Talisman Gate

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Istanbul and Iraq

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 30, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 914 words

HEADLINE: Istanbul and Iraq

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Two diametrically opposed international conferences chose Istanbul as a venue last weekend. One dealt with democracy in the Middle East, and another wanted to put President Bush on trial for "crimes" committed in Iraq.

The democracy conference was organized by the ARI movement, a thoughtful and angst-ridden bunch of Turkish youths. It brought together American, Turkish, and European officials, journalists and academics, as well as political activists from all over the Middle East. The venue was one of Istanbul's plentiful five star hotels, and the conversation was elevated and pensive, but the most interesting stuff was being uttered by the ARI movement themselves, people who are worried about the state of affairs in Turkey and all around, and cannot afford the luxury of just wallowing in despair or rejectionism, but are rather trying to make sense out of all the contradictory messages from the participants and putting forward a coherent strategy for the Middle East. The ARI movement understands what is at stake for its country: What happens around them will touch upon their lives, and the consequences of a botched or halfhearted approach will wreak havoc in Turkey.

Across town, other Turkish youths, this time adorned with fuzzy beards and exposed navels, were wearing colorful T-shirts emblazoned with "Get Bush" in Turkish. This is the new Turkish left, which together with the grizzled remnants of the European and Middle Eastern left, huddled together in the labyrinthine and crumbling red brick walls of what used to be the Ottoman Imperial Mint. The walls were festooned with posters of Mr. Bush snacking on Iraqi babies: This basically summed up the rhetoric of the World Tribunal on Iraq, holding its final session in Istanbul, and where there was no mention of the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people, a regime that actually killed Iraqi babies with poison gas.

Both conferences were about America's experiment in Iraq, and both chose to see it very differently; one as a process of democratization and the other as imperial hegemony.

A leading Turkish columnist called Cengiz Candar was one of the moderators at the ARI conference. He surprised me by speaking fluent Arabic, which he apparently picked up while fighting alongside Palestinian leftist radicals against Israel from the southern slopes of Lebanon in the 1970s. Today, his commentary has labeled him an American loving "neoconservative." Ironically, another Turkish journalist whispered in my ear that Mr. Candar was a doenme, a descendant of Turkish Jews. Here is a man who 30 years ago would be the ideal panelist for the "Get Bush" conference, yet he is making the case for engaging Mr. Bush's vision of a democratic Middle East because what is going on in Iraq touches directly on how Turkey's defines itself, and where its own national dialogue of either being Turkish or being from Turkey is heading.

However, Mr. Candar is in the minority, for don't you dare mention among a larger audience that Iraq may end up being a model for Turkey. "Iraq?! It isn't even functioning as a state! It is a mess! And how can we, the great Turks, draw lessons from what used to be a backward province of our once-great empire?" was the gist of the common objections.

Before Turkey can orient itself towards Europe, it needs to figure out a lot of its intrinsically Middle Eastern contradictions. The liberation of Iraq and the democratic experiment there is the single most significant historical event since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq is not just car bombs and mayhem, and Iraq is trying to re-invent itself, and also trying to find a coherent identity out of its tumultuous past and present and what it seeks to become in the future.

The contradictions of Turkey are mirrored in Iraq, and all these contradictions have a seat on the negotiating table: Kurdish nationalism versus staying within a united state, the societal and political role of Islam versus the functioning of a modern, secular state, sectarian disputes that have been unresolved for thousands of years versus the cultural and individual rights of every citizen, the monopoly of the corrupt few versus a transparent and equitable sharing of resources, and much, much more.

And all this needs to happen now with the drawing up of the constitution: The grand bargain between Iraq's past, present, and future is being struck, and the model could turn out to be the salvation for a country like Turkey, or the exact disastrous opposite.

Nowadays, Mr. Bush is making the case to the American people as to why their nation went to war in Iraq. Little did anyone realize when all this talk revolved around WMDs and a foggy concept of broader Middle Eastern reform that what was started in Iraq was a monumental undertaking to resolve the messy events that concluded World War I in the region. All the problems, including why the terrorists struck America on September 11, come back to this starting point, and the Middle East has been stuck in this quagmire for 80 years.

Even a country like Turkey, stable on the surface and tectonically grinding into itself on the inside, has yet to emerge from this mess. Iraq is the grand experiment where a grand bargain may be in the offing to finally bring about a peace that lasts, and America, whether derided by hippie lefties and fundamentalists or uneasily embraced by forward-looking elites, has the heft and staying power to make sure that the experiment succeeds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Democracy for Lebanon

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 22, 2005 Wednesday


LENGTH: 1789 words

HEADLINE: Democracy for Lebanon

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


'Lebanon has plenty of freedom, but very little democracy," the adage goes, suggesting that no one should mistake the holding of parliamentary elections in that country as a democratic exercise. But still, there are hopes for better, democratic days to come.

And here's why: Two seismic developments occurred in the last two staggered phases of the Lebanese elections during late May and early this month that will eventually set that battered country up for a real functioning democracy. The first occurred when a maverick ex-general by the name of Michel Aoun unexpectedly took over the leadership of the Maronite Christian minority by trouncing his political contenders in the Maronite bible bubble of Kisrawan, and putting up a good fight elsewhere in mixed Christian-Muslim constituencies. The other happened when the traditional and powerful feudalists lost in the north of the country. Both are indicators that the Lebanese people are ready to change the old established political routine.

In Lebanon, the individual is beholden to the luggage of sectarian identity and history. Individual ambitions have no room for expression beyond the stringent and narrow categories of what god one prays to, and who's your grandfather. Even the grand equalizer of striking it big in the realm of finance translates into communal leadership rather than national leadership. This system was set in place by traditional power elites that milked the country - and its entrepreneurial spirit - for all it had. However, as long as you don't question the setup, you are free to do as you please.

The French colonial administration that drew up Lebanon as an enlargement of the Maronite enclave, and gave the Maronites the reins of power, created a very curious mistake. Those borders also included Sunnis, Shias, Greek and Catholic Orthodox Christians, Druze, and a smattering of other minorities. Lebanon became the incubator of a Middle Eastern contradiction: how to reconcile several thousand years of history and a multitude of identities that constitute the larger picture of the Middle East with modern, homogenizing ideologies. Not one single Middle Eastern country (all drawn up in one way or another by 20th-century colonial powers) can claim to have a homogenous ethnic or religious make-up. In such a country, and in such a region, can all the intricacies of history be dismissed in the face of a dominant, uniform Arab Islamic identity?

Lebanon paid a price tag of 150,000 dead in its 15-year civil war to come up with an answer: No. The tension leading up to the civil war, and still pervading the political atmosphere to this day, was how to reconcile on-the-ground diversity in the face of the pan-Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East in the 20th century. In the wake of nationalism's decline, a new all encompassing ideology has emerged in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, increasingly led by Al Qaeda-type Salafi-Wahhabists and a sympathetic and well-funded religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. But would such an ideology succeed where nationalism failed, and where would that leave a country with the heterodox makeup of Lebanon?

Just north of the heart of Beirut, which is traditionally the bastion of affluent Sunnis and Greek Orthodox, is the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud that is populated by the descendants of victims of Turkey's first round of experimenting with nationalism in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Their forefathers and mothers had escaped the wrath engendered in response to Armenian nationalism that sought to create a homeland in eastern Anatolia during the First World War. They ended in slums then situated on the outskirts of Beirut's coastline. Today, in that neighborhood, there is a very curious sight: the local branch of the Arab Bank has its marquee up in Arabic, English, and Armenian.

A little farther north of Bourj Hammoud, the steep ridges of mountain ranges interrupt the coastline and abruptly descend into the sea at the Dog River. Over the millennia, many visitors to Lebanon have remarked on this geographical statement, and conquering armies, from the Babylonians through the Crusaders and down to the French, have left markers to show that they had passed through this point. Beyond it lies Kisrawan, where the visitor is immediately welcomed by a giant, arms-outstretched statue of Jesus Christ.

Southward along Beirut's coast, one runs into the Shia shantytowns teeming with those that escaped the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians three decades ago in their southernmost heartland of Jebel Amil, where Shi'ism had been holding on against many oppressive odds since the schism that divided the early Muslims into Sunni and Shia some 1,400 years ago. Keep going along the coast, and then take a sharp turn left up the Shouf Mountains, where the Druze, a secretive sect of Muslims that went beyond the accepted bounds of orthodoxy a thousand years ago, hide out among enchanted forests of pine and a few surviving cedars, the latter needing a couple of thousand years to reach maturity.

There has to be a different kind of ideology that makes sense of a country like Lebanon, and provides a workable model for the rest of the Middle East, and that can only be democracy. One indigenous Lebanese model, called the National Covenant of 1943, was a verbal agreement among the traditional leaders of the various communities to share power: the presidency for the Maronites, the premiership of the cabinet to the Sunnis, and the speaker's post of the parliament to the Shias. And what goes for the top posts devolves down the chain of bureaucratic hierarchy; even the 30 jobs at the fire department of Beirut International Airport are divided up along similar sectarian patterns. Should one need a job in government, and even if a remote village needed asphalt for a road leading to it, then the only place to go is to the respective leader of one's community, which suited the traditionalists just fine and cemented the power that they sought to inherit to their sons.

But this model is a farce and is continually challenged and reformulated when the demographic trends of the various populations change. There are fewer Maronites as a proportion of the population than there were 60 years ago, and more Shias. The Lebanese need to come up with something different or they will always be beholden to the legacy of strife and civil war, something that turns incredibly messy and bloody within its natural and historical patchwork of communities.

The journey toward democracy involves moving away from disparate sectarian identities into a unifying Lebanese one. The language for that is oddly encapsulated in the Ta'if Accords of 1989 that brought an end to the civil war. It calls for the annulment of sectarian politics and power-sharing and provides the first step: a new electoral law that allows the Lebanese to vote on nonsectarian lines for the parliament. The signatories of the Ta'if Accords were the ossified icons of the old way of doing business, the traditional leaders, and they conveniently kept this clause on ice. Now is the time to bring it forth and use it to cajole the Lebanese into taking their first steps toward both freedom and democracy.

President Bush could help by appointing a special presidential envoy for democracy in Lebanon. He should pick someone of Lebanese descent (there are an estimated 1.5 million Americans who fill this category) and untainted by the past "status quo" policy of dealing with the Middle East. General John Abizaid of Centcom would be the ideal candidate, or otherwise the yardstick. The task of this envoy would be to sit down with the new parliament and get them to pass laws that facilitate the emergence of a new Lebanese identity. For example, there are about 150,000 households in Lebanon of mixed marriages between sects. In order to get a marriage license, a mixed-marriage couple needs to go to Cyprus or Europe. They are prevented from doing so in their own country. Legalizing same-citizenship marriages should not be such a hurdle and would find a supportive constituency.

A new electoral law needs to be cobbled together that takes into mind the sensitivities of the traditionalists but charts the path forward. The Ta'if Accords suggest the formation of a House of Lords where all the sectarian chieftains can hold court and put on airs but not disrupt or corrupt the functions of government. New electoral districting can be drawn to map out enclaves of sectarian uniformity, thereby ensuring that those who get elected actually represent their sectarian communities, which is not the case under the current law. In order to get the ultra-insecure Maronites on board, the Lebanese Diaspora still holding on to Lebanese citizenship - overwhelmingly Christian - should be allowed to vote, and that costly logistical process could be underwritten by American financial aid. The Shias who are increasingly transforming themselves from a dispossessed and marginal sect into the comforts of the bourgeoisie, and who are closely watching the Shia-American alliance in Iraq, must be encouraged to give up their support for Hezbollah by allaying their fears of armed Palestinians, usually seen as the shock troops of the Sunnis. Saad Hariri, now leading the Sunnis, should be tasked with getting the U.N.-mandated disarmament of the Palestinian militias done as a prelude to disarming the Lebanese Hezbollah.

General Aoun has illusions and aspirations of being a national leader and can deliver the Maronites at this stage. In an effort to dismantle the sectarian edifice of government, he can be allied to the smattering of democrats who defeated the traditionalists in the north. This is a golden opportunity coming out of a creaking and unsustainable structure, and the beginning of a grassroots challenge to the arcane traditional idea of a "free yet undemocratic" Lebanon.

There is a lot more to be done, but only America can re-enter the Lebanese scene to push democracy forward. If democracy succeeds in Lebanon, then the rest of the Middle East has an answer as to what form of government and spirit of governance would suit their multidimensional and confusing region. Otherwise, Islamic fundamentalism becomes the only contender for a future vision. America would have to attempt to intervene on behalf of all the Lebanese, rather than following the model of the French, Saudi, Syrian, and Iranian interventions and getting involved on behalf of one Lebanese client community. If America can help make a success story of a thriving democracy out of a contradictory and wounded country, then the rest of the people of the Middle East will take notice as they grapple with similar questions.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dances with Terrorists

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC

All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 16, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1712 words

HEADLINE: Dances With Terrorists

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


America's security policy in Iraq is about to ignite a civil war inadvertently.

Civil war is table talk amongst Iraq's Shias. From taxi drivers to academics, the constant refrain is that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for turning the other cheek has left them with no cheeks left to turn. The Sunniled and operated insurgency is targeting the Shias with increasing menace, and they are eager to fight back.

They are saying, "We've had it, let it all blow up and let the dust settle over the guy left standing." Inter-sectarian jokes, once the hallmark of Baghdad's diverse and intermarried society, are no longer funny.

For the past several months, dozens of bloodied, bound, and gagged bodies have been showing up around eastern Baghdad. Sunni groups, such as the terrorist-affiliated Association of Muslim Clerics, have been pointing fingers at militias under the command of political parties strongly represented in the current elected government, and are bemoaning a systematic campaign to hit back at Salafi-Wahhabi clerics and their networks. Most of the blame is directed against the Badr Organization that is an offshoot of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The identity of the true culprits of these revenge killings may even further alarm the Sunnis: They are simply bands of young men led by young Shia clerics who have had enough.

The flash points of this civil strife as prelude to civil war are poor neighborhoods of Baghdad like Sha'ab City, where mixed Shia-Sunni populations live together. The trigger started when Salafi-Wahhabists that find fertile ground among poorer Sunnis began killing Sadrists, which is a loose term encompassing most urban poor Shia youth. Revenge logic descended among men living within 100 meters of each other. And what started as revenge has evolved into pre-emptive action from the Sadrists against the Salafi-Wahhabists, and the cycle of violence is drawing more and more neighborhoods into its orbit. Driving around the dusty and pothole infested alleys of Sha'ab City, home to a million inhabitants, one sees shabbily-clothed and bearded young Sunnis uneasily eyeing shabbily clothed and bearded young Shias across the street. Each side is sizing up the other for an all-out fight. Good-bye to neighborly stop-and-chats, hello to drive-by shootings.

As a matter of fact, when news started surfacing of Sunni-driven ethnic cleansing of Shias a couple of months ago in the mixed town of Mada'in, tens of miles south of Baghdad, Sadrists bands from Baghdad drove down there and began arresting suspects on their own accord. After taping interrogations and confessions, and burning them onto CDs, some of the terrorist Sunni suspects were shot and the rest handed over to the police command of the town of Kut, many more miles to the south of Mada'in. Then, the police there adroitly took credit for the arrests and aired their own interrogations of the suspects on Iraqi national TV. Muqtada al-Sadr, the pivotal head of the Sadrists, would not know what was going on, and neither would his associates. A decentralized network acting in his name is taking the law into its own hands.

Increasingly in Iraq, vigilante action taken by such unaffiliated young civilians is the hallmark of a grassroots response to the insurgent-terrorists.

Why is this happening? Overwhelming numbers of Iraqis, the same folks who turned out to vote, are feeling that they can no longer rely on the government to take care of them, either through providing basic services or security. Believe it or not, the electricity situation is worse this summer than last year. And in case you didn't know, the sun has a habit of spending its summer in Baghdad. Nowadays, the tangled wires leading from local neighborhood and privately managed generators that dangle over government electrical posts and are prone to being torn down by vertically overloaded trucks are being buried underground. Common people are turning what should be an interim solution into a permanent fixture: It is a sign that they expect to live like this for the long run.

Regular people expect to fend for themselves, and the measures they employ to provide electricity for their families in the face of an absent government run parallel to the measures they seek to employ to take back their streets. Hence the near unanimous accolades by middle-class Shias to what their poorer coreligionists are doing in fighting back in places like Sha'ab City. This is quite a dangerous precedent and an omen that matters are about to unravel: Once the genie of civil war is out, Iraq cannot be sustained as a unified country.

To make matters worse, the Americans have indicated that they are willing to bargain with the terrorists. The rationale behind this is to include Sunnis in the political process and to split the insurgency. Fine, it sounds great, but there is a danger of losing the goodwill of the Shias in the process.

The election posters adorning almost every inch of free concrete surface in Baghdad are beginning to fray under the sun's scorching gaze. The people who were heralded around the world for showing the courage to come out and vote on that magical day five months ago are beginning to understand that it was for naught. They elected a government that ran on a specific program and that was tasked with writing a constitution by August of this year. Suddenly, the American government brought matters to a screeching halt and told the elected government that it cannot move forward if it does not take aboard a sizable chunk of Sunni notables who claim to speak for the insurgent terrorists. Guess what? The Iraqi government is in a state of paralysis.

The Sunni bargaining position can be summed up as "bygones are bygones." In their dream deal, there shall be no accounting for the crimes committed by the Ba'ath Party under Saddam Hussein's totalitarian state. One of the biggest recent intelligence failures in Iraq was the differentiation of the Ba'athist renegade insurgency from the Islamic fundamentalist one. There is too much evidence to suggest that the brain trust of the insurgency is Ba'athist, and all violent groups in Iraq, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's outfit, answer to it for direction and funds. At the center of this brain trust is former Ba'athist strongman from Mosul, Muhammed Younis al-Ahmed. To them, there must be life and prosperity for the Ba'athists after Saddam; they seek to be re-integrated into power.

The Sunnis are still being led by the deposed Ba'athists, and they have found that increasing the pitch of the insurgency has driven the Americans to shout uncle. In an odd twist, the Americans - as evidenced by Secretary Rice's visit to Iraq last month - have positioned themselves as interlocutors between the insurgent terrorists and the new elected Shia-Kurdish government. The election platform of the new government - de-Ba'athification, purging of disloyal and compromised elements within the security services, stamping out and prosecuting endemic corruption - have all been painted as anti-Sunni measures that must be stopped. The insurgent terrorists have found that violence pays dividends and that violent acts such as beheading Shia pilgrims en route to shrine cities or blowing up senior citizens in line to collect their pensions, have put them back into the political game.

But in a country as traumatized as Iraq, "bygones are bygones" will simply not fly after three decades of oppression. The Sunnis are so emboldened by American wavering that they upped the ante of the bargaining process by demanding 25 out of 55 full-voting seats on the constitution-writing committee of the National Assembly. Sunni leaders boycotted the elections. Now they want more than 40% of the constitution-writing committee, when they have only 13% to 15% of the population. The new Iraqi government would like to tell them to get lost, as is warranted, but they can't because the Americans want everyone to "just get along." The result is political paralysis, which suits the Ba'athists just fine and demonstrates in real time the rhyming Arabic slogan one sees all over Baghdad: "Lamentation for the Shias, power for the Sunnis."

The Shias are finding that restraint in the face of Sunni provocation has left them with no American allies. They are beginning to learn the same lesson: Violence pays dividends, and they are eager to cash in. Their reserves of hope for the future are severely depleted and are further challenged by American experimental policy-making. If there is to be no government-led and legal framework for holding Ba'athist and terrorist crimes to account, then they will rise to the occasion and settle the score in a turf war for Iraq's future.

A very weird and immoral term has emerged to describe the insurgent terrorists who only target American and coalition forces: the "honorable" insurgency. Even weirder, America's diplomats have embraced this term and are ready to bargain with these "honorable" murderers. The moral high ground of liberation from tyranny has been ceded to those who cloak their response to losing power as fighting against the "occupier." Sunni moderates who are loyal to the new era in Iraq and who early on took a clear stance against terrorism have been completely sidelined, and the Americans have indicated that the only "real" Sunni leaders they are willing to engage with are the ones bargaining on behalf of the murderers. Ms. Rice and her phalanx of diplomats, through a misguided security policy, have earned the moniker of "Dances with Terrorists."

The Americans are showing signs of Iraq fatigue, but the regular folks of that country are also exhausted. Using renegade violence should be a dead end, and the Sunnis need to learn this lesson rather than being given a seat at the table. A lack of accountability for the terrible suffering faced by the Shias in the past and present opens a venue for Shia radicals to use violence too, and they will be cheered for it. Iraq needs to move forward, but it cannot be held back in order to win over some of those who begrudge a non-Sunni dominated democratic future. Civil war is a very likely prospect, and America should build its policy on keeping its friends on its side, rather than on caving in to the enemy.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Saudi Mega-Plot

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 9, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1666 words

HEADLINE: The Saudi Mega-Plot


Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He recently returned from a trip through the Middle East that included time in Lebanon. He can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com.


Is there or isn't there a Saudi megaplot to thwart democracy in the Middle East and spread fundamentalism in its place? Is Lebanon the staging ground for a fundamentalist Sunni restoration in Syria to be orchestrated by the Saudis? And are the Americans about to be duped by the Saudis yet again? I can't figure it out just yet.

The Saudis appear to be sending out three seemingly contradictory messages: one to the Americans, another to their own internal extremists, and a third to the Syrian leadership. The Saudis are telling the Americans that they are going to help bring down the regime in Syria. They are telling the Wahhabis within Saudi Arabia that they are going to bring back a Sunni country into the fold and liberate it from the obscure, pseudo-Shiite Alawite regime currently in power. And they are telling these very same Alawis that this whole Bush vision for democracy threatens them both and that all they are up to is for show and that it should not be taken seriously.

As it happens, all three messages seem to be sincere. The Saudis are indeed going to pull all the strings to bring down the Alawite regime in Syria, and then place a Sunni fundamentalist regime in place that will appease the Wahhabis and scare the hell out of the Americans. Bush may be striving for democratic change in Damascus, but what he will get in return is a bunch of crazies hostile to America, and there won't be an equivalent to Iraq's Sistani to curb them. The Saudis will then turn around and whisper in Bush's ear, "We told you that this whole democracy thing is a bad idea, now imagine who you'd have to deal with if we were pressured to change and our own oil-securing yet brittle regime is threatened?"

Doesn't the scenario described above look very familiar to what happened throughout the 1980s in Afghanistan? Didn't the Saudis strike a deal with the Americans to fund the mujahedeen, defeat the Soviets, and establish the Taliban regime? Wasn't Pakistan the staging ground for that former mega-plot? At the time, the Saudis were threatened by both Soviet-supported Arab socialism and out-of-control Wahhabi fundamentalism, and the solution was simple: Give the Saudi crazies a project in faraway Kabul, become a global strategic ally of America, and humiliate the Russians. It worked, but left a mega-mess called the Taliban as a nasty and exceedingly dangerous by-product.

Poor little Lebanon is the new staging ground for this latest Saudi grand adventure. Beirut has yet to recover from the last regional adventure that played out on its suffocating streets: the effort to violently liberate Palestine and cast the Jews into the sea, which apparently involved igniting a futile Lebanese civil war en route. The pockmarks still dot almost every building in a wide radius around Beirut's downtown, which itself is marked by new flashy construction and many open plots. The ruins of old Beirut were piled up into the sea to enlarge the coastline for an ambitious rebuilding project headed by the pan-Middle Eastern Sunni construction magnate, Rafik Hariri, who became better known as the murdered former prime minister.

Hariri's ressurectionist vision for Beirut was a throwback to the heyday of the city in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Persian Gulf sheikhs would dole out petrodollars on sidewalk cafes and gawk at dolled-up Lebanese hotties. Those times were glamorous and prosperous, and oddly innocent in a materialistic, sexist way. Lebanon was an aberrant colonial creation that perennially carried within it the prospects of sectarian strife, but the thinking back then was who would bother with civil war with all these gorgeous bombshells strutting around? Surely enough, even today, partiers at the bars and clubs of a resurrected Monot Street would not inquire into the sectarian identity of visible female cleavage. But that is only half the story, for 15 years after a 15-year civil war, Beirut is still split in half, and the cleft runs smack down the middle of Hariri's vision.

The idea of a unified Lebanon as a home for coexisting diversity made sense on paper, on colonial maps, and in the constitutional code. But the old way of doing things, the divvying up of power, patronage, and paychecks among the corrupt elite of its 18 sects and communities was enshrined in unwritten pacts. Any external interference, such as the advent of Palestinian armed factions, would tempt one sect or another to renegotiate this pact in its favor. Every army or band of adventurers that has waltzed into this beautiful land, running the gamut from the French to the recent Syrian occupiers, understood and played this macabre and distinctly Lebanese game, and delayed the process of nation building through legal, nonsectarian frameworks. The Saudi plan has its local cheerleaders, the Sunnis, who are poised to welcome this external crutch to beat down fellow Lebanese in an endless recalibration of sectarian dynamics. It also helps to have the heir to Hariri's legacy, his untested and not-so-brainy son Saad, consider himself a Saudi by birth and upbringing.

Truly, it is hard to be hopeful about Lebanon: On Monot Street, there is a nightclub called "1975" whose self-mocking theme is the civil war. The club is decked out with sandbags and barbed wire, and bullet pockmarks adorn the walls. Just outside, the sandstone facades on Monot Street bear actual pockmarks and the frayed posters of Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite warlord assassinated more than 20 years ago. Yet just because it is hard to hope for the better does not make it impossible. The Saudis want to sell the Americans on the idea that change will bring extreme and unruly alternatives; that the autocratic regimes are strategic lids on a simmering anti-American generation of young Arabs beholden to the ranting fundamentalists. But that is not the case: The young partiers at club "1975" are the same ones who filled the empty lots of downtown Beirut in the hundreds of thousands in defiance of the 30-year Syrian occupation set up before they were even born. These youngsters are the potential constituency for a democratic Lebanon. Needless to say, pop culture is as much as a target for the fundamentalists as democracy is.

A few weeks ago in downtown Beirut, and a short distance from Hariri's grave, the espresso-sippers at trendy cafes got the privilege of first-row seating to the spectacle of fellow Lebanese demonstrating for an Islamic state and the imposition of Islamic law. They were Sunnis from the furthermost northern region of Lebanon around Akkar that hugs the Syrian border. Some in the noisy crowd that carried black banners of "God is Great" looked suspiciously like veterans of the Afghan mujahedeen wars. In fact, the slain liberal Lebanese journalist, Samir Kassir, was called out by a colleague during an interview to take a peek at the scenes from Taliban-era Kabul right outside his office window.

The Syrians had kept close tabs on and harassed these Lebanese fundamentalists, but with them out and the Saudis in, the Sunnis of Akkar are out on the streets flexing their stuff. Could Akkar be the next Deoband, the town in Pakistan where Saudi-bankrolled religious seminaries spawned the Taliban? The structure of power in Saudi Arabia is based on an alliance between the royals and the Wahhabis. The royal family needs to legitimize itself in the eyes of its fanatic allies by putting up the cash and its strategic global alliances in the service of Wahhabism as it did in Afghanistan. What better prize than to win back Damascus - the celebrated capital of the first Islamic empire - to the Sunni fold, in compensation for the loss of the second capital, Baghdad, to the Shias?

The Alawite leadership of Syria shares this same handicap of binary power. In the Syrian case, the veneer of ideology as embodied by the Ba'ath Party is part and parcel of the Damascene power structure. The Ba'ath cannot but think that its main current adversary is democracy in neighboring Iraq,and it is doing all it can to hobble it by supporting the renegade Iraqi Ba'athist terrorists. And as the unfolding events of its 10th party conference now under way in Damascus show, the Ba'ath is not about to reform its authoritarian self. But democracy may be the only thing that saves the minority Alawites from the nightmare of a fundamentalist Sunni resurgence in Syria itself, harking back to the times during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood assassinated the creme of Alawite professionals and administrators. Maybe, if Lebanon is turned into a springboard for democracy rather than Sunni fundamentalism, the Alawites might be won over to a peaceful transition of power through sacrificing the Ba'athist edifice in return for real reform.

President Bush needs to understand two things: Democracy can save Lebanon from itself, and Saudi Arabia is not an ally for democracy. Right after Prince Abdullah returned from his most recent visit to Crawford, Texas, a Saudi court passed harsh judgment on three Saudi democratic dissidents, while the Wahhabi clerics who call for jihad against America in Iraq are roaming free. Subcontracting American policy and allowing the Saudis to micromanage Lebanese politics in the post-Syrian era, even with the tempting "low-hanging fruit" of regime change in Damascus, will not realize the Middle Eastern freedom and democracy that Mr. Bush envisioned in his second inaugural address.

Lebanon may be tiny, but its intellectual output in literature and the press, as well as its current role as the beacon of Arab pop culture, has had the whole Middle East hooked on the Lebanese spectacle for decades. America needs a democracy policy for Lebanon because everyone is watching and asking, "Is Lebanon going forward into a nonsectarian democracy, or is it about to relapse into a testing ground for ambitious regional adventures?" The odds need to be rearranged in favor of the hipster youths of Monot Street rather than the Wahhabi thugs of Akkar.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Turkey Crossing the Road

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 2, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1351 words

HEADLINE: Turkey Crossing the Road

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Early last month, Turkey hosted the eighth get-together of states bordering Iraq. In addition to Turkey and Iraq, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt - as a leading Arab player - were in attendance. For some bizarre reason, the tiny island state of Bahrain, which three years ago opted for the grand title of kingdom, was also invited, even though it doesn't share any borders with Iraq.

The venue was Istanbul, the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire, which lorded over most of the ancestors of the attendees and was in perennial conflict for domination of the Middle East with the Iranians.

These meetings started as a regional response to the liberation of Iraq, which effectively made President Bush's vision for the Middle East an unwelcome neighbor to the governments of all these countries. Iraq's neighbors sought to formulate a regional strategy for ignoring the fact that things are going to change - and change forever - in the neighborhood. But lately, it has degenerated into a poker game, where each player looks around the table for tics and bluffs and who will be the first to embrace the new American experiment in Iraq. Everyone is expecting Turkey to be the first to fold, and they are asking themselves, why is it taking so long?

About two and half years ago, the arcane Turkish electoral system swept the Justice and Development Party, a conservative and pro-Islamic party, to power in this country whose official religion is supposed to be secularism. Since then, Turkish foreign policy has drifted away from its long-standing alliance with America and found common ground with Europe's and the Middle East's negative stance toward democracy in Iraq.

If any country stands to benefit from an Iraqi success story, then it would be Turkey. So how come Turkish politicians are finding themselves meandering in the middle of the road?

The Turks have not gotten over once being the center of the world, the impoverished inheritors of a grand imperial legacy. Modern Turkish nationalism is combative and a tad bit insecure, and the recurring theme is "they are all out to get us." Turkish identity, as opposed to Ottoman identity, was born in what is called the War of Independence during the early 1920s, which was a response to the carving up of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. It was a grueling fight to defend what remained of imperial territory as set by the boundaries of the terms of armistice, and yet its driving force was the eradication of imperial legacy and the invention of a new Turkish identity.

Such grandiose and ambitious plans can lead to some confusion: The British subjects throwing off the taxes of George III and fighting their own war of independence to become Americans must have gone through a similar experience. The Turkish experiment seems to have a long way to get settled. It is being further jolted by new shake-ups, as prospects of joining the European Union as well as the reintroduction of conservative Islamist politics strain the formation of a coherent answer to the question of what constitutes a Turk.

All we know at this point is "happy is the man who can call himself a Turk. "This slogan was conjured up by the hero of the war of liberation and the visionary of "Turkishness," Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks. You'll find this slogan everywhere, but there is no little asterisk at the end to refer you to what it means to be a Turk. Does it mean being a Muslim? If so, then Islam is not an identity card one carries in one's wallet, but rather a whole 10-piece set of matching luggage - and does that luggage contain tolerance for sizable non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Turkey? Does being a Turk mean being a European? If conforming to several hundred pages of European Union regulations for managing a snack shack makes you a European, then Turkish street vendors are certainly a far way off.

What one often hears is that Turkey is in the middle. On Iraq, Turks seem to think that it is fashionably European to be against America's war in Iraq, and definitely Middle Eastern to fear a democratic Iraq. The bookstalls at Istanbul airport feature glistening paperbacks of "Mein Kampf" translations as well as "Metal Storm," an action-thriller novel about a fictional American invasion of Turkey. This time around, being a Turk seems to find itself in hostility to America, even though America seems to have been a true and tested friend for several decades.

Turkish policy seems to be in direct conflict with Turkish strategic interests, and the fault lies in an existential confusion of Turkish self. They don't know who they are, and thus they don't know what's good for them. Hence, Turkey is just lingering there in the middle of the road, completely clueless as to which side it should cross over to.

The newspaper columnists of the Turkish fourth estate wield effective dictatorial and bullying power within Turkish politics, and they tend to be sensationalist. The overarching fears they fan are the supposed American intentions of setting up an independent Kurdish state within a decade. Their current lament of Turkish policy failure is that a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, has become the new president of Iraq. Turkish nationalist myopia suffers from seeing Iraq in the context of Kurdish separatism and what it means for the large Kurdish population of Turkey, and the terrorist manifestations of Kurdish nationalism as exhibited by the PKK. However, Iraq embracing a Kurdish president and not just any token Kurd, but rather one of the symbols of Kurdish separatism, should be a golden opportunity for Turkey. If the Kurds of Iraq can relinquish their long sought after goal of an independent Kurdistan in return for first-class citizen status within an Iraqi union, then that would be a model for Turkey's Kurds too.

Furthermore, the success of America's endeavors in Iraq would create a market for Turkey's goods as well as turn Turkey into a conduit for European goods to this prosperous market. At the turn of the century, German imperialists were planning the Berlin-Baghdad Railway project, which ran through modern-day Turkey, to access trade routes and annoy British imperialists. Turkey should be dangling the prospect of a Berlin-Basra Superhighway in the face of the European Union to access the Persian Gulf market that is now cash-rich and industrially poor. The demographics of the region are bringing a young, technologically hungry consumer population to the market, and they can afford to look at product quality rather than the bottom-line value of Far Eastern goods. Having Turkey as part of Europe means that transportation costs over land and the reduction of tariff points would make goods produced in Europe competitive in Iraq and beyond in the Middle East.

Turkey could offer Iraq unparalleled expertise in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training and intelligence, given its past challenges of Kurdish and Islamist terrorism. Iraqi police and national guard should be training in Ankara, not Amman. Turkey could also be using its new influence within the Organization of the Islamic Conference to hammer out a strong-worded denunciation of the terrorist violence being done in Islam's name in Iraq.

The model of civil peace with minority Kurds and the opening up of a major emerging market is all America's doing, and to the benefit of Turkey. Yet, the current leadership of Turkey, due in Washington next week for high-level meetings, is failing to see all these unfolding opportunities to the south of its border. Full-fledged E.U. membership is at least a decade away, and just how conservatism and Islam, as well as Kurdish minority rights, will be synthesized into national identity will take a while to settle as Turkey finds itself or a new self. Meanwhile, being in the rejectionist league of France and Germany or in the company of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria does not serve Turkish interests. Just across the divide, Turkey's friend, America, needs a helping hand; Turkey's choices should be crystal clear.