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.

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.

"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.”


RIP Anthony Shadid

It was with much sadness that Londonstani learnt this morning that foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid passed away during a reporting assignment covering the Syrian uprising.

Londonstani had the good fortune to meet Anthony on several occasions and he was always generous with his time and his advice. In a profession that has earned a reputation of attracting the vain, maladjusted and slightly unhinged, Anthony stood out as a professional driven by a genuinely altruistic desire to tell the stories of the voiceless.

Reporting in war zones all too often focuses on those doing the fighting, Anthony told the stories of those caught in the middle. And in the grand scheme of things, it's what they think that will decide how things eventually turn out.

George Packer at the New Yorker says this about Anthony:

"Anthony knows that terrain better than any foreigner. Is Tripoli about to fall? Shadid will get inside as soon as he can. Is Cairo having another revolution? He’s there and knows how to explain why it’s happening. If anyone can get into Homs, it’ll be Anthony. He combined professional excellence with quiet indefatigability, so that you only noticed it when he wasn’t on the scene. He was the Cal Ripken of foreign correspondents."

Getting rid of despots - England style

If Arab revolutionaries want to hasten the departure of their despots, they need to stop looking at Turkey and examine English history, says Stephen Walt, who - as professor of international relations at Harvard - knows a thing or two about world politics.

"...a central issue is the familiar problem of credible commitment. In order to convince unpopular rulers to leave power (or at least to give up a lot of their current privileges), you have to convince them that they are not signing their own death warrants or ensuring their own financial ruin"

(This is also true in Pakistan, where you get into politics to protect the family business, and you stay in power to prevent it being destroyed by your enemies.)

Turkey's sideling of its former military kingpins might look all rosey, says Walt, but sacking men in uniform all over the place and putting generals in prison without trial is making their peers across the Middle East think twice about stepping down.

The sensible way to do this, Walt says over at Foreign Policy's Cable, is taking their power away slowly, the same sort of thing that happened to the English aristocracy.

"Beginning in the early 19th century, the gradual expansion of the franchise and the rise of the middle class gradually led to a curtailing of noble privilege and political power. But the aristocrats weren't dragged to guillotine or have their estates confiscated, they just got a little weaker and a little less rich, on average, with each successive generation. But this ensured that the nobility didn't try to dig in its heels and stop the process completely, which would have created a far greater risk of a major explosion."

Apart from the issue of time, which Walt acknowledges, the English experience more likely came about through a happy coincidence rather than someone's grand multi-generational plan. Still he has a point.

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...

The Salafi Cartoon Network

If you are a good, conscientious follower of world events, you are probably wondering about these "Salafis" that everyone keeps saying are gaining popularity across the Middle East.

In which case, you could do much worse than spend a few minutes reading Sarah Topol's Egypt's Salafi Surge.

"While the Brotherhood wants to talk about its plans to create new jobs, the Salafis will try to focus the debate in parliament on public social virtues, like headscarves, religious idolatry, and banning alcohol. The Brotherhood is also far more concerned with increasing the powers of parliament and sending the Egyptian military back to barracks, while Nour's red-meat issue remains the promotion of its conservative social agenda."

On the otherhand, if you are like Londonstani and would much rather have trends in international politics explained to you through the medium of an amusing cartoon, you sir (or madam) are totally in luck!

Beards, bikinis and the politics of the new Arab world

When it comes to revolutions, it's the bullets, tear gas and chanting crowds that gets everyone excited, but it's what comes afterwards that ultimately decides the future.

Although, like many other Middle East new junkies, I get up in the morning and think, "put on the news! What's going on in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen?!", the future of the Middle East - whether it will become a stable, prosperous region or an unstable basketcase that makes the rest of the world nervous - is being decided by what is happening right now in Tunisia and Egypt.

The conversations taking place in most Western (and non-Arab Muslim) media fixates on a couple of labels; military rule, Islamists and democracy. In reality, the struggle playing out in Arab countries that have managed to overthrow an unpopular leader is about much more fundamental issues; namely, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Samer Al-Atrush, a freelance journalist based in Cairo writing for AFP and the Telegraph, had a great story out yesterday illustrating the political, societal and cultural tussle taking place away from the cameras that will nonetheless decide whether we are looking at a stable and prosperous Arab world or a region at odds with itself and the rest of the world.

"On a barren hill in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from the famous beach resorts with their bikini-clad patrons, Islamist activist Ahmed Saber ponders the fate of revealing swimwear if his party comes to power."

Now, Londonstani and Samer were partners in journalistic crime a few years ago, so Londonstani has some idea of just how much pleasure Samer will have taken in mentioning Islamists and bikinis in the same sentence. The only thing that is likely to give Samer more satisfaction is that he has Salafis in there too. A Canadian-Palestinian with fluent Arabic and deep local knowledge, Samer has gotten to the root of the post-revolution debate.

Following foreign rule and then often military dictatorships of one form or another, the Muslim world in general, but the Arab world in particular, has had little opportunity to come to a durable consensus as to what confers legitimacy on rulers, what is expected of them and what the process of interaction between those in power and those they govern should be. In the absence of a debate, force has prevailed, buttressed by a substantial degree of bribery ("government jobs for all graduates! woohoo"), and blackmail ("it's your duty as an Arab and Muslim to support your great leader as he stands opposed to the devious activities of Zionists and imperialists").

This approach, in essence, characterises practically all political groups in the Arab world regardless of whether they call themselves "secular", "liberal", "democratic", "Islamist" or anything else. With civil society and media curtailed or subverted and education systems used to inculcate blind acceptance of the ruling clique's hold on power, there has been little space - until recently - to independently grapple with the basic issues of governance, rights and responsibilities, problems and solutions.

Until, that is, the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali were removed and the puritanical ideal of the Salafis clashed with the practical need to tolerate bikini-clad tourists in order to keep the economy functioning.

"With the Brotherhood, at least we can have a discussion," he said...But the Salafis are different. They are used to sitting in mosques saying: "God commanded this, and the Prophet commanded that. And now suddenly they are involved in politics. It won't work."

Of course, the idea of bikini and beards at loggerheads has picked up media attention, but the principle of balancing requirements and satisfying divergent interests is what's important here. Those who end up ruling the (hopefully) post-dictatorship countries of the Arab world will have to address the issue of keeping people employed, providing law and order, improving social justice and building an economy in the real world - one where there is no perfect solution mandated by scripture (religious or secular), just a least-worst option.

* If you are into your political philosophy, you might see a hint of the fundamental questions that seminal thinkers like John Rawls grapple with when trying to address some of the same issues.

** And if you are of the "Arabs/Muslims don't need to learn anything from an American" school of thought, you might want to look at Zakariya Qazwini's Awaj bin Anfaq, Al Farabi's al Madina al Fadila and Nizam al Tusi's Sayasatnama

Kicking Off

After a six-month break from blogging, it’s time for Londonstani to once again put pixel to webpage.

But first, as a courtesy to those stumbling across Londonstani for the first time, this is probably a good time to explain.

Londonstani is the alter ego of Amil Khan, who – about four years ago, was working as a documentary journalist at the BBC and Channel 4 on projects that involved crime, gang warfare, extremism and armed conflict in far off places. Andrew Exum - aka Abu Muqawama – who was sharing a flat with Londonstani in East London’s Walthamstow area, featured some of Londonstani’s whispered ramblings on his counter insurgency blog.

It wasn’t long after that Abu Muqawama’s “violent Pashtun flatmate” started writing regularly for the blog, drawing on his privileged access to people and places as a journalist to analyse issues related to extremism, UK foreign policy and identity in Britain.

Blogging at Abu Muqawama gave Londonstani the leeway to delve unfettered into the topics Amil was being asked to cover as a professional journalist. Amil and Londonstani settled into a productive partnership. Amil would pimp his languages/professional background/ability to use a camera to get access to refugee camps/war zones or sink estates and Londonstani would bask in the freedom of the interwebs and write whatever he wanted.

The arrangement produced articles that Amil had to grudgingly admit he was glad to have collaborated on. Including:

An interview with an al Qaeda fighter returning from Iraq.

A series of three reports from Sudan’s Darfur conflict that looked at how traditional societies are affected by political upheaval and violence.

And, while Amil covered racism in a typical UK housing estate, Londonstani looked at the draw of the extremist narrative in less nice parts of modern Britain.

Amil arrived in Pakistan in 2009 to run a UK-funded counter extremism project that worked with religious leaders. Londonstani, of course, came along too. Pakistan was as newsworthy then as it is now (perhaps more so). Several foreign correspondents do a great job covering headline news events in Pakistan. So, as before, Londonstani stuck to exploring the issues behind the headlines in an effort to present a little context and background to those hoping to understand why people feel and/or act as they do.

Since then Amil has caught up to Londonstani with some writing of his own at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. As the Arab Spring rolled around, Amil couldn’t resist revisiting his first infatuation - the politics of the Middle East – and wrote a couple of articles looking at why Arabs had decided they had had enough.

With the situation in the Middle East evolving around us and Pakistan looking like its set for social and political changes as its young (65 percent of the population) look to have their voices heard, Londonstani will be going through a little transformative process of his own.

After nearly four years residence at Abu Muqawama, it’s about time Londonstani ventured out in the big wide world on his own. The Londonstani blog will look at the issues of violence and politics, much as before (ie. in the third person tense of plausible deniability). But as the world changes, Londonstani’s coverage will adapt to address it. The blog will still cover extremism and how to address it but will expand its horizons to encompass issues of political development (the developing ideas behind the politics of the Muslim world) and how to engage with emerging trends in a productive way. In addition, the Londonstani blog will come at these issues from a UK angle, because – well – Londonstan is part (by consent and not coercion) of a larger entity known as the United Kingdom.

There will doubtless be technical teething problems as the blog takes its first steps. Feel free to comment (if they work), get in contact (if that works) or get a hold of Londonstani via twitter @Londonstani.

Londonstani aims to be a resource for all those interested in the politics of the Middle East, South Asia and community relations in the UK. If nothing else, you’re likely to find out something you might not ever have known about a fascinating and underreported part of the world… like the ‘Stow.