PhD Proposal: Accounting for Differences in Outcome of the Arab Spring


 

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Research Questions, Hypotheses & Variables:

Why did the Arab Spring affect states differently? What accounts for these differences in outcome? This article seeks to address that very question.

In this research, I extend “Wimmer et al’s” model of ethnic conflict & exclusion to include ethno-religious groups in the Middle East. Ample literature has been written on the consequences of minority rule, especially in the Middle East, but there is little research on ethno-religious exclusion as the source of national instability. The typical variables considered are foreign intervention, religiosity or authoritarianism. My argument is that some states are more or less politically developed than others, and as such, exhibit a more sophisticated system that at the very least represents the majority ethnic fabric of the nation-state. Exclusive states tend to be less developed politically, and as such disenfranchise ethnic majorities leading to more instability.

Continue reading “PhD Proposal: Accounting for Differences in Outcome of the Arab Spring”

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Who Really is ‘Presidential’? Thoughts Ahead of Tonight’s Debate – #Election2016


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Bernie Sanders was not presidential [sadly to say – despite many of his ideals being great – if not the best compared to his counterparts].

That is something the American people are struggling to grasp – especially the youth.

What is – ‘presidential’?

Donald Trump – is not presidential. But for reasons different than Bernie. Bernie is, well, simply put, without any character, really. Despite all the slogans and witty catch phrases, Bernie is just another product of social trends. He isn’t Justin Trudeau. He isn’t Obama. He just doesn’t have any flair. Americans like intellect – but they equally value humor; athleticism; suaveness – or “swagger” in today’s terminology. None of these are characteristic of Sanders.

The same could be said of Donald Trump but for different reasons. He is too uneducated, vulgar, impolite, erratic & irresponsible for such leadership – if not to hold any post. He can barely manage his own funds – or his father’s, rather.

That isn’t to say that Hillary Clinton is ‘presidential’.

Back in ’08, I hadn’t heard of a guy named Barack Obama, but as the campaign progressed, I realized – I had just witnessed the rise of an extraordinary individual. This man is beyond brilliant – something that few people truly appreciate. I can say that the world appreciates Obama more than America – which is quite telling. That isn’t necessarily true – a lot of Americans love our current president. But the ‘other side’ is equally if not more bent on voicing their hatred – to put it ‘mildly’.

Ahead of tonight’s momentous occasion, the first live debate between Clinton & Trump – I share the following sentiment. People often expect too much. This is a sign of…a lack of experience maybe. But other forces play a role too. The world is suffering and yet, the average American struggles to understand the nooks and crannies of his or her own political system and culture.

As an Armenian-Syrian immigrant living in America – I must say that my perspective should be heeded. There are many causes which are directly connected to me that have yet to be addressed or have been horribly managed, by the US wholly but also precisely by US president Barack Obama, whom I continue to support. Why? Because I am not a perfectionist in the political sense – and expect some compromise – not always – but in times of necessity and urgency. There is much change, and much work to be done in the stride towards justice – but it is just that – a stride – a path. We cannot be held back by radical expectations which in themselves seek to paralyze our sense of progress. That being said it is clear to me there is only one candidate worthy of a vote in this election and that reasoning is from contrived a moral and practical logic – that candidate is Hillary Clinton.

So while she isn’t necessarily the perfect candidate – relative to America’s choices – she is definitely presidential.

The US president is a person of immense wisdom and discipline; responsibility and sacrifice; public service and family value. Which of the two candidates possesses these qualities? And if you have to think twice – think again.

What gets me is that Americans want to change parts of their system that are less relevant to domestic and global wellbeing while ignoring the more pressing issues. And then when a tragedy or crisis occurs, Americans are left wondering how or why. Instead of a Wall Street revolution there should be a minority rights and immigration reform revolution. Instead of a focus on spreading democracy abroad we should be seeking to reduce our arbitrary and partial political influence overseas. Issues like these are costing us – but instead Americans wish to focus on ideological ambiguities and polarized politics.

That is why the candidates have dwindled down to the current options available – one representing the so-called establishment while the other represents the ugliest part of the establishment disguised as anti-establishment.

It is undoubtable that America and the world must implement comprehensive political reform – but this is likely an impossible feat under the auspices of a hypothetical President Trump. On the contrary, Hillary, like Obama (but perhaps to a lesser degree since she is more hawkish) – will pave the road for future generations to at least further the cause of progressivism in its purest form.

Perhaps future generations will reflect a more balanced perspective on US politics – representing minorities; women; LGBTQ; etc. But this cannot be associated with any particular ideological strand or populist trend as it has been in this election. American individualism and personal responsibility, contrary to the ‘8th grader youtube conspiracy video viewer mentality’ – is not preserved or protected by the far left or right – but rather, by a careful, tolerant moderate centrist. So when I say that Hillary Clinton is in fact presidential – that is precisely why. She isn’t just the echo of our grievances – but also of our reason.

This Glass Design


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Poetry is dead in a world with no head,

A world with one body that plucks at its bread,

A hunger or thirst, no intellect to quench,

Terrorizing the world while we sit from the bench,

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel,

Or are we foolishly tracing the fence,

All along a prairie of ignorance,

With all the more to keep our thoughts dense.

Hence, they have arrived,

At last to convey,

What message do you have to deliver today?

I peer out my window only to find,

A mob of white horses holding up signs,

In a world of apocalyptic political conjecture,

The distinction between propaganda and lectures,

Becomes that much harder to unwind,

But really who is at at fault for this crime,

This hidden agenda of fascist swine,

As though unhidden, the past its prime,

A catalyst to destruction, at last, divine,

And so we are left, where Nietzche wept,

Only looking half as fine, as we remain desperately,

Knocking on wood for good fortune in this glass design.

The Rebalancing of Powers: From ‘Brexit’ to Babel?


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There is a disconnect between national policy and international relations.

The decision to leave the EU by the UK, or “Brexit”, is a symbol of that disconnect.

But in order to understand the origins of this decision, it is important to highlight the UK’s tradition of reluctance and hesitation towards the EU since its inception.

By nature, the UK, like America, prefers to play a conservative role in international affairs, dabbling in just enough to get the benefit, but not enough to bear the burden.

But the armed crises in the Middle East have created a storm in UK & EU politics, with the migration crisis being the crux of the problem.

Evidently, the UK prefers to leave such matters in the hands of its European counterparts, which is ironic because the UK is America’s closest ally in Europe – both countries are directly responsible for destabilizing the Middle East in the first place, under the premise of liberalization. This is where the disconnect begins.

At least half of the UK truly feels undermined by the concentration of power, underrepresented and almost collectivized by being part of the EU.

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But is the decision to leave the EU a right-wing populist scheme exploiting frustrations of the ordinary Brit? In South America, both right and left wing populism have failed to their more centered opponents. The US is still determining its fate.

Has this decision created a more or less secure world? Is this decision likely to produce positive or negative results in the UK’s social, economic and political fabric? How will this impact the rest of Europe? What will happen to the migrants?

It is in fact the people who have decided, through referendum, to leave the EU. Despite a targeted and well-developed “leave” campaign, the decision is also inspired by  general discontent towards the EU in Britain. But the facts and rhetoric surrounding the campaign reveals “Brexit” is more about xenophobia & Islamophobia than it is about sovereignty.

The majority of those who voted to leave the EU were above the age of 40. The vast majority of those who voted against were in their 20s ad 30s.

Given that London just elected its first Muslim mayor, there is reason to believe that unfounded, prejudiced paranoias about migrants and Muslims have stoked fears and insecurities in society, just enough to feed into the allure of right-wing populism and fear.

UK MP Nigel Farage proclaimed victory, ushering the 23rd as the UK’s modern independence day. He went on to claim that such a victory was achieved without any blood spilled. But only last week, British MP Jo Cox was violently murdered by a right-wing extremist who shouted “Britain First” as he committed the murder. Has this been understated by the media? Compared to reporting on terrorism linked to one or more Muslims, it is difficult to say that the media is not biased.

Notable international relations theorist John Mearsheimer predicted the disintegration of the EU as a result of the current international political dynamic which has seen America as the world’s sole superpower since the dissolution of the USSR. That dissolution has almost removed the security incentive for unity, or balancing that brought the EU together in the first place. There appears to be a growing rift among NATO members, particularly between European states and the US on how to manage international affairs. The differences stem from foreign policy on the Middle East primarily. Is the UK’s decision to leave the EU an inching towards or away from subservience to US leadership? That depends on the direction US democracy goes. If the American people also give in to fear, Donald Trump might be the next US president. This suggests that the two of the world’s most influential powers, the UK and America, are juggling between the past and the future – traditions of colonialism, racism & global mischief – and the equally traditional struggle against those forces, political enfranchisement, and socio-economic equality.

Europe is drifting towards a center-left progressive “utopia” – something despised by the British traditional-mentality. The same could be said of the US. This is vindicated by the statistics surrounding the ‘Brexit’ vote which saw the majority of the “leave” supporters being over the age of 40.

Without delving deeply into history books, the average person might not know that much of the US’ post-WWI behavior was determined by the British, by prompting fear and insecurity about illusory global threats. In 1952, it was the British who convinced the US that movements for sovereignty in the Middle East were a threat. Initially the US had actually empathized with the struggles for independence in the Middle East. The UK convinced the US to overthrow a democratically elected leader in Iran, and the US agreed because of the paranoias injected by the UK about the so-called “communist menace”.

To some it may be surprising that racism, Islamophobia and fascism are creeping into US and UK politics. To others, perhaps more victimized by these forces, it is more dangerous than surprising. If the US decides to follow suit and elects Donald Trump, there is reason to believe that global tensions might intensify. Remember that European history is bloody. Wars between France, England, Germany were commonplace. The UK’s exit from the EU might disturb this legacy of peace and harmony in Europe which has endured since WWII. Furthermore, it might reintroduce fascism into the West – long thought gone and dead.

It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen if the US did in fact follow suit. Two blocs would eventually form in the global order – a rebalancing of powers if you will. The UK and the US would be together on one side; Russia, China & Iran on the other. India would likely play an indirect role, but ultimately throwing most of its support behind the latter bloc. The contrary would apply to the Gulf states in the Middle East, Israel and Pakistan, who would likely remain under the auspices of the UK & the US. Altogether this can be described as the modern world order. In this scenario, the EU disintegrates completely. The fault line will likely split between France & Germany – to no surprise, with much of eastern Europe balancing against the UK & the US. The war between fascism and collectivism ensues. The ideologies of capitalism and culture are at war – they are mutually exclusive. In reality, capitalism fully realized is fascist, and collectivism fully realized is communist – both authoritarian to some extent. But the latter is conditional and retaliatory. In a perfect world, neither would exist, and universal democracy could flourish without capitalism and communism. Till then, we must pick sides and lesser evils or resort to anarchism.

There is still hope for the world and America. Clinton is not our salvation – but in politics there are no angels; only lesser devils – or so it seems.

The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Middle East


 

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There are numbers floating around regarding the relatively low amount of terrorist incidents committed by Islamic radicals.

Still, two points can be brought up.

Instability is uniquely inherent to the Middle East; and anti-Americanism is common in the Islamic World.

Perhaps these two characteristics of the Islamic World coupled with the increase in radicalized Islamic terrorist incidents (after 2003) could be explained as the products of humiliation .

Fanaticism is denounced by most Muslims.

But even ordinary Muslims, like for example in Iran, feel a sense of betrayal from the US with regards to sovereignty that is seen as the cause of extremism in the first place.

Since Islamic terrorism didn’t surge until after the War in Iraq, their claims seem to exhibit some validity .

The implication here is that, more respect for sovereignty might reduce the impetus for radicalization, and thus terror.

Is Islam Experiencing Its Enlightenment?


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A common theme in criticism of the Assad regime among Syrians themselves is that the government has given minorities like Alawites (Shiite offshoot), Christians and Armenians privileged statuses that surpasses those of the average Sunni Muslim, by a far margin and for long periods of time.

The majority of Syria is Sunni Muslim, and lives in either wretched poverty or stagnant economic conditions that result from rentier-policies of the government.

The argument that Syrian Sunnis participate actively in government is true. But there is a huge discrepancy in income and social status between Syrian Sunnis and Syrian Sunnis in government who adhere to the Baathist and Assadist “cult of personality”.

I would liken Shiism to Catholicism, and Sunni Islam to Protestantism, in historical relevance, as suggested by Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan. Shiism is more prone to mysticism, intermediation between man and God, sainthood, and collectivism. Similarly is catholicism, particularly in France and Latin America. Sunni Islam stresses private property and individualism in politics, which is reminiscent of the Protestant “work ethic” offered by Max Weber. Furthermore, strict Sunni doctrine forbids intermediaries like saints between man and God. Both cultures are equally conservative, but in some cases, such as in Lebanon, Sunni Muslims exhibit the most liberal cultural values, both economically and socially. Perhaps this suggests that why Sunni Islamic orthodoxy is most prevalent in the Gulf Region, which holds a much more sentimental value for Islam than the Levant.

The deprivations in Syria of Sunni Muslims, in their ability to participate in politics and elevate their statuses socially and economically, reflects a similar struggle endured by minorities like Alawites themselves during previous administrations, particularly during the Ottoman period. The solution to the woes of Alawites was Socialism – because it prevented, like Ottoman times, the participation of the average Syrian Sunni. The political disenfranchisement of the majority of Syrian Sunnis over time from political representation resulted in the build up of anger, which manifested in religious radicalization. Would radicalism cease with the end of political disenfranchisement of Sunni Muslims in the Syria political process?

Is the great break which developed between Catholicism and Protestantism comparable to Shiism and Sunni tensions? The dimensions are both political and theological, as mentioned by Liz Hazleton. The theological are more obvious, with conflicts stemming from the succession crisis. But was authoritarianism and the disenfranchisement of those dissenting against the Church the motive? Perhaps not. In this case, the war in Syria is seemingly more about the problem of authoritarianism. In this regard, the Syrian civil war could be compared to the English Civil War challenging the authoritarian rule of Charles I. While Syria is not a kingdom, very few countries in the Middle East are not authoritarian. Syria is included. Could the Arab World be struggling for the same concept of “popular sovereignty” demanded by the English, and then later by the French and the Americans? Is the Islamic World experiencing its political enlightenment?

A liberalized Middle East, at least with respect to political enfranchisement and economic mobilization, might reduce terrorism. While conservatism takes hold in the Middle East, so too has conservatism challenged liberal values in the West even today. This gives hope for the future. This is not to suggest that authoritarianism is the only cause of instability, but based on this perspective, it can be convincing.

JIHAD: A Double-Edged Sword?


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Introduction

What causes Islamist terrorism?

Is it fabricated? Right-wing terrorism is more prevalent in the US than jihadism. In the ME, Islamic jihadism is the main motive. But is it fueled by money, or genuine grievance?

Large civilian populations in the Middle East and Central Asia flirt with the conspiracy theories that suggest US financing for Islamic militants to destabilize the region; and furthermore, Israeli Mossad complicity. They can’t be blamed – much of the conspiracies proved historically true, such as the 1952 coup against democratically elected PM Mossadegh of Iran (Kinzer 52).

Is there a difference between violent Jihad and military resistance? Can we really lump al Qaeda, ISIS and Hezbollah into the same category? Are their motives the same?

Or is genuinely result of occupation?

There are arbitrary cases (lone-wolves), but without US presence, and the lost of Palestinian territory, would Islamic terrorism exist? Those who think it is religiously or ideologically motivated, might argue yes. I don’t think so, given that terrorism increased sharply, and unprecedentedly during US invasions in 2003 and so forth (Moghadam 40).

Below is a further analysis of Islamic jihad and political violence in the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Research & Review 

Islamic terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon. It was not until the early start of the millennium in which large swaths of Islamic terrorist attacks occurred (Moghadam 70). Furthermore, religion has often been a force against violence within the most fundamentalist strains of Islam: Salafism. For this reason, it a seeming relationship between the events surrounding the early second millennium, that is, the 9/11 attacks and ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the surge of violent jihad (Moghadam 71).

One of the first themes offered in the literature is the important divide between Islamic jihadi groups, primarily in the Salafi mold. The literature presents a Salafi explanation for indiscriminate attacks that result in civilian deaths. Faulting the enemy for “mixing among them”, which is taken from hadiths. This echoes the justification of modern warfare, particularly the state of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, which is argued to have been executed in disproportionate force. Israeli leaders claim civilian casualties are the fault of violent terrorists who also, “mix among them” – them being civilian Palestinians. This raises further doubt regarding the legitimacy and reasoning of hadiths, particularly in their application to contemporary times. That these authorities are not drawn of the Qur’an, raises skepticism about the legitimacy of rejecting flexibility within interpretations of Islam. It underscores the need for openness for the sake of preserving Islam in the modern world. Furthermore, the literature offers numerous examples of forgeries and discrepancies in the hadith collections (Wiktorowicz 218). Not to mention, it would almost seem contradictory that members of the Muslim community would openly identify with practices of the state of Israel, which often uses the same justification against Palestinians, most of whom, are Muslim.

Furthermore, the literature suggests that Salafi movement advocates for offensive, militaristic means of spreading Islam, based on the Salafi interpretation of hadiths, the Sunnah, and the Qur’an, but contradictory accounts from these sources offer a challenge to this perspective by portraying Islam as practiced by the Prophet himself as peaceful, rhetorical, and defensive (Wiktorowicz 216)..

With regards to the differences between Salafis, the literature does well to cover the spectrum of opinions and interpretations. It carefully dissects the differences as well as the similarities within the Salafi camp. An example is the hadith commonly invoked to justify indiscriminate offensives. The literature furthermore emphasizes two “dangerous” characteristics of Salafism that are made evident, which is firstly, its inherent self-righteous “certitude”, or dogma rather; and secondly, its lack of legitimacy and cohesion within its sources of authority, particularly in the validity of hadiths (often forged), accounts of the Prophet, and interpretations of the Qur’an. The emphasis on objectivity within Salafism underlines the almost intrinsic tensions within Islam, and perhaps all religions, between preservation (tradition), tolerance (moderation) and modernization (development). 

Some of the research methods within the literature are historical case studies of Salafism, with sources being more anecdotal. An empirical study, perhaps through survey data, could help gauge modern Salafi movements and trends, one that is comprehensive and does not focus solely on suicide attacks. This could provide a more insightful analysis of place of Salafism today, and whether or not the movement has grown more or less unified. Furthermore, surveys from non-Salafi movements could help gauge opinions within the larger ummah towards Salafism, and whether its legitimacy has gained or suffered. Also, gathering information from databases like the Global Terrorism Index or the Political Stability Index, provided by the Institute for Economics and Peace, might help gauge the trend of violence in Salafism, and whether or not the purists are gaining or losing ground in the resistance towards violence.

The differences between Salafis is mainly its application to the temporal world, and not in religious beliefs. The lack of empirics to support this claim make it difficult to assess. It is however difficult to collect these forms of data from regions where Salafism is prevalent, for reasons of security and instability. But the Salafis are split on their interpretation of apostasy, which highlights the religious division. Differences within the Islamic community in interpretation of scripture and tradition run deep. That religious purism is often a mechanism for suppressing violent incursions, is perhaps another reason for growing tensions between the Islamic community, and the political leaders therein. The inconsistencies in practice, as well as the contradictory understandings of Islamic duty, whether the source if Qur’anic or from hadiths, is perhaps evidence of emerging contentions in interpreting Islam, not only in its applicability, but in its definition of submission.

If indeed the primary differences among Salafis is in the application of their creed to modern times, then perhaps it is wiser for US foreign policy to focus less on the religious creeds since they often challenge violent jihad, and more on applicability, thereby reducing the security threats. Since much of the literature was conducted before the rise of the Islamic State, it would appear that the claim of distinctions between violent and non-violent Salafis has less legitimacy, considering the large influx of Salafi fighters in both Iraq and Syria since 2011.

Salafism is the primary ideological motive for Islamic terrorism. The fact that suicide attacks have been at a low constant until the early 2000s, where they rose beyond dramatically even to unprecedented levels, suggests a connection between growing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, and terrorism (Moghadam 48).

The motivations of Islamic jidahist movements are complex. That jihadists prefer foreign fighting, and are seemingly more effective as a result, underscores this notion. Who are the jihadists targeting and why?

The data gathered to measure the differences in brutality and effectiveness between domestic terrorists and foreign fighters is rather vague, and the method is questionable, which reflects the difficulty in retrieving data on this particular issue (Hegghammer 13). A variety of variables can influence a terrorist’s propensity towards domestic or international terrorism. The motives can range from fearing less reprisals abroad due to less political development; but it can also be because the targets of foreign fighters are often authoritarian governments, which exist outside the West.

Conclusion

The literature on terrorism is vast by no means. Increased terrorism over the past two decades however has raised interest in the field. While research has been offered, increased interest suggests a glimmer of hope in the thickening of the literature, and the improvement of research methods, however deteriorating circumstances in areas where terrorists are most active have only narrowed these hopes. The primary goal of most research in this field is to analyze the motives of Islamic jihadism, how they are expressed, and their consequence. While the literature often suggests little theological divergence, increased violence and radicalization signifies the potential rise more contention in the Islamic community over both the applicability of Islam but also of its core tenants and traditions, often invoked as justifications for violence or decadence.

Because the Middle East and other regions of the world where Islam is prominent are insecure, it limits the scope of research in this area. Furthermore, the cultural and historical intricacies of these regions highlight the need for more qualitative research that more recognizes the complexity of Islamic civilization. Survey research would help gauge public opinion on a more intimate level. From a quantitative angle, perhaps a study measuring the differences in motives for violent jihadism, or rather, a study of the frequency of violent jihadism across different states with different customs, might help paint a more vivid picture of the Islamic jihadism as it exists today, and its unprecedented rise.

That violent jihadism has increased dramatically following the post 9/11 US interventions in the Middle East is reminiscent of the guerilla tactics employed by communist forces resisting US interventionism in the Cold War, particular during the Vietnam War (Atran et. al). To restate a common theme in the literature, realizing the relentlessness of the jihadist cause might shift US focus from containing Islamism to reducing interventionism. But how could US interventionism be measured in relation to the rise of violent jihadism? Perhaps a measure between the level of foreign direct investment by the US in various predominantly Islamic countries and the frequency of terrorist attacks might be one method of gauging the relationship. Various perspectives have been offered on the causes of violent jihadism in the world. Some emphasize the violent nature of Islamic scripture, which is contested by the literature on purist Salafis as well as the relatively stable societies of Indonesia and Malaysia. Others point to the prevalence of natural resource wealth, or the oil curse as it is called. And finally, certain research has focused on the relationship between authoritarianism and violence. But there are many cases where non-oil rich states exhibit high rates of violent jihad, such as Uzbekistan (Kleveman). Furthermore, countries with lower rates of authoritarianism like Tunisia and Lebanon exhibit the highest rates of terrorism in the entire Middle East. Little research has been done on the relationship between foreign interventionism and violent jihad. Judging by the data offered in the literature, such research might prove critical in assessing the place of Islamist jihad in today’s world.

References

Assaf Moghadam, “Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks,” International Security 33 (2009): 46-78.

Scott Atran, Hammad Sheikh, and Angel Gomez, “Devoted actors sacrifice for close comrades and sacred cause,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (2014): 17702- 17703.

Kinzer S. “All the Shah’s men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror”. John Wiley & Sons; 2003.

Kleveman, Lutz. “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia”. Grove Press (2004).

Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107 (2013): 1-15.

Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29 (2006): 207-239.