Georges Corm on the conflicts in the Arab world

Forget religion!

In his new book, the Lebanese historian Georges Corm criticises the tendency in the West to see the conflicts in the Arab world almost exclusively in a religious context. In reality, he says, the struggles in the states of the Arab Spring are for the fair distribution of economic power and democratic participation. By Kersten Knipp

Almost three years after they began, the revolutions in the Arab world now present a depressing picture. By various routes, protests on secular issues have led to scenarios in which religious hardliners are now setting the tone. In Syria, Sunni extremists threaten to torpedo the credibility of the entire opposition to Assad; in Libya, Islamists in Benghazi are fighting government troops in the name of Sharia and al-Qaeda; in Tunisia, an extremist mob harasses all those who think differently; and in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been driven underground after President Morsi's removal from office, prepared to defend the deposed government to the bitter end.

One logical conclusion would appear to be that even after revolutions that were initially inspired by secular issues, the countries of the Arab world cannot shake off religion as the dominant force in politics. With its excessive political energies, political Islam remains the dominant power factor in the region.

Prevalence of religious discourse 

There is another way to read the situation, however. The Lebanese historian and economist Georges Corm, who was his country's finance minister in the late 1990s, outlines an alternative interpretation in his latest book. The book wears its heart on its sleeve; the title "Pour une lecture profane des conflits" means "in favour of a secular reading of the conflicts". 

Georges Corm (photo: Georges Corm)
The Lebanese historian and economist Georges Corm was his country's finance minister from 1998 to 2000. He studied in Paris, teaches at St Joseph University in Beirut and advises international organisations. Corm has written seveal books on the Near East

Corm writes that the West is making a mistake by concentrating primarily on the religious aspect. In actual fact, he explains, the Arab world is concerned with very different issues: the just distribution of power and resources, a functioning state based on the rule of law and democratic participation. However, Corm elucidates, an adequate language has not yet been found for these concerns, or rather, it has not yet been able to make its voice heard over the dominant religious discourse.

Over the course of three or four decades, he writes, every significant political opposition in the Arab world has placed itself in the religious camp. That has left traces that cannot be erased from one day to the next.

Exporters of fundamentalism

Corm sees the reason for the dominance of religion in deliberate support for religion, which is mainly provided in the Arab world by Saudi Arabia. He says that with its high financial and ideological firing power, the oil state exports a fundamentalist reading of Islam, which has consistently elbowed aside the left-wing secular discourse.

After World War II, he writes, Marxist analyses were very widespread in the Near East. However, they became increasingly unable to maintain this status from the late 1960s on, after the shock of the lost Six-Day War and the oil boom that began shortly afterwards.

However, there have also been fewer and fewer inspiring models in the West since then, writes Corm. In his view, the West has for some time tended to forget its most noble tradition: enlightenment.

The motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) was once very closely observed when it came to distributing power and wealth. Who gets what, and in whose favour do the distribution mechanisms work? It is not long ago, writes Corm, that questions like these were a fundamental part of every political science degree in the West, but that is no longer the case. Instead of economic questions, the new focus is on cultural issues – a grave mistake, in Corm's opinion, that is the fault of an ideology discreetly similar to religious fundamentalism: multiculturalism. 

Cover of Georges Corm's book ''Pour une lecture profane des conflits''
The wrong perspective: instead of focusing on economic problems, the West hones in on cultural issues in the Arab world. In his latest book, Georges Corm explains why this is a serious mistake

The snares of multiculturalism

What is multiculturalism? For Corm, it is a world view that leads to the granting of an absolute, unquestionable value to all minorities. Religious groups, ethnic minorities, cultural communities: according to the economist, there is no group that does not now demand the unconditional and unrestricted recognition of its characteristics, convictions and ideals, and place these without hesitation above society as a whole, the res publica, the republic.

According to Corm, many conflicts within Western societies are not about political matters but about identity issues. And because these issues can barely be negotiated, he says, they cannot consequently be solved.

In the shadow of multiculturalism, the book argues, genuinely political and economic conflicts are also interpreted and fought in cultural terms in the West. This in turn also colours the widespread habit in the West of interpreting the current conflicts in the Near East through a solely cultural – or even worse religious – lens.

Secular dictatorships

Corm's culture-based interpretation of the Western perception of the conflicts currently permeating the Near East is fascinating. The only question is whether it still holds true. After all, many people in the West have indeed learned to take a closer look, to take the demands of the first protesters seriously and at face value.

Many now also share Corm's assessment that Arab secularism has sacrificed its own good reputation. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad Senior and Junior in Syria – all of them built up dictatorial regimes that trampled their citizens' rights underfoot and unleashed their secret services on all those who dared to question their rule and demand reform. And where words like democracy and the rule of law have not only lost all value but even have to serve as excuses for the crimes of allegedly progressive regimes, promising political ideals are turned on their heads.

The fact that European states and the USA worked with these regimes has done additional damage to these values. The realpolitik of Western states, which so enjoy playing the moral preacher, has made it difficult for even their most idealistic supporters not to lose faith. "An important economic treaty, the establishment of a military base against the wishes of the local population, a spectacular gesture of support for Israel, soon silence these moral lectures, which are becoming increasingly difficult for the political groups in the countries in question to bear."

"Republicans of the world..."

For many years, the West could afford to interpret the conflicts in the region as religious or cultural. In doing so, it saved itself the trouble of admitting the often disastrous consequences of its policies – and changing them accordingly. Now, however, writes Corm, the time may have come to see the conflicts in a light that does them justice.

That, he writes, requires an honest dialogue and a farewell to previous cynicism. Corm summarises his agenda thus: "Republicans of the world, unite!"

Kersten Knipp

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

Georges Corm, "Pour une lecture profane des conflits". Éditions La Découverte, 256 pp., €19.50

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