Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Islamization of Iraqi society?

The recent government effort to destroy Baghdad's traditional book market located in al-Mutanabbi Street, named after one of Iraq's most famous poets, is disturbing (see al-Hayat, Sept. 21).  The government wants to limit book sellers to sell books on Friday like other markets confined to Fridays which sell dogs and birds.  This attack is part of a growing effort to curtail the activities of Western oriented sectors of Iraqi society, particularly urban youth and women who choose not to wear traditional clothing.  Do they efforts indicate an effort by the state to Islamize Iraq?

Although few Iraqis want to return to Ba'thist rule, one of the few things that many miss from that era was the greater tolerance for personal lifestyles.  Under Saddam Husayn's regime, no one needed to worry if they drank alcohol.  Homosexuality was not suppressed.  Women and youth did not have to worry about wearing Western style clothing. Indeed the killing of 14 youth earlier this year for following "emo" styles of dress and music has never occurred during Iraq's entire history since it became an independent state in 1921 (see The New Middle East, March 13, 2012).

Following the overthrow of the Ba'thist regime in 2003, a new Islamist trend began to appear in Iraq. One of the first indicators of this new trend were signs on the walls of Baghdad University and other institutions of higher learning throughout Iraq which warned women not to come to campus in Western dress.

In 2004, a shadowy organization which called itself the Monotheistic Movement for Jihad, which many say included members of the newly formed Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, began to threaten merchants who sold alcohol, invariably Christian or Yazidi, who traditionally have dominated this business.  These merchants were told that they would be killed if they did not end such sales.   These threats were followed by the bombing of liquor stores in Baghdad's largely Christian al-Ghabir district.

In 2010, the Sadrists successfully lobbied the Baghdad City Council to ban the sale of alcohol in restaurants and social clubs.  The ban led to a strong reaction by intellectuals and secular forces which fought the proposed ban.  Iraq's writers, artists, and filmmakers argued that this was really an attack on freedom of expression since all Iraq's social clubs where intellectuals meet serve alcohol.

The Iraqi newspaper, al-Mada, took the lead in posting billboards around Baghdad which said "Liberty first: Baghdad will not become Qandahar," referring to puritanical Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  The Baghdad City Council ban, which was supported by the federal government under Nuri al-Maliki, was so unpopular that it was withdrawn, although the Council said it might be reimposed in the future.

Now the focus at keeping Iraq a "traditional" society has been directed at the dress of Iraqi youth which often imitates Western clothing styles.  Members of the police department who support the views of conservative clerics, angered by Western clothing and music, have become known as the "fashion police."  Police officers have been reported as warning women in Karbala', al-Diwaniya and Baghdad's Kathimiya district, where Sadrists wield strong influence, that they need to wear a headscarf and even the traditional head to toe black abaya.  Advertisements showing women wearing trousers have had red crosses painted on them.

Iraqi youth comprise a large percentage of the population (65% of those under the age of 25).  Many youth are attracted to Western culture as is evident from even a superficial overview of YouTube videos on Iraqi youth.  The 2007 HBO film, Baghdad High, produced by four Baghdadi youth, one Shiite, one Sunni, one Kurd and one Christian, demonstrates very clearly this inclination, as does the 2006 CBS news video, Iraq's Youth Revolution.

Iraqi women argue that Iraq's male political elite cannot decide on any of the policies which the country desperately needs, such as improving employment opportunities for youth, building more housing, especially in large cities such as Baghdad, providing greater support for Iraq's farmers, expanding health care facilities, and providing more electricity to Iraqi homes.  However, these women point out, the one thing that Iraqi male politicians can agree upon is restricting women's rights.

The US appointed Iraqi Governing Council 's effort in December 2003 to rescind Iraq's Personal Status Law, passed under the rule of General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1959, is just one of many recent efforts to place constraints on Iraqi women.  This law, which prevents women under the age of 15 from being forcibly married and assures women equal inheritance with men, is one of the most progressive personal status laws in terms of women's rights in the Middle East.

Most recently, Iraqi nightclubs have been invaded by the police and their patrons forced to leave, even beaten.  Many nightclubs have been told to no longer sell alcohol and others have been closed.   Because these nightclubs mostly cater to youth, young Iraqis view these actions by the police as another effort to restrict their freedoms.

The recent actions by the Iraqi state and police do not represent the proper manner in which to protect the country's traditions and heritage.  Iraq's citizens - youth and women in particular - should not be forced to wear clothing or behave in ways which are entirely personal but that contradict their individual values.  Any country which claims to be a democracy must respect individual rights, including the choice to dress as one pleases.

The Maliki government's efforts should be directed at delivering better social services to the Iraqi people and ending the extensive corruption and nepotism which characterize the government bureaucracy, rather than worrying about how young people dress and restricting women's rights.  Indeed, Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, who just returned to Iraq after three months of medical treatment in Germany, has called for a serious effort to end government corruption and provide Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds, with the services they need (see al-Sharq al-Awsat, Sept. 22).  Attempts to protect "tradition," when it is really only an effort to cover up the state's failures, is not the type of governance the Iraqi people need or  deserve.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The need for more US public diplomacy in the Middle East

The tragic deaths of Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens and members of his security detail, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, have led to calls for greater disengagement from the Middle East.  I would argue that the current unrest in the region calls for more not less engagement. What form should this engagement take?

The US needs a much more robust public diplomacy program in the Middle East. The very fact that most of the youth who are currently demonstrating against the United States have a complete lack of knowledge of the manner in which our democracy functions underscores the need for a stronger public diplomacy program.  Many Middle Easterners believe that the US government could have prevented the distribution of the offensive film, "The Innocence of Muslims," not realizing that neither the Obama administration nor any other American administration has the power to prevent freedom of expression, however repugnant.

What is called for is a greater effort to bring the reality of the US to the peoples of the Middle East, especially youth, who constitute an excessively large percentage of the region's population.  Indeed, demographers refer to a "youth bulge" in the Middle East because in many countries over 70% of the populace is under the age of 30.

A large percentage of Middle Eastern youth is educated but lacks employment.  Given stagnant economies and extensive corruption and nepotism within the state, they have little hope for the future.  Most see any meaningful career as beyond their reach.  This hopelessness by no means excuses their violent behavior, but it should place the anger many youth in the region feel in context.

Education systems in the Middle East do not promote critical thinking, unless one attends an elite private school which is usually reserved for the wealthy.  Courses in the social sciences and humanities where such thinking could be promoted are limited.  Memorization is more highly valued than developing one's ability to think for oneself. Much greater emphasis is placed on "useful" curricula, such as computer science, and the natural sciences.

As part of a more robust public diplomacy initiative, one strategy to offset lack of knowledge of the American political system and institutions is to offer more scholarships for students from the region to study in the US.  I was struck when conducting research in Iraq while Saddam Husayn was still in power how many Iraqis had been positively influenced by their study in the US.

Interviewing Ba'th Party and government officials usually produced a lengthy tirade against US imperialism in the Middle East.  How often I would be surprised when, after this tirade, the official would suddenly burst into a big smile and tell me how much he (and it was invariably a male) enjoyed his time at one or another American university.  Clearly their experiences in the US had had a positive impact.

We currently have a large contingent of Iraqi students pursuing advanced degrees at my university.  They are enjoying their stay here immensely and are impressed by the high quality of education and the warmth with which they have been received by the university community.  Fortunately, these students are recipients of government fellowships which cover their tuition and all their expenses.

Despite our current economic crisis, a small portion of the funds spent on sophisticated weapons systems might be better spent on supporting scholarships for students from the Middle East to study in the US.  How many scholarships could be provided, for example, by one stealth bomber which costs $4.5 billion to build. While providing education for students from the Middle East would not guarantee a positive outcome in all cases, the vast majority of students would return to their countries with positive attitudes towards American culture and society.  These attitudes would pay dividends for the US far into the future.

Another initiative should entail offering educational opportunities for those students who cannot come to study in the US.  Education offered through video conferencing and Internet based education provides another means by which youth in the Middle East could be made aware of the tremendous benefits of an American university education while giving them exposure to our values and open political culture.

Still another initiative should engage the clerical community of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  The Obama administration should form a Committee of Religious Engagement which would include prominent clerics in the US drawn from theses three major faiths.  That committee should hold high profile meetings in the US, the Middle East and elsewhere which would emphasize the shared values of all 3 faiths and their commitment to tolerance, non-violence and religious pluralism.

Muslims in the US often face discrimination.  However, for the most part, they enjoy great freedom of religion.  Many Muslims have told me that they have greater freedom to express their religious beliefs here in the US than they would were they back in the country from which they emigrated.  That the US is a country built on religious tolerance is a message which the peoples of the Middle East need to better understand.  

Creating bonds between the US and the peoples of the Middle East can be promoted through establishing more "sister cities."  Such relationships already exist but could be dramatically increased.  This process could not only create more communication between American citizens and peoples in the Middle East, but towns and cities in the US could use such ties to provide communities in the Middle East with needed materials, such as educational resources, medicines and state of the art technology.

Once such relationships were established, municipal officials from the Middle East could be invited by their counterparts and the citizens of the sister cities to come to the US.  Such visits would allow these officials to see the level of civic commitment and engagement that citizens of American towns and cities enjoy and then convey that knowledge back to their own communities in the Middle East.

These efforts would not entail considerable costs.  The US State Department should ask the Congress to allocate funds so that these efforts could bear fruition.  While the term has been overused, the need to win "hearts and minds" in the Middle East - especially in light of the growing instability in the region - is more important than ever.  Time is of the essence.  The Obama administration should begin immediately to expand its use of public diplomacy as a central tool of our foreign policy in the Middle East.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Syrian uprising and its implications for Iraq

F-16 fighter jet
 al-Hayat August 26th headlines scream: "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard confirms 'its responsibility' to protect the al-Asad Regime."  How is this statement linked to US policy in Iraq and what dangers does it suggest for the future?

Many Western policy-makers continue to argue that democracy promotion in the Middle East is a luxury that neither the West nor the region can afford.  The US is now seeing the folly of its decision following Iraq's March 2010 parliament elections in not supporting a democratic outcome.

The victor in the election was Iyad Allawi and his al-'Iraqiya Coalition which won 91 seats, the most of any Iraqi political party.  In supporting Nuri al-Maliki,who came in second with 89 seats, the US is now seeing the chickens come home to roost, especially in terms of the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The Maliki government continues to maintain close ties with the Islamic Republic.  This is totally reasonable given that Iraq and Iran are neighbors.  However, the crisis in Syria has cast a new light on this relationship, one that could create serious domestic problems for Iraq and increase sectarian tensions in the Arab Mashriq.  It also threatens to further weaken US influence in Iraq.

The Iranian regime is loathe to lose its main Arab supporter in Syria and its ability to supply its surrogate forces in Lebanon, particularly Hizballah.  Iraq is now central to the ability of the Iranian regime's ability to continue its military and material support of Bashar al-Asad's increasingly tenuous hold on power.  The introduction of Revolutionary Guard forces to prevent the toppling of the Ba'thist regime would dramatically raise the stakes  in the crisis.  In this equation, Iraq assumes a particularly strategic position.

No one argues that, had it taken office, the al-Iraqiya Coalition would have provided Iraq with excellence  governance.  Nevertheless, by supporting al-Iraqiya, the US would not only have underscored the message of the Iraqi electorate that democracy had prevailed in the elections but would have brought to power a less sectarian coalition, certainly one less prone to accommodate Iranian regional interests.

Had the US supported Iyad Allawi's legitimate claim to be considered the first political leader to be called upon to form a new Iraqi government in the spring of 2010, Maliki  probably would not be in control of the Iraqi state today.  Apart from his neo-authoritarian tendencies which I documented in several postings on The New Middle East, Maliki is pursuing a dangerous balancing act pitting Iran against the United States.  Maliki has refused to follow the Arab League's lead in condemning the Asad regime's brutal policies of bombing its own citizenry (a striking parallel with Saddam Husayn's regime in Halabja in March, 1988, and during the March 1991 Intifada).

Already the US had accused the Maliki government of helping Iran circumvent the international sanctions which have been imposed on it due to its refusal to allow international monitoring of its atomic energy program which most analysts actually believe is desgined to develop nuclear weapons.  Iraq has denied the charges (see al-Hayat, Aug. 21).

Complicating matters still further is the imbroglio which has recently developed over arms sales to Iraq, a problem compounded by the Maliki government's close ties with Iran.  The US is now requiring assurnaces from Iraq that F-16 fighter planes provided to Iraq only be allowed to fly a limited number of hours each month.  It also wants assurances that none of these weapons will be used against Iraqi citizens (read the Kurds) or used in any regional conflict (read Syria).

The Security and Defense Committee in the Iraqi Council of Deputies is angry over the constraints which the US has imposed on the use of new weapons systems. Of particular concern is the condition that F-16 fighters not be flown more than 15 hours per month (see al-Hayat, Aug 26), and that they not be used in any combat with Israel.  The limits on flying time will make it difficult to properly train Iraqi pilots. The Committee is also angry that the delivery of the first aircraft which was scheduled for March 2013 has now been postponed by a year and a half until September 2014.

In this process, the US seems to have alienated the entire spectrum of Iraq's Arab political elite.  Salah al-Mutlak, the hard core Sunni Arab Vice-President, has accused the US of not being sensitive to Iraq's security needs (al-Hayat, Sept. 3).  The deputy head of the Security and Defense Committee Iskander Watout, accused the US of breaking the terms of the original agreement regarding Iraq's use of American weapons systems (al-Hayat, Aug 26)  Likewise, committee member, Qasim al-'Araji, said the US' main concern in placing these constraints was is to protect Israel rather than meet Iraq's security needs.

The US is now in the awkward position of having to alter the original security arrangements which were made before the withdrawal of American troops.  The current situation appears to many Iraqis as a form of American "bullying," rather than trying to assist Iraq meet its legitimate security concerns, especially during a time of increased instability in neighboring Syria.  Rather than coming across as the friend it says it wants to be, the US has contributed towards increasing its negative image in Iraq.

Although democracy is, as Winston Churchill famously pointed out, "the worst form of government except all others that have been tried," it is the only course which the countries of the region can pursue and hope to promote tolerance and political pluralism, as well address the problems of corruption, nepotism and lack of economic development.  The US should have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring by now.  The peoples of the region, especially youth, are demanding change.  Continuing the same old American policy of supporting the authoritarian leader of the month - even if that brings temporary stability - is no longer an option in the Middle East.