Cow, crescent and star

 Published in  Middle East Policy, Washington, D.C.; December 5, 2014

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is investigating the impact of Hindu nationalism on liberal values and democratic institutions in his native India. Earlier, he conducted fieldwork on religious movements and nationalist experiments in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent as a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

LAST MONTH President Obama accepted India’s invitation to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations. He will be the first American president to do so.

I was in Kolkata (Calcutta), India’s “cultural capital” when this was announced. Most of my interlocutors there were euphoric about the news, especially the supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi, the BJP leader and prime minister, had invited the American president to the January 26, 2015, events. On that date 67 years ago, newly independent India adopted its democratic constitution.

Most Hindu nationalists in India viewed Obama’s gesture as America’s acceptance of Hindu nationalism.  I saw it as the president’s doing business with a democratically elected government that happens to be Hindu nationalist. Two years ago, the Obama administration embraced the Islamist government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who had come to power through a free and fair election. The Morsi government has since been overthrown in a military coup, and Morsi languishes in jail.

Nevertheless, secularists and liberals in the West who throw a fit on hearing the word “religious fundamentalist” or “militant” might consider following Obama’s lead on the issue. Not that we should approve of religious militants’ violence or other destructive conduct, if they engage in it. However, we need to understand the sources of their militancy and encourage their evolution into more peaceable social or political categories, and participation in the democratic process is one of the best roads to that goal. So far, though, bombing Muslim militants has been America’s and NATO’s preferred method of dealing with them, it has served only to multiply them and bolster their capabilities.

Today religious values and ethos permeate most postcolonial societies, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or others. Unfortunately, the religious upsurge also has ratcheted up interfaith hostility in many countries. The BJP is a glaring example. The party and allied Hindu nationalist organizations plan to change India’s traditionally multi-cultural society into one based on Hindu religious and cultural values. They have come a long way toward that goal, but their march has been accompanied by widespread discrimination and violence against Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, numbering around 160 million people.

Modi has long been in the vanguard of the movement to Hinduize Indian society. He was banned from visiting the United States for nearly a decade for his alleged connivance in the horrific anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Nearly 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, beaten and burned to death by Hindu mobs. The all-important question haunting many Indian minds, including mine, is whether these faith-based communal conflicts will abate. And if they do, how?

I disagree with those who fear that the new wave of religious resurgence, especially among Muslims, might lead to the kind of sectarian or interfaith bloodbaths that ravaged Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some historical records show that 35 percent of the population perished in those waves of intra-Christian militancy. But these are different times. Thanks to the spread of the Enlightenment values of freedom, tolerance and humanism, people around the world are increasingly getting used to divergent ideologies, religions and cultures. Everyday people in most countries are more tolerant of the religious or ethnic Other than they were 50 years ago.

The growing acceptance of the Other has been facilitated by globalization and the 24/7 electronic and digital interaction across countries and continents. Of course, most diehard liberals (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls them “liberal fundamentalists”) and religious militants have yet to feel the winds of pluralism and contestation with discrepant ideologies, faiths and communities. I also do not rule out further aggravation of Muslim hostility by the military aggression and political and diplomatic tutelage America and its allies are using around the Muslim world. But I see this approach running its course before too long, as its futility and backlash begin to dawn on its practitioners.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing search among intellectuals, the media and others for the sources of the what is commonly known as religious militancy and violence. A host of sociologists and social scientists has concluded that the religious pull being felt by people in postcolonial societies stems, in large measure, from their quest for dignity and authenticity. This is also fostered by their pervasive exposure to Western ideas of freedom and selfhood. Modernity’s corrosive effects on societies are another source of religious upsurge. “Modern societies,” says Daniele Hervieu-Leger, a leading French sociologist, “may corrode their traditional religious base; at one and the same time, however, these societies open up new spaces and sectors that only religion can fill.”

Postcolonial societies aren’t generally receptive to the liberal tools of mediation, elections and so on, to settle what they see as existential issues: foreign domination, preservation of religious and cultural values, and basic communal interests. Many Western societies have no qualms about waging war over lesser questions.

Liberalism, is a uniquely Western ideology; it cannot be planted holistically in most non-Western societies.  The liberal concepts of church-state separation, individualism and freedom without responsibility emerged largely as reactions to anomalies in European traditions. Those include the long and bloody religious conflicts, the church-state power struggle and the sanctity of individual property rights in the Germanic tribal cultures. Societies that were unaffected by these historical trends and experiences have mostly been inhospitable to most of the liberal values that are germane to Eurocentric civilization.

Hence most of Europe’s former colonies are modernizing, while cherishing the basic aspects of their religious and other traditions.  Peoples outside the West can, of course, profitably cultivate many of the useful institutions that have evolved from Western ideas, experience and endeavors. Indeed they have been enriching their lives and societies by embracing many of those ideas and institutions — democracy, the rule of law, scientific inquiry and so forth. But they’re doing so to the extent these pursuits can be adapted to their core religious and cultural norms.

The view that liberalism is a specifically Western ideology and that aspects of it will not work in many non-Western societies, is shared, to different degrees, by a growing number of sociologists, philosophers and historians. Among them are Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Karen Armstrong, Amy Goodman, Steve Bruce, Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor. They also include many non-Western intellectuals who are committed to liberal and leftist causes and worldview.

Susnata Das is professor of history at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. The leftist Hindu intellectual complained that Hindu-Muslim tensions had increased in India since the BJP had come to power in New Delhi seven months earlier. Asked about his take on the Gujarat “riots,” the professor took exception to my use of the word. We were talking in our native Bengali language. Getting excited about his viewpoint, he switched to English: “It was NOT a riot. It was pogrom.” With portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and India’s socialist icons watching us from his office walls, Das described some of the horrifying details of the Gujarat carnage. He blasted Modi and his BJP for their anti-Muslim “bigotry, pure bigotry, and hate,” which he said had unleashed recurrent Hindu violence against Muslims.

Then, scratching the back of his head, indicating a sense of resignation, my interviewee lamented that India’s once-powerful leftist and secularist movements had been “losing ground” to Hindu nationalism. That was because, he added, many Indians are “turning back to their religious and cultural traditions.” The same can be said of people in many other non-Western countries. They are forswearing many features of liberalism with which they began their journeys as citizens of independent states and substituting them for their own religious institutions and idiom.

The “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan was founded by a thoroughly secular and Anglicized Muslim statesman. He did not practice the Islamic faith, and he drank gin in the afternoon and whiskey in the evening, though drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden by Islam. In August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (parliament) that his new nation would guarantee complete freedom to practice any religion, but that religion would have no role in the affairs of the Pakistani state.

The father of the nation assured Pakistanis,

You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.

Yet the Islamization of Pakistani society and laws began less than a decade after Jinnah’s death in 1948. It reached a peak under the government of another staunchly secular Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That left-leaning populist came to power as president when grassroots Islamization campaigns had spread to large swaths of Pakistan and threatened his government. In September 1972, he said to me in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, “You can’t be a democrat and secular [in Pakistan] at the same time.” I had asked him about the pressure from the Islamist political parties Jamiatul Ulama-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami to enshrine the Sharia, Islamic canon law, in a constitution that was being drafted in parliament.  “The National Assembly has been elected by the people,” he reminded me. “Most of our people are devout Muslims.”

I was prompted to ask for the interview with the non-practicing Muslim politician after he had made a clarion call to Pakistanis “to make this beautiful country an Islamic state, the bravest Islamic state and the most solid Islamic state.” The U.S.-educated “socialist” Zulfikar Bhutto’s new constitution declared Pakistan an “Islamic state.” It proclaimed that “all existing laws shall be brought in to conformity with the injunctions of Islam,” and that no new laws would be enacted that would be “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” Later, as prime minister, Zulfikar Bhutto endorsed other measures, excluding the Ahmadiya sect from the traditional Islamic mainstream; changing the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the Islamic Sabbath; and taking other measures, all of which turned Jinnah’s secular Pakistan into an Islamic state.

Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia and most other postcolonial Muslim states also founded their political structures on liberal — sometimes socialist — models. Today most of them have reworked those models to accommodate Islamic tenets and code of conduct. Some Muslim states continue to maintain formally secular political systems, mostly for Western consumption. But Islam pulsates in the life of their Muslim citizens. This category of Muslim states includes Indonesia, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mali, Senegal, Djibouti and Gambia.

Hindu or Muslim societies aren’t the only ones facing a religious upsurge in their once-secular public space. The world’s only Jewish state was founded as a fiercely secular polity.  In its declaration of independence in 1948, Israel announced that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture to all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These principles formed the bedrock of Israel’s Basic Law.

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the ultra-orthodox and orthodox branches of Judaism began to Judaize Israeli politics and culture, gradually reducing Palestinians and other non-Jews to second-class citizens. The racial and religious apartheid that became pronounced under Prime Minister Menachem Begin has culminated in the policies of the  Benjamin Netanyahu government.

Despite the state-sponsored discrimination and suppression of Israeli Palestinians, however, the state’s Basic Law still recognizes the equality of all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. In a widely cited ruling, former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak articulated the state’s doctrine of equality. “It is true,” he wrote, “members of the Jewish nation were granted a special key to enter, but once a person has lawfully entered the home, he enjoys equal rights with all other household members.”

That could soon change. The “Jewish nation-state” bill, which the Netanyahu government has approved and will be pushing through the Knesset (parliament), would confer national and group rights only to Israel’s Jewish citizens. It would override the “individual rights” to be conceded to Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens. If passed, it would institutionalize anti-Palestinian apartheid, undermine democracy and turn Israel into a Jewish Pakistan. Netanyahu has fired two of his Cabinet members who opposed the bill (and disagreed with him on some other issues), paving the way for new elections.  Public-opinion polls show that religious and right-wing Jewish parties are more popular in Israel than ever; the bill could sail through the new parliament.

These “religious” tides aren’t specific to religions. Secular ideological and nationalist ferment has also fueled intergroup militancy. And it has often been as malevolent and bloody as movements carried out under religious banner. Karen Armstrong points out that the liberal French revolutionaries enacted some of history’s most savage massacres among the opponents and victims of the Revolution:

Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors, ‘The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women.… The roads are littered with corpses.

Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshiped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.

Europe’s bloodiest religious and ideological cataclysms occurred during its transitions from one ideational paradigm to another: from Roman to Germanic to Christian, from Christian to liberal, from liberal to socialist and communist, and from nationalist to imperialist and colonialist.

The religious and ideological movements in today’s postcolonial societies indicate similar processes of transition. They mark the transition from colonial-era liberal political paradigms to postcolonial indigenous ones. For many Muslim societies, it also represents the struggle to transform Western hegemonic political and security structures foisted on them into native Islam-oriented ones. Foreign tutelage in these Muslim states is sustaining repressive despotism, while native Islamic movements reflect the priorities and aspirations of the public.

The challenge before most of the former European colonies is two-pronged. One is to douse the extremist and violent impulses of the activists struggling for social renewal. They would abate in the course of time, as have previous episodes of Muslim extremism and violence. The other, which is more complex and long-term, is to build bridges between clashing religious, sectarian and ethnic communities: Hindus and Muslims in India; Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan; and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

These communal tensions and conflicts have been touched off partly by the unraveling of the political institutions introduced during colonial rule. European powers and Westernized native elites carved out these states overnight, splitting sectarian and ethnic communities among different states without consideration of their inhabitants’ cultural affiliations or economic interests. Yet the citizens of these artificial entities were expected to identify primarily with state institutions and laws. Those citizens have mostly proved unable to foot that bill. They feel strong communal bonds with their religious and ethnic communities that often span more than one of these states.

There are not many true Lebanese in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens are primarily Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis and Druze. There are almost no real Iraqis in Iraq, only Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and members of other religious, ethnic and tribal communities.

When people identify strongly with their nations or states, they view citizens of other states as the rival Other and compete and sometimes fight with them. When religion or ethnicity claims their deeper allegiance, they are prone to rivalry and hostility toward other ethnic or religious communities.

As the older nations and states matured, they learned, often the hard way, the perils of interstate hostility. Europe, once the most violent continent, has all but jettisoned conflicts between states.  Similarly, as religious and ethnic communities in postcolonial states would begin to mature, they would also learn the grief and misfortune caused by communal hostility. They would then be more disposed to living peaceably with one another.

 

ISIS could trigger Arab revolution

On the darker upper strip of my computer screen I saw my eyebrows rising, as I read, for the first time, President Obama’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Now, as his aides and spokespersons drone on and on about that mission, I get ticked off or, alternately, amused.

Can the United States and its allies really “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL)?

Personally, I deplore this war because of the deaths and devastation it’s going to cause, and the piles of dough we, American taxpayers, are squandering on it. So far the war’s price tag is estimated to be $1 billion a month. It’s likely to rise.

Yet I also see the war having a far-reaching, liberating effect on Arab societies. I see it reviving and strengthening the Arab Spring, which Arab monarchies and dictatorships had foolishly thought they had behind them. More on this in a minute.

Meanwhile, I’m afraid Obama isn’t going to “destroy” ISIS. Remember his repeated vows to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda during the Afghanistan war? Thanks mainly to that war, Al Qaeda and its many affiliates have mushroomed in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere. If Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam had any lesson for the United States, it’s that conventional military establishments, however powerful, can’t defeat modern guerrilla forces that are ready to die to end their oppression and avenge their subjugation and humiliation.

Afghan Mujahedeen taught this lesson to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then the world’s largest conventional military juggernaut. The Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrilla groups in Gaza have driven it home to Israel, the superpower in Middle East.

Ignoring these glaring lessons and lurching into a new war in the hope of stamping out the world’s most powerful Muslim guerrilla force is just insane. Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The gruesome atrocities that ISIS has committed against civilians in Iraq and Syria are indeed heinous and inhuman. They’re repugnant to Islamic tenets and principles. Beheading innocent civilians, killing Yazidis and Christians or converting them to Islam by force are certainly not part of the “jihad,” struggle authorized by Islam, they claim to have waged.

Islam sanctions two kinds of jihad. The greater jihad,  jihad al-kabir, is the struggle to resist one’s own immoral impulses and actions. The lesser jihad,  jihad al-saghir, is armed struggle to defend one’s community or territory against outside aggression. ISIS obviously has proclaimed the lesser jihad against the Shiite government and militias in Iraq, the Alawite government in Syria as well as America and its allies. Islam would probably support its armed struggle if it is, or was, meant to resist the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Shiite pogrom against Sunni Arabs in Iraq or the suppression and oppression of people by the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

But Islamic law strongly prohibits its inhuman atrocities against civilians, mentioned above. These crimes belong to the categories of the brutal torture, murder and humiliation of mostly innocent Muslims in Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere by American forces. They’re as barbaric as American soldiers peeing on Afghan Muslim corpses, or Israelis slaughtering Gazan children.

In any case, the more America and its allies beat up on ISIS, the more it will attract recruits and monetary support from fellow Sunnis from around the world. Already, some 3,000 American and European Sunni youths and many thousands more from the Muslim world have joined the guerrilla organization. I expect the trend to accelerate in the months and years ahead.

It reminds me of a comment an Iraqi friend made to me during one of my three research trips to Iraq. In 1991 Subhy Haddad, a veteran Iraqi journalist, was working for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. I had him over for lunch at Baghdad’s Sagman Hotel, where I was staying.

Between bites on his eggplant Domla – eggplant with meat, vegetables and spices stuffing – Haddad said I wouldn’t be able to interview some of the Shiite intellectuals and politicians I had on a list. About half of them had fled to Shiite Iran to escape then Sunni Arab President Saddam Hussein’s persecution. If Sunni Arabs (as different from Sunni Kurds) ever got knocked out of power, he continued, Shiites would wreak vengeance on them. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs “would then turn to their fellow Sunnis in the region” for support. Iraqis, he added, were “more loyal to their ethnic groups than to Iraq.”

I remembered Haddad when successive Shiite governments in Baghdad and their brutal militias began slaughtering Sunni Arabs after the United States had overthrown the Saddam regime. Many of those persecuted Sunni Arabs joined Al Qaeda in Iraq to resist the U.S. invasion and the Shiite pogrom. ISIS has resumed that struggle and strengthened it manifold.

That the United States sired ISIS is missing from American discourse on that militant group. Senator Carl Levin was a rare exception. “ISIS did not exist before our invasion of Iraq,” said the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee at a hearing on the issue. “They are a consequence of our invasion of Iraq.”

Levin echoed a chorus of voices from politicians and pundits in the Middle East. ISIS is “the product of foreign invasion,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

And America’s expedition against ISIS is going to produce the same results as did its war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: spread and bolster the movement, aggravating threats to American security.

If the Sunni Arab militancy in Iraq and Syria has alarmed the United States, it has spawned panic among Arab monarchies, which are its next targets. In fact ISIS, the Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist militant groups already are calling for the ouster of repressive Arab monarchies. No wonder five of those monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates – have jumped on America’s anti-ISIS bandwagon in a desperate effort to save their thrones.

The thousands of Arab youths from Persian Gulf countries who are honing their fighting skills in this war will one day return home. They will almost inevitably revive and fire up the simmering revolutionary movements against their tyrannical monarchies, the most formidable they ever faced.

I don’t expect many of these anachronistic power structures to survive another Arab generation.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered seven Middle Eastern countries as a newspaper reporter and conducted fieldwork in five as a research fellow for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

 

 

Gaza, Pakistan and ignoble US legacy

The anti-government protests now raging in Pakistan and the travails of Hamas in Palestine remind me of Nurul Amin, my mentor. He served, at different times, as prime minister of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan.

In February 1972, in Rawalpindi, Amin was telling me about the political intrigues that had led to several military-bureaucratic coups against democratic governments in Pakistan. “Did you notice,” he asked, “that all of those who threw out democratic governments kept promising to give us ‘true democracy’?”

Nevertheless, the elder statesman was hopeful of the eventual triumph of democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere. Like the proverbial cat, he said, “democracy has nine lives.” Pakistanis would take time to cultivate “the art of democracy and guard it” against usurpers, as did most Western countries. Until then “you will see our generals and politicians giving lip service to democracy,” while scrambling to “grab power by any means.”

In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party won the 2013 parliamentary elections, which it probably rigged. Opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, instead of working to insure that the next elections are free and fair, have paralyzed parts of Islamabad, the capital, with crowds agitating for Sharif’s resignation as prime minister. I wonder if they’re playing into the hands of Pakistan’s notoriously power-hungry army generals. In the past, Pakistani generals have used most of the country’s major political crises as excuses for military coups against civilian governments.  I’m especially disappointed by Imran Khan’s role in this anti-democratic drama. I admire his progressive social and political agenda.

Egypt is another stark example of the betrayal of democracy. In 2012 Egyptians had their first-ever free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood won and formed the government. But the Egyptian military and “liberal” groups didn’t like it. They called in the army and got President Mohammed Mursi’s democratic government overthrown, returning to the military-led pseudo-dictatorship with which they’re more familiar.

More ironic is the assaults on Palestinian democracy by the world’s most eloquent advocate of democracy and human rights: the United States. In 2006 the Palestinians, prodded by Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials, held their first-ever free and fair elections. Hamas won the parliamentary vote by a landslide and formed the government. The Americans and Israelis didn’t like it. Instead of congratulating the Palestinians for ushering in democracy in hostile environment, they instigated the losers in those elections, the Fatah, to stage a coup against the Hamas-led government. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, held on to power in the West Bank, now in the ninth year into his four-year term! Hamas continued to rule the Gaza Strip, as it carried on its armed struggle to liberate Palestinians from the Israeli colonial rule.

That wasn’t the end of the punishment Hamas has suffered for winning the Palestinian elections. With American blessings, Israel collaborated with pro-Israeli Egyptian dictatorships to place the 1.8 million people of Gaza under a most gruesome economic blockade. Americans and Israelis had hoped that the extreme hardships caused by the blockade would turn Gazans against their Hamas regime. They haven’t.

Israel remains undaunted by these setbacks. Early last month the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel into its third war against Hamas, vowing to disarm it and other Islamist groups in Gaza. The war ended with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad standing and valiantly fighting the invading forces. In a charade of truce talks held in Cairo, Israel and Egypt pressured the Islamists relentlessly to achieve what the powerful Israeli armed forces couldn’t: Disarm Hamas. They couldn’t. Hamas and Jihad have resumed their armed struggle for freedom, while Israel rains its U.S.-supplied bombs on the already devastated Gaza.

Sadly, America has set the precedents for the assaults on democracy in non-Western societies. Successive U.S. administrations coddled all five Pakistani dictatorships that had supplanted democratic governments. Besides, America used the CIA to overthrow nearly a dozen democratic governments in South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia, and replaced them with repressive pro-American dictatorships.

All the same, I see the masses in Pakistan and around the world pulsating with democratic fervor. I remember Nurul Amin’s prediction about the eventual success of democratic movements. Britain went through seven turbulent centuries – marked by regicide, religious pogroms, and bloody ethnic and trans-national warfare – to mature as a full-blown democracy.

America needed two centuries to settle down as a real democracy. American women didn’t win their voting rights until 1920 and African Americans didn’t achieve theirs until 1965. As I wrote elsewhere, developing countries should be able to build enduring democratic institutions much faster than did Westerners. Among other things, the dramatic spread of education and modernization will help them to do so.

As an American citizen, however, I’m troubled by the United States’ legacy in man’s epic march toward freedom and fulfillment. When future historians would be recounting democratic movements in non-Western societies, they wouldn’t, I’m afraid, condone America’s continual hostility to those the edifying and heroic human endeavors.

The United States can’t expect to regain its moral stature in the world until it realigns itself with forces of freedom and democracy. A good place to start would be Palestine. The Obama administration should dissociate America from the scandalous anachronism of Israeli colonialism. It should stop shielding Israel against charges of war crimes in Gaza, brought by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Nothing could have been more shameful for Americans than seeing their government casting the solitary vote against opening the U.N. investigation.

This Gaza war is a watershed in Palestinians’ 66-year struggle for freedom and independence from Israeli subjugation. It has shown that Israel, the superpower in the Middle East, could slaughter more than 2,000 Gazans and destroy their homes, economy and infrastructure, but couldn’t dent their resolve to rid themselves of Israeli suppression and oppression. It has shown, too, that the world, with the deplorable exception of the United States, has little patience for Israeli colonialism.

I know that Palestine will jettison, sooner than later, Israel’s colonial tutelage. I don’t know how long it will take America to jettison its ignoble role as the lone defender of the world’s lone colonial power.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ http://beyond-freedom.com.

 

 

Manufacturing an ‘existential threat’

Here’s a searing expose of the ominous U.S.-Israeli narrative about Iran’s nuclear program. It shows how American neocons and the Israeli right wing made Iran’s peaceful nuclear program into an “existential threat” to Israel and sold it to the world. It reminds me of the “mushroom cloud” invented and propagated by the neocons during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. I commend the story, published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to our visitors.

The Host

Dangerous rebranding of Iran’s peaceful program

In a new book and in a conversation with Haaretz, U.S. historian Gareth Porter charges that U.S. and Israeli policies on Iran have been based on fabricated evidence.

By Shemuel Meir, Haaretz, May 31, 2014 | 5:54 AM

A narrative is a story that we tell ourselves, and not necessarily what happened in reality. For example, the “Iranian threat” narrative, which has become the common wisdom in Israeli public discourse. A new book by Gareth Porter, an American historian and researcher specializing in U.S. national security, shows how the actual state of the Iranian nuclear program does not match the Iranian threat narrative.

The book’s title, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Nuclear Scare” (Just World Books), already tells us that it is going against the current. Porter appears to be the only researcher who has read with an unprejudiced eye all the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency from the past decade. He also had access to American intelligence reports on the Iranian issue from recent decades. In addition, Porter interviewed generations of American officials and analyzed the testimony of senior officials before Congress.

The result is a highly detailed and well-documented book for all interested in understanding how we arrived at the Iranian nuclear crisis, and the “attack scenarios,” and invented facts and intelligence reports whose purpose was to support the preconceptions. At the same time, the book is invaluable for those wishing to understand what is being discussed in the intensive nuclear talks that have been taking place Iran and the superpowers (or, more accurately, Iran and the U.S.) since the signing of last November’s interim agreement, which surprised many Israelis.

According to Porter, it was a hidden political agenda of U.S. decision makers (from long before Israel entered the picture) that gave rise to the Iranian nuclear crisis. This is one of the book’s main subjects, and the starting point for a discussion with which we in Israel are unfamiliar.

The story begins with U.S. support for the Iraqis during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war. The critical point comes with the collapse of the Soviet empire. According to Porter, that event and the end of the Cold War pulled out the rug from under the CIA’s raison d’être. The solution the Americans found to continue providing the organization with a tremendous budget was the invention of a new threat – the merging of weapons of mass destruction (an ambiguous term in itself) and terror. Iran, which rose to the top of the list, provided the threat that “saved” the CIA.

The empowering of the CIA’s organizational interests was reinforced by the gallant neoconservatives, led by ideologues Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, who had in the meantime reached senior positions in the government. They launched a campaign to delegitimize the Islamic Republic with the aim of toppling the regime (using the sanitized term “regime change”).

Running through Porter’s book is the well-substantiated claim that U.S. and Israeli policies on Iran derived from their political and organizational interests, and not necessarily from careful factual analysis of the Iranian nuclear program, which was subject to IAEA monitoring, or of the intentions of the Iranian leadership.

According to Porter, no systematic analysis was made of the goals of the Iranian nuclear program, and neither U.S. nor Israeli policy makers devoted any thought to why all of Iran’s official declarations on the subject were in line with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Furthermore, in U.S. discussions until 2007, and in Israel until today, hovering overhead is the nuclear “axiom” that Iran is dashing toward a bomb via the route of uranium-enrichment centrifuges. Porter and the IAEA found no proof of the dash to the bomb.

Following is Haaretz’s interview with Porter, conducted via email.

You have spent years of research analyzing IAEA reports, intelligence reports and interviewing officials about the Iran nuclear issue. What motivated you to write your latest book?

“It was the realization that a narrative about the Iranian nuclear issue had gained unchallenged credence, but that I had discovered over the years a number of major ‘anomalies’ – important facts that could not be reconciled with the narrative. I also came to realize that I was the only journalist who was closely tracking the evidence surrounding the issue. And finally – and perhaps most importantly – I realized that it is was impossible to convey the truth … in an article or series of articles; I had to write a book.”

Is it fair to say that your book shows us that the whole nuclear crisis as it has unfolded over the past 10 years is about U.S. and Israeli attempts to prevent Iran from developing a non-militarized nuclear program, even though such a program is permitted under the NPT, and that this obscured the fact that Iran never intended to develop nuclear weapons?

“Yes, I put considerable emphasis on the early history of the interaction between Iran’s nuclear program and policy, and the policies of the United States and Israel toward the program. I show how the Reagan administration’s intervention, beginning as early as 1983, to pressure Germany and France to refuse to cooperate with Iran in completing the Bushehr reactor, and to refuse to provide the enriched uranium reactor fuel for Bushehr, meant that Iran had to either give up its nuclear rights under the NPT altogether or go to the black market, in defiance of U.S. policy, to get its own independent enrichment capability. And despite subsequent U.S. and Israeli charges that Iran was interested in enrichment for nuclear weapons, there was and is no evidence whatever to support that charge.”

In my Haaretz blog, I emphasize the paradigm change of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, and still valid today, which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The Israeli public is unaware of this halt. Furthermore, many commentators believe that U.S. intelligence “corrected” itself and that the 2007 estimate has been annulled. Could you enlighten our readers about the important 2007 NIE?

“The 2007 NIE broke with previous NIEs [in 2001 and 2005], which had concluded that Iran was then running a nuclear weapons program. It concluded instead, with ‘high confidence,’ that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons. That conclusion was of course opposed by the Bush administration and Israel, because it had been the charge that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons that justified the threat of military force against Iran. And it did indeed make the ‘military option’ irrelevant to U.S. policy for the rest of the Bush administration and for much of the Obama administration.”

According to the 2007 NIE, however, some nuclear weapons research was carried out in Iran until 2003. Could you elaborate on what kind of research was undertaken; when, where and by whom, and what its scope was?

“Precisely who was carrying out research and what kind of research is still completely unclear, despite my effort to get any additional information on the subject from Thomas Fingar, who was in charge of the estimate. What was said by U.S. intelligence officials to be ‘snippets of conversation’ intercepted by U.S. intelligence in 2007 appears to indicate that some research related to nuclear weapons was being undertaken. But how many people were involved remains entirely unclear. And the testimony of the French ambassador to Tehran, as well as other evidence presented in my book, strongly suggests that the Supreme National Security Council had not authorized it and was not happy that it was going on.

“Not only did [Iran’s then-president] Hassan Rouhani order it halted in October 2003, when he was named the first coordinator of Iran’s nuclear policy, but Rouhani prevailed on the Supreme Leader to declare any work on nuclear weapons illicit under Islam in order to compel the researchers to give up their work on weapons. Understanding that episode correctly is clearly necessary to comprehending Iran’s nuclear policy accurately.

“Unfortunately, as I argue in my book, the evidence indicates that the team of intelligence analysts, who had been wrong about the existence of a nuclear weapons program in 2005 and again in an early draft of the 2007 estimate, got it wrong in their conclusion that the Iranian government had an actual nuclear weapons program [before] late 2003.”

In your book, you explain in great detail the sought-after “smoking gun,” i.e. the mysterious “laptop studies” and the Parchin “bomb test chamber.” The Israeli public is unfamiliar with the details of these “cases.” Could you explain the “possible military dimensions” and comment on the credibility of the “evidence”?

“I devote an entire chapter to the ‘mysterious laptop documents’ and show that they were actually fabricated by Israeli intelligence and given to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq [a militant Iranian opposition group] to pass on to German intelligence in mid-2004. The ‘giveaway’ that they were fabrications is the fundamental error in a series of studies depicting efforts to integrate a nuclear weapon into the Iranian intermediate-range missile, which shows the Shahab-3 that Iran had abandoned in 2000 in favor of a much-improved model that was first tested in August 2004 – too late to correct the mistake before the papers were passed to the MEK.

“Among the indicators that the documents originated in Israel is the fact that the MEK is not sophisticated enough to have fabricated such a large number of documents, and the well-known history of the terrorist organization’s close working relations with Israeli intelligence. Equally important is the fact that former IAEA director general ElBaradei revealed in his memoirs that Israel had passed on documents and intelligence reports to the IAEA directly in 2008 and 2009, which depicted Iran work on nuclear weapons even after 2003 – obviously prompted by the 2007 NIE.

“Those documents included information alleging that Iran had built a large metal cylinder to carry out tests of nuclear weapons designs at its Parchin military base. The IAEA made that allegation a major news theme by publishing it in its November 2011 report.  But no other evidence except the Israeli intelligence report has ever been produced to support that highly dubious charge. “

The emphasis in your book is on the centrifuges and the “enrichment track to the bomb.” Can you comment on the Arak heavy water reactor that is linked in Israel to the “plutonium track” and is behind the preemptive scenarios that have been developed in the Israeli press.

“The main weakness of the argument that Arak is an Iranian scheme for a ‘plutonium track’ to a nuclear weapon is simple: Iran has already agreed to arrangements under which it would be prevented from maintaining control of the plutonium produced by the reactor. In other words, all of the plutonium would be exported to another country. But there is a second major reason that it is not the threat that is being claimed: To build a plutonium reprocessing plant requires extensive construction as well as time, and it cannot be concealed.”

What is your assessment of the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1? Is a final agreement to close the Iranian file on the table?

“I am pessimistic about the outcome of these talks, in the coming months at least, because the Obama administration – influenced by the false narrative surrounding the issue and overconfident about its ability to pressure an Iran it assumes has been significantly weakened by the sanctions – is planning to demand that Iran give up all but a very few thousand of its 19,000 centrifuges for many, many years. That demand, based on a notion of Iranian ‘breakout’ that is quite divorced from reality, is an obvious deal-breaker. Iran cannot and will not agree to give up its ability to provide nuclear fuel for more nuclear plants, for which it is planning. In my view, this demand will lead to a much higher level of tensions unless and until it is substantially altered.”

In your view, what is behind the Israeli-Iranian rivalry? Is there a chance for Israeli-Iranian détente following the achievement of a final agreement in the Vienna talks and the possibility of new openings in U.S.-Iran relations?

“In my view there have been political considerations on both sides of the Iran-Israel relationship that have stood in the way of a detente over the past 15 years: On the Israeli side, the first Netanyahu government in 1996 was actually willing to give detente a try, so there is no inherent reason why it could not happen again. It was the opportunity to use the U.S. to put intense pressure on Iran, if not to use force for regime change, that swayed successive Israeli governments to take the ‘existential threat’ approach to Iran. If and when the U.S. pursues a truly independent policy toward Iran, that Israeli motive will disappear.

“On the Iranian side, the main obstacle to softening of its attitude toward Israel, in my view, has been the degree to which taking a hard line toward Israel makes Iran popular in the Sunni Arab street and counterbalances, at least to some extent, the anti-Iran policy of the Sunni regimes. So Iran-Israel detente has become hostage, to a great extent, to both the pro-Israel stance of the U.S. and the Sunni-Shi’a cold war.”

A final question: Is there a possibility that you are wrong, that you have been misled by some optimistic and naïve theories?

“My operational principle as an investigative journalist is that if there is a single verifiable fact that conflicts with my general understanding of an issue, I need to look more closely to understand why that anomaly exists. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, I have found an unbroken string of anomalies that undermine the credibility of official U.S.-Israeli narrative, but I have yet to find a single fact that would invalidate my reconstruction of the history of the issue.”

The writer, a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues, and author of Haaretz’s “Strategic Discourse” blog (in Hebrew).

 

Afghans show door to blind hegemon

“Fools!”

Tunu was talking about American troops in Afghanistan.

“Why were they spilling all this blood – ours and theirs?”

Now a shoe store owner, he had joined the Pakistani Taliban four years ago and fought NATO troops in Afghanistan for two. He was commenting on President Obama’s decision last month to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

A relative of mine, Tunu was visiting me and my ailing mother, 94, at the Osmani Hospital here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I was busy caring for my bedridden mother and couldn’t engage in a political conversation. I told him that his question was a good one for my next blog post. I agreed, however, not to mention his full name in it. The pro-American, terrorist-hunting government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed could go after him.

So why were American troops “spilling all this blood” in Afghanistan? Tunu didn’t know much about the American political system and focused his anger on U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, not those who sent them to do the fighting.

In 1996 I met a group of Arab post-graduate and undergrad students at a hangout on London’s Seven Sisters Road. They obviously knew about the process in which decisions about war and peace are made in Washington.  As I mentioned in a subsequent newspaper column, two of them – both Saudi Arabian – used that knowledge to support militant attacks on American government targets and, more amazingly, American civilians!

Their argument: American voters elect their governments who had imposed the devastating sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Kuwait war that had killed half a million Iraqi children. Elected American governments, they continued, supported “Israeli colonialism” and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The United States armed and protected  autocratic “monsters” repressing Arab societies. And so on. Why kill the “poor, black soldiers,” asked one of the Saudis, who had joined the American armed forces “to feed their families”?

I remembered their argument 10 years later when Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, said the United States and Iraq would have been spared the horrors of the uncalled for Iraq war if children of those who had decided to invade that country had been sent into the battlefields. Only 2 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress had their children in military services. The decorated Korean War veteran added that in 2004, 70 percent of New York City volunteers who enlisted in U.S. armed services were “black or Hispanic, recruited from lower-income communities.”

It all is true, but Americans are doing what most hegemonic powers have done throughout history – be they the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Brits or Soviets. They’ve used their superior military power to conquer, slaughter, plunder, subjugate and dominate other peoples. Some of those adventures have been stupid because power tends not only to corrupt people but also often blind them to reality.

In Afghanistan, Americans didn’t see – or want to see – the fate of other invaders to that country from the Greeks to the Brits to the Soviets. They were all defeated or expelled by the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun tribes. Power has even blinded many Americans to themselves and their deeds.  They went about invading sovereign nations and overthrowing and sabotaging governments with abandon. They slaughtered and brutalized other people and bribed and bullied their governments. Through all this they saw themselves as “peace-loving” do-gooders, spreading freedom and democracy around the world.

There’s a tried-and-true cure for this blindness: resistance and exhaustion. Few aggressive military powers have ever heeded moral suasion, but all have eventually been tamed by the resistance of the victims of their aggression and the exhaustion of their own military or economic power.  Without stubborn native resistance, the French wouldn’t have let go of their Algerian “department”; neither would the Soviets have fled Afghanistan. Hadn’t the Nazis crushed its economy, imperial Britain wouldn’t have conceded the independence of my native Indian subcontinent.

The Afghanistan war was doomed before it started because of the Afghans’ historic spirit of intolerance of foreign invaders. Their spirit of independence, as that of many other peoples, has been whetted further by the tide of freedom and democracy rising throughout the developing world.

The American economy, though still the word’s largest, has lost its vitality and dynamism. Administration spin-doctors would have us believe otherwise. They claim the economy is back on track after a temporary “Great Recession.”  They try to buttress their argument by citing the slow rise in employment rates, improvements in home prices and housing starts, the upswing in the stock market, and so on.

All these indices camouflage the deep and seemingly irreversible downturn in the American economy. America is saddled with a $17 trillion debt burden, while its GDP growth is anemic (2.4%). About 70 percent of goods on American store shelves have been made abroad. It means that the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Pacific Islanders, and other foreigners fill 7 out of 10 job openings created by the U.S. economy. The stock market boom is profiting mostly the top 1 percent society, while workers’ real wages have fallen to their lowest shares of national income in more than 50 years.   America just can no longer afford to fund the Afghanistan war, or any other war of choice.

Tunu should know that Obama ordered the total pullout American troops from Afghanistan because of the two main reasons that have historically stopped hegemonic aggression: exhaustion of the hegemons and resistance from the victims of their aggression.

  • Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.

Women in the West’s blind spot

‘Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women?’ PovertyMatters blog, The Guardian, London (link below).

I DON’T THINK “the world,” which essentially means America and Europe, is ignoring the travails of Arab or Muslim women per se. After all, when the Taliban attacked the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yusufzai, the West made her an international celebrity and hero. The spectacle was focused, however, on the suppression of women by the Taliban and other forces that were hostile to America and its invasion of Muslim countries. 

Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries are among the worst victims of male repression and misogyny. Yet how much concern have American politicians, journalists, intellectuals – or feminists – shown about their tribulations?

And what about Hindu women in India?  Misogyny has been endemic in the mostly Hindu Indian society.  Women are being raped and persecuted with abandon in much of India. Indian politicians and law enforcement agencies never took their suffering and humiliation seriously until recent media publicity forced them to try to do something about it.  Indian women’s ordeal, as that of women in the Middle East, has largely been ignored by “the world.”

The misfortunes of women in those societies are America’s and the West’s friendly ties to their governments.   You wouldn’t see moral issues getting in the way of  “the world’” coddling governments and other actors who serve Western interests.  Moral concerns are pressed into the service of those interests when they’re threatened by the West’s enemies, albeit if those enemies also happen to be trampling women’s rights or human rights.  And wittingly or unwittingly, Western intelligentsia  – conservatives, liberals, feminists, and so forth – follow the flag.

Remember Laura Bush’s women rights campaign in Afghanistan after her hubby invaded and occupied that poor country?  Indeed American feminists showed great concerns (mostly well-meaning, I believe) about the fate of those women if the United States had to transfer power to the misogynists who dominate the Afghan political class.  I’m not hearing those concerns voiced (or I’m not reading the publications where they are)  since the Obama administration announced its plans to end the occupation of Afghnistan.

Many Americans and Westerners would indeed like  to help women under suppression in old and traditional societies – but only when Western  interests don’t get in the way.

The Guardian blog post:

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/dec/02/world-ignore-violence-against-arab-women

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘What Freedom?’

 

 

 

Saudi women drive toward freedom

WASHINGTON – Kudos to the brave Saudi Arabian women for their protest against the ban on their driving. The prohibition was decreed by their ultra-conservative Wahhabi clerics, and is being enforced by the Saudi royal family. As I’ve learned from several trips to the kingdom, Saudi women have long been chafing under the worst kind of social and official suppression anywhere in the world.

Today a group of Saudi women has hit the roads behind the wheels of their cars, in brazen defiance of the misogynist law. Earlier, they collected some 1,700 signatures on a petition demanding the abolition of the driving ban.

I heard a pundit on an American radio talk show saying the women’s driving issue had confronted the Saudi monarchy with “the delicate task of balancing the women’s demand against Islamic law.” Indeed many non-Muslims and some Muslims think Islam forbids women to drive. I’ve long been waiting to hear an Islamic scholar tell me where in the Quran women are instructed not to drive automobiles.

Early Arab Muslim women, including the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and his associates, were much freer than their 21st century Saudi Arabian daughters. In fact the Prophet’s wife Ayesha rode a camel (when there were no automobiles anywhere in the world) to command her troops in a historic battle – the Battle of the Camels – against Caliph Ali. She also used to address public gatherings.

The caging of women is part of the Arab tribal – not Islamic – tradition. It acquired “Islamic” legitimacy in the 18th century when the obscurantist, but widely popular, Arab Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab sanctioned this traditional Arab prohibition against women’s outdoor activities. Abdul Wahhab endorsed many other Arab misogynist tribal mores. The founder of the Saudi state and monarchy, Muhammad Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, needed Abdul Wahhab’s blessings to build his support base and military campaigns to set up his kingdom. He made the Wahhabi creed the bedrock of the Saudi legal system.

The Wahhabi legal code, besides suppressing women’s rights, prohibits public protests against the ruling dynasty. It imposes inhuman punishment for often-minor infraction of other draconian Saudi laws. Thus the Wahhabi (or Salafi) code has come in handy for the monarchy to suppress dissent and rule the kingdom with an iron hand.

Most citizens of the kingdom don’t dare to make critical comments to strangers about the tyranny and massive corruption of the rulers and other members of the House of Saud. Typical was the reaction of a roomful of academics when, during a 1995 trip, I asked them about the conduct of the royals abroad.

About a dozen professors of the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah had been invited by one of their colleagues (whom I had known before) to meet me over tea. Responding to my inquiries, some of them made oblique remarks against some government policies. One of them even blamed the “advisers” of then King Fahd for the kingdom’s participation in the U.S.-led war against the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He made a reference to Bob Woodward’s book The Commanders to make a point. I had never heard any Saudi citizen inside Saudi Arabia voice dissent against the monarchy. Encouraged by what I thought their assertion of a measure of academic independence, I asked if they had read in that Woodward book a reference to then crown prince Fahd’s orgies. The writer had cited CIA documents to narrate Fahd’s daylong rendezvous with teenage American girls in his royal aircraft.

Pin-drop silence descended in the room.

Later when I asked their views about instances of massive corruption in the House of Saud, my host changed the subject. Others began quizzing me about the “hypocritical” U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestinians, treatment of Muslim minorities in the West, and so forth. I realized “academic freedom” could go only so far in Saudi Arabia. Since then I found out, during three research trips, that Arab intelligentsia in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates under the Al Nahyan monarchy were just as tight-lipped about the repression of their tyrannical regimes.

But of all Muslim societies in the world, Saudi Arabia has been the most misogynist. You meet a woman at a bank waiting space in Jeddah. She’s covered up from head to ankles, except her eyes, hands and feet. You don’t know who she is or what she looks like but can see her complexion and guess her age from a glance at her feet and hands. When she learns that you’re an America researcher, she’s shows an interest in talking with you.

Outside the bank she answers your questions, getting off her chest the long-suppressed anguish against regime oppression, social strictures on women, family violence, and so forth. Her narrative of Saudi misogyny and other social prejudices is the most candid and illuminating you get in Saudi Arabia. Her candor comes from her anonymity. Unlike the academics or businessmen you interviewed, you can’t see her or know her identity. You don’t ask her identity if you want her uninhibited views, and she won’t disclose it even if asked.

More recent reports from Saudi Arabia suggest that things are changing dramatically there since the onset of the Arab Spring. Saudi women – and men – are showing unprecedented yearning for freedom. Women’s public challenge today to the government’s – and the religious establishment’s – long-standing driving ban shows that many women in the kingdom no longer require anonymity to vent their rage against male suppression.

Mustafa Malik is the host of the blog ‘What Freedom’ and an international affairs columnist in Washington

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Let EU rein in Egypt’s military junta

I’M RELIEVED to see that Egypt’s military junta has blinked first in its bloody confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime apparently has dropped its interior minister’s threat to stamp out the Brotherhood sit-ins. Tens of thousands of supporters of Mohammad Mursi have since been allowed to stage rallies, demanding his reinstatement as president. Mursi was elected president on the ticket of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm.

The generals who staged the June 30 putsch against his government are in a pickle now! So it seems is the Obama administration, which had befuddled or amused many by its persistent refusal to call their coup as a coup. The government of Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour, appointed by the military chief Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, can’t dismantle the Islamist sit-ins without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the junta an international pariah.

The Mansour regime is already becoming paralyzed, as it can’t make headway with its planned overhaul of the constitution without a settlement with the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized political organization. The Islamist group is fast regaining its strength, eroded during last months of the Mursi presidency, as it has paid a high price in blood to resist the military-backed autocracy. The Brotherhood’s campaign against bureaucratic meddling with the country’s constitution could block the project.

I see a silver lining, however, in the European Union’s diplomatic effort to defuse the Egyptian crisis. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, is working with the generals and Brotherhood sources to help Egypt resume its democratic process. The United States’ failure to oppose the overthrow of Mursi’s democratic government has alienated it, at least for now, to the Brotherhood. This leaves Ashton mission the best tool to untangle the Egyptian imbroglio.

The Obama administration has become the butt of jokes around the world for playing with words to avoid describing Mursi’s ouster by the military as a coup. It’s doing so to circumvent the American law that demands the cut off of aid to any country in which the military has overthrown a democratic government. The administrations thinks that Israel’s security interests requires it to continue the aid flow to Egypt, no matter what.

Ever since the 1978 Camp David Accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has been giving Egypt more than $1 billion annually, mostly in military aid, which essentially is the price for Egypt’s continued adherence to the treaty. That treaty neutralizes Egypt, the most populous Arab country, in the ongoing Arab-Israeli belligerency. President Obama and his advisers obviously fear that stopping U.S. aid could jeopardize the Egyptian military’s commitment to that peace accord.

During his brief, one-year presidency, Mursi had disillusioned large numbers of Egyptians. They held huge public rallies, demanding his abdication. Many of them eventually supported the military as it toppled him from power.

It has happened in many other post-colonial countries. Initially, democratic governments fail to fulfill people’s aspirations, generated by democratization campaigns. Many of them give military adventurists a chance to do a better job of giving them the goodies. But their trust in power-hungry generals doesn’t take long to evaporate.

Egyptians’ frustration with Mursi was partly manufactured by the military, judicial and bureaucratic establishments. They resented their accountability to his democratic government and sabotaged many of his economic, infrastructure and constitutional programs.

But the mobs mobilized against Mursi don’t have viable political organizations. And the feckless Mansour government’s rubber-stamping military decisions, including the massacres of Brotherhood supporters, already has begun to antagonize many of Egyptians who opposed Mursi.

I expect the Freedom and Justice Party to win Egypt’s next democratic elections as well, or form a powerful constitutional opposition. The United States needs to mend fences with the Brotherhood. It should backtrack from its tacit acceptance of military coup and throw its full weight behind the EU mission in Egypt.

Egypt’s return to the democratic track would extricate the administration from its embarrassing amnesia about the murder of a newborn democracy.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered Egypt and the Middle East as reporter and conducted fieldwork there as a researcher for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

Don’t write Brotherhood off too soon

(Published in The Daily Star, Lebanon, July 16, 2013)

Alejandro Jodorowsy said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness.” The French filmmaker’s remark was resoundingly vindicated by Egypt’s liberal elites. They led massive crowds against President Muhammad Mursi and succeeded in getting the all-too-willing army to overthrow his year-old democratically elected government. The army-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, has announced a shotgun process to overhaul the constitution, created by a democratically elected legislature, and produce a pliant “elected” government.

The Egyptian activists and masses who had agitated for the overthrow of the Mursi government should have realized by now that the army has taken them for a ride. Its has used the anti-Mursi rallies as a cover for dumping the democratic process and reimposing its stranglehold on the government and the economy. So far the liberal elites are either cooperating with the army or looking the other way.

This is because most of today’s Egyptian liberals and others were born during the six decades the country languished under uninterrupted military dictatorships. They had never known democracy until the 2012 elections that ushered in the government of Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate, fast-evolving Islamist organization, the oldest in the Middle East. Throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has been subjected to brutal repression by successive dictatorial regimes. Through it all, its membership and support grew steadily among all sectors of Egyptian society.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s best-known secularist intellectuals, lamented to me in Cairo in 1995 that “foolish mishandling” of the Brotherhood by dictators had made it popular. Otherwise, the movement would have “fizzled” long before.

During several reporting and research stints, I found, however, that while brutal persecution by dictators and the hostility of secularist groups had endeared the Brotherhood among Egypt’s many devout Muslims, the organizations’s strategy of moderation and its members’ adaptation to modernity have been the main sources of its stamina and public appeal.

Muslim Brothers are among the best-educated in Egypt. Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of South Carolina. Essam el-Erian, the head of his political party, Freedom and Justice, is a physician.
To most Egyptian secularists, however, the Brotherhood has been anathema.

Ever since Egypt slipped under the military dictatorship of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, most of the country’s upper class secularists collaborated with successive military dictators and benefited from their patronage. If you tried to talk with them about their government, most of them would change the subject. During the Mubarak era, the only educated people who would talk freely about Egyptian politics were members and supporters of the Brotherhood and the youth – not the older and wiser ones – among progressives and liberals.

Many of the secularists were hurt professionally and financially when the Mubarak dictatorship was thrown out of power by the 2011 revolution. Many of them have now jumped on the military bandwagon.

It’s a familiar drama, played out in many Muslim (and non-Muslim) post-colonial societies. Among them Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In many of those countries the democratic process encountered military intervention, in some more than once, but eventually growing political consciousness succeeded in taming power-hungry generals.

My native town is Sylhet in what used to be Pakistan’s eastern province and is now Bangladesh. In the summer of 1946 the leader of the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, paid a brief visit there. The town was paralyzed by an unprecedented human avalanche.

Many of the visitors, I was told later, had walked 20 or 30 miles, to have a glimpse of the leader of their struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Some shed tears of joy when Jinnah stepped up to the podium to give his speech in Urdu, which most of the Sylheti-speaking audience didn’t understand.

In a few years East Pakistanis became disillusioned with Pakistan’s central government, based in what was West Pakistan. The old West Pakistan is what is left of Pakistan since East Pakistan’s secession. East Pakistanis’ main grievance against the Pakistani government was its failure to alleviate their grinding poverty. Their frustration deepened when Pakistani army generals, supported by a Western-oriented bureaucracy, established a decade-long dictatorship, interrupting the nascent democratic process. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan to become independent Bangladesh.

Two years later the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, visited Sylhet, and was also greeted by huge crowds. But while Bangladeshis had taken 22 years to rise up against Pakistani rule, they staged the first a anti-Mujib rally in Dhaka, the capital, 23 days after Mujib became the country’s president. Public frustration with the Mujib regime reached its peak two years later, when Mujib was assassinated in a military coup.

Not a soul in all Bangladesh came out to the street, or held a meeting or issued a statement to condole the murder of the father of the nation. Bangladeshis’ disillusionment with the Mujib government was spawned mostly by a devastating famine, shortages of necessities and widespread government corruption, which followed the birth of Bangladesh. Today democracy, though more chaotic than in many other countries in the region, has taken root in Bangladesh. Few Bangladeshis expect the return of an extended military dictatorship.

In Egypt, as we know by now, crippling power shortages, the near-collapse of the security apparatus and other administrative and economic problems were artificially created by Mubarak-era employees and anti-democratic activists. Their purpose was to discredit Mursi’s democratic government. I believe that few Egyptians would enjoy very long the sights of corrupt anti-democratic politicians, judges and pundits back in power or on the air waves. Fewer still would like to see the army, which they struggled hard to dislodge from political power, pulling the levers of government once again.

A democratic process in Egypt wouldn’t have legitimacy without the participation of the Brotherhood, the country’s largest political organization with deep roots in society. Most Egyptians are devout Muslims. Despite their frustration with Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Islam-oriented political agenda will continue to resonate among large numbers of them.

I don’t know how long it will take, but democracy will eventually prevail in Egypt, as it has in many other post-colonial countries. While the upper crust of the liberal establishment may continue to collaborate with an army-led government, post-revolutionary Egyptians in general are much too politicized and rights conscious to accept any system other than full-fledged democracy. And if the democratic process has to work in Egypt, the Brotherhood would need to be its integral part.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

Syria: Needed US-Islamist detente

THE UNITED STATES has taken a welcome step to tackle the Syrian crisis. It has joined Russia in arranging a peace conference in Geneva next month, which, unfortunately, would also expose America’s diminished global standing.

The end of Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad regime will come, however, from its eventual attrition from the uprising. A main reason the United States has so far failed to offer meaningful material support to the rebellion is that it’s being spearheaded by Islamist militants, America’s ideological nemeses.  American officials are trying to keep Syrian Islamists from participating in the Geneva forum. Yet I welcome the proposed conference in the hope that it would, among other things, find a way to stop the slaughter of Syrian men, women and children. More than 80,000 of them have so far perished in the two-year-old mostly Sunni rebellion to overthrow the minority Alawite dictatorship.

It’s a shame that Russia and Iran have been defending the atrocious Assad regime. But morally indefensible policies are not new in international politics and diplomacy.  Haven’t America and the West been underwriting the brutal Israeli regimes? Israel not only has ethnically cleansed itself of most of its Palestinian population, but also has kept Palestinians under its colonial subjugation.  Nothing justifies the Russians’ or Iranians’ abetment to Assad’s wanton butchery, but their apologists often point to the many precedents that America and the West have created by installing and supporting monstrous tyrants in Asia, Africa and Latin America through the decades and centuries.

All the same, I commend the convening of the Syria conference also because it offers the Obama administration a chance to defuse the pressure from American hawks for U.S. military involvement in Syria.  Given America’s dismal military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t conceive of a different outcome from an intervention in Syria.  Creating no-fly zones, disabling the Syrian air force, giving arms to rebels, etc., which are being proposed would drag America into another Middle Eastern quagmire.  And until Washington finds a way to reconcile with Syria’s Islamists, the mainstay of the rebellion, American intervention there is sure to become messy and self-defeating.

Islamist resistance was a main cause of the United States’ debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has undercut its international clout. The spoken and unspoken Russian terms under which Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to co-sponsor the forum reflect that reality.  Kerry apparently has dropped the persistent U.S. demand for Assad’s removal from power as a precondition for any multi-national talks on the Syrian imbroglio, a key Russian demand.  Besides the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, America’s or the rebels’ inability to dislodge Assad has all but forced the Obama administration to accept the tyrant as a negotiating partner.

A second concession awaiting the United States is the accommodation of Iran’s role or interests in a Syrian settlement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that Iran formally participate in the Geneva talks. The United States and Arab monarchies will resist that demand tooth and nail. But whether Iran shows up at the table, its interests can’t be ignored while Assad holds on to power in Damascus. Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shia Islamist group from Lebanon, has joined Assad’s forces against the rebels inside Syria. It will remain as an additional lever of Iranian power in the region.

The larger issue here is not so much the future of the Assad regime, or Iran’s role in Syria. It’s Israel’s future and America’s role in the region.  American and Israeli policy makers wanted the Assad regime overthrown mainly because that could undermine Iran’s influence in the Levant and, consequently, the Hezbollah threat to Israel. Assad’s survival, at least for now, would infuse fresh adrenaline to Hezbollah Islamists. And Iran’s clout in Syria and Lebanon would continue to bolster the Islamist Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups fighting to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

In the long run, the United States or Israel would have little to celebrate from the demise of the Assad regime. That would turn up other Islamist forces, fueling anti-Israeli and  anti-American militancy in the region. If – or rather when – Assad goes, the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are likely to dominate Syrian politics. And they, too, would  support the Sunni Palestinians’ struggle against Israel and perk up the simmering Arab Spring in the Arabian Peninsula, which inevitably would have an anti-Israeli an anti-American edge.

Sunni militancy in Syria would, especially, energize the Islamists-led opposition to the pro-American monarchy in neighboring Jordan.  Since January, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, an ideological ally of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has stepped up its campaign against the King Abdullah II.  The IAF hates the monarchy because of its peace treaty with Israel and subservience to the United States. Palestinian anger over the treaty has been a source of the Islamist organization’s steadily increasing support among Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who make up nearly 60% of the country’s population.

Anti-Americanism in the Muslim Middle East has reached its highest levels ever – 90% and more – under the Obama administration. The only way the United States can dampen the ominous development is through a conceptual policy breakthrough. It has to recognize the legitimacy of the Islamist struggle against Israeli colonialism. It needs to accept the reality of the Muslim rage at its blind support for Israel, and its own hegemony over many Muslim societies.  A detente with the Islamists would be the best safeguard for U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. But that has to await another American administration.

Meanwhile, the proposed Geneva parleys offer the the United States an opportunity to defuse its hostility to the Islamists, besides helping to alleviate the agony of Syria.

◆ Mustafa Malik is an international affairs columnist in Washington. He hosts the blog Islam and the West.