344 – The Sunni search for self-respect

Posted on October 11, 2015 by


China’s President Xi Jinping has mentioned his passion for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on several occasions, most recently during a speech in Seattle on his September 2015 state visit to the United States.


The Old Man and the Sea is at heart a hymn to perseverance, endurance, faith and resourcefulness. It is a paean, in the romantic tradition, to the individual who refuses to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

CAIXIN Online[1]

China’s love for Hemingway’s book does not surprise me. It is of a piece with much popular Chinese literature, which turns on the theme of “standing up to injustice.” The implicit message is that one can bring about justice (or if one wishes, harmony) – if one refuses to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. The aim is not the overthrow of the old order, but the re-establishment of “proper” order. It is a quest for social self-respect and vindication of one’s point of view within China’s traditional imperial order.

On 1st October 1949 in front of Tiananmen Gate, so says historical lore, Mao Zedong uttered the famous words: “China has stood up.”[2] He did not announce world revolution – he marked the moment when China regained respect in the eyes of the world. It took 60 years, but China now occupies its rightful place in the concert of nations.

As Russia now bombs away in Syria, and the NATO coalition dithers on what to do next, both camps propose opposing views of an eventual settlement. The only overt commonality is the “strategic elimination of ISIS and Al Quaeda.” [3] The states are to be: “united … [and] secular.”

One thing these views have in common: they propose a settlement imposed – directly or indirectly – on the region from the outside. It is an update of the Sèvres Treaties of 1920, where the victors cut countries out of the Ottoman Empire to fit their greed.

All around there is puzzlement at the emergence of “Islamism” and the spirit of “jihad.”[4] It is something beyond our comprehension – barbaric and implicitly devilish (this is a classic Western gambit I’ll revert to). The “quest for self-respect” seems never to warrant consideration.

And yet – there may be something in it, as horrible as the circumstances of the quest may appear to us. On the whole Asia has “stood up;” the Islamic Middle East has not. An analogy would be the Laocoon group – just replace the snakes with pipelines.


Shi’a Iran – no friend of the West – had its moment of self-respect when it occupied the US embassy in 1979. It was payback for Kermit Roosevelt’s plotting against Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953.[5] Sunni Turkey achieved self-respect through modernization. But Turkey is not an Arab state. Egypt’s Nasser, with his secular socialism, failed. The Sunni world hardly had the moment of self-respect the civilization deserves.

The West secularized as it gained self-respect. It is at a loss to understand religiously motived nationalism – a poorly defined landscape somewhere between the “nation” and the universal congregation of the faithful. Overt or implicit imperialism in the Middle East, together with the inherent difficulties in forming states, make for Sunni feelings of impotence and frustration.

Feelings of helplessness lead to extremism.[6] The topos “God is punishing you for your sins – repent” is often heard in Christian circles: it has been a source of much mindless and revolutionary violence in the Western past.[7] We should not be surprised that the topos has traction in Sunni Islam. After all, fulfilling Allah’s commands within the umma is the religion’s deepest obligation.

In the short run, the outside powers may be able to stifle Sunni religious nationalism. In the long run, their approach – whether by force of arms or political persuasion – is unlikely to succeed because the outcome lacks the legitimacy of self-respect.

The key question is whether Islam will “stand up” and find its rightful place within the concert of nations – defiant, but not aggressive – or whether it will become fixated on “an eye for an eye” as a way to gain self-respect. There is room for both options – or at least it is my hope. The West, however, has to come to grips with the novelty of religiously grounded nationalism. This is no mean task, blinkered as it is by both Christian and secular religion and our deeply engrained tendency to smite the “other.”


[1]               http://bit.ly/1Zr9GST

[2]           It does not surprise me that, apparently, Moo never uttered these words http://bit.ly/1WUVAXz History is reconfigured after the fact to create a myth. The error only confirms the depth of China’s belief in reestablishing justice.

[3]           See e.g. http://bit.ly/1Lph8b4

[4]           I have broached this subject in http://wp.me/p81We-LT

[5]           In August 2013, 60 years after, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it was involved in both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out “under CIA direction” and “as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” http://bit.ly/1jo66If

[6]           See e.g. Ian BURUMA – Avishai MARGALIT (2004): Occidentalism. The West in the eyes of its enemies. Penguin, New York. Also: Eric R. WOLFF (1967): Peasant wars in the XXth century. Harper and Row, New York: French occupation of Algeria swiftly led to fundamentalist revivals and resistance under Addelkader  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdelkader_El_Djezairi

[7]           See e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Peasants’_War

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