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‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power and wealth and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city whose image of lust and debauchery persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into dust. Powerful visual images in later ages, l perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition.
When discussions arise about the utility of cyber-attacks in supporting conventional military operations, the conversation often moves quickly to the use of cyber-attacks during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the US decision not to use cyber-attacks in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or Russia’s behavior in cyber-space surrounding the conflict with Ukraine that began in 2014. These, however, may not really be the most useful cases to examine.
In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis put on understanding the international relations of the post-Arab uprising in the Middle East. An unprecedented combination of widespread state failure, competitive interference, and instrumentalization of sectarianism by three rival would-be regional hegemons (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran) in failing states has produced a spiral of sectarianism at the grassroots level.
Mass sexual violence against women and girls is a constant in human history. One of these atrocities erupted in August 2014 in ISIS-occupied territory and persists to this day. Mainly targeting women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority, ISIS officially reinstituted sexual slavery.
The execution of the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities at the beginning of this year has further intensified Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions not just in Saudi Arabia but the Middle East generally. The carrying out of the sentence, following convictions for a range of amorphous political charges, immediately provoked anti‑Saudi demonstrations among Shia communities throughout the Middle East.
Despite Bin Laden's death in 2011, the extremist group Al Qaeda has since survived and, some argue, continued to thrive. The effort and resources Bin Laden invested into Al Qaeda fortified its foundation, making it difficult, if not impossible, to disband or weaken the group after his death. But how did the terrorist group come to be what it is today?
In world politics, preserving order has an understandably sacramental function. The reason is plain. Without minimum public order, planetary relations would descend rapidly and perhaps irremediably into a "profane" disharmony.
In antiquity, ‘Arabia’ covered a vast area, running from Yemen and Oman to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Today, much of this region is gripped in political and religious turmoil that shows no signs of abating.
Sometimes, especially in humankind's most urgent matters of life and death, truth may emerge through paradox. In this connection, one may usefully recall the illuminating work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one of his most ingenious parables, the often mystical Argentine writer, who once wished openly that he had been born a Jew, examines the bewildering calculations of a condemned man.
At its root, Islam is as much a Western religion as are Judaism and Christianity, having emerged from the same geographic and cultural milieu as its predecessors. For centuries we lived at a more or less comfortable distance from one another. Post-colonialism and economic globalization, and the strategic concerns that attended them, have drawn us into an ever-tighter web of inter-relations.
The Eastern Mediterranean, comprising Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, is politically one of the most divisive regions in the world. Greece and Turkey have had their historical differences; the tiny island of Cyprus is still divided and Israel and Lebanon’s last altercation happened all too recently disrupting the harvest in the Galilee and Bekaa Valley respectively.
People frequently ask whether the study of history can help in managing humanitarian crises. This question is particularly timely given the massive outflow of refugees from Syria and the problems of admitting large numbers of refugees to other countries, including the United States.
Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare. This may seem surprising or even controversial to those who imagine a "national bard" insulated from the wider world. Such an approach is typified in the words of the celebrated historian A.L. Rowse, who wrote that when it came to creatively connecting with that world, Shakespeare, the "quiet countryman," was "the least engaged writer there ever was."
Last week, I wrote about the presidential campaign rhetoric pledging to "carpet bomb" Daesh (ISIS), focusing on what it really means and why it is now generally irrelevant to the problems at hand. Today, I want to return to the present problems in more detail: What can be bombed? To what lasting end? And how has Daesh responded to our bombing thus far?
The news seems to have gone quiet about Sangin district in Helmand. Before Christmas there was an intense media storm that the district was about to fall to the ‘Taliban’. There were reports of the SAS being deployed, and the day after, the story of multiple Taliban commanders being killed in a night raid. As I have written before, it is impossible to separate every one with guns in Helmand into two groups: the ‘government’ and the ‘Taliban’, so it is difficult to see who the SAS were targeting, and who they were supporting.
“Defensive warfare does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen. We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages. That calm before the storm, when the aggressor is gathering new forces for a great blow, is most dangerous for the defender.”
–Carl von Clausewitz, Principles of War (1812)
For Israel, long beleaguered on many fronts, Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian statehood are progressing at approximately the same pace. Although this simultaneous emergence is proceeding without any coordinated intent, the combined security impact on Israel will still be considerable. Indeed, this synergistic impact could quickly become intolerable, but only if the Jewish State insists upon maintaining its current form of “defensive warfare.”
Iran and Palestine are not separate or unrelated hazards to Israel. Rather, they represent intersecting, mutually reinforcing, and potentially existential perils. It follows that Jerusalem must do whatever it can to reduce the expected dangers, synergistically, on both fronts. Operationally, defense must still have its proper place. Among other things, Israel will need to continually enhance its multilayered active defenses. Once facing Iranian nuclear missiles, a core component of the synergistic threat, Israel’s “Arrow” ballistic missile defense system would require a fully 100% reliability of interception.
There is an obvious problem. Any such needed level of reliability would be unattainable. Now, Israeli defense planners must look instead toward conceptualizing and managing long-term deterrence.
Even in the best of all possible strategic environments, establishing stable deterrence will present considerable policy challenges. The intellectual and doctrinal hurdles are substantially numerous and complex; they could quite possibly become rapidly overwhelming. Nonetheless, because of the expectedly synergistic interactions between Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian independence, Israel will soon need to update and further refine its overall strategy of deterrence.
Following the defined meaning of synergy, intersecting risks from two seemingly discrete “battle fronts,” or separate theatres of conflict, would actually be greater than the simple sum of their respective parts.
One reason for better understanding this audacious calculation has to do with expected enemy rationality. More precisely, Israel’s leaders will have to accept that certain more-or-less identifiable leaders of prospectively overlapping enemies might not always be able to satisfy usual standards of rational behavior.
With such complex considerations in mind, Israel must plan a deliberate and systematic move beyond the country’s traditionally defensive posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. By preparing to shift toward more prudentially selective and partial kinds of nuclear disclosure, Israel might better ensure that its still-rational enemies would remain subject to Israeli nuclear deterrence. Over time, such careful preparations could even prove indispensable.
Israeli planners will also need to understand that the efficacy or credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrence posture could vary inversely with enemy judgments of Israeli nuclear destructiveness. In these circumstances, however ironic, enemy perceptions of a too-large or too-destructive Israeli nuclear deterrent force, or of an Israeli force that is plainly vulnerable to first-strike attacks, could undermine this posture.
Israel’s adversaries, Iran especially, must consistently recognize the Jewish State’s nuclear retaliatory forces as penetration capable. A new state of Palestine would be non-nuclear itself, but could still present an indirect nuclear danger to Israel.
Israel does need to strengthen its assorted active defenses, but Jerusalem must also do everything possible to improve its core deterrence posture. In part, the Israeli task will require a steadily expanding role for advanced cyber-defense and cyber-war.
Above all, Israeli strategic planners should only approach the impending enemy threats from Iran and Palestine as emergently synergistic. Thereafter, it would become apparent that any combined threat from these two sources will be more substantial than the mere arithmetic addition of its two components. Nuanced and inter-penetrating, this prospectively combined threat needs to be assessed more holistically as a complex adversarial unity. Only then could Jerusalem truly understand the full range of existential harms now lying latent in Iran and Palestine.
Armed with such a suitably enhanced understanding, Israel could meaningfully hope to grapple with these unprecedented perils. Operationally, inter alia, this would mean taking much more seriously Carl von Clausewitz’s early warnings on “waiting idly for things to happen.” Interestingly, long before the Prussian military theorist, ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had observed in The Art of War, “Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of the earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven. Thus, they are able to preserve themselves and attain complete victory.”
Unwittingly, Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu have left timely messages for Israel. Facing complex and potentially synergistic enemies in Iran and Palestine, Jerusalem will ultimately need to take appropriate military initiatives toward these foes. More or less audacious, depending upon what area strategic developments should dictate, these progressive initiatives may not propel Israel “above the greatest heights of Heaven,” but they could still represent Israel’s very best remaining path to long-term survival.
Iran has long had a difficult relationship with the West. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the monarchy and established an Islamic Republic, Iran has been associated in the popular consciousness with militant Islam and radical anti-Westernism. ‘Persia’ by contrast has long been a source of fascination in the Western imagination eliciting both awe and contempt that only familiarity can bring. Indeed if ‘Iran’ seems altogether alien to us, ‘Persia’ seems strangely familiar. There are few cultural icons or aspirations that we would associate with Iran; there are by contrast quite a few we would relate to Persia, most obviously carpets, the occasional cat and for the truly affluent, caviar. That these two words would elicit such dramatically different associations is all the more striking because they are describing the same place. Persia is simply the name inherited from the Greeks and the Romans for the great empire to the East that its inhabitants came to know as ‘Iran’. Persia, from the province of Pars, was not unknown to the Iranians but they would not have used it to apply to the entirety of their state.
Yet Persia reminds us that Iran is not as unfamiliar to us as we might imagine. Quite the contrary. The Persians serve an almost unique function in the Western narrative, being present at the birth and some might argue, the creation of a distinctly Western civilisation. If the Greeks under the influence of Herodotus, first defined history as a conflict between ‘East’ and ‘West’, identified as the Persian and the Greeks, it was a model reinforced with some vigour by the Romans whose own political expediency ensured that many nuances in the relationship were smoothed out to provide a reassuring narrative of confrontation between an increasingly civilised West and barbaric East. Yet if the Romans held up the Persians as a mirror upon which to reflect their own glories, the mirror was never quite as untarnished as its proponents would have liked to believe: the Persians were never quite the antithesis of the West that some sought to portray. The relationship, as the Greeks might have protested, was a good deal more subtle and a great deal more intimate.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the attitude towards the Persian king Cyrus the Great, widely admired in the Greek world as the ideal king whose political wisdom was fictionalised for posterity by Xenophon in his Cyropaedia, or ‘Education of Cyrus’. Cyrus, real or imagined was to have a profound influence on the political elites of the Western world from the renaissance through to the Enlightenment, while his role as a ‘messiah’ in the Old Testament has ensured an enduring affection among Christians, intriguingly among the Protestant variety that populated North America where the name remains popular.
Indeed the ancient Persians, for all their antagonism retained nobility that made them attractive to their Western protagonists. So much so, that when Montesquieu sought ‘discussants’ to critique the condition of Western – in this case French – state and society, he produced his ‘Persian Letters’. The Persians in the Western imagination were sufficiently ‘civilised’ to perform this role. They were educated and had good ‘manners’; were proficient in poetry to the highest standard and, as Cyrus himself exemplified, were masters of the art of landscape gardening, indicative of man’s power over and connection with nature. Indeed the Old Persian word for walled garden has given us our word for ‘paradise’.
It is striking how many Renaissance princes sought to emulate these characteristics and achievements. Yet by the end of the Enlightenment, as Western power grew to surpass that of the Persians, and travellers became reacquainted with the country and its people, old prejudices were redefined for the modern era. The Iranians were not quite like the Persians of their imagination but there was a convenient explanation to hand. The Persians of old were undoubtedly civilised but they had succumbed to decadence and hence decay. They had in sum become excessively civilised and indulgent; exotic yet effete. This explained their predicament and reconciled the apparent contradiction of being both civilised and barbarous at the same time.
Gibbon, perhaps like Herodotus before him, had found a means of reconciling contradictory tendencies, not only in defining the Persians but in explaining the Western relationship with them. A relationship that has been far from confrontational and much more symbiotic than some might suspect. Persia represents at once an ideal and the dangers ever-present in the corruption of that ideal. Persia – and by extension Iran – has been part of the grand narrative of the ‘West’ since its inception: it is neither as alien, nor indeed as foreign, as we may like to think.
Featured image credit: Apadana of Persepolis, by F. Ameli A Persian. CC BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Sociologist Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina shares his thoughts.
Revolutions have been surprising experts for generations. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, the CIA commissioned a report into why it had predicted, 100 days before the fall of the monarchy, that the Shah‘s regime would ride out the protests. During the “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011, President Obama reportedly chastized the intelligence community for not having warned him in advance. Academics have a similarly checkered track record.
The reason is that revolutions are inherently unpredictable. They depend on the interactions and perceptions of large numbers of people at moments of confusion when normal routines and institutions are breaking down.
After a revolution, though, it is common to demand explanations that make the unexpected seem inevitable. Many experts are happy to satisfy our desire for a causal narrative, selecting evidence from the run-up to revolution that might serve as a sort of retroactive prediction.
So why did a revolutionary group calling itself al-Daula al-Islamiyya fi’l-’Iraq wa’l-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) manage to occupy territory in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014? I might point to its extreme violence (though the Iraqi and Syrian governments were capable of extreme violence as well), or its ideology of self-sacrifice (also visible among other Syrian revolutionary groups), or the support it received from foreign governments (no greater than the support that the governments received), or its leaders’ strategic brilliance (knowable only post hoc), or any number of other factors. These are stories we tell to make ourselves feel that the world is an orderly place, where even the events we find most outrageous or troubling can be tamed through the causal logic of social science.
The real story of the revolution is that one group with weapons persuaded other groups with weapons to surrender or retreat, instead of shooting back. It persuaded large numbers of unarmed civilians to obey them or flee, instead of mobbing the revolutionaries and handing them over to other groups with guns. Those moments of conquest, enacted in confusion and panic with lives on the line—that is how this revolution occurred.
This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Headline image: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Political Scientist Robert A. Pape and undergraduate research associate Sarah Morell, both from the University of Chicago, share their thoughts.
ISIS has been successful for four primary reasons. First, the group has tapped into the marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq to gain territory and local support. Second, ISIS fighters are battle-hardened strategists fighting against an unmotivated Iraqi army. Third, the group exploits natural resources to fund their operations. And fourth, ISIS has utilized a brilliant social media strategy to recruit fighters and increase their international recognition. One of the important aspects cutting across these four elements is the unification of anti-American populations across Iraq and Syria — remnants of the Saddam regime, Iraqi civilians driven to militant behavior during the US occupation, transnational jihadists, and the tribes who were hung out to dry following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011.
The Sunni population’s hatred of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has allowed ISIS to quickly overtake huge swaths of Iraqi Sunni territory. The Iraq parliamentary elections in 2010 were a critical moment in this story. The Iraqiyya coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, won support of the Sunni population to win the plurality of seats in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s party came second by a slim two-seat margin. Despite Allawi’s electoral victory, Maliki and his Shia coalition — backed by the United States — succeeded in forming a government with Maliki as Prime Minister.
In the months following the election, Maliki targeted Sunni leaders in an effort to consolidate Shia domination of Baghdad. Many of these were the same Sunni leaders successfully mobilized by US forces during the occupation — in an operation that became known as the Anbar Awakening — to cripple al-Qa’ida in Iraq strongholds within the Sunni population. When the US withdrew, they directed the aid to the Maliki government with the expectation that Maliki would distribute it fairly. Instead, the day after the US forces withdrew in December 2011, Iraq’s Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Hashimi, a key Sunni leader. Arrests of Sunni leaders and their staffs continued, sparking widespread Sunni protests in Anbar province. When ISIS — a Sunni extremist group — rolled into Iraq, many in the Sunni population cooperated, viewing the group as the lesser of two evils.
The second element in the ISIS success story is their military strategy. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent four years as a prisoner in the Bucca Camp before assuming control of AQI (ISIS’s predecessor) in 2010. He seized upon the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to fuel a resurgence of the group. As a result, today’s ISIS militants are battle-hardened through their Syrian experience fighting moderate rebels. The Washington Post has described Baghdadi as “a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser, and a ruthless killer.”
In Iraq, ISIS has adopted “an operational form that allows decentralized commanders to use their experienced fighters against the weakest points of its foes,” writes Robert Farley in The National Interest. “At the same time, the center retains enough operational control to conduct medium-to-long term planning on how to allocate forces, logistics, and reinforcements.” Their strategy — hitting their adversaries at their weakest points while avoiding fights they cannot win — has created a narrative of momentum that increases the group’s morale and prestige.
ISIS has also carved out a territory in Iraq that Shia and Kurdish forces will not fight and die to retake, an argument articulated by Kenneth Pollack at Brookings. ISIS has not tried to take Baghdad because they know they would lose; Shia forces would be motivated to expend blood and treasure to defeat ISIS on their home turf. Some experts believe the Kurds, likewise, are unlikely to commit forces to retake Sunni territory. This mentality also plays into the catastrophic performance of the Iraqi Security Forces at Mosul, forces composed disproportionately of Kurds and Sunni Arabs; when confronted with Sunni militants, these soldiers “were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him,” writes Pollack.
Third, ISIS has also been able to seize key natural resources in Syria to fund their operations, probably making them one of the wealthiest terror groups in history. ISIS is in control of 60% of Syria’s oil assets, including the Al Omar, Tanak, and Shadadi oil fields. According to the US Treasury, the group’s oil sales are pulling in about $1 million a day. This enables ISIS to increasingly become “a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker — “part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.”
Finally, ISIS has developed a sophisticated social media campaign to “recruit, radicalize, and raise funds,” according to J. M. Berger in The Atlantic. The piece details ISIS’s Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the group. On the day ISIS marched into Mosul, the app sent almost 40,000 tweets. The group has displayed a lighter side to the militants, such as videos showing young children breaking their Ramadan fast with ISIS fighters. These strategies “project strength and promote engagement online” while also romanticizing their fight, attracting new recruits from around the world and inspiring lone wolf attacks.
Since June 2014, the United Sates has pursued a policy of offshore balancing — over-the-horizon air and naval power, Special Forces, and empowerment of local allies — to contain and undermine ISIS. The crucial local groups are the Sunni tribes. These leaders were responsible for the near-collapse of AQI during the Anbar Awakening, and could well be able to defeat ISIS in the future.
This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution. Part three is by Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Headline image credit: Coalition airstrike on ISIL position in Kobane on 22 October 2014. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, the saying (wrongly attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has become a motto against radicalism. Unfortunately, this virtuous defense of freedom of speech is not only inefficient but is backfiring, as demonstrated by protests in Muslim countries against the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which was released in the aftermath of the attacks.
The challenge of global jihad in Europe is broader and is the result of the lack of symbolic integration of Islam within liberal democracies, as well as the preeminence of a global theology of intolerance which Al Qaida and ISIS have used to build their political ideology.
First, symbolic integration of Islam is different from socio-political integration of Muslims. European politicians have addressed the former through different educational and socio-economic policies, without paying attention to the latter, which refers to the recognition of Islam as part of the respective national culture and history of European countries. This lack of symbolic integration has translated into increasing discriminatory policies vis-à-vis a number of religious practices, from the use of the hijab and the building of mosque minarets, to circumcision and halal food, all deemed “illiberal” and “uncivic.” This discrimination leads a lot of Muslims, even the secular ones, to think that they are not accepted as full members of European societies. This amplifies anti-Islamic discourse, which is no longer the monopoly of extreme right wing movements, but comes to be shared by all political actors from the right to the left.
Islam is presented as an external religion that threatens the core liberties of European democracies and therefore needs to be limited or circumvented. At the same time, since World War II, most European democracies have limited freedom of speech and press when it propagates racial hatred and negation of the Holocaust. That is why, since the Danish cartoons controversy of 2006, some Muslims have argued they should be protected by these same laws, drawing a line between legitimate critique and insult.
Although the distinction can be blurry, Charlie Hebdo satires have not always been funny critiques but blatant insults to the basic creeds of Muslims. This incapacity to differentiate between critique and insult has been played out by radical groups like Al Qaida and ISIS, both of whom seek to recruit members from Western democracies. Both justify global jihad for the sake of Islam, which must be saved from the decadent western enemy. Because this “us versus them” mentality is very accessible to young Muslims everywhere, through the internet and other social media, it is no surprise that this rhetoric resonates with their daily experience in European societies and therefore make some of them easy recruits for global jihad.
In this regard, the preeminence of Salafi-jihadi discourses, which have monopolized the debate on “true” Islam, not only among Muslims but also in the eyes of the general population across Europe, reinforces the antinomy between the West and Islam. This discourse operates on the conceptualization of the “West” as a threat to Islam, not only through military means, but most importantly through attacks on Islamic creeds and practices.
As an inverted image, “Islam” in the eyes of most Europeans is perceived exactly in the same terms: a religion that is a threat to western values. In this sense, the clash is not between civilizations but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims. It will require courage on the part of European politicians, media, and public intellectuals to address Islam as a legitimate part of national communities in order to diminish the sense of alienation that can make some Muslims more vulnerable to the strategy of Al Qaida or ISIS.
The second reason why freedom of the press is irrelevant in the fight against global jihad is the powerful presence of the Salafi version of Islam in the religious market of ideas. This is problematic because, even as most Muslims in the West are not Salafis and the majority of Salafis are not jihadists, groups like Al Qaida and ISIS have a Salafi background. It means that their theological view comes from a particular interpretation of Islam rooted in Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century doctrine adopted by the Saudi kingdom.
“The clash is not between civilizations, but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims.”
In the West, Salafis incite people to withdraw from mainstream society, which is depicted as impure, in order to live by strict rules. These reactionary interpretations do contain similarities with jihadist discourse. So even if Salafism is, in itself, no root cause of radicalization into violence, it serves as the religious framework of radical groups such as ISIS. While there is no doubt that the majority of Muslims do not follow this radical strategy, it is difficult to demystify this theology of intolerance from a traditional Islamic perspective.
In other words, there is an urgent need for Muslim clerics everywhere to systematically overpower the influence of politicized interpretations of Islam, whether through employing the Internet, social media, or other educational tools.
Addressing the need for the symbolic integration of Islam, as well as the global revival of the Islamic tradition, requires Muslim leaders, secular politicians, and lay citizens to share responsibility and common action to overcome the “us versus them” mentality which is at the foundation of all extremism.
Regretfully, the political and religious consensus that dominated the demonstrations against terror in France could have been a symbolic first step in this direction, but is rapidly dissipating.
Image Credit: “Islam.” Photo by Firas. CC by NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
What do Glenn Beck, Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, and Noam Chomsky have in common? They all place much of the blame for the current crisis in the Middle East on the so-called “Sykes-Picot Agreement,” a plan for the postwar partition of Ottoman territories drawn up during World War I.
Named after the two diplomats who negotiated the secret deal in 1915-16—Sir Mark Sykes of the British war office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut—the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire into zones of direct and indirect British and French control. It also “internationalized” Jerusalem—a bone thrown to the Russian Empire, a British and French ally, which worried that Orthodox Christians might be put at a disadvantage if the Catholic French had final say about the future of the holy city. Although Russia never officially signed the agreement, it acquiesced to it in return for its allies’ reaffirmation of postwar Russian control over Istanbul and the Turkish Straits and direct Russian control over parts of eastern Anatolia.
“I know I read about [the Sykes-Picot Agreement] years ago when we were at Fox,” Glenn Beck reported in September 2014, “and I put it up on the chalkboard….But it didn’t all fall into place until I learned about ISIS and ISIL…Now it all makes sense to me, and now you’ll be able to figure out what is really going on.”
Bashar al-Assad concurs: “What is taking place in Syria is part of what has been planned for the region for tens of years, as the dream of partition is still haunting the grandchildren of Sykes–Picot.”
So does al-Assad’s sometime enemy, the Islamic State, which wrote in its glossy magazine, Dabiq, “After demolishing the Syrian/Iraqi border set up by the crusaders to divide and disunite the Muslims, and carve up their lands in order to consolidate their control of the region, the mujāhidīn of the Khilāfah delivered yet another blow to nationalism and the Sykes-Picot-inspired borders that define it.”
The fact is, however, that it’s way too late for that. By the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was already a dead letter.
Compare a map of the contemporary Middle East (right) with the map proposed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (above). Is any area of the region under direct British, French, or Russian administration? How do the horizontally delineated zones of indirect control and the vertically delineated zones of direct control compare to the crazy quilt map of the Middle East today? Is Jerusalem (and the adjoining region) under international control? Do France and Russia directly control parts of Anatolia, and does Britain directly control parts of Iraq and the Arabian peninsula?
For the most part, the current boundaries in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia came about as the result of two factors. The first is the establishment of the mandates system by the League of Nations, which not only allotted Britain and France temporary control over territory in the region, but enabled the two powers to combine or divide territories into proto-states in accordance with their imperial interests. Thus, Britain created Iraq and Trans-Jordan after the war (Israel and Palestine would come even later); France did the same for Lebanon and Syria. Second, Anatolia remained undivided because Turkish nationalists fought a grueling four year anti-imperialist campaign that drove foreigners out of the peninsula.
Why, then, have so many placed the blame for today’s instability on an agreement that was all but ignored once the Great Powers got down to business in Versailles in 1919? Certainly it is not because it was the first of the secret agreements that set the precedent for dividing Ottoman lands among the allies after the war. That honor belongs to the Constantinople Agreement of 1915. Nor was it the last: the Treaty of St. Jeanne de Maurienne, which gave Italy control over territory in western Anatolia, was signed in 1917.
Perhaps the reason people speak of the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” is that it assigns culpability to individuals rather than complicated historical events or faceless apparatchiks meeting behind closed doors. For Middle Easterners, “Sykes-Picot” became code long ago for imperialist arrogance and the illegitimacy of the contemporary state system, whatever the agreement’s actual historical significance. Once the phrase struck roots in the region, it spread globally, particularly after Al-Qaeda made it a focal point of its polemics.
Poor Sykes, poor Georges-Picot. Just as Arthur Balfour has, for more than ninety years, borne responsibility for an eponymous declaration written by others and approved by the British prime minister and cabinet, Sykes and Georges-Picot have become the obligatory villains in narratives that give pride of place to the imperialist perfidy that has frustrated Arab or Islamic unity and is responsible for the multiple failures of the contemporary Middle Eastern state.
Image Credit: “Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01.” Photo by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
In 2011, the Middle East saw more people peacefully protesting long entrenched dictatorships than at any time in its history. The dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were deposed in a matter of weeks by nonviolent marches. Described as 'the Arab Spring', the revolution has been convulsing the whole region ever since.
Missionaries and US Marines? It did not seem a natural combination. But while working on a book about American Protestant missionaries and their children I came across a missionary son who became a prominent officer in the USMC and one of the most effective agents of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Col. William Eddy was in charge of the OSS operations in North Africa [...]
Ashurnasirpal’s palace at Nimrud (Assyrian Kalḫu) was constructed around 865 BCE during a period in which Assyria was slowly becoming the empire that would come to rule most of the Middle East two centuries later. Ashurnasirpal’s palace is among the few Assyrian palaces to have been excavated (more or less) in its entirety. Measuring at least 2 hectares, it must have been one of the largest and most monumental buildings of its time.
Ramadan is an important time for Muslims, whether they live in New York City, Tehran, Cairo, or Jakarta. While there is great diversity in Islam, for most Muslims this month reflects an intensification of the religious devotion and contemplation that characterizes many Islamic traditions from prayer (salat) to pilgrimage (hajj/ziyarat). Ramadan is structured around food, a lack of food, and prayer—the early meal before dawn, the fasting during daylight, the meal at the end of the day, and the daily prayers.