April 22, 2018

The breakdown of Arab identity, as barbarians threaten civilization in the Middle East

The civil war in Syria is emphasizing the increasingly fractured nature of "Arab" ethno-cultural identity -- and not just in the sense that it always had numerous sub-types like "Syrian Arab," "Egyptian Arab," "Iraqi Arab," etc. It is getting to the point where there is no coherent over-arching Arab identity to begin with, and where the distinctly non-Arab nation of Iran has greater influence in the region.

There is instead a growing cluster of identities around the two poles of barbarians (although they and their allies might use the term "noble savage") and civilization (whose enemies might label it urban degeneracy).

First, where did Arab identity come from? It served to group together the various peoples who were facing a common enemy who was unlike them, and who had been occupying their lands for centuries. No, that was not any European country, as Europe never colonized the Middle East and only oversaw their polities for a few decades after WWI.

It was the Ottoman Empire that had taken over much of the Middle East and North Africa (along with the Balkans). Ethnic identity is geographically rooted, and to the Arabs, the Ottomans might as well have come from outer space -- located well outside of the Fertile Crescent, in Anatolia and the circum-Aegean region, sealed off from the Middle East by large mountain ranges.

The most sustained opposition to Ottoman rule came from the tribes of the Arabian Desert that unified around the political clan of al-Saud and the religious clan of al-Wahhab, beginning in the second half of the 1700s and lasting until the Empire bit the dust after WWI, in which the Arabians played the leading role. The Arabians were never under direct occupation and rule, living in the desert that the Ottomans had no interest in.

And the geometry of their encounters with the Ottomans was more threatening than it was for other places in the Middle East -- the Empire began to surround them on all sides, running down the Red Sea coast to their west, the Persian Gulf coast to their east, and the Fertile Crescent to their north. Feeling like the walls are closing in all around you puts you in a more apocalyptic do-or-die mindset, rather than getting hit by an advancing wave from one direction only, where you feel like retreat is possible.*

After the Ottomans were driven out of the Middle East, the newly liberated groups all rejoiced as part of a single cultural group -- the Arabs, giving a nod to the leading role of the Arabian Desert tribes.

Their languages were re-interpreted to be mere dialects of the same language, Arabic -- again giving credit to the Desert tribes rather than the other regions. Thus, a person in Beirut spoke "the Levantine dialect of the Arabic language," rather than a person in Riyadh speaking "the Arabian dialect of the Levantine language" if the Levant had played the leading role in over-turning the Ottomans.

And the names of their new nations and political parties gave primacy to Arab rather than local identity -- e.g., the "Syrian Arab Republic," where the qualifier "Arab" lies closer to the head noun "Republic," while the qualifier "Syrian" lies farther away (it's the same in the original Arabic).

The Arab identity not only distinguished them from their former Ottoman rulers, but also from their Persian neighbors, who like the Anatolians are sealed off from the Arabian peninsula geographically -- and therefore ethnically -- by their own set of great mountains. Persia never fell to the Ottomans, so they could have led the charge against the Empire, but they did not, and so enjoyed no particular goodwill from the Semitic speakers who threw off the yoke themselves.

So far, so good in the post-Ottoman world -- Turks in Anatolia, Iranians in Persia, and Arabs in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa.

But with the waning of the original impetus behind Arab cohesion -- Ottoman expansion -- the various sub-types of the Arab identity felt less and less motivation to consider one another as working on the same big team toward a similar big goal.

Then, all it took was for one group within the Arab team to turn against the others, and the weakened cohesion would escalate to outright hostility -- not only in the material realm of armies and economies, but in the ethno-cultural realm as well. Suddenly, the offending group were not real Arabs, or were not acting like proper Arabs should -- or if they were, then the offended group no longer wanted to be part of the big Arab team, and would carve out their own identity distinct from being Arab.

It was the original expansionist group within the Arabs -- the Saudis, going since circa 1750 -- who continued to push to expand their influence throughout the Middle East, both materially and culturally. Their political leaders from the al-Saud clan are still aligned with the religious leaders from the al-Wahhab clan, and that means the spread of the fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism / Salafism), preferably at the barrel of a gun (jihadism), or if not, then through control over cultural institutions financed by oil wealth.

There is no longer a foreign empire for the Saudis to drive out -- Israel is mainly occupying Palestine, not the entire Middle East and North Africa like the Ottomans did, and the United States has never succeeded in militarily occupying and administering any part of the region, as much as they keep trying to.

That leaves Saudi expansion to target other members of the Arab world, especially if they are secular nationalist governments like Iraq and Syria, where the Saudis have sent jihadist militias to destabilize the societies. Still, expansionists seek to dominate even those neighbors who are similar, because just being similar doesn't make you the equal to the superior expansionist nation. The Saudis have been in a long bitter rivalry with Qatar, which most outsiders would lump in the same category of "backward Salafi monarchies from the Gulf" as Saudi Arabia itself. Yet in their drive to be #1, the Saudis have been zealous in trying to undercut #2 just to be sure.

Their larger preoccupation, though, is with Iran, whose sphere of influence has often included the eastern and northern parts of the Fertile Crescent, most recently during the 1700s. The United States has made that into reality once again by creating a power vacuum in Iraq after 30-odd years of weakening the secular regime there, allowing the long-time regional power of Iran to fill the void. An expansionist nation like Saudi Arabia does not want to see another nation expanding, which would set them on a collision course, so most of their concern is with containing Iranian influence.

As the targets of Saudi expansion all find themselves in the cross-hairs of the same group, it leads them to consider themselves as members of a single team, in strong opposition to the group that is targeting them. Materially, this means military alliances forming among Iraq, Syria, and Iran against the Saudis and their Gulf allies. Ethno-culturally, it leads people from the Fertile Crescent to increasingly shed their identity as "Arabs," as their main threat is the Arabians.

So far, those identities are local ones from before the Ottoman Empire, such as Lebanese, Phoenician, Canaanite, etc., for a person living in Beirut. Maybe Levantine or (Eastern) Mediterranean, if they're willing to join a regional identity -- but nothing that would encompass the Arabian Desert.

Right now, they have not joined a single big identity that opposes the expansionary forces of the Gulf jihadist nations. It is a seemingly very heterogeneous group -- the Shia of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria; Christians anywhere; Alawites and Druze in the Levant; and urbanized Sunni, who are not the more easily radicalized rural Sunni.

In fact, it may be primarily a split between urbanized and rural groups -- religious minorities tend to cluster in urban areas, since greater population size allows for more specialization and diversity, whereas less populated rural areas do not and tend to have more homogeneous cultures.

In the Middle East, "rural" does not mean humble sedentary crop farmers, but proud nomadic livestock herders. The tension between settled peoples and nomadic peoples goes back to the origins of agriculture and pastoralism, with one side framing it as a struggle between civilization and barbarism, and the other side framing it as slavery vs. freedom.

So perhaps as time goes on, the no-longer-Arab targets of Saudi expansion will adopt a cultural identity that rises above their local identities -- the New Cradle of Civilization, to invert the pejorative connotation of the Saudi phrase "Shia Crescent". On the other side: desert barbarians.

Egyptians will probably go the way of the Turks and identify on a "local" level since they are a large region.

Interestingly, the Palestinians seem to be siding with the desert barbarian side of this re-alignment. Not only because that way of life is more a part of their history, lying so close to the desert and having a large Bedouin sub-population among them. But also because of their adoption of Muslim Brotherhood identity politics a la Qatar (Hamas, who replaced the secular nationalist PLO led by Arafat).

Palestinians are also more sympathetic, in general, to the jihadist side of the Syrian civil war just to their north. In the West, this has fractured the Palestinian solidarity movement -- it is no longer primarily about national liberation from a European colonial settler state (Israel), a transition that is expected to happen sooner or later. It is instead about the character that the post-Israel society will take -- one side wants it to be more like Lebanon or Syria, while the other side wants it to be more like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

The barbarian-aligned faction of the pro-Palestine movement is larger and more influential, and has worked to marginalize the pro-Palestine faction that wants a secular nationalist government that would align with the civilized part of the Levant to their north.

It is not only Middle Easterners who find themselves caught in that tension, but also Westerners who don't have any stake in the matter. Those who consider Palestine part of the civilized Levant or Eastern Mediterranean want it to have a secular nationalist government, while those who view Palestinians as noble savages rebelling against a highly developed state like Israel, would rather let Hamas take over and form an alliance with Qatar.

On the ground, Palestine will likely end up as the western-most location of the desert barbarian identity, or at best a bridge region between civilization and barbarism.

That is why Westerners concerned with our foreign policy in the Middle East are already dividing their attention between focusing on Palestine or on Syria. They can already sense that in the short-to-medium term, those two will belong to different sides of a larger fault-line between modern and medieval. That intuition will be confirmed as the peoples of the region begin to discard Arab identity and take on the settled vs. nomadic identity.

* The last time the Arabian Desert tribes got totally surrounded by a foreign Empire was by the Sasanians from Persia -- and that led directly to the uniting of their tribes during the birth of Islam, and their explosion through the walls in all directions, leading to the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and beyond. This time has been no different qualitatively, although not so extensive quantitatively.

Lesson to folks in the region: do not surround the Arabian tribes on all sides ever again, or you'll provoke another apocalyptic Muslim army to fan out from the desert and wreak havoc on civilization.


  1. The subject is excellent for the high-IQ realist. The relativity of power is important. The undead Republican Party should be completely overrun by the Democrat Party without Trumpism, but in the last two years I've seen cracks in the plantation coalition of victimhood. Black Americans are no longer subsidy darlings. Barrio is replacing ghetto, and the no-go zones will be worse.

    I think both subjects cannot be properly analyzed without consideration of puppet masters. The House of Saud is the puppet government of the US/UN Empire, but that empire is in decline. Control of the oil pipeline that will link the Gulf to the Mediteranean is economic power that will create military power. Muslims have their own agenda. Islam in practice is rather consistent politically.

    The OP did not treat the division between Sunni and Shia. It has been USA-Sunni vs. Russia-Shia. I think that division is important. I also don't think that tribal divisions within Sunni Islam are that important, as I read the history. Islam has stood the test of time and appeals to "tribal" people as something more, plain and simple, which explain recruiting blacks in US jails and Nation of Islam.

    The last paragraph, any lesson to be learned, applies to geo-political decision makers. That is not us (at least not me). The lessons for us to be in the world but not of it as we might choose well, or to play the real game per game theory, but something actionable requires a completely different social orientation, away from the circus. FTW has lots of meaning for the disenfranchised philosopher.

    The topic is great: What makes our world tick? What can we anticipate? However, I think an information diet is necessary today. Inactionable knowledge does not help (though it could mature). Actionable knowledge is key, but not too much is also key. Too much enumeration of hostile advantages is demoralizing/dehumanizing. We must cope also employing Yin behavior for now and with limited resources and so harsh priorities. Hence, DGAF and ZFG.

    Given that Islam did best when the West was weak and in Xian darkness, and given that Westerners are forced to fund their conquest by Islam, that now claims land in Europe and even spots in the United States, I'm not sure the balkanization if Islam matters much. The Islamic golden age was a monolith fed by conquest. Winning is always winning, but the gravy train ends, the golden age for opportunistic conquerors may end, but that does not mean the West begins to live again as conquerors, independent producers, philosophers, thinkers. Westerns are relatively strong or not based on intrinsic absolutes that is essentially alignment with Greek philosophy. Islam like all Abrahamic religion is no match for philosophy, but philosophy requires higher quality people. Yin and Yang. Ebb and flow. Sad but true.

  2. Sunni vs. Shia, and diffs w/in Sunni schools:


    Tribal differences among Sunni are major -- it's nomadic Sunnis who are trying to turn urbanized Sunnis into fanatics, and finding limited success. They have more success radicalizing the rural Sunni.

    The fanatic Muslims come almost entirely from two of the four major schools of Sunni Islam (no jihadists come from Shia Islam) -- Hanbali (the most wacko) and Shafi'i (2nd most, where female genital mutilation is common). Not surprisingly, those schools prevail in more nomadic areas -- including the nomadic Kurds being Shafi'i.

    Kurds are not Semitic, and they do not live in the desert like the Arabians. But a good chunk of them do follow a nomadic way of life herding livestock, so they're two peas in a barbarian pod. Not all Kurds are nomads, some are settled, but those aren't the ones being funded by the Saudis to take up arms against the Syrian govt, and not the ones romanticized by Western anarchists.

    And again, the main point is that one side of the emerging fault-line includes not just Shia Muslims but Christians, Druze, Alawites, and other ethno-religious minorities. Even the normal Sunnis are in the cross-hairs of the Salafis, though to a lesser extent than the minorities are.

    If it were primarily about Shia vs. Sunni, then the Syrian govt would not be holding together (they have Sunni and Shia represented), and Hezbollah would not be coming to the aid of the govt of a primarily Sunni nation. Neither would Iran -- and Iran cares more about saving Syria than saving Yemen, where their allies are Shia like themselves.

    It's civilization vs. barbarism, not religious sectarianism.

  3. It's interesting which side the libs vs. cons take in another region's battle between civilization and barbarians.

    You'd think Western liberals would side with the civilized side, if they were picking the side most like themselves -- urban, modern, tolerant and pluralistic, etc. They should be looking down their noses at the Islamist side as the Middle Eastern version of apocalyptic gun-toting religious fundamentalists from the cowboy Plains region of our own country.

    Yet it's the other way around. They champion the Islamists as noble savages, rebels against the civilized system. They're using another ethnic group to vicariously live out their fantasy of leaving behind their boring conformist submissive urbanized hive-life.

    And in their role as self-appointed technocratic managers of the global system, they look on the civilized side over there as competition. It should be American secular technocrats who optimally administer the Syrian state -- not Syrian secularists, who are not world-class in their technocratic skills like we Americans are.

    Liberal elites in America look at the secular elites who run other countries and see a failure of meritocracy -- why, Assad only got his top job because of nepotism! Irrational, sub-optimal, must regime change and elevate someone who deserves to rule on his merits.

    Our elites may expect that kind of nepotism from truly backward countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- but not from supposedly more secular and modern ones like Syria. It really bugs them.

    It's common at "good schools" in America for our elites to respond to foreign secular elites with visceral disgust -- they're all "Eurotrash," no matter what country they're from.

    And when they see Assad's family, and pictures of everyday life -- and nightlife -- in Damascus, that's what our elites are thinking: "Just a bunch of Eurotrash," or "Jersey Shore". ("They're coming here to impose SHORE-IA LAW.")

    They don't fantasize about vicariously living a Eurotrash lifestyle, so our elites write off the elites of the civilized places elsewhere, and feel no compunction about regime-changing them -- if their leadership is to be modern and secular, it should at least be the world-class Americans.

  4. Then the Western conservatives favor the civilized side, to the extent they don't write off the entire region.

    If they were choosing the side most like themselves -- rural, traditional, more rather than less puritanical, wanting religion to play more of a role in public spaces and society -- they would side with the Islamists. At least the Muslim Brotherhood types, who favor non-violent takeover of institutions -- and even the jihadists, if they were "molon labe" types themselves.

    And yet conservatives side with the urbanized, secular, modern, more rather than less decadent side.

    Not because they want to live out a vicarious fantasy -- they aren't so self-loathing like liberals, and conservative fantasies are about being even more intense versions of themselves.

    Conservatives like liberals are concerned about preserving social order against chaos, but libs see the main threat as sub-optimal technocratic administration -- the fault lies at the top. Cons see the main threat as tumult from below, and there's nothing more tumultuous than hordes of zealots ready to storm the headquarters of society's institutions.

    And unlike libs, cons are more likely to look down on the peasants rather than the elites of foreign places. They see Assad's family and think they look normal enough. Then they see the jihadists or Muslim Brotherhood types with strange clothing, strange grooming, strange religion -- all out in the open, not hidden or disguised -- and they think they're too alien to care about one way or another.

    It's not about liberals "virtue signaling" that they care about even those who are very different from themselves, unlike conservatives who supposedly only care about those similar to themselves.

    Conservatives go out of their way to do the same thing, showing how they adopted an African baby, or went on a religious mission to Central America, etc., instead of rendering that kind of aid to their American neighbors.

    But in those cases, the third-world peasants are not a source of destabilizing danger, but victims of bad luck. So cons don't mind helping them out -- indeed, they'd rather help them out because it'll rack up a higher score on the self-righteous scale than if they'd helped out their neighbors.

  5. "And in their role as self-appointed technocratic managers of the global system, they look on the civilized side over there as competition. It should be American secular technocrats who optimally administer the Syrian state -- not Syrian secularists, who are not world-class in their technocratic skills like we Americans are."

    Yeah, that's a good point. That's why, for instance, liberal elites tend to regard fundamentalist Muslims with benign neglect - they don't see them as being competition, whereas those elites go apeshit whenever another technocratic, informational government does something they don't like.

    Liberal societies view other foreign, liberal, informational-financial societies as competition, which creates friction. Conversely, they're less threatened by foreign conservative, producing, materialist societies. It was the conservative elites, who owned producing industries, who wanted to go to war with oil-rich, ideologically conservative Mideast countries. Likewise, those conservative elites also want to invade natural gas-producing Russia.

    Whereas, the liberal elites were more lukewarm towards the idea of invading Iraq or Iran, despite those countries being very ideologically conservative.

  6. I read the comments. I don't think the urban/rural divide over there matters much to churls over her. Traditionalists will cling to and defend the American empire, virtual signaling and releasing pent up testicular energies all the way. Libtards wish to eviscerate the great white man bugaboo and the enemy of that enemy must be friend. Animals can't plan ahead.

    Ibn Khaldun was of course correct about the wax and wane of civilization timed with the influx waves of barbarians. I don't think fodder of Hegelian dialectic has a natural affinity for one side or the other over there. They do what they are told to do to maintain herd protection. As for the divisions and sides in the Middle East, we shall see with hindsight. My choices in life are not based on geopolitics of the Middle East. I am not taking sides. None fit me. None fit the requirements of post-Industrial civilization either. So another van of peace? Big flip.

  7. "liberal elites tend to regard fundamentalist Muslims with benign neglect - they don't see them as being competition, whereas those elites go apeshit whenever another technocratic, informational government does something they don't like."

    A fair number of Western liberals sympathized with commies in the 1930's-1950's, then were quick to act mortified about communism in later decades when the atrocious excesses of the communists were clear.

    In the 50's and 60's, a lot of liberals sympathized with criminals, then eventually realized that they'd gone too far and had been made fools of (the incarceration rate went up in the late 70's).

    It seems like liberals and conservatives have two equally bad blind spots, but the nature of each is different. In liberals case, the blind spot involves over glorifying what you don't understand and haven't gotten a real taste of (communism, crime, etc.) which often means sugarcoating things that are foreign and marginal. With conservatives, the blind spot is being too quick to sympathize with elites who may or may not have morally earned their status, and who may or may not be wielding power ethically.

    To put it more tersely: liberals fear the familiar and the traditional, conservatives fear the exotic and the subversive.

    In a high striving era, we get the worst of both worlds: liberals who refuse to stop admiration of weird crap, and conservatives who refuse to ever challenge power and authority.

    This seems to have played out in the reckless and counter-productive foreign policy of circa post-1980. Pentagon elites are held to be above reproach (by all conservatives) no matter their blunders, while many liberals fantasize about "building democracy" (and spreading neo-liberalism) in territories that have been occupied by foreign exotics for millennia. In a more wholesome era, conservatives would demand accountability from reckless elites (as when Eisenhower warned of greedy and quasi-fascistic elements getting of control if we didn't rein them in), while liberals wouldn't pretend to find anything attractive in barbarians. Remember that in the 60's and 70's, the MSM hammered our elites for misjudgements (which conservatives generally accepted), while also back in a lower striving era liberals didn't go as ridiculously far in idealizing alien stuff (and were more willing to admit mistakes after going too far).

    Please note that many ordinary people realize the nature of the problems we are dealing with; the problem is that in a higher striving era elites are contemptuous of ordinary people. How else do you explain how elite Republicans didn't realize (or care about) how unpopular Bush and McCain were until Trump got cheered for dissing them a few years ago.


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