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When television host Bill Maher declares on his weekly show that “the Muslim world . . . has too much in common with ISIS ” and guest Sam Harris says that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,” I understand why people are upset. Maher and Harris, an author, made crude simplifications and exaggerations. And yet, they were also talking about something real.
I know the arguments against speaking of Islam as violent and reactionary. It has a following of 1.6 billion people. Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.
In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.
There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?
The caveat, “Islam today,” is important. The central problem with Maher’s and Harris’s analyses are that they take a reality — extremism in Islam — and describe it in ways that suggest it is inherent in Islam. Maher says Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” He’s right about the viciousness but wrong to link it to “Islam” — instead of “some Muslims.”
Harris prides himself on being highly analytical — with a PhD, no less. I learned in graduate school that you can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause. So, if you are asserting that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant — “the mother lode of bad ideas” — then, since Islam has been around for 14 centuries, we should have seen 14 centuries of this behavior.
Harris should read Zachary Karabell’s book “Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation.” What he would discover is that there have been wars but also many centuries of peace. Islam has at times been at the cutting edge of modernity, but like today, it has also been the great laggard. As Karabell explained to me, “If you exclude the last 70 years or so, in general the Islamic world was more tolerant of minorities than the Christian world. That’s why there were more than a million Jews living in the Arab world until the early 1950s — nearly 200,000 in Iraq alone.”
If there were periods when the Islamic world was open, modern, tolerant and peaceful, this suggests that the problem is not in the religion’s essence and that things can change once more. So why is Maher making these comments? I understand that as a public intellectual he feels the need to speak what he sees as the unvarnished truth (though his “truth” is simplified and exaggerated). But surely there is another task for public intellectuals as well — to try to change the world for good.
Does he really think that comparing Islam to the Mafia will do this? Harris says that he wants to encourage “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” to reform the religion. So, the strategy to reform Islam is to tell 1.6 billion Muslims, most of whom are pious and devout, that their religion is evil and they should stop taking it seriously?
That is not how Christianity moved from its centuries-long embrace of violence, crusades, inquisitions, witch-burning and intolerance to its modern state. On the contrary, intellectuals and theologians celebrated the elements of the religion that were tolerant, liberal and modern, and emphasized them, while giving devout Christians reasons to take pride in their faith. A similar approach — reform coupled with respect — will work with Islam over time.
The stakes are high in this debate. You can try to make news or you can make a difference. I hope Maher starts doing the latter.
The latest story has provoked a lot of questions, objections and, sometimes, misunderstandings.
Fareed Zakaria: Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now
by Fareed Zakaria, washingtonpost.com
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that Turkey is ready “for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism.” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that Islamic State militants pose a greater threat to Turkey and the Muslim world than to the West.
But Turkey’s dilemma is far more grave than its leaders realize. Indeed, Turkey’s current situation resembles the early years of Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban. The Islamic State is recruiting militants in Turkey. And failure to clean its own house now could lead Turkey down the path of “Pakistanization,” whereby a resident jihadist infrastructure causes Sunni extremism to ingrain itself deeply within the fabric of society.
Although Turkey now recognizes the threat — the Turkish government voted to authorize military force in Iraq and Syria on Thursday — it has yet to come to terms with its own responsibility for helping to create it.
Turkey claims that radical groups grew stronger because moderates seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria were not given adequate aid. But that is not the whole picture. As Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., the former American ambassador to Turkey, has pointed out, Ankara supported radical groups, including the Nusra Front. Indeed, during the early days of Syria’s civil war, jihadist groups funneled fighters and resources through Turkey into Syria.
Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian civil war parallels Pakistan’s support of the Taliban to affect the course of the Afghan civil war. But the jihadism abetted by Pakistan did not remain across the Afghan border. Turkey may now be witnessing the beginnings of a similar blowback.
While the magnitude of Turkey’s recent engagement of jihadist proxies isn’t comparable to Pakistan’s long history of jihadist sponsorship, the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s ill-fated relationship with the Sunni extremists of Pakistan’s Deobandi movement is still instructive for Turkey. Pakistan’s Deobandis dedicated themselves to implementing “the system of the Caliphate of the Rightly Guided,” a Sunni sectarian state to serve as a South Asian stepping stone to a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
Pakistan’s experience with blowback began prior to Ms. Bhutto’s tenure, when General Zia ul-Haq’s regime backed mujahedeen militias as proxies to combat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Organized by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate with assistance from the United States and Saudi Arabia, the recruitment networks within Pakistan started a radicalization process among segments of Pakistan’s population. The most susceptible group was the more than three million Afghan refugees. (The I.S.I. in particular backed Hekmatyar Gulbuddin’s Hezb-i-Islami, which was part of a rival to movement to the Deobandis.)
Afghan refugee boys began attending Deobandi madrassas, and small numbers of teachers and students began joining militant groups to fight the Soviets. Upon the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Afghan Communist government, the mujahedeen turned on one another, prolonging Afghanistan’s civil war, and the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
In 1994, Ms. Bhutto began to abet militancy to secure Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan. The Bhutto government facilitated a paramilitary force of thousands of madrassa students to cross the border and take control of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province. With Pakistan’s help, this militia of “Taliban,” literally “students,” conquered large swaths of Afghan territory and declared its commander, Mullah Omar, to be caliph. Like the Taliban before them, the Islamic State has designated its commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and calls the territories under its control a caliphate.
Their militancy soon crossed the border. After the initial stage of mobilizing volunteers and weapons for jihad in Afghanistan, a second phase developed in which Pakistan witnessed a wave of anti-Shiite violence, including bombings of Karachi’s major Shiite mosques by the Taliban’s sister organization in Pakistan, Sipah-e Sahaba.
The Turkish government’s decision to turn a blind eye to Islamic State activity within its borders has similarly led to the extremists’ increasing influence in certain areas of Turkey’s major cities. The recent and unprecedented arson attacks on Shiite mosques in Istanbul may indicate that Turkey is entering this second phase. Turkey is home to only a small Shiite community; but Turkey’s Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect often regarded as heretical by Sunnis, constitute about 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
A campaign by Sunni extremists against the Alevi community could lead Turkey into a Pakistan-like vortex of sectarian violence and radicalization. The present government’s own politics of polarization, illustrated by Mr. Erdogan’s baiting of the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu due to his Alevi background during Turkey’s recent presidential election campaign, may further inflame sectarian tensions. And Islamic State militants will not hesitate to exploit the Sunni-Alevi fault line in Turkish society.
Pakistan’s final and most dangerous stage of extremism occurred when the flow of militants and resources was reversed. As the Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan, it provided training camps and other logistical support to its allies, making it harder for Pakistan to control militant organizations inside its borders. After 9/11, Gen. Pervez Musharraf attempted to crack down on militants inside Pakistan. His efforts culminated in the 2007 Red Mosque battle in Islamabad and the subsequent coalescing of militants into the movement known as the Pakistani Taliban.
Turkey has not experienced this stage yet. But the Islamic State may find fertile recruiting ground among Turkey’s 1.3 million Syrian refugees. And Turkish citizens may be drawn into the orbit of militancy just as segments of Pakistan’s population have been. If the Islamic State’s Turkish networks remain intact, Turkey runs the risk that homegrown militants will be empowered by the return of fighters from Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq.
Ms. Bhutto’s strategy of employing militant proxies to create a client state in Afghanistan succeeded — but at a high price for Pakistan. That is a warning for Turkey, which must recognize that it cannot shield itself from Sunni militancy while pursuing a Sunni sectarian foreign policy in the Middle East.
Pakistan’s Lessons for Turkey
by MICHAEL M. TANCHUM and HALIL M. KARAVELI, mobile.nytimes.com
CAN the prevalent political unrest and discontent in Muslim societies be regarded as a desire for change? In other words, are Muslim societies in search of new social contracts?
The militant struggle is all about a complete replacement of existing social contracts with an Islamic code of life. Both non-violent radicals and traditional religio-political forces are pursuing varying agendas ranging from Islamisation of their respective societies to reformation of and adjustments in constitutions in line with their perceived Islamic ideals.
Interestingly, these Islamist forces are not satisfied with the systems of democracy, controlled democracy or monarchies in their respective countries. Does the problem really lie with Muslim societies’ social contracts with their states, or is it the outcome of other pressures Muslim societies are subjected to?
Various religious agendas are competing with the state’s social contract with its people.
While identifying the underlying unrest in underdeveloped or developing societies, academicians usually factor in pressures of rapid globalisation and a sense of increasing aspirations among people. It may be true in case of diaspora communities. Others underscore structural social, religious and political narratives and behaviours of these societies, which they believe are not compatible with the pace of changes taking place in the world. No doubt global changes affect our daily lives, positively or negatively.
The emergence of a new middle class is another aspect of the debate. Middle classes want political empowerment in their respective societies. Governance issues and increasing non-functionality of traditional delivery systems in Muslim countries is another factor. These and other factors of growing resentment among Muslim societies with their respective states and constitutions have combined with a dearth of scholarship.
Another important question is, should these factors — structural, internal or global — raise the need for subversion of existing social contracts or constitutions?
A social contract ensures harmonious socio-economic and political balance in a society and provides a framework for the formation of a government and laws and their enforcement. The Arab Spring has not been successful in many countries in terms of the formation of new social contracts.
Failure to develop consensus among all segments of society on a new social contract has pushed Egypt again into an authoritarian regime. Tunisia provides an important example of drafting a new social contract, where unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist Ennahda Movement did not insist on enshrining Sharia in the constitution and forged an alliance with secular parties.
Yemen is experiencing a different challenge in the formation of a new social contract, which is giving rise to questions of tribal and geographical representations in the constitution. Indonesia and Pakistan are among the Muslim nations where the constitutional reform process is intact and keeps ethnic communities together and tied to the state.
Even Muslim clergy in these countries is in favour of a continuity of the incumbent constitutional and democratic processes. A recent moot of leading religious scholars in Islamabad noted that Pakistan’s Constitution is a national-level social contract and in the light of Islamic teachings every Pakistani is bound to abide by it. Scholars also asserted that national-level disputes and conflicts, which are shared by all and not linked to particular religious sects or communities, should be settled on the basis of majority opinion. A minority cannot be granted the right to impose its opinion on the majority.
Although religious scholars do not regard democracy as a complete, ideal form of government, most of them believe it can be useful and effective for ensuring peaceful coexistence and pluralism in society. Interestingly, some religious scholars argue that even if rulers impose excessive taxes and force people to pay without legal justification for this, it is better for people to defend themselves by adopting peaceful ways than by revolting against the state.
The militants have different opinions and want to impose their version of the Islamic state through the use of force. The Constitution provides shields against militant, religious, anarchist, ultra-nationalist or ethnic ambitions that might seek to create imbalances in society.
The problem arises when political forces start believing in the extra-constitutional solution of issues, which ultimately encourages militants and ambitious radicals and strengthens anti-constitutional and anti-democratic narratives. Especially in the context of countries such as Pakistan, which has a long history of military interventions and domination of political institutions by the military, such narratives provide support to the militants.
The extra-constitutional power struggle within elites and powerful institutions creates confusion about the basic concept of a social contract. The extremists are the beneficiaries of such confusion and they use it for expanding their support bases across the country.
A review of the militants’ arguments reveals that they advocate an alternative system on the basis of loopholes in existing power structures. Asmatullah Muawiya, leader of a major Punjabi Taliban faction who recently renounced terrorism, had joined Al Qaeda and the Taliban on similar grounds. Muawiya had written letters to the media before the 2013 general elections and raised questions about the democratic system, which, he felt, was not providing relief to the common man. One of the reasons behind his renunciation of violence in Pakistan, is the ongoing debate among religious scholars on issues like violent struggles, the Constitution, democracy and Islam, which has created an intellectual challenge for the militants.
Usually, when political actors fail to gain their share in power, they directly attack the Constitution and suggest extra-constitutional measures to fix problems, which fundamentally are not linked with the Constitution. At the same time, powerful institutions, which is the military in Pakistan though the judiciary has tried to assert itself of late, sabotage the social contract. This subversion turns the power balance in their favour but in the longer run causes structural problems. This discourse in many Muslim countries is a primary factor behind their decline.
Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, cannot afford the subversion of their respective constitutions as the social imbalances and rise of violent and non-violent radicalism can completely transform the situation, which the radicals have shown they can achieve without paying a high price.
By Muhammad Amir Rana, dawn.com
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2014
On August 26, Israel and the Palestinian Authority both accepted a cease-fire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza that left 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast landscapes of destruction behind.
The agreement calls for an end to military action by Israel and Hamas as well as an easing of the Israeli siege that has strangled Gaza for many years.
This is, however, just the most recent of a series of cease-fire agreements reached after each of Israel's periodic escalations of its unremitting assault on Gaza.
Since November 2005 the terms of these agreements have remained essentially the same. The regular pattern is for Israel to disregard whatever agreement is in place, while Hamas observes it—as Israel has conceded—until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer brutality.
These escalations are called “mowing the lawn” in Israeli parlance. The most recent was more accurately described as “removing the topsoil” by a senior U.S. military officer, quoted in Al Jazeera America.
The first of this series was the Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005.
It called for a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah for the export of goods and the transit of people; crossings between Israel and Gaza for goods and people; the reduction of obstacles to movement within the West Bank; bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza; the building of a seaport in Gaza; and the reopening of the airport in Gaza that Israeli bombing had demolished.
That agreement was reached shortly after Israel withdrew its settlers and military forces from Gaza. The motive for the disengagement was explained by Dov Weisglass, a confidant of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was in charge of negotiating and implementing it.
“The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process,” Weisglass told Haaretz. “And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
“The disengagement is actually formaldehyde,” Weisglass added. “It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”
This pattern has continued to the present: through Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 to Pillar of Defense in 2012 to this summer's Protective Edge, the most extreme exercise in mowing the lawn—so far.
For more than 20 years, Israel has been committed to separating Gaza from the West Bank in violation of the Oslo Accords it signed in 1993, which declare Gaza and the West Bank to be an inseparable territorial unity.
A look at a map explains the rationale. Separated from Gaza, any West Bank enclaves left to Palestinians have no access to the outside world. They are contained by two hostile powers, Israel and Jordan, both close U.S. allies—and contrary to illusions, the U.S. is very far from a neutral “honest broker.”
Furthermore, Israel has been systematically taking over the Jordan Valley, driving out Palestinians, establishing settlements, sinking wells and otherwise ensuring that the region—about one-third of the West Bank, with much of its arable land—will ultimately be integrated into Israel along with the other regions being taken over.
The remaining Palestinian cantons will be completely imprisoned. Unification with Gaza would interfere with these plans, which trace back to the early days of the occupation and have had steady support from the major Israeli political blocs.
Israel might feel that its takeover of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has proceeded so far that there is little to fear from some limited form of autonomy for the enclaves that remain to Palestinians.
There is also some truth to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's observation: “Many elements in the region understand today that, in the struggle in which they are threatened, Israel is not an enemy but a partner.” Presumably he was alluding to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.
Israel's leading diplomatic correspondent Akiva Eldar adds, however, that “all those 'many elements in the region' also understand that there is no brave and comprehensive diplomatic move on the horizon without an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and a just, agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem.”
That is not on Israel's agenda, he points out, and is in fact in direct conflict with the 1999 electoral program of the governing Likud coalition, never rescinded, which “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River.”
Some knowledgeable Israeli commentators, notably columnist Danny Rubinstein, believe that Israel is poised to reverse course and relax its stranglehold on Gaza.
The record of these past years suggests otherwise and the first signs are not auspicious. As Operation Protective Edge ended, Israel announced its largest appropriation of West Bank land in 30 years, almost 1,000 acres.
It is commonly claimed on all sides that, if the two-state settlement is dead as a result of Israel's takeover of Palestinian lands, then the outcome will be one state west of the Jordan.
Some Palestinians welcome this outcome, anticipating that they can then engage in a fight for equal rights modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Many Israeli commentators warn that the resulting “demographic problem” of more Arab than Jewish births and diminishing Jewish immigration will undermine their hope for a “democratic Jewish state.”
But these widespread beliefs are dubious.
The realistic alternative to a two-state settlement is that Israel will continue to carry forward the plans it has been implementing for years: taking over whatever is of value to it in the West Bank, while avoiding Palestinian population concentrations and removing Palestinians from the areas that it is absorbing. That should avoid the dreaded “demographic problem.”
The areas being taken over include a vastly expanded Greater Jerusalem, the area within the illegal separation wall, corridors cutting through the regions to the east and probably the Jordan Valley.
Gaza will likely remain under its usual harsh siege, separated from the West Bank. And the Syrian Golan Heights—like Jerusalem, annexed in violation of Security Council orders—will quietly become part of Greater Israel. In the meantime, West Bank Palestinians will be contained in unviable cantons, with special accommodation for elites in standard neocolonial style.
For a century, the Zionist colonization of Palestine has proceeded primarily on the pragmatic principle of the quiet establishment of facts on the ground, which the world was to ultimately come to accept. It has been a highly successful policy. There is every reason to expect it to persist as long as the United States provides the necessary military, economic, diplomatic and ideological support.
For those concerned with the rights of the brutalized Palestinians, there can be no higher priority than working to change U.S. policies, not an idle dream by any means.
Noam Chomsky: Only One Thing Will Make Israel Change Course
by Noam Chomsky, inthesetimes.com