Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Understanding Changes in West Asia: Implications for India

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Understanding Changes in West Asia: Implications for India

Article excerpt

Since the uprisings in Tunisia eight years ago, the West Asian region has been enmeshed in a complex web of multiple crises. These crises - of nationalism, of identity, of modernisation, and of development - have been long in the making and existed at the subterranean level. They have now come to the fore, challenging prevalent notions of politics and society in unprecedented ways. The established arguments of the previous decades that spoke of the 'passing of traditional societies' have collapsed, as the uprisings have created a context for the assertion of traditional forces, represented by religious, sectarian, tribal, and ethnic affiliations. Traditional identities have proven to be much more resilient than previously believed.

Understanding the Changes in West Asia

Nationalism is under attack and crumbling under the onslaught of traditionalism. Sectarian and ethnic assertions have split societies - supplanting nationalism as the dominant ideology - and provoked civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon as well as widespread unrest in the Gulf monarchies. In Syria and Iraq, the resurgence of traditionalism is evident in the fact that their politics has become entirely sectarian. After the removal of Ba'ath as an Arab, modern, and secular party in Iraq, nationalism ceased to be an issue, as the Sunnis and Shias battled it out to preserve their political supremacy. The Shias perpetuated discrimination against the Sunnis to protect their newly won political power, and the Sunnis fought hard against the Shias to reclaim their political pre-eminence.

From the initial national uprising for democracy, the current situation in Syria has devolved into open sectarian warfare between Sunni factions and the Alawi (Shia) regime, and ethnic Kurdish assertion with external powers such as Turkey, Iran, Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, playing one side against another and contesting the outcome. The civil war in Syria has thrown up a seemingly absurd situation wherein an anti-Ba'ath regime in Iraq supports the Ba'ath regime in Syria. However, this makes sense if looked at through the prism of traditionalism: it is one Shia regime supporting another in their joint struggle against the region's Sunnis.

Lebanon's multinational 'contract' has been gravely challenged by Hezbollah's involvement in the civil war in Syria. The Syrian conflict stoked a resurgence of sectarian violence in Lebanon, with many of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims supporting the rebels in Syria, while many Shias have supported the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, where parties have changed sides frequently with the changing course of the civil war, the fault line remains sectarian. Shia Zaydis and Sunnis fight for pre-eminence backed and incited by co-religionists across the region.

Even the seemingly placid monarchies of the Gulf are experiencing an interrogation of their social contract in the protests on the street, and more powerfully in cyberspace. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have tried to paint the turmoil on the street in sectarian colours, accusing Iran of fomenting trouble to take the focus away from their failings of governance. A wave of attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt has questioned the inclusivity of the nationalism cherished by its secular elites.

Nationalism's crisis is rooted in the state formation in the Arab world in particular, and the entire West Asia and North Africa (WANA) in general. The victorious European powers at the end of World War I organised the former territories of the Ottoman Empire along supposed 'national' lines, believing that they were the "world full of nations.. .ready to emerge... under the banner of self-determination."1They assumed that, with the creation of new states, people would shun primordial affiliations and nationalism, as a new creed would hold sway.

However, despite the attempt of political elites to define the new states in European terms, traditional identifications thrived alongside the idea of nationalism, which suppressed the development of the alternative notion of political legitimacy. …

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