x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Moderates do little as extremists capture Arab hearts and minds

The Arab political spectrum has been reduced to just two colours.

The Arab political spectrum has been reduced to just two colours. Increasingly people and positions are being judged on the basis of "us" and "them." Resentment of the "other" is not limited to different cultures; it has spread to include groups within societies that do not share simliar political standpoints and ways of life. Tolerence for disagreement is eroding as an exclusionist culture grows that rejects diversity.

This trend reflects the deterioration of a collective culture sinking deeper into the abyss of rejectionism. Increasing numbers of social, religious and political groups are claiming a monopoly on universal truths. Accusations of treason and infidelism are made as casually as claims to sacredness and righteousness. The narrowing of political horizons and the continued restrictions on freedom of expression and association are pushing more people into identifying with rejectionist clandestine groups, or rendering them susceptible to extremist thinking.

The situation in Palestine offers a striking example of the spread of the culture of intolerance. Never in the history of the Palestinian struggle have the different factions sunk to the level of rejectionist political discourse that we see now between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas leaders openly accuse their rivals in the Palestine Liberation Organisation of treason and betrayal. Fatah levels equally degrading charges against Hamas. Absolute judgments that allow no room for disagreement are frustrating all attempts to resolve the widening divisions in Palestinian society.

Uncompromising revolutionary thinking intolerant of dissenting viewpoints is increasingly shaping the political culture in the Arab world. The doctrine of "if you are not with us, you are against us" is gaining new legitimacy, fed by frustration and the absence of enlightened cultural projects or political programmes that celebrate pluralism and encourage openness.

In this environment, exclusionist groups are mushrooming as larger segments of societies are embracing their absolutist stands. The oppressive policies of some regimes, as well as reluctance by moderate governments to proceed with political and educational reforms, are also making people more receptive to extremist thinking.

Moderation is on the retreat because its advocates have failed to produce tangible results. Meanwhile, extremists are exploiting the bankruptcy of moderation in their crusade for the hearts and minds of disgruntled Arab populations.

Unfortunately, reformist agendas have been retreating even in moderate Arab countries. Security considerations, some credible and others exaggerated, have halted reforms. Fear of change has also prevented the launch of initiatives to fix deeply-rooted problems in the educational systems as economic problems push people to religious parties that provide easy answers.

The decreased tolerance for opposition groups, even those that follow peaceful means, is destroying people's faith in state structures. Consequently, they are seeking protection in narrow affiliations along tribal and sectarian lines. This makes them easy prey to exploitation as the sense of belonging to the tribe or the sect remains stronger than identification with the state. In such an environment, injustice or inequality are blamed on other groups that do not share the same affiliation. The "other" is seen as an enemy in a zero-sum formula.

As people grow more estranged from their governments and identify more with basic identities at the expense of a sense of national belonging, extremists are thriving by manipulating people's fears and by presenting differences as threats. Ultimately, it is the failure of moderation more than the logic of extremist reasoning that is determining the course of the confrontation between modernity and rejectionism in the Arab world.

This dangerous course is reversible. But success requires the articulation of comprehensive programmes aimed at instilling democratic values and the kind of practices essential for building a tolerant culture open to political and intellectual differences.

It might not be reasonable to expect ideologically driven groups to accept opposing points of views; they are driven by a blind faith that divides the world into good and bad. The same applies to dictatorships, where regimes fear that reform is a sure exit out of office; political survival is all they care about.

Moderates, however, have a public responsibility to offer people credible alternatives to these fatalistic ideologies. Investment in democratisation will result in consolidating a culture that recognises the benefits of ethnic, social, cultural and sectarian diversity. Opening the public space encourages involvement in lawful political participation and weakens the appeal of undercover activism.

Time is on the extremists' side. The reluctance of moderates to initiate long over-due reforms has allowed rejectionists to capture support. Moderate governments can start regaining ground if they proceed with modernisation plans designed to create more transparent, inclusive and accountable structures of governments. Losing some of the absolute power they wield to a constitutional process or even to opposition groups through the political process is definitely better than losing their constituencies to exclusionists who pose a growing threat to stability in the region.


Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs