Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Islams

I know that I keep bringing this up, but in one of his interviews with an Arab news channel, Rifaat al Assad, Bashar's uncle, said something about an Islamic bourgeoisies that is struggling to take control in Syria. That was probably the only true thing he said in that interview, and it was a good label for a phenomenon that I first observed a number of years ago.

There is this Gulf Islam-chic that is now dominant in Arab media. Nowhere is this clearer than in the adverts, with perfect families, and their perfect teeth, and a beaming housewife in a hejab telling us how wonderful her cooking is with such and such a product, or how much cleaner the washing is, and then there are the car adverts with dynamic, photogenic men wearing the white galabiyeh and Arab chequered siluk - what non-Syrians call the Kufiyeh. To the north there is also the new Turkey, whose foreign minister has silently been strengthening links with the countries of central Asia, the Balkans and - until recently - Syria. Countries that were traditionally in the orbit of Istanbul are once again being wooed with trade links, educational opportunities, and money. Students in central Asian countries are given scholarships and funding by Islamic charities and organisations, funded by the wealthy Sunni Muslim families that dominate a large segment of Turkey's economy, and I had once heard that these were given express instruction to stay out of Syria. It seems that even then the relationship was a bit aloof.

In one of the recent leaked e-mails that aloofness could also be seen with Asma snubbing a request by the Turkish president's wife to have her e-mail address. Asma, like the rest of Assad's Young "Turks", are virulently against religion, especially Sunni Islam. I call this new generation "Young Turks" because like in Turkey, there emerged in Syria over the past forty years a generation of Syrians who were firmly rooted in the regime's ideology and professed secularism, but whose hostility to Sunni Islam in particular was observable. The strained relationship with Saudi Arabia was not just based upon strategic and ideological grounds. This class of Baathists who took control in Syria carried from their villages a deep hatred and mistrust - justified in my opinion - of the Sunni landowners and their Arabic version of latifundias. This hatred, I think, is rooted in the oppressive centuries of Ottoman rule, yet ironically they replaced the very thing that had once oppressed them, and the Syrian revolution today emerged from the Sunni villages and towns where dissatisfaction with Baathist and Assadist corruption was the highest. Ironically, the Syrian bourgeoisies came to a very comfortable arrangement with the new rulers of Damascus, and one of the most observable facts about the Syrian revolution was how supportive the Damascus and Aleppo merchant families initially were for the regime. This, of course, has slowly changed, and now a new factor is emerging.

Syria's future is at stake here, it can either belong to what was once referred to as a "resistance" bloc, which is now, to all extents and purposes, a Shiite bloc, or it can rejoin what is now a Western-aligned Sunni world. Should Turkey and Saudi Arabia succeed in helping Syria's oppositions topple Assad, a vital link in the "Shiite" chain will be broken. In this sense, Syria's merchants have a far better deal aligning with the Gulf and the lucrative markets there, and Turkey as a gateway to the European Union. The alignment of the region that was born after the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 is over. The strategic map of the Middle East is shifting once again. In 1979 the emergence of an Islamic Iran radically altered the region, in 1990 the collapse of the Soviet Union and the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq again altered priorities. It was not until 2003 that the current make up of the region was defined, and now that too is crumbling as the Arab spring's effects put a resurgent and very confident Sunni political Islam back at the fore.

There are now two Islamic political ideologies in the region, Sunni and Shiite, and whilst initially only Shiite political Islam had a model and aspiration in Iran, today Sunni political Islam can look to Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and possibly Egypt, as an inspiration instead of al Qaeda. The Gulf states, apart from Qatar, whilst fiercely Sunni, are not, I believe, identical with the Muslim brotherhood Islam that they once gave refuge to. They can, in light of their fear from Iran, come to an accommodation, but the recent spat in the Emirates about the Brotherhood shows their mistrust of it. It is Turkey which is the crucial connection between the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, and now there is a solid Sunni bloc that stretches, with the exception of Algeria, from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

For better or for worse, this is the new map of the region, and this re-alignment will bring its own set of problems over the coming years. Very worrying and dangerous problems.

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