Friday, June 29, 2012

Islam's Reformation

With the election of the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as President of Egypt, the broader meaning of the Arab Spring can now be perceived. It makes Islam a crucial player in the worldwide jockeying for power between religion, liberalism and social democracy.  Consider these facts:

Tunisia, the country that launched the uprisings that are shaking the Arab world, elected a President who ran on a human rights platform, and rules under a coalition with a left-leaning Islamist party and a social democratic party;

After Muammar Ghaddafi, a maverick who evolved his own version of socialism, was ousted, a National Transition Council was supposed to lead the country to a Western type democracy. It is opposed by both youth and religious groups, the former demanding greater transparency the latter vying for a greater role for religion. The latest news is that it will institute sharia law;

In Yemen, popular pressure forced the American-backed ruler to resign after months of demonstrations, but he is succeeded by his former vice-president. Not coincidentally, the U.S. has an air base in Yemen from which it launches raids against Al-Qaeda groups operating in the region;

In Kuwait, divisions between an increasingly Islamist parliament and the Western-allied ruling family have worsened in recent years. In February’s parliamentary elections two-thirds of the seats were filled by opposition leaders vowing to expose high level corruption. After two ministers resigned in the face of scrutiny, the constitutional court dissolved parliament.

What this rundown shows is that in all the Arab countries undergoing revolutions or regime change, the public is no longer a relatively illiterate mass of religious followers.  Muslim populations are increasingly educated, they watch TV and the young go on-line and use cell-phones. In the twentieth century when the United State and the Soviet Union were vying for influence, the Arab countries largely chose non-alignment, but they also had a socially oriented Arab unity movement, which faced off against fundamentalist tendencies such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the reasons why the so-called war on terrorism is misleading is that all religions have their fundamentalists. In fact, fundamentalists from different religions have more in common with one another than they do with their respective mainstreams: both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists share an acceptance of violence in defense of their respective faiths, and a tendency to see women as objects under male rule. Where the two faiths differ is in their attitudes toward wealth: American fundamentalists generally espouse the pursuit of material goods, even though this is difficult to divorce from the commercialization of sex. Islamists’ greatest objection to the West is the commercialization of sex and the consumer, or me society, which is the antithesis of spirituality and in conflict with charity, one of the five pillars of Islam which must be practiced daily.

Another historical fact that gets short shrift by the media is the antagonism between the two main groups of Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’as. It is usually referred to in terms of their respective rituals, but their social distinctions are more relevant. Shi’ism emphasizes Islam’s commitment to solidarity and hence is usually found among the lower classes, whereas the Sunnis tend to belong to the exploiting class. Although there have been Sunni leaders such as Nasser, who espoused some form of socialism, the Shi’a ethos, inspired by the Prophets chosen successor, Ali, who was murdered, is epitomized by the Iranian Revolution and Ahmedinejad’s continuing support among the working class, whereas Sunni rulers tend to be allied with the United States.

In the recent Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to want to be all things to all people, promising Sharia law, bikinis, democracy and human rights. This is simply a reflection of the phenomenon I announced at the start of this article: the current jockeying between religion, socialism and liberalism and various combinations thereof.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that Islam is undergoing a crisis similar to that which began for Christianity in the  sixteenth century, when Martin Luther publicly rejected  Catholicism, and Protestantism was born in an effort to ‘reform’ it. The subsequent European wars of religion lasted for over a hundred years, but had few repercussions on the outside world. Today, the failure of the Western media to provide information about Islamic history results in a severely limited view of an upheaval that affects the entire globe.

Currently the Syrian crisis is in the forefront, yet the historical antagonism between a small Shi’a sect, the Alawites,   and a largely Sunni population is absent from the media, as is     the long history of Turkish/Syrian conflict. The Turkish coastal province of Hatay, home to members of the small Shi’a sect known as the Alawites, to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, has been claimed by both countries since 1939, and partly accounts for the seemingly contradictory positions Turkey has taken in the Syrian crisis.

Last but not least, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups which led to rise of a Muslim Socialist Party, the Ba'ath. In 1963, a group of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, helped the Ba'ath Party seize power. Under the Alawites, Syria has been under secular socialist rule, a fact never mentioned in the mainstream media. That is why it is supported both by Russia  and Iran.

In a region that has been almost monolithically religious for fourteen hundred years, secular, socialist and liberal ideologies have paved the way for a reformation - or modernization of Islam, as emphasized in an RT interview of Tunisia’s foreign Minister on June 30 The West needs to recognize this trend instead of fixating on the terrorist behaviors - comparable to the European Religious Wars - that accompany it.















































Saturday, June 23, 2012

Why Does the U.S.Support the Muslim Brotherhood?

After reading Syriana a slim volume in French by a Turk of Syrian origin living in Belgium and published by INVESTIG’ACTION, ( that details the ethnic and sectarian strife going back hundreds of years in the Middle East, I wondered why Bahar Kimyongur repeatedly affirmed that the United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.

Now, in a blog the same author accuses the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of using the Muslim Brotherhood to deliver arms to Syrian rebels. That may seem peculiar considering that these same countries’ fear the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt following presidential elections there.

Here is the explanation: much as in the nineties we opposed the Russian-backed Communist government of Afghanistan, funding various Sunni-inspired rebel fighters who since have turned against us, today we fear the growth of Shi’a Islam because this current has always represented the underdog. Officially, we are opposed to Iran because it threatens Israel. But in reality we are determined to see regime change in Teheran because since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that brought Shia clerics to power, we have feared their egalitarian - and hence anti-Western - ethos.

The countries that have significant Shia populations are known  as ‘The Shia Crescent’. They include Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Syria, while having a minority Shi’a population, has been ruled by the Shi’a minority Alawite sect since Bashar Al Assad’s father, Hafez Al Assad came to dominate the Ba’ath Socialist Party in 1970. The current Syrian crisis cannot be understood without awareness of the Ba’ath Party which, from its inception after the Second World War, was a key player in the decades-long struggle for unity known as Pan-Arabism.

The Ba’ath party’s motto "Unity, Liberty, Socialism" was inspired by French revolutionary ideology. Unity refers to Arab unity, or Pan-Arabism, and liberty refers to self-determination, or freedom from foreign control. Arab Socialism grew out of that dual quest, its founders believing that only a socialist system of property and development could overcome the social and economic legacy of imperialism and colonialism. During the Cold War, these convictions were at the heart of Arab socialism’s strong internationalist tendency epitomized by its policy of non-alignment,.

But what is most relevant today is that Arab socialism has always been less ideological than cultural and spiritual, and this explains the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to cooperate with both right and left-leaning parties, as evidenced in the Egyptian elections and also in non-Arab but Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. (In non-Arab Muslim countries such as Ahfghanisan and Pakistan, Sunni factions such as the Taliban are closer to the right-wing Salafists. And in Egypt, we would rather see a holdover from the Mubarak era than a Muslim Brotherhood President, because the latter can go with either ideology.)

At the end of the day, there is really only one political battle, that of equity. But there is also a fundamental conflict over God going on in the world. And because religion has always been the handmaiden of power, the two have often been inseparable. Following the onset of the Protestant Reformation, from 1524 to 1648, Europe was wracked by a series of religious wars. By the nineteenth century, these inter-Christian wars seemed a thing of the past. After the Terror and Napoleon’s Empire, the French revolutionary notion of equity was resuscitated, with the birth of the Socialist International. The 20th century was consumed from beginning to end with ever violent conflicts over the question of equity: Communism, which sought to definitively place power in the hands of the many, against fascism, in which the state led the few.

But September 11th, 2001 brought religion into the conflict over equity. It is not for geo-political reasons that Iran is Syria’s staunchest ally, but for ideological/religious reasons. In 1960, the Shia Crescent of the downtrodden recognized the Alawite Sect, which had acquired a political manifestation in the Baath (Socialist) Party of Syria and Iraq. Shia/Alawite opposition to Israel is not religious, but a consequence of their egalitarian and nationalist ideology which dictates support for the Palestinian Arabs’ struggle for independence from the Jewish state.

Commentators often note that opposition to Iran eventually becoming a nuclear power is inconsistent with tolerance of other countries’ nuclear status, whether it be Israel, Pakistan or India. This is to bypass the world ideological struggle between the few and the many, in which religion, as always, is a handmaiden. Israel, India and less reliably Pakistan, all with different religions, are American allies in that struggle, of which the Arab Spring is the most significant manifestation.

As of today, that struggle is reported to be spreading to Sudan, where protesters are rioting against austerity measures. Although African ethnic and tribal rivalries give protests yet another dimension, we should not lose sight of the fact that  they are manifestations of a growing world cleavage based on efforts by the many to move religion into its camp.






















Saturday, June 16, 2012

Triple Election Weekend and Why We Should Care

France, Greece and Egypt vote in second round elections today and tomorrow and none of these polls should leave the rest of the world indifferent. A parliamentary majority in France for Socialist President Francois Hollande will enable him to enact social reforms desired by the French 99%. It will also strengthen his position vis a vis German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their dual over whether to give greater weight to austerity or growth within the Euro zone.

However, the extent to which Hollande will be able to implement his reforms will also depend on the outcome of the Greek parliamentary election, which will determine whether Greece negotiates less painful austerity measures that will enable it to remain in the Eurozone, accepts the draconian measures imposed upon it by the IMF and the European Central Bank in order to remain in the Eurozone, or decides to abandon the Euro and go it alone. The first two alternatives would be extremely painful for the Greek people, the third could render moot the dispute between Merkel and Hollande, as it might lead to the death of the common currency that was intended to further integrate a continent wracked by three wars in less than a century.

This context is fraught with a dual irony, unspoken but lost on no one. Germany was the aggressor in those three European wars, the last of which was launched partly with the stated goal of fulfilling Napoleon’s dream of a European Empire. Though defeated in the latter two conflicts, Germany rose to become the most dynamic European country, now expected to bail out those hardest hit by the global financial crisis. This state of affairs prompts two further considerations: the first is Europe’s failure, in the decades leading up to the introduction of the Euro, to fully unite under a federal system, and the second is the fact that conditions for World War Two were created when after the First World War Germany was saddled with enormous reparations that led to hyperinflation and paved the way for the rise of Hitler.  That hyperinflation of eighty years ago is constantly evoked as the reason for Germany’s insistence on austerity, obfuscating the possibility that the collapse of the Euro, in the most bitter of ironies, could once again turn the countries of an insufficiently united Europe against each other.

Then there is the fact that the Euro is the world’s second reserve currency.  The end of the Eurozone would have cascading repercussions on international finance, hastening the day when the BRIC countries, led by Russia and China, will cease to use the dollar in international transactions.

Moving on now to Egypt, notwithstanding its first truly ‘democratic’ elections, a powerful military has worked to overcome last year’s popular revolution in favor of a new strongman. Three days before the presidential runoff, the Supreme Court ruled that Mubarak’s last Prime Minister could stay in the race, flouting the rule that barred members of the old regime from running. Adding insult to injury, it dissolved the recently elected parliament under another rule which it let stand. Should efforts to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate fail, he would be deprived of the parliamentary majority won just a few months ago. Whoever the new Egyptian president is, he will rule without stated duties, without a constitution and at first, without a parliament.

The failure of the Egyptian Revolution will have two external consequences. It will signal to the remaining Middle East dictatorships that the Arab Spring can be halted, and it will remove a potential threat to Israel constituted by the widely shared anti-Israeli sentiments of its people that former Presidents have kept in check. Today a high-ranking Israeli official speaking on RT admitted that Egypt, on Israel’s southern border, constitutes a far graver threat than relatively far away Iran. In recent months, other high-ranking Israeli figures have warned against attacking Iran, even as the government increased its threat to do so because of that country’s support for Syria, its northern neighbor that is facing armed opposition. The end of the Egyptian revolution, combined with a deterioration in the Syrian situation, will allow Israel to once again focus on it project to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

It is difficult to believe that the United States and Israel have been standing on the sidelines since the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010.  If Wikileaks manages to continue its work notwithstanding the probable extradition to the United States of Julian Assange to face charges of terrorism, the international community will eventually learn of their respective roles, but given the increasing speed with which events unfold, it will not have the leisure to wait for the historical narrative to be revealed.

The Security Council could soon be confronted with a situation that is eerily reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as relations between Washington and Moscow veer toward a new standoff. In response to a strident accusation by Hillary Clinton that it was supplying arms to Syria, Russia this week stated that helicopters destined for Syria are refurbished machines repaired under a previous contract. Today it denied reports that a ship is carrying weapons and troops toit naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. The Cuban Missile Crisis was sparked when U.S. reconnaissance planes photographed the construction of underground missile sites being built by the Soviet Union along Cuba’s coast in retaliation for the stationing of American missiles in Turkey and Italy. The thirteen day standoff between Nikita Khruschev and John F. Kennedy ended with the Soviets repatriating their missiles and the U.S. agreeing not to invade Cuba. However, the current situation is very different: the U.S. has openly touted completion of contingency plans to invade Syria, and there is no quid pro quo that the Russians could offer in return for American backtracking. The two sides can only move forward toward confrontation.

These are just the most obvious stakes in this week-end’s elections, far from American shores, but crucial to a world in which it can still do much harm.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An Irony P.S. and New Insights

Yesterday’s post was missing a last ‘who would have guessed it’ item:  RT reports a recent trend among the children of Indian immigrants to the U.S. It seems that increasing numbers, armed with graduate degrees, are returning to India, where they find more opportunities - and a more relaxed life-style, as has been the case for American ex-pats who move to Europe.

This morning, Britain’s Supreme Court rejected Julian Assange’s request that it reopen Sweden’s request that he be extradited to face sex-related allegations, widely believed to serve America’s determination to arrest Assange on charges of terrorism. Since the U.S. is armed with the latest, controversial legislation allowing it to arrest anyone suspected of links to enemy groups, Assange will be an internationally watched test case.

Finally, just days before the Presidential run-off in Egypt, that Supreme Court has ruled that Parliament should be dissolved, claiming that one-third of its new members were fraudulently elected.  Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss scholar of Islam and Oxford professor, interviewed by RT, believes the Muslim Brotherhood has been used by the Egyptian Army to ultimately retain power, bringing Egypt back to the days of deposed leader Mubarak.

More precisely, as Syria hurtles toward all-out civil war on Israel’s northern and Eastern border, pitting Russia (and, diplomatically, also China) against the United States, the latter appears to be going all-out to ensure that Egypt becomes once again a predictable neighbor to Israel’s south.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Ironies of History

As an RT news anchor commented yesterday, who would have thought, twenty years ago, that Russia and China, who for decades during the Cold War traded insults, that the two largest and most populated countries would form a united front against the hitherto most powerful nation the world has ever known.

If you have been following the news on RT or France 24 or Al-Jazeera, you probably know about Putin’s recent trip to China. The existence of two new ‘blocs’ is also apparent in the Syrian crisis:  Russia has offered to host an international conference to which Syria’s neighbors, as well as Iran, would be invited. Washington, and less stridently, the European Union, are opposed to Iran’s presence at discussions on Syria, with France scheduled to host a meeting of the Western-backed Friends of Syria group on July 6th.

In another touch of irony, some readers may remember the Jewish-Black alliance in the United States that began early in the 20th century and lasted until the 1970’s, when the interests of the two groups began to diverge.  Currently Israel is expelling 4,000 Black Africans who were formerly given refuge.

And finally, on a lighter note, the English language channel France 24 confessed that the latest foreign tourists to find the French less than friendly are...... the Chinese. Apparently, while history moves inexorably forward according to the arrow of time, countries, whose ethos is largely dictated by culture, tend to remain the same.

This is true of Russia, China and the United States as well, the first two imbued with the Socialist tradition of solidarity, while the third continues a tradition of force.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Syria and the Arrow of Time

In physics there is something called the arrow of time.  It means that time cannot be reversed and is something we need to ponder when conflict begins.  In cases like Syria, the international community purports to do all it can to stop a revolt in its tracks.  But because of the arrow of time, such efforts are futile, only enabling the parties to better prepare for war.

I suspect politicians sense this instinctively, but knowing that it is an immutable scientific phenomenon should help the rest of us realize that a process, once engaged, moves inexorably forward, no matter what anyone does.

But there is something else about the Syrian conflict that is never mentioned on any of the media that I watch, and that is that Israel is directly affected by who rules Syria.  Among those concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, Syria has long been known as ‘the front-line state’ because it shares a border with the country that is occupying Palestinian land.

Perhaps neither Israel nor the United States has fomented the unrest that has been wracking Syria for the past year, but I find it difficult to believe that once it began, neither Israel nor the United States did anything to encourage it.  Washington’s hesitation waltz when it comes to providing arms and money  to the rebels is due to the fact that it doesn’t know who it is dealing with - or  more precisely which ideology has the best chance of coming out on top if Assad is toppled. He could be replaced by even more militant anti-Israelis.

The French website Voltaire.Net  reports that the U.S. is training Syrian and Cuban dissidents in Florida, complete with pictures of a seminar under the auspices of governor Rick Scott and a joint declaration of the participants. Perhaps this is a way for Washington to try to pick the winners. However, it illustrates the fact that the arrow of time applies not only to war, but also to indirect efforts to effectuate regime change: the one in Cuba is still in place after more than fifty years.