Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Muslim forest and the Islamist trees

It’s hard to imagine two more unlikely political bedfellows than commentator Paul Berman and Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi. Their worldviews, a priori assumptions and political affiliations are so distinct, indeed frequently antagonistic, that it’s even difficult to imagine them having a calm conversation.


And yet in two recent, and in many other senses radically different, essays, Berman and Dabashi have essentially made the same argument: that the trend in the Arab uprisings, and the Muslim world generally, is shifting away from organized, exclusivist Islamist groups and groping its way toward a far more inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic political vision. It’s claim I’ve also made frequently.


In the weeds, Berman and Dabashi inevitably find themselves in radically contradictory spaces.


Both dubiously choose to link developments in Mali with the transformations in numerous Arab states. But they read the situation in Mali completely differently. Berman celebrates the French intervention (and notes many Malians did as well), while Dabashi dismisses the whole thing as another instance of Western colonial exploitation.


Both also see an important parallel, and indeed a more plausible one, between developments in the Arab world and anti-government sentiment in Iran. But, not surprisingly, here again they find themselves on opposite sides, with Berman chiding the Obama administration for not openly supporting the “Green Revolution.” When the Iranian uprising was ongoing, Dabashi was one of its most vocal supporters, but never tired of correctly pointing out that its leadership did not want overt American support of any kind.


Berman is fixated on parsing between “radical” and “moderate” Muslims. This terminology might be overdetermined, and overburdened with political baggage, but is nonetheless an effort to grope toward a crucial distinction between an exclusivist, chauvinist, and reactionary mentality versus a more open-minded, engaged, and pluralistic one. Dabashi, though, insists that “the ludicrous Neocon Americanism of pitting ‘moderate’ versus ‘radical’ Muslims is simply a silly camouflage concealing a far more serious epistemic breakthrough.”


Yet a clearheaded reading demonstrates that, like it or not, they are, fundamentally, referring to the same thing.


And, on the bigger-picture issues, they make many of the same crucial points. Islamism is not Islam. Most Muslims are not and do not wish to be Islamists and do not wish to be ruled by them. There are crucial pre-Islamist and pre-colonial Islamic traditions that can and should inform a more generous, tolerant and globally engaged Muslim worldview. And recent developments in the Arab world and elsewhere demonstrate that a fledgling and nascent, yet profound and deeply rooted, backlash against Islamists and obscurantism is unmistakably beginning to coalesce in very significant constituencies among the world’s Muslims.


It is surely significant that two such radically different thinkers would, in the same week, pen articles from absolutely contradictory perspectives that reach virtually identical conclusions. And the main notion both Berman and Dabashi are challenging is a terrible misapprehension that has united many American realists, liberals, paleo-conservatives and, indeed, some first-term Obama administration officials: that Islamism is the natural and “authentic” political orientation of the overwhelming majority of the Muslims of the world.


The corollary, of course, is that Islamist victories, over the long run, in post-dictatorship Arab states for example, are irresistible and inevitable. A more insidious second corollary, which is finally starting to erode but which has had significant sway in Washington, is that the rise of “moderate” Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood is an important bulwark against even more extreme groups such as Salafists or Salafist-Jihadists. Their victories were therefore seen by some American policy analysts as desirable.


I’ve been arguing vociferously for the past two years that none of this is true. Berman characterizes the present moment well, as “an age of struggle, anti-Islamists against Islamists, with the Islamists still on top in various countries, but no obvious long-run victor in sight.” Or, as Dabashi aptly puts it, “Both the ruling regime in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or elsewhere are out of touch with reality, left behind by a post-colonial history that has no longer any use or space for them.”


Realists and others argue that non-Islamist forces are simply too divided, inexperienced, unprepared, and disorganized to mount a successful bulwark against a steady campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia to take over state bureaucracies, especially the military and security forces, bit by bit and consolidate permanent control. Indeed, this is what Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannochi promised Tunisian Salafists his party would do, given time.


The era of Islamist victories is not necessarily over. But many underestimate the ability of essentially non-Islamist societies to resist them, even in a relatively disorganized manner. More importantly for the long run, as both Berman and Dabashi note in their own ways, the forest is starting to look a lot different than any individual tuft of trees.

The American diversity Rubicon is crossed

While the global – and in some cases still American – image of the United States remains ossified as a normative white, male, Christian power structure, a quiet but under-analyzed explosion of diversity has been steadily gaining ground. Alea iacta est. And contrary to warnings from doomsayers both on the right, like Pat Buchanan, and left, like Arthur Schlesinger, diversification is not undermining American social unity but strengthening it.


No one doubts there remains a long way to go. But few have indexed the extraordinary progress reached by the beginning of this year. The second inauguration of President Barack Obama is the most obvious and dramatic example. The first Obama term was a vital breakthrough, but could have been understood as a novelty or experiment. His reelection, based entirely on policies and merit, signifies the normalization of African-Americans at the highest level of governance.


Had Obama lost last November, there would have been another extraordinary breakthrough: the first non-Christian American president. Mitt Romney and many other Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, but with their own distinct prophet, holy book, cosmology, eschatology and theology, no neutral observer could agree. Mormons are not, in fact, Christians. This was hardly raised at all during the general election. And religious differences didn’t prevent many diehard Christian fundamentalists from voting for Romney during the GOP primary.


Four years ago, Americans came extremely close to having a woman president (and they may yet): Hilary Rodham Clinton. Obama beat Clinton by the narrowest possible margin in the primaries, and either would surely have been elected president in 2008. Women have also come to dominate one of the most important cabinet-level positions, Secretary of State. The recent confirmation of John Kerry prompted jokes about whether a man is really capable of such a delicate job (Colin Powell having been the lone man in the post since the era of Bill Clinton).


Another major blow against formalized sexism has recently been struck by the elimination of restrictions against servicewomen from operating in combat positions. This is merely an official recognition, of course, of a reality that in fact has existed for some time.


Obama has already made gay rights a major theme of his second term. His second inaugural will be remembered for its unprecedented emphasis on gay rights as an indispensable factor in social equality. The absurd military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been eliminated, and opposition to gay marriage is crumbling around the country. The Senate now has its first openly gay member, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.


In the House of Representatives too, diversity is ever-increasing. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is the first Hindu and, along with Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, among the first female combat veterans, in the House. Two Muslims, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana – and one lonely atheist, Pete Stark of California – round out the religious diversity in Congress. Indeed, open atheists and agnostics may still face the greatest hurdles to being elected out of any religious group.


Jews have long been well represented in Congress, but Joe Lieberman’s candidacy for vice president in 2000, and near-repetition of the effort with John McCain in 2008, represented further breakthroughs for Jewish Americans.


For Latinos, the reelection of Obama has changed the landscape dramatically. Republican leaders now realize that in creating the chauvinist, paranoid and intolerant Tea Party movement in 2008 in an effort to win back the House in local elections, it created an unmanageable Frankenstein’s monster in national ones.


The immediate and inescapable priority in GOP housecleaning is repairing relations with the Latino community. This was expressed in a post-election about-face by mainstream Republicans on immigration reform, and the astonishing spectacle of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida delivering the Republican rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address in Spanish as well as English. The once-potent “English-only” movement now has all the vitality of a stuffed dodo.


Democrats managed to position themselves as the party of diversity. Hence, Republicans have only won a popular majority in one of the past six presidential elections, a calamitous record. It will take years for the GOP to sort itself out, but it must, both for its own good and that of the country. However, it will have to face the reality that a diverse, patriotic and well-united American public has rendered dysfunctional the intolerant and obscurantist rhetoric that appeals to much of its hardcore base.


The rest of the globe, and not least Arab societies, need to take note. The quiet tsunami of diversification in American society and power structure might mean that what many think they know about the United States and how it works is, in fact, completely wrong. If so, not only is reconsideration necessary to avoid miscalculation, it’s also required in order to follow a damn good example.

Another round of Palestinian talks fail to deliver on unity

Last week the interminable Palestinian national reconciliation negotiations failed yet again, amid mutual recriminations. Hamas complained that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was attempting to re-litigate already agreed-upon items. There was also apparently a dispute about the prospect of Mr Abbas serving simultaneously as both president and prime minister.


But the biggest obstacle was the question of new elections. Mr Abbas wanted a fixed date within three months. Hamas negotiators insisted on no date whatsoever. Hamas’s position is “unity” must come first, and elections after. This means that the public would have very little input in determining legitimacy during the process of reunification between Hamas and Fatah, and would be consulted, if at all, only in an election long after the fact.


Hamas was also apparently the sole holdout against proportional representation. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Election Commission has been busily restructuring the voter registers in the West Bank, and also in Gaza, where 155,000 new voters have reportedly been added to the rolls.


Hamas, of course, was quick to point the finger squarely at Mr Abbas, but the Palestinian president was having none of it. On Wednesday he said elections would give the Palestinian public the “final word” on the nature of reunification. “However,” he added, “our brothers in Hamas do not want us to carry out elections at this stage.”


Mr Abbas has threatened to issue two presidential decrees: one announcing new elections and the second announcing the formation of a new government to oversee those elections. But neither can actually be implemented without Hamas’s acquiescence.


In spite of all this intense activity, there are few who believe that genuine Palestinian national unity is on the cards anytime soon. Elections are, to say the least, an extremely remote possibility, especially given Hamas’s acceptance of them in theory but rejection of them in practice. Fatah, too, may not be quite as keen on balloting as it is able to appear by playing off of Hamas’s total rejectionism on the question of voting.


For all of this frenetic bustle, there is very little, if any, movement towards actual unification or reconciliation. The situation on the ground remains completely unchanged, with Hamas firmly entrenched in power in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority somewhat beleaguered but still solidly ensconced in the Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank.

The national reconciliation kabuki show has now been going on for well over a year. It is a response to pressure from Arab states, and especially the Palestinian people themselves. Palestinians are well aware of the heavy price paid by this untenable national division.


The question that is starting to emerge now is, how many times can these parties bring the public to the brink of believing that unification is at hand with pompous pronouncements, only to snatch it away at the last second with bickering and turf-protection?


How long can this charade continue to function politically? How long will the Palestinian people sit by and watch with hope and anticipation these implausible efforts to fit the square peg of Hamas’s attitudes and policies – intransigence towards Israel, commitment to armed struggle and religiously reactionary attitudes – into the round hole of the leadership in Ramallah which is secular, nationalistic and committed to a negotiated peace agreement with Israel? How can there be unity where there is no consensus on any major issue?


Palestinians seem to have little faith in any of their national leadership groups, and they came by it honestly. Hamas has been a disaster in Gaza, imposing quasi-theocratic and frequently misogynistic social policies, and engaging in reckless armed struggle with Israel at the expense of the lives of innocent people under their rule. The PLO appears to have largely run out of ideas other than symbolic efforts at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that often carry more practical costs than benefits.


And in spite of the significant successes his institution-building policy enjoyed in the past, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is now hamstrung by a fiscal crisis that is beyond his power to resolve.


The parties are due to meet again in Cairo on February 27, but few believe there is the basis or even the will to reach an actual reconciliation agreement. The danger is that what will ultimately emerge is a purely cosmetic “unity” government, largely composed of unaffiliated individuals, that will ostensibly prepare for elections which will never actually be held.


A false unity that involves elections that are always scheduled for tomorrow but never for today – and that allows the entrenched and separate security services to continue to dominate their own areas of control – is no solution. This would be a simulacrum of unity without its content, the mere packaging in which actual reconciliation might have come but

never does.


At what point will the Palestinian public proactively and dynamically assert its own voice? Are elections, which Hamas seems determined to block, the only way for the public to express its will? The Palestinian public for more than a year now has been demanding national unity. Clearly these two parties, left on their own, are not capable of achieving that, at least not in a constructive and purposive manner.


If Palestinians continue to leave matters to party operatives, who cannot agree on anything, all they can expect is either no unity at all, or a counterfeit unity even worse than debilitating division. There is a future beyond this impasse, but the Palestinian public must find its own alternatives.

The rise of the street gangs

The most essential feature of governance is law and order, which requires a monopoly on the organized use of force. The surest sign of state failure is the rise of armed gangs, or at least the widespread breakdown of law and order.


The rise of militias in those parts of the Arab world experiencing state failure or disintegration is a familiar phenomenon. But the creeping chaos in Egypt and Tunisia threatens to unleash a new and extremely dangerous version of organized violence.


In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria, militias have largely been defined along sectarian and ethnic lines. In Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, these divisions are largely regional and tribal. This is surely a symptom of a lack of national consciousness and the persistent primacy of sub-national identities.


During the era of the “Arab Cold War,” though, divisions between left and right, as well as between ideological factions were definitive. In more recent decades, such ideological confrontations have generally been between secularists and Islamists.


The worst instance of this, obviously, was the fratricidal Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. Among Palestinians, too, the division between Hamas and the leadership in Ramallah is almost entirely ideological.


Numerous Arab states have had to deal with waves of terrorism by religious fanatics. But, however dangerous, these groups have usually been small in number, with their violence targeting society in general and the rule of an established, entrenched government.


Such was the case in Egypt in the late 1980s and early 90s, where extremist groups like Tanzim al-Jihad, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were involved in attacks on government, civilian and tourist targets. They were successfully suppressed by the state with the support of the overwhelming majority of the population.


Now, however, the groundwork appears to be emerging for the potential rise of a new, different and extremely dangerous form of sub-state or even militia violence in the new post-dictatorship societies in Egypt and Tunisia.


Unlike the militia violence rocking so much of the Levant, Libya, and Yemen, this potential mayhem isn’t ethnic, regional or sectarian. And unlike the “jihadist” terrorist campaigns, it probably wouldn’t be mainly aimed at a coherent, coordinated central government.


Instead, what may be brewing is street warfare and gang violence between ideological groups associated with rival parties. This bears some resemblance to the situation in, for example, Iraq in the 1950s and 60s, or even unstable European states between the first and second world wars.


In Tunisia, bellwether of the Arab uprisings, this phenomenon is expressing itself through the rampages of Salafist gangs smashing up what they deem to be “un-Islamic” cultural phenomena such as literary festivals, art galleries, bars, cinemas and any area of gender mixing. More ominously, the recent assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid – which is not in fact the first, but only the latest, political assassination in post-dictatorship Tunisia – could be a harbinger of more political killings. Political assassinations could certainly now spread to Egypt too.


Just before he was killed, Belaid said that the Islamist en-Nahda party had decided to approve political assassinations. Whether they were directly responsible for his murder or not, they have certainly helped create the conditions for rampant lawlessness based on political intolerance.


In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government is not only relying on the police and security services, but also on ideological hired thugs to attack their protesting opponents in the streets. Among the opposition, the reputed rise of a “Black Bloc” of masked and violent opposition toughs willing to do battle with both the police and Islamist hoodlums, portends an unending series of violent and entirely ideological street battles. The extent to which the perennially anti-government “ultras” soccer hooligans may or may not be overlapping with the so-called “Black Bloc” is unclear, but they add another volatile element to the street-level unrest.


Rumors are swirling that Iran is helping to train Islamist street militias in Egypt to support the Brotherhood government, and for its part the government has fallen back on the familiar accusation “foreign hands” in the ongoing street battles.


All of this seems eerily reminiscent of the hooliganism and street violence of many European countries, particularly Germany and Italy, during the 20s and 30s, in which weak governments were unable to prevent rival gangs of thugs from fighting it out on a daily basis. In the context of collapsing economies, weak central governments and a total breakdown of consensus, such movements thrive.


Wherever such gang violence becomes endemic, it almost invariably gives rise to the birth of a new and, at least at first, popular authoritarianism that bases its legitimacy on the imposition of “law and order.” And that may indeed be the cynical calculation of those, particularly Islamists, who are looking for rationalizations and excuses to re-impose authoritarian rule in Tunisia and Egypt.

Can Egypt have a foreign policy?

In the context of ongoing political unrest, is it possible for Egypt to have a functional foreign policy? Probably not. And, as long as this is the case, that has profound implications for other societies in the region, particularly the Palestinians and Syria.


Egypt does have a functional national security policy, largely because externally-oriented defense issues remain both de facto and de jurealmost entirely in the hands of the military. But the much-touted restoration of Egypt’s regional role, which was widely and prematurely ascribed to the government of President Mohammed Morsi, appears completely frozen in its tracks.


The domestic unrest in Egypt is both a potential disaster and a potential golden opportunity for Muslim Brotherhood rule.


Should the instability continue to deepen and spread, it is now possible to imagine the military, with some reluctance, rolling up its sleeves and once again intervening in domestic political affairs. Indeed, it’s even possible to imagine them doing so with widespread public approval, at least initially, should things deteriorate dramatically.


Ironically, the tensions and violence in Egypt also present Morsi and the Brotherhood with a plausible basis and rationale for the most important and difficult step in consolidating long-term control over the government. Leaving popular opposition aside, the biggest obstacle to Morsi’s control of the government is the persistence of large elements of the bureaucracy, especially the police and security services, that do not have primary loyalty to the Brotherhood.


In short, in spite of winning parliamentary and presidential elections, the Brotherhood does not have control of the guns in Egypt… yet. This is the same problem that EnNahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi cited in his notorious appeal to Salafists in Tunisia to give his party time to consolidate power in the face of secular opposition.


It’s obvious that the Brotherhood wants to move cautiously, for now, but also sees the opportunity. Following the killing of at least 60 protesters and several notorious incidents of police brutality – including videotaped beatings and the death of at least one demonstrator in police custody, apparently due to torture – several Brotherhood leaders have been publicly denouncing the police and Interior Ministry. Brotherhood Legal Committee member Yasser Hamza said that the ministry bears full responsibility for these outrages, and totally exonerated Morsi. In case anyone didn’t understand the implications, the deputy chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Essam El-Erian, bluntly declared, “Reforming and purging of the police was one of the main goals of the January revolution and still is.”


The link between domestic power and foreign policy in Egypt has been demonstrated on numerous recent occasions. But this cuts in both directions, with domestic politics both building on foreign policy and also crippling it.


After the accomplishment of a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza militants last November, Morsi issued his notorious “Constitutional Declaration,” which pushed the limits of his authority and set the stage for ramming through the rushed and profoundly flawed new constitution. Earlier last year, Morsi took the opportunity presented by the killing of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai along the Israeli border to dismiss the top leadership of the military and install generals with whom he enjoys a better relationship.


The Brotherhood is now using the perceived distance between itself and the Interior Ministry and police as an excuse for abuses against anti-government demonstrators, and to set up a possible purge to consolidate its control over them.


But as long as Egypt remains rocked with such instability, it’s not possible for the country to play a major regional role. Morsi’s efforts to build a regional/Muslim working group to stabilize the situation in Syria – always a longshot at best – now seems the last thing on anyone’s mind.


And Egypt’s attempt to become the power broker between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is similarly hamstrung. Egypt has been trying to broker national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, based largely around a potential and mainly symbolic “unity government.” Meanwhile, the cornerstones of real Palestinian reunification – merging the security services and holding national elections – remain almost entirely out of reach. The main purposes of these efforts appear twofold: to strengthen the hand of Hamas and increase its legitimacy, and to create an aura of Egyptian-brokered stability among Palestinians, especially in Gaza.


These initiatives, along with a cautious opening to Iran and a more overt engagement with Turkey, are the cornerstones of Egypt’s supposedly new foreign policy under Morsi. But Egypt’s international and regional role now appears crippled.


Certainly it’s one less factor, however minor, for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to worry about. And it ought to make those Palestinians who are counting on Egyptian engagement think twice about placing their hopes in a government this politically rickety and diplomatically incapacitated.


Until its domestic situation stabilizes, Egypt won’t have a functional foreign policy, let alone the ability to reassert any form of regional leadership.