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New Zealand: David Confronts Two Goliaths

After the election of Donald Trump, New Zealand became the go-to option for terrified Americans fantasizing about emigration. Three years later, New Zealand has burnished its reputation as a credible refuge by successfully confronting two epidemics that continue to plague the United States—one political, the other medical.

New Zealand’s most recent success has been its handling of the coronavirus. After seven weeks of an extraordinarily stringent lockdown—closed borders, suspended in-country travel, no takeout—the government has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at 1,500, with only 21 deaths. That’s 4.3 deaths per million, compared to 246 per million in the United States. Thanks to rigorous testing and an updated contact tracing system, New Zealand has brought its active caseload to below 100 (as of this writing).

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced further steps to open the economy so that Kiwis can once again visit restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms. The borders remain effectively closed, and Ardern promises to reimpose strict controls if cases spike. But few other democratic countries can claim this kind of success with so few casualties.

New Zealand has a couple of advantages over other countries. It’s a relatively small, isolated island nation with a very low population density. It has a strong social welfare system that even its conservatives support.

Perhaps most importantly, the government and the people were tested a year ago by a different kind of outbreak. New Zealand’s effective handling of the coronavirus was prefigured by its dramatic response to a right-wing murder spree in the country’s second-largest city.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist originally from New South Wales in Australia opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The shooter advertised his far-right credentials by titling his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which linked him to other anti-immigration extremists, including shooters in El Paso in 2019 and Pittsburgh in 2018, who believe that foreigners and immigrants are plotting to “replace” predominantly white majorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This ideology is integral to the epidemic of far-right violence that has gathered force worldwide over the last decade.

The Christchurch attacks were a surprise to many inside and outside of New Zealand. “This is an incredibly tolerant, multicultural country,” notes Paul Spoonley of Massey University in Auckland. “In an international value study, the proportion of New Zealanders who see immigrants as contributing positively to the country is probably two to four times higher that in countries in mainland Europe. To be anti-immigrant or against a particular religion is politically damaging.”

New Zealand’s current reputation for tolerance belies its history of discrimination against immigrants and the indigenous Maori. The country has also been home to a small but globally connected far-right community, which was implicated in several murders and more than 100 incidents of racist violence between 2005 and 2013.

Prior to 2019, the Muslim community repeatedly complained that the New Zealand authorities weren’t properly addressing Islamophobic threats. “It was taken quite lightly because we always believed that New Zealand was the safest place on earth, that things like that happen somewhere else,” observes Ikhlaq Kashkari, the president of the Muslim Association of New Zealand. “We were living with a false sense of security, even though we were getting more news every day from around the world about the promotion of Islamophobia.”

Christchurch itself was not immune to these trends. “When Christchurch emerged as having a problem, the defenses went up and local representatives said, ‘We’re not a racist city,’” says Rawiri Taonui, New Zealand’s first professor of indigenous studies. “There have been more racist incidents in Christchurch than pretty much anywhere in the country.”

Despite rising Islamophobia and a history of far-right organizing, the New Zealand authorities were not primed to look for a white man like the Christchurch shooter. “After 9/11, a number of people here suddenly labeled all the Muslim people of New Zealand who were living peacefully in the country as terrorists,” points out Meng Foon, New Zealand’s commissioner of race relations. “The New Zealand secret service targeted them more and, unfortunately, missed the shooter last year in Christchurch. They dropped the ball in terms of monitoring white supremacists.”

Such failures were on par with the performance of other countries. But New Zealand’s response after March 15 was something altogether different. Squarely addressing its failures, the Ardern government immediately and unequivocally responded to the Christchurch killings with an unusual combination of empathy for the victims and zero tolerance for the culture that nurtured the perpetrator’s hatred, all the while recognizing the need for cross-border coordination. As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of policy approach that paid off a year later when the coronavirus hit.

After March 15, Prime Minister Ardern demonstrated what leadership looks like. Following the example of the mayor of Christchurch, Ardern swiftly called the massacre “terrorism.” She donned a hijab and reached out to the Muslim community, refused to speak the name of the perpetrator, and introduced sweeping gun-control measures. She even went to the island of Fiji to console family members of those killed on March 15.

Ardern enjoyed broad support for these moves. Unlike in the United States, where repeated mass shootings have not led to substantial gun control, New Zealand outlawed automatic weapons “with widespread public support and universal parliamentary support (119 out of 120 MPs voted in favor),” Paul Spoonley notes. “There was some grumbling among those who go hunting that the ban had gone too far or was actioned too rapidly. Also, illegal weapons are not subject to registration and restrictions on sales. But we’re light years away from the United States.”

The government moved more forcefully to preempt right-wing violence, launching dozens of investigations into extremist groups and individuals, jailing a neo-Nazi who shared a video of the Christchurch killings, and arresting a Defense Force soldier with links to the far right. It has also pushed forward with a new effort to amend existing laws to outlaw hate speech. “If all the New Zealand government does is extend the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act, it will safely avoid curtailing free speech,” concludes Martin Cocker of Netsafe. Although such prohibitions against hate speech set New Zealand apart from countries like the United States, the state has to be careful not to simply ban unpopular opinions. “It’s very difficult to combat the kind of things we’re seeing online without creating measures that could very easily impinge on free speech,” Cocker notes.

Perhaps Ardern’s most ambitious project has been the Christchurch Call, “a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Only two months after the shootings, New Zealand joined France in pushing for change at the international level. “They knew that they were unlikely to drive global change on social media as a country of 5 million people far away from the main political centers in the US and Europe,” observes Matthew Feldman of the Centre for the Analysis of the Right Wing. “They put white nationalism very squarely on the UN General Assembly agenda.”

The big players—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—all signed on to the Call, committing to develop algorithms and AI tools to quickly identify and remove hateful content from their platforms. Any Kiwi who views extremist content online is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups. The Call also inspired Australia to pass a law that criminalizes social media companies that don’t expeditiously remove “abhorrent violent material.” That’s all to the good, but it hasn’t yet detoxified the Internet. The Call, which is nonbinding, has been limited in its impact given the “lack of alignment among countries and a lack of consistent pressure on multinationals,” Martin Cocker adds. “If the Christchurch Call moved to the point of achieving consistency among countries in terms of what they demand from industry, it could continue to have some influence.”

When the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty in late March, New Zealand was saved from the spectacle of a very public trial. “His guilty plea will likely reduce the priority of efforts to curb the far right,” Matt Nipert of The New Zealand Herald says. “My concern is that New Zealand still views him as a lone wolf, as one deranged individual, that it’s not our problem, that an Australian came here to do it. That’s true, but the problem is global. These groups operate across borders and see themselves as a brotherhood, not as citizens of a country. Someone did an analysis of who logs on to 8chan. You can’t see their identities, but you can see where they log on from, and New Zealand was very highly ranked.”

New Zealand was blindsided by the Christchurch killings last year and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, even though there was indeed some advance warning in both instances. Nevertheless, the Ardern government moved quickly to break the chain of infection through well-calculated, radical interventions. It showed zero tolerance by jailing right-wing extremists after March 15 and, during the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, demoting the health minister who blithely visited a beach. The government knows the battle, in both cases, is not over. It is continuing to monitor the coronavirus and right-wing extremism, because it understands that epidemics can recur.

Although the Covid-19 response has been more top-down, both efforts received overwhelming domestic support. Ardern’s approval rating rose to 51 percent a month after the Christchurch killings and has soared to 65 percent during the coronavirus crisis.

In both cases, too, New Zealand has recognized that it can’t fight these problems alone. It issued the Christchurch Call to spur international action against the spread of far-right ideology, and it has been cooperating regionally and internationally to address the coronavirus.

According to Meng Foon, the New Zealand government also learned from its initial mistake of ignoring the threat of white extremism. It was determined to make sure that its response to the coronavirus was fully inclusive. As a result, the virus has not had the kind of disproportionate impact on people of color so evident in the United States.

“I don’t think any person of color has died of Covid-19,” he notes. “Only about 4 percent of the total of those who contracted Covid-19 are Maori and Pacific Islander.”

For Ikhlaq Kashkari, the key commonality has been the quality of the social response. He chokes up when he remembers how many people came out to support mosques in the days after the Christchurch shootings. “People have gone out of their way to help each other as they did on March 15,” he says. “Our slogan here is: Stay home, stay safe, and be kind. Those three things explain it all.”

The Nation, May 25, 2020

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The Endless War with Iran

The United States has been in a 40-year cold war with Iran.

Just like the cold war with the Soviet Union, the conflict between Washington and Tehran has been fought largely through proxies: in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq. Iranian-aligned organizations like Hezbollah have attacked U.S. targets, such as the 1984 embassy bombing in Beirut. U.S. allies, like Israel, have assassinated Iranian scientists.

There have been also been non-kinetic attacks, like when the United States and Israel teamed up to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet malware. Occasional détentes have interrupted the hostilities, most recently the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration, but they have been brief.

Now, thanks to Donald Trump’s impulsive militarism and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s more deliberate escalation strategy, this 40-year war is turning hot.

Last week, the Trump administration assassinated Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport. The explosion also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a paramilitary group supported by Iran. The drone attack came after a rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq killed an Iraqi-American contractor and multiple U.S. counter-strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria.

The administration justified the killing of Soleimani by suggesting that he and Iran’s surrogates throughout the region were on the verge of attacks that threatened U.S. soldiers. It has not provided evidence for these imminent attacks.

A different story has emerged from the region. According to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Soleimani had arrived in Baghdad to deliver Iran’s response to a Saudi proposal to reduce tensions in the region. In other words, the man the United States just killed was on a diplomatic assignment, not a terrorist mission. It’s not so far-fetched: Soleimani even negotiated on several occasions with U.S. officials over developments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So far, Iran’s response to the killings has been restrained. It vowed to retaliate. It stepped away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Then, on Tuesday night, it launched missile attacks against two bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. Iran “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, adding “we do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Trump’s interpretation of Iran’s actions is that the country is standing down. He decided, in a speech on Wednesday, to limit U.S. response to additional sanctions against Tehran.

Donald Trump has tried to convince the American electorate that he wants to end America’s endless wars in the Middle East by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Even before the recent escalation of tensions with Iran, however, Trump sent an additional 14,000 troops to the Middle East. After the latest drone strikes, he has announced the dispatch of 3,000 more.

When is a surge not a surge? When Donald Trump orders one.

This latest assassination reveals Trump’s real intentions. He is not interested in ending America’s endless wars. Rather, he is rushing to add one more to the list. The current crisis might be averted, but the longer war with Iran continues.

Trump’s Decision

Donald Trump has long viewed Iran as the number one problem in the Middle East.

In so doing, his administration has ignored Saudi Arabia’s legitimate claim to that status (the war in Yemen, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, widespread human rights abuses). Meanwhile, Trump has coddled Turkey’s increasingly interventionist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who invaded Syria in October and just sent troops to Libya to support the government in Tripoli. And the U.S. president has also downplayed the capacity of the Islamic State to revive and wreak further havoc in the region.

Trump’s focus on Iran is both personal and political. He has desperately wanted to prove that his predecessor’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran were wrong. Imagine if Jimmy Carter had launched a military campaign against China in 1977 just to prove that Richard Nixon’s détente with Beijing was bogus. Trump is subject to what literary critic Harold Bloom called, in another context, the “anxiety of influence.”

At a political level, Iran is a convenient enemy to justify otherwise unpopular U.S. policies in the region: maintaining troops in Iraq, siding with Saudi Arabia, marching in lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.

In addition to doing everything he could to destroy the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Trump authorized sweeping containment measures to squeeze Iran economically, including direct sanctions and penalties for any country or entity that does business with Iran. These measures are not designed to hit Iran when it’s down but, rather, to undermine its regional influence.

Ever since the Iraq War eliminated its chief rival, Saddam Hussein, Iran has emerged as an increasingly important powerbroker in the Middle East. It helped stabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Its Hezbollah allies have growing political pull in Lebanon. Its more distant allies in Yemen have withstood a wave of punishing attacks from Saudi Arabia (with U.S. backing). And, in a distinct rebuke to U.S. efforts, Tehran holds more sway in post-Saddam Iraq than Washington does.

Economic sanctions have certainly hurt Iran tremendously. When the government unexpectedly raised gas prices by 50 percent back in November, protests broke out across the country, with some protesters even calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. The government responded with widespread repression, arresting as many as 7,000 people and killing a couple hundred. It was the worst political violence in the country since the revolution in 1979.

The Trump administration’s moves have certainly helped to remake Iran in the image it prefers: a hardline government resistant to compromise with the West and the United States in particular. Trump’s recalcitrance on the nuclear deal and the ratcheting up of sanctions elevated figures like Soleimani in Tehran’s policymaking apparatus. It will be a long time before the reformers can recover from the loss of political capital they’ve suffered in the transition from Obama to Trump.

Also, thanks to Trump’s latest moves, the Islamic Republic is now united in purpose after months of strife. Regime change, the ultimate goal of key members of the Trump administration, has become ever more unlikely. Mike Pompeo, the chief architect of this strategy, has decided to stay on as secretary of state — instead of running for the Senate in Kansas — at least in part to pursue this campaign against Iran.

The departure of more traditionally conservative voices in the Pentagon — especially Jim Mattis — has cleared the way for Pompeo to push his agenda more forcefully. The administration’s obsession with Iran really boils down to Pompeo’s obsession. “If it’s about Iran, he will read it,” one diplomat told The Washington Post, referring to all the paper on Pompeo’s desk. “If it’s not, good luck.”

Once there’s blood in the water, Trump tends to go berserk, at least rhetorically. He has threatened Iran left and right if it retaliates for Soleimani’s murder. He even indicated that the Pentagon would target Iran’s cultural sites, a violation of the Geneva Conventions (Defense Secretary Mark Esper subsequently contradicted his boss by ruling out such attacks).

But the lack of U.S. casualties in Iran’s counter-attack has allowed Trump to stand down. The truth is, Trump is deeply worried about the blowback.

Having killed Soleimani to prevent a supposed wave of attacks against U.S. assets, he made this scenario far more likely. It’s why the Pentagon was previously reluctant to pursue such strategies. Now that he has rushed in where the Pentagon had previously feared to tread, Trump has no doubt come to realize that the death of American soldiers is not a good look for a president going into an election year.

Iranian allies in the region, particularly in Iraq, might not be as circumspect as Tehran. If there are future attacks against U.S. interests, Trump may feel it necessary to back up his bombastic rhetoric with actual bombs.

Global Response

Ironically, Iran’s position in Iraq had eroded over the last few months as protests against corruption and economic austerity had spread throughout the country. Those protests developed a distinctly anti-Iranian flavor after paramilitaries linked to Tehran began killing the protestors. The U.S. drone strike, however, has served to remind Iraqis of the clear and present danger of its putative ally compared to its inescapable neighbor.

The most immediate consequence of the U.S. drone strike was the decision of the Iraqi parliament this weekend to kick U.S. troops out of the country. Or, at least, the Shiite members of parliament voted in favor of the measure, while most other members sat out the vote.

The Iraqi government, currently under a caretaker prime minister, may decide not to implement the measure, particularly in the face of threatened sanctions from Washington. However, Iraq doesn’t want to be caught in the middle between a militant America and an aggrieved Iran. The roughly 5,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq will be a prominent target for Iran-affiliated paramilitaries — or another direct attack from Tehran.

No surprise, then, that the Pentagon is in a quandary. A letter from a U.S. general to his Iraqi counterpart leaked on Monday suggested that plans were underway to withdraw troops from Iraq. The Pentagon immediately held a press conference to say that the letter was a “mistake.”

Should U.S. troops leave Iraq, the country that stands to benefit the most would be Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not surprisingly condemned the assassination of Soleimani. It has largely maintained good relations with Tehran over the years, but it hasn’t had much influence in Baghdad. It could quickly capitalize on the vacuum of power in Iraq by supplying military hardware and stepping up to take on a resurgent Islamic State.

Outside of Israel, which enthusiastically supported the U.S. action, it’s hard to find any country that thinks Trump made a smart move. European governments were generally appalled. Pompeo has bristled at European criticisms, saying, “The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.” Rather, Europeans are worried that they’ll be caught up in the whirlwind that the United States will be reaping in the Middle East.

Of course, European leaders are also understandably worried about what Trump might do next. They’ve suffered from his trade policies, his disruptions at NATO and G7 meetings, his personal invective. Now they’re behaving like battered spouses afraid to dissolve the marriage. Witness former European Council president Donald Tusk’s plea for Europe and the United States to “maintain transatlantic unity in the face of the approaching political earthquake.”

Transatlantic unity? There’s been precious little of that, particularly around Iran. Europe desperately tried to preserve the nuclear deal. The European Parliament diverged from U.S. policy by passing a number of resolutions condemning Saudi conduct and recommending an end to arms exports to the country. There hasn’t been such a gulf in transatlantic approaches to the Middle East since the Suez crisis of 1956.

Not that it matters one whit to the Trump administration, but UN rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard has declared Soleimani’s killing as “most likely unlawful” and the death of the other six people in the drone attacks “absolutely” unlawful. Unfortunately, Trump and his crowd consider such determinations from the UN to be a badge of distinction.

Avoiding Escalation

Plenty of aspirants have signed up for the job of mediator between Washington and Tehran. Japan tried. So did Pakistan. Several European countries — France, Germany — have made multiple attempts. Oman, which was the key party in getting the nuclear deal off the ground, continues to provide its good offices.

All this mediation will not likely amount to much in the remaining months of the Trump administration. Unlike with North Korea, Trump has shown zero interest in compromise with Iran. However, that doesn’t mean these efforts are for naught. Even without an actual deal on the table, this mediation can help reduce the scale of the escalation dynamic. As importantly, the discussions that take place now can feed into a restart after the November election (provided Trump’s reelection effort is thwarted).

Here in the United States, Congress is doing what it can to tie the president’s hands. The House is angling to pass a War Powers Resolution demanding that the administration cease all military actions against Iran within 30 days. It’s unclear how many Republicans in the Senate will support a similar measure.

That’s all good and well. But Trump has shown nothing but contempt for Congress. He has declared that his tweets serve as congressional notification of military action. He has pulled out all the stops to obstruct the congressional impeachment investigation. And he’ll veto anything that threatens to besmirch his reputation or limit his maneuvering room.

At this point, the most useful thing that Congress can do is proceed with the impeachment hearings in the Senate. Legislation won’t restrain the president. But continued revelations of misconduct might do the trick by refocusing the White House on domestic scandals (provided Trump is not tempted to keep wagging the dog).

The most damaging revelations in the impeachment inquiry might come from the testimony of John Bolton, if the Democrats can introduce new witnesses into the Senate hearing. Thus a final irony: the man most associated in the administration with a hardline position toward Iran might help bring down the president before he can launch a full-scale war on that country.

It’s a sign of desperate times when the likes of Bolton becomes a potential savior of democracy.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 8, 2020

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The Real Shadow Policy of the Trump Administration Is Racist Extremism

The Democrats are pursuing two charges in their impeachment of Donald Trump: First, that the president tried to enlist Ukraine’s help for his own political gain. And second, that he’s continued to obstruct Congress in its investigation into this abuse of power.

Trump’s transformation of the Oval Office into both a branch of his business empire and the dirty tricks division of his re-election campaign is certainly disturbing. But the narrowness of these charges should not obscure the broader pattern of Trump’s crimes. From the point of view of basic morality and international law, Trump has committed far more consequential crimes and misdemeanors.

In his construction of an alternate foreign policy that makes an end-run around the State Department’s seasoned diplomats, Trump’s attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, has thrown the president together with corrupt Ukrainian officials and oligarchs. But behind the scenes in the Trump administration, an even more sinister shadow foreign policy informs the administration’s approach to immigration and security issues.

This one puts the president in bed with even more unsavory characters: racist extremists, neo-Nazis and mass shooters. Indeed, the recent leak of Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s emails provides only the latest example of the Trump administration teaming up with white nationalists from around the world.

As a right-wing college activist and later as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller consistently supported the most restrictive immigration policies. Elevated to the Trump administration, Miller has influenced the president on such policies as the Muslim travel ban and family separation at the Mexico border.

Thanks to Miller, the administration has forcibly sent thousands of desperate asylum seekers back into harm’s way. It separated nearly 70,000 children from their families and held them in detention, more than any other country. These are policies have done far greater harm than Trump’s ham-fisted pressure policy on Ukraine. They fly in the face of basic decency and violate international laws on the status of refugees.

Moreover, the leaked emails reveal that Miller’s rationale for such policies is not just conventionally conservative. It is connected to a global conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement.”

I recently interviewed more than 80 experts and activists from around the world on the rise of the far right. Again and again, they pointed to this theory as the glue that holds the globe’s most noxious right-wing movements together with mainstream conservatives.

According to this far-fetched theory — first promulgated in the racist 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, which Miller enthusiastically recommended to Breitbart writers — non-white people are determined to replace whites and undermine their civilization.

Believers of this conspiracy theory include far-right parties in Europe and neo-Nazi organizations around the world. Mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, have also referenced the “great replacement” in their statements. Because of Miller and his ilk, the White House is now a part of this odious network.

Of course, it’s not just Miller. The president himself has clearly embraced the same philosophy, with his slanders of Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” and prospective African and Haitian immigrants as coming from “shithole” countries.

The administration has appointed people associated with far-right, anti-immigration organizations, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), to top positions. Until recently, the former executive director of FAIR, Julie Kirchner, was an immigration services ombudsman in the Department of Homeland Security.

The “great replacement” ideology also has an anti-Muslim slant. Believers of this fictional narrative say that non-white immigrants want to replace the U.S. and European legal systems with Sharia law. The Trump administration has drawn heavily from the work of the famously Islamophobic Center for Security Policy (CSP) and appointed such figures as former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman, who served on the CSP board for nearly a decade.

This anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fanaticism has taken over much of the Republican Party and permeates right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.

White nationalists are not content to seal off borders to people of color. They also want to kick out longstanding immigrant communities. This concept of “remigration” is an integral part of the European far right’s agenda and has attracted certain elements of the “alt-right” in the United States as well.

“Remigration” hasn’t yet turned up in a Trump speech or as a Republican Party talking point. But the president has been sending up trial balloons.

Consider his tirade that the quartet of critical congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — should “go back” to the countries they came from. The administration has also attempted to expel hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti who have Temporary Protected Status.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, such actions and rhetoric have no doubt resulted in immediate harm to millions. But they threaten even more insidious shifts in the future. In the 1920s, far-right figures like Father Charles Coughlin as well as mainstream conservatives like Calvin Coolidge pushed immigration policies and theories of eugenics that would directly influence Hitler in Germany. As part of a growing, global far-right network today, it’s important not to cast the true danger of this administration in the comparatively narrow terms of an impeachment inquiry alone.

While Trump’s shadowy conduct toward Ukraine is without a doubt illegal, this shadow policy of white nationalism is even worse. It’s not just a crime — it’s a crime against humanity.

Truthout, December 18, 2019

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The Islamic State and Trump’s Delusion

Even before the recent raid that resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the erstwhile head of the Islamic State, Donald Trump had spoken of how he had single-handedly defeated the caliphate.

“Now, when I came, the caliphate was all over the place,” the president said apropos of nothing during a news conference with the Australian prime minister on September 20. “I defeated the caliphate — ISIS.”

At a press conference on October 21, after pulling troops out of Syria, Trump put himself even closer to the battle with the Islamic State: “I’m the one that did the capturing. I’m the one who that knows more about it than you people or the fake pundits.”

Trump’s ability to tout his own accomplishments at the expense of others — indeed, to claim their accomplishments as his own — is legendary. But the problem here is not just Trump’s ego. It’s his understanding of geopolitics.

Donald Trump is the first truly digital president. He thinks only in ones and zeroes. He, of course, is always number one. But the category of ones also includes the leaders that he chats with or challenges. The zeroes are everyone else.

The raid on al-Baghdadi is a classic example of his digital thinking. Here is a president who has single-handedly revived the fortunes of a struggling organization by allowing a Turkish cross-border incursion in Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies, and otherwise helping to create precisely the kind of chaotic conditions in which groups like the Islamic State thrive.

Yet instead of focusing on this collective threat, Trump has zeroed in on public enemy number one. At his press conference after the mission, the president said:

From the first day I came to office — and now we’re getting close to three years — I would say, “Where’s al-Baghdadi? I want al-Baghdadi.” And we would kill terrorist leaders, but they were names I never heard of. They were names that weren’t recognizable and they weren’t the big names. Some good ones, some important ones, but they weren’t the big names. I kept saying, “Where’s al-Baghdadi?”

Obsessed with outshining his predecessor, Trump has consistently denigrated the mission to kill Osama bin Laden since 2011. As for al-Baghdadi, Trump said, “This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever.”

Yet Trump’s failure to consider the larger security environment nearly doomed his singular focus on taking out al-Baghdadi. And it was only because of the network of relationships that America had maintained — and that Trump has disparaged if not outright undermined — that such a mission was possible.

“The irony of the successful operation against al-Baghdadi is that it could not have happened without U.S. forces on the ground that have been pulled out, help from Syrian Kurds who have been betrayed, and support of a U.S. intelligence community that has so often been disparaged,” observes Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Because he has reduced the problem of the Islamic State to the problem of al-Baghdadi, Trump will end up not with a headless snake but a tailless chameleon: an animal that will quickly regenerate to fight another day.

Trump has always looked out for number one. It turns out that his foreign policy follows the same pattern. His visual map of the world looks much like a computer algorithm of alternating ones and zeros.

True, such computer codes can produce staggeringly complex phenomena, even something as sophisticated as artificial intelligence. But Donald Trump doesn’t string together numbers. He is stuck with only two, zero and one.

As such, his digital mindset never rises above basic binary oppositions: us versus them, heroes versus zeroes, Trump versus the world.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Donald Trump conducts foreign policy by telephone or intimate conversations with foreign leaders. He’s deeply suspicious of anything that goes beyond the one-on-one. He can’t quite get into the group spirit of the Group of Seven. The UN is little more than a very large soapbox for his own views. He does nothing but hector NATO members. Most recently, he decided to snub a summit of Asian leaders for the second year in a row.

The president’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy has already gotten him into heaps of trouble.

In the phone call this summer with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump defied every legitimate voice in his foreign policy apparatus by soliciting foreign assistance in undermining a major Democratic challenger. In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump collaborated in redrawing the map of the Middle East to the advantage of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Syria — and to the disadvantage of the Syrian Kurds and probably the United States as well.

This mano-a-mano approach, in the hands of a more competent leader, might lead to some truly useful breakthroughs. Take the case of North Korea. There’s no question that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has done little to advance the cause of peace or prosperity in that benighted corner of the world. Breaking with orthodoxy requires a president with strong enough backbone to buck the status quo.

But such unorthodox leaders also have to know what they’re doing. Trump is ignorant of North Korea, its leadership, and its predicament. He has proceeded as if Kim Jong Un is simply a leader that can be subjected to alternating waves of flattery and threats. It’s an even cruder approach to negotiations than previous attempts at carrots and sticks that treated the North Korean government as if it were a donkey that could be coaxed along a mountain path.

Not surprisingly, it hasn’t led to any significant agreements (though it also hasn’t led to war, which is the one saving grace of Trump’s putative diplomacy). And North Korea has threatened to suspend its moratorium on testing (missiles, nukes) at the end of the year if Trump doesn’t offer something more useful than flattery.

Trump proceeds with the same logic in his relations with China and Russia. He thinks that he can rewrite U.S. foreign policy with his personal tête-à-têtes with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Instead, he has been badly outclassed by leaders who have a far more sophisticated understanding of their adversaries and the world at large.

The checkers versus chess metaphor is apt but insufficient. Trump is playing with only zero and one while his counterparts have the entire universe of numbers at their disposal.

But Zero Is Worse

As far as Trump is concerned, if you’re not a leader, you’re nothing. He’s not interested in protesters, journalists, pundits, academics, diplomats. Even successful business people, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, are threatening to him.

This “leader complex” is just as problematic a framework when it comes to entities like the Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi didn’t start out as a leader. He was an academic when the Iraq War broke out. The U.S.-led invasion prompted him to join the resistance. Arrested in Fallujah in 2004 and thrown into a U.S. detention facility in Iraq, he quickly fell in with al-Qaeda militants, becoming an acolyte of the Iraqi branch’s leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When the United States took out al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi rose in the organization to number three in 2010. When the top two commanders were killed, he became number one.

In other words, the U.S. invasion, the U.S.-run prison, and U.S. drone strikes all transformed al-Baghdadi into the putative leader of a caliphate. He didn’t grow up with a Napoleon complex. A complex set of factors gradually pushed him into a command position. The U.S. focus on eliminating leaders paradoxically produced only more battle-hardened leadership.

It would be the height of naivete for Washington to assume that eliminating al-Baghdadi will make the Islamic State any less of a threat. It has watched a similar scenario unfold with the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda more generally. A “decapitation strategy” doesn’t work with a many-headed Hydra.

The Islamic State maintains a broad network of affiliated organizations — in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, and Yemen, plus sleeper cells in Europe. With al-Baghdadi dead, these affiliates might veer off in a more independent direction. Some other outfit might claim the central mission of rebuilding a caliphate. But just as it’s a mistake to boil the Islamic State down to one leader, it’s a mistake to boil the organization down to a stable brand.

The Islamic State and like-minded organizations thrive in failed states, warzones, occupied territories, and enclaves that feel victimized by the central government. It prospers because of a broad animus against Muslims reflected in immigration policies, inflexible cultural prohibitions (for instance, against the hijab), and the violent actions of right-wing extremists. The Islamic State is the supreme expression of polarization. It will continue to exist as long as the underlying polarization remains in place.

Trump’s obsession with number one — himself, other alpha males, and top public enemies — reflects his generation’s fixation on celebrities as well as a much older “great man” theory of history. Trump’s foreign policy, in which he has substituted celebrity politicians for celebrities from Hollywood or Wall Street, could have been put together by People magazine.

But the president is also wedded to the delusion that history is made by great men (not women, not movements, not impersonal forces). Trump desperate desire to insert himself into this historical succession of “great men” is the real genesis of his digital understanding of the world. It’s why he ran for the presidency. It’s why he makes the most outrageous boasts that he’s the greatest president of all time. It’s why he has so nakedly coveted the Nobel Peace Prize. He wants to be admitted to what he imagines to be the pantheon of all-time greats.

Trump has learned over the years how to turn his disadvantages — vanity, ignorance, spitefulness, greed — into bankable qualities. But his hamartia, his fatal flaw of unbridled ambition, will ultimately lead to his downfall. The man who would be king, the bully who would be hero, the leader who would be president for life, is shaping up to be America’s biggest loser. The arithmetic of impeachment is starting to look inescapable: the evidence is multiplying and even the Senate might vote for subtraction.

By Trump’s own logic, the future looks bleak. In his digital universe, if you’re not number one, then you’re nothing but a zero.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 30, 2019

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Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

The Far Right’s War on Culture

The far right is on a roll. Just a few years ago, liberals and conservatives would have considered its recent political victories a nightmare scenario. Right-wing extremists have won elections in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland. They pushed through the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In the most recent European Parliament elections, far-right parties captured the most votes in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.

Sure, Trump is being impeached, Brexit is a mess, and the far right in Austria and Italy have suffered recent setbacks. Still, looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to conclude that such extremists have acquired the sort of mainstream legitimacy across the planet that they haven’t enjoyed in nearly a century.

What’s worse, those electoral victories obscure an even deeper, potentially far more influential success — in the world of storytelling. The radical right has developed a global narrative that, by uniting virulent racists and commonplace conservatives, mass shooters and populist politicians, is already injecting fringe ideas into mainstream culture.

Admittedly, it’s not a story that has either universal appeal or will win any literary awards. Still, by telling it over and over again in different languages to a growing number of listeners, the far right is having a profound impact on global culture. In many places, it may already be winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds.

The radical right’s story is rooted in the most basic plot of all: us versus them. Its main nemesis is determined, so the tale goes, to storm the battlements of the “civilized world” and, in what’s called a “great replacement,” oust its innocent inhabitants. Since this isn’t the Middle Ages, the evil adversary isn’t deploying siege engines or an army of pillagers. Its tactics are more insidious: taking over institutions from the inside, infiltrating culture, and worst of all birthing lots of babies.

But who exactly are the pronouns in this story? The idea of “the great replacement” is based on the fantasy that “they” (especially migrants and Muslims) are intent on replacing “us” (whites, Christians). Some versions of the narrative have an anti-Semitic slant as well, with Jews lurking in the shadows of this fiendish plot. For racists, the Others, of course, have darker complexions. For Islamophobes, the outsiders practice the wrong religion.

If you’re not a member of the far right, if you don’t subscribe to its YouTube channels or follow its burgeoning Twitter accounts, you might have only scant acquaintance with this story. But once you start looking for it, the great replacement turns out to be omnipresent.

Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.”

By now, it’s become alarmingly clear that an increasing number of people are taking this bizarre, historically deficient, and thoroughly warped story to heart.

Once Upon a Time

At first glance, the man who came up with the idea of the “great replacement” might not seem like your usual suspect. Renaud Camus was a radical student demonstrator in Paris in 1968 and in 1981 voted for socialist Francois Mitterrand for president of France. A noted poet and novelist, he published books on his gay identity that attracted accolades from the likes of intellectual Roland Barthes and poet Allen Ginsberg. By the early 2000s, however, Camus had begun to outline a new philosophy that distinguished between “faux” or false French (immigrants or their children) and real French (those who had lived in the country for many generations). In 2010, he published a book entitled Le Grand Remplacement bemoaning the prospects of a France and a Europe transformed by immigration.

Camus’s work became the foundational text for a growing movement called Generation Identity, a modernized version of white nationalism that has influenced the alt-right in the United States, gained momentum on the Internet, and become a global phenomenon. The “identitarians” embraced Renaud Camus and spread his ideas in a virtual echo chamber all their own. “The playing field is not level,” points out Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The far right now has a striking “advantage in terms of algorithms of social media favorable for spreading conspiracy theories and potentially harmful and inciting content.”

And keep in mind that it’s not just explicit racists and Islamophobes who are pushing this meme. A softer version, embraced by mainstream conservatives, transposes the racial anxiety at the heart of the Great Replacement into a cultural key. “Our civilization,” it claims, is now at risk. French culture must be preserved. European civilization is being undermined. The American way of life is endangered. “Africa wants to kick down our door and Brussels is not defending us,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2018. “Europe is under invasion already and they are watching with their hands in the air.”

This isn’t a new story. It was so prevalent in the 1920s that F. Scott Fitzgerald lampooned the idea in his famed novel The Great Gatsby when he put such arguments in the mouth of one of his characters. “If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged,” Tom Buchanan says over dinner in the first chapter. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Buchanan was then echoing arguments in well-known books like The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Such arguments would take firm root in Europe as well. Adolf Hitler, for instance, called Grant’s book “my bible.” The Nazis, of course, didn’t just impose immigration controls to ensure the supremacy of the white race. They took Gatsby, Grant, and Stoddard to their logical, genocidal conclusion.

In the wake of the defeat of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese racism in World War II, a global consensus emerged, shared by capitalists and communists alike, that the extreme version of the replacement story had been consigned to the trash bin of history. In the West, the political center would eventually sign on to some variant of multiculturalism in which immigration became an integral part of civilization, not antithetical to it.

The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this consensus. Communism was effectively over and union membership declining. Liberal parties attracted to the Third Way politics of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were abandoning their working-class base. In the industrialized world, economic globalization was creating greater insecurity among the middle class and the working poor. In this context, multiculturalism and immigrants became easy targets for a rising white nationalism. In the 1990s, the growing popularity of previously fringe politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia paved the way for future parties and movements that would far more vigorously break the anti-fascist taboos of the past.

In the 1920s, the far right had found an effective way to attract adherents by blaming all the ills of the nation on “degenerate races.” This story of racial eugenics united both conservatives like President Calvin Coolidge and conspiracy theorists like Grant and Stoddard. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “Once you add those two together you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”

Same Old Story

When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was the first time that bloodletting on that scale had taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The subsequent fragmentation of the country would also prove a giant step backward for the project of European integration. Here was a multicultural state, the first in line among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe for membership in the European Community (later, the European Union or EU), that a set of Balkan politicians would tear apart thanks to political expediency, nationalist ideology, and economic arrogance.

At the time, the widespread ethnic cleansing that took place during the Yugoslav wars was generally seen as either a throwback to an earlier era of genocide (ancient hatreds) or a final bout of violence accompanying the end of the Cold War (temporary antagonisms). It was, in either of these scenarios, entirely backward looking.

By now, the Yugoslav successor states have indeed put those wars behind them, with Slovenia and Croatia even joining the EU. But the desire for ethnic purity has not disappeared, not in the Balkans or in Europe as a whole. Only recently, for instance, new walls have appeared in the Balkans — between North Macedonia and Greece, Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary and Serbia — this time to maintain greater homogeneity by keeping out migrants and refugees from the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the EU is paying Turkey billions of dollars to stop more desperate Syrian refugees from heading for Europe, while investing resources in Libya aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from making their way across the Mediterranean. Fleeing war and poverty, those migrants and refugees have only grown in number as European sentiment against them has reached new heights.

The European far right has risen in the slipstream of such xenophobia. Buoyed by its electoral success, the far right now wants to take a further giant step that might indeed return Europe to the days of ethnic cleansing — not just keeping out immigrants but expelling ones already there. This policy of “remigration” is the active corollary of the great replacement.

For decades, the European right rejected multiculturalism, insisting on the full assimilation of all immigrants. Now, it has given up on assimilation entirely. The platform of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, reads: “Germany and Europe must put in place remigration programs on the largest possible scale.” Already the biggest opposition party in the German Bundestag, or parliament, the AfD similarly increased its representation in the European Parliament in 2019 and also surged dramatically in the states of the former East Germany in recent local elections. The AfD’s position on immigrants is particularly disturbing given that the Nazis, before they embarked on the Final Solution, promoted their own version of remigration by proposing to send Jews en masse to Madagascar.

Ideas like the great replacement and remigration, having percolated in the identitarian movement for close to two decades, have now circulated back to the states of the former Yugoslavia. The far right has found fertile ground in Serbia and in the Serbian regions of Bosnia. And mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand have drawn a straight line between their brutal acts and the ethnic cleansing supported by war criminals like Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this way, the proponents of the great replacement are keeping alive the spirit of the worst war Europe has experienced on its soil since World War II.

Tell Me Something Else

The obvious response to the far right’s great-replacement story, here and in Europe, is to promote more humane immigration and refugee policies and a more inclusive vision of society. But that story — along with celebrations of multiculturalism, nods to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”), and the endless repetition of the EU’s official motto of “unity in diversity” — has not proven sufficiently compelling to those around the world anxious about their own slipping status in society.

A better story is needed: a story that somehow captures the same “us” versus “them” dynamic.

How about this: believe it or not, the great replacement is indeed actually happening, just not the way the far right imagines. We are about to be replaced by a desperate set of adversaries. This foe is crafty and able to get through nearly all our careful democratic defenses.

The difference with the far right’s narrative boils down to pronouns. The “us” in the counter-story I imagine is not a marginalized group of people. The us is all of us on a fast-heating planet.

As for the “them,” it’s tempting to follow the example of that other Camus — Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus — when he equated fascists with rats in his novel The Plague. The far right and its mainstream collaborators, along with the energy extraction industry, the finance sector, and corrupt oligarchs, are certainly a form of pestilence, a “them” that needs to be countered. Since 1965, just 20 of the major fossil-fuel companies have produced a third of the greenhouse gas emissions sent into the atmosphere. And now they’re aided by Donald Trump and his top environmental and energy officials, intent as they are on heating the planet to the boiling point for their own profits, as well as similar figures around the world.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the adversaries they’re letting loose on all of us because they aren’t human at all.

The list of “them” would, for instance, begin with a buzzing mosquito. After all, as a result of rising global temperatures, disease-bearing mosquitos are now spreading far beyond their normal range. That would include the mosquitos responsible for transmitting the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. Dengue fever, present in only 10 countries in the 1970s, can now be found in 120 of them. And there is no question that, as the planet heats, malaria-bearing mosquitos will return to the United States after having been eradicated nearly 70 years ago. Climate change may also produce new types of mosquitos that could be even more effective in transmitting disease.

Lest you think that the mosquito is hardly worth losing sleep over unless it’s buzzing around your tent at night, remember that this tiny creature may well be the deadliest adversary humankind has ever faced. In his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Timothy Winegard argues that, as a result of the illnesses they’ve transmitted, mosquitos have killed 52 billion people, about half of everyone who has ever lived on the planet. This tiny creature, in other words, has proven a truly genocidal force.

It’s not just mosquitos, of course. The “them” that we’re going to find ourselves up against will include disease-bearing ticks, rats, and a range of crop-devouring insects. Such creatures are all, in essence, standing on the sidelines and cheering climate change on. Their gain, our loss: it’s no more complicated than that.

We don’t need an evil space invader to unite the planet in a common fight. The adversary is just above our heads and right beneath our feet. In combatting a pestilence that affects everyone, we can tell an inclusive story that can appeal even to former supporters of Donald Trump, Hungarian ruler Viktor Orbán, and others. The far right is all about drawing borders and excluding “undesirables.” They will always win at that game.

It’s time to flip the script. We are indeed in the fight of our lives. When it comes to the climate crisis, a great replacement does loom on the horizon. Humans and the civilization that goes with us may, it turns out, be all too replaceable. It’s time for everyone — and I mean everyone — to pull together, forget our superficial differences, and win this epic battle of us versus them.

TomDispatch, October 20, 2019

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Articles Featured Islamophobia US Foreign Policy

The Coming Conflict with Iran

The Saudi war in Yemen is really directed at…Iran. Donald Trump’s first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was specifically targeted at…Iran. The Saudi-led isolation of Qatar is actually about…Iran.

The escalation of U.S. military actions against the Syria government is… well, do I really need to spell this out any further?

Donald Trump has identified several number-one enemies to target. Throughout the campaign, he emphasized the importance of throwing the full weight of the Pentagon against the Islamic State. More recently, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, identified North Korea as “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security.”

Other threats that have appeared at one time or another in the administration’s rotation include China, Cuba, the mainstream media, former FBI director James Comey, and Shakespeare (for writing Julius Caesar and then somehow, from the grave, persuading the Public Theater to run a scandalous version of it).

Through it all, however, Iran has loomed as the primary bogeyman of the Trump crowd. Fear of Iranian influence has prompted the administration to all but cancel the 2015 nuclear deal, intensify a number of proxy wars, consider pushing for regime change in Tehran, and even intervene in the mother of all battles between the Shia and Sunni variants of Islam.

You’re worried about Trump and the nuclear football? The prospect of blowback from an all-out U.S. assault on the Islamic State keeps you up at night? A preemptive strike against North Korea, which Mattis acknowledges would be disastrous, has you rethinking that upcoming trip to Seoul?

Sure, those are all dystopian possibilities. But if I had to choose a more likely catastrophe, it would be a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. After all, everything seems to be pointing in that direction.

The Fate of the Deal

The nuclear deal that Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union is hanging by a thread. Trump made no bones about his distaste for this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He promised to tear it up.

He hasn’t done so. It’s not just that he’s gotten pushback from the usual suspects in Washington (diplomats, foreign policy mavens, talking heads, journalists). Even members of his inner circle seem to see value in the agreement. Mattis, who is otherwise hawkish on Iran, has stood by the JCPOA and diplomacy more generally. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, albeit reluctantly, acknowledged that Iran has lived up to its side of the agreement. Then there are all the American jobs on the line from the Iranian purchase of Boeing jets.

Even though Trump hasn’t torn up the agreement, he has certainly attempted to give it a good crumple. He has directed the Treasury Department to apply additional sanctions on Iran’s missile program. He’s considering the option of declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Congress, meanwhile, is pursuing its own complementary set of sanctions against Iran (though, because it’s bundled with sanctions against Russia, the legislation may not meet Trump’s approval).

None of this violates the terms of the JCPOA. But it challenges the spirit of the accord.

Adding insult to injury, Trump damned Iran with faint condolences after the recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” Trump wrote. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Talk about bad taste. After September 11, Iranians gathered for candlelight vigils to mourn the mostly American victims of the attacks. The Iranian government didn’t say anything about chickens coming home to roost after U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, for that would have been inappropriate (though accurate).

But Iran might yet have to make a statement that echoes Trump’s tone-deaf remark: States that tear up international agreements risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

Proxy Wars

The conflict is escalating in Syria, where Iran backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the United States supports a shifting set of anti-regime groups.

Both countries could decide to team up against the Islamic State. And indeed, Iran launched a missile attack against ISIS in Syria this last weekend in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in Tehran. As after September 11, when Tehran and Washington briefly worked together, cooperation against Sunni extremists would seem a no-brainer.

But the would-be caliphate, having lost most of Mosul and now teetering on the verge of conceding its capital in Raqqa, is shrinking at a rapid clip. Which may well explain why the United States has been wading deeper into the Syrian conflict. For the first time since the war in Syria began, U.S. forces shot down a Syrian government plane this last weekend. It’s only the latest in a series of attacks on Assad’s forces, according to The Atlantic:

Three times in the last month, the U.S. military has come into direct conflict with the combined forces of the Assad regime, Iran-supported Shiite militias, Hezbollah, and possibly even Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The clashes have reportedly resulted in the deaths of a small number of pro-regime forces, and are much more strategically important than the much-ballyhooed U.S. air strike on the al-Shayrat airfield back in April in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Several administration figures, notably Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey in the National Security Council, are eager to confront Assad and his Iranian backers more aggressively. Mattis, however, has reportedly opposed several of their risky propositions. Regardless of the Pentagon chief’s somewhat more risk-averse behavior, both Iran and the United States are maneuvering to control as much territory as possible in the vacuum created by the collapse of ISIS.

Even The Washington Post, which generally supports the JCPOA, is enthusiastic about the U.S. intervening more forcefully in the new great game in Syria. “The United States doesn’t have a strategic reason to control southern and eastern Syria,” The Post editorial board opines, “but it does have a vital interest in preventing Iran from establishing a dominion from Tehran to the Mediterranean with Russia’s support.”

How soon the Post forgets. The Iraq War against Saddam Hussein begat the war against the anti-occupation forces, which in turn generated a war against the Islamic State, which now promises to escalate into a war against the axis of Russia, Iran, and Syria. Thus have so-called national interests morphed into endless war.

Meanwhile, over in Yemen, the Saudis are bogged down in a war of their own that’s going nowhere (except in producing a severe humanitarian crisis). The Trump administration has been mulling for several months a boost in U.S. participation in that war. At the least, this would mean lifting certain restrictions on the assistance Washington is already providing the Saudi-led coalition — surveillance, refueling, and the like. Then there are the additional armsthat Trump wants to provide Riyadh.

Now that the Navy SEALS have conducted two raids in Yemen under Trump — the most recent taking place last month — the prospect of more permanent boots on the ground may not be far off. Recall how the United States became involved in Vietnam to help out the failing French in order to prevent presumed Soviet expansion.

Yemen, where we may yet send troops to help the failing Saudis prevent presumed Iranian expansion, is the very definition of quagmire.

Regime Change?

Last week, Rex Tillerson was testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In response to a query from Ted Poe (R-TX), a big fan of the Iranian radical group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and its efforts to destabilize Iran, Tillerson said,

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. 

It was the first public indication of regime-change sentiment from the administration.

But it’s not the only sign. Cohen-Watnick, the liaison on the NSC to the intelligence community, has reportedly confessed to other administration officials of his desire to oust the Iranian regime through espionage. And the fellow that’s now leading the Iran operation at CIA is Michael D’Andrea, otherwise known as the “dark prince,” a long-time operative who is fully capable of pursuing the harder line that Cohen-Watnick wants to see.

But wait, didn’t Iranians just overwhelmingly back the reformist Hassan Rouhani in elections last month? This popular government has engaged in domestic reforms and external engagement of the “Great Satan.” In other words, Iranians have changed their own regime — peacefully — since the days of the more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Of course, Washington has overturned the wishes of Iranian voters in the past, helping to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

Whenever oil interests (Tillerson) intersect with chickenhawk ambitions (Bannon), talk of regime change is sure to follow.

Clash of Civilizations

When Donald Trump said a few nice things about Islam on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, liberals back home breathed a sigh of relief. At least the new president wouldn’t follow senior advisor Steve Bannon’s more extreme narrative of a new crusade against the infidels.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

But even as he rejected the larger religious frame, Trump has embraced a different kind of war: a clash within a civilization. The battle lines between Sunni and Shia have hardened throughout the Middle East, and Trump is wading into this mess firmly on the side of the Sunni. And not just any Sunnis, but the most extreme Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as represented by the ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia.

Let’s be clear: Trump is not making a doctrinal statement by siding with extremist Sunnis. He knows nothing about Islam and is not interested in learning. This is about power — who will control the Middle East.

In the past, however, the United States in its infinite naiveté thought that it could control outcomes on the ground in the region. Today, that naiveté has developed into a kind of aggressive ignorance as the Trump administration simply follows the Saudi lead, with Israel pushing from behind. In this way, the United States will be propelled toward war with Iran.

But wait, actually, Donald Trump himself anticipated this outcome.

Back in 2013, Trump said,

We will end up going to war with Iran because we have people who don’t know what the hell they are doing. Every single thing that this administration and our president does is a failure.

Who knew that Donald Trump could be so prescient? The president has proven himself high-performing in at least this one regard: self-fulfilling prophecies.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 21, 2017

Categories
Articles Featured Islamophobia

Trump v. Islam

Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of fear. During his presidential campaign, he portrayed terrorists, immigrants, the Chinese government and many other people and entities as threats to America. But nothing proved more powerful as a mobilizing force than his anti-Islamic pronouncements.

Other presidential candidates were careful to distinguish between what they considered to be radical extremists and ordinary Muslims. Trump made no such attempt. “I think Islam hates us,” he declared. It was not a very great leap to his conclusion: Ban all Muslims from the country. Trump was going beyond mere political incorrectness to challenge the very U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on religion.

As president, Trump has followed through on his promise. With his executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries entrance to the United States, the president has attempted to legalize his Islamophobia. The order does not mention Islam, and the order doesn’t include the largest Muslim country in the world: Indonesia. Nor does the order mention Christianity. But it promises to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other interviews, Trump has made it clear that he means to specifically prioritize Christians.

True, the executive order doesn’t apply to all Muslims around the world. But Trump and his allies, like Rudy Giuliani, know that his policies must have at least the appearance of legality to make them less susceptible to judicial challenge. More importantly, Trump wants to foster a hostile climate of opinion in the United States so Muslims will think twice about visiting, immigrating or staying. The courts have, so far, blocked Trump’s efforts. But he will likely issue another executive order that tries to achieve the same results but within the parameters of the law.

The new president’s Islamophobia is purely political. As a businessman, Trump has had no problems making deals with predominantly Muslim countries. He owns a pair of towers in Istanbul. He’s moving forward on two luxury resorts in Indonesia. He licensed his name to a golf course in Dubai. He has had Muslim clients in the United States as well, such as Qatar Airways.

If Trump were merely a transactional president, he would be making deals everywhere in the world. But Trump as president is not looking at the world through a businessman’s eyes. He has surrounded himself with advisers who have a very different approach. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, for instance, wants to turn the United States into a Whiter, more Christian and more conservative country, and many Trump supporters concur. As a result, the Trump administration is pushing policies that Trump the businessman would have opposed because they adversely affect U.S. corporations and the U.S. economy.

This disregard for the bottom line can be seen most prominently in the administration’s approach to Iran. From a business standpoint, the nuclear deal with Iran is a win-win. The United States stops a potential nuclear threat, and U.S. businesses eventually gain access to a lucrative overseas market. During the presidential campaign, Trump disregarded the obvious economic advantages of the agreement in favor of using it as a cudgel to beat those associated with negotiating it.

Even after the election was over, Trump didn’t back away from his criticisms of the deal and of Iran in general. Ostensibly in response to an Iranian missile test, Trump applied new sanctions against the country. “The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” Michael Flynn said when he was still national security adviser, signaling the new direction of U.S. policy. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.” At risk is the nuclear deal as well as the nearly $17 billion worth of commercial jetliners that Boeing has sold to Iran.

Moreover, the Obama administration spent eight years trying to balance the two major powers in the Middle East — predominantly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia — in an effort to keep Iraq together, minimize fallout from the Arab Spring, and later find some solution to the conflict in Syria. Trump and the Republican Congress have no interest in maintaining such a balance.

Trump has widened the scope of his actions beyond Iran. In addition to threatening to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the administration wants to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Here again, anti-Islamic orthodoxy has trumped pragmatism. The Brotherhood has attracted the ire of real terrorist organizations for abandoning armed struggle in favor of participating in democratic politics. Senior State Department and Pentagon officials are reportedly urging Trump to reconsider these designations.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to focus more on problems at home. He seemed less interested in trying to use either soft power or hard power to change the complex realities of the Middle East. With the single exception of destroying the Islamic State, Trump preferred to address problems at the water’s edge with immigration bans, physical walls and a beefed-up military to protect the homeland. A streak of isolationism ran through his “America First” rhetoric. Trump was also proudly ignorant of the most basic facts about the region, saying that he’d learn the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah if and when necessary.

As president, Trump has largely abandoned this hands-off approach. He has announced that he would be delighted to arrange a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. At the same time, he has sided almost exclusively with Israel on every important issue of disagreement — supporting a move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, condemning a UN vote on Israel’s settlement policy that the Obama administration backed, and nominating an ambassador to Israel (David Friedman) who believes that the country should simply annex parts of the West Bank.

Outside the Middle East, the Trump administration has betrayed a similarly anti-Islamic approach. It has aligned itself with far-right wing and Islamophobic political parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France. The travel ban has potentially jeopardized relations with majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and elicited adenunciation from the African Union as well.

But the most troubling aspect of the Trump administration’s approach to the Muslim world is its tendency to view matters through a “civilizational” lens. Bannon understands Western civilization as fundamentally anti-Islamic (and anti-secular), its identity forged at the Battle of Tours in 732 and through later conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. Bannon and his extremist allies in Europe are threatened not just by separatist movements like the Islamic State, but also by religious pluralism, which blurs the lines of their particular identity politics. The documentary project that Bannon was working on before joining the Trump campaign focused on a hypothetical Islamic takeover of the United States, a companion piece to the “Londonistan” and “Eurabia” arguments made by European Islamophobes. The resignation of Michael Flynn might diminish the overt Islamophobia of the administration but it will not affect the underlying civilizational framework within which Bannon and others operate.

Many Americans supported Trump because he promised to be a transactional president who “gets things done.” In the end, because of the people he has brought into his inner circle, Trump will end up attempting to transform the relationship between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. It’s not likely, however, that Trump will go down in history as either the dealmaker he promised to be as president or the transformational leader his aides are pushing him to become.

The Islamic Monthly, February 21, 2017

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Articles Featured Islamophobia

The End of Islamophobia

Even his own sister was mortified.

In the recent mayoral race in London, the Conservative Party’s Zac Goldsmith was in many ways the perfect candidate: a young, handsome fellow who possessed full-spectrum appeal.

To win the election, Goldsmith could have focused on all the work he’d done on the environment, as a journalist and former editor of the magazine The Ecologist. To further woo liberals, he could have highlighted his considerable international experience and his support of the rights of indigenous peoples. Conversely, he could have cemented his popularity among conservative populists by emphasizing his skeptical attitude toward the European Union. If he’d played it safe, Goldsmith could have translated an early lead in the polls into a victory at the ballot box.

Instead, the Goldsmith team prompted a huge backlash by suggesting that his opponent, the Labor Party’s Sadiq Khan, was a Muslim extremist because of his associations and his political bedfellows. The rhetoric from the Conservative camp was nothing so blatant or ugly as some of the proposals in the Republican presidential primary, such as prohibiting Muslims candidates from entering the Oval Office (Ben Carson) or prohibiting Muslims immigrant from entering the country (Donald Trump).

Still, the insinuations prompted Goldsmith’s sister Jemima, a prominent journalist and convert to Islam, to write on Twitter: “Sad that Zac’s campaign did not reflect who I know him to be.” Even fellow Conservatives distanced themselves from the candidate. Former Conservative cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi, for instance, decried the “appalling dog whistle racism,” and the Conservative leader in the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, called the tactics “outrageous.”

Last week, when Londoners went to the polls to elect their mayor, the billionaire conservative suffered a humiliating landslide defeat. Sadiq Khan will be the new face of multicultural London.

What’s most interesting about the handling of Goldsmith’s campaign is the perception, among his advisors, that the instrumental use of Islamophobia would be politically helpful. It wasn’t such a reach, perhaps. On the continent at least, the tactic seemed to work in boosting the fortunes of what should otherwise be fringe parties like the National Front in France, the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, and the Sweden Democrats. And the blatantly anti-Muslim UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been steadily gaining support, nearly doubling its representation in the same local elections.

London, of course, is a city, and a very diverse one at that. What might work in Britain as a whole clearly failed with the more cosmopolitan voters in its capital. Polling at 20 percent across most of the country in the 2014 elections, UKIP managed only 7 percent in London. One UKIP candidate attributed the difference to the “more media-savvy and educated” population of the capital city.

It would be reassuring to believe that Sadiq Khan’s victory will banish Islamophobia from the electoral toolbox, particularly here in the United States. But America is not London. And ourbillionaire conservative is no tree-hugging friend of indigenous peoples. He doesn’t care about offending liberal sensibilities.

Moreover, anti-Islamic sentiment has been steadily rising in the United States, thanks to a relatively small group of well-funded organizations and individuals. Even if Donald Trump loses in November, as he most assuredly will, Islamophobia will not slink into the shadows along with its mouthpiece, the disgraced reality star.

Astounding Misinformation

Since 2001, the United States has resettled about 800,000 refugees inside its borders. Of that number, five have been arrested on terrorism charges. Two were arrested this January, another in 2013, and the other two in 2011. Five out of 800,000 equals .000625 percent. That’s practically the definition of statistically insignificant.

Yet, as the Brooking Institution’s Robert McKenzie pointed out at a recent panel in Washington, DC sponsored by Brookings and Duke University, 31 out of 50 governors have announced that they want to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states. All but one of these governors is a Republican. It’s an important reminder that the scaremongering of Trump, Carson, and the other erstwhile presidential candidates poisons the party as a whole.

The problem extends beyond individual Islamophobes. Equally troubling is the overall climate of bigotry and fear. Christopher Bail, a Duke University researcher who also participated in the panel, has been documenting the spread of Islamophobia. He presented a series of graphsthat revealed that:

Over the past decade, 32 states proposed shariah law bans, controversies about the construction of mosques have increased by more than 800 percent, and the number of Americans with negative opinions of Islam has more than doubled.

To understand how astonishing these results are, imagine if I wrote that 32 states had proposed anti-UFO laws, that controversies over the construction of playgrounds had increased by 800 percent, and that the number of Americans with negative opinions of Judaism had more than doubled. You’d think that the country had been taken over by delusional, child-hating Nazis.

After all, there is zero evidence of a campaign to impose shariah law anywhere in the United States — the only case ever cited is one in which a domestic court judge based his judgment on shariah law, which the appellate court sensibly overturned — just as there’s no evidence of an alien plot to take over the world. Mosque attendance has been definitively demonstrated to reduce extremism, not encourage it. And although anti-Semitism is universally reviled, anti-Islamic sentiment flourishes because many Americans associate the religion with the tiny number of extremists who call themselves Muslims rather than with the 99.9 percent who are not followers of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

For information on the negative correlation between mosque attendance and extremism, you can turn to an important 2010 study, also from Duke University. Or you can look at recent polling from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), which Dalia Mogahed also presented at the Duke-Brookings panel.

Muslim Americans who regularly attend mosques are more likely than those who do not frequent mosques to work with their neighbors to solve community problems (49 vs. 30 percent), be registered to vote (74 vs. 49 percent), and are more likely to plan to vote (92 vs. 81 percent).

ISPU also found that Muslims in America are just as likely as members of other religious groups to “oppose the targeting and killing of civilians by individuals or small groups” and far more likely to “oppose the targeting and killing of civilians by the military” (65 percent, versus 45 percent of Jews and slightly less for Catholics and Protestants, say such practices are never justified).

The fact that Americans are so ignorant of the basic facts about Muslims in America isn’t simply the result of a lack of contact (most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims) or the absence of information in school curricula. Much of the ignorance around Muslims, particularly as it relates to security issues, is manufactured.

A relatively small industry of pundits and activists — Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney, Walid Phares, Robert Spencer, and their associated donors — have managed to inject their views into mainstream organizations (if you consider the Heritage Foundation mainstream) and into the news media (if you consider Fox to be “news”). And from there, these calculated distortions have entered the political discourse (if you consider what Donald Trump says to be “discourse”).

But it’s not just The Donald.

From the Margins to the Center

In her victory speech after the Pennsylvania primary last month, Hillary Clinton gave a shout out to all the various constituencies that make up her voting bloc: women, workers, LGBT, people with disabilities. She also warned of what would happen should candidates “from the other side” prevail:

They would make it harder to vote, not easier. They would deny women the right to make our own reproductive health care decisions. They would round up millions of hardworking immigrants and deport them. They would demonize and discriminate against hardworking, terror-hating Muslim Americans who we need in the fight against radicalization. And both of the top candidates in the Republican Party deny climate change even exists.

At first glance, Hillary is hitting all the right notes. But as Omid Safi, the head of the Duke Islamic Center, pointed out at the above-mentioned panel, only Muslim Americans merited an ominous qualifier: “terror-hating.”

Hillary is implying that, without such a qualifier, Muslim Americans are somehow guilty by association. They are connected in the public mind with the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people at the end of last year — unless they explicitly say otherwise — in a way that white Christians are not expected to disavow their connection to Dylann Roof, who likewise killed nine people last year.

For most Americans, Muslims are the “other,” a group of people who have to constantly prove the negative: that they’re not terror-loving. Good luck proving the negative. In such an environment, Muslims will never be above suspicion. Muslim organizations have repeatedly decried every terrorist act linked to Muslims, but the mainstream media has just as repeatedly ignored them. And so continues the myth that Muslims secretly approve of what al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are doing.

To defeat Islamophobia, or at least to stigmatize it to the same degree as racism and anti-Semitism, political victories over candidates who use both dog whistles and megaphones to trumpet anti-Islamic sentiment are, of course, essential. But the challenge is greater.

First, as Omid Safi pointed out, you shouldn’t fight intolerance with tolerance. A concept emerging from ancient pharmacology, “tolerance” meant the degree to which a body could put up with a toxin. Muslims are not toxins. They are part of the fabric of American society. Like all other Americans, they deserve to be respected for how they are the same as everyone else — and different.

On the side of difference, they practice a religion that has features in common with other monotheisms as well as quite a few unique features. But whether it’s praying toward Mecca, making annual charitable contributions, or undertaking the hajj (pilgrimage), the essential features of Islam have been part of the American landscape since before even the birth of the country. Difference is what makes America great. Those who prefer cultural uniformity should relocate to, well, Saudi Arabia, for instance.

On the side of similarity, it’s time to stop securitizing Muslims — thinking of them only in terms of terrorism, national security, and “threat.” As the ISPU polling indicates, American Muslims have the same preoccupations as the rest of America: the economy. They identify strongly as patriotic, and the more religiously observant they are, the more being American is important to their identity. They are far more satisfied than any other religious group with the direction the country is currently heading. And they are far more diverse a group than any other religious community. With large numbers of African American, Latino, and Asian adherents, the American Muslim community looks more like America than Protestants, Jews, or even Catholics.

The victory of Sadiq Khan has “normalized” Muslims in UK politics in much the same way that JFK normalized Catholics in American politics. American Muslims are still waiting for their JFK moment. True, for the last seven years, large numbers of Americans have thought that their president is a Muslim, which in Islamophobic America has been just another way of saying that these conspiracy theorists don’t like Obama. So, obviously, that doesn’t count.

The presidential victory of Obama was not the end of racism. But it did serve as a watershed moment in the evolving status of the African American community and represented a significant nail in bigotry’s coffin. Some day in the future, when the grotesqueries of Donald Trump are a fading memory and even the Islamophobia-lite of mainstream politicians will seem as archaic as the anti-Semitic insinuations of polite 1950s America, the occupant of the Oval Office will state that she is proud to be both American and Muslim.

There will be cheers. There will be boos. But we’ll know that the era of Islamophobia has passed when the most common reaction is a shrug and a yawn.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 11, 2016

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Articles Eastern Europe Featured Islamophobia

Life in the Gray Zone

In the 13th century, the Italian town of Lucera was a Muslim island in a sea of Christendom. Here Frederick II, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, established his own shadow cabinet of scholars and advisors from among the Arabs that he invited to live in this walled city near the eastern coast of Italy.

It was a bold, unconventional move during a precarious time in Christian-Muslim relations. The Fifth Crusade had failed to retake Jerusalem. In Iberia, however, Christians had nearly taken back all of al-Andalus from the Muslims by mid-century. And in Sicily, Christians were persecuting the Muslims who remained from what had once been a thriving emirate before Norman mercenaries destroyed it in 1071.

Lucera was thus both refuge and reservation. Writes religion scholar Karen Armstrong inHoly War:

Yet though Frederick certainly enjoyed Lucera and his Arab friends there, this was a policy not of toleration but of exploitation. Lucera was certainly a city where Islam was tolerated and protected: Frederick would not allow papal missionaries there to harass the Muslims. But Lucera was also a refugee camp and a reservation. The Muslims had to live there and had no choice but to be loyal to Frederick because he was their only protector.

Lucera, in other words, was the very definition of a gray zone. It was an enclave of Muslims in Europe who were more or less prospering. It had official support from the authorities in the person of Frederick II. But many Christians considered the city an outpost of the enemy.

A gray zone, according to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), is a place where Muslims have rejected an “us-versus-them” world of belief and unbelief that puts the caliphate in the right and the “crusader coalition” in the wrong. From the perspective of ISIS, the Muslims who live in predominantly Christian realms have to make a choice: They can drop everything, travel to Raqqa, and take up arms on behalf of ISIS. Or they can stay in the enemy camp. ISIS intends its bombings to make it more and more difficult for Muslims to choose the second option, because they’ll find their stay in “crusader countries” increasingly inhospitable.

A year ago, before the coordinated attacks in Paris, an article called “The Extinction of the Gray Zone” appeared in the English-language newsletter of ISIS. It lays out the stark choice available to Muslims in Europe:

Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of “Islam” before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.

ISIS, in other words, views all forms of Islam that don’t correspond to its own peculiar Salafist interpretation as not only apostasy, but as way stations on the road toward the ultimate abandonment of the religion.

The nationalist backlash against Muslims in Europe — represented by Pegida in Germany, the National Front in France, or the UK Independence Party in England — has a similarly suspicious view of Islam in Europe. These Islamophobes view European Muslims not in transition toward Christianity and democracy, but on their way to becoming sleeper cells for the Islamic State.

For both ISIS and the Islamophobes, the gray zone represents an intolerable state of ambiguity, engagement, and political debate where people freely adopt multiple identities. To be simultaneously Muslim, French, European, a doctor, a woman, a parent, a voter: This is anathema to the extremist. They care about one identity only: Are you on our side or not?

As much as anyone could in the 13th century, Frederick II was a man of the gray zone. He was, to be sure, a leader of the “crusader coalition.” But he also spoke Arabic. He consulted closely with the scholars of Lucera. He even included Muslims in his armies. Perhaps most importantly, he managed to retake Jerusalem not by force of arms, but by successfully negotiating a treaty of peaceful coexistence with Meledin (Sultan Al-Kamil) that turned over several lands to Christian control. The deal on Jerusalem preserved access to religious sites for both Christians and Muslims.

For his efforts to work with Muslims, among other subversive activities, Frederick II was deemed the “anti-Christ” by Pope Gregory IX and excommunicated four times. Then, as today, collaboration with Muslims was a tricky business. As for Lucera, French armies under King Charles of Anjou wiped out the Muslim enclave in 1301, killing the Muslim inhabitants and turning the mosque into a church. Christian Europe wouldn’t see another such gray zone for many centuries.

In Gaza

From the perspective of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the U.S. political establishment, Gaza’s not a gray zone. It’s a green zone — that is, an area controlled by Hamas, and therefore a hotbed of radical Islam.

Although Hamas came to power through the ballot box in 2006 — solidifying its control by ousting its rival Fatah in 2007 — it’s endured political isolation courtesy of the international community and an economic blockade courtesy of Israel (and Egypt). The green flags of Hamas have become a symbol, for the countries that would prefer that the Palestinian party didn’t exist, of violence, intolerance, and non-compromise.

It might come as a shock, then, to discover that the Islamic State views Hamas very differently. ISIS disparages Hamas as too pacific, tolerant, and willing to compromise. It’s called for Palestinians to overthrow Hamas because it prioritizes secular goals (national liberation) over religious ones (expanding the caliphate). A video posted on June 30, 2015 featured three ISIS fighters lecturing the authorities in Gaza: “The point of jihad is not to liberate land, but to fight for and implement the law of God.”

Hamas, in other words, doesn’t rally around the black flag of ISIS. Its green flag isn’t a symbol of uncompromising extremism. Rather, Hamas is firmly in the gray zone.

As Sarah Helm writes in a fascinating article in The New York Review of Books, Hamas reacted immediately to the video by cracking down on ISIS, arresting supporters, picking up bearded guys at checkpoints, and shutting down suspicious social media sites. ISIS responded by bombing Hamas and initiating attacks against Israel.

Here’s the kicker: The less likely a two-state solution becomes — thanks to Netanyahu and his right-wing minions In Israel — the more attractive the caliphate grows. This logic applies all the more to Palestinians who’ve returned to Gaza after fighting in Syria. “Some of the returnees openly switched allegiance to the ISIS caliphate,” Helm writes, “calculating that viewed from the rubble of postwar Gaza, the prospect of a caliphate might seem more realistic than a Palestinian state.”

For Israelis who don’t want a two-state solution, Hamas was a godsend. Look, they could say, it’s clearly impossible to work with such a ruthless and uncompromising partner. Hamas was a deal-killer — for a deal that Israeli extremists considered deeply flawed.

When confronted with the possibility of the Islamic State ousting Hamas in Gaza, a realist would immediately open up negotiations with the latter in order to prevent the former from seizing power. But Netanyahu and company aren’t realists.

If ISIS took over in Gaza, it would set back Palestinian aspirations for yet another generation — and that would be music to Bibi’s ears. He could then launch military operations in Gaza against ISIS, and a grateful international community would applaud. Such Machiavellian calculations prompted Israel several decades ago to secretly support Islamists in Gaza — who would eventually create Hamas — in an effort to counterbalance Yasser Arafat and his secular Fatah movement.

As in the Middle Ages, extremists on both sides are cooperating to eliminate the gray zone.

Countering Violent Extremism

Counter-terrorism is out; “countering violent extremism” is in.

CVE has become the strategy of choice inside the Beltway. The White House convened a three-day summit on the topic in February last year. The Department of Homeland Security hasadopted a new CVE approach, thanks to authorizing legislation from Congress. There was even a global youth summit devoted to CVE in September to coincide with the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The idea behind CVE is to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place by nipping radicalization in the bud. But given the veritable explosion of violent extremism over the last year — with ISIS-linked attacks on virtually every continent — it would seem that CVE is no more effective than its predecessor. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the validity of the CVE techniques themselves.

Scholar Rami Khouri hones in on the fatal flaw of the approach:

These efforts, which typically emanate from U.S. or other Western political institutions, see political violence as only a reflection of extremist values or behavior that are anchored in Arab-Islamic societies. They refuse to see the causal influence of Western policies in this grim cycle of global violence. Violent extremism, it turns out, is the consequence of policies of Western and Middle Eastern states, and radical changes by both are required to stem the problem.

It turns out, then, that extremists on both sides are not the only ones responsible for extinguishing the gray zone. In addition to their ISIS targets, U.S. bombs destroy towns, political institutions, and civilians. In the midst of all this destruction, the only thing left to do is pick up a gun and fight — with us or against us.

CVE is failing for the same reason that Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 — on pushing the reset button on relations between Islam and the West — didn’t ultimately rescue the reputation of the United States in the Muslim world. Bombs, alas, speak louder than words.

And bombs, whether they come from above or below, are the enemy of the gray zone.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 27, 2016

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Articles Eastern Europe Featured Islamophobia

Trump, the Islamic State, and the Cliche of Civilizations

I was listening to a German parliamentarian the other night. She was making some anodyne comments about transatlantic friendship and the importance of culture. And then she veered off to mention the recent attacks in Paris and the threat of the Islamic State. This issue, she said, required an urgent response from the “free world.”

The audience murmured its approval.

I never take my freedoms for granted, but I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the phrase “free world.” It gives off the musty odor of the Cold War. Even though the phrase was tailor-made for rousing speeches a la Churchill, a division of the world into free and unfree failed to capture the complexity of international relations at the time.

However flawed such Manichean thinking might have been, the resurrection of the phrase has even less descriptive value today. Does everyone outside the limited borders of the Islamic State live in the “free world”? Where does Russia fit in? How about China, which also abhors the Islamic State but has yet to intervene militarily in Syria (except in Ben Carson’s imagination)?

And frankly, it’s not Europe, the United States, and whatever other countries constitute the zone of freedom that most need to respond to the Islamic State. It’s the countries of the decidedly unfree world — Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan — that must take on their Sunni co-religionists if the battle is truly to be won.

Perhaps for these definitional reasons, some commentators have forsaken Cold War allusions to the fight against Soviet communism for something more clear-cut. They have reached further back in an effort to rally all people of conscience against the Islamic State. After all, no one calls the Cold War — or any of the deadly battles during that time in Korea, Vietnam, or elsewhere — the “good war.” That phrase is reserved for World War II and the fight against the Nazis. For the Islamic State to qualify as a truly demonic enemy and for the conflict to be stripped of all ambiguity, then, the would-be caliphate must be composed of nothing but fascists.

Last week, for instance, British Labor Party MP Hilary Benn denounced the Islamic State in such terms on the floor of parliament as part of a successful effort to authorize British participation in coalition air strikes in Syria:

We are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.

This speech by Benn, the son of Labor’s anti-war stalwart Tony Benn, won plaudits from a range of American conservatives such as Marc Thiessen at the American Enterprise Institute and former Moral Majority leader Cal Thomas. The former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz, in his most recent column, wanted to know why the other Hillary, ditto her Democratic Party brethren, was refusing to denounce the Islamic State in similar terms.

Labeling ISIS as “fascist” contrasts with Democrats in the U.S. tying themselves into politically correct knots to avoid naming the enemy. President Obama still refuses to include “Islam” in the same breath as “terrorism.” In response to a question during last month’s Democratic presidential debate, the candidates all refused to say the U.S. is at war with “radical Islam.” Mrs. Clinton demurred by calling the term “not particularly helpful.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, I too believe that the Islamic State is barbaric. But I prefer to think of them as a murderous cult crossed with a band of criminals. Their ideology is of secondary importance. Calling them “fascist” might be satisfying at some level. But making this historical comparison can be counter-productive in conjuring up a world war of civilizational dimensions. After all, the propagandists of the Islamic State too would like to imagine that they are fighting a global conflict with the highest stakes imaginable. Bring it on, cry the followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is our finest hour, thunder the lions of the free world. And thus the battle becomes almost cinematic.

Few are willing to utter the phrase “clash of civilizations,” for that thesis of political scientist Samuel Huntingdon from 1993 has become a cliché, and a thoroughly debunked one at that. But make no mistake: the rhetoric on both sides has escalated to that level. Lurking somewhere in this civilizational discourse, particularly on the European side, is an age-old anxiety that goes all the way back to the days of Charles the Hammer — that Islam, like fascism, is antithetical to civilization itself.

Where Others Fear to Tread

Crovitz and his brethren, to their credit, refrain from trotting out the term of abuse that was de rigeur for their set during the heyday of neoconservative posturing in the 2000s: Islamofascism. But leave it to a French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, to rush in where American conservatives currently fear to tread.

Levy’s recent article — “Paris Terror Attacks: Instructions for Warfare” — has been published all over the place (Huffington Post, Toronto Globe and Mail, Haaretz). It is a cri du coeur, a call to action, and a challenge to the “free world” all wrapped up in one. To buttress his declaration of war against the Islamic State, Levy invokes Victor Hugo:

To these vile, ignorant men we must utter the beautiful words that Victor Hugo exclaimed in September 1870, at the time of the massacres of the Paris Commune: An attack on Paris is more than an attack on France, it destroys the whole world. The only word to describe these men is fascists.

Better: Islamofascists.

“Islamofascist” became briefly popular in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. George W. Bush used the term in a 2005 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy in an effort to give his “war on terrorism” a more exalted, civilizational framing. As I wrote in my 2012 book Crusade 2.0,

The linking of Islam and fascism was not new. Historians had explored the connections between Muslims and Nazis before and during World War II. The Baath movement — which produced ruling parties in Iraq and Syria — had roots in earlier fascist movements. When scholar Malise Ruthven coined the phrase “Islamo-fascism” in a 1990 article, he had in mind dictatorial governments, some of which were allied with the United States, like Pakistan and Morocco. Newt Gingrich later played around with the term “totalitarian Islam” to describe Iran. After 9/11, however, writers like Christopher Hitchens and academics like Bassam Tibi redeployed the term “Islamofascism” to describe the Islamist opposition to those dictatorial governments.

According to the venerable New York Times, the term Islamofascism had a brief life span, crashing and burning by 2006.

No term was more deserving of a fiery flameout. It was offensive on so many levels. It suggested an inherent link between Islam and fascism when historically fascism has had a more enduring love affair with Christianity (alongside flirtations with Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Judaism). Fascist ideology, moreover, focuses on the relationship between the state and the economy, favoring a corporatist model, whereas Islam coexists with many different economic systems. I could go on, but the “fascism” part of the equation was never really more than an epithet.

With the election of Barack Obama and a more nuanced U.S. approach to Islam, I thought that the term “Islamofascism” had finally been retired from service. But Levy resuscitates the term for a specific purpose. He deliberately wades into the conflict taking place within Islam itself, a clash within a civilization, between what he identifies as the good guys, the “Islam of the enlightenment,” and the bad guys, the Islamofascists. After exhorting Muslims to declare that the violence of the Islamofascists is “not in our name,” Levy then gives away his hand. He picks out, as representative of the anti-Enlightenment Islamists, not al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State or any of the terrorists who have undertaken military missions in the name of this illusory caliphate.

Rather, Levy zeroes in on Tariq Ramadan.

For those not familiar with this Muslim theologian — most famous for facing a travel ban to the United States during the Bush years — Ramadan is an articulate defender of political Islam. Born in Switzerland and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan currently teaches at Oxford University. He has consistently condemned terrorism in general and specific acts of violence in particular, thus meeting Levy’s “not-in-my-name” criterion. He’s also been on the UK Foreign Office Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Tariq Ramadan, in other words, would seem to be a rather odd embodiment of anti-Enlightenment values.

The dispute between Levy and Ramadan goes back more than a decade — at least to 2003, when the Muslim theologian criticized the French philosopher for his invocation of Enlightenment values in support of the invasion of Iraq. No doubt Levy is also incensed that Ramadan would have the temerity to compare Francois Hollande’s militarism after the Paris attacks to that of George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.

Strip away the personal invective, however, and the uglier side of Levy’s argument becomes clear. Yes, of course, he hates “Islamofascism.” And yes, he has some Muslim friends. But deep down, he’s uncomfortable with key elements of mainstream Islam, represented by people like Tariq Ramadan.

Cue the Donald

All of this is rather heady stuff. Leave it to us Americans to strip the argument down to its basics. Here, in the 2016 presidential race, we get Islamophobia straight, no chaser, and without European-style philosophizing.

The anti-Muslim sentiment of the Republican presidential candidates should have disqualified the lot of them by now. Ben Carson announced that he’d never support a Muslim political candidate. Bobby Jindal made headlines with his claim of Muslim “no-go” zones in Europe. Both Lindsey Graham and George Pataki urged monitoring of mosques (which, contrary to popular misconceptions, have been central to combatting extremism).

But the ugliest intervention has come from Donald Trump, who’s urged a complete ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Presumably that would include:

  • Muslims fleeing for their lives from the Islamic State
  • Muslims who have risked everything to work with and fight alongside U.S. troops
  • Muslims who have H-1B visas to code for Microsoft
  • Muslims who are family-oriented entrepreneurs and would eventually vote Republican

Far be it for me to point out to the Republican Party that it is alienating one minority group after another in its effort to hold onto the dwindling demographic of angry white men. And jeez, even “Dark Side” Dick Cheney repudiated Trump by saying that his statement “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”
But alas, Trump is no dummy when it comes to assessing the mood of the electorate. According to a Public Policy Survey, Trump’s Islamophobia will keep him at the top of the Republican heap:

Among Trump backers, 67 percent support creating a national database of Muslims, 62 percent believe the discredited story that Arabs in New Jersey cheered as the twin towers fell on 9/11, more than half (51 percent) want to shut down mosques, and a full 44 percent believe Islam should be outlawed.
These beliefs constitute the real face of Islamophobia. A few politicians and intellectuals decry “Islamofascists,” but the real target of Islamophobia is the mainstream Islam of mosques, moderate imams, and your friendly Muslim neighbors.

Which brings us back to this question of a civilizational conflict. To repeat, there is no clashbetween Islam and the West, except in the minds of the Islamic State and the ideologues of the “free world” who believe that inside every Muslim is an Islamofascist dying to get out. The real clash is taking place within a civilization, within Islam, over doctrinal issues, the nature of the state, the relationship with the market, and so on — and the Islamic State is largely peripheral to this ideological clash.

More fundamentally, an equally contentious struggle is going on within the so-called free world. Here is where the civilizational rubber really hits the road. Will enough good people of conscience — enough moderate Christians and moderate Jews and moderate whatevers in the United States — stand up to the intolerance of our native extremism?

As an unknown French wit once said in the 1930s, America is the only society to go from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization. Bernard-Henri Levy is free to take potshots at Islam. But, honestly, we here on this side of the Atlantic, in the throes of Trumpian decadence, are in desperate need of an Enlightenment of our own.

Photo: Bernard-Henri Levy

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 9, 2015