Monthly Archives: July 2009

Money and politics in the Arab world

Yesterday I suggested that religion and politics are being increasingly conflated in an irrational and unhealthy manner in the Arab world, while at the same time the factor of money is being, in an equally irrational and unhealthy fashion, bifurcated from the political register. If the role of religion in politics is a commonplace in most societies, certainly the role of money is ubiquitous and universal. This makes any conversation about the role of money in a given political culture or set of systems necessarily reductive, incomplete and insufficient. Having admitted at the outset that I am only going to be considering some of the aspects of this ubiquitous and omnipresent factor in political life in the Arab world (as with everywhere else), I do believe there is something highly significant, and in many ways disturbing, about the way many Arabs and Arab Americans regard the relationship between personal finances and political opinions and activities.

Obviously, money is at the heart of any political system. In developed societies, patronage is still the grease that oils the wheels of the political machine. In developing societies, patronage is often all-important, and when the constituency consists mainly of very poor people with meager means and urgent requirements, the ability to provide services and patronage are often the keys to the kingdom. Patronage, along with repression, are the principal means by which the authoritarian Arab governments retain power. Wealthy oil-exporting Gulf states are in a better position to provide the most generous carrots to their citizens, and expatriate foreign workers as well in terms of employment and other benefits. However, even relatively impoverished Arab states such as Egypt have built enormous bureaucracies that seem more geared to providing government employment to a large proportion of the citizenry than to performing the work and services of government. In many instances, there is a lack of social and humanitarian services, and Islamist parties have benefited greatly from filling this void in places like southern Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, parts of Egypt and elsewhere. Just as the Arab regimes and the Islamist opposition groups are fighting over whether Islam dictates loyalty or opposition to the governments, they are also competing at the level of patronage and social services.

It is also worth pointing out that, along with its strategic geographic location and the cultural and religious significance of the so-called ?holy land,? the excessive and almost entirely negative attention of the great powers to the Middle East over the past century has largely been based on money, that is to say the massive oil reserves of the Persian Gulf region (also known as ?The Prize?). For example, while it would be silly to think that the war in Iraq was launched by the Bush administration in an effort to seize control of Iraq?s oil resources, it would be equally foolish not to recognize that the main American role in the Middle East is to secure the oil supplies of the region which are the lifeblood of the global economy as a whole. Therefore, while the Iraq war was not primarily driven by any desire to seize the oil fields of Iraq, that conflict and the entire American military and commercial presence in the Persian Gulf region takes place entirely in the context of the strategic nature of the area?s oil and natural gas resources and is therefore indeed about money.

Through a combination of historical accident and political design — with the exceptions of Iraq, Iran and, to some extent also Saudi Arabia — most of the oil-rich states are sparsely populated, while most of the heavily populated countries of the Middle East do not possess large reserves of oil or natural gas. The effect has been twofold: first, it means that most of the oil wealth has been concentrated among a very small group of Arabs with the vast majority largely cut off from its benefits, a reality that has reflected itself in a great deal of resentment and worse; second, it has meant that the ability of oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to influence Arab religious and political opinion through religious, educational and media institutions has had a significant impact on the rest of the region that would otherwise have been quite impossible. Saudi Arabia?s financial clout and oil reserves make it the only Arab state that has any real leverage in dealing with Washington, and has propelled that country in recent years into a leadership position to which most other Arab states have, however grudgingly, acquiesced.

I mention these fairly commonplace, obvious and even to some extent random elements of the role of money in contemporary Arab political life essentially to acknowledge they are significant and get them out of the way, lest anyone feel that the Ibishblog is unaware of any of this, so that we may come to what I feel is a singular dysfunction in contemporary Arab perceptions of the relationship between personal finances and political attitudes. I keep repeating, perhaps ad nauseam, that religion and politics are being dangerously conflated in contemporary Arab political life, but I am equally dismayed that money, and in this case I mean specifically individual wealth and resources, are being bifurcated from the political register in a manner that reflects a serious distortion of reality.

I am not referring here to the use of money and patronage by governments. The way governments and ruling families behave reflects both the universal requirement of political authority to provide patronage and, particularly in the Gulf states, the persistence of patron-client relationships rooted in deep-seated traditions, as opposed to professional or institutional modes of interaction that characterize most modern societies. Obviously, the institutionalization and bureaucratization of patronage systems that reward ability and commitment and create systems of meritocracy instead of allegiance and personal, clan or tribal loyalty would be preferable, but patronage by governments and rulers is a universal phenomenon. It can be improved — in the Middle East quite dramatically — but cannot be eliminated as a practical matter. Patronage is not the same thing as corruption, and it can be used in the service of well functioning and meritocratic systems.

What is more striking about contemporary Arab political culture is the extent to which so many Arabs and Arab Americans seem to feel there is no natural or logical relationship between methods of making (or indeed spending) money and deeply held political opinions. I have to admit that I don?t know enough about the myriad political cultures around the world to form any definitive judgment about how unique or extreme this phenomenon may be among the Arabs as compared with other peoples, but I have a very strong sense that we have achieved a rare degree of bifurcation between personal finances and political attitudes. The levels of hypocrisy, insincerity and shameless deception and self-deception in this regard that I have encountered among wealthy and well-to-do Arabs in the Middle East and Arab Americans can only be described as scandalous. In contemporary Arab political culture there seems to be a generalized acceptance, at least among the bourgeoisie, that any means of making money is legitimate and that there is no relationship between political attitudes, affiliations and goals on the one hand and business activities on the other. What is even more amazing is that no one seems to be shocked by, or even notice the astonishing irreconcilability between what so many wealthy or prominent Arabs and Arab-Americans say and apparently believe, and what they then actually do with most of their time and effort.

I can think off the top of my head of literally scores of examples of Arabs and Arab Americans who railed and raged against the Iraq war, and then proceeded to make money, in some cases many millions, in its service. I can think of hundreds of examples of people who express nothing but vitriol against the United States government and anyone in the Arab-American community who engages respectfully with it at the policy level, but who think nothing at the same time of entering into contracts with government agencies such as the departments of State and Defense, among many others. I know many young people in our community whose education and upbringing was literally paid for by their parents working in the service of either the US or Arab governments actively promoting and pursuing policies that both and they and their children denounce, abhor and despise. I?m not suggesting that anyone should agree with US foreign policy or the behavior of Arab states, or not denounce, abhor or despise them if they so choose. What I am suggesting is that it is a sort of political schizophrenia, to put it kindly, to nonchalantly base one?s livelihood on entities and programs with which one is otherwise obsessed with passionately hating. There is nothing wrong with accepting government contracts that support the Iraq war if one is in support of or even ambivalent about it. There is nothing wrong with opposing and denouncing the war, as I did beginning in late 2001 when I began to publicly predict the United States would make an enormous blunder and invade Iraq. But there is something absolutely bizarre about combining the two and finding nothing unusual or remarkable in this, and to have an entire community ? or at least one socio-economic class in an entire community ? behave as if they do not notice or do not care about this fantastic degree of hypocrisy.

Obviously, some people have no choice. Some people do what they must to feed their families, and they cannot be blamed for that. Soldiers, sworn officers, government officials, etc. are bound to uphold the policy decisions of political leaderships or, in some cases, have the option of resigning ? but it is asking a great deal to sacrifice an ongoing career to make a temporary political point. I am not talking about working-class people with few options, or individuals who have entered into a sworn relationship with a government whose policies they may disagree with but which they are bound to obey. I am talking about people with many options, people who work themselves, or younger people whose parents work, for or have lucrative contracts with, organizations and governments in the United States and the Arab world whose policies and activities they despise and denounce. There appears to be a special zone of irresponsibility or, more precisely, unaccountability, when it comes to any form of commercial activity or financial transaction. The incompatibility of a political stridency that militates strongly against those for whom and for what people are actually working appears to have been normalized among a certain class of Arabs and Arab Americans.

The most galling aspect of it all is that a fair number of individuals (or members of their nuclear family) making a handsome living off of Arab regimes or US government agencies and organizations turn out to be among the fiercest critics of anyone who takes a more constructive approach towards dealing with governments, not for profit, but for achieving positive policy changes and political progress. In some quarters it is implicitly held to be immoral to try to develop a positive, constructive working relationship on policy with the US or Arab governments, but completely proper to enter into for-profit relationships that support and enable existing policies and only serve to pad individual bank accounts. There is no need to name individuals here. The point is not to indict any specific persons or families in the Middle East or in the United States, and besides the list would simply be too long to endure compiling, even based on nothing more than my own personal knowledge and experience. The point is that this bifurcation of the realm of commercial activities from the register of political commitments and affiliations is a significant problem in contemporary Arab and Arab-American political culture, and the source of some of the most outrageous hypocrisy and double-speak imaginable.

The only thing that can be added in defense of individuals and families that take pride in vociferously denouncing governments and policies while shamelessly making tidy profits out of the same activities or institutions is that this hypocrisy is basically mimicking the behavior of many of the Arab regimes themselves. Insofar as such people have been influenced by the political culture fostered by the governments of the Arab world, perhaps they can be forgiven for believing that it is perfectly normal and respectable to say one thing and do the opposite. Very few Arab states have been honest with their publics about the way they perceive their national interests and their actual diplomatic positions. Instead, official and semiofficial media in the Arab world generally speaking promote a worldview that is strongly at variance, if not indeed the polar opposite, of the way their governments actually perceive regional realities and their national interests.

The government of Egypt, for example, was absolutely unable to explain to the Egyptian people during the Gaza war why it could not consider opening the Rafah border crossing even though those reasons were readily intelligible to anyone who understood the way the Egyptian government perceives its strategic situation and fundamental national interests. If the Egyptian government, or official or semiofficial media, ever really tried to explain its actual national security policies and the logic that underlies them to the Egyptian public, I am not aware of it. Even during the confrontation with Hezbollah after the Gaza war, the main Egyptian government position was that Hezbollah?s actions in Egypt and Gaza were unacceptable because in effect they aided Israel. It?s possible that this argument might have worked for some Egyptians in this one instance, but it only underscores the extraordinary gap between official and semiofficial Egyptian rhetoric about national interests and foreign policies and the actual policies and interests pursued by the Egyptian government.

I am not singling Egypt out as a particularly egregious case, since I think almost all Arab states engage in this exceptionally misguided behavior, which only leads rapidly to destroying their credibility and ability to communicate effectively with their own people about national interests and policies. But, given my complaint that a large number of wealthy and well-to-do Arabs and Arab Americans say one thing politically and do something else commercially, it seems only fair to point out that the Arab governments themselves have pioneered the bifurcation of what one says and what one does. Applied to governments, this produces an irreconcilable gap between official rhetoric and actual policy; applied to individuals, it produces an irreconcilable gap between political pronouncements and personal financial and commercial behavior. Hypocrisy is universal, and the Arabs have no monopoly on it. But some governments and individuals seem determined to achieve levels of hypocrisy and self-delusion bordering on schizophrenia.

Religion and politics in the Arab world

As an important follow-up to my last two postings, I think we need to consider in a little more detail the role of two crucial factors in contemporary Arab politics: religion and money. I would argue that whereas increasingly religion and politics are being conflated in an irrational and unhealthy manner, the factor of money, particularly individual and family finances and fortunes, is being, in an equally irrational and unhealthy fashion, bifurcated from the political register in much of contemporary Arab political culture. In this posting I?m going to deal in a little more depth with the problem of religion and politics in the Arab world. I will come to the question of money in my next posting.

In my posting on “why the Arabs don’t revolt?” I argued that one of the factors preventing many Arabs from engaging in Iranian-style mass protests was concern over the potential for widespread social unrest leading to the seizure of power by religious extremists. In fact, the increasing conflation of the religious and political registers of individual and social life cuts in both directions: it spurs a certain kind of opposition to governments through “revolutionary” Muslim organizations, and without question Islamists now constitute the most powerful, and in some cases the only effective, opposition movements in many Arab states. However, religion is also deployed by governments to legitimate their authority and undermine challenges to ruling elites. Arab states, quite literally, employ large numbers of clerics who, no matter how socially conservative and reactionary, are loyal and preach loyalty to the regimes, and to spare no opportunity to remind the Muslim faithful of the unacceptability of ?fitna? and rebellion against authority. Of course, politicized Salafists like the Muslim Brothers, and all those who follow the logic of Sayyid Qutb et al, reject this idea out of hand, since they regard present Arab societies as at least insufficiently Islamic, if not outrightly in a condition of ?jahiliyya? (pre-Islamic ignorance). However, the traditional attitude in most Islamic societies has tended to hold that political authority should be respected as a default and matter of course, and that challenging such authority is more dangerous to social cohesion and a supposedly “Islamic way of life” than the occasional or even chronic misuse of power.

Therefore, the governments not only undermine pressure for either meaningful reforms or widespread social unrest by ensuring that the main opposition groups are religious extremists with limited popular appeal and very alarming qualities in the minds of much of the rest of society, they also appeal to traditional aspects of Islamic thought about the relationship between political power and clerical authority, especially in Sunni traditions. While many in the West seem not to understand this, with some interesting and important exceptions, the general rule in the Muslim world historically has been a clear distinction between the political power of sultans, emirs and the other civic authorities versus the clerical authority wielded by Muslim judges, scholars and experts in Islamic law. As I’ve noted before, this distinction between civil and clerical authority has been very differently constructed in the Islamic world than it has been in Western societies, sometimes leading Westerners, and indeed Muslims as well, to assert or presume that there has never been any “separation of mosque and state.” In some senses, of course, this is true, but this has rarely meant that clerical authority and political authority have been synonymous. Indeed, it’s probably the case that Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical concept of “vilayyat e-faqih,” or the rule of the jurisprudential scholars, (essentially the notion that a clerical authority ought to have the final sway in the political realm above and beyond more overtly political leadership) was not only a unique (and possibly uniquely unfortunate) innovation in Islamic political philosophy, but it also has been the most recent major contribution to philosophical/theological political theory in the Islamic tradition. The practical application of this novel concept is now fully on display in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities.

Abdel Karim Soroush has argued that while Shiite communities have tended towards accepting what he has termed ?divine politics,? or political forms of religious authority, Sunni traditions generally have not. He also claims that conversely Shiites have been more inclined to philosophical and scientific empiricism while Sunnis have tended more towards deterministic and divine-will explanations of natural and social phenomena (this second point seems far more debatable to me, but plausible enough to take seriously). There is obviously an element of the reductive generalization in any such observation, particularly when one considers the enormous scientific and philosophical achievements of earlier Sunni Muslim civilizations. However, in the contemporary world, this observation does at least partially help to explain why Shiite Islamist parties in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have been so much more successful at building political authority within their own societies and communities than Arab Sunni Islamists of whatever variety. And, of course, Arab governments have shamelessly used not only legitimate concerns about Iranian hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, but also completely bigoted and indefensible anti-Shiite sentiments — and even paranoia — in their efforts to combat Islamist opposition groups, including Sunni organizations, and to set Sunni and Shiite Muslims against each other for their own benefit. These tactics have been reasonably successful in curbing, for example, the popularity of Hezbollah among some Arab Sunnis who might otherwise be more enthusiastic about the organization, and to undermine Arab Sunni allies of Iran such as Hamas.

Therefore, the conflation of the religious and the political has been used to almost entirely ill effect by both governments and Islamist opposition groups. Governments use official Islam to legitimate their power and behavior. Islamist opposition groups use their own revolutionary versions of Islam to destabilize the governments and seek power in order to impose reactionary theocratic or quasi-theocratic new regimes. In both instances, the interests of Arab societies and the prospects for their healthy and progressive development are greatly damaged by the excessive emphasis on religious legitimation by both autocratic governments and reactionary opposition groups. It is hard to imagine a more unhealthy situation than one in which official government-sponsored clerics tell the Arab publics not to question their leaders too strongly because it would be some kind of un-Islamic fitna, while at the same time Islamist clerics tell people it is their religious duty to pursue reactionary theocratic dictatorships. Of course there are plenty of apolitical forms of Islam in the Middle East, ranging from mystical Sufis to Salafists concerned only with their own personal conduct. But apolitical religiosity is no social or political solution either. The only way forward is the reconstitution of the Arab center and center-left, and the reintroduction of a robust Arab secular discourse and political narrative. The dysfunctional authoritarian regimes, in so far as they continue to resist reform, are incapable of building prosperous, pluralistic and thriving societies. As long as the Islamists are the only plausible alternative, the prospect that they may come to power is likely to remain anathema to enough of the citizenry of the Arab states that the current regimes can continue to limp along for the foreseeable future. This dynamic has been a key factor in creating the Arab political stagnation of recent decades, and guarantees that it will continue until an alternative to this unacceptable binary is allowed to develop.

Real hope for a better political future in the Arab world demands and requires the de-coupling of religion and politics, or at least a return to the widespread recognition of earlier decades that these are, in fact, distinct registers of political and social life. Islam is a religion, not a political program, which is why even though it has been in existence since the 1920s, the oldest Muslim Brotherhood organization, the MB of Egypt, has never been able to come up with anything remotely resembling a program of governance, economic development or anything of the kind, and has relied almost entirely on the vapid, meaningless and indeed politically ludicrous slogan ?Islam huwa al-haal? (?Islam is the solution?). There is no question that the Arabs are and will remain for the foreseeable future a deeply religious people and that Islam will continue to be a potent force at all levels of society, and will be used by all sources of authority to legitimate their actions (even Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Qaddafi and other relatively secular leaders frequently invoked Islam whenever they became desperate). Obviously, religion is not going to go away and Islam is going to remain a potent force in Arab society.

However, the conflation of the political and religious registers by both governments and Islamist opposition groups lies at the very heart of the present Arab malaise, and constitutes one of the most significant barriers to overcoming the ongoing stagnation of Arab politics and culture. In most Arab societies for most of the 20th century, there was a much healthier attitude about the relationship between religion and politics. There is no reason that the Arabs cannot regain and indeed improve upon previous widespread understandings that religion and politics may be related but they are not, and cannot be allowed to become, synonymous. The key to recuperating an Arab center and center-left political narrative that recognizes and promotes an understanding of this distinction, and which again champions secularism in the Arab world, will probably depend on the willingness and ability of existing governments to recognize that if they continue to leave the Arab peoples with the unacceptable binary presently available, at best they will continue to preside over stagnation and degeneration, and at worst they will be the ones responsible for the ultimate victory of their reactionary, theocratic opponents.

Is the Ibishblog ?severely disconnected? from Arab opinions?

A reader of the Ibishblog asks me, ?Don?t you think that your opinions are severely disconnected from those of Middle Easterners living in the Middle East?? I think this is the most interesting and complex question anyone has yet to ask me since I started blogging a few weeks ago.

First of all, I think it?s important to note that opinions in the Middle East vary widely. I?m sure that a very large number of people in the Middle East don?t agree with a lot of what I have to say, but given my strong connections to the Middle East, my upbringing in Beirut, my wide range of experiences, etc., I don?t think one can describe them as ?severely disconnected.? To be sure, there is a kind of received wisdom in the region, especially regarding questions about Palestine, that is not only dominant but hegemonic, and might be described as ?The Narrative.? A lot of what I say challenges and deviates from ?The Narrative,? but any form of political discourse that amounts to a regurgitation, in whatever form, of the essential elements of ?The Narrative? might constitute an opinion, but it does not constitute thinking. The reality is that both internally within their own societies, and externally with regard to regional and international dynamics, Arabs generally speaking don?t have a great deal of power, and tend to cling tenaciously to ?The Narrative? in many cases as an alternative to the admittedly painful process of considering what our real situation and our actual options in fact are. However, strict adherence to a rigid and received narrative is the very antithesis of thinking, as it necessitates a kind of fidelity to certain constructs that may be imaginary, anachronistic, no longer relevant or simply mythological. This is a perfect example of the veritable ?box? the hoary cliché urges one to think outside of.

There are, of course, many brave and important voices in the Middle East itself that do deviate from ?The Narrative,? but many more who, in spite of knowing better and speaking sense privately, have exercised self-censorship because of the hegemonic power it wields, and an even larger number who prefer the comfort it provides to the pain of confronting some fairly harsh elements of existing realities. However, since any hegemonic narrative constitutes an insuperable obstacle to clearheaded and imaginative strategic thinking, I believe confronting ?The Narrative,? insofar as its serves to impede rather than enhance Arab national interests and social and economic development, is an overriding and paramount imperative. Obviously, this has already and will continue to annoy a great many people. However, there are many others who are greatly appreciative of the willingness of some of us to begin to think outside the confines of the received wisdom of the contemporary Arab national narrative.

What is fascinating is that there sometimes seems to be more of an appetite for this kind of sincere reconsideration of where the Arabs are, where they are going and what they need, in the Arab world than in the Arab diaspora. Diaspora communities tend to cling more tenaciously to received wisdoms and hegemonic narratives imported in a derivative manner from their countries of origin during the time of their migration. These ideas often get fixed and clung to with an emotional intensity that isn?t necessarily found within the societies of origin themselves. In the Arab world, governments can be relied upon to enforce ?The Narrative,? whereas in the diaspora, social pressure and self-censorship seem to be even more powerful than any mukhabarat. My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine, for example, have been gratified that the organization is generally very well-regarded and very well-received in Palestine, where the need for a serious Palestinian-American policy organization in Washington that tries to work within the system to advance Palestinian as well as American national interests, is readily understood. It is my very strong impression that there is a great deal more skepticism in the Palestinian and Arab diaspora in the United States about such a project, and considerable hostility in certain quarters to the very idea of working with and within the foreign-policy establishment of our own country to promote both Palestinian and American interests.

Most of my career has been geared towards securing an end to the occupation, the creation of a Palestinian state, improved relations between the US and the Arab world, and challenging and debunking Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the West, and I certainly think that the vast majority of Arabs would strongly support these goals. There may be some misunderstanding on the part of some people, whether living in the Middle East or as Arabs in the United States, about how these aims can best be pursued in the United States by Arab Americans. There is no question that I am part of a fairly small group of people within our community that is deliberately and methodically pursuing a new approach to advancing these goals, based on new strategies, new language, and new attitudes. I think it would be quite unreasonable for anyone in the Middle East to suggest that Arab Americans are not well positioned to develop effective strategies for pursuing these common goals that may not be immediately obvious, or even easy to understand, from a strictly Middle Eastern point of view (even one currently residing somewhere in the United States). The point is that we cannot proceed any longer on the basis of a derivative discourse. Arab Americans need their own approach, based on a commitment to the American national interest and to working within the system, to promote these essential goals. Arab Americans who remain strictly committed to various iterations of ?The Narrative,? and who retain an essentially oppositional and hostile attitude towards the American government and political system have guaranteed their own irrelevancy and failure.

On the other hand, when it comes to my own personal deep commitment to secularism and agnosticism, there may indeed be a profound disconnect from generalized attitudes in the Arab world. I believe that Arabs at almost every level of society have tended, over the past 30 years or so, to erroneously and potentially catastrophically conflate the registers of the religious and the political. It is here, I think, that a strong disconnect may actually exist not only in terms of goals and interests, but rather at the level of fundamental beliefs and values. When I was a boy in Beirut in the 1960s and 70s, secularism ? by which I mean the strict neutrality of the state on matters concerning religion ? was certainly not a universal value by any means, but was a highly respected and legitimate position adopted by a great deal of the intelligentsia, political elite and ordinary people. Since the Iranian revolution and the rise of Islamism, a generalized deterioration in the appreciation of the distinction between the political and the religious registers of individual and social life has been positively disastrous. It threatens, if it goes any further, to become absolutely catastrophic, and I will have more to say about this in one of my very next postings.

Sadiq al-Azm and other leading intellectuals continue to bemoan this cultural degeneration, which has promoted a religiosity shorn of spirituality and universal human values, and is instead obsessed with regulating daily activities and restricting the range of choices available to people in a most preposterous, irrational and abusive manner. This has been accompanied by an intellectual deterioration, a lack of sophisticated engagement with much of what is most useful in the intellectual development of the rest of the world (and not just the West by any means), and an intensification of a closing down of what might be called Arab discourse in general. In other words, the Arab world has generally speaking been degenerating rather than progressing over the past few decades. Obviously, there are important exceptions to this, and I wouldn?t want to engage in any reductive stereotyping or fail to acknowledge the (sadly limited) pockets of genuine intellectual, political and artistic dynamism that continue to thrive in spite of a generalized cultural degeneration. There are plenty of inspirational people, groups and institutions in the Arab world, and no reason to be simplistically pessimistic. However, the general trends and the basic realities are, for the most part, getting worse and not better.

If this sounds harsh, that?s because it is. Between the hegemonic political straitjacket of ?The Narrative? and the resurgence of a new, obscurantist and reactionary form of Islam, the Arab world has entered into a period of unprecedented malaise. If many people in the Middle East find all of this somehow comforting or positive, here we certainly disagree. I suppose it?s possible that in this sense, some of my opinions are indeed severely disconnected from those of some Middle Easterners living in the Middle East. Like James Joyce?s Stephen Dedalus ? and with exactly the same spirit and multivalent range of meanings, refuting both teleological fantasies regarding the will of God, and the deterministic and hegemonic primacy of ?The Narrative? ? I wish to tell our own Arab Garrett Abu-Deasys: ?History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.?

Why the Arabs don’t revolt

Several people have been urging me to do a posting on the Ibishblog on question of why the Arab publics, who live under a collection of despotic regimes, one-party states, failed and semi-failed states, absolute monarchies, military juntas and family/tribal fiefdoms haven’t ever (or at least in living memory) publicly revolted in the same way that so many Iranians have taken to the streets in defense of their rights and for more open, transparent government. Obviously, this is an extremely complex and over-determined question, but I think it might be worth pointing out some of the more obvious factors that have inhibited rebellion of the Iranian variety in the Arab world.

First, it’s worth pointing out that with a couple of exceptions, most notably Lebanon which has a very weird, deeply flawed and sectarian but nonetheless democratic system, people in the Arab world generally know perfectly well that they don’t have any meaningful political or civil rights. Hamid Dabashi has been one of the most forceful commentators in describing, I think perfectly accurately, the uprising in Iran against the ruling elite as being essentially a "civil rights movement." In other words, what has driven Iranians into the streets in defiance of government oppression is a sense that rights that they believed that they had have suddenly and blatantly been taken from them in the most crude and indeed brutal manner. Until the recent election fraud/military coup, or however one wants to characterize the grotesque usurpation from within the system that has taken place within Iran, most Iranians did believe that they possessed a set of limited but reliable civil and political rights within the rubric of the "Islamic Republic." In other words, they believed that they were free to choose in elections between approved candidates willing to operate within the essential framework of the Iranian political system (one commentator aptly describe the range of choices available as analogous to an American conservative gamut running roughly from figures approximating Bob Dole-style moderate conservatism all the way to the David Duke-KKK extreme right).

Following the crude and blatant election fraud, the Iranian public has essentially been told, "April fool, your votes don’t count." Following the crackdown on demonstrations after the first few days of tolerated dissent, they’ve similarly been informed that the right to protest, freely assemble, and express grievances towards their government were also illusory and have been, in effect, canceled. The same applies to other forms of civil rights, such as free speech within certain limits, freedom of conscience and other elements of post-revolution Iran that were supposed to give meaning to the republican part of the "Islamic Republic." Mousavi has said that the present crisis is a test of whether "Islamic republicanism" is actually a possibility, or is an oxymoron. Unsurprisingly, the latter is increasingly proving to be obviously the case, as theocracy and not only democracy, but also pluralism and civil rights, simply do not go together. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the entire fiasco is being driven by an internal takeover within the regime by a military/intelligence clique dependent on, and appointed and led by Ayatollah Khamenei, usurping the authority of a more traditional clerical and revolutionary elite within the Iranian ruling circles. The people in the streets are outraged that their votes don’t count, they’re not allowed to protest, and their supposed right to free speech and assembly have been canceled (if they ever really existed in practice at all). Clerics in Qom and other religious establishment figures are appalled to find that a bureaucratic national security state clique has usurped power entirely and marginalized the old guard of the "Islamic Republic." When people feel that their rights have been suddenly taken away from them, or that a new and unaccountable clique has seized power, outrage is the inevitable response.

None of this applies in the Arab world. The sad fact is that the Arabs know full well that they don’t have meaningful political or civil rights, with a very limited exception of Lebanon (and, in some odd and also very limited ways, in the West Bank and Iraq too, but under conditions of internal strife and occupation). The sad truth is that in almost all cases, Arabs know that their votes don’t count, that they don’t have freedom of speech, assembly or conscience, and that they live under strictly authoritarian or totalitarian systems. In some cases these are enforced with sheer brutality, and in other cases with financial rewards for quiescence as an additional inducement to passivity. In all cases, the sticks are well-known and frequently used, in other cases (mainly the oil-exporting Gulf countries) the carrots are also very enticing. The combination seems to have been extremely effective, at least for now.

A second factor, which may be even more important, are extremely legitimate fears of the consequences of open rebellion in the Arab world. The two likely consequences of such rebellion in many cases, at least in the minds of many people, are even more unpalatable than the dysfunctional and heavy-handed states currently in place. In every Arab country, the principal opposition is the Islamist ultra-right. They have very strong support, but it certainly limited in almost every country to a distinct minority, in few cases exceeding 20-25% of public opinion at most. The rest of society is deeply disturbed at the prospect of theocratic rule by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or analogous organizations. I think there is a very real, and extremely realistic and accurate, sense that replacing existing regimes with Islamist revolutionary governments would be anything but an improvement on the present situation for most people. It could well be argued that the Arab regimes have promoted exactly this situation by systematically cracking down on all liberal and left-of-center opposition groups while allowing religious extremists a degree of political space in which to operate and organize. All of this, of course, was with the enthusiastic support of the West which always preferred, especially during the Cold War, religious conservatives to anything smacking of socialism.

Obviously, it is socially more difficult to interfere with organizations that hide behind religious structures in order to operate, but it’s also politically useful for governments to have unreasonable and extremist opponents who will fail to appeal to a majority of sensible people. The details vary from country to country, but in almost every case the center and the left has been persecuted, marginalized and crushed (or discredited by being co-opted by the regimes), while the religious right has been allowed a certain degree of space to operate within mosques and Islamic institutions, and for certain complex historical reasons has risen in every single Arab country to constitute the main, and in many cases the only, properly organized opposition. I think a very large number of Arabs prefer to continue to deal with the devil they know to be highly problematic in their own governments, as opposed to a devil they know to be even worse in the Islamist opposition groups. It is almost certain that, given the paucity of centrist and leftist organizations that are organized and effective, any public uprising that effectively destabilized existing governments would open the door almost inevitably to the rise of extreme Islamist parties to power. The Iranian case may have emboldened Arab Islamists, but it has certainly spooked the general Arab public in the same way.

The other alternative, obviously, is open-ended civil conflict and failed-state status. Lebanon and Iraq are already at the very least semi-failed states. Somalia is absolutely a failed state. It isn’t very difficult to imagine that widespread civil unrest, if it didn’t result quickly in the seizure of power by Islamist extremists which would be more oppressive, brutal and obscurantist than existing governments, would give way to open-ended chaos and failed-state status. These alternatives certainly explain the otherwise confounding ability of the Ba’athist regime in Syria to continue to survive in spite of all of its myriad failings, inadequacies and unacceptability. Assad survives in an authoritarian, unpopular and sectarian minority-dominated Alawite regime because the two alternatives are deemed by most Syrians and regional actors as absolutely unacceptable: Muslim Brotherhood takeover or Iraq-style chaos. Indeed, not only does this prevent (along with shameless repression by the regime itself) the Syrian public from taking to the streets as the Iranians have done, but also prompted Syria’s main regional rivals and opponents — Saudi Arabia and Israel — to intervene with the Bush administration to argue strongly against a campaign of regime change during the era of neoconservative intoxication in Washington between 2002-2004.

The Arab center and left finds itself in the unpalatable position of having to choose between working within the systems that provide an unacceptably limited space for civil society and political pluralism versus adopting positions and strategies that would, under the present circumstances, only serve to usher in a period of either theocratic dictatorship or generalized chaos. Some, especially on the far left, seem to have convinced themselves that the best way to move towards the center and the left in the Arab world is to charge headlong towards the extreme right. This seems absolutely irrational, and the prospects of progressive change under Islamist rule strike me very strongly as much more implausible than gradual reform within the admittedly unacceptable existing political structures in most Arab states. You could call it a Hobson’s choice, or a devil’s bargain, or anything you like, but in the real political world one must seriously consider the practical consequences of the real choices that have to be made. Obviously what is required is for the Arab center and left to work diligently, patiently and boldly to create more space for political pluralism and civil society within existing structures and to use whatever limited reforms are currently underway or being contemplated, and always push for ever greater reforms, and to rebuild a progressive Arab political narrative and agenda that can serve as an alternative to both abusive authoritarian regimes and the obviously far worse option of theocratic dictatorship.

At some point, the dam will burst and there will be significant, perhaps even radical change in the Arab Middle East. If the Arab regimes do not begin to seriously move to create more space for civil society, political pluralism and the ability of the center and the left to begin to rebuild their organizations, narratives and agendas, then the flood will be an Islamist one. This is in the interests neither of the present governments nor of the general publics of the Arab world, and must be avoided at all costs. Both the regimes and the center and left opposition groups must also, in order to avoid such a catastrophe, move beyond the monomaniacal obsession with the conflict with Israel, and begin to pay serious attention to domestic social, economic and political development in the Arab world. This doesn’t mean abandoning the cause of Palestine, by any means. It means augmenting concern and support for the Palestinians with a healthy understanding that the Arab world has a panoply problems with which it must deal, and that governments must not hide behind the conflict to resist reform, while the center and the left must not give way to abandoning its broader social, political and economic agenda in order to simply support anything and everything (at present, usually Islamist) that presents itself as the vanguard of "the resistance." The day may come, and soon, when the Arab public demands and achieves major change in their societies, and even revolt against their governments, but it must never be the case that the Arabs are, so to speak, "revolting."

How not to support Palestine, the Arabs and the Muslims: Gilad Atzmon?s racist garbage

Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli jazz musician, proponent of a single Israeli-Palestinian state, and political charlatan. His article, recently published on multiple websites, "Thinking Outside of the Secular Box," represents the very worst in neo-Orientalist and frankly racist objectification of Arabs, Muslims and especially Palestinians, and is one of the weakest defenses for supporting the Islamist ultra-right yet produced from the Western left. It embodies, I think, almost everything that is worst about the way some Western leftists approach questions involving the Muslim world generally and Palestine in particular. The entire article is worth carefully reading as an index of how not to approach solidarity with Palestinians and other Arab or Muslim peoples and causes.

Atzmon begins by making a categorical assertion that Westerners and Muslims are simply fundamentally different categories of people, since, “Our human conditions are imposed on us; we are a product of our culture.” It is unrealistic and unfair, he suggests, for Westerners or any other liberals, leftists or progressives to hold Palestinians or other Muslims to any universal standards of human rights, particularly the social and political pluralism inherent in secularism, since “secularism is in itself a natural outcome of Christian culture.” Atzmon apparently believes that only Christian societies can have governments that are neutral on matters of religion. “Islam and Judaism, unlike Christianity," he argues, "are tribally orientated belief systems.” I won’t pass any judgment on questions involving Judaism, although this doesn’t correspond with the Judaism I have experienced from most Jews I have met and dealt with in my life. However, the notion that Islam is essentially a "tribally-oriented belief system" is simply preposterous. Islam is a universalist faith that, at least theologically, is categorically and unequivocally opposed to ethno-centrism, racism, tribalism or anything of the kind. It’s certainly true that in much of the postcolonial world in Asia and Africa in which the majority of Muslims live, tribal systems dominate cultural and political structures, but this is extraneous to the logic and systems of thought built-in to most forms of Islamic theology. The two phenomena are parallel and co-exist, but are in many ways more contradictory than complementary.

Not only are Muslims incapable of being secularists and are inherently tribalist, not only culturally but in terms of the essence of the theology of their religion, “Like in the case of Rabbinical Judaism, that is totally foreign to the spirit of Enlightenment, Islam is largely estranged to those values of Eurocentric Modernism and rationality.” I have to admit to feeling personally insulted by this absolutely disgusting regurgitation of blatant racism by Atzmon. I think it’s perfectly true that religious faith and superstition have a complex and often contentious relationship with Enlightenment rationalism and modernity in general, but this is certainly not unique to Judaism or Islam, and it is readily to be found in Christian societies, and most certainly here in the United States. There is no question that the entire postcolonial world is struggling to come to grips with a modernity that is largely the product of Western history over the past 600 years, and has spread through different means, largely colonial, throughout the world. However, the idea that Islam and the Muslims are therefore incapable of becoming fully-interpolated modern subjects imbued with both of the essence of their traditional faith and the reality of their full and equal participation in a modern, rational post-Enlightenment global society is simply insulting as well as positively idiotic.

Atzmon then extrapolates this ridiculous line of thinking to the question of Palestine writing, "I have recently accused a genuine Leftist and good activist of being an Islamophobe for blaming Hamas for being ‘reactionary’.” If it is “Islamophobic” to call the fundamentalist religious ultra-right “reactionary,” then neither term has any meaning whatsoever. Atzmon tries to justify his opposition to recognizing the political nature of Hamas’ ideology by arguing that, “in Islam there is no real separation between the spiritual and the political. The notion of political Islam (Islamism) may as well be a Western delusional reading of Islam. I pointed out that Political Islam, and even the rare implementation of ‘armed jihad’, are merely Islam in practice.” To call this extremely simplistic would be far too generous. In fact, it’s a caricature, and an Orientalist (in the worst sense of the term) and indeed a racist one. In fact, without going into the details, throughout almost all of Islamic history there has been a clear distinction between political and clerical authority, and while this distinction has taken on very different forms than those in the West, it is completely false to suggest that Muslims have not and cannot embrace a separation between the political and the religious registers of social life. It is to suggest, among other things, that all Muslims are naturally Islamists, that Arab and Muslim secularists are frauds and phonies, and that all the progressive movements in the Middle East over the past hundred years and more are fundamentally inauthentic and illegitimate.

Atzmon asserts that Hamas is not only the actual leadership of the Palestinian people, and the authentic, genuine and popular expression of Palestinian social and political sentiment, but that any questioning of this idea is simply racist Western liberals imposing their own narrow values on the Palestinian people: “Rather than loving ourselves through the Palestinians and at their expense, we need to accept Palestinians for what they are and support them for who they are regardless of our own views on things. This is the only real form of solidarity.” Atzmon might put down his saxophone long enough to start to understand that most Palestinians, while certainly a conservative people and fairly religious, are, have been and remain essentially secular in their political orientation. The majority of Palestinians have never been Islamist in their essential political outlook, and it remains so to this day, with the PLO remaining significantly more popular than Hamas in most opinion polls over the past 15 years. The parliamentary election victory by Hamas in 2006, with 44% of the votes cast for candidates running under their auspices, hardly represents a decisive victory for Islamism or against secularism, rationalism and Enlightenment values among Palestinians. The result was the product of a series of deeply overdetermined factors, including frustration with lack of progress on peace and independence, disgust with corruption and mismanagement by Fatah, local political concerns, and many other factors. It also occurred at a moment of Hamas’ maximum organizational power and popularity, and an internal implosion within Fatah. At any rate, the idea that Palestinians, like all other Arabs and Muslims, are basically at heart reactionary Islamists permanently and inevitably alienated from secularism, rationalism and all aspects of the Enlightenment is a familiar theme of Western racist discourse, and it isn’t any less repulsive coming from a Jewish Israeli leftist than it would be from a mustachioed British colonial colonel.

Having pronounced Palestinians to be irretrievably reactionary, Islamist and alienated from rationalism, the Enlightenment and modernity, Atzmon urges his readers to embrace this imaginary and deliciously exotic Arab pet, since, "If we claim to be compassionate about people we better learn to love them for what they are rather than what we expect them to be." Of course, Atzmon is in love with the Palestinians who behave as he expects them to, that is to say the reactionary fundamentalist ultra-right of Hamas and its core Islamist supporters. As for the rest of the Palestinians, he just doesn’t recognize their authenticity or legitimacy.

All of this is painfully reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s outrageous refusal to draw any distinctions between elements of the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation she was willing to support even during the time of Zarqawi’s campaign the mass murder of Iraqis and snuff videos on the Internet among other mind boggling abuses and atrocities (all in the name of the most vicious reactionary agenda imaginable). Roy said simply, "the Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle," without drawing any distinctions or making any effort to distinguish between groups operating in Iraq with a radically different goals and methods, including Zarqawi’s forces of pure, unmitigated evil. She rationalized this irredeemably unprincipled position by arguing, "if we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity,” which is an absolutely ridiculous formulation that suggests there can be no space between what may be difficult to stomach versus what is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances, and which completely ignores the question of what the ultimate agenda behind such actions in fact is.

Atzmon’s racism is simply breathtaking. He actually wants the Palestinians and the other Muslims to be anti-rational, anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment and supporters of ultra-right-wing, reactionary religious fundamentalist parties. Why he wants this, only he can say. But if he has the courage of his convictions, Atzmon should convert to an ultraconservative version of Islam, leave his hip London jazz scene and move to Gaza or better yet southern Afghanistan, become an armed member of a salafist-jihadist gang, and possibly start wearing a burqa.

Israel continues to justify settlements and occupation by calling the Palestinians Nazis

Yesterday I commented on the outrageous demagoguery of Prime Minister Netanyahu who told the German foreign minister that, "Judea and Samaria [official Israeli jargon for the occupied West Bank] cannot be Judenrein," a term that invokes the genocidal anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime. Now the ultra-right wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has gone one better. Reuters reports that, “Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem. One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would ‘embarrass’ Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.”

For many years, right-wing Zionists and others have tried to use the Hitler-Husseini association as a tool to justify the most outrageous Israeli behavior, and to suggest that Palestinian identity itself and the Palestinian national movement is nothing more or less than a creation and form of Nazism. This message has been a central feature of the Islamophobic campaign in the United States post-9/11, and was the main thrust of the film, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West,” whose original principal marketer and de facto producer is the quasi-official propaganda organization, closely linked to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The argument that the Palestinian cause is in essence a Nazi plot has developed a considerable following on the Israeli and pro-Israeli far-right in the years since the second intifada began in September, 2000. The film “Obsession” promoted this balderdash shamelessly and to a wide audience, and Lieberman is invoking the same idea. In this rhetoric, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is totally decontextualized and the occupation simply unmentioned as a factor. The entire blame for tensions is placed on Palestinian television, textbooks, media, etc., as if the occupation itself were not the ultimate form of incitement. The whole point is to change the subject from the occupation as the obvious proximate cause of the conflict and indict Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as such by attacking their beliefs and culture, particularly as a derivation and form of Nazism, and implicitly justify the occupation and settlements.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, at least 28 million DVD copies of “Obsession” were suddenly distributed free of charge via mail and newspaper inserts to huge numbers of unsuspecting American voters. The context of this distribution barrage was unmistakable. The candidacy of US Senator Barack Obama, a Christian whose Kenyan father was of Muslim origin, was the target of numerous attacks claiming that he was secretly a Muslim, in league with Muslims or disloyal because of his family’s partly Muslim heritage. The sudden reintroduction of the film and its free distribution to millions of voters, primarily in swing states, was plainly intended to serve a dual purpose: first, to reinforce its message of Islamophobic and anti-Arab hatred, and second, to encourage bigoted anxieties about Obama’s heritage and connections to the Muslim world.

The organization behind the distribution campaign during the election was a shadowy group called the Clarion Fund, which appears to be an offshoot of the right wing Aish HaTorah organization in Israel. According to the Jewish Week newspaper, “the ties between Aish HaTorah and the production of the films appear to date back to the launch of the media watchdog group Honest Reporting by the founder and former executive director of the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, Irwin Katsof, in 2001.” Rabbi Raphael Shore serves as the executive directory of The Clarion Fund and is also a full-time employee of Aish HaTorah. In addition, the spokesperson of the Clarion Fund, Gregory Ross, was listed as an Aish HaTorah international fundraiser on a June 2007 federal election contribution form.

“Obsession” and similar propaganda discuss Nazi efforts to reach out to Arabs and Muslims in the 30s and 40s, as if similar efforts were not made with regard to the other colonized peoples in the British and French empires. These policies are not presented as predictable attempts to cause problems for global rivals — which is what they were — but as demonstrating some kind of special affinity between Arabs and Nazis, which is preposterous. The alliance between Amin al-Husseini and Hitler is not presented as one between political figures brought together by mutual British enemies, but as an inevitable linking of kindred spirits.

The farcical implications this kind of rhetoric are clear – Muslims, above all Palestinians, were Nazis during the Second World War and clamoring to serve Hitler’s agenda, and continue on that path to this very day. In our contemporary western discourse, almost no mention is ever made of the tens of thousands of Muslims who served, and thousands who died, in the allied armies and played a significant role in the defeat of Germany and its allies. No one ever mentions, to take only one instance, the almost half a million Muslims who are estimated to have been serving in the British Army during World War II, more than 300,000 who joined during the war itself. The numerous stories of Albanian Muslims sheltering Jewish refugees have only recently been told in English in “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” by Norman H. Gershman (Syracuse University Press, 2008). Equally ignored are similar heroic efforts by the Turkish diplomats Selahattin Ulkummen, Necdet Kent, and Namik Kemal Yolga. And the efforts by numerous Arabs in Vichy-France occupied Morocco and Algeria to protect Jews has been outlined for the first and only time in the West in Robert Satloff’s “Among the Righteous” (PublicAffairs, 2007). But all of this is generally ignored in favor of the myth of the Arabs and Palestinians as rabid junior Nazis who deserve everything they get.

This is a crude and obvious effort to make Amin al-Husseini stand in for all Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, whose actions are supposed to create a collective guilt that then justifies the worst abuses the Israeli occupation can dish out to innocent Palestinian civilians. Lieberman actually wants his hapless diplomats (who I actually feel a little sorry for in this instance) to go to European officials and say, “Yes, we are building illegal settlements in occupied territory in violation of international law and our own Roadmap commitments, but its ok: the Palestinians are all just a bunch of Nazis, and we have a photo from 1941 to prove it.”

The future of Jews in a Palestinian state

A reader of the Ibishblog writes, “It appears that the PA and its supporters believe that Jews may not live in a future Palestinian state. Why is it necessary to make Palestine Jew free?” Thank you very much for that question, but I am happy to report that this is not, in fact, the case. Much has been made recently of these claims by many supporters of Israel, apparently including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. It is reported that, in defending his insistence that Israel settlement activities continue apace in spite of American and international demands that Israel adhere to its commitment to a settlement freeze, Netanyahu told the German foreign minister that, "Judea and Samaria [official Israeli jargon for the occupied West Bank] cannot be Judenrein," a term hearkening back to the genocidal anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime. This theme that a stop to settlement activity is some kind of Nazism, anti-Semitism, or even “ethnic cleansing” (a despicable piece of sophistry recently proposed by the typically ludicrous annual Frank Luntz public relations/hasbara manual tediously regurgitated by the Israel Project) is ridiculous on multiple levels, and simply designed to obfuscate the fact that Israel has no right either legally or politically to continue with settlement activities.

However, the idea that all Jews and Israelis would have to leave a future Palestinian state is not a demand made by the Palestinian Authority or its supporters. To the contrary, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said at the Aspen Institute recently that, "Jews, to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine, will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel." Numerous other Palestinian officials have made similar comments in the past, and I personally said the same thing in my colloquy with the Israeli Council General in Los Angeles in a radio program a few months ago. I think there are very few, if any, Palestinians who have a desire to see zero Jews living in a Palestinian state.

However, the situation is obviously a complicated one. There are almost 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied territories at the present time. Their physical presence is the single greatest complicating factor in drawing a mutually acceptable border between Israel and a Palestinian state. However, the principle of a land swap in which parts of the occupied territories that have been heavily settled by Jewish colonists might be exchanged for unpopulated or sparsely populated territories in Israel adjacent to the West Bank has been accepted in principle by both sides for quite some time. It is estimated that between 70-80% of the Israeli settlers reside in between 3-4% of the occupied territories, especially in and around occupied East Jerusalem. In theory, a large majority of Israeli settlers in some of the major settlement blocs, with some adjustments, could become Israeli citizens living within parts of the occupied territories ceded to Israel as part of a land swap agreement. The negotiation of the details would obviously be fairly complex, but I think there is every indication that such an arrangement is achievable.

However, that leaves the question of a significant group of settlers who would then be left residing in the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank that becomes the territory of the Palestinian state. Palestinians have already expressed a willingness to have Jews remain in Palestine either as Israeli citizens residing in territories under Palestinian sovereignty or some other formula such as dual citizenship. However, there are two additional complications. First, many of the settlers, especially in outlying settlements that will almost certainly not be part of any land swap and will have to be integral elements of a Palestinian state, are living on land that has been unlawfully expropriated from Palestinian public or private ownership. It is estimated that almost 40% of the West Bank has been expropriated in one form or another of the state of Israel, and there is no way that this “arrangement” can survive the transfer of authority to a Palestinian state. Therefore, the question of land ownership in settlements that will become part of a Palestinian state in which Jewish residents will wish to continue to reside is an issue that will have to be resolved in negotiations by the national leaderships with sensitivity and a sense of realism. Again, I do not think this should be in any way insurmountable if the will for a permanent status agreement is strong on both sides. However, it is unlikely that the Palestinian state would permit the current Jewish-only policies for residency in these Jewish West Bank settlements to continue following independence, and settlers who remain in Palestine will not only find themselves living in a Palestinian state, but living with and among Palestinians as equals. This will be a new experience for many of them, but if their intention is to live on the land and not to conquer and rule it, it shouldn’t be impossible to accept.

The biggest obstacle to the continuation of Jewish residency in a future Palestinian state is unlikely to be the Palestinians themselves, or even the Jewish settlers willing to abide by the laws of Palestine. Rather, opposition is most likely to come from the government of Israel itself. It is difficult to imagine the Israeli state feeling that it can allow large numbers (or even modest numbers) of Jewish Israeli citizens to continue living in the territory that becomes a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state under the protection of the Palestinian, and not the Israeli, authorities. In every society, especially where there are ethnic tensions, and even within ethnic groups, there are always incidents of violence, unrest and grievances. It is likely that most Palestinians would not have a problem with the continued presence of Jewish Israelis in a Palestinian state who were willing to submit to Palestinian law and live as equals rather than as colonizers and rulers. However, there is no guarantee that tensions and confrontations may not occur — in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine any society in which such things do not happen. I think it would be very politically and socially problematic for any Israeli government to essentially say to former Jewish settlers, now residents of Palestine, in effect, you are on your own, good luck, and if you have any problems, contact our embassy in East Jerusalem. I imagine this might look like a nightmare to any Israeli political leader and the public outcry might be intolerable. Therefore, I actually think that the party with the strongest interest in ensuring that there is the smallest possible presence of Jewish Israelis remaining as permanent residents, citizens or dual citizens of a future Palestinian state is actually the government of Israel, and not either the settlers or the Palestinians.

To return briefly to Netanyahu’s outrageous comments invoking the ghastly concept of “Judenrein” when referring to holding Israel to its Roadmap commitments and international legal responsibilities to cease colonizing occupied territories, there are two final points worth making. First, the Israeli state is in no position to lecture anybody else, anywhere in the world, about ethnic cleansing, ethnic discrimination, and attempting to rid a land of its people. Such outrageous hypocrisy, particularly coming from a politician with the ideology of Netanyahu and his even more extreme coalition partners, is the very definition of chutzpah. Second, the reason why international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49), as I’ve pointed out many times in the past, prohibits settlement activity in occupied territories is that it is, by definition and inevitably, a human rights violation against the people living under occupation. Therefore, in Netanyahu’s twisted "through the looking glass" world, ceasing to violate the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation and obeying the Geneva Convention, international law, the roadmap and everything else, becomes, in effect, a capitulation to Nazism. If we have ever seen a more cynical huckster at work, it’s been a while.

Will the Arabs help Netanyahu escape a settlement freeze?

A regular reader of the Ibishblog asks me, “Why is it that you continue to propose that Israel be enriched for doing what every particle of international law suggests it is obliged to do? If a burglar is caught and offers to return the stolen property if he is treated to an Armani suit and a better apartment, we would rightly laugh hysterically as we cart him off to prison. But when Israel makes an equally preposterous demand for simply conforming to its legal responsibilities, folks like you urge us to leap at the chance to mollify the aggressor. I’m sure you justify your position with reference to some variant of ‘political realism,’ but I believe this is an enormous mistake. If I understand you correctly, you seem to think that confronting a cornered animal will only get you into trouble. I understand, but I think it more unwise to toss the beast a filet or two while it regains its strength and plans its escape."

I think I’ve already explained my logic for why I think the Obama administration ought to be willing to allow Netanyahu some face-saving measures in order to keep his coalition together while he essentially accepts a settlement freeze. Calling it "temporary," is precisely such a fig leaf. A temporary settlement freeze will in effect be permanent, at least until there is a new president in the White House. Minor adjustments such as fulfilling existing contracts (I believe there are 200 buildings in question or so), or other minor details might allow Netanyahu to capitulate in reality while telling his more extreme coalition partners that he has won some kind of valuable concession from the United States. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think a confrontation between the White House and Netanyahu that will in effect drain a great deal of political energy and capital towards replacing the Israeli government at the moment would be a useful development. How much political energy and capital would be left for actual progress after such a grueling and draining process is questionable, and it would certainly reinforce the sense among Israeli politicians that the settlement issue is one to be avoided at all costs since it brings down governments and ends political careers.

You are absolutely right, my arguments are in fact based on not a variant of political realism, but political realism itself, insofar as the term refers to what is required to actually get things done rather than sitting back and demanding them in a way that ensures that nothing happens. This has been a typical Arab and Arab-American approach, and I think it’s high time that we try to understand how diplomacy and American politics can actually function in a way that advances the Palestinian interests rather than allows Israeli colonization to proceed apace. We are experts on the what and why of politics, explaining what we think ought to happen and why it is justified. What we tend to miss, ignore, and even become angry at the mere mention of, is the how. How is an exceptionally important question for any goal-oriented political strategy. And, in such a difficult, delicate and politically charged situation, the how requires finesse, strategic intelligence and nuance. The morality and international law of the situation are beyond question. What is challenging is not making the case of what Israel should do and why, but how to get them to actually do it, especially given the most recent election results.

My urging of the Arab states to reciprocate with the Obama administration’s bold and unprecedented moves on pressuring Israel by expressing a willingness to begin to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative through diplomatic gestures short of recognition and full relations (which must continue to be contingent on a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians) is a reflection of the understanding that the Obama administration requires political cover and support to maintain its unprecedented stances domestically in the United States and also an understanding that Israel requires political inducements for doing what it must and should, but which any Israeli politician would find exceptionally politically problematic and risky. Like farm animals, individuals and societies can only be moved through a combination of carrots and sticks. All sticks and no carrots is generally ineffective, and standing on principles of morality and international law simply will not work, especially with recalcitrant ideologues like Netanyahu and even more his ultra-right wing coalition partners. No politician is going to take a step that is guaranteed to bring down his government and end his career. No state is going to do something that is politically painful and difficult without being able to show significant benefits for having done that. All I’m asking the Arab states to do is to recognize this reality, and to embrace the logic of their own pronouncements.

Obama and the United States are not going to be able to do this on their own. The United States has unprecedented and unique leverage over Israel, but Israel is a sovereign state and I think we often exaggerate the extent to which the United States is able to enforce its dictates, both as an internal political matter here at home, and much more significantly with regard to another country far away with very specific and limited interests and a powerful and aggressive ideology and national narrative. I do not agree that Israel is a "cornered animal," I think it still possesses a lot of cards and the present tactic appears to be to hunker down and weather the storm. I think the approach you suggest would actually play into their present attitude perfectly, and could actually allow it to succeed. The Obama administration is certainly playing its part, and so is the Palestinian Authority, especially with regard to its security commitments. If the Arab states too were to express a willingness to engage in dpilomatic overtures, as Sec. Clinton said in her Council on Foreign Relations speech "however modest," Israel and the Netanyahu Cabinet would find themselves completely isolated as the sole recalcitrant, uncooperative party. I don’t think this is a tenable or sustainable position for them.

Were the Arab states to continue to insist that the Initiative is an all-or-nothing offer that might then been seen by the West and others as in fact constituting a public relations ploy without substance, this could well be the factor that allows Netanyahu and his allies to wriggle out of the present trap in which they find themselves. I think it would be a tragedy if this were allowed to happen. It is not a question of rewarding criminals. It is a question of achieving tangible, substantial and extremely significant benefits for Palestinian diplomacy and the aim of ending the occupation. A settlement freeze is, and has for a long time been, the sine qua non for progress and for starting Roadmap Phase 4 permanent status talks. The Netanyahu Cabinet understands this perfectly well, which is why they are so adamantly opposed to accepting it. At the moment, it is the name of the game. If the Arabs assist Netanyahu in avoiding this and scuppering the Obama administration’s initiative, it is the Palestinian people and their national cause and rights that will suffer the most. We really don’t have much to gain by simply lecturing or embarrassing Israel. We do have a great deal to gain by helping to force them to accede to a settlement freeze. I think it is the reader’s approach, and not mine, that would help Netanyahu escape a settlement freeze and go ahead with expanding and entrenching the occupation. Political realism is not a pejorative, it is a necessity for effective strategy, effective action, and actual success.

PS– since originally posting this article, I have come across two stories that confirm the grave danger of exactly what I’m talking about. First, Laura Rozen of the outstanding The Cable blog at Foreign Policy magazine reports that Obama’s efforts to get the Arabs to cooperate fell flat during his crucial meeting with the Saudi government during his Middle East trip. An additional article in today’s Haaretz reports that this lack of cooperation is leading to a reassessment of Obama’s approach towards a settlement freeze and towards pushing for the peace process, although thankfully rather than giving up the administration is apparently attempting to find new avenues. But this lack of cooperation from the Arab states is absolutely shameful and entirely destructive.

The hijab issue has been mishandled by Western Muslim organizations

A simple and fundamental miscalculation in how the hijab has been explained to their non-Muslim compatriots by the emerging Muslim communities in the United States and other Western countries has created what would otherwise have probably been largely avoidable controversies. The most recent iteration of this is a proposed law in the state of Oregon that would ban teachers from wearing "religious attire" in schools, apparently in an effort to prevent proselytizing in classrooms (which is a perfectly reasonable concern for any state legislature). This is, of course, highly reminiscent of ongoing controversies in France and other European countries that have sought to ban students in schools from wearing hijab and similar "religious attire." However, the entire matter might have been avoided, or at least significantly downplayed, had the most vocal spokespersons for these emerging Muslim communities not attempted to present the hijab as a "religious requirement" but rather as a cultural and personal choice to do with standards of modesty to which no one could reasonably object.

There are two reasons why some of the Muslim leadership in the United States and Europe have emphasized the hijab as "religiously mandated," suggesting that it is a form of religious symbolism rather than a personal choice about an individual standard of modesty in public attire. The first, of course, is that many if not most women who wear the hijab consider it a religious duty. The second is that many of these generally conservative and sometimes reactionary leaderships wish to enforce the idea that it is, in fact, a religious duty for women to cover their hair, and pressure women to do so. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has, for example, several times in the past issued e-mails expressing the view that women in public should be fully covered except for the face and hands, that men should not wear silk or gold, and similar constructs. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions about both religion and fashion, no matter how dubious.

However, this emphasis on the idea that the hijab is a religious requirement has led many non-Muslims in the West to misinterpret it as some sort of religious symbol designed to communicate a kind of public devotion and announcement of religious affiliation rather than a standard of modesty. This misunderstanding has characterized the entire debate in France in which the hijab is seen as a challenge to French "secularism," although there is no doubt that racism and cultural chauvinism have permeated a deplorably twisted version of this indispensable principle in France and other parts of Europe. A lead editorial in today’s edition of the Oregonian newspaper makes the same error, suggesting that, "Wearing religious attire, whether it be an Islamic hijab or a Christian cross necklace, is not the same as proselytizing." By presenting the hijab entirely in terms of religious symbolism and requirements, Muslim American organizations may have been consciously trying to link the right to wear it to First Amendment freedom of religion protections, but I would strongly argue they have confused non-Muslim Americans as to the most essential reasons some Muslim women choose to cover their hair. The hijab is not a statement or a means of communicating an opinion, it is an issue of propriety and modesty, which are two completely different things. Asking a hijab-wearing woman to remove her scarf and reveal her hair is not analogous to asking a Christian person to remove a cross necklace. It is much closer to asking a typical American lady to remove her shirt and bra in public or teach a class topless. I think this analogy would have been not only more accurate, but much more easily understood, although it would have failed to reinforce the idea within the community that there is some sort of alleged religious obligation for women to dress in a certain manner in order to please God.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that there is no consensus on the hijab whatsoever in the Muslim community in the United States and the rest of the West, or for that matter in the Middle East either. It may be true that a majority of religious scholars over the centuries have felt that vague Quranic injunctions about modesty are properly interpreted as requiring the covering of hair, but this is not a universal interpretation. My guess is that a large majority of Muslim American women do not wear any hijab, and that while the practice has become much more pervasive in the Middle East over the past 30 years, there are very large numbers of Muslim women of the utmost devotion who do not choose to cover their hair and are not less Muslim for that. On the other end of the spectrum, others go so far as to suggest that women should be placed in burqas or naqabs, that is to say in effect inside a kind of a sack, whenever they appear in public outside the home, and this has been reasonably described by some as a kind of "moving prison." This is not to say that those who choose to don a sack should not have the right to do so (Michael Jackson is reputed to have been a devotee of the practice), but rather that the notion that there is some kind of consensus view about women’s attire that characterizes Islamic practices and beliefs is simply false.

In reality, the hijab is a manifestation of a convergence of three distinct factors: cultural norms, religious opinions and personal choices. In some cases, a political factor can be added, as some women have chosen to wear the hijab as a show of political defiance, both in the Middle East and the United States, although this is not terribly common. Of these, personal choice is the most important, as no one should be dictating to anybody else what they should be wearing (including the governments of France and Oregon). Religious opinions are also at play, and should be protected. But at heart, the hijab generally reflects cultural norms about modesty and propriety in dress and attire. These cultural norms are associated with both social and familial standards, and have more to do with a sense of propriety than a desire to display religious affiliation in an ostentatious way as the wearing of a cross or, for that matter Islamic symbolism such as miniature Qurans. Had the question of modesty been emphasized from the beginning by Western Muslim leaderships in discussing the issue of the hijab, which would have been more honest as well as more effective, the issue of religious symbolism might have been largely avoided. Covering or not covering the hair in this context has about as much significance as choosing long sleeve versus short sleeve shirts or ankle-length skirts versus shorter skirts. No one would bother with questions like that in the United States (or France).

However, because the hijab has been wrongly emphasized as a "religious requirement" and therefore imbued entirely with religious symbolism rather than a standard of modesty, it has been caught up in arguments about proselytizing, secularism and church-state issues in which it need never have been a factor. It goes without saying that under the United States Constitution, Oregon is not permitted to prohibit hijab-wearing women from teaching in its public schools, and that any such ban will never survive legal challenge and will probably not even ever be put into effect. However, although I’m not an attorney, I strongly suspect that any legal challenge, if required, would be better made under the 14th Amendment equal protection standards then under First Amendment free exercise of religion protections. In the past, the federal government has sided with the right to wear the hijab, but under the 14th and not the First Amendment. In other words, I think the federal government has it right: this is an equal protection issue, much more than a free exercise of religion issue.

Had Western Muslim leaderships been more interested in facilitating the free choice of women to wear the hijab or not according to their own judgments, they would have taken a very different approach. Unfortunately, they seem to have been more concerned with applying pressure to women to cover their hair and to reinforce the false idea that there is some sort of consensus on the issue and a stigma attached to not covering the hair. It isn’t any more properly the role of civil rights organizations or groups that are supposed to protect the entire community, much if not most of which does not wear the hijab and should not be pressured or coerced into doing so, than it is the role of the government, to tell anyone how to dress.

Clinton?s speech: time for the Arab states to put up or shut up

I have been saying for some time now that the Arab states will be rapidly finding themselves in a situation in which they have to put up or shut up on Israeli-Palestinian peace. That day has come one step closer with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this afternoon. The speech as delivered was somewhat softer in its tone towards the Arab states than an earlier draft, but still relatively hard-hitting in terms of ratcheting up the pressure for Arab diplomatic engagement with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures such as a putative settlement freeze.

An earlier draft of the speech, as prepared, included the following passage: “The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But so far, those who embrace it seem unwilling to do anything until the Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement. This may be understandable, but it is not helpful.” Secretary Clinton’s remarks as delivered were much softer: “The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But we believe that more is needed. So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now.” Nonetheless, the message is clear: if the administration is going to persist with its firm stance towards Israel regarding settlements, Arab states are going to have to demonstrate that the Arab Peace Initiative really is part of the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East and not simply a public relations ploy.

This is partly an inevitable consequence of Obama and Clinton’s policy of applying pressure towards Israel, and partly linked to a meeting the President had on Monday with leaders of major American Jewish organizations. Obama told the group that peace would require Israel “to engage in serious self-reflection” and held firm on his position regarding an end to settlement activity. By all accounts, most of the Jewish-American organizations either supported this position or declined to offer any vigorous opposition to it. However, it is clear that it is becoming politically difficult for the administration to be perceived as applying pressure on Israel, with its powerful domestic constituencies, and the Palestinians, with their greatly limited options and capacities, but not on the Arab states who have neither the domestic American back-up of Israel nor the understandable constraints of a people living under foreign military occupation. It is vital that Obama keep the pressure on Israel and not relent on settlements, but to do so he is going to require serious and significant Arab support and engagement.

The Arab League position that it is not willing to make diplomatic overtures towards Israel until a permanent status agreement is reached is an unworkable and irresponsible stance. In the real world, if the Arab states genuinely understand how vitally important it is to their national interests for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be brought to an end, they too have to be willing to incur political pain and take political risks. It cannot be only the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans who do all the heavy lifting, and the Arabs who reap a significant part of the benefits. Secretary Clinton’s remarks today demonstrate that as political pressure mounts on the administration to ease its position on Israel, the preferred approach by the Obama camp is to refuse to do so, but to balance its approach by demanding similarly difficult steps by Arab states, particularly American allies such as Saudi Arabia.

The United States cannot achieve peace in the Middle East on its own. If they really insist on doing nothing helpful, whether through apathy or cowardice, then the Arab states could well end up shouldering a significant degree of blame for scuppering the most promising initiative towards peace in many decades. Clinton has made it clear that the Arab states will not be given a free pass on this issue. Sharing the booby prize of failure with Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners, and confirming the familiar accusations that they don’t actually care that much about ending the occupation and the conflict, will be the bitter consequences of such a tragic error.