Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay.
On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.Slavoj Zizek

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group. 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

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Social Movement Requires Force

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard…And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity… And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 'The Other America'

On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace.   We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.

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The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast

Earlier this month, the White House unveiled its new foreign policy credo: “Don’t do stupid shit.” While many lamented the modesty of this approach, acting with restraint in order to limit iatrogenesis is certainly a worthy goal—and an approach with wide and enduring popular support—in fact, this is the vision most of Obama’s voters endorsed they elected him (twice).

Despite the past several years of a foreign policy which uncomfortably mirrors that of his predecessor, there have been faint glimmers of hope, such as when the Administration took the long-overdue measure of shuttering many of the State Department’s semi-clandestine “democracy promotion” programs, or its gesturing towards reconciliation with Iran. But these moments of sanity have been far too few and far between. And it didn’t take long for this new commitment to run off the rails, despite its humble aspirations. In fact, it was dead on arrival: Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast”

Al-Sisi Triumphs Over the Deep State, the Regime is Reborn!

This week, Gen. al-Sisi formally announced his bid for presidency, as well as his simultaneous resignation as Minister of Defense and the SCAF’s Chief of Staff. In his speech he detailed, at length, the ongoing crises facing Egypt.

Left out of this tirade were the inconvenient truths that these endemic problems, which animated the unprecedented protests against Hosni Mubarak, were not meaningfully addressed in the year the SCAF administered Egypt under the administration Gen. al-Tantawi (al-Sisi’s mentor)—nor has there been substantial progress on these challenges in the several months since the SCAF reclaimed power after deposing President Mursi. Worse still, al-Sisi seemed to have no significant proposals for resolving these persistent problems other than continuing to court petrodollars from the Gulf monarchies in exchange for security and geopolitical services.

The announcement of his candidacy was no surprise—if anything, many were puzzled as to why it took so long for him to officially declare his bid for president. The short answer: he wanted to be sure that there was no chance he would lose or be deposed after stepping down as head of the SCAF. Continue reading “Al-Sisi Triumphs Over the Deep State, the Regime is Reborn!”

Libya in Transition… But to What?

Since the overthrow of Gaddhafi, Libya’s capital has long been consumed by fierce struggles between Islamists and the coalition aligned with former PM Zeidan, largely perceived as Western proxies—each with their own parliamentary blocks and militias. Over the course of the last several months, there have been many attempts at deposing the country’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, with militias going so far as to abduct him at gunpoint and demand his resignation. These failed attempts have begun to give way to calls for altogether disbanding the parliament. However, last month the opposition finally managed to sack the embattled PM due to his mismanagement of eastern separatist movements.

Following the vote of no-confidence in his government, Zeidan promptly fled the country—he had been banned from leaving due to an ongoing investigation of “financial irregularities” involving payments to one of the armed groups which had been besieging Libya’s oilfields.

It is not clear who will replace Zeidan. The deputy PM Sadiq Abdulkarim, who recently survived an assassination attempt himself, has been apparently passed over. Instead, the parliament has named Libya’s defense minister to the post on a temporary basis—possibly in an attempt to rally the army behind them in the wake of last month’s threatened military coup. He has since demanded more power for his government to address the myriad crises facing the country.

The parliament was forced to hold this and other referenda in a luxury hotel, after anti-Islamist protestors stormed the Parliament building, killing one, injuring several, and causing extensive damage to the premises.

This attack followed the preliminary announcement of the election results for Libya’s new Constituent Assembly—a poll in which more than a fifth of the seats were unable to be filled as a result of polling-place violence or election boycotts, and less than 14% of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots at all. These results suggest a growing sense of disenchantment among Libyan’s with their government, perhaps best embodied by the separatist movements gaining strength in the country’s east and south:

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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:

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The “Deep State” Declares Independence in Egypt

To be clear, the Egyptian military does not aspire towards total control of the state, with all of the responsibilities entailed thereby—what they want, what they have always wanted, is to be beyond accountability to the civilian population, to have their budget immune to external oversight or reduction, to reserve the right to intercede as they deem necessary in the political affairs of the state without any reciprocal checks by legislators, and to respond with impunity against those whom they deem to be a threat to their social order.

It was in the service of these ends that they deposed Husni Mubarak: a maneuver designed to preserve, not change, the status quo. In the aftermath of their first coup they unyieldingly struggled to limit the civilian government from exerting any meaningful control over critical state institutions—efforts which were bolstered by other elements of the deep state with complimentary vested interests in perpetuating the existing order—culminating in a second coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term.

It’s been a tumultuous affair, but it appears as though the junta’s efforts have paid off. Continue reading “The “Deep State” Declares Independence in Egypt”

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:

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Universal Values v. Universal Laws

The liberal notion of universal law derives its supposed normative force from an ill-defined notion of universal values. This notion of universality is tied conceptually and historically to Western imperialism—and many of the values taken to be “universal” are not.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we presupposed the existence of some set of universal values—this would neither entail nor imply that they could be realized through any universal law; and there is certainly no reason to think that liberalism would be the only, or even the best, way of realizing these values. Take, for instance, the value of respecting women: according to liberalism, the best way to show respect for women is to treat them exactly the same as men. However, this is not the only understanding of justice.

The classical conception is not “to treat everyone the same” but instead “to treat equally those who are the same”—according to which there are two forms of injustice:

  1. Treating people different when they are in fact the same, or
  2. Treating people the same when they are importantly different

In this spirit, traditionalists argue that the liberal conception fails to respect women qua women. Under the liberal conception, women are only valued in those aspects in which they can easily be interchanged with men (i.e. as a worker, a voter, a consumer, etc.).  It is rarely considered just how much is built into this discourse.

For instance, it is presupposed that the only (or in any case, best) ways of empowering women, and people in general, is to give them prolific professional titles, higher salaries, etc. That there are alternative, perhaps more contextually relevant, forms of power or significance is completely overlooked in favor of blind submission to capitalist interpretations of value (the truth of which is also presumed as universal and incontrovertible).

In defiance of this paradigm, a traditionalist would argue that the best way to respect women is to respect the differences between the sexes and to honor gender roles. This neither entails nor implies treating women as 2nd class citizens—instead, that women and men have reciprocal and complimentary (rather than identical) rights and duties. In fact, a more careful examination of social dynamics in traditional societies would reveal that women have a good deal more power than is traditionally assumed–much of which is lost in transition to “modern” paradigms of gender relations.

To this, the liberal would retort that recognizing any difference between the sexes is necessarily discriminatory: non-identical is synonymous with unequal.

While there are significant merits to either of these positions, there is no way to formulate universal policies which simultaneously treat men and women differently but also exactly the same. So, if there is a single body of laws to which all must submit, one of these conceptions has to be chosen. And whichever one is chosen, there will be a group of people who legitimately feels as though the law disrespects women. And in the case of societies in which most people, to include most women, reject liberalism–to impose upon them the liberal interpretation of what it means to respect women would alienate the bulk of society, including most of the women the liberals ostensibly wish to “honor and protect.” Accordingly, in these societies, if one conception of “respecting women,” had to be chosen, it would seem most just to adopt the traditional interpretation which the liberals would also have to be subject to (as opposed to subjecting the overwhelming majority to the will of an extreme minority). This does not entail a disregard for women’s rights (e.g. political participation, education, legal protection from violence/ exploitation)—but rather changes the nature of feminism.

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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.

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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”

Rejoinder to “Order, Freedom and Chaos: Sovereignties in Syria”

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game,” demonstrated that contrary to the popular narratives, most Syrians seem to support President al-Asad over the armed rebels. Moreover, it was argued that most of the casualties from the conflict were combatants, that the regime probably controlled more territory than the narrative suggested, that the dynamics of the conflict seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term (a bold claim at the time), and that the influence of foreign jihadists was far greater than their numbers may suggest—influence which would only grow over time.

These claims have been unanimously vindicated: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has actually changed their methodologies, now distinguishing more clearly between combatant and non-combatant civilians; while there is still much to critique about their specific numbers (and their ideological bias), they now acknowledge as well that most of the casualties have been combatants. The Arab League has recently stated that about 40% of Syria is outside of the government’s control, meaning the regime controls the majority of the country (contrary to previous rhetoric that the regime controlled less than a third of Syria). And as I argued in “The Numbers Game,” the parts of the country which are not being administered by the government are generally not being controlled by the rebels, either. Moreover, as projected, the regime has been making strides in retaking these ungoverned territories since December 2012—to include a number of rebel strongholds. Finally, rebel forces are increasingly reliant upon the weapons, training, and leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra and other transnational jihadist organizations—and are increasingly adopting their ideologies;  The New York Times has gone so far as to report that there was no evidence of a “secular” fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. Unspeakable crimes are committed daily by the rebels, to include instances of cannibalism.

Deploying the same methodologies from  “The Numbers Game,”  I subsequently demonstrated that despite the media fetish on regime airstrikes and calls for a no-fly zone in Syria—deaths from aerial bombardments amounted to less than 9% of the total casualties, most of which were likely combatants.  These numbers have since been echoed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Despite the apparent success of these analyses, in the most recent issue of Middle East Policy my friend and colleague George Abu Ahmad leveled a number of serious charges against me, attempting to undermine my conclusions and proposing an alternate method for understanding the conflict in Syria. I will briefly respond to these criticisms here:

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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:

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Irreligious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is not exclusively, or even primarily, a religious phenomenon.

The classical conception of liberalism includes, among other things, a commitment to free markets, universal law, democracy, pluralism, and secularism. While often held to be universal values, these ideologies are not intrinsically compatible or necessarily intertwined—in fact, these ideas were not even historically compatible. In many contexts, they diverge and conflict. Individually and collectively, they are neither necessary nor inevitable ideologies; they may even be inferior to alternative social arrangements (such as state capitalism, illiberal democracy, legal pluralism, etc.) at realizing the will and interests of a given population.

While much of the narrative regarding the “Arab Spring” has focused on the supposed tension between Islamism and Liberalism—these false-dichotomies overlook the essential problem, which is a conflict internal to liberalism in simultaneously promoting democracy, secularism, and universal law in many contexts, to include the MENA (Middle East & North African) region. Accordingly, Western attempts to instantiate or promote their own values and institutions in these societies is likely to foster instability and sectarian strife rather than pluralism and cooperation.

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Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative

In early 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regional and international allies were all warning him that an American invasion was imminent. Hussein’s reply was basically, “I know Washington’s tone is getting aggressive, but they aren’t going to try to remove me. I’m the only one in the region who is really taking the fight to the terrorists and fundamentalists. I’m the only one in the region putting real pressure on Iran. Despite our differences, they aren’t crazy! There is no way the United States is going to invade Iraq.”

Saddam was gravely overestimating America’s sanity. Forty-five months later, he was hanging from the gallows, his Baath regime dismantled, his country in shambles. The carnage and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq horrified the world.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was widespread hope that we would see a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy:  troops would leave Afghanistan and Iraq, detainees would leave Guantanamo. No more gunboat liberalism. No more wars fought on false pretenses, driven by delusional ideologues, and contrary to American interests. The death of the nebulous global “war on terror” was nigh.

This “hope” proved ill-founded – the promised “change,” ephemeral.

Since Obama took office, the war on terror has dramatically expanded. Nomenclature notwithstanding, it remains global, vague, and unending – increasing its dimensions from the Middle East to West Africa, and the real world into cyberspace with digital pre-emptive strikes. It is a war which continues to be waged at the expense of civil liberties. America continues to drive more people towards extremism than it removes from the field through many of its counterterrorism tactics such as the drone program.

As far as Palestine or Iran are concerned, Ehud Barak said it best: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

The astonishing continuity between the Bush II and Obama administrations is nowhere clearer than America’s disastrous foreign policies related to the Arab Spring – policies which were driven by ideology and misinformation, no less under Obama than his predecessor (in fact, many of the same people from the Bush Administration inform policies for Obama).

The Arab Uprisings brought regime change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and likely Syria; the United States played a decisive role in all of these “revolutions.”  And that role was usually to make things worse and more complicated.

 

Continue reading “Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative”

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”

Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism

In the wake of Egypt’s historic democratic elections, Islamist candidates won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament. A Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, would go on to win Egypt’s inaugural presidential elections. Recently, voters ratified a new Egyptian constitution which is perceived to grant Islamic institutions (such as al-Azhar) significant influence over the government.

As it is in Egypt, so has it been throughout the MENA region: at first glance, it would seem as though Islamists have been the primary beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. However, contrary to the popular discourse, the challenge facing these governments is not in reconciling Islam with liberalism.  Instead, the problem is internal to liberalism itself: in the MENA contexts, there seems to be tension in simultaneously promoting authentic democracy and a universal body of laws. There are historical reasons for this:

Colonialist powers, in an attempt to keep the peoples of the MENA region divided against themselves, carved up state boundaries in such a way as to fragment and alienate the various ethnic and religious groups—creating weak majorities which would be unable to drive out the occupiers, while patronizing minority populations (entendre intended), who would thereby be dependent upon their colonizers to ensure continued protection and influence. These tensions were exacerbated by the colonialists’ insistence on a series of universal laws governing these states, which created a zero-sum political game. Under such a system, governments are forced into a democratic dilemma; they can either:

  1. Foster a government which is unrepresentative of the majority of its citizens in many critical aspects, for the sake of protecting minority groups, or
  2. Allow minorities to be held ransom by the tyranny of the majority.

Neither of these seem particularly appealing; however, these two options need not be exhaustive. It may be that the best way to allow for a government to be representative and responsive to the popular will while empowering and protecting minorities is to reject the notion that there must be a single body of laws which governs all citizens. Continue reading “Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism”

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”

Resist Overly-Simple Narratives About Syria, Asad

While one would never know it from the news, the reform process in Syria is actually going smoother than it is in Egypt. If this might sound crazy to the everyday headline reader, think of it this way:  Syria has a popularly approved new constitution, a democratically elected parliament that the state actually recognizes and one with clearly defined powers and responsibilities. Egypt, on the other hand, has no constitution, a parliament which is not recognized by the state and a president whose role is ambiguous.  While it would be easy to view the reforms in Syria cynically, the reality may not be so simple. In fact, throughout the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Asad has made substantial moves to resolve the conflict.

Prior to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Asad was hailed worldwide as a reformer.  Indeed, only several years ago the very pundits and policymakers that are now calling for his overthrow portrayed Asad as being committed to liberalizing the Syrian economy, normalizing relations with the global community, protecting women’s and minority rights, and gradually instituting democratic reforms. When the protests began, Bashar moved quickly to signal to the protestors that he had heard their concerns: he dismissed his cabinet, vowed to lift the emergency laws in Syria (which curtailed certain civil liberties), lifted 3-year old government bans on YouTube and Facebook and promised to increase the speed of the democratic transition in Syria.

And then, he actually came through on that promise. In February 2012, the President submitted a new constitution for Syrian approval. This constitution included serious concessions: it eliminated the Ba’ath Party’s guaranteed majority in parliament (for the first time in more than 40 years) and limited presidential term limits to seven years, with the potential to be re-elected only once.  It is not an understatement to say that these concessions marked an end to Bashar’s hegemony over the country. And despite opposition calls to boycott the referendum (and occasional voter intimidation), more than 57% of the electorate turned out to vote, and more than 89% of these voters approved the proposal.

The opposition refused to acknowledge this new constitution, despite the ostensive purpose of their protests being to ensure respect for the popular will. American policymakers immediately called the referendum a “sham,” although they provided no evidence of ballot rigging or fraud. Thereafter, President Asad opened up Syria to the UN, the Red Cross, and the certain members of the international press.  He also promised to quickly hold free parliamentary elections in accordance with the new constitution, and in May 2012, he came through on this promise as well.

Again, the opposition called for Syrians to boycott the elections; again, the majority of the electorate ignored that call.  The election, which occurred in the presence of UN observers, had a participation rate in excess of 51% (despite the fact that voting was virtually impossible in rebel-held areas). And while the Ba’ath Party and its allies won the majority of seats, this is largely because most of those who would have voted for other candidates (i.e. the opposition) largely refused to take part in the process. But even without their participation, the parliament was elected by a majority of the electorate.

In Syria, as in all of the “Arab Spring” countries, the protestors represent a minority of the population ( typically, less than 1% of the population). And even within this group, the armed insurgency  is an extreme minority— a minority of a minority. By all indications, to point to  the aforementioned elections and the lack of involvement by most Syrians in the insurgency and/or protests uncovers that a sizeable population of Syrians want a diplomatic solution to the uprisings and seem content to leave Bashar al-Asad in power, provided he remains committed to the reform process (there are even substantial civilian counter-protest and counter-insurgency movements in Syria—although these, of course, get no media coverage).

Beyond all of the concessions highlighted hitherto, after agreeing to Annan’s Six-Point peace plan, the President ordered a cease to shelling in the rebel areas, and withdrew as many forces as he felt he could without jeopardizing security/stability—  especially for endangered minority groups. And he held by this cease-fire. Unfortunately, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and the SNC (Syrian National Council), neither individually nor collectively, have authority over many elements of the opposition, which increasingly include foreign fighters/ terrorists.  Even regarding their own forces, the FSA/SNC leadership is decentralized and somewhat chaotic; and so, the agreement gradually disintegrated as a result of consistent infractions.

However, the President returned to the negotiating table, proposing a new approach which focused on deescalating problem zones first and then building outwards from there. The opposition was quick to reject this plan, bombing Damascus and killing members of the President’s cabinet. The opposition has since attempted (and failed) to take over Allepo.  These actions by the rebels have radically escalated the conflict. Unfortunately, the only way to bring the opposition more seriously to the negotiating table would be for their primary state allies (Turkey, Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia) to force them. They have no incentive to negotiate as long as the foreign aid keeps flowing, and  the state actors fueling the resistance have been placing their geopolitical interests over the security and desires of the Syrian people.

In short, these moves on the part of the opposition, which defy the popular interests and the popular will, are an ominous sign for democracy in Syria, should the rebels prevail. In fact, armed and/or military revolutions like the one being attempted in Syria have virtually no precedent of establishing democracies, especially in the Middle East.  The al-Asad family took power in Syria through just such a revolution, as did Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Hosni Mubarak’s military government, the Gaddafi regime, and the Afghani Taliban (who were armed, trained and funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in much the same way as the Libyan and Syrian rebels).  And the coups which ushered in these authoritarian states also typically took place under the auspices of restoring power to the “common man.” It is no wonder that so many Syrians view President al-Asad as a more trustworthy and reliable partner for instituting democratic reforms— he probably is.

 

Published 7/28/2012 by SISMEC.

Will Egypt Vote to Re-Install the Regime It Just Overthrew?

On 6/14/2012, just days before Egypt’s runoff presidential election, Egypt’s High Court announced the dissolution of Parliament. Rather than the (elected) Parliament appointing representatives to draft a constitution, the entire process will be overseen by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). We can rest assured that this constitution will ensure the Army a prominent place in power, and limit the power of the elected government.

Simultaneously, the Court affirmed the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under former President Hosni Mubarak, despite the post-revolution law which explicitly barred former Mubarak-administration officials from running in civilian elections. These developments come on the back of a number of rollbacks of post-Mubarak reforms. How did we get here?

After Hosni Mubarak refused to step down on February 1, 2011, the Army removed him from power (later, placing him under arrest). The next day, Vice-President Suleiman announced that Mubarak had, in fact, resigned (although these words never came out of Mubarak’s mouth); it was also declared that the SCAF would assume “temporary” control of the government, until a constitution was drafted and elections were held.

In November 2011, the SCAF authorized the “Selmy Document,” which contained the following significant provisions:

  • Any forthcoming civilian government would not have tactical control of the military (unlike the American system where Congress and the President set the agenda, which the Army is bound to execute).
  • The elected government would have no oversight/control over the military budget
  • The Army would forever serve as the “Protector of Legitimacy,” with the right to remove any elected government, at any time.
  • The Army had ultimate approval/veto power for the forthcoming constitution, and any laws passed by the Parliament.

Thereafter, the Islamists (specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party, and others) were overwhelmingly elected to Parliament (despite the consistent portrayal of the Revolution as liberal and secularist), winning nearly 70% of the available seats . While the powers of the President and Parliament are still vague, absent a constitution – with a Muslim Brotherhood president (Muhammad Morsi, who won the first round in the presidential election) and such a strong majority in Parliament, the civilian government could be unified in such a way as to be a legitimate counterweight to the army.

However, running against Mursi in the presidential runoff is the Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under Hosni Mubark (whom Shafiq has described as his role model). Shafiq ran on a platform to ensure stability with an “iron fist,” to roll back some of the reforms of the revolution, and to purge the government of Islamists (who have been a problem for the military from the time the government was instituted).

In order to win the presidency, Shafiq aims to stoke the fears that liberals, secularists, and religious minorities have about such a strong Islamist influence on the state; should he get enough of these to turn out for him, he could easily win the election (towards that end, he recently asserted that he would be happy to appoint a Christian woman as his vice-president).

Following the presidential election, and the drafting of the new constitution, the SCAF will oversee another set of Parliamentary elections (this action should also be understood in light of their March 2012 expulsion of foreign NGO’s from the country; the SCAF will have much more control over the democratic process, with less oversight and influence from external parties). It seems to be the SCAF’s hope that the Islamists will have a weaker showing, and the aforementioned alternative factions will do better.

The result will be a divided Parliament, thereby ensuring that whatever powers the Parliament has will be difficult to actually exercise— at the very least, the SCAF can hope for an alternative alliance sufficient to act a foil for the Muslim Brotherhood. The result would be a total erosion of checks and balances on the military by the civilian government—a de facto coup: the Regime would be back (sans the Mubaraks), and not a moment too soon.

Published 6/15/2012 by SISMEC