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.

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. 

Amnesty - behind the lines in the Arab Spring

Amnesty released a report looking at the popular uprisings against oppressive rule in the Middle East (let's not forget Iran had an uprising too) aka Arab Spring.

The report - Year of Rebellion, The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - was released accompanied by a statement from Amnesty which makes some good points:

With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognize that everything has changed,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s interim Middle East and North Africa Director. “The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression.”

But what has been striking about the last year has been that – with some exceptions – change has largely been achieved through the efforts of local people coming onto the streets, not the influence and involvement of foreign powers.

Amnesty, true to its human-rights-first agenda, makes the following recommendations:

Reform security forces

Ensure laws comply with international standards

Reform the justice system

End Torture and other ill-treatment

End incommunicado detention

Uphold the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression

Release prisoners of conscience

End enforced disappearances

End impunity

 

Now, you might be reading this thinking, "Yeah, that's the typical unrealistic, bleeding heart, tree-hugger, humanitarian, pie in the sky wish list that I'd expect from a bunch of crusties (thanks to the mayor of London for the phrase)". But, you'd be mistaken.

Amnesty's demands to Arab governments are always pretty much the same, which is the point. Slowly and steadily, Amnesty and other groups like it, have advanced these aims through contact with civil society groups. Londonstani doesn't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, in the end, engagement and capacity building with activists on the ground had a much bigger impact than the decades of government-level engagement with the former regimes carried out by Western governments. Which went a little something like this:

"please repeal your illegal emergency laws. 'No', you say? OK then."

"We will cut your aid if you keep jailing democracy activists. Not really!"

"We will be angry if you blatantly rig elections. What's that you say? Your people are a bit thick and naturally disposed to voting in terrorists? Ok, fine, but at least try and be a bit subtle about it."

What is that you are telling your people as you accept huge amounts of money from us? That we are plotting to overthrow you and let the Israelis fly the Star of David over the pyramids? Naa..Naaa. Naaa.. Can't hear yoooou...Naa Naaa"

Yup, human rights activists get regime change done. Who'd have thunk it. Nuff said.

 

* Wanna know what was going through the minds of your average way-past retirement age Egyptian official while they were having their terminally boring meetings with Western officials? This...