Feb 052016
 

هناك حالة كبيرة من التذمر العربي من إيران، وخصوصا في الخليج العربي، وهو تذمر تختلط فيه معطيات السياسة والمصالح الجيوستراتيجيّة مع الاعتبارات المذهبية والطائفية، ففي الغالب يُنظر إلى إيران باعتبارها دولة شيعية معنية بنشر المذهب الشيعي في مختلف أرجاء العالم أولًا وقبل وكل شيء. ورغم أنه لا يمكن إنكار هذا البعد في السياسة الإيرانية، إلا أن ثمة جملةً من الحقائق المغيبة في هذه القراءة الاختزالية التي تنظر إلى إيران من الزاوية الدينية فحسب وتتجاهل أبعادًا أخرى ينبغي الانتباه إليها.

تظل إيران بدرجة أولى دولة قومية تبحث عن تعزيز مصالحها ونفوذها، وهي إحدى الكيانات الإقليمية المؤثرة في منطقة الشرق الأوسط، ولذلك فهي معنية بتعظيم مكانتها الإقليمية مستخدمة البعد المذهبي أو الطائفي باعتباره جزءًا من السياسة القومية الإيرانية.

صحيح أن إيران الخميني وفي ظل اندفاعاتها الثورية الأولى، قد غلب عليها بعد الأممية الإسلامية في البداية قبل أن يطغى البعد الشيعي الطائفي بصورة فاقعة فيما بعد، إلا أن منطق الدولة القومية يظل هو المحركَ الرئيسيَّ للسلوك السياسي الإيراني.

لقد أغرى الضعف العربي وتراجع النفوذ الأميريكي في المنطقة بعد احتلال العراق ثم حالة الانسحاب الفوضوي فيما بعد، أغرى إيران بمزيد من التمدد وتعزيز نفوذها في منطقة رخوة ومليئة بالتناقضات، مستغلة المكونات الشيعية كقاعدة أمامية لتوسيع نفوذها.

التقطت إيران الفرصة التي وفرتها الحرب على العراق ثم إخفاقات الأميركان، ومن ثم انسحابهم العسكري لتتمدد في الفراغات الحاصلة من خلال زرع رجالاتها المرتبطين بها، وإحلال حكم طائفي شيعي يدين لها بالولاء، مع العمل على تغيير الخارطة الديمغرافية العراقية.

هكذا، حولت طهران بغداد العاصمة العراقية إلى مدينة شبه شيعية تقريبا مستغلة خطاب المظلومية الشيعية في حقبة صدام حسين لتمارس مظلومية أشد وأنكى ضد المكونات الاجتماعية العراقية الأخرى، خصوصا في عهد المالكي الذي أُصطبغ بصبغة شيعية طائفية فجة لم يعرف العراق لها مثيلا على امتداد تاريخه.

كما سعت إيران إلى نشر المذهب الشيعي في مناطق مختلفة من المجال الاسلامي السني وربط المجموعات الشيعية الناشئة بها واستخدامها أذرعًا أمامية لتقوية حضورها.

عملت إيران بعد ثورات الربيع العربي التي اجتاحت المنطقة عام 2011 من تونس ومنها إلى مصر وليبيا على ركوب هذه الموجة واصفة إياها بالثورات الإسلامية الشاهدة على صحة خط الثورة الإيرانية ضد نظام الشاه.

بيد أن انتقال مسار التغيير هذا إلى الحليف السوري قد أربك السياسة الإيرانية فانقلب الخطاب للحديث عن مؤامرة أميركية إسرائيلية ونزلت طهران بثقلها العسكري والسياسي لدعم بشار الأسد ثم إرسال الأذرع الشيعية في لبنان والعراق وأفغانستان وغيرها لتقاتل إلى جانب النظام السوري.

ومع دخول الروس على الخط حدث التقاء وتحالف إيراني روسي في سوريا وغيرها من المواقع الأخرى. كما عملت إيران على إعادة التموقع في الساحة اليمنية وعلى أبواب الخليج عن طريق جماعة الحوثي التي تدين لها بالولاء السياسي والديني.

في مقابل هذا الاندفاع السياسي والعسكري الإيراني المبني على تصميم ورؤية في الدفاع عن المصالح القومية وتعزيزها من خلال استخدام الجماعات الشيعية ونسج تحالفات إقليمية ودولية قوية، تشهد الساحة العربية السنية حالة من الفراغ السياسي المريع نتيجة انسحاب الكيانات العربية الوازنة، ثم حالة الانقسام العربي وغياب الرؤية المشتركة.

يتذمر العرب من التمدد الإيراني في المنطقة وهم يتخبطون بين الصراعات والانقلابات، مشتتين بلا قيادة ولا وجهة. من تبقى ليلم شعث العرب ويقودهم؟

مصر السيسي مشغولة عن القيادة بحربها الضروس ضد أكبر تيار سياسي بداخلها.
العراق غارق في حرب طائفية مستمرة منذ الغزو الأمريكي.
سوريا مستنزفة في حرب أهلية تخفي صراعات إقليمية ودولية أكبر.
أما دول المغرب العربي فتنحصر مشاغلها في المجال المغاربي الاوروبي بدرجة أولى.
ربما كان الاستثناء الوحيد هو السعودية بثقلها الديني والاقتصادي الذي يسمح لها بتوجيه القاطرة العربية إذا ما توفرت لديها البوصلة السليمة وإرادة تجميع الجسم العربي ورأب صدوعه.

فيما يتخبط العرب في سلسلة من الصراعات والتناقضات الداخلية، تمضي إيران جاهدة لاعادة تشكيل المشهد الإقليمي بما يخدم مصالحها الخاصة، تُسخّر كل امكانياتها السياسية والاقتصادية ورصيدها المذهبي لخدمة أهدافها لتتحول الى قوة إقليمية فاعلة رغم الحصار الذي ضربه ضدها الأميركان منذ بداية ثورتها.

في الأثناء، تملأ دول عربية عدة الأجواء ضجيجًا حول الخطر الإيراني الضارب والمد الشيعي الداهم، وهي التي لم تدخر جهًدا في السعى لإجهاض محاولات العرب للتحرر والنهوض، وسخّرت جلّ طاقتها لتمزيق الجسم العربي السنّي في معارك عبثية ضدّ تياراته السياسية الكبرى، فمضت تبث الفوضى هنا وتؤجج الصراعات الداخلية والفتن والحروب الأهلية وتدعم الانقلابات العسكرية هناك.

في حين تُلقي إيران بكامل ثقلها السياسي والعسكري والمالي والإعلامي لدعم حلفائها من المجموعات الشيعية العقائدية في نقاط مختلفة من العالم، تنخرط هذه الدول العربية في ضرب المكونات الإسلامية السنية التي تمثل عنصر التوازن الرئيسي مع الإسلام الشيعي في المنطقة، بل وصل غيّها حد تأليب الدول الغربية للتضييق على المنظمات والجمعيات والهيئات العربية الإسلامية المعتدلة وحظرها وملاحقة قياداتها وناشطيها بدل دعمها لخدمة مصالح العرب والدفاع عن قضاياهم.

كفانا بكائياتٍ لا جدوى منها. المشكلة الرئيسية عربية قبل أن تكون إيرانية. الكل يتجند للدفاع عن مصالحه بتصميم وإرادة ورؤية: الأتراك والإيرانيون وحتى الأكراد، كل أمم منطقتنا ما عدا العرب، بقوا تائهين يمضون على غير هدًى، يُخربون بيوتهم بأيديهم وأيدي غيرهم، ولا يجيدون غيرَ الصّراخ والعويل!

Nov 242015
 

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We are trapped. Once again, we find ourselves wedged between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the European far right and of Republican neocons across the Atlantic. Every war has its mongers who profit from its sorrows, rubble and spilt blood. So too does terrorism. Along with its victims and perpetrators, it has its merchants who capitalize on its horrors, chaos and climates of fear and tension. To these, every terrorist bombing and shooting is a golden opportunity to revive arrogant racist notions in a new Islamophobic format, thus enabling them to penetrate further into the mainstream, gaining new territory and more votes. The target is no longer “Africans”, “Asians”, “blacks”, or “browns”, but “Muslims”, “Arabs”, “Middle Easterners”, or “Syrians”. Against these, all limits may be dispensed with, the unspeakable may be spoken, the unacceptable becomes acceptable.

Before the dust had settled in Paris, the old symphony of “we” and “they” reverberated once more. “Our” enlightened values, we were again told, were locked in existential struggle against “their” barbaric religion and savage culture. “They” here, of course, does not refer to extreme fanatical violent groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, or Isis, but to hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. Thus suddenly, ordinary working men and women going about their daily lives in Indonesia or Malaysia, Bangladesh or Senegal, find themselves cast as the enemy vying to destroy “our” western civilization, “our” sublime ideals and way of life.

What is worrying is that this rhetoric, which in Europe is more characteristic of the far right, is increasingly endorsed by mainstream Republicans in the US. It is ironic that, while Francois Hollande had declared in his address to the French Senate and National Assembly after the Paris attacks that “We’re not engaged in a war of civilizations, because the assassins do not represent any”, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the globe, US Republicans furiously insisted on the reverse.

The theme of civilizational clash between the West and Islam has been a favorite in the Republican debates. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator and Republican presidential hopeful, went as far as to draw analogies between Islam and Nazism as he angrily reacted to Hillary Clinton’s statement that she did not believe the United States was at war with Islam. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves”, he suggested. “This is a clash of civilizations. For they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values.”

And just like the far-right in Europe, Republicans have swiftly moved to raise the question of Syrian refugees’ settlement in connection with the Paris attacks. While Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National demanded an “immediate halt” to the intake of Syrian refugees into France, Republicans lined up to urge a ban on any “middle Eastern” migrants in the US. A succession of governors, mostly Republicans, announced that they would not allow any Syrian applicants to be placed in their states, vowing to block the government’s plans to resettle a mere 10.000 of those fleeing the war in Syrian into the US.

Jeb Bush went further, demanding that the US only accept those applicants proven to be Christian, after thorough vetting and checks to ensure that they are indeed Christian. “We should focus our efforts as it relates to refugees on the Christians that are being slaughtered” he declared. Bush is not alone in calling for a discriminatory approach to the Syrian refugee question. The position has been endorsed by a number of senior Republicans such as Ted Cruz. “If there are Syrian Muslims who are really being persecuted”, he objected, they should be sent to “majority-Muslim countries.” “on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution.. we should be providing safe haven to them”.

That such bigoted, exclusionist language could be used by mainstream politicians in the 21st century is scandalous. Those fleeing brutality, death and destruction are no longer to be seen as human victims who deserve shelter and safety, but as Christians and Muslims, good victims and bad victims. As if it weren’t enough for Syrians to lose everything, their possessions, homes and loved ones, this sick narrative would have them stripped of their victimhood too.

Listening to Republicans chastise Obama and his administration over its Middle East strategy, one gets the impression that we are still in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is as if the US had never invaded Iraq, had never been defeated there and forced to withdraw in a hurry, exhausted and humiliated. They seem unaware of the chaos and destruction their absurd wars had unleashed on the whole region and the great damage they had caused to the United States itself. One of modern history’s greatest ironies is that no one has done more to dissipate the neoconservative dream of American world supremacy and bury the New American Century Project than the former Republican neocon administration itself.

What makes the Republicans’ discourse on Islam and the Muslim world dangerous is that it is disseminated through a wide and powerful network of media outlets and rightwing think tanks then consumed by a public with no direct contact or firsthand knowledge of the Muslim world. What gets generally confined to the shadowy margins of the far right in Europe, has in the United States, with its geographic remoteness from the Muslim hemisphere, lack of familiarity with Islam and the American tradition of religious based idealism, the potential of dominating mainstream public opinion of Islam and Muslims.

The truth is that cultures, civilizations and lifestyles do not clash. It is humans who clash, with their interests, ambitions, illusions and fantasies. Instead of the twisted binary logic of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, terrorism should render us more keenly aware of the interconnectedness of our world, of our shared existence and the dangers that threaten us all. Terrorists do not ask for their victims IDs before mutilating their bodies in Paris, Beirut, or Tunis. The solution to the insane chaos into which we have been dragged since 9/11 begins with an active rejection of the ugly dualisms of “us” and “them”, of believers vs infidels and of Westerners/Europeans vs the Muslim other.

Nov 102015
 

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A funereal atmosphere descended over western capitals with the announcement of Turkey’s parliamentary elections’ results, widely described in European and American media as a “shock” and a “black day for Turkey.” The picture painted appeared very bleak, as a stream of reports, editorials and op-eds by opposition figures warned of a “return to autocracy and despotism” and declared the outcome as a threat to the “survival of democracy” in the country.

Absent in such doom and gloom analyses was the fact that Erdogan had accepted last June’s elections’ results, which had depleted his party’s parliament representation, and had sought to form a national unity government. As such proposals were firmly rejected by the opposition, he proceeded to call for early elections in conformity with the Turkish constitution.

Neither do those heaping wrath and scorn on the new “Ottoman Sultan” note that the Turkish president is surrounded by a ring of half and full-fledged despots from every side, in Jordan and the Gulf kingdoms, as in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a little further away in the same neighbourhood, reigns a military general, who, only two years ago, had seized power through a blood-soaked coup after kidnapping the country’s democratically elected president and throwing him in jail. His tanks crushed the will of the people along with the skulls and bodies of hundreds of peaceful protesters, young and old, male and female, in one of the worst atrocities in contemporary history.

Yet this very same ruler, who presides over one of the most backward tyrannical regimes on the planet, is greeted with open arms in western capitals, in Paris as in Berlin. Today, he is being hosted by David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

The message sent to the people of the region is loud and clear: either a made to fit democracy tailored to our needs and likes, or a dictator, odious though he may be. We will block our noses and shake the vulgar thug’s hand. We will call on our band of hired apologists: “experts,” “commentators” and “analysts” to concoct a set of justifications and excuses for his nauseating conduct, from mythical economic development and reform to political shrewdness, and if all else fails, reach for the Kessinger-Albright dictionary and throw in some “political realism”.

Ironically, while over 85% of eligible voters had participated in the Turkish elections, roughly the same percentage of Egyptians had chosen to collectively abstain from taking part in the recent shambolic Egyptian parliamentary polls. Thus they had denied the Field Marshal and his backers in Washington and London the fig leaf much needed to cover his dictatorial rule.

While Erdogan is vilified and chastised, the red carpet is rolled for Sisi. Yet one had placed his country on the route to democracy after five military coups and decades of absolutist army rule, while the other had put a brutal stop to his nation’s nascent democratic experiment.

Implicit in coverage of the Turkish elections is the assumption that those who had voted for the AK Party are impulsive irrational mobs easily duped by Erdogan’s “fear mongering” and “nationalist propaganda”. He has, we were repeatedly told, stirred their phobia of economic instability and insecurity. It is as though Turks had no right to fear for their economic interests or their security, with crises raging on their frontiers immediate and indirect, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya, while they host over two million Syrian refugees in their midst, with Europe and the U.S. unwilling to accept even a quarter of that number.

The millions who have taken part in the polls have made conscious informed choices, casting their vote for those whom they believe best represent their interests and respond to their legitimate fears (as voters do in every democracy around the world).

Here, as in much reporting and commentary on the Middle East, most western reporters and analysts prove unable to go beyond the boundaries of dominant narratives, or cross over ideological and cultural obstacles to grasp the reality on the ground and make sense of the actions of ordinary men and women or their motivations. They are displaying symptoms of what may be described as euro-centrism, egocentrism, or Orientalism. The external observer of colonial times, the missionary, traveller, or colonial functionary, has taken new contemporary forms: the expert, commentator, or correspondent dispatched from the old metropolis to the Empire’s peripheries. But the structure of the discourse and its content remain largely unchanged and their coded messages are constantly reproduced in new forms.

Very few in the region still take the west’s democracy rhetoric seriously. After invading and demolishing Iraq armed with promises of democratisation and emancipation, it installed a succession of sectarian despots. Instead of the sweet smell of freedom, Baghdad reeked of the stench of death and the smoke of civil war and terrorism. And no longer does Obama sing the praises of the sublime January Revolution, or fervently wish he were a rebel on Tahrir Square. The revolutionaries are rotting away in medieval dungeons while their jailor is entertained around western capitals. And instead of pointing the finger to the real tyrants up and down the Middle East and holding them to account, it is the region’s only democratically elected president (with the exception of Tunisia in North Africa) who is singled out for criticism and demonisation.

So, a small word of advice to western politicians and army of commentators and “experts”: trust me, when it comes to democracy in the region, silence is best.

 

Oct 302015
 

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If I got a penny for every time I was told that religion is the cause of all trouble, I’d be a rich woman by now. If only we had John Lennon’s religionless world, there would be no war, or conflict and everyone would love their neighbour. If only the theologians, clergymen, mullahs and priests could get on, the world’s problems would be resolved at a stroke.

No doubt, religion does play a part in many of the crises and conflicts raging around us. But more often than not, these problems take on a religious name and speak through the medium of religion, while having their roots in socio-political factors.

Examples are found in the Northern Ireland dispute as in the Middle East conflict. Though those at loggerheads happen to belong to divergent confessional communities, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims/Christians, they did not come to blows because of their religious affiliations. Their grievances are fundamentally political, even if they hide themselves in the guise of religion and communicate in its language.

Religion is often the mirror that reflects worldly tensions. To say that religion is divisive is to attempt no analysis of the problems at hand. It is to stop at the surface making no effort to dig deeper for the underlying problems seething underneath.

Take the orgy of sectarian bloodshed that has been raging in Iraq for over a decade, for instance. Sunnis and Shia have been killing each other by the tens on a daily basis. Do not venture into a Sunni dominated area if your name happens to be Hassan, and you have more chance of ending up with a slit throat on some street corner if you suddenly lost your way and found yourself in Sadr city and you were called Omar.

But let us not stop there, let us ask the difficult questions others would rather we left undisturbed. Why do Iraq’s Sunni and Shia kill each other today when they didn’t years ago? Why were they able to coexist before, but find that impossible to do today? Every Iraqi tribe and family numbers both Sunni and Shia. They intermingled, intermarried, lived not only side by side but under the same roof, often sharing the same bed. This was the case even under Saddam’s despotic rule. Then and before, for centuries Iraq was one of the world’s most diverse places, a veritable mosaic of religions, ethnicities, sects and denominations, Muslims, Christians, Sabians, Yazidis, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkmen all peacefully shared the same space.

This was Iraq before. It isn’t Iraq today, since the American/British invasion and Bremer’s transitional authority, which destroyed Iraq’s political order, substituting it for one grounded in sectarianism and ethnic factionalism. National identity was broken asunder, the common torn apart, only narrow group affiliations remained. In the chaos that followed, every splinter group wanted to seize all, leaving the rest with nothing. Forming the security and police forces in the new Iraq along sectarian lines poured oil over fire, equipping one faction with the tools it would later use in its quest to exterminate its rivals.

Shiism and Sunnism are not to blame. Bush, Blair and Bremer are.

Neither are Judaism, Christianity, or Islam responsible for the Middle East conflict. Palestinians and Israelis invoke religious symbols and references in their rationalisation of the dispute, in a space laden with sacred meanings for both sides. But the truth is that this is not a conflict over a mosque, church, or temple, though it has come to be symbolised by such monuments. Primarily, and above all, it is over land, dispossession, settlement, occupation and will to liberation. The relationship is more between occupier and occupied than between Jew and Muslim/Christian. More than the Quran or the Old Testament, it is the Balfour Declaration and the great powers’ strategies in the region that have spawned and dictated the course of this long and painful drama.

Many more examples could be cited for the superficiality of explanations of socio-political movements and phenomena in exclusively religious terms, from the Reformation in 16th century Europe, to Islamic radicalism in the 21st. Religion is neither the root of all virtue, nor the cause of all evil. Good conditions spawn good religion, bad conditions bad religion. The evils of reality have a habit of metamorphosing into evil religion. It is the chaotic war-torn and crisis ridden Middle East today that fosters and nourishes the extreme violent ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Humans and societies are not blank pages, but the carriers of a profound cultural, symbolic, and historic heritage, through which they communicate and make sense of reality. This imbedded repository of values, images and references, is inevitably invoked in peace as in war, and more so in war and times of turmoil. Amidst tension, cultural, religious, and national identities are awakened, activated, and intensified.

This is not to say, as Marx had done, that religion is a superfluous illusion. It is an integral part of the collective memory and consciousness of groups and individuals. Through it they ascribe meaning to their experiences and justification to their actions. It functions silently unnoticed amidst stability and calm and becomes more vocal, more visible and sometimes more explosive through crisis and turbulence. There is no inherently peaceful religion, and no inherently aggressive religion. Take Christianity, for instance, it inspired asceticism and otherworldliness, just as it ignited the flames of conflict and schism, in the 16th century, wars of religion as in the Crusades. There is no religion per se.

In short, we would do well to avoid peering at reality through the prism of ideas and doctrines. Humans, you see, walk on their feet, not their heads.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soumaya-ghannoushi/religion-is-not-to-blame_b_8417720.html

Oct 272015
 

Egypt’s January Revolution collapsed for many reasons. Some are to do with the structure of power and role of the military in political life. Others with mistakes committed by the new forces in the management of crises in the post revolution phase, failing to rise above ideological differences and forge strong alliances to curb the army’s dominance and limit its influence. While the pro-revolution camp spent its energy in internecine feuding and blame slinging, the counter-revolutionary machine, oiled with the Gulf monarchies’ petrodollars, set about making ordinary Egyptians’ lives a misery. Through manufactured chaos, manipulations of fuel and food prices, obstructions of government by the old bureaucracy in the judiciary, administration and intelligence services and a media wedded to SCAF and the old oligarchs, Egyptians were convinced their country was teetering on the verge of destruction.

Salvation came in the person of General Sisi. In one of history’s darkest ironies, facts were reversed and terms stripped of meaning. With the usurpation of power, symbols were also usurped, as Tahrir Square, emblem of popular revolt against authoritarianism, was turned into a gigantic open air theatre where the old regime was euphorically greeted back. The brutal military coup was a “corrective movement” and the counter-revolution was dubbed the “glorious June 30th revolution,” nothing less. The coup staged against a democratically elected president, freely chosen by a majority of the people, was in defence of democracy and an embodiment of the people’s will.

From the outset, Sisi was cast as a selfless defence minister nobly rising to the call of duty for his nation’s sake. He was a servant of the people, altruistically bowing to the popular will. His legitimacy rested on a direct mandate from the people, who yearned for salvation, order and stability. His was a “historic responsibility” he declared. “We will build an Egyptian society that is strong and stable, that will not exclude any one of its sons.”

Two years after this televised address, Egypt looks nothing like this promised heaven of stability and cohesiveness. Scores of Egyptians have been murdered by an ever more rampant police, sentenced to death in kangaroo courts, or jailed in the most inhumane conditions where torture is routine. Dissent is not tolerated, with the media and the press reduced to the role of state propagandists singing the General’s praises and parroting his words.

Neither was Sisi’s tyrannical rule able to yield stability, with an insurgency in Sinai, attacks in the capital itself, sustained civil conflict and martial law. Sisi’s security credentials have been as abysmal as his democratic record.

Is it any wonder then, that voting stations have been deserted over the last two days of Egypt’s parliamentary polls?

In what observers have described as “elections without voters,” turnout has been as low as 3% in some polling stations. In a movement of mass silent opposition, people defied a state propaganda which ranged from passionate entreaties and fervent appeals to patriotic sentiments and religious faith, to veiled and open threats to abstainers of fines and denunciations for treason. Egyptians have simply refused to be part of the farce designed to drape Sisi in a democratic cloak he still desperately needs to rub away the stain of his blood-drenched military coup.

While the new forces that suddenly rose to power in the revolution’s aftermath, without forging common alliances, proved incapable of surmounting the mighty obstacles on the way, the counter-revolution spearheaded by the military is in crisis today too. In spite of all the repression and persecution, the old guard have been unable to mould the Egyptian landscape as they see fit or dictate the course of events. Protest to their rule is ongoing and expanding, taking on open and silent forms. From defiant weekly demonstrations in different parts of the country, to voters staying in and resolutely abstaining from polling en masse.

Sooner or later, Sisi will no doubt come to realize that his magical recipe of oppression and mass anaesthesia through media and religious propaganda will not transform him into a present-day Nasser. For beyond his self-aggrandising illusions, the truth is that he is neither a hero nor a national saviour, but a reckless military adventurer and the leader of a counterrevolution that may last for a few years, but will eventually wither away.

 

Oct 272015
 

 

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Sunni Islam is in turmoil. Over the last two decades, it has been in the grip of ferment and fragmentation unprecedented in its long history. After the wave of radicalisation that had swept across Shiism following the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was the turn of Sunni Islam, which represents around 80% of Muslims worldwide, to seize the spotlight and move centre- stage, with the relentless rise of radical violent movements of the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The roots of Sunni Islam’s ailments it must be noted are not entirely to do with religion, as most journalists, politicians and “experts” in Europe and across the Atlantic never tire of repeating. Rather than scripture and theology, it is in politics and economics, in power balances, foreign interventions and the scramble for influence and resources that the causes of its ills reside. Religious faith, sect and ethnic affiliations are spontaneously recalled, or wilfully exploited within the conflicts raging around the Muslim world, but are in reality neither their primary cause nor the sole key to their resolution.

Still, there is a real concrete problem characterizing majority Sunni Islam: the profusion of religious and political voices pronouncing in its name, in disorderly, conflicting and confusing ways — a phenomenon from which Shia Islam has been largely immune thanks to the power conferred upon the clergy within the sect.

Sunni Islam has for centuries established itself as representing the majority’s beliefs, or the Muslim ummah‘s faith, rather than being a mere sect, in contrast with the various other components of the Muslim landscape, which assumed the character of dissidents seceding from the mainstream. This gave Sunni Islam a sense of self-confidence and the ability to identify with the wider ummah and act as is its voice, while other creeds remained limited expressions of angry dissident factions, even where they happened to seize power as with the Fatimid Shias who ruled Tunisia and Egypt between 909 and 1171 AD.

Theologically and historically, Sunni Islam has been largely egalitarian, in that it has denied anyone the right to monopolize the religious text, instituting a direct relationship between believers and scripture, free of any hierarchy. This created wide scope for flexibility and pluralism in the interpretation of the text, leading to the emergence of myriad intellectual and juristic Sunni schools.

Shiism on the other hand, underwent a sort of catholicism through restricting the process of scriptural interpretation to the infallible imams, and their successors, the clergy who provide the sects’ adherents with requisite religious exegeses and are devoutly followed by them.

The problem of absence of a religious axis of gravity or guiding centre was resolved within Sunnism by establishing the authority of scholars (ulama) as the chief bearers of the legitimacy to interpret the religious text, while acknowledging the right to intellectual pluralism within the framework of “ijtihad” or free interpretation.

But Sunni Islam has undergone a brutal change over the last two centuries. The process of modernization in the Muslim world has been associated with the growing role of the state and its bureaucracy as the chief, then eventually, sole actor and controller of the fates of Muslim societies. This phenomenon coincided with the fragmentation of the authority of scholars and the erosion of traditional learning institutions, which had been responsible for furnishing Muslim societies with meaning, values and symbols and maintaining their general equilibrium. This generated a vacuum filled with confusion and chaos, as amateurs and impostors came to intrude into the sphere hitherto occupied by qualified jurists and scholars.

The fates of Sunni religious establishments ranged between total obliteration, as was the case in Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria, and marginalisation and annexation as happened in Egypt, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Egypt’s al-Azhar turned into an arm of the state’s, used by successive rulers to bestow legitimacy on their power and political edicts. Tunisia’s al-Zaytouna, established in 737 AD, was closed down in the 1960s, then turned into a mere marginal branch of the post-independence Tunisian university.

Amidst the vacuum, disorder, and erosion of the religious educational system, many intruders were able to penetrate into the deserted territory and claim the authority of pronouncing in the name of Islam and acting as the guardians of its adherents. Ben Laden was an engineer while al-Zawahiri was doctor, both educated and trained in modern/ post-colonial establishments.

Indeed, contrary to the dominant narrative that associates terrorism with religious education, it is rare to find a terrorist who had received solid instruction in a Sunni religious educational institution, even those that have lost their lustre. In fact, it is graduates from those schools and universities that are acting as powerful antidotes to extremist groups and the version of Islam they espouse.

No doubt, we cannot turn the clock back. The modernization process is a firm reality in the Muslim world. Furthermore, the intellectual, or modern intelligentsia is now a factor of Muslim society. It has taken on aspects of the role traditionally played by the scholar. The challenge for Muslims today is to restore and revive Sunni Islam’s enormous religious and scholarly heritage within a modern context, thus creating an amalgam of the profound and rich Islamic sciences and modern methods and disciplines.

In order to absorb the great tensions seething deep within Sunni Islam’s guts and recover its equilibrium it is crucial to redeem the status and function of the traditional scholar not as the sole player on the arena or as the conscience of Sunni Islam, but as an intellectual authority of great moral influence and presence across Muslim society. The key to this restorative process lies in the revival of the old educational Sunni establishments, taking into account the spirit of modernity and demands of the times, while preserving their autonomy and independence from the powers that be, thus imparting moral authority to their views and interpretations in the eyes of Muslims around the world.

Only then can we resurrect the traditions of openness and dialogue that had characterized those institutions and safeguard the Muslim body from the extreme tendencies of violent terrorist groups. Take Morocco, for instance. Thanks to its active and influential religious institutions, foremost al-Qarawiyyin and Husseiniyya, it was able to weaken radical currents and deny them religious legitimacy. This stands in sharp contrast with the experiences of its neighbours in Algeria and Tunisia, where the dearth of local religious scholars has left society, mainly the younger generations, prey to the influence of extreme ideas and ill-equipped to challenge and isolate their proponents.

Reviving the authority of traditional learning institutions couldn’t on its own act as a magical cure to the maladies of radicalism and terrorism. These feed on the political conflicts raging in the region. But it would no doubt help restore the stability of Muslim societies in a closely interconnected world, where crises can no longer be left to rage far away and inevitably spread closer home. To that the waves of wretched refugees crossing into Europe’s shores to flee the Syrian abyss is a clear testimony.

Image courtesy of Winnond, Free Digital Photos

Oct 272015
 

ID-10051186With over 1.6 billion followers, one third of them living as minorities, Islam is a major force in the world today. An active factor in international relations, its influence is far from local or confined to countries and communities classified as “Muslim.” With the presence of Muslims in Western capitals and the rapid diffusion of mass-communication media, Islam has become a globalized subject, albeit one largely viewed through the prism of security and intelligence. Amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, it has become increasingly perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a generator of crises and a threat to global stability and security.

In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited. Few know the enormous diversity of the Muslim world and its societies, on the levels of schools of thought, religious interpretations, or sectarian pluralism. Fewer still realize that there exists no uniform Islam but divergent tendencies fostered and promoted by the general political climates where different Muslim communities happen to find themselves.

It is such conditions that define the form of Islam that gains prevalence in a given historical context. Like any other major religion, Islam has been in its past, and continues to be in the present, subject to multiple strategies of interpretation. In general terms, we can speak of three prominent trends competing over the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world today.

The first is theocratic, at the service of absolutist rulers for whom Islam is a means of acquiring a de facto authority wrested by the force of the sword and hereditary succession, above any checks and restraints, and free of any accountability. This Islam is armed with its network of institutions, funds, and functionaries. The essence of religion as an authentic spiritual experience is irrelevant here. What matters are the rituals and outward forms of religiosity as the source of power legitimation. Religion is a mere obedient and obliging servant of the ruler, his interests and whims. In the Arabian Peninsula, a Wahhabism wedded to rule by the sword represents the clearest embodiment of this form of Islam.

Its proponents are as eager to exhibit the ritualist and formalistic aspects of Islam in a crudely interventionist way, such as the imposition of prayer, the segregation of men and women and enforcement of the niqab, as they are to keep it remote from politics and the realms of power and authority. As soon as these taboos are touched, the religious establishment, with its guardians of the sacred army comprising official scholars, clergymen and preachers, springs into action, denouncing the culprits as deviant and unorthodox, thereby furnishing the religious cover for their silencing, oppression and elimination.

The second strategy is as morally absolutist, dogmatic, legalistic and exclusionary as the first but espouses a different type of politics. It is an anarchist form of Wahhabism. It feeds on the climates of crisis, wars and conflicts raging in Muslim lands and seeks a source of justification for the perpetration of violence and terror in the theology of Islam.

This minority current had been isolated in Khandahar and the distant mountains of Tora Bora. But the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and widening circle of political, sectarian and ethnic conflicts has strengthened it and enabled it to resonate with growing sectors of angry, anxious and disillusioned Muslim youth. The Arab awakening, which gave people in the region hope of the possibility of peaceful political change, had dealt a powerful blow to this tendency.

But as its great aspirations were crushed under the boots of generals in Egypt, burnt in the furnace of civil wars in Libya and drowned in the bloodshed of Syria, this violent anarchist current gained fresh momentum and rose to the forefront once more. For all its noise and the enormous exposure it receives, however, it still fails to command religious legitimacy or acceptance in the eyes of most Muslims, who still dismiss it as religiously deviant and politically counterproductive, damaging to the image of Islam and the stability of Muslim societies.

The presence of such extremist groups and the extent of their influence depend to a large extent on the general political climates prevailing in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these conditions, particularly those reigning in the Arab hemisphere, show no sign of rehabilitation or stabilization.

These two trends are at loggerheads with democratic modernist Islam, whose roots lie in the 19th-century Islamic reform movement founded by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, which revolves around the notion of compatibility between, on the one hand, Islamic spiritual and religious values and, on the other, what it describes as the “requisites” of modern times. These include the imposition of checks and balances on power, the adoption of democratic mechanisms and procedures, and the emancipation of Islam from what proponents of this reformist school describe as the “prison of stagnation and imitation.”

With the advent of modernization, urbanization and mass education, this current has amassed considerable influence in Muslim societies (and later among Muslim minorities). Today, it is under pressure from multiple quarters. One of these is the theocratic camp, which considers the very presence of an Islam that calls for restrictions on the authority of rulers and respect for the will of the people, expressed through electoral democracy, a direct threat to its existence. This explains the unrelenting war waged by certain Gulf states on the wave of democratic change in the Arab region for the last three years.

Alongside pressures from Arab theocracies, democratic Islam is challenged by Salafi jihadists who dismiss it as “diluted,” “soft” and “naive,” pinning its hopes on peaceful protests and ballot boxes, which, unlike armed warfare, lead nowhere.

And beyond the Muslim landscape, this brand of Islam is viewed with mistrust by many in American decision-making circles and across the Atlantic. In the name of realism and pragmatism, these prefer to deal with rulers who, though authoritarian and ruthless with their masses, are pliant and willing to leave their markets wide open for Euro-American goods and squander billions in their nations’ resources on weapons no one else would buy. These are, therefore, infinitely preferable to elected leaders bound by the will of their people and committed to their interests.

Those who call for the reformation and democratization of Islam seem to miss an essential fact: that a democratic reformist Islam has existed since the 19th century. It has its own literal body, pioneers, and thinkers, within both Shia and Sunni Islam. The question is: Does the situation of present-day Muslim society, marked by crisis, tensions, foreign interventions and political despotism, foster this reformist democratic Islam, or does it promote its violent and theocratic rivals?

Rather than sifting through Muslims’ religious texts, theological tracts and medieval polemical disputes, those agonizing over the “problem” of Islam would do well to ponder the concrete reality of real, living Muslims and seek to fix it rather than striving to fix Islam.

(photo courtesy of  Nutdanai Apokhomboonwaroot, Free Digital Photos)

 

Oct 272015
 

As soon as the Tunisian elections results were announced with Nidaa Tounes overtaking Ennahdha party, celebrations of the “Islamists'” defeat at the hands of the “secularists” got underway across the media in France and many other western capitals. The historical context of a country in the aftermath of a revolution, its socio-political circumstances and complex regional conditions was banished from the narrative. Between cliches of bad “Islamists” “defeated” by good “secularists” and jubilant resurrections of old prophesies of the “failure of political Islam,” the contest was portrayed as a battle of ideologies and world views.

Such faulty conclusions derive from false premises: from the tendency to view political parties and movements with an Islamic reference frame as metaphysical ahistorical entities outside the laws of socio-politics. Their decisions and conduct are only explainable by reference to theology and ideology. Their religious references are seen as the key to their successes in societies viewed through the prism of culture mostly, while their religious discourse is thought to grant them immunity from defeat and diminution. Islamist parties’ electoral setbacks thus stand little chance of being objectively discussed, as one would expect of those of the Democrats in the U.S. or Labour in the UK.

The truth, however, is that Islamists are political actors no different from other parties and political organizations, prone to ascent and descent, success and failure, and subject to the influences of the national political climates where they operate. Those working in open democratic environments differ from those moving within climates of oppression and despotism. The nature of the wider social milieu shapes these actors and defines their political and intellectual outlooks.

Yemen’s Islamists, who function in a tribal framework, or those in Lebanon and Iraq operating in a sectarian context significantly differ from those working in the more culturally and politically open societies of Tunisia or Morocco. In fact, the conditions of the same political actor may vary significantly with changes to its political sphere, which has been the case with Ennahdha party, for instance, which was transformed from a politically radical opposition party under the Ben Ali regime into a ruling party as a result of the rapid developments ushered in by the Tunisian revolution.

The terminological baggage used to refer to such parties and movements is, it must be said, part of the problem. It is overly broad, ambiguous and loaded with negative connotations. It designates actors at opposite ends of the Islamic spectrum with visions of Islam and politics that are at loggerheads, from the violent anarchists of Isis and al-Qaeda and the quietist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who subscribe to a puritanical reading of Islam and firmly reject democracy and its procedures as non-Islamic, to those like Ennahdha and Justice and Development party, who seek to legitimize it within an Islamic reference frame, adopting it as their political methodology, and seeing no contradiction between their faith and human rights, public liberties or individual freedoms. When referring such political parties, it may be more accurate to speak of “democratic political Islam.”

Islamic political movements are byproducts of two interconnected projects. The first, is modernization in the region, with all its tensions, successes, failures and consequences, foremost among which urbanization and mass education. They are both a result of and a response to the modernization process. Contrary to common wisdom, Islamist parties tend to do better in modernized societies, such as those of Turkey and Tunisia, than they fare in more traditional ones like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The second is the nation state. Islamic political parties are crucially influenced by their local environments and shaped by them. Their concerns and priorities remain largely national even if they speak of the notion of the “ummah,” which is in reality a matter of moral and emotional solidarity, nothing more.

We must strip the phenomena of “political Islam” of the mystical aura shrouding them, which results from a tendency to equate them with “fundamentalism”: a mass of angry irrational impulses wholly motivated by religious aspirations and incentives, and instead situate them within the conditions of their time and space. Only through historical socio political context can we hope to cure researchers, journalists and observers of the malady of oversimplification, generalization and reductionism that currently deforms the bulk of analyses of the subject.

Ennahdha party’s electoral successes and failures — past, present, or future — must be stripped of religious and moral considerations and viewed as perfectly normal phenomena in a democratic system where political forces naturally oscillate between ascent and descent. And though the claim that the ‘religious’ have been vanquished by the ‘secularists’ may strongly appeal to many, I fear it does not stand up to accurate objective scrutiny.

What happened in Tunisia has in reality nothing to do with ideology, religion, or secularism and everything to do with local political power balances and surrounding geopolitical conditions. Tunisian voters have clearly opted for two main political parties, which reflects the reality of polarization between these two entities in the country. The relative advance of Nidaa Tounes (38 percent to 31 percent) illustrates that a relative shift in favor of old regime forces has occurred. They have remobilized, recycled themselves and renovated their discourse and some of their faces at the expense of the new forces brought forward by the revolution.

This points to the reality of the ‘Arab Spring’ decline and to the impact of the geopolitical environment over Tunisia and the forces of change in the wider region. Ennahdha rose to power on the wave of change that had swept across the Arab world and is now retreating with the old forces’ return amidst the resurrection of climates of military coups in the region. Small Tunisia and Ennahdha movement could not break this general trend, even if they managed — with great difficulty — to restrain it with the survival of the country’s nascent democratic experiment.

Developments in Tunisia reflect a general rule that applies to those who shoulder the burdens of government in the aftermath of revolution, with all its pressures, challenges, even dangers. Standing on the frontline in post-revolution times comes at a price. It entails a drop in popularity, as revolutions necessarily ignite mass fervor and raise the threshold of expectations to a level hard to meet in normal circumstances, and impossible in the strenuous tumultuous conditions of post revolutions.

This fact is vividly illustrated by the electoral performance of the two secular parties that had entered into an alliance with Ennahdha following the October 2011 elections and had shared the burdens of power with it. Their losses have been bitterly heavy, with the Congress for the Republic dropping from 29 to four seats only, while the Forum for Labour and Liberties, whose chairman had served as the Constituent Assembly leader for the last three years, lost all its seats and was ejected altogether from the new parliament.

Other crucial factors to bear in mind include the challenges and dangers posed to the Tunisian experiment from its direct and indirect geographic environment, from Libya and Southern Sahara, with increasing terror threats due to arms proliferation in Libya and a widening of the circle of anarchy, conflicts and wars in the Arab hemisphere. Equally significant have been the the country’s economic difficulties due to political unrest and climates of instability. Such ordeals were aggravated by the economic crisis that has engulfed the economies of Europe to which Tunisia’s economy has been inextricably tied since its independence in 1956.

The Tunisian election results will no doubt have a palpable effect on Ennahdha party, forcing it towards greater accommodation to its local environment, as well as renovation and reform within a more open democratic context. What is crucial for those with an interest in the subject, however, is to begin to view this party, just like other political Islamic actors, as socio-political phenomena prone to advance and decline, rather than entities outside history.

They must free themselves of their mystical outlook and of culturally essentialist interpretations of political parties with an Islamic background. In open democratic settings, these are likely to move closer towards the model of Christian democratic parties in Europe. Ennahdha party of Tunisia may, in fact, serve as a laboratory for the possible evolution of political Islam in this direction. The question is: when will “Western” journalists and experts rid themselves of their ideological biases and start to see reality as it is, with all its complexities, shades and nuances ?

 

Oct 102014
 

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We often boast of the uniqueness of our system. We are not a totalitarian society that crushes the individual out of existence and tramples over his/her rights and freedoms. Ours is not a traditional society that suffocates its members with the authority of the tribe, its dated norms, rigid customs and smug chieftains. Nor are we comparable with the communist system and its rationalised instruments of surveillance, force and coercion. No, ours is a liberal, free and open society.

But there are questions we need to ask ourselves. For, is the distance that separates us from these systems we deplore really as great as we believe? Can we take the gap that divides “us” from “them” for granted? Are liberal societies completely immune to totalitarianism? Could the boundaries between these systems not be blurred? Could the liberal system itself not slide into tyranny, whilst still preserving its veneer of freedom, tolerance and pluralism?

We all remember the McCarthy era, with its government and privately run “loyalty review” boards, “subversive activities control” committees, random arrests, house searches, aggressive investigations, unconstitutional laws, extra-legal procedures, blacklists, illegal trials, and full jails.

We all recall the May ’68 riots, when the French government turned protests by a number of angry university students into a national crisis, with its brutal handling of the situation generating a strike by two-thirds of France’s workers. In response to the strikes, De Gaulle, who was president at the time, deployed the army, dissolved the National Assembly, and threatened to institute a state of emergency.

Two decades later, Thatcher summoned a massive police force – which many former miners maintain included British army soldiers in disguise – to crack down on the miners striking over pit closures and loss of livelihood. The striking miners, Thatcher said, were “the enemy within” who did not share the values of the British people. “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.

Commenting on what he had witnessed, Arthur Scargill said, “We’ve had riot shields, we’ve had riot gear, we’ve had police on horseback charging into our people, we’ve had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground… the intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state.”

And today, amidst the so-called war on terror, we watch ourselves rapidly turn into a surveillance society. Liberal democratic governments are using the authority their citizens have placed in their hands to violate their rights and erode their freedoms. In the name of national security and the protection of “our” sublime values, liberties are squandered, judges’ authority is depleted, and the unlawful gets legalised.

Oppose the systematic destruction of hard won freedoms and you’re intimidated into silence, dismissed as an “apologist for terror”, or a simpleton who does not understand the “depth and magnitude of the terrorist threat”.

We continually sing the praises of our democratic system, its transparency, representativeness, and checks and balances on power. But rarely do we put our theories to the test of reality – instead deliriously repeating them over and over again as though they were some sort of sacred dogma, to be believed regardless of the facts on the ground. With its torrent of lies and distortions, the Iraq war, like several events in the past, has exposed the vulnerability of the liberal democratic system.

As one opinion poll after another revealed the extent of public opposition to the war and hundreds of thousands protested in the heart of London, battle plans were being drawn up, troops were already being mobilised. When Bush congratulated Iraqis that freedom was knocking at their door, his police forces did not hesitate to handcuff angry protesters in the streets of New York and Washington.

Democracy, its institutions and representative bodies, seem to shrink to insignificance when confronted with the specter of “national interest”, an ambiguous notion defined by a few politicians, their unelected entourage and a network of powerful lobbies and interest groups

Another dark stain on our system’s record today is its turning on its least privileged of minorities, pushing it to the corner, surrounding it with suspicion, repressive measures and policies, and giving free reign to bigotry and prejudice. Muslims are Britain’s poorest community, five times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than their fellow white Britons, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to have no qualifications, live in social rented accommodation, and suffer from ill health. But just as Thatcher had blamed the poor for their poverty, the trend today is to hold this new underclass responsible for its misfortunes in one of the most socially stratified and closed social systems in the world.

From “the working class character” with its “laziness” and “lack of motivation”, to Muslim culture and its “penchant for isolationism”, our system seems to excel in the creation of scapegoats.

The value of a socio-political system is not judged by its self-congratulatory rhetoric, nor by the way it conducts itself in times of ease and stability, but by its behaviour in crises. If the threat of some deluded terrorists can drive the liberal system to turn its back on the principles upon which it claims to be founded, and to degenerate into surveillance, coercion and majority tyranny over the minority, I hate to think how it would react if faced with the danger of armies stationed at its borders, mutiny, coup d’etats, invasion, or occupation.

The question we must have the courage to ask ourselves is: grand slogans of freedom, tolerance, and pluralism aside, how liberal is our “liberal” system?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soumaya-ghannoushi/illiberal-liberalism_b_5953284.html

Oct 102014
 

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Since the map of the Middle East was drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the aftermath of World War I and the retreat of the Ottoman Turks in favour of the British and French, the lines demarcating the boundaries between states in the Arab region have never been successfully challenged, even in the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism.

Saddam Hussein’s ill-conceived adventure in neighbouring Kuwait ended in catastrophe, costing him his regime, and eventually, even his life. But two decades later, a small obscure group has, ironically, managed to achieve what the once mighty Iraqi army had failed to do in 1990. Declaring its dominance over huge swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has effectively erased the long established frontier between the two countries, thus mounting the first successful challenge to the Sykes-Picot arrangement.

History abounds with shadowy extremist organisations, centred on deviant ideas – not always of a religious nature – eccentric megalomaniacs, or purely criminal objectives. ISIL is neither unique nor without precedent in this respect. What distinguishes the group is in reality neither its fanaticism, nor brutal methods, but the suddenness of its rise and astonishing speed of its territorial expansion. In the space of a few months, this once marginal faction has come to occupy the centre stage of international politics, threatening the existence of entire regional states and governments, redefining old political geographies, even managing to bring together sworn enemies around the shared goal of defeating it, from Iran and Qatar to the US and Gulf kingdoms.

Unexpected ascendancy

Endlessly churned out epithets about ISIL’s theological origins, exclusionary takfiri (apostate) tendencies and religious legitimisation of its brutal methods are useless in the quest to grasp the causes of its unexpected ascendancy and rapid proliferation.

It is the changing geopolitics of the region that holds the answers here. What gave and continues to grant ISIL – and other violent anarchic groups of its kind – momentum and room for diffusion is the strategic and political vacuum generated by the retreat of US influence in the Middle East, and Arab Orient more specifically.

The US is no longer able to monitor and regulate the rhythm of events in that sensitive part of the world. The wave of exhibitionist pre-emptive strikes launched by the neo-cons ended in two consecutive military defeats and hasty retreats.

The limits of US military might were laid bare for all to see. Thanks to its superior firepowerit was able to topple regimes and dismantle existing structures, but was dismally impotent to rebuild them anew. And in the vacuum and trail of devastation it left behind, the US created a fertile soil for the growth of extremist violent groups, on the one hand, and of internecine ethnic and sectarian conflicts, on the other.

Another irony is that the Americans find themselves today compelled to return to the Middle East, having retreated from it in order to channel what remains of their might on the escalating threat posed by a rising China and respond to the challenges of the shift of wealth and influence eastwards. But Obama’s US looks nothing like the one that had mobilised its fleets against Saddam Hussein a decade ago. Today, it reluctantly retraces its footsteps to the same battlefield, broken and bruised, full of caution and foreboding.

The geopolitical void that appeared with the decline of US power after Afghanistan and Iraq was further exposed with the Syrian revolution, as the US and its Gulf allies proved powerless to end the conflict conclusively in their favour, desperately jostling for control and influence with the Iranians and Russians. And as in Iraq, radical jihadist groups swiftly moved in to fill the resulting political vacuum, finding an ideal social foster in long standing sectarian grievances.

Complex demographics

Today, we are witnessing the explosion of the complex demographics of Arab society. In colonial times, local administrations had managed tensions between its myriad traditional social configurations, religious, sectarian, tribal and ethnic, via a policy of containment, dilution, or repression. This role was subsequently taken up by the post-colonial state within a process of superimposed pseudo-modernisation, and under the banner of a collective national identity that remained feeble and skin- deep.

Amidst the collapse of fragile post-colonial political structures in countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the Yemern, traditional bonds and identities have reasserted themselves again, but in a more raucous bloody manner. Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all turned against each other in a chilling spectacle of senseless self-mutilation.

This atmosphere of paranoid animosity, social disarray and political crisis was a potent incubator for Islamic radicalism, with its ideological fervour, excommunicatory tendencies, and puritanical dreams. Political grievances mingled with ethnic and sectarian grudges to produce the hatred ridden grandiose discourse of al-Qaeda, ISIL and their Jihadist likes.

Price of failure

Today, the region is paying the price for the failure of top-down modernisation and the disintegration of artificial post-colonial national borders and frail political edifices. And with the evaporation of the great hopes pinned on the Arab Spring of the possibility of change through peaceful means and popular protests, extremism and violence have reared their head once more. But as disillusionment and despair descend on the region and tighten their icy grip on its throat, this deformed ghoulish child of crisis looks uglier, deadlier and more vindictive than ever.

By renewing and bolstering old alliances with Gulf sheikhdoms and autocratic Arab regimes to thwart democratic political change; overseeing the return to military coups and cloaking them with legitimacy, the US and its European allies have sent Arabs a clear resounding message: “Ballot boxes are not for you! They are pointless as means of change. Their results are easily discarded and trampled upon. Violence and revenge are the way out of your bleak existence.” Nothing could have rendered more credence and legitimacy to the rhetoric of ISIL and the jihadist cause.

Through its modern history, the Arab region has been an open index of the ascent and descent of global powers and a mirror of the great players’ fluctuating fortunes. And in this strategically positioned part of the globe, power shifts have always come at a heavy price, paid in much blood and socio-political instability, be that from the Ottomans to the British in the wake of the World War I, or to their American heirs after the World War II. The currently unfolding transformation is no exception. The wave of turmoil, chaos and misery it carries will most likely continue to engulf the region for years to come.

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/10/what-gives-legitimacy-isil-rhet-201410811141861465.html