27 June 2014

The 'battle for pluralism' in the Middle East and Elsewhere

Thomas Friedman's confusion about what a takfiri is doesn't inspire confidence in his latest recommendations for the Middle East. He writes in the New York Times that the ISIS/ISIL army in Syria and Iraq are fighting against takfiris, whom Friedman defines as alleged "apostates." In fact, or at least as I understand it, ISIS are the takfiris, or so they're called by Shiites, and takfiris are the ones who call other people apostates at the drop of a hat. An impatient American may well say, "whatever." Friedman's main point is that Muslim countries need to transcend the sort of doctrinal differences that divide their people into "apostates" and "takfiris." He worries that Muslims are still drawn to palindromic extremes: ISIS on one hand, and Sisi, the current Egyptian strongman, on the other. Both are equally hostile to civil society and the pluralism Friedman deems necessary to peace, order and prosperity. The likes of ISIS reject pluralism, allegedly, because Islam, as they understand it, is "the arbiter of all political life." The likes of al-Sisi reject pluralism, allegedly, because they see "the national state" as the arbiter of all political life. This is shown by their suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, who themselves were accused of hostility to pluralism, and their oppression of anyone who objects to the manner of suppression. I lose track of Egypt sometimes: was the overthrow of the Brotherhood government a victory for pluralism or a blow against it? Again, "whatever" is the most likely answer. Friedman exhorts Muslims to recognize that neither the Sisi nor the ISIS model will deliver the "prosperity, stability and dignity" ordinary people desire. Instead, they must put "[civil] society" at the center of politics," with the state as its servant rather than the other way around. Friedman nominates Kurdistan, the prize pupil of the occupation of Iraq, and Tunisia, the prize pupil of the Arab Spring, as models for the rest of the region. Both are "based on society" and have achieved a precocious degree of pluralism compared to their neighbors. It's up to experts to decide how viable either example is as a model for the rest.

What is "society" or "pluralism" in this context? For the moment, they're best defined negatively as the absence of a winner-take-all, by-any-means-necessary struggle for power or resources among groups with little sense of common identity. Friedman cites a Jordanian author who suggests a kind of reversal of the old "stake in society" argument against democracy. In the past, many people, including some of the American Founders, believed that political rights should be limited to those who have a stake in society, usually understood as property. Marwan Muasher argues that pluralistic democratization -- the "Battle For Pluralism" -- must strive to give different groups a "stake in the system" through inclusive policies. You can see an American influence in Muasher's belief that pluralistic stability requires some sort of system of "checks and balances," and this is as good a point as any to suggest a "physician, heal thyself" approach to well-meaning liberals like Thomas Friedman. It can be argued, after all, that the United States is becoming less pluralistic, if pluralism means a willingness to share power with, or yield it to, people who have different ideas, or seem to have different values, from yours. It can also be argued that an American-style system of checks and balances unintentionally exacerbates the deterioration of pluralism. This may expose the flaw in a strategy that stakes so much on cultivating pluralism. Liberals may take for granted a "whiggish" view of pluralism that sees it as ever expanding once the constraints of arbitrary power are thrown off. A historian might be useful now who can chart the rise and fall of pluralism, once we all agree on what it is, in different societies through history. Meanwhile, more traditional history might clarify whether any society can move from tribalism (or feudalism) to pluralism without an interlude of political absolutism. It may be that a Sisi, or a Saddam, or an Assad, is necessary to the eventual emergence of pluralism, despite their immediate hostility to it, by eliminating the impediment of tribalism -- though Middle East dictators have too often exploited tribalism, needing a loyal force to implement their will, instead of transcending it. Again, Americans should be cautions about recommending the U.S. as a model, since history may prove that pluralism + ideology = tribalism of another kind. I appreciate that liberals like Friedman want progress without violence around the world, but would-be liberals around the world may know better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...the pluralism Friedman deems necessary to peace, order and prosperity."

Actually, I'm sure you can point to many emperors of old and show they had peace, order and prosperity. Pluralism, democracy, even freedom are not necessary ingredients for peace, order and prosperity.
All that is necessary for peace is that individuals make the personal decision (for whatever reason) not to commit acts of violence against others.
All that is necessary for order is that individuals make the personal decision (for whatever reason) to obey the laws, ethics and morals of their culture.
In nearly every culture to ever exist, there have been the wealthy, their affluent (more or less) sycophants and the great, "unwashed" masses whom serve them. So prosperity (in some form or other) already exists everywhere.