“Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone.”
Those are the words of Hisham Melham, Washington bureau chief of Dubai-based media outlet Al-Arabiya. In a 2,000-word piece for Politico, Melham argues that Arab civilization has collapsed, and that it won’t be revived in his lifetime. Is this gloomy outlook overwrought, or simply the expression of a painful reality?
The vast majority of recent media reports from the region sadly seem to confirm Melham’s argument. Syria is into its fourth year of a horrific civil war, with no end in sight. In August 2014, the United Nations estimated that over 191,000 people (likely an underestimate) have been killed.
Largely as a result of the fierce fighting in Syria, Iraq has now also succumbed to conflict. The brutal Islamic State (IS) militants that charged through much of Iraq in late 2013 and into 2014 found their roots and honed their skills in the fight to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Iraqi military all too swiftly dropped its guns and retreated, leaving Iraqi civilians to fend off Islamic State advances on their own.
And the sectarian dimensions of the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria ensure that the entire population is swept along. The extremist Sunni IS militants have targeted Shi’a Muslims, the majority sect in Iraq that is holding power for the first time in the nation’s history, as well as Sunni Muslims who refuse to cooperate with the Islamic State. Many of the region’s remaining Christians have fled entirely.
Meanwhile, the revolution in Egypt that caught the world’s attention in 2011 has arguably failed. Longtime president Hosni Mubarak is gone, but in his place is a former general, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who relies on the same repressive political and security structures that his forebearer used to remain in power for 30 years.
In neighboring Libya, there is a similar story: dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, who ruled for over 40 years, was ousted in 2011 with the help of the international community. But the country has since dissolved into sectarian warfare. Under cover of darkness one night in July, the U.S. evacuated its embassy staff from Tripoli, a quiet signal that its strategy in Libya had failed.
The facts are hard to deny. But can we even entertain the idea that the political and social communities built by a single cultural group were fundamentally flawed and now doomed to failure? Melham points to two strands of Arab political thought that he argues have led to this downfall: Arab nationalism, and Islamism. Arab nationalism as a political ideology imploded when the Arabs, particularly Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, lost the 1967 war with Israel. And Islamism has never been able to prove its worth as a political force, in addition to giving birth to many of the violent extremist groups now terrorizing the region.
The problem with this argument is twofold: first, it defines all of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as “Arabs.” But the individuals who consider themselves part of the MENA region have a multiplicity of identities, among them Arabs, Africans, Berbers, Kurds, Shias, Sunnis, and Christians. And the communities built by these individuals represent a wonderful mix of all of these identities, in addition to other identities rooted in South Asia and Europe. Boiling the Middle East down to failed “Arab” civilizations is an insult both to those who consider themselves Arab and to those who do not.
This brings us to the second problem with this argument: it defines “civilization” as purely political, and thus seems to argue that the very fabric of societies in the Middle East has been ripped beyond repair. But civilization is more than politics. It is religion, language, music, dance, food, custom, and more. The political structures of much of the Middle East are indeed in crisis. That much is clear. But I would argue that the scaffolding of successful societies has remained, and can continue to remain, intact.
After these conflicts are over, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and other MENA nations as they are currently defined may no longer exist. But for many of these countries, their existence as nation-states is itself a recent development, while the building blocks of their civilizations stretch back hundreds or even thousands of years. A change of borders and names will hardly even dent those civilizational foundations.
The current crises across the Middle East are tragic, and finding the necessary solutions to the underlying grievances will be a long, hard struggle. But throwing up our hands and declaring Arab civilization dead is the easy way out.
Jennifer Rowland is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics and Policy (JMEPP) and a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.