Monthly Archives: June 2014

Self-fulfilling prophecies are a danger to Iraq and Syria

With both Iraq and Syria in the throes of seemingly total meltdown, and much of the Middle East apparently on the brink of a potential broad regional conflagration, the temptation to think in sweeping but simplistic terms becomes greater than ever. This is because the situation is so difficult to read, and even the parties involved in each manifestation of chaos are often not completely clear or entirely settled. But this is an impulse that needs to be resisted if a proper evaluation is to be made and an appropriate policy response formulated.

It would be too easy under such dramatic and unreadable conditions to view the situation as a kind of binary of neat polar opposites that are contending for mastery. But such thinking is dangerous, because the power of narratives and self-fulfilling prophecies is such that embracing the idea of a binary division could contribute to producing one at the political level.

In politics, there is no clear distinction between perception and reality. The constant repetition of an idea can often imbue that perspective with undue power. Sometimes the ardently-stated belief in them is sufficient to give monsters of the imagination a foothold in reality.

Two binaries currently in vogue illustrate the point painfully clearly.

Hanin Ghaddar, the outstanding managing editor of the Beirut-based website NOW (to which I am also a regular contributor), has proffered one of the most compelling explanations yet for the horrifying phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). From years of close observation of Hizbollah, Ghaddar draws a strong comparison between the two organisations.

“Today,” she writes, ISIL “has become empowered by a similar feeling of injustice [to that which gave rise to Hizbollah] within the Sunni community, and what we are seeing is the emergence of what can be described as a Sunni Hizbollah”. This clear and simple analysis cuts to the core of the appalling rise in Syria and Iraq of ISIL, and its close political affinity to the origin and modus operandi of Hizbollah.

What gets lost for many people, however, is that there is nothing inevitable about an open-ended sectarian confrontation throughout much of the Arab Middle East, pitting a “Sunni” Hizbollah against a “Shiite” Hizbollah.

Since the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, few observers have been more quick to point to sectarian tensions and ring alarm bells than this writer. However, in recent weeks, the undeniable rise of sectarian forces is being mistaken for the total domination of all regional strategic relations by sectarianism. There is, of course, a clear and important distinction.

It’s possible that regional powers might be headed for a grand and protracted confrontation between sectarian forces, whether Sunni versus Shiite, or Sunni versus everybody else, depending on your point of view. But this is by no means a fait accompli – and assuming that it is inevitable constitutes an unethical moral and intellectual surrender.

Since such a conflagration is not in the interests of any major party, it’s also eminently avoidable. And it probably will be avoided, assuming that the key players remain open for other approaches.

Another binary that’s enjoying unwelcome prominence originates with the Israeli analyst Orit Perlov and has been recently popularised by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It pits two Arab dynamics: ISIL versus SISI – the latter standing for the new Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi – as opposing models.

ISIL is supposed to stand for those who elevate God to the centre of all political dynamics, and SISI is meant to represent the trend of relying entirely on (implicitly failed) nation-state governance. This polar model is even weaker than the first because, in this case, SISI doesn’t represent what it’s meant to. In other words, the new Egyptian government can’t be characterised in such a reductive and simplistic manner.

Moreover, there is no basis for seeing the Arab world dividing along these lines. There is a threat of sectarian confrontation, to be sure, but non-state actors only threaten states that are imploding as a result of long-evident structural and identity crises that were probably irresolvable from the time of their foundation.

That doesn’t apply to many, or maybe even most, of the Arab states, although nonstate forces are finding ample stamping grounds in the ruins of the apparently unworkable Sykes-Picot boundaries, which were outlined in 1916 and formalised in the 1920s.

Such binary positions are always appealing at a time of confusion, seeming to offer clarity and structure where there is only opacity and disintegration. But they should be avoided, because this is a false premise.

The Middle East is not divided between government and mosque, failed national states and implausible nonstate parties. Nor is it in the grip of a broader sectarian confrontation. And for everyone’s sake, it had better stay that way. Let’s not wish ourselves into cataclysm before it’s too late.

The Second World War record of Arabs and Muslims is worth marking

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy this month provides a welcome opportunity to recall and re-evaluate the often ignored or misrepresented Arab and Muslim role in the Second World War.

Islamophobic and other hostile voices in the West often mis­characterise the Arab and Muslim participation in the war as largely or entirely pro-Nazi, while Arab and Muslim societies tend to focus on anti-colonial struggles at the expense of the Second World War.

The record is a complex, mixed and nuanced one, but the overarching fact is that Arab and Muslim involvement in the war was overwhelmingly on the Allied side, and was a significant factor in fighting on the ground. The overwhelming majority joined the cause voluntarily, despite British and French colonialism.

Moroccans estimate that 1,700 of their countrymen participated in the D-Day invasion as part of the Free French Army. This only hints at the scale of North African participation in Allied fighting.

The majority of the French army in North Africa in 1939 and 1940 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940, about 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and an estimated 60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans, 12,000 Tunisians and 90,000 other Muslims were captured by the Germans. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944, and that about 52 per cent of all its troops killed during the final year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. Some 40,000 North Africans are estimated to have given their lives in fighting for the liberation of Europe in 1944-45.

Not all incidents involving North African troops were glorious, of course. Atrocities in the war took place on all sides and all fronts, and it’s true that Moroccan forces played a major role in mass rapes of Italian women and killing of Italian men following the bitter Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. The atrocity is still remembered as the “Marocchinate”.

The Allied Muslim contingent from South Asia was even larger. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. At least one-third, if not more, of the British “Indian Army” that fought during the war on many fronts were Indian Muslims – a disproportionately high percentage.

Additional untold numbers were recruited from various Arab states, or among Muslims fighting in the Soviet, Chinese and other Allied armies. Exceptionally few took up arms on the Axis side. About 9,000 Palestinians, for example, joined the British Army during the war.

On the other hand, there were significant groupings with sympathy for Nazi Germany in Arab and Muslim societies. Some of this was clearly driven by anti-colonial sentiment. But at times it clearly crossed the line into outright ideological support, such as by the short-lived Rashid Ali government in Iraq.

The most notorious Arab collaborator with the Nazi regime during the war was the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini. Having been plucked from relative obscurity by the British and installed in his clerical post, and then exiled by them from Palestine, he became an avid supporter of Hitler and his murderous anti-Semitism.

However, following the war, after receiving a hero’s welcome in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Husseini quickly slipped into obscurity and played no further role in Palestinian politics until his death. He remains a largely forgotten figure, with even Hamas according him no real historical significance (unlike his still-lionised contemporary Izzedin Al Qassam).

One of the most frequently cited condemnations of Al Husseini was his role in the formation of a Bosnian Muslim SS division. However, as Marko Attila Hoare has demonstrated, the support of large segments of the Bosnian Muslim population and elite was crucial in the victory of the Yugoslav partisans over Nazi puppet regimes.

Moreover, in one of the most startling and underappreciated facts about the war, the only state that came under direct German occupation that had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than the beginning was also the only Muslim-majority one: ­Albania. Albanian Jews were ­almost entirely saved from the Holocaust because the entire ­society, from the top down, systematically conspired to prevent the Germans from discovering who was Jewish.

The record in German-occupied North Africa was more mixed and less edifying, as Robert Satloff’s research shows. As in most of Nazi-occupied Europe, many North Africans collaborated with the Nazis, or else did nothing, or too little, to resist them or to protect their Jewish neighbours. But others went to great lengths to protect as many Jews as possible. And, as we’ve seen, hundreds of thousands joined the Free French Army to fight the Nazis despite the underlying reality of French colonialism.

Arab and Muslim responses to the Second World War, and their role in the conflict, were enormously varied and include significant instances of glory, shame and ordinary survival. But, it is essential to remember and recognise that huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims fought in the war, and that – in spite of the constant misrepresentation, distortion or downplaying of this reality – they did so almost entirely on the ­Allied side and against Nazi Germany.

The Arab knowledge constituency vs. the ignorance lobby

The saga of Prof. Dajani is a subset of a broader Arab struggle between the forces of intelligence and stupidity

Professor Mohammed Dajani has resigned from his post at Al-Quds University following controversy over his leading of a Palestinian student delegation to Auschwitz


Chalk up another victory to the mighty Arab ignorance and stupidity brigade. Or should we?

Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, who runs the Al-Quds University Department of American Studies and University Library has been allowed to resign his position following the uproar over a trip he led of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some Palestinians, including some of his own university colleagues, attacked Prof. Dajani with a mishmash of incoherent and utterly irrational condemnations.

The whole saga has been most impressively chronicled by the redoubtable Matthew Kalman of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, whose latest report suggests that Prof. Dajani sought and received promises of support from the university leadership, only to have his resignation letter accepted rather than rejected. Presumably Al-Quds University just doesn’t want to hear any more criticism and prefers to turn its back on the entire “controversy” rather than uphold academic freedom in its own institution.

Prof. Dajani told Mr. Kalman that he saw his letter of resignation as “a kind of litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.” If this was indeed a test, they just got a resounding F.

But the whole squalid affair is redolent with Palestinian, and broader Arab, collective neurotic symptoms about others. What, after all, do Palestinians have to gain by insisting their students remain ignorant of the Holocaust? Prof. Dajani argued from the outset that it is essential to understand the Israeli mentality and the Jewish experiences, especially in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, that inform it. It’s an unassailable argument.

Nonetheless, there are those, including professors, who, with a straight face, argue that Palestinians should only be taught, and by implication think, about their own Nakba.

Others tried to argue that the problem was not with the trip to Nazi death camps itself, but rather that Prof. Dajani’s trip was coordinated with an Israeli university that took Jewish students to a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank.

Shock! Horror! Normalization! It’s laughable.

There’s little hope of Israelis and Palestinians improving their dreadful relationship without, among many other things, trying to understand each other’s histories and narratives. That’s hardly a panacea. Real coexistence can only emerge in the absence of occupation, and the structural relationship of dominance and subordination built into that profoundly unhealthy and abusive structure. But better mutual understanding may be an essential component of helping to end the occupation and the conflict.

Even if none of that’s true, knowledge is, nonetheless, power. The constituency for keeping Palestinian students ignorant of certain facts, presumably because they present the truth about Jewish suffering in Europe during the 20th century and that this complicates the understanding of Jewish Israelis simply as oppressors in the occupied Palestinian territories, is a perfect example of the “stupidity lobby.”

And it’s not just restricted to Palestinians and their relationship to Jewish history and the Holocaust. There is a broader conflict throughout Arab culture between those who want to embrace the world, in all its complexity and challenges, versus those who want to crawl inside a warm cocoon of insularity. Relying on nostalgic fantasies about former periods of greatness, the broad Arab ignorance constituency is very powerful.

It includes not only Islamists and other religious dogmatists, including apolitical clerics, but also strident nationalists, leftists, fascists, and chauvinists of every possible variety. Among all of these groupings, as well as the important open-minded and globally-conscious constituencies that are most in favor of engaging the world, there are people who push back against insularity. But for the past century at least, the majority trend in the Arab world has been to try, insofar as possible, to shut out knowledge of and engagement with outsiders, except for commercial purposes.

Many Arabs seem to be suspicious of and hostile towards real knowledge of others (as opposed to myths and stereotypes, of course), and even more engagement with them. Too many of us just don’t want to hear it. Those, like Prof. Dajani, who try to break through this curtain of insularity are frequently punished, or at least criticized, for their embrace of broader realities, some of which are uncomfortable and destabilize reassuring mythologies.

Prof. Dajani says he doesn’t regret the turn of events. Why should he? He’s done something noble and constructive, and he will continue to do so without the support of his former university, through many other venues such as his Wasatia movement. But he, and all those like him throughout the region who want to smash the shackles of decades of carefully cultivated ignorance and embrace history and reality in all its troublesome complexity, are pointing the way.

The whole Arab world is at a turning point. If it continues to allow the stupidity and ignorance lobby, in all its myriad forms, to insist on cultural insularity, chauvinism, and deafness to the outside world, it will remain utterly stuck and unable to successfully join and compete in a globalizing world. But if the intelligence and knowledge constituency, as embodied by Prof. Dajani and so many other important leading Arabs, succeed in turning their societies away from decades of enforced parochialism, they will be among the most important groups in building a better future for the Middle East.

The saga of Prof. Dajani, and the whole battle between the Arab ignorance versus knowledge constituencies, is far from over. My money is on the intelligence community ultimately defeating the stupidity brigade, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Australia’s decision to no longer call East Jerusalem occupied is an attack on international law and order

Australia’s foreign minister and attorney general announced last Thursday that their country would no longer be referring to East Jerusalem as a territory under occupation. They argue that “Occupied East Jerusalem” is “a term freighted with pejorative implications”, which is “neither appropriate nor useful”. Even more preposterously, they deemed it inappropriate “to describe areas of negotiation in such judgemental language”.

It’s hard to know where to begin in picking apart the absurdity of these declarations. The occupation of East Jerusalem is neither “pejorative” nor a “judgement”.

It is a legal and political fact established in countless UN Security Council resolutions beginning with 242 in 1967 and continuing to the present day.

Australia voted for many of these resolutions. And withdrawing recognition of that fact could hardly be more prejudicial to the outcome of talks.

Most significantly, UNSC Resolution 476, passed on June 30, 1980, reaffirmed “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”

The reason for this unanimous international consensus, as explained in the preamble to 242, is the absolute prohibition in the UN Charter against the acquisition of territory by war.

Australia should be required to explain what it thinks East Jerusalem’s legal status is, if it’s not occupied. Becoming the first country in the world other than Israel to reject the judgement of the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and other definitive bodies – as well as an otherwise unanimous international consensus – that East Jerusalem is under occupation, is tantamount to an act of violence against the occupied Arab population of that city.

It strips them of their rights and protections, as people living under occupation, guaranteed by binding international documents, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.

And why stop at East Jerusalem? Why not apply this same twisted “logic” to the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories, including Gaza? They are all subject to negotiations, and by the sophistry of the Australian government, isn’t it also pejorative and prejudicial to describe any of it as occupied?

Earlier this year, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “I would like to see which international law has declared [the settlements] illegal.” Let me help her out.

The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to provide protection to civilians living under occupation. Article 49, paragraph 6, strictly prohibits any transfer of its civilians by the occupying power into areas under occupation. Israel’s settlement activities are hence manifestly illegal under international law.

The convening body for the Convention, the International Red Cross, compiled explanatory notes to the drafting process. These notes explain that paragraph 6 “is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race”.

Therefore, the prohibition against settlement activity is a human rights protection for those living under occupation who have a right not to be colonised.

Since 1967, Israel has been playing a disingenuous double game over whether, in its view, these territories are occupied or not, because both positions raise profound difficulties for them.

Here’s Israel’s conundrum: if territories seized in 1967 are, in fact and under the law, occupied, (as the whole world, with the sole and sudden exception of Australia, believes) then much of its military activity there may be lawful. But its settlement project is definitely not.

Much of what the Israeli military has done is arguably permissible. Establishing military bases, checkpoints and other security measures, in some cases expropriating land for these purposes, and even creating a military government, are potentially within the legal purview of an occupying force. So, when it comes to military matters, the Israelis have based much of their conduct on the legal and political fact that they are conducting an occupation which is, by definition, temporary.

But if the territories are merely “disputed”, in the factually incorrect jargon of some Israelis, then settlement activity might not be unlawful, but much of its military activity must be. Israel would have to immediately dismantle most of its military installations, return the land to its owners with compensation, stop subjecting the population to martial law, and effectively abandon its system of discipline and control over the occupied Palestinian people.

So Israel likes to have it both ways. When it comes to the military, there’s an occupation. When it comes to the settlements, there is no occupation. But the uncontestable truth is these areas are occupied, as all global arbiters have established for almost half a century.

Australia’s sudden refusal to recognise this when it comes to East Jerusalem is not only morally, legally and politically indefensible. It’s an attack on international law and order, and an assault on the basic human rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation in East Jerusalem.

Sisi will be judged on performance, not election numbers

For all the brouhaha over voter turnout, Egypt’s new president will be judged on his conduct in office



After an election that focused on a bizarre tug-of-war over voter turnout, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sworn in as the new president of Egypt. Yet he and his new government will not be judged by the minutia of turnout percentages or the size of his mandate, but rather by their performance in office. They face a daunting set of challenges.

In the first, officially scheduled, two days of the voting, Mr. Sisi’s critics made much of what appeared to be a very low turnout. In a move that suggested undue insecurity about these numbers, the election was extended under dubious legal circumstances for a third day, which was also made a national holiday. In the end, turnout was officially tallied at 44%, with over 90% voting for Sisi.

Despite the extra day of voting, this is not a low turnout, particularly given the number of elections Egyptians have had to vote in over the past few years and the overwhelming likelihood of a massive Sisi victory. And it is a gigantic mandate. Yet in the aftermath of the voting, bickering over the question of turnout continued, as if it were actually a major issue.

It’s not.

Mr. Sisi will undoubtedly be judged based on performance in office, and both the turnout and the size of his mandate won’t assuage the Egyptian public if they feel let down again. He faces three major challenges that will be daunting: security, the economy, and a presidency whose powers are greatly curtailed by the new constitution passed after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.

As both his campaign and that of his rival, Hamdeen Sabahi, emphasized, security is a paramount issue in Egypt, given the undoubted terrorist threat the country faces from armed extremists. But the security and economic questions are deeply interconnected. Foreign investment and the Egyptian stock market have been on the rise since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, but investor confidence will depend on multiple factors, including a sense that security and stability are steadily being restored. Without such confidence, it will be harder to attract sustained foreign direct investment.

In addition, Mr. Sisi’s new government faces myriad structural economic difficulties, some of them deeply fraught politically. Egypt’s currency has been steadily losing value, which could deter additional investment. Unemployment has increased to 13% of the labor force, an unsustainable figure. The generation of jobs will have to be a major priority. Egypt also faces a substantial fiscal deficit, and has yet to fully rebuild ties to the International Monetary Fund, which may be key in reducing that deficit on favorable terms.

The country’s ongoing energy crisis is a crucial indicator of how difficult reconciling necessary economic measures with politically unpopular steps is going to be. The country owes almost six billion dollars to international energy companies, and the inability to pay for needed energy has resulted in power shortages across the country.

Eliminating subsidies and electricity tariffs is an obvious measure to reverse this trend. But one can hardly think of a more politically unpopular move. This tension between what may be economically necessary for a major recovery in the long run, and what will prove politically unpalatable in the short run, is a consistent theme throughout Egypt’s economic puzzle. The conundrum, simply, is that a new government cannot maintain credibility and popularity without achieving significant economic progress, but at the same time, the measures required for such progress may often be deeply unpopular.

Mr. Sisi, whose overall economic approach is still unclear, has spoken of massive building projects that he calculated would cost approximately $140 billion. That’s well over half the country’s gross national income, so how even those job-creating measures would be paid for remains unexplained.

The backdrop to these profound challenges is that Mr. Sisi inherits a presidency whose powers have been enormously curtailed by the new constitution. Once a parliament is in place, the president will be able to do little without its cooperation and approval. This is a major change in Egypt’s traditionally presidential-centric system, and how these new theoretically impressive checks and balances will work in practice to get things done quickly, especially if they anger important constituencies, isn’t clear. The ability of public groupings and entrenched interests to use parliament to block executive action – on paper – would be significant. Mr. Sisi is used to running a military. The new Egyptian political system, as laid out in the new constitution, will be a profoundly different matter.

The overall atmosphere in Egypt isn’t particularly reassuring. In addition to profound and deeply interconnected security and economic challenges, the country has suffered yet another blow to political openness: Bassem Youssef’s irreverent and profoundly healthy “Al Bernameg” television satire program, based on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” has been canceled. The host cited fears for his “personal safety and the safety of [his] family,” although he did not say anything to suggest that Mr. Sisi was directly or indirectly involved in making it impossible for his program to continue.

Whatever the source of these intolerable pressures, Egypt has lost an invaluable and highly positive contribution to culture and discourse. Even when facing serious security and economic woes, a healthy society must be able to tolerate, and indeed should celebrate, satire and irreverence. Whoever were exactly the forces that made Mr. Youssef finally throw in the towel, it’s unlikely they did themselves a favor in the long run.

Even in the context of serious security threats, it’s vital that the new government move quickly to improve the political atmosphere in the country, begin to scale back a crackdown that has been far too indiscriminate and heavy-handed, and open, rather than restrict, the free expression of ideas, including critical ones.

Mr. Sisi now has a clear mandate, significant popularity, and will enjoy a political honeymoon – or at least a grace period – from the general public. But without significant indications of an improving security and economic climate, that honeymoon certainly won’t be open-ended, and may not last all that long. When former President Hosni Mubarak fell, so did the era in which Egyptians would tolerate decades of misrule with patience.

Mr. Morsi managed to exhaust his welcome in less than a year through intolerably arrogant and dictatorial conduct. Mr. Sisi is highly unlikely to repeat such a dismal performance, but his presidential authority is much more limited than that enjoyed by either of his two immediate predecessors. And yet the Egyptian public will undoubtedly still be judging him on a performance basis. They have shown their willingness to withdraw consent from unsatisfactory presidents twice in recent years. Anyone, Mr. Sisi included, is potentially subject to some form of popular expression of no-confidence if they don’t meet minimum expectations.

But it’s in the interests of all responsible parties, and especially Egypt and its people, for Mr. Sisi’s new government to succeed with constructive policies. Therefore he’ll need, and should get, substantial foreign support to meet the daunting problems he faces, in addition to as much patience as the Egyptian public can muster given the depth of these shared national challenges, and, once it’s in place, as much cooperation and as little obstruction from the next parliament on reasonable, constructive policies as possible.