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The Islamic State and the Terrible Twos

The Islamic State celebrated its one-year anniversary in customary fashion. Other organizations might sponsor parades and make speeches. ISIS spilled blood.

A beheading in France, the murder of 38 tourists at a resort in Tunisia, and a bomb blast at a mosque in Kuwait all reminded the world, if it had somehow forgotten, that ISIS isn’t merely interested in securing sovereignty over a particular stretch of territory. It has much grander ambitions.

At the moment, it doesn’t have the means to take on the world or take over even a single country. But that could change.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, analyst Stephen Walt writes that the international community should basically learn to live with the Islamic State if it “becomes a real state and demonstrates real staying power.” Other brutal proto-states in history — colonial America, marauding Brits — eventually settled down and acted like more-or-less responsible international actors, he points out. The IRA in Northern Ireland and the ANC in South Africa have channeled their more violent tendencies into the more mundane tasks of statecraft. So, why not expect the Islamic State to do the same?

Walt, usually quite astute, is wrong on this occasion. ISIS isn’t like previous proto-states or liberation movements. It’s a fundamentally different creature. I share Walt’s skepticism about the U.S. ability to “degrade and destroy” the entity, as President Obama proposes. But devising an effective strategy for countering the Islamic State requires a clear-eyed understanding of why this apparently medieval phenomenon is in fact a very new and very dangerous development.

What ISIS Wants

Most modern liberation movements have very traditional perspectives on the international system. They want to seize the machinery of the state, assert sovereignty over a particular patch of territory, and then sit in the UN General Assembly alongside other nations. In this sense, movements of stateless peoples like the Kurds or the Karen have the same aspirations as rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army or the FARC in Colombia.

Walt’s arguments certainly apply to these groups. No matter how violently they pursue their goals, they generally sober up when tasked with administering a state. They’re like volatile and unpredictable young men who suddenly must assume the mantle of fatherhood and become responsible adults. They put away childish things and start taking care of their children.

Liberation movements want a place at the table. The Islamic State, on the other hand, wants to destroy the table.

The Islamic State isn’t simply an insurgency. Though it certainly aspires to overthrow the current regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, it doesn’t have any particular attachment to this territory. If there had been the requisite chaos and a critical mass of committed fighters, it would have declared a caliphate in Yemen or Egypt or Somalia. It maintains a warm spot in its cold heart for the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, it doesn’t care about national boundaries. It has a 100-year plan for taking over the world and imposing its own version of Islamic orthodoxy.

ISIS has already established a state apparatus in the territory it has carved out of Syria and Iraq. But the mechanisms of the state only interest it to the degree that it must raise revenue, impose hierarchical control, and regulate social affairs. It has not created a state in order to participate in inter-state affairs. It has no interest in diplomacy. Despite its name, it’s not a state like other states.

Think of ISIS as a computer virus. It aspires to infect computers and websites wherever code is vulnerable and bring the entire system crashing down. The machete-wielding militants of ISIS are hackers in more ways than one.

ISIS Versus Iran

In an interesting way, Walt’s misunderstanding intersects with the hyperbole of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. As the negotiations on a nuclear agreement with Iran approach their deadline, which was recently moved to July 7, the Israeli government continues to try to disrupt the proceedings in an effort to keep Iran internationally isolated. A recent tweet from the prime minister’s account argued that: “The Islamic State of Iran — like ISIS. Just much bigger.”

Israel might dislike Iran as much as it dislikes the Islamic State. Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran as a greater existential risk than the would-be caliphate. But the two are not at all identical. For one thing, ISIS has laid out a very specific plan for taking over Iran and seizing its nuclear program, according to a manifesto that the Iraqi army captured in the fall. Iran is particularly worried about the Sunni radicals operating in areas close to Iranian territory.

More importantly, Iran and ISIS are fundamentally different creatures. Iran is a state that engages in diplomacy, trade, and the expansion of soft power, all things that ISIS disdains. Iran is the perfect example of a revolutionary religious movement that has adjusted to life in the international community. Iran hopes that a nuclear agreement will function like an invitation back into the international community. ISIS looks at the example of Iran and shudders.

Saudi Arabia, interestingly, shares the same warped perspective as Israel. The Saudis are so fixated on the threat of Shia Iran that they’re blind to the far more immediate challenge of their Sunni co-religionists in ISIS. But Salafist chickens are just as prone to come home to roost as their haram cousins.

The Years Ahead

We may well look back at the first year of the Islamic State and wax nostalgic about how comparatively placid it was. Sure, it kept us up at night with all its crying and demands for attention. It certainly experienced a rather dramatic growth spurt. And it continued to resist potty training.

But brace yourself for the terrible twos. That’s when an infant organization becomes truly defiant.

The Obama administration, along with its allies in the region like the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army, thought that the coordinated air campaign had knocked the stuffing out of ISIS. As journalist Patrick Cockburn explains, the bombings

began last August in Iraq and were extended to Syria in October, with U.S. officials recently claiming that 4,000 air strikes had killed 10,000 ISIS fighters. Certainly, the air campaign has inflicted heavy losses on ISIS, but it has made up for these casualties by conscripting recruits within the self-declared caliphate, an area the size of Great Britain with a population of five or six million.

Most recently, ISIS demonstrated the inadequacy of bombing campaign by seizing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. It clearly has the capacity to fight and win on two fronts.

My fear is not so much that ISIS will topple the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. It faces considerable resistance, both confessional and nationalist, in these two countries. A more serious concern would be ISIS taking root in Sunni-majority countries where Salafist teachings already have currency.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, ISIS suicide bombers have already targeted the Shi’ite minority. ISIS militants attacked a Saudi post along the border with Iraq back in January, and many supporters are lurking throughout the conservative society. In Libya, meanwhile, ISIS seized two oil fields a few months back and paraded through the streets of Sirte. The turmoil in that country offers an enormous opportunity to a ruthless few.

But the real threat from ISIS is not territorial but ideological. Fighters are flocking to the fledgling caliphate because they are attracted to the notion that violence and bloodshed can create a space of totalitarian homogeneity. It’s not simply the attraction of a particular religious interpretation. ISIS offers a counter-narrative to the particularism of nationalism and what it argues is the emptiness of godless globalization. The society that the caliphate has created is multiethnic, transnational, and fully conversant in the latest technology. And yet it also offers a very specific, historically grounded identity.

As such, recruits can have their Twitter account and their seventh-century religious convictions. In some ways, it’s an unbeatable combo. It’s the Lexus and the olive tree. It’s jihad and McWorld.

Walt argues that all revolutionary movements that aspire to take over the world eventually fall back onto building “socialism in one country,” as Stalin eventually settled for. Perhaps, too, ISIS will give up its dream of a global caliphate and settle down to cultivate its own oasis of sharia law. Walt recommends the Cold War strategy of containment to restrict the growth of ISIS and indirectly encourage it to mind its own business.

But ISIS was never about building a state. It is a movement composed of high priests and low brigands. Neither of these actors is interested in setting up a pension system or a civil service. They are interested in the propagation of ideas and the accumulation of power. Despite its insistence, we should not think of ISIS as a state or a movement that will one day act like a state. States are part of the world that ISIS rejects.

By all means, the international community should try to contain ISIS. But it’s the idea of the Islamic State that needs countering. That can best be done by Islamic movements and organizations that are woven into the very fabric of modern society. They offer both a particular identity and a way of interacting with the institutions of the modern state. The best response to the divisiveness of ISIS is the inclusiveness of multiculturalism. Sponsoring Muhammad cartoon contests, protesting mosque construction, deriding the cornerstones of mainstream Islam — such exercises in Islamophobia are probably more effective than ISIS manifestos in recruiting future militants.

If we continue to think about ISIS as a force to be fought on the battlefield or a state like any other state, the caliphate will only grow stronger, buoyed by its freshman successes. We have to beat ISIS in the battle of ideas. Or else its sophomore year will be a much bloodier and more terrible sequel.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 1, 2015

 

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Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

Europe’s Coming Battle

In the first Crusade, on their way to fight the Muslim infidels in Jerusalem, the armed pilgrims asked themselves a provocative question: Why should we trek so far to kill people we barely know when we can just as well massacre infidels closer to home?

And thus the crusaders of the 11th century embarked on some of Europe’s first pogroms against Jews. These anti-Semitic rampages in the heart of the continent had the added advantage of helping to finance that first Crusade, as the pilgrims expropriated the wealth of the Jews they killed.

Europe is once again witnessing the collateral damage of conflicts in the Middle East. Extremists who are involved in a modern-day crusade in the Middle East — or have been thwarted from making the journey to Iraq or Syria — have asked themselves a question very similar to that of their 11th-century counterparts: Why not kill the infidel at hand rather than the infidel afar?

The question — and the answer as it played out last week in the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris — is as ugly today as it was more than 900 years ago.

In both cases, the crusaders believed that their actions were of world-historical importance. In the 11th century, it was Pope Urban II who issued the call to arms that turned sedentary Christians into global marauders. Today, it is the Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are calling for their followers to slay the ungodly.

But as with those initial pogroms — not to mention the 2011 massacre by Anders Breivik in Norway or the serial murders of ethnic Turks in Germany by neo-Nazis between 2000 and 2007 — the recent atrocities in France are nothing but criminal acts.

This is not, in other words, a showdown between the forces of Enlightenment and the forces of barbarism. I have nothing but sorrow for the victims and nothing but rage at the perpetrators. But we must resist the temptation to confer the status of combatant on the murderers or the status of defenders of civilization on Charlie Hebdo.

The Real Battle

If these murders do not constitute a war, they nonetheless point to a deep conflict inside Europe. This conflict is not over whose religion is the one true religion. It is about the very identity of Europe.

In the 11th century, what animated the crusaders was not just the status of Jerusalem but the fear that Islam was lapping at the shores of Europe itself (and indeed, Islam already had a firm foothold on the Iberian peninsula). Today, a similar fear animates the Islamophobes and immigrant-bashers of the continent.

They fear that their old-fashioned vision of an overwhelmingly white, Christian Europe — with reassuring borders that define who is French and who is German and who doesn’t belong in the cozy culture of “Western civilization” — is fast disappearing. They disapprove as much of the border-erasing trajectory of European integration as of the demographic transformations of European immigration. They desperately stick their fingers in the civilizational dike to preserve the Christian heritage of the continent.

But the Europe of their imaginations, to the limited extent that it ever existed in reality, has already passed into history.

Immigration to Europe is nothing new, of course. Particularly after World War II, colonial connections diversified the continent as Indonesians came to Holland, Algerians to France, and Trinidadians to the UK. During the labor shortages of the 1960s and 1970s, guest workers from the Balkans, Turkey, and North Africa poured into countries like Germany and Switzerland, which had little or no colonial connections, to supply surplus labor. Many guest workers returned home, but some stayed to raise families and create multiculturalism avant la lettre.

Those changes prompted the first wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. In 1968, Enoch Powell gave his infamous “rivers of blood” speech to his fellow British Conservatives in which he predicted future violence because of the influx of Commonwealth immigrants. The National Front began mobilizing anti-immigrant sentiment in France as early as 1970. The similarly xenophobic Republican Party in Germany started up in 1983.

Although Powell’s “rivers of blood” did not come to pass, the anti-immigrant strain in European politics has only grown more virulent. And Europe has continued to change. The wars of the post-Cold War era — in Bosnia, Kosovo, across North Africa, and in the Middle East — brought in refugees and migrants, and the attractions of a unified Europe drew people from all over the world.

The demographic shifts in Europe over the last decade have been dramatic.

Between 2005 and 2013, according to UN population surveys, the immigrant population in Switzerland jumped from 22.9 to 28.9 percent, in Spain from 10.7 to 13.8 percent, in Italy from 4.2 to 9.8 percent, in Sweden from 12.3 to 15.9 percent, in Denmark from 7.2 to 9.9 percent, in Finland from 2.9 to 5.4 percent, and in the UK from 8.9 to 12.4 percent.

Such rapid increases in a short period of time have created anxiety in populations that do not consider their countries to be “immigrant societies” like the United States or Australia.

An Islamophobia of Convenience

In the German heartland, the organization Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) has proven to be both enormously popular and an embarrassment to top German politicians.

This week, Pegida organizers went ahead with a rally in Dresden in the wake of the French killings and attracted 25,000 people despite calls by German Premier Angela Merkel and other leading political figures for people to stay home. Although a counter-demonstration in Dresden attracted 35,000 people, Pegida is on a roll, with more rallies planned in other German cities and even in other countries.

The leaders of Pegida grew up in East Germany, and their Monday marches recall the Monday demonstrations that took place in Leipzig in 1989. Some of Pegida’s rhetoric mirrors the chants of the East Germany democracy movement — such as “We are the People” — but with a more sinister slant.

Not surprisingly, given its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim message, the group has attracted a hard core of extremists associated with football clubs and motorcycle gangs. But make no mistake: anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment is very popular even among the so-called respectable elements in Germany.

Thilo Sarrazin was a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party when he publishedGermany Abolishing Itself, which described immigration as the weapon by which the country was committing suicide. The screed became a bestseller, and it was not because racist skinheads suddenly became avid book-buyers. In a German poll last month, half of the respondents declared their sympathy with Pegida and its anti-Muslim agenda.

In England, meanwhile, anti-immigrant fervor has catapulted the UK Independence Party into third place in the polls. In the wake of the tragedies in France, UKIP leader Nigel Farage spokeof a “fifth column” inside European countries “holding our passports, who hate us,” a sentiment that led to an uptick in his popularity. (Of course, Farage is an equal-opportunity bigot. In the spring, after new labor regulations went into force that allowed Romanians the right to work anywhere in the EU, he said, “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”)

But the organization best positioned to leverage the Islamophobia welling up in Europe is France’s National Front. Before the recent killings, Marine Le Pen was already leading early polling for the 2017 presidential contest, and her party was on top of the polls for local elections in March. Le Pen has called for a reinstatement of both border controls and the death penalty, which would put France at odds with the rest of Europe. She is the face of the new extremism: sufficiently liberal in some respects (divorced, pro-choice) to reach out to the mainstream but just as aggressively intolerant as her predecessors to appeal to the base.

The Islamophobia of these far-right movements is largely incidental. They traffic in anti-Islamic sentiment because it is both popular and more palatable than, say, racism or run-of-the-mill xenophobia. Charlie Hebdo, after all, wasn’t running cartoons that made fun of black people or Roma. But it’s open season, intolerance-wise, on Muslims. This Islamophobia, however, is the tip of the spear. The real thrust of the far right is to keep out immigrants of all stripes.

Preventing the Rivers of Blood

The first Crusade “liberated” Jerusalem in 1099 in a great outpouring of blood as the crusaders slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike in the great city.

It was but the first of a half-dozen crusades that raged across Europe and across the next couple centuries. The victims of later Crusades included pagans, Orthodox Christians, Albigensian heretics, and even, during the fourth Crusade, the Catholic population of Zara in present-day Croatia. The cycle of violence initiated by Pope Urban II’s call to religious arms claimed victims of all faiths and backgrounds, and produced a good deal of European-on-European violence as well.

Extremists on all sides would love to see the return of the Crusades. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda would like to see rivers of blood in the streets of Europe. And the far right understands that an all-out war with a committed enemy is one path to political power. Once in charge, they will recreate their own 9/11 moment in order to reverse European integration, build up a huge fence around Europe, and begin deportations.

Forget the false frame of the West versus Islam. It’s not historically or conceptually accurate, and the two are basically on the same side against the crimes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The real battle is over the soul of Europe. And the far right is rallying like it’s 1099.

 

World Beat, Foreign Policy in Focus, January 14, 2014

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Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

Charlie Hebdo: Middle East Blowback?

The recent attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left a dozen editors, cartoonists, and policemen dead, has renewed concerns that blowback from the latest round of fighting in Syria and Iraq is finally reaching Europe.

In a September 2014 video, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) called on its militants and sympathizers around the world to kill “disbelievers” in the United States and France in response to air strikes against the radical group. European governments have also feared the return of Europeans radicalized by the war in Syria to fight as “lone wolves” in their countries of origin. A major terrorist attack mounted by such returnees is “pre-programmed,” a top EU official said in September.

“It was culpably naïve to imagine that sparks from the Iraq-Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, would not spread explosive violence to Western Europe,” warned Patrick Cockburn in The Independent after the Hebdo attack. “With thousands of young Sunni Muslims making the difficult journey to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis, it has always been probable that some of them would choose to give a demonstration of their religious faith by attacking targets they deem anti-Islamic closer to home.”

Several violent actions have already taken place. In May, French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche, who had fought in Syria with IS, claimed responsibility for an attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels that left four dead. In December, an IS sympathizer took hostages at a café in Sydney before he and two customers died in a shootout with police.

At first glance, the Charlie Hebdo killings seem to fit this pattern. One of the two brothers suspected in the shootings, Cherif Kouachi, tried to leave France in 2005 to fight in Iraq and then stood accused of helping others make the same journey. The assailants carried out the killings this week with what observers have called “military precision.” Several press outlets have suggested that one or both brothers had been to Syria. Other outletsreport that the older brother, Said Kouachi, traveled to Yemen in 2011 for training with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

This narrative elevates what might otherwise be a solitary act of terrorism—like the assassination of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 or the massacres in 2011 in Norway by Anders Breivik—into the latest skirmish in a larger war. Such a narrative serves the purposes of IS and al-Qaeda, which both seek a global battlefield to raise their status and boost recruitment. But it also meets the needs of those in the West who seek a rationale for the build-up of the national security state or who want to promote a civilizational conflict against Islam more generally.

Even if the killings can be linked to the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, they would only constitute the second such tragedy to fall into that category, after the Brussels murders last May. Other incidents have been mentioned in the same breath, such as Mohammad Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse and Montauben in 2012. But Merah, reportedly motivated by anti-Semitism and the war in Afghanistan, had not himself fought in the Middle East. The police have also reportedly foiled about a dozen terrorist plots involving returnees from the Syrian conflict.

The far right has already used the Charlie Hebdo killings to bolster their larger Islamophobic agenda. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party linked the attacks to a “fifth column” living in the West. French politician Marine Le Pen claimed that only her National Front party was equipped to take on the challenge of “Islamic fundamentalism on our territory.” In the Wall Street Journal, the outspoken Ayaan Hirsi Ali urged the non-Muslim world to stop appeasing radical jihadists, political Islamists, and Muslims more generally (the three categories frequently elide in her analysis).

These tirades miss the point. Muslim organizations, from the Union of Islamic Organizations of France to the Council On American-Islamic Relations, have been vehement in their denunciations. The governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia condemned the attacks. Even the European Muslim organization with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood declared the killings a “vile terrorist act,” and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced that extremists do more harm to Islam than the cartoons. The Charlie Hebdo assault, in other words, has been an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim alike to unite against and further marginalize IS, al-Qaeda, and their followers.

The tragedy should also prompt a rethink of the way Europe is addressing the potential of blowback from the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. For instance, most governments have adopted an increasingly hardline approach to returnees. Approximately 3,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria, but only a few hundred have returned so far (approximately 120 of the 700 French fighters, for instance, and 40 out of 110 Sweden). Most European countries are jailing these former fighters if they betray any links to radical factions in the Middle East.

But jails are the worst place to send these fighters. Those not yet radicalized can come under the sway of persuasive proselytizers. The already convinced, meanwhile, treat prison as a meet-up group to plan future ventures and collaboration.

Denmark, however, has adopted a different approach. It is offering counseling and assistance for returnees to reintegrate into mainstream society. The program is based on the methods used to deal with neo-Nazis, a threat that has largely faded in Denmark. “What we are doing seems to be working,” according to the chief of police in Aarhus, where a number of Syrian fighters have returned.

It is critically important to separate the average fighter, who might have gone to fight in the Middle East for any number of reasons, from hard-core al-Qaeda and IS adherents. Such triage frees up resources for law enforcement to focus on people like Cherif and Said Kouachi.

So far, the number of returnees is manageable on a country-by-country basis. But the longer the conflict continues—and the more resources Europe puts into the fight against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad—the larger the potential pool of returnees. Detaining people for going off to fight against Assad while at the same time investing resources into rebels engaged in combatting the same enemy makes little sense. European countries should deal with the threat of blowback by trying to reduce the root cause of the problem through diplomatic efforts to end the war or through deescalating the conflict itself.

The Charlie Hebdo killings, whatever their connections to the current wars in the Middle East, were acts of terrorism that should be handled by law enforcement. Blowback from these wars has so far been minimal in Europe. By resisting narratives of civilizational conflict and pushing for a ceasefire in the Syrian war, European governments can do even more to reduce the threat of this blowback.

LobeLog, January 9, 2015

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Articles Featured Islamophobia US Foreign Policy

Bombing the Caliphate

The last Islamic caliphate ended in 1924. Claimed by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the caliphate saw its fortunes rise and fall with those of its imperial protectors.

When the Ottoman Empire expired at the end of World War I, the caliphate’s days were numbered. Never recognized in far-flung areas like Somalia or Malaysia or by the Shi’a and other minority communities, the Sunni caliphate didn’t represent the entire Muslim world any more than the Vatican spoke for all Christians. But it had great symbolic value, promising a kind of universal Muslim order that fused the religious and political spheres.

The weakened caliphate was no match for the modernizing nationalism of Kemal Ataturk, who built Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk drove a stake through the caliphate as one more proof that he intended to banish religion to the periphery of Turkish society. In 1924, The Economist declared the end of the caliphate with typical Eurocentric triumphalism.

“The repudiation of the Caliphate by the Turks marks an epoch in the expansion of Western ideas over the non-Western world, for our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government are the real forces to which the unfortunate ‘Abdu’l Mejid Efendi has fallen a victim,” the magazine editorialized. “Both by tradition and by theory, the Caliph is an absolute monarch over a united Islamic world, and it is therefore almost impossible to find a place for him in a national state (whether it be called a republic or a constitutional monarchy) in which the sovereignty is vested in the parliamentary representatives of the people.”

The Economist spoke too soon. True, Turkey managed to hold together as a nation-state in the ensuing decades, preserving its territorial integrity by using considerable military force against its perceived enemies at home and abroad (including the “dirty war” against the Kurds and the battle with Greece over Cyprus). But the rest of what was once the Ottoman Empire continues to struggle to maintain traditional nation-states. Syria is trapped in a devastating civil war. Iraq has effectively broken into three or four parts. Israel and Palestine have fought for decades over borders and sovereignty. Western colonialism, followed by a counter-surge of Arab nationalism, failed to turn the Middle East into a durable patchwork of Westphalian states.

Meanwhile, the caliphate has returned with a vengeance. In what seems an impossibly short time, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged the borders of three nation-states—Syria, Iraq, and now Lebanon—and established its own caliphate in this territory. It has no patience for “our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government” that The Economist proclaimed victorious 90 years ago.  It doesn’t even subscribe to the de facto multiculturalism that intermittently held sway during the previous Ottoman caliphate, under which Shi’ites, Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths lived in some approximation of tolerance for long stretches of time. Even al-Qaeda, which shares IS’s contempt for existing governments in the Middle East, hesitated to declare a caliphate because it hadn’t yet prepared the necessary groundwork. IS is nothing if not presumptuous.

IS doesn’t care what al-Qaeda thinks. Nor does it give a fig for the opinions of prominent Sunni scholars like the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which declared its caliphate “null and void.” And it certainly doesn’t pay attention to the blathering of infidels, a rather large category of humanity that includes Muslim apostates, all non-Muslims, and, naturally, that inheritor of “our Western principles,” the United States.

Now, if the United States doesn’t do something stupid—like bombing this newly declared caliphate and its army—IS will likely be consumed by the fires of its own extremism. All manner of groups fought alongside IS in order to defeat their common enemy—the woefully corrupt and dangerously sectarian leader of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. But IS signaled its inability to maintain a popular front of Maliki haters by recently rounding up former Baathists that had been fighting on their side and forcing them to swear allegiance to the new entity or risk execution.

With Maliki finally on the way out, further splits will take place within IS. Again, if the United States doesn’t do something stupid like…

Oh.

The United States did something stupid.

The Obama administration’s newly restated doctrine—don’t do stupid shit—has just gone up in smoke. I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton has just chosen just this moment to observe that not doing stupid shit doesn’t constitute a foreign policy strategy. After all, what’s her alternative? The Hippocratic oath—first, do not harm—is a more politely stated version of the Obama doctrine. So, Clinton’s anti-Hippocratic approach logically amounts to: first, do some stupid shit. Now, with bombs falling again on Iraq, Clinton and Obama can be on the same page.

Let me be clear. I have zero sympathy for IS. I’d love to read its obituary and that of its cardboard caliphate as well. I also value what remains of the confessional diversity in the Middle East and do not doubt the genocidal urge of IS to wipe out anyone and anything that challenges its totalitarian views. But a campaign of U.S. aerial strikes to save one such pocket of diversity, in this case the Yazidis, is just the kind of outside force that will keep ISIS strong and unified in the absence of an obvious focus of hatred, as Maliki was.

I understand the pressure the Obama administration is under to do something to help the beleaguered Yazidis, not to mention the anemic Kurdish army to the north and all the Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq that want to push IS back into the Syrian petri dish that spawned it. The Republican opposition, of course, would like the Pentagon to apply even more force since it believes that IS, as John McCain opined, “is a threat to America.” (Has anyone commented on the irony of McCain making this statement from Vietnam, which for more than a decade was deemed a threat to America only to evolve, after years of senseless U.S. bombing, into a semi-ally in the cordon sanitaire against China?)

IS, like al-Qaeda before it, would love to be considered an actual threat to the United States. Such posturing, backed up by the use of unilateral force, elevates IS’s status to legitimate combatant. It changes the tagline of Uncle Sam’s terrorist recruitment poster into: I Want You to Join IS! It draws the U.S. government even further into a tangle of political and sectarian disputes that it only dimly understands.

Did Obama have a choice in the matter? Politically, he could have resisted Republican calls for the use of force by reiterating that the solution to Iraq’s problems cannot be military. He could have relied on the polls suggesting deep-seated American aversion to putting boots back on the ground in Iraq (though Americans seem to support air strikes). He could have ignored the near-unanimous consensus among Beltway pundits—i.e., the Washington Post’s editorial pages—that he was not providing sufficiently strong leadership on foreign policy issues. He could have swatted away the concerns of oil companies and their “national security” enablersworried about restricted U.S. access to Iraqi oil, particularly in the Kurdish north.

Well, it’s tough to imagine Obama pushing against this tide. Even more difficult to imagine would be the president taking real leadership by spearheading a UN effort to provide humanitarian relief to the trapped Yazidis and all the others who have been dispossessed by IS.

The United States, like other wealthy powerful countries, has a responsibility to act on behalf of civilians in perilous conditions. I don’t agree with those who point to all the other victims around the world to undercut any argument to extend assistance to some subset of sufferers. Internationalists have to come up with something better than such dilute relativism.

How about this: every time the United States allocates $1 in emergency aid for a specific group of people, another $1 goes to the overall foreign assistance pot until we finally get up to the 0.7 percent of GDP level adopted as the Millennium Development Goal for the industrialized world (currently, the United States spends less than half that amount).

Be realistic, you might object. What’s the point of dropping food and blankets into what could very well be merely a holding tank for those about to be executed? What about the use of force?

But even the generals are cautious about the use of unilateral force. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated that IS will ultimately be defeated “because pressure is placed on it from multiple directions and with multiple partners.  So this isn’t about us deciding that ISIL is the latest in a series of threats and taking it on unilaterally.”

But surely the atrocities committed by IS offer one of the strongest cases for the use of multilateral force for humanitarian purposes. Virtually no one is willing to go to bat for IS, and Iraq is welcoming outside intervention. If the Obama administration really wants to prove its leadership chops, it would help create a truly international mechanism, like a UN standing army, that can apply force to protect civilians. To get the support of all those concerned about anything that would compromise sovereignty, this mechanism would have to be explicitly stripped of any “regime change” aspirations.

But even if the option were available to use multilateral force to save civilian lives, the problem ISIS poses is not, as the administration previously insisted, a military one. The underlying problem is political: the blatant Shi’ite favoritism of the government in Baghdad and the long simmering Sunni grievances. It’s not the U.S. role to pick and choose governments for the Iraqis. But putting pressure on the new government to maintain a confessional balance in the distribution of political offices and public goods is something Obama can usefully do.

At this point, with the bombs already falling on the caliphate, it’s best to remind the administration that IS is like one of those creatures in a horror movie that only grows stronger the more drone strikes or artillery shells that it absorbs. The IS blob thrives in an environment of violence and conflict. Unless we remove the sources of that conflict—political and sectarian grievances—IS will only grow larger. And we will face that inevitability of the horror movie genre: an unfortunate series of endless, bloody sequels.

 

 

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 13, 2014

 

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Running Off to War

I was at a wedding not long ago of two dear female friends. The ceremony mixed together various religious traditions, including a Quaker meeting where people in the audience could stand up and speak spontaneously. After a number of people had already spoken, an old man made his way to the front of the space. He beckoned the two brides to approach. He put his hands on their heads and blessed their union in Hebrew. Even for a diehard secular like me, it was a moving moment.

The next day, over a brunch of smoked fish, I discovered that the old man was an uncle of one of the brides and also a rabbi. We got to talking about Eastern Europe and Israel and World War II.

Suddenly he said to me, “Does the name Vladimir Jabotinsky mean anything to you?”

“He was the founder of the Irgun.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I was a member of his organization. I saw him the day before he died in 1940.”

The Irgun was a right-wing Jewish underground military organization that became infamous under Menachem Begin’s leadership for its attack on the King David Hotel in 1946, which killed 91 people. The British government, which controlled Palestine at the time, considered Irgun a terrorist organization.

“Jabotinsky was an enthralling speaker,” the old man told me. “I heard him speak for two hours straight at Madison Square Garden in front of a huge crowd. I was a member of Betar, the youth group affiliated with Irgun. We had a training camp in the Catskills. Jabotinsky came to visit us. And that’s where he had a heart attack and died.”

Betar was so right-wing that for a time it adopted black uniforms in honor of Mussolini and fascism. “There were some fascists in our group,” the old man told me. “This was before it became clear what Hitler was doing.” And for some at the time, Irgun wasn’t sufficiently militant. The Stern Gang, also known as Lehi, split from the Irgun in 1940. It tried to ally with the Nazis to fight the British and then later attempted a marriage between Bolshevism and religious fervor.

Irgun and Betar didn’t just run terrorist training camps in the Catskills. Before the Nazi invasion, the Polish government, too, was providing training and support for the Irgun in the hopes that a Jewish victory in Palestine would spur mass emigration.

It’s instructive to remember this time in history when American and Polish Jews were eager to grab their guns and join a struggle in the Middle East. Some were motivated by religion. Some wanted to fight against a colonial occupier. Some wanted to establish a secular Jewish state. It was a messy situation on the ground, with many different actors.

It was still messy after 1948. Even after the birth of Israel, some Jewish terrorist activities continued. As the Israeli scholars Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger write in their book Jewish Terrorism in Israel, “Most Jewish terrorist incidents that took place after the establishment of the State of Israel were the work of social networks consisting of former Lehi members who rejected the social democratic characteristics of the new state and adhered to a combination of religious and nationalistic views.”

In other words, terrorists and other extremists helped create the modern state of Israel and continued to operate even after that state came into existence. Many modern states have similarly messy origins, though they try hard to conceal the more unpleasant aspects.

I thought about the story the old rabbi told me of his days of radicalism when I was reading a recent article in The Washington Post about a young Macedonian boy who ran away from his family in Germany to fight in Syria. His family was shocked at the son’s turn toward greater religious orthodoxy and even more taken aback when he hopped on a flight to Turkey with several of his coevals.

“The group was part of an increasing number of European Muslims seeking to fight in the Syrian civil war alongside extremist groups, some of them linked to al-Qaeda,” the Postarticle reads. “And security officials worry that some of these volunteers will return radicalized and determined to strike in Europe.”

True, there are al-Qaeda-linked extremists fighting the Syrian government. But the opposition is diverse. In fact, according to the BBC, there are as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups mobilizing 100,000 fighters.  And “some” volunteers will return to strike in Europe? Well, anything is possible. After all, the Jewish Defense League did commit terrorist acts in the United States, and some of its members had been radicalized in Israel.

Still, we tend to view all the Jews who went to fight for the creation of Israel according to a heroic narrative. Some of these “terrorists” even became world leaders, like Menachem Begin. As for those who go to fight in Syria, we tend to view them according to a narrative of marginalization. These fighters will be pushed further and further to the political extremes until they, like some of the mujahideen before them, turn into the ideological offspring of Osama bin Laden.

The Macedonian family in Germany arranged for their son to be kidnapped in Turkey and sent home. He was, after all, only 16 years old. If it had been my kid, I’d probably have gone to Turkey and kidnapped him myself to bring him home. I have nothing but empathy for this family.

But I’m not so quick to assume that every Muslim traveling from Europe to Syria is suddenly an al-Qaeda recruit. First of all, despite some alarmist headlines, the numbers are rather low: a hundred from France, a couple hundred from Britain. And as French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in response to a call to detain returning fighters, “The difficulty is that they are going to fight a regime that we oppose ourselves. Some are fighting with official opposition groups. Others end up with jihadist groups that are listed as terrorist organizations.”

As in the 1940s in Palestine, some recruits have gone to Syria motivated by extremist ideologies and with the intention to commit acts of terrorism. But most have more prosaic reasons for fighting. When asked why some Australians are travelling halfway around the world to fight in Syria, Will Plowright, a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Science, replied: “Many people think that they’ve maybe been somehow brainwashed by jihadist propaganda, but that usually isn’t the case. They’re more often motivated by a desire…to help people who are suffering.”

I wish the non-violent movement in Syria had succeeded in displacing Assad. I wish that this struggle against a dictator had not devolved into a bloody civil war and a transnational conflict. I have my doubts about what will come out of the current struggle. But I also resist the narrative of the Syrian war as simply a magnet for extremists. Perhaps, like George Orwell in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, some of those who go to fight in Syria will be cured of their fondness for what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.” Who knows, one of the veterans of this conflict might even step forward at a same-sex wedding in the distant future to offer a prayer in Arabic for the happy couple. Stranger things have happened.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 20, 2013

 

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Syria: What’s Next?

It started as a peaceful revolt. It descended into a civil war that has so far claimed over 100,000 casualties and ejected nearly one-third of the population from their homes. Even worse, it has broadened into a regional conflict in which neighboring countries and their proxies try to tip the balance of power in a broad swath of territory from Iran to Israel.

The Obama administration has understandably watched this horror unfold in Syria without any real sense of how to ameliorate the situation. In August 2012, the president identified the use of chemical weapons as a red line that would, if the Syrian government crossed it, prompt a reevaluation of the “calculus” determining the use of military force. Well, calculus is a difficult subject, and the administration clearly was having difficulty with the numbers. For instance, it ignored more than a dozen reported cases of chemical weapons use reported to the UN.

Finally, after an August 21, 2013 attack in a Damascus suburb killed hundreds and possibly more than a 1,000 people, the president began to prepare for a U.S. military strike. This was no September surprise. Obama gave plenty of notification that an attack was in the offing. Then he decided to go to Congress for a mandate. It was certainly reassuring that an executive was seeking legislative approval, but this was the same Congress that had tied every one of the president’s legislative initiatives into tight knots. Reluctance thy name is Obama.

The president had good reason to be reluctant. Even if American bombers had managed to locate all the chemical weapons stockpiles, the strikes would have endangered civilian populations and bumped up the conflict to an even greater level of ferocity. Moreover, a large majority of Americans opposed military intervention and supported what would emerge as the diplomatic alternative: a Russian proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian government has fully cooperated so far with the UN agency tasked with supervising the process.

In many ways, this is a remarkable outcome. Public skepticism, congressional resistance, and presidential reluctance have all combined to stay the Pentagon’s hand, at least for the time being. This is an extraordinarily important precedent that could radically change America’s leap-before-you-look approach to overseas interventions. America the bold militarist under George W. Bush became America the stealth militarist during Obama’s first term (typified by his drone policy), and now may well morph into America the accidental diplomat in Obama’s second term.

Before we start sipping the bubbly, however, we have to face some unpleasant realities.

First, the Russian-brokered compromise is not going to be an easy deal to implement. The war is still going on in Syria. The timeline is ambitious (destruction of the stockpiles begins in November and ends by mid-2014). And the UN agency doing the work is much more accustomed to mundane inspections. It’s “kind of like asking a weekend runner to run a sub-three-minute mile,” said Amy Smithson of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. (No one, by the way, has ever run the mile faster than 3:43.)

Nor has the war lost any of its brutality. During the week when negotiations over the chemical weapons were taking place, battles raged throughout Syria, leaving over 1,000 more people dead. “Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times,” writes Liz Sly.

And this is not simply a civil war. The Syrian government relies just as heavily on its allies (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) as the rebels rely on theirs (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, United States). Foreign fighters are now playing key roles on both sides. Hezbollah has a particularly large stake in the conflict. If Assad falls and a largely Sunni opposition takes over, Hezbollah loses a principal sponsor. “Such a loss could also embolden hardline Lebanese Sunni groups to take on Hezbollah inside Lebanon itself,” write Hugh Eakin and Alisa Roth in The New York Review of Books. “On the other hand, the more Hezbollah fighters help the Syrian army, the more Sunni refugees will come to Lebanon, perhaps decisively tipping the country’s sectarian balance against the Shias.”

Stopping a military intervention is one thing. It’s quite another to resolve the three overlapping struggles in Syria: the fight against a tyrannical regime, the civil war among various domestic factions, and the regional struggle for dominance. Still, diplomacy might prove contagious and spread beyond the chemical weapons agreement. This is crucial. The “hands off Syria” position, unless applied strictly to military means, threatens to slide into the morally vacuous position of “let them kill each other,” which may well be the purest expression of Islamophobia yet.

The most promising diplomatic development involves Iran. “This year’s UN General Assembly may well be remembered as the beginning of the end for Washington’s decades-long standoff with Tehran,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in How Syria Brought U.S. and Iran Together. “And none of it would have been possible if the Obama administration had gone ahead with its plan to attack Syria.”

Indeed, the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new Iranian president represents the greatest opportunity for reconciliation since the catastrophic inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” speech scuttled a historic rapprochement in 2002. “We were just that close,” former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has said. “One word in one speech changed history.” It’s taken more than a decade and untold damage to the Middle East before we can return once again to that moment.

“The election of Rouhani has brought back to power those centrists and reformists within the Iranian system who are far more politically moderate and flexible than their predecessors,” writes FPIF contributor Sina Toossi in Iran’s Rouhani Makes His Debut on the World Stage. “This group, which includes former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami among its chief proponents, has so far provided every reason to believe it desires détente and engagement with the West.”

Obama has made some important steps toward Iran, such as directing Secretary of State John Kerry to handle the nuclear negotiations rather than a lower level diplomat. He recently talked by phone with Rouhani, which immediately raised alarms for hardliners in both Iran and the United States. Israel has warned that Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and right-wingers have always worried that Obama is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Diplomacy requires disappointing these perennial naysayers.

Rapprochement with Iran is a key step to resolving the crisis in Syria. Only when we dial back the regional standoff can we hope to negotiate an end to the civil war and then, ultimately, address the grievances that led to the initial civic protests. These are nested conflicts, and we must work from the outside in.

The road to Damascus, in other words, runs through Tehran. Obama, meanwhile, is Saul of Tarsus, astride his horse. And like Saul in the New Testament, the president may very well be on the verge of a conversion experience. Let’s hope that he sees the light. The man who was about to wage war, however reluctantly, must now fall from his high horse and become a man of peace.

 

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 2, 2013

 

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The Islamophobic Fringe

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is a convicted conman. He knows almost nothing about Islam and even less about filmmaking. And yet, thanks to the power of the Internet and the tense relationship between the West and Islam, Nakoula has generated a major international scandal with Innocence of Muslims, believed to be his lowbrow, low-budget movie.

The YouTube clip, which produced protests in Libya that led to the deaths of the American ambassador and three embassy staff, accomplished exactly what Nakoula wanted. He shouted “Fire” inside a crowded movie theater and watched the turmoil that resulted.

Nakoula doesn’t speak for anyone other than himself and a few fellow Islamophobes. At the opening of the film this summer in Hollywood, fewer than a dozen people attended. Given this turnout and the suspect credentials of the producer, why has anyone in the Muslim world taken this movie seriously? More precisely, why have protestors in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere equated his views with those of Washington or public opinion in the West?

One obvious reason is the Internet’s role as a magical megaphone. Just ask PSY, who brought the music video “Kangnam Style” to people who have no idea where Kangnam is located or how he is mocking the conspicuous consumption of South Korea. In his book Next, journalist Michael Lewis profiled Markus, a precocious teenager who created an Internet identity to answer questions on a legal website and managed to convince everyone that he was a practicing lawyer. The Internet both amplifies and obscures, a perfect combination for those interested in reinventing themselves.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula reinvented himself as Sam Bacile, moviemaker. But his intentions were different from those of PSY or Markus. He deliberately wanted to spark a confrontation with Islam.

These distortions of Islam are nothing new. You can find the same incendiary material in Robert Spencer’s book The Truth About Mohammed or in Pamela Geller’s notorious website Atlas Shrugs. Previous controversies prepared the ground: the cartoon series about Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005, Florida pastor Terry Jones’ threats to put the Qur’an on trial and then burn it, the rhetoric around the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City. It is no surprise that people in the Islamic world believe that Westerners can’t wait to say bad things about their religion.

But the deeper reason for the heated response from the Muslim world is not so much Western rhetoric but Western policy. The U.S. government continues to wage war against Muslims — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. Yes, Washington is also allied with Muslim governments. But these governments are frequently corrupt (Afghanistan), authoritarian (Saudi Arabia), fiercely resistant to reform (Bahrain), or all three.

Meanwhile, the victims of both Washington’s wars and the policies of its allies are almost exclusively Muslim, many of whom are women and children. The U.S. government asserts that drone warfare produces less “collateral damage” than a conventional war. But that is cold comfort for the victims.

Then there are the actions of U.S. troops abroad. They burn Qur’ans (however inadvertently). They urinate on corpses (no matter the disciplining of the soldiers involved). And they generally show little respect for local customs (during, for instance, night raids in Afghanistan).

More recently, a new book by journalist Kurt Eichenwald has revealed that President George W. Bush viewed the war on terror as an apocalyptic battle against the foes of Christians. The attacks against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were not, in other words, simply discrete battles against political forces. Bush reportedly believed that the West was fighting a modern crusade against an entire religion, Islam.

If you add these elements together — the belief system of a president, the actions of the U.S. military in predominantly Muslim countries, and the ravings of specific Islamophobes — it is no wonder that Muslims the world over might believe that the West is engaged in Crusade 2.0. The Innocence of Muslims is just the latest proof.

Of course, George W. Bush is no longer president. The U.S. military is engaged in a “Pacific pivot” to focus on China. And fanatics like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and Pamela Geller have zero influence on current policymakers in Washington.

But mistaking the part for the whole is not a disease specific to the Muslim world. To “prove” that all Muslims are inherently violent, Islamophobes point to the 9/11 hijackers, the Taliban extremists, and al-Shabaab fanatics in Somalia. This is Islam, they assert. But in fact these are the fringes of Islam, just as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is the fringe of America.

The more these two mirror-image fringes incite each other to violence, the more attention they get. They respond to each other so vehemently because they need each other. If they shout “Fire” enough times in a crowded movie theater, the heated confusion indeed produces a real conflagration.

We should never let the Crusaders and the jihadis claim the center of attention. The West and Islam — which are actually two inter-related civilizations rather than opposed entities — must join hands to form a circle to keep these extremists where they belong: on the fringes.

Hankyoreh, September 26, 2012

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Creating the Muslim Manchurian Candidate

Those who fervently believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim generally practice their furtive religion in obscure recesses of the Internet. Once in a while, they’ll surface in public to remind the news media that no amount of evidence can undermine their convictions.

In October 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a woman called Obama “an Arab.” McCain responded, incongruously enough, that Obama was, in fact, “a decent family man” and not an Arab at all. In an echo of this, a woman recently stood up at a town hall in Florida and began a question for Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum by asserting that the president “is an avowed Muslim.” The audience cheered, and Santorum didn’t bother to correct her.

Though they belong to a largely underground cult, the members of the Obama-is-Muslim congregation number as many as one third of all Republicans. Arecent poll found that only 14% percent of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi believe that the president is Christian.

These true believers treat their scraps of evidence like holy relics: the president’s middle name, his grandfather’s religion, a widely circulated photo of Obama in a turban. They occasionally traffic in outright fabrications: that he attended a radical madrasa in Indonesia as a child or that he put his hand on the Qur’an to be sworn in as president. An even more apocalyptic subset believes Obama to be nothing short of the anti-Christ.

By and large, however, this cult doesn’t attract mainstream support from the larger church of Obama haters. Indeed, these more orthodox faithful have carefully shifted the debate from Obama being Muslim to Obama acting Muslim. Evangelical pundits, presidential candidates, and the right-wing media have all ramped up their attacks on the president for, as Baptist preacher Franklin Graham put it recently on MSNBC, “giving Islam a pass.”

The conservative mainstream still calls the president’s religious beliefs into question, but they stop just short of accusing him of apostasy and concealment. What they consider safe is the assertion that Obama is acting as if he were Muslim. In this way, Republican mandarins are cleverly channeling a conspiracy theory into a policy position.

There is a whiff of desperation in all this.  After all, it’s not an easy time for the GOP. The economy shows modest signs of improvement. The Republican presidential candidates are still engaged in a fratricidal primary. By expanding counterterrorism operations and killing Osama bin Laden, the president has effectively removed national security from the list of Republican talking points.

One story, however, still ties together so many narrative threads for conservatives. Charges that the president is a socialist or a Nazi or an elitist supporter of college education certainly push some buttons. But the single surefire way of grabbing the attention of the media and the public — as well as appealing to the instincts of the Republican base — is to assert, however indirectly, that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate sent from the Islamic world.

 

Obama and the Muslim World

A succession of Republican candidates have attempted to run to the right of party favorite Mitt Romney by asserting that only a true conservative can defeat Obama in November. Most of them boasted of the same powerful backer. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all declared that God asked them to run for higher office. Together with Newt Gingrich, they have deployed various methods of appealing to their constituencies, but none is more potent than religion.

Rick Santorum, a Catholic and the favorite of the evangelical community, has been particularly adept at using his soapbox as a pulpit. The president subscribes to a “phony theology,” Santorum has claimed, “not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.” Although he occasionally asserts that “Obama’s personal faith is none of my concern,” he nonetheless speaks of the president’s attempt to “impose values on people of faith”– implying that the president is certainly no member of that community.

In his attacks on the president’s spirituality, Santorum is cleverly attacking Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as well (a theology also based on text other than the Bible). At the same time, the suggestion that Obama is somehow “other” operates as a code word for “Black” in a race in which race goes largely unmentioned.

It’s an odd set of charges. Obama, after all, did everything possible during his first presidential campaign to foreground his Christianity. He was repeatedly seen praying in churches and assiduously avoided mosques. He never made a campaign appearance with a prominent Muslim. He talked about his “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ.

The day after he clinched the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, he gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in which he reaffirmed that he was “a true friend of Israel.” Although he would occasionally mention his Muslim relatives and the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, he generally did whatever he could to emphasize only two out of the three major monotheisms.

As president, Obama has certainly “reached out” to the Muslim world. In Cairo, in June 2009, he spoke of seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

That new beginning, however, has yet to come. At home, for example, the Obama administration provided federal funds that the New York City Police Department then used to expand its surveillance of Muslim American neighborhoods. (Even the CIA was involved in this “human mapping” project.) The FBI has spent the Obama years rounding up suspected Muslim terrorists in operations that flirt dangerously with entrapment. The administration has expanded the no-fly list, though because the list is secret it’s difficult to know whether Muslim-Americans are specifically profiled. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that they are.

The administration’s record internationally is even more disappointing. The conduct of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — the night raids, massacres (including the recent murders of 16 Afghan villagers), and the Qur’an burnings — have enraged local Muslims. Obama has expanded the CIA’s drone air campaign by a considerable margin in the Pakistani borderlands. Civilian casualties, overwhelmingly Muslim, continue to occur there and in other “overseas contingency operations” as U.S. Special Operations Forces have dramatically expanded their activities in the Muslim world.

Despite right-wing charges, Obama has maintained a tight relationship with Israel and the Israeli leadership. As former New Republiceditor Peter Beinart concludes, “The story of Obama’s relationship to [Prime Minister] Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence.”

It’s no surprise, then, that surveys in six Middle East countries taken just before and two months after the Cairo speech in 2009, the Brookings Institution and Zogby International discoveredthat the number of respondents optimistic about the president’s approach to the region had suffered a dramatic drop: from 51% to 16%. A 2011 Pew poll found that U.S. favorability ratings had continued their slide in Jordan (to 13%), Pakistan (12%), and Turkey (10%).

And yet, perversely, the hard right in the U.S. maintains that the Obama administration has behaved in quite the opposite manner. “There’s something sick about an administration which is so pro-Islamic that it can’t even tell the truth about the people who are trying to kill us,” Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich typically said while campaigning in Georgia.

Pro-Islamic? That’s news to the Islamic world.

But it’s nothing new to the world of the U.S. right wing, which portrays Obama as anti-Israel and weak in the face of Islamic terrorism. At best, the president emerges from these attacks as a booster of Islam; at worst, he is the leader of a genuine fifth column.

Although the administration’s policy on Iran is virtually indistinguishable from those of his Republican challengers, they have presented him as an appeaser. The president who “surged” in Afghanistan somehow becomes, through the magic of election-year sloganeering, a pacifist patsy. Although Obama never endorsed the location of the “Ground Zero mosque,” his opponents have suggested that he did. Although he was slow to withdraw support from U.S. allies in the Middle East like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, Republican candidates have accused the president of practically campaigning on behalf of the Islamist parties that have grown in influence as a result of the Arab Spring.

Barack Obama, the right wing has discovered, does not have to be Muslim to convince American voters that he has a suspect, even foreign, agenda. They have instead established a much lower evidentiary standard: he only has to actMuslim.

For this, they don’t need a birth certificate. All they need are allegations, however spurious, that the president is in league with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Arab Spring jihadists, and anti-Israel forces at home. This more subtle but no less ugly Islamophobia has already insinuated itself into the 2012 elections in a potentially more damaging way than did the overt disparagement of Obama’s religious bona fides back in 2008.

 

The Upcoming Elections

The 2010 midterm elections witnessed a sharp uptick in anti-Islamic sentiment. In addition to the concocted “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, Florida preacher Terry Jones threatened to burn the Qur’an in front of the world’s cameras; a group called Stop Islamization of America bought anti-Islamic ads on buses in major cities; and a movement to pass anti-Sharia legislation at a state level began in Oklahoma. In response to this brushfire of hatred, Timemagazine devoted a cover story to Islamophobia that year. On the right at least, Islam seemed on the way to becoming a litmus test in the way communism was during the Cold War.

Two years later, the hysteria seems to have subsided. The Islamophobes haven’t gone into hiding. They tried to organize an advertising boycott of the TV show All-American Muslim; they campaigned against halal meats. But these efforts didn’t get much traction.

Meanwhile, Park51– the real name of the cultural center inaccurately dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” — opened in its original Park Street location with an exhibition by a Jewish photographer. Terry Jones is pursuing a quixotic bid for the presidency far from the media spotlight. Time has returned several times to the topic of Islamophobia, particularly after Anders Breivik’s bombing and shooting rampage in Norway in July 2011, but with none of the intensity of the summer of 2010. The anti-Sharia campaign has passed legislation in several states, and laws are pending in more than a dozen more. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Oklahoma anti-Sharia statute unconstitutional, and the anti-Sharia crowd has been unable to provide a single piece of evidence that Islamic law poses any challenge to the U.S. legal system.

Don’t be fooled, though, by the relative quiet. It’s still early in the election cycle. The Republicans, arrayed in a circular firing squad, have been largely focusing their attacks on each other. The last man standing will marshal his resources to challenge Obama. In the unlikely event that Rick Santorum emerges as the Republican candidate, religion will be central to his attack on Obama and the Democrats.

Mitt Romney has a more ambivalent relationship to religion as a wedge issue, given the level of discomfort that many American have toward Mormonism. But there are no Mormon countries to which Romney can be accused of owing primary allegiance. It will be safe, in other words, to challenge Obama for acting rather than being Muslim, for deferring to the Muslim world much as anti-Catholic voters in 1960 imagined John F. Kennedy to be taking his orders directly from the Pope.

Romney is already lining up his ducks, welcoming onto his team Islam critic Walid Phares and attack ad specialist Larry McCarthy (who did an distortion-laden spot on the “Ground Zero mosque” back in 2010). After securing the nomination, Romney will simultaneously appeal to the center and shore up support among evangelicals. The message that Obama is weak, anti-Israel, and appeases Islamic movements and countries could catch the attention of both constituencies.

A disconnect between accusation and reality hardly matters in American politics these days. Obama the “socialist” somehow manages to work hand in hand with Wall Street financiers. Obama the “Nazi” courts AIPAC. Obama the “peacenik” has been very much a war president. And Obama the “Muslim” gets a big thumbs-down from the Muslim world.

The president makes a lousy Muslim Manchurian candidate, for he has disappointed his imagined Muslim handlers at virtually every turn. In an election in which racist slogans are off the table, however, the Islamophobic accusation of “acting Muslim” remains a politically acceptable chauvinism. Given the deep anti-Islamic currents in American culture, such accusations might unfortunately prove effective as well.

 

TomDispatch, March 28, 2012

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Three Killings

The note left next to the bloodied body of Shaima Alawadi read “go back to your country, you terrorist.” Alawadi, who died on Saturday after being taken off life support, was an Iraqi-born mother of five living outside of San Diego. Someone had delivered a similar note to the family earlier in the month. It was likely the same person who returned with a tire iron and struck her repeatedly on the head. Alawadi had lived in the United States for 17 years. Several family members reportedly provided cultural training to U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East. In a very sad coda, Alawadi is indeed going back to her country – to be buried.

There were no notes that accompanied Trayvon Martin’s death at the end of February. But he was also killed for a perceived trespassing. An African-American teenager, Martin was guilty of “walking while black” as he carried iced tea and Skittles through the Florida community of Sanford. The self-appointed head of the community’s neighborhood watch, George Zimmerman, identified Martin as a threat. Zimmerman didn’t wait for the police to arrive. He chased after the young man and, in circumstances still very murky, shot him dead. Because of the “stand your ground” law that permits shooting in self-defense, the police did not arrest Zimmerman.

In the middle of March, Mohamed Merah went on a killing spree in Toulouse, France that left seven people dead. The victims were a rabbi, three Jewish children, and three French soldiers. Two of the soldiers were Muslim. Merah, who identified with Islamic extremism, specifically targeted Muslim soldiers for being “traitors.” The French-born Merah better fit the profile of a serial killer than a political extremist. But his Muslim victims are an important reminder that ordinary, everyday Muslims, even more so than Jews or Americans, figure as the most potent threats to the worldview promoted by al-Qaeda and its ilk. The overwhelming majority of al-Qaeda and Taliban victims are Muslims.

These murders are, on the face of it, quite different: a hate crime, a serial killing, and an act of vigilantism. But underlying these three tragedies is a notion of violated borders, of trespass. The message behind all three is this: you should not be here, you are not one of us, and your death shall serve as a warning.

Trespass is originally an economic term intimately connected to evolving concepts of public and private space. In the late medieval period in England, wealthy landholders began to fence off common lands to increase the pasturage for their flocks of sheep. This enclosure movement, privatization avant la lettre, created a new class of dispossessed, of those who did not belong. The word “trespass” – to enter private property without permission – comes from this period of late Middle Ages. Fences marked off the newly enclosed property. You could not enter without the permission of the owner or his agents. And scaffolds appeared throughout England to punish those thrown off the land who were forced to steal because they had no other means of subsistence.

In his captivating book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt describes how the violence and oppression of this system drove theologian Thomas More to create his famous “utopia” of commonly held property.

Utopia begins with a searing indictment of England as a land where noblemen, living idly off the labor of others, bleed their tenants white by constantly raising their rents,” Greenblatt writes, “where land enclosures for sheep-raising throw untold thousands of poor people into an existence of starvation or crime, and where the cities are ringed by gibbets on which thieves are hanged by the score without the slightest indication that the draconian punishment deters anyone from committing the same crimes.” Greenblatt cites the statistic of 72,000 thieves hanged during the reign of Henry the VIII, when More was composing his tract.

We too are living at a time of gibbets and enclosures, of death penalties and gated communities, of state violence and privatization. The United States has become a country of wealthy enclaves, neighborhood watches, and charter schools. Widening inequality has directly contributed to the deterioration of any sense of the public good. The drive for minimal government has reduced the capacity of public servants to ensure basic services and security. The erosion of the middle class has not only reduced the tax base, it has weakened political support for programs that aspire to universality. “Ill fares the land,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in his 1770 poem “The Deserted Village,” “to hast’ning ill a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Colorado Springs, a sort of anti-Utopia, is a case in point. There, the city council responded to state and federal budget cuts by radically reducing public services. In its place, the city set up an extortion racket. If you want the electricity restored to all the streetlamps in your neighborhood or the Parks Department to take care of your local park, you have to pony up the dollars yourself. Most disturbingly, as a recent This American Life episode on Colorado Springs detailed, residents are willing to pay more money to maintain services in their own little patch of earth than they would have paid in additional taxes to keep the services running for everybody in the city.

Trayvon Martin was killed in a modest gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando hard hit by the recession. The name of the community, tellingly, is The Retreat. As in Colorado Springs, the residents of Sanford must band together to compensate for what a diminished public sector fails to provide. The Retreaters, who live in townhouses priced around $100,000, have recently been concerned about a rash of burglaries. According to one resident, there had been eight cases in 15 months, and the culprits were mostly African-American males (or so he said). There are no signs at The Retreat that read: No Poor People or No African-Americans or No People Wearing Hoodies. The rules regarding trespass are unstated, shaped by fear and subject to the worst kind of stereotyping. Trayvon Martin was a victim of profiling but also of the insecurity that accompanies the decline of the middle class, an insecurity that especially plagues those of modest means, for they cannot afford all the perquisites of the wealthy. Vigilantism is the byproduct of a failed state. And the austerity measures promoted during our current mean season result in such a failed state.

Shaima Alawadi and her family recently moved from Detroit to the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, home to the second-largest Iraqi community in the country. Alawadi, like so many Iraqis living in El Cajon, took refuge in America from the human rights violations and the subsequent sectarian violence of Iraq. But they also found themselves in a city close to the Mexican border and therefore on the frontlines of the immigration debate in the United States. The economic crisis has produced a spike in anti-immigrant sentiment: “they” are taking “our” jobs; “they” are a burden on “our” city services; “they” are not assimilating into “our” culture. Hate crimes against immigrants have been on the rise. Alawadi was not only an immigrant. She wore a headscarf and so was identifiably Muslim. As such, she was a target for all those who conflate Islam with terrorism. Religious freedom and respect for ethnic diversity are still core American values. But a certain tribalism has crept into American discourse. A tribe of xenophobic Christians is fearful that demographic shifts and economic malaise will undermine their precarious cultural status. A small but growing minority within this tribe will resort to violence to maintain this status.

The politics of immigration, multiculturalism, and Islamophobia take on a very different character in France. In this election year, President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to steal the fire from an unabashedly xenophobic right wing. He has stated that there are “too many foreigners” in the country. He has strenuously backed the French ban on the hijab. He has gone after halal meat (which has also raised concerns in France’s Jewish community that Kosher food will likewise be stigmatized). What had once been on the margins of French debate is now in the very mainstream. Muslims are somehow under suspicion for challenging a mythical unitary French identity through what they eat, what they wear, and how they pray. Mohamed Merah, meanwhile, believed that some Muslims had become too French and should be punished for their transgression. French Muslims find themselves in an increasingly difficult position. They trespass on French culture if they attempt to retain their identity. Or they trespass in the imaginations of religious extremists if they identify too closely as French — by, for instance, joining the army. If France and the European Union were enjoying an economic uptick, these culture wars would retreat into the background. As it is, Muslims have become a convenient scapegoat.

The European Union was supposed to be a borderless space. But the old dream of an ever more prosperous and economically equitable regional arrangement has come up hard against economic downturn and polarization. The United States was supposed to be a country without the class barriers of feudal Europe. But the old dream of a growing middle class and the relatively stable politics that accompany it cannot survive in the austerity liberalism and anti-government conservatism of the 21st century. When our notion of the common good, of commonwealth, begins to disintegrate, all that is left are tribes defending their turf, standing their ground, enclosing their land.

We are living now in a new world of enclosures. We are building our fences ever higher. We are patrolling our borders with ever more sophisticated weaponry. And we are punishing any and all who trespass. The victims of these recent killings are the collateral damage of these border wars.

 

Ceasefire vs. Civil War

The Syrian government has recently agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire. The government and rebel forces will sit down to negotiate. Bashar al-Assad is not required to step down as part of the agreement, though the United States has indicated that it wants new leadership to emerge from this transitional period.

Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Walden Bello was recently in Syria. “Talks with diplomats, aid workers, and journalists in the few days I am in Syria produce varying assessments of the staying power of the Assad regime,” he writes in Syria: Descending into Civil War. “Some say it can hold out indefinitely, some count its tenure in terms of months, and others say the collapse may come earlier than expected owing to an economy crippled by international sanctions. But there is consensus on one thing:  for the Syrian people, things will get worse before they get better.”

Multi-party negotiations with Iran, meanwhile, are expected to take place next month. FPIF contributor Richard Heydarian proposes a grand bargain between the United States and Iran that would resemble the deal that Beijing and Washington worked out in the 1970s. That deal “encouraged China to engage in almost two decades of diplomatic charm offensives and economic liberalization, which greatly contributed to regional security and international trade,” he writes in Coming Up: A Tehran Communique? “By piercing through the veneer of ideology, the Nixon administration was able to appreciate the rational side of a seemingly vitriolic communist China. The Obama administration needs to employ the same kind of realpolitik toward Iran.”

As part of the complicated geopolitical maneuverings in the Middle East, the United States has agreed to send a massive arms package to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief ideological opponent in the region. FPIF contributor Scott Charney wonders whether this arms deal will undermine Israel’s military advantage in the region. “The Saudi royal family is hostile to the regime in Tehran, placing them out of step with much of their population, particularly the Shi’a minority,” he writes in Does the Saudi Arms Deal Jeopardize Israel? “This does, however, give the Saudi government common cause with the Israeli government, as well as that of the United States. There have even been rumors in recent years of military cooperation between the two Middle Eastern countries. This arms sale is essentially a bet on continuity within the Saudi ruling class, and that is now a risky gamble. It may no longer be possible to ‘have it both ways’ by strengthening Middle Eastern countries while diplomatically ensuring that they not menace Israel.”

 

Asia Up In Arms?

Tibetans have been protesting Beijing’s policies for many decades. A relatively new tactic, however, has been self-immolations. Thirty have taken place since the end of February. “Washington has taken the right position in support of religious freedom and culture in Tibet,” writes FPIF contributor Saransh Sehgal in Self-Immolations in Tibet. “But it hasn’t done enough to pressure Beijing to change its policy. The current wave of self-immolations, however, may make the issue of Tibet impossible for either country to ignore.”

Asia is poised to overtake Europe in military spending for the first time in modern history. Asia is also becoming a major engine of the arms trade. “The Cold War ended in Europe in the early 1990s,” I write in an Inter Press Service piece Asia Is Up in Arms. “But Asia continues to buy and sell weapons as if the Cold War never went out of style.”

Speaking of military spending, our Global Day of Action on Military Spending is coming up on April 17th, just a few weeks away. Check out this video chronicling some of our actions from last year, which saw around 100 events in over 30 countries, and send it your friends to help us double our showing this year.

The Split This Rock poetry festival took place over the last weekend and was a tremendous success. For those who couldn’t be there in person, we feature an interview with one of the featured poets, Homero Aridjis. In a discussion with FPIF poetry editor Melissa Tuckey, Aridjis describes his environmental activism and the beautiful writing that has accompanied it. “Of course I despair,” he concludes, “because I see species disappearing, governments and big business dragging their feet on stemming climate change, and the oceans being emptied. However, although I am a pessimist I behave like an optimist, because I believe that each individual must defend the spheres of life.”

We have also published one of his poems, “About angels IX,” which features this haunting image: “Man, with his thousand/naked and hungry children, comes howling his needs/and shoving fistfuls of butterflies into his mouth.”

Ill fares the land indeed.

 

World Beat, March 27, 2012

 

Categories
Articles Featured Islamophobia

America’s Image Problem

The United States definitely sends mixed messages to the Muslim world. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama went to Cairo to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” The president proclaimed that America and Islam “share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

That all sounds good. Unfortunately, the image has proven stronger than the word. When Muslims around the world turn on the television, open the newspaper, or check out their favorite websites, they are more likely to see injustice, intolerance, and indignity coming from America the (Not Always So) Beautiful. It’s not just the iconic Abu Ghraib pictures from the Bush era. Muslims – and, of course, everyone else – can get outraged over the picture of Syed Wali Shah, a seven-year-old victim of a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Or the video of laughing Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

And now with the picture of a partially burned Qur’an – part of a rescued remnant of copies that troops at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan threw into a garbage pit for incineration – the world’s Muslims can be excused for believing that the Cairo speech was only words. You’d think the U.S. army would be a little more careful. Last April, when members of the Dove World Outreach Center burned a Qur’an after putting it on trial, riots broke out in Afghanistan and left scores of people dead, including seven UN staff.

This time around, the Pentagon insists that the act was inadvertent. That may well be so, but you can’t see “inadvertent” in a picture. In a country where the literacy rate is 28 percent, the third-lowest in the world, a picture can indeed be worth a gazillion words. The United States obviously has a serious image problem.

Here’s the paradox. The U.S. army, which is actively working with Afghans, sponsors what seems like an endless series of cultural awareness workshops to facilitate cooperation. The Marines have mandatory cultural training; you can do pre-deployment training online with the Army; there’s cultural role-playing in a replica of an Afghan village at Fort Polk in Louisiana. Since it works in Muslim-majority countries around the world – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait – the Pentagon takes great pains to avoid charges of Islamophobia.

Yet the Pentagon still manages to fall into the same category as that other famous Qur’an burner, Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who could endure several lifetimes of cultural sensitivity training and remain a knucklehead. Believe it or not, Jones is running for president on a platform of reducing military spending and bringing all U.S. troops home from overseas. No, Jones has not suddenly become a peace activist. He still issues threats to burn more Qur’ans, most recently as a response to the possible execution of an Iranian pastor. But he is the more honest Islamophobe. He genuinely wants to stay away from all Muslims, just as an arachnophobe wants to stay away from all spiders, however irrational the fear might be.

So, how is it that the Pentagon and the Islamophobe, with their opposite views on Islam and intervention, end up generating a similar response in the Muslim world? The answer lies in the image that the Pentagon has of the Muslim world. This is America’s other image problem.

U.S. military operations involve an implicit distinction between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” The “bad Muslims” are, of course, the Taliban, who demonstrated during their brief and bloody reign that they interpret the Qur’an much as Terry Jones interprets the New Testament and Bibi Netanyahu interprets the Old Testament. It’s not a question of fundamentalism. There’s really no such thing as Islamic fundamentalism, for nearly all Muslims take the Qur’an to be the literal word of God (and “fundamentalism” is really a Protestant invention anyway). Rather, it’s a question of interpretation, and the Taliban have ignored all the teachings of the Qur’an that contradict their own medieval beliefs about women, religious tolerance, and warfare.

The “good Muslims,” meanwhile, are Hamid Karzai and all the Afghans who are willing to fight alongside coalition forces. Coalition forces, however, deep down don’t trust their Afghan partners. More than once, Karzai has threatened to quit and join the Taliban himself. And Afghan government soldiers have not just threatened to quit; they’ve done so and brought their sophisticated American-made weapons with them to the Taliban. Last June, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis visited a coalition base in the Zharay district of Kandahar province and watched as Afghan policemen ignored orders to stop suspected Taliban. “To a man, the U.S. officers in that unit told me they had nothing but contempt for the Afghan troops in their area,” reports Davis in an Armed Forces Journal article, “and that was before the above incident occurred.” It was also before an Afghan intelligence officer, in the wake of the inadvertent Qur’an burning, killed two American servicemen working in the Afghan Interior Ministry, prompting Washington to pull out all its advisors from the Afghan ministries. Since the start of last year, Afghans wearing police or army uniforms have killed at least 36 U.S. and NATO troops.

It’s not that Afghans are inherently untrustworthy. Rather, the United States has put them in an untenable position. They must choose between supporting unpalatable insiders and unpalatable outsiders.

But it’s actually worse than this. “A particularly frustrating feature of the U.S. narrative, for Muslims, is that it divides Muslim society into a progressive liberal and secular sector on one hand and on the other a regressive Islamist sector that seeks to impose backward Islamic traditions. America then seeks to promote the liberal forces and to undermine the Islamist forces,” explains pollster Steven Kull. “It is particularly infuriating to Muslims when America intervenes in a way that is destabilizing, trying to root for one imagined side against another, in what Americans conceive of as an inevitable evolution toward the victory of one side.”

We think we’re helping them. They think we’re out to destroy their way of life.

Even with all the sensitivity trainings in the world, which amount to little more than lipsticking the pig, the U.S. army remains an occupation force in Afghanistan. This occupation force has stirred the nationalist impulses of Afghans, prompted the use of desperate measures such as suicide bombings, and created the semblance of a crusade by the West against Islam. The wars conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq have had little to do with Islam per se. They have been about geopolitics, natural resources, and the reassertion of U.S. military power. But many in the Islamic world view these conflicts as an assault on their religion. The Qur’an burning is not the only indignity. Afghans, points out FPIF contributor Julia Heath, “don’t approve of how U.S. troops bring dogs into their homes or touch their women because these are culturally offensive actions. Shopkeeper Wali Aziz says, ‘They [U.S. troops] are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country.’” Whenever such desecrations take place, they reinforce the notion that religion is at the heart of the conflict rather than at the periphery.

It doesn’t help that so many U.S. politicians talk about Islam as though it were the greatest enemy of humanity. President Obama was quick to apologize for the latest Qur’an burning outrage. But Republicans were equally quick to seize on the apology as proof of Obama’s “weakness,” as Rick Santorum put it. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich piled on with their own criticisms of the president’s diplomatic gesture. Indeed, rarely does a day go by in the Republican primaries that one of the candidates doesn’t defame Islam. Santorum and Gingrich have both laid it on thick with their wild accusations about the threat of sharia law and their misrepresentations of the Park51 Islamic cultural center.

“So far, Mitt Romney has largely remained above the fray,” I write in an Other Words op-ed Running Against Islam. “He often resorts to carefully couched phrases like ‘Islam is not an inherently violent faith.’ But the man who has changed his position on so many issues may well be laying the groundwork for another flip-flop. Walid Phares, a right-wing pundit and prominent Islamophobe, is one of Romney’s advisors. And the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future is masterminded by Larry McCarthy, the attack ad specialist. McCarthy not only designed the Willie Horton spot that swung the 1988 presidential race in George H.W. Bush’s favor; he also put together an error-laced ad about Park51 that nearly deep-sixed Iowa Democrat Rep. Bruce Baley in his 2010 reelection bid.”

Sure, we could try to send all the Republican candidates and some Democrats as well down to Fort Polk to train alongside U.S. soldiers and learn how to behave respectfully toward Muslims. But even if they become as diplomatic as Mr. Sensitivity himself, Barack Obama, the United States continues to wage war in predominantly Muslim countries, and fire-starters like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer continue to badmouth not Islam or “bad Muslims” or “Islamic radicalism,” but mainstream Islam itself. Park51, which expanded the Geller-Spencer soapbox to monstrous proportions, was hardly the threat they made it out to be. If they’d only bothered to read the writings of the cultural center’s founder, they might have discovered a philosophical co-religionist.

As I write in my new book Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam, “Ironically, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was just the kind of ‘good Muslim’ that conservatives loved to cozy up to in order to prove that they were not Islamophobic. In his writings, the imam quotes approvingly from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and conservative literary critic Allan Bloom, lauds corporate power unfettered by state control, believes that ‘anti-religionism crept in as a new state religion’ in the twentieth century, and condemns Hamas as a terrorist organization.” But for all his conservative tendencies, the imam remains an imam. In the eyes of Geller and Spencer, the only good Muslim is a secular Muslim.

Somehow we must combine a principled engagement with the Muslim world with a principled withdrawal from areas of combat. If the troops don’t come home and the drones don’t stop killing civilians, fine speeches and sensitivity trainings will just seem like hypocrisy, our words and our images will remain far apart, and the chasm between the West and Islam will endure, nowhere more so than in the imaginations of those twin extremists, the Taliban and the Islamophobes.

 

Political Drift

With Egypt stuck in neutral and Syria engulfed in violence, Tunisia has emerged as one of the great success stories of the recent upheavals in the Middle East. But, as FPIF contributor Rob Prince points out, this success is not without its blemishes. “It is unfortunate but not particularly surprising that the people who made the revolution — the young and the poor — are not the ones elected to power in its wake,” he writes in Tunisia at the Crossroads. “Sometime during the election campaign, the energies of the population shifted from solving the economic crisis to cultural questions that favored more traditional and conservative elements.”

With Iran, meanwhile, the drift has been in a more dangerous direction as the Republican presidential candidates have all been pushing for a much harder response from Washington. “For all its talk about how ‘all options are on the table,’ the Obama administration appears to be trying to avoid a war,” FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes in The Slide Toward War. “But with the 2012 elections looming, could Washington remain on the sidelines? Polls indicate that Americans would not look with favor on a new Middle East war, but a united front of Republicans, neoconservatives, and the American Israeli Political Action Committee is pressing for a confrontation with Iran.”

Finally, the United States and North Korea may be ever so slowly drifting toward some form of reconciliation after three long years of standoffishness. The recent bilateral talks didn’t produce anything concrete, but talking is better than stony silence. The United States could build on this momentum by “offering to postpone, suspend, or curtail the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises scheduled to take place in and around the peninsula in the coming month,” writes FPIF contributor Greg Chaffin in Resuming Contact with North Korea. “Along with its use as a confidence-building measure, such action would reduce the external pressure on the transitioning regime and forestall it from lashing out in response to what it might consider to be “provocative action.” Furthermore, as a decision on the exercises would require South Korean agreement, such a move could also work to improve inter-Korean relations. The political cost to President Lee Myung-bak would be low as he enters his final year in office. Indeed, such an action might enhance his legacy if it were to bring about an improvement in relations between the North and South.”

Poem, Blog, Book

 

“Is there a poem in Gaza that hasn’t been written?” asks FPIF contributor Kathy Engel in her poem Where. Her answer, in verse, takes us from a school in Jersey to the Dheisheh Camp in Gaza.

This week, our FPIF blog Focal Points covers the Summit of the Americas, the possibility of steep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the recent Saudi fatwa against tweeting.

Finally, if you live in the New York area, please swing by Bluestockings bookstore (172 Allen Street) on Monday, March 5 at 7 p.m.