x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sectarianism trumps secularism in region

In a comment article for the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Jaber Habib Jaber explored the concepts of secularism and sectarianism, and their limitations in the Middle East.

In a comment article for the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Jaber Habib Jaber explored the concepts of secularism and sectarianism, and their limitations in the Middle East. Sectarianism is inherent to Middle Eastern communities, but many look at it as a negative notion associated with violence and discrimination. Others argue that it is a reflection of societies' failure to develop cohesive national identities.

In this context, state institutions, including education, tend to be less influential in shaping the nationalist character of people. Individuals are less likely to show loyalty to the nation but rather to their closest social structure represented by a clan, a sect or a tribe. The concept of a nation for them is hazy, which affects their attitudes towards law, economy and politics. This leads us to think of whether secularism can grow in the Middle East as a comprehensive political movement. "I greatly doubt it," Jaber says. Given misconceptions related to secularism as a system of thought, and the deep sectarian loyalties, local communities are still reluctant to accept new ideas or question inherited assumptions.

Irrespective of statements that the US envoy George Mitchell may deliver during proximity talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a smear campaign has already been launched against the Palestinians which is likely to disrupt the process of negotiations, noted the editorial of the UAE newspaper Al Bayan.

It was reported that groups of Israeli settlers and extremist movements, which are encouraged by senior officials, plan to sabotage talks by undertaking provocative actions. The Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported that the ministry of foreign affairs was co-ordinating with extreme right-wing organisations with the aim of picturing the Palestinians as "enemies of peace". More than that, Daniel Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister, praised the collaboration as the government insisted on discussing security issues first, and putting settlements and other thorny questions on the back burner.

The heat of such a campaign has been felt especially as some officials describe the Palestinian leadership as unqualified. Such remarks further incite the public to question the ability of the Palestinians in handling the peace negotiations, and set them up for blame for any eventual failure. This provocative situation is not likely to bring the two parties closer. "The ball is now in Barack Obama's court."

In an editorial, Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al Quds al Arabi commented on the US secretary of state's statements at the ongoing nuclear convention. Hillary Clinton stated that she wants a nuclear weapon-free Middle East, but she failed to mention Israel once whereas she repeatedly mentioned Iran. Ms Clinton wanted to please some Arab delegations, namely Egypt, which called for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East and the banning of nuclear materials for Israel.

"A commendable position," says the writer, "but there are serious fears that it might be retracted under US and Israeli pressure". In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Egypt last Monday was aimed at pressuring the president Hosni Mubarak to retract his position just as he did in 1995. All this American commotion about nuclear disarmament aims to keep the Iranian issue in the international limelight" under the pretext of peace first, nuclear disarmament next. However, the Arab response should be to turn the equation around by asking for Israeli nuclear disarmament as a basis for any possible peace agreements. The solution for this Israeli-western control lies in the creation of a balance of power in the Arab world that would deter any Israeli plans for wars or turmoil.

"The Lebanese are in a stage of political division today reminiscent of the 1943 post-independence dissent between supporters of British policy in the region and supporters of French policy," says Emile Khoury, in his opinion piece for the Lebanese daily Al Nahar. British allies had to accept Lebanon's adherence to the Arab League, the supporter of Britain's politics and power in the region. Advocates of France on the other hand were against Lebanon joining the League as a way to protect it from regional and international conflicts.

Supporters of this line of thought wanted a fresh start for a neutral Lebanon that would invest its friendships with the West and the East away from alliances or animosities, especially because it is geographically situated in the centre of turbulence. Today, the Lebanese face a great danger due to their own segregation, especially the Christians. A faction of them supports the Iranian-Syrian axis and another faction is strictly against it. They fight among themselves unaware of the consequences that their alliances might bring upon the country. Neutrality, concludes the writer, would've been Lebanon's saving grace. Now, its only protection lies in it not giving Israel any cause for action against it. * Digest compiled by Racha Makarem rmakarem@thenational.ae