So following on from my post last week, Syria rejected the Arab League’s request, and has now been sanctioned by the League. It looks like, possibly in response, President al-Assad is attempting to reach out to the West, at least in the form of Barbara Walters, who was invited to interview the president this week (alternatively, President al-Assad is attempting to reach out to the 1990s, when Walters was still a news reporter, and not a day-time talkshow host).
Today saw one of the largest protests in Syria so far, with thousands participating in a nation-wide strike, to stress the unity of the opposition (for clarity’s sake, it’s probably worth pointing out that the weekend in Syria is Friday and Saturday, so they are actually striking on a work day). The general consensus appears to be that President al-Assad is deeply in denial about his own, at this point very tenuous, position – what remains unclear is whether this denial is genuine or part of a larger plan.
Following on from the Arab spring, the opposition movement in Syria has left many international pundits and scholars questioning what the Middle East will look like in a year’s time – Daniel Wagner in an op-ed for the Huffington Post argues, I think cogently, that the international community needs to leave Syria alone, although I would add the same caveat that I did before, that like in Libya, it may become necessary for the international community to step in, and act quickly, to protect the lives and livelihoods of the Syrian people, which is not something that the international community is usually very good at.
But as much as I agree with Mr Wagner’s position on Syria, I disagree with some of his larger conclusions. Firstly, I think it’s deeply problematic to associate all forms of Islamism and Islamic politics across the Middle East. It’s easy to do, because part of Islamism as a movement is a belief in the essentially unchanging nature of Islam, that Islam is Islam in all times and in all places. But this is not true, nor has it ever been true, and whatever their ideology, these are still local political movements with local interests, responding to local history. Whatever party comes into power in Syria, it will have to cope with a very different set of circumstances than, say, Egypt, which has enjoyed a relatively stable relationship with the West and a fairly robust economy for the last two decades. Indeed, when you actually sit down and read the ideologies of Islamist groups (which, admittedly, is often difficult for Western commentators as they are often untranslated or badly translated), their distinctions become very apparent. To give a strained comparison, there are Christian evangelical movements in both America and Great Britain, and on the surface, both share a common understanding on the role of Christianity in public politics, but in actuality, the two groups share little in common, as they are products of their native environments.
In a similar way, I’m not sure why Mr Wagner seems surprised that Islamist movements are particularly strong among rural communities. Again, to use a strained and slightly unfair comparison, you could make the same statement in the US about the Christian Right. Rural communities are often cut off from government intervention, even in countries where such intervention exists, and local community groups end up filling in the gaps. Since religious groups often have charity and local intervention as part of their ideology, they are well-situated to serve these communities, and in turn, the communities feel beholden to them, understanding them (not entirely unfairly) as serving the country better than the government. The Muslim Brotherhood may be known in most parts of the world as a terrorist organization, but for many rural communities in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, they’re the people building mosques and hospitals, providing food to the poor, and offering reading classes to children (and, I’ve been told, buying Christmas trees for the large Christian Palestinian community, but I can’t find anything online to evidence this).
Indeed, in many Muslim countries, as again arguably in the US with the Christian Right, these rural communities also often feel deeply disenfranchised from both the government and their urban equivalents, who they see as having unfairly commandeered politics. What remains to be seen, in the Middle East and in the West, is whether a government can be formed that answers to both groups, that allows both communities to feel that they are being heard without either feeling disenfranchised.