Monday, 31 January 2011

Arab Upheavals Part 2

Ignorance of the Arab world is widespread in Europe and America. Many people think that Iran is an Arab country, although its language, Farsi, is not Semitic at all but is more closely related to Indo-European languages such as Greek or Russian. The southward extent of Arabic in Africa is blurred. It is the language of North Sudan and is the co-official language of Mauritania and Tchad. It was at one time declared the official language of Somalia before that country descended into chaos.

The word 'Arab' in classical Arabic meant primarily Bedouin or desert Arab. In modern times its use has been extended to Arabic-speaking people in general, but the people of the settled areas have always regarded the nomads with suspicion and hostility. The Koran itself has harsh words about them. Paradoxically, an 18th century religious revival movement, Wahhabism, started in the desert. After Lawrence of Arabia had blown up the Hijaz Railway, which was built to protect Medina and Mecca, they were succcessfully taken over by King Saud's Wahhabis. With control of the Holy Cities combined with fabulous oil wealth, the Saudis achieved totally disproportionate influence all over the Islamic world.

When the Britisn and French found it too expensive to continue direct colonial rule over Arab countries, they tried to leave behind British-style constitutional monarchies and French-style republics, but one by one they were overthrown by military coups. Most governments in the region have for many years been military dictatorships. This suited the West; if they could buy the dictator they could control the country - and any oil. That is the regime that now teeters on the brink. The generals will not easily cede their powers - and their wealth. Watch carefully what America does now!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Arab upheavals

Having lost one of my most loyal followers, I have not blogged for a month, but I must break my silence for what is happening in the Arab world. It is at least 18 years since I was last in Egypt and about 30 since my last stay in Tunisia, but after a total of eight years living in Arab countries I can't help feeling deeply involved in what is happening.

Compared with India, which has more than a dozen major languages, several very different religions and a range of climates from tropical to Himalayan, the Arab world is very homogeneous. Even going from one end to the other, say Morocco to Oman, an Arabic-speaking person quickly picks up the local dialect. The religions that coexisted there - Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Bahai - saw the world in simiar terms and lived together under a Pax Islamica that saw few violent conflicts.

When nationalism spread out from Europe, the Arabic-speaking world was one of the most obvious candidates to develop a nation-state or a close-knit federation. Egypt and Syria in the late 19th and early 20th century produced many thinkers who laid the intellectual foundations for a secular society. But they reckoned without oil and the greed of the Europeans and Americans. North Africa and Egypt had already been colonized, and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs found themselves divided between about twenty different territories. When they obtained a semblance of independence it was under authoritarian rulers propped up by the former colonial powers and by America, who siphoned off most of the oil wealth.

Egypt and Iraq operated a parliamentary system for several decades, but the corruption of the rulers and interference by the West led to revolutions in Egypt and Iraq inspired again by Western models, but this time totalitarian ones. When these too failed to deliver prosperity, the whole enterprise of imitating Europe and America became suspect. Some people turned away from secular ideas and dreamed of finding solutions in a return to a great and half imaginary Islamic past. They were helped by money form Saudi Arabia, which had fallen into the hands of an extremist sect, which maintained itself in power with the help of the West.

The wedge that maintains the whole rickety structure is Israel, dividing what is otherwise a continuous Arab space and occupying the third holiest city of Islam. The West's unqualified support for Israel requires the status quo to be frozen with its immense injustices, its torture regimes, the squandering of oil wealth in preposterous tumours like Dubai while the vast majority of Arabs live in grinding poverty. That is the pressure cooker that is now beginning to explode.