Earlier today I attended a lecture at Toronto’s York University. That definitely is not my favourite place – every time I had been there it was to cover some kind of an anti-Semitic event (like the appearance of that Iranian doormat George Galloway).
Today a decent person miraculously managed to sneak in. His name is Dr. Mordechai Kedar and his topic was the evaluation of the so-called “Arab Spring”. It would be hard to find a more qualified person to cover those events. He is a scholar of Arabic literature, who speaks Arabic fluently. On top of that, he has been a part of the IDF military intelligence for 25 years specializing in Islamic groups, political issues in the Arab countries and Arabic press and mass media.
Of course, from the point of view of the Palestinian terrorists and their gullible lefty Western supporters, he doesn’t qualify as an expert because he is not a bearded Muslim fanatic. Unfortunately, none of the York University Muslim fanatics and lefties showed up to confront him (except the little “Miss TDSB” but she kept quiet – those who had followed my coverage of the protests against Muslim school prayers last summer would know what I mean).
Knowledgeable people like Dr. Kedar are always worth listening to, so let’s see what he had to say.
What happens today in the Middle East is directly related to the local culture. Without knowing how it operates it is impossible to understand the region. Yet many scholars and politicians forget that fact and analyze the events by projecting their own values and culture on the events in the Middle East. The results of such an approach are always horrendous.
To illustrate his point, Dr. Kedar showed a map of Afghanistan indicating the ethnic divisions in the country. The numerous colours displayed the many ethnic groups, which are totally different from each other – most of them can’t understand each other’s languages, or accept their customs, and for the most part they are still fighting among themselves. This obvious fact was never comprehended by the Russians (and later the Americans) who thought that they can treat Afghanistan as a single country.
The truth is that Afghanistan is an illegitimate country, which united diverse tribal areas in borders capriciously drawn by the British and the Russians. There wasn’t even an ethnic group called Afghani – the name of the country was given by the British as well. The case demonstrates very well the colonial arrogance of the European powers, which created countries out of nothing.
The next point was the case of Iraq – the ethnic map showed over 70 tribes populating the area. Those tribes have complicated relations and feuds, but that behaviour is totally unknown in the West. Most of the failures of the Americans in Iraq came from the ignorance about that tribalism.
Tribes are autonomous units in most of the Arab countries; the idea of a nation that is united is foreign to those people. All men in the tribe are related. While women can be brought in, it is not desirable to let them leave the tribe. A tribe is also a fighting militia – the necessity for that comes from the limited resources in the desert, over whose control the different tribes constantly fight.
Thus a tribe sees the others as collective enemies, who can’t be trusted. There is no cooperation among them. The tribe’s survival is the supreme value – marriages out of that unit are discouraged and considered shameful (that explains why first cousins’ marriages are so popular). Each tribe has its own dialect, flag, anthem, etc.
In Iraq the Kurds occupy the North and in the South we see many different groups of Turkmen, Persian and Arab background. There are 10 religions, some of which are divided in sects. The differences are profound.
That explains the failure of the Iraqi government – after the “democratic” elections many ministerial posts are still empty. The members of the parliament can’t agree how to divide them, because when a minister is appointed, his tribe follows him. He would appoint bureaucrats, who are his relatives, he can’t trust anybody else. And that’s not considered corruption or nepotism – it is just the way things work in the Arab countries. Under that unstable government some tribal areas have already declared autonomy and the Kurds practically have been an independent country for the last 20 years. It is very unlikely that they would become a part of Iraq, because they still haven’t forgotten what the Arabs did to them.
The case of Libya is even more complicated – because of the harsh desert conditions the tribes are small, but many, there are over 140 of them. Gaddafi’s name came from one of the tribal names, meaning “the one who sheds blood”. And just like in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, Libya is an artificial country with borders drawn by the Italians.
Since all those are made up countries, the colonial powers, which created them, picked representatives from one of the tribes to govern the country. Thus the Arab regimes represent minorities. Case in point – Jordan – where the Hashemite royal dynasty came from Saudi Arabia with the approval of Great Britain.
The only exceptions are the Gulf emirates – Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Each of them consists of a single tribe (UAE unites several emirates, which are practically independent). The homogeneity and not the oil ensure their stability – there are no fights or demonstrations, but there is no democracy either. The emirs’ dynasties, which have ruled for centuries still have complete control over the countries.
Without taking into account the nature of the Middle East as a conglomerate of mostly unstable artificial countries, products of colonialism, it is impossible to make any political plans for the area.
Another important factor in the explanation of the “Arab Spring” is the media. Al Jazeera, the TV station owned by the government of Qatar, was founded in 1996. It started broadcasting through a satellite, which meant that it was not possible to block it (as many Arab leaders wanted). It quickly grew into one of the most powerful channels in the world, mostly through spreading in the Arab world, where it didn’t have any competition.
Al Jazeera provided a mix of ideas that the Arabs liked – criticism of the Arab dictators, Israel and the West as well as Islamist propaganda in the style of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last year it played a significant role in inciting the Arab masses against the dictators.
Dr. Kedar added to that the new social media made possible by the Internet, like Facebook and Twitter. Last year’s incident in Tunisia provided the spark for the revolt. An unemployed engineer who was selling tomatoes at the market without a licence (he didn’t have money to pay for it) was caught by a police woman. Feeling desperate partially because of the humiliation of being admonished by a woman, he self-immolated himself. Years ago the event might have gone unnoticed, but now with the resentment of the Arab masses and the new media, this was enough to start revolts in several Arab countries.
It resulted in the overthrowing of several dictators – Gaddafi was killed, Mubarak and Assad may follow him. It is easy understand the violence in Syria when you consider the tribal nature of the country. Assad’s family comes from the Alawi sect, which is considered heretical from Islamic point of view. He knows very well that he will be killed if they manage to depose him.
The lack of knowledge about the Arab countries created the delusion in many journalists and politicians that the revolts were about establishing democracy. That was totally wrong. The people rebelled for some freedoms and more jobs, but not for democracy. According to Dr. Kedar, there is nothing in the Arab countries’ conditions that could create a real democracy.
Democracy is very complex, it requires many conditions to be met, especially in the field of human rights. Elections don’t necessarily guarantee it. He gave an example with the West – many people here never vote, but they will never give up their rights and freedoms, like freedom of speech or equal treatment under the law.
While in the Muslim world we may see elections, at the same time basic rights like equal treatment of religious minorities and women are lacking (and most people find such discrimination normal), no democracy is possible. In fact, we may say that in the Arab societies they have an allergy to the basic Western democratic values, because honour killings, death penalty for apostasy, preferential treatment of your own tribe, etc. simply cannot co-exist with democracy.
It is frightening to watch the violence in the Arab countries – it dominated the “Arab Spring”. Over 600 people were killed in Tunisia and thousands more in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. That’s because the Arab countries lacked the non-violent devices to handle conflicts, which have been established long time ago in the Western countries. In a country where the dictator controls everything, the only way to oppose him is through violence. It will take a very long time before other tools of solving social conflicts are developed.
Based on those facts, Dr. Kedar gave his prediction about the future of the Arab countries. The most natural result will be the fragmentation of those artificial countries. The Sudan has already separated into two countries. The Libyan tribes will keep fighting each other until some kind of partition is reached. Syria will go through the same process, with the Alawis, Kurds and others creating their own independent areas.
In the case of Tunisia and Egypt the situation is different – under the relatively secular governments the immigration from the desert tribes to the cities was encouraged for decades to weaken the tribal system. In Egypt that migration destroyed the traditional agriculture, which since ancient times depended on the Nile’s floods. Since the 1960’s the farmers had to buy the fertilizer and water needed. Mubarak fell quickly, because there was no tribe to come to his defence, while Gaddafi could’ve survived with the help of his tribe, if it weren’t for the foreign intervention. The same applies to Assad now.
The conclusion is that where tribalism is not strong enough, Islamism takes over. The external intervention never works – the stability depends on how the fights among tribes would end and foreign armies won’t be able to influence the outcome.
So what’s the place of Israel in all of that? Israel doesn’t interfere in the conflicts. She is an island of stability in the Arab unrest. Although, according to Dr. Kedar, the Arabs may not always be treated perfectly in Israel, they still prefer that country to the violence in the Arab countries. The freedom and democracy allow everybody in Israel to voice their opinions. The demonstrations during the last few months showed that – Jews and Arabs together had the opportunity to openly badmouth the government.
During his presentation Dr. Kedar didn’t say much about Iran, so the question about it came up in the Q&A session. He said that Iran is under the same threat of disintegration, because of its complex ethnic mix. Unfortunately, he didn’t elaborate on the issue of how that would affect the potential nuclear threat coming from that country (and I was disappointed about that).
After the lecture, when I was leaving and talking with my friend Sharon, she raised a very interesting issue. Dr. Kedar said that where tribalism is weak the Islamism takes over. However, from all the news she had watched it was clear that Islamism is taking over in one or other way in all of those countries. He was swarmed by students asking him questions so it was hard to wait to request a clarification.
Still, he was one of the few scholars I have seen to present things as they are in reality.
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