Tag: political islam

What was behind the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student

Like everyone else, I’m still trying to catch up after the Thanksgiving holiday. So I have a quick, kind of speculative post this week.

It looks like the distressing saga of Matthew Hedges has finally been resolved. As I wrote about before, Hedges is a grad student in the UK who traveled to the UAE to conduct field work. After interviewing several subjects about UAE security policies, he was arrested and charged with espionage. He was recently been sentenced to life in prison, although the UAE just pardoned him.

There is a lot to figure out with this case–what it means for scholars working on the Persian Gulf, whether universities should still have relationships with the UAE, and (most crucially) how to secure Hedges’ release. But one angle I’ve been thinking about, and which I don’t think has been explained properly, is why did the UAE do this? Why did they detain a UK citizen, risking international criticism and condemnation?

Continue reading

Anti-American Violence in the Middle East: Agency, Morality, Politics, and (a) Flim

Note: this started out as “Morning Linkage” but quickly became an extended comment. I apologize for the poor proofing.

Four Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the extremist Islamist attack on the American consulate in Libya, Hayes Brown has a good, quick, overview of the circumstances surrounding the attacks in Libya and Egypt. As he concludes:

Finally, the relationship between the United States and the Egyptian and Libyan governments will likely hinge on the response of their leadership. The Libyan government, including President Mohammed el-Megarif, has swiftly condemned the attack. Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kieb has said that Libya is “determined to take action against those who murdered Amb. Stevens & other innocent people.” President Morsy of Egypt has yet to issue a statement on the assault on the U.S. Embassy.

James Joyner weighs in at The National Interest, where he criticizes the (since repudiated and, it seems, removed) statement by the US embassy in Cairo:

While the instincts to emphasize America’s tradition of religious inclusiveness and to try to head off violent reactions are laudatory, the statement is offensive on its own terms and simply outrageous in light of the assaults on American sovereign soil and the death of American diplomats that followed. 

In point of fact, making a movie commenting on the sexual proclivities of someone who died some fourteen hundred years ago in no way constitutes “incitement” under any meaningful use of the term. 

More importantly, the United States government has no business whatsoever condemning the exercise of free speech, the most fundamental of civil liberties, by a member of the citizenry that employs and finances it. While the First Amendment right to free speech is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions, the fact that it might “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” is decidedly not among them.

James is wading into difficult terrain. I suspect the the inflection point for debate in the US commentariat will be between those who view recent events through the prism of “right-wing Christian extremists attempt to incite violence” and “right-wing Islamist extremists kill Americans over exercise of free speech.” So, after praising the Obama administration for its earlier handling of Terry Jones’ religious hatred, he puts it this way:

To be sure, Terry Jones’s bigotry is hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is. 

The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.

Blake Hounshell preemptively condemns the politicization of these events:

This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here’s a video introducing him to Libyans. 

What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy’s walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an “apology” for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing

 I have only a few things to add.

First, we should not efface the agency of anyone involved. For Terry Jones and his ilk, provoking violence is a feature, not a bug, of attacking Islam. They believe that Western Civilization in general, and the United States in particular, is already at war with Islam. This war takes many forms, but all involve unanswered or inadequately answered Islamic aggression: from terrorist attacks to “stealth Sharia” to the subversion of the US government by pro-Islamists and ‘useful idiots’ alike. Forcing a confrontation is the best way to advance the cause of ‘waking up’ Americans to this war and thereby bringing about more aggressive US policy.

None of this, however, makes those who storm US consulates and murder any less culpable for their actions. They are not irrational man-children. They engage in their own “forcing mechanisms” designed to further their own causes — that of anti-Americanism, opposition to their own governments, and of transnational Islamism. And yes, their “forcing mechanism” involves killing people, which is far more morally repugnant than engaging in offensive speech, drawing offensive cartoons, and making films. Indeed, the storming of the US consulates and the murder of Americans has more in common, as (im)moral actions, with those of Michael Page than with Terry Jones.

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other.

Second, Blake and others are right to note the ongoing dangers reflected in these events. This cannot be emphasized enough: there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved. We have seen, and will continue to see, US allies and partners say and do things we find offensive or, at the least, play poorly in American domestic politics. Some of these statements and actions will involve political calculation or miscalculation. Others will reflect underlying divergence from American values and goals. But they need to be judged through the prism of the politics of political survival — as carried out by officials trying to balance competing demands and constituencies. Thus, one hopes that not only the Obama Administration, but responsible US politicians, heed Blake’s sage advice:

The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film — which “portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud,” as the Wall Street Journal put it — may have been obscure before, but it’s not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie — but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won’t be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America’s relationship with these new “democracies.” But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful — it can’t let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.

Be Concerned but not Informed: Radical Islamic Terrorism and Mainstream Media since 9/11

The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.

Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.

Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.

One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.

Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.

As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.

What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.

Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.

Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.

These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.

I’m shocked, shocked to find insurgents in this region

It would be funny, except that it isn’t.

Taleban militants operating in Pakistan’s Swat region who agreed a peace deal with the government have expanded operations into nearby Buner.

Dozens of militants have been streaming into bordering Buner to take over mosques and government offices.

Buner is part of the Malakand region, which has just seen the implementation of Sharia law under the peace deal.

But the Taleban have mainly operated in Swat, where they fought the army from August 2007 until this year’s deal.

Under the deal the Taleban were expected to disarm.

If anyone with expertise on Pakistan is reading this, I have a question for you: the BBC map creates the strong impression that the Taleban is engaged in salami tactics ultimately aimed at Islamabad.

Does that match the actual on-the-ground geography?


What if a Caliphate had a Seat at the UN?

So this past week I traveled to New York to conduct interviews with representatives of the Holy’s See’s Permanent Obverver Mission to the United Nations as part of my project into norm contestation among global civil society actors during multilateral treaty negotiations.

I found the papal diplomats to be informed, open-minded, friendly and intellectually engaged about human rights and human security. But they didn’t at all like the idea that I was interviewing them as part of a project on “non-state” influences on UN treaty-making.

They imagined I’d be interviewing other governments as well, when in fact they’re on a list otherwise filled by NGOs I’ll be talking to, since the focus of my project is on “global civil society.” (Though one source wittily pointed out that the NGO reps are the least civil actors out there, because they’re not trained as diplomats.)

It’s true the Holy See has the ostensible status of a state for the purposes of multilateral treaty negotiations. It sits on deliberations over UN treaty, declaration and resolution language, and though it doesn’t vote on these documents the Pope chooses whether or not to sign them. Plus the fact that the culture at the UN strives for consensus means any individual actor has a fair amount of influence as a veto player, so the Holy See is in a great position to stick it out until other delegates are worn down and tired of arguing to get language into treaties that reflects its principled positions.

My project isn’t about the Holy See’s status, but these dialogues with my informants got me thinking about the issue. There’s been a lot of criticism over whether the church should have this power relative to other non-state actors – other NGOs have the right to be in the building, and lobby delegates constantly in the hallways, but no other non-state actor has the right to actually sit at the table and negotiate with governments. One of the articles I read as I prepped for this trip suggested that either the Holy See should lose this status or, to be fair, other religions should be represented as well.

Interesting idea, eh? Suppose Saudi Arabia, for example, were to enter into a treaty with the city of Mecca similar to Italy’s treaty with what is now the Vatican City State, and Sunni Islam were to re-establish a caliphate centered in Mecca but territorially distinct from any Muslim majority state, with transnational moral authority over all Sunni Muslims, and then it sent diplomats throughout international society on the model of the Catholic church. Shia Islam could create a parallel Imamte perhaps centered on Tehran.

Would a dynamic like this make for a moderating political Islam, capable of integrating into international society and institutions as the Catholic Church has done, separate from the politics of Islamic governments, though sometimes allied with them; and able to represent Islamic perspectives on issues like the laws of war, family policy, human rights, etc, from outside the politics of the nation-state system? Would it constitute a space from within which the silent moderate Islamic majority could exercise a greater influence on political Islam? Or, would such an institution be vulnerable to capture by extremists and bode ill for a pluralistic international society?

Thoughts?

© 2018 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑