Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Washington Can’t Solve the Identity Crisis in Middle East Nations

by Steven A. Cook
August 18, 2014

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters). Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).

I published the following piece in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope you find it interesting and useful!

Yes, Nouri al-Maliki stubbornly refused to govern inclusively in Iraq. Yes, the rule of Syria’s Assad family has been brutal. And yes, Moammar Gaddafi left Libyans with little in the way of national institutions when he fell. But the pathologies of these leaders go only so far to explain the stunning failure of three major Arab states.

The Arab world is caught up in a broader struggle. It is being whipsawed between competing and not entirely satisfying notions of what it should mean to be Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Yemeni or Lebanese — to name just a few places where conflicts over nationalism, identity and citizenship are most pronounced. Until Arabs figure out who they are and what kind of countries they want to live in, there is little Washington can do to help.

In many ways this is an evolution of a debate that has been going on since the 19th century, when Islamic reformers, nationalists, liberals and everyone in between bristled under European domination. By the mid-20th century, Britain and France had left or were driven out of the region, and new elites — Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Algeria’s Houari Boumediene, Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba and, later, Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein — rose to lead the modernization of their respective countries. Questions of identity were seemingly resolved through the anti-colonial struggle and a semblance of progress. Although there was some rhetoric about Pan-Arabism, the prevailing sentiments of the age were captured in the revolutionary triplet, “Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion, and Arabic is my language.” Variations could have been coined in any number of Middle East countries.

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