Elections Killing Democracy in the Middle East

5 05 2014

Bouteflika A supporter of Egypt's army chief Field Iraq Elections

 

 

This is an important election year for a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Egypt will hold elections on May 26-27, with the military dictator General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi likely to run. He has already gripped Egypt in an iron fist, while the courts do his dirty work sentencing hundreds to death without due process. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to run for president in August, while journalists are arrested and the government promotes increasingly authoritarian policies that include tight controls over the judiciary. Rubbing salt into the wounds of millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and families of more than 150,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, the vicious dictator Bashar al-Assad plans to run for re-election in June.

Iraq just witnessed crucial parliamentary elections amid fierce violence flaring in Fallujah, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s track record has not exactly fostered a healthy democracy. He has long antagonized Iraq’s Sunni minority, and managed to provoke violent backlash in Anbar. According to a Washington Post article, entitled “Iraq’s Elections May Accelerate its Descent” (May 1st) –

Mr. Maliki built support among Shiites before the election by launching a military campaign against Sunni tribes in Anbar province; the result was the takeover of Fallujah by al-Qaeda and waves of bombings against Shiites in Baghdad. Without U.S. support, the army appears to lack the means to recapture Fallujah and other Sunni-populated areas, though Mr. Maliki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has resorted to using Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The prosperous, autonomous Kurdistan region, with its own oil reserves, has become a de facto independent state.”

In late April, Algeria has exhibited one of the most embarrassing and shameful sights when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, already in power for fifteen years, ran for a fourth term following a stroke and was sworn in while sitting in a wheelchair. This comes after the 2011 Arab Awakening revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but Algeria has successfully suppressed similar uprisings and protests within its borders. However, the results are a gross blemish, analogous to the worst warts and boils on the ragged old face of Arab status quo, which convey only the Arab leaders’ obsessions with self-empowerment, stagnation, oppression, and authoritarianism. The delusion of these autocrats is boundless.

The only light in this dark tunnel is Tunisia, which has succeeded in nonviolently removing the Islamist Ennahda Party from power and preparing for new elections this year, while having revised the constitution once again. Democratization processes are not easy. They require not only smooth transitions in political leadership, but also substantive reforms of institutions and structures, with a lot of patience and determination. Clearly, Egypt and Libya, within their own respective contexts, have been impatient with the democratization processes. Leaders can be corrupt failures anywhere in the world, even in established democracies. But, the true test of democracy is the citizenry’s commitment to the values and principles of democracy. We have not seen this in the MENA region. In fact, egotistical self-promoting autocrats like General Sisi and Bouteflika and Bashar al-Assad eagerly want democracies to fail and collapse and be snuffed in the dust under the soles of their shoes. They also have powerful people supporting them, and in most cases that includes the military. They have been the circles of democracy assassins who rally around brutal dictators.

With all that Mohamed Bouazizi, the April 6th Movement, and hundreds, if not thousands, of others have sacrificed to change the face and stench of autocratic stagnation and status quo in the region, it is a tremendous tragedy that their revolutions, symbolism, and efforts have been undermined by the most diabolical people. The latter only possess self-interests, and are not concerned with the public’s welfare. The greatest irony is that so many of these self-interested autocrats and their supporters are using the tool of democracy, elections, to empower themselves. The counter-revolutions have been a slap in the face of the victims who died or were injured while trying to bring democracy, freedoms, and rights to their countries. When strokes and wheelchairs don’t deter a dictator, what can be said, but “what a shame.” But remember that it’s the circle of stakeholders around the dictator that is just as selfish, greedy, and ruthless. The proponents of real democracy in the MENA region face formidable challenges ahead. Their greatest test will be their commitment to democracy. The dictators and autocrats have shown their deep commitments to their brutality and authoritarianism. Stagnation and status quo will be the region’s future in politics, economics, and many other aspects of life if the “counters to the counter-revolutions” are not successful. And, those who are blindly supporting the likes of Sisi, Assad, Bouteflika, and a host of other oppressive and tyrannical dictators are dooming the entire region to a dark and wretched fate. Dictators deserve to be tossed into the dustbin of history, and the citizenry must commit to “never again!” Instead, we see countless people prepared to vote for new and old dictators. Has nothing been learned from the past several decades of tyranny?

The following quote by John F. Kennedy has profound wisdom for us all: “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

 

The views expressed are personal.

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Islamic Extremists’ Propensity for Violence & Intolerance

31 10 2012

The shooting of the brave Pakistani teenager, Malala Yusufzai, underscores a reality, without exaggeration, about the degree and severity of misogyny of Islamic extremists.   The shooting, which the 14-year-old activist and campaigner for girls’ education survived, is an ever-growing stain on Pakistan’s fabric of militancy and mindless misogynist orthodoxy.  The list of threats and violence against women and liberal voices is long.  This week BBC profiled an Afghan female rap artist, who is a proud patriot, yet receives regular threats by militants, including threats of acid attacks.  In Dagestan, militants murdered the fourth Sufi cleric this year.

What drives these hyenas to commit senseless acts of violence against innocent civilians and even children?  Are they so threatened by girls that they have to resort to such tactics as acid attacks and shootings of school buses?  Is this what their seminary curricula have taught them, to hate everyone who doesn’t conform to their own way of thinking, and to fear girls, especially educated ones?  I once reprimanded my students for using the word “barbaric” for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, but now I lament my actions.  The behavior of these militants and extremists, which are not restricted to the Af-Pak region, is beyond barbaric.  They transcend the Dark Ages in their regressive madness and extremes.  They make me hate the news and cringe every time I reach for BBC or NPR.  They are a dark cloud hovering ominously over the “modern” Muslim world today, and sadly many Muslims remain defensively in denial or apologetically rationalize the existence of these ugly elements, or re-frame Shariah (Islamic law) to distance themselves from such ideologies.

If so called moderate and liberal Muslims fail to acknowledge the reality of these extremists and their agendas, and, more importantly, fail to counter these militant and extremist forces in their midst, dire consequences await Muslim communities worldwide.  Some of these consequences are already occurring, including:

  • Hijacking and undermining children’s education systems, in the guise of “religious education,” by the infiltration of extremist and ultra-orthodox ideologies that promote intolerance and potentially militancy.  Such ideologies include Wahhabism and Salafism;
  • Stifling of liberal and Sufi voices and practices, as well as destruction of religious sites, as in the case of Salafi destruction of Sufi shrines and UNESCO heritage sites in recent months in Mali and Libya;
  • Attacking and killing non-Muslims in the name of Islam, as in the case of Boko Haram killing Christians and attacking churches in Nigeria;
  • Increasing the oppression of girls and women and religious minorities, as well as religious pariahs (e.g., sectarian groups like Shiites, and religions like Bahaism), and denying their rights and freedoms;
  • Stoking anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-modernism, and anti-Jewish and Christian sentiments, again in the name of Islam;
  • Undermining democratization and socioeconomic progress, especially by means of suppressing segments of society like women and minority groups;
  • Repressing intellectual freedoms and the arts;
  • Arbitrarily invoking takfir (calling someone a non-believer, or an apostate) and blasphemy labels, resulting in excommunication or even death of the targeted individual;
  • Questioning modern secular ideas, education, and progressive lifestyles, and seeking to repress them;
  • Locking entire communities in cycles of religious authoritarianism and totalitarianism by use of force or threats of violence, peer pressure, and excommunication;
  • Killing anyone who opposes them;
  • Focusing on nothing but their own myopic concepts of “jihad” and manipulations thereof;
  • Pursuing agendas of territorial expansion, areas of operation, recruitment, and cooptation of local government, law enforcement, and religious officials, where possible;
  • Blaming everything on the US, Jews, and Israel;
  • Interpreting religious laws and principles literally;
  • Attempting to superimpose 7th century ideas and practices on the present;
  • Bullying innocent people into submission and conformity, resulting in religious fascism that does not tolerate dissent, nor does it tolerate women’s rights to choose how they dress, live, acquire an education, work, and marry or divorce.

The end result of this religious fascism is nothing but destructive, oppressive, intolerant, and violent, authoritarian male-dominated communities living anachronistically in a 7th century time warp.  In fact, that itself is an untruth, because much of these extremists’ attitudes and behaviors pre-date Islam.  Yet, they insist on attributing their take on Islam as replicating the time of the Prophet Muhammad in 7th century Arabia.  Still, even the latter was not such a shining example of women’s emancipation and rights, certainly not by modern standards, nor was it brimming with religious tolerance and harmony.  Pre-Islamic Arabia fared even worse of course, but to compare these historical contexts to modern times is a non-starter.  Hence, the extremists’ backward regression is far worse than anticipated.  We all thought the Taliban were the worst when they emerged in the 1990s, but now they have parallel groups and ideologies that mirror them in many respects.  And we have the Saudis to thank for the proliferation of Wahhabi / Salafi ideologies that are inspiring these extremists and militants.

Last year and even earlier this year, I had high hopes for post-revolution political and socioeconomic development in Tunisia, where the 2011 Arab Awakening began.  Now, Salafist thugs are threatening to derail stability and security in Tunisia, while continuing their violent agendas and attacks.  Even as recent as October 31st, there have been fierce clashes in Tunis, as Al Jazeera reports:

“Wielding sharp tools and swords, the protesters went on the attack in the Tunis suburb of Manouba after police arrested a Salafist suspected of assaulting the head of the suburb’s public-security brigade, Khaled Tarrouche, interior ministry spokesman, said.

‘There has been a reinforcement of security, of the National Guard, of the army to prevent any retaliation’ by the Salafist movement, Tarrouche said on Wednesday.

‘The response by the security forces led to the death of an attacker who was hit by a bullet.’

Two security force members were also seriously injured, he said.”

These extremist elements are enemies of knowledge.  They are haters of peace and harmony.  They are the most intolerant towards tolerance.  Muslims must not bury their heads in the sand about this.  There is way too much at stake.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





“Innocence of Muslims” – Taking the Bait and Having a Field Day

14 09 2012

Writing on flags say: “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”

No one has learned anything from past lessons.  The senseless violence snowballing throughout the Muslim world, supposedly in reaction to an amateurish 14-minute YouTube trailer for a film that no one can find in full length, is a stain on the 21st century.  The news media are presenting the cause of the violence as solely stemming from the anti-Islamic film, entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.  However, there is much more behind the causal factors of this epidemic violence than the simplistic headlines convey.  Here are some variables, based on my assessment, pertaining to this outbreak of violence, and all of them are interrelated:

  • Genuine emotions
  • Extremists Pulling Strings and Having a Field Day
  • 9/11 Timing
  • Grievances against People’s Governments
  • Taking the Bait

No doubt, many Muslims are expressing genuine hurt feelings and passionate emotions in reaction to insults and offenses targeting Muhammad, the last prophet of Islam, in the film trailer.  If we look back at the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s, we see that such sensitivities have not changed, and on the part of more orthodox and conservative Muslims, they have only intensified.  In addition, this film comes in a long series of anti-Islam expressions, like the Danish cartoons, the threat of Quran burning by Terry Jones, the accidental Qurans burned in Afghanistan, etc.  These recent incidents have only reinforced the narrative among many Muslims that the West is against Islam and permits such offenses with impunity.  That’s the perception fueling the anger and hatred.  Yet, there is no condemnation of killings in response to these perceived offenses, like the murder of Theo Van Gogh, for example.  Objective parity is not part of the narrative in this case.

Such hurt feelings and anger never justify the violence and vandalism that the recent protests have generated.  In the big picture, so many films, TV shows, art exhibits, and popular culture programs and performances have insulted Christianity and other religions.  Consider “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park,” and “Monty Python,” to name a few, which are film producers and programs that have repeatedly ridiculed Christianity and other faiths with the sharpest irreverence and mockery, yet we never see violent reactions to them.

Among Islam’s ultra-orthodox and extremist elements, resorting to violence and calling for the death of the offenders are all too quick to the draw.  No one seems to pause and consider the consequences and damage to Islam’s image as a whole, as they become so consumed by their emotions and hatred.  There have been calls for peaceful protests by some, but mob mentality is hard to control especially once it gets out of hand.

This brings me to extremists pulling strings behind the scenes and having a field day.  Undoubtedly, extremist leaders at local levels see an opportunity in manipulating and exploiting the emotions and passions of the masses, especially those who embrace common extremist ideologies.  It is no coincidence that the attacks on the US consulate in Libya and the US embassy in Egypt fell on September 11th, which reinforces the theory that there is more to this violent fervor than just emotive reactions to the offensive film, which most protesters have not even seen (and for the record, the trailer is not worth one’s precious time).  Some analysts are also pointing to the revenge factor, especially in the case of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and his security detail.  In June Al Qaeda’s number two leader in Yemen was killed, and he happened to be Libyan.

Furthermore, the extremist Islamists are dismayed at being sidelined and even delegitimized upon the 2011 uprisings and revolutions that toppled decades-long secular dictatorships.  For just as long, these extremist groups spread throughout the region, although small in numbers, were forced to operate underground.  Once the revolutions took place last year through mostly nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, the extremists had the rug pulled from under them.  Even the Islamist parties that have come to power following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have to balance their respective Islamism with moderate secular and liberal ideals and policies.  This also angers the extremists, who feel that these Islamist governments are “too soft” in their Islamism.  Particularly in the case of Egypt and Sudan, Islamist hardliners are pressuring the governments to capitulate on some of their demands to implement stricter Shariah rules and policies.  These Islamists constitute major political constituents in some cases, and so the governments cannot be seen as leaning too much toward secularism and liberalism.

Similarly, the protesters, especially the young men, continue to hold grievances against their own governments for failing to meet their needs, especially providing jobs and a better future for the next generation.  Thus, woven into this discontent about the anti-Islam film are the underlying grievances against respective governments, especially for socioeconomic reasons.  Change is not occurring fast enough for many, and this has been an opportunity to express their multi-layered anger.

Anti-Western and especially anti-American sentiments are also being exploited by various elements.  Many people in the region, but certainly not all, see Western values, especially freedom of expression, as “boundary-less,” meaning that these freedoms and rights have no limits.  This is not exactly true, because we have laws against “hate speech” and of course the exception to the First Amendment right to free speech and expression exists for the sake of public order and safety, prohibiting incitement of violence.  The “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” phrase aptly describes this exception.

But, most people in the region are not aware of these provisions and exceptions.  They simply see that an American national has funded and produced this vile film, and that the US government should take action against such offenses, and place boundaries or “reasonable limits” on free speech and expression.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama have unequivocally condemned this film, as well as the violence in the Muslim world.  But, they have no authority to undo the constitutional laws that grant all Americans First Amendment rights and freedoms.  The First Amendment embodies the fabric of American values, and, by the way, it also grants everyone the freedom of religion.  We should never compromise on that.

The last few days have been extremely sad, tragic, and disheartening.  Too many breaches have occurred, including the murder of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.  Also, the loss of life of protesters is, in my opinion, such a waste.

According to a Reuters article (9/14/2012), entitled “Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over Film” –

“At least seven people were killed as local police struggled to repel assaults after weekly Muslim prayers in Tunisia and Sudan, while there was new violence in Egypt and Yemen and across the Muslim world, driven by emotions ranging from piety to anger at Western power to frustrations with local leaders and poverty.”

The article also explains the balancing act that Egypt’s President Mursi must play regarding the Cairo protests and US relations (Egypt is the second highest recipient of US foreign aid):

“Mursi must tread a line between appealing to an electorate receptive to the appeal of more hardline Islamists and maintaining ties with Washington, which long funded the ousted military dictatorship.”

The Salafists are involved in most if not all of these violent protests.  I have repeatedly written about the dangers of Salafists, even in Tunisia, as the Reuters article describes:

“Further west along the Mediterranean, a Reuters reporter saw police open fire to try to quell an assault in which protesters forced their way past police into the U.S. embassy in Tunis. Some smashed windows, others hurled petrol bombs and stones at police from inside the embassy and started fires. One threw a computer from a window, others looted computers and telephones.

A Tunisian security officer near the compound said the embassy had not been staffed on Friday, and calls to the embassy went unanswered. Two armed Americans in uniform stood on a roof.

The protesters, many of whom were followers of hardline Salafist Islamist leaders, also set fire to the nearby American School, which was closed at the time, and took away laptops. The protests began after Friday prayers and followed a rallying call on Facebook by Islamist activists and endorsed by militants.”

This is shameful, disgusting, and criminal behavior, not much different in measure than the film producer, and in fact is even worse because lives have been lost.

This behavior also exhibits extreme immaturity at so many levels.  Islam is the youngest of the Judeo-Christian faiths, and its internal ideologies and diverse compositions and manifestations are still evolving.  As one student put it, Christianity used to be very puritanical, with the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-burnings, and the like.  Islam is going through its phases and evolutions as well, some aspects of which are still very medieval in their outlook.  It’s imperative for the world’s Muslims to reconcile the internal conflicts and facilitate enlightenment and stamp out the extremist ideologies that are so harmful.  Puritanism serves no purpose, especially in the modern era.  It is extremely counterproductive and threatens regional and global peace and security.

Another point for the Muslim world to ponder is this:  given all the anti-Americanism and knee-jerk emotional and violent reactions that we’ve been witnessing throughout the Muslim world, Western powers will think twice before helping Muslims again, and that might include the opposition in Syria.

Finally, why people continue to take the bait is beyond comprehension.  Clearly, this film was intended to provoke anger and emotions.  Yet, it seems that repeatedly Muslims fail to transcend the temptations to react, especially so destructively.  Consider that the Prophet Muhammad’s own reputation and character should speak for himself.  Does he really need people to defend his name violently?  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  It only gives perpetual license to the world’s provocateurs, who are probably rolling on the ground laughing, at the expense of global peace.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





Salafist / Wahhabi Hooligans’ Agendas for Destruction and Violence

2 09 2012

The last couple of weeks have been filled with bad news across the Middle East, South Asia, and even the Caucasus.  The sheer destructiveness, outrageous, deplorable behavior, and intolerance manifested in the events are extremely disheartening, to say the least.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has a real challenge on his hands.  Militants have attacked a number of moderate Muslim clerics in the Caucasus, and some have died.  The clerics were known to be voices of moderation and criticism against the fanatical militants, who are proliferating in Russia’s southern edges.  Reuters reports that in Dagestan, “more than a dozen young men from the village have ‘gone to the forest’ – the local euphemism for joining insurgents in their hideouts, says village administrator Aliaskhab Magomedov.”  The reports indicate that these men are hardened Islamists as a result of working in the Gulf Arab states, returning home and spreading their Wahhabi ideology with violence.

Similarly, in two African countries we see Salafist and Al Qaeda-affiliated militants destroying Sufi mosques and shrines.  In parts of Libya, they are literally bulldozing heritage sites, not unlike the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues.  In Mali, militants have literally chipped away at UNESCO heritage sites with hammers and chisels.  These militants also want to target libraries and museums in order to destroy precious archeological icons and manuscripts that they deem “un-Islamic.”  When you read Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban, you learn that when the Taliban first came to power in the mid-1990s, and took over Kabul, one of the first institutions they attacked and destroyed were libraries.  Nothing has changed, except the geography.  Such mentalities still may be among minority fringe groups.  Nonetheless, their propensity for violence and destruction is not only horrendous, but also, alarmingly, proliferating in other regions.

Such is the venom of Wahhabi/Salafi ideology, and let’s not forget that the seat of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, has long upheld policies for destroying sacred and heritage sites, and carried them out within the kingdom.  The Saudis, after all, are one of the creators of the Taliban.  That is very telling indeed.  In fact, the “League of Libyan Ulema, a group of more than 200 Muslim scholars, on Tuesday evening blamed the attacks on a son of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Saadi, and his Libyan Salafi allies it said were inspired by radical Saudi preachers.  Sufi theologian Aref Ali Nayed said Libya had not seen such attacks for centuries.  ‘Even Mussolini’s fascists did not treat our spiritual heritage with such contempt,’ he said” (Reuters).  Italy under Mussolini occupied Libya until WWII.

While the West is preoccupied with vilifying Iran – and this is not to say that the Iranian regime is not a problem or a threat – we in the West are frighteningly myopic in terms of seeing the big picture:  i.e., Salafism / Wahhabism is proving to be even more destructive, violent, intolerant, and hate-mongering on a daily basis than what we see coming from Iran, and not just in words, but also in action.  The only thing is that the former is not on the radar, while the latter (Iran) is the object of obsession in the West.  That scenario will only lead to repeating costly past mistakes:  can we say “Mujahideen” in the Af-Pak region?

The Libyan Ulema and citizens are extremely frustrated with Tripoli’s seemingly inability to stop the Salafi assault on the country’s shrines, mosques, and heritage sites.

“The League of Libyan Ulema (Muslim scholars) urged Tripoli ‘to pressure the government of Saudi Arabia to restrain its clerics who meddle in our affairs’ by training young Libyans in Salafism and spreading the ideology through books and tapes.

It also urged Libyans to protect Sufi sites by force.

Nayed, who lectures at the old Uthman Pasha madrasa that was desecrated on Tuesday evening, said the attackers were ‘Wahhabi hooligans (and) all sorts of pseudo-Salafi elements’ while government security officials were ‘complacent and impotent.’

‘Libya has to make a clear choice – either a Taliban/Shabaab-style religious fanaticism or a true Muslim moral and spiritual civility,’ he told Reuters.”

The Salafists – or, as Nayed pointedly and correctly calls them “Wahhabi hooligans” – are an imminent threat to the stability and security of the regions and sub-regions in which they operate.  And, that is exactly their intent, to destabilize, coerce, bully, and terrorize.  Although their militant ideologies have been dealt a severe blow since the mostly peaceful 2011 Arab uprisings and revolutions successfully changed regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Wahhabi hooligans also see the same events and outcomes as an opportunity to fill any gaps that may appear in the nation building processes in respective countries.  Effective policies and law enforcement are needed to preclude them from gaining even an inch.  Think of them as hyenas lurking in the darkness, only now they are audaciously operating in broad daylight.

The other major recent incident is the disgustingly shameful “blasphemy” case in Pakistan, which has landed a young 14-year-old girl with mental disabilities, who happens to be a Christian, in prison.  Instead of protecting this child and her family, the Pakistani authorities, in all their hollow wisdom, have thrown her in jail, and might make her stand trial.  Blasphemy prosecutions can render death sentences.  This has stirred outrage worldwide, and especially among human rights organizations.  Perhaps in reaction to the outrage, police arrested the local imam who some claim is the culprit in framing the child.  But, this case is about more than just the tragic circumstances of this child, her family, and the Pakistani Christian community at large.  This ludicrous behavior by the authorities and even the government, which initially called for “an investigation,” rather than calling for her immediate release, only highlights the moral bankruptcy of Pakistan.  The expediency with which the so-called “blasphemy law” is used especially against religious minorities underscores the nakedly transparent bigotry that streams through Pakistan’s fabric.  Furthermore, it is not only an example of moral bankruptcy, but it also illustrates the most profound absence of intelligence and reason.  Regarding this case, there is no hole deep enough in the sand that would be sufficient for heads to bury themselves in, as far as I’m concerned.  I close with a quote by George Orwell:

“One defeats a fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary, by using one’s intelligence.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views