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Archive for the ‘Muslims’ Category

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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The dust has yet to settle surrounding the twin revelations of the last several weeks: the Washington Post’s revealing expose on America’s mammoth national security apparatus with its ties to big business and the Wikileaks data dump of classified reporting from the front lines of the spiraling Afghan war.  Taken together, the two episodes cannot but make ordinary Americans wonder what their government is doing behind the scenes, if anyone is in complete control, and how many special interests and adversaries have taken advantage of what seems to be a bureaucracy run amuck.

The facts are incontrovertible: despite the exponential growth of a budget estimated at $75 billion annually since the 9/11 attacks, a comprehensive re-org under a new national security chief executive (with no real authority), and a legion of “more efficient” contractor foot soldiers with top secret clearances, amateurs like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab continue to get into our country with exploding underwear and massive leaks of classified information gush into the public domain.  Is this supposed to make us feel safe?

I’m sorry to say our leaders, from President Obama on down, have their heads in the sand on this one.  The Wikileaks information is portrayed as “nothing new”.  That’s true.  Everyone suspected that the war was going badly, that we couldn’t rely on or trust our Afghan and Pakistani partners, that our under-resourced soldiers were facing a determined enemy.  But to have this message broadcast all over the Internet, to friends and enemies alike, in the words of our own intelligence community?  There is such a thing as the war of ideas, although it does not receive as much attention in Congress or in our budgeting as a shiny new fighter or battleship.  And in the war of ideas, the Wikileaks data dump is a clear victory for our enemies.  Jihadist sympathizers from Yemen to Somalia to Iraq will point to these classified dispatches as proof that the holy war is slowly sapping the strength and resolve of the Americans, just as it was with the Soviets three decades ago.

Meanwhile, the new Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, claims there is nothing wrong with our intelligence community.  It’s not bloated or unwieldy.   Yes, there are redundancies, but those redundancies are somehow necessary.  They give us a strange sort of competitive advantage.  I’m not sure how.  When the ticking bomb is ticking, the last thing we need is a bunch of territorial and secretive bureaucracies, hoarding information, fighting with each other and failing time and time again to connect the dots.  Unfortunately, now that the big boys like  Lockheed and General Dynamics are moving more and more into the “business” of national security, a “less is more” posture is less and less possible.  Who needs to be nimble and lean when billable hours and profits are at stake.

Much has been written and debated in our media about these twin issues, with many of the hard questions posed.  One thing I haven’t seen is any speculation on how the Al Qaeda leadership, hiding in their caves or safe houses, may have reacted to the news.  They must be chuckling to themselves.  Not only because of the short-term media war gains mentioned above.  Perhaps even more important  from their perspective is how the “War on Terror” has changed American society, how our strengths and weaknesses as a civilization have been turned on their heads.  Once upon a time, our openness, diversity, and tolerance were hailed as the reason for our success.  Now, we erect border walls, we create vast government shadow worlds, we justify torture, and we “refudiate” mosques in our neighborhoods.  How much more similar have we become to the societies that gave birth to people like Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, insecure nations prone to smothering their peoples, discouraging transparency, rejecting diversity.  This, unfortunately, is Al Qaeda’s greatest victory.  They have changed us, and while that may have not been one of their overt strategic objectives, it honestly does not matter.

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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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Hats off to Bob Gates for being a true patriot.  For realizing that the real threat to our national security isn’t a group of angry beards in a Pakistani cave or a gaggle of rogue nations whose combined defense spending doesn’t approach one-tenth of ours, but rather the waste and cozy corruption within our own country.  Most cabinet secretaries jealously guard their resources and territory, resisting any attempts to trim budgets and curtail authority, to reign in the largesse they hand out to private contractors and corporate interests.  Instead, Gates has made it his personal crusade to cut the fat at the Defense Department and give resources back to Congress.  And Congress has refused him.

Congress has refused him?   Trillion dollar deficits, a national debt approaching levels not seen since World War II, an aging population unable to sustain its dependents, and Congress is refusing savings?  Well, if it’s related to defense dollars, and the jobs and political contributions tied to them, then, yes.  A case in point is the “back-up” engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter- a cool half a billion dollar price tag just in case the primary engine for the plane doesn’t measure up.  Doesn’t measure up?  When the government asks you to build something and it doesn’t measure up, then you either fix it or pay the money back, with interest.  But General Electric and Rolls Royce, the corporations who would like to build the back-up engine, don’t see it that way.  They (and their well paid lobbyists in Washington) think the government should hedge its bets and create some “competition” by giving them a piece of the action.  Gates rightly points out that if they wanted a piece of the action, they should have been more competitive in the original tender for the fighter, which was won by Lockheed Martin and its engine partner, Pratt & Whitney.

But this is not how our defense industry or Congress works.  Peel back the veil of “competitive bids” and “strict contracting standards.”  Dig deep.  If you’re Congress, you need to spread the greenbacks around a bit, to the hundreds of counties, communities and states that manufacture disparate parts for weapon systems that we will largely never use.  (As myself and others have said before, don’t count on getting into any dog fights with Al Qaeda any time soon, not when they can penetrate our defenses with an impoverished teenager wearing loaded underwear).  This is the game board that Gates would like to shake up- the defense industry’s shrewd battle map of key political and economic constituencies across the nation and the federal contracts that keep the money, jobs and profits flowing to them and their representatives.  It’s not about national security at all.  On the contrary, it’s about the political insecurity of our elected men and women and their penchant to put their careers ahead of what’s right for the country.  It’s not surprising that it takes an un-elected official to challenge them.

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A pair of instances recently reminded me how both sides- the “West” (more specifically, the United States) and the Muslim World- have engaged in so little self-reflection since the events of 9/11.  It is much easier to project outward than to take a hard look at your own society.  Problems are no longer yours when you can successfully argue that they come from some outside force.  For politicians and pundits, the temptation is too great.

This kind of gamesmanship has approached the truly absurd in the Muslim world.  On Friday a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan was ripped apart by a triple suicide bombing.  As I have written before, Sufism is the lighter side of Islam- a moderate force whose greater tolerance for things like other faiths and female emancipation has angered Muslim extremists.  It’s long standing traditions and practices across the Muslim world are the most direct, organic challenge to those who would spread the lie- that early Islam’s core strength was its angry, unforgiving unity and purity.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Islam’s original spread in the 7th and 8th centuries was indeed aided by the sword, but more important in its ascendancy was its acceptance of other cultures, faiths and its rational discourse on everything from trade to science.  The Christian world, caught in an orgy of religious violence, greed and superstition, could not compete.

How far has Muslim civilization fallen?  How completely have the two sides exchanged places, like a pair of reflections in the same mirror?  After the Lahore attack, demonstrations blaming the United States for the carnage raged across Pakistan.  Normally sane people reasoned that extremists wouldn’t have attacked the shrine if the Pakistani government wasn’t in bed with America.  In the rush to anger, the sick individuals who actually planned and executed the operation seemed to have been all but forgotten.

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Lost among headlines recently of state-sponsored piracy on the high seas and Americans headed to Somalia for jihadist training was a stunning Washington Post article by Sudarsan Raghavan about a little-known militia on the fringes of the civilized world.  When we hear the word militia, it typically conjures up negative connotations in our heads; vigilantes arming themselves to take matters into their own hands; right-wing militias in Michigan or crazed clerics in Iraq or Lebanon.  We forget that militias are often the creations of ordinary people fed up with violence and break down of law and order in their societies.  Most Iraq veterans will tell you the Sunni Awakening militias that emerged in response to the sectarian carnage stoked by Al Qaeda and other groups were a critical part of the success of the Surge.  The Taliban itself owes much of its initial and continuing popularity not to its senselessly puritanical brand of Islam but to the support of ordinary Afghans tired of warlordism and corruption.  And now we can add another group to the mix: Ahl Al Sunna Wal Ja’maa- a Sufi group in Somalia that has recently won victories against the hardline jihadist Shabab movement.

What is a Sufi, you say?  The most well-known Sufi in the Western mind- quoted by presidents and prime ministers- is probably Jalal A Din Rumi, the 13th century Afghan who wrote mind-numbing lines of Persian poetry about his love for God (and for his homosexual lover, Shams A Din).  But Sufism itself is a broader movement of mystics and aesthetics that arguably trace their beginnings to well before the advent of Islam.  They are the men and women across the Muslim world who have decided to withdraw from the harsh orthodoxy and political dogma that Islam has become and focus on a private relationship with the divine.

Throughout history, Sufis have used song, dance, poetry and wine (among other stimulants) to produce spiritual ecstasy and “oneness” with God.  These practices, as well as their veneration of saints (both Muslim saints and those of other faiths) has caused a great deal of tension between them and the orthodox Muslim clergy.  But even some of the most autocratic and reactionary of Islamic holy men (e.g. the late Ayatollah Khomeini) have been drawn to Sufism and its simple spirituality.

With some exceptions, Sufi groups have historically shunned politics as a corrupting influence, leaving the public sphere to more traditional, mainstream voices.  That may be changing as this powerful under-current of a more moderate, tolerant Islam reacts to the extreme, puritanical strains that are grabbing the headlines and fundamentally challenging Islam’s diversity of thought.

There are moderates within Islam with deep, long-standing traditions if we are prepared to take the time to look for them.  Ahl Al Sunna is taking up arms in Somalia not because they believe in violence or power, but because they want to take back their right to live and pray the way they have for generations.  These are the groups we should be supporting.  In every case, their kind of organic movement is more potent and preferable than a thousand drone strikes or a dozen local dictators.

Self-serving Islamic scholars like to point out that Islam is different than the other major religions because it was founded by a prophet who was also a political-military leader and whose successors had to run a vast empire.  Because of this, they argue, it will be more difficult to reform the faith, for Islam to recede from the political sphere as Christianity and Judaism have done to varying degrees.  Sufism defies this scholarly assertion.  Here is a tradition, stretching back to the beginnings of Islam, that is deeply vested in a private, individualized faith that holds tolerance and spirituality well above dogma.

What most of us forget amid the headlines is that Islam’s clash with the West is really a side show, a symptom, of a greater war that has been raging within Islam for the past several centuries over the proper balance between tradition and modernity.  It might be better strategy in the long term to let this tension play out between local actors while carefully supporting moderate voices instead of inserting ourselves- a foreign power- directly into the mix.  This kind of disruption almost always plays into the hands of extremists peddling a narrow, exclusionary vision and puts those with more tolerant, long standing traditions on the defensive.

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Elected in no small part due to the backlash against rash Bush administration misadventures abroad, the incoming Obama team  swore to itself it would pursue a more nuanced, collaborative policy towards Iran.  And from the beginning, the president has acted with considerable restraint, even when the mullahs’ brutality against their own people streamed across the globe for all to see.  Instead, Obama instructed his Iran team to patiently build the case among friends and allies for crippling sanctions against the Iranian regime over its nuclear program.  Gone were the days when America would “go it alone.”  We had learned our lesson in Iraq.  The only way to stop a belligerent nation like Iran was with unified, concerted action by the international community.

And after over a year of concessions in Moscow, political capital spent in Beijing, and multiple arm-twistings at the UN, a draft resolution was finally produced.  Except it didn’t matter anymore, because only the day before the mullahs had agreed with Turkey and Brazil to a uranium swap mirroring the one that was proposed by the U.S. months before.  No one will read the fine print that makes this agreement different- that Iran’s stock of enriched uranium is much larger now than it was when the U.S. deal was proposed, that it can still enrich uranium to its hearts desire, that it can cancel the deal whenever it wants (for example, in reaction to a new UN sanctions resolution).

The mullahs have outmaneuvered the Great Satan once again.  How can a country that spends $10 billion a year on its measly military embarrass the greatest military and economic power the world has ever known?  Well, we haven’t made it that hard for them.

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One wonders what would have happened if the Times Square car bomb attempt had occurred in Phoenix instead of the teeming, diverse neighborhoods of NYC.  What if the street vendors who tipped off police with vital information that eventually led to Faisal Shahzad’s capture (by his shoe laces) were Latino instead of African-American?  Given Arizona’s new draconian anti-immigrant law, would they have hesitated to come forward?  Would Faisal Shahzad be melting into the no-man’s land of North Waziristan as I write this, reuniting with his patrons to try and kill Americans again?

Our enemies exploit the relative openness of our society to infiltrate and attack us.  They target the loop holes in our legal system to wriggle out of our grasp when they are captured.  They know that unlike their own societies, we are a nation of laws, and that there will inevitably be cracks in the system.  Should we change?  Should we become less open, less welcoming to the immigrant tapestry that has been the life blood of this country since its birth?  Should we take away the fundamental rights of certain individuals because of their ideology or intent?  Is public safety more important than the principles that echo to the world how our vision differs from the extremist one?   Finding the right balance is a tricky tightrope.

Some of those who come to these shores from somewhere else have an adverse reaction to the society we have built here.  Caught between their native culture and a new land, they begin to unravel.  It began with Sayyid Qutub, perhaps the grandfather of the modern jihadist, in 1948.  His two years here convinced him that American society clearly lacked the moral fiber of his native Egypt, and upon his return he began to preach violence.  But these people are the infinitesimal exception compared to the vast multitudes who have replenished the vibrancy of America over the centuries.  Anyone can be a crackpot and find a group or an ideology to justify their neurosis.  There are apple pie Americans in Michigan who justify bloody murder and call it justice.  Belief in Jesus (or Muhammad) does not absolve them.

We will need our immigrants more than ever now, legal and otherwise.  They are young and hard working compared to those who complain about them while at the same time jealously guarding the entitlements that have begun to bankrupt us.  Our Muslim minorities in particular are perhaps the key to victory in the long war against extremism.  The war that won’t be won with smart bombs and military tribunals.  They are the bridge between Western civilization and the Islamic world.  Those who have found a balance between their traditions and a new life and see no contradictions between embracing both.  This realization- not by leaders or generals, but by everyday people- will indeed save lives.  It cools the cauldron where extremism simmers.  It is not time to retreat behind barricades but rather to keep the gateways to our communities as wide open as ever.

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It’s too early to know all the facts in the failed Times Square car bomb, but its looks like at least one US citizen of Pakistani heritage was involved and that the plot emanated at least in part from South Asia. Coinciding with the recent conviction of the lone surviving Mumbai terrorist, also a Pakistani trained and equipped by a Pakistani terrorist group, one wonders if extremism has a more obvious global headquarters than the nuclear state where experts believe Osama Bin Laden and most of the top Al Qaeda leadership have found refuge.   If it turns out to be true that the Pakistani Taliban are indeed involved, as they claim to be, in this latest chapter of the NYC terror saga, then there will undoubtedly be renewed calls for a refocusing of our counter-terror efforts on Pakistan.

This is certainly part of what is needed as experts such as the Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid have been arguing for some time.  But the problem with our South Asia counter-terror policy is not resources, but tactics and strategy.  We spend $700 billion on war fighting a year (this does not include classified intelligence budgets).  This dwarves anything our adversaries- nations or terrorist groups- can bring to bear.  Less is often more, particularly in a long war where extremist groups feed off the sympathies of local populations that reel from a heavy-handed foreign presence.   Too often our terror policies in the past have defeated themselves by focusing only on throwing resources at the symptoms of the disease, rather than tackling the root causes.  This has to change unless we want to continue to play defense against a legion of suicide bombers.

While David Ignatius‘  assertion in today’s Washington Post is true – our counter-terror efforts have succeeded in severely degrading Al Qaeda top leadership – it is overshadowed by his ominous conclusion- jihadists are splintering, de-centralizing, and will be harder to target and liquidate.  While drone attacks and military clearing operations should not be abandoned entirely as tools, anyone who has visited northern Pakistan knows that they are not a long term strategy.  On the contrary, there is an accumulating cost to these tactics over time in the heavily tribal, retribution crazy culture of South Asia where blood revenge is a way of life.  If a brother or cousin or uncle is killed, it does not matter if he was helping bad people or doing bad things.  Honor demands a response.  This is a never-ending spiral.

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Jackson Diehl likes to talk about the futility of a dead Middle East peace process.  Like most opinion leaders in our American media, he blames this squarely on a divided Palestinian leadership and an Arab world rife with corrupt autocracies unwilling to compromise.   Now is not the time to push major initiatives, he argues.  Besides, he says, the plight of 4 million Palestinian civilians with no civic rights, increasingly herded into ghettos by Israeli authorities is just a sideshow in the long war on extremism.  The real problem is Arab corruption and tyranny.

I beg to differ.  Now is exactly the time for a peace push for these very same reasons Diehl highlights.  He and many thought leaders in our system see only obstacles when they should be outlining solutions.  Why is that?

Diehl talks about the corruption and repression of Arab states as the major, almost solitary source fueling the strength and vitality of extremist groups like Al Qaeda.  It is true that the excesses of regimes such as Mubarak’s in Egypt have driven many Muslims to radicalism.  It is no coincidence that Zawahiri was radicalized in an Egyptian prison.  That is only part of the equation of extremism, however.  Perhaps more damaging is something Diehl conveniently forgets to mention but which more and more former and current public officials, like Bill Clinton and General David Petraeus, are speaking up about: heavy handed Israeli policies against Palestinian civilians who are increasingly boxed in and without hope, opportunity, or the basic services that any citizen needs to live a normal life.  This all takes place on ground that the entire world, including the United States, considers occupied land.  There is no more fertile soil for hate and extremism.  And our enemies (and allies) alike have exploited it to the max to further their own agendas against us, deflecting attention from their very real transgressions against their own people at home.

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