Sunday, January 31, 2010

Answering Readers' Questions and Updates: Fatah and Turkey

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1. Fatah, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan

Question: You describe Fatah hardliners as seeking a Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Why don't they want to take over Jordan also? And why is a similar change of mind impossible about a permanent peace with Israel?

Answer: Historically, the PLO and Fatah have not sought to overthrow Jordan and take it over. The exception is when they were overconfident during the 1968-1970 period and even then that was more a PFLP and DFLP idea than a Fatah one. While seeking revenge through the Black September terrorist group from 1970 to 1972, Fatah and the PLO have not worked actively to subvert Jordan, in part remembering the total defeat Jordan gave them in September 1970. Actually, the fact is that Hamas has largely displaced the PLO and many Palestinian Jordanians support the Muslim Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front today. Jordan does worry about an independent Palestinian state but doesn't see Fatah as a direct threat today.

2. Fatah and the Al-Aqsa Brigade

Question The new Fatah charter refers to Al Asifa as its military wing. Is there a reason that Fatah seems to be abandoning Al Aqsa martyrs brigade? Or did Fatah itself use both names?

Answer: Al-Asifa has been the name of the PLO irregularforces (guerrilla/terrorist) since the 1960s. Al-Aqsa is not controlled by the Fatah Central Committee. One might call it a deniable terrorist force which is under the control of the West Bank local Fatah organization. Although the Western news media often falls for the trick, since Fatah has never tried to stop the group or disciplined any member for participating in it, al-Aqsa is clearly a Fatah group but, again, not necessarily one controlled from the top Fatah bureaucracy. Al-Aqsa was created by Marwan Barghouti, who is now a member of the Fatah Central Committee though in an Israeli prison for organizing the bloody second intifada--by his own admission--in 2000.

3. Turkish Regime's Plans to Take Over Army

Following the Turkish regime's attempt to intimidate me and my article about how that Islamist government is slandering the army and intimidating or throwing into jail peaceful critics, the next step in the campaign has been taken. Today's Zaman, the leading organ of the regime, now says the solution is that the armed forces reflect Turkey's diversity by admitting Islamist officers. Eventually, of course, the regime would ensure that the army is ideologically loyal to itself. So this is the plan: keep accusing the army of planning coups and terrorism (including schemes to put bombs in mosques), discredit it with the public, and blackmail it into becoming Islamist-oriented, thus completing the AKP regime's control over all Turkish institutions.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Suckered by Hamas and Hizballah: How the Media Interprets Radical Documents as "Proof" of Moderation

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By Barry Rubin

After writing my article on the new Fatah Charter (click on the link for a more detailed report and analysis of the charter), I saw that JTA has published a story positively glowing about Fatah's "moderation," under the title, "New Fatah charter omits language on Israel’s demise." As did the Secrecy Monitor which originally made available the text, it claims:

"The charter focuses on democratizing the movement, a reflection of last summer's political struggle between the young guard and the more established leadership. Whereas the Central Committee for years had been an ad hoc collection of acolytes of the leadership, 18 of its 23 members must now be elected by the entire membership."

Well, not exactly. Most important, as I pointed out, the charter clearly and prominently says that the old charter is still in force and nothing in the new one contradicts it. So nothing has changed in fact. All the old language still stands. Why isn't it repeated? Because this document is only about Fatah's internal structure, not its policies or goals. Pretty obvious, right?

Moreover, while the charter has some language that sounds superficially democratic--and will never be implemented--it endorses the old Communist party system of "democratic centralism" and shows how totally the Central Committee rules by choosing most candidates for parliament, cabinet ministers, and large portions of most other Palestinian institutions. Moreover, while 18 members of the Central Committee were "elected," the leadership packed the delegates to ensure that its candidates all won!

And guess what? Precisely the same thing has just happened with Hizballah's new charter. According to AFP: "It's much more moderate and they've dropped their demands for an Islamist state in Lebanon based upon [the Iranian system]. On the basis of such nonsense, President Barack Obama fails to mention Hizballah's involvement in murdering Americans, his terrorism advisor announces that Hizballah isn't terrorist (because some of its members are lawyers) while the British government is edging toward direct contacts.

This is despite the fact that the charter states:

"The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict proves that armed struggle and military resistance is the best way of ending the occupation....We categorically reject any compromise with Israel or recognizing its legitimacy." In addition, Hizballah daily publicizes the Islamization of the areas it controls and the organization's loyalty to Tehran.

My favorite example is when a high-ranking Hizballah leader denied the group was originally founded in coordination with the Iranian regime, tossing a big Arabic-language book written by one of the founders at a journalist as proof. In fact, as Lebanon expert Tony Badran pointed out citing the page number, that book confirms the claim. Another example is that Hizballah's spiritual guide is the official representative in Lebanon of Iran's spiritual guide, the actual ruler of the Islamist regime there.

To make the situation more ridiculous, the Fatah charter is available in English and Hizballah has been bragging publicly about the hardline provisions in its own new charter.

It is amazing how easy it is for various radical Arab and Islamist groups to fool Western journalists. It always helps to read a document before describing it as a breakthrough for moderation.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Scoop: Fatah's New Charter Shows Why Peace Won't Happen

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[See also the update to this article here

By Barry Rubin

Many people seem to think that the Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli conflict or the “peace process” is the world’s most important issue. So who's going to determine whether it gets resolved or not? No, not President Barak Obama; no, not Israel’s prime minister; no, not Palestinian Authority (PA) “president” Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

That choice is in the hands of Fatah, which controls the PA and rules the West Bank. Only if and when Fatah decides that it wants a two-state solution and a real end of the conflict based on compromise will that be possible. So the fact that Fatah has issued a new charter seems to be a matter of great importance.

Yet up until now nobody has noticed that such a charter emerged from the August 2009 Fatah General Congress. The document was translated by the U.S. government and has just been leaked by Secrecy News. You are now reading the first analysis of this charter.

Secrecy News remarks: “The document is not particularly conciliatory in tone or content. It is a call to revolution, confrontation with the enemy, and the liberation of Palestine, ‘free and Arab.’" But then the newsletter continues:

“But what is perhaps most significant is what is not in the document. The original Fatah charter (or constitution) from the 1960s embraced `the world-wide struggle against Zionism,’ denied Jewish historical or religious ties to the land, and called for the `eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.’ None of that language is carried over into the new charter, which manages not to mention Israel, Zionism, or Jews at all.”

Now here’s an important lesson for you. When a radical group is portrayed as moderate based on some position it supposedly has taken or some statement made there has to be a catch somewhere. Here’s the tip-off in this case, a single sentence in the new charter:

“This internal charter has been adopted within the framework of adherence to the provisions of the Basic Charter.”

In other words, every detail of the original charter still holds; nothing is repealed, no error admitted, no explicit change of course accepted.

Of course, Fatah has changed a lot from the 1960s. It is less focused on violence (though that doesn’t mean it has renounced terrorism necessarily), less explicitly militant in its demands, more willing to deal in a cooperative manner with Israel. Neither genuine moderation nor remaining intransigence should be exaggerated. On practical day-to-day matters, Israel can work with Fatah and needs to ensure that Hamas doesn't overthrow it. At present Fatah leaders understand well that a return to large-scale violence is against their interests. But make a comprehensive peace agreement? Not going to happen.

And yet offered an opportunity to become a parliamentary political party, a movement clearly dedicated to peaceful politicking and a diplomatic solution, despite massive Western financial subsidies and frequent expressions of support for a Palestinian state from President Barack Obama, Fatah has chosen to remain a revolutionary organization. Indeed, there is no word more used in this charter than “revolutionary.”

“Let us train ourselves to be patient and to face ordeals, bear calamities, sacrifice our souls, blood, time and effort,” says the charter. “All these are the weapons of revolutionaries.

"You must know that determination, patience, secrecy, confidentiality, adherence to the principles and goals of the revolution, keep us from stumbling and shorten the path to liberation.

"Go forward to revolution. Long live Palestine, free and Arab!”

At the same time, though, Fatah remains non-ideological. It sees itself as a broad nationalist movement, just as when Yasir Arafat founded it more than fifty years ago. Indeed, despite the challenge from Hamas, the word “Muslim” or “Islamic” is mentioned nowhere in the charter.

In structure, though, Fatah is still a revolutionary organization. Membership is secret; decisionmaking is supposedly based on the Marxist concept of “democratic centralism;” the Maoist phrase “criticism and self-criticism” is recommended; and the organizational structure is based on cells.

Yet while Fatah sounds like some Communist party or tightly disciplined revolutionary underground, the reality is quite different. Arafat set forth an institutional culture that has always been somewhat anarchical. Cadre are undisciplined and the command structure is anything but organized. When Hamas staged a coup in the Gaza Strip, Fatah simply collapsed and didn’t even put up much of a fight. Local bosses prevail; cadre do pretty much whatever they want; indiscipline and corruption is rife.

And so it is sort of a joke to read in Article 95 that members are enjoined to be, “Undertaking their tasks enthusiastically and sparing no effort in achieving the movement's objectives and principles; exerting strenuous efforts to enhance interaction with the masses and winning their respect and confidence.”

What is intriguing, however, is that there is a detailed discussion of transgressions of Fatah rules and punishments for doing so. Clearly, if members do anything the leaders don't like they are going to face severe penalties. Thus it is significant that no Fatah member has been ever disciplined for committing acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians or for making the most extremist statements. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that Fatah has the determination or ability to punish members for collaborating with Hamas against their own leaders.

But the most fascinating aspect of all is the definition of the movement’s structure. Overwhelming power is in the hands of a 23-member Central Committee, including control of Fatah’s military forces. As I have shown previously, the Central Committee elected at the same Congress which formulated this new charter is quite radical. There are few members ready for real peace with Israel. When it comes to making any big decision, Abbas and Fayyad are mere figureheads.

Beneath the Central Committee is an 80-member Revolutionary Committee and, as the next level, a 350-member General Council. The Central Committee chooses a fairly large portion o both groups. Indeed it also selects the Fatah members of the Palestine National Council (the PLO’s legislature); PLO Executive Committee, which rules the PLO; Palestinian Legislative Council (the PA’s legislature); and the PA itself.

What this means is that Abbas and Fayyad do not control the PA, nor can they make peace or even conduct serious give-and-take negotiations. The Central Committee is really in control and the Central Committee is overwhelmingly hardline--at least 16--roughly three-quarters--of the 23 are that way. They still hope to take over Israel and thus reject agreeing to resettle Palestinian refugees in a state of Palestine. Equally, they aren't ready to declare that a two-state solution is the end of the conflict.

Most of the hardliners are supporters of Abbas. But the main reason they back him is their conviction that Abbas is weak both in character and in political base. They want him to be leader because they know he doesn't threaten their power. Like the famous exchange between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Vice-President Dan Quayle they can say: "I knew Yasir Arafat. I worked with Yasir Arafat. And Chairman Abbas, you are no Yasir Arafat."

He will not, he cannot, do anything they don't like. And one of the things Abbas has done to appease them has been to make Muhammad Ghaneim, perhaps the most hardline among all the committee members, his designaed successor.

These 23 committee members are in control of the fate of the Palestinians (except for Hamas’s considerable say in that matter) and the peace process. Due to their radicalism, there will be no peace or Palestinian state for many years. To find out more about who they are and why this is so, go here and here and especially here.

Why don’t more people study the details of Palestinian politics? For the same reason that they don’t want to look closely at how sausages are made. It’s too unpleasant. After doing so, one could never go on naively believing that peace is within reach.

PS: Following my article on the new Fatah Charter, I was sent a JTA story about how the new charter is very moderate since it "drops" calls for Israel's destruction, etc. As I pointed out, the charter says that the old charter is still in force and nothing in the new one contradicts it. So nothing has changed in fact. It is amazing how easy it is for various radical Arab and Islamist groups to fool Western journalists. It always helps to read a document before describing it as a breakthrough for moderation. 

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Scoop: How a "Leftist"-Islamist Alliance is Subverting Democracy in Turkey

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Note: Even if you aren't interested in Turkey you should read this article as a case study of how Islamism works and how too many people in the West are taken in by it. And read the update under point 3 here.

By Barry Rubin

Scary stuff is happening in Turkey. The stealth Islamist regime is increasingly threatening critics and creating phony plots against itself to justify taking more power into its hands. The process is a slow-motion one but the direction is away from moderation and democracy.

Foreign admirers of the AKP regime like to say it is a moderate Islamic government which proves that Islamism is compatible with democracy. It is possible that a few years in the future—when it is too late—observers will look back on its example to prove the opposite.

But here’s an obscure angle on what’s happening that tells a mountain-load about contemporary politics. Stick with me as we expose a covert operation that ties up the far left with the drive toward an Islamist dictatorship. Briefly, here are the themes:

--A nominally left-wing newspaper is an Islamist front fed disinformation by the regime in order to discredit the regime’s rivals, both the army and the left of center political parties.

--This front is praised by leftists in the West as a heroic venture when it is funded by Islamists and does their bidding.

--The Turkish regime is moving increasingly toward demonizing its secular enemies to the point where they can be repressed and Turkish democracy is, at best, limited and the country is moved toward being at least a partial Islamist state with authoritarian rule by a single party. While there will continue to be elections, the AKP is using extra-parliamentary means to ensure that it always will win.

And this is a pattern we’ll see repeated elsewhere. In fact, we’re already seeing it, in the West as well.

Slick neo-Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is quoted in Today’s Zaman, which with its Turkish-language partner Zaman is owned by the Islamist Gulen movement and supports the regime, warning of a new alleged coup plot, supposedly called the “Sledgehammer Security Operation Plan,” to overthrow the government. The army is accused of planning a terrorist campaign of placing bombs in mosques to blow up innocent worshippers.

Creating such phony plots is one of the AKP regime’s main techniques for discrediting opposition and putting critics on trial. Previous alleged plots have included ones called Blonde Girl, Moonlight, Sea-sparkle, and Glove. But the main so-called army-opposition conspiracy is called Ergenekon. Those who have waded through thousands of pages of indictments and the disparate group of those arrested point out a rather important fact: there are no specific acts that took place and no real evidence against anyone.

One of the accused, for example, is Turkan Saylan, a secular leader in the grassroots opposition to the regime who has organized several mass demonstrations. The pro-AK media has accused her of being an Armenian-lover, supporter of the terrorist PKK Kurdish group, and a Christian missionary. But the missionary charge was only made in the Turkish-language Islamist media so it would not become known abroad so that the regime can still pretend to be tolerant and non-Islamist.

The real defenders of Turkish democracy are slandered as those who want to destroy it, while the destroyers are portrayed as the defenders.

The Ergenekon label is used to smear all critics of the regime. When an AKP parliamentarian close to Erdogan attacked my daring to point out how the Islamists repressed women’s rights, she accused anyone of agreeing with me of being part of the Ergenekon conspiracy and thus traitors to Turkey. Erdogan, who is portrayed abroad as a democratic leader, is now accusing the opposition of every political assassination in modern Turkish history, which is pretty serious incitement, and threatening newspaper columnists who criticize his government.

Here’s Today’s Zaman teaming up with the prime minister to make false statements labeling the peaceful parliamentary opposition as a group of terrorist coup-makers:

“Erdoğan said he was unable to understand why some parties act as advocates of illegal groups. He was referring to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose leader Deniz Baykal declared that he was an advocate of Ergenekon. Ergenekon is a clandestine crime network that has alleged links within the state and is suspected of plotting to topple the government…[charged with being] a terrorist organization.”

Baykalm leader of the left-of-center opposition party, is hardly an advocate of Ergenekon, terrorism, or overthrowing the regime in a violent coup.

And what is the source of the latest accusation? A mysterious leftist newspaper called Taraf. If you were to read the media column of the world’s leading leftist English-language newspaper, the Guardian, you’d think Taraf is a heroic champion of free speech. It calls Taraf “Turkey’s most courageous newspaper” and regards Ergenekon as a completely true story.

While pointing out there seems to be a mystery about how this newspaper is financed it explains that the editor does so out of his own pocket. In fact the editor is a journalist who owns a small bookstore which does not explain how he comes up with $6.6 million a year.

So where does the money come from? Apparently, though this requires further investigation, from a group of pro-Islamist, Gulen-connected businessmen of whom the most prominent is Ahmer Calik—in other words to the same people who back the regime and run Today’s Zaman. Calik gets big favors from the government, for example a major pipeline project.

Despite supposedly being a leftist newspaper, Taraf never criticizes Islamism or the government. When the regime’s police beat up leftist demonstrators on May Day the story went unreported in Taraf.

The newspaper’s sensationalism is pretty extreme. For example, last year it ran a story accusing NTV television network, a pro-secular station, of sending out electronic signals to crash the helicopter of an Islamist/ultra-nationalist extremist politician to crash. This is an accusation of murder. When NTV released its full phone records showing the accusation was false, Taraf and other pro-regime newspapers ignored the fact that their story was wrong and moved on to new accusations.

Intimidating newspapers and television stations—as well as buying them up--is one of the regime’s main tactics. For example, the main media empire supporting the opposition was hauled into court and given a fine of several billion (that is not a typo) dollars on trumped-up charges. The message is: shut up or we'll put you out of business.

The real threat to Turkey's remaining a free and democratic state is not the made-up Ergenekon nonsense but Erdogan, Gulen, Today's Zaman, and Taraf, with help from varous foreign dupes.
So there you have it. An Islamist regime pretending to be moderately conservative, a “leftist” newspaper set up to smear the opposition, false charges of terrorism against rival politicians, the use of the courts to jail or intimidate democratic critics, and the cheers of the Western left for all of these techniques.

Coming soon [if not already there already] to a country near you.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, He is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal and of Turkish Studies. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama’s State of the Union Message Tells Us Far More About the State of Obama

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By Barry Rubin

Significantly, President Barack Obama’s discussion of foreign policy came only at the end of his State of the Union message. Obviously, domestic matters and especially the economy come first. Yet international affairs are not only vital but often have been the issues on which administrations are judged, no matter how unlikely that seemed at the time.

It is apparently considered impolite to point out that Obama has no previous experience and little knowledge of international affairs. And yet that fact affects the fate of the globe every day. The really interesting question is whether the State of the Union message showed any growth in his ability after one year in office.

Sadly, the answer is “no.”

Here are the themes he expressed.

First, he implies that it is all George W. Bush’s fault, having left him with two wars. Yet there is a strange point here that no one has noticed. These wars, except for Obama's long hesitation about making a decision on Afghanistan, have caused him little trouble or criticism in relative terms. On a list of administration failures during its first year, a long list of other items prevail which cannot be blamed on Bush: embarrassing gaffes, messing up on Iran and the “peace process,” subverting allies in Central Europe, apologizing and undermining U.S. credibility with dictators, mishandling the Islamist terrorist prisoners, and so on.

Second, he insists that he’s been doing a great job on security. Indeed, Obama suggests—in terms that would have brought a withering criticism of previous presidents—that no one should criticize him.

There is one sentence in this discussion that embodies much of what is wrong with Obama’s concept of international affairs. On the surface it is banal but it is really of the greatest importance: “So let’s put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough.”

This is part of Obama’s confusion between personal or social life and international politics that is so common to the amateur in foreign policy. During recess, boys act macho, ranking each other in a pecking order, challenging each other to fight or back down.

Obama genuinely views the way that international politics works as equally silly, meaningless, unnecessary. He wants to cut through all that and show that everyone is in the same boat, he has no macho feelings about power, and he’s ready to apologize and be part of the gang without leading the gang. It is a way to say: Why can't everyone just get along and be friends. I'll dispense with all these petty quarrels and start by renouncing all my own power.

This is sort of like the wimpy nerd coming up to a motorcycle gang and explaining his philosophy to them. Ok, that’s a very exaggerated image but it gets the point across. At first, Obama's listeners are puzzled. Why would the leader of the world’s greatest superpower talk like this? Perhaps it is a trick.

But then the reactions among foreign leaders and countries to Obama's policy can be divided into three groups:

Foes are not won over. On the contrary, the world's dictators and radical ideologies which are America's enenies conclude that some strange compulsion has paralyzed America so why not take advantage of it?

Dependents are frightened. If this man refuses to be strong or act tough who will protect me? I must give my lunch money to the bullies or somehow ingratiate myself with them or just defend myself as best I can.

Lazy friends are pleased. We love this man because either he won't demand that we do anything or if he does we can ignore him without consequences. But even some of them are starting to become concerned, like Britain, France, and Germany who want more action regarding Iran's nuclear program.

What Obama calls “schoolyard taunts” are what diplomatists for centuries have called power politics, leverage, containment, credibility, and so on.

Regarding security against terrorism, Obama speaks of “substantial investments,” “disrupted plots,” and filling “unacceptable gaps.” Never being able to resist some schoolyard taunts at Bush, he adds that he has captured more al-Qaida fighters than his predecessor. No problem, he says, everything is under control and don't worry about it.

Yet people still are worried—and with good reason. After all, Obama was also saying everything was fine before the "underpants" bomber came along. His bomb didn't destroy the aircraft but it did blow up confidence in Obama's counterterrorist strategy. There is no mention of his treating terrorism as a criminal problem, nor of his very narrow focus on al-Qaida as the only terrorist group of concern, nor of his plan to try captured terrorists at courts in the United States, nor of how terrorists he has released have returned to the battle. If he ignores all the concerns people have, no wonder he can say there is no problem.

Obama continues, “We have prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula.” Has Obama strengthened partnerships? Well, if he means alliances that is truly doubtful. Leaving aside the question of his personal popularity in polls I cannot think of a single country whose material relations are stronger. Nominally, of course, Western Europe greatly prefers Obama to Bush. But has this led to any actual results in practical terms? Again, no.

He claims success in Afghanistan, preparing the army there so he can bring the troops home starting in July 2011. Curiously, there’s no mention of his own smaller version of a surge. U.S. combat troops in Iraq will all be out in August of this year. These are good steps and probably will be very popular at home.

Yet there is also that flash of utopian naiveté, a refusal to face up to the cost of doing so which bodes ill for the future: “We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans – men and women alike. “ Yeah, sure. And as with the misleading claim about his successes against al-Qaida, there is that fascinating Obama inability to resist the temptation to tell easily exposed lies, claiming that other countries have increased their commitments in Afghanistan when in fact they refused his request to do so.

One of the most remarkable elements is something not in the speech. The word “Israel” is not even mentioned. There is no commitment to its security expressed and nothing about the peace process. This is revealing in two ways.

First, Obama has admitted that he made a mistake on the issue, the only foreign policy mistake he has ever mentioned. His response now is to ignore the issue altogether, not in his government's daily activities but in terms of his main commitments. Remember that type of response for it might come to characterize other issues. For example, suppose Obama fails—as he clearly will—to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Will he then turn away from that problem as well, banishing it from his agenda?

Second, everyone knows that Obama’s commitment to Israel has been widely questioned. A good politician would go out of his way to say something to show—truly or falsely—how much he does care about it. That isn’t how Obama works. He is not the kind of president to whom other countries can turn to for a feeling of security and support. And that sense of worry is applying now to many other countries in Latin America, Central Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and elsewhere who know that they cannot rely on the president of the United States to protect them against their enemies. By the way, in his statement thanking countries which had aided Haiti, he also left out Israel though it provided the largest contingent next to that of the United States and rescued several victims from the wreckage.

If Obama were to be honest--and effective--he would admit that Israel did almost completely what he asked while the Palestinian Authority (PA) defied him. Israel froze all the construction on the West Bank (it has never defined east Jerusalem in that way) and expressed willingness to go to talks with the PA. The PA has refused to negotiate for five months after Obama asked it to do so. Yet for Obama to pressure the PA to go to the table--the normal route in such situations--is unthinkable for him. So he has no way out of his failure. And Israel's "reward" for its major concession? Not even to be acknowledged in Obama's main annual speech for the first time, in twelve years in presidential State of the Union speeches.

In contrast, what Obama is fond of, and spends more time—practically twice as much--on then any other foreign policy issue at all, is his vision of world nuclear disarmament. Even his treatment of the Iran issue comes in this context. Obama—and this is another weakness of his—gets lost when he thinks of something he feels is terribly clever. In this case, believing he can best deter Iran and North Korea by saying the United States should also give up its nuclear weapons.

Does anyone in the world take this seriously?

To hear him say it, America’s enemies are trembling:

“These diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions – sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences.”

In a sense, all he had to offer was a schoolyard taunt: You'll be sorry! After so many previous such statements, this comes across as a very empty threat indeed. A different kind of president would have used the State of the Union speech--the timing of it would have been perfect--as a platform to announce that America was switching gears from failed engagement to tough sanctions. The members in both parties would have roared approval. He would have a mandate and the  message would have been clearly heard in Tehran. But such an approach would never have occurred to Obama.

And that's why America's enemies aren’t trembling but laughing and sneering.

This is the speech of a man who is arrogantly convinced of his own brilliance and who basically believes that no one has a right to criticize him. He thinks that he can ignore or rewrite the rules of international affairs. It reveals both a temperament and a set of ideas totally unsuited for dealing with the world as it is.

What I find most fascinating of all about Obama is that despite all the externals—his early personal history and skin color most obviously—used by himself and others to boast that he understands other peoples, Obama is altogether incapable of grasping that others in the world think and act differently from himself.

That’s partly due to his ideology but also to his mistaken belief—ignoring the fact that he is a Hawaii-raised, Harvard-educated member of a very insulated elite whose life has been largely one of uninterrupted rewards mostly showered onto him as gifts--that they are just like he is.

May he, and we all, be very lucky in the next few years.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Governing Neo-Islamist Leaders Freak Out Over My Critiquing Their Oppression of Women

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By Barry Rubin

Recently, it has been reported that the AKP has been forcing women out of senior jobs in Turkey. A while ago I wrote an article publishing and describing four photos sent to me by Turkish friends showing graphically how oppressed and miserable Ermine Erdogan, wife of Turkey's prime minister, looked on visiting the Obamas in Washington.

What's going on in Turkey is scarcely a secret. For example, a Turkish-American wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times:

"In a disturbing trend, secular Turkish women feel growing pressure to cover up, even facing intimidation or discrimination if they don't. In one case, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who has the authority to appoint university rectors, bypassed highly recommended female professor of medicine Gaye Usluer for a man, who was recommended second to her and received far fewer votes from their colleagues at Eskisehir Osmangazi University."

There are many such stories with specific examples to back them up.

Now an AKP member of parliament has thrown more abuse on me than I have ever seen in a mere 800 words. (And I've been working on the Middle East for 30 years!) The article in Hurriyet says that I am an evil Orientalist imperialist, though it at least pays me the compliment of saying I am original about it.

And all I said is that she looked oppressed! Oh, right, that's not a problem for women in the Middle East. Incidentally this is a reaction to the huge number of Turks who have been talking about the piece and complementing it. By referring to the trumped-up conspiracy trials which have labelled critics of the AKP as traitors, the article attacking me implies that Turkey is quickly ceasing to be a democratic country.

Of course the tone of crazed rhetoric and virulent hatred--reflecting the desire to wipe me off the face of the earth--is probably the greatest condemnation of the movement that launched it which professes to be a moderate family-values party, not a radical Islamist one. If the AKP was as it claimed, it would provide a reasoned response, perhaps even trying to convince me that I was wrong.

When one cuts away all the abuse, the only point cited to prove that I'm wrong is that the prime minister's wife has been involved in a campaign against illiteracy.

In strategic terms, the article is rather stupid. What the author should have done was to suggest that I insulted Turkey in some way. But instead she makes it all about the AKP and how great it is. I can practically see Hurriyet readers guffawing and nodding their heads as they read the article since they know what I'm writing is true.

What most amuses me about this attack is that the article never describes what I wrote or what the pictures show.

What makes this most amusing is that I have just published articles on the attempt to crush free speech and on the effort to intimidate people through name-calling. Most timely. 

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Political Secrets of the Middle East: Intimidation Works (If You Really Mean It)

By Barry Rubin

Intimidation works. That might seem obvious, and it certainly seems to be understood by some people regarding domestic American politics, but it is very much neglected when thinking about foreign policy.

Here’s an obscure little story that caught my attention. There’s a Muslim imam in the town of Paris, near Drancy, named Hassan Chalghoumi. He was leading a service with around 300 people in the mosque when about one-third of them interrupted him, screamed he was an infidel traitor, and threatened to kill him. He thought he would not escape alive.

What was Chalghoumi’s sin? He has spoken against Islamic extremism, the very ideology the demonstrators espouse, and condemned antisemitism. After he requested Muslims to respect the memory of Jews killed in the Holocaust, his home was vandalized.

Will Chalghoumi give in and shut up? I don’t know. But the point is that dozens of others will never get started in the first place. There are always a few people who will not be intimidated even by death threats. Yet they will be few.

Perhaps if huge numbers of French citizens took to the streets in huge marches to extol Chalghoumi--who after all is precisely the moderate, tolerant Muslim they profess to applaud—this would not only encourage him but also inspire others to step forward.

If huge numbers of Muslims in France and around the world took to the streets in huge marches to extol Chalghoumi, thus showing they are the moderates they claim to be, then that, too, would inspire others to step forward.

Instead, Fouad Alaoui, president of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), said, "We've warned him several times to moderate his words because he risks to attract these sort of reactions." In other words, we won't support you, you're making people angry, so shut up. What makes this especially significant is that the UOIF is an organization created and funded by the French government in an attempt to moderate Islam and isolate extremists. Apparently, its response to extremists is to appease them.

Meanwhile, though for decades, Western intellectuals, artists, journalists have boasted of their courage in defending the right to free speech, how quickly, faced with a real, albeit extraordinarily minimal and remote, threat did they crumble.

But it gets even better (or actually, worse). They can now boast of their enlightened tolerance for being cowardly and put those who disagree with them, who are willing to risk intimidation, on trial. And of course if you want a job in publishing, journalism, academia, Hollywood, or various strongholds of the current dominant ideology, toe the line or forget about a job.

Let’s list the three main categories of intimidation.

First and most obviously there is the physical: the threat or act of violence. While thousands of Westerners have been killed by random Islamist terrorism, probably no more than a half-dozen individuals have been murdered in attacks from the same sources targeting them because of their use of free speech. Yet this has been sufficient to silence the main institutions of Western society that are supposed to function as truth-tellers, fearless critics of everything. .

Probably even more people have been intimidated by verbal intimidation, which alone has several varieties.

Second, there is ridicule. One of the most effective weapons in intimidating people in Western elite society is to make fun of them and the most successful tool of all—the Weapon of Mass Destruction in this context—is to portray them as unfashionable. Rather than being part of the elite, they are among the uneducated, uncultured hicks, those bigoted people clinging to guns and religion. So if you want to be part of the elite, holding the “right” views is like a membership card.

A great gimmick here is to take some proposition that is easily demonstrable to be wrong and make it sound extremely silly. For example, regarding the Middle East:

“Wow, these people really believe that a nuclear Iran would be a threat; that we are not on the verge of Israel-Palestinian peace; that Israel is a great country; that Islamism is a form of totalitarian ideology; that Syria is wedded to its alliance with Iran; that Islamist terrorists actually have some connection to Islam; that the United States has played—despite errors—a noble role in the world. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? Hahaha! What a bunch of uneducated, uncultured hicks.”

Labeling: Beyond the unfashionable, the “wrong” views have to be presented as fitting into categories which most observers—not only the dedicated supporters of the dominant view but also independent, undecided bystanders—will consider to be wrong and even evil.

We now have a multiplicity of such labels: racist, imperialist, reactionary, conservative, Republican, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and so on. Indeed, contemporary political debate often seems like a parade of insults. But if you can label an idea as falling into a forbidden category you can scare off lots of people from accepting or even considering it. Those intimidated fall into two categories: those who believe that the idea is evil and those who may be sympathetic but fear being tarred with a sin in their brain.

Misrepresenting: The systematic misquoting and distortion of ideas or actions to make them seem evil. To pick one example, Israel was attacked by thousands of rockets from a terrorist group which openly called for genocide against its people. After the other side—let’s call it Hamas—tore up a ceasefire and attacked, Israel defended itself while using serious efforts to limit civilian casualties, though Hamas used civilians as human shields.

The mission: To make Israel look like an aggressive war criminal by distorting what happened. Mission accomplished. And that’s only one of dozens of such missions achieved on a wide variety of issues during the last decade or so.

Remember when we used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” During the era of Political Correctness, that kind of sticks and stones rule the West culturally and intellectually.

Third and last there are legal methods, suing those who say something you don’t want or trying them as purveyors of hate speech. These are few in number but panic vast institutions, especially in publishing.

In the Middle East, the traditional instruments of intimidation as part of statecraft are very much alive. In the West, however, the goal of foreign policy nowadays seems to try to prove that you have no intention of intimidating anyone. Intimidation seems reserved largely for internal social and political matters. When it comes to foreign policy, such methods are relics of the bad old days for which apologies are now given.

A society cannot win at home if its free institutions succumb to intimidation. A country cannot win abroad if it isn't willing to use intimidation against the enemies of freedom.

Forget Che! Where are the Hassan Chalghoumi tee-shirts?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Middle East Politically Accurate Jokes, Part Two

Yesterday, I told the following joke as quite accurate regarding the peace process:

An Israeli, a Palestinian, and an American peacemaker walk into a bar. They each order a drink. The American turns to the Israeli and says: "You pay for everyone as a confidence-building measure."

One reader asked, so what does the Israeli answer?

My response:

He says, “Sure, as long as it isn’t expensive, I’ll do it so you’re happy, you can see that it doesn’t do any good any way and the Palestinian buys the next round. Oh, by the way, each peacemaker gets one free cup of coffee.”

A second reader came up with another good and relevant joke:

The UN secretary-general announces the creation of a great UN world soccer team, including all the member countries.

But, asks his deputy, "Then who would we play against?"

"Well, Israel, of course," the secretary-general answers.

A Lie Told About My Position on U.S. Iran Policy

Leftist activist M. J. Rosenberg has written a lie about me, claiming that I am unhappy with the Obama Administration because I want it to go to war with Iran. This is silly. It is the kind of lie used to discredit people who make a reasoned critique on any issue in order to portray them as extremists. Such a distortion then allows people to ignore the need to consider rational arguments or to respond to them with logic and proof.

The reference to me is dishonest since I have never ever advocated and do not advocate the United States going to war with Iran. I only advocate the Obama Administration implementing the kind of sanctions supported by Congress as well as the British, French, and Germans. Going to sanctions is not supposed to be a prelude to war but a way to avoid war. It's called diplomatic pressure.

The idea of the United States attacking Iran is a terrible idea, it will never happen any way, and I oppose it. I also don't advocate that the United States attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Such a proposal has no connection whatsoever to reality.

 I also don't advocate an Israeli attack on Iran at this time and have never written anything urging such an attack. Whether or not such an action would be necessary is an idea that can only be evaluated well into the future. Again, the whole purpose of serious sanctions is to avoid such a confrontation. I discuss the subject here analyzing the pros and cons of any such future attack without advocating it and pointing out reasons why doing so might not be a good idea.

I would, however, suggest that failure to use the pressure of diplomacy and sanctions makes some future confrontation more likely not because the United States would (or should) attack Iran but that Iranian aggression will trigger conflicts in the region, whether or not America participates and whether or not Israel ever attacks Iranian nuclear installations.

Here is the article to which Rosenberg was apparently referring and it says nothing at all like his claims.

If someone disagrees with you they should be able to state your argument honestly and not make up things with absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. Unfortunately, in the times we live in such behavior is all too common.

What makes this especially ironic is that at almost precisely the same moment Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg was publishing a very nice defense of me in response to a right-winger who attacked me for not urging an Israeli attack on Iran. Goldberg also includes a number of my previous articles on the subject which can also be found on this site.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Appropriate Joke for the Middle East Peace Process

By Barry Rubin

An Israeli, a Palestinian, and an American peacemaker walk into a bar. They each order a drink. The American turns to the Israeli and says: "You pay for everyone as a confidence-building measure."

[This is an original so if you tell it please give proper credit.]

An Arab Liberal Explains What's Wrong and Dreams His Worst Nightmare

By Barry Rubin

You couldn’t do better to understand the contemporary Middle East than through an al-Jazira television program recorded and translated by MEMRI. The speaker is Moncef al-Marzouki, a Paris-based Tunisian human rights activist.

Note: if you read to the end of this article you will encounter the stinger, like a horror movie’s last scene when the monster leaps out and devours the hero.

Marzouki lives in Paris, which tells a lot. It’s hard to live in the Arabic-speaking world and express such frank opinions. Moreover, he is very much exposed to Western influences which flavors his thought and, by the same token, distances him from those living in the Middle East.

While under the themes of Political Correctness and multiculturalism, those in the West celebrate and flatter Arab political culture, the people who actually live under that system are in despair.

While those in the West usually argue the main complaint of Arabic-speakers is about what foreigners do to them, their real problem is what their own leaders do to them.

While in Western universities, students are most often taught about the Middle East along the lines of Arab nationalist ideology, their best counterparts in the region are imprisoned and tortured by regimes holding that doctrine. Meanwhile, these victims’ ill-treatment of is applauded by the Western professors’ ideological counterparts in the Arabic-speaking world.

This doesn’t mean demagoguery and xenophobia—far more common in the Middle East against the West than vice-versa—don’t inflame popular feeling into a murderous rage against non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Nor does it mean that all of this is mere artificial incitement which would not otherwise exist in the mass population.

In short, those who believe Arabs are just waiting to be liberated from their rulers so as to become moderate democrats are wrong. Yet those who think they are just being stirred up by Western policies are also wrong. Indeed, it is the hatreds and misconceptions of the West and of Israel which make peace and cooperation largely impossible.

Khodhari states:

"The Arab peoples have gone from being subservient to and humiliated by a totalitarian, tyrannical ruler, to being subservient to and humiliated by the ruler's son….I believe that within five years, these peoples will bow down to the ruler's chauffeur. I swear that within a decade, they will cheer the ruler's barber, and obey his orders."

This is the despair of the would-be Arab democrat. The reference is to the succession of Bashar al-Assad to his father, Hafiz, as Syria’s dictator, and of the likely impending succession of Gamal Mubarak to his father, Husni, as Egypt’s ruler.

Khodhari is furious about the masses' passivity:

"These dead peoples, which know no shame, and which have become addicted to slavery, conceal all the signs of their humiliation, death, and submission, and shield themselves with the Palestinian cause, and the living, courageous, and heroic Palestinian people. However, I believe that if the Arab peoples turned their backs on the Palestinian cause... The heroic Palestinians must not seek the help of slaves [which means] most of the Arab peoples."

Once again we see the overwhelming symbolism of the Palestinian cause. The liberal portrays the “refusal” of Arabs to fight for the Palestinians as proof of how they have been reduced to slaves of the regime. But the truth is the exact opposite: the use of this issue to blind people to their own national and individual self-interest has been one of the greatest weapons of the regimes, and of their totalitarian Islamist rivals as well.

The problem, of course, is that Arabs don’t see themselves as being passive and addicted to slavery. On the contrary, they see themselves as active and fighting for liberation. Why? Because they are supporting the resistance to Western imperialism and Zionism. That’s why they don’t respond to Khodhari’s argument, they have an alternative route to feeling good about themselves that’s more emotionally satisfying and far safer.

After all, there is no cost to inveighing against foreign enemies. It’s like the joke about the Soviet and the American arguing in the 1970s. The Soviet says: “I can go to Red Square and say, `Down with America!” And the American says, “So can I. But I can also go to the Capitol and say down with America. Can you go to Red Square and say, `Down with the USSR?’”

Marzouki then raises a second point, about his witnessing the May 1968 rebellion in France when, despite many sometimes violent confrontations:

“Not a single Frenchman was killed….What happened in Hama [Syria]? 20,000 dead. What happened in Egypt? What happened in Tunisia? They sprayed them with machine-guns. And the list goes on….All this is in addition to the concentration camps…hundreds of thousands who were imprisoned [and] tortured….These are terrorist states which…treat their peoples as if they were flies that must be sprayed with pesticide.”

He concludes—something obviously true but few if any Western professors would dare say—that the repression since independence has been far worse than that under colonialism.

But there is hope, Marzouki concludes. There’s the work of NGOs, “the number of journalists in prison, and the number of peoples in exile.” Here are two problems. First, NGOs generally remain very weak and most larger ones are either regime fronts or Islamist ones. Second, while the number of prisoners and exiles show people oppose the regime it also indicates they have done so unsuccessfully. And most don’t want to be in prison or exile. If that’s the price of being democratic activists few will have the courage to do so.

And here’s the big finish: "There was an armed rebellion in Algeria, and today, there is an armed rebellion in Yemen….And these despicable regimes are on the verge of collapse."

Oh, dear! The armed rebellion in Algeria is by the local franchise of al-Qaida; that in Yemen by Islamists backed by Iran. Like the Communists in 1930s Germany who insisted Nazi rule would only be prelude to a Red takeover, liberals in the Arab world must contend with the fact that the revolutionaries today would be even worse in power than the incumbent regimes. So much for hope.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Islam and Islamism: Are Extremists Hijackers, “Proper Muslims,” or Contenders in a Civil War?

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By Barry Rubin

One of the most controversial issues today is the relationship of the political doctrine of Islamism (including revolutionary activity and terrorism) and the religion of Islam.

Given the desire of too many people to distort this discussion with slogans, insults, and name-calling, it is a very dangerous one. Yet the importance of the issue requires it be analyzed.

Let’s begin by defining three positions. The dominant, establishment view in the West is that Islam is a religion of peace and has nothing to do with violence, hatred of non-Muslims, mistreatment of women, terrorism, or ambition for political power. Anything bad is said to be a distortion of Islam’s “real” message. As a result, the image offered is one of extremists—who are in effect heretics—trying to “hijack” Islam.

A second view is that Islam is an innately extremist hate-filled religion and that this cannot change because such materials are built into the sacred texts.

This is what those in the first group like to call “Islamophobic.” That is, by the way, a badly chosen term since it implies these people are afraid of Islam, a fear that may be attributed to xenophobic bigotry but in reality comes largely from the violent activities and extremist statements made by (some, many) Muslims. The choice of the phrase reveals its weakness and even dishonesty. A more accurate word for systematic haters would be “anti-Islamic.”

One weakness of this second position is to freeze Islam into a single stance whereas it is easy to show that historically there have been many different ways Islam has functioned regarding the state and society. In contrast, the "religion of peace" advocates believe they if they can merely find one era when Islam has been tolerant this not only proves the "Islamophobes" wrong but somehow--illogically--shows that Islam is always tolerant and moderate.

But there is a third standpoint, which the “religion of peace” advocates often like to slander by putting it into the “Islamophobic” category for daring to say anything critical at all. This is to say that Islam, like all religions, must be interpreted by its adherents and they never all agree on how to do so. Even if the texts remain the same--as in Christianity and Judaism--the way they are implemented does not have to always stay frozen.

All the things radical Islamists claim can be found in the basic Islamic texts. They are not mere lying, isolated, heretics but a legitimate competing group within Islam.

This third group, let's call it the realistic school, argues that it is an urgent task to deal honestly with this reality, reject pretending that everything is just fine, and to urge or demand that non-radical Muslims wage the war of interpretation against the radicals.
Yet the Islamists are also in political conflict with what had been, up until recently, mainstream Islam in terms of practice, which I call conservative, traditional Islam. In every country, most of the ulama overwhelmingly support the existing regime--and are well-paid for doing so, too. But an Islamist triumph is against their own self-interest as well since the revolutionaries view them as traitors.

Similarly, most rank-and-file Muslims also do not support the Islamists who want to transform their own country, though a large number will cheer them on to kill non-Muslims. That is why, of course, it is so tempting for Islamists to focus their attacks on Israelis and Westerners. Otherwise, their victims will be conservative traditionalist Muslims who represent the majority populations in their own countries.

That is why, according to this third standpoint, the best way of describing the relationship is that of rivals fighting over control of the steering wheel rather than a hijacking by a group of Islamists who are mere criminal interlopers. Daniel Pipes has described this situation in his own words as radical Islam being the problem and moderate Islam being the solution.

While respecting his formulation I’d use my own phrasing: There are three contestants: The powerful Islamist political movement; the strong but perhaps weakening conservative traditional Islam (which is being influenced by Islamism, too); and the very weak reformist Islam. Islamism is the worst of those alternatives. I would say: radical Islam in the form of Islamism is the problem; moderate Islam is the best solution; but even conservative traditional Islam is preferable to Islamism and is far more likely to win—like it or not—than some grand project for reforming Islam that would take decades if not centuries.

This is by no means to idealize mainstream conservative traditional Islam which is in many respects retrograde and sabotages economic and social progress. Yet it would have been far more permissive—in reality if not in theory—of change. Obviously, of course, conservative traditional Islam in Saudi Arabia is far more extreme than in a country like Egypt or Tunisia. And the spread of the Saudi version, undermining more tolerant Islam as far afield as Indonesia, is also part of the modern Islamist problem. As one Saudi put it, what big Usama says is in large part what little Usama learned in (Saudi) school.

Two more brief remarks about why the problem is far more one of political Islamism than it is of the religion of Islam as such.

Let us assume that the immigration of Muslims to the West was happening 50 or even years ago. This was in a period before Islamism took hold. And so whatever problems did take place--many of them cultural, too--there would be no huge problem as there is today with a powerful Islamist interpretation often dominating the field and controlling organizations and often mosques and schools There would be no terrorism issue. While many Muslims would want to keep apart and reject Western ways, they would do so quietly and peacefully. While women who became Westernized and anyone wanting to convert to another religion would face some harassment, they would not face a high likelihood of being murdered. The younger generations would become more, not less, comfortable and accommodating with Western society.

(Of course, back then, Western societies would also have unapologetically advocated assimilation or acculturation which would also have reduced the problem.)

Finally, my view is that all the material for extremism is present in Islam but it requires a specific interpretation to focus on all the most radical parts of the texts rather than ignore them. There is no parallel in Christian religious texts with what is in Islamic texts extolling violence and preaching intolerance and political conquest. But there is a parallel in Christian behavior over many centuries and through the Medieval period. Christianity. The problem for the apologists for Islam, however, is that there are dominant interpretations--especially in Islamism--which represent a form of Islam in 2010 which was last seen in Christianity (with a few exceptions) 500 years ago. Thus the religions may be parallel on a theoretical level but not in actual contemporary practice.

For example, the great debate from the mid-1500s onward in Europe, though it took about 300 years to resolve, was between those who said that the king's power derived from the people and was limited, and htose who said that the king's power came from God and was unlimited. In the Arabic-speaking world (along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) the debate that began in the late twentieth century was between those who said that the dictator's power came from God (or from the Nation with a capital "N" which amounts to the same thing) and was unlimited against those who said that Islamic law should have supreme power to which all people must yield.

That's a heck of a lot of historical gap. The debate over real democracy hasn't even begun yet.
To say that all religions contain extremist ideas and thus are the same might be true in response to the “Islamophobic” argument that nothing ever changes. But it has nothing useful to say for an era in which millions of Muslims hold views equivalent to those of Christians at the time of the Crusades while Christians have become overwhelmingly of the “turn the other cheek” variety when it comes to relations between their own religion and others or society in general.

Are Muslims the main victims of radical Islamism or, if you wish, radical Islam? The answer is absolutely yes. Yet if that’s true then what we are dealing with here is a civil war within Islam in which Muslims have chosen different sides, neither a hijacking nor the “inevitable interpretation” of Islam. After all, if the Islamists were impersonators they would have no support, and if they were unquestionably the correct form of Muslim they would have all Muslims’ support.

Pretending that those who rule Iran and the Gaza Strip, who are the most powerful force in Lebanon, who are the main opposition movement in every Arabic-speaking country, and who are engaged in revolutionary movements from Morocco to Indonesia aren’t “real” Muslims is not going to help anybody.

The key here is political, not theological. Not all Muslims are good; not all Muslims are bad; not all Muslims are “moderate”; not all Muslims are “radical.” The same tools of historical study and political analysis should be used on the issue of Islam and Islamism as on all other questions.

The bottom line is that even the most controversial issues should be approached in the most balanced, rational, and calm way possible.

For more on this issue, see here.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Free Speech is a Right, Not a Privilege Granted by the State

By Barry Rubin

“Free speech is not an automatic right. It is not a cover to allow hate speech and outright abuse,” writes a pro-Israel activist in a letter to a newspaper about the viciously nasty, even antisemitic “talk-backs” on its site. He'd be horrified to realize that these are precisely the arguments that have been used most effectively by those undermining democracy, promoting extremist causes, and even demonizing israel to create the mess we face today.

Indeed, that kind of talk makes me shiver no matter who says it. In my opinion free speech is an absolute right, excepting only—as the U.S. Supreme Court wisely ruled—when it is incitement to a real and imminent crime. For the record, offending someone is not a crime nor is criticizing any group, whether fairly or otherwise. Attacks on an individual are covered under clearly defined laws of libel and slander which require proof of far more than criticism alone or saying something the targeted person didn't like.

How ironic that the thin edge of the wedge in subverting the freedom of speech in various countries was to make Holocaust denial a crime. This should never have happened. The result is a panoply of new laws, new “hate crimes,” and even courts to try people for nonsensical charges regarding writings, statements, or even jokes and cartoons.

There is a difference, of course, between free speech and editing or, to use the Internet term for the latter, “moderating.” Editing is a selection made by an individual assigned for that purpose to choose what is best and most interesting for a given publication, as well as improving the quality of writing and reducing of excessive verbiage. If a publication is edited then everyone knows that fact and can choose another publication to read or submit materials. Or even to start one’s own and to compete for viewers or readers. That last point is covered under freedom of the press.

Personally, I don’t find talk-backs to be so useful, don’t read them, and don’t have them on my blog. On the other hand, I cherish the letters I receive from readers which often contain interesting ideas, useful corrections, and even the basis for articles. Given the inevitable result of being clogged with silly-speech (of which only a portion could be labeled “hate-speech” by anyone), I don’t see the point of having such things. But I’m certainly not advocating banning them by law or throwing into prison someone who writes one that offends me.

And there’s a good reason for not doing things like that to everything one doesn’t like. Once there is someone empowered to limit free speech as such, any democratic society is in trouble. The temptations of partisanship or personal (or group) interest are going to be too strong to resist. And everyone has a different idea of what is acceptable or not.

Of course that is what's happening with some targets of alleged hate (which is almost always mere criticism) getting legal protection and others not.

Liberals have traditionally been the strongest of all in opposing censorship and defending the right of free speech against restrictions. In contrast, extreme leftists and rightists are eager to shut up others right to speak. The clever manipulation of categories like race, gender, and religion, has now opened the door for attacking liberty. Unfortunately, people who call themselves "liberals" are now in the forefront of the censorship drive. Just because you find a good excuse for censorship (the old ones regarding religion, decency, and family were also pretty good causes).

Should one be terrified of bigots? Again, in an edited media, such expressions—at least by their quantity—should not be allowed to crowd out everything else. Because such statements are nonsensical, boring, and repetitive, they are of less interest and reduce the space or time for useful dialogue. A good editor or publisher should want to dispense with such things for solid, logical reasons.

Again, though, as the founders of the American republic and of other democratic nations understood, the power to limit free speech is not an authority that should be placed into the hands of anyone, no matter how well-meaning they claim to be and how allegedly noble and undeniably righteous is their real or supposed cause.

A state that puts people on trial for things they’ve said, written, or drawn—as have the Netherlands and Canada's human rights commissions, to name but two—is no longer a truly democratic country. Or how about the United Kingdom where, for example, a blogger who accurately depicted an Anglican cleric as a Holocaust denier and an associate of Islamist terrorists received a threatening visit by police? In the same country, the police tried to prosecute a television network for showing videos of sermons taken inside mosques, though a court finally ruled that the police (that is, the taxpayers) had to pay damaged to the television network.

That power to curb free speech will be inevitably abused to the detriment of society. The only difference between such a system and the Stalinist USSR is one of intensity, not type.

There is also another reason for not limiting free speech. It is better to know what is being said and thought rather than driving it underground. The number, identity, and arguments made by those who express views of various types should be known and understood by those who seek to counter them.

People who believe in democracy should feel that the only ones who will lose by freedom of speech are those whose arguments can be refuted by truth and logic. Come to think of it, that’s precisely what most of those in authority insisting on limiting free speech fear. Shutting up one’s enemies is too attractive a temptation to yield to for any reasons whatsoever.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Obama Administration Learns the Basic Lesson on the Israel-Palestinian Issue

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By Barry Rubin

In contrast to its refusal to change course on Iran, the Obama administration has learned something about Israel-Palestinian peacemaking, conclusions clearly expressed in the government’s new talking points.

First, President Barack Obama stated recently that his administration had overestimated its ability to get the two sides into meaningful peace talks. Blaming both parties equally, Obama said the problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians were ready to take the bold steps necessary to succeed.

This is a recognition of reality and about the best that could be expected. Of course, it maintains a determined evenhandedness, failing to hint at the easily demonstrable fact that it was the Palestinians who were not interested in making any compromises, even refusing to come to the table at all. But evenhandedness is welcome from an administration that originally seemed set to become the most anti-Israel presidency in history.

The new perspective, at least its public version, does not note the administration’s own responsibility in raising Palestinian expectations that Washington would abandon Israel and give them everything they wanted. Two key points here were the administration’s early bashing of Israel combined with the silly obsession about freezing construction on settlements. The Obama administration also has repeatedly told the Palestinians that they “deserve” a state with no indication that they would have to earn it.

But as I said, this is the best to be expected.

The words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be studied carefully on this matter as it points out the administration’s future plans. These can be summed up as: remaining active (and continually calling attention to their activity, however minor) but doing relatively little in real terms.

This new line is being framed always with the awareness of how the Obama administration blamed its predecessor for not doing enough. Ironically, the new policy is effectively an admission that the aforementioned predecessor in the White House couldn’t have achieved more if he had used greater zeal on the issue, which was precisely the same conclusion reached by that other president’s team.

Thus, Hillary takes a swipe at George Bush even while adopting his interpretation:

“We believe that this is a situation that deserves constant, persistent attention; that the absence of such attention perhaps created some of the difficulties that we are now encountering.”

It’s pretty funny to deconstruct this statement: We were too optimistic and our expectations were too high;  we tried really hard and got nothing. But the reason we didn’t get anything is because the people in office before us didn’t also set expectations too high, try really hard, and get nothing!

Ok, now let’s focus on the future. Clinton continued:

"But ultimately…this has to be between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States, the UK, the EU, the Arab League, everyone can work together to try to create the conditions for a resolution of the outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but at the end of the day, they must make that decision."

Isn’t this what the Clinton and Bush administrations concluded? Well, it’s good that the Obama administration has learned this lesson.

So what are they going to do? Clinton lays out the framework: "We are going to continue to do everything we can to create an environment in which that is possible.” In other words, have lots of talks and present ideas which continually fail but at least show they are trying.

Of course, what’s left out is the missing element which might allow at least for some minimal progress: put real pressure on the Palestinian Authority to make some compromises. But that isn’t going to happen. And so we return to business as usual.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Point of No Return: Clearly the Obama Administration Won't Ever Do Anything Serious Against Iran's Nuclear Program

By Barry Rubin

We must now face an extremely unpleasant truth: even giving the Obama Administration every possible break regarding its Iran policy it is now clear that the U.S. government isn’t going to take strong action on the nuclear weapons issue.

Note that I didn’t even say “effective” action, that is, measures which would force Iran to back down. I'm neither advocating nor do I think there was ever any possibility that the United States, even under Obama's predecessor, might take military action.

 I’m saying that they aren’t even going to make a good show of trying seriously to do anything at all.

Some say that the administration has secretly or implicitly accepted the idea that Iran will get nuclear weapons and is now seeking some longer-term containment policy. I doubt that has happened. They are just not even this close to reality.

From their behavior they still seem to expect, incredibly, that some kind of deal is possible with Tehran despite everything that has happened. Then, too, they may hope that the opposition—unaided by America--will overthrow the Iranian government and thus solve the problem for them. And they are too fixated on short-term games about seeking consensus among other powers two of which—China and Russia—are clearly not going to agree to do anything serious. This fact was clear many months ago but the administration still doesn’t recognize it.

Not only is the Obama administration failing the test but it is doing so in a way that seems to maximize the loss of U.S. credibility in the region and the world. A lot of this comes from the administration’s philosophy, almost unprecedented concepts of guilt, apology, defeatism, and refusal to take leadership never seen before among past liberal Democratic governments from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton.

Yet the British, French, and Germans are ready to get tough on Iran, yearning for leadership, and not getting it.

All of this is watered down in media coverage, focused on day-to-day developments; swallowing many of the administration’s excuses plus its endlessly repeated rhetoric that action is on the way. When the history of this absurdly failed effort is written the story will be a shocking one, the absurdity of policy obvious.

It was totally predictable that the Iranian government would not make a deal. It was totally predictable that Russia and China weren’t going to go along with higher sanctions. It was totally predictable that a failure by the United States to take leadership and instead depend on consensus would lead to paralysis. And it is totally predictable that a bungled diplomatic effort will produce an even more aggressive Iranian policy along with crisis and violence.

First, the administration set a September deadline for instituting higher sanctions and then, instead of following a two-track strategy of engagement plus pressure, postponed doing anything while engaged in talks with Iran.

Second, it refused to take advantage of the regime’s international unpopularity and growing opposition demonstrations due to the stolen election. On the contrary, it assured the Iranian regime it would not do so.

Third, the administration set a December deadline if engagement failed, then refused to recognize it had failed and did nothing. It is the failure even to try to meet this time limit by implementing some credible action that has crossed the line, triggered the point of no return.

Fourth, the U.S. government kept pretending that it was somehow convincing the Chinese and Russians to participate while there was never any chance of this happening. Indeed, this was clear from statements repeatedly made by leaders of both countries. Now, this duo has sabotaged the process without any cost inflicted by the United States while making clear they will continue doing so.

Here is something tremendously ironical: The British, French, and Germans want to act. Obama has the consensus among allies that he says is required. But he's letting himself be held back by China and Russia. The three European allies now have the opposite problem they felt with Bush. They wanted to pull back the previous American president. Now with Obama, they can't drag this guy forward!

Fifth, high-ranking U.S. officials continually speak of their unending eagerness to engage Iran, begging it to fool them with more delays. But Tehran doesn't have to do so since the same officials speak of at least six months more discussion before anything is done about sanctions.

Sixth, the administration now defines sanctions as overwhelmingly focused on the Revolutionary Guards, which it cannot hurt economically, thus signaling the Iranian regime it will do nothing effective to damage the country’s economy. This means that even if sanctions are increased they will be toothless. The White House ignored the face-saving way out given it by Congress, where the vast majority of Democrats supported an embargo on refined fuel supplies and other doable measures.

All of these steps tell Iran’s regime: full speed ahead on building nuclear weapons; repress your opponents brutally and the United States will do nothing. It isn't a good thing when the world's most dangerous dictator is laughing at you and your friends in the region are trembling because they have been let down.

After these six failures, the United States is now—in effect—resting. And that is the seventh failure. There are no signs that anything is changing in Washington. To believe that the administration has learned anything from experience, we would have to see the following:

An angry U.S. government which feels that Iran’s regime made it seem a sucker. A calculating administration that believes the American people wants it to get tough and thus it would gain politically from being seen as decisive. A great power strategy that it would make an example of Iran to show what happens to repressive dictators who defy the United States and spit on its friends and interests. And a diplomatically astute leadership which understands how threats and pressure must be used even by those who want to force an opponent into a compromise deal.

There is not the slightest indication that the Obama administration holds any of these views. On the contrary, without any apparent realization of the absurdity of the situation, high-ranking officials keep repeating in January 2010 as in January 2009 that some day the United States might do something to put pressure on Iran. Perhaps those in the administration who do understand what’s wrong don’t have the influence to affect the policy being set in the White House.

At a minimum, the administration should implement the tough sanctions envisioned by Congress and supported by its European allies, an attempt to cut off the maximum amount of fuel supplies, loans, and trade from Iran. If this hurts average Iranians it also sends the signal that the current regime is unacceptable and aids the opposition. In diplomatic history, this is how sanctions have always been viewed.

Instead, while the United States does nothing, Russia is completing Iran's Bushire nuclear reactor and China is finishing up a massive oil refinery in Iran. While Obama fiddles, the regime is getting stronger, not more isolated.

This sad debacle is going to be a case study of how failing to deal with a problem sooner, even if that requires some diplomatic confrontations, will lead to a much bigger and costlier conflict later involving military confrontations.

When I read what I wrote back in September--four months before the article you are reading now was written--I find that every point made has proven true.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Textbooks Your Children are Using Distort the World

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By Barry Rubin

My son brought me a book from his class’s library, The Usborne Illustrated Atlas of World History,  published originally in 1995 by Scholastic books. This was the 2000 edition, in other words the publisher had five years to fix the errors I enumerate below. While showing less purposeful bias than other texts I've analyzed, the combination of factual errors and acceptance of mainstream contemporary (bad) thinking makes for more miseducation.

Page 74: The Iron Curtain. The book is careful not to say much critical about Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. We are told (and this is rather amazing), “After [World War Two] communist [lower class “c”!] parties came to power in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.” Came to power! You mean through violence and repression?

On page 78 we are told about the rise of Solidarity in Poland but again nothing about the internal repression or failure of Communism. In fact, the issue is reduced to being merely one of nationalism:

“The rise against communism began in Poland. The Polish people were not happy that the Soviet Union dominated their government.” In response to Solidarity, we are told that the government introduced martial law but that in 1980 “the Polish people were granted free elections.” Under “The Iron Curtain Dissolves” we are told that other countries then “changed” and that “the Communists allowed new political parties” It sounds like an act of generosity.

Nothing about torture, shootings, deportations, the wrecking of the economy, the war on religion, or all the other features of Communist life.

So what does the book say about the Soviet Union under Stalin? On page 68:

“The Bolsheviks…set up a communist government which was based on providing equality and state control of people’s everyday lives….[Stalin] took much land away from the peasants and many people died of starvation or were sent to harsh work camps.”

This is a rather positive reading of the Bolsheviks intentions--isn't "equality" a good thing, the little reader might think--though it does mention the regime's totalistic control and even the famine induced by collectivization.

Even worse, it reduces the Gulag to merely be a series of “harsh work camps.” Nothing about the murder of millions of people by shooting them in the back of their head or death through overwork, freezing, and starvation.

In comparison, the book does talk a little bit about repression in Communist China but only during the brief Cultural Revolution and not before, as if this was a problem during a relatively small part of the regime's history.

Evenhandedness on the Cold War is very carefully maintained, not implying in any way that the U.S.-led side must have been better. For example:

“In the 1970s and 80s, the superpowers continued to back groups close to their own ideas. The USA supported revolutions in Chile and Nicaragua, while the Soviets occupied Afghanistan.” The book doesn't attack U.S. policies, which is why I say it is not as bad as many more radical texts. Yet it is just badly thought out. It would have made far mor sense to include the attempted invasion of Cuba, in the first category, along with Soviet support for terrorist groups in Europe and the Middle East.

My view is that the greatest bias in general in teaching is the understating of the crimes of Communism.

Regarding Israel, the book tries for fairness but is riddled with errors, including one gigantic mistake that is objectively quite malacious. On page 72, it shows Israel’s flag and describes it as “the first new nation created after World War Two,” which is nice but will come as a shock to Syrians (1946) and Indians and Pakistanis! (1947). Often the carelessness on facts which with these texts are compiled rivals any political bias.)

Another silly error is a map it also shows the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights as “Israeli territory” which is just not accurate since of these areas only the Golan Heights was annexed. That isn’t any political bias but just sloppiness.

The book's main paragraph on the issue states:

“During the 20th century, great numbers of Jews had arrived in Palestine which they saw as their traditional homeland. However the Arab Palestinians resisted the arrival of Jews in the area that was their homeland too. In 1948 the United Nations came up with a solution—the creation of a new Jewish state of Israel in Palestine. The Palestinians soon became a nation without a home and years of violence between Jews and Arabs followed.”

Here is where the gigantic misstatement of fact comes in. The UN’s proposal—which the UN “came up” with in 1947, not 1948—was to create two states, one for the Palestinian Arabs. Thus, a fair solution is turned into what seems to be an unfair one. And of course once one admits that the intention was to create two states, the book would have to say that the Arabs turned down getting their own state. Thus, if they are “without a home” it is by their own doing and they thus become responsible for the subsequent conflict.

Here’s what the book says about Islam:

“In the early 1980s, an old force began to gain power—Islam. The dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East was seen as a religious struggle. Enthusiasm for Islam in Arab countries grew.

“The focus of this was Iran, where a revolution had taken place in 1979. The new leaders were religious officials called ayatollahs, who insisted on Islamic law....”

It then refers briefly to the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

This is an example of how a book can think it is observing PC, unintentionally violate it, and be inaccurate all at the same time. The book doesn’t mention Islamism (or Islamic fundamentalism) as a political movement. It only mentions the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than the attempt of Islamist movements to seize state power. Thus, the student would be confused and have no real understanding of the actual contemporary struggle.

I realize that these issues must be simplified for grade school students and expressed in very few words. Yet I often marvel, even given these constraints, what a poor job they do. It is also important to point out that where they fail in terms of substance the problems are always the same: too soft on Communism; too critical (or at least mindlessly evenhanded and mirror-imaging) of the United States; too unfair to Israel; and too fearful of dealing with the Islamist issue.

While this book presents a somewhat mixed picture—better than others I’ve seen—it repeats this pattern. In fact, it is more shocking since the errors don't seem to be deliberate based on a strong political bias but just a combination of sloppiness and accepting what others who may be biased have written.

I’m proud of my son for catching some of these points and calling it to my attention. I feel bad knowing that virtually no other students would either see what’s wrong here or discuss it with their parents.