Tag: Islam

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

Kick Egypt off the Foreign Aid Dole

The United States has spent decades attempting to micromanage the Middle East. The result is a long series of disastrous failures. Egypt is the latest example.

Almost everyone in Egypt now blames America—despite almost $75 billion in financial assistance to Cairo over the years. Instead of backing away, President Barack Obama is digging America in deeper. The administration is ignoring U.S. law by continuing financial aid.

The United States turned Egypt into a well-paid client during the Cold War after Egypt switched sides and later made peace with Israel. But the case for continuing subsidies has disappeared.

The law requires halting assistance. If what happened in Cairo was not a coup it’s time for an update to George Orwell’s 1984. In fact, it appears that the military planned its takeover for months. 

The Egyptian military is a praetorian institution which has been the foundation of dictatorship for a half century. Egyptian military officers are pampered apparatchiks who control as much as 40 percent of the economy. They always have served power and privilege rather than democracy and liberty. 

Moreover, foreign “aid” has subsidized Egypt’s catastrophic economic failure. Like government-to-government assistance elsewhere, American subsidies have discouraged economic reform. 

As for political influence, Cairo long ago realized that it could count on receiving Americans’ money irrespective of its behavior. Egyptian governments have never listened to Washington’s advice regarding either economic or political reform. That hasn’t changed since the coup.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns visited Cairo a couple weeks ago and activists on both sides refused to see him. The top military leader met with him, but ostentatiously ignored Burns’ pleas. 

Even if the money theoretically brought influence, the Gulf States have promised Egypt at least four times as much as Washington. Why should Cairo listen to America?

The military already is well-funded domestically, and much of America’s assistance goes for prestige weapons, such F-16s. Nor does Washington need to pay the generals not to break the peace with Israel. They know that conflict with Israel would be suicidal. 

Unfortunately, the liberal opposition is living an illusion if it believes that security forces which backed dictatorship for six decades now represent liberal values. As I point out in my new Forbes online column:

[I]t will not be long before those who advocate democracy and liberty find themselves in the army’s cross-hairs. Literally, given the military’s penchant for using live ammunition against protestors. Democracy advocates who subvert democracy should expect nothing less.

Finally, America’s reputation is on the line internationally. The Muslim Brotherhood may be no friend of liberty, but political Islamists are far more dangerous if excluded from the political process. And the coup will resonate beyond Egypt. To work so hard to avoid applying the law in order to support a coup against the man who won the first free presidential election in Egyptian history will make a mockery of any future pronouncements about America’s commitment to democracy. 

Washington’s best hope is to disengage, leaving Egyptians to decide their own future. That would respect the rule of law in the United States. It also would restore a degree of leverage, if Egypt’s military actually values Washington’s cash and support. It is time to halt American assistance to Egypt.

U.S. Bends to Protests in Pakistan

To contain mass protests in Pakistan over a now infamous anti-Islamic film, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear in a $70,000, U.S.-funded ad on Pakistani television denouncing the film and saying America “respects all faiths.”

This joint White House-State Department effort seems terribly misguided, as I would wager that Pakistanis are angrier with Washington dropping bombs on their domes—both cranial and architectural. But what makes this public relations endeavor particularly ill conceived is that, on a basic level, the U.S. Government should be taking this opportunity to promote one of its core foundational principles: the free speech of private citizens.

The ad does not do that. It instead emphasizes America’s tolerance for religious freedom without reference to other fundamental rights. I recognize that Obama and Clinton not only want to stop the anti-American protests, but also challenge the misconception that private and public speech in America are essentially one and the same. But when demonstrators in Peshawar are burning movie theaters and setting fire to posters of female movie stars, our leaders convey the impression that they are kowtowing to radicals. (It should be noted that the savagery perpetrated by radicals in the Muslim world disgusts many moderate Muslims.)

It is bad enough that Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked its American counterpart to have the anti-Islamic film removed from YouTube. It would be worse if Washington fulfilled that expectation by obliging. As writer Salman Rushdie has said of the protests more generally, free speech is at risk because “religious extremists of all stripes” attack people who criticize beliefs.

Americans live under a different set of laws and customs and should never be scared into bending to extremists. And, however offensive the film mocking Mohammed was, there is no excuse for the violent behavior on display.

Muslim Humor

It is with delight this week that I see social media pouring derision on mainstream media’s depiction of the world. Specifically, the withering mockery given to Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover.

Gawker helped catalyze things by publishing some early Twitter send-ups of the Muslim rage concept—“Wrestling is fake? #MuslimRage”—and its own spoof: “13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage.”

My personal favorite came from hijab-wearing ‏@LibyaLiberty, who Tweeted:

I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage

It is not automatic to recognize the personality of souls in other cultures and countries. In a Tweet posted September 12th (now apparently taken down) outgoing Village Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega said, “Islam needs to get a [expletive] sense of humor.” I don’t know what one means by anthropomorphizing a religion, but many individual Muslims demonstrably already have one.

AP Photo

On the Wall Street Journal Professional site, Bret Stephens writes about the derision U.S. culture can pour on minority religions other than Islam without eliciting much stir at all, official or otherwise. The unfairness is notable, and it’s worth talking about whether government-issued statements about the bizarre “Innocence of Muslims” video were called for and whether they struck the right notes.

But Stephens says something that has a quality similar to Ortega’s Tweet and Newsweek’s cover, dismissing the individuality of the one billion-plus Muslims around the world who are not rioting, attacking embassies, or doing anything of the sort.

“[T]o watch the images coming out of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a,” Stephens writes, “is to witness some significant portion of a civilization being transformed into Travis Bickle.” (Travis Bickle was the misfit anti-hero in Martin Scorcese’s movie Taxi Driver, who delivered a young prostitute from New York City back to her mid-western family. Political people remember him as the inspiration for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.)

“Significant portion”? How many Muslims constitute a “significant portion” of the overall number? What infinitesimal percentage of a group so large is “significant”? Stephens might have said “tiny minority” and been more accurate. His implication—hopefully unintended—is that an entire culture is massing at the border of ours, preparing—oh, who knows what—our undoing.

I believe it’s received wisdom in libertarian circles to reject the collectivist mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Any believer in individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities should suffer sharp pangs of cognitive dissonance to think of group conflict along the lines I’m reading into Stephens.

So I’m enjoying seeing Muslims express themselves as individuals, putting the lie to their caricature in the mainstream media as a raging undifferentiated mass with spittle on their beards. Especially the women.

Egyptian Elections: Is the Revolution Over?

Before the news of Hosni Mubarak’s impending death dominated the news cycle, the real issue on Egypt was what happened in the past week. On Thursday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved parliament. On Sunday, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a supplementary constitutional declaration that stripped the presidency of most of its power and gave itself temporary legislative authority and a strong hand in writing the country’s new constitution. Egypt’s democracy now hangs by a thread after what amounts to a de facto coup. U.S. policymakers ought to reassess Washington’s aims with Cairo and weigh the supposed value of American military and economic aid against the outcomes actually reached. Evidence suggests that U.S. aid can and should be phased out, providing Egypt the domestic political shake-up its young democracy desperately needs.

U.S. officials must consider the precise purpose of military aid programs, particularly their usefulness with respect to Egyptian-Israeli peace. Proponents of aid stand the region’s geopolitics on its head, arguing that aid dissuades Egypt’s military from initiating war against Israel. Little to no attention is paid to the fact that Washington advances interests that Egypt already has, as war with Israel would be disastrous for Egypt, aid or no.

Throughout the Cold War, Egypt and Israel fought a war nearly every decade: 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1969, and 1973. Egypt’s military realized long ago—and more importantly, on its own accord—the hazards of its perpetual confrontation with Israel. Its adherence to the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement of September 1978 was the culmination of lessons learned from its devastating military defeats.

Egyptian-Israeli peace is assured not by Washington’s largesse to Cairo, but by the memory of its humiliating military losses and the desperate economic conditions in Egypt. Nevertheless, Cairo continues to wage covert measures against Israel—again, despite receiving U.S. assistance. Earlier this year, pro-military fliers distributed in Egyptian taxis blamed the United States, Israel, and other foreign powers for causing the country’s crisis. In addition, under Mubarak, Israeli authorities complained that Egypt was failing to effectively control the smuggling of arms and explosives in tunnels under Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Other material was also being transferred by sea and above ground by smugglers with the complicity of Egyptian soldiers and officers. Israeli Security Agency director Yuval Diskin believed that Egyptian leaders lacked the will to crack down on these weapons networks because they viewed Israel as a safety valve that channeled extremists away from Egypt.

Recent tensions in the Sinai could have serious implications. As Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif writes:

Sinai will remain a critical point of friction between Israel and Egypt. Since the collapse of the Libyan regime, huge caches of weapons have found their way from Libya into the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, the fact that Hamas has now access to new armaments represents a huge security challenge. It is a situation that neither Israel nor Egypt can control. The former may decide to carry out a preemptive strike against Hamas and loyal cells deep within Sinai. Such unilateral action could easily develop into a regional conflict. [Emphasis added]

Even if structural factors between Israel and Egypt do not change, and Israel retains its overwhelming military superiority, the potential for overreaction or miscalculation could spiral into conflict. Such a scenario would put U.S. officials in an embarrassing position, having supplied massive amounts of military hardware and economic assistance to both belligerents for over three decades.

Presently, Washington supports a regime in Cairo that continues to view Israel as an enemy and entrenches its power through brutality and political repression. Until recently, Cairo’s Islamist government was intent on incorporating Sharia law and cooperating (for more U.S. aid) with America. Moreover, many Egyptians—angered by lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state—are increasingly frustrated with an America that sends massive military and financial assistance to their regime (over $60 billion in military grants and economic assistance since 1975).

Decades of U.S. aid has done nothing to turn Egypt into a democracy or a market economy. Unfortunately, as made clear by the transfer of power in February 2011 from former president, Hosni Mubarak, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt has not undergone a revolution, but rather a thinly veiled attempt by the armed forces to perpetuate their six decades in power.

Months ago, the Obama administration resumed funding to Egypt, even though Congress restricted military aid until and unless the State Department could certify that Egypt progressed toward democracy, basic freedoms, and human rights. A senior Obama administration official said at the time that there would be no way to certify that all conditions were being met. Today, however, with thousands of activists being detained and tried in military courts, overwhelming evidence shows that Egypt’s military junta has not met any of the aforementioned obligations. The military, which commands an array of commercial enterprises in industries such as water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality, and gasoline, limited democracy to advance their narrow self-interests.

In Cairo, a freely elected civilian government will always be powerless against a deeply entrenched military. The flourishing of a secular-minded liberal democracy would of course be ideal, but guided by the belief that picking sides in the Arab world advances U.S. strategic interests, senior officials endorse a policy that in the short-term could stymie Islamists, but in the long-run discredit reformers and increase the credibility of extremist hardliners. That central paradox plagued America’s counterterrorism policy under Mubarak. As an unclassified U.S. Department of Defense report from 2004 acknowledged:

If it is one overarching goal they [Muslims] share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the Gulf States…Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive. [Emphasis added]

Here, however, a caveat is needed. The Muslim world is expansive, and radicals are only a small part. As Thomas H. Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission, said in July 2004 before the U.S. Subcommittee on National Security:

The small number of Muslims who are committed to Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, we can’t dissuade them. We’ve got to jail them or we’ve got to kill them. That’s the bottom line. But, the large majority of Arabs and Muslims are opposed to violence, and with those people, we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy and perhaps, above everything else, opportunity. [Emphasis added]

Even as many in Washington—including this author—strongly reject the Islamists who rose to power in Cairo, it is well past time for us to step back and allow Egyptians to shape their own destiny. Egypt is deterred from attacking Israel not because of U.S. aid or love of the Jewish state, but rather because it has little prospect of gain and much to lose. If tensions erupt in the Sinai and spiral into war, that development would perhaps serve as the greatest indictment against the assumption that decades of U.S. assistance produced a sustainable peace.

Egyptians must judge for themselves whether Islamists or the military can deliver on promises of economic and political reform, especially after decades of substantial U.S. assistance has failed to live up to its aims. Sadly, it seems that given the conventional wisdom in Washington, phasing out U.S. aid to Egypt might be more difficult than phasing out Egypt’s old dictator.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

How to Burn a Quran

In today’s Cato Daily podcast, I talk with Caleb Brown about the fallout from the Quran burning incident in Afghanistan. I also wrote about the situation here. Nevertheless, there is one point I missed in the podcast that I want to address.

One narrative emerging from this whole fiasco is that some Afghan prisoners had defaced the Qurans before their incineration; they were allegedly using the holy books to distribute radical messages. The evidence on this remains fragmentary at best; however, even if Islamic scholars argue that burning is the proper way to dispose a defaced Quran, one would expect that after more than a decade at war, the coalition would have a less incendiary protocol to handle such a situation: hire an Afghan, not a Christian foreigner, to burn the Qurans.

According to this handy informational guide put together by Colonel Chet Lanious, a chaplain at and the director of the Center for World Religions at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, if one decides to dispose of “unwanted religious and Islamic literature,” one either casts it “into a flowing river” or buries it. Alternatively, one can burn it, but “only after erasing the names of Allah, His Angels and His Messengers.” I would assume that NATO did not do that. I’m also prepared to believe that some Afghans would protest regardless of whether NATO followed that protocol.

I’m not a scholar on Islam. So leaving standard operating procedure aside, the fact that the Qurans were defaced would imply that NATO had a motive for having them deliberately destroyed, which would contradict the established narrative that the incineration was a mistake. More to come…

It’s Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

The mayhem unleashed after the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base outside of Kabul—intentional or not—has likely irreparably damaged the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban—a major policy shift for the insurgent movement—could be off the table, too. This is just the latest incident in the downward spiral of U.S.-Afghan relations. Washington’s policy must now shift dramatically toward an expedited withdrawal. The “hearts and minds” campaign was never likely to succeed in a country that views the United States as guests who have overstayed their welcome.

Some political leaders and military commanders will argue that cooler heads must prevail and that a long-term strategy demands America’s indefinite presence in Afghanistan. They will argue that any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. But conditions on the ground do not warrant staying the course, only for narrowing our mission and avoiding further tragedies.

Former 4-star General Jack Keane, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times within the past 18 months, says of the outrage and rioting that America in fact has a good relationship with the Afghan people. “We’ve forged an unusually strong relationship with those people. We’ve done it based on the values of the American people and our sensitivities to their culture. That’s what is so frustrating about this.” With all due respect, General Keane and other like-minded observers are wrong. The mission is a waste of money, effort, and, most importantly, lives.

The former heads of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal (retired) and General David Petraeus, both emphasized the importance of winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. They believed the most helpful indicator of progress on the ground and the integration of political and military strategy is the protection of Afghan civilians.

But according to a recent report by U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Of course, last year insurgents were responsible for 77 percent of Afghan civilian deaths. Despite this fact, after tripling the number of U.S. troops in that country—far fewer than the Pentagon asked for—President Obama made it America’s mission to protect the Afghan people.

A decade into the conflict the Afghan government still remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted, and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The roughly 180,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing sub-national interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy, and rapaciousness. On top of limited and potentially unsustainable security improvements, the spiraling violence does not instill confidence in our victory.

Too many U.S. government planners forget that for Afghans we are their guests, and it is their country. We forget when back in 2010, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai imposed a crackdown on alcohol consumption and closed a number of expat bars around Kabul because they were deemed offensive to Islam. The Afghan general who carried out the alcohol raids told the Los Angeles Times it was done for “Allah’s sake.” After that, violent demonstrations and inter-cultural hostility increased after Florida pastor Terry Jones promised to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Quran. The recent incident of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses was yet another provocative episode in the erosion of American-Afghan relations.

As I argued months ago, “Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our 10-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning ‘hearts and minds,’ America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.”

Many Afghans see outsiders constantly changing their mayors, their governors, and their customs. They are told how to dress their women, what is culturally acceptable, and what is culturally repugnant. Americans are infuriated when their politicians redistribute their taxes, yet they ignore how intrusive their own military and civilian planners have become to foreign peoples.

It’s no surprise that a report published last May by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concluded that negative sentiments about democracy emerge from “the stated distaste among respondents for ‘Western culture’ and the potential threat it poses to ‘Afghan culture,’ traditional norms or values, and an Islamic identity.”

None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent people was justified. But the fact remains that America is widely scorned throughout the region—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to a poll from last summer by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal from Afghanistan immediately—not two years from now, not six months from now. Immediately. Americans may finally be realizing what George Mason University’s Christopher Coyne has argued, which is that the historical record indicates “that attempts to spread liberal democracy via military occupation will fail more often than they will work.”

More money, more time, and more resources will not change these underlying realities. To continue to train and assist the Afghan national army and police when distrust remains this high risks more violent incidents like this, and this, and this. Rather than become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch, Washington must cut its losses. The war is fiscally irresponsible and wasteful of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, no more American or Afghan lives should be lost in pursuit of a strategy that is not in America’s national interest.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

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