We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Future of Middle Eastern Nationalism

Most Middle Eastern countries today are not socially integrated enough to have real nationalism. However, Middle East in the near future seems headed towards same conditions that existed in early 20th century Europe. (Or the real reason why we should support pan-Arabism and be better friends with the Muslim world)

The Middle East is considered volatile yet there is reason to suspect that the region will become even more dangerous as people discover genuine nationalism. By that time, American authorities should complete transition from special relationship with Israel to special relationship with key Muslim countries.

Current American knee jerk support of Israel is considered dangerous due to sheer mathematics. If only 1% of 1% of 1% of 1 billion Muslims in the world have a homicidal emotional reaction to American financial support of Israeli military, that is 1,000 dangerous individuals. Numbers of Muslim individuals with an over the top emotional reaction (to billions of dollars of military aid to Israel annually) are much higher than this tiny fraction. However, anti-Western violence so far has been only sporadic and committed by religiously influenced, the social outcasts, and the poor. Middle Eastern elites and the middle class sympathize with Palestinians only as much as western liberals sympathized with blacks fighting against the Rhodesian military. That is, very little. To Middle Eastern elites, Palestinians are just uneducated dirt poor trouble makers who provide one more wedge issue in politics.

As of today, most Muslims that manage to acquire college education in their respective countries, utilize their newfound rise in consciousness for material betterment, Western emulation (of lifestyle and/or political/business practices), or emigration. Many of the college grads are co-opted by the West to such a degree that we practically expect capitalism and political liberalism to "soften" Muslim populations. However, what is not looked on are long term trends that college education brings.

It is true that today many college educated Muslims become political liberals and serve as a cultural Trojan horse for the West. They are the ones who clearly see their fundamentalists as the uneducated peasants (since they have to live close to them) and keep them in check. They also paralyze and challenge their governments through constantly trying to soften and eliminate corruption of patrimonial and authoritarian structures.

The Muslim world is where Europe was in 1850-1900. Their brief "Napoleonic period" was the combination of Western world's brief occupation and Nasser's efforts. This introduced some of the wealthier Muslims to liberal values. As of today, Muslim liberals are slowly wrestling away social influence from blatant coalition of clergy, oligarchs, sub-national ethnic/tribal leadership, and Western educated authoritarian playboy aristocracy. Only these liberals provide genuine source of nationalism. They are the ones that have a real sense of moral indignation at poverty and their country's backwardness. The liberals want majority of their countrymen to be represented in broadly legitimate government, united, and have the modernization that unified national action can bring.

Genuine nationalism for most of the Muslim world is not yet possible. Large swaths of the population don't really have united societies or legitimate governments to really fight and root for. The clergy still effectively competes with state governments for people's affections. Sub-national affiliations are also very strong still. Influence of supra-national church and sub-national factions will decline as long as literacy continues to spread and college education becomes more widely available.

Inefficient traditionalist leaderships will be replaced with either:

A) more representative liberal democratic ones or
B) modernizing illiberal authoritarian ones.

Then, large amounts of people's productive energies can be released and the economy can grow and diversify beyond commodities. National integration and legitimate government will allow people's influence to readily flow beyond the borders. Muslim societies will be felt abroad in new ways when genuine nationalism comes to the region.

We've already seen governments use appeals to nationalism as a tool of national integration in Baathist Syria/Iraq, Algeria, Ayatollah's Iran, and Naser's Egypt. These nation building attempts were only semi-successful since they came from the top and not from genuine bottom up social pressure. The authorities, for the most part, managed to prevent Yugoslav style civil wars and successful transformative revolts against the ruling government structures. Baathist militarism has shown that people (even those recently united within borders made by Westerners) can still expand a lot of violent energies.

The Muslim power elites in leadership have failed however at truly acquiring popular legitimacy without resorting to force, welfare handouts, or external scapegoats to redirect peoples domestic discontent. The top-down nationalism was a blatantly artificial endeavor coming from elites that were often tainted by Western education and ideology. Their legitimacy was never based on solid foundations of strong moral support from the rich and the poor as well as from the uneducated and intellectuals.

Baathist Iraq and Syria were similar to Kaiser's Germany in their provisions of social safety nets, mass education, forcefulness of violence to bring multiethnic factional peace, making oligarchs/church subservient to central authority, and their independent belligerent attitudes. Iran was on the same Baathist path during the 1979 revolution but their modernizing socialists have been co-opted and browbeat by the provincial traditionalists and theocrats. Forceful modernization of infrastructure that is backed by educated nationalists is inevitable and will touch every part of the region. The only question is whether nationalism will be expressed through a developmental authoritarian manner or a democratic liberal manner.

Early 20th century France and England provide the liberal democratic alternative to developmental authoritarianism. Some Muslim countries will choose this road if their liberal elites are skillful enough to create a peaceful structural framework for factional expression and elite infighting.

Muslim developing countries (as well as many non-Muslim ones) are yet to reach a stage where the ruling ethnic group integrates others in an artificial structure of a nation to a sufficient degree. The sufficient degree refers to a point when national energies are not focused inward on stability efforts but focused outwards on physical or socioeconomic expansion. It is very possible that citizens of the Middle East will become as willing to die for their artificial new countries as an average Frenchman or German was in the trenches of WW1. Even during the height of the Iraq-Iran war stalemate, the sheer numbers of casualties proportional to total troops were not as great as in WW1. We're all familiar with the lack of total Arab commitment during wars against the collectivist and socially integrated Israelis.

Future college grads in Muslim countries will not be the gentle sell outs many in the West hope them to be. We can expect the sheer number of individuals with 5 key characteristics to rapidly increase.

The characteristics are:

1) Sufficiently psychologically empowered through indigenous high education. Confident in ability to exert oneself on the world

2) Physiologically temperamental and emotionally angered by:
-dozens of billions of dollars given to Israel by USA over the decades
-artificially drawn borders rather than borders that were fought for
-pushy regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel as well as their powerful backers

3) Would rather do post-materialistic activism than materialistic empowerment. Abandonment of materialistic values (alongside traditional/religious values) has the potential for dangerous new value creation.

4) Socially, ethnically, and economically integrated into their country and have sufficiently internalized the country's new values.

5) Feel a joint sense of ownership over their society with fellow citizens and think their government is legitimate. This in turn, would allow genuine feelings of nationalism to be felt.

The new wave of intellectuals in the Muslim world will want to rapidly close the modernity gap between their societies and the West. Since the focus of energy exploration is slowly switching from the Middle East to the Arctic, the future nationalist leaders of developing world will find themselves in great difficulty. Technology is allowing cultural change to happen much more rapidly than in early 20th century Europe. Subsequently, modernity will hit large swaths of the Middle East harder and quicker than it did Europe. We are looking at an entire generation of Middle Eastern intellectuals growing up with the same access to information and hedonistic desires as their Western counterparts. Once the Internet educated reach positions of power, their desire to be more forceful in modernizing cannot be overlooked. Western world cannot permanently hope that Middle Eastern nations will never socially solidify to exert themselves like Germany and Italy did. The historic multi-ethnic character of many ME's countries allows greater respect of minorities unlike a region such as South America (where minorities are noticeably different descendants of conquered peoples and slaves). Interethnic respect, combined with reduction of tribal and clergy influence allows for European style nation formation with all the risks involved.

United States must pull the financial aid plug on Israel immediately and permanently. US created a special relationship with a miniscule country in a region where national elites used sheer presence of Israel to consolidate their domestic power. United States has given over 17 billion dollars in military aid to Israel in just the past 15 years. It is time to stop counterproductive financial/moral support of a Middle-Eastern equivalent of Rhodesia. There are plenty of key Muslim states in the region to side with instead. Current fundamentalist extremist threat is nothing compared to potentiality of entire populations of integrated nation states getting very angry.

Mathematically, if US continued the dangerous and strategically masochistic support of Israel into the next 20 years, we are looking at secular nationalist hatred with up to hundreds of millions of sympathizers. The mathematics of 1% of 1% of 1% are one thing when the call to arms comes from a grown man who believes in ghosts and is conducting criminal activity on the level of pirates and the mafia. The same mathematics become much more troublesome when the anti-western call to arms comes from popularly elected leaders of legitimate governments for whom people are willing to get drafted for.

That is not to say that the new Iraq will collapse like Weimar Germany and elect a Hitler equivalent or that a modernizing anti-monarchist Arab Lenin is teaching in some university right now. It could very well be that Middle Eastern intellectuals will decide to mostly continue on a mixture of oppression and investment/emigration to Western societies indefinitely like their South American counterparts. Horrid map redrawing nationalist violence and 20th century style ideological struggles are equally possible and can be prepared for by the world's leading militaries.

United States can start promoting EU style pan-Arabism to skip the national step altogether. Free trade, common currency, and a loose confederate structure can go a long way towards confusing and splitting the energies of future Middle Eastern nationalists. Peace can be managed better as regional leaders can discuss matters of stability and extremist activity without the shadow of Israel endlessly resupplied by United States ( Pan-Arabism serves as a good counterbalance and moderator of both Israeli and Iranian meddling in the region. It can also potentially inspire net savvy Arab intellectuals more than lines on the map drawn by Westerners.

If the two world wars taught us anything, it is that we should be on the look out for social situations where such aggression can happen again. In the near future, Middle East seems to have what it takes to potentially develop key aspects of Europe before the two world wars. They are:

1) National consolidation after the founding authoritarian fathers have passed into history. Genuine bottom-up nationalism that is energetically supported by most of the population as well as the educated

2) Time of rapidly induced modernity. Corresponding social unrest and vast cultural split between the 20 somethings and 60 somethings.

3) Displacement in the power of a region wide church by secular legitimate governments. Subsequent moral vacuum.

4) Desire to redraw the national lines in a time of economic difficulty and social tensions (depletion of resources to export and thus elimination of economic base)

5) High fertility rates and populations that are on average far younger than Western populations

Time for world's major powers to work together to sidestep the Israel/Palestinian sideshow and to force Israel to accommodate the people it has surrounded in the Gaza Strip ghetto. Then work can begin in safely diffusing nationalistic energies into a productive pan-Arab economic union. Westerners need to stop pressuring Arabs to democratize or liberalize too rapidly. That pressure is already enormous from just cultural sources and is very dangerous for stability. We're better off with gradually modernizing authoritarians than a possibility of a Weimar democracy that releases popular discontent.

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