2016: Dehumanising the Arabs... again

2016: Dehumanising the Arabs... again
Comment: The dehumanising forces of indifference and sectarianism must force us to start thinking of alternative ways of living together democratically and amicably, writes Bassel Salloukh.
5 min read
28 Dec, 2016
The Address Downtown Hotel, Dubai, which caught fire on January 1, 2016 [AFP]

And so we bid farewell to another year of Arab humbug!

From the horrors of Aleppo to the agonies of Yemen, across to the violence of Egypt and Libya, the Arab world sinks deeper into the abyss.

Who even remembers today those valiant and peaceful uprisings by women, men, and children trying to reclaim their histories from postcolonial authoritarian regimes in a bid to build new and democratic ways of living?

A knavish sectarianism deployed instrumentally for cold-hearted geopolitical ends has assumed, in lightning speed, the status of a primordial and unchanging reality, ripping apart multiple Arab states and societies.

2016 will rightly be remembered globally for two startling, and unforeseen, victories: that of the 'leave' campaign in the Brexit debate and, of course, that of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections.

Symbolising a turn to the right among advanced capitalist western societies and a reaction to globalisation's deep injustices, both victories were followed by sporadic racist attacks targeting ethnic and religious communities.

But nothing compares to the insouciance with which the human suffering unfolding in the Arab world is being met.

It would be a tragedy if after all this suffering and pain, Arab societies continue to insist on staying outside this nascent but inescapable world historical shift

Edward Said spent a lifetime demystifying orientalist stereotypes manufactured to justify colonial subjugation of Arab lands and the consequent dehumanising of its peoples.

These stereotypes linger with horrendous effects: The post-9/11 discourse about "the war on terror" and the need to spread democracy in the Arab world led to misery and destruction in Iraq and beyond; and America's strategic interests in the Arab world - namely the uninterrupted and cheap supply of oil to the global capitalist economy - continue to trump any other moral consideration.

Washington's decision on 23 December 2016 to abstain on a toothless UN Security Council vote condemning Israel's settlement activity on Palestinian land including East Jerusalem is more about Barack Obama's personal legacy, than a strategic shift in relations between the two countries.

Worst still, these stereotypes are compounded by a geopolitically-driven sectarianism that this time around pits the peoples of the region, nay of each state, against one another.

These unprecedented local hatreds cannot be blamed on imperialism and 'the West', or on some hidden but dark conspiracy

The result is that as 2016 comes to an end, so many in the Arab world find themselves victims of two equally abominable forms of dehumanising: That of a world long immune to the sufferings of peoples from this region, but also the dehumanising that comes from fellow Arabs now vivisected along deep sectarian, religious, and class lines.

But if the former is the product of a long legacy of colonial attitudes towards the peoples and resources of the global South, the latter is homegrown, the consequences of postcolonial authoritarian homogenising regimes that rejected any kind of cultural and political pluralism and, more recently, the authoritarian restorations and geopolitical battles on the morrow of the popular uprisings.

These unprecedented local hatreds, which cannot be blamed on imperialism and "the West", or on some hidden but dark conspiracy, should force us to start thinking of alternative ways of living together democratically and amicably.

But to do so, we need to face up to the violent and exclusionary "histories of the present" - to borrow from Michel Foucault - that led us to the inescapable mess that overwhelms us.

We need to confront a sophisticated but repressive intellectual ensemble camouflaged under the mantle of a timeless "tradition" or "culture", but invariably imposed from above by the spin-doctors of the Arab state and its ideological wizards.

We need to give up the hallow dreams of homogeneity and of a pristine past, and embrace instead the pleasures that come with being a small part of a bigger rainbow that makes the always-imagined national community.

It is never too late to start thinking of alternatives to the present morass

The present crisis of neoliberal capitalism in the West is forcing a massive rethinking of how the commons should reorganise their relations with political systems, the economy, the environment and earth more generally.

It would be a tragedy indeed if after all this suffering and pain, Arab societies continue to insist on staying outside this nascent but inescapable world historical shift.

2016 may well prove to be the bitterest of years since the popular uprisings, which exploded in late 2010, were contained and later reversed – except for that ray of sunshine that is Tunisia's heroic but imperfect democratic transition.

As the Arab world descended into greater death and destruction, local will to dehumanise the sectarian, religious, and ethnic "other" spiked, converging with an astonishing level of global indifference.

And if this twin dehumanising trend continues unabated, we may soon miss 2016. But it is never too late to start thinking of alternatives to the present morass. Let us begin by ridding ourselves of our deeply held prejudices and ignorance. That is always a good beginning for a new year.

Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.