Fighting phantom terror

THE ISLAMIC STATE has sent new shock waves through the world by capturing more than 200 Syrian and Egyptian Christians. The terrorist group’s gruesome killing of other hostages has heightened concerns among many about the fate of these hostages.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the Iraqi government reportedly have shelved their long-publicized plans to try to retake Mosul. The second-largest Iraqi city has been under IS occupation since last summer. If true, the news would further embolden the IS terrorists. They probably will further consolidate their occupation of the Syrian and Iraqi territory, which is already larger in size than the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the IS campaign of terror goes on. The New York Times describes it as a “rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan.” The reporter Anne Barnard depicted the horror as “entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoners, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works or art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.”

The last time the Middle East saw such repugnant sights was during the American invasion of Iraq, spotlighted by Abu Gharib; and of Afghanistan, where American soldiers not only slaughtered countless innocent Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children, but showed little concern for the humanity of their victims. Nothing symbolizes the dehumanization of the Afghans as the pictures of U.S. soldiers peeing before rolling cameras on the corpses of Afghan guerrillas. The pictures, like those from Abu Gharib, weren’t isolated events. We know from leaked reports of CIA atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan that high echelons of the Bush and Obama administrations were aware of these war crimes or condoned them after learning about them.

Leave aside the morality of the two administrations’ insensitivity toward these Muslim peoples and their values. What worries me most is that this see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude is a stumbling block to the search for a solution to the U.S.-Islamic imbroglio. In fact the same attitude has led American policy makers to decide that the Muslim rage against America and the West is actually confined to a fanatic fringe of Muslim societies. Studies after studies have shown that more than 80 percent of people in most Muslim societies are seething with anti-American rage. The IS and other Muslim terrorist groups enjoy tacit or vocal support of large numbers of people in these societies.

Most Americans apparently don’t know about it because American politicians and flag-waving American news media are more interested in mud-slinging against Islam, variously described, than looking inward into America’s role in the confrontation. In a prayer breakfast three weeks ago Obama condemned the IS for “twisting and distorting” religion for their heinous acts. But he also reminded his audience that Christians had engaged in similar crimes in the past.

“[R]emember,” the president said, “that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Nobody questioned the validity of his remarks, but his words triggered an avalanche of fury among Western politicians and intellectuals. Rudy Giuliani blamed the president’s upbringing for his reference Christian extremism. “I do not believe,” added the former mayor of New York, “that the president loves America.”

Sen. Ted Cruz also didn’t dispute the veracity of Obama’s comments. But the Texas Republican blasted him for not mentioning Islam as the source of IS terrorism. “The words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ do not come out of the president’s mouth,” fumed the presidential hopeful, “The word ‘jihad’ does not come out of the president’s mouth. And that is dangerous.”

“Any use of the word ‘Crusade,’’ said the University of London historian Thomas Asbridge, “has to be made with great caution.” Asbridge, who has written a series of books about medieval history, didn’t say why “great caution” needs to be used in references only to the Crusades, but not to Muslim extremism.

Their own neocolonialist attitudes and policies toward the Muslim world remain hidden to most Americans and Westerners in their dangerous blind spots.   Americans, especially American policy makers, need to remember that the IS, and its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, didn’t exist before the uncalled for and catastrophic Iraq war. The IS, appallingly cruel as it is, emerged as the only defender of the members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority who had survived the horrifying slaughter, ethnic cleansing and persecution by the successive U.S.-backed Shiite governments. Iraq’s sectarian Shiite leaders had collaborated with the George W. Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq. Most of them had returned to Iraq from exile “on the backs of American tanks,” said Columbia University scholar Rashid Khalidi.

In Afghanistan, Pashtun guerrillas, who organized as the Taliban militia, never had an argument with the United States until it invaded and occupied their country. In fact the CIA collaborated with Pashtun guerrillas, then known as the mujahedeen, or freedom fighters, during their 1980s war against the Soviet invaders. The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan not only made the Taliban hostile to America, but also led to the birth of the Taliban in Pakistan.

An of course, 9/11 was a direct fallout of the 1991 deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen who was America’s ally in the Afghan war against the Soviets, was among the most vocal Saudi voices against the U.S. troop presence in “the land or Muhammad.” Expelling “the Crusaders” from the Muslim holy land was the first item on bin Laden’s agenda, as he outlined in his 1996 fatwa. Seventeen of the 19 plane hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens.

In April 2003 when America finally pulled out its troops and base from Saudi Arabia (under pressure from the Saudi monarchy, scared by 9/11), Al Qaeda groups in the Middle East celebrated it as a vindication of 9/11.

Western politicians and intellectuals are deluding themselves and their people by blaming Muslim terrorism on Islam, “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism,” “a twisted [Islamic] ideology,” and so forth. Of course some of the Muslim terrorism stems from Muslims’ sectarian and ethnic fissures. But most of it has been a reaction to foreign occupation.

A study of Britain’s prestigious think tank Chatham House has found that foreign occupation and domination is the wellspring of modern terrorism: Palestinian, Lebanese, Tamil, Kurdish, Buddhist, Chechen, Kashmiri, and so forth. In one of the most comprehensive studies of suicide terror attacks during 1980-2004, Robert Pape found that 95 percent of them were targeted at what the terrorists considered foreign occupation of their or their allies’ homelands.

In his landmark book Dying to Win, the University of Chicago professor recalls that Arabs learned suicide terror techniques from Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka and Marxist Kurds in Turkey. He says terrorists use religion as an inspiration only when they have “a religious difference” with the occupying or hegemonic power.

I’m afraid that even if the Obama administration’s repeatedly articulated plans to “defeat ISIL ever materialized, that of itself wouldn’t diminish Muslim terrorism against America and its allies. The Bush and Obama administrations succeeded in expelling Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, only to see it spread to the Middle East and north and West Africa. America and the West have to come to grips with the root cause of the Muslim rage against them: foreign occupation and hegemony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terror bred by grievances, not Islam

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S speech at this week’s terrorism conference in the White House sounded to me like a broken record from the George W. Bush administration. Bush and his advisers attributed Muslim terrorism to Islam.

“Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general. “Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.”

President Obama, too, believes that Islam is a major source of Muslim terrorism. His aides have lined up a group of Muslim clerics, activists and governments to present a “moderate” interpretation of Islam to their fellow Muslims. But unlike his Republican predecessor, Obama is more sensitive about the sentiments of mainstream Muslims, who resent linking their religion to heinous acts like terrorism. Hence he camouflaged his reference to Islam with the phrase “distorted ideology.”

The Muslim “religion,” in the sense religion is understood in the West, has little to do with terrorism. I tried to explain in my last segment that Islam, unlike Western Christianity, doesn’t segregate a Caesar’s domain from God’s. All Muslim domains, private and public, belong to God. In practical terms, the Muslim public sphere is suffused with Islamic values and social outlook.

Of late that the Muslim public sphere has all but submerged under waves of anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. Surveys after surveys have shown that between 72% and 94% of populations in Muslim countries are hostile or antipathetic to America. Their antipathy derives mainly from U.S. foreign and defense policies toward Muslim societies.

Muslim societies are modernizing fast, while becoming more and more attached to Islamic values and Islamic cultural patterns. They’re more concerned about Islamic causes and the global Muslim community.

Obama’s attribution of Muslim terrorism showed his gross misunderstanding of Islam as well as the motives that propel some Muslims into acts of violence. The president came into office with very little grounding in international affairs, and has stuffed his administration with holdovers from the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, getting the same kind of off-the-wall, jingoist advice that doomed both previous administrations’ Muslim world policies.

Islam, as I said, is a both a private- and public-sphere religion. These days most Muslims are channeling their grievances against America or their own governments in the public sphere through the democratic process. They’re engaged in democratic movements and, when permitted, pushing their agendas through the electoral process. It signals a dramatic and healthy evolution of these movements since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their watchword was “Islamic revolution.” Those days some of my Islamist acquaintances in Pakistan and Bangladesh espoused armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam” at home and abroad.

Among them is Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, now on the death row for his alleged involvement in the killing of Bangladeshi independence activists in 1971. I met him in 2003 after the Jamaat had won the second-largest number of seats in a Bangladeshi parliamentary election, catapulting him to the post of industries minister.

His sparsely furnished office was tucked away in the Motijheel business district in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Did the Jamaat “still believed in armed struggle?” I asked.

He smiled, and instead of answering my question directly, he said, “Democracy is the best tool for us to spread the message of Islam.”

Because Islamic spirit and values are spreading quite rapidly in most Muslim countries, mainstream Islamists everywhere have come to believe that they no longer need violent methods to pursue their Islamization agenda. They’re avidly participating in democratic activism.

A second group of Islamists, known as terrorists, continue armed struggle to achieve their goals. They’re generally focused on resisting occupation and aggression by armed opponents. They include Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Kashmir, Riadus Salikin and the Islamic International Brigade in Chechnya, the ETIM in China’s Xinjiang province, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and so on. All these terrorist groups see themselves fighting to liberate their peoples from foreign occupation or defend them against domestic persecution.

Obama was talking, specifically, about the Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The IS emerged to defend Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who suffered horrible persecution and ethnic cleansing from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite governments and Shiite militias and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. As many other terrorist groups do, the IS also has engaged in gruesome slaughter and brutal persecution of innocent civilians. The world shouldn’t tolerate such crimes.

The fact remains, however, that these terrorist groups have been fighting for political, not religious, causes. They’re inspired or instigated by political and social grievances, not by the Quran or some “distorted ideology” based on it. Whether their causes or methods of operation are justified (Nobody would justify the slaughter of innocent people), is another matter.

 

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.

 

The Hindus outrage Hindus

Arundhati Roy is one of my heroes. Yet I’ve a problem with her stand on The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The icon of the progressive movement in India has blasted Penguin India for pulling out the book. It was written by Wendy Denier, a respected American Indologist. It’s a serious piece of work, which debunks some of Hindus’ cherished beliefs about their religious tradition. Not surprisingly, it  has outraged a whole lot of  Hindus in India. Many of them are Hindu nationalists and traditionalists.  Roy has demanded to know why the publisher had “caved in [to] the fascists.”

It saddens me indeed to see that the junking of this scholarly work would deny millions of Hindus the opportunity to take a refreshing new look at their society and tradition.  I’m persuaded, however, by the reason Penguin India has given for its decision to call off the publication and destroy the copies in its stock.  It explained that being an Indian company, it had to abide by Indian laws, which make it a criminal offense to deliberately outrage or insult “religious feelings” by spoken or written words.

Roy and many other critics of the publishing company’s action have offered the typical Western liberal argument. They maintain, in effect, that withholding the  publication of a work of art or literature under public pressure flouts what they consider publishers’ duty to defend the freedom of speech, as it’s understood in the West, everywhere in the world. Yes, Viking defied enormous pressure from the Muslim world to publish Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which maligns the Prophet of Islam. But Viking did so in the West, where the laws and social consensus support its action.

Freedom of expression, as many other Western values, stems from Enlightenment liberalism.  Many liberal values have been emulated productively by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, ex-Communist and other non-Western societies.  Free and rational inquiry, pluralism and scientific investigation have enabled those societies to make remarkable intellectual, scientific and technological progress; speed their economic development; and greatly enhance the quality their citizens’ material life.

All the same, many of these societies, especially those with rich and enduring traditions, are adapting liberal ideas and institutions to their own social priorities, which lend most meaning to their lives. India has embraced democracy of the Westminster variety. It retains, however, many religious institutions in the public sphere, which Western democracies wouldn’t. It has banned cow slaughter, forbidden by Hindu scripture. The Indian state patronizes many religious shrines and projects, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. Indian voters have twice elected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments and could do so again this May. The BJP espouses using laws and state institutions to Hinduize Indian society and culture.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his followers used state power to ban Islam from politics and Europeanize Turkish culture. The Turks, heirs to the Ottoman Islamic civilization, have subsequently cast off most of their Westernization projects and elected an Islam-oriented government thrice in a row.

Enlightenment liberalism, as all other ideologies, has emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances of particular societies.  It came about mainly as a reaction to the omnipresent church’s rigorous rules suppressing the desires, expressions and creativity of everyday Christians.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the ideologues and activists of the Enlightenment avenged the harsh religious repression by banishing religion from the public space.

Few non-Western societies faced religious persecution of that scale. Not certainly the Hindus, Muslims or non-Western Christians (Coptic, Maronite, Assyrian, etc.). They all  cherish their traditions, founded mostly on religious values, while emulating many liberal political and social ideas and institutions.

This should help explain why Americans and Europeans cared less about Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as an imperfect, vulnerable man.  Muslims around the world were, on the other hand, repelled by The Satanic Verses, as are many Indian Hindus by The Hindus.

The right to free speech can’t be absolute or universal. The free-speech doctrine notwithstanding, American society wouldn’t permit you to use the “n” word for African Americans or question the prevalent narrative about the Holocaust. Crying “Fire!” in a movie theater is a crime under American law. Because values and moral standards vary from civilization to civilization and often from society to society, so should the definition of rights and freedoms.

Luckily, progressive, far-sighted minds throughout history have spoken out and struggled against societal norms and taboos that they saw afflicting man and impeding human well-being. By so doing they’ve promoted needed social reforms and evolution.

Arundhati Roy is among Indian activists who would want Indians to be open to criticism and reevaluation of their religious institutions so Indian society can  evolve and progress further. Yet I wouldn’t support her attack on Penguin India for refusing to violate a duly enacted Indian law under which publication of the book could be a crime.  Penguin India needs to operate within India’s legal framework until India’s moral and legal system evolves, if it does, to alter that framework.

  • Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in the Indian subcontinent.

 

Liberal counterrevolution

SYLHET, Bangladesh – Reazul Karim was poring over the list of the newly elected members of the Bangladesh parliament, published in the Bengali-language newspaper Jugantar. A majority of them – 153 in the 300-member legislature – was elected unopposed. Most of the opposition parties had boycotted the elections.

Bangladesh is going through an anti-democratic secularist wave that’s sweeping many other Muslim countries, where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments or movements.

“This is our kind of democracy,” said Karim, my fellow alumnus of the local Murarichand College.  We were having tea and sticky-rice pudding at my home in this Bangladeshi town of Sylhet. “Very few of these touts would have been elected if the BNP had put up candidates.”

The BNP, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is a pro-Islamic political party allied with the now-banned Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islami.  The BNP is the largest of the 18 opposition parties that had sat out the Jan. 5 vote.  They were protesting the secularist government’s refusal to hold the elections under a neutral caretaker government, which had been in practice in Bangladesh.  The ruling Awami League party, as also some of the others, has a record of rigging elections when in power.

Since 2010 the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, has become increasingly unpopular. And it got the parliament to rescind the caretaker law, apparently fearing losing this year’s elections, if held under the supervision of a caretaker government.

A week after Hasina put together her new, undemocratic Bangladeshi Cabinet, the military-appointed secular Egyptian government announced that its undemocratic constitution had been endorsed in a referendum by 98 percent of the votes. Just six months before, in Egypt’s first-ever free and fair elections, the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had routed the liberals and other secularists. The FJP is rooted in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and Mohammed Mursi, a leader of both organizations, became the country’s first democratically elected president.

The defeated liberals turned to the traditionally power-hungry Egyptian army to overthrow the Mursi government through a coup d’état, which it did enthusiastically. The military junta was, however, bitterly criticized by the international community for its murder of democracy and more than 1,000 Egyptians who protested it. So it got its subservient civilian Cabinet to produce a new constitution, allowing the military a central role in the country’s governance.

The Egyptian regime’s announcement that its constitution had won 98 percent of the votes reminded me of a similar Bangladeshi vote. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and father of Hasina, the current prime minister, was reputed to have received 98.5 percent of the votes cast in the last election of his life.

Yet when Mujib was assassinated in a 1975 military coup, not a single soul in Bangladesh mourned the father of the nation (not publicly, at least) and the country celebrated its freedom from the tyranny under his one-party rule.

The anti-democratic secularist movements such as have flared up in Bangladesh and Egypt have also been stalking Turkey, Tunisia, Mali and other Muslim countries where democracy turned up Islam-oriented governments, or promised to do so. I’m not surprised by it. Just about all revolutions – the French, the American, the Lutheran, and so forth – have been followed by a violent reactionary phase.  Post-Revolutionary France had its Girondin-Jacobin Reign of Terror. Post-Reformation Switzerland its often-violent Calvin-Zwingli pogroms.  In post-Emancipation America, the Jim Crow-era persecution of African Americans and white progressives was as reactionary and brutal. But they all fizzled, often contributing to the revolutions the healthier aspects their agendas.

The Islamic revivalist and reformist movements that have been smoldering in much of the Muslim world since the late 1970s are  a revolution in progress.  We’re in the eye of that tsunami, and hence often fail to see its epic proportions.  Today’s anti-democratic irruptions of liberals and other anti-Islamic elements in the Muslim world are a transient episode. It eventually will give way to the widening and deepening Islam-based movements for social renewal. Most other counterrevolutionary movements have throughout history.

Anup Kumar Datta, a philosopher in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, said to me last week that Bangladeshi society has, in Hegelian parlance, entered upon its antithetical phase.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had said that a social paradigm, or “thesis,” spurs forces resisting it. He called it “anti-thesis.”  Eventually, said the German philosopher, the clash between the two trends leads to the evolution of a healthier social “synthesis.”

To me, today’s liberal reactions to Islam-oriented democratic governments and movements are a precursor to the evolution and renewal of many Muslim societies. The process of that evolution will synthesize Islam’s key principles of justice, charity and fraternity with the liberal values of freedom, tolerance and pluralism.

  • Mustafa Malik is a columnist and writer in Washington. He hosts the blog Just Freedoms (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?’

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Pakistan’s scary quest for roots

WHY IS PAKISTAN being riven by Sunni-Shia and Sunni-Ahmadi strife?

A scholar at Columbia University shares his thoughts on the question in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Pakistan’s tyrannical majority.”

Manan Ahmed Asif quotes Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling Pakistanis: “[E]very one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”  And Asif deplores that the promise of Pakistan’s founding father for “religious equality [has] proved false,” that the country’s Sunni majority has been on a witchhunt of the Shia and Ahmadis.

Sadly, it’s true. I was hoping, however, that the professor would tell us why sectarian hatred among Pakistanis appears to have deepened since their independence from British colonial rule. But  he doesn’t delve into it beyond blaming Pakistani politicians for pandering to the anti-minority Sunni masses. Targets of his criticism include then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and today’s Movement for Justice party leader Imran Khan, both leftists.

Asif mentions that among the early victims of sectarian intolerance is Pakistan was Sir Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadi who was “hounded out” of his Cabinet post.  Ahmadis don’t believe that Muhammad was God’s last messenger to mankind, as the Quran says; but that their religious leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed was.  Therefore, most Islamic theologians and Muslims in general consider them outside the pale of Islam. The professor scorns Bhutto and Imran Khan for endorsing this theological position on the Ahmadis.

The question here is not whether Ahmadis are true Muslims. It is whether they deserve to be barred from holding jobs or subjected to social discrimination, which Islam itself forbids.

Unfortunately, societies have historically gone through one kind of prejudice or another. In 1954 when Zafrullah Khan was forced out of his foreign minister post in Pakistan, America was convulsing with virulent racism; African-Americans were disenfranchised, segregated and still being lynched.

It doesn’t mean that we should justify or discount social prejudices. But unless we know the sources of  a prejudice, we can’t explore its correctives.  Jinnah and his second in command, Liaqat Ali Khan; Mahatma Gandhi and his top lieutenant, Jawaharlal Nehru, were all  products of a British education, and they shared many Western values.  British India was steeped in widespread illiteracy and despair from nearly two centuries of colonial subjugation and suppression.  The political idiom of the subcontinent’s Western-educated elites was shaped by Western values and standards.

Independence from colonial rule, followed by the spread of democratic values and education in a domestic setting, has engendered self-respect and pride in indigenous cultural heritage among the elites and masses in South Asia and other developing countries. More and more, people in these societies are differentiating  themselves along their indigenous cultural fault lines, rather than the mostly artificial boundaries of their “nation-states,” created by colonialists and their own Westernized elites.

Their affinity with their religious and ethnic communities is often deeper than  with their state institutions. Hence the increased antagonism between many of these communities. Shia-Sunni conflicts rock not only Pakistan, but most of  Muslim west Asia and North Africa.  In India, the phenomenon has triggered the dramatic rise of the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist movement.  In fact Pakistanis have never given their Islamist parties more than 6% of votes; but in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatitya Janata Party has twice been voted to power. And the instigator of the harrowing Muslim massacre in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, is one of India’s most popular leaders and is could become its next prime minister.

Today nationalist bigotry and hubris stalk much of the West, while communal prejudice swirls much of the rest of the world. Muslim and other post-colonial societies have to find ways to douse their people’s communal animosity. As military and political hostility between the nation-states of Pakistan and India abates, politicians and civil society groups there should get on with promoting tolerance and resisting violence between their religious and ethnic communities.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.