Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!
Some of my readers might well be excused if this epigram by the journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes comes to mind as they read the title of my end-of-year reflection. After all, many of my own colleagues think that one word alone - calamity - aptly summarises the MENA region in 2014.
Indeed, it is quite true that there has been a surfeit of doom and gloom. However, despite the many setbacks and admittedly few encouraging signs to date, I would like to focus today on one pertinent issue just as we get ready to tiptoe into 2015.
One tsunami par excellence that has indubitably impacted the MENA region - and more pointedly Syria and Iraq - is the sudden emergence of Daesh in our midst. This offshoot of Al-Qaeda was imported violently into the lives of many peoples in early summer when it overran Mosul (captured is far too strong a verb given that the Iraqi army simply upped and scarpered without even any token resistance). It first became prominent with the acronym of ISIS, and then shifted to IS in our Western media vernacular before morphing into a so-called caliphate headed by the self-styled emir Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. It took the world a while to call them by their Arabic name of Daesh. But this nomenclature is quite appropriate: it disinvests them of the sobriquets of 'Islamic' or 'State' and highlights the fact that 'dawaesh' (plural of Daesh in Arabic) denotes 'bigots'.
Today, seven months into this cycle of violence, many politicians and pundits have opined that the practices and antics of this terror-inducing group are neither Islamic nor étatique or state-like. The current aerial attacks targeting Daesh in Iraq and Syria - by a coalition of countries let alone by the indiscriminate barrel bombs of Syrian helicopters - indicate that this group will probably not be allowed to leave a big footprint on the MENA region in the long run.
But is Daesh a genuine vindication of what it claims as Islam?
I am frankly not too sure I can come up with a confident answer today. Apart from its gratuitous violence and callous murders, what Daesh also did to date is to expose the current challenges let alone tectonic fault-lines facing contemporary Islam. Otherwise put, a majority of Muslims have been appalled by the atrocities perpetrated in the name of their religion ostensibly by fellow co-religionists. Indeed, many Arab journalists in the MENA region have earnestly begun addressing this new-old reality by calling for a serious soul-searching exercise of their religion followed by necessary reforms that would wrench it away from a distant past and usher it into the present era.
What I find noteworthy in this long-overdue ijtihad or jurisprudential debate within Muslim circles is that there are swathes of Muslims who disown Daesh and strongly dispute that it represents Islam. Conversely, there are other believers insisting that Daesh applies the strict teachings of Islam and support it as a symptom of their consternation with the politics of the region. So could it be that we are perhaps witnessing at long last the timid stirrings of a debate within Muslim circles as to whether Islam needs to review its jurisprudence (just as Christianity has been doing for long). Questions are being raised for instance about the position of learned institutions like Al-Azhar in Cairo regarding Daesh: do they endorse their practices as being based on the nousous / written texts and are therefore halal, or are their deeds haram and are they therefore heretical?
This discourse might pick up in 2015 - if it is allowed to proceed by those religious instances that have much to lose in case the conclusions unhook their powerbases. However, I would argue that it would be both healthy and helpful for Muslims and Christians in the MENA region. It might equally enhance relations between the Abrahamic faiths worldwide and foster serious interreligious dialogue rather than pre-ordained top-down formalities that are casuistic in nature.
Nonetheless, I am equally aware that it took Western Christianity a long time to kick-start this Socratic process. I therefore suggest that we need to be patient until the 'gentle art of conversation' (as HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan often described such processes) begins to bear fruit and leads toward a stricter self-examination and ultimately a new self-awareness that could be translated into concrete changes on the ground.
It is true that the uprisings in the MENA region have willy-nilly unleashed forces that are at times dark and not easily containable. By the same token, it is also true that Daesh is largely a product of the oppressive practices of the regimes in some of those countries. No matter the reasons, the fact remains that many Muslims in the region are alas slowly losing their inclusive diversity.
However, irrespective of those mutations, I still cling to the stubborn belief that the peoples of the MENA yearn for dignity and equal citizenship rather than cling to conditional patronage by their political and religious rulers or else control by self-obsessed Islamist groups. This is why I remain guardedly hopeful that a constructive dialogue in 2015 could help face those daunting challenges.
Or is this still too Sisyphean a mountain to climb today?