Pakistan - Afghanistan and the Narratives of Conflict

The video from our Chatham House panel discussion on the narratives behind Pakistan and Afghanistan’s wary relationship. Part of the idea for this topic came from a talk Alistair Burt, the UK’s minister of state for the Middle East, gave at Chatham House in June. He spoke about how peace making requires you to speak to all sides in conflict - including the unsavoury ones. This kicked off some thinking about where the power actually lies in a conflict. Is it with the people sitting at conference tables, those leading armed groups, leaders of street protests - or is it not about specific ‘leaders’ at all. Is it really about large groups of people getting mobilised around one general aim? Leaders without publics are pointless. But what drives the publics?

We were also very specific about the need to challenge the discussion about places like Pakistan and Afghanistan as ‘exotic places where weird things happen’ to equal parts of the wider global dynamics we are all living through right now.

Did we manage? Let me know.

#Disinformation - So, What's New?

Two really useful #Disinformation and political warfare related sources out there today. First is a brilliant collection of video essays in the New York Times today called Operation Infektion, charting how the Russian states sees and deploys these techniques and how they have developed over time. Check it out here. (The screen grab below is from the first video. I’ve decided to adopt it as my go-to definition)


There’s been a discussion raging for a while - is Disinformation new or is it an old political trick with a new name, and this is important because whatever becomes general accepted as the truth will determine how governments and large organisations react. If its not new - some will be tempted to argue - what’s the point in doing anything about it. For what it’s worth; while some elements aren’t new, there is at least one way in which the new age of Disinformation differs from its Cold War predecessors, and that’s the way new technology and social media infrastructure allow people to earn money from it.

Previously, the KGB, FSB, GRU - or whoever - had to pay journalists, set up outlets in various countries, maintain huge state run media machines etc. Now, cleverly crafted narratives that latch on to people’s existing fears and prejudices draw huge audiences and allow hangers-on to make money via platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

While you’re at it; check out this very useful Twitter thread from Jamie Bartlett breaking down the differences between Disinformation, Fake News and Propaganda

Information and conflict - case study Israel 2014

I'm about to talk about Israel and Palestine ... Let's hope it doesn't end up like this...

Well, actually, it's not really Palestine and Israel I want to talk about but the use of information and communications in war. 

There has been something different about the coverage of Israel's latest offensive against Gaza. Israel is usually understood to be a master at controlling the narrative. But, something has changed. You could argue that in previous conflicts Israel has killed civilians, including children and aid workers. You could also argue that there have been demonstrations against Israel's use of force before, or that Israelis and Jews around the world have stood against the actions of the government in other cases. 2014, however, will be remembered as the year that Israel lost the narrative wars. Some have said to me that a bit of bad coverage in some outlets and the recalling of the ambassador of Brazil account for little. But I bet Israeli policy makers see it differently. For them, losing public support for their actions in Western Europe and North America has a direct, real-world impact.  

Israel's predicament has been picked up the mainstream press:

Channel 4 News reporter Paul Mason, makes some very good observations from a reporter's perspective - and bear in mind that for reporters, social media being used to report and consume news, is a sort of professional competitor:

- Twitter provides an unfiltered, alternative news source - one that young Americans trust more than traditional networks

- Journalists are reporting via tweets from inside Gaza - these comments, pictures etc are not filtered by editors 

- The collective assessment of information that happens via social media makes it difficult for governments to provide their own gloss on events and makes it easier to quickly spot wrong information

- It is harder for ordinary members of the public to avoid the human tragedy of a violent event when friends and family are flooding your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc timelines  

New York Magazine outlines how this has affected the way audiences see the conflict:

"I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances."

I think it is highly probable that this conflict will be studied by information operations, strategic communications and political communications practitioners in the future. Israel is losing the media war largely because the environment (technology, Western popular exposure to the Middle East, the media industry etc) has changed. Similar factors to those that are upending the news industry are making it difficult for those who developed tactics for influencing it to carry on as before. Whereas in the past, it might have been enough to influence a few gatekeepers (eg. correspondents, editors, proprietors), today there are few obvious individuals to influence.

However, in a recent report about the Syrian conflict and social media, Marc Lynch made the point that gatekeepers hadn't been removed altogether, only that they had been replaced by informal networks that collect and curate information. He also raised the point that news consumers tend to gravitate to those sources of information that they already agree with - which calls into question thoughts that what we are seeing is a movement towards the democratisation of information and therefore a more just and equitable outcome. 

In the specific example of Israel; I'm guessing that the reaction we are seeing is a result of a number of factors, including those already mentioned in the articles I've linked to above. But one that hasn't been mentioned is how the new environment affects Israel's existing strategy. I'd have to admit I'd be guessing at what Israel's outreach strategy would be, but having seen the output I would say that it broadly aimed at creating the overall impression amongst mainstream Western audiences (ie. not the religious right) that Israel and its society is familiar, comfortable and friendly (i.e. culturally and politically similar), but to avoid or downplay too much focus on the conflict with Palestinians.  

If this strategy is undermined every time there is a similar conflict, Israel will have to reassess its actions in the future. However, for Palestinians to turn this coverage into concrete actions that improve the lives of the population of Gaza, the Hamas and PLO leadership will need to take political steps on the back of the coverage. 

In Syria, it's still about the people, not the power brokers

Below is an excerpt from my article today in Huffington Post. The full version can be read here. Comments and thoughts welcome.. leave them wherever you feel most comfortable

"The Syrian uprising coalesced around three key demands; justice, freedom and dignity. This simple call brought people out on the streets unarmed and ready to face bullets. The question today is can those three words become a set of governing principles? Can Syrians answer their own demands? And, if they can, will their neighbors apply their lessons?

The future of Syria, and that of the wider region, depends on the answers to those questions. This is something the world can help support."


Israel's communications plan

When I was reporting on the Palestine-Israel issue in the early 2000s, it was taken as fact that Israel had the media battle all sown up. Palestinian officials routinely sighed in frustration and awe at the ability of the Israeli government's media machine to get its version of events out fast and dominate the global conversation; whether that was about about specific military operations or the ongoing occupation.

For a while now, it has seemed to me that Israel no longer enjoys that same level of dominance. Palestinian officials used to say "we need to get better at talking to the media", but I don't think its an increase in Palestinian communications capabilities that has challenged Israel's formerly unassailable position amongst Western audiences. 

Al Jazeera's Marwan Bishara (@marwanbishara) published a piece a couple of days ago on Israel's communications strategy (link here). What struck me is that from what Marwan is saying the plan, drawn up in 2009, a year after a previous Israeli attack on Gaza, came about because Israeli leaders and sympathisers felt they were in trouble. 

The links don't take you to the original plan, so I am having to go on Marwan's take on this, but if the plan is - as Marwan says - based on research and testing, it tells you a lot about where Israel's supporters in the West feel the weak points in their narratives lie. These are the main points:

- settlements aren't popular with American or European audiences

- Israel's supporters can sound patronising. To sophisticated Western audiences, Israelis are the aggressor

- religious arguments alienate secular audiences (and religious US audiences are already supporters)

- it's important to be seen to be striving for peace. US voters are unlikely to support Israel in an unending "family feud" 

- one of the more assertive points refers to Israel's evacuation of Gaza. 

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Israel has a communications plan. I suspect this one is just for foreign supporters rather than the government itself. Israel is doing exactly what you would expect. While on the other side, Palestinian officials, I suspect have no such plan. I doubt they have even spent much time thinking about how to advise supporters in London, Washington and Paris on what to say.

So, how did this happen? I suspect that as opposed to the early 2000s, social media now allows people motivated enough to follow an event or issue to also coordinate their messages. They might not be sitting around writing concept papers, and holding focus groups, but the result of sharing coverage, reading others' thoughts and then responding online or at a demo has much the same effect.  

Organic, networked responses leading to spontaneous message coordination might be all well as good, the difference is what lies in the centre. Israel has a government that is largely seen as a legitimate representative of those on one side of the argument. This means one side is seen as having the capacity to take steps to solve the crisis; in other words Israel can create the idea that it actively works for a solution.

Those supporting the Palestinian cause on may find the narratives of blame favouring them, but without a credible, representative body, Palestinians cannot take an assertive role in promoting a solution they favour. Without credible representation, they are the passive actor with an argument framed solely around blame.

Baghdadi's sermon - analysing the narratives

A couple of days ago, ISIS released a video of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi giving the Friday sermon in Mosul, Iraq. There has been a lot of discussion about the cost of his expensive-looking watch, whether it was actually him in the video, whether he cuts an impressive figure, etc. This, to me, seems like a sideshow. ISIS went to the trouble to film and disseminate the video. Even if it's not Baghdadi in the video, ISIS senior leadership decided to produce it with an effect in mind. That seems like a good enough reason to look at the narratives at work behind the video. 

The Open Source Center's 2011 report on the master narratives of al Qaeda is still a good resource when looking at al Qaeda's narratives. ISIS might well be an offshoot of AQ, but it differs largely in tactics rather than aims. Also, if ISIS and AQ narratives diverged, that in itself would be interesting. 

The OSC identifies AQ's messaging strategy as being built around a simple concept-note type framework; what is the problem, what should you do about it and what does success look like. 

AQ puts it like this: 

- "what is the state of the umma (the transnational Muslim community) and who are its enemies?".

- "what must Muslims everywhere do?".

- "What will victory look like?"

And the answers are:

- We are fighting a war on Islam. Our enemy is the West and its agents (puppet rulers) and the tragedy of the Palestinians is an example of what the West wants to do to all Muslims

- Muslims must fight to defend themselves, their lives and their honour. Early Muslims were successful because they did not fear self sacrifice and embraced martyrdom. 

- The restoration of the caliphate will allow Muslims to walk tall once more. 

Here's the video. 

And, click here for an English translation courtesy of ISIS.

Even from a quick glance it's clear that many of the narratives are still there; a list of examples of Muslim suffering (including Palestine) are mentioned to establish the problem. Local leaders are denounced as Western puppets and apostates. Warfare in the name of Islam is promoted as the solution. There are also some familiar themes around identity; the Salafi-Jihadi outlook is referred to as the only authentic, self respecting persona a Muslim can adopt (this is linked to the narrative about Jihad being the solution) 

The main difference between the messaging contained in the Mosul sermon and previous AQ statements is the change in tone. Baghdadi is in a position that no other modern Jihadi leader before him has faced; he's put an American-trained army to shame, captured territory and diplomatically hamstrung Western powers. In the past, leaders such as Afghanistan's Mullah Omar, even if they believed and were constant with the rhetoric of cosmic war, were speaking from a position of weakness or obscurity. Secular leaders (like Saddam Hussein) who hung like drunks to a lamp post to the rhetoric of Muslim pride and Western arrogance were obviously grabbing straws while facing down the  barrel of a much more powerful military machine.

The difference is felt on the ground. Friends in the region said Baghdadi's speech reminded them of Nasrallah speaking after Hizbullah checked an Israeli advance into Lebanon in 2006. (The irony was not lost on my friend who mentioned it)

As opposed to Osama's empty threats and Zawahiri's tirades, Baghdadi casts Muslims as not a downtrodden people but a nation - represented by his caliphate - who are ready to extract their revenge. Unlike his AQ predecessors, he isn't looking for unrealistic concessions from Western powers but demands allegiance and assistance from Muslims across the world - his new constituency. 

But it's about more than just messaging. ISIS has learnt how to synchronise its communications, military and political efforts for best effect. It makes sense that the group would use Sunni frustration in Iraq to cobble together an alliance to take territory. But to hold its gains, it seems to need to move quickly from a shaky coalition based on Sunni grievance to something bigger. The announcement of the Caliphate and the bold speech are part of that. 

But that doesn't mean ISIS has got it all right. 

- The group identifies Russia, America, Jews and all Shia on one side, with itself on the other. Would love to see research on this, but anecdotally, this seems to be taken as ridiculous by almost everyone in the region. In fact, many Syrians are convinced that ISIS is directed by the Assad regime. However, having said that, there have been for some time dark rumblings about Western, particularly US intentions towards Syria. If it felt the need, ISIS could try and push the idea that everyone is conspiring against it, but it is far from there yet. 

- Baghdadi's calls for unity sound as if they are an entreaty from a man above the fray. However, many Syrians and Iraqis have painful experience that unity under ISIS means little more than compliance or punishment. 

Like AQ, ISIS's weak spots are its inflexibility, extreme sectarianism and propensity for bloodshed. And like AQ, it gains support when it can claim to be acting to "save" its core Sunni community. As many commentators have said, in real terms the announcement of Baghdadi's caliphate may mean little, but the Jihadi movement has turned a significant corner and what remains to be seen is what he can use it to do next.  

The post-uprising post

It's been a while since I last blogged... Almost two years in fact. Actually, I haven't blogged much since the start of what became known as the Arab Spring. I was in Pakistan when protests kicked off in Tunisia and Mubarak was overthrown. When I wasn't glued to the screen, I was writing articles that now seem hopelessly naive (such as this for Foreign Policy and this for The National).

It wasn't too long before I was back working on the Middle East. But this time for government, not as a journalist. As anyone who follows me on Twitter probably already knows, I spent the last 15 months working for the UK Foreign Office as a political communications advisor to the Syrian Coalition. The demands of the job necessitated a break from blogging. 

Working for government gave me the chance to get a sneak peek at foreign affairs behind the scenes. I realise now that as a journalist I fixated often on the "ideal solution". Insight is great, but solutions require having a good understanding of your operating environment. Without having some idea of how government works (or how governments work with each other), it's impossible to know what can and can't be done. Advice based on sound findings, theories and even facts is useless if it can't be enacted. And, if it can't be enacted, it's not really a solution. 

I learnt from my Syrian colleagues that the people with the most potential to change things are often those who don't seem like a good story at the time - those working away from the limelight. I know now that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians working at building a new country from the ground up. I hope to carry on helping in anyway I can. 

My work has shifted from researching problems to finding solutions. This blog will reflect that. I want to use the space I have here to explore the role of strategic communications in political and social change. An obsession of mine is the communications activities of the dark side, eg. ISIS, al Qaeda and Russian propaganda, so expect to see much of that. 

As time goes on, I'll build up a reading list on the subject as well as list of resources (reports etc). I'd be glad to take comments, submissions and all other (useful) interjections that add to the debate. But equally, snark is welcomed - as long as its funny. 

Consider this a soft (re)launch... 

The logic of influence in Syria

Fred Kaplan wrote in a recent Slate article on how events in Syria may play out:

"Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people."

The context of Kaplan's comments in based around a New York Times report that CIA agents are helping provide weapons to Syrian opposition fighters.

The whole idea of providing weapons to rebels in the hope of undermining an opponent and influencing the outcome of the struggle is probably older than war itself. But that doesn't mean it works. (In fact, if anyone has done a study on how often it deosn't work, Londonstani would be very interested in reading it). 

In this day and age, Londonstani was kinda hoping we'd moved past the whole "take me to your leader" approach and could come up with something that combines the best of politics, diplomacy and communications. Maybe, just maybe, the people to reach out to here aren't warlords, but the average Syrian. After all, the warlords are going to be seeking constituencies to wield power on behalf of in the post-Assad Syria. So, whatever happens, it's the Syrian people who will set the frame in which the future of their country is cast - whether good or bad. 

If there are international bodies out there putting together contingency plans, Londonstani's requests would be:

1 - Please do lots of research

2 - Please read your research

3 - Please don't put all you eggs in baskets owned by opportunistic gangsters (Syria has many)

The tombs of Timbuktu in pictures

Reuters reported today that fighters from Malian extremist group Ansar Dine, which recently took control of the north of the country, have been destroying historical Islamic sites.

"A local Malian journalist, Yeya Tandina, said Saturday that the Ansar Dine fighters had already destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the 16 shrines in Timbuktu, and had declared that they would demolish all the others. Later, residents said at least two other mausoleums and seven tombs had also been destroyed," the Reuters story re-printed in the NYT stated.

Londonstani is not an expert on the politics of the Sahel (unlike Andrew Lebovich, who you can follow at @tweetsintheME), but has visited and reported from Timbuktu in his old journalism days. Reading about the rampaging extremist gunmen, Londonstani can't help thinking back to what he saw and heard in Timbuktu and the capital Bamako, which had seemed at the time like havens of Islamic tolerance after Pakistan.

"In countries, where the austere Takfiri ideology has grown, Sufis – who practice a spiritual and inclusive understanding of Islam – have been targeted. In Pakistan earlier this month, extremists blew up the shrine of a 17th century Sufi poet,"Londonstani wrote for the Sunday Telegraph.

"Back in Bamako's main market, a shopkeeper who spoke Arabic because of his education in one of the capital's Islamic schools, and sold traditional carved wooden statues of nude women said he could not comprehend an Islam that attacked the tombs of revered figures.

"If they did that here, there would be civil war," he said."

When it happened, the civil war came first; then the desecration.

Egypt's Pakistani future?

Having living a long-time in Egypt, Londonstani has been following the election news  quite closely. Amongst the claims of counter coups etc, there's little giving a sense of where Egyptian politics is going. 

The ever insightful Juan Cole, however, has been one of the few observers putting events into a long term and wider regional context. 

In his most recent blog post the Middle East scholar compares political developments in Egypt to Pakistan, that other heavily populated, cultural hub of political Islamist ideology. 

"Ironically, in Pakistan since 2008, the president’s powers (originally based on martial law amendments to the constitution made at will by a series of military dictators after their coups) have been much reduced as a result of popular pressure, the insistence of opposition parties, and the country’s feisty courts. Pakistan may be the sort of system toward which Egypt’s SCAF is groping, where the officer corps controls aspects of foreign policy (e.g. Afghanistan) and has huge economic holdings that the civilian government cannot easily challenge. But the continued power of the military in Pakistan derives in part from the war the country is fighting against elements of the Taliban in the tribal belt, and from the weakness and corruption of the parliamentary parties. And, even in Pakistan, it should be remembered, a military dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) was successfully removed in 2008 under threat of impeachment by the elected parliament, and the prerogatives of the officer corps have been whittled down in subsequent years. In Pakistan, big street protests and marches gave support to parties’ demands, a dynamic that we’ve seen in Egypt in the past year and a half."

Having spent a fair amount in each country, Londonstani would say that they main difference between Pakistan and Egypt right now is that Egyptians have found a public voice and a confidence to say what it is they expect from their leaders. And, this new-found expression is being tentatively exercised on a daily basis. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have little faith in the political system or their collective ability to change things for the better through the systems that presently exist. Despite talk of the lawyers marches a few years ago, in Pakistan there really is no such thing as "popular" dissent. Public protest in Pakistan only reaches significant levels when it is backed by an established political force. 

In Egypt, political actors have learnt to fear "the people". In Pakistan they fear particular political parties, the military, families that run madrassa networks or media bosses. 

The obvious exception to this rule is Imran Khan. He is still a political actor, but has managed to gain legitimate political following based on his ideas. In other words, he's not bribing people to back him. In Egypt, popular opinion has only become a political force since Mubarak's ouster. In Pakistan, politics has begun to be based on ideas since the rise of Imran Khan. Perhaps the real similarity between the two countries is that both have, for different reasons, discovered real politics very recently. 


The new order of engagement

The CNAS crew in Washington DC have put together a report a new report on future US policy towards the new dictator-unfriendly Middle East.

Two observations stand out.

1 - People have become important.

The report notes;

"A new Arab public sphere has been developing in the Middle East since at least the mid-1990s. While the region remains divided by state boundaries, a shared political dialogue – enabled by diverse media, ranging from Al-Jazeera to Twitter – has emerged in which the people of the region have the freedom to voice their desires and frustrations in ways they could not two decades ago.

...The monopoly over information once enjoyed by regimes has been lost to new technologies and media. No longer can ministries of information shape what publics know and do not know about the world and their condition relative to other peoples."

The simple fact is that; any international actor looking to engage in the politics of the Middle East, or wider Muslim world, will have to figure out how to talk, and listen, to the people. Much like the same actor would have to do at home. It will no longer be possible to force a pliant local dictator to push through policies that local people don't believe to be in their interest.

2 - Islamists, and their followers, can't be avoided

Whereas only a couple of years ago, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom could declare they would not be speaking to Islamists, confident in the belief that their refusal to speak to a political group would render it insignificant. Today, not talking to a group that generates popular support is likely only damage your own significance.

"Thus, the protection of U.S. interests requires the United States to interact with parties and leaders that only a few years ago were dismissed as radicals."

And, in case anyone thought any of that was easy, an article today in the Guardian about engagement and divergence between Islamist groups shows just how complex the political environment is.

Anyway, make Ex's day and download the report Strategic Adaptation: Towards a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East here.

The point of foreign policy

Londonstanis original blogging home, Abu Muqawama, has a fascinating post by Adam Elkus on the "domesticisation of European national interest".

The bit that caught Londonstani's eye was this:

"By proposing the idea that domestic and international security threats were inescapably linked, Blair and others did not internationalize the national interest. Rather, Blair domesticated the international."

The idea being that instead of striding onto the world stage to address domestic concerns, as they claimed, policy makers were bringing the international arena onto the domestic stage.

At first glance it might seem like arguing over shades of grey, but for a country that's in a period of cost-cutting and retrenchment it goes to the heart of a question that the UK has failed to settle for close on a century; what's abroad actually for?

While you're at it, have a look at the Aaron Ellis' post at Tory Reform Group mentioned by Adam.

Al Qaeda's Western DNA

How do you spot an Islamist extremist?

It's not as easy as it sounds. Want to blow stuff up? Well, a whole bunch of ideology-driven crazy people want to do that, not just Islamists. Know a Muslim who believes it's their religious duty to grow a long beard or wear a long black robe that leaves only the eyes uncovered? They might just be extremely devout, and complete pillars of their (multi-religious) community. 

What sets a real Islamist extremist apart is the zealous need to embody the complete antithesis of mainstream Western society as an expression of an authentic Islamic world view. So, if most men are clean shaved, they feel it's a "duty" to have a free-flowing beard. The law in most Western countries says a man can only have one wife; they say you MUST have four. If society expects you to get a job and pay your taxes, they'll implore you to claim state benefits while you spend your days calling for the state to be overthrown. If most people's trousers come down to their ankles, they'll find an obscure religious ruling that says you go to hell if your trousers aren't cut off mid way down your shin. If politicians say civilians shouldn't be killed in war, the proper extremist finds ways to justify expressly targeting them as a sanctified strategy of war.

It doesn't take long to realise that if you are going to define yourself by always being the opposite of something, you are - by nature - intrinsically linked to what you claim to hate most. Al Qaeda - as the poster boy of Islamist extremism - exhibits this dichotomy most clearly. The organisation's stated aim is to fight Western influence (economic, military and cultural) in the Muslim world, while its very existence is a product of a "Westernised" world - not the tooled up response of a unsullied Muslim essence, as it likes to portray.

Al Qaeda's DNA is a Western product. Even while it claims to fight the West, its way of doing things is - at its core - very Western. This can be seen coming through in the group's use of very Western practices such as branding, off-shoring, sub-contracting and franchising. In many ways, al Qaeda was the ultimate example of a successful Western company (apart from the murdering) operating in the post-Regan/Thatcher era of deregulated markets, media saturation and globalised finance.

Letters written by Osama Bin Laden captured during the raid that killed him (a selection of which were published last week by West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center) show that, in the end, al Qaeda's Western DNA was its greatest liability.

The global franchising that expanded al Qaeda's reach led to loss of control. And, the brand that Osama Bin Laden had nutured through careful plotting was destroyed by the actions of late arrivals (in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia) who wanted in on al Qaeda's mystique but didn't understand that the rest of the Muslim world were horrified by the slaughter of Muslims with the wrong views, and Western civilians. In the end, like many Western media companies, al Qaeda was feeling the world change under its feet, but it couldn't stop itself from losing its footing.

According to Jason Burke writing in the Guardian:

"They [the captured letters] show bin Laden still committed to a campaign of violence but so concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world that he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaida, to allow it to better exploit the Arab spring revolts.

"A month before he died, bin Laden described the Arab spring uprisings as a "tremendous event" but clearly felt that al-Qaida had been marginalised."

US News Business Correspondent Rick Newman explains how this happened in the language of simple, clear-eyed business reporting:

"Bin Laden faced the kinds of challenges many business leaders confront at key junctures for their companies... As more terrorist groups adopted the al Qaeda name, it created the ominous impression that al Qaeda was aggressively expanding. But the bin Laden documents suggest it was a fractious arrangement that was never likely to gel... He personally disapproved of suicide bombings and other terrorist operations that killed innocent Muslims, worrying that they could sully al Qaeda's image when carried out in its name. He tried to centralize control over all operations carried out by any branch of al Qaeda, but failed to rein them in."

The whole idea that there are Western ways of doing things and "Islamic" (or any other way) of doing things is only compelling on a superficial level. There are really only good and bad ways of doing things. By constantly pitching itself as the antithesis of the West, the ideological trend that al Qaeda springs from mortgages its own horizons for a fleeting feeling of "up yours!" satisfaction. In the end, though, it suffered the worst of both worlds.

Mona Eltahawy and the treatment of Arab women - detoxifying the debate

Mona Eltahawy's article Foreign Policy article Why Do They Hate Us? about the treatment of women in Arab societies has stirred up some serious debate, but from reading online comments and articles in response, the discussion has drifted - again - from the treatment of women to the nature of Islam. 

In Londonstani's view this is a shame. Although he doesn't know Mona personally, she was a close contemporary at the Reuters Cairo bureau and Londonstani has followed her writing and activisim for a long time since. So before everyone goes into Ayan-Hirsi-Ali mode because Mona supported the French niqab ban, it's worth re-reading Mona's activism against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the "Ground Zero mosque" debate. Mona is not "anti-Muslim", a "repentant Muslim" or a "self-hating Muslim". Dismissing her as such does nothing to address the abuse she raises. 

In the article Mona raises important points that need to be addressed, not swept under the carpet because 1) the West is equally bad in a different way 2) dirty laundry should not be aired in public 3) it's disloyal for a Muslim to criticise the actions of other Muslims. 

There is a tendency for discussions around Islam and rights to rapidly veer off course. On one hand, there are those looking to make the point that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam. While on the other, there is a feeling that Islam as a religion is being attacked, and by extension all Muslims are potentially under threat of physical harm.

Somewhere in the middle, the possibility of an honest reflection of attitudes and practices in the Muslim world (yep, these issues are also present in Muslim Asia and Africa) get squeezed out of existence - which is a tragedy because the conversation needs to happen for all the reasons Mona points out. 

In general, efforts to promote rights in Muslim societies tend to follow two routes; the first seeks to justify rights through religio-legal reasoning and portray them as already existing within the religious framework, while the second castigates religion as the source of the problem. 

Both have their limitations. The first elicits a theological debate that ends up lost in the intricacies of competing interpretations of religious texts and the second is perceived as an attack on Islam so has limited traction outside a small clique of ideologically driven campaigners. This isn't new. The Muslim world has straight jacketed itself to a limited, black and white, emulate-or-reject-the-West argument since Napoleon seriously fractured its self confidence in 1798 with his occupation of Egypt. In recent decades, this myopic approach has become even more warped by an increasingly popular perception that "rights" and "freedoms" are "Western" concepts with no precedent in Muslim history. 

Londonstani thinks Mona is exactly right in saying; "Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought..." However, the way this article will be perceived will limit the potential for her argument to stir that revolution. 

Responding to Mona, Nesrine Malik writing for the Guardian sees patriarchy rather than all men as the root of a problem that submits weaker sections of society to inequality and injustice at the whim of those who wield power. She points out that "in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive, but men cannot elect their government, instead they are ruled over by a religiously opportunistic dynasty. In Egypt, it's true that women were subjected to virginity tests, but men were sodomised. In Sudan women are lashed for wearing trousers, but ethnic minorities are also marginalised and under assault." Does Darfur ring a bell?

The solution she says is "a more generous political space will allow for the challenging of patriarchy, which in turn extends the roots of political reform deeper." 

The real tragedy of the Muslim world, Arab or otherwise, is political culture has lost any connection to justice and equality, which used to define the discourse between the rulers and the ruled. Now, to be popular you need to prove how "Un-Western" you are. And, women's rights are seen as a Western concept. It's the opposite of Garbzadegi, the Persian concept of "Weststruck". If you want the Muslim world to jump off a cliff, tell it cliff jumping is Western culture's ultimate expression of personal freedom, and the US administration is committed to championing its cause across the world. 

There is reason to be hopeful. As Londonstani argued in a book he wrote a couple of years ago (plug: The Long Struggle) the Muslim world will only be able to deal with issues related to religion and rights when it detoxifies its relationship with the West. 

As political changes in the Arab world allow space for much-delayed discussions about religion, politics, rights and responsibilities, the West's loss of economic primacy is leading to a decline in cultural authority. These two processes together could, perhaps, encourage the re-birth of that space for honest reflection that has been squashed to death over the past few decades. 

Arab world, culture, Islam, ideas - Stuff you need to read

While Londonstani has been distracted by the waiting for, and then arrival of, Junior Londonstani he's come across a few good blogs and online magazines that you wanna follow if you are into the Arab world, culture, belonging etc.:

1 - The Muslim Institute, a UK-based collection of thinkers, has launched an online magazine called Critical Muslim . Definitely worth looking at articles like Zia Uddin Sardar's Islam: What's the big idea? and Michael Mohammed Knight's The Taqwacore Version. But be warned, it's behind a paywall.

2 - Critical Muslims is the blog of Carool Kersten, a scholar of Islam at Kings College London

3 - For those interested in Syria, there's Creative Syria , which features articles by the likes of Camille Otrakji analysing Bashar al Assad's support inside the country. Oh, and while you are at it, check out the old Middle East photos at the imaginatively titled MidEast Image blog

4 - For more Middle East related life and culture take a look at Emanuelle Esposti's blog. And wait in eager anticipation for her latest offering, The Arab Review, to launch in a couple of weeks.


Posting has been limited recently. I'd like to take full responsibility for this. But, unfortunately I can't because, in fact, a little squirming poo generating machine is to blame.

Meet my son, Zakaria Romer Naseem Khan, born on April 3.

Posting will be patchy while junior helps us discover a new world of sleeplessness.

Gorgeous George's British Muslim Spring

Ok, well, the Bradford Spring... according to Gorgeous George Galloway.

For those who don't follow British politics,; last month serial MP George Galloway (who is probably best known outside the UK for humbling US Senate comittees) contested and won the previously safe Labour seat of Bradford West. His victory, for many UK politics watchers, wasn't a huge surprise. Gorgeous George has made a habit out of wresting seats from his former party by campaigning against UK foreign policy in the Muslim world in areas with large Muslim populations.

It's quite common to hear GG called a single-issue campainger. Former Labour MP Oona King, who he defeated in the 2005 general election, said he was a "one-man band."

Researcher and scholar Parveen Akhtar says its not quite that simple. In an article on Open Democracy, Parveen argues that Galloway isn't merely whipping up support amongst Muslims by denouncing policies they don't like, he's making young Muslims feel like they are being listened to on global and local issues. 

In Londonstani's view, Parveen makes two key points, which are summed up by the words "young" and "local issues".

But first, a little background from Parveen based on ethnographic research conducted in Birmingham:

Pakistani immigrants arriving from the 1950s onwards, "drew the attention of the mainstream political parties to the emergence of a numerically significant - and thus potentially influential - Pakistani electoral constituency. Most Pakistanis were working class and therefore tended to support the Labour Party, though on social issues their values bore closer resemblance to those of the Conservative Party. For their part, both parties viewed the community as impenetrable without the help of community mediators, but they also came to realise that if kinship (biraderi) elders could be got "on side" this would be helpful in securing both their votes and the votes of their wives and voting-age children. The relationship with these elders thus led them to use the internal community kinship structure as a means of accessing a potentially election-winning bloc vote."

The next part is key:

"The consequence was a system of patronage whereby local politicians of all political parties (but especially the Labour Party) built links with community leaders in the Pakistani community, who became their gateway to the Pakistani vote....The local leaders were given minor positions of power and help in figuring out the political system, so that they could stand for council seats or influential roles as subaltern aides. Some community leaders negotiated for community provisions such as neighbourhood centres, whilst others were content with the status conferred on them in the eyes of their compatriots."

As time went on and the British-Pakistani community evolved from being predominantly foreign born and older to British-born and under 30, the cozy mutually beneficial tie-up became a distortion in the system of local politics, the aim of which should be to identify and address the needs of local communities. Instead, local issues went ignored (in many cases the "older generation" simply had no idea they existed.)

Parveen touches on how these "unseen" issues came to find expression through extremism:

"The result was a generation gap, where the older generation were not aware of the frustrations of the young - something clearly highlighted by reactions to the wave of riots in northern English cities in 2001, and by the radicalisation of some young people in colleges and on university campuses."

How does this connect to GG's popularity?

"Pakistani Muslims, like their co-religionists from other regions, certainly do have an interest in middle-east politics, but they are also deeply concerned with what are often seen as unglamorous local-level issues: the economy, housing, work and life opportunities, street-lighting, children’s schools, rubbish-collection. It may be then that in electing George Galloway, at least some Pakistanis have made a cognitive leap by calculating that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad he will care about them here and help to "fight their corner" - a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians."

GG suggested his "Bradford Spring" was about a community of British Muslims sticking it (democratically) to rulers who don't represent them or have their interests at heart. It might be more accurate to look at it as a democratic revolt by young British Pakistanis against the vested interests of their own self-appointed community leaders. This maybe specific to Bradford, but it may be also be emblematic of a wider trend. The make up of British Muslim and British Pakistani communities is evolving. The proportion of those under 30 is growing. Elders no longer hold a monopoly on what is deemed to be acceptable - there are new sources of information. Views are fashioned by experiences common to non-Muslim, non-Pakistani peers. All of which, is mirrored somewhat by sociological changes in the Muslim world. This British experience is what GG could have called the British Muslim Spring.

Maybe he didn't want to put it in those terms, because, after all, taking on Tony Blair and George W. Bush is one thing, the aunties and uncles of Bradford, are quite another.

"Running the country? Pah, easy"

Londonstani, as readers of this blog know, used to live in Cairo. And while there, he'd often wonder how it is that street cafes can be run like well-oiled machines, while the country was so badly run.

Well, in the new Egypt, a cafe owner has decided its time to put his awesome management skills at the disposal of his country.

"I met another of the candidates, Farghal Abu-Deif Atiya, holding court at his cafe in a poor neighbourhood.

"It is called the Freedom Club Cafe but he hopes soon to rename it the Presidential Cafe when he is successful.

"If I can run my cafe efficiently, why not Egypt - indeed the world?" he says.

(read Jon Leyne of the BBC's article on the hundreds of candidates running for election for the full story)

Before you totally dismiss this guy, it's worth remembering that in Pakistan, Imran Khan is running for election (and getting masses of support) while regularly citing his achievements as a former captain of the national cricket team.

Paintballing with Hizbullah

Yup, you read the title right.

Mitch Prothero in Beirut has finally pulled off the holy grail of sport's writing and Middle East reporting in one nifty article; paintballing with Hizbullah, the "A Team of terrorism".

"Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four Western journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert, are playing paintball with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the “A-Team of terrorism.”


Underworld Al Azhar

Londonstani read the Wa-Po article "At al Azhar mosque, struggle over Islam roils a revered Egyptian institution" and thought about the interesting points it alludes to about the millenium-long tussle in the Muslim world between the salafi and sunni interpretations of Islamic theology. And how the salafis, nearly a thousand years after their spiritual head, Ibn Taymiyyah, was imprisoned in Cairo are the closest they have ever been to claiming the highest seat of sunni religious jurispudence.

However, it's a cold Monday morning in London, and Londonstani doubts anyone is interested in reading a discussion on theological differences and their impact on the modern geopolitical order. Instead, watch this trailer for the movie Underworld about werewolves and vampires. It's about as useful as any of the articles you're likely to find online about the significance of the differences between these two Islamic worldviews - and it'll be a whole lot more entertaining.