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.

 

 

 

Time to get over anti-Islamist paranoia

ANDREW J. BACEVICH says “the big story of Muslim self-determination is likely to continue unimpeded” and lead to the rollback of American hegemony over Muslim societies.  In his Washington Post piece, the historian recalled that when the British Empire was collapsing, it could turn over its “imperial responsibility” to the United States.  But Americans today, he adds, see “no readily available sucker to  to whom we can hand off the mess we’ve managed to create” in the Middle East.

I’ve long admired Professor Bacevich’s insights and agree that there doesn’t seem to be any takers of  America’s  “imperial responsibility” in Muslim societies. But I do see a whole lot of “suckers” jumping in to clean up “the mess” created in much of the Muslim world by American and European hegemons during past decades and centuries. They’re the same revolutionary youths who are liberating themselves from American hegemony as much as domestic autocratic tyranny.   And they’re struggling to reform colonial-era institutions that they see stifling their societies‘ natural growth and evolution from their indigenous, Islamic roots.

For years I have been discussing Muslim affairs with young and not-so-young Muslim activists, ideologues and plain folks in the East and the West.  A large majority of them don’t share the views of the so-called “Islamic extremists” such as the Salafis and Al Qaeda.  Many maintain, however, that Muslim guerrilla groups, known in the west as “terrorists” and “extremists,” have waged the “necessary” struggle to liberate Muslims from tyranny and subjugation. The history of the Protestant Reformation and other ideological movements shows that the extremism associated by the early phases of those movements tapered off when the conditions that bred them changed. In contemporary Muslim societies, those conditions are political suppression and foreign aggression and domination.

A majority of Muslims in post-colonial societies also don’t identify with Westernized Muslim elites. Quizzed closely, they typically say that they would just want to live as Muslims, adhering to basic Islamic laws and values; and want their societies modernized fast.  Moderates such as supporters of the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East believe in peaceful and democratic methods of Islamizing their societies.  Extremists such as the followers of the Taliban and Harkat al-Mujahideen in South Asia and the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in the Middle East have few qualms using force to achieve their goals.  But both Islamist categories want to change or modify the alien institutions and cultural patterns in Muslim countries.

They remind me of the Brazilian statesman, philosopher and social theorist  Roberto Mangabeira Unger.   He  argues that ideational and social change that brings fulfillment in life isn’t possible without freeing men and women “from their institutional chains,”  or the “context” that creates the pernicious social, economic and political institutions.  Unger taught Barack Obama at the Harvard Law School, but waged a media campaign last summer against the president’s reelection.

The professor says Obama and most Democrats are busy “humanizing” the Republican agenda, instead of trying to change the context, or the sources, of the economic and political malaise paralyzing America. Unger argues that “all that the Democratic Party has offered, at least since  the presidency of [Lyndon] Johnson  is a sugarcoating, a dilution, a humanization of the Republican program.” He calls the paradigmic shift  he’s proposing “the second way.”

Few of the Muslim intellectuals and activists I have come to know appeared to have heard of Unger, but they echo his thesis nonetheless. They’re calling for conceptual and institutional change in their societies and polities. They denounce, or just ignore, Western-style secularism, the Western concept of privatizing religion, the colonial-era legal framework, and so forth. And they say they would want new institutions (about which most only have vague ideas) to build modern, progressive Muslim societies. Those societies would be based on the key Islamic values of social justice, charity and brotherhood.

The popularity of Islamist guerrilla groups in the Syrian civil war is the latest manifestation of the appeal of Islamic values among everyday Muslims.  Earlier,  Iranians, Turks, Iraqis, Egyptians, Tunisians and other Muslim peoples have demonstrated their preference for social and political orders based on Islamic principles.

The Islamic reassertion has spurred a lot of American paranoia about Muslims in America and Muslim countries.  The Obama administration wouldn’t even give arms to Syrian rebels fighting the murderous Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, which it wants overthrown, because Islamist guerrillas there have turned out to be the most effective and popular fighting force and could dominate the post-Assad Israeli society. “I am very concerned,” the president said in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Friday, “about Syria becoming an enclave of extremism.”

For many Americans, Muslims struggling to usher in what Unger would call a “second way” are “terrorists” by definition and need to be resisted or hunted down.  The Shari’a, or Islamic law, has become a dirty word in American media and public discourse, even though most of the Muslim world lives under it, even under secular, pro-American governments.

In the United States, many innocent, law-abiding Muslims have been under surveillance since 9/11 in case they’ve any form of contacts with Muslims suspected of terrorist proclivity.  American law denies Muslims designated “enemy combatants” by the administration the right to be tried in civil courts under American law.  Mosque building creates public hysteria in many neighborhoods.

The atmosphere  is reminiscent of the McCarthy-era hysteria about communism, which swept up American conservatives and liberals alike.  The icon of American liberalism Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota  joined the right-wing Republican Senator John Marshall Butler of Maryland to get the notorious Communist Control Act of 1954 passed by the Senate.  Other liberal Democratic senators who supported the Butler-Humphrey bill included John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Paul Douglas of Illinois, and Wayne Morse of Oregon.

What makes America work, however, is Americans’ sense of pragmatism. The paranoia about the Other usually evaporates when they fail to  prevail against it.  After a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race, the United States realized by the late 1960s that it can’t defeat  international communism, after all. And lo and behold, the rabidly anti-Communist President Richard Nixon did a U-turn and began normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China.

Today, America —  even with its military might, costly nation-building projects and candy distribution among Muslim children — has all but lost the ground war against Islamist guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It can now see that its drone war in several Muslim countries can’t  stem the spread of Islamist militancy. Al Qaeda, which had hunkered down in Afghanistan, and other militant Islamist groups have spread to large swaths of the Middle East and North and West Africa. Last week,  former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer pointed out that beginning with the Iraq war, “the bitter enmities between Al-Qaeda and other Salafist and Sunni Arab nationalist groups have given way to cooperation or even mergers.”

Sooner or later, I expect the United States — and the West — to do a U-turn in their confrontation with Islamism.  Meanwhile, Islamist and other Muslim groups are changing  “the context” of the evolution and modernization of their societies, and Islamic-Western relations.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration should, on a second thought, decide to begin the process. If not, I believe one of his successors to the American presidency will.

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

 

 

 

Bangladesh’s epic quest for identity

I’M SADDENED by the bloody mayhem rocking Bangladesh, where I lived and worked through two turbulent decades.  Street fights between the country’s secularist government forces and Islamist activists have claimed dozens of lives. The clashes were triggered by a death sentence handed by a Bangladeshi court to  a leader of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami.  Maulana Delwar Hussein Saeedi, the death row inmate, and other top Jamaat leaders have been charged with having roles  in the killing of Bangladeshi liberation activists 42 years ago.

The Islamist leaders have been put on trial by the Awami League party government, supported by a  secularist youth movement.  The Awami League is the party of the country’s secularist founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which had been in power nearly a dozen times since Bangladesh achieved independence. But it ignored the Islamists’ alleged crime until now. The other day I called a friend in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, and asked why.

“Because public support [for the trials] was not there,” he replied. “Now huge crowds are calling for their death penalty.”

This is a new twist to Bangladeshis’ long odyssey to find their niche in a national framework, as most other post-colonial societies have been going through.  It began with the end of nearly two centuries of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, which had obliterated the political structures that had been evolving there over the millennia. Bangladeshis, as other  communities in the subcontinent, now faced the baffling task of choosing the space, ideology and cultural pattern for a nation-state they were called upon to build.

Nearly 90 percent Muslim, Bangladesh comprises the eastern half of the old Bengal, which became Pakistan’s eastern province in 1947.  Those days Bengali Muslims pulsated with Islamic fervor. They plunged headlong into the movement to split British India to create the Muslim state of Pakistan.  A stalwart of the Pakistan movement was young Mujibur Rahman.

Years later Mujib would tell me about his work for the Pakistan movement at his home in Dhaka.  He said, proudly, that undivided Muslim-majority Bengal was “the only province in all [British] India that elected a pro-Pakistan government” in a 1946  election, which legitimized the Muslim demand for Pakistan. The four provinces in then West Pakistan, he added, had larger Muslim majorities, but that none of them voted to join Pakistan. I interviewed Mujib now and then for my column in what used to be the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published in Dhaka.

Once East Bengal became East Pakistan, however, the Islamic wave there began to give way to a growing secularist one.  As elsewhere in the world, ideological movements in Bangladesh began to lose steam after their immediate goals were realized. Additionally,  the use of Islamic slogans by West Pakistani elites in their economic exploitation and political suppression of East Pakistanis discredited Islamic political parties. Mujib now rode the crest of the secularist tide, bringing about East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan and emergence as independent Bangladesh. The East Pakistanis who opposed that secession included the Islamists who are now facing trial for “treason.”

Bangladeshis paid a heavy price for their independence. During spring through mid-winter of 1971, West Pakistani troops slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children; and raped many Bangladeshi girls and women; while trying to suppress the movement. Post-independence, the Mujib government got  “secularism” enshrined in Bangladesh’s first constitution as among its foundational principles.

But then, just as the Islamic wave in East Pakistan had begun to recede after the creation of Pakistan, the secularist wave in Bangladesh tapered off almost immediately after its independence from Pakistan. Now the Islamic surge that had accompanied the Pakistan movement nearly three decades before began to revive with a vengeance.

Barely four years after Mujib created his “secular” and “socialist” Bangladesh, he and most of his family and Cabinet members were assassinated in coup d’teat by army officers. They resented his close ties to Hindu-majority India, which was seen exerting hegemony over Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshis shared this perception of him. Nobody mourned the “Father of the Nation” in public, let alone stage a protest against his assassination. Politicians who followed the new Islamic surge to power shelved the Mujib government’s secularist constitution, and at one point adopted a new one rebranding Bangladesh an “Islamic Republic.”

During trips to Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw droves of head-covered women milling about college campuses, where headscarves were a rarity during the country’s Pakistan phase. Mosques were proliferating all over Bangladesh and prayer congregations in many of them extended to the yards. Stores, automobiles, streets and schools for secular education flaunted Islamic names and signs as never before.

Hamidul Huq Chowdhury, an elder statesman who published my old newspaper,  told me in 1982 that the new Islamic upsurge was “partly a reaction to an overdose of ‘Indiaphilia’” which disturbed many Islamic-minded Bangladeshis.

“But watch how long this [Islamic wind] lasts,” advised my old boss, a British-educated barrister.

Today’s secularist upsurge and the hounding of Islamists by secularists remind me of Chowdhury’s caveat.  The point, though, is that while Bangladesh’s embattled Islamists and secularists have been going through ups and downs, neither side has been quite vanquished.

Neither needs to be. The histories of Western nations, many of them bloodier and more tumultuous, show that bitter ideological and political struggles often produce societal and national integration.  Unlike many other nations, most Bangladeshis belong to a single religious community, Sunni Islamic; and a single ethnic community, Bengali. I can see them integrating into a relatively cohesive national society sooner than seems possible now. Meanwhile, as Bangladeshis go on modernizing, they will continue to secularize. But they’re unlikely to be unhinged from their Islamic cultural and social roots, anymore than any other modernizing Muslim society.

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

 

John Kerry: Same old same old

WELL, JOHN KERRY doesn’t have it, either!

I was curious to see if the new secretary of state’s “major speech” at the University of Virginia might finally signal a “change” in foreign policy, which President Obama had promised Americans during his first presidential run. Sadly, it didn’t.

John Kerry’s recipe to meet U.S. foreign policy challenges appeared to have been copied from the neoconservatives’ play book: trade, aid and democracy. All these have been tried. They didn’t work.

On international trade, the U.S. trade deficit has  ballooned under Bush and Obama. With China,  America’s most important trading partner, it has reached an historic high of $315 billion.

The United States has poured tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid, promoting secular education and bolstering security and military forces in countries that are breeding terrorists.  The idea, floated by fertile neoconservative minds, is that young Muslim men are turning to terrorism because of poverty and joblessness and anti-Western hatred engendered by madrasah education.  Despite America’s prodigious aid programs during the past decade,  terror is winning America’s “war on terror.”  Al Qaeda used to be holed up in Afghanistan’s Hindukush Mountains. It’s now spreading dramatically — so are other terrorist groups — in South Asia, the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere.   After fighting its longest war in history, the United States is getting ready to flee Afghanistan without realizing Obama’s repeatedly proclaimed vow to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the Taliban.

Kerry’s other proposition, i.e. helping build democracy abroad, is based on another pie-in-the-sky neoconservative mantra, namely that democracies are peaceable and buddy-buddy with one another.  I wonder how the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could have failed to notice that democracy is transforming secular, and – with the exception of Iraq – pro-American regimes into Islamist ones that care less about American democracy or American interests?  Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey are among the examples.

Nobody would, of course, doubt Kerry’s sanity, but he apparently plans to defy Albert Einstein’s caveat against “doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” But why?

The main source of the secretary of state’s predicament is not  himself, but his boss.  For all his soaring rhetoric, Obama came into the White House as a clean slate in international affairs.  He didn’t – and still doesn’t – have a vision of his own about America’s relations with the world.  Most naive and perilous has been the president’s lurch toward the right-wing foreign and defense policy aficionados who had helped create the mess abroad and whom he now expected to clean it up.

I was aghast to see him fill his key defense, intelligence and foreign policy posts with such right-wing diehards from the Bush administration as Robert Gates, Tom Donilon, John Brennan, James Jones, Dennis Ross, and others. Hillary Clinton also is a dyed-in-wool establishment figure.  Her traditionalist worldview was highlighted in, among other issues, her unwavering support for the disastrous Iraq war, which she has persistently refused to call a mistake. I was hoping, in vain, that the president would bring over to his administration such progressive and resourceful minds as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Aaron David Miller, Joseph S. Nye Jr., Ann Marie Slaughter and Robert Unger. His nomination of Chuck Hagel for the defense secretary post seems to have been an aberration. I would be surprised if the forward-looking and (still) morally inspired former senator from Nebraska can withstand the pressure of jingoism permeating in the administration.

No wonder the Obama administration, in international affairs, looked like a third, and now probably a fourth, Bush-Cheney administration.  Noam Chomsky aptly described the Democratic president  as a “moderate Republican” who is a “reactionary” on civil liberties issues.  It’s because Obama lacked, not only a grounding in foreign affairs, but the moral courage and commitment to break out of America’s outmoded foreign policy establishment.

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

 

 

Kashmiris try to globalize struggle

A Kashmiri Muslim noticed my Facebook comment about protests over the gang rape of a medical student in India. The 23-year-old woman has died of injuries from the brutal assault. I had applauded the electrifying protests in New Delhi and elsewhere in the country. And I had expressed hope that they would shame the Indian government and society into taking legislative and law-enforcement measures to curb rape and misogyny, which are widespread in India.

“Did you know,” asked the gentleman,  “that more than 10,000 Kashmiri women have been gang-raped by Indian forces? I didn’t see you mention those heinous, those barbarous crimes.”  I promised him to write this post.

Jammu and Kashmir, or Kashmir for short, is indeed one of history’s gravest tragedies, which has been virtually ignored by the “international community.”  The Indian government is in a state of denial about its armed forces’ widely known gang-rape raids in the Kashmir Valley, where a rebellion against Indian rule has been raging for 24 years. Rebel sources claim that 10,042 Kashmiri Muslim women and girls have been raped by Indian troops. Their claim hasn’t been independently verified and the rape figure they provide seems too big to be credible.

But Kashmir, especially the Muslim valley, has been a human catastrophe. India has deployed about 600,000 mostly Hindu military and paramilitary troops to put down the Muslim uprising.  These forces have, besides raping many women, killed some 60,000 protesters and others. In 2011 a human rights group discovered a number of unmarked mass graves in the valley with more than 2,000 bodies, obviously victims of Indian military action.

The Kashmir imbroglio has been complicated by the demographic makeup of the old kingdom. It comprises four ethnic patches. Two of them – the Indian-held valley and the Pakistan-held “Azad Kashmir” – are each 99 percent Muslim.  Both are irreconcilably opposed to Indian rule. The other two segments — both under Indian rule — are Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh, and they would be amenable to remaining with India.

One reason the unrest in Kashmir festers for so long is the lack of international pressure or concern for the resolution of the predicament, over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars. Western, especially American, governments and societies are known for selective concern about rights and freedoms outside the West.  You hear vociferous denunciation of infraction of human rights and democratic norms in Iran, an American enemy. You hear little about the horrible misogyny, rights abuses and authoritarian rule in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, with which America maintain cozy relations. Western amnesia about Kashmir has to be viewed in light of India being a world power, which has extensive trade and economic relations with other world powers. Yet the Kashmir issue isn’t going to go away.

For most of its history, the Himalayan princedom has been independent of states and empires that existed in the Indian plains.  In 1947 the old India became independent of British colonial rule, and split into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Kashmir was given the options to join India or Pakistan or remain independent.  It opted for independence. But then a Muslim tribal mob from Pakistan roared into Kashmir and occupied a third of it. India captured the other two-thirds after getting the the Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority state to sign an “accession” agreement. The agreement recognized Kashmiris’ right of self-determination and stipulated that they would decide their political destiny through a plebiscite. The U.N. Security Council also passed a resolution, calling for the plebiscite.

India has since reneged on its plebiscite commitment and claims that Kashmir has become its “integral part.”   The Kashmiris point out, however,  that the public and politicians in British India had participated in continual elections and even formed a central government. But simultaneously, they continued their struggle for their independence from British colonial tutelage until they achieved it. Moreover, the decades-long Muslim uprising and India’s extremely brutal measures to suppress it don’t quite prove that the state is integrated into India. One can’t imagine Indians resorting to such mindless atrocities on the population of Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, which is a real part of India.

For the past several years, the violent Muslim revolt in Kashmir is showing signs of exhaustion and life appears to be returning to normal.  But Kashmiri Muslims are far from reconciled with Indian rule.  On the contrary, a new generation of educated and technically savvy Kashmiri youth is ushering in a new phase of the struggle.  They’re taking their cause to the global stage through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets, and myriad web sites and other Internet forums.

This new campaign, somewhat like the Palestinian struggle, is meant to raise global and Indian public sensitivity about the suffering of the Kashmiris and their right to self-determination.  Military and law enforcement tools, which  New Delhi has used to suppress the upheaval, can be of little use in this arena.  And the political climate of the 21st century, with its heightening sensitivity about human dignity and freedom, is unlikely to be conducive to the continued suppression of Kashmiris’  aspirations for freedom.

Any just and lasting settlement of the dispute has to take into account the deep-seated hostility of the two virtually all-Muslim parts of Kashmir toward Hindu-majority India. Polls have shown, though, that most inhabitants of the two Muslims segments would prefer becoming independent, rather than join Pakistan, let alone India.  Pakistan opposes, as does India, opposes their independence. These Kashmiris would opt for Pakistan only if independence is off the table.

In any case, Kashmiris are insistent on nurturing their unique culture and values. It’s possible that one day a solution to this woeful tragedy would be found in Kashmiris in the Indian-occupied valley joining their ethnic kinfolk in Pakistan-occupied Kashmiri territory. But such a deal should ensure Kashmiris’ political and cultural autonomy.

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