Tag: Islam

Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…

Last week, I tried to rank US allies, drawing response from both Walt and Sullivan (oh, and these guys, whose website name’ll creep you out). So here are a few responses:

1. I accept the arguments from many commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. Walt’s expansion of my argument toward “zero-based alliance formation” formalizes my initial intuitions for US alignment-picks. He asks if the US had no allies right now, which ones would it choose, because many US allies are left-over from previous commitments that may no longer be valuable. It’s an interesting, semi-counterfactual exercise. Its logic may be a clearer way to think about US allies than my use of retrenchment to force a ranking on US allies. I think this is a pretty good paper topic actually…

Instead of my 3 proposed alliance criteria (direct security benefits to the US; how desperately a potential ally needs the US; and the values symbolism of an alignment), Walt lists 6 benchmarks: power, position, political stability, popularity, pliability, and potential impact. These are richer than mine but also make it much harder to build a ranked order. I wonder what Walt’s top 10 would be then? I think he would be harder than I am on small states. That follows insofar as realism would suggest that larger states are usually more consequential. By including values/symbolism as a criterion, I allow places like Taiwan and SK to hang on.

From my top 12, I think Walt would probably kick out Israel, Taiwan, maybe Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and SK. Japan and NATO would probably be higher, and I think Brazil would be in there, and perhaps Australia. (I didn’t include those last because I think the US has few interests in Latin America and Australia benefits from the massive Indonesian glacis.)

What’s interesting though is that neither my nor Walt’s criteria would dramatically change the US alliance structure as far as I can tell. Walt would probably wind the US down in the ME more rapidly, while retaining NATO more, and I would do the opposite. We both probably agree that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan should not make the cut. Finally, I think my benchmarks would ‘pivot’ the US toward Asia faster than Walt’s, although I am not sure. Anyone want to comment on what top 10 Walt’s benchmarks would create?

3. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years ago.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and especially the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

Indonesia is a multiparty democracy. Its military is “conditionally subordinate” to civilian control. Its human rights record has improved since the dictatorship. Its troubles with salafism and religious tolerance are there, yes, but again, by the standards of reasonably comparable states like Egypt or Pakistan, its record is good. There has no been no major jihadist terrorism since the 2003 Marriot bombing. Jemaah Islamiah is out there and nasty, but this stuff is far less threatening, with far less hold over popular imagination, than similar movements in so many other OIC states, especially given Indonesia’s huge size. Indeed, it’s Saudi oil money funding wahhabist preaching in Indonesia that is the big salafist threat, not homegrown Indonesian clerics.

So instead of lining up with badly governed Arab autocracies as we did in the ME – alignments that create islamist blowback – doesn’t it seem far more beneficial for US to align with a (reasonably) moderate, very large country (4th biggest in the world) that also worries about China, with improving democratic credentials? Like Turkey (also on the list now), Indonesia suggests that Islam can coexist reasonably well with modernity and liberalism. Similarly, Muslims have demonstrated that they can leave in reasonable peace with non-adherents in religiously diverse states like the US, India, and Indonesia. This is great news – somebody should tell the Tea Party and remind the Christian Right that it too should be a little more tolerant. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Islam in more monocultural places like the ME would be harsher and less tolerant. So we should be grooming South and SE Asian states where tolerance is more entrenched, if only out of the sheer necessity of preventing endless internal conflict. And Indonesia is easily the leader here. Hence I ranked it at number 7.

Even ‘long war’ neocons should see the value at this point in defusing the tiresome, now fairly stalemated debate of whether Islam can find a modus vivendi in the modern world or not. Regarding this debate, places like Indonesia and Turkey are not-perfect-but-good-enough-given-current-circumstances models for Islamic democratization and the cutting edge of Islamic politics. This is why we should be attached. We want US alliances to actually get us some real value-added, not just encourage free-riding from countries that already like us. This is why Indonesia is more important than Germany or Japan. We should have learned from the Arab Spring uprisings and Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt that supporting nasty dictators in the ME breeds a politicized Islamic backlash. Huntington notoriously argued that Islam had ‘bloody borders,’ but places Indonesia blunt that disturbing logic. That is very, very good – and far more valuable to the US than aging, tired alliances like NATO.

4. Canadians got pretty passionate over this. I didn’t know that was possible. Like most Americans, I tend to assume that Canadians are Americans who simply refuse to admit that fact (sorry – couldn’t resist that one), but commenters came out swinging against the idea that Mexico might be more important to the US or that Canada might ever be a ‘threat’ to the US (which I never meant to imply btw). One even argued that Canada is more politically stable than the US. Hah! … oh, wait, that’s probably true… Sad smile. Generally, I think Canada kinda gets screwed by being our neighbor – they get stuck with every bad idea we come up with and chain-ganged into it whether they like it or not. So, thanks, Canada, sticking with us even after we elected W. Yes, we’re kind of embarrassed about that now. Enjoy that vid above.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


The Last Mughal

Emperor Bahadur Shah II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The din of the Great Rebellion of 1857 will continue to echo into our era, marred as it is by ongoing wars and insurgencies in Muslim lands. I believe that a careful study of those events are pertinent for American and European students of global politics today as they attempt to contextualize the challenges to American military might and Western cultural hegemony continuously pulsating onto the global stage from the remote corners of South Asia. A chronicle of 1857 is also useful to understand the fragility of a multicultural society in the face of contending religious fundamentalisms and unrelenting militarism.

In this light, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2006) provides an accessible and compelling history of the events which led to the final collapse of a tolerant and refined Indo-Islamic civilization. The book has been controversial among professional historians — particularly South Asian historians, but given the enormity of the subject matter it is digestible for an undergraduate audience and a decent entry point into an unending discussion.

The Great Rebellion, when it is not diminished and dismissed as a “mutiny,” has often been simplified as a confrontation between British imperialists and proto-nationalist Indians, but this is a drastic over simplification — if not an outright caricature of history. Dalrymple’s book helps to lay out the complex array of forces, communities, and individuals that confronted one another during the uprising — from Britons who had converted to Islam and married into notable Muslim families to Hindu soldiers who rallied to fight and die for an ageing and indecisive Muslim emperor alongside 25,000 Wahhabi-inspired jihadis/ mujahedin; and including Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and adopted British manners and sartorial accoutrement. The book intelligently and consistently resists attempts to read history through a simplifying lens or the meta-narrative of a clash of civilizations.

Nevertheless, goaded on by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the war did create horrific atrocities by the Britons and their Sepoy adversaries that polarized communities. In particular, Dalrymple provides an unflinching and detailed account of the crimes perpetrated by British officers and their allies after they sacked the imperial capital — belying any claims by Anglophiles that the Britons were a civilizing force and interrogating the notion of a “just retribution” for the (at times exaggerated) crimes of the rebels.

A lesson to take away from this rich and nuanced history is the role of religious fundamentalists at home and abroad in paving the pathway for slaughter — even though Dalrymple may overplay the religious element of the conflict at the expense of other important causal factors. The devaluation of foreign customs, vilification of rival religious practices, and outright attempts to insult the faith of others set in motion the rumors that would spark the rebellion and cut the last restraints on civilized behavior during and after the uprising on all sides. One often hears international relations scholars diminish the importance of words and labels in favor of material and aggregate behavioral factors. However, it is clear in Dalrymple’s account that discursive violence shaped and facilitated the return of medieval barbarity to the point that the Britons aspired to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Delhi (many of whom had remained steadfastly loyal to them even when the city was occupied by Sepoys) and to “delete” the entire city. If nothing else, the book alerts the reader to understand the very real consequences that accompany a rhetoric which denigrates the culture, faith, and traditional forms of political legitimacy in other communities.  This is a simple lesson, but one that is often lost on policy makers, scholars and students committed to a modernist discourse.


Stereotypes and suspicion: Nicer words won’t change anything

A new report was released yesterday, ‘Suspect Communities’, comparing how UK media and government have framed Irish and Muslim communities since the 1970s. The authors find that the ideas underpinning counter-terrorism measures and the way politicians, policymakers and the media discuss who might be responsible for bombings have not changed over four decades. The key finding is that ambiguity surrounding who is an ‘extremist’ or a ‘terrorist’ has led to hostile responses in everyday life – at work, in shops, on the street  – from members of the public who think they are under threat from Irish-sounding or Muslim-looking people whom they associate with that threat. Hence, the report implies that government and media language is impacting on the everyday lives of communities judged suspect and everyone else who must live with them. In a debate in Parliament yesterday, the solution put forward by many was greater sensitivity of language by elites and more dialogue between the stigmatized, the elites, and the majority society.

While useful, the debate needs to go further. The crux with such reports is their method. This research team first analysed thousands of media texts and government documents, and found these to consistently frame these communities as suspect (and as communities, not individuals). They then did focus groups with members of those suspect communities to hear about living under suspicion. What the team did not do is try to explain why journalists or policymakers would consistently produce stigmatizing material. The consistency of the stigmatization suggests its nothing to do with any individuals, but a function of the institutional practices and professional imperatives of the fields of journalism and security policy. Most journalists don’t want to be racist. They think that by allowing a ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ Muslim to debate they are providing balance – journalists don’t usually understand that they are reducing threatening and non-threatening minorities to equivalents in the eye of the non-Muslim audience. And policymakers know full well that homogenizing a community to tell it to ‘stop harbouring terrorists’ is not going to please everyone, but they really don’t want another bomb going off and will try any means to stop it. These are the pressures they face, and criticizing their language choices isn’t going to remove those pressures. So, if we are to move towards societies in which entire groups are not routinely lumped together as dangerous and disloyal, we need to begin to unravel these institutional and professional logics. A truly critical project would address these power relations and daily trade-offs instead of simply decrying the consequences.

This is an important topic. The Suspect Communities report supports a longstanding research finding (UK hereUS here) that those who feel stigmatized tend either to retreat from public spaces (‘keep your head down’, ‘keep your mouth shut’) or become angry and try to resist slurs by turning them on their heads (reclaiming ‘queer’ in the 1970s, jihadi chic in the 2000s). Either way, the result is fear and alienation, which reduces trust on all ‘sides’ and makes reconciling interests and grievances through democratic institutions much more difficult.


Marty Peretz, Harvard, and the First Amendment

 I attended the Harvard Social Studies concentration’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 25, well aware of the controversy over the University’s naming an undergraduate research scholarship in honor of New Republic editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz.  Generating the conflict were Peretz’s long history of contemptuous writings about Muslims and other groups and especially his recent, disgraceful statement: “I wonder whether I need . . . pretend that [Muslims] are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

Peretz later retracted the statement.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, he also claimed to be atoning, primarily in private, because “in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”  But Harvard’s agreement to establish the scholarship in Peretz’s name cast a pall over what should have been a celebration of a wonderful Harvard major.  It was a disappointment to me, many Social Studies alumni, and other Harvard affiliates.  More importantly, Peretz’s initial statement is indicative of disturbing trends that seem to be gathering force now, almost ten years after 9/11.

The reasons that Harvard decided to accept the $650,000 collected by Peretz’s friends, despite his long history of statements displaying contempt for Muslims, Palestinians, and others, remain unclear.  With by far the largest endowment in higher education, Harvard needs the money less than other universities.  It seems therefore that the decision was a misguided effort to honor someone the administration actually believes deserves to have his name permanently attached to the University’s.  Or, more likely, it was an effort to please some of the powerful alumni donors who funded the endowment.   Among many others:  Al Gore; Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne; top BP attorney Jamie Gorelick (identified in the Social Studies program only as former Deputy Attorney General); and a former co-chair of a Harvard Fund gift committee, Lazard executive and chairman of the New Republic Advisory Board, Larry Grafstein (who I unknowingly sat across from over lunch and with whom I had a pleasant interchange).  
At the event itself, Peretz’s defenders included Dionne, Gorelick, and political theorist Michael Walzer.  They all rejected his views about Muslims and the First Amendment and distanced themselves from some of his other controversial statements.  Asked directly during Q & A about her rationale for organizing the fund, Gorelick noted only Peretz’s decades-old role as a teacher, during his time as a lecturer in the Social Studies department.  In a message this summer that kicked off the fundraising drive, Gorelick had elaborated further that the Peretz fund would “strengthen the College’s commitment to rigorous intellectual inquiry through significant research experiences.” Peretz’s recent writings call into question his own commitment to that end, however.
In defending the fund, Dionne quoted Rodney King asking, Why can’t we all just get along?  Walzer alluded to the many left-wing student protesters of decades past who Peretz ostensibly if secretly helped avoid expulsion or worse.  To catcalls from the audience, he also suggested that a close review of the writings of most in the audience would turn up remarks as questionable as Peretz’s.
Critics of Peretz and Harvard were more numerous and vocal at the event.  Protesters gathered outside and harried Peretz as he walked between buildings.  At the panels, there were sharp questions, particularly about the compatibility between Social Studies’ claims to uphold critical thinking and analytic rigor—and its honoring Peretz.
For his part, Peretz remained mostly silent.  In the original program, he and Robert Paul Wolff, the first head tutor for the social Studies program, had been scheduled as principal lunchtime speakers.  But with the controversy, the program was changed to include only Wolff as principal speaker—and to demote Peretz to brief follow-up remarks, along with other head tutors in attendance.  Wolff gave an impassioned speech about the program, lambasting Harvard for honoring Peretz who sat a few feet away.  Minutes later, Peretz took a stab at his critics for having “started and exploited” the controversy—and for being simply a bunch of “professors who are happy to get applause.” As for himself, he claimed to be happy to rest on the 30 or so messages of support he said he had received from ex-students.
Beyond the incident itself, Peretz’s original statement, despite its hasty retraction days later under a firestorm of criticism, is indicative of a broader and troubling current in the U.S today.  If the Editor-In-Chief of the New Republic can so easily state that the Constitution should protect me—but not those with whom I disagree—its fragility is underlined once again.
Of course, Peretz is free to say almost anything he wants under our First Amendment—even something as foolish as that others should have that right withdrawn by virtue of their religion.  By the same token, Muslims should be free to build the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, despite the hyping of this exercise in religious free exercise as “offensive.”  Those who oppose gas drilling in Pennsylvania should be free to organize and protest without fear of monitoring by government contractors and agencies in the name of “homeland security.”  And, yes, cranks in Florida have the right to burn holy books.

Different as these cases are and hard as it is for many to accept, “offensive” or politically “dangerous” speech clearly merits protection under America’s First Amendment.  But for an institution like Harvard to celebrate a man who can make such irresponsible statements, thereby suggesting not just their legality but also their acceptability in elite public discourse, undermines the University’s claims to intellectual and social leadership. 


Once again: please stop with the “Islamic Reformation” nonsense

Over at Foreign Policy Passport, Preeti Aroon repeats–not once, but twice–the invidious comparison between contemporary Islam and pre-Reformation Latin Christiandom. Now, I’ve written on the general silliness of this line of comparison before, but Aroon asks an important question:

Yesterday’s program mentioned that the Protestant Reformation was accompanied by its share of violence, which took place over centuries. (Bloody Mary and Catholic violence against Huguenots in France come to my mind.) Does that mean that a reformation of Islam would be accompanied by violence? If so, would it be worth it?


The Protestants, in general, were the back-to-basics religious extremists of the sixteenth century. More of that sort is decidely not what Islam needs.

I’m not arguing that the Catholic Church couldn’t get downright nasty and repressive. It could and it did. But Catholic humanism represented a far more tolerant strand of Latin Christianity than early modern Zwinglianism, Lutheranism, or the Reformed Church. We shouldn’t confuse pre-Reformation Catholicism with Counter-Reformation Catholicism, nor Protestant movements with later, often Protestant, champions of liberal enlightenment.

I’m currently finishing a book manuscript that points to some interesting parallels between early modern Europe and the contemporary period, yet I cannot stress two points enough:

First, the “does Islam need a Protestant Reformation” question depends on a grossly distorted view of the nature of the Protestant Reformations.

Second, even if the question didn’t precede from bad history, the circumstances of the Reformations simply don’t travel well to those of contemporary Islam.

Again, the answer is “no.” The “Protestant Reformation” is not a synonym for “The Enlightenment.”


Islam needs a velvet revolution

I’d like to call a moratorium on the genre of “Islam needs a Reformation” arguments.

Contra Andrew Sullivan, the Protestant Reformation did not lead Christians to realize that “their best interests” lay “in forgoing the bromides of fundamentalist certainties for the messy, secular, banal success of liberal democracy.” It left Europe filled with autocratic rulers, many of whom got to enjoy the additional benefits of controlling established churches.

Sullivan’s hand wringing about the coming sectarian storm in the Middle East also gives him an excuse to trot out the now-fashionable “I-used-to-support-the-war-but-now-I-know-better” argument that the US failed because those dratted Muslims just weren’t ready for liberal democracy:

America’s mistake is to believe it can impose this learning curve on another civilization – in a speed-reading course.

Sullivan knows better: the US invasion teeters on the brink of total failure because it was ill-designed and incompetently executed. It destroyed a high-capacity authoritarian state and left in its place a barely functional government penetrated by the very forces currently intent on slaughtering one another. The fact that religious identities — along with ethnic and clan membership — play a key role in ongoing political violence should hardly surprise anyone. After all, religious worship was one of the only tolerated arenas of collective association under Hussein.

But it is much easier to blame the whole mess on the “ripeness” of Islamic civilization for a great sectarian struggle based on some harebraned comparison to early modern Europe. So which of the two thousand-year old branches of Islam gets to play the role of “hodge-podge of Protestant movements that emerged after 1517” and which gets to be the “Catholic Church”? Personally, I think the radically decentralized Sunni faith makes a good proxy for the Papacy, and the Shia are sort of like the Calvinists, only different.

Sullivan again:

This, I fear, is the wider context of our intervention in Iraq. Our best bet is a responsible attempt to restrain it, but not a full-scale attempt to stop it. Some things are unstoppable. I fear this looming conflict is close to unstoppable (and Iraq was the trigger, not the cause).

Actually, no. If the Middle East does slide into all-out sectarian conflict the invasion of Iraq will definitely have been the trigger and the cause — at least in the normal sense of: without the collapse of the Iraqi state and its descent into religious violence there would be little risk of some sort of general escalation into sectarian warfare in the foreseeable future.

Via Josh Marshall, whose virtual pen drips with appropriate sarcasm.


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