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Arab World Re-Identification

11 April 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Saddam Hussein’s regime crumbled much faster and with less resistance than anyone expected, especially when US forces arrived in Baghdad.  Supposedly the Arab world is in disarray and the average Arab citizen does not know what to think.  Clearly there is a vacuum, both in power and ideology.  Or so it seems at least for the moment.

Clarification is in order.  The regime defeated and those suffering serious threat are all secular Arab nationalist.  Saddam Hussein was hated by the religious, whether they be Sunni or Shi’ite.  Supposedly Bashar Assad of Syria may be targeted, as a result of his support of Saddam.  It would be well to remember, he holds together a coalition of religious and ethnic minorities.  To eliminate the Ba’ath would shatter the Syrian state leading to chaos much worse than what can be expected in Iraq.  Destroying secular Arab regimes to foster democracies in their place is tricky business.

The Arab world saw Saddam as a hero because he challenged the west yet hated his internal oppression.  The lesson for the Arab world is leaders can be overthrown and that can be extended to mean Mubarak of Egypt, the royal family in Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan.  Obviously the US and Britain will not help in ousting this group but the larger message remains.  These three leaderships may have gained temporarily by betting on the right horse but they are compromised in the eyes of their people and whatever little support they had, now they have less.

There really is no such thing as a vacuum, since it always gets filled.  At the moment there appear to be two choices of an overall unifying direction.  Anglo-Saxon style democracy can be developed and nurtured in the Middle East with Iraq as a test case.  Minorities would need to drop their particularist demands and territorial claims while extended families would concede the importance of equality for all and the hegemony of the state (a return to the secular Arab) in enforcing individual rights for everyone (including women).  

Or Islam can become a unifying identity with the west and its secular Arab nationalist supporters seen as the common enemy.  There are issues of Sunnis and Shi’ites as well as non-Islamic religious groups.  The Arab world comprises some 300 million while Islam counts 1.1 billion adherents.  Saddam’s downfall will be interpreted as a secular Arab failure.  The question now is one of re-identity and loyalty.

Will the Arab world choose a western style pluralistic democracy or the traditions of Islam?  Simple logic should determine the answer.