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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?
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.
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.
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 [...]
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.
The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.
On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.
The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.
The 16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.
The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.
The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.
Clare is a regular girl at a regular school in Pennsylvania, but with a mean streak. Clare is also a cat in the West Bank of the Middle East, who finds a boy hiding from Israeli soldiers. How Clare became a cat and what Clare the cat decides to do about the boy are just two of the mysteries told in this middle grade novel.
Ellis has impecable nonfiction credentials (Looks Like Daylight, Kids of Kabul) and she combines her extensive knowledge of the Israeli-Palestine situation to illuminate an important theme- that we all have choices and we can improve or worsen other people's lives as a result of the path we choose.
The fantasy element was actually quite well-done, although different from what I expected from Ellis' work. The juxtaposition of a normal middle-class life in the US with the fear of an orphaned boy in one of the world's most conflicted areas is clever and the fantasy element makes it feel less like a moral tale.
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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?
Lebanese journalist and editor Hanin Ghaddar shares his thoughts.
To answer this question, one has to go back to the roots of this organization. ISIS did not come from a vacuum, and it is not this shadowy bunch of militants that mysteriously managed to control large areas of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been around for a very long time, and its roots go deeper than its current military achievements.
As an organization, ISIS originated from Al-Qaeda’s group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, a member of ISI, established Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria in 2011. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formed ISIS in Syria, differences over ideology and strategy between ISIS and al-Nusra soon led to infighting, and eventually to a public repudiation by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after Baghdadi refused his orders to leave Syria and return to Iraq.
Due to the difference in strategy, Baghdadi sought to create the Caliphate and his main priority was to self-sustain the Islamic State by strengthening its economy. This practical side of ISIS is very significant for its quick logistical and military success. According to many news reports, ISIS’s financial assets amount to $2 billion, with money secured from oilfields in eastern Syria, banks in Iraq, in addition to military supplies captured in Mosul. In addition, ISIS’s ability to operate as a real army lies in the fact that their military council is made up of former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army.
However, the popularity of the group lies somewhere else.
The states where ISIS is expanding and flourishing are visibly Iraq and Syria — the two states where Sunnis have suffered marginalization, humiliation, and brutal killing by the pro-Iranian Shiite and Alawi regimes. In both countries, the state did not offer a safe haven for citizens; on the contrary, the sectarian rhetoric practiced by community and political leaders added to the Sunni-Shia rift.
In Iraq, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes, who helped fight al-Qaeda, led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands in January. Maliki alienated these tribes and refused to share power with them. After the US withdrawal in 2011, these tribes went into open revolt against Maliki.
A feeling of betrayal also boosted this revolt, as the US started talks and unstated bargains with Tehran. It is not a secret that the International Coalition’s war against ISIS Syria did not stop Assad from bombing rebels in areas where ISIS is not in control. Ignoring the brutality of Assad by the West did not help reassure the Sunnis.
When Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, and Iranian-backed militias like Asa’ib ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Hezbollah in Syria are left to wage war against the Sunnis in both countries, and aid the regimes in killing and torturing them, many Sunnis came to see ISIS as the most powerful defense against Iran’s persecution.
But it would be too naïve to only blame regional leaders and Western powers for the rise of ISIS, and enjoy the role of the victim. We are very much responsible, as people and communities. ISIS flourished in these two countries also because of the heightened sectarian rhetoric by the people everywhere. In the streets, traditional media, social media, and inside homes and families, everyone is practicing sectarian hatred, and judging each other’s commitment to Islam.
Our governments have denounced ISIS and promised to secure all available resources to rid the world of its threats, but have we really condemned ISIS when our media, political leaders and Imams at mosques still speak the same sectarian rhetoric and call for hatred?
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran condemned ISIS and pledged to fight all terrorism. But authorities in both countries are still practicing public executions in public squares. Only recently, Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Nimr was sentenced to death. His prosecutors called for his execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment which in Saudi Arabia involves beheading followed by public display of the decapitated body. How is this really different from ISIS’s beheading practice?
ISIS is a product of our culture of sectarian rhetoric, violence and hatred. ISIS thrives on the injustice and corruption razing our state institutions and communities. Therefore, any policy that aims at fighting and destroying ISIS has to take this into consideration.
To make sure another ISIS does not emerge, the roots behind ISIS’s power and popularity should be targeted. Justice needs to prioritized. Iran should not be treated as the better evil and its regional militias need to be stopped as we are trying to stop ISIS. Assad, who has caused the death of almost 200,000 people, should leave power and he and his lieutenants should be prosecuted under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) without delay. Otherwise, sectarian hatred and violence will never stop, and ISIS will only get stronger.
ISIS and Hezbollah today feed into each other’s rhetoric of violence and acts of terrorism. Without Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra wouldn’t have gained any popularity, and without ISIS’s power, causing fear among the Shia community and other minorities, Hezbollah would have suffered more pressure to leave Syria, even by its own community. They should be dealt with consistently.
In addition, our media and religious institutions should be held accountable for inciting hatred and sectarianism. Those who call for violence through TV channels and inside mosques should be punished, even if they haven’t personally spilled blood.
Our governments, regimes and leaders might not like to tone down this sectarian rhetoric, because sometimes it serves their regional political agendas. Therefore, this should come as a condition for them to join any international effort or regional initiative. International funding for governments should also come with cultural and social conditions, aimed at alleviating sectarian rhetoric and boosting citizenship.
It is a very extensive and difficult route, but it is the only way. You cannot bomb ISIS away; it will grow back. It should be eliminated from the roots.
Heading image: Ar-Raqqah Roof Tops (Ar-Raqqah is the de facto headquarters of ISIS/ISIL) by Zeledi. 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?
Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution, shares his thoughts.
ISIS is a “revolutionary” organization in a way that al-Qaeda and other like-minded extremist groups never were, and never really wanted to be. The “caliphate” — the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition — might have been an inspiration as well as an aspiration, but it wasn’t actually going to happen in real life. The historical weight of the caliphate, and its symbolic power among even less Islamically-minded Muslims, was simply too much (and not only that, you needed a large enough swath of territory to establish one). ISIS, even if it was destroyed tomorrow morning, will have succeeded in removing the mental block of the “caliphate.” Now, anytime there’s an ungoverned, or ungovernable, space, a militant group will think to itself: should we try to capture a piece of territory and announce our own little emirate? And, well beyond the rarefied realm of extremist groups, ISIS has succeeded in injecting the word “caliphate” back into the public discourse. In Turkey, for example, various writers, while opposing ISIS’s particular version of the caliphate, have been willing to discuss the idea of a caliphate.
In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world — it doesn’t — is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war.
Graeme Wood made an important point in one of the only pieces I’ve read that takes ISIS’s religious inspirations seriously: “ISIS’s meticulous use of language, and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law, have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable.” This is where ISIS’s aspirations to governance become critical, and where Obama’s description of the group as a “terrorist organization, pure and simple” seems both problematic and detached. Emphasizing the distinctive nature of ISIS — and getting it across — becomes difficult in a public discourse that is very focused on us and dealing with our Iraq demons.
This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor.
Headline image: Iraqi Army on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, February 2008. By Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.
This March we celebrate Women’s History Month, commemorating the lives, legacies, and contributions of women around the world. We’ve compiled a brief reading list that demonstrates the diversity of women’s lives and achievements.
Illuminate the brilliant life and tragic death of Isabella de Medici, one of the brightest stars in the dazzling world of Renaissance Italy, the daughter of Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Florence and Tuscany.
Reach back through women’s long history of labor, political activism, and contributions to — or even support of — family and community well-being.
Women’s history encompasses the history of humankind, including men, but approaches it from a woman‐centered perspective. It highlights women’s activities and ideas and asserts that their problems, issues, and accomplishments are just as central to the telling of the human story as are those of their brothers, husbands, and sons. It places the sociopolitical relations between the sexes, or gender, at the center of historical inquiry and questions female subordination.
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In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the need for more diversity in books. We already know that the population of the United States is rapidly changing, and people have been demanding books that reflect this. From the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to this recent article from School Library Journal, the demand for diverse titles grows louder every day. One category we often get asked about is recommendations of books featuring Middle Eastern and Muslim characters, so we thought we’d put together a list of some favorites:
The Butter Man, by Elizabeth & Ali Alalou, ill. by Julie Klear Essakalli: As young Nora waits impatiently for her mother to come home from work and for her father to serve the long-simmering couscous that smells so delicious, her father tells her about his childhood in Morocco.
Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story, by Bernard Wolf: With captivating photographs and engaging text, Bernard Wolf invites us into the life of this close-knit family — a family whose love and courage speak for all immigrants who work hard and make sacrifices in the pursuit of a better life.
Deep in the Sahara, by Kelly Cunnane, ill. by Hoda Hadadi: Lalla lives in the Muslim country of Mauritania, and more than anything, she wants to wear a malafa, the colorful cloth Mauritanian women, like her mama and big sister, wear to cover their heads and clothes in public.
The Flag of Childhood: Poems From the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye: In this stirring anthology of sixty poems from the Middle East, honored anthologist Naomi Shihab Nye welcomes us to this lush, vivid world and beckons us to explore.
Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed, ill. by Doug Chayka: Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important.
King For a Day, by Rukhsana Khan, ill. by Christiane Krömer: This lively, contemporary story introduces readers to a centuries-old festival and the traditional sport of kite fighting, and to a spirited, determined young boy who masters the sport while finding his own way to face and overcome life’s challenges.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written & ill. by Jeanette Winter: Alia Muhammad Baker is a librarian in Basra, Iraq. For fourteen years, her library has been a meeting place for those who love books. Until now. Now war has come, and Alia fears that the library–along with the thirty thousand books within it–will be destroyed forever.
Mystery Bottle, written & ill. by Kristen Balouch: A boy in Brooklyn receives a package from Iran. When he opens up the mysterious bottle that lies within, a great wind transports him over the oceans and mountains, straight into the arms of his grandfather.
Nadia’s Hands, by Karen English, ill. by Jonathan Weiner: The morning of her aunt’s wedding, Nadia’s hands are decorated with “mehndi.” But Nadia is worried. When she goes to school on Monday, what will her classmates think of her hands? Will they understand that “mehndi “is part of her Pakistani heritage?
Ruler of the Courtyard, by Rukhsana Khan, ill. by R. Gregory Christie: The chickens in Saba’s yard are especially mean, chasing her and pecking at her toes. But when she sees a snake in the bathhouse, Saba realizes that she has to act fast to protect herself and her nani, her grandma, from the snake. Can she conquer the chickens and the snake to become the Ruler of the Courtyard?
Sami and the Time of the Troubles, by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland, ill. by Ted Lewin: A ten-year-old Lebanese boy balances his life in a war-torn city.
The Sifrah Glider, by Ahmad AbdulGhani Al Redha, ill. by Joanne Mendelski: A class of children is in for a treat when their class guest turns out to be an Emirati man who teaches them about his traditional dress and the significance behind each item.
Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad, by James Rumford: Like other children living in Baghdad, Ali loves soccer, music and dancing, but most of all, he loves the ancient art of calligraphy. When bombs begin to fall on his city, Ali turns to his pen, writing sweeping and gliding words to the silent music that drowns out the war all around him.
Sitti’s Secrets, by Naomi Shihab Nye, ill. by Nancy Carpenter: When Sitti, an American girl, goes to visit her grandmother in her small Middle Eastern village on the other side of the world, they don’t need words to understand each other’s heart.
The arc of a presidency is long, but it bends towards failure. So, to paraphrase Barack Obama, seems to be the implication of recent events. Set aside our domestic travails, for which Congress bears primary responsibility, and focus on foreign policy, where the president plays a freer hand. In East Asia, China is rising and truculent, scrapping with its neighbors over territory and maritime resources. From Hanoi to Canberra, the neighbors are buttressing their military forces and clinging to Washington’s security blanket. Across Eurasia, Vladimir Putin is pushing with sly restraint to reverse the strategic setbacks of 1989-91. America’s European allies are troubled but not to the point of resolution. At just 1.65 percent of GDP, the EU’s military spending lags far behind Russia’s, at 4.5 percent of GDP. The United States, the Europeans presume, will continue to provide, much as it has done since the late 1940s.
Washington’s last and longest wars are, meanwhile, descending towards torrid denouements. Afghanistan’s fate is tenuous. Free elections are heartening, but whether the Kabul government can govern, much less survive the withdrawal of US forces scheduled for 2016 is uncertain. Iraq, from which Obama in 2011 declared us liberated, is catastrophic. The country is imploding, caught in the firestorm of Sunni insurgency that has overwhelmed the Levant. We may yet witness genocide. We may yet witness American personnel scrambling into helicopters as they evacuate Baghdad’s International Zone, a scene that will recall the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975. The situations are not analogous: should ISIS militia penetrate Baghdad, the outcome will be less decisive than was North Vietnam’s 1975 conquest of South Vietnam, but for the United States the results will be no less devastating. America’s failure in Iraq would be undeniable, and all that would remain would be the allocation of blame.
We have traveled far from Grant Park, where an inspirational campaign culminated in promises of an Aquarian future. We are no longer in Oslo, where a president newly laden with a Nobel Prize spoke of rejuvenating an international order “buckling under the weight of new threats.” Obama’s charisma, intellect, and personality, all considerable, have not remade the world; instead, a president who conjured visions of a “just and lasting peace” now talks about hitting singles and doubles. There have in fairness been few errors, although Obama’s declaration that US troops will leave Afghanistan in 2016 may count as such. The problem is rather the conjuncture of setbacks, many deep-rooted, that now envelops US foreign policy. These setbacks are not Barack Obama’s fault, but deal with them he must. The irony is this: dire circumstances, above all Iraq, made Obama’s presidential campaign credible and secured his election. Dire circumstances, including Iraq, may now be overwhelming Obama’s presidency.
Cerebral and introspective, Obama may rue that the last years of presidencies are often difficult. Truman left the White House with his ratings in the gutter, while Eisenhower in his last years seemed to critics doddery and obsolete. But for Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan’s presidency might have ended in ignominy. Yet a president’s last years can be years of reinvention, even years of renewal. With the mid-terms not yet upon us, the fourth part of Obama’s day has not passed; its shape is still being defined.
Barack Obama speaks in Cairo, Egypt, 4 June 2009. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Notorious as a time of setbacks, the 1970s offer examples of late-term reinventions. Henry Kissinger, serving President Ford, in 1974-76 and Jimmy Carter in 1979-80 snatched opportunity from adversity; their examples may be salutary. The mid-1970s found Kissinger’s foreign policy in a nadir: political headwinds were blowing against the East-West détente that he and Richard Nixon had built, even as Congress voted to deny the administration the tools to confront Soviet adventurism in the Third World. Transatlantic relations were at low ebb, as the industrialized countries competed to secure supplies of oil and to overcome a tightening world recession. Alarmed by the deterioration of core alliances, Kissinger in 1974-76 pivoted away from his prior fixation with the Cold War’s grand chessboard and set to work rebuilding the Western Alliance. As he did so, he pioneered international economic governance through the G-7 summits and restored the comity of the West. Kissinger even engaged with the Third World, proposing an international food bank to feed the world’s poorest and aligning the United States with black majority rule in sub-Saharan Africa. Amidst transient adversity, Kissinger laid the foundations for a post-Cold War foreign policy, and the benefits abounded in the decades that followed.
Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s inherited serious challenges, some of which he exacerbated. Soviet-American détente was already on the ropes, but Carter’s outspoken defenses of Soviet human rights added to the strain. The Shah of Iran, a longtime client, was already in trouble, but the strains on his regime intensified under Carter, who sent mixed messages. Pahlavi’s tumbling in the winter of 1978-79 and the ensuing hostage crisis threw Carter’s foreign policy off the rails. Months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Carter responded by reorienting US foreign policy towards an invigorated Cold War posture. He embargoed the USSR, escalated defense spending, rallied the West, and expanded cooperation with China. This Cold War turn was counterintuitive, being a departure from Carter’s initial bid to transcend Cold War axioms, but it confirmed his willingness to adapt to new circumstances. Carter’s anti-Soviet turn turned up the fiscal strain on the Soviet Union, helping to precipitate not only the Cold War’s re-escalation but also the Cold War’s resolution. Carter also defined for the United States a new military role in the Persian Gulf, where Washington assumed direct responsibility for the security of oil supplies. This was not what Carter intended to achieve, but he adapted, like Kissinger, to fast-shifting circumstances with creative and far-reaching initiatives.
Late term adaptations such as Kissinger’s and Carter’s may offer cues for President Obama. One lesson of presidencies past is that the frustration of grand designs can be liberating. The Nixon administration in the early 1970s sought to build a “new international structure of peace” atop a Cold War balance of power. Despite initial breakthroughs, Nixon’s design faltered, leaving Ford and Kissinger to pick up the pieces. Carter at the outset envisaged making a new “framework of international cooperation,” but his efforts at architectural renovation also came unstuck. The failures of architecture and the frustration of grand designs nonetheless opened opportunities for practical innovation, which Kissinger, Carter, and others pursued. Even George W. Bush achieved a late reinvention focused on practical multilateralism after his grand strategic bid to democratize the Middle East failed in ignominy. Whether Obama can do the same may hinge upon his willingness to forsake big ideas of the kind that he articulated when he spoke in Cairo of a “new beginning” in US relations with the Muslim world and to refocus on the tangible problems of a complex and unruly world that will submit to grand designs no more readily today than it has done in the past.
Moving forward may also require revisiting favored concepts. Embracing a concept of Cold War politics, Nixon and Kissinger prioritized détente with Soviet Union and neglected US allies. Kissinger’s efforts to rehabilitate core alliances nonetheless proved more durable than his initial efforts to stabilize the Cold War. Substituting a concept of “world order politics” for Cold War fixations, Carter set out to promote human rights and economic cooperation. He nonetheless ended up implementing the sharpest escalation in Cold War preparedness since Truman. Making effective foreign policy sometimes depends upon rethinking the concepts that guide it. Such concepts are, after all, derived from the past; they do not predict the future.
President Obama at West Point recently declared that “terrorism” is still “the most direct threat to America.” This has been the pattern of recent years; whether it is the pattern of years to come, only time will tell. New threats will also appear, as will new opportunities, but engaging them will depend upon perceiving them. Here, strategic concepts that prioritize particular kinds of challenges, such as terrorism, over other kinds of challenge, such as climate change, may be unhelpful. So too are the blanket prohibitions that axiomatic concepts often produce. Advancing US interests may very well depend upon mustering the flexibility to engage with terroristic groups, like the Taliban or Hamas, or with regimes, like Iran’s, that sponsor terrorism. Axiomatic approaches to foreign policy that reject all dialogue with terrorist organizations may narrow the field of vision. Americans, after all, did not go to China until Nixon did so.
If intellectual flexibility is a prerequisite for successful late presidential reinventions, political courage is another. While he believed that effective foreign policy depended upon domestic consensus, Kissinger strived throughout his career to insulate policy choice from the pressures of domestic politics. He persevered in defending Soviet-American détente not because it was popular but because he believed in it. Carter also put strategic purposes ahead of political expedience. Convinced that America’s dependence on foreign oil was a strategic liability, Carter decontrolled oil prices, allowing gasoline prices to rise sharply. The decision was unpopular, even mocked, but it paid strategic dividends in the mid-1980s, when falling world oil prices helped tip the Soviet Union into fiscal collapse. Obama, in contrast, appears readier to let opinion polls guide foreign policy. Withdrawing US forces from Iraq in 2011 and committing to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan during 2016 were both popular moves; their prudence remains less obvious. Still, the 22nd Amendment gives the President a real flexibility in foreign policy. Whether Obama bequeaths a strong foundation to his successor may depend on his willingness to embrace the political opportunity that he now inhabits for bold and decisive action.
Setbacks of the kind that the United States is experiencing in the present moment are not unprecedented. Americans in the 1970s fretted about the rise of Soviet power, and they recoiled as radical students stormed their embassy in Tehran. Yet policymakers devised ways out of the impasse, and they left the United States in a deceptively strong position at the decade’s end. Reinvention depended upon flexibility. Kissinger, Carter, and others understood that the United States, while the world’s leading superpower, was more the captive of its circumstances than the master of them. They were undogmatic, insofar as they turned to opportunities that had not been their priorities at the outset. They operated in the world as they found it and did not fixate upon the world as it might be. They scored singles and doubles, but they also hit the occasional home run. This is a standard that Obama has evoked; with luck, it will be a standard that he can fulfill, if he can muster the political courage to defy adverse politics and embrace the opportunities that the last 30 months of his presidency will present.
Reading the newspaper these days feels a little like time traveling. After eight years of war in Iraq and (let's be honest) at least three years of societal amnesia, it's startling to wake up to headlines about sectarian violence and the president's requests for resources to fight ISIS, the radical Islamic organization conquering vast swathes [...]
Recently the jihadist insurgent group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underwent a re-branding of sorts when one of its leaders, known by the sobriquet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed caliph by the group’s members. In keeping with the horizonless pretentions that such a title theoretically conveys, the group dropped their geographical focus and embraced a more universalist outlook, settling for the name of the ‘Islamic State’.
As a few observers have noted, the title of caliph comes freighted with a long and complicated history. That history begins in the seventh century AD, when the title was adopted to denote those leaders of the Muslim community who were recognized as the Prophet Muhammad’s “successors”— not prophets themselves of course, but men who were expected, in the Prophet’s absence, to know how to guide the community spiritually as well as politically. Later in the medieval period, classical Islamic political theory sought to carefully define the pool from which caliphs might be drawn and to stipulate specific criteria that a caliph must possess, such as lineage, probity, moral standing and so on. Save for his most ardent followers, Muslims have found al-Baghdadi — with his penchant for Rolex watches and theatrical career reinventions — sorely wanting in such caliphal credentials.
He’s not the only one of course. Over the span of Islamic history, the title of caliph has been adopted by numerous (and sometimes competing) dynasties, rebels, and pretenders. The last ruler to bear the title in any significant way was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost the title when he was exiled in 1924. And even then it was an honorific supported only by myths of Ottoman legitimacy. But it’s doubtful that al-Baghdadi gives the Ottomans much thought. For he is really tapping into a much more recent dream of reviving the caliphate embraced by various Islamist groups since the early 20th century, who saw it as a precondition for reviving the Muslim community or to combat Western imperialism. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is thus a modern confection, despite its medieval trappings.
That an Islamic fundamentalist (to use a contested term of its own) like al-Baghdadi should make an appeal to the past to legitimate himself, and that he should do so without any thoughtful reference to Islamic history, is of course the most banal of observations to make about his activities, or about those of any fundamentalist. And perhaps that is the most interesting point about this episode. For the utterly commonplace nature of examples like al-Baghdadi’s clumsy claim to be caliph suggest that Islamic history today is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This is not because Islamic history has no bearing upon the present Islamic world, but because present-day agendas that make use of that history prefer to cherry-pick, deform, and obliterate the complicated bits to provide easy narratives for their own ends. Al-Baghdadi’s claim, for example, leaps over 1400 years of more nuanced Islamic history in which the institution of the caliphate shaped Muslim lives in diverse ways, and in which regional upstarts had little legitimate claim. But he is hardly alone in avoiding inconvenient truths — contemporary comment on Middle Eastern affairs routinely employs the same strategy.
We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.
We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.
But we should be wary of such easy answers. Syria and Iraq will not be saved by a caliph. And crusaders would have found the motivations of today’s empire-builders sickening. History properly appreciated should instead lead us to acknowledge the specificity, and indeed oddness, of our modern contexts and the complexity of our contemporary motivations. It should, one hopes, lead to that conclusion reached famously by Mark Twain: that history doesn’t repeat itself, even if sometimes it rhymes.
Refugee identity is often shrouded in suspicion, speculation and rumour. Of course everyone wants to protect “real” refugees, but it often seems – upon reading the papers – that the real challenge is to find them among the interlopers: the “bogus asylum seekers”, the “queue jumpers”, the “illegals”.
Yet these distinctions and definitions shatter the moment we subject them to critical scrutiny. In Syria, no one would deny a terrible refugee crisis is unfolding. Western journalists report from camps in Jordan and Turkey documenting human misery and occasionally commenting on political manoeuvring, but never doubting the refugees’ veracity.
But once these same Syrians leave the overcrowded camps to cross the Mediterranean, a spell transforms these objects of pity into objects of fear. They are no longer “refugees”, but “illegal migrants” and “terrorists”. However data on migrants rescued in the Mediterranean show that up to 80% of those intercepted by the Italian Navy are in fact deserving of asylum, not detention.
Other myths perpetuate suspicion and xenophobia. Every year in the UK, refugee charity and advocacy groups spend precious resources trying to counter tabloid images of a Britain “swamped” by itinerant swan-eaters and Islamic extremists. The truth – that Britain is home to just 1% of refugees while 86% are hosted in developing countries, including some of the poorest on earth, and that one-third of refugees in the UK hold University degrees – is simply less convenient for politicians pushing an anti-migration agenda.
We are increasingly skilled in crafting complacent fictions intended not so much to demonise refugees as exculpate our own consciences. In Australia, for instance, ever-more restrictive asylum policies – which have seen all those arriving by boat transferred off-shore and, even when granted refugee status, refused the right to settle in Australia – have been presented by supporters as merely intended to prevent the nefarious practice of “queue-jumping”. In this universe, the border patrols become the guardians ensuring “fair” asylum hearings, while asylum-seekers are condemned for cheating the system.
That the system itself now contravenes international law is forgotten. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan asylum-seeking mothers recently placed on suicide watch – threatening to kill themselves in the hope that their orphaned, Australian-born children might then be saved from detention – are judged guilty of “moral blackmail”.
Such stories foster complacency by encouraging an extraordinary degree of confidence in our ability to sort the deserving from the undeserving. The public remain convinced that “real” refugees wait in camps far beyond Europe’s borders, and that they do not take their fate into their own hands but wait to be rescued. But this “truth” too is hypocritical. It conveniently obscures the fact that the West will not resettle one-tenth of the refugees who have been identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as in need of resettlement.
In fact, only one refugee in a hundred will ever be resettled from a camp to a third country in the West. In January 2014 the UK Government announced it would offer 500 additional refugee resettlement places for the “most vulnerable” refugees as a humanitarian gesture: but it’s better understood as political rationing.
Research shows us that undue self-congratulation when it comes to “helping” refugees is no new habit. Politicians are fond of remarking that Britain has a “long and proud” tradition of welcoming refugees, and NGOs and charities reiterate the same claim in the hope of grounding asylum in British cultural values.
But while the Huguenots found sanctuary in the seventeenth century, and Russia’s dissidents sought exile in the nineteenth, closer examination exposes the extent to which asylees’ ‘warm welcome’ has long rested upon the convictions of the few prepared to defy the popular prejudices of the many.
Poor migrants fleeing oppression have always been more feared than applauded in the UK. In 1905, the British Brothers’ League agitated for legislation to restrict (primarily Jewish) immigration from Eastern Europe because of populist fears that Britain was becoming ‘the dumping ground for the scum of Europe’. Similarly, the bravery of individual campaigners who fought to secure German Jews’ visas in the 1930s must be measured against the groundswell of public anti-semitism that resisted mass refugee admissions.
British MPs in 1938 were insistent that ‘it is impossible for us to absorb any large number of refugees here’, and as late as August 1938 the Daily Mail warned against large number of German Jews ‘flooding’ the country. In the US, polls showed that 94% of Americans disapproved of Kristallnacht, 77% thought immigration quotas should not be raised to allow additional Jewish migration from Germany.
All this suggests that Western commitment after 1951 to uphold a new Refugee Convention should not be read as a marker of some innate Western generosity of spirit. Even in 1947, Britain was forcibly returning Soviet POWs to Stalin’s Russia. Many committed suicide en route rather than face the Gulags or execution. When in 1972, Idi Amin expelled Ugandan’s Asians – many of whom were British citizens – the UK government tried desperately to persuade other Commonwealth countries to admit the refugees, before begrudgingly agreeing to act as a refuge of “last resort”. If forty years on the 40,000 Ugandan Asians who settled in the UK are often pointed to as a model refugee success story, this is not because but in spite of the welcome they received.
Many refugee advocates and NGOs are nevertheless wary of picking apart the public belief that a “generous welcome” exists for “real” refugees. The public, after all, are much more likely to be flattered than chastised into donating much needed funds to care for those left destitute – sometime by the deliberate workings of the asylum system itself. But it is important to recognise the more complex and less complacent truths that researchers’ work reveals.
For if we scratch the surface of our asylum policies beneath a shiny humanitarian veneer lies the most cynical kind of politics. Myth making sustains false dichotomies between deserving “refugees” there and undeserving “illegal migrants” here – and conveniently lets us forget that both are fleeing the same wars in the same leaking boats.
With turmoil in the Middle East, from Egypt’s changing government to the emergence of the Isalmic State, we recently sat down with Shadi Hamid, author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, to discuss about his research before and during the Arab Spring, working with Islamists across the Middle East, and his thoughts on the future of the region.
In your recent New York Times essay “The Brotherhood Will Be Back,” you argue that there is still support for the mixing of religion and politics, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure in power. So do you see a way for Egypt to achieve stability in the years ahead? Can they look toward their neighbors (Jordan, Tunisia?) for a positive example?
Cultural attitudes toward religion do not change overnight, particularly when they’ve been entrenched for decades. Even if a growing number of Egyptians are disillusioned with the way Islam is “used” for political gain, this does not necessarily translated into support for “secularism,” a word which is still anathema in Egyptian public discourse. One of my book’s arguments I is that democratization not only pushes Islamists toward greater conservatism but that it also skews the entire political spectrum rightwards.
In Chapter 3, for instance, I look at the Arab world’s “forgotten decade,” when there were several intriguing but ultimately short-lived democratic experiments. Here, the ostensibly secular Wafd party, sensing the shift in the country toward greater piety, opted to Islamize its political program, something which was all too obvious (perhaps even a bit too obvious) in its 1984 program. It devoted an entire section to the application of Islamic law, in which the Wafd stated that Islam was both “religion and state.” The program also called for combating moral “deviation” in society and purifying the media of anything contradicting the sharia and general morals. The Wafd party also supported the supposedly secular regime of Anwar Sadat’s ambitious effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reconcile Egyptian law with Islamic law. Led by speaker of parliament and close Sadat confidant Sufi Abu Talib, the initiative wasn’t just mere rhetoric; Abu Talib’s committees painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of detailed legislation, covering civil transactions, tort reform, criminal punishments, as well as the maritime code.
The point here is that the Islamization of society (itself pushed ahead by Islamists) doesn’t just affect Islamists. Even Egypt’s president, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, cannot escape these deeply embedded social realities.
Egypt is de-democratizing right now, but the Sissi regime, unlike Mubarak’s, is a popular autocracy where the brutal suppression of one particular group — the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — is cheered on by millions of Egyptians. Sissi, then, is not immune from mass sentiment. A populist in the classic vein, Sissi seems to understand this and, like the Brotherhood, instrumentalizes religion for partisan ends. In many ways, Sissi’s efforts surpass those of Islamists before him, asserting great control over al-Azhar, the premier seat of Sunni scholarship in the region, and using the clerical establishment to shore up his regime’s legitimacy. Sissi has said that it’s the president’s role to promote a “correct understanding” of Islam. His regime has also been politically ostentatious with religion in its crackdown against the Gay community, leading one observer to note that
Religion is a powerful tool in a deeply religious society and Sissi, whatever his personal inclinations, can’t escape that basic fact, particularly with a mobilized citizenry.
Looking at the region more broadly, there are really no successful models of reconciling democracy with Islamism, at least not yet, and this failure is likely to have long-term consequences on the region’s trajectory. Turkish Islamists had to effectively concede who they were and become something else — “conservative democrats” — in order to be fully incorporated in Turkish politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened with Egypt-style mass protests and with the secular opposition calling for the dissolution of parliament and government, opted to step down from power. The true test for Tunisia, then, is still to come: what happens if Ennahda wins the next scheduled elections, and the elections after that, and feels the need to be more responsive to its conservative base? Will this lead, again, to a breakdown in political order, with secular parties unwilling to live with greater “Islamization”?
You began your research on Islamist movements before the start of the Arab Spring. How did your project change after the unrest in 2011? What book did you think you would write when you began living in the region — and what did it become after the revolutions?
I began my research on Islamist movements in 2004-5, when I was living in Jordan as a Fulbright fellow. These were movements that displayed an ambivalence toward power, to the extent that they even lost elections on purpose (an odd phenomenon that was particularly evident in Jordan). Power, and its responsibilities, were dangerous. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated the first round of the 1991 Algerian elections, and with the military preparing to intervene, the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani warned a crowd of supporters: “Victory is more dangerous than defeat.” In a sense, then, I was lucky to be able to expand the book’s scope to cover the tumultuous events of 2011-3, allowing me to explore evolving, and increasingly contradictory, attitudes toward power. Because if power was dangerous, it was also tempting, and so this became a recurring theme in the book: the potentially corrupting effects of political power, a problem which was particularly pronounced with groups that claimed a kind of religious purity that transcended politics. The book became about these two phases in the Islamist narrative, in opposition and under repression, on one hand, and during democratic openings, on the other. And then, of course, back again. I knew the military coup of 3 July 2013 and then the Rabaa massacre of 14 August — a dark, tragic blot on Egypt’s history — provided the appropriate bookend. The Brotherhood had returned to its original, purer state of opposition.
The Arab Spring also provided an opportunity to think more seriously and carefully about the effects of democratization. Would democratization have a moderating effect on mainstream Islamist movements, as the academic and conventional wisdom would suggest? Or was there a darker undercurrent, with democratization unleashing ideological polarization and pushing Islamists further to the right? I wanted to challenge a kind of cultural essentialism in reverse: that Islamists, like its ideological counterparts in Latin America or Western Europe, would be no match for “liberal democracy,” history’s apparent end state. Any kind of determinism, even the liberal variety, would prove problematic, especially for us as Americans with our tendency to believe that the process of history would overwhelm the whims of ideology. In a way, I wanted to believe it too, and for many years I did. As someone who has long been a proponent of supporting democracy in the Middle East, this puts me in a bit of a bind: In the Middle East, democracy is simply less attractive. Yes. And now, since the book has come out, I’ve been challenged along these very lines: “Maybe democracy isn’t so good after all… Maybe the dictators were right.” Well, in a sense, they were right. But this is only a problem if we conceive of democracy as some sort of panacea or short-term fix. Democracy is supposed to be difficult, and this is perhaps where the comparisons to the third-wave democracies of the 1980s and 1990s were misleading. The divides of Arab countries were “foundational,” meaning that they weren’t primarily “policy” problems; they were the more basic problems of the State, its meaning, its purpose, and, of course, the role of religion in public life, which inevitably brings us back to the identity of the State. What kind of conception of the Good should the Egyptian or Tunisian states be promoting? Should the state be neutral or should it be a state with a moral or religious mission? These are raw, existential divides that hearken back more to 1848 than 1989.
You conducted many interviews to research Temptations of Power. How did the interviews craft your argument — whether you were speaking with political leaders, activists, students, or citizens? Feel free to mention some examples.
Spending so much time with Islamist activists and leaders over the course of a decade, some of whom I got to know quite well, was absolutely critical. And this book — and pretty much every thing I know and think about Islamist movements — has been informed and shaped by those discussions. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned that way; that to understand Islamists, you have to sit with them, talk to them, and get to know them as individuals with their own fears and aspirations. This is where I think it’s important for scholars of political Islam to cordon off their own beliefs and political commitments. Just because I’m an American and a small-l liberal (and those two, in my case, are intertwined), doesn’t mean that Egyptians or Jordanians should be subject to my ideological preferences. If you go into the study of Islamism trying to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, then that’s distorting. Islamists, after all, are products of their own political context, and not ours. So that’s the first thing.
Second, as a political scientist, my tendency has always been to put the focus on political structures, and the first half of my book does quite a bit of that. In other words, context takes precedence: that Islamists — or, for that matter, Islam — are best understood as products of various political variables. This is true, but only up to a point and I worry that we as academics have gone too much in this direction, perhaps over-correcting for what, decades ago, was a seeming obsession with belief and doctrine.
When religion is less relevant in our own lives, it can be difficult to make that jump, to not just understand — but to relate — to its meaning and power for believers, and for those, in particular, who believe they have a cause beyond this life. But I think that outsiders have to make an extra effort to close that gap. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different. I think, at this point, I feel like I have a good grasp on how mainstream Islamists see the world around them. What I still struggle with is the willingness to die. If I was at a sit-in and the army was coming in with live fire, I’d run for the hills. And that’s why my time interviewing Brotherhood members in Rabaa — before the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — was so fascinating and forced me to at least try and transcend my own limitations as an analyst. Gehad al-Haddad — who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt — told me was “very much at peace.” He was ready to die, and I knew that he, and so many others, weren’t just saying it. Because many of them — more than 600 — did, in fact, die.
Where does this willingness to die come from? I found myself pondering this same question just a few weeks ago when I was in London. One Brotherhood activist, now unable to return to Egypt, relayed the story of a protester standing at the front line, when the military moved in to “disperse” the sit-in. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Behind him, a man fell to the ground. He had been shot to death. He looked over and began to cry. He could have died a martyr. He knew the man behind him had gone to heaven, in God’s great glory. This is what he longed for. As I heard this story, it couldn’t have been any more clear: this wasn’t politics in any normal sense. Purity, absolution. This was the language of religion, the language of certainties. Where politics, in a sense, is about accepting, or at least coming to terms, with impossibility of purity.
Are you working on any new publications at the moment?
I’m hoping to build on the main arguments in my book and look more closely at how the inherent tensions between religion and mundane politics are expressed in various contexts. This, I think, is at least part of what makes Islamists so important to our understanding of the Middle East. Because their story is, in some ways, the story of a region that is breaking apart because of the inability to answer the fundamental questions of identity, religion, God, citizenship, and State-ness. One project will look at how various Islamist movements have responded to a defining moment in the Islamist narrative — the military coup of July 3, 2013, which has quickly replaced the Algerian coup of 1992 as the thing that always inevitably comes up when you talk to an Islamist. In some ways, I suspect it will prove even more defining in the long-run. Algeria, as devastating as it was, was still somehow remote (and, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian offshoot allowed itself to be co-opted by the military government throughout most of Algeria’s “black decade”).
This time around, there are any number of lessons to be learned. One response among Islamists is that the Brotherhood should have been more confrontational, moving more aggressively against the “deep state” instead of seeking temporary accommodation. While others fault the Brotherhood for not being inclusive enough, and alienating the very allies who had helped bring it to power. But, of course, these two “lessons” are not mutually exclusive, with many believing that the Brotherhood — although it’s not entirely clear how exactly this would work in practice — should have been both more aggressive and more inclusive.
You recently went on a US tour to promote and discuss Temptations of Power — any recent discussion items, comments or questions which supported your conclusions or refined your thinking that you would like to share?
During the tour, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the more philosophical aspects of the book, including the “nature” of Islam, liberalism, and democracy. These are contested terms; Islam, for instance, can mean very different things to different people. A number of people would ask about Narendra Modi, India’s democratically-elected prime minister and somewhat notorious Hindu nationalist. Here’s someone who, in addition to being illiberal, was complicit in genocidal acts against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. But an overwhelming number of Indians voted for him in a free, democratic process. There’s something inspiring about accepting electoral outcomes that might very well be personally threatening to you. Another allied country, Israel, is a democracy with strong (and seemingly stronger) illiberal tendencies. Popular majorities
In some sense, the tensions between liberalism and democracy are universal and trying to find the right balance is an ongoing struggle (although it’s more pronounced and more difficult to address in the Middle Eastern context). So it makes little sense to expect a given Arab country to become anything resembling a liberal democracy in two or three years, when, even in our own history as Americans, our liberalism as well as our democracy were very much in doubt at any number of key points. (I just read this excellent Peter Beinart piece on our descent into populary-backed illiberalism during World War I. Cincinnati actually banned pretzels).
At the same time, looking at other cases has helped me better grasp what, exactly, makes the Middle East different. For example, as illiberal as Modi and the BJP might be, the ideological distance between them and the Congress Party isn’t as much as we might think. In part, this is because the Hindu tradition, to use Michael Cook’s framing, is simply less relevant to modern politics. As Cook writes, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Islamists, on the other hand, do have a law and it’s a law that’s taken seriously by large majorities in much of the region. The distinctive nature of “law” — and its continued relevance — in today’s Middle East does add a layer of complexity to the problem of pluralism. This gets us into some uncomfortable territory but I think to ignore it would be a mistake. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to modern politics, at least relative to other major religions. This isn’t bad or good. It just is, and I think this is worth grappling with. As the region plunges into ever greater violence, with questions of religion at the fore, we will need to be more honest about this, even if it’s uncomfortable. This, sometimes, can be as simple as taking religion, and “Islam” in particular, more seriously in an age of secularism. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which I cite in the book, from the great historian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard Mitchell. The Islamic movement, he said, “would not be a serious movement worthy of our attention were it not, above all, an idea and a personal commitment honestly felt.”
Heading image: Protesters fests toward Pearl roundabout. By Bahrain in pictures, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
This week, bestselling author Lynn Raye Harris celebrates the release of her romantic suspense Hot Rebel. Featuring a military hero, kick ass heroine, and a Middle Eastern mission gone bad, this is an action packed romance. To celebrate the release, Lynn is hosting a $50 gift card giveaway, so please enter below!
A rebel on the run…
Victoria Royal is a traitor. Or so the U.S. government believes. Victoria was once a promising sniper in the Army, but now she’s gone rogue—worse, she’s just landed in the middle of a Hostile Operations Team mission in the desert and blasted it all to hell.
Nick “Brandy” Brandon doesn’t expect to run into Victoria when he’s bugging out from a mission gone wrong. It’s been more than three years since she disappeared from the sniper course they were in together, and he’s finally stopped thinking about her killer curves and smart mouth.
But now she’s back—and she’s far more dangerous than Nick ever believed possible… Is she really a traitor? Or is there something more at stake? He has to decide fast—because time’s running out and too many lives hang in the balance…
Driven by some emotion she couldn’t name, Victoria turned and walked back over to Nick. He was frowning at her when she reached up and pulled his head down. She pressed her lips to his cheek, felt the roughness of his stubble and breathed the smell of him—sand, spice, and cool water—deep into her lungs.
“Thanks for saving me,” she said, her lips close to his ear.
She started to step away, but he caught her close and turned his head, his lips meeting hers. The contact was shocking—and delicious in a way she hadn’t anticipated. She’d been kissed before, but this… this was better than any of those kisses had been.
His mouth was soft and hard against hers, his hands firm on her hips as he held her against him. The kiss was hot and tame all at once. Simultaneously the most arousing and most chaste kiss she’d ever had. He didn’t force her mouth open, didn’t thrust his tongue between her lips—he just kissed her hard and thoroughly before setting her away from him and taking a step backward.
And, God, she wanted his tongue so badly now. Wanted to feel it sliding against her own, stroking her senses higher.
But the kiss was over and he was looking at her, his jaw firm and a hard look in his eyes.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and it took her a moment to remember that she’d thanked him for saving her.
“I… I have to go.” Her cheeks flamed as she said it because he knew she had to leave as well as she did. The car was running, and she’d left the door open. She took a step backward, and then another.
Then she turned and got inside the car, determined not to look at him again. But she failed because she looked up, her gaze clashing with his right as she closed the door. And she didn’t look away as they drove off. Nick didn’t move from the spot she’d left him standing in.
It was only when the car turned and he was out of sight that she remembered how to breathe.
USA Today bestselling author Lynn Raye Harris burst onto the scene when she won a writing contest held by Harlequin. A former finalist for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award and the National Readers Choice Award, Lynn lives in Alabama with her handsome former military husband and two crazy cats. Lynn writes about hot military heroes, sizzling international billionaires, and the women who dare to tame them. Her books have been called “exceptional and emotional,” “intense,” and “sizzling.” To date, Lynn’s books have sold over 2 million copies worldwide.
Britain and the United States have been suffering from intervention fatigue. The reason is obvious: our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven far more costly and their results far more mixed and uncertain than we had hoped.
This fatigue manifested itself in almost exactly a year ago, when Britain’s Parliament refused to let the Government offer military support to the U.S. and France in threatening punitive strikes against Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Since then, however, developments in Syria have shown that our choosing not to intervene doesn’t necessarily make the world a safer place. Nor does it mean that distant strife stays away from our shores.
There is reason to suppose that the West’s failure to intervene early in support of the 2011 rebellion against the repressive Assad regime left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill—jihadists whose ranks now include several hundred British citizens.
There’s also some reason to suppose that the West’s failure to support Georgia militarily against Russia in 2008, and to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, has encouraged President Putin to risk at least covert military aggression in Ukraine. I’m not saying that the West should have supported Georgia and punished Assad. I’m merely pointing out that inaction has consequences, too, sometimes bad ones.
Now, however, despite out best efforts to keep out of direct involvement in Syria, we are being drawn in again. The rapid expansion of ‘Islamic State’, involving numerous mass atrocities, has put back on our national desk the question of whether we should intervene militarily to help stop them.
What guidance does the tradition of just war thinking give us in deliberating about military intervention? The first thing to say is that there are different streams in the tradition of just war thinking. In the stream that flows from Michael Walzer, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defence. More coherently, I think, the Christian stream, in which I swim, holds that the paradigm of a just war is the rescue of the innocent from grave injustice. This rescue can take either defensive or aggressive forms. The stipulation that the injustice must be ‘grave’ implies that some kinds of injustice should be borne rather than ended by war. This because war is a destructive and hazardous business, and so shouldn’t be ventured except for very strong reasons.
What qualifies as ‘grave’ injustice, then? In the 16th and 17th centuries just war theorists like Vitoria and Grotius proposed as candidates such inhumane social practices as cannibalism or human sacrifice. International law currently stipulates ‘genocide’. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protest (‘R2P’) would broaden the law to encompass mass atrocity. Let’s suppose that mass atrocity characteristic of a ruling body is just cause for military intervention. Some nevertheless argue, in the light of Iraq and Afghanistan, that intervention is not an appropriate response, because it just ddoesn’twork. Against that conclusion, I call two witnesses, both of whom have served as soldiers, diplomats, and politicians, and have had direct experience of responsibility for nation-building: Paddy Ashdown and Rory Stewart.
Ashdown, the international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002-6, argues that “[h]igh profile failures like Iraq should not … blind us to the fact that, overall, the success stories outnumber the failures by a wide margin”.
Rory Stewart was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy governor of two provinces of southern Iraq from 2003-4. He approached the task of building a more stable, prosperous Iraq with optimism, but experience brought him disillusion. Nevertheless, Stewart writes that “it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned”.
Notwithstanding that, one lesson from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed from British imperial history—is that successful interventions in foreign places, which go beyond the immediate fending off of indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale to attempting some kind of political reconstruction, cannot be done quickly or on the cheap.
Here’s where national interest comes in. National interest isn’t necessarily immoral. A national government has a moral duty to look after the well being of its own people and to advance its genuine interests. What’s more, some kind of national interest must be involved if military intervention is to attract popular support, without which intervention is hard, eventually impossible, to sustain. One such interest can be moral integrity. Nations usually care about more than just being safe and fat. Usually they want to believe that they are doing the right thing, and they will tolerate the costs of war—up to a point—in a just cause that looks set to succeed. I have yet to meet a Briton who is not proud of what British troops achieved in Sierra Leone in the year 2000, even though Britain had no material stake in the outcome of that country’s civil war.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way.
However, the nation’s interest in its own moral integrity alone will probably not underwrite military intervention that incurs very heavy costs. So other interests—such as national security—are needed to stiffen popular support for a major intervention. It is not unreasonable for a national people to ask why they should bear the burdens of military intervention, especially in remote parts of the world.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer to those reasonable questions will have to present itself in terms of the nation’s own interests. This brings us back to Syria and Islamic State. Repressive though the Assad regime was and is, and nasty though the civil war is, it probably wasn’t sufficiently in Britain’s national interest to become deeply involved militarily in 2011. The expansion of Islamic State, however, engages our interest in national security more directly, partly because as part of the West we are its declared enemy and partly because some of our own citizens are fighting for it and might bring their jihad back onto our own streets.
We do have a stronger interest, therefore, in taking the risks and bearing the costs of military intervention to stop and to disable Islamic State, and of subsequent political intervention to help create sustainable polities in Syria and Iraq.
In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counter-terrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the pre-Arab spring period. European governments are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counter-terrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full-circle? Does counter-terrorism once again subordinate any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab spring, ministers, leaders and commissioners lined up to insist they had learnt the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot in practice provide the stability that is their realpolitik justification. Have these same leaders now forgotten their own warnings?
There are certainly signs that the EU is reversing back to the past. Member states are reinforcing cooperation with Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in order to contain Islamic State. Military action against Islamic State is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria towards the Assad regime. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and Europol’s constricted reach.
The prominent foreign policy debates are once again about defeating radical jihadism. Observing this fitful drift in strategic reflection is like watching a replay of the late 1990s or the period after the 9/11 attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace and de-radicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policy-makers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European governments have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime, and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the IS surge. Most stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization. They acknowledge that more not less priority needs to be given to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical towards the re-empowered Egyptian military, but maintain a greater distance than in the Mubarak era; several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
Consequently, the situation is nuanced: the EU has tried security containment, and it has tried (modestly) backing the Arab spring as a route to social stability. Both apparently failed. So, what now?
The answer is that a better synthesis is needed between the security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counter-terrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decision-making than those advocating a focus on supporting democratic reforms. In 2011 and 2012 this situation switched around: EU policy briefly became a more positive enterprise in assisting local Arab demands for better governance rather than a nervous and negative exercise in containment. It seemed that the main players in the region were IT-savvy, modern and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy over-played the counter-terrorism angle and failed to understand the Middle East’s underlying social changes. After 2011, the EU was not particularly ambitious in supporting democratic transitions; but its focus was on national-level reforms more than on the regional, geopolitical ramifications of states’ internal political changes.
It is easy to point out that a focus on political reform must be retained, to get to the root drivers of radicalization. But, the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how this would relate to geo-strategic questions — how reform and geopolitics would condition each other in mutual symbiosis. As Islamic State rampages and Middle Eastern intra- and inter-state order teeters, the challenge is to move towards a better conjoining of security with reform imperatives.
It is now commonly argued that the EU should strike flexible and security-oriented alliances with friendly powers, forget about transformation and conditionality, and abandon its ambitious schemes of regional cooperation. Those favoring a security-first approach insist this is necessary because the logic of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is once again subjugated to sectarian identities.
This argument contains much that is sound, but is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank to European foreign policy, it reinforces the very power dynamics that drive radicalization. It risks worsening the disease it purports to cure.
While regional alliances are needed to contain Islamic State, these should not divert the EU from providing more effective backing for moderate opposition groups in Syria; European governments have conspicuously not matched the United States’ new package of support for the Free Syrian Army. European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement from Iraq. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness not the current divvying out of power quotas between discredited elites. The EU should not forget that long-term stability in the Middle East still requires the tempering of social frustrations within unreformed Gulf states — however closely these regimes now work with Western powers on counter-terrorism.
And, perhaps most crucially, some form of more effective and broader regional security architecture is needed to link together what happens within states with what happens at a regional level. The EU needs strategic deliberation that more systematically connects security actions with domestic political factors in the Middle East.
A focus on reform without security cooperation today looks naïf; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.
Headline image credit: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01 by Email4mobile. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.