Academic journal article Arena Journal

Hunting Leviathan in the Middle East

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Hunting Leviathan in the Middle East

Article excerpt

It may be that a bullet kills a man

But a lying camera kills a nation

A few days after the July 2013 coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, this slogan appeared on a series of slickly produced posters in Cairo, alongside portraits of General AbdelFattah al-Sisi that declared the army and the people to be 'one hand'. The 'lying camera' poster was aimed squarely at the television network al-Jazeera,1 which Egypt's new regime believes is lavishly funded by the Qatari government as a loudspeaker for Brotherhood propaganda. The military and its coy bullets were put on the front line against everything the coup leaders deemed 'unEgyptian': foreign media, foreign NGOs and above all the transnational Muslim Brotherhood. Though we did not know it then, these two lines were to serve as charge, trial, verdict and sentence in the cases of journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. On Egypt's streets that northern summer, protesters widened the conspiracy theory to take in the Obama White House and Israel, both of which were apparently backing the Brotherhood in a plot to destroy Egypt. If this sounds absurd, that's because it is - but hardly more absurd than the appearance in Cairo of three Republican members of the US Congress, who not only managed to conflate the Brotherhood with al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks but also told General Sisi that he was a modern-day George Washington.2

The varied populations of the Middle East have led many Western commentators to see Islam's fourteen-century schism between Sunnis and Shias as the conflict at the heart of all the region's conflicts. In other quarters the violence and dysfunction of the decade since the US-led invasion of Iraq is portrayed as a struggle within Islam not between historically defined sects but pitting 'extremists' against 'moderates', though these labels tend to lack coherent meaning as anything other than indications of Western distaste or favour. In this essay, I hope to set out how the various competing forces within Middle Eastern life see themselves and each other. I argue that the true basis of their wars resides in a desperate struggle to define the relationship between people and their state, to find security and strength within a single 'body politic' of the type classically represented by French printmaker Abraham Bosse on the cover of Thomas Hobbes' famous seventeenth-century political treatise Leviathan.3

Many pundits have written about a 'new Cold War' between the majority Sunni and minority Shia branches of Islam.4 To make this version of events work, the fact that Syria's dictator and much of its ruling elite are Alawites is emphasized, followed by a helpful note that the Alawite sect is 'an offshoot of Shia Islam', or something similar. The fact is, however, that this isn't even remotely helpful. Many of those Syrians who are fighting to keep Bashar al-Assad in power will tell you that their greatest fear is of living in a theocracy of the sort that currently exists in Shia Iran. Furthermore, while Shia Islam may be a minority tendency within the Muslim world as a whole, it still fits the late Fuad Khuri's definition of an 'incorpora five religion', which has millions of believers in countries across the globe and reaches out to win new adherents for its theology and rituals. To be an Alawite Muslim (or indeed a Druze or a Yazidi) is quite different; it is an ethnicity as much as it is a creed, with secret doctrines and selective initiation into them that police the boundaries of the community, resulting in what Khuri called 'segregative sects'.5

When Arab nationalism was in vogue, Bashar's father Hafez alAssad played down the differences between Alawites and Sunnism, the branch of Islam to which most Arabs belong; when Iran became Syria's main ally, scholars were tasked with demonstrating that Alawites were 'really' Shias. Throughout, the Alawite faith remained resolutely particular. Finally, though the Syrian regime is largely staffed and officered by Alawites, it is not an 'Alawite regime' in any religious sense. …

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