Friday, December 25, 2009

The Multiple Identities of the Middle East

It is hard not to warm to a book with statements such as:
But the war-god of the terrorists knows neither mercy nor compassion, and projects an image that is both cruel and vindictive. He is also weak, needing to hire human hitmen to find and kill his enemies, and paying them with promises of carnal delights in paradise (p.24).
But there is much more to enjoy in Bernard Lewis’s The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, one of the short enlightening books Lewis is so good at producing, such as his discussion of the difference between patriotism and nationalism:
One defined identity and loyalty by country – patriotism; the other by language and presumed ethnic origin – nationalism (p.20)
But they were ideas introduced to the Middle East from Europe. For most of the history of the Middle East:
… two identities – the involuntary identity of birth and the compulsory identity of the state – were the only ones that existed (p.5)
I would say rulership, rather than the state (for reasons Lewis himself discusses later in the text) but he is surely correct that raising all sorts of new identity issues—including the possibility of freely chosen associations—is at the heart of the troubling impact of modernity.

Lewis is at pains to convey to the reader how different from Western assumptions notions of identity in the Middle East have been. Ottoman documents would identity European rulers as primarily leaders of Christians: it was a sign of increasing Ottoman weakness that European rulers would increasingly insist on being given the Ottoman ruler’s own title of padishah (p.13). Membership of a religious community was the central identity in the Islamic Middle East. The notion that other identities matter has typically been an importation from Western languages: often requiring coining of new words.

Turks and Persians (Iranians) have identities based on a sense of a common past intertwined with specific political history going back centuries. Other peoples of the region, not so much: Saladin was simply a Muslim hero, only recently has the fact that his family was Kurdish had any significance. There were peoples and places: they just did not matter for political identity—this was an introduced notion. Lewis notes that the introduced notions of patriotism and nationalism had particular appeal to Arab Christians (Pp21-22). Conversely, it is something that the salafi movement is, in effect, in revolt against.

Religious identity still matters—the Organisation of Islamic Conference is the only grouping of states on the basis of religion. What would seem absurd or comic (or even offensive or divisive) to Western leaders seems entirely natural to leaders of Islamic states.
Religious identity matters even more in internal politics. The reason goes to the specific nature of Islam:
A basic, distinguishing feature of Islam is the all-embracing character of religion in the perception of Muslims. The Prophet, unlike other founders of religion, founded and governed a polity. As ruler, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, commanded armies, made war, made peace, collected taxes, and did all the other things a ruler does. This is reflected in the Qur’an itself, in the biography of the Prophet and the traditions concerning his life and work. (Pp25-6).
As Lewis continues:
This distinctive quality of Islam is most vividly illustrated in the injunction which occurs not once but several times in the Qur’an (3:104, 110; 7:157; 22:41, etc.) by which Muslims are instructed as to their basic duty, which is to ‘command good and forbid evil’ – not just to do good and avoid evil, a personal duty imposed by all religions, but to command good and forbid evil, that is to say, to exercise authority to that end (p.26).
One of the traps in trying to understand Islam is that the Christian, rabbinical Judaist and Buddhist images (those Westerners are most likely to be familiar with) of a spiritual tradition and religious authority seriously mislead if used as some sort of template to understand Islam.

The Muhammad of the Meccan suras also, like Christ or Buddha, lived as a teacher. His message fitted somewhat more in with Jewish prophetic traditions than the Christian reworking of that, though still with some significant differences in its notion of God and His relationship with people, a relationship conceived in rather more absolute and dominating forms: the notion of having covenants with God does not fit in with the much more submissive message of the Prophet. The Muhammad of the Medinan suras generally had a rather different purpose than is manifested in the Mecccan suras and expresses a much more all-encompassing conception of what a spiritual tradition is or implies.

So the entire Church/State, lay/ecclesiastical etc dichotomy is not only lacking in Islamic thought, until recently there was not even the language to express such profoundly alien ideas (p.27). As Lewis notes, that Christianity grew up in a pagan Empire while Islam immediately became the basis of an imperial order just reinforced the dominance of religious identity. Though:
Defeat and repression gave the Shi’a an almost Christian-style conception of suffering, passion and martyrdom (p.28)
But it means that Islam and Islamic symbols and slogans have a resonance for social mobilisation that no political programs or slogans can match.

That ‘Islam’ can mean both the equivalent of ‘Christian’ and ‘Christendom’ has encouraged outside observers to attribute to the religion practices within the civilisation (p.29). (Dis)honour killings and female genital mutilation come to mind. Though it is fair to say that the extremely patriarchal nature of Islamic religious authority coupled with monotheism’s inherent difficulties with eros (particularly female sexuality) have not been helpful in dealing with either issue.

The advent of Islam saw the disappearance of the remaining elements of paganism and the dwindling of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism: at varying rates and at varying paces. Other religions (apart from some permitted Christian visitors) have been forbidden in Arabia for many centuries. With the arrival of notions of patriotism and nationalism, Iraqi Jews hoped to participate in the Iraqi revival but the problems of Palestine and, even more, highly effective Nazi propaganda put an end to that (p.33).

A rare mis-step is when Lewis holds race to be fundamental:
The first, primal and indelible mark of identity is race (p.39).
The identity of “people who speak like me” is fairly primal, but conceiving identity in racial terms is a highly historical contingent matter—whether people do so, how they conceive said races, what they think such identity implies, have all varied hugely. Sitting on the fault line between those continent-wide groups we call “races”, the Arab world was a pioneer of racial identity: in particular of anti-black discourse. But Lewis wildly overstates the universality of conceiving identity in racial terms.

He goes on to note how little racial identity matters in the modern Middle East (with Arabia a partial exception). Gender, on the other hand, matters hugely. As Lewis points out, one of the effects of Islam has been that:
For a long time now identity in the Middle East has been overwhelmingly male. Rank, status, kinship, ethnic and even religious identity are determined by the male line (p.40).
This was not always true: pagan Arabia, like Christian Europe, noted both male and female lines of descent. Islam concerns itself only with male lines, a pattern solidified by the Abbasid takeover (p.41). Where Judaism holds identity flows from the mother, on the principle that Latin jurists enunciated as mater certa, pater incertus (mother certain, father uncertain):
Muslims, preferring patrilineal rather than matrilineal identity, tried to achieve the same certitude by increasingly elaborate seclusion and protection surrounding their women (p.41).
There were other consequences:
Polygamy, and more especially concubinage, served to prevent the emergence of well-defined racial groups and of a strong sense of racial identity (p.41).
Islam, as a system of layered submission, and thus layered domination, created its own dynamic:
In a society where conquerors lawfully and normally enslaved the conquered and where male owners enjoyed sexual rights over their female slaves, a significant proportion of mixed percentage soon emerged (Pp41-2).
Since identity, including status, was patrilineal, racial distinctions blurred (p.42). Early Islam (specifically the Umayyad Caliphate) worried about level of Arab descent, but that disappeared after the Abbasid takeover. Which strikes me as the logic of Islam working its way through. There is also, surely, a complex interaction with tribalism here in that its connections operate around kinship but Islamisation meant that only patrilineal kinship now mattered. The effect for the status of women was not good, creating (or at very least intensifying) the patterns of “honour” that (dis)honour killings exist to enforce.

Yet ‘nazi’ and ‘racist’ have become popular words of abuse in the Middle East: another sign of Western influences, however little connection they have to Middle Eastern realities.
The one exception is anti-Semitism, which has spread widely all over the Arab world, and beyond to other Islamic countries. This exception is more apparent than real. Arab anti-Semitism is not racist in the European sense, though it often uses racist images, stereotypes, and languages, all of them borrowed or adapted from Europe. This hostility is primarily religious, secondarily national, and is increasingly being expressed in Islamic rather than European terms. It is, however, noteworthy that in current political polemics in the Middle East, some prominent Christians of Jewish or part-Jewish background are routinely referred to as Jews. (p.42).
The patterns of bigotry are more basic than their specific manifestations.

Lewis points out that the notion of an identity as “Semites” is a European notion with little resonance in the Middle East. And even its most ardent proponents—the Nazis—shifted ground:
… but in practical application it was clear and well-understood that for German anti-Semites, Semites meant Jews. No other Semites were affected, and indeed the so-called Semitic Arabs were rather better treated than … Czechs, Poles, and Russians. This de facto redefinition of anti-Semitism later facilitated its acceptance, under other names, in some Arab and Islamic countries (p.43).
This is a nice rebuttal to a certain sort of tedious “clever-clever” pedantry which claims Arabs “cannot be” anti-Semites because they are Semites themselves. If there is no sense of common identity (as there is not) the point is utterly otiose.

It does, however, point to a basic problem with a great deal of ostentatious anti-racism: that it keeps alive racial categories. The true opposite of racism is genuine indifference to such categorisation: the ideological equivalent of the opposite of love being not hate, but indifference.

Lewis is surely correct when he writes:
Language is indeed in many ways a primary mark of identity.
The medieval concept of “race” in Latin Christendom basically meant “people who speak like me”: “tongue” and “race” were essentially synonymous.

The Middle East has been undergoing a long process of linguistic extinction. Of languages and scripts:
At the beginning of the Christian era there were only three areas in which indigenous languages were still in common use in both spoken and written forms; these were Persian, Coptic and Aramaic (p.47).
With Coptic using an adapted form of Greek script. Hebrew survived only as a ritual and scriptural language:
Hellenization, Romanization and above all Christianization had combined to obliterate much of the ancient languages, cultures and identities of the Middle East. Islamization and Arabization completed the process (p.48).
V. S. Naipaul’s point about how monotheism separates a society from its past, and that Islam does it with particular intensity. Indeed, religion was generally the only refuge of non-Arabic languages and scripts. Arabic became the language of scripture, of law, of government, of literature and of common speech, with Iran the only substantive holdout. Though religious minorities often wrote their Arabic in non-Arabic script. The Latinization of Europe was a much easier project given that it had so few competitors: Arabization obliterated far more established languages, literatures and scripts:
The total and final obliteration of these civilizations and their replacement by Arab Islam must rank as one of the most successful cultural revolutions in human history (p.51).
But not an entirely unchallenged linguistic triumph:
If Arabic was the languge of language and law, and Persian the language of love and polite letters, Turkish soon became the language of command and rule (p.53).
A language more able to develop varieties since it was “free from the constraints of sanctity” (p.53).

Even without the effects of conquest, the process of linguistic extinction is hardly surprising. A language is a network of communication, and it has more value the more people in the network. The wider the ambits of connection, the more selection in favour of a dominant language or languages is going to operate.

Cut off from any sense of identification with their pre-Islamic ancestors, the notion of a sense of place having some political significance was absent from the Islamic Middle East until Western ideas of patria seeped in during the C19th. Histories were of dynasties and empires, or cities and provinces. There being only one true legitimate ruler in Islam, all others must be rebels (in one sense or other), which is how the Ottoman Sultan and the Iranian Shah regarded each other (p.59).

We are dealing with a quite different history and set of presumptions than Europe’s:
Of the countries that appear on the map of the Middle East, only three conform to the European convergence of nation, country and language; the republic of Turkey, which is inhabited by Turks who speak Turkish; Arabia, inhabited by Arabs who speak Arabic; and Iran, which in the West use to be called Persia, inhabited by Persians who speak Persian (p.60).
Though, even then, the apparent convergence has peculiarities. The Middle East is full of states that lack continuous histories, even in the sense that previously disunited European states such as Italy and Germany have.

To extent that the longer histories have been recovered, it has been due to the interaction between the pertinacity of non-Muslim minorities and the interest of European visitors (Pp66-7). The first book by an Egyptian scholar covering the pre-Islamic history of Egypt was published in 1868, the beginning of a recovery of thousands of years of Egyptian history and sense of history (p.69).

A sense of nationhood requires a sense of a specific shared past. If “history” began with the arrival of Islam, then people’s pasts could only feed into a common religious identity, not a patriotic or nationalist one.

Egypt now had two identities, one Islamic and Arab-speaking, the other territorially specific and, in a sense, pharaonic. Modern Egyptian history revolves around this dichotomy (p.69).

In the case of Iran, a cultural identity persisted and eventually became (again) a political one: a cultural identity that, unlike the rest of the Islamic Middle East, continued to incorporate pre-Islamic heroes and identities. The Turks are different again, since modern day Turkey was Greek before the Turkish conquest of Anatolia from the C11th onwards. All over the Middle East, the past is a contested buttress of identity. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Battle of Qadisiyya was claimed by Iraqis as an Arab victory over Iranians and by the Iranians as a Muslim victory of the true faith over unbelief (p.78).

Lewis notes that, like South America, the Middle East experienced a post-imperial historical moment when some larger unit seemed possible but the moment past as post-imperial states have solidified into enduring forms (p.79).

Lewis traces the linguistic permutations that express concepts approximating the European notions of ‘nation’ (either purely ethnic or country). He notes the very mixed Arab attitudes to the Turks. Particularly early in Turkish rule, they were seen as defending and revitalising Islam as they pushed back the Romans, resisted and expelled the Crusaders and (most important of all) resisted and pushed back the Mongols. Their identity as fellow Muslims was much the most important thing. Later, they were more likely to be seen as oppressive rulers. The introduction of European ideas of nation disrupted this further, leading to the break up of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of a string of Arab states dividing the putative Arab nation.

Islam has a difficulty in that Shar’ia presumes a single Muslim state. The reality of independent rulerships was dealt with via a legal device (hila shar’iyya) whereby other rulers were treated as rebels, a legally recognised category. So both Ottoman Sultan and Iranian Shah would treat each other as rebels in their internal documents, including archived copies of treaties (p.95). It is surely not healthy for a civilisation to have to resort to this sort of fantasy to do deal with such a basic social reality.

The introduction of conscription connected the populace to the state far more than had previously been the case (p.96). The armies became major vectors of modernisation (and of social mobility). The state became involved in education and literacy became a concern—the first printing presses in the Middle East being Jewish and later Christian (p.97). Newspapers, and then radio and television became instruments of state power (Pp97-8). Before the modern era, the only two legitimate modes of succession where dynastic succession or force. Dynasticism is so powerful, we now have hereditary revolutionary leadership. Election remains hereditary succession’s only competitor for long-term legitimacy, but has a brief and chequered history in the Middle East apart from Israel and Turkey (p.99). Egypt’s monarchical presidency (where each President chooses his successor from the ruling officer elite) is something of a hybrid arrangement.

Lewis makes the key point that the process of modernisation in the Middle East has undermined the various intermediate powers that traditional rulers had to deal with, resulting in states whose rulers are far more (domestically) power than was the case in the past (p.101). It is to the primacy of statehood that Lewis ascribes the territorial stability of the post-imperial states. Thus the Shi’a of Iraq and the Arabs of Iran both supported their respective states during the Iran-Iraq war. While Palestinians remain stateless aliens outside Jordan (p.105).

The state is central to power and status.
P.J.Vatikiotas once remarked that the core of the Palestinian problem in its later phase was not so much a people in search of a country, as a political elite in search of a state.
As Adolphus Slade observed in a book published in 1862:
The State is the estate of the new nobility (p.105)
A pattern notable in Leninist states and not without some counterparts in the Western democracies.

Another way Western ideas have penetrated the Middle East is the adoption of flags, anthems and other symbols of identity. Rejecting the Western necktie has become a statement of Muslim identity. As for women:
… the revolution in dress was more dramatic and also more dangerous. … Two garments have acquired a special symbolic importance: the veil, hiding the face, and the scarf, hiding the hair. For women in the East, they are emblems; for the pious, of submission, for the emancipated, of repression. For Muslim women in the West they have sometimes become the blazons of a proud assertion of identity (p.112).
Lewis discusses with despatch and perspicacity the complex similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the shifting patterns of tolerance and intolerance (Pp116ff). As he points out, Westerners forget that Muslim states provided refuges for Jews, and for heretical and schismatic Christians, from Christian persecution (p.119). Yet, modern Muslim states have imposed aspects of Muslim law without previous exemptions for non-Muslims (p.122). Lewis paints a comparatively positive picture of dhimmi status (Pp122ff). And an enlightening discussion of why ‘heresy’ and ‘schism’ are not really applicable to Islam:
Islam is not so much a matter of orthodoxy as of orthopraxy. It is what you do, not what you believe, that matters. Only God, it was argued, can judge sincerity in belief. What you do is a social fact and of concern to constituted authority. What Islam has generally asked of its believers is not textual accuracy in belief, but loyalty to the community and its constituted leader (p.126)
It is when deviation becomes apostasy that it become an issue: but an issue for the law:
And apostasy, according to all schools of Muslim jurisprudence, is a capital offence (p.126)
The jurists were notably more lenient than theologians in determining what constituted being a takfir or unbeliever (p.127). The general Muslim attitude has tended to be no one who prays towards Mecca can be considered an unbeliever (p.128).

Lewis is at some pains to disentangle Western attempts to see the Sunni-Shi’a division in (inappropriate) Christian/Western terms. It is a dispute over Muslim headship: it is neither an analogue of the Reformation nor a proxy for ethnic dispute (P.128). He is also at pains to point out the different historical trajectories in Christendom-cum-Western civilisation and Islam about tolerance and religious persecution, being intelligent, perceptive and historically nuanced on the matter (Pp129ff).

Lewis points out that Islam has given the Middle East the only common identity that it has ever known (p.133). The Western ideas of nationalism and socialism intruded but have now passed: the latter due to its failure, the former due to its success and supercession once the anti-colonial struggles receded into the past (p.134).

Democracy has had much less impact, operating somewhat anomalously (for the region) successfully in Israel, a state founded by European immigrants. Turkey has the next best democratic record, in a state with a dominant national identity and whose Republican elite deliberately sought to secularise and Westernise. Iran, also a state with a dominant national identity, has had limited democratic elements, since subverted. Lebanon’s democracy is both framed and subverted by its fractious ethnic and religious identities. But democracy is clearly part of the aspirations (and thus the fears) in the region. (Indeed, the jihadi rejection of democracy as infringing the sovereignty of Allah is possibly their greatest point of division in aims, as distinct from means, from wider popular sentiment in the region.)

Lewis concludes things will tend to improve, but slowly:
… and meanwhile they are tormented by the interaction of multiple and often conflicting identities (p.144)
One of the many virtues of The Multiple Identities of the Middle East is Lewis’s gift for perceptive and nuanced clarity and brevity. Reading this slim volume expands one’s understanding of the Middle East but also one’s sense of how history operates.

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