Thursday, February 24, 2011

Muslim world a figment of Western imagination

There is really nothing called the Muslim world, or even an Arab world. There are Tunisians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Algerians, Sudanese, just to take the example of the north African countries with a majority Muslim population. Similarly, there are the Saudis, the Omanis, the Emiratis, the Qataris, the Bahrainis and the Kuwaitis, though all of them belong to a generally recognisable geographic, linguistic group. And these are quite diffeerent from the Syrians, Lebanese and the Iraqis, who belong and do not belong to the Arab world or to the north African group of countries we have mentioned above., though all of them speak Arabic. There are the Turks of modern Turkey and there are the Iranians with their Muslim majority populations but who have nothing in common with their fellow-Muslim in the Arabic-speaking countries.

To understand the developments in Tunisia and Egypt and Algeria, and then again in Yemen, the idea that there is a crescent arc stretching from the Atlantic passing through the Mediterranean and reaching the Indian Ocean is an interesting intellectual construct for purposes of historical grand narratives but it is of absolutely little use when it comes to questions of understanding the burning issues affecting the people in each of these countries.

Once we understand that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are quite different from each other in more ways than one and that generalisations are only useful for news capsules and for analytic modules, we will be compelled to pay attention to the local detail of each country. It will also mean that we appreciate the political consciousness of the Tunisians who broke out against the long-time dictator Ben Ali and forced him out in what has come to be known as the Jasmine Revolution is peculiarly their own. It would be a travesty of truth to the angry, vibrant Egyptians from different classes and age groups who had gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the last few weeks and forced out president Hosni Mubarak out of office to see them as part of a mass movement gathering momentum in the Arab-Muslim world. Tunis and Cairo are as different in their social composition and political character as London is from Dublin or Edinburgh.

It is an interesting question as to why Westerners are fond of looking at Egyptians and Yemenis, Iraqis and Iranians as Muslims because there is no commonality except that of the religion professed by the majority in these countries. The reason is that due to historical reasons, the Europeans and Americans looked upon the rest of the world from a Christian perspective. The most apparent thing about west Asia was that they were all Muslims, little realising that it did not mean much to any of the people living in these countries. They were friendly or hostile to each other due to factors other than religion. The Western claim to be modern and therefore secular fails the test when it comes to recognising and understanding people of other regions and cultures.

In the early era of exploration and conquest, Christianity was part of the imperial agenda of the Spanish and Portuguese, the English, French and the Dutch. And the religious bias had remained even when these Western countries had abdicated their colonial empires and had almost become post-Christian societies. The United States which took over the European baton of the imeprial power in the second half of the 20th century had wittingly or unwittingly inherited the Christian blinkers of identifying the others as Muslims even when they were distinctly Egyptian, Tunisian or Yemeni.

The consequences of this inaccurate analytic framework has disastrous consequences in terms of policy. The Americans have been been making empty overtures to the Muslim world. George W Bush went into Iraq believing that dethroning of Saddam Hussein will bring demcoracy to Muslim west Asia. This was for the same reason that president Barack Obama had declared in Cairo that the US wants to be friends with the Muslim world. It was rhetoric which was not based in political and social reality. Meanwhile, Tunisians and Egyptians have showed that they are grappling with their own problems and they are not looking over their shoulders as to what the effect of their political revolution has on the mythical Muslim world.

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