The Daily Star
Friday, September 26 2014
By Michael Glackin
So, South Sudan is still the world’s newest country. Scotland has voted against independence, and the United Kingdom remains united. For now at least.
Despite the often-zealous patriotism of Scots, the desire of many to break away from the 307-year-old union with England was less about nationalism, the doctrine that defined 19th and 20th century independence movements, and more about creating a just and equal society. Many Scots believe the free-market-obsessed government in London had increased inequality.
Even Scots who voted against independence – largely because they believed they would be worse off financially outside the union – want increased self-governance within the U.K.
In this, the Scottish independence debate had echoes of the Arab Spring. Central to the plea for universal rights made by the protesters who took to the streets across the Middle East was a demand that government be brought closer to the people. With the Arab Spring, the Middle East reached a crucial turning point, but, to borrow a phrase from European history, failed to turn.
In its wake the Middle East has descended into unparalleled ethnic and sectarian bloodletting that has plunged the region into chaos and threatens the borders and integrity of half a dozen states, from Lebanon to Yemen.
Instead of universal values, exclusivity is the mantra of both extremists and bizarrely, many liberals, who see separation and the dismantling of frontiers that divide religious and ethnic groups as the way forward. For instance the barbaric violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, along with the Kurds’ now pivotal role in combatting the threat posed by ISIS, has increased the prospect of the division of the country into at least two parts, and maybe three.
Syria could also split in three. The country’s Kurds could end up in the Kurdistan that may be won for them by their Iraqi brethren. And some have suggested that an Alawite state could take shape along the coast and hills surrounding Latakia.
It may sound ludicrous, but much learned ink has been spilt gleefully predicting the demise of the arrangements the British and French created during and after World War I, which established Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, and later resulted in the creation of Israel.
While observers have been queuing up to pour scorn on the “artificial” nature of the states created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and subsequent arrangements, which lumped disparate tribes or peoples together, one could equally argue that their possible demise says as much about Arab unity as it does about Western imperialism. In fact, the current turmoil in the Middle East isn’t about failed states; it’s about failed governance.
On one level at least Sykes-Picot was progressive in that it established modern multi-confessional, multiethnic states. The failure of Arab rulers and governments to forge societies in which religious and ethnic minorities can properly coexist is not something that can be readily ignored.
There are those who blame British imperial “divide and rule” policies for Sudan’s woes, but the creation of South Sudan in 2011 came about because the mainly Christian and Animist people in the south were repressed by the rule of the Arab Muslim north. Western countries may have encouraged the secessionists, but their intervention would have been unnecessary had the government in the north governed its multi-confessional and multiethnic society fairly.
The Baath in Syria and Iraq proved adept at colonial divide and rule policies too, and were responsible for discriminative, in some cases genocidal, policies against ethnic groups.
If the clarion call of the Arab Spring was democracy and equality, it is surely worth asking why so many people who aspired to such values now imagine the future of their countries not as places that embrace diversity and pluralism, but as fragmented entities based on religious or ethnic identity. The divisions being discussed by those who insist that Sykes-Picot is dead are likely to create more problems than they resolve.
India was divided when Britain relinquished control because its Muslims were convinced that they could not prosper in a country with a Hindu majority. Under the able stewardship of Muhammad Ali Jinnah Pakistan was carved out of India. But within 25 years Pakistan itself split, because East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, was largely excluded from the political process and economic development. Religious uniformity didn’t disguise injustice or hold a badly governed country together.
Talking of bad government, the changing aspirations of some long-suffering Palestinians is illustrative too. Earlier this year, before the Gaza conflict, Tareq Abbas, the son of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the New York Times that he had joined the growing number of young Palestinians who believe a one-state solution, where Palestinians would share equal rights with Israeli Jews, offers the best way to settle the region’s longstanding conflict.
Until the late 1960s Fatah also supported a bi-national solution, a single state that would “establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.” It is extremely unlikely to happen, but it is also clear that many young Palestinians now view universal civil rights as more important than a narrow nationalism that defines borders by ethnic origin or religion.
At any rate, the Arab world has in the last century tended toward the super state rather than smaller states, from Sherif Hussein’s aspiration to unite Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, under his rule right through to the Pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. This impulse now manifests itself in the brutal “caliphate” of ISIS, whose solution to dealing with religious minorities and political adversaries is to slaughter them.
It was fear rather than ambition or Pan-Arabism that was the immediate catalyst for Syria’s decision to “merge” with Egypt into the short lived United Arab Republic. It was prompted by the need to enlist Nasser’s protection against a possible communist takeover. The UAR broke apart because Syrian national pride, not created by Sykes-Picot, was piqued by Egyptian domination.
Despite the fact that 55 percent of Scots voted “No” to independence, the debate surrounding the issue has revealed a demand for democratic change in the U.K. that the government and the opposition parties have agreed to address.
What Scotland’s vote should tell the Arabs is that rather than act as cheerleaders for ethnic and sectarian division, they should ensure that out of the current turmoil, the process of building institutions that respect all those within its borders and create Arab unity should no longer be ignored.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2014, on page 7.