Despite the outbreak of signs of a new war in the Gulf region due to the developments in the Iranian nuclear file, and the indications of an eruption on the Palestinian front following the electoral success of Hamas, the most acute risk remains that of a wave of civil strife in the Islamic regional arena.
By civil strife, I do not necessarily refer to local armed struggles or civil war Lebanese style even though this is of course always contingent. However, the strife to which I refer consists of numerous layers, is multi-faceted, and may vary according to contexts and spaces across the region. Within this framework, four sub-levels may be discerned, each upon which I will briefly comment.
The first sub-level is the factional war that has reached its peak in Iraq over the past few months since the explosion of holy shrines and mosques. Over the past weeks, we have witnessed an exact example of this in the city of Samarra and in many Sunni mosques. Rationalist figures from both parties such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Sunni Scholars Association attempted to calm the situation; however, factional conflict has now become a reality that is subject to deterioration at any moment. Factional polarization now in Iraq constitutes the axis of the political process in light of the proposals and projects for federations that will enact the actual divisions along factional discriminations.
Whatever is stated and written about the role of the Islamist militants in the exacerbation of factionalism, the fact remains that the phenomenon exceeds this role and could not be explained by it. The phenomenon is essentially related to the difficulties facing the coexistence of the Arab Sunnis and the Arab Shi’a. Contrary to what is generally believed, it could not be exclusively explained by doctrinal or factional factors. It is a complicated phenomenon, which could be also related to the inherited legacy of the former regime on one hand and the reality of the foreign occupation on the other, with its power and strategies of the political forces that try to capitalize on the factional issue for the sake of their electoral political gains. The Iraqi symptom has its extensions outside of Iraq that are apparent when one follows the debates that feature on the Arab satellite stations and the internet. The debate is usually expressed through abusive language such as infidelity and treason by extremists on one hand. This has become worrisome with regards to the religious-cultural structure of the Arabs.
The second sub-level of comprehensive and wide civil strife is manifested in the intellectual conflict between the modernist and the fundamentalist trends. There is no sharper polarization here. The matter is no longer related to real intellectual conflict or debate as much as ideology. Thus, it lacks the richness and dynamism that should be available in such debate, which is the fuel of cultural renewal and cultural mobility. Just as several Arab governments used the fundamentalist currents to counterbalance the leftists in past decades, we see today an attempt by those governments to use the slogan of “modernization” to confront the religious extremist groups albeit whilst avoiding the full costs of this slogan, at the top of which is the establishing of intellectual freedoms.
What is new in this respect is that the polarization has moved to within the Islamist current itself. There are now at least three conflicting Islamist currents within the Islamist movement itself. There is the traditional Islamic reformist movement (which our colleague Radwan Al Sayyid likes to call “The Revivalists”), the Jihadist Salafis (who do not hesitate in denouncing the “Revivalists” as infidels because from their perspective, the “Revivalists” have compromised and have complied with the ruling regimes). Finally, there are the apolitical neo-propagandists who have become present within Arab media. In my opinion, such polarizations as the one between the modernist and fundamentalists, and the one within the fundamentalists would not be resolved except through a free and serious intellectual dialogue that would only exclude those who resort to violence and arms. The resolution of the second kind of polarization through the imposition of a single binding frame of reference, that many think is plausible, will not work.
The third sub-level of conflict is the ethnic-nationalist struggle, which we see in many Arab contexts. Sudan is a clear example. The crisis in Southern Sudan was resolved only to be followed by the horrific violence that has taken place in Darfour. Sudan is not alone. In Mauritania, the 3 August coup has for now absorbed the political frustration that resulted from the overthrow of Ould Taya’s regime that was responsible for massacring members of the African minority. However, the Mauritanian file is still pending, therefore at risk until the interim period is over at the beginning of 2007. Also in Iraq, state persecution takes place against minorities such as the Assyrians and the Turkmen. Meanwhile, the Kurds are unable to decide whether to secede effectively the federalist way, or to remain part of the single Iraqi nation and state. In addition, in Algeria and North Africa, the Amazigh matter remains.
The final sub-level focuses on the regional Islamic civil strife. Here, the Iranian file is dominant especially considering the tense Iranian-Arab relations. The situation may deteriorate following the victory of Ahmadinejad. Concerning Turkey, the arrival of the Justice and Development Party to power in that country has in fact alleviated the tension between Turkey and the Arab world. However, several heated issues remain unresolved such as water, the position towards Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey’s ties with Israeli.
Clearly, the Islamic region has failed over the last few years to come up with a coherent strategy. It failed to build effective partnerships amongst its four components: the Arab world, East Asia, Turkey and Western Africa despite all the salient political literature on the topic. What I have aimed to do with the above analysis of what I have entitled “Civil Strife” is to highlight the necessity to work to contain the first warning of this strife which has reached dangerous levels because of the rise in extremist and terrorist voices that have become its fuel.