Posted in 9/11, Al Qaeda, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Fundamentalism, Iran, Iraq, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Obama, Osama, Radical, revolution, September 11, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, youth, tagged 9/11, Al Qaeda, America, democracy, Egypt, elections, Europe, Iraq, Libya, Middle East, mullah, Muslims, Radical, Syria, Tunisia, U.S. Foreign Policy, Yemen, youth on April 24, 2011 |
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“La Ikhwan, La Salafia. A Sha’ab Bidu Huriyya.”
“No Muslim Brotherhood. No Salafists. The Youth want Freedom.”
The language above on the sign held up by a Syrian protester this week encapsulates all the promise, and anxiety, of this moment for Western policy makers watching the Arab revolutions unfold. What kind of freedom? Who will step into the vacuum? What will be their world view?
Stepping into this dangerous information void is a familiar narrative for those of us who have been watching the region for some time, finding its voice once again in the global media echo chamber. In the 80′s and 90′s it was a barely reported whisper in the secure, secular anterooms of power, yet it resonated with the right audience. Strongmen in immaculate Armani suits in Cairo and Damascus and Sana’a pulled aside envoys from Rome to Paris to Washington for a measured, and entirely calculated pronouncement: We have a problem. The mullahs have toppled the Shah. The fundamentalist wave is now sweeping thru our own countries. Look the other way while we deal with it…
And we did. The secular, benevolent dictator was much preferable to the bearded fundamentalist. Benevolent to our own interests, of course, not so much those of their own people. In Iraq, Saddam invaded Iran and brutally crushed Kurdish and Shi’ite dissent, all with Western weapons and financing. In Syria, the late Hafez Al-Assad reduced the city of Hama- the center of the Syrian Islamist movement- to rubble. In Egypt, pitched battles took place between Mubarak’s security forces and Islamic groups. And perhaps most damning, in hindsight, a moderate Islamic party won a free and fair election in Algeria, only to be brutally removed by a cabal of generals who tipped the country towards civil war, without so much as a peep from Western leaders.
All of this, years before Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden were even a coherent operational entity. All of this, and our leaders still scratch their heads and wonder out loud why political Islam has turned dangerously radical.
What has changed today? In Libya, the Qaddafi family mafia screams of Al Qaeda rebels and Islamist conspiracies. In Syria, the younger Assad talks of armed gangs with sinister Islamic credentials. In Egypt, military rulers continue to play the heart-strings of Western Islamophobia, hinting of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in upcoming elections. Yemen’s President Saleh long ago mastered the art of the American shake down: extracting millions in U.S. aid by playing up the threat of exploding underwear bombers and then using those resources to crush any dissent to his rule. Let’s not limit ourselves to the Arab world. The corrupt autocrats of Pakistan and Afghanistan have extracted billions in American treasure while doing little to combat (and much to proliferate) the fundamentalist forces in their own countries. Why would they when extremist Islam is a source of so much badly needed foreign exchange? The Islamophobia con game has not been limited even to sitting rulers. In the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Iraqi exile groups were persistent in their arguments that Saddam was conspiring with Al Qaeda, and their persistence paid off by pushing America to war, despite a shred of real evidence to substantiate their claims.
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Posted in 9/11, Al Qaeda, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Fundamentalism, Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Obama, Osama, Radical, revolution, September 11, South Asia, Taleban, Taliban, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, youth, tagged 9/11, Al Qaeda, America, Americans, Arab, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Hamas, islam, Libya, Middle East, Muslims, Obama, Radical, Saudi Arabia, Taliban, terrorism, Tunisia, U.S. Foreign Policy, youth on March 27, 2011 |
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“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”
It’s good for a laugh. A cheap laugh. The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis. No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population. Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001? Really? Have we become that morally unhinged? Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11. Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader. Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya? Of course. No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism. France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores. Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum. Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price. Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force. So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause? Hmmm. It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.
There is something bigger here. Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better. Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state. On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror. They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself. Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.
No longer. The Arab Street has emerged. Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”. Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging. Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.
Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda? Why the strange silence during the region’s most volatile hour in decades? Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments. What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure. Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system? What would they offer them? Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran? Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people. The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.
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Posted in 9/11, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Europe, Fundamentalism, islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, Pakistan, Radical, September 11, South Asia, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, Women, tagged 9/11, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, America, Americans, Europe, islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, Pakistan, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy on November 1, 2010 |
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Muslim communities across America can only cringe once again at the latest spate of news: package bombs from Yemen bound for Chicago area synagogues; a plot to simultaneously bomb multiple subway stations in the DC metro area. In both cases, the main culprits are American citizens of Muslim faith and heritage: in Yemen, Anwar Al Awlaki, a wily American born cleric, has become the spiritual and operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and one of the most wanted terrorist operatives on the planet; and Farooque Ahmad, a 34 year-old naturalized American of Pakistani birth caught in an FBI sting operation in Virginia. Since last year over 60 Americans have been charged or convicted of terrorism, many of them born or converted Muslims with jihadist sympathies. What is going on?
The Ground Zero mosque episode, the Koran book burning, an embattled president in an election year who spent time as a boy in Indonesia and whose father happened to be Muslim. As if America Muslims needed another home-spun sound-byte to reduce their profile from bad to worse in the eyes of fellow Americans. As they have understandably done over the past decade, many American Muslims continue to keep their heads down, practice a quiet faith, pay their taxes, and avoid any overtly political act or public forum.
Is that the answer, though? Complacency and quietism? Should American Muslims remain silent for fear of retaliation or humiliation? Is it better just to not attract attention and quietly disavow the extremists who have perverted Islam for their own ends on the one side, avoiding the ignorant, xenophobic Americans (and Europeans) who blame Islam for all society’s ills on the other? Is that the extent of the Muslim responsibility when it comes to the future of their own faith and civilization? Keep your head down, grin and bear it?
Granted, there are other forces that have been at work here for decades that have little to do with religion and that most Americans are completely ignorant of when passing judgement on Islam and Muslims. A string of secular tyrants in the Middle East, supported with American treasure and arms, torturing and radicalizing their own countrymen and limiting space for moderate forms of political Islam in their own societies. An American funded jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan that, along with Saudi money and Pakistani organization, fueled the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Unconditional American financing and support for an Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands that has gone beyond its 40th year, an occupation that plays into the hands of extremists bent on killing innocents at any cost.
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Posted in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Fundamentalism, Iraq, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Pakistan, Radical, South Asia, Taliban, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, Women, tagged Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Americans, democracy, Egypt, Iraq, islam, Pakistan, Radical, South Asia, U.S. Foreign Policy on October 6, 2010 |
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In Tamim Ansary’s excellent history, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes- written in plain, digestable English, not scholar-speak- a particular passage recently struck me as a lost morsel of critical perspective as we wage our “global war against extremism”. In his book, Ansary is talking about the 7th century battle of Uhud, in which the Prophet Muhammad and his followers are defeated by a Meccan army when they momentarily break ranks in their lust for booty and are led into a trap that kills scores and wounds Muhammad himself. The lesson learned and the cycle of thought established, early on in Muhammad’s struggle, was that:
“Divine support was not an entitlement; Muslims had to earn the favor of Allah by behaving as commanded and submitting to His will. This explanation for defeat provided a stencil that Muslims invoked repeatedly in later years, after the Mongol holocaust of the thirteenth century, for example, when nomadic invaders from Central Asia overwhelmed most of the Islamic world, and again in response to Western domination, which began in the eighteenth century and continues to this day.”
Are Muslims still overtly stressing today about Mongol hordes and 7th century battles? Probably not. It was a long time ago. But this history on some level is an integral part of the Muslim consciousness in the same way that Bible stories form an important part of the Christian psyche in America. They shape attitudes and actions.
This is the problem with civilizations that were once great. When they inevitably decline, their inheritors often draw the wrong conclusions as to what the problem is and how to fix it. Since the Islamic world was once so dominant in every way- dwarfing Europe in science, medicine, tolerance, wealth, military technology- for much of its early history, it is a difficult exercise for Muslims today to admit that the tables have turned and address the root causes dispassionately. Inevitably, emotions and pride kick in and many fall back on the divine favor exemplified by the Uhud parable, with the West playing the role not of enabling partner but of scourge sent to punish the faithful. This feeds a pattern of denial that doesn’t solve the problem, but only exacerbates it.
In the Western world, and in particular in the United States, there is another kind of denial playing out. Reams of position papers, daily briefs, books, op-eds, consultations and conferences have been devoted to fine tuning and teasing out our objectives in this “global campaign”. $2 trillion and counting has been spent invading, demolishing, rebuilding, and reforming Muslim lands. Careers and indeed fortunes (largely Western) have been made around buzz words like nation building, local accountability, institutional transparency, conflict resolution, female empowerment. Freedom and liberty for all. All worthy goals. They mean nothing if a large swath of Muslims continue to see the “West” as playing the immutable role of outsider/barbarian in the defining pattern of their world view.
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Posted in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Europe, Fundamentalism, Hizbullah, Iran, Iraq, islam, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East, Muslims, Sunni, Taleban, Taliban, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, tagged Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Americans, Europe, Iran, Iranians, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East, mullah, Muslims, Palestinians, Radical, U.S. Foreign Policy on August 4, 2010 |
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I don’t usually write about a status update on Facebook, but this one seemed to encapsulate so many of the complexities we deal with when trying to understand the shifting sands of identity in the Middle East. I haven’t seen or talked to this “friend” in several years, since a few too many drinks and a late-night cigar on Jemayzee Street in Beirut, but his one-liner- “Don’t Touch My Lebanon”-written in French, not Arabic- immediately caught my eye.
As you might have guessed, my friend is Christian Lebanese and like most in that community, often feels more comfortable speaking sophisticated French than his native Arabic. The Christian communities of Lebanon have in many ways been more attuned to European and Western culture than their fellow Muslim citizens. Many look to Rome for spiritual guidance, prefer Paris or London as their vacation spots, and welcome a closer relationship with France and even the United States, if only to counter the growing influence of groups such as Hizbullah which have the demographics of the poorer, more traditional Shi’ite communities on their side. It is a good bet that my friend and many of his friends and their families fought against Hizbullah and many of the other Muslim militia groups during the Lebanese civil war in the 80s and 90s. Some of these Lebanese Christian militias, like the Phalange, became allies of Israel when it invaded Lebanon in 1982 to oust the PLO from its bases there.
But my friend was not talking to Hizbullah when he said “Don’t Touch My Lebanon.” He was talking to Israel. He was responding to a minor incident several days ago that barely made any of the international news wires- an exchange of gunfire between Israeli and Lebanese troops along their border that left several dead on both sides. His status update was followed by a more pointed comment by my friend a day later, something to the effect that Israel would think twice about invading Lebanon again ever since their losses in the 2006 war when Hizbullah fought them to a stalemate. Lebanese politics, always treacherous and byzantine, apparently ends at the border in this instance. When the nation is threatened, Christian and Muslim adversaries rally around the flag.
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Posted in Al Qaeda, Europe, Fundamentalism, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, Women, tagged Al Qaeda, Arab Gulf, Europe, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, U.S. Foreign Policy, veil on July 21, 2010 |
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A colleague is heading overseas for an important meeting with some Arab Gulf investors next week. But he flies to South of France instead of the Middle East. Mediterranean Europe has long been the summer playground of the Arab petro-elite. Closer than America (without the oversized no-fly lists) and even more permissive, Arab men have enjoyed the Med’s forbidden delights now for generations. Scantily clad women confidently sunning their bare breasts on pebble beaches. Freely available whiskey (three fingers) and champagne from where it originally got its name. Night Club debauchery and seaside boardwalks filled with every walk of life imaginable. In short, the vibrant diversity that the powers that be in Arab Gulf societies could never tolerate.
This year the month of choice for this annual pilgrimage seems to be July rather than the ritual August, perhaps because the holy month of Ramadan begins in mid-August. An additional irony for those leading two very different and contrarian lives- hurry up and get all that partying in so you can get back home and be a good Muslim.
But Europe will be a slightly different place this year and perhaps in years to come. Will the Arab Boys of Summer notice? A rash of laws have come up for passage in legislatures from France to Spain to Belgium. The Muslim veil and its varied incarnations are slowly being banned across the continent, branded as un-European and oppressive towards women. Europe’s growing Muslim immigrant communities- the young proletariat whose hard work increasingly makes it possible for aging white Europeans to earn their pensions- cry foul. This is discrimination, they say. This is against our rights of free expression. This is an attack on our culture and religion. How can you call yourself a free society?
The debate is an old one , fraught with intellectual twists and turns and fiery advocates on both sides. There is nothing in the Koran that commands women to cover their faces. Stricter interpretations were handed down by bearded men millennia ago in the interests of social control and stability. In today’s globalized world they have become laughable as the young Muslim woman enters public space, in tight jeans and thick makeup, topped by a head scarf to somehow recapture her modesty.
Does Islam’s modern contradictions make Europe’s new laws just? Are Europe’s leaders genuinely acting for the welfare of their newest immigrant communities, stripping away an oppressive cultural symbol and helping Muslim women emerge into the light? Unlikely. The State, however powerful, cannot enter the Muslim home and dictate its culture. And these new statutes are more about old Europe than its young new comers. Therein lies the second paradox, sitting coolly in the Riviera breeze beside the first- the insecurity of the Arab Boys of Summer who escape to Europe because they cannot- will not- fight for diversity in their own homes. Europe, seemingly more confident in its own collective identity, now needs to pass laws defining public dress and what it means to be European. What is next? A yellow crescent pinned to every Muslim lapel in the simmering barrios of Paris and Madrid? What a coup for Al Qaeda and its suffering recruitment centers.
Do the Arab Boys of Summer care that their sister faithful living in Europe cannot express their Islamic identities, cannot don the hijab of their ancestors? Knowing many of them personally, I don’t think so. These women are not their wives, sisters or cousins. They are the have-nots who did not have the family or tribal connections to enter the elite in their own countries. Europe and the Muslim world have been described by political scientists and politicians as diametrically opposed, two cultural tectonic plates forever poised to grate and clash against one another. Given their twin hypocrisies, their gross insecurities tied to timeless and entirely imagined identities, they don’t look so different these days. From this vantage point, the Arab Boys of Summer and old Europe look more alike than ever.
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Posted in Al Qaeda, democracy, Egypt, Europe, Fundamentalism, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized, Women, tagged Egypt, Europe, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy on January 25, 2010 |
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France’s parliament will be debating a full ban on the hijab, or Muslim face veil, this Spring. The Dutch are considering a similar ban in schools and government offices. Several states in Germany have already banned teachers from wearing the veil. The Swiss will most likely debate a ban soon, after recently prohibiting the construction of new mosque minarets. Dutch far-right parliamentarian Geert Wilders went on trial last week for, among other things, calling for an end to “the Islamic invasion” and likening the Koran to Mein Kampf.
Restricting overtly Islamic dress is nothing new, even within the Muslim world. Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey all have varying degrees of prohibition against the veil to combat the influence of political Islam in their societies. For most women, many of them Muslim, the veil has no basis in Islamic tradition. It is an innovation meant to exploit and oppress. But perhaps the more pertinent question is this: in Europe’s thousand year history of conflict and coexistence with the Islamic world, why is the reaction to Islamic symbolism gathering steam now? Europe certainly is not more Christian than in any time in its history. On the contrary, one can say religion has been playing a steadily decreasing roll in politics and society since the age of Inquisition and Crusade. So what’s going on?
One must look at this as a struggle over collective identity, with Islam and Europe representing opposite sides of the same coin. The supreme irony is that as the co-dependency between Europe and the Muslim world builds, so does potential conflict. As Europe ages, it must import more and more younger workers from the Muslim world to fuel the labor demands of its economies. Similarly, Muslim economies have failed to provide for the employment and social safety net needs of their growing populations. The people move where the supply-demand imbalances are. In places like France and Germany, Muslim workers are approaching 5% of the total population. They are more visible than at any other time in history.
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Posted in Al Qaeda, Europe, Fundamentalism, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, tagged America, Europe, islam, Middle East, Muslims, Radical, terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy on December 21, 2009 |
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The surprise decision in Switzerland recently to ban the construction of any new mosque minarets has understandably unnerved a lot of people. Europeans hoping for the emergence of a more inclusive Europe and Muslim immigrant populations who have long been a part of the fabric of that Europe were particularly vocal in their condemnation of the vote. The signal sent to the Muslim masses, especially those tempted by the hateful ideology of Islamic extremism, is particularly worrisome. This will unfortunately provide more fodder for those wishing to convince ignorant Muslims that the West sees them as fundamentally “different”, that the rhetoric of peaceful coexistence based on respect is just that- empty rhetoric.
Church bells and minarets have long been two of the more visible parts of the complex relationship between Islam and Europe, since medieval times. These structures, by their imposing architecture and function, have been potent symbols of competing faiths. Throughout history Christian and Muslim rulers alike have sought to restrict their construction and use, passing laws against church bells ringing or the call to prayer emanating from minarets. In Spain, where Islam and Europe had perhaps there most intense interaction as the peninsula was divided between Christian and Muslim rulers for seven centuries, the competition for souls was particularly fierce. In 1002 A.D. the Muslim ruler Al Mansur (“The Victorious”) sacked the Christian shrine city of Santiago de Compostela. According to the sources, he made a point to take down the massive church bells of the city’s main church, forcing captured Christians to haul them 500 miles to the Muslim capital of Cordoba. They were then melted down and hung as lamps in the Great Mosque. The Christians had not forgotten when they retook Cordoba from the Muslims in 1236. King Ferdinand had the lamps carried back to Santiago on the backs of Muslims, melted down again and refashioned as church bells.
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