Dialog Between Bigots (Part II of VI)

Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh

EDITOR: In your opinion, is it possible for Islamic states to adopt secular systems of government, and to allow non-Muslim minorities to integrate in Muslim dominated political structures? Put another way, given the history and tradition of these areas, Iraq in particular, did the Americans have any choice other than to work with sectarian structures?

AR: Sorry, i don’t mean to be rude but i do not understand your questions because 1) I can’t tell what ‘Islamic’ states you are talking about, 2) what is the time frame that you refer to as when you speak of the ‘history and traditions’, 3) what do mean when you say ‘these areas’ and 4) secular governments do exist so why would you want to know if they can?

Perhaps I can explain the reasons for confusion.

Most Arab states are not ‘Islamic’ but more closer to secular states, not ‘Islamic’ ones. They may not be democratic, but that is a different issue. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and the non-Arab Turkey are secular/non-denominational governments, not ‘Islamic’ governments. Only Saudi Arabia and post-revolution Iran qualify as religious states and Islamic ones at that. But ‘the region’ including Saddam’s Iraq were not ‘Islamic’ by any definition, though i have no idea what an ‘Islamic’ government would be like. So we have to be very specific and very clear here.

Furthermore, what time frame are you talking about where you would want to examine issues related to minorities? Minorities have flourished in Arab lands since time immemorial.  For example, the modern history of the Middle East demonstrates that Arab Christians have been at the forefront of the Arab nationalism, that there is an indigenous Christian community that has had centuries of fertile exchange with Muslims in these regions. To say nothing about their artistic, intellectual, and political contributions. There is nothing inherently ‘foreign’ about Christians in the Middle East. If you go back even further in time, lets say to the time of the emergence of the Islamic empire as it meets up with the Byzantine and the Sasanian, we see a rich exchange of ideas and even common sharing of religious practices. e.g. see Elizabeth Fowden’s brilliant and beautifully written work ‘The Barbarian Plain’.  To suggest that non-Muslim minorities cannot ‘integrate’ into Arab/Islamic societies would betray a terrible lack of knowledge of history. After all, for example, where did the Jews go after the inquisitions and their expulsion from Spain? Where did the Syrian orthodox church live and flourish for so many centuries? So this question about ‘integration’ is ahistorical.  The Sephardic Jews, the Copts, the Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Manichaen and many many more.  The Arab lands are not ‘pure’ or isolated.

There have indeed been periods of persecution, but there have also been periods of tremendous tolerance and acceptance. So this question makes no sense, unless you want to speak in specific circumstance e.g. the recent backlash against the Christians in the Middle East which indeed is taking place. But then we have to speak about each country specifically – the backlash against the Christians in Lebanon has a different set of political, historical, social reasons than say that against the Copts in Egypt. And we have to be specific about what time frame we are talking about.

On the whole there has been centuries of exchange and tolerance in the Middle East and that remains the norm, not the exception.  If there have been persecutions, they are in fact the execptions to the larger norm.  For example, if you ever go to Beit Sahour in the West Bank, OPT you will find Muslims and Christians sharing shrines, and praying at monasteries. Professor Glenn Bowman of the University of Kent at Canterbury has written extensively about this. In Syria too you will see practices that the two religions share. In Rusafa in Syria there stood a shrine to St. Sergius right next to which stood a mosque, with a large hall joining the two structures.

There were hundreds of such locations all over the Levant. Today there still are many that bear witness to the tremendous sharing between the two communities. Muslims even pray like the orthodox! The sounds of the Sufi saints come from those of the choirs. In Alleppo in the Casbah you can hear this music again and feel that the choirs of Seidnaya have entered the streets. I speak of today, not a millenia ago. William Dalrymple has written extensively about this in his work ‘From The Holy Mountain’

The middle east is vast, and a diverse region. Tunisia is not Lebanon is not Iraq is not Egypt. We can’t speak about ‘areas’ we have to be specific about what country we are speaking about. After WW II the post-colonial trajectories of each nation need to be very specifically known and kept in mind as we discuss developments. For example, why has Morocco managed to maintain a very open relationship with its Jewish community despite the majority of the Jews choosing to leave the country? And why is it different for example in Lebanon? The answers lie in specific histories and not through generalizations of ‘Islamic intolerance’, a sweeping simplicity that explains little but confirms many prejudices.

The Middle East has had many secular governments, some elected ones too. Turkey is a secular government, so is Syria, so too was Iraq, so is Egypt.  Besides the much spoken about fear of Islamic parties being elected and creating theocracies is a false one as even ostensibly Islamic parties have a real habit of behaving with politically savvy and democratic insight once they come to power. I recommend you read Harper magazine’s Ken Silverstein’s piece on the rise of Islamic democracy to better understand how and what these Islamic political movements are and how they behave.

Finally, as to your last point on whether the Americans had a choice – we can certainly discuss that endlessly though I will admit that i am not as well qualified to answer that one. I suspect that the Americans did have a choice. Furthermore, from a long term perspective, they should have insisted on it because a sectarian structure will not work and is the principal reason for the instability today. To say nothing about the illegality of the war, the carnage in the post-invasion period etc. Furthermore, we would be naive to ignore the history of the creation of Iraq particularly the role of the British in its creation, the deep influence of British intellectuals and orientalists on the minds and actions of the American administration (for example Bernard Lewis was not just an important encourager of the invasion but deeply entrenched in the think tanks advising on what needs to happen post-Saddam!) and the seeming seamless continuity in the assumptions about the ‘Arab mind’ between the British ideas and the current set of colonial administrators.  A book that I myself am going over again is David Fromkin’s ‘A Peace to End All Peace’ and I highly recommend it to understand the history of the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

I will just conclude by saying that it is important for me that questions are carefully framed and in particular that they do not nudge responses into expected places. All that being said, I am not the best person to speak to about the future of the middle east or the politics of the region or the real-political actions.


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