The Arab Spring in North Africa began in Tunisia in December 2010, with the self-immolation of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who had his fruit and vegetable cart confiscated by local authorities. Massive protests forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. President Moncef Marzouki his successor failed to unify the country, and under political pressure agreed to hold new elections– which he postponed twice. Islamists have carried out attacks against members of parliament and political leaders, recently killing two moderate candidates. In May 2014 the electoral laws were changed to allow former officials in Ben Ali’s administration to run for office. Twenty former government leaders were recently released from prison, which sparked public outcry. Adding to the chaos last week fourteen soldiers were killed while pursuing AQIM Islamists embedded in the Chaambi Mountain region near the western border with Algeria.
Tag Archives | Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
In recent years Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have waged crackdowns on local Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movements and their alleged sympathizers under the banner of combating “global terrorism.” These governments claim that the MB’s rhetoric, espousing peaceful democratic reform, is disingenuous, and that it is actually committed to violently overthrowing the Gulf’s monarchies.
On June 10, 2014 our family returned to Africa as we do every year. Kenya’s Masai Mara was again selected. There were fourteen of us, including twelve family members and two close friends, ranging in age from eight to eighty. The youngest family member had been to Africa six times. Marcia and I first visited Africa in 1970, on a fact-finding mission to review CARE, UNICEF and World Food Program operations in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. We have since been to over twenty-five countries–some a number of times. As U.S. ambassador from 2002 to 2005, I oversaw three Indian Ocean island nations off the coast of Africa–Mauritius, Comoros and Seychelles.
As I write this, the people of Gaza hopes for an end to the week-long Israeli bombardment which has killed more than 180 Palestinians – many of them civilians have been dashed after Hamas rejected the Egypt-brokered deal. This will almost inevitably mean more innocent people are killed as collateral to this seemingly endless conflict.
The last few weeks have been brutal on President Obama’s reputation for foreign policy leadership. Consider the following. In a just-released Quinnipiac University poll, a plurality of voters rated Mr. Obama as the worst president since World War II. A majority of respondents also judged that the Obama administration is “not competent to run the government” and believe that “strong leadership qualities” are not among the president’s attributes.
The Arab world is in turmoil. Syria and Iraq are breaking apart, the thousand-year old conflict between Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites is reaching a new climax. A historic drama is unfolding around us. And what is the reaction of our government? Benjamin Netanyahu put it succinctly: “We must defend Israel on the Jordan River, before they reach Tel Aviv.” Simple, concise, idiotic.
Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011 did little to diminish the threat posed by jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it” was the ‘fatwa’ issued by bin Laden in 1998. Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, the aging Egyptian Islamic theologian who leads al-Qaeda today, is having difficulty controlling the newly formed Islamist affiliates.
Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website).
As Sunni militants in Iraq advance capturing one town after another, the Shias now appear to have decided to face them with their full collective might if the long lines of Shia fighters marching through Baghdad are of any indication. They constitute the Mahdi Army, the paramilitary force that once led a Shia rebellion against US troops. This time they are raising arms against ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq’s security forces from parts of the country’s north and west.
“So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy.” – T. E. Lawrence, February 1915
It was a curious comment by the oddball, but unarguably brilliant, British agent and scholar, Thomas Edward Lawrence. The time was World War I, and England and France were locked in a death match with the Triple Alliance, of which Turkey was a prominent member. But it was none-the-less true, and no less now than then. In the Middle East, to paraphrase William Faulkner, history is not the past, it’s the present.
Late last week, the Turkish government submitted a bill to the Grand National Assembly advancing the stalled-but-ongoing process toward resolution of the country’s longstanding Kurdish Issue. The bill arrived after a long period of dormancy in the process. Since the negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan began, Prime Minister Erdoğan has faced mass social protests, corruption allegations, and contentious local elections.
Apparently ISIS is a business, a bloody and illegal business, sort of like the Mafia. That’s what I gleaned from a McClatchy report by Hannah Allam on the group’s finances, revealed at least by a trove of documents captured by the US, turned over to RAND a few months ago, whose conclusions leaked into the public sphere today. “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria sprang from a largely self-funded, corporation-style prototype whose resilience to counterterrorism operations was proven by the time Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed command in 2010,” Allam reports.
Iraq is in turmoil, and a full-fledged sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites appears imminent. The United States will need to interject forces yet again due to the incompetence of the Iraqi armed forces. The misrule of Nouri al-Maliki has also been exposed. However, beyond all that, something else is worth discussing here. The message and motives of ISIS have clearly shown that they intend to impose a Muslim caliphate.
This has set off alarm bells. A caliphate largely run by Muslim extremists poses a threat to Western hegemony in the region, moderate Muslim rule as well as the misrule of regional despots. Obviously, everyone should be alarmed by the success of ISIS.
The fact that ISIS dislikes Shiite rule in Iraq further adds a new dimension to the age-old question: Sunni caliphate or Shiite imamate? Which one is the better self-rule option for Muslims, and more importantly, for preserving the peace of the entire region? Many experts on the region would argue neither, but that debate is for another day.
For centuries, Christendom tried to eliminate the caliphate, and failed. However, towards the start of the Modern World, the secular West did manage to remove the caliphate. Centuries have passed since then, and most present-day Muslims feel detached from the days of the caliphate. Even though calls for restoration of a caliphate, be it by violent or peaceful means, are made every now and then (ISIS is a case in point), many Muslims don’t consider it a viable option.
The recent conflict can be compared to the Iran-Iraq War. Back then, Iran viewed the conflict as the struggle of a religious Shiite state against a godless Arab Socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, whereas the latter projected the war as a by-product of the ever-expanding encroachment of Persians on Arab culture.
Times have changed. Previously, Sunnis were viewed by the West as a moderate community of Muslims, whereas Shiites were the fanatics who chanted: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Today, the Western climate seems pro-Shiite, and Sunnis are viewed as the problem.
This sectarian conflict has historical roots. A tiny group of people believed that the caliphate rightfully belonged to Ali, and it should not have gone to Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. Having emerged as a matter of political disagreement, Shiism soon took the shape of a religious group within Islam, organizing itself under the doctrine of imamah.
For Shiites, the divine imams are infallible and incorruptible. They are immune to human flaws. In this regard, Shiite imamate is comparable to the Catholic model of the Pope — a supreme leader, who is above the flaws and faults of the world, and passes on the leadership sans the hysteria of mass elections.
As such, there is good room for democratic aspirations in the Sunni model of caliphate: the caliph is supposed to be guided by the interests of the common masses. Accountability to the people is a concept that is central to the idea of the Sunni caliphate. But this democratic spirit is absent in Shiite imamate, which is based on absolute theocracy.
It must be noted, though, that the Ayatollahs are not divine imams themselves. According to Shiism, the last divine imam of Shiism, Mehndi, left this world back in the eighth century, and will be back at an appropriate time.
Sunni caliphate differs from Shiite imamate in both ideological and practical terms. The former has potential for democratic reforms (of course, this does not mean ISIS will be keen on becoming a democratic body anytime soon), whereas the latter has a theocratic structure that offers unlimited socio-political powers to its divine imam.
All said and done, the concept of political leadership is just the tip of the iceberg, and the sects have many differences. Bloodshed and anarchy will help neither side, and this is where the role of both Shiite and Sunni scholars becomes important. Caliphate and/or imamate cannot be imposed by means of guns and bombs; consensus and civilized debates seem to be a much better option.
Islam is unique in the sense that it offers a good deal of personal and political freedom to its adherents, and both Sunnis and Shiites need to realize that political leadership can be discussed only when political unity has been achieved.
As enemy columns began a long, arduous advance to the capital, city after city and town after town fell. With a phased American pull out that left not a single combat troop in the country, US-equipped and trained local forces began to melt away, a combination of tactical defeats, surrenders, desertions and mutinies. The outlook of reengagement looked even bleaker: more involvement in the longest war to have ever been fought in American history was a politically unpopular and untenable position.
It is astonishing how rapidly the fragile state of Iraq is imploding, as the Islamic militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS), advances on many Iraqi cities. The 2003 military intervention by the United States and its allies destabilized the political and social framework of the country, which Nouri al-Maliki has completed. Resulting in sectarian divisions, through a progressive marginalization of the Sunni population. The surrender of Iraqi troops is the result of this foolish and short sighted policy. The huge investment (about $25 billion) in their training by the international community was insufficient.