Saddam Hussein: Laughing in the face of tyranny

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

In light of the continuing legacy of  Saddam Hussein’s rule and the US invasion of Iraq, is it appropriate to stage a comedy about the former despot?

Photo: CATHERINE ASHMORE

Photo: CATHERINE ASHMORE

20 October 2015

Upon seeing the world première of Anthony Horowitz’s new play Dinner with Saddam, one can’t help but feel rather awkward and uncomfortable at a production that tries to  transforms Iraq’s modern history, with all its conflicts and suffering, into a farcical comedy targeted at an affluent London audience. While it does succeed at generating constant laughter from the spectators, the question forces itself of whether the Iraqi people are quite ready to laugh or find their years of suffering a source of amusement for others, especially as for most ordinary Iraqis the wounds have not yet healed.

The production, directed by Lindsay Posner, is set in the Sunni family’s house in Baghdad on March 21, 2003 – a day that will end in “shock and awe”, the start of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The father Ahmed, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar of Goodness, Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42, is just an ordinary, if rather naive, Iraqi. He is a construction supervisor who refuses to believe that there’ll be an American bombardment, just he had not believed that the war with Iran or the invasion of Kuwait would occu, as the audience are informed by his wife Samira played by Shobu Kapoor.  Samira represents the voice of the street, the panic of yet another war on an already battered nation and the sense of reality in opposition to Ahmed’s survivors’ instinct to keep his head down, avoid politics and parrot propaganda in order to protect himself and his family.

The household is already highly strung. Samira is panickly stockpiling supplies, Ahmed is pursuing a rat and unsuccesfully attempting to fix a sewage problem, while their daughter, Rana is refusing to marry her cousin because she is in love with an actor who happens to be Shia and from a different tribe. Rana, played by Rebecca Grant, is also a member of an underground revolutionary group with opposing political views to that of her parents.  These tensions are intensified as the family is informed that President Saddam Hussein, played by Steven Berkoff,  is arriving shortly for dinner.

As Ahmed unintentionally poisons the head of the president’s security apparatus, it is left to Samira and Rana to welcome and entertain Saddam Hussein. This is something that was common in Iraqi society at the time, where women were often left to deal with many aspects o life while their men were out on the battlefield. Iraqi women were and are renowned for their strength and resilience. This made the plotline involving the forced/arranged marriage of Rana and her mother before her somewhat difficult to swallow. Though this may be common in the more conservative and provincial south and north of the country, it is relatively rare in cosmopolitan Baghdad. Similarly, the sectarian tone that is present in the play seemed to be a rather weak attempt by the writer to fit all of the issues that have been affecting Iraq for decades into a single production. The Shia-Sunni tension was never a real issue before the US invasion, and where it did exist would have been outside Baghdad, as the capital city was a place where intermarriage was common. Rana’s parents’ disapproval of her lover would have been more convincing if the only objection was to his being an actor, as Iraqi society tends to look down on the acting profession.

Berkoff’s portrayal of Hussein was quite impressive. He managed to bring to the stage the complex nature of a man who fascinated and divided the world, even after his death. Saddam Hussein’s oblivion to the effect of UN sanction on his nation, his failure to recognise his brutality and tyranny, and his belief that all his actions were justified for the sake of “his people” are very close to the traits associated with the former Iraqi despot, whether gleaned from interviews he gave or well-researched books into his personality.

At the dinner table, the conversation is rather one-sided, as Saddam list everything he believes he has done for Iraq. Rana plays devil’s advocate and keeps reminding the president of the less positive aspects of his rule, such as the continuous wars and the gassing of the Kurds. Rejecting her line of argument, he reminds the family that the Baath party would never have come to power without the CIA, that the Americans were supportive of Iraq’s war with Iran and that the British were gassing Kurds long before Saddam Hussein was born. It is at this point that the audience is introduced to the Western’s world involvement and contribution to Iraq’s tragic history. When a security guard unwisely yawns while the dictator is narrating one of his long-winded tales, he is taken out to be shot, while Rana inexplicably goes unpunished for her insolence. Hussein was infamous for his unending speeches which often lasted a couple of hours and were broadcasted several times during the week. Even the brutal murder of the guard is justified by the dictator who recounts the fate of his own family members who didn’t get spared, implying that he is even-handed in his tyrannical “justice”.

If you’re wondering why the president would visit this average family, it is because he is t rying to elude detection by the American army. However, he says that it is his way of keeping close to his people. However, this claim is quickly undermined when Ahmed’s family see a life that they didn’t know about which is represented through the succulent food and fine Portuguese wines.

The play ends with two major metaphorical moments, which may or may not have been intentional. There is a hint of what Saddam Hussein’s would become in the very near future when Ahmed accidentally gives him a bag full of excrement. As the curtains are about to go down, another symbolic irony occurs. Samira is convinced that the American army will attack them, while the ever-optimistic, or possibly deluded, Ahmed believes that nothing will happen and they will come to no harm once they are rid of their unwanted guest. This marks the first sign of hope the audience sees upon Ahmed’s face. As the family toast new beginnings with the wine left behind by the departing dictator, there is a loud bang and it is obvious that their house has been the target of an American bombing.

Like Iraq itself, the family’s hope for a better tomorrow was short-lived and ended in tragedy.

 

Dinner With Saddam is being performed at  Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 14 November 2015.

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The real battle against ISIS

 
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By Khaled Diab

If ISIS is a virus, then fighting it with the antibiotic of ill-conceived deadly force and repression could create ever-more deadly strains. 

Prompted by social media, pro

Monday 9 February 2015

The Abbasid caliphate was the stage for magical tales to fill a thousand and one nights. The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) “caliphate” gives us enough horrors to fill a thousand and one frights.

The latest graphic atrocity committed by the Islamist death cult was the apparent burning alive of felled Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, whose execution reportedly took place in early January.

The brutal murder has triggered horror and condemnation around the world. The news has hit home hard in Jordan, with disbelieving Jordanians stunned by the cruelty of the murder. Spurred on by an angry public mood, Jordan has promised swift retaliation.

“Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians,”  vowed Jordanian armed forces spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri. And within hours, Jordan began executing jailed ISIS militants, including death row inmate Sajida al-Rishawi.

For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah declared “relentless war” against ISIS. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles,” he said, vowing to “hit them in their own ground”. Towards that end, Jordan claims it has already carried out dozens of airstrikes against ISIS targets

Although the impulse for revenge is overpowering and it may even appear sweet at first sight, it leaves a bitter aftertaste and carries serious consequences.

Fighting fire with fire could very well backfire. Instead of neutralising the threat, the ill-conceived use of force could ignite a wave of violence in Jordan, which is high on ISIS’s hit list.

In addition, with the strain caused by 1.3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan is already teetering on the edge of instability. Despite the fact that this latest atrocity is bound to chip away at the limited popular support ISIS enjoyed in Salafist Jordanian circles, all it requires is a small band of dedicated sympathisers to wreak havoc.

If ISIS is a virus, as many contend, then fighting it with the antibiotic of violent repression might well only succeed in creating ever-more deadly strains. In fact, ISIS thrives on brutality. “[ISIS] believes not only in maximum but creative retaliatory and deterrent violence,” Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has co-authored an in-depth book about the Islamic State, told me.

One item of required reading among many ISIS militants, Hassan explains, is Idarat Al-tawahush (The Management of Savagery)  by Abu Bake Naji which makes the case that “Jihad is not about mercy but about excessive violence, and that the rest of religion is about mercy”.

Where did ISIS pick up such a nihilistic interpretation of Islam? A part of the answer is the cauldron of brutality in which it was conceived. “One cannot understand the violent mindset of ISIS members without recognising that Baathism is one of the ingredients that formed that mindset,” notes Hassan.

This was on full display during the 1982 Hama Massacre ordered by Hafez al-Assad and the past four years of carnage masterminded by his son, Bashar.

In neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein – who bucked no dissent and believed in summary “justice” – used chemical weapons, with US acquiescence, against both Iranians and his own citizens. Add to that the vacuum left by the “shock and awe” of the US invasion which wrought devastation on a scale unseen since the Mongols in the 13th century, and your left with a perfect storm.

In fact, times of such calamitous ruin are often incubators for virulent extremism. Some eight centuries ago, while the Mongols were laying waste to much of the Middle East, Ibn Taymiyyah formulated a highly influential concept of Salafism and Jihad. These were to have a profound influence on the region, corroding the rationalism and free thought upon which Islamic civilisation’s golden age had been built.

What all this highlights is that, though ISIS needs to be fought on the battlefield too, the main battlegrounds are ideological, political, social and economic.

In order to dry up recruits, effective ways need to be devised to show how ISIS’s ideology and its self-styled “caliphate” are ahistorical and run contrary to the spirit that once made Islam robust and enlightened.

The socio-economic inequalities, the impunity of elites, their serving of foreign powers more than their own citizenry, and widespread corruption – all major recruiting platforms for radical groups – must be combated decisively.

In addition, it is high time that Arab societies properly defend freedom of belief and thought, in order to inoculate themselves against religious radicalisation by self-appointed defenders of the faith, whether they be individuals, groups or the state.

Those Arab countries which theoretically recognise such freedom need to implement it properly and consistently. Those which do not, such as the Gulf states, must start respecting pluralism and diversity. “So long as [Arab governments] shy away from a clear commitment to freedom of belief, their stance helps to legitimise the actions of groups such as [ISIS],” argues Brian Whitaker, the Guardian’s former Middle East editor.

More importantly, the region needs to address its democratic deficit. Despotism from above can and does breed tyranny from below, drawing in the disillusioned and disenchanted.

In short, to prove that violent Islamism is the illusion, we must make freedom, justice, equality and dignity the solution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 February 2015.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

 
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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas – a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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The clash within civilisations

 
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the clash of civilizations theory, but Samuel P Huntington was wrong.

Thursday 28 March 2013

A decade has passed since the blood-drenched invasion of Iraq began, unleashing a wave of destruction not seen in that part of the world since at least the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century.

Unsurprisingly, the 10th anniversary has prompted immense media attention, in the United States and Europe, as well as in Iraq itself and the broader Middle East. In light of the carnage that has ensued following that fateful decision to invade, a lot of the public debate has focused on whether the war was justified and worthwhile.

The cheerleaders of the war argue that the invasion was just, the subsequent carnage was an unfortunate but collateral consequence of a benign act of goodwill, and that errors were made in the execution of the campaign but the principle was essentially sound.

Critics, like myself, see the wholesale destruction of Iraq and the chaos besetting it – which was chillingly illustrated by the deadly car bombings which rocked Baghdad on the 10th anniversary – as clear proof that the US-led intervention was not only unjustified but flawed.

In order to understand why, we need to rewind another 10 years, back to another important anniversary which has largely fallen under the media’s radar. Through some fluke of history, the theory which largely justified the Iraq war and provided it with its ideological underpinning was formulated exactly a decade earlier.

In an incredibly influential essay published 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P Huntington first outlined his clash of civilisations theory, which he later elaborated on and fleshed out in a book published in 1996.

Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural”. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued.

Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

On the 20th anniversary of this controversial theory and given how influential it has been and remains, it is useful to analyse whether or not Huntington was right. Has a clash of civilisations emerged, as Huntington predicted, over the past two decades?

Supporters of Huntington’s hypothesis answer with an unequivocal “yes”. They point to the inhumane atrocities committed in the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001, the subsequent clash with al-Qaeda, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Islamist parties during the “Arab Spring” as confirmation that a clash is underway.

Critics, like the scholar Noam Chomsky, have maintained that the clash of civilisations is simply the symptom of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The late Edward Said, the renowned author of Orientalism, saw in Huntington’s theory an extension of the pseudo-scientific Orientalist scholarship which had been used for at least a couple of centuries to justify European and Western hegemony. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorances¸ published shortly after 9/11, Said argued that Huntington ignored “the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation” and “the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture”.

Personally, I find that, though the idea, in one form or another, of a clash of civilisations is as old as the hills – examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by most dominant powers throughout the centuries – this does not make it any more valid or true.

Far more often than not, what has been dressed up as a clash of values is really just a clash of interests parading as something less selfish than it actually is. Although culture and ideology can, on rare occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

And in such a context, proximity is traditionally a far greater cause of friction than culture. That is why conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are often greater than those between them. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other, as the carnage of two world wars in Europe shows all too clearly.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports around the region and the world, and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September attacks.

And alliances which cut across supposed civilisational lines have an ancient pedigree. Examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans in World War I against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

Moreover, Huntington’s hypothesis is further undermined by what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Each so-called civilisation is actually a volatile, constantly changing hybrid of ideas and cultural influences.

In fact, if we must group civilisations together, then I would place the West and Islam in the same group because they both share common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, as well as the modern importance of the Enlightenment, not just for Western reform movements but also for secularising and modernising movements in the Middle East. I would go so far as to say that Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

So, if there has not been a clash of civilisations, what has emerged since the end of the Cold War?

At one level, there are the brewing clashes of interests between the great powers, as America tries to hold on to its waning global reach, Russia tries to claw back the influence it lost following the implosion of the Soviet Union and China, after years of quiet growth in the background, begins to flex its muscles on the foreign stage, both to advance its emerging “strategic interests” and for prestige.

On another level, cultures have clashed, but not between civilisations, as Huntington believed they would, but within them. This clash within civilisations is currently playing itself out most visibly in the Middle East.

In addition to the sectarian monster unleashed by the anarchy in Iraq, the revolutionary wave that has swept through the region has brought to the fore, and into sharp relief, the major fault lines and clashes within each society and, to a lesser extent, between them. There are the conflicts between the secular and religious, between majorities and minorities, between women and men, between the young and old, between modernists and traditionalists, between the haves and have-nots, and so on.

Although less pronounced, at least for the time being, these same internal tensions are being witnessed in the West, as reflected in the rising influence of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and the extreme right in Europe, as well as the large-scale social protests, from years of street battles in Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the “99%”.

In Europe, particularly, class conflict is intensifying on the back of the economic crisis triggered by neo-liberal excess, as the poor and middle-classes are forced, through bailouts and austerity, to finance what has effectively become a welfare state for the rich. This is putting in jeopardy not only the much-vaunted European social model but also the EU enterprise itself.

If the European Union is not reinvented along more equitable lines and emerges out of this crisis, instead, much weakened, then it will likely leave a petty-nationalistic sized hole in the European arena which could eventually cause the conflicts currently taking place within individual countries to spill across borders.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a major challenge facing us all is not the clash of civilisations but the clash within civilisations. This internal cultural struggle is largely caused by the growing socio-economic inequalities that have emerged in just about every country in the world.

If these inequities are not addressed effectively, at both the local and global levels, then intolerance will grow and conflicts will continue to consume individual societies, with the danger that they will spill over into other countries, potentially spiraling out of control.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 21 March 2013.

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The mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

There is no conflict between Islam and the West – only clashes of interests between and within them. But there is a very real mash of civilisations.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Is there really a clash of civilisations? Do “they” really hate us for our beliefs?

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic – for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.

In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammad, despite its criticism of religion and human nature – at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.

In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted Innocence of Muslims, which those “pre-incited”, “pre-programmed”, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, Muslim protesters obligingly did.

At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing cunnilingus on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Qu’ran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.

To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called ‘film’ – which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was rumoured to have cost $5 million – would have been not to dignify it with a response, then its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realisation that their endeavour did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only screening.

The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offence but also the right to take offence. However, the minority who chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.

Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilise the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.

So why did a production that is so out there it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?

Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologise for the film and ban it, despite the first amendment of the US constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude towards their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that up until very recently Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.

In fact, a number of majority Christian European countries, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country which has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.

In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, though how their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.

Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theatre, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Likewise, The Life of Brian, also elicited widespread protest – despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and their insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organised religion and the sheep-like mentality it inspires in followers – was banned in parts of the UK, in Norway and in Ireland, and British television declined to show it.

But the current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad but also have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.

This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, that rage and fury are fulltime occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives, from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.

This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave which has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.

Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilisations”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies uses the latest flare up to call for more, not less, US intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union”.

Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her wilful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions, and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilsations”.

In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world – trivilisations, idiocies, fundamentalisms – but no clash of civilisations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the alleged hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once short-sightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular PLO.

Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of Crusades and Jihads promoted by extremists, any deep reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shia’a has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilisational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilisation, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilisational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just down to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors which are beyond their control holding them back.

More importantly, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularising and modernising reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy – as well as economic justice – which lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.

What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilisations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides, but we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluring in its simplicity, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilisations in which we really live.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2012.

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9/12: Turning over a new leaf in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 10th anniversary of the day after 9/11, it is high time to trash the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and the ‘war on terror’ and start a new chapter in the West’s relationship with the new Middle East.

Monday 12 September 2011

Most people recall vividly where they were on 11 September 2001, when four passenger jets were hijacked and used as highly effective targeted missiles, bringing down the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’ in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed, making this the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.

Sadly, the massive outpouring of global sympathy, support and solidarity – with people around the world saying “We are all Americans now” – was to prove short-lived, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies hijacked this monumental tragedy to serve their own narrow interests.

After apparently taking a break for over a decade, following Francis Fukuyama’s confident assertion that history had ended with the collapse of communism in 1989, history re-awoke on 9/12, to an apparently monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ – despite the abundant evidence that most clashes are those of interests and that ‘civilisations’ more often clash within their civilisational group than outside it – which pitted the enlightened West against the benighted forces of Islam(ism).

Equipped with a brand new enemy to replace the ‘reds under the bed’, Washington declared its ‘war on terror’ to hunt down those baddie Jihadis and launched a raft of initiatives to civilise the Muslim world.

Providing strong evidence of where the administration’s actual priorities lay, hours after the attacks, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already going out of his way to link the atrocity to Iraq, despite the secular nature of Baghdad’s Ba’ath regime and the mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Washington’s democratising and civilising mission focused mainly on invading and bombing to smithereens two countries: first Afghanistan (in October 2001) and then Iraq (in March 2003), not to mention the more recent involvement in Pakistan.

Despite at least a quarter of a million deaths and up to $4 trillion in costs to the US tax payer,  the decade-old war on terror has resulted in little but death, destruction and destitution, particularly in Iraq which was once one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East.

The true gains for freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been delivered – as critics of the War on Terror have long been arguing – by the peoples concerned themselves, as demonstrated by the ongoing Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

In fact, the Arab revolutions undermine many of the assumptions underpinning the US approach over the past decade, even under the Obama administration which took over many of its predecessor’s policies, namely that liberty and liberal values could be imposed from outside by a paternalistic West, that freedom is synonymous with free markets, and that democracy and free markets automatically bring greater prosperity and rights to the masses. Another shattered myth is that the United State is a benign power operating for the greater good and not out of the narrow self-interest of its economic and political elite at the expense not only of hundreds of millions around the world but also of ordinary Americans who have been left with a near-bankrupt system, as the recent “default crisis” frighteningly illustrated.

For the Arab revolutionary wave to succeed requires not only that Arabs successfully redefine and reinvent their relationship with those that govern them but also that the relationship between Arab, not to mention other developing, countries with the West and the wealthy industrialised nations.

Although the Arab uprisings are against dictatorship and despotism, they are also against the dictates of Western hegemony and have an economic bottom line. They are part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities triggered by neo-liberal economics and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young.

Tackling this not only requires deep domestic economic reform by Arab regimes but also the reinvention and reconfiguration of the global economic order – which is currently skewed towards the interests of he West, other OECD countries and, increasingly, the emerging might of China and a few other heavy hitters in the developing world – to make it fairer and more equitable.

If the second decade following the 9/11 attacks is to be a brighter one, then Washington and its Western allies need to abandon their paternalistic approach to the Middle East, see the region as more than the sum of its oil wells and allow its people to gain their fair share of the global economic pie.

But with a major energy crisis on the horizon and with Western economies on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention massive global and regional overpopulation, there are troubling signs that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the first post-9/11 decade. But here’s to hoping that enlightened self-interest will win out over destructive selfishness.

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