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Arab states, Islamism and the West

About the author
Gema Martín-Muñoz is Professor of the Sociology of the Arab and Islamic World at the Autonoma University of Madrid.

In pointing to the undeniably negative aspects of Arab and Muslim societies, a simplistic Western view explains them away as the ‘inevitable’ consequences of Islamic determinism. It insists on linking lack of democracy to the Islamic character of these peoples, the inequality between men and women to the imposition of Islam, the violence to ‘Islamic fanatics’.

In the West, this has led to the resurgence of a historic memory of Muslim cultural and religious opposition; while, on the other hand, Muslim historical memory vis-à-vis the West is also stirred into renewed life. These memories have profoundly political roots – they are the result of a long and intensive Western (European, US, Soviet) presence in this part of the world, involving a huge range of experiences: colonisation; artificial division into nation states; the creation of Israel; double standards regarding democracy and human rights; contempt for the massive suffering of civilian people, from Kurds to Palestinians, Iraqis to Afghans.

The need to understand: beyond ‘Islamic fundamentalism’

In the West, the dominant view of the Muslim world revolves around ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. The ghost of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has served to feed prejudices, planting essentialist cultural views of Islam and justifying the authoritarian governments of successive Arab regimes. Above all, it has served as a barrier to Western understanding, not only of the diverse social and political realities of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also of the real problems that hinder the development of this region.

In my opinion, these problems are centred on a number of key factors: demographic, economic, political and ideological. A further, external element cannot be ignored: Western policy in the Middle East.

children© Don O Thorpe, 2002 (click for bigger image)
The impact of demographic change

Arab countries have experienced decades of sharp population increase, the youth of today comprising their most important social group (60% of the entire Arab population is less than 20 years old). Thanks to urbanisation and the more widespread delivery of education in the post-colonial period, the majority of this new generation is urban and educated. It has also been forced to live through an acute economic and socio-political crisis.

One should bear in mind that, after independence, the budget for education in the various Arab countries increased considerably. This led to a higher expectation of social mobility and advancement, hitherto unheard of amongst young people. But it also resulted in a longer transition to adulthood. Previously, one entered adulthood directly through marriage and the first job. The development of secondary education in the 1960s and 1970s meant that marriage took place on average at 24 for males and 20 for females, thereby considerably lengthening the period of adolescence.

Birzeit UniversityBirzeit University, West Bank (click for bigger image)
Another significant development was the implementation of family planning policies in the Arab countries, once their governments realised the economic and social costs of a high birth rate. This is why recent legislation on the family tends to set back the legal age of marriage in societies where marriage (particularly in the case of women) traditionally takes place at a very young age. Socio-economic factors, such as the difficulty in finding work and housing, have further contributed to the deferral of marriage.

It is important to note that contrary to demographic theories predicting a ‘catastrophic’ and irreversible population increase in the Arab world, specialists in this region predict a rapid drop in the birth rate in the decades to come. There are various reasons: a higher level of education for women; the increase of the urban population; the decline of the rent revenue economy; and birth control campaigns.

However, thanks to the high birth rate of recent decades, the population in the Arab countries is much younger than average. Until the mid 1960s, Arab families had on average seven or eight children. As a consequence, in the 1990s, the 20–29 age group accounted for the largest proportion of the total adult population ever in the history of the Arab world. It is this prolific generation that now wants to play a role in these countries.

satellite photosUrbanisation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Satellite photos by NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS & US/Japan ASTER Science Team. (click for bigger image)
This demographic phenomenon has been accompanied by a virtually unstructured, accelerating process of urbanisation, with rates fluctuating on average between 50 and 70%. For example, in all the Maghreb countries and Syria, every second inhabitant is now a city dweller. In Iraq, the proportion is two out of three, and in the Gulf states percentages reach record proportions.

This ‘urban explosion’ began with a widespread exodus from the countryside during the colonial era. After independence, it sped up as a result of a less stringent control of population movements (Morocco) or the implementation of industrialisation policies (Algeria, Syria). Regional conflicts contributed to it by sending enormous waves of refugees into the towns, as was the case with the Palestinians in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Different levels of economic development, different priorities in national planning policies and the decisive role sometimes played by ethnic, religious or financial minorities result, of course, in a great variety of situations across the different countries. However, the one universal feature of this link between demographic and urban trends is urban youth. This is the new, important actor on the Arab stage.

The politics of economic failure

Since the 1980s, the Arab states have been feeling the consequences of the failure of the protective or distributive socio-economic model, which characterised all post-colonial states. In the 1980s, the widespread bankruptcy that this model brought about obliged them to resort to economic assistance from the big international financial institutions, with their stringently applied structural adjustment programmes. These programmes have had a major negative impact on people’s welfare.

According to the International Labour Organisation, towards the end of the 1990s the countries of North Africa, the Middle East, and across sub-Saharan Africa, had as a region the highest rate of unemployment in the world (around some 20 million people). This enormous unemployment rate affects more women than men and significantly more youth than adults. Among young people, it is school and university graduates who are affected most (57% of the unemployed Arab population have been educated to secondary level or higher, while in 1984 this figure stood at 37%). Consequently, the marginalisation of young people is one of the primary problems challenging the southern Mediterranean today.

Combined with this, Arab regimes have developed a political culture based on patronage and clientelism, maintaining themselves in power by means of authoritarian practices which put the development of efficient and transparent economic reform well beyond their reach.

The root cause of this repression lies in the importance placed on historical legitimacy during the construction of these states by the process of colonisation. Nationalist leaders who obtained independence were trumpeted as ‘fathers of the homeland’. Since they had liberated their countries and founded the modern nation state, they felt that they deserved to preside over it, and to bequeath it to their successors. This political culture has so far impeded any alternative process and has excluded a new generation from the political community.

Thus, on top of the grave pressures of economic reform, the populations of these countries have had to endure the more sinister aspects of anti-democratic systems of governance. Together, economic reform and liberalisation have failed to produce better democracies. On the contrary, the combination of demographic growth with political authoritarianism and inequality in the distribution of wealth is creating a vicious circle of political and economic alienation, marginalisation and violent opposition.

The international dimension

The sense of stagnation throughout North Africa and the Middle East is exacerbated by the failure of these countries to act as a regional group to exert political influence on the international community. These countries have not been able to strengthen the regional and sub-regional multilateral structures sufficiently to confront, for example, the challenges and opportunities brought by globalisation.

The situation is aggravated by profound political differences, lack of financial compatibility between the respective states, and a resistance to opening up their borders to the free movement of peoples and trade, on the grounds that this would undermine the political and social control on which the survival of their dictators relies. As a result, commerce and investment at an inter-regional level is very low (less than 10% of the total foreign trade carried out by these countries).

There are, however, other reasons for ongoing failure in the construction of common regional structures of integration and cooperation: namely, the role played by the United States – pre-eminently in relation to issues of security, and the conflicting foreign policies of the countries.

When the Gulf War of 1990–91 ended, while Arab countries were more divided than ever, US hegemony in the region had never been more secure, both in terms of the military and economic dependence of most of the countries in the region, and in terms of commercial competition.

Iraqi childMalnourished and dehydrated child in Basra, Iraq
The US aim in the Middle East has been to promote the creation of strategic axes and bilateral alliances. The US decision to apply a policy of punishment (embargos and sanctions) to Iraq and Iran, both designated ‘rogue states’ since 1993, has kept Iran artificially separate from the Gulf states, undermining all their attempts to establish a regional forum for dialogue with their ostracised neighbours.

Meanwhile, Iraq remains condemned to pre-industrial status, generating big contraband networks with Jordan and, above all, with Turkey. The reformist sector of Iran, however much it promotes political and economic liberalisation and defends diplomatic normalisation with the Western world, cannot find sufficient foreign support to resolve its socio-economic situation and consolidate its government against the revolutionary ‘old guard’.

As a close ally of the United States, Israel’s influential approach to security within the region, coupled with its lack of geopolitical integration, is the source of many of these contradictions, reinforcing the endemic fragmentation of the area. This cosy relationship explains why, in 1995, the United States allowed Israel to escape pressure to sign up to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). In 1996, it led to the emergence of a strategic Turkey–Israel axis under a US umbrella, with the aim of weakening Syria’s influence in the region. The United States has been consistently opposed to the institutionalisation of multilateral working groups, formed as part of the Arab–Israeli peace process.

As for the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil-producing countries – they have signed a series of defence and arms-acquisition bilateral agreements with the United States, Britain and France during the Gulf War, to protect themselves from future threats. Motivated as much by mistrust of their Arab neighbours as by the superiority of Western forces, GCC members have shown little interest in the regional security accords, and have not even signed agreements among themselves.

There is also the issue of the massive investment in military and defence spending. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait alone spent $44.2 million between 1990 and 1994, vastly endowing the Western arms industries. To this must be added the enormous costs of financing the Iraq–Iran war of 1980–88, and the war over Kuwait of 1990–91. These expenditures have contributed to a growing socio-economic crisis, which, along with the desire to boost oil prices, places these governments in a very difficult situation.

So Saudi Arabia, with a demographic growth rate of 3.5% since the mid 1990s, has had to reduce social spending at a time when its increasingly aged middle classes are loudly complaining about the tribalism of the regime – its absolutism, poor living conditions, gradual breakdown in education, health and housing, and the installation of a Western military presence on home turf. The financial situation, and the socio-political climate that governments rely upon, are both in crisis. Opposition to the regime is visibly on the increase.

The necessity, and impossibility, of reform

All of this adds to the burden of the endemic conflicts of the Middle East, which have shaken the confidence of foreign investors in the region, and driven the respective regimes to dedicate a large part of their budgets to defence and military spending. The brutal Israeli occupation of the Palestine territories, the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the embargo on Iraq, sanctions on Iran and the military response to the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001, nurture a growing anti-Western feeling in Arab public opinion. They also rule out any possibility of an economic upturn in the region.

Even Israel, the one country that might qualify as developed and productive, now faces an alarming economic outlook for 2002. In 2001, with a recession of 0.5%, the Israeli economy registered its worst result since 1953. Its most important sector, new technology, is actually in decline, while tourism has been decimated by conflict in the occupied Palestine territories. Unemployment is clearly heading for 10% as the per capita income dropped 2.9% in 2001 and the national currency fell in value against the dollar. On top of this, Israel’s military siege of the occupied territories has meant that the country is faced with severe socio-economic difficulties.

Western strategic and military priorities have so prevailed over those of development and democratisation in this region that the tragic experience of civilian populations is hardly noticed – a neglect that inspires violent reaction and an explosive social situation. The same priorities ensure that the strategic allies of the West in the region are regimes rooted in tribalism, clientelism and the pillaging of their countries. This makes them incapable of promoting efficient and productive political and economic reform.

But, in this part of the world, it has been only too well observed that without democratisation, liberal economic reform will not be possible. Sooner or later, Western political chiefs have to abandon their longstanding assumption that democratisation will be the inevitable result of economic liberalisation. They will have to decide which inescapable changes must be made in their foreign policy to secure true socio-political, and consequently economic, stability in this region.

The ‘war against terrorism’ and the international policy that it has inspired, as elaborated by the United States and pursued by European countries, does not take these factors into account. Even worse, this adds to instability in the region by slighting democratisation and respect for human rights, and consolidating the sense of impunity with which some regimes keep the majority of their population under the thumb of unbearable socio-economic and political pressure.

The condition of Islamic politics

This situation is particularly worrying in the region because terms, such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘security’, have been manipulated by governments allied to the West to suit their own particular interests. The new rules of this post-11-September game give them even greater impunity to crush the liberties of their now desperate civil societies.

Now add to this very complex and unstable mix one final key factor: the ideological. Since the 1970s, the system of values motivating the first post-colonial generation has gone into crisis. The present generation does not identify with these values at all. In a brief moment of optimism, their parents’ generation placed their faith in state schooling, which promised a social climb, and in pan-Arabism, socialism and anti-imperialism. In contrast, the present generation has experienced the death of the distributive state as that system of values began its collapse in the 1967 war.

What follows is an ever-widening political and cultural chasm between the new generation and their rulers. Moreover, the historical experience of the successive failures of ideological models inspired by the West, whether liberal or socialist, has prompted the search for a new model rooted in their origins and their own cultural legacy. Since the 1980s, the people of North Africa and the Middle East have been turning to Islam for cultural reassurance.

The Islamic movements have to be seen in a sociological framework much more profound and complex than their dramatic impact on world affairs has encouraged us to understand. But if we are to avoid the fatal elision that subsumes them all indiscriminately under the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, we need to identify the different actors of the Islamic movement and the sociological roles they carry out in these societies.

UlemaUlema: the Tehreek Nafaz-e-Fiqh in Rawalpindi calls upon the Pakistani government to counter terrorism "without fear of the foreign states who shield them"
Among the most ultraconservative actors, the traditionalist Ulemas stand out. Their role is not so much political opposition as a close alliance with the most autocratic governments in the Muslim world. These Ulemas originate from official Islamic institutions, nominated by the government to make up the so-called High Council of Ulemas. They are ‘faithful civil servants’ serving the seats of power.

Governments use them as mouthpieces of society, extracting in return a political endorsement, which grants them a monopoly over the political uses of religion. Governments reciprocate by allowing them to convert themselves into the censors of society and guardians of tradition, blocking all social change and reform or any kind. They are not ‘Islamists’: they have a hostile relationship to the latter.

This is the paradox. When the Western world points the finger at ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, it assumes that this term embraces all the Islamist opposition movements. Yet, contrary to what is believed, many of these Islamic movements have great modernising potential and, moreover, are in large part alien to violence.

Within the field of Islam, therefore, we have to distinguish clearly between the radical or extremist movements and the reformists. The radical movements, supporters of the use of violence, were born in the 1970s. They are clandestine groups, with a rigid and intolerant interpretation of Islam, cut off from mainstream society. Reformists categorically oppose these extremists, denouncing their violent actions, including the attacks of 11 September.

Islamic reformism is the majority social tendency. Its agenda and evolution have been very different from those of the extremist wings, including, of course, those of Osama bin Laden. The Islamic reformist, unlike traditionalist and institutionalised Islam, is politically self-determining and involved in the social and political experiments of all present-day Muslim societies.

Consequently, they tend to distance themselves from the ahistorical vision, which mobilises traditionalists, such as Ulemas, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia or the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are open to new interpretations of Islamic law. In other words, the new generation of Islamic reformists does not exclude the search for a comfortable ground between modern values and Islamic legitimacy.

This group as a whole is very worried about current socio-educational trends. They are seeking from their own sources to recover a positive and reassuring self-image. They are well aware that they are still awaiting recognition and respect from the West, but the recovery of Islam is not constructed in hostility to the West. Rather, they question the way in which a Western cultural universe has been arbitrarily elevated into an absolute universal reference.

If these Islamic discourses occasionally express resentment towards the West, it is not because of a disregard for such values as progress and development, or a distaste for the public liberties which Westerners enjoy, but because of the glaring moral arrogance and double standards when it comes to defending human rights, democracy or that ever-present open wound, the plight of the Palestinians.

The new Islamic elites cast doubt on the identification between modernity and Westernisation. But they do not reject the former. Rather, they express a certain longing for a critical appropriation of modernity, provided they can participate in its construction. To this process, it is true, they will bring an entire series of symbolic references, inspired by Islam (dress, language, behaviour).

But there is no single model for a developed Islamic state, one that represents all reformist projects. On the contrary, the historical evolution of such an entity and its adaptation to reality have tended towards a diversity of political experiments in the differing national and constitutional frameworks, against the backdrop of both pan-Islamic and internationalist world views. Islamic reformist movements must be distinguished from the traditionalist Ulemas, with their government links.

In this context, the sociological profile of many Islamic militants or supporters is clear. These Islamists come from the new spaces that modernisation of the contemporary Muslim world has created, far distant from traditional Islamic institutions. They graduate from the modern schooling system and, often, from specialist scientific university studies. University campuses have provided a rather fertile ground for the spread of Islamic ideas since the 1980s, when proponents supplanted the left-wing student leadership of the preceding decade.

In turn, the masses following these Islamists are not ‘traditionalists’, but the opposite: urban-dwellers who live by the modern values of consumerism and social advancement, as the pattern of Islamic voting in the elections has shown. Some of them come from the most marginalised sections of society. They are victims of unequal development, or the poorest workers in outlying suburbs, who are attracted to the egalitarian message of Islam and the effective para-state social work it performs in the least protected neighbourhoods.

The Islamic ‘third generation’

However, it would be a mistake to look at Islamism as an ideology of the dispossessed. The key to Islamism is not economic but political; and it is closely related to identity. It penetrates all groups of society. For example, representatives of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are often professionals, such as lawyers, doctors and engineers.

Why are these Islamists the primary beneficiaries of the decline of the old regimes, as opposed to left-wing parties or other lay sectors? The answer is probably that the latter identities are associated with a system of Arab socialist values which, given their cumulative failures, are perceived as outdated.

Alongside failure in political and economic independence, one other realm seems in retrospect to have been sorely neglected by the nationalist elites who built up the state: that of identity and cultural independence. In the Muslim world these are inseparable from the Islamic framework. In other words, in sociological terms Islamism becomes the inevitable response to the need felt by a large part of the Muslim population to construct a new modern and democratic order from their own culture and identity.

Translated into political action, the evolution of this Islamic third generation owes less to pan-Islamism than to its origins in the territorial framework of the nation state. It is a process of political maturation, based on pragmatism, which – far from clinging to socio-cultural conservatism – has pushed people into realising that they share, with even non-Islamic political projects, an appreciation for a culture of consensus (in the framework of political pluralism, of elections, of government).

Significant examples of this include: the 1995 Platform of Rome, jointly composed of left-wing parties, human rights movements and Islamists seeking a democratic political solutions for Algeria; the platform demanding the democratisation of Egyptian political life, elaborated as much by Islamic leaders as by opposition forces in 1999; or, more recently, the joint proposal in favour of democratisation in Tunisia, endorsed by the social democratic party (MDS) and the Islamic al-Nahda. The founding of the al-Wassat party in Egypt by Islamic leaders and Christian Copts is further evidence that the underlying problem is not a divide between Islamists and non-Islamists, but the fight for democracy against dictatorship, to which both may be dedicated.

paintingOil on canvas, by Ahmad Elias (Syria) (click for bigger image)
The acceptance of multi-partyism and power-sharing, as well as the will to build participation in state institutions, is evidenced by parties such as al-Nahda of Tunisia, the FIS of Algeria or the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, and echoed in the parliamentary aspirations of the Muslim Brothers of Jordan, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, more recently, the Party for Democracy and Justice (PDJ) in Morocco. These political initiatives bring Islamic reformists ever closer to legal, democratic practices, showing their reconciliation to pluralism. The governments that respond to this by acts of exclusion (as in Tunisia, Algeria and to a great extent in Egypt) tend to be those that are the most repressive and dictatorial.

This is why Islamic reformist parties need to be understood as joint participants with other parties in the process of democratic transition. Their adaptation to representative government has already been proven. As for their social conservatism and religious point of reference, if we cease to blind ourselves with the ‘exceptionalism’ of anything that originates from Islam rather than from Christianity, we will realise that in this regard such parties are hardly far-removed from the remit of the Christian Democratic conservative parties that exist throughout the Western world.

It may be argued that these parties do not defend a different statute for men and women. But to do so is to lack historical imagination. Think back to the roots of those Christian Democrat parties. In the Muslim world, Islamists are not the only representatives of this position. There are many who still think in this way in all patriarchal societies. Are there no Ulemas in the United States, upholding inequality between men and women, and defending the patriarchal model with all its consequences?

At least the Islamist situation is dynamic. It is undergoing a process of transformation, due to the changes that Islamic women are introducing from within the movement. These parties have ensured the active participation of women (more than traditional parties, including left-wing parties) in keeping with their entry into the public sphere at every working level. These are women who are necessarily breaking away from that socio-public marginalisation which traditionalists continue to insist upon, in defending the domestic sphere as the natural space of women.

Accessing public space, perceiving themselves as equal to men, assuming a double task both public and domestic, and affirming their individuality – such behaviour has become an increasing reality among Islam’s women, as various pieces of fieldwork and recent surveys testify. Moreover, they are imposing this reality on Islamic men. These women, mainly young, cultured and urban, wear the scarf on their heads (hijab) voluntarily. For them, far from being an oppressive symbol, it is a sign of identity.

All of this serves to show a transformation process which cannot reach fruition without processes of democratisation and social change similar to those which took place in Western societies. These were, until remarkably recently, just as unequal in law, and just as patriarchal.

Law, and democracy, are for everyone

It is not just that we cannot afford to tar Islamic extremists and reformists with the same brush. We must also be aware that the marginalisation or repression of the reformists can only benefit the extremists. In moments of high risk, these reformists can play the role of moderation in societies, which are both roused and worn out by dictatorship and socio-economic conditions. Such dictatorships survive only through intensive repression, including the manipulation of the fear of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.

This latter is the constant, confusing alibi and justification of the most totalitarian Arab governments in their desperate quest for political survival. If Islamic parties have become the bête noire of such regimes, it is because, far from enshrining Islamic conservatism, they represent an important political opposition to those ruling parties.

This confusion has its roots in the West’s prevailing view of Islamists. This does not distinguish between the majority of Islamist reformists, who are traditionalists nurtured by their own rulers, and the minority of radical Islamists who are hyped by the media. The latter are constantly manipulated by their own state security forces, who gain the most from their violent actions and often conflate them with the reformists, pursuing the whole mongrel mix as ‘terrorists’.

By this means, autocratic governments have adopted the convenient image of ‘the good despot’. This is based on the assumption that the transition to democracy in the Muslim world can be postponed until they have ‘saved themselves’ from the ‘Islamic fundamentalists’. The military coup in Algeria in 1992 spawned this mistaken perception. In fact, the fight against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has provided cover again and again for the brutal repression of Islamic reformists. It has given governments free reign, using hastily convened ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation, to pursue all opposition, both Islamic and non-Islamic, which seeks democratic reform and an end to their despotic power.

In adopting the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and paying so much attention to the ‘divide’ that separates the West from Arab and Muslim societies, the Western powers have backed the strategic interests of these Arab leaders, giving them substantial help to stay in power.

Unless this deceptive amalgam is deconstructed, the fight against terrorism may well become a dangerous witch-hunt conducted by spurious state interests in the region, allied and protected by Europe and the United States. Western silence and complicity has allowed Israel, for example, to seize a new opportunity to demonise and banish the individual and national rights of the Palestinians. Other states, such as Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria, have already declared: “Now, at last, you understand our fight against Islamic fundamentalism!” Such indiscriminate repression covers a multitude of sins including the radicalisation, sooner or later, of some local Islamic movements, and the emergence of other radical groups.

When it comes to the new brand of extra-territorial terrorism that appears to have been launched by Osama bin Laden, what kind of cooperation will the fight against terrorism elicit? How can terrorism and the identity of terrorists be reliably defined? We risk fostering injustices, bitterness and helplessness among the populations of those countries. How can we expect the peoples of these punished societies to join in the battle against terrorism, if it fails to contribute in any meaningful way to dignifying their existence; if it cannot demonstrate its credentials in state law; if instead, it bears all the hallmarks of those vested, strategic interests of which they are the main victims?

This, in my view, is the crux of the matter both in legitimising the fight against terrorism and in decisively winning it. What is needed is a legal framework in those countries that want to participate in the international coalition. Neither accusations, nor claims against political exiles in Europe and America, can be freely accepted until this comes about. Rather than the call for righteous revenge, with its counterproductive after-effects, irrefutable incriminatory evidence should be required, and the recourse to international tribunals.

We must keep in mind that a failure to support democracy and state law in the Muslim world not only fails to improve the lot of these peoples, but also fails to protect Western populaces. Problems in the region have now spilled across their geographical borders to affect all our societies. Western readers must understand that what our political chiefs do ‘out there’ will have repercussions for all of us.

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