The past few months have witnessed a deluge of articles on the topic of the Islamic State (IS). Like the proverbial snowflake, almost all of them offer a unique perspective on the issue. That is except when it comes to the citizens of the Arab world. Here the assumption is unanimous: many Muslim Arabs (hereinafter referred to as Arabs for short) are just as opposed to the atrocities committed by the state, while those who support or join it are rather coerced into it due to the lack of any other viable options in the foreseeable future.
I think that is a mere politically-correct statement, and that the reality of it is much more complex. However, mapping out the various opinions expressed by Arabs regarding IS, or any other fundamentalist Islamic group for that matter, is nothing less than a gargantuan task, the accomplishment of which is far beyond the scope here. Instead, this article aims to elucidate a few components of the social framework within which these opinions have come to be, and to allow non-Arabs to catch glimpses of the situation as it is experienced by the citizens of the region.
A Dirty Little Secret
As a vicarious Arab, the first thing you need to know is that the atrocities perpetrated in Syria and Iraq against religious minorities were rehearsed endless times in the minds of your compatriots. See, as a kid growing up in an Arab state, it is very normal that one day you might sit for an exam in Physics, where you have to mathematically describe planetary motion, whereas on the day after, you will find yourself writing “conversion to Islam, paying Jizyah (a special tax), death, or expulsion”, if you are to “correctly” answer a question about how religious minorities should be treated in an ideal Islamic state.
You might be wondering now: “but, as a kid, wouldn’t my inherent sense of morality reject such teachings, outright”? Probably not, for three reasons: first, typically at such an age, our critical faculties are yet to be honed, if we are ever given the chance to hone them. Second, when these teachings are treated on equal footing with the natural sciences and mathematics, then in the mind of a child they eventually acquire the credibility of self-evident universals (e.g. maintaining that infidels should be killed and their wives and daughters taken slaves, becomes just as intuitive as stating that two parallel lines never cross in Euclidean geometry). Third, and most importantly, whoever planned the curriculum for the obligatory “Islamic Education” subject made sure that the notion of an Islamic state is always paired with “glorious” images of the Arab Golden Age.
Then came IS. The meteoric rise of the organization has presented every citizen of the region with a serious cognitive dissonance to grapple with. For some of the devout, who have frequently dreamed of this moment, images of the unkempt fighters of the state and its squalid neighborhoods didn't exactly meet their expectations. As for the secular intellectuals, who until that moment have forsaken their duty to challenge the hegemony of the Islamic discourse and education out of respect for others’ freedoms, and under the assumption that neither would culminate in any serious threat to development in the Arab world, and that the masses won’t listen to what they have to say either way, these same intellectuals are now caught between an urge to self-flagellate, and to lash out against the “moderate” authorities of Islam, such as Al-Azhar scholars.
How one approaches his very personal dissonance ultimately decides the opinion he comes to represent. But far from being solely the product of your religious position, your opinion as a citizen of the region is greatly influenced by your socioeconomic background, and some peculiarities of the modern history of the Arab world. This leads us directly to the second key point in this article.
An Unholy Alliance
An astute reader, with some knowledge of the region’s history might wonder: how come that the invariably dictatorial Arab regimes with their hefty spending on state security have failed to spot this fundamental-Islamic infiltration of the Arab educational institution, which - as we know now - would eventually grow to threaten their existence? The answer is rather simple. They wanted for that infiltration to take place. They even granted the Islamists authority over the curriculum of other subjects.
Here is why. There was a time during the past century in the Arab world when calls for social justice were to be heard everywhere. “Worrisome” notions such as citizenship, social mobility, and gender equality, to name a few, were reverberating across the major cities of the region. Regardless of the particulars, this was quite unsettling for the ruling regimes. They fumbled around for a quick solution, and it came in the form of – you guessed it – Islam.
Religious institutions are extremely rigid and by extension regressive, all the more so when they were never the subject of any serious attempt of modernization or reformation, Islam being a case in point. The modern concepts of citizenship and gender equality, for instance, are in direct conflict with the mandated superiority of male Muslims by the Quran and the Islamic oral tradition. So while Arab aristocrats and Islamists were not exactly fond of each other, the circumstances were ripe for a marriage of convenience between the two. The Islamists would be installed in a position of power to fight any call for the secularization of the state, while Arab monarchs and for-life presidents would go on unperturbed with their venality.
However, little did these aristocrats know that unanswered grievances will eventually express themselves in detrimental ways, and that under the influence of an archaic institution, these grievances will come out more explosively and violently than anyone could have anticipated.
The images of stoned, decapitated and crucified bodies coming from a purportedly secular and socialist state such as Syria get less absurd now, don’t they? But to be honest, given that IS’s days are probably numbered, and that Arabs and only Arabs can put an end to this debilitating vortex of sectarian violence in their region, it sort of borders on the pointless to write such an article at such a time.
However, the real purpose here is to draw attention to a very simple fact that many seculars, and even atheists worldwide, are turning a blind eye to in the name of democracy and freedom of expression: the infiltration of either the political or educational institution by religion will never pan out well for the society, let alone the infiltration of both, simultaneously. So perhaps at this time in human history, when we seem to be on the verge of a global trend of religious revivalism, perhaps it is better now to add a dash of social totalitarianism to the secular approach, or we will go down in history as the ones who stood by and did nothing as we saw the legacy of decades of renaissance and enlightenment get washed away.
Will we be Nietzsche's Last Men and Women? Hopefully not, but hope counts for little in this context. Maybe we should start by dropping the pretense that all opinions are created equal.