Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Diversity management

A melding of socialism and nationalism defined the basis of the Arab state in the late 20th century. But this ideological mix did not adequately deal with diverse pressures in Arab societies, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

On 23 and 24 April, the American University in Cairo co-hosted a seminar with the Ibn Khaldoun Centre on “Diversity Management in the Arab World”. The event was a response to the current difficult state of the Arab world in which the ethnic dimension has played a crucial role in igniting and fuelling various conflicts in Arab countries. My role in the seminar was to establish a kind of framework that would orient discussion towards remedies.

In fact, there is no magical recipe in the world for handling the problem of unity and diversity in a society. However, a number of ideological and political schools have attempted to address the question. The nationalist school in political thought holds that affiliation with the state should prevail over all other human affiliations, forging a “citizenship” bond that transcends religious and ethnic bonds. As such an ideal was difficult to attain in the abstract, the nationalist school sought to reinforce “national” affiliation through the promotion of a “common” language, culture and common interests. Another means used to bolster it on a daily basis was to home in on the common “peril”, such as the designs on the part of many types of “enemies” to fragment the nation. It is therefore no coincidence that nationalist thought rejected or refused to recognise ethnic and sectarian distinctions and that it worked to create political indoctrination and formative mechanisms, in the educational system, the media and political party, to produce generations of ardent nationalists among all segments of society.

One of the amazing ironies of nationalist thought was that it generated trends antagonistic to it. This was particularly the case with minorities which felt that the only way to express their culture and traditions was through a national state of their own. The nationalist school in the Arab world produced this phenomenon through its approach to the question of minorities. For decades, the response to the problem of the state of minorities in all Arab countries was one: “What problem? Everything’s great.” More often than not, the respondent would refuse to use the word “minority” to refer to a religious, ethnic or linguistic community. All citizens are equal and all have been fused into a single whole.

The socialist school saw such questions as fabricated by the exploitative classes in order to perpetuate their control and utilisation of the toil and sweat of the poor and working classes. Or, if this school acknowledged a problem, the problem should not be allowed to undermine the socioeconomic bonds that forge solidarity among the working classes and that should supersede other affiliations. Simply put: socialist thought regards class affiliation as stronger than all others and, in general, socialists viewed all forms of diversity and difference in the state with a suspicious eye.

In the 1960s, “socialism” and “nationalism” were merged in a number of Arab states and the realisation of “justice” and “unity” became the means to fuse together social variegations in a single country. In reality, however, whatever nationalist and socialist thought had to say, it was the bureaucratic Arab state borne of these schools that created the mechanisms of violence and fear capable of suppressing various aspirations and traditions. Therefore, even with the ebb of nationalist thought and the collapse of socialist thought, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the processes of repression continued, even in countries that did not regard socialism or nationalism as schools of thought that expressed their identities.

For many countries in the world, the liberal school offered a solution to the problematic of ethnic and religious diversity in a single state. The mechanisms it provided towards this end emanated from the concept of the individual as a prime political unit. Accordingly, every individual was entitled to a voice and to exercise this voice in political life to express himself, as opposed to the views of a tribe or other organic group. From this concept of the individual gave rise a concept of citizenship in which all “citizens” are full and equal partners in the “nation”, in the eyes of the law and at the electoral polls, regardless of race, religion, ethnic origin, creed or gender. For example, Article I of the current Egyptian constitution describes the state as “based on citizenship”, which is to say that its “identity” is founded on a collection of citizens who are equal in political and humanitarian status and value. The constitution further states: “Citizens are equal before the law, possess equal rights and public duties, and may not be discriminated against on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed.”

The constitution thus lists differences between citizens that must not serve as a basis for discrimination before the law. It also made a differentiation between “religion” and “creed” which are, indeed, two different things but which, in all events, must not serve as a basis for discrimination before the law.

Still, the concepts of citizenship and equality before the law have not been sufficient to deal with problems of ethnic and religious diversity when diversity was linked to movements calling for distinct national or cultural expression or to independence drives on the part of minorities, especially those that suffered various forms of oppression at the hands of a majority. As a solution to this dilemma, liberal thought proposed the concept of political and economic decentralisation that provides for forms for autonomy and freedom of expression that range from administrative and cultural decentralisation to the federal state system. World history offers numerous examples of such experiences in handling ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Foremost among them are the systems in India, the US, Canada, Russia, Switzerland and the UAE.

When confronted with phenomena of ethnic and religious tensions that have erupted in or threatened to erupt in civil warfare, liberal thought came up with the concept of “consensual democracy” which is founded on divisions and definitions of powers conceived so as to prevent a majority from oppressing a minority or from monopolising the capacities of the state to further its own particular interests. This political theory was derived from actual experiences, such as those of the Netherlands, Malaysia and South Africa in which ethnic and religious groups reached agreements on certain rules for managing the political game and for designating forms of power sharing. In the Arab word, the closest model we have to that theory is to be found in the Lebanese system with its power sharing arrangements between Muslims and Christians (the constitution there provides for a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister and a Shia Muslim speaker of parliament).

This approach to handling diversity has met with various degrees of success and failure over time. It was most successful in countries that achieve significant economic and social progress, such as Holland, Malaysia and Singapore, while it was less successful in Lebanon that succumbed to two civil wars since independence. It had no success worth mentioning when applied in Iraq for various reasons, the most important of which was that the “consensus” was not reached between the various ethnic and religious groups themselves. In addition, the power-sharing system in Iraq failed to prevent a Shia hegemony over the state while the Kurdish search for “autonomy” distorted balances of power in the state.

Ultimately, the concept of the Arab state probably requires some new and innovative theoretical input.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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