Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity

Beginning in the late 18th century, post-secondary education was restructured across Europe—in part under the auspices of accelerating the transition to an envisioned rational and secular age.[1] In order to enroll the broadest swath of the public in this enterprise, institutions and curricula were rendered more accessible, inclusive, and professionally-oriented. At the time, Nietzsche condemned[2] the “ubiquitous encouragement of everyone’s so-called ‘individual personality’” and the growing trend to curb “serious and unrelenting critical habits and opinions” at universities—discerning as astutely in his own time as Jonathan Haidt today that the use of educational institutions for promoting a particular social vision is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.[3]

Yet across Western societies, and especially in elite circles, the 18th Century faith persists that a proliferation of education, science, and technology will help usher in a more rational and secular age[4]—one governed by expertise, and defined by worldwide peace and prosperity.[5]  Among adherents of this vision, universities are held in particularly high regard, as incubators of that better tomorrow—where our best and brightest hone the character, skills and knowledge to solve the world’s ills in an environment that promotes reasoned and civil debate, the free exchange of ideas, and an unflinching commitment to truth. However, contemporary research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests a much bleaker picture:[6]

For instance, rather than serving as an objective base upon which agreements can be built, evoking scientific studies or statistics in the context of socio-political arguments tends to further polarize interlocutors.[7] Both conservatives and progressives politicize science and evaluate its findings on an ideological basis: exaggerating conclusions when convenient while findings ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research which seems to threaten one’s identity or perceived interests.[8] Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”—thereby exacerbating people’s natural inclinations towards motivated reasoning.[9]

That is, if one wanted to create an environment which actually promoted closed-mindedness, dogmatism and polarization, contemporary research suggests the following prescription: consolidate societies’ most intelligent, knowledgeable and charismatic people, at a time in their lives when their identities are just taking shape (which increases the perceived urgency of protecting and validating said identities[10]), and place them in a competitive environment focused largely (and increasingly) on the sciences. [11] In a word: universities.[12]

Perhaps then, it should not be surprising that the long leftward trajectory of U.S. institutions of higher learning seems to have culminated with conservative faculty, students and perspectives almost completely absent from many fields,[13] while dissent from progressive ideology is met with increasing sanctions and scandal[14]—from which even historical figures are not immune.[15]

However one may feel about these developments from a moral or political point of view, they are harmful for the practice and profession of science–especially for the social and behavioral sciences.

Continue reading “Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity”

No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.

On Saturday January 2nd, citizens of Burns, Oregon held a rally protesting the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The local demonstration was co-opted by a militia, led by Nevada-native Ammon Bundy, now calling itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” Following its participation in the planned protest, the militia seized and continues to illegally occupy the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—vowing to remain there unless and until the Hammonds are granted clemency.

Many have been eager to brand Bundy and his militia as terrorists, referring to them as “Ya’ll-Qaeda,” “Yee-haw-dists” or “Vanilla ISIS.” And to be sure, there are similarities with Islamic militant groups. For instance, as with al-Qaeda, militants who drew inspiration from the Bundys have carried out atrocities that the family itself had to disavow.

Like Al-Qaeda, Bundy and his associates hold views which most would consider extreme. In fact, they share ISIS’ admiration for slavery—with Cliven Bundy (Ammon’s father, and the head of the Bundy clan) having suggested that blacks may be better off today if they were still in chains; others affiliated with (and many more who support) the movement harbor neo-confederate beliefs; still others from the militia are known members of designated hate groups and extremist organizations.

Moreover, while Bundy’s “resistance movement” is essentially driven by socio-political issues, chiefly land rights and perceived overreach by the federal government—their campaign is also religiously framed and motivated. This same dynamic holds true for ISIS, al-Qaeda and related groups.

However, holding controversial views should not render someone a terrorist. Nor does religious inspiration–after all, activists of many causes, including civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection have been driven by their faith and framed their movements in religious terms.

Ultimately, any similarities between the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and Islamic terrorists are vastly outweighed by the differences between them. 

Continue reading “No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

Continue reading “Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People”

America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing extremism–Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law-enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents (such as those affiliated with the Tea Party).

In order to help diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly grievances with the Internal Revenue Service (whose offices he struck). The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass-casualty event as a catalyst for political change—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for terrorism. And yet, the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such—and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!

 

Continue reading “America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East”

Factions Speak Louder Than Herds

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires—which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise)—the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.” Continue reading “Factions Speak Louder Than Herds”

The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless

On Dec. 30, the United Nations Security Council rejected a proposal put forward by coalition of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority calling for “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” from all Palestinian territories seized after 1967, and full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza by December 31, 2017.

The resolution needed 9 votes to pass, but ultimately garnered 8, with United States and Australia voting against it and 5 abstentions — an outcome achieved by Washington cajoling Nigeria to abstain at the last moment. But even if the measure passed, the U.S. had already signaled plans to exercise their veto and override the vote—as it has already done 41 times on Israel’s behalf since 1972. Continue reading “The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless”

Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later

In an administration which has become known for largely continuing the disastrous policies of the previous White House and doubling-down on its own proven failures—President Obama stunned the world with his surprise announcement that the United States would be normalizing relations with Cuba.

The President pointed out that the extraordinary sanctions regime, which has been in place for more than 50 years, has failed at its stated goal of achieving regime change in Cuba. Instead, it has senselessly immiserated the Cuban people for decades. Deeper engagement, he offered, would be the best path forward in bolstering an exchange of ideas between the two countries and promoting mutual well-being. The logic which motivated the Administration to revise its policy on Cuba would seem to apply equally to Iran. Continue reading “Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later”

ISIS Flag, Iraq Protests

Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)

It is perhaps disingenuous to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic,” as many Muslim apologists have attempted, in part because there is no “true” and “false” Islam objectively accessible to human beings. Would-be Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s interpretation may be far outside the mainstream contemporary or traditional approaches to Islam, but doesn’t make it “un-Islamic.” In fact, making these pejorative declarations about others’ faith (takfir) is a highly-controversial practice definitive of ISIS, which it uses to justify the persecution of religious minorities. Mainstream Muslims would be emulating their error to declare ISIS as non-Muslims in virtue of their fringe views.

Nonetheless, it is misleading to focus on ISIS’ supposed religion, in part because it implies that the group is organized around some well-worked out theological system, and that most of ISIS’ members subscribe to this system, having joined the organization for primarily religious purposes. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of these premises. Continue reading “Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State

The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.

However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.

Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.

The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.

It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State”

Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond

On Aug. 14, embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down and accepted the candidacy of his successor, Haider al-Abadi, who was nominated last week by the Iraqi president in an effort to end months of political stalemate in Baghdad. Maliki’s ouster has been a key demand of the Sunni opposition and United States. His resignation was welcomed, remarkably, by both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, the end of Maliki’s reign was heightened by a coup from within his Shia alliance that had been brewing for some time. However, his removal alone — more symbolic than substantial — will not resolve the deeper political crisis that threatens Iraq’s unity and long-term viability.

This threat is often framed in terms of sectarian tensions among Iraq’s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. But sectarianism in Iraq is also easy to misunderstand or overstate. The current turmoil results not from the centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shias but from a revolt against very specific governmental policies — most of which have their origins in the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Continue reading “Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond”

Al-Malaki Has Been Deposed, To What Avail?

Contrary to the popular narrative, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Malaki was not a sectarian leader. His fault was that he was an overly-ambitious autocrat who had the further misfortune of presiding over a fundamentally sectarian political system–and during the particularly polarized period in the Mideast which followed the Arab Uprisings.

And while deposing al-Malaki had been a key demand of the Sunni opposition (as well as the United States), it is critical to recognize that the prime minister met his end at the hands of the Shii alliance, who wanted him gone for their own reasons. It was not a response to the Sunni uprising, but an intra-Shii coup which had been in the works for some time:

Continue reading “Al-Malaki Has Been Deposed, To What Avail?”

Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution

Throughout the current crisis, Israeli apologists and spokespeople have attempted to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, for the wanton carnage and destruction unfolding in Gaza. One of their consistent talking points has been that, following Israel’s 2005 retreat from the Gaza strip in the wake of the Second Intifada and Hamas’ 2006 electoral landslide victories, the organization could have built a “Palestinian paradise” in Gaza—but they instead chose to squander their efforts and resources on terrorism, at the expense of the Palestinian people, “forcing” Israel to kill thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, for the sake of its own continued existence.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. Continue reading “Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution”

War is Peace: Al-Sisi, Abu Mazen, Netanyahu and the Cynical Ceasefire

Following Abu Mazen’s too-hasty embrace of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and corresponding criticism of Hamas, the popular narrative of the ongoing crisis in Gaza is that Hamas has betrayed the truce agreement despite Israel’s hours-long unilateral compliance. The truth of the matter is that Hamas didn’t violate the ceasefire because it never signed onto it. In fact, they have from the outset rejected any such reprieve prior to negotiating the terms of an armistice with Israel. Yet despite their clear position with regards to a truce, Hamas was not consulted in the formation of Egypt’s proposal—in fact, they claim to have found out about it through media reports. The proposal put forward by the Egyptians was not a serious attempt to bring the conflict to a resolution—it will exacerbate the crisis, as it was likely designed to do.

Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, shares Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom al-Sisi perhaps rightly views as an existential threat to his nascent regime; both groups are banned in Egypt under al-Sisi’s orders. He jailed his predecessor on trumped up charges of colluding with Hamas. He indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing into Egypt—Gaza’s only connection to the outside world given Israel’s illegal land and sea blockade–in an attempt to choke off Hamas and weaken its position among Gazans. He subsequently destroyed the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle assets into Gaza circumventing the crossing. He is even courting a joint missile-defense system with Israel in order to help contain the group and its patron Iran—as part of a growing security partnership between the two countries.

All of these measures have and continue to feed into the ill-substantiated race-baiting conspiracies resonating across the Arab world (and beyond) that al-Sisi is Jewish and a Manchurian candidate for Israel and its Zionist hardliners. This impression is further exacerbated by Israel’s quiet but persistent support for al-Sisi’s deposing of President Muhammad Mursi, as well as his personal rise to power and subsequent brutal crackdown on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Accordingly, al-Sisi was and remains a radically inappropriate choice as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, notwithstanding Egypt’s traditional role in easing tensions between the two parties. As the situation in Gaza deteriorated, al-Sisi sat on his hands for nearly a week, likely savoring Israel’s attempts at breaking Hamas. And then, despite it being easily within its power to do so, Egypt refused to give Hamas any kind of an “out” in their proposal, anything they could take back to their constituents as a victory—al-Sisi put forward a proposal destined, likely intended, to fail, and only under pressure from the Arab world and the West to put on a spectacle of “doing something.”

The United States suffers from a similar conflict of interest preventing them from serving as a mediator between Hamas and Israel: America has refused to recognize Hamas’ government as legitimate from the time they rose to power in 2006 until the formation of its unity government last month. Instead, the Bush II Administration passed sanctions punishing Gazans for exercising their democratic agency when Hamas rejected Israel’s terms for forming a government. Thereafter, they plotted (unsuccessfully) to forcibly overthrow Hamas in collaboration with Fatah. When these measures failed, Israel and Egypt began their blockade of the Gaza Strip, turning it into a virtual open-air prison—of course, with the support of the White House.  This situation has persisted, virtually unabated, to the present. Continue reading “War is Peace: Al-Sisi, Abu Mazen, Netanyahu and the Cynical Ceasefire”

The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny

Summary of a revolution: people making drastic and weighty decisions, rapidly and spontaneously, in a highly emotional state–often under the sway of some charismatic leader.

Question: Are these the sorts of actions we tend to retrospectively endorse or regret?

 

Followers of my work will know that I have been highly critical of virtually all of the revolutionary movements in the MENA region—particularly those in Libya, Syria and Egypt.  It would not be a stretch to say that my default disposition is anti-revolution, although from the response to my work in many  quarters, there does not seem to be a robust understanding of why. So rather than writing yet another expose, this time on the pop-media misinformation and problematic framing of the recent protests in Ukraine, it may be more fruitful to explain just why these movements are so troubling:

Continue reading “The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny”

Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran

Initially, Bashar al-Asad had developed his chemical weapons programs as a deterrent against Israeli and Western aggression—lately, he has discovered that these arms are more of a liability than an asset, nearly provoking the very invasion they were intended to ward off.

For its part, Iran has been unyielding in their condemnation of the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and for good reason: they were the victims of a heinous series of attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with the tacit approval of his Western patrons. Few understand as profoundly as Iran how truly abominable these armaments are—the same impetus which drives the Europeans to abolish these weapons also motivates the Islamic Republic.

And yet, in his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a number of dire warnings related to Iran’s nuclear energy program. As part of this tirade, he recalled how North Korea made a similar bid to have sanctions reduced in exchange for deconstructing their nuclear program. He correctly reminds us that once these embargoes had been sufficiently lifted, the regime “sprinted” towards finishing and testing a nuclear weapon, now menacing the region, and indeed, the world. He warned about a similar outcome should sanctions be lifted “prematurely” on Iran.

Of course, the obvious flaw in Netanyahu’s “logic” is that Iran has no desire to be another North Korea pariah state— instead, to transform into the economic and geopolitical superpower they are destined to become once international sanctions are lifted. And they hardly need nuclear weapons to achieve this end. Continue reading “Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran”

Two Years, Three States, Two Civil Wars? Post-Revolutionary Libya

The NATO intervention in Libya was an unmitigated disaster.

At the outset, Washington policymakers believed that the people would rise up en masse against Gaddhafi, and embrace the new “democratic” government which was installed in the aftermath of his execution. This didn’t happen.

Instead, NATO was pulled  ever deeper into the theater because there were few military or government defections, Gaddhafi didn’t buckle in the face of direct Western intervention, and the people did not rise up against him in substantial numbers; they would not even support the rebels with food, water, or supplies. Despite the no-fly zone, his forces continued to close in on Benghazi, forcing NATO to expand its military involvement, to include arming and training the rebels.

Ultimately, the tide was turned by the participation of AQIM; an al-Qaeda detainee released from Guantanamo Bay became one of the most prolific leaders of the rebellion. The organization offered their support to the rebels early on in the protests—and why shouldn’t they have? The government was moving in on their territory. According to the CTC, Libya provided the highest number of foreign insurgents in Iraq, per capita; most of these hailed from east, a la Benghazi.

But even the influx of al-Qaeda fighters was insufficient to “close the deal.” Continue reading “Two Years, Three States, Two Civil Wars? Post-Revolutionary Libya”

The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.

In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the White House’s case for intervention in Syria.

It stinks of Karl “Turdblossom” Rove, who once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation.  Simultaneously, the State Department has began sending the rebels vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment, advanced combat medical kits, and other gear–collectively, these actions amount to a “major escalation” of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Asad government.  There are bills being floated in the Senate which would empower the President to “punish” Syria if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement.  The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.

That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may have prevailed in this particular battle, but the war rages on. What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for military intervention in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one.

Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.”

An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

A week after carrying out his ultimatum to depose President Mursi, General al-Sisi delivered a new 48-hour ultimatum to those alienated by his actions to end their protests against the military coup.  Even as the general demanded that the protesters end their demonstrations, he called upon his own supporters to take to the streets nationwide in order to give the army a “mandate” to confront its critics, whom he referred to as “terrorists.” This call to action was later parroted by Egypt’s interim president (a high-ranking member of the disgraced Mubarak regime, hand-picked by Gen. al-Sisi) and the tamarod “rebels.” Of course, this supposed license is ironic given that one of the common criticisms of President Mursi is that he overstepped his popular mandate—despite the overwhelming victory of his party in parliamentary elections, and its subsequent win in the presidential race. Apparently, while democratic elections do not empower their victors with a strong mandate, protests can give the SCAF legitimacy to do anything—first to commit a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term, and now it seems to restore the Mubarak-era police state.

Empowered by the opposition rallies (although apparently not disempowered by those who were protesting the coup), scores of peaceful protestors were killed in the streets, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the majority of victims were shot in the chest, neck, or head—indicating that the security forces were shooting to kill.  Later, these forces stormed and attempted to dismantle the protest camps. The interim government would go on to announce that the despised Mubarak-era “religion police” were to be re-activated, even as  al-Mansur gave the army renewed legal grounding to arrest civilians. It is likely that these will be just the first of many “necessary” authoritarian measures in Egypt’s new “War on Terror,” a campaign which will increasingly jump from propaganda into reality as a result of the SCAF’s actions:

Throughout the protest movement which preceded the military coup against Husni Mubarak, and in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, the Islamists were overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding participants in the democratic process—and they would prove to be its primary beneficiaries. However, the actions by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) throughout, culminating in the removal of President Mursi and the subsequent persecution of the Brotherhood—these sent the message to many Islamists that the democratic and legal process is a dead end: the deep-state and its international supporters have no respect for the popular will.The state’s institutions have continued to be dominated by the SCAF, the deep-state and the fulul (high-ranking members of the former regime who were ostensibly cast out of government when the dictator was deposed, but who were also given blanket-immunity from prosecution for the regime’s crimes and often retained significant wealth and influence). This corruption has been so long-standing, and runs so deep, that the state apparatus is incapable of being reformed; instead, by any means necessary, it must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced—and by something other than Western models of governance. Although not inevitable, extremism is certainly a natural response to these convictions.

The army claimed that the coup was necessary to prevent Egypt from descending into chaos—predictably, their intervention brought about the very outcomes it was supposed to prevent; however, by feeding into sectarianism and violence, elements from among the protesters are inadvertently supporting the SCAF’s narrative in the name of resistance.  Exploiting these developments, it is likely the army will continue to serve as a destabilizing force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future.  And while the army’s actions have been widely depicted as a forced response to extraordinary circumstances, this is actually the third major attempt by the SCAF to seize “legitimate” total control over the state since the military coup which deposed Mubarak. Accordingly, the notion that the SCAF is acting in the interests of democracy is absurd– and the belief they will transition real authority to a civilian government seems naïve at best:

Continue reading “An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt”

Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey”

When people read analyses, they typically interpret them in terms of popular narrative frameworks which are currently in circulation. This heuristic is usually reliable—most analyses explicitly draw from these competing interpretations; accordingly, reading things in this fashion allows one to much more quickly understand what is being said in the analysis and why it matters. However, as with any heuristic,  this method also imparts various biases and blindspots, which can at times be problematic. For instance, if one is dealing with an analysis which avoids reliance on these frameworks because they are ill-formed, or one that explicitly sets out to undermine them, or a work that shifts between various interpretive strategies—in all of these cases, it is common for the intent of the analysis to be totally overlooked, and for the work to be misconstrued as arguing in favor of the very thing it is trying to work against.  Often, audiences will read things into a work which the article itself does not mandate. Such has been the case with reactions to my recent essay, “How to Avoid Being a Turkey: Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests.”

This piece motivated two excellent response articles—however, neither of them were very successful at undermining what the author was actually trying to argue. In both cases, my interlocutors seemed to believe that I was taking a position against the protests and/or in favor Prime Minister Erdogan—neither of these are true. Instead, I set out to complicate a number of problematic narratives which were taking hold in the popular discourse—the point of this analysis was to get the reader to step back and reflect upon what was happening more carefully, undercutting “black & white” dichotomies that polarize the discourse and result in ham-fisted policies.

Dr. Gramling’s article can and should be read in complete harmony with mine—we make many of the same points, and the differences between us are entirely matters of emphasis. A careful reading will reveal that there is actually no outright contradiction anywhere between Dr. Gramling’s work and my own.

There are substantive differences between my article and that of Dr. Silverstein—however, even his analysis begins by conceding agreement on a number of key points, and many of the outstanding differences are not as drastic as my interlocutor seems to believe. And in the places our views authentically diverge, my critic has generally failed to undermine my position or substantiate his own.

Continue reading “Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey””

Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests

In recent weeks there has been a deluge of coverage and analysis of Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests. These events have typically been framed as another case of a popular and peaceful youth movement being crushed by an authoritarian dictator; often pundits have gone so far as to label these protests as the beginning of a “Turkish Spring,” drawing on the same utterly false frameworks which have dominated the public discourse throughout the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. However, this caricature of the current (and probably future) struggle in Istanbul ignores a number of inconvenient facts:

First, the protests were not as peaceful as the narrative suggests. While the media has given a good deal of coverage of  riot police deploying tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades  and batons on the crowds, from the beginning of the protests there have been contingents who fought with and taunted the police, to include launching stones, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at the authorities. In fact, by some accounts the water cannons and tear gas were deployed in response to this initiation of violence by the protestors.  Either way, once that door gets opened, it is easy for the innocent to be punished along with the guilty. This is indeed, what some of the provocateurs may have been seeking: it is a common tactic in protest movements for activists to goad the authorities into an overly-forceful response in an attempt to build international sympathy for their cause and grow their numbers domestically.

However, when incendiary devices are being deployed in the heart of major metropolitan areas at the height of tourist season, when there are incidences of vandalism, arson, and looting—once certain lines are crossed, the state has an authentic responsibility to bring an end to these behaviors for the sake of public safety. There are certainly some among the protestors who went way too far in their attempts at instigation—and the Turkish authorities were all too eager to take the bait—and the entire (mostly peaceful) movement paid the price for this game.

Second, the protests were not popular. While it is true that tens-of-thousands took to the streets of Istanbul, this number does not seem as impressive when one considers that we are discussing a city populated by 14 million (similarly, it is important to note the distinction between “diversely-comprised” and “popular.” Many erroneously conflate the former with the latter). There is no reason to believe that the protests represent the popular will; in fact, as we will see, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this.

Erdogan is not a dictator—he is a democratically elected Prime Minister serving his third and final term, following the AKP’s decisive victory in the 2011 elections—his party’s electoral success has been unprecedented, and has been growing with each election. There should be little doubt that if it came to a referendum, the AKP and Erdogan would maintain their impressive majorities (conveniently, the media failed to cover the large counter-rallies in support of the prime minister). In fact, the narrative of “Islamist tyranny” is ironic in this context: Continue reading “Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests”

The Semantics of Revolution

Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of  September 11th (2001).  However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms:  consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:

First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and  Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty,  to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.

In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the  “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.

Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses  pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”

The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.  And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.

While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:

Continue reading “The Semantics of Revolution”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.

 

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.

 

Continue reading “Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers”

Timeline of the Syrian Civil War

Before the Arab Uprisings, Syria was one of the safest countries in the world. There were robust protections for women and ethno-religious minorities. While the government was authoritarian, the trends were towards liberalization—both economic and political. While there were some factions within Syria who were understandably dissatisfied at the pace of reform (which was, indeed, glacial), the President remained (and remains) popular domestically. In the Middle East, while many were wary of Syria’s close ties to Iran, the President was respected as a bulwark against (perceived) Israeli aggression in the region. On the larger world-stage, Bashar al-Asad was hailed as a moderate and a reformer.

2/2011: Protests begin

The protests began in Syria not long after the military coup which removed Husni Mubarak from power in Egypt. Continue reading “Timeline of the Syrian Civil War”

The Arab Spring’s Third Wave

Insofar as it is helpful or accurate to understand the “Arab Spring” as a meta-movement which began with the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, we can break it into a few significant “waves.” The first wave of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were quick, peaceful and orderly, relative to the second wave with the much more protracted, chaotic and violent uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As these movements continue to evolve, some have argued that much of the Arab world would lose their appetite for civil disobedience once the revolutions got bloody, were radicalized or descended into civil war. It was even proclaimed that the Arab Spring was dead because a few similar authoritarian regimes remained quite unscathed.

While secular dictators have been overthrown, the Arab monarchs seem to have weathered the storm through a potent mix of token gestures of reform, fear-mongering, internal repression, historical/cultural hegemony, and geopolitical maneuvering.

For their part, Western nations and the international media have tired of championing popular democratic change in the region – especially as the monarchies in question are some of the West’s closest regional allies. In spite of all of these countervailing forces, however, there has been a recent renewal and escalation of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan. We are witnessing the formation of a third wave of the Arab Spring uprisings, wherein protesters target monarchs instead of dictators.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring’s Third Wave”

The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen

Following the military coup which removed Hosni Mubarak, it was widely reported that al-Qaeda was rendered obsolete by the Arab Spring. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, pronounced:

“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”

This sentiment was only amplified in light of the U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership: Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Yaya al-Libi and Said al-Shehri (among others)—personality strikes which continue to this very day despite the growing evidence of blowback.

Indeed, al-Qaeda had lost a good deal of their leadership, their popular support, and their morale. Their attacks had been  mostly confined to the Mideast (as attempts at strikes in the West had been consistently intercepted), and their victims were primarily other Muslims. Before he was killed, Osama bin Laden lamented the fact that al-Qaeda had become consumed with purging apostates and ethno-religious minorities at the expense of their primary mandates:  to overthrow tyrannical and secular regimes (replacing them with Sunni theocracies), to drive out foreign forces from the MENA region, and to redress wrong committed against the Muslim community worldwide.

In short, al-Qaeda had serious problems—but not insurmountable ones. In light of how the “Arab Spring” revolutions have progressed, largely as a result of meddling by the US and the Gulf, the organization and its affiliates seem to be on the verge of a renaissance rather than extinction.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen”

Is Reality Another Victim of the Massacre at Houla?

 

“With a tenuous peace settling over Syria, a former White House official says it would take powerful video images blasted on cable news of regime-orchestrated brutality to draw in the U.S. military. Barry Pavel, a former National Security Council and Pentagon official, tells DOTMIL via Twitter the U.S. “will act only if [a] ‘CNN event’” occurs.”

Unquestionably, the massacre at Houla is a horrific event.  However, many questions should be raised regarding the event and its portrayal in the media. As the news first broke, the BBC posted a story along with the tragic image of a young boy running through a virtual field of body bags. The problem? This image was taken during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The photographer who took the picture was quite vocal in calling out its misuse, and the image was soon removed.

And then there is the plausibility issue. While it would be hard to justify skepticism that the massacre did, indeed, occur—there are legitimate questions as to who perpetrated it. CNN was trying to frame this as an event orchestrated by the Syrian military; this is problematic. CNN (and Western journalists more broadly) readily point out that the Syrian forces are armed with heavy artillery and automatic weapons, while the rebels have only small-arms and not enough of them. Yet the story is apparently that a number of soldiers decided to, at great risk to themselves, enter a rebel-occupied town equipped with nothing but small-arms, knives, and axes to kill more than 100 people at close range, mostly civilian women and children. Moreover, they apparently managed to succeed in this without losing a single man: there are no regime soldiers identified among the dead.

We must also bear in mind that these soldiers would be attacking their fellow Syrians. While many in the Army may feel that fighting against the rebellion is a necessary evil they must commit for the good of Syria itself—it is unlikely that they would want to carry out something so personal as the execution of civilians, regardless of age. Throughout the conflict, as has been widely reported, the Syrian Army’s methods have utilized distance to their advantage:  snipers, heavy artillery, etc.

The massacre at Houla seems more likely to have come from Sunni extremist groups from outside of Syria, an increasing reality in this conflict.  This becomes even more likely if the victims of the massacre happen to be Alawites, Druze, Christians, Shii, some other minority sect; or government sympathizers (as this is a rebel-occupied town). Throughout the crisis in Syria, these considerations have been conveniently overlooked—all dead bodies have been lumped together and CNN has frequently emphasized the rebel’s casualty statistics (as opposed to the official government statistics or those provided by the UN).  These projections have been made  without asking the obvious questions: “Who is in these body bags? How did they die?” The implication is always that these were protestors killed by government forces.

Russia has stated that the Houla events are unclear. While they often take this posture, more for political reasons than epistemological rigor, they are certainly correct in this case. One thing  is clear:  the news media, activists, and various members of the international community are using this event to try to pressure the United States into intervening in Syria more directly, as the U.N. has already stated that it will not.

Published 6/1/2012 by SISMEC.