Monthly Archives: February 2015

We must tackle extremist ideas on multiple fronts


We must tackle extremist ideas on multiple fronts


An increasing number of prominent political and religious leaders have been calling for the development of new Arab narratives to counteract the growth of violent extremism. It’s almost a new consensus, but there is little sign of any real movement.

Calling for the development of new discourses is, in effect, just talking about talking. So, concrete action – in the form of resource allocation – is essential if things are actually going to start to change. Voices that can reach a variety of key constituencies must be given the resources they need to thrive and develop.

A wide range of individuals and small institutions already active in the Middle East and the West constitute the essential building blocks of such a development. Yet in many cases they are neglected and starved of funds at best, and harassed and discouraged at worst.

The net effect is that extremists enjoy a huge advantage in strategic communications. They are drawn together by a clearly defined and precise set of narratives. Their backers are almost always focused and often supportive of each other. Even rival groups engaging in bitter mutual recriminations invariably end up reiterating their common basic assumptions, which has the effect of reinforcing each other in spite of themselves.

Opponents of violent extremism among Arabs and Muslims cannot be defined effectively in terms of what they are against. It is practically meaningless to simply be “anti-extremist”. Rather one must be for something. Of course that has to be moderation.

The problem is that “moderation” comes in many forms. It is probably pointless to seek a single, unified social and political agenda to counteract radicalisation and extremism.

Instead, surely there will have to be a wide range of different agendas and perspectives that push back effectively against the rising tide of extremism. This is a practical necessity given the lack of a dominant narrative that can bring together secularists, nationalists, modernisers, traditionalists, monarchists, social conservatives, social liberals and so forth.

Supporting a wide range of perspectives would also represent a practical manifestation of one of the core values common to any genuine form of moderation: diversity.

So, rather than streamlining the messages of counter-radicalisation, it might well be preferable to opt for breadth as well as depth.

Some projects obviously ought to be highly targeted, particularly those seeking to deradicalise, insofar as possible, those already in the clutches of an extremist mindset. But in other cases, the widespread funding and support for lots of small, independent Arab and Muslim organisations that represent a wide variety of variations on the theme of moderation and anti-extremism is urgently required.

The cost of one bombing sortie alone could underwrite several small groups. The aim should not be to find ideological proxies or dutiful clients. Rather, the approach should be to set a wide variety of ideas in motion in order to achieve two ends. First, so that extremism can be attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously. And second, because it is very hard to know in advance what type of message will resonate most effectively, and therefore will both grow organically and independently, and also thereby earn more support from funders.

One approach was demonstrated by Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University, at a recent counterterrorism conference in Saudi Arabia. He called for educational reform to combat the spread of religious extremism, but warned against “the new world colonialism that is allied with world Zionism”.

However, real educational reform surely should be open to, rather than suspicious of, the international community and global culture.

Such an approach is being attempted by a number of neglected small institutions, including Al Wasatia, a Palestinian organisation founded by the academic Mohammed Dajani.

Al Wasatia is dedicated to promoting moderate and traditional interpretations of Islam and building bridges within Palestinian society and with western educational institutions. Along with his organisation’s moderate religious agenda, Mr Dajani has pioneered Holocaust education among Palestinians on the grounds that they need to understand the mentality of their occupiers and have nothing to fear from historical truth.

The battle against extremism can’t be really joined, let alone won, until the key societies, especially the United States and its key Arab allies, begin to seriously fund, support and promote the moderates in the trenches.

Wealthy extremists have been very generous to their allies, which has been a major factor in the growth of terrorism in the Middle East. The mainstream has been a lot less forthcoming.

Countless Arab and Muslim organisations around the world are struggling to promote one aspect or another of moderate politics or religiosity, but find themselves unable to secure even the most modest funding.

Until that changes, we’re likely to hear more talk about the need for new narratives, but very little movement in that direction.

South’s secession may be least-worst way out of Yemen crisis

South’s secession may be least-worst way out of Yemen crisis


It’s finally time to start drafting the political obituary of the modern Yemeni state. The country now faces a perfect trifecta of fatal maladies – civil war, terrorism and secession.

A civil war is starting to look inevitable. The announcement by the Houthi militia, a Zaidi Shiite rebel group, that it has dissolved parliament and taken over the government will probably eventually provoke an armed backlash from Sunni groups. The Houthis began the process in September by storming the capital Sanaa. And they have now all but completed their takeover.

The alliance and a reported recent agreement between the Houthi militia and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh give some observers hope that an understanding of sorts can be reached. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how Mr Saleh could play a role in brokering a stable new governing arrangement.

Instead, it looks as if his attempt to use the Houthis as a way to return to power is backfiring because his allies lack any clear incentive to defer to him on major issues. Friday’s announcement seems calculated to emphasise that, whoever they are dealing with, the Houthis see themselves alone as the decision-makers. And for now at least, they seem to be exercising virtually uncontested power in the capital.

Judging by the recent history of other failed states in the Middle East, this is highly alarming. Once sectarianism strongly takes hold in a country that is experiencing broad-based power struggles between groups defined by their religious identity, it is extremely difficult to contain. Whatever Mr Saleh may have been hoping to achieve, it’s much more likely that Sunni forces loyal to him in the military and elsewhere will eventually get drawn into a broad-based sectarian confrontation with the Houthis.

A power struggle based on confessional divisions appears to be already brewing. Friday’s “coup” announcement prompted the widespread expression of outrage by demonstrators in urban centres as well as in rural and tribal areas. It may well be that Mr Saleh believes that he has manipulated the formation of the new “national council”, which will operate in place of the presidency. But there is so much opposition that such an arrangement is unlikely to prove viable.

And even if Mr Saleh were to be somehow returned to a nominal position of power in a new Houthi-dominated system, he would almost certainly discover that he is either just a figurehead or that his alliance with the Shiite group cannot be sustained in the long run.

These tensions, and a brewing civil conflict, play perfectly into the hands of violent extremist and terrorist groups. Al Qaeda in Yemen is widely regarded as the most potent and dangerous Al Qaeda franchise currently in operation. It is one of the few that is regarded as having the ability and the willingness to attempt major terrorist acts throughout the region and in the West. Most recently, for example, Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The ability of Al Qaeda in Yemen and other extremist terrorist organisations to claim to be the champions of the Sunni community against a “Shiite onslaught” will be greatly strengthened by the Houthi takeover. And it’s impossible to imagine that ISIL too, does not regard the developing situation in Yemen as perfectly suited to its own twisted modus operandi.

This, in turn, raises the highly disturbing prospect that the United States – following the logic of the current Obama administration’s policies – could find itself drawn into a strategic alliance with a Houthi-dominated government in Sanaa, or even the Houthi militia directly. There is already alarming evidence of an intelligence relationship, and maybe more, developing under the rubric of fighting common enemies such as Al Qaeda.

But the greatest threat of all to the survival of the contemporary Yemeni state is Al Hirak, the powerful southern movement. It is an umbrella group that is seeking to restore independence to South Yemen, which existed as a separate country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, for a few decades from the mid-1960s. Southerners were never fully reconciled to the national unity arrangement that, many of them feel, was effectively imposed on them in 1990. Even with noteworthy southerners having served in key positions, the south perennially felt marginalised and disenfranchised.

Most southern groups have been blunt about their redoubled determination to secede because of the rise of the Houthis and the strengthening of Al Qaeda. And, as Amal Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Wilson Centre’s Middle East programme, has pointed out, some of Yemen’s neighbours, including the Arab Gulf states, may reluctantly conclude that they have little choice but to support the breakaway of the south.

Most of Yemen’s neighbours would like to see the country remain intact. But if southern secession means that at least a part of Yemen could be saved from Iranian hegemony, civil war and an expanding fertile ground for terrorist fanatics, it might be viewed as a necessary evil. External support, of course, would greatly enhance the prospects of success for secessionists, which would mean the break-up of the country.

What will take its place very much remains to be seen. But the Yemeni state as we have known it almost certainly can’t survive the emerging triple threat of civil war, terrorism and secession.

How “Islamic” is the “Islamic State?”

Recent controversies have revived a pointless debate from the Bush era

Volunteer Shiite fighters who supports the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group, hold a black Islamist flag allegedly belonging to ISIS militants in the village of Fadhiliyah on 24 February 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The international conversation that forms the backdrop for the campaign against the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS or ISIL) terrorist group has suddenly found itself drawn into a rabbit hole. Politicians, pundits, preachers and pontificators of all sorts are presently tearing their hair out over how to navigate the relationship between the Islamic State and Islam. But this is a dreadful waste of time, a dead-end and a matter that is easily resolved.

The handwringing over this issue dates back to the immediate post-9/11 era, when President George W. Bush went to great lengths to distinguish the ideology and agenda of the Al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked the United States from Islam and Muslims in general. It is likely that Bush’s early rhetoric had a positive impact on the wave of backlash violence and discrimination facing American Muslims (and others mistaken for them, especially Sikh men). It’s even likely that lives were saved.

Unfortunately, Bush did not maintain this rhetoric as carefully as he had done at first during the subsequent years of his presidency. And, indeed, elements of the “war on terror,” especially regarding national security measures taken against various categories of noncitizens, and the invasion of Iraq helped to contribute to a very different atmosphere in the United States, in which the government appeared to be reserving to itself the right to discriminate while strictly enforcing the law against individuals and non-governmental institutions.

But Bush always, and correctly, maintained that the “war on terror” was not, in any sense, a war against Islam. People on the political right, as well as some leftists and others, were harshly critical of Bush’s rhetoric in this regard. They claimed that it was a lack of nerve, and a refusal to be honest about the nature of the threat facing the United States and its identity, that informed his refusal to speak in terms of “Islamic terrorism,” or some similar phraseology.

Bush’s supporters countered that it was only sensible diplomatically to respect the sensitivities of key American allies in the Muslim world who would be offended by such language. They added that it would have been foolish to grant Al-Qaeda and similar groups the legitimacy that would go along with acknowledging any sort of authentic religious element to their agenda. This logic invariably won the day in governmental and most serious policy circles regarding counterterrorism and national security.

I recall the Bush era because this tired old argument has suddenly flared up again well into the second term of his successor, Barack Obama. Now, in the context of the Islamic State, Obama is accused of everything that used to be hurled in the direction of Bush, but with the additional implication that Obama is insufficiently patriotic (or worse).

The issue has been lately further exacerbated by controversies swirling around a recent article by Graham Wood in The Atlantic which tried to explain elements of Islamic State ideology to the American public. In particular, Wood revived the debate by declaring: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”

So now, rather than debating how best to counter these fanatics, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-narratives and messaging designed to defeat their propaganda, we find ourselves once again dragged into the quagmire of “how Islamic is the Islamic State?” Wood’s thoughtful and serious article is long, complex, and, generally speaking, very sound. It’s a welcome contribution to one of the most important debates in contemporary international relations. But there are several places in which Wood seems to lose the plot, become tangled in contradictions or, as with the strange ending about the potential virtues of quietest Salafism, charge headlong in false directions.

One of the most obvious of Wood’s mistakes is the concept that the Islamic State is, or could possibly be, “very Islamic.” After all, either it is or it isn’t. There is no question of “very” in this context. And, unfortunately, it is. There can be no doubt that ISIS is composed of fanatical Muslims who justify everything they do through a bizarre and vicious interpretation of Islam. They are fortunate in that Islamic history is so rich, dense, diverse and multifarious that they can readily justify almost anything in terms of some aspect of Islamic history, doctrine, dogma, culture or practices.

There is no reason to doubt their sincerity, either. It’s impossible to know what aspect of cynicism intrudes on the purity of their religious and political fanaticism, and it doesn’t matter. Their public face is that of a Muslim extremist organization that rationalizes all of its behavior in terms of a peculiar and particular reading of Islamic traditions, culture and history. But it’s as meaningless to deem them “very Islamic,” as it would be to deem them “un-Islamic.”

And there are plenty of people, including some of the most important governments presently arrayed against them, who passionately insist that the “Islamic State” is precisely that: “un-Islamic.” But this is essentially to try to argue that because an organization’s beliefs and practices are manifestly evil, they cannot be “Islamic” because Islam is good. Again, one can understand the political and diplomatic impulse to make such a claim. But it is intellectually indefensible.

Like all of the other great faith and civilizational traditions of humanity, Islam, writ large as a series of very diverse and heterogeneous social texts, contains virtually every aspect of the human experience in some form or another. The old slogan popular during the Bush era — that Islam is a “religion of peace” — is perfectly meaningless. After all, the primary social function of religion, as with other aspects of culture, is to legitimize the conduct of power. It is therefore infinitely malleable, and can be successfully deployed to rationalize virtually any social or political agenda.

In the United States, for example, for almost 100 years, the battle for and against slavery was framed almost entirely in terms of competing religious interpretations among the same small set of Protestant Christian denominations. Supporters of slavery justified the institution on religious grounds, and abolitionists attacked it using the same texts. Christianity did not have a default position on the issue. It could be, and was, used with equal effectiveness by both sides in a Civil War fought almost entirely over the issue of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, which he delivered in the midst of that conflict. “Both [sides in the American Civil War] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln noted.

There are two obvious errors to be made, traps to be fallen into, in this not-terribly-complex problem.

First, it really cannot be maintained that ISIS is not Muslim in some sense or another. Indeed, it is a terrorist organization made up entirely of Muslim fanatics who use the religion to justify their transgressions and crimes. Just think in terms of the need for counter-messaging. Does anyone believe for a moment that counter-narratives that do not stress and emphasize religious arguments against Islamic State barbarism would be effective? Obviously not. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that there is a strong Islamic component, however twisted, to the narratives, ideology and agenda propagated by the Islamic State. An additional irony, of course, is that to call Islamic State fighters “un-Islamic” is to at least flirt with the takfiri practices that make them so extreme in the first place.

Second, it would be equally erroneous to conclude that the group comprises, therefore, “the Muslims,” or that it is authentically Islamic, or, in Wood’s unfortunate phrase, “very Islamic.” It is obviously none of those things. Its ideology is contemporary, novel, bizarre and profoundly out of sync with mainstream Islam, both now and historically. There is nothing “authentic” or representative about it. Quite to the contrary, in fact.

It ought to be a fairly simple, straightforward issue. But it is complicated by the genuine diplomatic and political need of some governments and leaders, including American ones, to play the game of denying that there is anything “Islamic” about an organization of fanatical and extremist Muslims. Clearly there is more to be gained through this strategic dissimulation than is lost, and everyone who can understand the reasons for it should nod and move on. Those who don’t understand it just need to think a little bit more clearly about the problem.

As for the rest of us, it’s high time to get back to the real issues such as how best to defeat the “Islamic State” both on the battlefield and politically, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-messaging. There couldn’t be a bigger waste of time than this overwrought fretting about how “Islamic” the “Islamic state” is.

Netanyahu’s US trip won’t prompt any backlash … yet

Netanyahu’s US trip won’t prompt any backlash ... yet


Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3 is almost certain to go ahead as scheduled, and, after a period of recrimination, fade quickly into memory with no practical repercussions.

Mr Netanyahu is going to Washington to complain about US policies, particularly regarding Iran. He was invited by the Republicans who control Congress, behind the back of Barack Obama. This is much more than a breach of protocol. It’s a direct affront. In terms of the bilateral relationship, it could hardly be more inappropriate.

It is, in effect, another intervention by Mr Netanyahu in the American political process. He is once again publicly siding with partisan Republicans against equally partisan Democrats. And, of course, he is seeking the support of American politicians in his own campaign to retain the premier’s office for another term following Israeli elections shortly after his congressional address.

Most members of Congress will attend his speech. He will get an enthusiastic reception, and applause from many, if not most, attendees during his punch lines. Criticism will be muted and restricted to observations about the improper process by which he was invited by Republican legislators, not his inevitable attack on US foreign policy or other implicit and explicit criticisms of the United States.

The Obama administration will, no doubt, continue to make its displeasure widely known. And there will be additional complaints from the administration that Mr Netanyahu has unfairly characterised US policies, which will be defended.

But that’s all that’s going to happen. There aren’t going to be any major repercussions for Mr Netanyahu or Israel. Indeed, the affair is likely to help Mr Netanyahu in his own election campaign.

Normally Israeli prime ministers who are perceived as disturbing relations with the United States find themselves at considerable political risk. In this case Mr Netanyahu’s position is different because of two factors.

First, Mr Obama is greatly disliked and mistrusted by a large number of Israeli Jews. Being seen as “standing up” to him is unlikely to offend this large group, most of whom are on the political centre and right.

Second, the widespread unrest in the Middle East has provided a vivid backdrop for Mr Netanyahu’s appeal to Israelis that he is a safe and trustworthy “security-first” leader who will protect them in an uncertain and potentially dangerous environment.

In recent years, Mr Netanyahu has been cultivating a “fortress Israel” mentality which views Israeli security as best defended by hunkering down, turning inward and preserving the status quo while waiting for the storm to pass.

Any Israeli who buys into this fundamental analysis is unlikely to be overly perturbed about minor disruptions in relations with the United States.

Moreover, Mr Netanyahu’s forthcoming affront is very unlikely to harm either him or Israel in the United States. He could hardly be more disliked by the Obama administration, so he has very little to lose on that score. But personalities are so incidental to the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States that is not the subject of active debate or consideration in the American political conversation. It is a settled issue, accepted by the entire mainstream and resting on a rock-solid bipartisan consensus. For now, that is.

Therefore, as long as Mr Netanyahu can remain Israel’s prime minister, he will continue to be welcomed in Washington and treated with respect, and possibly even forced and phoney affection. The administration will continue to pursue its policies no matter how much he complains. They will ignore him. But they will not retaliate in any meaningful sense, because it’s just not worth the headache.

But it is all a very useful index of a growing dysfunctionality in the US-Israel relationship.

Those outside the United States who believe that Israel somehow controls American politics or policies, or that Israel is the dominant partner in the relationship, are clearly wrong. It’s a silly conspiracy theory that only reflects a profound ignorance about the actual mechanics of American policymaking.

However, those inside the United States who think that the Israeli-American relationship is rational or reasonable, and who do not recognise when and how it frequently drifts into the indefensible, are also misguided. It’s an absurdity that the leader of a small and dependent state would be welcomed in Congress, and honoured by a joint session no less, with the express purpose of bashing US foreign policy.

There is no need to indulge in clichéd hyperbole such as citing George Washington’s warnings about “excessive partiality” to foreign powers to recognise that this embarrassing dynamic is completely inappropriate for the United States. And, while there won’t be any direct fallout this time, the controversy moves Israel ever closer to becoming a partisan issue and a political football in the United States.

Clearly, aspects of the US-Israel relationship are developing in a direction that isn’t doing either country any favours.

The ISIS Theater of Cruelty

WASHINGTON — The waves lap languidly against the coastline as flickering, spectral images crackle back and forth across the screen. A seemingly endless parade of black-clad assassins, each leading his own sacrificial victim, files across the beachfront in a skillful montage with multiple angles, overhead shots and MTV-style rapid editing.

The camera lingers on the terror on the victims’ faces as one of the killers, singled out by his camouflage outfit, issues dire threats in distinctly American English with a light Arabic accent. The victims are then pushed facedown onto the sand and gruesomely decapitated, each man’s severed head being placed on top of his torso. The sea is seen as running red with blood.

So goes the latest snuff video by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, apparently showing the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya. Yet again, the jihadist propaganda shocked friend and foe alike with its signature combination of high production values and stunning brutality.

This new video followed hard on the heels of another in February showing a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive. The agony of his immolation was ended only when a loader dumped concrete rubble on the site — a macabre dramatization of the jihadists’ claim of a moral equivalence between Jordan’s bombing raids against the Islamic State and their execution of a prisoner.

The Islamic State’s victims are typically made to wear orange jumpsuits, an obvious reference to detainees at the American military base in Guantánamo, Cuba. In the new video, the setting on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is explained by its proximity to Europe (the spokesman repeats the Islamic State’s ambition to “conquer Rome”) and because the United States had “hidden” the killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden beneath the waves (he was buried at sea).

This symbolism is deliberate and typical: Built into the group’s elaborate scenarios is a sophisticated communications strategy intended to convey multiple messages to several audiences.

Both videos prompted outrage throughout the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, with both countries launching bombing raids against Islamic State positions. The group appears unconcerned. A resolutely vanguardist organization, it seeks to violently impose a new reality on the populace, not to win the hearts and minds of a majority.

As for its adversaries, the Islamic State’s most obvious purpose is to sow fear. During its campaigns in Syria and Iraq, the group has demonstrated an alarming degree of success in terrorizing opponents. This imperative accounts for the videos’ escalating viciousness. Each new release must trump the last in spectacular sadism to keep potential enemies worrying about what unspeakable torments might be visited upon their tender flesh.

But the primary audience for Islamic State propaganda is not foreign governments. The group is recruiting Sunni tribesmen and foreign fighters faster than coalition airstrikes can deplete its forces. We are witnessing perhaps the greatest international volunteer force drive since the Spanish Civil War. And, as its new video demonstrates, the Islamic State, along with its slick propaganda, has now spread to Libya. Clearly, the jihadist message is getting through, but how?

The most obvious statement is strength and defiance: the empowerment that comes from the harshest possible retaliation against societies attacking the Islamic State. Hence the crude moral economy of reciprocity.

Millenarian buzzwords suffuse Islamic State rhetoric, which promises Muslim redemption from a history of humiliation. With soft focus, slow fades, color saturation, superimpositions and carefully layered soundtracks, the group’s most effective videos are haunting. Its fighters seem to hover, spectral and numinous, as if holy or angelic. They offer to transport the audience into an imaginary prophetic space in which “end times” approach: The return of the caliphate will burn “the crusader army in Dabiq” (a Syrian town which, in some traditions, is a Muslim equivalent of Armageddon).

The Islamic State’s messaging thus posits the group as a radical alternative to Western-inflected, modern global culture, as well as to the prevailing regional order in the Middle East. It mines the reservoir of collective Muslim cultural memory when it declares its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new caliph.

The Islamic State’s atavistic aesthetic draws on the widespread notion that the earliest generations of Muslims practiced the purest form of Islam because they were nearer the time of revelation. Closeness to them means proximity to the divine will.

The paradox is that despite these foundational claims, the Islamic State project is quintessentially a movement grounded in modernity, a regressive political reaction to 21st-century grievances. Most Muslims are appalled by the Islamic State’s savagery and spectacles of glorified sadism. But its conflation of millenarian yearning and contemporary grievance, of a mystical desire to redeem history with more profane appeals such as Yazidi sex slaves or child brides as young as 9, is proving potent with a disturbingly large constituency of angry, alienated young men. However appalling it may be, the Islamic State has a clear, simple and internally consistent narrative.

There are few, if any, counter-narratives or alternatives with which it has to compete among its target audience of young recruits. Now drawn in to military action against the Islamic State, the coalition has neglected the ideological power of its propaganda. The hosting this week of an international White House summit on countering violent extremism, and plans to beef up the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, are welcome but insufficient measures.

One cannot fight something with nothing. The administration is going to have to spend a great deal more time, effort and resources, and work closely with its regional allies, to develop a set of messages that can push back effectively against the prophetic, mystical appeal of the Islamic State’s theater of cruelty.