Tuesday, 16 September 2014 00:00

Things Not As They Seem

The above title could be said about much of life. As St. Paul writes, “We see through a glass darkly.” Here I want to discuss current events in the Mideast, first in Egypt, and then the issue of the Islamic State. Looking through the eyes of western media outlets and consulting insider sources yield quite a different picture. Consulting the insider views put us in a better position to see how progress can be made and then join others – especially people of faith, Muslims and Christians – to make that happen.


President Sisi’s Egypt

Two points should be made here. First, Sisi’s Egypt is even more authoritarian and repressive than Mubarak’s was. Egyptians haven’t forgotten the “January 25, 2011 Revolution” and it’s just a matter of time before the people rise up again. Second, the military coup that toppled President Morsi in July 2013 was not about secularism versus islamism (spelling it as it is, a political/religious ideology). Those two ideologies are indeed opposed, but their opposition does not come close to explaining the current political dynamics in that country.

Professor Mohamad Elmasry of the University of North Alabama rightly called Sisi’s policy one of “elimination” – but not just of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I covered the facts about how the army and police in concert massacred about one thousand MB followers (Aug. 14, 2013) in my third blog on the post-coup realities.

Elmasry’s opinion piece came on the heels of the MB leader Mohamed Badie’s death sentence along with 682 of his followers on April 28, 2014. This was after 529 others had received a similar sentence the month before – in spite of Badie’s public words calling his followers to remain peaceful and not to respond to violence in kind. He declared himself ready to die for his own convictions as a peaceful protester.

Though most of the more than 1,500 protesters who were killed in the following months were MB-affiliated or at least sympathizers, some of those were not. Likewise, the 16,000 jailed political opponents since then were not all pro-Morsi activists.

In reality, the post-revolutionary situation of non-Muslim religious groups has not improved under Sisi, as New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick attests. “Nothing has really changed,” said Christian Kameel Kamel, whose 26-year-old son had been jailed for blasphemy against Islam and who still hasn’t appeared in court since the appeal to his first sentencing.

The “culture of sectarianism” has continued unabated, asserted human rights activist and researcher Ishak Ibrahim. Yet, amazingly, Christians remain mostly pro-Sisi. As a fellow Christian, I think they will likely come to regret their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood. Hatred (or even fear) does not become followers of Christ; what is more, there are plenty of other Muslims advocating a greater role for Islam in Egypt (i.e., “islamists”) who don’t like the MBs; finally, when some day greater democracy is restored (as we all pray it will), this could come back to bite their community.

Beyond Christians, there have been two high-profile cases of people imprisoned for atheism, and at least three Shiite Muslims have been condemned to the legal sentence (five years in prison) for blasphemy as well. Religious freedom is badly lacking in today’s Egypt.

Ironically, the 2012 presidential election saw massive numbers at the polls. Morsi won with only a three-percentage-point lead and the electoral process was considered fair by international observers. By contrast, the 2014 election saw little participation, as the outcome seemed inevitable. As a Middle East Report article makes it clear, even with an artificial two-day extension of the voting period, the state’s declared 30 percent participation seemed inflated. The pro-regime media badgered and pressured people to vote with slogans like this, "Any woman who goes shopping instead of voting should be shot or shoot herself." To no avail. Only a few came out to vote.

Also like Mubarak and Sadat before him, Sisi portrays himself as the defender of “true” Islam and has found, as they did, the al-Azhar establishment (perhaps still the most prestigious Islamic university in the world) very obliging and supportive of his cause. For instance, when al-Azhar condemned the recent Noah film as “a clear violation of the principles of Islamic Sharia,” the official state censorship board upheld the ruling. Emad Shahin, a well-know political scientist who left the country in protest of Sisi’s policies (barely escaping his own imprisonment), President Sisi has made “extensive” use of religion to bolster the legitimacy of the “coup leaders.”

Though manipulating religion for political gain is as old as the world, it is likely that Sisi is playing with the same dynamite that blew up Mubarak’s regime (see also Elmasry’s piece, “Egypt’s ‘Secular’ Gov Uses Religion as a Tool of Repression”). The so-called “Islamic Revival” has been transforming Egypt since the late 1970s and shows no signs of abating. The best book to read on this is still journalist/scholar Geneive Abdo’s masterful No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.

A veteran liberal opposition leader, Ayman Nour (he ran against Mubarak in 2005 and is now exiled in Lebanon) recently said in an interview that Sisi was a one-sided president. He isn't representing all Egyptians, but only following his own anti-Brotherhood path. In the end, he quipped, "Mubarak took us many years back, and what Sisi is doing will not push us to the front. Sisi's actions will bring us to the abyss."

Just to give you an idea of how serious the human rights situation is, have a look at this article explaining why the Carter Center decided to pull out of Egypt. Jimmy Carter and his advisors believe that "the upcoming [parliamentary] elections are unlikely to advance genuine democratization."

Considering some of his other writings, I was pleasantly surprised by a recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, entitled “ISIS and SISI”. Taking his cue from Israeli analyst Orit Perlov, Friedman contends that two governing styles now dominate the Mideast: the radical Islamic ideology of ISIS and the absolute power of the (secular?) state under Egypt’s Sisi. Yet neither “hyper-Islamism” nor “hyper nationalism” will deliver what the people desperately need – “the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.”

Friedman is right to label Sisi’s regime as “hyper-nationalism” and so is Elmasry in putting “secular” between quotation marks. Egypt’s top clerics (ulama) and Pope Tawadros II regularly appear on Egyptian TV to sing the regime’s praises and heap blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, as I said earlier, this is to play with fire, at least with regard to the vast Muslim majority of Egyptians. Sure, Muslims gladly spilled into the streets to call for Morsi’s resignation, but many of them, and not just the ultra-conservative Salafis, yearn for a more authentically “Islamic” regime, as anthropologist Yasmin Moll has discovered in her research on the Egyptian media industry (“Islamism beyond the Muslim Brotherhood”).

Moll’s fieldwork was conducted between 2010 and 2013 among some leading media producers who worked for a “transnational Islamic channel that defined itself primarily against the Salafi television channels that were closed down by the military following the coup.” Most of these “saw themselves not just as muttadayinin (religious) but also as islamiyin (‘Islamists’). Yet, they were highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power, with many of them joining the massive June 30 protests against Morsi.”

This is not how the tensions in Egypt are generally portrayed in our Western media. We usually read that Sisi leads the existential struggle for a secular state against the arrayed forces of militant Islam led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much more complicated than that, writes Moll. In the social milieu in which these producers move, there are no “secular liberal elites.” Rather, these people “explicitly believe that secularism cannot be legitimately justified or reasoned from within an Islamic frame.” She explains,


“This is because, for them, Islam guides and makes normative claims on every aspect of human life, including political life. They were not against the Muslim Brotherhood because of its similar commitment to the “comprehensiveness” (shumuliyyat) of Islam, but because they perceived the organization as arrogant and incompetent, nepotistic and exclusionary. That the Brotherhood claimed to be acting in the name of religion while behaving badly made its actions much worse, but their support for Sisi’s removal of Morsi in no way hinged on seeing the military as a bastion of secularism.”


Unlike the Salafis, however, this islamist orientation involves in some fashion “creating a shared space (masaha mushtarika) between Egyptians of different political orientations and moral sensibilities, including between those who identify themselves as pious and those who do not.” This is not unlike the AKP ruling party of Turkey some call “soft islamism,” which is comfortable functioning under the umbrella of a secular constitution. But above all, it’s about a democratic politics that could be adapted and adjusted for use in a Muslim-majority country like Egypt.

No, things are not what they seem in Egypt from watching the news on mainstream TV or reading about them in Western news outlets. Might the reality look more hopeful from another vantage point? Maybe not. But knowing it in more detail and in a more balanced way politically makes it more interesting. And, who knows, we might be able to influence our lawmakers and politicians to take a more constructive path in relating to this part of the world.


The unhelpful “Islamism” prism

Dennis Ross, a diplomat with a wealth of experience in this region under several US administrations, wrote an OpEd on the heels of President Obama’s speech outlining his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, Ross takes a manichean view of the Mideast: the islamists versus the non-islamists. The latter are “our friends,” he argues, the others our enemies. But these "friends" also happen to be “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared.” We might have worked more closely with Turkey and Qatar, but both these Sunni states support the Muslim Brotherhood.

But this also means, Ross asserts, “recognizing that Egypt is an essential part of the anti-Islamist coalition, and that American military aid should not be withheld because of differences over Egypt’s domestic behavior.” Forget human rights, or at least turn a blind eye to them in light of more pressing issues. Why partner with these “non-Islamists” states? His answer is simple:


“These non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region. They favor stability, the free flow of oil and gas, and they oppose terrorism. The forces that threaten us also threaten them.”


Ross had astutely explained why in his opinion the “Arab Awakening” of 2011 had failed to produce democracy in the region. Three reasons:


“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate. Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”


Still, Ross feels the Obama Administration is too squeamish about “about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time.” Obama, like Carter long before him, actually cares about issues of human rights and people having a say in how they are governed (though not enough so, in my opinion). Ross retorts that Egypt and the UAE are already bombing the islamists in neighboring Libya without asking for our permission. Don’t discourage them, he warns, but work with them in the hopes of harnessing this energy in the right direction and more effectively.

My question to Ross is this: isn’t running roughshod over people’s convictions and lending support to regimes (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who ignore their people’s basic human rights a bad strategy in the long run? It seems to me that the US already has such a lamentable record in the region for arrogant and blundering interventions that this will just reinforce widespread anti-American feelings among these peoples. If “stability” is just another word for “political repression” – which it is in practice – then this is just as shortsighted as the neo-conservative-inspired 2003 invasion of Iraq.



What about ISIS, you say? Well, first of all, to get a good feel for its territory on the two rivers see this interactive map. Then read this piece by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy: “Obama’s Mission Impossible”. A New York Times editorial concludes about the same thing, just looking at the challenge of training “moderate” Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS. The US has a pitiful record when it comes to training troops, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. And then, these rebels’ only focus is on bringing down the Asad regime. Channeling their energies to effectively fight IS is truly a long shot.

Finally, read the transcript or listen to Terry Gross’s recent interview of the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief Tim Arango on Fresh Air. He details how the US poured $5 billion into training the Iraqi army that simply crumbled when confronted with ISIS and shows how ISIS is the de facto creation of American adventurism in Iraq.

Much more could be said, but let me end with this thought. President Obama likely has no political alternative to pursuing his announced combination of Sunni coalition building and bombing to “degrade” the Islamic State’s military capabilities – though the most logical neighbor with the most goals in common happens to be Iran. Too bad he “can’t go there” (politically)! But we should have learned our lesson by now. Particularly in this part of the world, war is always counterproductive.


Things as they should be

Jim Wallis speaks for many Christians and people of other faiths too when he writes that “War Is Not the Answer”. He reminds his readers that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq US church leaders offered a peaceful alternative that would still meet the stated goals of the war – in six points. In fact, it was seriously discussed in Tony Blair’s cabinet meeting. “The American church leaders’ plan,” the UK Secretary of State Clair Short told Jim Wallis, really was an attractive alternative to war because it showed how Saddam Hussein’s regime could be brought down and his WMD’s dismantled (it turned out they didn’t exist).

I agree with Wallis. The American president should have waited another couple of weeks when the US chairs the UN Security Council meetings in New York. His idea of coalition building is good, but it needs to be widened. Will it take longer with UN involvement? It will, but that’s the only way to recover some legitimacy for its actions in that region and for a much greater amount of pressure globally to be put on the Islamic State for seizing vast territories by force and all the while committing untold crimes against humanity. In the end there will have to be some force applied against IS, but applied on the basis of a wider coalition will more likely empower the local Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, Christians and others, to rally around plans for more transparent, broad-based and efficient governance. That’s the only stability that will last.

It’s time people of faith, and particularly Muslims and Christians, speak out for peace and work together as local and global civil society to see these kinds of goals implemented in the region. Instead of looking at how things seem from the vantage point of the powerful, both insiders and outsiders of the Mideast, they could help each other see how the world should look like – more just, peaceful and compassionate – and find ways to move in that direction.