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The Multidimensional Character of the Arab Revolutions, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 5 part series. Watch for Part 3 on Monday, July 18, 2011. Read Part 1 by clicking the link in the Related Articles box below this article.

Mordu Serry-Kamal

Model One: Ethnic and Religious Divisions
In this model, Hourani made a number of observations with regard to certain Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East. Limited but applicable examples of these observations are outlined below.

  • “In Iraq, there was the opposition of Arabs and the Kurds. The Kurdish minority of the north-east of the country had for long been neglected in the measures of economic and social change which were carried out mainly in districts nearer to the large cities.”
  • “A similar situation existed, potentially, in Algeria. Part of the population of the mountain areas of the Atlas in Morocco and Kabylia in Algeria were Berbers, speaking dialects of a language different from Arabic and with a long tradition of local organization and leadership.”
  • “A situation of great danger and complexity existed in countries with large Shiite populations: Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon. The Iranian revolution seemed likely to arouse a stronger sense of Shiite identity, and this could have political implications in countries where government was firmly in the hands of Sunnis.”

There are other sources that are somewhat in agreement with the underlying premise of Hourani’s model pertaining to the impact of ethnic and religious divisions in the Arab world. For example, Halim Barakat, in his 1993 book entitled The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State, made these observations: one, persons and groups in the eastern Arab world view themselves, and are viewed by others, in religious terms; two, in the Gulf states, “no Sunni candidate who ran for elections could win in electoral districts inhabited mostly by Shiites;” three, religious sectarianism has been employed as a tool to maintain certain privileges or redress grievances; and four, the use of sectarianism would imply that those in the “minority,” who may also be non-Islamic, may be excluded from pivotal political decision-making. In addition, the Lex Communis blog indicates the following regarding Syria: “Basically, a large majority of Syria–officially, some 74 percent–is Sunni Muslim, and the nation’s politics for almost 50 years has been devoted to ensuring that this majority does not gain power.”

One, the Shiites and the Sunnis constitute the two major sectarian Islamic entities in the Arab world. Under these circumstances, there are cases in the Arab countries such as the one in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq whereby the Sunnis, despite their smaller numbers, had been politically-dominant over the majority Shiites. As was somewhat the case in other Arab countries, the tensions that continued to rise eventually resulted in explosions which became an integral part of the Arab revolutions. In the case of Iraq, this political “imbalance,” along with the issue of the discrimination against the minority Kurds, was altered following the 2003 invasion of the country by United States forces.

Two, as reflected in the Hourani model above, the Iranian revolution of 1979 which had been conducted largely by Shiite clerics, in actuality greatly influenced the Shiite “revolutionaries” in the Arab countries to protest against such an established order which had been contemptuous of them. Viewed from a religious perspective, these “oppressed sects” visualized, through these revolutions, an opportunity to alter the balance of power which had been stacked against them. In this respect, therefore, it can be stated that since various groups of Arabs protested for various reasons, it was therefore not too challenging a task to assemble a coalition of such groups on an emergency basis in order to vent their venom on the established order.

Three, an academic phenomenon that explains instability among various ethnic and religious groups is the concept of values. According to Henry L. Tischler, in his book  Introduction to Sociology, the term values is defined as “a culture’s general orientations toward life–its notion of what is good and bad, what is desirable and undesirable.” With regard to these revolutions, it appears as if the differences in values also constituted another significant level of polarization among the ethnic and religious groups inhabiting these regions. In other words, this situation became tantamount to one in which uncompromising cultures existed within each respective society with the real possibility of a conflagration in the long term. Given that, an effective approach toward addressing such differences or polarizations would have required that the political systems establish conditions over which political compromises could have been garnered in decision-making, in order to bring about internal political stability. However, because of the inability to engender such compromises, political instability inevitably emerged and persisted. Further, in the economic realm, the lack of political compromises also disallowed a genuine effort toward an equitable distribution of societal artifacts. Therefore, it seemed that the combination of political instability and the inequitable distribution of societal artifacts, which existed in tandem for a prolonged period, sowed the seeds of discontent that eventually contributed to bringing about the wave of civil disturbances in these countries.

Watch for Part 3 of this 5 part series next Monday, July 18, 2011.

Mordu Serry-Kamal is an associate
professor public administration and political science at Winston-Salem
State University in Winston-Salem, NC. Email: [email protected]

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