Declare Middle East nuke-free

Persian Gulf monarchies are petrified by the anticipated Iran nuclear deal, being negotiated in Geneva. Last week Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates threatened to try to acquire nuclear weapons technology if they didn’t get one of two things from the Iran deal.

One, they wanted the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program shut down completely. Iran would never agree to that. Secondly, if the program is allowed to continue, albeit at a reduced level, the United States should sign a security pact with them. In practical terms, that would mean insuring the security of their thrones from external and internal threats.  These Arab rulers know that the Iranians have better things to do than lurch into a military adventure. On the other hand, domestic threat to their regimes has heightened since the Arab Spring.

The Obama administration knows that too, and the president recently said so publicly. He said the real security threat facing the Gulf Arab monarchies could come from their disenfranchised and “alienated” public. In recent weeks the administration let the Gulf Arab governments know that while America would be willing to defend their countries against external aggression, it wouldn’t intervene in their domestic feuds and unrest. The message left the Arab royals mopey and grumpy.

The White House had invited all six monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to meet the president on Wednesday to discuss the Iran deal and their security concerns. Led by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, four of the six kings declined the president’s invitation, sending in their surrogates, instead. Obama apparently ignored the snub and made the best of the occasion. He reiterated to his guests America’s “ironclad” commitment to defend their countries against any “external” aggression.

Meanwhile, some American media pundits and others have voiced concern about the possibility of Saudi Arabia following up on its vow to seek the nukes. If it does, the Pakistanis would find themselves in a thorny dilemma. The Saudis underwrote Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the apparent understanding that Islamabad would supply them with the nuclear technology if they need it. Moreover, the kingdom has been a generous benefactor to Pakistan for decades. In fact, because of the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, the current Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is alive today. Then Pakistani military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had overthrown then Prime Minister Sharif in a 1999 military coup, was bent on killing him. Fahd pressured Musharraf into sparing Sharif’s life and sending him  to exile in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, it would also be very hard for Islamabad to defy the inevitable American pressure against sharing its nuclear knowhow with the Saudi kingdom. The Sharif government’s – and top Pakistani generals’ – decision to let the Americans kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan showed the efficacy of Washington’s clout over Pakistan. (The United States demanded Pakistani cooperation in the U.S. Navy Seals raid on the bin Laden compound after a Pakistani intelligence officer had tipped off the CIA station chief in Islamabad about the Al Qaeda chief’s whereabouts in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.)

All the same, the whole brouhaha about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a smokescreen around the root cause of the bugaboo: the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Americans would let Israel hold on to its more than 200 sophisticated nukes and then try to keep Arabs and Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons capability. America’s prodigious exercise to keep Iran from approaching a nuclear “breakout” is meant to deprive the Iranians of a deterrent against Israeli nukes, if they wanted one.

Iranians and Arabs have long been calling on the international community to declare the Middle East a “nuclear-free zone.” That would be the best and most effective nonproliferation program for the region. But Israel and America wouldn’t heed their call because such an arrangement would require Israel to abandon its nuclear weaponry.

It’s about time Americans reviewed their perilous policy on the Israeli nukes to forestall the danger of proliferation in that increasingly unstable region. Washington should get  the U.N. Security Council to designate the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

  • Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom’ (http://beyond-freedom.com).

 

 

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.

 

GOP win to prompt new wake-up call

Tuesday night’s Republican electoral victory poses an insidious threat to freedom and democracy in America.

Yet if you believe in the American democratic system, you have to accept the argument that a majority of the American voters wanted to freeze the minimum wage at its starvation level, allow unbridled carbon emissions and deny healthcare to millions of Americans.

These were among the campaign pledges made by the newly minted Senate majority leader, Mich McConnell, and a lot of his fellow Republican congressional candidates. While celebrating victory, McConnell has vowed to “pass legislation” to put those pledges into effect.

I don’t believe, though, that most Americans would want to see the cruel Republican agenda carried through. I agree with the New York Times’ interpretation of the elections.

“Republicans ran on no message,” wrote the Times‘ editorial board, “except that [President] Obama was always wrong, and voters on Tuesday said they were angry with the country’s direction and political gridlock, taking their fury out on the president’s party because he is in charge.”

I bet the incoming Senate majority leader will have a rough time getting most of his agenda off the ground. In post-election statements Obama has asserted that he wouldn’t let the healthcare law be repealed or minimum wage kept frozen, and that he will push hard for immigration reforms and stand firm on his other key priorities.

But yes, a majority of American voters voted for the Republicans who ran on their sock-it-to-em, pro-Wall Street agenda.  And that agenda threatens America’s founding principles of equality, and indeed, freedom.

Freedom includes freedom of opportunity, which lends it any meaning at all. We’re familiar with the statistics of shocking income inequality in America. In 2012 the top 1% of American households (making $394,000 a year or more) scooped up a fifth of the national income. The figure broke the previous record set in 1928, the eve of the Great Depression. America today offers fewest opportunities for upward mobility in the Western civilization.

Studies show that only 6% of children born in low-income American families will make it to the top income ladder.  The current generation of American youth is going to be the first in American history to earn less than their parents’ generation.

Corporate corruption and plunder, abetted mostly by Republicans, have dried up many of the opportunities that make freedom a reality. We still have some of what metaphysicians call “negative freedom,” meaning absence of barriers to doing things we want to do.

Let me try to illustrate this through an anecdote about a boisterous party arranged by a group of American soldiers in Germany at the end of World War II. They were celebrating President Harry Truman’s announcement that they would soon be returning home. They had invited to their party some Soviet troops who also had been fighting the Nazis.

As the American revelers got a bit tipsy and wild, one of the Soviet soldiers asked why they had to get so crazy about their demobilization.

“Hey,” retorted an American G.I., “We’re going to be free in our land of freedom! You Commies are used to living under Stalin’s tyranny. You’ll never understand what freedom means.”

“Tell me what freedom means,” asked the Soviet Communist.

“It means I can yell in front of the White House: ‘Truman is a jerk!’” You, buggers, will be shitting in your pants at the thought of saying anything like this in the Kremlin.”

“Sure,” replied the Soviet soldier, “I can yell in front of  the White House and at the Kremlin that ‘Truman is a jerk!’”

The point is the Communist didn’t have the “negative freedom” to call Stalin a jerk in the Kremlin. Legal and social barriers had suppressed his freedom of expression, which Americans, mercifully, didn’t – and don’t – have.

The things that really matter in life, however, require “positive freedom,” which entails the availability of the wherewithal to fulfill what we freely desire.

Larry Ellison or Charles Koch can hop in his private jet and enjoy a fabulous weekend or month in the idyllic Alpine valley of Interlaken, or try to savor “eternal bliss” in India’s sub-Himalayan fairyland of Garhwali. But most of the bottom 90% of Americans also would like to do that. Surveys show that their real incomes are less today than were in 1987, and that they’re struggling harder to pay their home mortgages, car insurance and utility bills. They can’t materialize their freedom to spend a weekend in an Alpine or Himalayan Shangri-La because they don’t have the positive freedom, the resources, to do so.

The fading of freedom in America has accelerated since the Republican “Reagan Revolution” kicked off the current era of wanton corporate loot. Americans businesses and corporations have been maximizing their profits by racing for automation, throwing workers out of jobs; freezing wages; curtailing employees’ health and retirement benefits; and other tools of exploitation. All these have drastically shrunk Americans’ ability to enjoy comfortable and meaningful lives, which they’re theoretically free to do.

The erosion of freedom in America, and the consequent impoverishment of the human condition here, has been aggravated by the hijacking of the democratic process by the Wall Street. The right-wing majority in the Supreme Court has helped speed the process with its Citizens United judgment. Thanks to that ruling, Tuesday’s congressional elections were the most expensive in American history, most of the campaign funds being dished out by the corporate tycoons. Seven decades ago H.L. Menken had said, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” And the Wall Street was the highest bidder for the incoming Congress.  In fact congressional support for or indifference to The Wall Street’s unbridled depredation has turned American democracy into an oligarchy.  The point was underscored by a <a href=http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746/>Princeton University study</a>, put out in April.

Republicans in the 113th Congress will surely try to lavish on the Wall Street the goodies it paid for through their campaign coffers. Those goodies would include freezing of the minimum wage, loosening curbs on environmental degradation, denying healthcare to many Americans, and so forth. Obama will, as I mentioned, resist their retrograde actions, but the control of Congress has, at least for now, made them a stumbling block to freedom and justice in America.

All the same, I remain an optimist about America’s future.  I’m hoping that the fuddy-duddy, mostly clueless, GOP back numbers on Capitol Hill will mess things up badly, giving Americans a fresh wake-up call. The last wake-up call was given them by the Great Recession. It was precipitated the reckless deregulation, budget cutting and war spending of Republican George W. Bush administration. And in 2008 irate voters gave the progressive Democrat Obama a rounding mandate to embark on bold, progressive reforms.

Sadly, however, the 44th president didn’t seem to have much of a vision or the backbone, and he got bogged down in his futile drive to win Republicans’ goodwill, instead of pushing hard the popular mandate he had got from Americans. Later, when he tried to salvage some of his election mandate, it was too late. He had lost much of his political capital and with it the ability to persuade congressional Republicans to cooperate on his agenda.

Well, few societies have reformed themselves, economically or politically, in one go. Hegel has been wrong about many things, but history has vindicated his “dialectic” process of social evolution time and again.  Simply put, it says that a social or ideological model triggers a contradictory one. The two models clash inevitably, only to produce a more dynamic and progressive third formation, synthesizing the good elements of both mutually antagonistic systems.  Polls have shown that Americans are getting increasingly peeved at their economic and political institutions catering to the top social ladder, which has been exploiting them. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the bulk of the bottom 90% Americans will decide they’ve had enough of the Republican-Wall Street skullduggery, and try again to cut it out through the electoral process. They may have to repeat the process several times until they succeed. And they have to succeed if freedom and democracy should endure in America.

 Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom.’

 

ISIS could trigger Arab revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Pulling US chestnuts out of Egypt fire

EGYPT’S MILITARY junta is in a pickle! It can’t dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in camp, as it has vowed to do, without a catastrophic bloodbath. That would make the military junta an international pariah, especially after it overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Mursi. More ominously, a large-scale army massacre would rally more and more Egyptians behind the Brotherhood, paralyzing the military administration. On the other hand, if the administration of Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi fails to carry out its threat to remove the anti-coup crowd from Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, the outcome would be the same, and more dramatic. A victory over the military regime would rejuvenate the Islamist organization and expand its support base, probably to an unprecedented level. That, too, would paralyze military rule. Either scenario could also dissuade the Sisi regime from proceeding with its so-called democratic reforms. A strengthened Brotherhood party – the Freedom and Justice Party – would return to power with a vengeance through any democratic process in which it would participate. The Egyptian military’s power grab, though still not considered a coup in Washington, has also put the Obama administration in an embarrassing pickle. The administration isn’t willing to jettison the Egyptian military, whose adherence to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty has been pivotal to Israeli security. Yet its tacit support for Egypt’s murderous military dictatorship has got the administration stuck in an unseemly foreign policy fiasco. I have a suggestion that could help the Obama administration pull its chestnut, along with that of the Sisi cabal, out of the Egyptian fire. President Obama may want to call on his Turkish friend, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, to begin mediation between the the Egypt’s military government and Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan would be trusted by the Brotherhood and acceptable to the military brass. He is uniquely placed to broker an arrangement to de-escalate the dangerous confrontation, and help usher in a process to restore democracy in Egypt. Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts the blog Beyond Freedom.