middle east, muslims, politics

Western Muslims and the Obsession of Liang Qi-Chao

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 3rd, 2015

Ever since the imperial armies of the West, fuelled by technological and material advantages, encroached upon its eventual colonies a few centuries ago, intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere have struggled with what may be the world’s greatest conundrum: how to derive goodness from Western modernity in a way that won’t destroy one’s own sense of historical and cultural self.

From the time when the Japanese navy routed the Russians in 1905 at the “Battle of Tsushima” (日本海海戦, nihonkai-kaisen), the prospect of Asian countries modernizing industrially to “catch up” to the West began to seriously crystallize. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian country had defeated an expansionist European power. The great Liang Qi-Chao, one of China’s foremost modern thinkers, along, with several other thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and even Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at the time, also recognized the importance of this victory. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, who was passing through the Middle East soon after Tsushima, had throngs of Arabs congratulating him (they mistook him for a Japanese person).

China’s global stature was faltering at the time, and Liang Qi-Chao recognized it even in 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China decided to surrender after months of battle with Meiji Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Originally from a traditional Confucian family and on his way to the civil service, Liang became a travelling intellectual whose ideas articulated China’s sense of civilizational humiliation. His writings influenced a whole generation of Chinese thinkers and doers, including the infamously important Mao Ze-Dong.

Nonetheless, many around the world were excited after the Japanese victory against Russia that a “backward” continent could improve in ways that allowed them to compete in the modern world. [If you haven’t done so, pick up Pankaj Mishra’s ultra-important book From the Ruins of Empire, an intellectual history of how Asia reacted to imperial aggression.]

This issue has become, I would argue, the underlying obsession of much of the world, which has adopted a “social Darwinian-lite” view of the planet in an attempt to modernize themselves industrially (and rapidly). Thus the utterly shocking amount of pollution (among other things) coming out of China and India—the world’s two “rising” powers, or so we’re told. Yet modernity isn’t just a set of political and economic changes, but a comprehensive worldview that has come into opposition with many pre-modern traditions. The 21st century’s current maladies, some of which are disproportionately reported on in the post-9/11 era, are a contemporary manifestation of this much older tension. It’s as much an Asian question as it is, say, an African one, and as much a query involving religious belief as it does more secular outlooks.

That is, can people around the world prosper consistently and stably only if they accept the prescriptions of the West? Plainly, for reasons to do with simple capacity, not everyone in the world can have two cars, a garage, and a house in the suburbs. Such a model is unsustainable and physically self-destructive. This doesn’t mean that technological and civilizational progress can’t be appropriated proportionally to lift people out of poverty. What it points to, though, is the physical aspect of a modernizing trend that has globalized and metastasized to a point of negative return. Alternatives are needed, first and foremost as a matter of economic and environmental justice, but underlying this need is a less empirical reality concerning the human urge for spiritual nourishment—and urge that the modern world has largely ignored or dismissed.

Why believe in pre-modern concepts like a “soul” or “spirit” when shopping malls and Prozac can fill the void? Of course, if things were so simple, this column wouldn’t have to be written at all. The truth is that for all the talk about ISIS or Al Qaeda wanting to paint the world in their monochromal fundamentalisms, it’s the Western world’s financial and cultural influence that has forced its way throughout the world, imprinting its image upon us all. Older traditions that acknowledge and engage with the non-rational aspects of human nature have had to adjust, with some morphing into cells of paranoid violence that don’t amount to even a shadow of its former glory. Islam is at the center of this mess. A tradition once known for an ecumenical existence and an awe-inspiringly intellectual approach has now, through the world media, become distorted due to what’s perceived to be a crisis of authority.

Yet traditional Islam lives, and continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Here is where things get interesting for Muslims who grew up and reside in the Western world—especially when it comes to the US or Canada. Muslim communities in this area of the West have come closest to obtaining a model of sustaining religiously informed principles within a modern social context. It’s not perfect by a long shot, and there’s much to indicate that Muslim religio-cultural realities may become deemphasized in the next couple of generations as a result of further integration, but, truthfully, evidence for the opposite trend also exists.

There resides within these Western geographies an attempt to figure out a way to distance oneself from the corporate state and the excessive realities of modernity via a preservation of religious and intellectual tradition aimed first and foremost at improving modern man from within. I mean “improving” as in helping him or her approximate toward Transcendent Truth (God), which, in my opinion, when done accordingly, will manifest itself outwardly as civilizational stability and sustainability. If this endeavor continues to grow by filling in the gaps within our spiritually impoverished and existentially stale environments, then Muslims in the West would have provided a possible answer to questions that intellectuals like Liang Qichao and others went to their graves asking.

Therein lies the truly exciting potential of Western Muslims, who constitute a microcosm of the world, both conceptually and historically. We have a chance to find an improved response to the overt and covert neo-colonial tendencies of the West, imposed upon everyone else for better or worse—once the primary challenge for those clinging to their identities in the face of encroachment, the residue of which remains scattered throughout all our lives.

Photo: Backstage at a Chinese opera/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/western-muslims-and-the-obsession-of-liang-qi-chao/]

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middle east, politics

On Robert Fisk

Published on: Embassy Magazine, January 24th, 2013
[http://www.embassynews.ca/opinion/2013/01/24/foreign-correspondent-fisk-talks-harpers-foreign-policy-and-the-arab-awakening/43154]

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East at a public lecture Jan. 22 in Ottawa.

“I regard Mr. Harper as your personal problem, not mine,” said Fisk, who spoke to a packed auditorium of about 500 people at Carleton University. He was in Ottawa as part of a Canadian lecture tour hosted by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Having spent more than 30 years covering the Middle East for The Times and The Independent newspapers of Britain, Fisk’s knowledge of the region commands respect. Although many across the political spectrum may take issue with some of his political views, few doubt the breadth of Fisk’s experience.

This, of course, makes his harsh words toward the Harper government even more powerful. Aside from characterizing the current government’s approach to foreign policy as something “straight out of the Bible,” Fisk also pointed out that the Canadian government lacks imagination and vision when it comes to the Middle East.

“You will find that Western nations in general, their leadership, continue to follow Washington,” he said, “and as long as Washington does whatever Israel wants, which it largely does, there isn’t going to be any change.”

Fisk was of course alluding to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a problem that continues to plague the region, driving many of the afflicted toward anger and violence. To Fisk, this is the tragic, but prevalent nature of the relationship between the Western world and what it knows as the Middle East.

“The problem is that most of the dictatorships over the years in the region have been supported by us democrats,” he said. Because of this, when Western politicians like George Bush or even Barack Obama speak of “freedom” and “liberation,” the Arabs of Iraq and Palestine, among other places, have a very different perception of those terms than the rest of us.

Their vision of the “West” is an entity that delivers its form of “democracy,” no matter how principled and cogent in theory, through bullets and bombs. For Fisk, it is a bloody way to illustrate what is to him, and many others, an elemental truism: any form of democratic governance in the Arab world must arise indigenously.

The Arab Awakening

So among a largely tragic and self-admittedly “pessimistic” interpretation of events in the Middle East, Fisk views the Arab Awakening (his preferred term) as a “positive development.”

“The term Arab Awakening was the title of George Antonius’ great 1938 book,” Fisk said.

He pointed out that the book was written at a time when Palestine was crumbling out of Arab hands, largely thanks to British policy, or, as Fisk would have it, “British deception.” Britain’s inability to deliver on the promise of Arab sovereignty in return for Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century reminds one that current trends in the Middle East are not without historical precedence.

Fisk noted that the Arab Awakening has less to do with technology and social media than anger and education.

“When I went to Egypt in the past three or four years, as I often have done over the past 36 years, I find a population that knows more about the outside world,” he said. “Not just through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but because they’ve travelled.”

Fisk also said that the conditions of higher education in places like Egypt, even under dictatorship, improved drastically. This, combined with a better sense of the outside world, he noted, created an inevitable cosmopolitanism that made it easier for those in the Arab world to have a collective vision. In other words, they began to realize that things did not have to be the way they were.

Though current developments in Egypt, Syria, and other post-revolt nations have not been encouraging, the relatively cynical Fisk said that Arabs still see the Arab Awakening as a generally happy signal. He’s not the only one with this mindset. But for someone who has witnessed large-scale carnage, from the Lebanese civil war to present-day Syria, hope for a brighter future is not easy to come by.

“I lost my crystal ball a long time ago,” he lamented.

Fisk’s criticisms of the Syrian opposition have drawn anger from those who would otherwise agree with him on most other things. He has been quick to stress the “jihadi” elements in the Syrian opposition, along with its chronic corruption and use of violence, while also pointing out that Bashar al-Assad may not fall as inevitably as most would expect. His writings on the matter have elicited accusations that he has fallen for the “conspiracy theories” promoted by pro-Assad circles: a charge that Fisk flatly denies.

Having been in Hama during Hafez al-Assad’s great bloodletting in February 1982, no one can deny that Fisk knows what the tyrannical dynasty of Syria is capable of. But in typical Fisk fashion, he reminded the audience that while Western powers support the at least partially “jihadi” opposition in Syria, France is leading an offensive against similar groups in Mali.

If nothing else, one can draw from Fisk’s vast experience and knowledge the tiring (but worthwhile) reminder that foreign policy has always had more to do with circumstance and convenience than with conviction.

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middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Islamists vs. Liberals: a simplistic portrayal of the future

Published on: Embassy Magazine, September 26th, 2012 (with slight revisions)
[http://www.embassymag.ca/opinion/2012/09/25/islamists-vs-liberals-a-simplistic-portrayal-of-the-arab-spring/42520]

To Canadian foreign correspondent Hadeel Al-Shalchi, coverage of the Arab Spring by Western media tends to gloss over certain complexities.

“The term ‘Arab Spring’ itself is sort of a slogan,” said Al-Shalchi, a Reuters journalist based in Tripoli, Libya. She spoke to an audience of about 100 people at Carleton University last Wednesday in a lecture organized by the Centre for Media and Transitional Societies.

“The Arab Spring is comprised of a number of different conflicts, each with its own regional dynamic and implications,” she said. For example, the major framework of analysis and speculation that many analysts use when talking about these conflicts, be it in Egypt or in Syria, tend to boil down to the “Islamists versus Liberals” paradigm.

To Al-Shalchi, this type of reductive phrasing saves time and space, but is a weak tool for understanding the real situations in those Arab countries experiencing social and political turmoil. Indeed, she is right.

The ascent of Muslim political parties in Egypt and Tunisia, and the involvement of extremist militias in the Libyan and Syrian uprisings have experts worrying about the future of the Arab Spring.

Fear that powerful parties like the Muslim Brotherhood will impose theocratic rule and eclipse the aspirations of a liberal democracy are probably not wholly uncalled for. The problem, however, is not this and other similar concerns, but rather in the way such concerns are expressed in many major media outlets.

In other words, what does one really mean when one invokes the “Islamists versus Liberals” framework of analysis? The trouble with these terms is that they mean different things to different people.

Canadian political theorists like Charles Taylor and Nader Hashemi have pointed out this problem of definition time and time again. Hashemi says that the term “secularism” has had very different manifestations in Turkey, for example, than in France. Both societies have had their own experiences with political religiosity, and both have come up with unique ways of neutralization.

Nor are Middle Eastern societies neatly divided into liberals and Islamists, each with its own set of predictable sociopolitical behaviors. Al-Shalchi spent a substantial amount of time on the ground in post-Mubarak Egypt, and noted that many so-called liberals ended up voting for Mohammed Morsi, the “Islamist” candidate.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is the only political entity in Egypt with a coherent vision for the future,” Al-Shalchi said. “Those who are more left-leaning and liberal-minded did not consolidate themselves after the fall of Mubarak, and fell out of the race in many ways.”

She then noted that she was disappointed as a Canadian that the Harper administration has not engaged effectively with the Arab Spring, and has made a number of “questionable” policy decisions. Unfortunately, she did not elaborate on what these decisions were when asked to do so.

Nonetheless, one can delineate along general lines why there may be hesitancy on the part of the Canadian government when dealing with Muslim majority countries. Prime Minister Harper has publically expressed his concerns with international “Islamicism,” and the purported threats it poses to Canadians.

The success of Islamist political parties (the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the main opposition group in Syria, anchoring the Syrian National Council) across the Middle East in the past year-and-a-half probably don’t serve to quell Harper’s concerns.

Whatever the merits of such an assumption, it should be noted that the Arab Spring, a push toward general democracy and civil engagement, is a good thing for those frightened of violent groups in religious garb.

Vali Nasr, the dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has pointed out that the best way to treat religious parties who are upset with the status quo is to channel their momentum into the official political process.

For decades, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have been banned in their respective countries by dictators. Chances for armed political resistance only increases under such circumstances. But when incorporated into the electoral system of democratic representation, “Islamist” platforms and agendas are exposed to the public for scrutiny. A dialogue between the elected and those who do the electing can actually occur.

Naturally, when put under the pressures of social democracy, organizations such as the Brotherhood has to take into account those with differing views and beliefs, who also make up a substantial portion of the population. All this undermines the simplistic paradigm of a strict “Islamists versus Liberals” dichotomy, which boxes complex peoples into categories, and, as Al-Shachi pointed out, don’t correspond very much with reality.

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middle east, politics

The Palestine Papers and the End of the “Peace Process”

Al Jazeera English, from January 23rd– 26th, 2011, released the details of over 1,700 leaked confidential documents regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. The manner in which AJE received this largest-ever leak is undisclosed. The documents include meeting minutes, memos, presentations, strategic papers, etc.  Dubbed “The Palestine Papers”, the documents are supposed to shed light on the following, as presented on the AJE website:

  • the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to concede illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and to be “creative” about the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount;
  • the compromises the Palestinian Authority was prepared to make on refugees and the right of return;
  • details of the PA’s security cooperation with Israel;
  • and private exchanges between Palestinian and American negotiators in late 2009, when the Goldstone Report was being discussed at the United Nations.

AJE has perused through these documents, redacted overtly sensitive content, and will not be naming their sources.

Perhaps the most explosive of the revelations that have come out is the fact that, according to the leaked meeting minutes of a [pdf] trilateral meeting in 2008, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was willing to concede illegal settlements in Jerusalem to Israel. Saeb Erekat was the chief Palestinian negotiator at the time, and Ahmed Qurei was prime minister. The meeting also involved Tzipi Livni on the Israeli side, as well as then American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Erekat stated that the PA was willing to give up the illegally occupied Israeli settlements of French Hill, Ramat Alon, Ramat Shlomo, Gilo, and Talpiot, as well as the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s old city. Those areas contain around 120,000 Jewish settlers, and it seems that Erekat was willing to prolong the list. The proposed concession was unprecedented, given the deeply contentious nature of East Jerusalem.

The offered concessions were rejected by the Israeli side, mainly because the PA was not willing to give up other significantly sized settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel.

Furthermore, in an [pdf] October 2009 meeting with the US Middle East Envoy headed by George Mitchell, Erekat proposed a geographical division of Jerusalem’s Old City, with control of the Jewish Quarter and “part of the Armenian Quarter” going to the Israelis. This would mean that Israeli would control a significant part of East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Erekat was willing to give control of the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) to oversight of an international committee:

Erekat: “It’s solved. You have the Clinton Parameters formula. For the Old City sovereignty for Palestine, except the Jewish quarter and part of the Armenian quarter … the Haram can be left to be discussed – there are creative ways, having a body or a committee, having undertakings for example not to dig [excavations under the Al Aqsa mosque]. The only thing I cannot do is convert to Zionism.”

Schwartz: To confirm to Sen. Mitchell, [this is] your private idea …

Erekat: This conversation is in my private capacity.

Schwartz: We’ve heard the idea from others. So you’re not the first to raise it.

Erekat: Others are not the chief negotiator of the PLO.

Saeb Erekat then went on to sum up nature of the PA’s propositions:

“Israelis want the two-state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim [Jerusalem] in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state…what more can I give?”

Given the highly charged emotions toward the Haram al-Sharif, it is utterly shocking for many to see that the PA, specifically Erekat, was willing to concede its status to non-Palestinian parties. It should not be forgotten that according to UN Resolution 242, the whole of East Jerusalem is to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. In other words, international law and the 1967 borders clearly show that the Haram al-Sharif is within the occupied Palestinian territories.

This is just a sliver of the huge trove of documents that Al Jazeera has publicized regarding the conflict. Key documents have been released subsequently in the last week or so, which have revealed equally explosive facts. The complete archive of documents can be found at the newly launched Al Jazeera Transparency Unit, which seems to be a Wikileaks-inspired web function that allows for the uploading of content by willing sources.

It is now clear that the Israelis have no legitimacy when they say that no Palestinian counterparts can be found in “negotiations for peace”. The Palestine Papers reveal clearly that the Palestinian Authority leadership is absolutely desperate for some sort of settlement, and will offer extreme concessions to achieve “peace”. In return, the PA repeatedly get their offers brushed aside by Israel, with very little objection from the United States.

In other words, the so called “Oslo peace process” needs an official funeral service. The Palestinian people will not accept anything less than a full state with recognition and execution regarding the right of return issue. Israel will not be venturing into that type of territory whatsoever. Furthermore, the United States simply cannot play the role of an honest broker, and will not allow a serious discussion on final status issues (refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements).

In short, given the present circumstances in the Middle East, it seems that the American hegemon is losing its footing in the region. The U.S. is mired in a serious quagmire in Afghanistan. Iraq, which is still suffering serious violence (although not at the 2006-2007 levels), will be deferring to Iran for the next few years at least. Iran, on the other hand, is now a regional superpower. Israel, for obvious reasons, is a liability to long-term U.S. goals in the region. Finally, the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East (especially in Tunisia and Egypt) threaten to oust decade-long U.S. supported puppet regimes.

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middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Israel at a Crossroads: the Iranian Threat

Published on:
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article26003.htm
http://rebelnews.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=326421
http://mycatbirdseat.com/2010/07/israel-hiding-behind-the-iranian-threat/
http://thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=513

With the recent formation of “The Emergency Committee for Israel”, the neoconservative and Likudnik characters on the American right have yet again stepped up their lobbying efforts. The usual characters from the Christian hard-right like Gary Bauer have again joined forces with neoconservatives Bill Kristol, Noah Pollack, Michael Goldfarb, etc. to stand up for Israel. Among other things, they have yet again brought up the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran, and how such a nation will tear the region apart with its fanaticism.

Israel’s obsession with Iran is real. While some genuinely perceive a nuclear Iran as a major threat, others on Israel’s far right recognize the much more pragmatic, if not cynical reasons for Israel’s rancid rhetoric. With the occupation of Gaza (and blockade) and the West Bank continuing to destabilize the region, Netanyahu’s administration is undoubtedly trying to use the Iranian threat to create a climate of fear. Such a climate will not only pull the world’s attention away from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but also reiterate Israel’s “scared bond” with the United States in a war against “Islamic Terrorism”.

Considering that Israel’s American-backed arsenal of nuclear weapons do not receive nearly as much attention in the corporate media as compared to Iran’s alleged attempt to acquire nuclear capabilities (still short of actual nuclear weapons), one should look at things form Iran’s perspective. Both Israel and the US have been talking nonstop about containing or attacking Iran. Iran has some rather weak (but still damaging) sanctions implemented on it by the US, and a genuine nuclear power in Israel constantly shouting about attacking it. Recently, the US navy just shipped missiles and over 300 “bunker busters” onto the African island of Diego Garcia, within striking distance of Iran. Furthermore, several of the countries that share borders with Iran have US troops in them (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, etc.).

Considering these factors, along with the threats from Israel and the United States (Israel is also not a signee of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty), even hawkish analysts within the Israeli establishment have noted the need for Iran to at least have the option of a nuclear deterrent. Israeli strategist Martin Van Creveld, for example, has noted that Iran’s president is “Not crazy at all,” and that he would essentially do what Ahmedinejad is doing right now if he were in his position. On the other hand, UN Resolution 1887 states that threats of force are illegal when settling nuclear disputes. Also, it goes without saying that a war with Iran would cause the entire region to destabilize.

For the United States, Iran’s Islamic Revolution ushered in regimes that did not conform with its imperial designs in the region. Both Russia and China do business with Iran, which has emerged as the true beneficiary of the Iraq War, and backs both Hizbullah and Hamas. None of this is in the US’s interest, let alone in Israel’s. However, these “threats” are still rather hollow, given the military and economic capacities of both the US and Israel. Although Hizbullah has on occasions embarrassed a stronger Israel, its threats (along with those of Hamas) are far from existential.

Therefore, Israel’s paranoia with Iran mirrors Iran’s rhetorical backlash. By making the Islamic regime look crazy, Israel draws attention away from the Palestinian question. By now, after the Gaza Massacre and the Flotilla incident, it has become clear that Israel is becoming a strategic liability to the United States. The Israel Lobby in the US is trying (with great success) to conceal this fact, but Israel is very much at a crossroads. It seeks to reinvigorate the US-Israeli alliance by exaggerating the Iranian threat, while not answering for its own nuclear arsenal. But Israel has very little choice. Although its only chance of preserving a Jewish state is through a two-state solution with the Palestinians, settlement-building throughout the years have pretty much destroyed that option. It has effectively dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is so protracted that it inevitably shakes up the whole region, precipitating hatred aimed at both the US and Israel. Given the US’s need for oil in the future, a lack of allies in the Middle East would prove disastrous. But Israel’s unpopular presence in the region is costing the US all kinds of strategic leverage. Confronted with the reality of having no friends in the world, the Israeli regime is desperately trying to use the Iranian threat to illustrate to the US its “strategic worth”.

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