September 29, 2015
The Value of Reading Propaganda
Graham E. Fuller
29 September 2015
All countries do it—promoting their own societies in ideal terms in order to influence others. The US devotes a huge amount of time and money to selling its self-image and a view of the world as seen through American eyes—and perhaps denigrating others as well.
Such “crafted” image-making is hardly exclusive to the US government. The New York Times for example, supposedly our gold-standard on objective reporting, is heavily slanted when it comes to reporting nearly anything on China or Russia—among other issues. If you recognize the nature of what you’re reading, that’s fine. But if you think you’re getting the full skinny on the world, then it can be dangerous and self-deceiving. As we say in the free market, let the buyer beware.
China and Russia, among others, certainly produce their own state propaganda, often far less skillfully than the US, and it more often comes in state-controlled media. The real danger of course comes when you start believing your own spin as representing reality around you.
But there can actually be some virtue in reading “propaganda.” (Let’s use a better word for it—promotion of one’s own view of the world—in the effort to bring others over to your view.) The value of reading such material can actually be great—particularly for those interested in international affairs. Certainly when I was at CIA we read a lot of what could be called “foreign propaganda.” Indeed there was an entire branch of CIA which monitored and published on a daily basis a thick booklet of selected broadcast items from around the world—available by subscription. The Foreign Broadcast Information Service provided an invaluable service. It is now sadly defunct, the victim of short-sighted budget cutting—an operation which probably cost less annually than one fighter aircraft and offered much more.
One virtue of these broadcast items were the nuggets of domestic information from those countries which were otherwise not readily known about—a kind of news coverage. But the greater value was the ability to see how a foreign state viewed itself and the world around it. Propaganda? Sure, in one sense. But the thoughtful reader could fairly soon get a sense of how Russia, China, North Korea, or say Iran, saw themselves. Sometimes you might find a strikingly different interpretation of events that revealed a lot about their psychology and even their likely reactions and behavior down the road.
For the thoughtful statesman and analyst, this was good stuff. It helped explain where other leaders were coming from, what they more or less believed. Their worldview also offered perspectives about how they saw the US. Whether we liked it or not, it contained a few revelations about our mutual, and differing, perspectives.
Sadly today, one gets a sense that large elements of the US government, and especially Congress, are quite ignorant of any possible alternative explanations of why other countries see things the way they do, and how they see us. If you’re a small country, such insularity might not matter all that much; when you claim to be world leader such insularity matters a whole lot.
There’s no mystery in this. Successful people often are very perceptive about how others see things and why they speak and act the way they do.
In today’s world, then, there is huge value in looking at what, say, China or Russia say about themselves and how they view us. It helps remove surprises from negotiations and might even cause us to consider for a second whether there is any logic or even possible truth in how they view us. Or even to reconsider what we are doing.
That’s why it’s useful to have summits, even private conversations between leaders in the hallways of the UN—they get to hear directly how the other leader thinks. If we don’t like what they have to say, maybe it’s doubly necessary to hear it. So when major speeches or articles appear from other leaders or commentators from countries we don’t like, my old habits kick in. I find I can learn a lot about the texture of international events from reading these pieces. Naturally some writings are more thoughtful than others, but they give me a chance to put myself in their shoes, see the world their way, and maybe anticipate certain kinds of actions and responses. Some of those perceptions and views we might regard as erroneous, but then perhaps some of our own views might be erroneous. There is no single truth in foreign policy out there—only differing perspectives. There may be some validity to more than one of them.
Case in point today: the following piece from the China Daily, an English language publication that unquestionably reflects Chinese government thinking. It presents a view of how China views itself—and more importantly—how it views us. Do I accept the Chinese view as the “accurate” view, the full story of what we, or they, are doing? Of course not; you and I can readily pick a few holes in what the China Daily has to say. Self-serving? Sure, like White House or Pentagon press briefings that need to be taken with a huge grain of suspicion and skepticism as well. You’ve got to read everything with vigilance and discrimination, including the New York Times. And of course we in the US have some TV channels dedicated almost entirely to formulation of an American right-wing propaganda view of the world, however remote from reality. But do China or Russia find it important to listen to that discourse? You better believe it.
So I suggest reading the piece as one of many that show how our competitors view themselves—and us. We can all learn a thing or two through the privilege of entering into their mental world and perspective on affairs.
From time to time I may select a few other pieces that help hold a mirror up to ourselves. Any good intelligence analyst reads many of these things with profit. So can you.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
September 24, 2015
Who wants to be a global policeman?
Graham E. Fuller
24 September 2015
Washington has jealously guarded the role of global policeman for over half a century. But is the game still worth the candle?
World War II left no power standing other than the US. Washington was in a unique position to lead “the free world” against the USSR in the Cold War. But after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the US found its true moment in the sun, perceiving its new emergence as the “sole global superpower.” Prestige, respect, economic and cultural “soft power” had all been originally vital complements to American military superpowermanship. But 9/11 eclipsed all that. In today’s world the US has increasingly diverted its true national and international voice into the field of national security, where military means become the prime instrument of statesmanship and diplomacy. The State Department is now largely overwhelmed by the Pentagon in the formulation of foreign policy.
This militarization of American strategic vision emerges directly from possession of the overwhelmingly largest military machine in the world, supported by over 700 military bases scattered across the globe and the biggest military budget of all other competitors combined. As Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State once complained to Colin Powell some years ago, “What’s the point of having such a great military if we don’t use it?”
This souped-up security role is likewise the chosen instrument for explicit assertion of American global dominance, or “global leadership”—nominally giving us the dominant voice in the determining the “architecture of the global order.” Those whose actions defy that architecture have been labeled “rogue.” And this global security burden accordingly led us into extravagant expenditure of our own treasure and the spilling of blood of upwards of a million people directly or indirectly in recent military arenas—nearly all Muslim.
But where do these costs come up in what passes for national debate on foreign policy? Are we perhaps still jealously guarding a role in which there are no other willing competitors? In a situation where other nations prefer to seek their global prestige in other terms? And, as we focus on preserving our national security power, are others perhaps starting to eat our lunch in other arenas?
China is unquestionably building its military power, a rapid rise for a nation that for long decades possessed little other than massive manpower and lots of nukes. Russia too has a strong military. But the US still leads almost all of the rest of the world combined in the size of its annual military budget.
So what is China doing? Indeed building its military from scratch, and expanding its range of interests, but rather than focusing single-mindedly on the military, it is busier in making massive investments, for example in African agriculture and Central Asian infrastructure projects among its many projects that span most of the world. These activities leave far more positive and enduring monuments and influence—not to mention good will—than do military bases, military training or even war-fighting and counter-insurgency.
In a state-to-state war we will of course prevail. But if it’s not a war, we fare less well. So the list of contenders for the role of global policeman is not crowded. Indeed, China is probably quite happy to have the US serve as global policeman at this point, bearing the primary burden of international counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Thus in the eyes of our global competitors, our policies serve their interests in several ways. When we go to war, conduct numerous regime changes, launch drones, engage in assassinations and anti-terrorist operations we are wasting our treasure, eliminating many of the same bad guys that most people in the world might like to see eliminated, while all the while building up reservoirs of anger and feelings of revenge among the many victims of “collateral damage.” For China and Russia these are strategic gifts, sparing them the job of doing the heavy lifting in counter-terrorism, while weakening our economy, and leaving their reputations unbesmirched, their reservoirs of good will untouched. Indeed the large reservoirs of good will the US once possessed began to dry up once Washington launched the Global War on Terror and asserted the unilateral right to go anywhere, do anything, and kill anyone in the interests of American national security.
Some realists may not mourn loss of good will, but mounting opportunity costs to US society and economy bite deeper. And our writ abroad counts for far less now.
“Somebody has to do the dirty work”—after all terrorism must be combatted. But its international acceptance hinges heavily on the success of the program. And by now many top US military figures including Stanley McChrystal and other strategists have suggested that our counter-insurgency tactics have largely served to create new reservoirs of terrorist recruits eager to fight the US. Indeed, it’s a frustrating war in which the enemy—on its own soil—resembles a Hydra that grows two heads with each one severed. Projecting military operations into the Muslim world has produced little success and sowed mass chaos in most of the losing wars over the past decade: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and other locales. The Kuwait war is the sole exception. Indeed, many observers of the Middle East doubt there is any true military solution to countering terrorism when the chief by-products seem to be more hatred and instability that fosters still greater radicalism.
So do we truly still want this role as global policeman and anti-terrorism chief? Does it make sense when global solutions now require many players—many not even allies—to accomplish the goal?
I am heartened that the Obama administration more recently seems to be willing to share with China the role of creating a security structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China after all borders on both these states. And Obama/Kerry now seem willing to consider working with Russia in Syria instead of seeking to deprive Russia—dog-in-the-manger posture—of any meaningful role there, even as we thrash around in a no-win situation.
Future global strategy demands a new working plan for global security in which other great powers—whom we may not like—play major roles. Washington can neither afford, nor fulfill, the role of primary global security provider—which, if anything, now seems to detract from America’s reputation and well-being.
Instead, sadly, we witness of the absurd posturing of presidential candidates each seeking to out-macho the other on how they would lay down the law to the world—utterly out of touch with shifting global reality.
It would be sad if American talents have now become primarily relegated to the security and military field. Such goals are eating up our country, raising our opportunity costs, stifling it in crushing and muscle-bound national security institutions whose growing weight, cost and power dominate the foreign policy field. American genius for creativity, know-how technology—even the former reputation of its citizens for being liked and welcomed—is being sidelined in the endless quest to maintain global dominance for “our security.” We are not gaining either.
Is it naïve to suggest maybe we should be cooperating internationally in helping build a new global economic infrastructure? Roads, hospitals, schools, clinics, industries—as the best security investment for the present trillions now spent on military and security-related institutions and projects—especially in the face of the gathering global refugee tsunami? Otherwise we are opening the field to the Chinese and even Russians who are not even seeking to compete in our chosen policeman tasks, confident that we are likely making their quest for influence all the easier.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
September 15, 2015
The Russians are Coming!
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
14 September 2015
Washington has been wrapped in confusion and indecision for years now in trying to sort out just what its real objectives are in Syria. Its obsessive, and ultimately failed goal of denying Iran influence in the Middle East has notably receded with Obama’s admirable success in reaching a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue and gradual normalization of Iran’s place in the world.
But while the Israel lobby and its Republican allies failed to block Obama’s painstaking work in reaching that agreement, they now seem determined to hobble its implementation in any way possible. This is utterly self-defeating: unable to block Iran’s re-emergence they seem determined to deny themselves any of the key payoffs of the agreement—the chance to work with Iran selectively on several important common strategic goals: the isolation and defeat of ISIS, a settlement in Syria that denies a jihadi takeover, the rollback of sectarianism as a driving force in the region, a peaceful settlement in Iran’s neighbor Afghanistan, and the freeing up of energy/pipeline options across Asia.
But let’s address this Syrian issue. There’s a new development here—stepped up Russian involvement—that poses new challenge to the American neocon strategic vision. So here is where Washington needs to sort out what it really wants in Syria. Is the main goal still to erode Iranian influence in the region by taking out Iran’s ally in Damascus? Or does it want to check Russian influence in the Middle East wherever possible in order to maintain America’s (fast becoming illusory) dominant influence? These two goals had seemed to weigh more heavily in Washington’s calculus than Syrian domestic considerations. In other words, Asad is a proxy target.
There are two major countries in the world at this point capable of exerting serious influence over Damascus—Russia and Iran. Not surprisingly, they possess that influence precisely because they both enjoy long-time good ties with Damascus; Asad obviously is far more likely to listen to tested allies than heed the plans of enemies dedicated to his overthrow.
The overthrow of Asad seemed a simple task in 2011 as the Arab Spring sparked early uprisings against him. The US readily supported that goal, as did Turkey along with Saudi Arabia and others. As the Asad regime began to demonstrate serious signs of resilience, however, the US and Turkey stepped up support to nominally moderate and secular armed opposition against Damascus, thereby extending the brutal civil war.
That calculus began to change when radical jihadi groups linked either to al-Qaeda or to ISIS (the “Islamic State”) began to overshadow moderate opposition forces. As ruthless as Asad had been in crushing domestic opposition, it became clear that any likely successor government would almost surely be dominated by such radical jihadi forces—who simply fight more effectively than the West’s preferred moderate and secular groups who never got their act together.
Enter Russia. Moscow had already intervened swiftly and effectively in 2013 to head off a planned US airstrike on Damascus to take out chemical weapons by convincing Damascus to freely yield up its chemical weapons; the plan actually succeeded. This event helped overcome at least Obama’s earlier reluctance to recognize the potential benefits of Russian influence in the Middle East to positively serve broader western interests in the region as well.
Russia is of course no late-comer to the region: Russian tsars long acted as the protector of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Middle East in the nineteenth century; the Russians had been diplomatic players in the geopolitical game in the region long before the creation of the Soviet Union. During the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Union the two camps often strategically supported opposite sides of regional conflicts: Moscow supported revolutionary Arab dictators while the West supported pro-western dictators. Russia has had dominant military influence in Syria for over five decades through weapons sales, diplomatic support, and its naval base in Tartus.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Russian influence in the area sharply declined for the first time as the new Russia sorted itself out. America then began declaring itself the “world’s sole superpower,” allegedly now free to shape the world strategically as it saw fit. And the significant neoconservative and liberal interventionist factions in Washington still nourish the same mentality today—predicated on the belief that the US can continue to maintain primacy around the world—economic, military, and diplomatic. In this sense, any acknowledgment of Russian influence in the Middle East (or elsewhere) represents an affront, even “a threat” to US dominance and prestige.
For similar reasons Iran’s long-time open challenge against American ability act with impunity in the Middle East has always constituted a deep source of American strategic anger—viscerally surpassing the more Israel-driven nuclear issue.
Today the combination of Russia and Iran (whose interests do not fully coincide either) exert major influence over the weakening Asad regime.
If we are truly concerned about ISIS we must recognize that restoration of a modicum of peace in Syria and Iraq are essential prerequisites to the ultimate elimination of ISIS that feeds off of the chaos.
Russia appears now to be unilaterally introducing new military forces, stepped up weapons deliveries, and possibly including limited troop numbers into Syria specifically to back the Asad regime’s staying power. Washington appears dismayed at this turn of events, and has yet to make up its mind whether it would rather get rid of Asad, or get rid of ISIS. It is folly to think that both goals can be achieved militarily.
In my view, the fall of Asad will not bring peace but will instead guarantee deadly massive long-term civil conflict in Syria among contending successors in which radical jihadi forces are likely to predominate—unless the west commits major ground forces to impose and supervise a peace. We’ve been there once before in the Iraq scenario. A replay of Iraq surely is not what the West wants.
So just how much of a “threat” is an enhanced Russian military presence in Syria? It is simplistic to view this as some zero-sum game in which any Russian gain is an American loss. The West lived with a Soviet naval base in Syria for many decades; meanwhile the US itself has dozens of military bases in the Middle East. (To many observers, these may indeed represent part of the problem.)
Even were Syria to become completely subservient to Russia, US general interests in the region would not seriously suffer (unless one considers maintenance of unchallenged unilateral power to be the main US interest there. I don’t.) The West has lived with such a Syrian regime before. Russia, with its large and restive Muslim population and especially Chechens, is more fearful of jihadi Islam than is even the US. If Russia were to end up putting combat troops on the ground against ISIS (unlikely) it would represent a net gain for the West. Russia is far less hated by populations in the Middle East than is the US (although Moscow is quite hated by many Muslims of the former Soviet Union.) Russia is likely to be able to undertake military operations against jihadis from bases within Syria. Indeed, it will certainly shore up Damascus militarily—rather than allowing Syria to collapse into warring jihadi factions.
What Russia will not accept in the Middle East is another unilateral US (or “NATO”) fait accompli in “regime change” that does not carry full UN support. (China’s interests are identical to Russia’s in most respects here.)
We are entering a new era in which the US is increasingly no longer able to call the shots in shaping the international order. Surely it is in the (enlightened) self-interest of the US to see an end to the conflict in Syria with all its cross-border sectarian viciousness in Iraq. Russia is probably better positioned than any other world player to exert influence over Asad. The US should be able to comfortably live even with a Russian-dominated Syria if it can bring an end to the conflict—especially when Washington meanwhile is allied with virtually every one of Syria’s neighbors. (How long Asad himself stays would be subject to negotiation; his personal presence is not essential to ‘Alawi power in Syria.)
What can Russia do to the West from its long-term dominant position in Syria? Take Syria’s (virtually non-existent) oil? Draw on the wealth of this impoverished country? Increase arms sales to the region (no match for US arms sales)? Threaten Israel? Russia already has close ties with Israel and probably up to a quarter of Israel’s population are Russian Jews.
Bottom line: Washington does not have the luxury of playing dog in the manger in “managing” the Middle East, especially after two decades or more of massive and destructive policy failure on virtually all fronts.
It is essential that the US not extend its new Cold War with Russia into the Middle East where shared interests are fairly broad—unless one rejects that very supposition on ideological grounds. The same goes for Iran.
We have to start someplace.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
September 8, 2015
Refugees and Responsibilities
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
8 September 2015
The picture last week of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi dead on the beach in Turkey is one of those iconic pictures whose intense human face forces deeper reflection, especially upon publics for whom distant tragedies tend to be statistics rather than specific human stories.
I wrote about the refugee crisis last April at the time when the media was filled with pictures of precarious boats on the high seas, being commandeered by European officials, or rescued from capsizing. http://grahamefuller.com/the-global-crisis-of-refugees-the-ultimate-security-issue/ I commented at that time that while a very real crisis is at hand for Europe, attention has been riveted almost exclusively upon the immediate situation. That is natural enough—the situation cries out for immediate treatment. But this comes perhaps at the cost of longer range analysis of the deeper sources of such problems; that is where the long-term heavy lifting by the international community will need to be done. There should be no doubt—this is a very real national security issue and thus should draw upon a significant portion of national security budgets, to much better end.
Europe, of course, is the immediate destination of this stream of, and why not? For the Middle East and North Africa Europe is the nearest region that possesses the wealth as well as functioning humanitarian values and institutional structure that can offer refuge. Europe has not had a whole lot of choice in the matter, but it is praiseworthy that many countries there, especially Germany, take this moral and humanitarian responsibility seriously.
But surely a much larger list of countries share deep responsibility for helping ignite these current humanitarian crises. In the first instance the US. It was Washington that launched the war that destroyed the Iraqi state and social structure, casting it into the present state of chaos and the outbreak of deadly sectarianism not present under Saddam.
Chaos in Iraq and its subsequent sectarian struggles and refugee flows directly impacted the Syrian crisis. Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Asad of course bears the first and most immediate responsibility for the present brutal civil war there. But the Iraqi jihadi movement instantly merged into the mounting violence in Syria and the formation of ISIS. Yet Washington, which went on to contribute directly to organizing, arming, and training jihadi groups to fight in Syria against the Asad regime, disingenuously seems to absolve itself from responsibility for these consequences. Washington has so far grudgingly expressed willingness to accept only some 1500 Syrian refugees. Canada, an equally vast and wealthy country that also shares in supporting anti-Asad elements in Syria and the bombing of ISIS, is willing to accept even less refugees. The UK enthusiastically helped stoke the war in Syria, but will take only the most modest number of the resultant refugees as well.
(I commend in this context the New York Times article by Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff on the broader dimensions of the problem.) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/opinion/sunday/the-refugee-crisis-isnt-a-european-problem.html?_r=0
Libya, also visited by western “regime change” operations, presents many parallels and an equally urgent problem of African refugees by sea.
But European willingness to pitch in contrasts with uglier questions about the shortcomings of much of the Middle East itself in meeting humanitarian responsibilities on its doorstep. In fact the less affluent states have accepted the most refugees: Turkey, to its credit, has accepted over two million refugees from over the border. Jordan, also on Syria’s border, has accepted some 1.5 million, Lebanon perhaps one million. But other, far wealthier Middle Eastern States in the Gulf have accepted virtually no refugees—all the more shocking because most of these states have directly funded one or another party in Syria’s civil war. In fairness, however, we need to acknowledge that these Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have indeed made major financial contributions to international refugee organizations—perhaps some two and a half billion dollars for the care and upkeep of the refugees so far. (And the US, miserly in accepting refugees, has contributed some $2.8 billion in aid as well.)
But why, conspicuously, are the Gulf states not accepting any of the refugees into their countries? The answer has more to do with the delicate demographic and political state of the Gulf countries than with lack of financial generosity. The “natives” of the small Gulf states—usually the original tribal elements of the immediate locale—with sudden prosperity decades ago became minorities—often some 10-15% –in their own states; they employ large foreign labor forces to carry out most of the physical work and administrative tasks while the more privileged natives engage in commerce, governance or leisure. Most of the Gulf states are already intensely nervous about these skewed demographics.
Perhaps a more important reason though is political: Syrians represent an educated and intensely politicized culture—a radical one at that—far too politicized for the Gulf rulers and the deeply non-politicized natives who fear rocking the boat in their petrol-rich societies; they feel they have too much to lose through any potential political agitation. Politics is a luxury Gulf natives are willing to forego in the interests of maintaining the welfare society their economy permits. Saudi Arabia is of course a much larger country and could physically accommodate large numbers of refugees, but shares similar fears about politicized immigrants, especially Syrians.
One final note: I believe the only realistic long term plan for drying up the contagion of ISIS is the restoration of some degree of peace and order to both Syria and Iraq; ISIS thrives on the chaos and emotions of those struggles. Here it is vital for the broader international community to hammer out some agreement on restoring stability in both countries. Military operations will not do it; they only prolong civil war.
Two countries key to reaching some kind of political solution are Iran and Russia. Renewed western ties with Iran may now facilitate some chance of compromise. Russia too, with its own large Muslim population, has deep reasons to fear ISIS and to seek stability in the Middle East. But it will not sign on to another western/NATO-imposed solution designed to consolidate strategic western power at the expense of a Russian presence. As long as US-Russian relations are engaged in a zero-sum, winner-take-all strategic struggle in the Middle East Russia will predictably to drag its feet to counter US efforts. Washington needs to ignore the now prevalent advice of its hawks on relations with Russia and accept the benefits of an “everybody can win” compromise settlement over Syria.
Such settlement is not easy to achieve, but without it nothing will happen except more deaths and more refugees.
September 2, 2015
1 September 2015
The West remains transfixed with ISIS (Islamic State, Da’ish) and the debate about its character goes on. In one sense this discussion is totally understandable, given the movement’s seeming sudden appearance on the public screen not much more than a year ago (although its roots were long since there), combined with its theatrical brutality, and extreme views and actions that make it impossible to ignore.
Over time, this debate seems to center around three key issues:
-Is ISIS driven essentially by theological and religious motivations? Or pragmatic political considerations?
-Is ISIS essentially a medieval movement in character—or a “modern” movement?
-Is the movement durable? Or is it a transient, radical, ultra-reactionary spasm in the tortured evolution of Iraq—a country still coming to terms with the US destruction of the country’s political and social infrastructure? And in Syria feeding off the tragic breakdown of order under Asad’s gross and brutal mishandling of early Arab Spring rioting, that invited in the subsequent wars by proxy of external players?
The classic response to many such deep-rooted questions is “all of the above.” This isn’t a cop-out answer, it simply reflects the complexity of the phenomenon we see.
ISIS is undeniably religious in that it draws on solid basis of Quranic scripture and the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad.) It knows its theology and texts, but it is indeed highly selective in what texts it stresses—one might call it exegetical cherry-picking, something well-known in all religious traditions when scripture is invoked to political ends.
But ISIS is also undeniably political in that it has a clear political (not just moral) agenda, and a political strategy (though often improvised to meet circumstances); indeed the founding of a state (caliphate) is the supreme political act only made possible by the collapse of Iraq.
But which comes first, theology or politics? Chicken or egg?
In my experience in looking at ideology in the world over the years, I increasingly lean towards the sense that the political—indeed the psychological—impulse often precedes and shapes the ideological. If an ideological seed is to sprout, the receptive political/psychological soil must first exist (even if not always fully consciously). Not just anyone suddenly exposed to violent ideology becomes radicalized or violent; they are radicalized only when an ideological explanation for their existing distress suddenly makes sense, rings true; the explanatory power comes as a revelation: “of course, that’s the reason why all this is happening to us.” And ideology suggests a path towards alleviating such hardship. In the absence of particular deep grievance then ideology does not find fertile soil. Marxist communism made sense to young Americans during the Great Depression, but not today (at least not yet). Hitler’s Nazi ravings would not have found resonance if Germany had not been the object of destructive political and economic revanchism by victorious and vindictive Allied Powers after World War I. The Russian Revolution and Lenin’s charisma might have gone nowhere were it not for the desperate conditions in Tsarist Russia late in World War I. Examples abound.
The proximate cause for ISIS’ dramatic appearance on the scene and its sudden success obviously could not have taken place without the destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic order and the American occupation. Assorted other grievances of Muslims living in the West as well as in the Middle East equally played into ISIS’ message.
ISIS’ political, cultural and ideological message draws on deeply resonant (but selective) Islamic themes—the symbolism of caliphate, literal adoption of selective early Islamic practices—but not resonant enough to make most Muslims really want to sign up. Most inhabitants of the Islamic State did not choose to do so in any case, ISIS chose them by conquering the turf where they live. The ISIS message becomes a harder sell when more moderate interpretations of political Islam (like the Muslim Brotherhood) offer a viable and contemporary Islamic alternative.
Is ISIS medieval in conception? Or modern? Both. Its theological precepts stem indeed from the earliest periods of Islam, often taken quite literally—hence its insistent claim to “authenticity.” But ISIS is quite modern in its use of media, technology, PR, its playing to the international gallery, strategic global view, and its exploitation of existing international rivalries at work in the region. The Taliban, for instance, also promoting a quite reactionary and retrogressive view of Islam, were clueless in terms of developing a PR story aimed at an international and modern audience of tech-savvy westernized Muslim youth.
So we need a holistic explanation of the ISIS phenomenon that embraces both the religious as well as the political explanations, and an awareness of its “medieval” as well as “modern” character.
Its survivability? I’ve gone on record in stating that I don’t think the ISIS model has much of a future. I don’t think it can really run a state for a long time without massive repressive techniques and permanent war. Its “solutions” to Muslim ills are not really solutions—a fact that will become ever more apparent to those inside and outside its boundaries. Sadly, in the interim it is causing shocking cultural damage and brutalizing and killing a lot of people (mostly Muslims) in acts designed to shock with their “authenticity.” But the number of deaths from ISIS itself pale next to the ongoing deaths and devastation resulting from over a decade of western-imposed war.
Why do these arguments matter? I do not believe that the West itself can discredit ISIS on theological grounds; western motives are utterly suspect. Muslims, however, can undertake this mission. Regrettably some Muslim clerics who denounce ISIS lack real credibility themselves since they are perceived as “hired” clerics working for existing autocratic regimes. But gradually the word is getting out that ISIS is not the future most Muslims aspire to at all. Ultimately Muslim forces themselves need to take on ISIS, although few regional regimes possess much real credibility either. The western role in this pushback needs to be circumspect and limited.
But above all, a restoration of political and social order in Iraq and Syria is the indispensable prerequisite to rolling ISIS itself back. Solutions to crises in both those states must assume highest priority.
August 11, 2015
Rays of Light in the Middle East?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
11 August 2015
It is risky to try to discern longer range trends in the Middle East based on a few short term developments. Nonetheless, I can’t resist finding some small shards for cautious optimism in the events of the past few weeks.
-Syria: Washington’s love-hate relationship with Moscow depends on the geography: in Europe it is ideological and poisonous, in the Middle East it seems pragmatic and potentially productive. Lately John Kerry (who has shown himself to be far superior to his predecessor Hillary Clinton) has been working to find some common ground with canny Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Syria is the central topic, but the implications and regional fall-out potentially extend far beyond Syria.
President Obama has been slowly moving towards recognition that there are more urgent issues than simply getting rid of Asad. Eliminating ISIS and denying victory to the Islamist extremists on the ground in any post-Asad Syria are more important. So is the need to preserve Syrian unity if possible, and to stem the vicious (particularly Saudi-driven) sectarian struggle across the entire region.
There may now be hints of a rough grand bargain emerging among the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia that would foresee some kind of new coalition government in Syria representative of major national forces that would ensure the majoritarian Sunni population would be fully represented; the now ruling minoritarian ‘Alawis would be granted a significant place at the table. Many ‘Alawis fear loss of power will lead to their destruction—but they cannot hold on forever and they know that—so perhaps better to strike a deal now than flee for the hills later. Asad of course will have to go in any case; the ‘Alawis will likely be willing to throw him under the bus if the welfare of the overall ‘Alawi community can be preserved.
Iran: Is it too early to discern a possibly greater flexibility emerging in Tehran on the heels of the historic deal between the US/5+1 powers and Iran on the other? For sure, the deal has not yet been consummated in either Tehran or Washington, but in one sense that is irrelevant: the world is beginning to act as if such an agreement is now a fact, and countries are acting accordingly. Might Tehran now feel that, no longer cornered, it can have greater confidence to act in more a measured and open fashion? Or rather, as some skeptics would have it, will Iran simply pocket the gains and step up the intensity of narrowly conceived interests in the region? I’m betting on the former, it’s smarter for Iran. (Although enlightened self-interest is a rare commodity much of anywhere these days; hawks are alive and well in both Tehran and Washington.)
I believe Iran can act with broader regional interests in mind that are not primarily sectarian as long as the sectarian label is not forced upon it by Sunni fanaticism. Geopolitical differences will indeed exist, but need not—should not—be sectarian in nature, which is only a lose-lose game for all.
Turkey may be climbing down from Erdoğan’s obsessive and ruinous policy of overthrowing Asad at all costs. It is dismaying however that Erdogan may be taking this as license to undo his previous hard-won diplomatic gains with the Kurds and the PKK of past years.
Russia does not seem to be driven by a zero-sum contest with Washington in the Middle East, wherein one’s gain is the other’s loss—unlike in Ukraine, Moscow’s front yard. Its interests in the region are no less than American. Russia’s key goal in the Middle East is to maintain its role as an important regional player (which it has been for centuries.) Neither Russia, nor China for that matter, will tolerate further US efforts at geopolitical domination of the Middle East, especially based on US unilateral military solutions. When Moscow is given a place at the table, the results are likely to be productive, especially given Moscow’s own clout within many states, including Iran.
Saudi Arabia has its hands full with its unwise and destructive policies in Yemen and a fictitious “Sunni coalition”; it has every good reason now to begin a quiet and unspoken rapprochement of sorts with Tehran. It cannot block or defeat Tehran’s influence in the region, especially after the international nuclear agreement, and Riyadh realizes it must come to terms with it. This is not all that surprising—Saudi Arabia has never liked Iran even before the Iranian revolution, but has regularly managed periodic, grudgingly correct relations with it for many years. An eventual deal must be reached in the fight for power in Yemen, and Iran is likely to be content with any deal that does not exclude now dominant Houthi forces. Saudi Arabia also shares with Iran (among others) a desire to put an end to the “Islamic state” ISIS.
Indeed, Riyadh has now lost hope that it can look to Washington for carte blanche support to (unrealistically) exclude Iranian influence from the region. It now needs to act more prudently; it has therefore (wisely) decided that better ties with Moscow represents useful insurance. Here Moscow functions as another major power pushing Riyadh towards greater realism and less religious extremism. Washington has nothing to lose by this (except already dwindling geopolitical monopoly over the Middle East) and much to gain.
Other Gulf states are generally more pragmatic about living with Tehran than is Riyadh (except for the precarious minority Sunni rulers over largely Shi’ite Bahrain). Oman distances itself greatly from Riyadh and has long enjoyed cordial ties with Iran—useful even to the US as a conduit to Tehran in the past.)
Egypt remains a non-player in virtually all respects.
Iraq: there are a few small but encouraging signs that Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi recognizes the need for a more broadly based political base that incorporates greater Sunni representation; in this he is backed by none other than the top cleric of the Shi’ite world, Grand Ayatollah Sistani as well as Shi’ite militia leader (but also strong Iraqi nationalist) Muqtada al-Sadr.
The common thread here is the newly emerging Iran, a reality which regional states can no longer block and indeed, will need to realistically deal with it; the consequences need not be all negative and can lead to a diminution of tensions and sectarianism.
If any of these trends represent tentative signs of a new face in Middle East geopolitics, then there are grounds indeed for more optimism than the region has warranted for many years.
July 28, 2015
Just what is Turkey up to?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller)
28 July 2015
Turkish policies towards the Middle East have been in wild oscillation over the past many weeks, even months. Ankara has now finally and begrudgingly initiated military action against ISIS in cooperation with the US. But it has also initiated air attacks against its former Kurdish negotiating partners. Just what is going on? There may not be any coherent strategy, but the following seem to me to represent the key issues driving policy.
- At the top of the list is President Erdoğan and his quest for political survival. After the rebuff to the ruling AK Party in the June elections that caused it to lose its majority in parliament, Erdoğan is now desperately trying to recover, find a reliable partner for a coalition government and, in its absence, to force new elections next month in the hopes of recouping his majority. Given the growing impression of growing loss of coherency at the top levels of the Turkish government , it is something of a gamble that the AKP could achieve a better electoral outcome next month. Indeed the AKP may well emerge yet weaker.
That said, the AKP’s best chance for a coalition partner is the nationalist MHP which opposes negotiations with the PKK (the armed Kurdish nationalist movement) or any cooperation with the PKK’s ally in Syria, the YDP. A decade ago the AKP initiated encouraging and historic negotiations with the PKK; observers had every good reason to hope for a major breakthrough on this ethnic issue that has plagued Turkey almost since its birth. But domestic politics have intervened and Erdoğan has now irresponsibly turned his back on these negotiations, even beginning military operations against the PKK again, probably putting an end for some time to any hope of reconciliation. Such aggressive steps delight the nationalists in the MHP, now a key potential coalition partner. In sum, short-term and short-sighted AKP electoral politics are destroying aspirations for vital national reconciliation.
Erdoğan has another good reason as well to sabotage his own early pioneering efforts at Kurdish reconciliation: with the improving political environment of a few years ago, for the first time a Kurdish party, the Peoples’s Democratic Party, is now reaching for national status as a true liberal party beyond simple Kurdish nationalism. It was that party that took away crucial votes from the AKP in the last elections and Erdoğan has blood in his eye.
- The second key factor is Ankara’s disastrous Syrian imbroglio. Erdoğan’s decision, indeed current obsession, with overthrowing the Asad regime in Syria starting in 2011—represented an abrupt reverse of a decade of warm and brotherly relations with Syria. No AKP foreign policy failure can equal the Syrian disaster: it has intensified the butchery in Syria’s savage internal conflict, damaged vital relations with Iraq and Iran, helped unleash a flood of millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey, created domestic unrest, damaged the economy, and pushed Erdoğan into a distasteful embrace with Riyadh against Asad.
In doing so, Erdoğan has been forced to turn an ever blinder eye to the extremism of Islamist forces operating against Asad in Syria, including ISIS itself. While having little real sympathy for ISIS, Erdoğan has nonetheless tolerated it. In the end he preferred strengthening ISIS against Damascus than deepening Turkish ties with the Kurds—Turkey’s natural regional partners for the future.
This Turkish policy has greatly embittered most Kurds against Turkey, especially in Syria. Erdogan’s Kurdish ties are now everywhere at risk: in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Only the event of a serious terrorist ISIS attack a few weeks ago on Turkish soil (targeting mostly Kurds), forced Erdoğan to reconsider this relationship. As a result Erdoğan has reluctantly bowed to US pressure to take a tougher position against ISIS. There is actually little love in Turkey at all for ISIS except among a very small minority of radical fundamentalists. Here too now, Erdoğan still seems to lack a conceptual compass on these strategic issues.
- A third driver is the US nuclear deal with Iran. This momentous agreement will be changing the face of Middle Eastern geopolitics. It has raised the stakes for Ankara, making it clear that it can now ill afford to ignore Iran. Yet this should not be a serious problem for Turkey: the first decade of AKP rule saw good working relations with Tehran, and Turkey has basically avoided ideologically championing Middle Eastern Sunnis in any sectarian struggle. This is where Erdoğan’s unholy alliance with Riyadh against Syria had begun to push him in a dangerous sectarian direction that contradicts nearly all of Turkey’s national interests, including ties with Iran. Ankara’s recent air operations against ISIS shows some signs now of pulling back from this egregious strategic error, even as Riyadh itself has come to fear feeding ISIS any further.
In short, primarily for domestic political reasons, but also due to foreign pressures from the US, Iran and Iraq, Ankara is now wavering in its strategic directions. It would be wise if it joins Iran, Russia, China, Oman, and probably now the US, in seeking a political solution in Damascus that will lead to Asad’s eventual resignation but not a toppling of the present regime.
But the implications of Obama’s agreement with Ankara to establish a buffer zone in Syria along the Turkish border is disturbing; it now may drag the US deeper into local ground wars and coordination with bad Turkish policies. The fact is, an Asad regime for the moment is a far better option than continuing civil war and the continuing growth of extremist jihadi forces of ISIS and al-Qa’ida who are ideally positioned to eventually eliminate moderate Islamic opposition forces against Asad.
A potential Turkish coalition government that combines the AKP (with its plurality) and a left-of-center Republican Peoples Party and the new liberal Kurdish Party would seem to offer the healthiest mixture to oversee Turkish foreign policy in these exceptionally troubled and complex times. Erdoğan’s vaulting ambitions and increasing loss of judgment and statesmanship will best be neutralized in such a coalition. Despite the emotionalism around the Kurdish issue, a new generation of a Turkish electorate is unlikely to opt for a politician who seeks greater confrontation in the region, especially as a tool for his own ambitions.
July 21, 2015
Can Washington meet Iran’s Deepest Challenge—to US Hegemony in the Middle East?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
21 July 2015
Comments abound on Obama’s achievement in reaching an agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. For a predictable minority it’s not an achievement at all but a terrible setback. Most criticism focuses on the challenge of possible Iranian cheating. That misses the big picture: is Washington itself able to deal with an ascendant Iran—much like the challenge of an ascendant China?
In economic and military terms Iran can’t of course hold a candle to China. But its regional role does pose a significant challenge to those who resist the specter of popular political change.
The major challenge that Iran poses is not of course really nuclear at all—we’ve dealt in the past with far “crazier” nuclear totalitarian powers such as Stalin’s Russia, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea or Mao’s China. Some—not all—elements of the Israeli security establishment may perceive the nuclear threat as serious, primarily because Israel cherishes its position as sole nuclear power in the region. A potentially nuclear Iran down the road also limits US and Israeli ability to act militarily in the region with impunity.
But even that is not Iran’s real challenge; that lies in its revolutionary stance and consistent outspoken opposition to US (and Israeli) dominance of power in the Middle East. That kind of stance historically quickly earned one the label of “rogue state” in Washington parlance—a state that resists the US-dominated strategic order. Egypt’s Nasser won the title in a serious fashion in the 60s. So did Qadhafi, who was finally terminally punished, not just for his rhetoric, but also his unconscionable retaliation against the US by the barbaric bombing of US flight over Lockerbee Scotland in 1988. Saddam Hussein, one of the uglier dictators the region has seen in quite some decades, also challenged the US—and lost. The Asads, father and son, have been on the US target list for marginalization or overthrow for decades although the goal was never attained.
Iran, however, is probably the most important state since Nasser’s Egypt to have adopted this outspoken and dedicated stance of challenge to American ability to act with impunity in the Middle East. The Iranian seizure of US hostages in 1979 injected an additional strong emotional element into American reactions to Iran. (Most Americans have forgotten that the US and UK had jointly overthrown Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, from which democracy in Iran has still not fully recovered.)
Now, some three decades after the Iranian Revolution, Washington has finally acknowledged the extreme problems that its own long-term inability to deal with “rogue” Iran has posed to US policies over the years—affecting Afghanistan, Pakistan, pipe-line routing, al-Qa’ida, Iraq, Central Asia, the Gulf, Syria, where a degree of common interests in fact exists.
Washington finally felt compelled to search for some kind of minimal normalization with Tehran. The nuclear issue was the ostensible driver. Far more important however, is acknowledgment of the need to deal with the second most important strategic state in the Middle East –Turkey being number one. I have written earlier (http://grahamefuller.com/has-yemen-reshaped-the-middle-east-geopolitical-map/) why Turkey and Iran represent the two most significant states in the Middle East today: their identities rest firmly on long tradition, large populations, large and complex multi-faceted economies (not just energy) and professional skills; their governance is democratic (Turkey) or partially democratic (Iran, where elections and process really matter.) Both countries have long traditions of independent power and exert major soft power—Iran’s soft power will grow in this sphere with its films, music, Sufi poetry, tourism, etc.
More important, Iran has achieved a measure of popularity even in the Arab world at the popular level—although not at the governing level, which does feel threatened.) Iran’s forthright resistance to the American order is widely admired—even if not everybody likes Persians. Iran has always spoken of its revolution not as Shi’ite but as an Islamic revolution—above sectarianism. Its populist rhetoric and longtime support for Sunni Palestinians among other groups clearly upsets autocratic Arab states, especially those who fear populist change, and those with oppressed and suppressed Shi’a populations—as in Bahrain where they represent a majority, and in Saudi Arabia.
Now Washington has taken the unprecedented step of potentially serious rapprochement with Tehran (yes, there are still significant obstacles to be overcome). But this is the nub: this represents is a new US willingness to accept a power (or powers) in the region that does not sign on to the US strategic framework for the region. Such a position bluntly challenged decades of US doctrine about its determination to establish global “full-spectrum dominance.” The US is finally recognizing, after severe setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran and other failing policies that traditional US hegemony in the Middle East is no longer in the cards. Furthermore, that effort to impose it comes at extremely high cost in blood, treasure, respect and credibility.
This is the signal achievement of President Obama in acknowledging this reality, at least tacitly. (Some would say it represents his signal failure and a US capitulation. But can anyone want another decade and a half of what the US—and the region—has been through?)
It has not been simply Iranian long-term resistance that has stymied Washington. The source of the problems and the nature of the enemy in the region does not lend itself to high tech power, shock and awe. Other states have also emerged with ideas of their own (Turkey most prominently among them—who will never be a “faithful American ally” again.) Russian and Chinese power in the region, and the growth of the BRICS model suggests outlines of a new international order.
The question is: 1) how capably will Washington learn to manage the transition and deeper implications inherent in this new opening to Iran—recognizing that dealing with prickly and often unresponsive powers in fact does represent the face of the future? And 2) the agenda for future regional change—with all its inevitable chaos—lies more with the Turkeys and Irans of the world than with sclerotic and reactionary Gulf ruling orders. This is particularly so when we consider the destructive approach of Saudi Arabia in promoting sectarianism and core fundamentalist/takfiri interpretations of Islam. Of course these Gulf states are economically important and are understandably nervous with this shift of paradigm. They have now been left more on their own to manage internal pressures; certainly they are not subject to serious outside military attack.
Thus a new recognition of the character of the future of the region has dawned in Washington. It is long overdue, but President Obama has taken the first bold, critically important step. For that he deserves much credit—for his insight into the deeper nature of political change to come in the region which Washington cannot control and against which it cannot afford to be arrayed.
July 13, 2015
Defeating ISIS by Talking to It?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
13 July 2015
I can’t believe that I’ve been outflanked on the Progressive Left by Fareed Zakaria! Hints of negotiation with ISIS!
I’ve got a lot of respect for Zakaria—he generally works within the outer limits of the establishment envelope—just enough to nudge along a lot of establishment readers with new ideas without losing them. Those of us working often outside that envelope run the risk of losing readers, or never even gaining their ear in the first place.
Yet what is Zakaria saying? He makes the very important point that many of us have been making for a long time: we have to deal with political realities by talking to people we don’t like. But it’s good he’s now saying it—maybe the idea is going mainstream, at last.
Zakaria muddies the argument a bit, though, by employing the catch-all term “terrorists.” Of course terrorists exist, but the world has spent the last several decades (if not longer) in debating just what a terrorist is. All kinds of prestigious organizations including the UN have failed to come up with a consensus on the meaning of the word. We end up having to revert to the old line that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In short, we like some terrorists, but not others—it all depends on whether they’re fighting for the “right” cause (our cause), or the “wrong” cause. It’s a subjective call.
So yes indeed we should talk to many of the groups that are conveniently termed “terrorists” in the West. Many of them in fact are far more than just terrorists, they are political groups with political aims that also deploy militia wings who use violence against their enemies. The fighters for Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation spring first and foremost to mind. But because they are fighting Israel they are automatically beyond the pale of any permissible discussion in the US. But the PLO, Fatah, and even Hamas are serious political organizations representing hard core Palestinian aspirations—divided only by how to get there, and under whose leadership. Even thoughtful Israelis know that one day they will have to negotiate with them—indeed they have already done so behind the scenes.
Same goes for Hizballah in Lebanon—the paramount organization representing the Shi’ites who are the largest single religious group within Lebanese society. Hizballah helped bring the once-detested and oppressed Lebanese Shi’ites foursquare onto the political scene in Lebanon. If you want to deal with Lebanese Shi’a you have to talk to Hizballah—all Lebanese do. It has a huge official, public presence, while all the while maintaining formidable militia capabilities.
The list of movements goes on and on—groups that used guerrilla or terrorist operations as the way to put themselves on the political map. That includes many of the founders of Israel. Such guerrilla movements frequently evolve into mainly political movements: the PKK in Turkey, Sinn Fein in Ireland, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Taliban, Chechens, Uighur liberation movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in various places, the Zapatistas in Mexico, FARC in Colombia, and other Latin American groups representing the “struggle” of disadvantaged classes or ethnic/religious groups.
And most states say they will never negotiate with their enemies–but end up doing just that .
But Zakaria now raises into the intriguing possibility that we may eventually end up having to negotiate even with ISIS. (Never mind that we can’t even talk to Hamas yet.)
This question demands thoughtful analysis. To me the imperative of talking with a “terrorist” group stems from the degree of political legitimacy it possesses, measured by the degree of support it enjoys among the people it claims to represent. Most major “terrorist” groups do. But ISIS?
In the past I have been hesitant to describe ISIS as primarily a political movement, yet it is of course very political: it possesses an ideology, an info network, an agenda, crude administrative policies, and controls a certain (shifting) territory.
But how do we determine just whom ISIS represents? Maybe the many angry Sunni Iraqis who feel excluded from power in Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad? For sure. Yet many other Iraqi Sunnis may be equally disgruntled but for them the ISIS phenomenon is beyond the pale. Or does ISIS represent angry fundamentalist Syrian Sunnis fighting to overthrow Asad? In part, yes—but ISIS is equally interested in destroying moderate Sunni militias. And we know ISIS also attracts some young alienated western Muslims who seek adventure for a nominally grand Islamic cause—but they are mainly transient adventurers and only number a few thousand.
So I’m not sure I’m yet willing to grant ISIS the coherence of a political movement that would call for negotiating with it. There is no denying that it plays off deep discontents and ideological yearnings for “true Islam” which can purportedly help bring a better political order to the Middle East. But is ISIS the movement to do it?
Nor am I convinced that ISIS represents a coherent large body of people who are truly dedicated and committed to the ISIS cause. If ISIS were to be decapitated, would the movement persist anyway—as would Hamas or Hizballah or the Taliban? Questionable.
That ISIS plays off huge widespread legitimate historical and contemporary grievances is beyond doubt. So did Boko Haram, at least originally. Certainly al-Shabab in Somalia does. But the sweeping nature of ISIS public violence and inflexible intolerance, its lack of recognition by any state including self-affirmed Islamic states (Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) robs it of serious legitimacy.
But who knows, maybe this is only an early stage of the ISIS movement. Maybe it will morph into something more coherent, more acceptable in the eyes of so many in the region. But I think it is still far from getting there—at least yet. It may gain some more battlefield successes, but that is not enough.
So I applaud Fareed Zakaria in explaining to the mainstream pubic the need for negotiation with “terrorist” organizations, most of whom represent deep-seated political causes. It’s just that I’m not sure ISIS falls into that category. But this issue is indeed worthy of further debate.
June 30, 2015
Gay Marriage and Western Muslims
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
28 June 2015
Human sexuality has always been a deeply controversial social issue in all societies. So is religion. Put them together and you have a powerful emotional brew.
The US Supreme Court ruling this week legalizing gay marriage poses a new challenge to Islamic communities in the US. The same goes for Christian and Jewish communities as well—at least to their most conservative elements.
Religions throughout human history are the historical source of most morality and ethics, not easily overturned. Hostility to homosexuality, for example, is embedded in the Old Testament, was inherited into Christianity, and later into Islam by much the same process; all three essentially viewed it as an “abomination,” even though the practice is as old as mankind. In reality of course there is little that is “unnatural” in almost any aspect of human behavior, even when it is not mainstream.
With human evolution, however, humans have slowly come to perceive religion and the nature of the sacred in an evolving light; this is brilliantly discussed in Karen Armstrong’s study, “A History of God”— how thinking about the very nature of God has slowly changed.
And so religions over time have split on questions of the meaning of religion in society and the range of what should be prohibited. Such debates are still underway (even if often in secular guise) on issues of the degree of sanctity of marriage, divorce, abortion, minimal age of sexual permission, alcohol, drugs, incest, and “out-of-wedlock” children. Every religion has both conservative and liberal wings interpreting these issues.
The public sphere and the private sphere can differ. Publicly, religion establishes norms (evolving into later into more “secular” laws) that it imposes upon societies. Privately, there can be latitude for what one does behind closed doors. Homosexuality in private is thus usually ignored in reality, even when “illegal.” Even a decade ago the US military followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But the issue could not be any further ignored when gay couples sought—justifiably in my view—the right to marry. Yet that call moved the issue of homosexuality out of the private and into the public and legal sphere. Not surprisingly this raised serious concerns in many conservative circles.
The evolution of public opinion in North America on gay marriage has moved rapidly over the past few decades. (Canada legalized it ten years ago, in 2005. So did Spain.) It would seem that such change in thinking came about not so much from theological and moral debate, but much more from a human source: people’s growing exposure to gay people, as friends, co-workers, and indeed, their own children. Acknowledgment of the existence of homosexuality is of course one thing – an element of human sexuality since time immemorial; but acceptance of gay marriage –a legal step—is another.
But what brings about a shift on the theological level, where many religious communities have come to concur? A shift towards more liberal theological interpretations of homosexuality within Christian or Jewish communities over the past few decades has usually emerged from some kind of process of prioritizing “higher values” within the faith that transcend earlier prohibitions—often perceived as historically based. In simplest form, in open multicultural societies liberal religious thinkers have come to lay greater emphasis on tolerance within society, the need to love, honor, respect and embrace all members of society rather than to seek out, condemn, reject, or even punish minoritarian beliefs and practices.
The ultimate moment of truth comes of course when one’s own children declare themselves gay. (Note even arch-conservative Dick Cheney’s change when his daughter declared herself lesbian.) It is extremely difficult for most of us to accept our children in any way as “evil” (although there are many heartbreaking tales of some parents actually making that call.) And so we come to perceive sexual orientation as the product of biological and psychological forces—not willful moral choices of non-standard behavior. Society then begins to realize that the gay portion of the human sexual spectrum is broader than it had earlier believed and must be addressed. And it becomes ever harder to judge the private behavior of consenting adults around us if it does no harm to others.
Nor does homophobia derive strictly from religious grounds. There are many quite unreligious homophobes who, in their social and pyschological insecurity, fear, condemn and harass all differences in color, race and life-style while aggressively asserting their own macho “values.”
Hollywood too, of course, has played a significant role in bringing awareness of gay life into the mainstream, hastening public acceptance of the phenomenon. The passage of time is also a factor in this evolution. Thus the Supreme Court decision this week might not have been thinkable in the US ten years ago (although it obviously was in Canada.)
What about Muslims in the West? As in other areas of life, Muslims may find it a slower process in squaring acceptance of gay-life style and, even more, same-sex marriage with their own religious tradition. The situation is not dissimilar for Orthodox Jews, for whom the Torah explicitly condemns homosexuality (and Jewish law technically requires the death penalty for its practice.) Nonetheless, liberal Judaism has risen above these theological strictures and reinterpreted them in new contexts of higher human values.
Western Jews have of course immensely influenced that evolution of thinking in Judaism overall. I suspect this will be the case with western Muslims as well. But Muslims have a vastly shorter history of life in the West where they struggle for acceptance on many levels. As in the history of most minorities experiencing some discrimination in the West, it’s not just about religion: Muslims naturally strive to preserve some socio-cultural solidarity to preserve and protect the community.
Islam is not just a religion, but an identity. Starting to think critically about their own religion—a controversial act in any religion—is not an easy task for Muslims under these circumstances; critical questioning impacts on that solidarity. But Muslims living and socialized in the West are inevitably pushed to accept the reality of gay life around them—among their co-workers, communities, and even where their children may eventually come out. Predictably most of their religious leaders, however, will largely uphold traditional Islamic theology on these issues—at least for a time, until the socialization process catches up, and we see more native-born American imams.
So just as the liberalization process has worked its way through liberal elements of both Christian and Jewish religious communities with time, so that moment will come among western Muslims as well.
As in many other ways as well, western Muslims are at the forefront of social, intellectual and even moral thinking within the Muslim world. This is the product of relative freedom of thought and life in the West. It is also the product of life in stable societies, not possible today in war-torn chaotic Middle Eastern countries clashing over questions of identity and authenticity.