By Iran Review
By Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi*
Regardless of what direction developments in the Middle East will take in the future, the sure thing is that the region will not go back to where it stood before the developments, which have come to be known as the Arab Spring. The traditional models of power structure have changed and new mentalities have come into play. A review of developments in the Middle East and North Africa will reveal that reconstruction of power in its past centralized form would be almost impossible and governments would sooner or later have to accept the reality that they must experience new modes of governance. This, however, is not the end of the story and the consequences of the ongoing developments in the Middle East are more far-reaching than may seem on the surface. Two major courses of events have taken place in this region, which most probably, will set the direction for future developments in this sensitive and strategic part of the world:
- They have made the religious gap between Shia and Sunni Muslims deeper; and
- They have made the ethnic divide among major ethnic groups (Arabs, Kurds, and Turks) more acute.
In this dangerous game, governments and radical religious currents are either together in an unwritten union, or are in a state of limbo and unwillingness which makes them tilt toward this or that side. At any rate, the final result would not be the same. The self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate or ISIS, which has appointed its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, as the caliph, and has called on all Muslims to swear fealty to him, is apparently playing the main role in developments that are taking place in the Arab part of the Middle East, but this issue should not be seen in such a simple light. All the involved parties, both at regional and transregional levels, pursue their own goals and expectations and are trying to achieve them under the present grey-shade and equivocal conditions of the Middle East. It is not totally clear what would be the final result of further intensification of ethnic and religious divides in the region, but it is almost clear that under present circumstances, all countries in the region will be affected by them one way or another.
In religious terms, ISIS pursues its own special interests by widening the gap between Shia and Sunni Muslims and is hoping that by further deepening of this gap, it would be able to draw more support from Sunnis. Attuning ISIS’ strategic policies with the caliphate-based mentality that is rife in the Sunni world, through which the group aims to rebuild its lost power, is a totally informed plan, which can boost the social base of the Islamic caliphate. The fact that ISIS has so far managed to attract thousands of jihadist volunteers from more than 80 countries of the world to Iraq and Syria – which include nationals of many European countries and the United States – by itself proves that establishing a connection between the idea of Islamic caliphate and Sunni Muslims, by reconstructing power structure within the framework of caliphate, and also ISIS’ claim to be pursuing to end the humiliation resulting from more than a century of Western domination of the Islamic world, have been quite successful.
Unlike all previous so-called jihadist groups, which were either reluctant to use social networks in the cyber space or were not aware of their important effect on the public opinion, ISIS uses such networks in the most extensive and most professional manner and has displayed strong presence in these networks. Every day, tens of thousands of blogging volunteers relay news and reports related to the ISIS across the world and keep Muslim youths from East Asia all the way to western parts of the Americas abreast of its developments. Attracting volunteers for “jihad” from the viewpoint of ISIS and for “terrorism” from others’ viewpoint, is mostly done across the cyber space. It seems that ISIS is endowed with people specializing in media work who are carrying out professional activities and are also aware of psychological state of disgruntled Muslim youths in the world and exactly know what these young people want and how they can be attracted to ISIS. This is exactly why ISIS has put deepening of religious gaps on its agenda and is performing it in Iraq and Syria.
This gap is potentially capable of going beyond the limits of the Middle East and emerging in a more acute form in other regions, including Pakistan. If religious gap in the Middle East deepens to a level that it could not be brought under control through political or military mechanisms, the region would face the threat of disintegration along religious lines and this would totally conform to the policies pursued by Israel. The best way to save Israel is to prove impossibility of peaceful coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Palestinians in a single state. The more religious wars rage on in peripheral regions of the occupied territories and the more the possibility of peaceful coexistence of various Muslim groups in a single country is undermined, the bigger will be Israel’s win.
Apart from this, wars of a religious nature usually continue into a long and indeterminate future and, therefore, if disintegration of the region along religious lines takes place, the Islamic world would be probably engaged in internal religious wars for years and this will be a great blessing for Israel. Although what is currently going on in Iraq and Syria is the result of domination of centralized governments, it has opened the way for sectarian confrontations and even in the absence of ISIS, a similar group would carry its legacy and keep the region engulfed in political and social upheavals resulting from sectarian strife. Current debates about possible division of regional countries along ethnic and religious lines are related to this reality. Regardless of what future course regional developments will take, it is almost certain that reconstruction of a centralized power structure will be impossible in Iraq and Syria and the two countries would have to accept new structures which would at least give in to balanced distribution of power as is common in non-centralized governments. Otherwise, they would be exposed to risk of disintegration which can prevent establishment of stable governments in these countries for many years to come.
The second gap produced in the region is an ethnic gap, which under present conditions, has shown itself in the form of three major ethnic groups in the Middle East: that is, Arab, Turkish and Kurdish ethnic groups. Although this gap is not as potent as the religious gap for spreading across the region, it has the capacity to set the direction of future developments in the Middle East. In this gap, the Kurdish element is playing a more active role than Arab and Turkish elements. The Kurdish viewpoint on the ongoing developments sees an end to Sykes-Picot Agreement and foresees that the Kurdish ethnic group, which is currently divided among a number of regional countries, would be able to achieve its goal of establishing an independent identity for itself. Of course, this issue has been faced with staunch oppositions and due to these oppositions and vacillation of Kurds between realism and Kurdish ideals, they are currently in a state of limbo in the region.
At any rate, deepening of religious and ethnic gap as a result of developments in the Arab world has, at least, made it possible for the Kurdish ethnic element to achieve some kind of federal government. What is going on in Iraq and in Syria in relation to the situation of the Kurdish ethnic group proves that a return to conditions that existed before the Arab Spring is not a realistic option and central governments would have to concede to this reality sooner or later, even if, they have to accept the risk of a long-term civil war like Turkey. The Kurdish element is now facing two possibilities. The first possibility is to become part of federal governments in which territorial integrity of countries will be preserved, which seems to be a more realistic option and can prevent future developments that can further exacerbate the ethnic divide. The second possibility, on the other hand, is division along ethnic lines, which can be ensued with more important consequences for the region and add to the existing problems.
In view of these issues, future developments in the Middle East should be taken seriously and it must be clearly noted that the time for centralized powers in the Arab Middle East is past and they have reached their end point. As a result, any effort to rebuild the power structures of the past will not only fail to solve problems, but also face the region with new crises and intensify the power void, which will in turn provide grounds for extremist groups either of a religious or ethnic nature, and can throw the region into the vortex of political and social inflammation for a long time to come. Therefore, realism requires ruling systems to change their monopolistic view to power and while accepting the nature and depth of regional developments, do not counter them and prevent further widening of religious and ethnic gaps. Neither a dominant ethnic group, nor a dominant religion would be able to bring peace and stability to the new Middle East. Official recognition of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in countries with an ethnic or religious majority seems to be the only rational solution ahead. Otherwise, the ground would be provided for growth of sectarian religious radical groups, which would be then exploited by world powers to make regional nations, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliations, the final losers of these developments.
*Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi, Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues