Saturday, April 20, 2013

From the Boston bombings to Saudi Arabia: US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Last evening, I returned from a conference, "Iraq + 10 - Looking Forward," which was organized by the Institute for Iraqi Studies, directed by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University.

Going out for an early morning run yesterday, I found the streets of Boston deserted and police vehicles everywhere.  A park along the Charles River in which I had run the previous day was deserted.  I had yet to learn of the shootings the previous evening.

Despite a lockdown of area universities, Professor Norton adroitly kept the conference on track by moving it to a restaurant attached to the hotel where most of the participants were staying.  However, the restaurant door was locked and patrons had to be let in by the staff.  Police were everywhere.

As we ate breakfast before beginning our conference panels, I asked myself, what are the political dynamics that have structured the extremist threat Americans face today?  What are the lineages of this horrific bombing of innocent civilians at one of the world's iconic sporting events, the Boston Marathon?

Listening to CNN later in the day, I heard its national security consultant, Fran Townsend, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration, refer to the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon attacks, as attracted by "extreme Islam."  Despite her admonition not to paint an entire community, namely Muslims, with the same political brush, her comment was highly problematic.

First, what is the ordinary viewer supposed to understand by "extreme Islam"? What would they think if a CNN announcer referred to "extreme Christianity" or "extreme Judaism"?  What occurred in Boston has nothing to do with Islam, extreme or otherwise.  This is an "invented religion" that contradicts the tenets of Islam, just as the Ku Klux Klan's doctrine contradicts the tenets of Christianity.

Second, American television networks should employ consultants who know something about Islam.  Why hasn't CNN hired a prominent Muslim cleric to appear on its shows?  Such a cleric would inform viewers that Islam explicitly prohibits the killing of innocents, such as the young boy and 2 adults who were killed in the Boston Marathon bombings (Qur'an 5:32).  Muslims who engage in such prohibited acts will find themselves going to hell in the afterlife.  

Third, and this is perhaps most important, much political behavior that occurs under the rubric of radical Islamism is promoted by authoritarian rulers throughout the Middle East.  Many US allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provide funding for radical movements, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front) in Syria, and Salafi movements in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

In Egypt, former president Husni Mubarak, once the US' most important Arab ally, allowed virulent attacks in the national media on Egypt's Christian and secular communities. Coptic Christians were prevented from building new churches or repairing existing ones.  Secular political parties and democratic Islamist parties, such as the Center Party (hizb al-wasat) were refused government licenses and thus excluded from national elections.  Successive US administrations remained silent.

To its credit, the US State Department recently criticized the government of Egyptian president, Muhammad Mursi, on its website, for attempting to prosecute the highly popular television comedian Bassem Youssef on charges of criticizing the president and Islam (see my earlier post, Who's Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood,part 2," April 12, 2013).  Still, the US has failed to criticize the constant flow of anti-Christian and anti-secular rhetoric in the conservative press that the Mursi regime tolerates, just like the Mubarak regime before it.  Tout ca change, tout c'est la meme chose.

In Iraq, Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, another US ally, is engaged in a systematic attack on Iraq's Sunni Arab community   Recently, he tried to arrest Iraq's most powerful Sunni politician, Finance Minister Rafi' al-Issawi, on trumped up charges of being associated with terrorism.  Maliki regularly issues verbal blasts against the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the semi-autonomous region in Iraq's 3 northern Kurdish majority governorates.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Kurdish leadership, which is strongly allied to the US, attacks the Arab government in the south as responsible for all the ills of the KRG.  Propelled by the same motivations of the regime in Baghdad, this particular "blame game" is meant to divert attention from the extensive corruption and nepotism that characterizes the Kurdish leadership of the KRG.

While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, another US ally and NATO member, has recently attempted to reach accommodation with its large Kurdish minority, the Turkish government exhibits increasing authoritarian tendencies.  Almost 50 journalists languish in jail without trial.  For  the most part, their only crimes are that they are secularists who have criticized the AKP for its failure to implement meaningful democratic reforms and its not so subtle efforts to impose its brand of political Islam on the Turkish people.

In Bahrain, the US has directed virtually no criticism at the Al Khalifa monarchy's violent repression of peaceful demonstrators who are demanding the government implement promised democratic reforms.  The Sunni based monarchy dominates Bahrain's economy while the majority of the Shiite population often lives in squalid conditions and does not even possess the right to own land, much of which is owned by the state.  The jail terms that have been given to protestors are totally incommensurate with the "crimes" they are alleged to have committed.

US policy-makers frequently invoke the lack of "realism" in actively combating sectarianism and promoting its most important antidote, democratization, in the Middle East.  Democracy promotion in this area of the world, they argue, is naive and utopian.  Better to support the devil you know, than the devil you don't.

How did the "realistic" policies the US has followed to date work out with the Shah of Iran, Egypt's Husni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Tunisia's Zin al-Din Ben Ali and Yemen's Ali Abdallah Salih?  How well are they working with our supposed allies, Saudi Arabia (which is the world's largest oil producer) or Qatar (where the US has an important naval base as it does in Bahrain)?

By actively supporting despotic regimes in the Middle East and looking the other way when they pursue policies that promote sectarianism, which only causes further anger and regional instability (look, for example, at the recent riots in Egypt and the massive Sunni protests in Iraq against the Maliki government), the US does neither itself or the Middle East any favors.

The US should not assume the role of forcing democracy on the MENA region.  But it should, as part of an international effort, continue to put pressure on those regimes in the Middle East which continue to thwart the democratic aspirations of their respective citizenry.

At the end of the day, the worst culprit in promoting terrorism is Saudi Arabia (the only country in the world owned by a single family).  Its massive funding over many years of Wahhabism (a political ideology which has nothing to do with religion) throughout the world has poisoned the minds of countless young people, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, with hatred of the West, Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims  and secularists.

The US should worry less about Saudi oil and the profits to be derived from arms sales by American defense contractors, and more about the extremely pernicious impact  the Saudi regime is having not only on the Middle East but the world at large.  When will America's elected representatives and policy-makers start holding accountable its purported allies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - for their funding of organizations that propagate the extremist and perverse ideas that are creating so much violence and hatred throughout the Middle East and the world today?

In combating terrorism, the best place to start is with Saudi Arabia - the Mother of All Paymasters of  extremist movements which advocate sectarianism, the hatred of moderate orthodox Islam, Christian and Jews, and secularists, and the suppression of women's rights.  If the Saudis would stop propagating Wahhabi ideology and funding extremist organizations, the world would be a much safer place.

A Boston University police officer, who served in Beirut in 1983, put it so well to me yesterday morning when he said, "We are now part of the world."  Terrorism is indeed in our proverbial backyards.  9/11 was not an isolated incident.  Unless the US takes the lead in mobilizing an international coalition to thwart the spread of radical "Islam," the Boston Marathon bombing, like 9/11, will result in the the creation of more Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs.

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