Arabs: surprisingly non-identical

The New York Times has really suffered from some decline in recent years – look no further than Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone’s recent reporting on the developing crisis in Egypt. It’s rich in generalizations from the region to Egypt and from Egypt to the region. The real core of their point seems to have been:

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. […] What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.

The strangeness to the article’s argument is underneath it’s waffling examination of the futility or effectiveness of the Arab Spring and its subsequent results. The odd framing of it rests in this way of considering the whole Arab world, which reduces it down into a singular political experience, an “Arab politics” of sorts. While dynamic in that it admits that political upheaval has happened, it creates a sense of profound continuity in that it presents the dysfunction found in several Arab states as a comparatively stagnant trait. Arab people are consequently in this view tied together and tied to the past century’s politics.

But are those assumptions warranted? As yesterday’s coverage by Egypt-based media outlets showed, Christian minorities in Egypt have played a very dynamic role in first tentatively supporting the revolution and now tentatively supporting the counter-revolution (in response to seemingly unorganized so far anti-Christian violence). This stands in contrast with the situation in Syria and Tunisia, actually, where Christians have respectively long had a much closer relationship with the state power structures for many decades and are a significantly smaller part of the population.

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(Tunisia is the darkest green value with nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim population. Egypt is a notably lighter green with approximately 10 percent of its population being Christian. Syria has even larger non-Muslim minorities and is also, unlike Egypt’s and Syria’s, very divided between Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.)

In fact, Tunisia’s internal issues can be fairly easily summarized as being two overlapping conflicts – one over how to fix the ailing economy and another over what degree of islamist political influence is ideal. While economic issues are common to the region (and rooted largely in common difficulties with unemployment, rising utilities costs, and housing), the particulars of the religious population of those three Arab-majority nations is reflected in what social fault lines exist (both among Muslims and between them and other religious groups).

Properly understanding those unique aspects to various predominantly Arab countries is central to evaluating their different conflicts as well as built on a way of talking about the Arab world (which by most estimates is significantly larger than the United States in population) that doesn’t reduce it to a singular set of conditions. That’s what the New York Times did yesterday, however, and its readers understanding of what’s happening in all of those countries potentially suffered for it.

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