Talisman Gate

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Secular Insecurities

January 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Secular Insecurities

Nibras Kazimi counsels a soft touch with Turkey

January 25, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/26479

Turks tense up in a display of natural, reflexive patriotism when outsiders discuss their country's problems. But in some places of the world, patriotic myths are stringent and uncompromising, and such is the case with Turkey. Outsiders who want the best for Turkey should be mindful of this ultra-sensitivity and work around the useless outcome of provoking it, while Turks should take into account that their own edginess is holding them back, to the delight of those who mean them malice.

Enter Orhan Pamuk, the world renowned Turkish novelist at the center of a civil rights saga that was resolved over the weekend, when charges against him were dropped for denigrating "Turkishness." The court case had been pending since late August. Pamuk had run afoul of Article 301 of the penal code by casually self-promoting his own bravery in speaking out on incendiary topics that still play out in real time like "what to do about the Kurds," and some others swept under the carpet for decades such as "whatever happened to the Armenians?"

In Europe, taboos yet to be broken probably revolve around matrimonial unions between man and goat; most of the Old Country is pretty much libertine. But Turkey, which hopes to meld into the European commonwealth over the course of the next decade, still considers the circumstances as to how hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians ended up dead - a series of events that transpired 90 years ago and under a repressive policy of a long-defunct Ottoman Empire - as a "don't go there" taboo.

Remnants of Turkey's militant right - responsible for an era of state-directed mayhem and bloodshed in the 1970s - led the effort to prosecute Pamuk and broke out in fisticuffs with his legal team, but it would be a mistake to characterize all those who felt miffed by his statements as dyed-in-the-wool fascists who would offer no measure of reconciliation on such hot-button issues as the Armenian "genocide" and the civil war in the Kurdish regions.

Pamuk waded into these overgrown thickets of national denial in a blatant act of self-aggrandizement, for he is after all, an artist and that is what artists do. He set himself up as the conscience of a nation, but he talked to them through a non-Turkish organ (his comments were carried in a Swiss magazine almost a year ago). One would have expected Turkey's liberals and democrats to come out for Pamuk, but that was not the case. His only cheerleaders were those who can point to his predicament and say that Turkey has a long way to go, especially those with an agenda for disbarring Turkey from Europe. That is the reason as to why Turkey's most enlightened did not side with Pamuk: there is a deep sense that there are still forces out there out to hurt their country and that they should be on guard.

Most of Turkey's secularists did not take issue with Pamuk's right to criticize, but were flummoxed by his inability to administer the right kind of criticism, given his international stature. See, Pamuk had made Turkey look bad, which is fine to do among Turks, but he spoke out publicly and thus played into the hands of those who want to keep their country at arm's length, or in other words those who believe that Turkey will never be good enough for Europe.

A favorite pastime of Turkey-watchers is to take a whack at describing its made-up national identity. Most approach this task in a manner reflecting the disdain of old money for the nouveau riche. The leaps made by the founder of the modern state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in his effort to catch up with the West, and especially the West as defined by the amorphous quality of European civilization, seemed superficial and comical. By a change of dress and script, and through learning to waltz and shedding other trappings of the Orient, Turkey was supposed to become a member of Europe. Some deride Ataturk as authoritarian, but forget that most of European rulers in his times (he died the year of the Munich appeasement) were too. What these detractors also miss is that he was not a flash in the pan, but rather a product of two centuries of attempted modernization and a turn towards the West. His actions were catalytic, speeding up the course on which Turkey had embarked.

But there is still something unresolved about his legacy. One can make out a pattern in this centuries-old Turkish quest for self-improvement, between an inward looking strain that sought to centralize authority and wealth to empower the Turkish nation, thus shoring up defenses against outside encroachments on its sovereignty, and another more liberal strain, that sought to emulate the West as a prelude to being admitted into its company as part of a mission to enlighten the nation. Ataturk could not have saved whatever remained of his country during the War of Independence if he had not adopted the introverted and combative line of his predecessors in the face of external threats, consequently inventing nationalist myths as walls against existential doubt and defeatism. Thus, he refashioned an Anatolian village deep in the hinterland as his capital, Ankara, doing away with the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul. But interpreters of his legacy say that his long term aim was to take Turkey further West, rather than just keeping it in the middle. Such is the vision that would have taken Turkey into Europe and Europe into Turkey, to escape from the suffocating clutch of outdated ideas.

The Islamist-leaning government ruling in Ankara today says and does all the right things: it lets Pamuk go free, vows cultural rights for Kurds, and is even willing to put Cyprus on the table. But its ethos is essentially an inward looking one, seeking to gain European membership for the material wealth such an association promises, rather than adopting the values of its civilization. While things look good on paper, Recep Erdogan's government satiates its radical wing by allowing them to victimize the Alevi sect in an ominous harbinger of where it intends to take Turkey.

Europe needs to get used to the fact that a foreign demographic spillover from its southern reaches is inevitable. Should the jihadists prevail in extending their terror, or even in holding territory, then Europe provides ample targets. The political and financial elites of that continent should be rooting for the final incarnation of Ataturk's legacy into its cosmopolitan form. And hence, they should be mindful about the path being set by Turkey's current rulers, and should try to gently massage an outcome for the victory of secularism instead. Disdainfully poking holes is counterproductive and alienates a secular and deeply patriotic constituency; Europe should be grateful that Turkey has come this far since it is the only model that can act as a buffer between Zarqawi's interpretation of Islam and its shores.

As for the Turks, yes, it stings to be embarrassed in public, but that doesn't change the fact that there are apparent glitches in the system clear for the world to see. To avoid future flare-ups like the Pamuk case, they should preempt events and fine tune the state that Ataturk founded in preparation for the historic opportunity of realizing his goal: an enlightened civilization and not just the outward mechanics of European membership.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fighting Over Spoils, Not Scraps

January 18, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Fighting Over Spoils


January 18, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/26076

There is a widening rift among insurgent groups in Iraq, but this does not mean that the insurgency is about to be defeated, or even abated. On the contrary, judging by a recent spike in jihadist propaganda - noted for its quantity and emerging sophistication - one would conclude that the terrorists seem to think that victory is within their grasp, and they have begun to fight over who claims it, and the promised spoils in tow.

These days, policy makers are trying to concoct designations to identify the various elements of the insurgency: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his ilk are the "terrorists" or jihadists, the ex-Baathists are the "insurgents," and those Sunni Arabs who are opaquely angry over being disenfranchised are the "rejectionists."

The governments of Iraq and the United States hope that the unfolding political process would demobilize the insurgents and rejectionists, and even - in an effort to reclaim the streets of the Sunni triangle - set them off in a confrontation with the jihadists. It is a neat plan, but a totally unrealistic one: It continues to underestimate how entrenched the jihadist phenomenon has become in Iraq and gives too much credence to traditional loyalties like tribal affiliations that have taken a battering in modern times. Sure, as more Sunnis buy into the political process, life will become a little harder for the likes of Zarqawi - but not by that much of a margin that would impede the scope and severity of his terror. Zarqawi has managed to turn his organization into an indigenous Iraqi network with local roots rather than a faction of foreigners at the mercy of a Baathist logistical blanket.

When Zarqawi started out in Iraq, he was a nonentity in the annals of jihad with only a small cadre of seasoned Syrian and Jordanian ex-mujahedin at his side. They called themselves "Monotheism and Jihad," and had been displaced from Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban, somehow drifting into the chaos of Iraq. It was a gamble since no one had entertained the thought that Iraq - whose population is seen as "spiritually challenged" when it comes to radical Islam - would be conducive to waging jihad against the most powerful military in the world that had just deposed a hated tyrant on a terrain that affords nowhere to hide. But Zarqawi, with nothing to lose, took on this suicidal gambit and a marriage of convenience was struck with the remnants of the Baathist ancien regime: They would provide the money and know-how, and Zarqawi would deliver the human torpedoes.

There was a pre-existing Al Qaeda affiliate that had morphed into what we know today as Jaish Ansar Al-Sunnah, or JAS, which looked down on Zarqawi and dismissed him as an impulsive hoodlum who would amount to no more than a flash in the pan. But Zarqawi's stature kept increasing as his sensationalist operations got more of the media exposure, and more funds and recruits flowed into his ranks. By the end of 2004, Zarqawi was ready to make the leap that JAS was unwilling to do: trading in his individual jihadist credentials for the overall Al Qaeda brand, and do so on his own terms without forsaking extreme stances that set him to the far right of even the likes of Osama bin Laden.

With more money and fame, Zarqawi started buying up the logistical networks of look-outs, bomb-makers, team-leaders of the Baathist insurgency and brought them under his ideological wing. Zarqawi did not need the Baathists anymore, for he had eclipsed them. Thus, he had established islands of native sympathizers, bound up by a complex matrix of relationships, among whom he can circulate.

These days, cyberspace abounds with the propaganda of groups such as Al Qaeda and JAS - the two groups that really matter when talking about who is indeed disrupting Iraq's stability. The ex-Baathists and the rejections may sit out the insurgency, or even harass the jihadists here and there, but the terror output from these two aforementioned organizations will continue, and will continue to matter. What is more relevant to is that there seems to be an all-out competition for funds and recruits - something of a jihadist sweepstakes - that seeks to consolidate gains made in Iraq and to branch out into the larger Middle East. In this, Zarqawi worries more about JAS than any projected friction from the Baathists or rejectionists.

Both groups have recently made it clear that they will not entertain a let-up in the mayhem. Al Qaeda acquiesced to an Election Day cease-fire "so as not to harm lay Sunnis who have been led astray," and JAS was sold on the idea that the Sunnis could disrupt the political process from within. But when the results started coming in, showing that the Sunnis did not have the numerical heft to veto or stall the progress of the Iraqi state, Al Qaeda came out with a "we told you so" posture, while JAS repented its gullibility through a "Day of Renunciation" on New Year's Day with "16 car bombs, 10 improvised explosive devices, and several rocket and mortar barrages," according to a released statement.

Interestingly, there is now a scramble for who gets to claim to be at the "center" of the jihadist spectrum. Both Al Qaeda and JAS have put out videos highlighting their efforts to protect civilians and their property (Sunni civilians that is) from injury and harm. JAS has even resorted to building a professional looking television studio where two interlocutors discuss military operations in a talk-show format, clearly trying to take on some mainstream trappings. Al Qaeda is highlighting its "softer" side by releasing a video showing them being gracious hosts to five Sudanese diplomats that they had kidnapped, even though they had threatened to behead them should their government not remove its representation from Baghdad.

A sense of false complacency is setting in Washington as people pat themselves on the back and claim that the political process has divided the insurgency. But the picture is far more nuanced than that, since there is no indication from Al Qaeda or JAS to show that they feel the heat; they are not behaving as if they have been cornered or forced on the run in search shrinking havens. On the contrary, they seem to be marking out areas of influence, and competing for a wider share of inflowing funds and recruits. In their mind's eye, they are winning while America is losing, and thus they can focus on eliminating or absorbing minor groups and marginalizing competitors, and even punishing stragglers.

Nobody in Washington should be resting on their laurels just yet. In fact, there should be feverish activity to turn this simmering competitiveness among the leading jihadi groups into a boil. The atmosphere is all set for "did you hear what he said about your momma?" mischief-making, which may actually compel an oversized ego like Zarwaqi's to lash-out against JAS and others.

But the United States is keener on winning over hearts and minds rather than manipulating them. Does it even have the mechanism by which it can muddy the water through blackops such as inventing shadow jihadist organizations that stage attacks against Americans to garner some attention, and then spend their energies denouncing the likes of Zarqawi and JAS through Internet postings and uploaded videos? Wasn't the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence supposed to do just that? Oh, I forgot, some journalists got all riled up over that whole affair and Donald Rumsfeld cancelled it. Shame; could have been useful these days in driving wedges among glory-drunk jihadists.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington DC. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 18, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Slightly Pregnant

January 11, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Slightly Pregnant


January 11, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/25707

Folks in Washington nowadays have taken note of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its sister organization in Iraq, the Islamic Party, and optimistically tag such phenomena as "moderate" or "mainstream" Sunni Islamism. There is a hope that such resurgent religious groups would undermine Al-Qaeda's monopoly on politicized Islam and that the Brothers in Egypt and elsewhere would serve as the lesser of two evils for America's interests, much like the secular military dictatorships now in place were useful in warding off the threat of Communism.

One should be gleeful about the back and forth trash-talking that is going on between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, but no one should root for the former. This is not a case of my enemy's enemy being my friend, but rather it is an opportune episode whereby both sides, equally dangerous, exhaust each other.

There's a matchmaking joke that goes something like this: "Oh young man, have we found a bride for you! She is beautiful, a knock-out! Cultured, cultivated, from a good family, with lots of money - she's only slightly pregnant." Just as being "slightly pregnant" is meaningless, there is no such thing as a 'moderate' Islamist, or Islamist-Lite, since there is no such thing as Shariah-Lite. Islam is still an all or nothing regulator of society and state, and it is the stated goal of the Muslim Brotherhood to re-establish the rule of Islamic jurisprudence, the Shariah, as a stepping stone to the Caliphate. From then, the task is one of "mastering the world for Islam."

The chief doctrinal difference between the Brothers and Al-Qaeda is merely tactical: one wants to subvert the system from within, and the other wants to overthrow the establishment. In many ways, Al-Qaeda is the reincarnation of the Brotherhood's military wing that was set up in the mid-1930s as a proto-fascist disciplined corps of youths. The intellectual forefather of most of these radical groups that we see today like Al-Qaeda was Seyyid Quttub, an Egyptian Muslim Brother who despaired of reforming the system and began articulating its overthrow, until he was executed in 1966. Thus, just like marijuana is considered a "gateway drug" to harder stuff, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was historically a "gateway affiliation" leading to more hardcore and radical fundamentalist ideologies.

Yet, the "realist" Beltway chorus chimes in, "but they've changed; the Brothers in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria have renounced violence, and they now say nice things about democracy and the rule of law." Wait, did I miss an Islamic reformation? Because the only way an ideological leopard would change its spots is when there is a recalibration or reconfiguration of former ideas to suit our day and age, and this has yet to happen. This would involve some spring cleaning, where some things end up being discarded - for good. Rather, what's been happening over the last 150 years has involved refurbishing Islam, rather than reforming it; it is a re-interpretation of 7th century precepts in an effort to recycle outmoded notions for our times.

And there's a simple reason for why it has been hard to reform: the Prophet Muhammad was too great of a revolutionary who had built-in ingenious ideological mechanisms to thwart a counter-revolution led by the clannish elite of Mecca. Politically, his ambiguous system worked for about half a century after his death; the provincial ancient regime found it easy to use a few loopholes here and there to take back the mantle of leadership - this time at the helm of a world-class Islamic empire. However, Muhammad's iron-clad ideological legacy outlasted such trifles as empires, and it remained cutting edge until Europe's 16th century enlightenment came up with better and more liberal ideas to regulate and improve the life of the individual. The world of Islam has yet to catch up.

Al-Qaeda's no.2, Ayman Zawahiri, was once a Muslim Brother, but as he explained in his book, "The Bitter Harvest," he came to the opinion that working within the system would eventually hit a brick wall. So it was no surprise when he came out last week with a video lambasting his former colleagues for getting hoodwinked by the "charade of democracy" that the Mubarak regime had put together during last September's presidential elections and the more recent parliamentary ones. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi also piped in last week with an audio recording that denounced Iraq's Islamic Party for getting suckered by the "trap" of parliamentary elections. For Zawahiri and Zarqawi the picture is clear; participating in these man-made institutions of government and parliament was an act that sullied the soul and was in contravention of the divine code. Taking part in the political process lends legitimacy to something not prescribed by the Shariah, and thus takes a step outside the bounds of the faith.

The Muslim Brothers think otherwise, and aim for a long term process of winning over recruits through party discipline and proselytizing. Their emblem carries the wording "Prepare," which is derived from the Koranic verse: "Prepare for them what you can of strength...that that terrorizes the enemy of God and your enemies." Their other long-time slogan is "Islam is the Solution," which is to say that they never intend to uphold the secular structures of parliament or democratic institutions for the long run.

Waiting around for an Islamic reformation is not a luxury, even had it been possible. At one point in history, when life was simpler, the Middle East developed a user-friendly relationship between man and God: the pop-mysticism of Sufism. For most people, it was a colorful manifestation of earlier rustic beliefs imbued with Islamic imagery and ritual. But in these modern urban times, with their sterile lifestyles and linear concrete existentialities, solitary individuals have no time for such contemplative and playful myths.

Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, was an initiated Sufi when he was a teenager in the Egyptian countryside. But attending a modern school in a modern city, and coming face to face with the encroachment of Westernization, provoked his conservatism into fighting back, and so the mystic transformed into the militant.

Political Islam does not come in shades of gray, since Islam - especially in its modern interpretation and after shedding the hues of Sufism - itself does not come in shades of gray. One cannot selectively cut and paste from the Shariah, applying what is convenient; for those who choose the path of Islamist activism, no arbitrary line can be drawn across God's word. While some, like the Brothers, dissemble their actions and more radical others assemble for a head-on confrontation, the goal is one and the same: resurrecting the Islamic Empire. They may argue over gestation periods, but both camps are definitely expecting the birth of the New Caliphate.

Let them fight among themselves over recruits and funding and who gets to legitimately speak in the name of political Islam, but America and its policy-makers should not lose sight of the fact that an antagonist could never be an ally, even for the short term. Accepting the Muslim Brotherhood as "Plan-B" should the regimes in Egypt and Syria or an alternative leadership for Iraq's Sunnis falter and fail is a compromise that is self-defeating for America and what it stands for.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 11, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >