An esteemed Arab League ‘grandee’ recently thundered that it was impossible for the Arab world to accept anything – ‘other’- than 21st century modern secularism: Islamism was forbidden. Egypt’s ‘coup’ (“if you wish to call it such”, against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government) was absolutely appropriate, he insisted. An Islamist government would have been intolerable, and it was perfectly ‘right’ to have ousted it – just as Iranian influence in the Arab sphere needed to be repulsed too.
He adduced no argument. It was pure emotivism (after Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition). Which is to say, nothing but an expression of preference, an articulation of attitude or feeling – with the intent to produce an affective emotional response in the audience (and it did just that). Reason then, in an emotivist environment such as the Middle East today, can never compel a solution; we simply have to hunker down and decide our subjective attitude. Moral discussion becomes at best, mere rhetorical suasion.
This, therefore entails that the grandee’s ‘moral’ assertion about the requirement for an Arab ‘21st future’, cannot be as ‘rational’ as it purports to be. It is not. It is non-rational: were all our moral arguments to be nothing other than statements of subjective preference, then any genuine attempt at rational understanding is doomed.
Such an emotive approach, given a group of sufficient diversity (there were Iranians and Arab ‘populist’ protestors attending the event) contains – only – the potential to escalate into a shouting match – or worse. Of course, discussion on these terms can never reach resolution. Lines are drawn early, and participants rush to take sides. But in taking sides, they appear to render themselves incapable of hearing the other; or, of sharing values – or even facts. Everyone feels the heat. But no one sees the light.
Well, the point here, is not so much about the merits, (or the claimed lacunae), in Islamism or the Iranian Republic. It is about a fundamental betrayal by the Arab élites of their peoples.
Modern Arab autocracies and oligarchies, in presenting themselves as being neutral, secular-rational, value-free, in their execution of pre-ordained ends (such as with the coup against President Morsi) – in truth, are simply aping western neo-liberal, market ideology – effectively foreclosing on all escape routes from the coming, crisis engulfing Middle East nations.
The problem with this approach outlined by a ‘modern 21st century’ modern grandee, is that it underplays the extent to which the most important civil and political institutions in the Arab world have been systematically undermined by those very élites who were supposed to lead and represent them.
We all need such institutions, including families, associations (religious as well as secular), and of course, the formal institutions of government. They constitute, together with their underlying legacy of moral archetypal myths and literature, the durable forms of community life. They give life meaning by assigning roles, teaching self-control, and enforcing standards. In the process, they form the character of those who participate in them.
The élite’s betrayal is represented by the extent to which institutions have been undermined, in order to cement élite hold on power, and to anesthetise popular discontents and protest movements.
The discontents at the Arab ‘system’ have been very much on view recently in Lebanon and Iraq, (together with the old Gulf resort of emotivism): An attempt to produce a particular ‘affective response’ amongst protestors –– by shifting the blame for the Arab world’s maladies onto the Iranians, via an orchestrated social media bombardment. Washington, of course has a covert hand in these projects, hoping that, in fomenting fitna (sectarian strife), Iran will be weakened and contained.
And yet, it is the 21st century globalist élites generally (Arab included), that have purposefully targeted precisely those institutions that are most important in the lives of ordinary people. In so doing, they have voided most, or all, civil means for the venting of the rising pressure of discontent. It is precisely ‘value free’ globalism that has sought to dis-embed ‘the individual’ from the clutches of gender, historic identity and from ‘community’ itself. As a result, these important structures largely have been discredited and delegitimised.
What was so striking was that at the very moment that this élite Arab ‘grandee’ was revelling in the outlawing of democracy to Islamists, the new-wave street protestors from the region, (in the same discussion), were making it very clear that they (now) disdain democracy – as much as do the autocrats themselves. In the protestors’ view, democracy has been wholly manipulated in the élite interest – and has become the sham tool used for the containment and smothering of dissent. They say this, explicitly.
So, what the élites have done by their resort to a pseudo-moral discourse – that uses terms like good, justice, and duty – has been to rob the regional discourse of the old context (whether Islamic or philosophic). A context that had made it meaningful, in the first place: Thus, absent any context: altogether too much heat, and no light.
So what (the reader may ask)? Well as the region’s discontents grow, what then will the protestors want (beyond the ouster of their élites)? It is not clear. Jacobinism? But what is evident is that across the region, the present élite model of governance is not associated with ‘the good’, justice or duty – but rather, with greed, self-promotion and corruption.
And having reached this point, the autocrats rest on – or rather, console themselves – with that quality that has been defined as the ‘resilience of autocracy’ in the region: i.e. the ‘surprise’ that monarchies and autocrats have proved more durable than the republics.
But now, that the Middle East is ‘up against the wall’, will resilience, will reform, just boil down to harsh repression?
In Lebanon and Jordan, it is clear that the economic model on which both these states have depended in the past, is bust. Neither state is likely to prove capable of reform. Their élites cannot reform – and refuse to reform. Any new ‘business model’ for either seems ‘beyond elusive’.
But Jordan and Lebanon are not the exception. Other states are up against the wall, either from a failing regional economic model, or from the Trump Administration’s binary either/or-else, approach to Middle East political engineering – linked to its vision for Israel’s destiny, and its Judeo-Christian mission.
It is clear that these Israel-related ultimata, directed at Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran are generating huge – and escalating – pressures on, and in, those states. It is hard to see how these states might respond to them. Some may fail; others (Iran, Lebanon …) may see no option but to escalate back – at Washington – in some asymmetric way.
Low oil prices, ballooned populations, high fiscal expenditure, water depletion and climate change damaging agriculture, present a real and present crisis for Gulf States, too.
But with the Arab autocrats’ creation of a ‘21st century secularism’, they have created too, a moral vacuum that will inevitably be filled only by ‘alpha-males’ asserting their individual will-to-power and greed. Or, to put it differently, the emotivist world is neither stable, nor self-sustaining (as Macintyre has written). But rather, it is a battleground of competing wills, awaiting the emergence of some strongman (or tyrant).
And with the loosening of ties to community (and the moral stories embodied in them), individuals inevitably lose their compass in life. They lose Virtu, in the ancient sense of losing their ‘place and belonging’ within a society, the esteem that comes with it, and the notion of service to a community, or to anything wider than their own narcissism.
The well-respected Saudi blogger, Mujtahidd, has carefully recorded these effects amongst today’s Saudi youth: wild car races through city-centres; endemic daylight armed-robbery; car hijacking in broad daylight, an absence of police, or of law and order – and of promiscuous, drunken, partying.
A thoughtful observer, Mujtahidd asks simply what happens to a society such as that of Saudi Arabia – which is both traditionally conservative, and now suddenly licentious too? Can these rending, bifurcated cultures and tensions so lately brought into co-existence, be resolved, or will they one day explode the kingdom? Real reform, per se – as in other Middle East states – has been perhaps now foreclosed by the more pressing need of the élites to focus – as ever – on their own self-preservation.