New Year: what lies ahead for an atomized Arab world?

Haroon Moghul

Published: Updated:

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's done more than any single Turkish politician to realize democracy for his country, but his longevity threatens to undo his legacy--and torpedo the rise of Turkey to the biggest leagues. Should the country grind to a halt, the Middle East is unlikely to enjoy much good news this year.

Also this year, America will not switch to the metric system. And the Islamic calendar won’t be resurrected. (Incidentally, a friend once sat through a Friday sermon whereat the imam blamed Muslim decline on the abandonment of lunar dating.)

Iran and Turkey will become closer, though maybe not too close. Their proximity will give the lie to those who argue that the greatest Middle Eastern divide of the ancient family feud is back out into the open.

Such sectarianism, of Sunni v. Shiite, will however implode an already atomized Arab world.

A fragmentented Middle East

With Islamism's reversal, that band of the earth will have seen the death of its last aspirational, universalizing narrative. In its absence, I fear what micro-identities will reign and what more damage they'll do. The Middle East and North Africa region, with South Asia, could collapse into a war of all against all or skip a few spectacularly bloody steps or World(ly) Wars and start on an Oriental European Union.

Improbable? Yes.

Necessary? Yes.

The first time as tragedy, the second time as al-Sisi.

Was the Arab Spring the first breath of freedom or the last gasp of a dying world? Yes.

The new discourse of Islam will have to be fragmented, multipolar, mobile. It’ll be skewed towards South Asia and Southeast Asia, where the numbers are—a more democratic planet means a more democratic, Muslim umma, or Muslim nation.

Haroon Moghul

While other states all around fall apart, there will be no one-state solution. But there’s only so long you can deny a problem before the problem denies you.

We’re unlikely to see a return to Perso-Arabic orthography, though Erdogan should just throw it back out there. (“Do this, Turkey, and your journey to the dark side will be complete.”)

There will be need for a new hope, but hope can be dangerous--it feeds demagogues. I'm beginning to believe the only way out is divine intervention.

Don’t expect a declining America to behave with any coherence towards the Muslim world; don’t expect any countries to. When the most powerful has fallen back on robotic assassins in place of thoughtful strategy, nations allied with America—Turkey, or Saudi Arabia—will stress personal space, while countries opposed to American power—Iran—will find it safer to cuddle up.

Egypt's military has won power for itself again. The last time it had such control it drove Egypt unceremoniously into the ground. With the decline of Egypt, there are simply no significant Arab countries left to rival Turkey or Iran after 2013.

Arab spring becomes Islamist winter becomes Ajami summer.

It is a part of the world where the middle months bring heatstroke, after all.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will begin to fear propping up the Egyptian military may be too high a price to pay for regional stability.

Considering Egypt’s population, poverty, and politics, the need of such patronage is obvious; the cost of it, and the cost of the loss of it, will be nightmarish.

Be careful who's on the payroll. Some employees cannot be fired.

If Turks and the Iranians can agree to disagree over Iraq and Syria, they may divide the Middle East between themselves. But a Kurdish-Turkish détente will mean Iraq’s Sunni Arabs will become less relevant, exacerbating the Syrian civil war, for which reason writer Adam Shatz wonders if Syria-Iraq will become the new Af-Pak. Meanwhile I wonder: Iryria? -- a combination of Syria and Iraq.

Predictions for the U.S.

The secularization of American popular culture will advance. The Republican Party will not.

Expect to see more ‘populism,’ as they call it—that is, stronger pushes from below for economic fairness, equality of opportunity, and a compassionate approach to all instead of a glorification of the material accomplishments of the few when the deck is stacked in their favor anyway. Pendulum’s swung too far towards capitalism; bailouts were a false messiah.

America will have to decide where to throw its weight—Asia or Europe? Asia promises economic opportunity, but it is in America’s better, if not best, interest to strengthen its partnerships with the European Union, NATO, and the expansion of the former into the Russian sphere of influence.

The Winter Olympics will be in Sochi, in the Caucasus. Some of the greatest violence of the 19th and 20th century has taken place there, including the deliberate near-extinction of whole peoples such as the Circassians and the Ubykh, and the savaging of others, such as the Chechens, decimated time and again by the Russian state. These victims were overwhelmingly Muslims.

Expect not to hear that on your Olympics coverage.

Changing Islam

Till now, Islam has been greatly affected by two trends—the cooptation of religious scholarship by undemocratic governments and a tendency to frame “non-official” Islam around a colonial and postcolonial-but-still-colonial narrative. In a fragmented, multipolar world, the latter is increasingly irrelevant. In other words, in 2014, we will continue our progress towards an actually post-colonial world. Post-colonial doesn't mean purely positive.

The new discourse of Islam will have to be fragmented, multipolar, mobile. It’ll be skewed towards South Asia and Southeast Asia, where the numbers are—a more democratic planet means a more democratic, Muslim umma, or Muslim nation.

Western Muslim communities will become increasingly autonomous and confident. They will be busy developing their resources, ideas, and frames of reference, enough to begin exporting ideas back to the places that once exported Muslims out. (See Zareena Grewal’s Islam is A Foreign Country. Just keep in mind Islam is not actually a country, or even a world, as Mitt Romney once said.)

Who we won't have to hear from:

We’ll have to hear from Thomas Friedman, however. Hot, Flat, Crowded: My last hajj?

More and more Muslims will turn religious enthusiasm into aesthetic production, from arts and literature to movies and music. Soft power. There is a greater need for a mediating culture, which bonds institutions and ideas to individuals in less threatening ways than law or politics.

Religion that does not speak to politics and economics is soon irrelevant. Whoever squares that circle will be a mujaddid for the fifteenth century.

On Jan. 1, 2013, I arrived in Dubai via Istanbul. I left America and moved to the other side of the planet, for a number of reasons, some personal and some professional, and while I was excited to arrive, I was scared to have departed. Because I had no idea what the future holds for me.

I still don’t.


Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul

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