One of the striking contrasts between the current political tensions in the Arab world and the tone of the many regional demonstrations for freedom and democracy is about the role of sectarian and ethnic identity. We have been reminded of this again in Syria, where last week’s brutal killings in the city of Homs seemed designed to inflame destructive passions between the majority Sunnis and the minority Alawites who dominate the ruling power elite.
In the past year, Egypt has experienced similarly ugly incidents that seemed to target or provoke the Christian Coptic minority. Bahrain and Yemen also have experienced serious ethnic- and sectarian-based tensions. Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan have endured their own sectarian conflicts and occasional atrocities for years, to the point where Iraq and Lebanon have seen most of their once integrated populations separated into more neat and “pure” demographic zones. And Sudan has registered the first case of secession from a modern Arab state.
This list is long, depressing and profoundly revealing of deeper problems in the Arab world that transcend immediate political rivalries or longer-term competition for control of state resources. Sectarian, religious and ethnic tensions across the Arab world primarily reflect deficiencies in two key arenas: the legitimacy and structure of statehood, and the nature and quality of political governance. Arab rulers have denied their people credible democratic political participation and accountability; their citizens do not enjoy the bounty of state services, security, equality and opportunity that should accompany real citizenship. Instead, individuals turn to ethnic or religious groups for identity, representation, services and protection, while Arab autocrats and foreign powers manipulate sectarianism for their own ends.
The millions of Arab men and women who have been demonstrating on the streets for seven months now instinctively understand the direct relationship between sectarianism and governance: When countries are well managed and citizens feel they have a say in political and economic developments, sectarian identities and tensions decrease and eventually disappear. But when authoritarian gangs and oligarchic ruling families plunder their countries and treat their citizens like idiots without rights or feelings, sectarianism sprouts like the natural self-defence mechanism that it is.
The demonstrators understand that their national challenges include not only ending corruption and instituting democratic governance, but also forging inclusive national coherence that allows all citizens to feel they are equal members of a single country with a shared national purpose. So, we see many slogans proclaiming that all demonstrators are united as equal citizens, including heartening examples of acknowledging the religious pluralism that is a strength of our societies, such as Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square taking turns praying and protecting each other’s prayer sessions, or the common symbol of crosses and crescent moons together.
Arab societies are enriched and strengthened by pluralism, and become poorer when minorities fear for their future and start to emigrate en masse. The Arab-Israeli conflict has already seen the departure of most indigenous Arab Jews throughout the Arab countries where they had lived for centuries. Christians and other minorities seem increasingly worried in some countries, and their numbers may also decline due to permanent emigration. The antidote, as the demonstrators are saying, is to fix the dysfunctional governments that plague the Arab world.
Most incumbent Arab regimes being challenged by their own people, however, consistently blame foreign conspirators for unrest, and also raise the prospect of sectarian conflict if the existing regime or power structure is significantly changed. Some critics of Arab governments accuse them of stoking or arranging sectarian attacks as a means of heightening citizens’ mass fears. Citizens in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Bahrain have witnessed the ravages of sectarian warfare in Iraq and Lebanon, and will go to great lengths to avoid repeating the experience. Regimes that raise this frightening spectre count on the fact that their citizens will refrain from challenging the regime and, instead, opt for maintaining the current order because it is at least stable and secure.
This is a form of mass political hostage-taking that has worked for decades, but has now clearly reached the end of its useful life. Stable societies that are neither democratic nor economically and socially productive are decaying societies that end up being machines of mass corruption and dehumanization, which inevitably pushes citizens to seek refuge in their sect or tribe. Demonstrators have now declared their determination to end this ugly legacy. They counter the regime’s scare tactics by affirming their commitment to fraternal and tolerant pluralism within democratic structures as their preferred operating system. It is important to see the mass commitment among Arabs to sectarian and ethnic tolerance and even solidarity, which I believe are much stronger than the occasional bout of tension.
Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.