Unprepared for the Worst

What Iraq’s constitution means for the rest of the Arab world.

Attack of the isms…

On Monday, Iraq agreed on a draft constitution dividing the country’s regions along sectarian and ethnic lines. While there is a chance it will be amended, it seems almost certain that federalism will be enshrined in the final document. If this is confirmed, many Middle Eastern states with similarly multicommunal or multiethnic social structures will recoil in horror. Having long suffocated their own parochial tendencies through authoritarianism, they must now consider what the new reality in Iraq means for them.

There are those who already blame the Bush administration for the possible chaos that might ensue. Certainly, by invading Iraq, the United States shattered the regional status quo, and few would wager it can turn the present uncertainty there to its favor. But blaming the Americans for breaking the previous stalemate means justifying that stalemate and believing it could have lasted indefinitely. In fact, events in Iraq suggest that the centrifugal forces there, as in many other Arab societies, would have come to the surface anyway at some stage. The Iraqis were only the first to warn that the traditional, centralized, overbearing Arab state may be nearing an end (though Iraq’s federal units will surely prove overbearing to their own minorities), and the dynamics, while complex, have been mainly internally driven, despite U.S. oversight of the Iraqi constitutional process.

The main culprits are those “isms” the Arab world has systematically thrown up in the last five decades or so to obscure myriad domestic cleavages. The most powerful was Arab nationalism, whose outstanding avatar, former president of Egypt Gamal Abdul Nasser, shaped Arab political dreaming in the 1950s and 1960s. But that dreaming was accompanied by the invariable tyranny of “progressive” ideologies, so that any group or system that bucked the Arab nationalist trend, that tended to fall back on primary loyalties—sectarian, ethnic, tribal—in its behavior instead of embracing the Arab world’s promised future, was branded “reactionary.”

Yet under the surface, in the catacombs of political action, whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan, primary loyalties endured, while Arab nationalism, interpreted differently by bickering regimes convinced that they alone possessed the truth, was used to enforce despotism. Meanwhile, inter-Arab antagonism pushed the creation of a single Arab state, the logical finale of Arab nationalism, into the shimmering realm of frustrated ideal.

As Arab nationalism endured one setback after another (the most injurious being the defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war), another absolutist notion reared its head and confronted nationalistic dictatorships: political Islam. The Islamists reasoned that Arab nationalism had failed not because there was no broad Arab identity one could conjure up, but because that identity had been defined in secular terms. Islamism posited not only a broad Arab identity, but a broad Muslim one, so that its benchmark was the community of believers—the umma.

But, again, this proved too convenient: Tension, indeed outright enmity, increased between Sunni Islamists and what they called “heretical” Shiites, even as groups such as Hamas showed they could play the nationalist game better than the secular nationalists themselves. Nor did the Islamists explain what they would do with those irksome minorities—Christians, Kurds, Jews, but also secularists—who had, at best, trivial parts in the Islamist narrative.

Boxed in by ideological absolutes, the Arab world has developed few practical means, other than repression, to address its divisions. As primary loyalties have gained the upper hand, Iraq’s impact on the region can only grow. Even Lebanon, which alone in the Middle East adopted a weak state structure to favor the religious communities, will not be spared turbulence, as Sunnis and Shiites compete over the post-Syrian order. Nor will Syria, where a minority Alawite regime rules over a Sunni majority and over disgruntled Kurds who look longingly toward their brethren in Iraq. Nor will Saudi Arabia, where minority Shiites, concentrated in the oil-rich eastern province near the Iraqi border, remain second-class citizens; nor will Bahrain, where a Sunni regime controls a discontented Shiite majority.

The Palestinians may be an exception when it comes to minority conflicts (though the secular nationalist parties have papered over Christian-Muslim differences, which the Islamists cannot do); but the emergence of an Islamic order in parts of Iraq will likely find a welcome echo among the Gaza Islamists, regardless of their theological differences with the Iraqi Shiites.

As the Bush administration tries to get a handle on Iraq, what it agrees to there will be magnified in surrounding countries. In clinging to unitarian myths, many Arab societies and their regimes are utterly unprepared for the consequences of Iraq’s demolition of the traditional framework for Arab politics. Many Americans, in itching to declare defeat in Iraq, should grasp that U.S. power still remains great in the region thanks to its control over the nature of the emerging Iraqi state, if only the administration has the nerve to ride the tiger a bit longer.