The boundaries of today's Arab states are mostly the historical result of foreign rivalries. The lines that external powers drew on the maps often took little cognisance of ethnic or tribal identities and, ever since independence, Arabs have been grappling with the consequences.
Over the years they have responded in a variety of ways. Nationalists sought to weld arbitrarily-defined states into nations while others – notably the Nasserists and Baathists – sought to transcend borders by proclaiming a wider pan-Arab identity.
Today, for all practical purposes, Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism are dead. Pan-Arabism has largely been supplanted by various Islamic identities which, like pan-Arabism, also transcend borders. At the other end of the scale, though, there is also growing talk of states fragmenting.
In an article for The National last week, columnist Hassan Hassan discussed this in connection with Iraq – though there is plenty of similar talk relating to Libya, Yemen and, of course, Syria.
Hassan makes an interesting case for federalism in Iraq as a solution to the country's problems and "the only way to avoid an inevitable return to the sectarian abyss". The idea certainly has its attractions but I'm not entirely convinced by it.
Iraq's current crisis, he writes, "is essentially caused by the stagnant political system, not by Mr al-Maliki [the prime minister], who has a popular base that cannot be ignored".
"The power-sharing system set in motion (or in stone, as it turned out) by the 2005 constitution has led to economic and political paralysis, leaving Sunni Iraqis feeling that they are disenfranchised, second-class citizens.
"Sunnis feel that the state failed to protect them and that the central government is and always will be controlled by sectarian parties that oppress or marginalise them. It is only a matter of time before Sunni-majority areas explode.
"In the current political order, the idea of coexistence is an illusion, plain and simple."
Hassan quotes a speaker at a recent conference in Fallujah who gave the example of five brothers living in one house. As they grow up and marry and have children, their infighting becomes intolerable.
"What's the solution?" the speaker asked. "The clear solution, which we all know, is that the brothers move out and each has his own house. That way, they will be able to bring up their children as they wish, and protect themselves and prosper."
The article gives a cheery picture of how Iraq might develop if the metaphorical brothers had separate houses:
"The rampant corruption of the central government, and the lack of political will, impedes progress in Sunni-majority areas. Services and investment are desperately needed. Provincial governments, which would receive their shares of the national wealth, could answer to their local constituencies and would therefore be more likely to devote themselves to good governance and development in their regions, along with security – as demonstrated by the largely autonomous Kurdish north."
And, over time, that might also bring the warring brothers back together again:
"Paradoxically, federation could bring Iraqis closer to each in the long run, as they start to take ownership of their regions and then understand that they need each other for trade and security. Only when the brothers move into separate houses do they start to value their kinship."
It might happen, but can anyone be sure that it would? An alternative scenario is that, looser ties could, over time, become a stepping stone to the emergence of local fiefdoms and statelets.
Normally, in a federal system, foreign policy and national defence remain in the hands of central government but it's hard to see how that would work in Iraq. The Sunni-Shia divide is part of international politics and autonomous Sunni and Shia regions of Iraq would surely seek to play their own distinctive parts in that.
Similarly, Iraq's natural resources – most importantly oil – are not spread evenly across the country. It's fine in principle to say they should be shared fairly, but how long before squabbles break out over that?
Meanwhile, it's nice to suppose that by going their own way Iraq's regions could become examples of good governance, in contrast to the corrupt central government, but is there any evidence to support that supposition?
There are, of course, benefits to be had by devolving power from the centre – where appropriate. Regional and local tiers of government can often respond better to regional and local needs. But one line in Hassan Hassan's article makes me wary of that in the case of Iraq. "The calls for federalism in Sunni-majority areas," he says, "are increasingly wrapped in sectarian language." It sounds as if many are not really interested in federalism per se, but view it as a means to pursue sectarian goals.
This brings us back to the difficult question of coexistence. Iraq's ethnic/sectarian problems are extreme but by no means unique. Worldwide, totally homogenous nation-states are more rare than many people imagine and lots of countries have developed ways of coping with their diversity.
At some point Iraq and other Arab states will have to address that seriously too, because the alternative is not just looser national bonds but disintegration. Coexistence, difficult as it is to achieve, should always be the goal.
But perhaps I'm dreaming and Iraq really is too far-gone for that. I'd be interested to hear what others think.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 29 May 2013