Thursday, September 20, 2012

When imperialists happen to be Muslim

It never ceases to amaze how Arab eyes are forever on the lookout for some manifestation of Western hegemonic intent or condescension toward the Arab world, and how this vigilance seems to breaks down whenever it involves non-Western states behaving the same way.

This comes to mind after the announcement Sunday by the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, that members of the Guard’s Quds force were present in Syria and Lebanon, albeit only as “advisers.” Imagine the sarcasm had Barack Obama said such a thing. Jaafari, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, explained that the Revolutionary Guard’s presence “does not mean that we are militarily present [in Syria and Lebanon]. We offer advice and opinions based on our experience.”

Iran has never hidden its sense of neo-imperial entitlement in the Middle East, despite its claims to speak for the oppressed of the earth and to represent a bulwark against imperialism. Leaders in Tehran look upon their country as a natural regional dominator, and such thinking helps explain why they feel that they have a right to develop nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to build them.

Iran maintained an expansionist urge following the fall of the shah in 1979. Many regarded Iran’s regional militancy as reflecting a broad desire to lead a revolutionary global umma, or Muslim community. In fact, Iranian nationalism has repeatedly proved more powerful in influencing Tehran’s behavior in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And when Jaafari says that Iran offers “advice,” he means it will ensure that Syria and Lebanon serve Iran’s interests.

The Iranian-Israeli standoff over nuclear weapons is a tale of competing regional hegemonies. Israel seeks to maintain its monopoly over such weapons, while Iran means to end that monopoly. Both have a dangerously exaggerated sense of self-importance. Iran has threatened to engulf the region in flames if it is attacked, while Israel has sought to enlist the U.S. in an assault on Iran to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability, the dire consequences notwithstanding.

The Middle Eastern lexicon today fails to properly express that the impulse for regional domination is as strong among non-Western Muslim states as among Western states, if not more so. How odd, given that most of the empires ruling over what would become the modern Arab world were native to the region – Egyptian, Sassanid, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman, to name the more obvious ones.

The story of the Arab world in the last decade has been one of increasing marginalization at the hands of its periphery, above all Iran, Turkey, and Israel, even if Israel’s superiority has been in relative decline when compared, let’s say, to what it was during the 1960s and 1970s. Great attention has been focused on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which is usually interpreted as an instance of aggressive Western neo-imperialism. And yet how ironic that the Iraqi intervention allowed Iran to again throw its weight around regionally, thanks to the Bush administration’s removal of an old Iranian enemy in Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a Shiite-controlled order, many of whose representatives were close to Tehran.

Turkey, in turn, reacted to the European Union’s implicit rejection by looking for newfound relevance within its vicinity, and under an Islamist government no less. This has pleased some Arab states and displeased others. However, the Turkish aspiration for “zero problems with the neighbors,” as Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu envisaged it, proved absurd. As Turkey began advancing its core interests, these were always going to clash with the core interests of its neighbors.

It’s puzzling how many people in the Arab world appear more amenable to the regional ascendancy of Muslim states such as Iran or Turkey than to that of Western countries, above all the U.S. Puzzling not because consistency requires that they should embrace Western hegemony as well, but because it requires rejecting any form of hegemony whatsoever, whatever its origin.

There are Arabs who fear the rise of a Shiite Iran, just as there are others, mainly Shiites, who welcome this. By the same token, Turkey is frequently deemed by Sunnis to be a valuable counterweight to Iran, which cannot but displease certain Shiites. Sectarian discord has divided the Arabs, making it easier for Iran and Turkey, and others, to augment their authority at the Arabs’ expense.

Turkey and Iran are perhaps not as forceful as Western colonial powers were at the start of the last century. Still, Lebanon and Syria are close to being Iranian protectorates, and Turkey has never hesitated to enter Iraq or Syria to subdue the Kurds. When the two countries, and Israel, reflexively shape their surroundings in order to preserve their regional sway, this tells us that we are in the presence of domination not so different from the one once enforced by Western states. But then the West offers so much more convenient a target.

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