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Ideas

The disintegration of the GCC could create a True PGC

The disintegration of the GCC could create a True PGC

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

During the last of week of November, the Emir of Kuwait sent out formal invitations to all leaders of member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, originally and still commonly known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to attend the 38th summit (December 5, 2017). The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates, declined, sending instead political appointees of the 3rd order to represent them, which must have been seen as a personal insult to the elder Emir of Kuwait, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. I believe that this event will mark the unofficial end of this regional intergovernmental organization and perhaps the creation of a better intergovernmental organization in that region. This conclusion is not based just on the snub described above. Rather, it is based on the very reasons that led to the creation of the GCC in the first place and the motives that sustain it.

The GCC was born out of fear and bigotry among undemocratic authoritarian rulers who felt threatened by any event that introduces a political process that would diminish the legitimacy of their own form of government. Throughout its history, the creation of the GCC was motivated by fear, rooted in ethnicism, steeped in bigotry, and driven by elitism.

The GCC was founded in 1981, two years after the fall of the Shah and a year after the Iraqi invasion of Iran (1980), a war that lasted until August 20, 1988. Membership was limited to Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain but excluding Iraq. While one could presume that Iran might have been excluded from this organization on account that it is not an Arab country, the founders provided no logical explanation for the exclusion of Iraq, which borders the Persian Gulf as well. However, it is the original exclusion of Iraq and its exclusion from a 2011 proposals to transform the GCC into a Union that signal the sectarian bias.

The GCC was formed with the aim of protecting the clan or family rule. Iraq was not ruled by a clan or family. Jordan and Morocco are.

The GCC was formed to protect the interests of Sunni Muslims. Iraq was and still is a Shia-majority country.

The GCC was created to preserve the supremacy of ethnic Arabs. Iran is a majority-Persian country. In their pursuit for promoting Arab supremacy, the founders of the GCC intentionally removed the word Persian from the name of the Persian Gulf–the name recognized by the UN and all other international organizations. The adjective “Arab” is used to name the Arabian Sea, on which the Persian Gulf opens and Iran has the longest shores along the Gulf than any other country bordering it, justifying the naming of the body of water, the Persian Gulf.

The idea that the GCC was created out of fear and to preserve an outdated political order can be further supported by its rulers’ attempt to expand its membership when they were also threatened by the 2011 uprisings popularly known as the Arab Spring. Then, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain pushed a proposal to transform the organization from a cooperative into a union and invited Jordan and Morocco to join. Justifying the need for these changes, the prime minister of Bahrain explicitly stated that “current events in the region underscored the importance of the proposal. Oman and Kuwait resisted the proposal, causing it to fail.

Most recently, the failure of the Saudi interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen forced its rulers, again, to seek tighter control over decision making within regional organizations–like the GCC and the Arab League–to protect the clan rule from challenges spurred from neighboring countries. The drive for tighter control ruptured the artificial bond that connected the GCC member states, when Qatar refused to surrender all decision making to Saudi Arabia.

While the GCC summit was under way in Kuwait city, the rulers of UAE announced that they created a “committee for military, economic, political, media, and cultural cooperation between UAE and Saudi Arabia.” This announcement is essentially a step towards the creation of an alternative, but much weaker, GCC, which would be limited to Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. This alternative is unlikely to bring peace and stability to the region for it is still based on the same irrational fears and self-serving goals of the rulers. However, its creation may nudge the other members of the GCC to create an alternative–one that is based on inclusion and mutual interest and respect.

Given the importance of the Persian Gulf to the world, not just to the region, nations bordering it should establish a new intergovernmental organization that will work to improve the quality of life of all the peoples in those countries and to safeguard the region against armed conflict and man-caused disasters. Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman should take the lead and work with the governments of Iraq and Iran to found the Persian Gulf Cooperative (PGC). Such an organization will be built on mutual respect and mutual interests, immediately bringing peace and prosperity to an estimated 100 million people living in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Iran, and Iraq. And when the rulers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and UAE reconsider their bigoted beliefs and policies, they should be able to join in as full members along with Pakistan and Afghanistan as Observers. Together, these ten nations, would combine their abundant natural resources and vibrant, youthful societies to create better opportunities for their collective population of more than 320 million people.

Because many ethnic, racial, religious, and sectarian communities live in these countries, such an organization would reduce sectarian and ethnic tension, utilize natural resources and water ways responsibly, strengthen civil society and respect for human rights norms, and enshrine cooperative leadership in a region that has been struggling for too long under unstable governments and authoritarian regimes. It will be an organization that is good for member states, good for the region, and good for the world as it inspire cooperation, mutual respect, and shared future.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Welcome to Trump’s America!

Welcome to Trump’s America!


by Ahmed E. Souaiaia *

Trump said many things that offended many people. Muslim Americans were among those offended by his comments on refugees, terrorism, and Islam. Now that he is elected to be the 45th president of the United States, should Muslims freak out?

To answer this question, I include this essay, which I drafted in June of this year in response to some of my colleagues’ comments. I said then that support for Trump was not a passing moment: Trump will be president. Here he is: President-Elect Trump and in about two months he will lead this country… to somewhere. I did not publish the essay then because it could have been perceived as an attempt to influence young voters, like the ones I have in my classes. Now that the elections are over, I will share it. It is still as relevant now as it was then. 

I should add one thought since we now know for sure that Trump is elected president: He is the legitimate president produced through the system as is. But his election and the process should not and cannot be allowed to legitimize and legitimate racism. The task of resisting falls on the shoulders of civil society institutions as understood in the broadest sense possible. A democracy is as strong as its civil society institutions.

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Electing Donald J. Trump president of the United States of America
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
June 9, 2016
Thus far, Donald J. Trump used some of his own money to finance his presidential campaign and he thinks that his support comes from outside the political establishment. With such real or perceived autonomy, he was able to make some of the most outrageous comments that allowed him to be the lead story in every news outlet–for free. Some conservative commentators thought that his campaign will eventually collapse because Mr. Trump does not represent the Republican Party. To his credit, he is now the presumptive nominee and that did not come easy. 

Unlike Mrs. Clinton, for whom the field was basically cleared–a decision Democrats might regret later, she faced just two other contenders. Mr. Trump beat sixteen other candidates. He earned the Republican nomination. Still, some thought that since he is now the GOP nominee, he will stop making inappropriate and racist comments to widen his base of support. Last week, he suggested that Hispanic or Muslim judges cannot be partial because of their heritage, drawing rebuke from many Republican leaders, including the person who stands third in line to become president of the United States, Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

He replied to Mr. Trump’s reported comment saying that “claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Then he added, “I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him.” In other words, Republicans want to have it both ways: condemn racist comments and embrace racists. That is why many people, including myself, believe that racism in America is unique, deep, and systemic. Such racism, exceptional as it is, cannot be addressed unless the institutions that originated and have sustained racism are purged. The lack of thus understanding racism is the reason why, I think, Mr. Trump will be elected president.
I resisted interjecting into a crucial political context. However, when colleagues and acquaintances who rarely talk about politics approach me these days to tell me how sorry they were to see politicians like Mr. Trump feeding the flames of prejudice against and hate of Muslims, I felt that I should say something. Then, when politically active colleagues use Mr. Trump’s example to suggest that Muslims will be safer with a Democratic president, I was even more frustrated. To use fear to create a default political position for Muslims is just as offensive, in my mind, as Mr. Trump’s comments about ethnic, racial, and religious disempowered social groups. Today, Muslims are facing systemic racism the same way all other disempowered social groups have faced it since the founding of this Republic. This is not a Republican problem. It is an American problem.
It will not be the end of the world if Mr. Trump were to be elected president of the United States, and I think he will be. He may not be America’s worst president because, unlike party-favorite presidents, Mr. Trump will be heavily scrutinized by both parties and every other civil society institution in the country. A democracy is as strong as its civil society institutions. It is values and rules enshrined in the Constitution, unfulfilled many of them still, that provide comfort to citizens, not the person sitting in the White House. It is the distribution of political power and role of civil society institutions that curb the hunger to grab more power and use it to destroy opponents that would allow American society to weather corrupt politicians, authoritarian presidents, and zealots. The presence of dangerous men in power should empower activists and civil society leaders to collaborate more, to unite, and to take their role seriously to overcome the power and violence unleashed by the state, which is controlled by power hungry persons.
President Trump will be just as capable or incapable of carrying out his personal agenda as President Obama. After all, candidate Obama promised to close Guantanamo, bring home the troops, stop bombing other countries, honor the Constitution respecting torture and extrajudicial killing, treat immigrants with dignity, insist on public option within a universal healthcare law, and rebuild the image of the country abroad. Eight years later, Guantanamo is still housing detainees. He sent more troops back to Afghanistan and Iraq. He played a role in creating two more failed and near-failed states–Libya and Syria, and he allowed corrupt rulers of so-allied nations from the Middle East to arm and supply Wahhabi genocidal fighters to overthrow the Syrian and Iraqi governments. He continued to appease and shield human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain. He carried out more drone-assisted extrajudicial killings of American citizens than his predecessors.  He deported more immigrants than his last three predecessors. And standing on grounds where the U.S. government dropped its weapons of mass destruction, he refused to apologize to the Japanese victims. 

This catalog of shortcomings were not due to a hidden agenda or his lack of trying to do the right things. They were due to the deep state that control the long-term strategic posture of the United States, slow moving wheels of bureaucracy, and the resistance from some civil society institutions, interest groups, and political expediency. 

So we expect a president Trump to fail to act on some of his threats the same way president Obama failed to deliver on many of his promises. If he succeeds, it is because civil institutions leaders and citizens failed to comprehend their role and act as a counterweight to those in power. It will be an opportunity to transform society and overhaul outdated institutions like the press, which has become a tool in the hands of the powerful, not a voice for the people.

Muslim Americans will not move to Canada or return to their ancestral homelands. They will stay here, at HOME, in their country where they sweat and bleed everyday, and resist bigotry, racism, and discrimination the same way millions of other Americans have done before them.  
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His teaching and research interests cover both classical and modern legal and political thought in Islamic societies. He is currently documenting and writing about the social movements and armed conflicts triggered by the events popularly known as the Arab Spring. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

What is the difference between “Muslim” and “Islamic”?

What is the difference between “Muslim” and “Islamic”?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia *
Abstract: Social labels and categories are exercise in control. They describe opponents, create boundaries, exclude social groups, justify discrimination, and promote persecution. They are imbued with sociopolitical power. Muslims used labels, internally for the first time, during the formative period of the community to privilege the elite and marginalize dissenters. They called those who challenged the established order, Khawarij [Outsiders]. Today, Muslims living in Western societies are often labeled radical Islamic extremists. But aside from this politically charged phrase, even common adjectives, such as Islamic and Muslim, are misused. So in what contexts should these adjectives be appropriately used and why is it important to use social labels judicially?___________
Though even advanced students and scholars of Islamic studies use the words Muslimand Islamic interchangeably, it is a mistake to do so in all contexts. The two words are both adjectives, but they have fundamentally different meanings and are properly used in very different contexts.
The word Muslim [مسلم] is Arabic in form and function. It is a descriptive active participle [ism fā`il] derived from the verb, aslama. This Arabic form connotes agency being embedded within the description. Therefore, it describes a person or a group of persons who consciously follow or adhere to the religion called Islam [الإسلام]. Since it is an Arabic term in origin, form, and meaning, the word should be used in the context appropriate in that language. The word Muslim is never used in Arabic to describe a thing, and idea, or an event. Rather, it is used to describe human beings who believe in and practice Islamic teachings. It is therefore incorrect to say Muslim architecture, Muslim music, Muslim art, Muslim thought, etc.
The word Islamic is an adjective that takes its meaning from the fact that it reflects some characteristics of Islam, in varying degrees. It can be used in two contexts. First, the adjective Islamic describes things, ideas, and events whose origins are in Islam. In this sense, it complements the adjective, Muslim, which describes persons. Second, the word Islamiccan be used to describe things that are present in Islamic societies and cultures, even if their origins are not rooted in Islam or produced by Muslim peoples. The Islamic civilization came to existence because Muslims’ ideas and ideals were dominant, but they were not the sole engines that produced its rich legacy. Therefore, the adjective Islamic was broadly used to account for all the productions of this civilization, authored by all–Muslims and non-Muslims.
It must be noted that it is possible to apply the adjective Islamic to a person or group of persons, but such use must be deliberate. For example, some people often ask the question, “are you Islamic?”, Instead of, “are you Muslim?”. This is a common mistake. However, it is possible that the questioner used Islamic as it is used in Arabic, islamiyy [إسلاميّ], in which case it would mean Islamist (discussed below). Such use would be appropriate, though unlikely to be the intended meaning.
To illustrate the different usages, let’s consider the phrases Islamic architecture and Muslim architecture. The phrase Islamic architecture refers to architecture that is broadly influenced, limited, inspired, informed by Islamic values, even if it is produced by non-Muslim persons. Islamic architecture might consist of purely Islam-inspired elements, but it might also consist of elements that are not inspired and influenced by Islam or Muslim architects. By contrast, the term Muslim architecture is attributive, not descriptive. It refers to architecture created by Muslim persons. Where Islamic architecture is a broad descriptive term, accurate use of the term Muslim architecture requires a specific context.
With this distinction in mind, it becomes clear that the adjective Muslim is exclusive whereas the adjective Islamic is inclusive. Not all Islamic things are produced by Muslims, but Muslim-produced things must be things produced by individuals who are Muslim. A musician who is not Muslim may produce an Islamic song. A Muslim band, meaning a band whose members are all Muslim, may produce and play songs that have no roots in Islam or in Muslim communities of any era of any background. Though in both examples Islam is present through the expressions, experiences, and backgrounds of the persons involved, that link is insufficient to merge the two terminologies.
This distinction is not merely technical. Rather, the misuse of these terms reflects and perpetuates power structures that elevate Western colonial thought and diminish the rich cultural, political, and social legacy of Islamic thought and the many peoples who have contributed to it. Conflating the meaning of the words Islamic and Muslim forces some to invent new words to communicate aspects that are already embedded within the meaning of these words. I will cite three examples of unnecessary descriptors whose use creates other conceptual and practical problems. First I discuss the use and utility of the words Muhammadan, Islamicate, and Islamicist. Second, I explore the conceptual, practical, and theoretical implications of conflating the meaning of the words Islamic and Muslim and the ensuing general problems.
When colonial Europe moved into Asia and Africa picking up the pieces of the collapsing Islamic civilization, which by then has morphed into an empire, its thinkers and intellectuals made up new labels like, Muhammadan religion and Muhammadan people, instead of Islam and Muslims, as if these communities were obscurely unknown, being defined and introduced by the enlightened, sophisticated Western discoverers. To my knowledge, besides its use mostly in modern Islamic thought as a rhetorical tool, the adjective Muhammadan was never used in classical Islamic religious and non-religious texts as a name for Islam. It is therefore bizarre that Orientalist scholars coined it to introduce a religion that has been organized, established, and defined for nearly 1400 years.
In the period when the use of the word Muhammadan was in decline, another Western scholar came up with the word, Islamicate, ostensibly, to meet the need for a descriptor that account for the productions of non-Muslims in Muslim majority communities. Marshall Hodgson invented the word, Islamicate, and many scholars and students of Islamic studies have used it ever since to describe things, ideas, or events that are influenced by Islam but whose origins or ownership cannot be fully attributed to Muslim individuals or Islamic values and teachings. I believe that the adjective Islamic accommodates this need when used consistently and appropriately.
The last example of made-up labels is the designation of academic specialization focusing on the study of Islamic societies and Islamic thought from the formative period until modern times: Islamicist. Some scholars and commentators have coined this term, perhaps for specificity purposes. However, in doing so, they reduced the academic study of the rich and complex legacy of all Islamic societies to a single approach that explores the Islamic civilization through the religious lens only, and often from within the discipline of religious studies. In doing so, they denied the fact that scholars from other academic disciplines like anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, political scientists, jurists, economists, philologists, philosophers, and others do in fact engage in the study of the legacy of the Islamic civilization from the perspective of the relevant theoretical and scientific lens.
Regardless of the context and justification of coining labels and categories to catalog and discuss the legacy of Islamic societies, such actions end up producing serious methodological, conceptual, and political problems.
First, conflating Muslim and Islamic obscures the meaning of and difference between phrases like, Muslim cultures versus Islamic cultures and Muslim civilization versus Islamic civilization. However, by keeping in mind the origins of the words Muslim and Islamic, in the English language, the phrase Muslim cultures can be used in the attributive context: cultures of the Muslim people, which is different from Islamic cultures, which would be partially influenced, limited, inspired, or informed by Islam but Muslims did not necessarily produce or live them. Islamic cultures are not necessarily filtered through Islam’s value and judgement systems. However, Muslim cultures, generally, are filtered and approved by some of Islam’s value and judgment systems since Muslims must reconcile them with their lived faith. The distinction becomes even more compelling when considering the often used phrases, Islamic civilization and Muslim civilization.
Some scholars of Islamic studies have applied the descriptor Arabcivilization instead of Islamic civilization, effectively denying the contributions of non-Arabs, like African Berber and Touereg peoples, Asian Kurdish peoples, Turkic peoples, Persian peoples, Indian peoples, and thousands of other ethnic and racial communities. Similarly, some use the label Muslimcivilization, instead of Islamic civilization, willfully ignoring the role and contributions of non-Muslim communities including Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Copts, and hundreds of other religious communities who lived as full productive members of Islamic societies.
Second, with proper definition and understanding of civilization, it becomes evident that there could be no Muslim civilization. A civilization consists of the collective achievements and contributions (negative and positive) of all ethnic, racial, religious, ideological, economic, and national communities. One religious community might be dominant and contribute significantly more than the other communities, making its culture ever present and influential. However, a single culture can never become a civilization without borrowing from, incorporating, assimilating, and appropriating other communities’ legacies.
Since the adjective Muslim and the noun Islam are Arabic words, the rules governing how they are used in that language might shed some light on their use by Muslim scholars and grammarians of Arabic language as well. Since the rise of religiously inspired political parties in Arab and Islamic societies, the adjective Islamic [islamiyy] has been coined to refer to a personaffiliated with Islamist movements, but the adjective Muslim kept its original meaning, referring to followers of or adherents to the religion, Islam. In a sense, this conventional naming confirms at least two things about the word Islamic: (a) The adjective Islamic is a broader descriptor than Muslim, and (b) it signals that the thing or idea may not necessarily have roots in Islamic traditions, but it is part thereof.
In fact, its application in Arabic by some governments to describe Islamists suggests that Islamists’ ideas may not be rooted in Islam. These governments’ actions are reflected in their use of labels: Islamist groups are referred to as being Islamic[Islamiyyun], distinguishing them from being Muslim [muslimun]. These groups are often accused of corrupting Islam, making it possible for governments to ban their activities and imprison or kill their leaders. In other words, Muslims themselves have been keenly aware of the existence of a plurality of Islamic expressions (in politics, literature, arts, etc.) produced both by Muslims and non-Muslims, that may or may not conform to Islamic teachings. However, they also recognize cultural or artistic productions that are directly derived from Islamic traditions and filtered through Islamic value and judgement systems that can be said to be Muslim arts and Muslim cultures. Such things, however, are very specific and limited and are often produced and undertaken exclusively by Muslims.
Third, the richness and specificity of the words Islamic and Muslim make it unnecessary to invent new words to describe the legacy of the Islamic civilization. The adoption of these adjectives and their proper application relieves scholars of Islamic studies, especially those working within the confines of religious departments in state universities where they have to be mindful of the exigencies of Establishment Clause, from the burden of having to define who is Muslim and who is not. Importantly, when Western scholars manufacture adjectives or use adjectives carelessly, they perpetuate the diminutive, reductionist myth that other communities lack the necessary vocabulary to describe themselves, account for their rich legacy and acknowledge, and give credit to the diverse peoples within.
Indeed, misuse of adjectives and labels could be unintentional errors. But some made-up labels are deliberate and are often motivated by politics and prejudice. Labels and categories are consequential tools often used by those in power to keep certain social groups in check and to impose a specific narrative about them. Adjectives are qualifiers, and as such, they are instruments that are used to divide society into social classes, impose legal limitations on certain social groups, and draw boundaries between those with power and those who lack it. The capacity of labels to be used as tools of discrimination make it even more compelling that those who use such descriptors and those being described are aware and mindful of the potential social and psychological harm they could inflict and the legacy of inequality they help preserve. 

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His teaching and research interests cover both classical and modern legal and political thought in Islamic societies. He is currently documenting and writing about the social movements and armed conflicts triggered by the events popularly known as the Arab Spring. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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What qualifies financial services or products to be sharia-compliant?

What qualifies financial services or products to be sharia-compliant?

Economists specializing in the study of Islamic finance and economics have reduced Islamic laws governing financial and economic transactions to two: proscription on receiving or paying “interest” and mandating that investors and developers (lenders and borrowers) share the gains and losses of the enterprise in which they are more or less partners. This theory is widespread but it is based on a very basic, and perhaps outdated, understanding of the primary sources of classical Islamic law. Moreover, most of the works and publications advancing this perspective are built on secondary sources and rarely engage primary materials. This essay challenges the ideas and approaches behind this perspective and proposes a model that takes into consideration the need to protect the poor and the desire to make profit, which is the motivating force behind a thriving economy.
While Islamic scriptures clearly prohibit profiting from the poor, supposedly sharī’ah-compliant Islamic financial and exchange laws circumvent prohibitions and limitations on ribā, monopolism, debt, and risk while failing to address the fundamental purpose behind the prohibitions—mitigating poverty. This study provides a historical survey of the principles that shape Islamic finance and exchange laws, reviews classical and modern interpretations and practices in the banking and exchange sectors, and suggests a normative model rooted in the interpretation of Islamic sources of law reconstructed from paradigmatic cases. Financial systems that overlook the nexus between poverty and usury harm both the economy and poor and middle class consumers and investors rather than addressing the causal relationship between interest-charging models and poverty. This study shows how Islamic Financial Institutions (IFIs) have failed to meet the social requirements they were intended to address and also presents a theoretical framework for Islamic finance and exchange laws that proscribes usurious transactions involving people caught in the cycle of poverty and need.
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The Genealogy, Ideology, and Future of ISIL and its Derivatives

The Genealogy, Ideology, and Future of ISIL and its Derivatives

Abstract: The organization known today simply as the “Islamic State,” or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh (English, ISIL), has historical and ideological roots that go beyond the territories it now controls. These deep roots give Daesh confidence that it will succeed in dominating the world, but give others reasons to believe that it will fail in controlling even a single nation. Mixing puritan religious and political discourses, ISIL managed to dominate all other armed opposition groups in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya) and has inspired individuals in many other countries (Egypt, Pakistan, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) to carry out brutal attacks in its name.

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Dogmatic Origins: Traditionism
In Islamic societies throughout history, Islam has been defined by one fundamental question: are religious foundational principles, as expressed in the Qur’an, created or eternal? For more than two centuries, Muslim religious scholars’ opinion, which informed political authorities, held that religious principles were created. Individuals seeking government jobs were required to answer a simple yes/no question: is the Qur’an created? The correct answer during the first two centuries was yes. This era, on balance, could be called the Age of Reason I, during which a school of thought led by a group of thinkers known as al-Mu`tazilah—generally categorized as Reasonists (Ahl al-ra’y)—dominated public life. 
With time, this elite theological and legal position, which was backed by the office of the caliph, grew stronger and became a tool for suppressing dissent. Resistance was inevitable. Some religious scholars refused to go along and produce the expected answer, choosing instead to say, “it was God’s words.” These figures were known as Traditionists (Ahl al-hadith), as opposed to Reasonists. While Reasonists held that reason and circumstance must play a role in interpreting and applying religious principles and imperatives, Traditionists believed that tradition cannot be superseded by reason or circumstance.
There are many other points of contention that divided Muslim communities during the formative period (first three centuries) of Islam along at least three sects (Ibadism, Sunnism, and Shi`ism) and eight legal denominations (Malikism, Ja`farism, Hanafism, Hanbalism, Shafi`ism, Zaydism, Isma`ilism, and Ibadism). However, the point of contention that truly explains current crises in Islamic societies is whether religious principles are tools to promote social justice and address social problems, or whether they are sacred principles that must be applied regardless of their effect on humans. Division over the primacy of religious principles cuts across sectarian and legal currents, most pronouncedly among the so-called Sunni communities.
Traditionism in the context of Islamic societies is best expressed in Hanbalism, founded by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal in the first half of the third Islamic Century. Traditionism, called Salafism by its adherents, holds that the purity and authenticity of Islam is ascertained through an organic chain of authorities and institutions that connect today’s Muslim community to the original teachings and practices of Islam through the opinions and practices of the ancestors (salaf). The Salaf, thus understood, consists of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Sahabah), the Followers of (or those who came after) the Companions (Tabi`in), the Followers of the Followers (Tabi`i al-tabi`in), and the masters of the schools of jurisprudence (Ayimmah, Mujtahidun). Although, in principle, Salafists contend that opinions of any of masters of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Malikism, Hanafism, Hanbalism, Shafi`ism) are equally authoritative, in reality, Salafist scholars privilege Hanbalism over all other schools of thought. To some extent, according to Salafism, the authentic sayings and practices of ancestors are as authoritative as the texts of the Qur’an itself. A true Salafist cannot rely on reason to override the opinion and practice of a Companion of the Prophet or a Follower of a Companion of the Prophet.
Ultimately, Salafism is a specific stream of Traditionist interpretation of Islam that relies on a selective chain of scholars that inform the broader base of adherents. The chain of Salafi scholars is not continuous. It is bridged by textual traditions that inform modern figures about opinions of their predecessors who might have lived a century or two apart. For example, modern Salafi figures like Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Umar Mahmoud Uthman (Abu Qutada al-Filistini), Isam al-Barqawi (Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi), Abu Azzam al-Jazrawi, Abdullah al-Muhaisini, Mustafa al-Jakiri al-Rifa`i (Abu Mus`ab al-Suri), Ibrahim Awwad al-Samura’i (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), cite works of individuals whom they never met like Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim, and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. In the end, modern Salafism is ancient Traditionism reconstructed from text-based historical events and sayings.
Today, the struggle that is fueling civil wars and sectarian tension is about the function and status of shari`a, one of the generic terms that refers to religious legal principles and imperatives, which are believed to be derived from the primary sources of Islamic traditions and practices. As it has been the case throughout the history of Islamic societies, what distinguishes Reasonist Muslims from Salafists is the answer to one general question: Is the shari`a a tool for realizing social justice on earth or are humans mere agents that must be sacrificed to impose the shari`a?
Political Origins: Umayyad Caliphate System
Salafism is about religious tradition and the preservation of that tradition in its literalist form. According to Salafi dogma, any deviation from established understanding of religious norms and practices is an innovation, and any innovation is strictly prohibited. The preservation of established tradition goes beyond religious texts. It is also about accepting the political order as is. For Traditionists, the caliphs were guardians of religious traditions. To raise doubt about any given caliph’s ethical and legal standing would amount to raising doubt about the authenticity and transcendence of religious truths. Therefore, Salafism does not dwell on the causes of the civil wars during the reign of the third and fourth caliphs, does not dwell on the transgressions and crimes of the Umayyads, and does not challenge the reign of the Saud clan over Arabia as long as the Saudi rulers act as protectors of pure Sunni Islam and guardians of holy places.
It is worth noting that Traditionism was most successful when it was allied with political rulers. Traditionists were strong when al-Mutawakkil adopted their teachings as Sunni orthodoxy. Salafists are strong now because of their alliance with the wealthy rulers of Saudi Arabia. State-enabled theology was their best path to project influence. Their disdain for reason limited their ability to influence public opinion through the deliberative processes, and because of that they have preferred a top-down process of imposing what they see as religious principles.
The most advantageous path to power and influence for Salafism is through the brute force of the sword or gun and strong alliances with powerful governments. By declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate, ISIL essentially declared Salafi independence from the Saudi patronage that sustained Salafism for nearly a century. Salafism is now enabled by the “Islamic State,” formerly known as the ISIL, which was formerly a branch of al-Qaeda.
ISIL’s Connections: U.S.-Saudi-Wahhabi Tripartite
In modern times, and in order to keep Salafists in check, the sponsors of the Traditionist creed created two streams of Salafism, each built on a distinct strategy: 
1. Religious purity/authenticity is ascertained through separation of religion from politics. This path created a form of secularism that recognized two parallel authorities—one religious and one political. These Traditionists formed al-Da`wa wa-‘l-tabligh, who went on proselytizing without engaging political issues. In return they were allowed to preach publicly and enjoy some governmental and private support. These groups, generally, belonged to what became known as Learned Traditionism (al-Salafiyya al-`ilmiyya). 
2. To meet some international challenges and to help project influence globally, the sponsors and sustainers of Traditionists also encouraged some Salafists to combat ungodly ideologies, like communism and atheism. They were taught that stopping the spread of communism and atheism, ideologies strictly prohibited in Islam because they deny the existence of God—according to Saudi religious scholars, was a religious obligation. These adherents subscribed to Combatant Traditionism (al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyyah). 
Eventually, the two groups complemented one another. Learned Traditionists provided religious context for ideological wars. They helped produced the body of literature, institutions, and networks that sustained Traditionism in general. When necessary, these ideologically trained adherents joined Militant Traditionists in defense of the community (ummah) from ungodly ideologies such as communism in Afghanistan—justifying the war against the Soviet Union, and secularism (`ilmaniyyah) in Algeria, Tunisia, and almost all other Muslim majority countries. They worked to impose religious order on corrupted Muslim societies from Morocco to Malaysia.
What we ought to remember, however, is that the US-Saudi alliance that empowered Militant Traditionists in Afghanistan produced Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq and the US-Saudi alliance against Assad in Syria produced ISIL. These are not abstract speculations. Even the architects of the Iraq war admit as much.  Tony Blair, Bush’s ally and strong supporter of the illegal invasion of Iraq recently declared:
Of course you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation [in Iraq] in 2015… There are elements of truth in the fact that the invasion is responsible for the rise of ISIS. –Tony Blair, CNN, October 25, 2015). 
The Future of ISIL and its Derivatives:
ISIL is the expression of a Traditionist position that is present in all Semitic traditions, if not all religions. As the data shows, Traditionists who do not believe in broad, free public participation in defining and applying religious traditions are strongest when enabled by the state or when relying on brute force to impose their will from the top down. This model cannot survive the test of time.
ISIL’s teachings and practices might be enough to sustain a culture. But it is not capable of sustaining a worldview or civilization. Combatant Traditionism in Islamic societies is a backward-looking ideology with no place for diversity, plurality, reason, art, or any other human invention that has no roots in the formative period of Islam. An ideology that aspires to establishing a monolithic community is in conflict with its own sources of authority and with human nature. Even the literal interpretation of some Islamic texts suggest that God does not wish to coarse all humans into accepting one faith: “Had your Lord wished it, He could have made all of the earth’s inhabitants, all of them, believers. Is it up to you, then, to force people to believe?” [Qur’an: Yunis, 99]; see also [Qur’an: Hud, 118-9]. 
To aim for an earth inhabited by people who follow a single creed and live by one law is to be delusional in aspiration and genocidal in practice. Neither religious tradition nor historical records support the Traditionists’ position and aims. 
The world in which we live has always been full of people with diverse ideas, diverse racial backgrounds, and diverse social orders. Throughout the history of Islamic societies, there has never been a caliphate that imposed one law and one orthodoxy and lasted beyond the reign of one caliph or one dynasty. Even the most idealized caliphal period, known as the Righteously Guided Caliphate, was full of dissent, tension, rebellion, revolution, and bloodshed.
During the righteously guided caliphate, the most prominent leaders of that era held that the principles derived from religious texts were intended to establish social justice, not to be blindly imposed. In other words, they understood that the shari`a is supposed to be in service of human beings, not that human beings can be sacrificed to impose the shari`a. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, nicknamed al-Faruq for his commitment to fairness, invented an inheritance law principle that contradicted the explicit Qur’anic dictates. The principle of proportional distribution of legacy, `awl, diminished all the Qur’anic share otherwise due to Qur’anic heirs to accommodate grandparents in the presence of first and second generation heirs. Moreover, Umar reportedly suspended hudud rules during harsh economic times. 
Today, the conflict between theory and practice is evident even in Traditionism formulated and implemented by the same generation of adherents. In theory, Salafism united scholars and adherents from all over the world. Salafist ideologues prophesized that once a pure “Islamic state” is established, it will self-sustain (Baqiyah) and it will self-perpetuate (Mutamaddidah) until the end of time. Such self-assuredness enticed Traditionists from all over the world to make the journey to the lands under the control of ISIL in Syria and Iraq. However, months later, that influx of supporters decreased, the number of Syrian and Iraqi citizens who lived in or near the towns and cities under ISIL’s control left it all behind and sought refuge in European countries, far away from ISIL’s control and influence, prompting the latter to issue a religious edict prohibiting relocation to the land of unbelievers (Kuffar).
In 2014, ISIL and other Salafi affiliated armed groups in Syria went to war against one another prompting Salafi religious figures to call for a truce. A document entitled, Mubadarat al-ummah, drafter and signed by a number of Salafi figures instructed all parties to stop the infighting and put the matter in the hands of a shari`a court. When ISIL rejected the plan, even the most committed authorities of Combatant Traditionism issued opinions invalidating the procedure and substance of ISIL’s project to re-establish the Islamic caliphate. 
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most militant Salafi combatant and successor of Usama Bin Laden rebuked ISIL’s leaders and declared their state null and void. The Jordanian Salafist, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Isam al-Barqawi), who spent many years in prison for his support of Combatant Traditionism, also rebuked ISIL leaders and their state, arguing that they have poor understanding of Islamic tradition and he argued that “ISIL does not have a single scholar who trusted and supported them.” Many other Salafist scholars who previously supported al-Qaeda and its derivatives rejected ISIL’s caliphate, including, Abu Qatada al Filistini, Sami al-Uraydi, Sadiq al-Hashimi, Muslih al-Alyani, Abu Sulayman al-Ustrali, Abu Azzam al-Jazrawi, al-Mu`tasim Billah al-Madani, and Abdullah al-Muhaysini.
The Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi establishment’s authority of Salafism, also determined that ISIL, like al-Qaeda, is a deviant trend (fi’ah baghiyah) and that it must be fought and defeated. Many other scholars of Salafism held similar opinions on ISIL’s ideology and practices. If ISIL cannot enjoy any degree of consensus about its interpretation of Islam and its political theory, how could it secure the support and consent of other Sunni Muslims, especially those who are Reasonists, let alone adherents to other sects, religions, and seculars?
Another problem with the ideology espoused by ISIL and its derivatives is that it is an elitist, top-down vision of Islam because it is derived from textual evidence. Writing is not an activity that preserves the values and practices of ordinary people or the consensus of the community. Writing has been, for most of history, a mode of communication dominated by the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful. Writing and publishing is an expensive and complex mode of producing narratives and recording historical events. Historical written texts are not inclusive or diverse. To reconstruct Islam through the interpretation of a select group of ancient texts is to presume that those texts represented a broad consensus or authoritative preservation of Islam. They do not. Islam was once said to be the religion of an illiterate for the illiterate. Then it was co-opted by the elite aristocrats, like the Umayyads, in the second half of 7thcentury, and the Saud Clan, in the 20th century.
Salafism exists today because it aligned itself, directly and indirectly, with two of the most powerful political orders in the world: a regional power, Saudi Arabia, and a global power, the United States. Salafism’s reach and influence are deep because they are enabled by state agencies and the generosity of wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. 
Today, the Saudi rulers’ belligerent arrogance is stunning. While their air force bombarded the impoverished Yemeni people for months killing scores of civilians and destroying schools and hospitals, they continue to argue their bizarre logic of equating the brutality of Assad’s government to the horror Daesh and its derivatives inflict on civilians around the world.
The Arab Spring put in motion a movement whose effects cannot be fully contained, reversed, or redirected. The Arab countries must adapt to a new reality where the people no longer fear the rulers. This problem is more complex for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. For nearly a century, they presided over a society with no civil institutions like opposition political parties, a free press, or non-governmental organizations—a society dominated by the corrupt clan government or by exclusionary Salafi religious institutions. Should the Saudi government fall, the only group that would be prepared to take power is the Salafist, a religious order that aspire to dominate all others who do not share its views and beliefs. 
The Saudi rulers’ refusal to eradicate Combatant Traditionism is, in many ways, another form of preserving and prolonging their own hold on power. The existence of Combatant Traditionism makes the Saudi regime appear “moderate,” the same way the rise of Daesh made other al-Qaeda derivatives, like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, seem “moderate.” However, Muslims, and the world community at large, must realize that they do not have to choose between Combatant Traditionism and the Saudi regime. Given the evident historical and ideological connections between the Saud clan and Combatant Traditionism, confronting both, the Saudi regime and Combatant Traditionism, at the same time, might be the only path to ending this petrodollar-empowered genocidal alliance.
The Saudi rulers could save themselves and their country from total destruction. They could stop blaming their neighbors, abandon their sectarian rhetoric, and allow scholars from other Sunni schools of thought to engage Salafism, which has enjoyed a virtual monopoly over educational and religious institutions since the Kingdom was founded.
The rise of Combatant Traditionism might also be an opportunity for Muslim thinkers, scholars, and educators to revive Reasonism, the discourse that guided the development of Islamic thought and practices during the formative period (first two centuries of Islam). While Combatant Traditionism is attempting to transcend geographical border to impose a particular narrow understanding of Islam with blind zeal, those who believe in the universality of human dignity need to articulate their commitment to social justice in a way that transcends sectarian, ethnic, religious, national, and ideological fault lines. The Saudi rulers’ sponsored culture puts religious dogma above human dignity. Confronting that culture will launch a social justice driven movement within Islamic societies and lay a strong foundation for dignity-centered movement that transcends all other boundaries.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

ISIL cannot be defeated militarily without addressing the roots of its genocidal creed and confronting its sectarian backers

ISIL cannot be defeated militarily without addressing the roots of its genocidal creed and confronting its sectarian backers

Less than a year after the start of the crisis in Syria, I warned that militarizing the Syrian uprising is a dangerous step. Picking sides and arming them would amount to  launching a new proxy-war similar to the one that took place in Afghanistan in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The danger, I reasoned, comes from the necessary outcome of using non-state actors as tools to destabilize other nations and adopting violence to escalate the confrontation with international political adversaries. Such escalation, generally, produces groups that cannot be kept under control as happened with al-Qaeda. Today, it has become evident that Syria is indeed a proxy-war zone that produced ISIL, an upgraded version of al-Qaeda, which was the byproduct of the proxy-war in Afghanistan. Such a new proxy-war will not be limited to Syria’s border. Indeed, all countries involved in such a war, especially the ones sharing borders with Syria like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, will face serious political and security challenges.


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The origins and evolution of the Grinch that derailed the Arab Spring

The origins and evolution of the Grinch that derailed the Arab Spring

The Pakistanization  of Turkey and the Afghanization of Syria in the new proxy-war

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Witnessing the first democratic elections in Tunisia in 2011, I stood at the edge of the city listening to residents explaining the role of “neighborhood watch committees” in keeping peace and protecting personal and public property. I listened as my interlocutors told me stories of new connections emerging to create tighter relations between neighbors to face unprecedented violence and loss of security. On a rotating basis, residents, carrying wooden sticks, stood guard at the main intersection separating one neighborhood from another. To them, safety developed a new meaning. Without thinking of the American context (gun control debate) for my question, I asked if they would have felt safer if they had guns instead of sticks and brooms while guarding their families and properties. Without hesitation, one of the people accompanying me stated that he is alive because people did not have guns.  

On February 26 (2013), the Tunisian government announced that three suspects in the  murder of Chokri Belaid had been arrested and that authorities were searching for the person who shot the victim. Ali Laraydh, the current prime minister, stated that “extremist Islamists [islamiyyun mutashddidun] code name for takfiri fighters, were behind the murder. This formal accusation confirms what many Tunisians had said even before the assassination:  Takfiris are behind the violence and unless they are restrained they will continue to use violence to intimidate and eliminate those who criticize them and oppose their interpretation of Islam.



To have a full picture of this transformative moment in Tunisia, one must examine political violence in its global context, especially, in the context of the takfiri Salafism.

In the 1980’s, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan created an alliance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The United States provided Stinger missiles, training, and intelligence. The Saudi rulers provided ideology, propaganda and recruiting tools, and volunteers. Pakistan provided the entry point, training camps, and the madrasahs. The joint efforts created the legendary Jihad groups consisting of hardened takfiri fighters who came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and several other Arab and Muslim countries.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, many of these traveling takfiri fighters returned to their homelands. But it was not easy integrating them into normal life. These so-called Arab-Afghans see the world only in black-and-white shades: one is either a true muslim or deviant muslim, Muslim or non-Muslim, and that only true muslims can be on power. Some wanted to change their own societies into more “Islamic” ones. Their attempts put them face-to-face with Arab regimes that do not tolerate even moderate Islamist groups, let alone violent militants. Consequently, many left their countries to live in more hospitable environments for their brand of Islam. And those who stayed were imprisoned, tortured, and some were executed. The case of Libyan takfiri fighters, like Abdel Hakim Belhaj, is now well-documented.

Algerian takfiri fighters returned to a country that was taking its first steps towards political pluralism. These trained fighters did not believe that moderate or non-moderate Islamists will ever be allowed to govern. They argued that only through Jihad can Islam be imposed–not through the ballot boxes. Their prophecies came true. Despite the fact that moderate Islamists won most of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 1991, the ruling secular elite, backed by the military generals and their Western backers, nullified the election results and canceled the second round of elections, plunging the country into a decade long civil war that took the lives of more than 150,000 people. Many of the takfiri fighters are still carrying out sporadic attacks and retreating to the mountains and the desert.

The chaos in Somalia, the insecurity in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the 2003 suicide bombings in Morocco, the numerous and repeated attacks in Saudi Arabia, and the frequent bombings and attacks in Pakistan are some of the aftershocks of the Afghan proxy war and the consequences of relying on non-state fighters as a foreign policy tool.

The second case of manufactured proxy war emerged after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The presence of the U.S. troops and the rise of Shias, which takfiri fighters consider deviant, made Iraq the new land of Jihad. The Saudi rulers, again, eager to dispose of its takfiri fighters, opened the door for them to join the fight alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria, too, eager to give the U.S. a hard time for its hostility towards the regime of Assad, looked the other way as Islamist fighters from Syria and Lebanon set training camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border and joined the fight for Mesopotamia. In a sense, the Afghan model was replicated in Iraq with minor differences. This time, U.S. was not a direct ally. It was the enemy. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar remained the ideological backbone of the takfiri fighters. Qatari Satellite channel, Aljazeera, played a major role galvanizing support for the insurgency in Iraq to the point that then U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it the “mouth piece of al-Qaeda.” Another minor difference, Syria, this time, played the role of Pakistan. In that it served as the first stop for takfiri fighters coming from other countries on their way to Iraq.

It should not be a surprise, then, that when the war in Iraq started to wind down, Syria quickly fell into chaos the same way Pakistan did after the end of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, it became the new Afghanistan (or the new Iraq). 

With the end of the Iraq war and the start of the so-called Arab Spring, takfiri fightersquickly relocated to the countries that were in turmoil. Syria, sharing the border with the former hot spot, Iraq, was the natural destination. Many of the Syrian takfiri fighters were veterans of the Iraq war. These roaming takfiri fightersregrouped in Syria the minute they knew that the Qatari and Saudi rulers were throwing their weight behind a rebellion that will rid the Arab world of a leader who sided with their Persian nemesis.

The takfiri fighters did not need much convincing to wage a war on the Syrian regime: these are secular atheists, heretic Alawites, deviant Druze, anti-Sunni Shias, or infidel Christians. They must submit to the true “Islam”, pay protective tax and accept their inferior social status, or die resisting. At this stage in the Syrian crisis, Syria became Afghanistan, Turkey (and to some extent Jordan) became Pakistan, France became the U.S. and Qatar and Saudi Arabia continued to play the same role they played in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both instances these two countries have provided the propaganda and recruitment tools to send fighters to the new land of Jihad: al-Sham, the historic seat of the Umayyad dynasty, the prototype emulated by the Saudi and Qatari rulers.

The vicious cycle continues. Syria is now the new land of Jihad and it is attracting takfiri fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most notable is the large number of Turkish, Tunisian, Jordanian, and Saudi young men who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups to fight the Syrian regime on religious grounds. These countries that are sending their citizens to Syria are forgetting that the War in Syria will end one day and these fighting takfiri fighters, or at least those who survive the war, will one day return home.” With them, they will bring an ideology of exclusion, puritanism, and violence. They will bring the war home. In Tunisia, the first returning soldiers may have arrived already.

The proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria are good examples of “chicken coming home to roost.” Some of the rulers of Arab countries who think that they can export their troubled, extremist youth to fight a war somewhere and die doing so did not and still don’t, anticipate that some of these takfiri fighterswill survive and return home. They will return with an ideology that divides the world into “muslim” and “kafir.” They will soon see the rulers of Arab countries through the same lens they saw Assad and his regime: kafirs infidels who must dies if they resist the rise of pure “muslims”.

Soon, Turkey will be Pakistanized if not Afghanistanized, the same way Syria was Pakistanized and then Afghanistanized after the iraq war. The attack on U.S. Consulate in Istanbul last February, that killed six and the suicide bombing near the border with Syria, are a preview of what could become of countries that support takfiri fighters. No one will be immune from their wrath because no one is a true “muslim” in their eyes.

The peaceful Arab Spring that ended the rule of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has also created space for takfiri fighters who do not believe in personal human agency, reason, or publicly mandated authority. These takfiri fighters want to have it both ways: they want to benefit from the freedom brought by the dignity revolutions, but they also want to use these freedoms to arm themselves to impose their version of “Islam.”

The assassination of Chokri Belaid is a deadly warning shot that those who were brainwashed to believe that anyone who does not share their faith is a non-believer will be coming home soon and they cannot be easily de-programmed. The brand of Islam espoused by the takfiri fighters is eerily similar to another destructive interpretation and application of Islam from the formative years of Islamic societies: kharajism. Arab leaders and their Western allies should know that entering into a pact with the neo-kharajites comes with costly risks. History tells us that much.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Statements in this article are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Top News Story of 2012

Top News Story of 2012

The year 2012, like 2011, was dominated by news from the Arab world. With the profound changes that were produced by the Arab Awakening, the entire world continued to watch political and military developments emerging from that region. Without doubt, for the Arab world, the Syrian crisis, the Second Gaza War, and the vote on the Palestinian observer status were the most critical events of the year. But the UNGA vote, that came days after the Second Gaza War and the continued militarization of the Syrian crisis, is the most telling event. It exposed the interplay between politics, economic interests, and international justice. Most importantly, it exposed the lack of principle in the US foreign policy and weakened it in its claim as a promoter of just causes and human rights. The event also signaled a shift in international politics and international relations.
For these reasons, ISR’s News Story of the Year selection goes to the UNGA vote on the Observer Status for Palestine which went down as follows:
Countries that voted for the resolution:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Comoros, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, East Timor, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kirghistan, Kiribati, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Russia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, St. Kitts and Nevis St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, UAE, Uganda, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Countries that abstained:
Albania, Andorra, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Croatia, Dem. Rep. of Congo, Estonia, Fiji, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malawi, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Poland, Korea, Moldova, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Togo, Tonga, United Kingdom, and Vanuatu.
Countries that voted against the resolution:
Canada, Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Panama, and the United States. 
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The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNCORF)

The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNCORF)

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

On October 31, I wrote, Who is the Syrian Opposition?. Less than two weeks later, a new coalition of opposition figures was born in Qatar, underscoring the erratic composition of the groups fighting to oust Bashar Assad from power.

Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, Riad Seif, Suhair al-Atassi, 
and Mustafa al-Sbbagh
The Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SNCORF; also conveniently abbreviated as SCARF) is not entirely a new opposition group. Rather it is a new umbrella organization intended to replace the Syrian National Council (SNC) criticized last week by Secretary Clinton for not being inclusive enough. The U.S. administration does not seem interested in representative groups as much as it is interested in political organizations that are actually capable of exerting control over armed groups. Understandably, the U.S. administration is concerned about sophisticated weapons falling in the hands of terrorist groups threatening U.S. security and interests. These concerns were heightened in September when some rebel group in Libya attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed the Ambassador and members of his security detail.

Members of the SNC resisted the unification plan and was said to agree only when Qatar and other Gulf States threatened to withdraw financial and political support. In the end, instead of a birth of a more representative opposition, the old body was re-created with a new name.

The new entity is headed by a president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni preacher from Damascus and two vice presidents, Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi. A Syrian businessman based in the Gulf, Mustafa al-Sbbagh, was appointed general secretary. A third vice president post reserved for a Kurdish representative remained vacant. The SNCORF will consist of 60 seats, 22 of which are reserved for the SNC. The rest of the seats are divided among the Local Revolutionary Councils (14), the National Kurdish Council (3), Turkmen community (3), major opposition figures (9), and other organizations (9). How much sway do these individuals exert over armed militias is unknown at this point.

Members of SNCORF claim that they represent 90% of the Syrians. Evidently, that is a highly exaggerated number and there is no reliable way of ascertaining that that number is true since these persons were not elected. Having Kurdish and Christian persons on this board does not necessarily mean that they actually represent those communities. The SNC was portrayed as an inclusive opposition group until Sunday; they too, had a Kurd and now a Christian serve as presidents of the SNC. Many Kurdish, Christian, and other minority groups were not represented in the SNC and are not represented in SNCORF. Another opposition coalition representing 13 leftist and centrist political parties working under the banner of National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change, which includes the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, is not included in SNCORF.

The creation of SNCORF could be a step in the right direction if the opposition forces were to adopt a strategy that will result in ending violence. However, the platform adopted immediately after the formation of SNCORF states that the central conditions for joining the organization are: commitment to overthrowing the regime, refusing to negotiate with the regime, and planning to dismantle all state institutions including the security and military forces. These conditions echo the deba`thificationpolicy in Iraq, which caused more instability and security risks despite the presence of more than 160,000 U.S. troops.  To refuse to talk to Assad is one thing, but to refuse to talk to anyone from the current regime is to embrace the military solution to the exclusion of any political settlement. Short of a decisive military intervention under UNSC resolution, most likely to be blocked by Russia and China, arming the rebels will only prolong killing and destruction.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

U.S. Middle East foreign policy needs upgrade

U.S. Middle East foreign policy needs upgrade

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Map: Syria and Iran

The third presidential debate in the United States’ race focused on foreign policy. In reality, there was no real debate. It was an argument between two candidates about which one of them would apply policies that are already in place better than the other. Granted that a sitting president would not want to challenge his own policy, it was Mitt Romney’s responsibility to offer a fresh paradigm.


However, Governor Romney was clearly out of his comfort zone when talking about foreign policy. Considering that two-thirds of the entire debate was devoted to the Middle East and the Islamic world, I expected an exciting and informative debate. However, I lost hope in hearing a substantive discussion of the Middle East policy when I heard Governor Romney say that, “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” Even after years of teaching courses about the Middle East to young men and women who had just graduated high school, I cannot recall seeing so many errors in so short of a statement.


First, Romney seems to imply that Iran is isolated in the region (the Arab world), a common mistake. Iran is not an Arab country. the majority of Iranians are not ethnically Arab, and they do not speak Arabic. Their  connections to Arabic is the Arabic script they use to write their language, Persian, which is Indo-European. In fact, linguistically speaking, Persian is closer to English and other Germanic languages than it is to Arabic. Like the majority of Arabs, they are also Muslims. But even their religion is disputed by Arab Sunni puritans from Saudi Arabia who label them Shiite rafidis (rejecters of faith).

Second, Iran now has Iraq as a close ally–which is holding the rotating leadership of the Arab League. It also had deep economic, military, and political relations with Sudan since the 1990s. It recently upgraded its relations with Mauritania and Algeria. Even in the Gulf Region, Iran maintains special relations with the Sultanate of Oman.

Third, Iran and Syria share no borders. If Governor Romney were keeping up with the events of that region, he would have known of the administration’s criticism of Iraq’s government for allegedly allowing Iran to use its airspace to transfer weapons to Syria. If Iran had any shared borders with Syria, it would not have needed to use Iraq’s airspace to reach Syria. Deductive and inductive reasoning aside, Governor Romney should know the geography of a region so critical to U.S.’s interests, especially given that he sees Iran as the biggest threat to U.S. security.

Fourth, both Syria and Iran have direct access to the sea. Neither of them needs the other to get access to the sea. Parts of Syrian’s western border opens onto the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s south western border opens onto the Persian Gulf which leads to the Indian Ocean and to the waters beyond.

Criticizing Governor Romney for lack of knowledge about a critical region such as the Middle East does not absolve President Obama. Foreign policy cannot and should not be judged by the soundness of the opponent’s relative erudition about the subject. It ought to be judged by the absolute level of the challenge a region poses: the higher the challenge the higher the standard.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s current foreign policy in the Middle East, too, is not adapting quickly enough to the changes taking place in that part of the world. As a candidate five years ago, he promised to adopt new approaches to dealing with the Islamic world for example. With his first term in office ending in a couple of months, the U.S. is still entangled in wars, relying on sanctions, and depending on dictators to preserve its influence in the region. The U.S. foreign policy is still stuck in the Soviet Union Era. If re-elected, he ought to raise the standard. He ought to overhaul U.S. foreign policy before the “80’s asks for it back,” to paraphrase one of his “zingers.”
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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