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Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

ISSN: 2373-9770 (Print) 2373-9789 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rifa20

Why the Arab Spring Turned into Arab Winter:

Understanding the Middle East Crises through
Culture, Religion, and Literature

Dimitar Mihaylov

To cite this article: Dimitar Mihaylov (2017) Why the Arab Spring Turned into Arab Winter:
Understanding the Middle East Crises through Culture, Religion, and Literature, Israel Journal of
Foreign Affairs, 11:1, 3-14, DOI: 10.1080/23739770.2017.1313544

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/23739770.2017.1313544

Published online: 19 Apr 2017.

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Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2017
Vol. 11, No. 1, 3–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/23739770.2017.1313544

Why the Arab Spring Turned into Arab Winter:

Understanding the Middle East Crises through
Culture, Religion, and Literature
Dimitar Mihaylov

Dimitar Mihaylov is the Bulgarian ambassador to Israel. He has been with the Bulgarian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs for twenty-five years and formerly served as head of the Bulgarian
diplomatic mission in Syria (April 2011—June 2012). His previous overseas assignments
include postings in Tripoli, Kuwait, and Washington DC. Ambassador Mihaylov holds a
PhD in Islamic history from Sofia University and an MA in Arabic Language and Literature
from Damascus University. He is the author of the recently published Crossroad or Blind
Alley—the Middle East’s Complex Choice, [Bulgarian] and is also a frequent contri-
butor to The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.

The failure of the so-called “Arab Spring,” six years after it suddenly burst forth,
is now undeniable, and there is no longer any real need to assess its reverbera-
tions and resonance. However, with so many explanations for what lies behind
this dramatic failure, we are liable to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Perhaps
the most obvious and serious factor was the absolute helplessness of the
so-called political elites in the Middle East—predominantly autocratic regimes
and military dictatorships—to read their own tea leaves and see that they
were facing a “Stormbringer,”1 and that there was no point running away.
They had to confront it. The elites, however, were unable to creatively and prag-
matically approach the sociopolitical turmoil looming on the horizon, and it was
this inability to adapt to the tectonic changes that shook the Middle Eastern pol-
itical structures to their very foundations that doomed the Arab Spring from the

Fomenting conspiracy theories and blaming someone else for one’s own misfortunes
is a national sport in this part of the world. Long forgotten are the wise words of the
great poet Ab u Nuwas (756–814) who sagaciously advised others not to blame him
for his passion for wine because it would be in vain: “Leave off your blaming of me,
for blame is itself an incitement.”2 In the Middle East, however, to blame others for
the current plight is a time-honored tradition. As American President Dwight
D. Eisenhower used to say, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all
hunting expeditions.” Today, the Middle East is overrun with such expeditions.
© Israel Council on Foreign Relations under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress (2017) 3
Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

Middle Eastern political elites have always consumed power as if it were manna
fallen from the heavens—and they used and abused it like rapacious gluttons.
This means that power is usually usurped by brute force, and then, if one loses
power, the scepter is likewise relinquished—by blood and fire. Deeply embedded
in the memory of those in power in the Middle East is the historical narrative con-
nected to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty (750 AD). All members of the Umayyad
house were ruthlessly hunted down and slaughtered, save for one—Abd al-
Rahman, who fled to Córdoba.

A more modern expression of such bloodletting is the ignominious and savage end
of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, murdered in a coup in 1958 after attempting
to flee in women’s clothing. The coup toppled the monarchy, and the royal family,
including King Faisal II, were mowed down by machine-gun fire. Al-Said’s corpse
was disinterred, dismembered, and dragged through the streets of Baghdad. It was
then strung up and attacked by a frenzied mob. The body was eventually run over
by city buses and mutilated beyond recognition. Years later, in 2004, the dismem-
bered bodies of four Blackwater USA contractors killed in the Fallujah ambush
were hung over a bridge spanning the Euphrates River. For many rulers in the
Middle East, it is the “in for a penny, in for a pound” attitude: a political credo
that makes one faces Hobessian choices—to exercise tyrannical power or to fall
under the blows of other tyrants: a cruel Neronian world of homo homini lupus
[man is wolf to man].

At the outset, some in the West believed—with a certain degree of naïveté—that the
Arab Spring could become the “next wave of democratization.” In what bears the
intellectual and conceptual hallmarks of the approach to history of Oswald Spengler
and Arnold Toynbee, they were exhilarated when predicting a new democratic tide
to follow previous ones: after the Napoleonic wars in the 1820s—when white male
populations in Europe were enfranchised with certain political rights; the freedoms
bestowed in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazism and Fascism in World War II;
and the rebirth of Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism.
Was this more evidence of the “cyclical nature of history” so aptly described by
Samuel Huntington to portray a clash of civilizations?

Alas, the Arab Spring turned out to be a “blank cartridge,” mainly because of the
complete impotence of the ruling elites and the emerging opposition to negotiating
and implementing a peaceful transition toward new sociopolitical forms of organiz-
ation. They apparently failed to capitalize on the experience accumulated by some
former Communists in Central and Eastern Europe. Those newly minted stalwarts
of democracy seized a hefty share of the national wealth and gained considerable
influence after the radical changes that began in 1989, successfully transforming
themselves into die-hard capitalists. They proved that they were a versatile and resi-
lient species that survives change. The Middle Eastern autocrats, however, proved
to be just the opposite—a stubborn, unbending breed done in by change.

Dimitar Mihaylov

More to the point, if we consider the Arab Spring and all events surrounding it a
“Big Bang” that released tremendous and long-suppressed sociopolitical energy
into the typological tank of the average Middle Eastern autocracy, the pathologies
that emerged in its aftermath were characterized by constant disintegration, sectar-
ian and tribal confrontation, religious radicalism, and societal proselytism. Due to
the lack of internal political power and the absence of political creativity and
genuine social imagination, there were no solutions or approaches whatsoever to
counter and treat these negative epiphenomena. This is why great parts of the
Middle East have been plunged into an endless free-fall into the abyss. Suffice it
to mention the Syrian civil war that rages on.

Rational approaches to regenerating meaningful and pragmatic forms of modern

social organization—and let it be said that democracy is not the only icon to be ven-
erated—and thus initiate a gradual transformation to modernity are rarely to be
found. All things considered, the main point here boils down to a simple thesis:
This is not an issue of dominant ideologies (including religions) or archaic social
fabrics; tribes and clans; internal confrontations; awakened mutual hatred; or
destructive outside intervention. Rather, it is a state of mind and a modus operandi
that is unable to implement pragmatic and adaptable solutions in politics. It is also
an inability to meet others halfway—a maximalist and holistic attitude that fails to
grasp reality. It bears, as well, imprints of a despotic megalomania, constantly
nourished by courtiers chanting in the best tradition of pre-Islamic poetry to
depict tyrants as saviors of the people (the genre of panegyrics), such as: “There
was a man; from the desert he came. He was given wisdom; he was given knowl-
edge.” These were chants of a chorus glorifying “Brother Leader” Muammar
Qadhafi. Many Middle Eastern leaders took their cue from Generalissimo Josef
Stalin, who was portrayed in the eyes of the Soviet people not only as the father
and savior of the Soviet nations and the “beating heart of progressive humanity,”
but also as a genius and pioneering scientist in such diverse disciplines as linguistics
and agriculture.

It is fair to say that most of the patterns and practices exercised in the political
domain of the Arab States during the last century (initially, in the shadow of
foreign domination) were conducted in traditional, conservative, self-centered,
and authoritarian ways that prevented the emergence of creative and non-standard
approaches to dealing with serious and profound social problems. This reflects a
century-long tradition that paved the way to the current crisis that has lasted
several years, but at the same time, these patterns and practices portray an epis-
temological impasse of consciousness unable to seek workable solutions and
move forward.

By the 1970s and ’80s, a modern Moroccan philosopher, Mohammed Abed al-
Jabri, explored the cognitive models of the Arab mind—aware of the fact that
this concept is relative and subject to various interpretations—and divided them

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

into three spheres: u‘lum al-bayyan—the science of religious interpretation, in which

the unknown [al-ghayb] supersedes the evident; u‘ulum al-burhan—natural sciences
that are based on reason but that draw primarily on deduction; and finally u‘lum
al-‘irfan—the mystical and spiritual way to contemplate the world in seclusion and
escape from reality to the ivory tower. All three are considered by al-Jabri as con-
taining certain impediments to modernization and as stifling innovative and modern
thinking. All three have also influenced, albeit indirectly, political elites who exer-
cised power in the Middle East over the last one hundred years.

Deduction—both in religious interpretation and natural science—appears to be

the main mental tool with which to deal with reality in such cases. This means
that a belief, dogma, or concept—for example Gamal ’Abd al-Nasir’s Arab nation-
alism or the Ba’athist ideology of Aflak—is taken as is, and applied to reality from
the top down. This leads us to the conclusion that in the political sphere during the
last century, there were very few genuine incentives and little internal drive to seek
creative, non-standard, and grassroots approaches that could forge more effective
and useful models for the general society. A ruler could seize power by force, then
find or fabricate his own reason d’être to legitimize his rule—usually, with a revolu-
tionary ethos that portrayed him as the “liberator of the people”—then use and
abuse it to the extreme, while gradually sinking into a blind obsession with his
own unique genius. Finally, he would reach a point of no return on a stage of sur-
realistic existence similar to what Gabriel Garcia Marquez described as the “Autumn
of the Patriarch.” Such a blind alley of the political mind speaks volumes to why the
crisis in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is so enduring and profound.

The political behavior of Middle Eastern autocrats and rulers might be understood
through one of the seminal works of Ali Ahmad Said Esber (whose pen name is
Adonis), entitled “The Static and the Dynamic” [Al-Thabit wa al-Mutahawwil]. In
that four-volume book, he deconstructs a great deal of Arab literature to come
to the clear conclusion that there are only two main streams—a conservative-
static one [al-thabit] and an innovative-dynamic one [al-mutahawwil]. The first
stream—that somehow dominates the cultural space of the Arabs—depends on
the repetition of already introduced and canonized patterns [naql]. This character-
istic requires special attention, as it is an important commentary on the current
trends and developments in the political sphere.

The conservative trend corresponds somehow to the Islamic concept of “closing

the doors of ijtihad” [interpretational effort] in the Sunni domain by the end of
the ninth century. As one of the pioneers in Hadith studies, the Anglo-German
scholar Joseph Schacht, explained: “From that moment on, Islamist scientists
and jurisprudents were expected to interpret and apply already established pat-
terns and models, not invent new ones.”3 This feature left a deep imprint on
Islamic culture: one of repetition and emulation, not innovation or out-of-the-
box thinking. Thus, Middle Eastern thought appears to be deeply affected by

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the conservative application of already established patterns, and these models have
had a profound influence on the realm of political behavior throughout the last
century. When some Palestinian intellectuals explain that, unfortunately for
their people, by the middle of the twentieth century they had no leader comparable
to David Ben-Gurion, they express precisely this idea: They did not have a shrewd
and innovative leader able to solve problems creatively, using non-standard

The other trend in literature described by Adonis depends not on repetition and
blind application of the existing models, but on ‘aql [original, independent
thought]. This is with a view to avoiding turning literature into a servant of reli-
gion, just as in the West, during the times of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth
century, theological reflections were considered superior to philosophical ones.
This trend introduced a more humanistic approach in a dynamic context; unlike
the first tradition, which is both theocentric [the transcendent God is in the
center of all] and passéiste [looking backward toward a “glorious past”], the
dynamic approach tries to provide answers to the complex issues of the day.
The first politician in the Middle East who embraced the dichotomy of the static
and the dynamic is perhaps Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who forged from the ashes
of “the Sick Man of Europe” (the crumbling and defeated Ottoman Empire) a
modern and secular nation state (now subject to erosion caused by other
modern-day reckless factors). Atatürk indeed exemplified al-mutahawwil: an
ability to create and invent something new, never before introduced into practice.

A static element in Middle Eastern politics is the inability of Arab leaders to over-
come their personal animosities and rivalries, which have characterized their
mutual relations. There is a complete discrepancy between what is usually declared
(brotherhood and eternal friendship) and what actually happens on the ground
(suspicion and intolerance, and often much worse). Classic examples are the
toxic relations between Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, the two Ba’athist
leaders ruling Iraq and Syria, respectively, or the relationship between Yasir
Arafat and the Gulf monarchs after August 1990. At the 2008 Arab League
summit, like a prophet of doom, Muammar Qadhafi asked the stunned Arab
leaders: “How can we accept a situation in which a foreign power comes to
topple an Arab leader—your turn is next!” Unaware that just like a character
from a Greek tragedy he ominously portended his own destiny, he spoke his
mind, adding salt to the wound: “Our blood and our language may be one, but
there is nothing that can unite us.”4

This concept clearly reflects an ancient static element in the Arab and Muslim con-
science. When the Prophet Muhammad began preaching his message, there were
several powerful Bedouin tribes in the environs of Mecca and Medina, such as the
Banu Ghatafan, Juhayna, and Muzayna, which opposed him. Even after formally
declaring allegiance to Muhammad and somehow accepting his message, they

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remained “weak in belief.” The Holy Quran classifies them pejoratively as Bed-
ouins [a’rab] and confirms: “The Bedouins are more stubborn in unbelief and
hypocrisy” (9:97). Such a state of disobedience and tribal independence criss-
crosses the history of Islam and the modern Middle East. All attempts to
achieve unity—save in the framework of the Caliphate, which lasted only a
short time, and cosmopolitan Islamic empires, for longer periods—failed categori-
cally. When François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl stood together a quarter
century ago holding hands as a symbol of the historic Franco–German reconcilia-
tion after centuries of hatred and wars, it was a symbol of modern statesmen
having overcome the legacy of the past. Middle Eastern leaders, however, are
still under the sway of old centrifugal tendencies and ancient demons. They
cannot overcome this enduring hurdle because they lack common values and prin-
ciples connecting them to modernity.

An enduring element in Middle Eastern politics is the very means of acquiring

power. The timid attempts after World War II until the end of the 1950s and
the beginning of the ’60s to introduce some brand of democratic practices were
ruthlessly interrupted by a trend toward ever-deepening authoritarianism.
Power was inherited inside the absolute monarchies or seized in the so-called
“republics,” mainly through a succession of coups by army officers or party func-
tionaries, and then maintained by a coldblooded, merciless security apparatus or
system of security services. In this sense, power is perceived by Arab leaders as
a lifetime privilege, not a duty to the electorate.

When a transition of power occurs, it reveals another constant aspect of Middle

Eastern political culture. A rather strange phenomenon appeared throughout the
1990s. While abandoning the logic of revolutionary change in society in a “pro-
gressive and empowering the whole nation” way, several republican regimes
began to introduce dynastic practices designed to convey power from father to
son. Would-be “crown princes” began to enjoy immense popularity and the
people’s “love.” From the cradle, Seif al-Islam in Libya, Gamal Mubarak in
Egypt, and Ahmad Ali Salih in Yemen were bred to inherit their fathers’ respective
“thrones.” It was an ugly reflection of the dictator’s usurping drive, a desperate
impudence, that the respective subjects in each state were supposed to tacitly
swallow—at least until the moment of explosion came later in an eruption of
what John Steinbeck called “the grapes of wrath.” However, all these proto-mon-
archic attempts failed miserably, with one only exception: the thirty-four-year-old
son of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar, who was elected “unanimously” by the Syrian par-
liament as the new president of the republic upon the death of his father. In what
appeared to be complete political farce, the Syrian constitution was duly and con-
veniently amended. Every Syrian citizen could now assume supreme power at age
thirty-four; it had formerly been forty.

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Another pronounced element in Middle Eastern political culture is the complete

discrepancy between words and deeds. Many modern Arab leaders are notorious
among their populations for propagating hollow and false political messages. They
“talk the talk” but never “walk the walk.” When Winston Churchill promised
“blood, toil, tears and sweat” he meant it—“we shall never surrender”—and so
did the Brits. When Arab leaders promise an impending victory and bright hor-
izons, nobody believes them. Syrian nationalist and intellectual Constantin
Zureiq bitterly said:

The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest inter-
national forums, warning what the Arab state and peoples will do if this
or that decision is enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths
of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes
necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel and iron are rusted and
twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate. The bombs are hollow and
empty. They cause no damage and kill no one.5

With a sharp and sardonic tongue, the renowned Iraqi poet Muzaffar Al-Nawab
heaps his cynical sarcasm on the Arab leaders for their hypocrisy and false atti-
tudes, stressing: “The pigsty is much cleaner than all of you.” Embittered by the
defeats on the battlefield that afflict the Arabs, one after another, the Syrian
poet Nizar Qabbani calls the dictators by the collective name “Master Sultan”
and bitterly cries out: “You have lost the war twice, because half our people has
no tongue.” Thus, eloquent speech and rhetoric, which have always been signifi-
cant in Arab Muslim culture, were stripped of content and rendered useless.

Another constant element in the behavior of Middle Eastern rulers is the tra-
ditional factor of legitimization, and the pledge of allegiance that dictators required
of their people. These pledges somehow echoed the example of the traditional
b’ayya given to the Prophet Muhammad by his followers and companions, four
times during his life, as reflected in the Holy Quran (48:12): “Certainly was
Allah pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you, [O, Muham-
mad], under the tree … .” Such public demonstrations were sought by Middle
Eastern rulers as a traditional means of cementing power. A slogan “with spirit,
with blood, we sacrifice our souls” [to you, the greatest of all leaders] was intro-
duced into general usage during rallies and public gatherings. In Syria, during elec-
tions, people sometimes were asked how they would express their will on the
ballots—with a pen to write “yes” for the only choice available, or with a pin to
prick their finger for a few drops of blood with which to scrawl that same “yes.”
(A joke making the rounds in Israel has it that a Syrian spy was caught by the
Israeli internal security apparatus. Although the agent had in all other respects a
perfect cover, he nevertheless committed a cardinal mistake: On the rear
window of his vehicle he affixed a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu.) Yet
this was only a traditional and superficial manifestation of loyalty, and it only

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reflected the enduring nature of this or that brand of despotism. When difficult
times occurred, this false loyalty evaporated as quickly as steam.

The role of religion in legitimizing ruling authorities must also be mentioned here.
By and large, Islam has always had a special relationship with power structures.
Despite the widespread concept that spiritual and secular are coupled in complete
unity in Islam, throughout history, developments on the ground seem more com-
plicated and complex. Save for the initial formative period of Islam—the time of
Muhammad and the four Righteous Caliphs when din wa dawla [religion and
state] were unified—religion has always tried to carve out its own space. Of
course that space was often trespassed upon by the political authorities. From
time to time, religion gained some degree of moral autonomy outside the scope
of the state, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before the current ruler
Abdul Fattah a-Sisi banned it. Many of the ruling regimes flirted with religion,
seeking to acquire greater legitimacy in the eyes of the common people, who in
moral and ethical terms were strongly influenced by creed. It was, of course, a
cheap trick, a gimmick really, but it somehow worked.

Anwar Sadat naïvely believed that in his time, the Muslim Brotherhood was just a
herd of meek sheep in need of an ostensibly pious shepherd. Therefore, he called
himself the “President Believer.” Little did he know that packs of ravenous wolves
were hiding under the purebred sheep skins. The paranoid and eccentric
Muammar Qadhafi used to retire to the desert like a wandering hermit, praying
and fasting to demonstrate how deeply connected he was to the traditions of
piety inherited from the Senussi order. Hafez al-Assad, advised by his sage and
prophet Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro, began to observe the prayer rituals of the
Sunnis, though he himself was an Alawaite. The regimes coquettishly winked at
religion, represented by nongovernmental authorities with some degree of moral
influence, just because they felt a deep deficit of legitimacy inside their power
structures. This, however, was also an instrument in the never obsolete toolbox
of politics and used for propaganda purposes; when the time came for “heavy
lifting,” it proved idle and broken, and of no avail at all.

Middle Eastern political culture also finds expression in—and is even exemplified
by—the so-called cult of personality, which was developed by several regimes in
the Middle East. It was modeled on that of Stalin and carried to even greater
extremes by tyrants of more recent vintage, such as Nicolae Ceaușescu and
Kim Il Sung. Hussein, al-Assad, and Qadhafi are all examples of this trend. Nasir,
on the other hand, was truly revered by broad popular strata in the Arab world,
and his personality cult was a genuine reflection of his real glamour and charisma.
Apart from typological models in history, closely related to Islam, probably the first
charismatic figure in modern times who impressed the masses in the Middle East
was Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi Pasha, an Egyptian nationalist and officer in the Egyp-
tian army, who took part in an 1879 mutiny against the Anglo–French-dominated

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administration of Khedive Tawfik. However, the prototypes derived through-

out the second part of the twentieth century were very different. They were
extreme expressions of brutal dictatorships that fit into the framework of the
official policies of Middle Eastern regimes. This trend was evident in endless
photographs of the Great Leader staring at his loyal citizens, just like the
Orwellian “Big Brother,” on the walls of every kiosk, café, and barber shop
in all these “Republics of Fear.”

The fear factor has always been one used by power elites to ensure the blind obe-
dience of the masses. Almost twenty years ago, Kanan Makiya introduced the term
“Republic of Fear” to explain what drove Saddam Hussein to invade and annex
Kuwait. Yes, fear was widespread in most of the regimes maintained and fueled
by the sinister internal security service Mukhabarat, the very name of which
struck terror into the hearts of many Iraqis. However, after 1996, the al-Jazeera
satellite TV channel began to break the silence of fear, depicting dictators and
despots in their mundane emploi as little more than ordinary, though powerful,
crooks and bandits. Masks were snatched off, and the fear gradually began to
evaporate. It was no wonder, then, that by 2010 the masses had begun to shout
their rallying cry “the people want to bring down the regime,” a trumpet blast
that blew down the regimes’ Jericho-like walls.

To decode the conservative and static nature of modern Middle Eastern rulers, one
has to face the issue of modernization as it appears throughout the second half of
the twentieth century. Such a trend, led by many regimes, brought with it wide-
spread secularization. This was viewed negatively in some religious circles
because in practice, it limited their influence on society. As has been mentioned,
some regimes flirted with religion to improve their image in the eyes of the
common people, but they were actually trying to tame and subject it. They
never invented a rational and inspirational approach to weaving the religious
factor into the fabric of internal politics and reflect what was suggested by the
great Muslim historian and the first social scientist Ibn Khaldun (1406)—that reli-
gion (Shariah law) may morally check political power [Mulk] without imposing
political control on it. This reflected an ongoing inability to take into account
and establish a working equilibrium for the specific relationship between Islam
and politics (not characteristic of Western societies in which Christianity
remains influential only in the spiritual domain), and come up with genuine reli-
gious factors that may check and balance the political sphere.

A clear example of such inability to embrace a genuine religious factor could be

seen in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. In September 1994, two influential Islamic
preachers and thinkers, Salman al-Ouda and Safar al-Hawali, were arrested and
imprisoned for “antigovernment activities.” Some of these activities were con-
nected to the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a dissident group
that openly challenged the ruling family in the kingdom using religious arguments

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

to defend the legitimate Islamic rights of Muslims. The Saudi kingdom succeeded
in neutralizing its activities but never convinced all its subjects that there was no
alternative that stemmed from semi-independent religious circles. In general,
had Middle Eastern rulers been less obsessed with the drive for absolute power
and more prone to share some of the benefits with genuine religious circles, they
would have found a more harmonious path toward modernization, not strictly
the one linked to secularization as a blind implantation of Western prototypes
into Middle Eastern soil. Of course, such a perspective may sound too good to
be true, because the religious circles were also authoritarian and strove to
acquire maximum power. Yet, had some sort of harmonious merging between poli-
tics and Islam occurred, it might have prevented, or at least mitigated, the ugly
mutation of some of the Wahhabi and Salafi trends in Islam into the current
molds of radical Salafi jihadism, represented by ISIS and al-Qa’ida. Among
other reasons, radical Islam, figuratively speaking, backfired because its suppor-
ters have felt seriously threatened by invading secular modernization.

While examples of such static thinking abound, there are very few examples of
Arab politicians using induction, imagination, and pragmatism to reach political
decisions serving the common good and encouraging progress. By 1971, a ruler
of a small Persian Gulf fiefdom, Sheikh Zaid ibn Sultan an-Nahayan, understood
that a federation between seven small emirates could make a great difference. His
thinking was that it was better to be united—no matter how difficult it would be to
achieve that unity—than to be left like tiny boats in the stormy seas of world poli-
tics. In this part of the world, it was not easy to forge and sustain such a federalist
vision, more characteristic of Swiss political culture; however, the project of the
United Arab Emirates, with the help of oil reserves of course, bore fruit. This
development was clearly based on both wisdom and patience.

As of 2013, the leader of the Islamist an-Nahda party in Tunisia, Rashid Ghannou-
chi, advised the ruling Islamist government to relinquish power in a constitutional
way in order to reach a compromise with secularists and to maintain a functional
democratic system. Unlike many Islamists, Ghannouchi proved that the wide-
spread accusations against Islamists—that they use democracy merely as a
vehicle with which to gain power and then impose Islamist authoritarianism—is
not always correct. In other words, the idea of “one man, one vote—but only
once” did not apply in this case. It was untypical for an Islamist to give up
power in this way and not attempt to implement God’s hakimiyya [sovereignty
over all earth and humans]. Some would say that the only country to emerge
from the Arab revolutions with a functioning democracy is Tunisia, which still
has relatively intact traditions, such as secularism, organized labor, and equality
for women, from its time as a Western colonial possession.6 Be that as it may,
had it not been for Ghannouchi’s farsighted and wise approach, placing patriotism
on a higher plain than Islam, the revolution would have ended quite differently.
Ghannouchi was simply thinking out of the box.

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A decade ago, the eminent orientalist Bernard Lewis was searching for answers as
to why so many attempts, both conservative and reformist, to change the Middle
Eastern political sphere were doomed to failure. He thought that a specific modus
operandi of archetypical models stemming from the “glorious past” could be ident-
ified in present-day reality.7 Is it indeed a complex set of rules and principles codi-
fied in the past that regulate every sphere of life in the Muslim world and in the
Middle East alike (with the notion that there are still Christian and other commu-
nities there)? Is this a magical amulet that can explain the complexity of all political
activities there? Such an attitude would be rather essentialist and would come up
with an easy explanation of “what went wrong.” Yet, the dilemma of “Why have
we reached this low point, and what went wrong?” engaged the brightest
Muslim minds over the last hundred and fifty years. While opposing the idea of
the famous orientalist Ernest Renan, who posited that Arabs were inherently
incapable of developing sciences, the nineteenth-century reformist thinker Jamal
al-Din Al-Afghani admitted that “Arab civilization, after having thrown such a
live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished; why has this torch not
been relit since and why has the Arab world remained buried in profound

Apart from this fundamental philosophical debate, what is suggested here is related
to present-day reality: A primary reason for the current problems is the centrality
of consciousness and the state of functioning of the political mind. The events in the
Middle East cannot have unambiguous explanations, since they happen in a
complex framework that provides no easy explanations. Seeing the forest for the
trees in such a complex social milieu means giving priority to the political
culture and not viewing it as a byproduct of objective circumstances.

Thus far, most scholars and researchers have been seeking objective cultural,
social, economic, and political factors to explain the plight of the modern Middle
East. Some depicted the current stalemate as a vacillation between two objective
alternatives: “You had only the Scylla of the national security state and the Char-
ybdis of political Islam.”9 This somehow reflects the old Marxist axiom that it is not
the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but rather their social
existence. However, it was Václav Havel who emphatically refuted such a sche-
matic approach, and assigned priority to the complexity of life and the importance
of the mind: “Consciousness proceeds being and not [as Marxism teaches] the
other way around.”10 Havel meant that “the salvation of this human world lies
nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human
meekness, and in human responsibility.” This is precisely what is lacking in the
modern Middle East—and the consequences have been disastrous.

Such logic may shed light on the roots of the current crises in the Middle East,
which is connected to the state of mind of both the ruling elites and their opposi-
tion. None of them is able to approach reality creatively and pragmatically and

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

adapt to the tectonic changes in this part of the world. As it is said in the New
Testament, they “all have turned away, they have together become worthless”
(Romans, 3:12).


The British rock group Deep Purple accurately expressed this idea with their 1974
album “Stormbringer”: “That Dark cloud gathering/Breaking the day/No point
running/’Cause it’s coming your way.”
Faris ibn Yusuf Al-Shidyaq, Leg over Leg, Vol. 4, trans. Humphrey Davies (New York,
2014), p. 521.
Joseph Schacht, The Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 2, (Cambridge, 1977), p. 563.
“Gaddafi condemns Arab leaders,” al-Jazeera, March 29, 2008. www.aljazeera.com/
William R. Polk, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century (London,
2013), p. 75.
Anshel Pfeffer, “Why the Arab Spring failed: Choosing survival over chaos,” Haaertz,
January 20, 2016; www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.698071http://www.haaretz.
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (London, 2004),
pp. 11–12.
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, An Islamic Response to Imperialism, trans. Nikki R. Keddie
(Berkeley, 1968), pp. 175–87.
Hisham Melhem, “The Barbarians Within Our Gates,” Politico, September 18, 2014,
Walter H. Capp, “Interpreting Václav Havel,” Cross Currents, www.crosscurrents.org/


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