist ideology in Syria.

The scourge of sectarian extremism has become the greatest threat to the continued existence of the Syrian revolution and a tacit ally to all the enemies of the Arabs and Muslims and their ambitions for a humane civilization.

When will we recognize this fact?