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Did Arabs benefit from resorting to commercial and political boycotts?

Salem Roudan al-Moussawi

Published: Updated:

From time to time, we hear religious and political platforms urging the public to boycott the goods of certain countries as a result of their positions on Arab and Muslim issues, the last of which is the call to boycott French goods as a result of the positions of French President Macron regarding the cartoons insulting Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

This is not the first time that Arabs, in particular, have been urged to boycott. In fact, there have been many similar incidents throughout modern history. Some politicians seem to believe that commercial or economic boycotting is an effective weaponless war since it strikes the economic lifeline of the targeted country. While this may be true, it is only applicable if certain factors are present. For instance, Arab countries heavily rely on imports. Most Arab countries import even their basic commodities, like agricultural and animal products, despite having the largest area suitable for agriculture and animal husbandry.

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If the people heeded the call and agreed to boycott imported goods, how would they obtain an alternative since most of our imported goods, especially food, are necessities that people cannot go without, unlike luxury goods. If a said country does not have the means to produce a substitute for the boycotted goods and does not have enough local agricultural and animal products to cover the needs of the people and replace those goods, then it is reasonable to assume that we will undoubtedly fail to achieve the objectives of the boycott. In that case, we either fail to adhere to the boycott or we will have to change the country we are importing from.

However, in light of globalization, most companies have become transnational and have various maneuvers and tricks up their sleeve to sell and spread their goods. Such companies are capable of finding ways around the boycott and thus evading any serious damage. For this reason, commercial boycotting cannot succeed in any country that does not have national alternatives or enough industrial and agricultural production. Arabs have failed time and time again to utilize economic pressure throughout their long-standing conflict with Israel.

Throughout history, there have been several models that succeeded in achieving their intended outcomes. One example is the Hindu’s boycott of British textiles engineered by Gandhi in the 1930s. The reason behind the success of this movement was the availability of an alternative. The people of India started producing their own textiles which allowed them to boycott British textiles entirely.

Another example is the modern Islamic model represented by the tobacco protest movement in Iran in 1890, when a fatwa was issued prohibiting the consumption of tobacco, which the Shah at the time tried to monopolize by restricting its marketing to a British company. This move pushed the people of Iran to boycott tobacco products in protest to thwart this deal, and they sought guidance from clerics. Many scholars, namely Jamal al-Din al-Afghani sought the help of Mirza Mohammed Hassan Shirazi who was residing in Samarra, and they explained the matter to him in order to find a solution. In response, he issued his famous fatwa declaring the use of tobacco to be tantamount to war against the Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. Muslims in Iran adhered to the fatwa and they destroyed all hookahs or any other tool used for smoking, and all tobacco shops were closed. In this case, the reason behind the success of this movement is attributed to the fact that tobacco was not considered an essential commodity which enabled people to commit to the boycott and the deal was indeed thwarted.

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Nowadays, there is no guarantee that the call for economic boycotting can achieve the intended objectives since in most cases there is no local alternative that can cover the needs of the people, especially in terms of essential commodities. Therefore, our main focus at this point must be directed toward promoting national production and strengthening industrial and agricultural growth to achieve self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency will enable us to effectively exert economic pressures and benefit from commercially boycotting opposing countries like Israel and other enemies of the Islamic world.

This also applies to political boycotting. Let us consider Iraq as an example, more than 80 percent of Iraqi eligible voters have decided to boycott the last elections because they were opposed to the candidates who were running for the Parliament. As one may expect, this boycott undoubtedly failed to achieve the desired outcome, and instead, it gave these unwanted candidates a bigger chance to win and strengthen their position. This ensured the success of unpopular candidates and enabled them to continue their disruptive agenda.

This meant that Iraq’s already unfavorable situation will continue to deteriorate even further with no hope of pulling Iraq back from the brink. This boycott failed because there are no alternative mechanisms in place that can enable boycotters to stop the elections entirely, especially since there are no laws setting a minimum percentage for voter turnout or laws that give citizens the right to vote for a more suitable individual of their choosing. In this case, the boycott was counterproductive. This only proves how much we need to insist on the importance of changing election mechanisms and finding an alternative that allows citizens to give their votes to someone they deem fit to represent them without being forced to choose from a set of undesired options.

*This article was originally published in, and translated from Al Mada.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.