Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Hamid, “Temptations of Power”

9780199314058_450Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East by Shadi Hamid (Brookings Doha Center). The publisher’s description follows.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached “the end of history,” and that liberal democracy would be the reigning ideology from now on. But Fukuyama failed to reckon with the idea of illiberal democracy. What if majorities, working through the democratic process, decide they would rather not accept gender equality and other human rights norms that Western democracies take for granted? Nowhere have such considerations become more relevant than in the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties into power. Since then, one question has been on everyone’s mind: what do Islamists really want?

In Temptations of Power, noted Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid draws on hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and rank-and-file activists to offer an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of Islamist parties across the Arab world. The oldest and most influential of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially dismissed democracy as a foreign import, but eventually chose to participate in Egyptian and Jordanian party politics in the 1980s. These political openings proved short-lived. As repression intensified, though, Islamist parties did not — as one may have expected — turn to radicalism. Rather, they embraced the tenets of democratic life, putting aside their dreams of an Islamic state, striking alliances with secular parties, and reaching out to Western audiences for the first time.

When the 2011 revolutions took place, Islamists found themselves in an enviable position, but one they were unprepared for. Up until then, the prospect of power had seemed too remote. But, now, freed from repression and with the political arena wide open, they found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity to put their ideas into practice across the region. Groups like the Brotherhood combine the features of political parties and religious movements. However pragmatic they may be, their ultimate goal remains the Islamization of society and the state. When the electorate they represent is conservative as well, they can push their own form of illiberal democracy while insisting they are carrying out the popular will. This can lead to overreach and, at times, significant backlash, as the tragic events in Egypt following the military takeover demonstrated.

While the coup and the subsequent crackdown were a devastating blow for the Islamist “project,” premature obituaries of political Islam, a running feature of commentary since the 1950s, usually turn out to be just that – premature. In countries as diverse as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist groups will remain an important force whether in the ranks of opposition or the halls of power.

Drawing from interviews with figures like ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Hamid’s account will serve as an essential compass for those trying to understand where the region’s varied Islamist groups have come from, and where they might be headed.

Report: Obama Administration to Increase Aid to Syrian Rebels

 

Kessab19

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama’s national security advisers have agreed on a proposal to increase US aid to “moderate” Syrian rebels. Although the advisers disagree on the advisability of more aggressive military intervention, they have apparently coalesced around a plan for US Special Forces to train and equip the moderates. This is in line with a report on Walter Russell Mead’s blog that Obama agreed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or “manpads.”

One can understand the Administration’s frustration. Two-and-a-half years after Obama said that Assad would have to go, and several months after the President’s about-face on chemical weapons, the Assad regime seems more secure than it has for a long time. But two factors counsel strongly against more aggressive assistance to the rebels. First, as Patrick Brennan writes, “for months and months now, it’s been obvious that the effective parts of the Syrian opposition are militant Islamists” like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pro-Western moderate rebels, the sort the Administration likes to promote, are more or less “powerless.” If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Assad, it’s quite possible that the Islamists would overwhelm their secular allies–perhaps through a democratic election, as in Egypt in 2012–and transform Syria into an Islamist state. How would that advance America’s interests? 

Second, assistance to the rebels would almost certainly worsen the already dire situation of Syria’s Christians. Just in the last two weeks, the Nusra Front attacked the Armenian town of Kessab, displacing thousands of Christians. Fortunately, first reports of a massacre seem to have been unfounded. Indeed, the rebels are conducting a PR offensive to assure Kessab–and the world community–that they mean no harm. Christians are skeptical, and with good reason. ISIL recently imposed the centuries-old dhimma in a different Christian town, Raqqa, and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed this morning, “gross human rights violations undeniably continue.” Islamists have kidnapped nuns and bishops and murdered clergy. Only today, masked gunmen, presumably Islamist rebels, murdered a Catholic priest in a rebel-controlled district in the city of Homs. For these reasons, Syria’s Christians mostly support the Assad regime, usually quietly, sometimes vocally.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the plan to equip and train the Syrian rebels will be adopted. In the words of the Journal report, “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.”

Hamid, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East”

Next month, Oxford will publish Temptations of Power:9780199314058_140 Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, by Shadi Hamid (Director of Research and Fellow, Brookings Doha Center). The publisher’s description follows.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached “the end of history,” and that liberal democracy would be the reigning ideology from now on. But Fukuyama failed to reckon with the idea of illiberal democracy. What if majorities, working through the democratic process, decide they would rather not accept gender equality and other human rights norms that Western democracies take for granted? Nowhere have such considerations become more relevant than in the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties into power. Since then, one question has been on everyone’s mind: what do Islamists really want?

In Temptations of Power, noted Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid draws on hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and rank-and-file activists to offer an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of Islamist parties across the Arab world. The oldest and most influential of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially dismissed democracy as a foreign import, but eventually chose to participate in Egyptian and Jordanian party politics in the 1980s. These political openings proved short-lived. As repression intensified, though, Islamist parties did not — as one may have expected — turn to radicalism. Rather, they embraced the tenets of democratic life, putting aside their dreams of an Islamic state, striking alliances with secular parties, and reaching out to Western audiences for the first time.

When the 2011 revolutions took place, Islamists found themselves in an enviable position, but one they were unprepared for. Up until then, the prospect of power had seemed too remote. But, now, freed from repression and with the political arena wide open, they found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity to put their ideas into practice across the region. Groups like the Brotherhood combine the features of political parties and religious movements. However pragmatic they may be, their ultimate goal remains the Islamization of society and the state. When the electorate they represent is conservative as well, they can push their own form of illiberal democracy while insisting they are carrying out the popular will. This can lead to overreach and, at times, significant backlash, as the tragic events in Egypt following the military takeover demonstrated.

While the coup and the subsequent crackdown were a devastating blow for the Islamist “project,” premature obituaries of political Islam, a running feature of commentary since the 1950s, usually turn out to be just that – premature. In countries as diverse as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist groups will remain an important force whether in the ranks of opposition or the halls of power.

Drawing from interviews with figures like ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Hamid’s account will serve as an essential compass for those trying to understand where the region’s varied Islamist groups have come from, and where they might be headed.

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.

Muasher, “The Second Arab Awakening”

This January, Yale University Press published The Second Arab Awakening: And The Battle For Pluralism by Marwan Muasher.  The publisher’s description The Second Arab Awakeningfollows.

This important book is not about immediate events or policies or responses to the Arab Spring. Instead, it takes a long, judicious view of political change in the Arab world, beginning with the first Awakening in the nineteenth century and extending into future decades when—if the dream is realized—a new Arab world defined by pluralism and tolerance will emerge.   Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan, asserts that all sides—the United States, Europe, Israel, and Arab governments alike—were deeply misguided in their thinking about Arab politics and society when the turmoil of the Arab Spring erupted. He explains the causes of the unrest, tracing them back to the first Arab Awakening, and warns of the forces today that threaten the success of the Second Arab Awakening, ignited in December 2010. Hope rests with the new generation and its commitment to tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth, Muasher maintains. He calls on the West to rethink political Islam and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he discusses steps all parties can take to encourage positive state-building in the freshly unsettled Arab world.

Samuel Tadros to Discuss “Motherland Lost” at Georgetown (Jan 30)

The Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros will be discussing his important book, Motherland Lost:The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, at Georgetown University on January 30. Details are here. I interviewed Sam about this book at CLR Forum last fall.

Souaiaia, “Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies”

In December, Palgrave Macmillan published Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies by Ahmed Souaiaia (University of Iowa). The publisher’s description follows.Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies - Ahmed E. Souaiaia

The ‘Arab Spring’ that began in 2011 has placed a spotlight on the transfer of political power in Islamic societies, reviving old questions about the place of political dissent and rebellion in Islamic civilization and raising new ones about the place of religion in modern Islamic societies.

In Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, Ahmed E. Souaiaia examines the complex historical evolution of Islamic civilization in an effort to trace the roots of the paradigms and principles of Islamic political and legal theories. This study is one of the first attempts at providing a fuller picture of the place of dissent and rebellion in Islamic civilization by interpreting Sunni and Shi`i records in the context of little-known Ibadi political and legal materials. As the oldest sect, Ibadiyyah provides a record of the ways sectarianism and dissent developed and impinged on Islamic society and thought.

Hoover Institution Reprints Interview with Samuel Tadros

The Hoover Institution at Stanford has reprinted my interview with Samuel Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. In the interview, Tadros answers questions about the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the Church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, he explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts and speaks about the Church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.

Potter (ed.), “Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf”

Potter-—-Sectarian-Politics-CMYK-webThis January, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers will publish Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf edited by Lawrence G. Potter (Columbia University). The publisher’s description follows.

Long a taboo topic, as well as one that has alarmed outside powers, sectarian conflict in the Middle East is on the rise. The contributors to this book examine sectarian politics in the Persian Gulf, including the GCC states, Yemen, Iran and Iraq, and consider the origins and con- sequences of sectarianism broadly construed, as it affects ethnic, tribal and religious groups. They also present a theoretical and comparative framework for understanding sectarianism, as well as country-specific chapters based on recent research in the area. Key issues that are scrutinised include the nature of sectarianism, how identity moves from a passive to an active state, and the mechanisms that trigger conflict. The strategies of governments such as rentier economies and the ‘invention’ of partisan national histories that encourage or manage sectarian differences are also highlighted, as is the role of outside powers in fostering sectarian strife. The volume also seeks to clarify whether movements such as the Islamic revival or the Arab Spring obscure the continued salience of religious and ethnic cleavages. Published in collaboration with: Georgetown University Center for International and Regional Studies School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Helping Mideast Christians

Last week, Robert George and Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, published an important op-ed on the persecution of Mideast Christians. This topic receives far too little attention, for reasons I’ve explained, and George and Swett deserve praise for writing about it.

The situation is truly dire. For example, George and Swett discuss the plight of Egypt’s Copts, who celebrate Christmas today, as well as Christians in Iraq:

In Egypt, persecution against Coptic Christians, the region’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, numbering 8 million, has reached critical proportions. While Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by rhetoric leading to more violence before and since his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a military crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.

In Iraq, violence against Christians rose after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Christians have endured increasing levels of rape, torture, and murder, driving many away. On Christmas Day, at least 37 people died in bombings in Christian areas, including a car bombing outside of a church. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has failed repeatedly to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to about one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.

The situation in Iraq, in particular, should embarrass the United States. America toppled Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq for almost a decade. The result for Christians and some other religious minorities has been disaster. And security continues to deteriorate. Just last week, Fallujah fell to militants linked to Al Qaeda.

But I digress. At the end of their op-ed, George and Swett suggest some things that the US can do to help persecuted Mideast Christians now:

First, the United States must press governments to bring to justice those who assault religious minorities – not only Christians but Shi’a Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims and Baha’is in Iran, and Shi’a and Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Second, Washington must urge these governments to cease punishing the innocent. In countries like Egypt and Pakistan, Christians and others face not only violence from extremists who rarely are imprisoned for their misdeeds, but prison at the hands of these same governments, thanks to blasphemy laws which violate freedom of expression as well as religion.

Third, the United States must firmly support religious freedom as an antidote to religious extremism in these countries. By supporting a robust marketplace of beliefs and ideas, religious freedom enables more tolerant beliefs to compete in the struggle for hearts and minds.

Here I’d like to suggest a couple of friendly amendments. First, it’s not clear whether George and Swett are suggesting public action by the US. Public pressure could do more harm than good, in my view. Given the pathologies of the Mideast, overt advocacy on the part of religious minorities could expose them to a backlash. Christians are already seen, unfairly, as intruders and Western agents. Moreover, popular opinion in America would not support serious interventions on behalf of Mideast Christians. Public statements of support, without the will to back them up with concrete actions, would only raise expectations unfairly. This sort of thing has occurred to Mideast Christians many times in the past.

So pressure by the US should be private. Even private pressure could backfire, of course, especially if regional governments decide to make Christians scapegoats. But private pressure is less likely than public admonishment to cause greater problems for already vulnerable people.

Second, in addition to trying to improve the status of Christians in the region, the US and other Western countries should fast-track asylum applications from Copts and other Mideast Christians, to provide a haven for those who wish to leave the region. This is a very imperfect solution, of course, as it would accelerate the depopulation of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. But leaving these Christians to their fate isn’t a good option, either.