Monthly Archives: March 2011

How to include Islamists in real Arab democracies

The passage in late March of constitutional amendments allowing for early parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt has revived concerns about the impact of likely major electoral successes for Islamist parties in emerging Arab democracies.

Some Egyptian reformers had warned that at least a year was needed to allow new political parties to begin to function. As things stand, there are only two well-organized parties in Egypt: the discredited former ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The NDP probably still has some constituency and could remain a presence in the new parliament. But the deeper concern is that the only opposition group well positioned at this early stage to launch an effective nationwide campaign is the Brotherhood.

The demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak were not driven by Islamist rhetoric or ideology; they were secular, ecumenical and patriotic. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has the national infrastructure to campaign village by village, and it has a history of providing basic social services like health and education that the government has often failed to secure.

Because they have never held power anywhere outside of Gaza, Arab Sunni Islamists can claim the mantle of good governance, invoking the silly but commonplace idea that the devout are, by definition, honest. And while Islamist ideology didn’t carry much sway with the urban demonstrators in Tahrir Square, it might have much broader appeal in villages generally not part of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

So, there is every indication that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to perform extremely well in early Egyptian elections. But is that a reason for alarm? After all, the religious right will have to be a part of any genuinely democratic order, as long as it is unarmed and plays by constitutional rules. Like all other parties, it has every right to stand for elections and seek a popular mandate for governance.

Some American observers such as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy advocate “discriminate democracy,” which he has defined as a “democracy for all but the Islamists.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has bluntly written that the prospect of Islamists coming to power might threaten Israel and therefore Egyptian democracy is to be feared and rejected.

These are ridiculous arguments. There is a robust religious right in Israel, heavily represented in the current Israeli cabinet, that has propagated perfectly outrageous policies regarding the Palestinians, peace and Israeli minority groups. Is that a reason to reject democracy in Israel? There is also a robust and pernicious religious right in the United States, represented by demagogues such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, but their presence is hardly an argument for scrapping the Constitution.

The concern about Islamists and democracy is wrongly framed as the threat of “one man, one vote, one time,” as if Islamists generally intended to hold only one election, seize power and then shut down the process altogether. I think this is a serious misreading of the actual strategy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It appears that most Arabs, including Islamists, have understood that governmental legitimacy requires elections, and that can’t be based on only one election. On the contrary, the Brotherhood seems to have a quiet confidence that it can consistently do well in elections over time, and that this is sufficient to pursue its agenda, at least at this stage.

The real challenge is very different: it is that the other side of the democratic coin – the need to restrain the power of democratically-elected majorities – is far less well understood or accepted. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is currently embroiled in a ridiculous debate about whether a woman or a Christian might one day serve as Egyptian president. Other than ruling parties and families, Arabs generally seem to have embraced the idea that elections are essential for legitimacy. But the need to protect the rights of individuals, minorities, women and others from potentially tyrannous majorities has not penetrated sufficiently.

Should democracies featuring regular, free and fair elections take hold in key Arab states such as Egypt, the challenge will probably not be a shutting down of the electoral process. It will be maintaining and enforcing restraint on the powers of potentially tyrannous majorities over individuals, women and minorities. Democracy promotion work in the Arab world, both internal and external, should move quickly away from an already established consensus in favor of elections, and begin to focus on the equally vital need to put clear limitations on the powers of democratically-elected majorities.

Under such circumstances, with strong constitutional limitations on the power of democratically-elected governments in place, backed up by neutral militaries committed to defending the Constitution rather than the regime, it should be possible to reconcile robust Islamist parties with real, functional democracy in the Arab world.

You’re so vain, you probably think my agenda’s about you

Jonathan S. Tobin, executive editor of Commentary magazine, has responded to my objections to his ridiculous mischaracterizations of my recent Foreign Policy article with a cowardly and dishonest reply that confirms everything I said in my last Ibishblog posting. He again falsely claims that my article alleged a “false moral equivalence” between Israel and Hamas, which I did not do; that I “attempt to blame Israel for Hamas terrorism,” which anyone familiar with my writings will know is completely ridiculous; and that I argued that a new war in Gaza might “convince those hoping that Arab tyrannies might be replaced by democracies to forget about reforming their own countries,” when my conclusion was precisely the opposite. Anyone who compares my actual article with his caricature will see the dishonesty in all its frank ugliness.

Tobin correctly says that I accused him of calling me an anti-Semite, adding “even though [I] admit [he] never actually wrote that.” I did indeed point out that he never actually used the term directly, but he described me as someone who “can never resist blaming the Jews for everything.” If that's not a textbook definition of an anti-Semite, I don't know what is. His ridiculous disavowal is very much like someone saying, “I never actually called him a racist, I merely said he takes every opportunity to insist that black people are inferior to white people.” This man is not only a liar, he's a coward who lacks the courage of his convictions. He wants to describe me as an anti-Semite in unmistakable terms, but hedge by not actually using the word, and then repeat the accusation by continuing to assert the clear description. He wants to have it both ways, but of course he can't. He has obviously described me as an anti-Semite, and no thinking individual could conclude otherwise, but he doesn't have the guts to say so directly. Here's the most telling thing: if Tobin really doesn't think I'm an anti-Semite, even though he plainly described me as one, he had a perfect opportunity to say so in his last article. That he did not do so tells you all you need to know.

Naturally, Tobin again provides a narrative in which Israel can do, and has done, no wrong, and has no share of the blame whatsoever in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, of course, is in stark contrast to my own analysis that frankly recognizes the faults on both sides and understands there are no clean hands here and plenty of blame to go around. But he's stuck in a chauvinist, tribalist mentality holding that the essence of the problem is simply what he calls “the twisted nature of Palestinian political culture.” Me good. You bad. End of story.

I'm deeply heartened by the number of Jewish supporters of Israel, including conservatives, and indeed neoconservatives, who have, since his outrageous article was published, told me frankly that they consider Commentary an ongoing embarrassment. And so they should. Goodness knows sensible Arabs consider those who cling to the mirror image Arab version of the narrative in which Palestinians can do no wrong and everything boils down to “the twisted nature of Zionism” to be precisely such an embarrassment as well, and I've spent a great deal of my time in recent years combating such reductive, tribalist sentiments.

The most delicious part of Tobin's pathetic response is his contention that my carefully considered riposte to his outrageous attack is motivated because I believe that “spewing hate toward COMMENTARY will bolster [my] image with the Jewish left,” and that I am trying to “ingratiate [myself] to left-wing Jews.” This is particularly delightful given that some of Tobin's counterparts on the Jewish ultra-left have been on a long campaign to insist that all of my rhetoric is actually designed to ingratiate myself with right-wing Jews! So here we have the mirror image of that same solipsistic fantasy in which everything boils down to what some people imagine I supposedly hope one group of Jews or another will think of me (“don't you, don't you, don't you?"). This is chauvinistic, tribal narcissism at its very worst, indeed pathologically so.

Let me say this as clearly as possible. Attention far-right and ultra-left wing Jewish Americans: this is NOT about you! It's about trying to build the most broad-based, wide, robust and powerful coalition for peace between Israel and the Palestinians as possible, even if that idea frightens Jewish and Arab extremists alike. I'm not going to speak for anyone other than myself (though I am sure many other Arab-Americans must feel the same way) when I insist now and for the record that I am not, and I refuse to become, a prop in internecine conflicts between Jewish extremists on the far-left and ultra-right. Anyone who thinks I'm trying to undermine their side in this battle in which I have no stake, or ingratiate myself with the other side in somebody else's internal communal squabble is deluding themselves. You think too much of yourselves, guys. All of this, of course, is in stark contrast with the rational Jewish center-left and center-right organizations and commentators who recognize that Arabs and Palestinians can think and speak for themselves, and have their own agenda, independent of intra-Jewish bickering. They have proven perfectly capable of dealing respectfully with my colleagues and me at the American Task Force on Palestine on our own terms without trying to drag us into internecine Jewish quarrels.

Tobin's final comment, that in talking about the future of the Middle East and the Arab world I "should leave Israel out of that discussion” proves a crucial point I was making in my initial response perfectly: that the only thing that would satisfy him is if I never mentioned Israel or the occupation, except maybe to praise them. But the fact is that Israel is a major factor in the Middle East, another war in Gaza would have a major impact on the political and strategic landscape of the region, and, although as I said it would not derail the Arab reform movement, it would almost certainly complicate it. To think otherwise is to deliberately adopt the ostrich pose, burying one's tiny little brain as deep in the sand of neurotic denial as possible. Tobin can ask, demand or beg that I stop talking about Israel and the occupation that began in 1967 while I continue to talk about the future of the rest of the Middle East and pretend that it's not an important factor. But I'm not going to give myself the kind of auto-lobotomy he seems to have performed on himself, and switch off a major part of my brain.

Commentary and Jonathan Tobin call me an anti-Semite for worrying about another war in Gaza

One can reliably count on Commentary magazine for a daily dose of paranoia, bile and deeply unhealthy Jewish tribalism, if you have a need for this kind of toxin with your morning cornflakes. But the reaction of its executive editor, Jonathan S. Tobin, to my latest article in Foreign Policy is both stupid and dishonest, and demands a response here on the Ibishblog. Tobin either needs a dictionary, a new pair of glasses or a credibility transplant given his misreading of my words and arguments. The main thrust of his response is to accuse me of trying to “blame Israel for the potential failure of the Arab Spring." This is so wrong, one hardly knows where to begin. I was writing about the drift towards another conflict in Gaza that is being driven both by Israel and Hamas, and I did not put the blame particularly on either side, and in fact said clearly that it wouldn't be in either of their interests.

Obviously I do worry, as any sensible person should, about the effect of another war in Gaza on the political landscape of the Middle East, but my final sentence was extremely clear in dismissing the prospect that such a conflict, let alone simply “Israel,” could be responsible for "the failure of the Arab Spring.” I wrote, “there's almost no chance a resurgence of the Israel-Hamas conflict can stop the reform movement dead in its tracks.” Maybe Tobin didn't bother to read the piece to the end, or maybe he just doesn't care about what I actually wrote, preferring to seize the opportunity, however disingenuous and fake, to stoke the tribalist Jewish fears of some Commentary readers by suggesting that here is another Arab pointing the finger at Israel unfairly and in an irrational manner. One has to ask the inverse question: does Tobin imagine that a major Hamas-Israel conflict, an Operation Cast Lead redux, would have no impact on the political and strategic landscape in the Middle East? Would it be irrelevant? Anyone who thinks that is simply clueless, as I'm afraid he seems to be.

Tobin thinks my arguments “infantalizes Arabs to assert that they are incapable of understanding that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has nothing to do with attempts to overthrow their own dictators.” In fact, on the Ibishblog, in a recent article in Book Forum, on the Riz Khan show on Al Jazeera English yesterday, and on countless other occasions I have made precisely the opposite argument: that the two issues are in fact not connected and that Arabs are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. In other words they can rise up for their rights as citizens against autocracy and unaccountable dictatorship and nonetheless continue to support the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation that began in 1967. If he wants to point that finger at somebody, he'd better pick somebody else. I said no such thing in my Foreign Policy article, and I didn't imply it either. And since I've been saying exactly the contrary in almost all my writings since the Egyptian uprising began, it's really a preposterous accusation. Sadly, Commentary is filled with articles and blog postings that make the opposite and even more ridiculous case: that because Arabs are capable of focusing on asserting their own rights as citizens and demanding accountability and good governance, that means the Palestinian issue has been a red herring all along and that they don't really care about Palestinian human or national rights. So what we're dealing with here is actually a form of projection in which the kind of brain-dead de-linkage of the two issues typically promoted in Commentary is falsely twisted into a direct linkage to which I do not subscribe and which I have not argued for in my Foreign Policy article. My point is so obvious as to be virtually irrefutable: that Palestine and Israel are a powerful regional political factor that, if it erupted again into wide scale violent confrontation in Gaza would have important implications throughout the region, but that it would not be enough to derail the Arab uprisings and the movement towards reform and good governance. Why Tobin can't grasp this, I'm not sure, but it seems to me probably closer to a neurotic symptom than anything else.

Tobin's basic attitude towards Palestine and the Palestinians is summed up in this little aside: "neither the moderates of Fatah nor the extremists of Hamas want peace." This means he doesn't understand Palestinian politics at all, and he probably doesn't care to understand them either. If he doesn't get that the PLO has doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on achieving a negotiated two-state peace agreement with Israel and that if they do not succeed in this goal they will vanish as a potent political force in the foreseeable future then he simply does not understand the Palestinian political landscape. I'm sure it's a comforting thought for someone who seems to be all in favor of the occupation and a greater Israel to believe that no one on the other side, whether moderate or extreme, really wants peace. Trust me: there is a huge body of Palestinian and Arab opinion which holds that no significant faction in Israel wants peace either and that the overwhelming majority share the same vision of permanent control of all of the occupied territories. Again, it's a neurotic symptom to see all of “the other side” whether “moderate or extreme” as essentially the implacable enemy bent on total victory. This must be an enormous relief, liberating one from the difficult task of trying to understand the complexities of the real political situation in the other society and, even more challengingly, becoming part of the solution by looking for points of convergence with the ethnic and national other. So much simpler, and more comforting, to dismiss them all as enemies of peace.

Again, this tribalist fantasy comes through in Tobin's analysis of the drift towards broader conflict between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks. According to him, what everyone else readily identifies as a tit-for-tat exchange of vicious attacks, is not at all “another 'cycle of violence' in which sides are complicit but rather yet another expression of a Palestinian nationalism that appears incapable of renouncing violence.” So again we come back to the most comforting of all tribal myths: this isn't really a conflict between competing nationalisms over land and power that needs to be negotiated: it simply an expression of the pathological nature of the culture and nationalism on the other side. And, for Tobin, it isn't just a problem of Hamas, it's all of “Palestinian nationalism” which is “incapable of renouncing violence,” a position that willfully, and again probably neurotically, denies the radical transformation in the West Bank due to the almost universally lauded performance of the new Palestinian security services and their cooperation with the Israeli occupation forces in suppressing terrorism and other forms of violence. That mainstream Palestinian leaders like Pres. Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have very clearly not only renounced violence rhetorically but have acted against it vigorously simply doesn't fit Tobin's worldview and therefore can't be processed. And then of course there is the other side of the coin: Israel's violence in Gaza especially and also to some extent in the West Bank which has cost the lives of numerous children and elderly in the past few weeks alone. Nor does he stop to consider the increasing phenomenon of settler violence. Or the violence inherent in the occupation itself. No, it's just that Palestinian nationalism is steeped in violence, and that's the problem. The murder of the settler family in Itamar was angrily rejected by the overwhelming bulk of Palestinian political and civil society, and the culprits are not yet known. That Hamas and Israel have been engaging in what obviously is a cycle of tit-for-tat violence that has taken the lives of innocents on both sides is simply beyond question. To look at the situation and see a normal, healthy, reasonable society on the one side (in spite of the occupation and all that goes with it), and a pathological, violent, irrational and anti-peace society on the other can only be described as chauvinistic tribalism run amok. And that's what we get, as usual, from Tobin and, sad to say, from Commentary.

Tobin accuses me of "foisting the blame for Hamas terrorism on Israel,” though how on earth he came to this conclusion or could possibly justify such a characterization I cannot imagine. I've rarely seen my words so brutally tortured beyond recognition. And in a final parting shot, Tobin pulls out all the paranoid and chauvinist ethnic stops, declaring about me that "some people can never resist blaming the Jews for anything that happens in the world." Well. I guess the alternative is to never mention Israel or the occupation at all, ignore the exchange of violence between Hamas and Israel, pretend that a new war in Gaza would have no effect on the political landscape in the Middle East, neurotically deny that the Palestinian plight is a major factor in Arab political thought, and proceed as if everything Israel ever does is not only justified but forced on it and will have no negative effect on anything except insofar as people are unfairly blaming it or it has been forced to do things it loathes and spared no effort to avoid.

Any deviation from that model, apparently, threatens to have Commentary put you in that category of persons who “can never resist blaming the Jews for everything” bad. In other words, because I decry the cycle of violence between Hamas and Israel, warn against another war, and worry about its effect on the Arab Spring, therefore I'm an anti-Semite. It's as simple as that. There's really no other way to read his ridiculous article, which is not only totally misrepresentative of my arguments but which also, without using the term "anti-Semite," accuses me of being exactly that. It's probably pointless to note that this extreme level of paranoia, this shameless dishonesty, and this casual and unjustifiable tossing out of an extremely serious accusation is degrading to Tobin and his unfortunate readership, and trivializes some very serious problems such as the really-existing tendency on the part of some people to blame Israel for everything (which certainly doesn't apply to me) and even more seriously the actual existence of real anti-Semitism. But people who use this accusation as a casual cudgel to beat back any argument they don't understand or don't like (I'm not sure which applies to Tobin here) are stripping these terms and ideas of all of their meaning and rendering them completely irrelevant. This deeply irresponsible conduct is something that ought to make anyone who cares about Israel and Jews extremely angry.

Why do we treat Arab demagogues like Qaradawi and Atwan with undeserved respect?

In the context of the recent tumult in the Arab world, the new no-fly zone over Libya, and other dramatic developments, a lot of people are rightly paying close attention to what influential Arab commentators, journalists and activists are saying. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, many Western and Arab observers are too quick to forget the context in which those words are being uttered and to treat some very irresponsible, albeit influential, Arab political figures as if they were much more respectable than they really are. There's a strange unwillingness to apply the same standards we would to a Sarah Palin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Silvio Berlusconi or Michael Moore to Arab voices that are also prominent but also equally irresponsible or dangerous. In the past 24 hours on twitter I've had a series of exchanges with several people I respect a great deal about two such figures: Abdel Bari Atwan, editor and publisher of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, and Yusuf Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and superstar of Al Jazeera Arabic. I agree these are two important people, but I don't agree they are serious commentators whose opinions are worthy of respect, let alone deference. On the contrary, their utterances, not to say gurglings, always need to be viewed in the context of their political and religious fanaticism, and especially the unsavory agendas they relentlessly promote.

Atwan is perhaps the most important, and certainly the loudest, of the remaining left-nationalist Arab voices, particularly those that are counterintuitively and inexplicably enamored of the Islamist religious right. Essentially his political attitudes are Arabist in a very bad way and shamelessly pandering. Put in the American political terms, he combines something like Pat Buchanan's level of chauvinism with a Michael Moore-style lowest common denominator populist demagoguery. His are politics that are guided by fear and suspicion, mainly of the West and Israel, but generally speaking of anything that undermines his paranoid and chauvinist worldview. He doesn't speak for a particularly large group in the Arab world: his old-style Nasserite weltanschauung is almost entirely a thing of the past, except for some aging holdouts. But these nationalistic and chauvinistic sentiments remain popular, particularly as they do not come with an overt Islamist bent but are rather respectfully deferential to the Islamist perspective.

He is a classic example of a left-nationalist Arab who's in the grip of an unrequited love affair with the religious right, feeling that it embodies all the behaviors, although not necessarily the ideological content, that the old-school Arab left feels it ought to have but cannot muster: Leninist party structures, overt and covert activities and organizations, revolutionary agendas, extensive social programs aimed at winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people, commitment to armed struggle, and, of course, the right enemies. So in spite of the fact that his political perspective has very limited appeal, his voice is loud and influential because so much of what he says seems to resonate with both what people want to hear and also what makes them feel good. His columns, and those like them, are like nostalgic old patriotic songs; you don't necessarily believe a word of what they say, but singing them feels good, takes you back to "the good old days" (which, of course, never existed), and they have a powerful emotional resonance.

Yusuf Qaradawi could be explained as something like the Jerry Falwell of the Arab world, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the most prominent and influential Islamist and reactionary religious politician in the entire region. Here is a man who metaphorically sits at a desk that has two quasi-spiritual but actually political boxes in front of him, like a pair of giant files, if you will. He then takes everything that comes before him and puts it into one of these two simple boxes: the halal (permitted) and the haram (forbidden), with gradations of what is encouraged or discouraged in between (his most famous book was actually called "The Halal and the Haram in Islam"). It's a very comforting intellectual space, one in which moral and political questions are relatively clear-cut, and explained by an articulate and intelligent octogenarian tub-thumper. His weekly program on Al Jazeera Arabic, "ash-Shariah wal-Hayat" (Islamic law and life) has an estimated audience of about 40 million victims who are thereby propagandized with the worst superstitious and reactionary gobbledygook imaginable.

The elderly Egyptian charlatan has been leading the way in trying to spin the ongoing Arab uprisings in an Islamist bent, particularly in his February 18 speech on the Egyptian revolt. Among his many charming opinions are that Shiites are heretics; that death is an appropriate punishment for apostasy (at least in theory); that terrorism is unacceptable except with regard to Israel; that Hitler was a kind of divine punishment against the Jews; that it was the individual religious duty (fard ayn) of every Muslim to join the Iraqi "resistance" against the Western coalition without specifying which group to join or to what purpose; that a woman who does not sufficiently resist rape might be punished for her ordeal; that “light” wifebeating is acceptable as a last resort; and, of course, that homosexuality should be punished by death. Mashallah!

Now, I put it to you that any Western preacher or politician (Qaradawi is far more politician than preacher, by the way) who takes such views, regardless of whether he/she has a large constituency, would be viewed with a much greater grain of salt than is usually accorded to this charmer. It's reasonable to take what people like Qaradawi and Atwan have to say into account. They are significant voices. They have influence. Atwan has readers. Qaradawi has followers. Lots of followers. So I pay attention to their words quite closely, and any careful reader of Arab public opinion and politics has to. But I never forget who they are, what they stand for and what degree of intellectual and political respectability they should be accorded. I do exactly the same thing here in the United States: I pay close attention to Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Moore, and so forth. But I don't take any of them seriously on their own terms.

There is a very disturbing tendency by both Western and, to some extent also Arab, observers to apply different standards in these cases, to be very tough on Western populists, demagogues and religious fanatics on the one hand and to be neutral, blasé or “understanding” about their Arab counterparts on the other. I don't consider this the soft bigotry of low expectations. I consider it to be a reflection of a lack of appreciation of how bad these politics really are, what their consequences have been and, worse still, could be, and an unwillingness to judge, sometimes harshly, when judgment is, in fact, required. Ignoring such people would be a terrible mistake. But so would according them a level of respectability that they not only don't deserve, but that they have unquestionably forfeited given their gross irresponsibility and shameless opportunism.

There is a lot of complaining about double standards between the West and the Arab world, and that's absolutely justifiable. So in this case, I think we yet again have to look for a single standard: people who consistently talk the worst crap — especially if they are influential with large audiences — need to be held to account. Everyone ought to be reminded at every possible stage exactly who it is they're listening to and what precisely they represent. That can't apply more to American and other Western hucksters and snake oil salespersons than it does to Arab ones, if we are to maintain a serious level of political judgment and thereby know what we are listening to and talking about.

What really took so long on the Libya resolution and what are the costs of delaying the inevitable?

That's a real, not rhetorical question. It has obvious answers, with very serious implications, and they worth looking at carefully. For many weeks, numerous voices have been calling for an international no-fly zone intervention in Libya, including here on the Ibishblog. While there was always significant support for the idea in parts of Western and Arab societies, there was also a great deal of resistance, particularly from certain governments. I've made my views clear already that the greatest opportunity both politically and strategically for a no-fly zone in Libya to maximize its benefits was in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi's deranged first televised speech to the Libyan people after the revolt began. I'm not going over that territory again. The point is that international hesitation was based on numerous serious concerns that I have always acknowledged: how much impact could the no-fly zone have; what to do if a no-fly zone failed to help produce regime change; how to manage anticipated (although I always argued unlikely) negative fallout, especially in Libyan and Arab public opinion; what if a no-fly zone merely solidified a stalemate and led to a long-term de facto division of Libya; and, perhaps most influentially in the thinking of several key governments, what, exactly, would be being promoted by a no-fly zone in place of the Qaddafi regime? It's worth bearing in mind that the West has long considered that it can live with Qaddafi, even while holding its nose, and greatly fears the outcome of uncontrolled Arab change, especially in a situation like Libya in which it has extremely limited information, influence and options.

Therefore, the long hesitation before today's historic UN Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone and other forms of international intervention in Libya — an extraordinarily robust and vigorous international intervention citing humanitarian concerns (this may be a first in several important ways) — was based on some very serious questions that didn't have easy answers. I've always acknowledged them as serious and legitimate, while continuing to argue in favor of a no-fly zone for various political and strategic reasons I've explained at length elsewhere or on the Ibishblog. And none of them have been answered at all in the few days leading up to today's vote — every one of them is as valid as ever it has been!

So what changed? I think it's obvious: the Qaddafi regime appeared, in the past 48 hours, to perhaps be on the brink of a decisive victory, potentially pushing into and recapturing Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. If that happened, it would secure its grip on almost all of the country and probably be able to capture or wipe out most of the rebellion's troops and leaders. It is the prospect of this, and this only, that moved the international community so far and so quickly.

The West and the world had to consider what impact regionally and internationally a victorious Qaddafi regime would have had, and what role it was likely to play in the future. Is it plausible that it would return to the tense cooperation with the West and Arab states that existed since the rapprochement following the US invasion of Iraq? Could any responsible actors in the international community really live with the specter of a victorious, vengeful, bloodied, enraged, empowered and still oil-rich Qaddafi regime stalking the region and the globe with malice towards all? The answer clearly was no. The international community may have been halfhearted about intervening to support the rebellion, fearing what it might be creating and what kind of commitments it might be setting in place. But it could not afford to be blasé about the prospect of a straightforward and total Qaddafi victory. There is no way to argue that such a prospect would be simply a Libyan problem, given the history of Qaddafi's relations with Western and Arab states, and the copious bad blood that has already been shed politically and diplomatically in the course of the Libyan revolt even though any international intervention had yet to take place. In other words, the West and the international community was prepared to live with a long, drawnout, civil conflict between the Tripoli regime and the Benghazi-based rebels. But it wasn't willing to live with Libya returning to the uncontested rule of an enraged, dangerous and probably psychotic leader with a freshly-composed revenge agenda that undoubtedly reaches far beyond Libya, and probably far beyond the Middle East.

Some might argue that what I'm calling dithering based on serious, reasonable concerns was actually careful, painstaking diplomacy preparing the way for today's vote. I'm afraid not. No doubt the endorsement of the no-fly idea by Arab states — first the Gulf Cooperation Council and then the Arab League — helped to reassure Western governments that Arab hostility to the idea was not a significant, let alone dispositive, factor. I've argued in the past that solid majorities of public opinion in most of the Arab world were primed to welcome any such intervention with open arms in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi's first speech. It's still the case that post Egypt-Tunisia euphoria and enthusiasm for rebellions against Arab tyrants, combined with Qaddafi's bloodcurdling rhetoric and evident brutality, might well ensure the no-fly zone a surprising (to some) measure of popularity among Arabs generally. Certainly, much of the Libyan population will be profoundly relieved and grateful, at least at the outset. But in spite of some Western perceptions, the Arab publics didn't need prepping to view such a mission in a positive light. On the contrary swift action would've been much more positively viewed and the hesitation has tarnished, at least to some extent, the decision taken in New York today. So it wasn't weeks of painstaking diplomacy with Arab states or Western governments that tipped the scales, but the sudden resurgence of the Qaddafi regime and its possible imminent victory that shook the international community out of its relative stupor and into action.

What this means is both simple and profound: it was always coming to this, and the long period of pointless hesitation must now be viewed as a significant and foolish mistake. Obviously everybody hoped that the rebels would just sweep the Qaddafi regime aside, but there are always serious doubts about whether that could happen unaided: hence the many voices raised in favor of a no-fly zone, targeted sanctions, international criminal investigations and so forth. It's a shameful thing to have to admit, but many Western and Arab governments, it would seem, would have been comfortable with a drawn out civil conflict but not with a government victory. Yet the lack of a no-fly zone was one of the most decisive factors in making such a victory not only plausible but likely. Stalemates don't last forever. Eventually either the rebels were going to win, in which case the no-fly zone would have helpfully placed the West in the role of midwife to a new Libya, or Qaddafi was going to win, in which case we have the scenario we have right now. So it seems that in the end there was no other alternative, given either plausible scenario. The big difference was between the West being perceived as playing an enthusiastic, proactive role in helping an Arab society throw off its vicious dictator versus being perceived as responding in a kind of panic to the strategically unacceptable specter of a resurgent, empowered Qaddafi regime threatening regional and international security and stability.

So the period of hesitation merely made a bad situation worse, and postponed the inevitable at considerable political and strategic cost to the West, and human and political cost to Libyans. And, among other things, swift action would have created much less of an obligation towards the Libyans over the long run, having appeared to be genuinely humanitarian. This intervention is plainly strategic and political, and therefore it carries with it kinds of obligations that the West was trying to avoid by not taking this decision, but counterintuitively ended up imposing on itself by not acting sooner. Almost everything that worried doubters about the downsides of no-fly zone have been intensified by the delay, including what everyone agrees is the unpalatable, indeed unacceptable, prospect of international boots on the ground.

The UNSC vote today was long overdue, and of course it should be welcomed. But there is a lesson to be learned here about the dangers of pointless political procrastination. Caution is important. In diplomacy, and above all, war, “first, do no harm” is generally a very good principle. But postponing the inevitable at the expense of predictable and obvious costs is not a serious application of this wisdom. In my last essay on this subject I dwelt on the greatly reduced benefits that a no-fly zone imposed now would have as compared to three or four weeks ago. I stand by every word of it, and I think that with every passing day over the past two weeks or more that damage only increased. I also continue to think that a no-fly zone is the best available policy, although it would have been much more effective in every possible sense if it had been done when it should have been done. Nonetheless, I'm relieved that the UN Security Council has finally taken the right vote, and I very much hope it's not too late to have at least some of the positive impact I had anticipated several weeks back, as opposed to merely staving off calamity. This is a step the international community was always going to have to take, barring an implausibly quick and decisive rebel victory. I hope all serious observers not only acknowledge that there was really, at this stage at least, no other choice, but also stop to consider the significant and avoidable costs of the delay of what was, now in hindsight more clearly than ever, inevitable.

Can a no-fly zone still fly?

Call me born-again cautious, but after several weeks of calling for an international no-fly zone over Libya – and as an international consensus for one continues to grow – I find myself wondering if the most important benefits from such an intervention are still actually available. In such matters “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly” (to borrow fromMacbeth), and in some important ways it may already be too late.

A no-fly zone imposed weeks ago would have placed the United States and the West squarely on the side not only of the Libyan rebellion, but Arab change in general. It would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to argue with a straight face that the West was so addicted to securing oil supplies and regional stability that it viewed dramatic or revolutionary change in the Arab order as undesirable.

The moment of maximum opportunity to achieve this objective came in the immediate aftermath of Moammar al-Qaddafi’s first televised address to the Libyan people, in which he denounced the revolt as a joint Al-Qaeda-American plot and threatened to cleanse Libya “house by house.” It was a psychotic performance that raised the deepest fears throughout the Arab world about the regime’s willingness to unleash massive force to quell the uprising. Swift action then would have been received among Arabs as a legitimate rescue operation, a humanitarian intervention born of alarm about the potential bloodbath threatened by a mad tyrant and his state apparatus.

Instead of repeating the ill-will generated by the no-fly zones over Iraq, a Libyan no-fly zone imposed at that time would have constituted an implicit American apology for having promoted rebellion in southern Iraq in 1991, only to let it to be crushed by Saddam Hussein’s air power before a no-fly zone was belatedly imposed.

However, now, after so much hesitation, an international no-fly zone will seem calculated, tentative and self-interested, and will come across much more like an intervention in a civil war rather than a humanitarian rescue operation. The Arab League endorsement of the idea does not make it more palatable to most Arabs. On the contrary, the body brings together the regimes that are most threatened by regional change. It may be that concern about the transformations that might be triggered through such intervention has made the option less desirable, and that this hesitation has had the contrary effect of reducing the ability of the West to influence outcomes in Libya.

A few weeks ago, momentum on the battlefield and in Libyan political life seemed to be entirely with the rebellion. A no-fly zone at that stage might have contributed to shaking the confidence of the regime and hindering its ability to counterattack, operate its air power and ferry mercenaries in and out of Libya. Now, the momentum has shifted markedly toward the regime, and Qaddafi’s downfall looks much less imminent, or even likely, than before. Meanwhile, the most dangerous Islamist extremists have either escaped from prison or have been released by the regime, adding a dangerous Salafist-Jihadist element to the mix that was not present a few weeks ago.

Not only does all of this change the political and psychological impact of a no-fly zone project, it greatly strengthens the possibility that such a zone would bring about a protracted civil conflict that leads to the de facto division of Libya into various fiefdoms. One of the greatest threats facing the process of Arab change is the dissolution of some Arab societies into Somalia-style failed states. Yemen is the most likely to head in that direction, but Libya is a candidate as well, presenting a dystopian scenario nobody wants to help promote. The longer the international community hesitates, the more likely a no-fly zone will simply impose a deadlock that assures Libya’s disintegration.

In and of itself, a no-fly zone would never have produced regime change. Part of its appeal was that it would not have undermined the Libyans’ ability to shape their own future. But it did raise the possibility of international boots being deployed on the ground (a very bad idea) if the regime survived over the long-term. Introducing a no-fly zone now will come across as more a strategic than a humanitarian decision, and will raise the same possibility about a foreign military presence, certainly more than it would have weeks ago.

A no-fly zone is still probably the best option. But its benefits would have been infinitely greater had it been introduced at the right moment rather than at this stage – belatedly and with visible reluctance.

Under Western Lies

The popular uprisings in Arab nations should bury some long-standing Orientalist myths.

Click to enlarge


With the recent wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East, Western observers have had the chance to face up to an important realization: that the oldest of clichés about Middle Eastern politics, “the Arab street,” is both a pernicious myth and a dynamic reality. For decades, Orientalist stereotypes about Arab culture and attitudes imbued this so-called street—a crude and monolithic metaphor for Arab public opinion and popular political sentiment—with almost uniformly negative connotations, which would then segue into dire warnings about the consequences of its eruption. Now the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and antigovernment protests in many other Arab states have demonstrated that the Arab street most certainly does exist—but it bears no resemblance to the bogeyman so long cultivated in the Western imagination.

Western commentators supplemented their hand-wringing about the Arab street with anxiety about “our Arab allies,” generally autocrats whose rule was considered vital to American interests in the region: the maximization of US power and influence, the control and pricing of energy, Israeli security, and regional stability. It’s true, of course, that the future complexion of the Arab political landscape remains uncertain, but the character of the rebellions has already been the strongest possible refutation of this traditional calculus and the mythology that misinformed it.

From the moment the Western imagination conjured the Arab street into being, it was populated by mobs of enraged, irrational, violent, and anti-Western religious fanatics, all bent on mayhem. This mythology has deep roots in Western misconceptions about the Arab world, as Edward Said famously demonstrated in his seminal 1978 study, Orientalism. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s investigation of the nexus between knowledge and power, Said argued that there exists an intimate connection between the presumed authority to define a subject and the assumed authority to rule that subject. Said explained that a key “dogma” of Orientalist thought “is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared . . . or to be controlled.” Under a carefully tended network of colonial oil fiefdoms and client states, Western strategists have essentially outsourced the task of control to autocratic but US-allied Arab governments. And in turn, these pro-Western autocrats have exploited the mythology of the Arab street to their own ends; the specter of a dangerous mass population barely held at bay helped them to cultivate their own claims to political legitimacy, while underwriting a decadent atmosphere of “Après moi, le déluge.”

Beyond the fairly recent myths of “realist” foreign policy, the Western image of the dangerous Arab masses actually harks back to the Middle Ages—in particular, the era’s religious and political competition between Christendom (the precursor to modern Europe) and Dâr al-Islam (from which the Arab world derives its identity), as Norman Daniel showed in his pioneering 1960 book, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Daniel’s thesis was more recently taken up by John Tolan in the 2002 study Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, which traced the centuries-old religious origins of an incorrigible “sentiment of Western superiority over Muslims and over Arabs.”

Such traditional attitudes have routinely received new glosses in the Orientalist literature on what is purported to be a closed and rigidly change-averse “Arab mind.” This body of work usually bears the appearance of dispassionate cultural inquiry—but its authors are expressing essentially medieval anxieties about the mortal threat that Arab or Muslim power presents to the West. The Israeli right, in particular, has been adept at stoking such Western fears—most notoriously in the outrageous caricatures that Raphael Patai advanced in his 1973 study, The Arab Mind. This absurd and insulting book has been continuously reprinted and, more disturbing still, has been used for “cultural training” by the US military, most disastrously in connection with the war in Iraq. David Pryce-Jones’s influential 1989 tract The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, meanwhile, reproduced much of Patai’s patronizing hostility; Pryce-Jones pathologized all Arab culture indiscriminately, suggesting that it dooms its unfortunate adherents to suffer self-inflicted oppression and exploitation. Similarly, Lee Smith’s dreadful 2010 misreading of Arab politics, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, unapologetically asserted that in Arab culture, might makes right, and that since “violence is central to the politics, society and culture” of the Arabs, not only will brutality always prevail but “Bin Ladenism . . . represents the political and social norm.”

Irshad Manji’s militantly ignorant screed The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (2004) actually argued that Arabs played virtually no role in the golden age of Islamic civilization—a position akin to asserting that the peoples of Italy played no role in Roman culture. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof picked up on her obsession with sand, contending that there is a distinction between the Middle East’s “desert Islam,” which he says is a problem, and Southeast Asia’s “riverine or coastal Islam,” which supposedly is not. This line of thinking grows out of a misguided tendency to rescue Islam from the Arabs, when in fact Islam sprang from Arab culture, an Arab “prophet,” and a “holy book” in Arabic. Islam itself, these people argue, is not the problem—it’s the Arab progenitors of the faith and their sandy, impoverished, nasty culture.

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia should put paid to such rubbish once and for all. Any serious, honest appraisal of what is spreading throughout the Arab world refutes every aspect of this pernicious mythology. Certainly, the size, scope, and bravery of the demonstrations for democracy, good governance, and accountability mean that no one can continue flogging the Orientalist shibboleth that Arabs are inherently resistant to change—at least not with a straight face. Likewise, the idea that Arab political culture is inherently violent has been most eloquently debunked by the extraordinarily self-disciplined nonviolence of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia—in spite of extreme provocation and abuses by the police and government-paid hooligans.

The allied Orientalist idea that Arabs are culturally lacking social consciousness cannot survive the spontaneous creation of an ad hoc social order under the most difficult circumstances in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators banded together to protect one another—especially Muslims and Christians at prayer. They also joined forces to defend institutions such as the National Museum, create neighborhood-watch committees to prevent looting and banditry, provide medical care, and so forth. After the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a night of delirious celebrations, the Egyptian protesters even returned to the square and cleaned it up, handing it over to the country’s provisional new military authorities in almost pristine condition.

Consider, by contrast, how events in Egypt might have unfolded had the Western stereotype of the Arab street possessed any real explanatory power: The demonstrations in Cairo would have been violent and chaotic—and driven by religious fanaticism. But Islamism and religious identity played almost no role in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings; indeed, these supposed prime movers of Arab culture and politics haven’t been particularly evident in the region’s other mass protests, with the exception of Jordan. It wasn’t Islamism that brought millions of Arabs out into the streets to demand change. Rather, these protests were the product—and, just as important, the expression—of national consciousness, uniting Christians and Muslims, the devout and the skeptical, and a range of urban social classes, from the upper middle class to the working poor.

Islamists may be hoping to gain from new political openness and elections, but their rhetoric and symbolism have been almost absent from the Arab uprisings. Orientalist stereotypes have long discounted the importance of national identity and sentiment—and social consciousness more generally—in the Arab world. But the recent secular and ecumenical agitations for political reforms have shown the true, unsuspected reach of nationalist movements in the region—and their ability to motivate millions of ordinary Arabs across the urban social spectrum to risk all for change.

Nor have the demonstrations been anti-Western, even though most of the governments being challenged are US client states. Indeed, in a subordinate irony no Orientalist text could ever account for, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic sentiments have been almost entirely the provenance of beleaguered pro-Western governments. The Mubarak regime blamed “foreign elements” for the Egyptian unrest, implying that Iranian, Israeli, and American forces were secretly at work, and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has accused Israel and the United States of orchestrating the demonstrations in his country. The uprisings were not driven by, but did utilize, Western social media and ideals about democracy, and the protestors did issue many appeals for Western action and support, as well as some expressions of disappointment. Thus far, these Arab revolutionary movements have been for themselves and not against anyone, other than the autocrats in their own countries.

However, Arab protestors do share one central grievance that should be of urgent concern to Western policy makers: resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that began in 1967. Some Western commentators seem determined to juxtapose the movement for self-determination within autocratic Arab states with the struggle against the occupation—and to argue, nonsensically, that because Arabs are willing to demand their own freedom, this somehow means they don’t care about the Palestinian cause. Israeli right-wingers and their American neoconservative allies have been flailing away vigorously at this straw man—but either they’re being deliberately deceptive or they’re not paying attention to what the protesters and Arab public opinion are saying about Israel and the Palestinians. There is no question that the Israeli occupation is still the prism of pain through which most Arabs view international relations—and that they are passionate about the cause of Palestinian freedom. The rash of Palestinian denialism on the right also doesn’t logically square with concomitant anxieties about the future of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. There is no indication of any plausible future Egyptian government abrogating the treaty—but as the frequent alarums of hard-line Likud leaders demonstrate, the Israeli right knows very well that even though the Arab peoples are proving they’re willing to fight for their own freedom with great bravery, that doesn’t mean they withhold support from the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation.

Old myths die hard, when they die at all, but important correctives were on offer to American readers even before the wave of Arab protests ignited. Indeed, one such reappraisal came from an impeccably neoconservative source, Joshua Muravchik in the 2009 book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East, a revealing set of profiles of next-wave and reformist Arab leaders. Not all of the subjects featured in Muravchik’s case studies are necessarily the cream of the crop, but The Next Founders raised the critical point that beyond the myths and before the uprisings, serious liberal reform was afoot in Arab political thought and life.

Probably the most significant work explaining how Arab reformers were gaining momentum (and helping to set the stage for the current uprisings) was Marwan Muasher’s 2008 The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation. Muasher, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, deftly laid out the essential conundrum facing Arab reformers, one that may bedevil the process of change into the future. He rightly observed that Arab societies require two essential principles: peace, in terms of resolving both internal disputes and regional struggles such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and reform, based on inclusivity, accountability, and the rights of citizens, women, and minorities. As Muasher noted, the problem is that governments and elites committed to peace are typically afraid of reform—while opposition groups in favor of reform are often opposed to peace. Whether the current uprisings can unite these two principles remains to be seen, but Muasher invaluably aided that intellectual reckoning by laying out its fundamental terms.

The uprisings should portend an Arab social and political renaissance, and the popular spirit for such a rebirth is plainly evident. But there are still plenty of hazards ahead for Arab reform, including threats of military dictatorships, fragmented or failed states, and the emergence of tyrannical majorities in unrestrained parliamentary democracies. There is nothing to be gained by rushing to replace dystopian and alarmist myths about the menacing Arab street with utopian and triumphalist celebrations of it. But surely serious observers in the West can find the time to let the image of a secular, reform-minded—and, above all, peaceful—Arab street sink in. Once the old myth of the Arab street, with all its stereotyped connotations, is retired, we can look ahead to a time when mainstream thinkers in the West no longer get rewarded for casually pathologizing, demonizing, dismissing, and denigrating Arabs and their culture. After all, meaningful reform takes time—as the new generation of Arab reformers, the ordinary citizens themselves, can well attest.

When Islamophobia becomes legit

With the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks coming up this September, there are very disturbing indications that Islamophobia is reaching dangerous, even epidemic proportions in American culture and political life.

The most disturbing incident took place in California where right-wing Tea Party activists hurled abuse at Muslim-Americans attending a fundraiser. This outrageous behavior was exacerbated by hate-filled comments from a local councilwoman, Deborah Pauly, who told the protestors, “I know quite a few Marines who would be happy to help these terrorists to a, uh, early meeting in paradise.” Republican Congressmen Ed Royce, who claimed that “multiculturalism … has paralyzed” American society, and Gary Miller, who said, “I’m proud of what you are doing,” irresponsibly egged them on.

The organizers of the fundraiser didn’t help by including as one of the speakers the self-styled Oakland “Imam” Amir Abdel Malik-Ali, who has a history of extremist sentiments. The Muslim-American leadership in California and nationally has not yet taken sufficient steps to make it clear that people like Malik-Ali must be kept very firmly on the margins, not given platforms at events that aspire to respectability. But none of that excuses the conduct of the protesters or, worse, the opportunistic hatred of local politicians.

Meanwhile, the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York Representative Peter King, is set this week to hold a hearing on the threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism in the United States. This is a serious subject, but King has a long history of making wild accusations against the Muslim-American community generally. In advance of the hearings, he repeated his assertion that Muslim-Americans did not cooperate with law enforcement. In fact, many of the most significant counterterrorism cases cited by the government have involved precisely such cooperation.

In response, the deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, spoke before a Muslim audience outside Washington DC on Sunday and insisted that Muslim-Americans were part of the solution, not the problem. The Obama administration has strongly rejected King’s allegations. For his part, King, who was once a passionate supporter of the Irish Republican Army, insists there is no disagreement.

Given that the most disturbing recent case of domestic terrorism was an attack on an event featuring Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by an apparently deranged extremist, Jared Lee Loughner, the idea that Muslim extremism is the only serious threat to American domestic security has become harder than ever to defend. At the same time, simply dismissing the prospect of homegrown Muslim extremism isn’t realistic either. The problem with the King hearings is that they are narrowly focused on a single identity group rather than the broader challenges of political extremism and security.

Not only is Islamophobic hate-speech entering the American political mainstream, especially on the right, vandalism and other attacks have been increasingly focused on mosques and Islamic centers around the country. The irony is that while there have been disturbing incidents, there have been no repetitions of the 9/11 attacks, or anything remotely like them, in the past decade. Nonetheless, Islamophobic sentiment has been steadily increasing, and is much worse now than it was in the first couple of years following those attacks.

The reason for this is that since 2001, the Islamophobic narrative has become coherent and unified, and has been steadily drummed into the heads of far too many Americans. In other words, Islamophobia functions as a powerful instrument of political mobilization not because of the real degree of terrorist threat or level of Muslim extremism, but because the narrative has functioned independently of any verifiable reality. This highlights the difficulty of fighting such a narrative with facts or logic. It has a malevolent life of its own.

There are, of course, many on the political right who vocally oppose such hatred. They include small-government activist Grover Norquist, former Bush administration official Suhail Khan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and many others. But it appears that in recent years the voices of reason have been fighting a losing battle on the right. Islamophobic sentiments were on display at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. And the rallying of right-wing voices against the Park 51 New York City Islamic Center project showed how deeply these ideas have penetrated mainstream conservative thinking.

There is money to be made in such hatred, and shameless bigots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horowitz and Brigitte Gabriel have turned it into a cottage industry. There are also, even more alarmingly, votes to be had, as Allen West, a retired African-American military officer, demonstrated when he made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his recent successful Florida congressional campaign.

As long as people get rewarded for spewing Islamophobic hatred, and American-Muslim organizations keep making stupid mistakes, the situation in the United States is likely to get worse before it gets better. The onus is on both American conservative and Muslim leaders to act responsibly and display courageous leadership to prevent the situation from deteriorating further in the coming years.

Shahbaz Bhatti?s murder shows why we need secularism in the Arab and Muslim worlds

Two days ago, a courageous man, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Roman Catholic politician and minister for minorities, was brutally gunned down by extremists from the radical Tehrik-i-Taliban group in part of an ongoing campaign of murder to enforce, defend and expand the country’s outrageous anti-blasphemy law. These maniacs described him as “a known blasphemer” because he was a Christian and because he opposed the draconian Pakistani anti-blasphemy laws, under which another Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, has been unjustly convicted and sentenced to death, although not yet executed. Bibi was accused of making disparaging remarks against the Prophet Mohammed, for which in, November, 2010, she was sentenced to death by hanging.

Pakistan's outrageous blasphemy laws and the campaign of murders
This flabbergasting miscarriage of justice kicked off a major debate about Pakistan’s despicable blasphemy laws. Pakistan’s Criminal Code includes Section 295, which forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or object of veneration, and several subsections: 295-A, which prohibits offending religious feelings; 295-B, which criminalizes defiling of the Quran; and 295-C, which outlaws defaming the Prophet. Of these provisions, only 295-C would appear to raise the possibility of the death penalty. No one has ever been sentenced to death under this law before, and Bibi has not yet, and probably will not be, executed pursuant to her sentence. But the fact that it's even a remote possibility that she could actually and legally be executed for expressing her alleged religious opinions should be enough to appall any decent human being, whatever their religious opinions, and rings the strongest possible alarm bells about where Pakistani society has been and is heading.

Bibi is still alive. However on January 4, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by members of his own bodyguard for having made statements sympathetic to the plight of Bibi and questioning these draconian and utterly indefensible laws and verdicts. So while Bibi herself may or may not be killed by the state (local fanatics have bluntly stated that if she is not executed they will “take matters into their own hands” and her family has gone into hiding as a consequence), first Taseer and now Bhatti have been murdered by maniacs, not for allegedly committing blasphemy themselves, but merely questioning the propriety of these utterly barbaric laws against freedom of thought and expression.

The need for secularism in Arab and Muslim societies
Obviously this is a very extreme situation, and hardly representative of the generalized condition of the Muslim world vis-à-vis blasphemy laws and debates about how to deal with differences of religious opinion. However, it represents a fairly disastrous situation emerging in one of the largest and most populous Muslim countries, in which the state and radical vigilantes are in open competition as to who can outdo each other in using violence and threats of violence to impose religious orthodoxy on what is, after all, a quite heterogeneous society. I recently wrote a column about the need for secularism in the Arab world in the context of the uprisings against autocratic Arab rulers and the question of how best to build a better future for the Arab peoples. To my dismay but not surprise, I received numerous e-mails from people suggesting that secularism has had its chance in the Arab world and was not only a proven failure but also a proven source of oppression, autocracy, corruption and bad governance.

First of all, I would strongly disagree that genuine secularism has been a feature of most, if any, of the autocratic Arab states presently being threatened by ongoing or potential popular unrest. And, insofar as any of these oppressive governments have reflected some degree of secularism in their policies and laws, that has been one of the few sources of freedom rather than oppression. Tunisia under Ben Ali, for example, suffered under a corrupt, autocratic, unaccountable and kleptocratic dictatorship, but at least the Tunisians weren't having much religious bigotry shoved down their throats. The same certainly can’t be said for many other Arab states that are at least as corrupt, autocratic, unaccountable and kleptocratic, but which also do more to attempt to enforce a degree of religious orthodoxy, only adding additional layers of oppression and further limiting freedom.

Secularism is not responsible for oppression
Blaming the rather limited secularism that has existed in some of the Arab dictatorships for their autocratic tendencies and mismanagement is a little bit like saying that because a serial killer kept a neat and tidy home, this personal fastidiousness therefore somehow contributed to their criminal mayhem. The two are obviously not connected, and trying to draw a causal link between secular principles and oppression or corruption because they both may have been attributes of certain governments is a fatuous logical syllogism. It's a fallacy analogous to a pseudo-logical progression to the effect that: “all dogs have four legs; my cat has four legs; therefore my cat is a dog."

There is not the least reason to think that secularism itself contributes to corruption, oppression or bad governance, even though some secular governments (totalitarian communist regimes, for instance) have certainly been strikingly repressive. But the only arguments that can place that repression at the feet of secularism are those that presume there is some kind of connection between religious devotion and both morality and political freedom, neither of which can be maintained with a straight face. No one who lives in the real world could possibly believe that religious devotion actually makes people more honest, or more inclined to political liberties for that matter. Just look around you, no matter where you live, and proofs positive against such assertions are ubiquitous. The intimate although not, of course, inevitable, connection between religious dogma and zealotry on the one hand and political and social repression on the other hand is irrefutable. The certainty that comes with intense religious belief lends itself very readily to all kinds of social and political restrictions, as the entire sweep of human history demonstrates. There are other forms of certainty that lead to equally disturbing levels of oppression, but religious fanaticism is one of the quickest, and most powerful and common, ways to get to a tyrannical mentality.

Secularism must be properly defined and applied
So the premise of these questions challenging my call for Arab secularism is inadmissible to begin with. But I think the Pakistani experience, although it is admittedly uniquely extreme, strongly demonstrates why secularism as a political value is an essential aspect to reform in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and is not optional at all. First, let’s define very clearly what we mean by secularist, in case there’s any confusion (which there seems to be). Secularism means this neutrality of the state on matters of faith, and the refusal of the government to either privilege or punish any religious tradition that does not violate the inalienable rights of protected persons such as children, minorities, women or other individuals, or that does not involve the commission of mayhem or other extraordinary crimes and abuses. It means that the government does not interfere with the practice of religious devotion, but also does not favor one interpretation of religiosity over another, and provides space for not only a multiplicity of religious orientations, but also an agnostic perspective that embraces skepticism and an atheist position that rejects everything that cannot be perceived by human empiricism and reason.

Secularism has been misinterpreted and misapplied in many countries
Obviously, certain forms of secularism can and have gone too far, even in relatively free societies. For example in France, cultural practices such as the wearing of cross necklaces, Jewish kippas or headscarves for devout Muslim girls have been banned from public schools on the grounds that they offend state neutrality on religious grounds. This is not secularism at all. This is faux-secularism being used as an excuse for cultural chauvinism and the suppression of both cultural and religious norms that do not in anyway infringe upon the rights of others and cannot be viewed in any serious light as a threat to the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. So, obviously, it doesn’t take a totalitarian communist regime to be oppressive against faith, which is not what secularism involves at all. It can also come from the French tradition of "Laïcité," which derives from the revolutionary period of trying to drive Roman Catholic political influence out of the governance system in the country following a tradition in which it was closely aligned with the monarchy and the aristocracy. This set of values, based on a very different set of concerns, is now applied to Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities who never had any access to abusive power, and in the case of Muslims to almost any power at all, in a blatantly cultural-chauvinist attempt to suppress immigrant cultural traditions.

Secularism is not iconoclasm. It is not the state rejection or suppression of religious sentiment or practice. In this regard, France, and several other European countries, have it absolutely wrong. Liberty, of which secularism must be a key component, means maximizing the range of choices available to individuals, which certainly includes wearing crosses, kippas and headscarves if people feel religiously or culturally inclined to do so. How on earth would any of that impinge on the fundamental rights of anybody else? It minds not me if people want to wear superstitious crosses or tiny editions of the Quran around their necks, skullcaps or turbans on their heads, sport nicely trimmed or silly looking beards, or don either elegant or frumpy headscarves. Why it bothers anybody else if people do things like that, I completely fail to understand, and how it could possibly be a matter of public policy is absolutely incomprehensible. This is an irrational, and indeed a phobic reaction to diverse cultural, religious and sartorial opinions, tastes and norms that any heterogeneous society will have to deal with in a tolerant, open manner that maximizes the range of choices available to individuals without offending or impinging on the rights of others. Telling people how to dress, with some very extreme exceptions like public nudity of course, isn't secularism at all, it's just narrow-minded, bigoted and pointless stupidity.

Secularism is essential to liberty because all societies are heterogeneous
The reason that secularism is essential — understood in the sense that it involves the strict neutrality on matters of religious faith, and neither the privileging of any religious order, nor the suppression of any order that stays within the law, broadly defined — is that all societies are heterogeneous. Some of them lie to themselves and claim to be homogenous. But in fact, all societies — absolutely all of them — are heterogeneous on matters of religion and include devout people from traditional faiths, schismatics, small denominations, people who are spiritual without adhering to any specific theology, agnostics and, of course, atheists. There is absolutely no society on earth that does not contain this range of opinions.

Therefore, if the state is not neutral on religious matters it will be oppressive in some manner or other. For example, in the United Kingdom, which still has an established Church of England, the taxes of all people go to subsidize the weird superstitions and social and political power of that organization. This isn't exactly religious oppression, but it isn't fair or neutral either (the UK and other European countries also still have blasphemy laws, although they're not as draconian by any means as the Pakistani madness described above, and rarely enforced). Non-secular states will, by definition, in some way or other impose certain arbitrary views of one group of people, probably but not necessarily the majority, on everybody else in some manner or other, and this can very frequently have dire consequences for freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and all other aspects of fundamental social, intellectual and political liberty. The biggest champions of secularism ought to be religious people themselves, since a religiously neutral, secular government is the best guarantee of the actual freedom to practice religious beliefs in an unimpeded, unregulated manner. The problem is that all-too-many religious types consciously or unconsciously yearn not just to practice their faith but to impose it or its implications on the rest of society, which secularism would preclude.

The Pakistani catastrophe could spread
The catastrophe of religious intolerance unfolding in Pakistan at the moment is, as I have acknowledged already, extreme by any standards, and deeply, profoundly alarming. Few, if any, Muslim societies are actually considering executing anybody on the grounds blasphemy or apostasy (although the US-backed “liberated” Afghanistan government did consider such a thing a couple of years ago, though it abandoned the idea under international pressure), and I can’t think of any other society in which politicians are being murdered for defending the rights of people to not be sentenced to death for so-called “blasphemy,” which in this case plainly amounts to the persecution of a religious minority. No doubt this is a very advanced case of religious paranoia, chauvinism and hysteria, the global epicenter of which, unfortunately, presently seems to lie in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area, for complicated historical and cultural reasons. Of course, there are some other Muslim societies that have analogous issues, including Saudi Arabia, northern Nigeria, Sudan and Iran, to mention just a few. But none of these are as disturbing as the Pakistani case is quickly becoming.

However, anyone who thinks that this process could not possibly be extended to other parts of the Muslim world, or indeed places for that matter, is deluding themselves. There are other parts of the Muslim world which already have seen the resurgence of lapidation (stoning) as a punishment for sexual offenses, and the prosecution, persecution and abuse of people who are seen as apostates, blasphemers or heretics. The essential principles for extreme punishments against blasphemy, heresy/or apostasy are present in all three major monotheistic faiths, and could be applied by extremist Muslims, Christians or Jews anywhere in which they feel able and motivated to do so, with plausibly authentic theological justifications. At present, for complex historical reasons, extremist Muslims seem to be most enthusiastic about such unmitigated barbarism, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My point about secularism is that is the only system that is suited to religious heterogeneity, because it precludes the dominance and tyranny of any particular religious orientation over others. Those societies that claim to be religiously homogenous are lying, and suppressing the diversity that in all cases at least lies beneath the surface. There is no such thing on earth today, and probably never has been, a society united in its religious opinions. I not only can't imagine such a thing, but were one to emerge it would be almost by definition an Orwellian nightmare. As I noted above, self-professed secular government systems have committed unbelievable atrocities, and secularism — whether via the Soviet model of irreligious tyranny, or the French model of gratuitously and pointlessly suppressing innocuous religious expression in public spaces such as schools mainly as a vehicle for cultural chauvinism — can, of course, also lend itself to oppression. The essence of liberty is to maximize the range of available choices individuals and groups in a society may access, as long as they do not impinge on the inalienable rights of others.

As I say, the French version of secularism, Laïcité, is no model to be followed either. It's not the neutrality of the state on matters of faith, but a kind of low-level hostility to religion, or at least innocuous religious expression in public spaces. Secularism is not a panacea, and obviously can be both distorted and deployed for abusive purposes. But the important principle of state neutrality on religious matters has to be upheld, even though it can be abused in the wrong hands, because the alternative makes oppression or discrimination virtually inevitable. And the threat of religious extremism is infinitely more dangerous than the possibility of a misinterpretation or misapplication of secular principles. The unconscionable plight of Asia Bibi who is being persecuted by the state itself, and the outrageous murders of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer by even more extreme anti-government zealots, is probably the most extreme case in the world today of religious fanaticism run amok. Apparently in Pakistan today it is enough to rhetorically defend the most fundamental principles of secularism and, indeed, basic human decency, to be killed by maniacs.

American Muslims need to speak out forcefully and clearly
There hasn't been total silence from American Muslims about the slide in Pakistan towards unprecedented levels of religious barbarism by both the state and vigilante or terrorist groups, but much more needs to be said by many people and organizations. Of course the primary onus should fall on Muslim American organizations oriented towards the South Asian immigrant community which has the closest links to and information about Pakistan and the rest of the area. Some of the organizations that fall into that category have been disgracefully silent and are maintaining that silence as the situation continues to deteriorate, presumably because they do not want to have an internal argument about the subject or alienate any potential constituents. This is absolutely unacceptable. More broadly, Muslim American individuals and organizations, even those who don't know much about Pakistan and what is happening there, need to wake up to what is spiraling out of control in one of the largest and most influential Muslim societies in the world. I don't believe that Muslim American organizations and individuals have no ability to at least rhetorically try to influence the calamity that's unfolding in Pakistan. The ability to influence is obviously very limited, but I don't accept that it is zero. And, even if Muslim Americans can't really have any influence on Pakistani developments, at least for their own dignity and, of course, their reputation with other Americans, they should make their outrage and disgust crystal clear.

I've often written that it's ridiculous to expect Arab and Muslim Americans to run around commenting on everything bad that happens in every Arab or Muslim society in the world, since such a thing would be impossible and such an expectation is an absurdity. In fact it's a trap, and one we can't possibly allow ourselves to fall into. However, what's happening in Pakistan demands a clear, unequivocal stance and some kind of effort to communicate loudly and unmistakably, especially to whatever Pakistani audiences are reachable as well as to our fellow Americans, that Muslims in the United States and, hopefully, all around the world, are appalled by the behavior both of the Pakistani state towards Bibi and by the murders of politicians by extremists for defending rather basic concepts of freedom and decency. Silence doesn't necessarily imply consent, but in a situation like this it's certainly an abdication of responsibility and a moral, political and religious failure. And as for those many people who took exception to my call for a commitment to secularism in what we all hope will prove an emerging Arab social and political renaissance, I present the tragic, broken body of Shahbaz Bhatti as Exhibit A in my argument.


On March 2, ISNA issued the following condemnation of the Bhatti murder:

"Islamic Society of North America Outraged by Brutal Killing of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities"

On March 3, MPAC, of course, strongly condemned the murder:

"MPAC Condemns Assassination Of Christian Minister In Pakistan And Will Address Religious Freedom In Geneva"

On March 3, ICNA also condemned the killing:

"Assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti Condemned by ICNA"

This last statement has an interesting relationship to the critique of ICNA's stances by Peter Skerry and Gary Schmitt in the Boston Globe in January.  They noted that "They clearly understood that the killing of Christians by Muslims [as now again demonstrated in the Bhatti case] is not something about which they [ICNA] could remain silent. Now these leaders must confront the reality that in contemporary America, genuine religious pluralism requires them to be just as outraged when Muslims kill Muslims." That wise admonishment still applies, of course.


A reader points out that the Church of England, while an Established church, does not presently derive any ongoing income from the UK taxation system. He's right. But of course its income relies heavily on various endowments and landholdings that were acquired from the state during, and as a result of, it's Establishment. So while my details were wrong, I still maintain that there is an unfair relationship between the C of E, the state system in the UK and all other religious denominations and orientations.

A new Arab morning… for America

It’s hard to think of a type of crisis the Obama administration has not faced during the past two years.

President Barack Obama inherited a pair of difficult wars and a financial meltdown from the Bush administration. Toss in a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and you get a sense of the kind of chaos a young, relatively inexperienced president has had to cope with in the first half of his term. However, Obama has been successful in drawing down the Iraq war and redefining the strategy in Afghanistan, and the American economy appears to be slowly clawing itself away from the abyss.

But now, with the entire Arab world aflame, Obama has just been handed the most far-reaching foreign policy challenge – and opportunity – the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War. Anti-government protests are underway in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania, Djibouti and Morocco. There are rumblings in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. And things are starting to heat up again in Egypt and Tunisia, where it all began.

For decades the US has based its foreign policy in the Middle East on maintaining stability, above all, and preserving the status quo. Washington has been guided by perceived core interests: ensuring that the US remains the sole regional superpower, securing the flow and pricing of energy resources, and a commitment to Israel’s security. The George W. Bush administration toyed with the idea of introducing a “freedom agenda” into US policy toward the Arab world, even releasing a “Greater Middle East Initiative” document outlining this.

But the Bush administration’s approach was badly flawed. The Greater Middle East Initiative was drafted without Arab input, and was slated to be unveiled at a multilateral meeting at which no Arab state would have been present. Even Arab reformers for the most part viewed the document with deep suspicion. It smacked too much of a neocolonial dictate, was premised on an unrealistic one-size-fits-all model, and ignored the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. This occupation has created as undemocratic an order as can be imagined – involving the rule of millions of noncitizens by a foreign army. As long as it persists, the US will be unable to lecture Arabs credibly on democracy.

The Greater Middle East Initiative was more than anything else a product of the intoxication of the short “mission accomplished” period before the Iraqi insurgency began in earnest. The chaos that ensued in Iraq ended any possibility that policies would be based on the freedom agenda or the stillborn initiative. Even under the Bush administration, tension between the short-term interests of the US in energy, stability and Israeli security; and long-term interests through the promotion of democracy, human rights and better relations with Arab populations rather than regimes, was, as always, decided in favor of the former.

Now the Obama administration – which has placed enormous emphasis on repairing relations with governments, promoting stability and seeking regional agreements – is confronted with a sudden, unexpected and uncontrolled outpouring of popular Arab anger and rejection of the status quo, both domestically and regionally. The problem is that American interests haven’t changed, but American calculations have to, and quickly. The US will have to deal with the outcome of a wave of popularly-driven demands for change that could be threatening to its short-term interests, but should very well serve the long-term interests.

The challenge for the US is to be seen as unequivocally taking the side of the Arab peoples even when it comes to pressuring long-standing allies. Otherwise, there is every danger that change will be both out of American control and hostile to American interests.

In truth, the US has a limited ability to influence what happens in most Arab states. However, the wisest course for Washington is to issue bold statements and use whatever leverage it has, even when this is more symbolic than practical, to demonstrate a real commitment to Arab democracy and reform in spite of potential risks to short-term American interests. This is happening, whether the US or the West likes it or not. It is futile to try holding back the waves like an impotent King Canute, or stand on the sidelines issuing vague statements to the effect of, “We may or may not be trying to have it both ways.”

Obviously, American interests haven’t changed, and they still center on energy, stability, American power and influence, and Israeli security. But the best way to secure these interests is to do everything possible to avoid being seen as the guarantor of domestic and regional orders that are plainly anathema to the Arab peoples in general.

American influence can no longer be secured through military might alone, and the US is hardly in a position to start writing checks either. The best approach for the US to secure its interests in the long-term and ensure that the new Arab order is as friendly as possible to American concerns is to embrace Arab change. Washington must place itself squarely on the side of the Arab peoples’ demands for democracy, inclusivity, good governance and accountability.