Chibli Mallat: ‘Keeping the flame alive’

Friday 07/08/2015
(Photo: The Crimson)

With Islamic State (ISIS) unleashing horror in Syria and Iraq, and Iran and Saudi Arabia announcing higher military spending, it may be a strange time to launch a book* on non-violence in the Middle East. Lebanese professor and lawyer Chibli Mallat, however, has long defied stereotypes and confounded expectations.
An enthusiast for what he calls the “Middle East revolution” rather than the “Arab spring”, Mallat is a Lebanese Christian recognised as an authority on Shiism. He is an intellectual fluent in five languages and published by both Cambridge and Oxford university presses, yet he has happily rubbed shoulders with practitioners as diverse as Mahdi al-Hakim, the Iraqi Shia opposition leader assassinated in Khartoum in 1988, arch-neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz and Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druze leader.
A philosophy of non-violence now cements his work, Mallat told The Arab Weekly, bonding constitutionalism, human rights, democracy, justice and the rule of law. The inter-relationship is complex: Mallat is no absolutist, does not call himself a pacifist and insists there is no hyphen in “nonviolence”.
His new book rejects a reading of history where great revolutions are “naturally” violent. “I’m proposing a new universal model that establishes a phenomenon of massive popular change through ways that are strictly non-violent,” he said. “It’s particularly surprising that this has played out in the Middle East, since violence is associated with the region and people were not expected to take to the streets. But it’s not surprising in the sense that people turned to non-violence because they were fed up with violence ruling their daily lives.”
The book’s examination of revolution leads to constitutionalism. Mallat argues that ending dictatorship in the Middle East requires both the inspiration of 18th-century European thought and embracing the region’s “more subtle understanding of religion and the values religion carries”. For Mallat, counterposing “secularism” and “political Islam” is futile.
“You don’t need to jettison the whole religious dimension even in the writing of constitutions,” he said. “In the book, I give the example of verses in the Quran that are perfect as constitutional articles.” He cites La ikraha fi’d-din (“No compulsion in religion”).
Mallat has never chosen easy battles. His book deals extensively with Iraq, where his involvement stretches from the 1991 establishment of Indict, a campaign to charge Saddam Hussein with war crimes, to his work in Baghdad in 2009- 10 revising the constitution.
“No doubt a constitution is best discussed and established when change is non-violent,” he said. “But the fact a revolution is non-violent doesn’t necessarily mean the constitutional process is smooth. We’ve seen that in Egypt. My argument is that the peak of the revolution should continue in terms of representation — with some sort of coalition government that stays for a long time after the regime has gone.”
So does today’s bloodletting in Iraq, especially by ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, result from Baghdad’s failure to engage the Sunni Arabs?
“No doubt this is true but also the Sunni community did not want to embrace the new order. It’s more subtle than the Shia coming with big boots seeking revenge.”
Mallat argues things could have been done differently. “The latest failure has to do with the Maliki government [Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister 2006-14]. He came in on a non-sectarian platform, defeating the Sadrist movement, which controlled places like Basra with a terrible, brutal rule.
But in insisting he should continue in power in 2010, Maliki overstayed his welcome and started the drive towards a severe sectarianism.”
Mallat experienced this first-hand in 2009, supervising the revision of the constitution. “Maliki was interested only in a change that would allow a presidential system. When he saw this was not coming through, he undermined the work of the constitutional committee.” This scuppered what Mallat envisaged as a renewed social contract between people and government, paving the way for ISIS.
“There were a number of mistakes that had they been avoided Iraq could have been different and less violent,” said Mallat. He recalls arguing that the 2003 US invasion, which he opposed, should be based on human rights rather than weapons of mass destruction, and his opposition to “the legal regime of [US] occupation” as “idiotic”.
True, Iraq was infertile ground. “Could a country ruled by 40 years’ dictatorship come out smoothly with everyone singing and hugging each other?” Mallat asked. “The social fabric is torn under dictatorship in stunning ways. Nazi rule lasted only 12 years, Saddam or Qaddafi three times that.”
This is no excuse. “The present government of Iraq is capable of better,” he said. “It has the support of 60 states, which is unprecedented, and includes Iran and the US but it’s been unable to free Mosul and other areas from Daesh.” But even Iraq does not deter Mallat. “Discovering non-violence as a coherent philosophy, buttressed by millions of people doing just this in 2011, gives me great comfort. We can keep the flame alive. I have no doubt that most people in the Middle East think generally along my lines: non-violence is the natural state of life.”
*Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism and Justice beyond the Middle East, Oxford University Press, 2015.