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.

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

Jumping the Gun on Operation Samosa

Published on:
Dissident Voice, September 7th, 2010 (http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/09/jumping-the-gun-on-operation-samosa/#more-21573)

On August 26th, 2010, Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh (30), Misbahuddin Ahmed (26), and Khurram Syed Sher (28) were arrested (and detained) in the culminating point of the RCMP’s Operation Samosa investigation. All three are charged with conspiring to facilitate terrorist activities in Canada, as well as aiding terror abroad.

A fourth individual by the name of Awso Peshdary was also arrested (and re-arrested after posting bail) on unrelated domestic abuse charges, has since been released on bail. Peshdary’s connection to the alleged plot is not clear. Trials for the three suspects have not started yet, no formal evidence has been presented, and no convictions have been confirmed. Yet, it seems that the Canadian media has already freaked out.

The Toronto Star published an editorial one day after the arrests that warned Canadians not to be “complacent about perils close at hand.” It then went on to quote the Tarek Fateh-founded Muslim Canadian Congress on how the “perverse ‘doctrine of jihad [which simply means struggle]’” still appeals to some Muslims (technically, the simple act of fasting during Ramadan can be said to be jihad). Once again, before the public has even grasped the gist of the situation, alarm bells are going off about Islamic extremism.

Before the courts have issued their judgments, the discourse has already focused on the seemingly exclusive and hermeneutic relationship between terrorism and Islam. Terror is discussed like the drug that Islam can’t seem to kick, no matter how hard it tries to. Canadians are immediately warned about the “home-grown” version of the dangerous symbiosis of “Islamic terrorism”. Like the Toronto Star editorial, which largely skips over the fact that due process has yet to occur, most corporate media do not seem to want to ask the all-important “why” question.

Once asked about the causes of “Muslims rage” in a PBS interview, American Shaykh Hamza Yusuf replied with the term “humiliation.” He was referring to the protracted experience of Western colonialism and foreign occupation in the Muslim and Arab world. When bomb plots and terror cells are supposedly foiled by law enforcement in Canada, the story is typically given the front page, but always without this crucial context. Factors like “humiliation” and “occupation” are an afterthought, since factoring in these political elements would require an examination of Canadian foreign policy. It’s far easier to isolate the case, sensationalize its parameters, and point to how utterly irrational some Muslims are (and will continue to be, so “beware!”).

The images are similar enough: brown skin, bushy beards, and that glossy if sinister look in the suspects’ eyes. The suspected always look so out of step with “regular Canadians.” But soon after Khurram Sher’s arrest, a YouTube clip of him as a contestant on Canadian Idol aired around the world. It seemed absurd, but the video indirectly revealed a familiar and even humorous side of a “potential terrorist”. It made Sher appear, however faintly, as someone one could actually relate to–a “regular Canadian”.

Michelle Shephard (who has done some fine work on child soldier Omar Khadr) of the Toronto Star referred to this paradox as terrorism’s “theatre of the absurd” in her article “The Danger of Dismissing the Absurd.” But she did not utilize this superficial inconsistency to illustrate that “Islamic terrorists,” however horrific, are nonetheless human beings. Instead, Shepherd warns us against terrorism’s “theatre of the absurd.” In other words, it may seem inconsistent for someone as scary, bearded, and suspected like Sher to appear jokingly on Canadian Idol, but such an inconsistency doesn’t rule out the fact that Sher may be guilty. We shouldn’t simply laugh off this case, Shephard seems to be saying because terrorism is still a serious problem and we don’t know much about its nature.

True enough: terrorism is serious—but it’s not an impossible enigma. Nor is it particular to our era—9/11 is not the beginning of terrorism. Prominent academics and writers who study political Islam such as Vali Nasr, Robert Pape, and Reza Aslan (amoung countless others) have all recognized the factors of humiliation and foreign invasions/occupations as a primary cause for “radicalization.” In order to “defang” these frustrated elements (thus ending “homegrown terror”), it is essential to give them an outlet to channel their anger. It means giving Muslim youth a chance to act upon their frustrations through the mechanisms of civil society. Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, having now been incorporated into their respective national political processes, do not use the same “radical” rhetoric and tactics as often as they used to. The same process can work for those who live in the West.

Instead, articles like Shephard’s reference psychologists and political scientists from academia like Michael King (a PhD candidate from McGill) who claim that “there seems to be a personality characteristic that predisposes people to radicalize—and that is sensation-seeking [my emphases].” So is the problem at least partly genetic or physiological?

“The daily drudgery of working in dead-end, low-paying jobs helped create an intellectually stunted environment, continued King. “Internet jihad videos became more exciting and their causes more urgent.” Thus, personal occupation and social surroundings must also play a part in “radicalization” as well. This may very well be a perfectly legitimate point. However, how many men out there are working dead-end jobs in “intellectually stunted” environments, and why haven’t they all conspired to blow something up? Is it because they are not Muslim? Or is it because they are not subjected to the experiences of humiliation (via military occupation) that so many Middle Eastern Muslims endure and witness?

Maybe it’s time to stop beating around the bush by referring to the demented psychology or “intellectually stunted” environments that are apparently inherent to potential terrorists. Maybe, just maybe, frustration can arise out of a feeling of impotence while witnessing the chaos and death unleashed by a foreign invasion. Maybe a Muslim in the West, when watching their “brothers and sisters” in Afghanistan, Baghdad, or Gaza disintegrate in war and occupation, is allowed to feel some anger. Surely, this anger doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly is sufficient in explaining why some may consider it.

Standard