Friday, February 11, 2011

Islam, Democracy & Secularism

About two weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article about the Barelvis. This is the dominant version of Islam in Pakistan, which is frequently described as moderate. But Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his outspoken defense of those accused of blasphemy, was a devout Barelvi. As the article points out, Barelvi Islami itself includes many factions with many interpretations. But violent opposition to blasphemy is a fundamental value. But different sects put different priors on these values. Unfortunately, as Deobandi and Ahl Hadith groups have gained "religious market share" by emphasizing jihad, anti-blasphemy, and other more violent interpretation the Barelvis are forced to compete. This has major implications for Pakistan's future and for U.S. policy. Pakistanis are usually described as "moderate Muslims," but this may not be completely true.

But there was an interesting quote from Mohammed Ziaul Haq, a spokesman for the Sunni Itehad Council
But killing in response to blasphemy is another matter, he said, making it "totally different from terrorism.'' The government had done nothing to silence Taseer's criticism of the blasphemy ban, he said, or his support for a Christian woman sentenced to death for the law, which he said had made Taseer an "indirect" blasphemer himself. "Ninety percent of people in Pakistan think Mumtaz Qadri is a hero," Ziaul Haq said. "If it's a democracy, the government should think about that."
This gets to the crux of it. If democracy is only "rule of the people" in the strictest sense then it is really just mob rule. A major theme of The Federalist Papers is how the new Constitution would prevent the fledgling US from descending into the civil strife that dominated the democracies of antiquity.

The people are fickle, and essential to building democracies is protecting minority and individual rights. This has resonance, not only for Pakistan but for the entire world and particularly Egypt which may be embarking on a democratic experiment very soon. While reports frequently emphasize that the protesters are secular and just want democracy two questions must be asked. The first is whether the reporters observations reflect the reality. Some polls are encouraging, showing minimal support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the institution of Sharia as a low priority.

Others are not, according to a Pew poll 82% of Egyptian Muslims said they want adulterers punished with stoning, 77 percent want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated, while 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.

A related question, is the Muslim definition of secular. Nonie Darwish (who's book Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror I reviewed for Policy Review) remembers growing up in Nasser's secular Egypt. As children they chanted for jihad (holy war!) against Israel. When we met later, Nonie explained to me that "Islam is a big room which you can wonder at will, but you can't leave the room." Many Muslims, while ostensibly secular still have a deeply embedded Muslim identity. It was no accident that reportedly secular Baathist regimes such as Saddam's Iraq and Assad's Syria turned to Islamic rhetoric when under pressure.

All of that being said, it would be a terrific thing for Egypt and the entire world if it could become the place where Islam and modernity came to terms with one another and the tragic cycle of history were broken.

My appearance on the Brett Winterble Show

Here's the link to my recent appearance on the excellent Brett Winterble show. Brett does terrific, thoughtful broadcasts on a range of national security issues. I always have a good time with him. This time, we talked about the Egyptian military - an issue of some import at the moment.

Rise of the Bidenites

A central component of vice presidential influence is allies on the President's staff. Paul Light's most excellent Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House describes the importance of acquiring allies on the President's staff and of building warm relations between the vice president and president's staff. Mondale excelled at building alliances and placing allies in key positions. Also, because the Carter team was not familiar with the ways of Washington so that Mondale staffers had unprecedented opportunities to fill these gaps.

This has evolved since. While Bush and his team were somewhat suspected by the Reaganites, Bush worked hard to remove this image and - particularly significantly - his close friend Jim Baker was Reagan's chief of staff during the first term. Since Bush had his own team of experienced staffers, Quayle was challenged in building alliances and placing allies. Under Gore, the staffs had very close relationships and Gore was - by all accounts - a key player in the administration. Cheney's record in this regard may not have been as strong as is generally believed. The Bush staff was deeply loyal to Bush and had its suspicions of Cheney and his staffers. Formally, many Cheney staffers also held formal titles on the White House staff - a new development. Titles are important, but not everything. Probably the most important asset of Cheney's influence was (like Mondale's) a sense of what to do and how to do it.

Wall of Biden

In evaluating palace politics, it is important to look at the floorplan.

According to the Washington Post profile National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is very close to Biden. He advised Biden during the Robert Bork confirmation hearings in 1987 and during Biden's 1988 presidential bid. His brother is also a long-time Biden advisor and his wife is chief of staff to Jill Biden.

The new chief of staff, Bill Daley, spent countless hours on the road with Biden during his 1988 presidential campaign.

In effect, that entire wall of the West Wing is occupied by Bidenistas.

Plus, the new press secretary, Jay Carney, had been Biden's press secretary. Off-hand I cannot think of a vice presidential staffer being promoted to the equivalent position on the president's staff. More than half of the West Wing's office space is filled with individuals with close links to Biden. That is unprecedented vice presidential influence!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Golden Oldies: Egyptian Conspiracy Theorists

I used to write about Egypt a lot, I keep finding old articles. This one is particularly informative because it highlights the duplicitous role government controlled media played in fostering conspiracy theories. The government of Egypt systematically filled the heads of its citizens with garbage for decades. I have every sympathy for them, but I worry about how they are going to put together a modern functional government.

Egyptian Conspiracy Theorists
By Aaron Mannes - November 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Egypt's chattering class must have been surprised when Egyptian security arrested several Egyptians for the October 7 bombings at tourist resorts in the Sinai. Egyptian pundits had asserted that Israel must have orchestrated the attacks. But don't expect a retraction. From the 1997 Luxor massacre, to the crash of EgyptAir 990, to 9/11 and now the Taba bombing, every major event is presented through the prism of vast forces -- usually Israeli -- conspiring to destroy Egypt. While this penchant for conspiracy is written off to ignorance and poverty, in fact the conspiracies are engineered from the top and serve the purposes of Egypt's regime.

Consider the statement (courtesy of MEMRI) of Dr. Dhiaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies: "This operation is the [work] of a security apparatus... and the one who gained the most was Israel, and thus one should attribute [the operation] to Israel. For the Israeli security [apparatuses] it is easy to carry out an operation on lands adjacent to its borders and then retreat into Israel..."

The al-Ahram Center is Egypt's most distinguished think tank. Dr. Rashwan's s statement is roughly equivalent to a Brookings scholar claiming the CIA masterminded 9/11. Although to truly understand the statement's significance in Egypt, imagine if Brookings was part of the same organization as the New York Times, and the U.S. President appointed the chairman of the organization. (The al-Ahram Center is part of the al-Ahram Foundation, a conglomerate that publishes Egypt's leading newspaper -- al-Ahram -- and numerous other periodicals. The government appoints the chairman of the al-Ahram Foundation.)

Rashwan repeated these comments to several Arab media outlets. Nor was Rashwan atypical. Numerous establishment figures -- former officials and government-controlled newspapers, including the house organ of the ruling National Party's policy committee -- insisted that Israel orchestrated the Taba bombings in order to force Egypt to cooperate more closely with Israel and distract the world from Israeli actions in Gaza. One analyst speculated that the attacks were part of a convoluted Israeli plot to re-take the Sinai.

Whether Egypt's experts actually believe these fictions or not is impossible to ascertain. But, their conspiracy spinning serves the regime's ends. First, blaming Israel exonerates Egyptian security for any failings, since they could hardly have been expected to foil a plot by the all-powerful Mossad.

Blaming Israel also downplays the very real possibility that al-Qaeda and its Egyptian affiliates remain active. The Egyptian regime, while deeply flawed, has vigorously cracked down on radical Islamist terror. In fact, it was the defeat of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya and al-Jihad, which led their leaders to flee the country, and into the arms of bin Laden. These leaders, especially al-Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, played a key role in pushing al-Qaeda to concentrate on the "far enemy" -- that is the United States. If after a decade of vigilance, with security forces unrestrained by human rights concerns, al-Qaeda and its affiliates can still launch an operation in Egypt it is an embarrassment to the regime.

Finally, the chorus irrationally claiming that Israel committed the bombing, allowed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to again appear as the indispensable man. Asked about the conspiracy theories, Mubarak replied, "I don't know what happened. First we need to investigate in depth... I cannot accuse anyone, Israel or others, until the investigations lead to results."

This apparent moderation shores up Mubarak's standing as the only figure who can prevent the emergence of a radical Islamic Egypt. This stance is central to his credibility. In the over two decades since Mubarak ascended to the Presidency, Egypt has been characterized by economic stagnation and a steady decay in freedom. The only defense for Mubarak's regime is that it is preferable to the Islamists.

Besides serving the regime's tactical need to distract the Egyptian people from the crisis de jour, the government encourages conspiracy theories to demoralize the Egyptian people and keep them compliant. Conspiracy theories foster what leading Egyptian liberal writer Tarek Heggy describes as, "a defeatist attitude that runs counter to pride and self-dignity and to the notion that nations, like men, can shape their destiny."

These convoluted tales find a ready audience among Egypt's poorly educated, impoverished masses. But, as the genesis of the conspiracy theory surrounding the Sinai bombings demonstrates, those at the top of the Egyptian pyramid use them as a tool to distract and discourage everyone below.