Thursday, May 26, 2011

the Arab Spring: Markets, Wasatiya and Federalism

The New York Times carried two articles this past Sunday, May 22nd, that point to the problematic way in which the Arab Spring is understood in the West. On the front page, headlines pronounced, "Promise of Arab Uprisings Is Threatened by Divisions." The article warns that the spirit of national unity that characterized the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere now threatens to devolve into social and political cleavages based in religion, tribe and ethnicity.

This doom and gloom tenor of this article stands in sharp contrast to an article in the magazine section, "The Hot Money Cowboys of Iraq," which describes the entrepreneurial spirit of Iraq's new business class. As these entrepreneurs press forward with numerous projects, they have little time to worry about social and political cleavages, or "religion, clan sect and ethnicity," to use the words of the front page story.

As Namir al-Akabi, one of the wealthiest men of the new business class, put it, "Iraq is a rich, virgin country!" While others view Iraq as an ethnically fragmented society, Iraq's new business class sees it as a great opportunity for economic reconstruction and profit.

The sense of individual initiative that characterizes the businessmen in "Hot Money Cowboys" recalls my interviews with Iraqi businessmen during the period when ethnic strife was still prevalent throughout Iraq. Interviewing one of Iraq's wealthiest Kurdish businessmen in Arbil in 2007, I asked him whether he had any problem working with his Arab partner who was sitting across the table from us. Both he and his partner looked at me quizzically. "We are trying to make a profit," they replied, "and if we can create some jobs in the process, so much the better." For them, they didn't have time to worry about ethnic differences.

Clearly, not all Arab countries possess the oil and natural gas resources of Iraq. However, the entrepreneurial spirit that I encountered in Iraq, even during the height of ethnic conflict, is not confined to that country. A new spirit of individual initiative, responsibility and openness to new ideas is spreading throughout the Arab world, especially among the young. This indeed was one of the findings of my recent research with focus groups of Iraqi youth.

The new spirit of individual initiative is reflected in the values of openness, toleration and moderation, not just among entrepreneurs, but in the interpretation and practice of Islam. One manifestation of this is the spread of al-wasatiya. Derived from the Arabic wasat, or middle, it connotes moderation in the interpretation and application of Islamic doctrine. This approach is often juxtaposed to more rigid and doctrinaire forms of Salafism.

For many Muslim clerics, the focus on wasatiya represents a return to the core values of Islam, which rejects extremism in all its forms (Qur'an 68:25). To be situated between extremes (al-awsat)leads the believer to a virtuous and fruitful life. Wasatiya does not represent a concession to modernity and a watering down of Islam as a religion, but rather the foregrounding of its true message for all humanity, namely an emphasis on the coming together of all peoples of good will, regardless of religion.

The threat with which authoritarian regimes have viewed wasatiya was evident in the refusal of the Husni Mubarak regime to approve a license for the "Middle Party" (hizb al-wasat). Founded in 1995 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, this party stressed tolerance and inter-religious reconciliation (even including a Christian as one of its founding members).

Husni Mubarak's regime prevented the Middle Party (excellently analyzed by A.R. Norton in his, "Thwarted Politics: The Case of the Hizb al-Wasat"*)from becoming an official political party because it wanted to restrict the the "official opposition" to the more radical Muslim Brotherhood. Any time Western countries pressed Mubarak to liberalize and democratize Egypt, he could point to the Brotherhood and ask: "If we hold the elections you suggest, do you want the Islamists to take power?" If a more moderate Islamic alternative had existed, such as the Middle Party, Mubarak's ploy would have lost its power of persuasion. Thankfully, the Transition Military Council gave the Middle Party a license after Mubarak was ousted.

If the spirit of individual thought and judgment rings true to many Arab businessmen and youth, the concept of federalism supports this frame of mind. Federalism offers a palliative to the centralized authoritarianism that characterizes most Arab states. Such authoritarianism is the logical outcome of the corporatist "group think" that military and single party regimes have forced on their unwilling citizenry.

In Iraq, federalism has devolved power to the provinces where governors and provincial legislatures not only often offer better services to the citizenry than the central government, but also provide a set of check and balances against the abuse of power at the center(see my posting "Local Control and Democratization in Iraq," Nov. 8, 2010). The effort to exercise local control within a federal political structure has infuriated Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has sought to centralize all power in his hands. Nevertheless, the federal political system represents one of the best hopes for building democracy in Iraq.

Federalism does not just apply to Iraq. In Yemen, it could be used to decentralize power and ameliorate much of the tension between the northern and southern portions of the country. As Dr. John Duke Anthony noted to me in a recent conversation, the concept of federalism is not alien to Arab political culture, despite arguments to the contrary. The United Arab Emirates (UAE)has existed as a federal state for over 40 years and tribes embody notions of federalism in their alliances (think of the Muntafiq, Shamar and other tribal confederations in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula).

Correspondents, Western, Arab or otherwise, have a responsibility to report on political conflict and to call our attention to potential looming crises. However, there is no society or human community in which the direction of social change is only going in a negative direction without that society or community likewise experiencing positive change as well. As I found while conducting research in Iraq during the 1980s, even under Saddam Husayn's brutal regime, Iraqis still found ways to resist (as I documented in Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq).

Let's hope that the media - press, television and social media - offer more perspectives on positive change in the Arab world. The spread of open markets, ideas such as al-wasatiya, and the institutionalization of federalism can help promote a more democratic Arab world. These develometns call out for more reporting.

The process of democratization in the Arab world is not a "spectator sport." Whether the Arab Spring is successful will depend on the extent to which social, political and economic forces - both in the Arab world and beyond it - give it their support.

*Augustus Richard Norton, "Thwarted Politics: The Case of Hizb al-Wasat," in Robert Hefner, ed., Remaking Muslim Politics, Princeton University Press, 2005, 133-160.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Pakistani Taliban’s Formulation of lex talionis

Guest author: Farah Jan

After the killing of Osama Bin Laden by the US navy seals on May 2nd, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) issued a statement in which they threatened to avenge Bin Laden by targeting Pakistan’s army, navy and air force, along with the US and NATO interests. The Latin word lex talionis, translates as, “the law of retaliation.” This principle finds its roots in Biblical times and refers to the precept of “an eye for an eye.” The TTP and other militant groups have affirmed the retaliation pledge, but with no end in sight.

As the ancient Greeks proclaimed prior to the start of Olympics, “let the games begin!,” so the TTP have issued a similar message in a sinister fashion for the Pakistani government and its armed forces. In the process, the TTP has unleashed its war machine using its most effective weapon, “the suicide bomber.”

During the last few weeks, we have seen numerous attacks, starting with the twin attacks on Frontier Constabulary headquarters on May 13th, that killed 98 paramilitary recruits and civilians, the assassination of Saudi consulate official on May 16th, the attack on U.S. officials on May 20th, killing a passerby, and now the most embarrassing attack on the Pakistani naval base in Karachi on May 22nd. The TTP has taken responsibility for these attacks, each time issuing a statement afterwards that, “this was revenge for martyrdom of Osama Bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful.” (

The May 22nd attack on the PNS Mehran base demonstrates the coordination and strength of the TTP and other al-Qaeda influenced groups. The naval base attack raises serious concerns regarding the ability of militant groups to launch small-scale combat against the seventh largest army in the world.

Indeed, the militant groups are deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s major cities. Through their recent attacks, they threaten to weaken the security institutions of the state. Incapacitating the state, supposedly the sole institution that has the right to exercise the use of force within the boundaries of the territory over which it rules, threatens to render Pakistan a failed state. According to the Weberian definition, the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Thus the state via its security apparatus and institutions successfully asserts this use of force within its territory, as well as defending this territory from external threats.

The state of Pakistan today is at a critical crossroad in determining its security and defense from internal and external perils. The ultimate end for non-state actors like the TTP, would be to reconfigure current state structures, and replace them with institutions that advance their extremist agenda. Their short-term objective is to cripple Pakistan’s security institutions, further leading it to collapse.

A failed or collapsed Pakistan would be a regional disaster for South Asia, particularly for the economic and political stability of both China and India. The effects of Pakistan’s failure are not limited to the region, but would have global repercussions. For the United States, Pakistan’s geo-strategic location is crucial. Policy makers in Washington are expecting a forceful response by the Pakistani army against the TTP’s attack on the Karachi naval base . At stake is the Pakistani state’s capacity to use legitimate force for its own self-defense.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sectarian Identities and the Arab Spring

Will sectarian identities derail the Arab Spring? Many observers fear that, were Bashar al-Asad to fall from power in Syria, the outcome would not be a transition to democracy but an outbreak of confessionally based violence, pitting the country's constituent religious groups against one another. The continued clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt likewise has led to fears that Mubarak's removal may represent a pyrrhic victory if religious based violence spreads. In Tunisia, threats against women by radical Islamists for not wearing "appropriate" Islamic dress has raised the specter of intervention by the army if these forces appear to be gaining too much power.

The problem of sectarianism continues to raise its ugly head in Iraq as well. Ethnically based violence persists, albeit at much lower levels than during the height of such strife between 2004 and 2007. The efforts of the Baghdad city council to ban alcohol earlier this year was seen as the beginning salvo in an effort to place constraints on, if not eventually close, Baghdad's famed social clubs and artist ateliers which are known not only for serving alcohol but for their avowedly secular cultural and political orientation and as venues where Iraqis from all ethnic and religious groups gather.

In an effort to better understand sectarianism in Iraq, I organized a special issue of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. The topic of the special issue is "the question of sectarian identities in Iraq." In addition to editing the issue and writing a theoretical introduction, I asked nine top scholars on Iraq to contribute to the issue.

The contributors include Adeed Dawisha, Peter Sluglett,Abbas Kadhim, Reider Visser, Orit Bashkin, Dina Khoury, Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael, and Bassam Yousif. The topics range from British efforts to manipulate sectarian tensions for purposes of colonial control, the impact of 1920 Revolution on sectarian identities, the position of Iraq's Jewish community in relation to sectarianism, Shi'a attitudes towards creation of a separate confessionally base state, the impact of the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars on sectarian identities, the impact of expatriate politicians who returned to Iraq in the wake of the 2003 US invasion on sectarian identities, and the political economy of post-2003 sectarian identities in Iraq.

These historically and contemporary based essays emphasize that the dynamics of sectarian identities in Iraq are very complex. Nevertheless, the essays convincingly demonstrate that sectarian identities are a function of crises and the manipulation of these crises by political elites who seek to promote their narrow political and economic interests. Such elites have been historically referred to by Iraqis as the "merchants of politics" (tujjar al-siyasa). I prefer to call them "sectarian entrepreneurs."

At the same time, the journal essays underscore that sectarian identities cannot be seem as simply "socially and politically constructed." In Iraq, as in any nation-state, there are many histories, some of them tolerant and some of them politically divisive.

The Shi'a and Kurds, as well as other ethnoconfessional groups, have experienced social and political marginalization if not violence during the course of Iraqi history. That historical memory is always available in times of crisis for sectarian entrepreneurs to exploit needs to be recognized. While sectarian identities are rarely if ever "primordial" - so-called "ancient hatreds" - there is always a broad tableau of historical events that can be mobilized if the political and socioeconomic conditions are right.

What those who analyze sectarian identities often forget is the obverse, namely that ethnic groups can cooperate to achieve impressive political results. Indeed, the research by James Fearon and David Laitin shows that in ethnically divers societies, cooperation not conflict is the norm. The Iraqi nationalist movement, that began in the late 19th century but came into its own after the 1920 Revolution until it was viciously suppressed by the first Ba'thist regime that seized power in February 1963, was characterized by cross-ethnic cooperation. As I document in my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq, all of Iraq's ethnic groups - Sunni and Shi'i Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Jews, Turkmen and other ethnic groups participated in the nationalist struggle.

If we look at Egypt, we see that it too developed a nationalist movement that, like Iraq, included Muslims, Christians and Jews. Tolerance and cross-ethnic cooperation have been the rule in Iraq's modern history. Only during the UN sanctions of the 1990s did sectarian identities begin to spread in Iraq and only during the immediate post-2003 period did Iraq experience persistent sectarian violence.

And we need to remember that, in Iraq, ethnically based violence was facilitated by the ill-advised US decision to dissolve the conscript army and the national police in May 2003. If that decision had not been taken, it is highly unlikely that the Ba'thist and al-Qa'ida sponsored insurgencies would have gotten off the ground.

In a future posting, I will report on my findings with focus groups of Iraq youth between the ages between 14 and 30. The positive findings are that these youth are not supportive of sectarianism. Young people realize that sectarianism threatens their future. They know that. all too often, they are the ones who suffer from ethnically based violence.

To purchase the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studiesspecial issue on sectarian identities in Iraq go to:,id=144/view,page=1/