Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of September 11th (2001). However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms: consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:
First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty, to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.
In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.
Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”
The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians. And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.
While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:
Continue reading “The Semantics of Revolution”