Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Impetuous Folly & Perils of Pax Americana: The MENA Variation

Graham Fuller has served as a CIA station chief in Kabul and is a former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council. He is currently an adjunct Professor of History at the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University. And I think we can safely conclude that he is one of the more astute among a handful of reliable analysts of Islamist ideologies, movements and political events in the greater Islamic world but especially in the nation-states that make up the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). With regard to the recent revolutionary (or revolutionary-like) uprisings in the name of democracy and social justice exemplified in Tunisia and Egypt, Fuller writes that, while we cannot know with certainty the outcome of these historical events, “one thing is clear—the imperative to break the long and ugly pattern of harsh, incompetent and corrupt rule that sucks optimism, hope and creativity out of these societies and made them breeding grounds for radicalism.”

Fuller’s latest book, A World Without Islam (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2010), “offers a forceful, erudite reminder that neither Islam nor religious fervor adequately explains the animosity between parts of the Muslim world and the United States.”[1] The title is in reference to a counterfactual thought experiment in which we discover that the current crisis in “our” relations with the Islamic world “has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with political and cultural frictions.” As Zachary Karabell explains in his review of A World Without Islam, Fuller argues “that the fissures that currently exist might well have existed even if Islam never had, and he offers a wide-ranging, at times digressive but always illuminating look at the past centuries to support that contention.” Thus Fuller provides an uncommon if not courageous case for why we might think long and hard about “the degree to which the legacy of Western control and empire shape contemporary attitudes toward religion and terrorism in the Muslim world.” Alas,

“For Americans, that history seems either distant or beside the point, but for many Arabs and Iranians, it is neither. The struggles for independence are decades, not centuries, old, and until the 1970s, nationalism rather than religion was the preferred ideology of resistance. But with the failure of nationalism[2] to establish many Muslim countries as independent powerhouses, religion assumed a new role.”

Finally, Fuller’s book “tackles the question [of terrorism] more bluntly than many Americans will like:”

“‘Terrorism cannot be separated from the conditions, concerns and distress of people in the Middle East,’ he writes, and he excoriates the United States for using the label to invalidate any violent attempts by less powerful groups to fight for independence. In the end, terrorism directed at Americans will diminish when ‘Western military intervention and political intervention in the Muslim world’ diminish.”

The fear of terrorism, at times and turns either reasonable or irrational, finds academic and mass media commentators alike eliding important distinctions among Islamist ideologies and movements, in fact, often carelessly reducing them to species of violent and terrorist “jihadism,” as evidenced of late in mass media rhetoric about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.[3] Assuming the transparency or sincerity of such rhetoric, the level of ignorance it reveals about Islamist thought and movements in public fora is appalling, to put it mildly. Ironically perhaps, it also serves to expose widespread anxieties and fears over the actual or imminent realization of democratic principles, methods and practices in the MENA countries.

All of this by way of a prelude to Fuller’s latest essay at The Huffington Post, “The Arab Revolution is Beyond America’s Control,” a substantive extract from which follows:

[….] “What the people of the region demand is to be able to take control of their own lives and destinies. But that in turn depends on an end to the constant external intervention of the United States in the region.

In the near term, the prescription is stark—Washington must back off and leave these societies alone, ending the long political infantilization of Middle Eastern populations. We must end our incessant and obsessive efforts to intervene and micromanage the political life of foreign states based on a myopic vision of ‘American interests.’

Today the Middle East is the last redoubt in the world of regimes bought, maintained and guided by Washington. Is it any wonder that this region is now the cauldron of numerous rebellions and anti-American expression?

And just why are we maintaining this damaging, hated quasi-imperial role in the Middle East? Is it for the oil? Yet what tin-pot dictator has ever refused us oil? Furthermore, we don’t even rely that much on Middle East oil—Saudi Arabia ranks only number three among our top five providers: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria.

Or is it perhaps all about Israel? Yet why should that state constitute the seeming touchstone of everything that we do in the region? After all, Israel is overwhelmingly the most powerful military state in the Middle East, acts at will in the Middle East under the protection of American veto, manipulates our own domestic politics in its favor, and is now run by the most inflexible and ultra-right-wing government in Israeli history, while soaking up more American foreign aid per capita than any other state. The U.S. still backs Israel against the Palestinians in an Israeli occupation now into its fifth decade.

So given the new outburst of frustration, anger and violence, we still do not seem to acknowledge the need to change the narrative. Washington does not yet grasp the phenomenon of popular Middle Eastern will that now seemingly defies us everywhere. Our default instincts from Cold War days are still to grasp for a phantom ‘stability’ at any price and prop up anyone who will be ‘pro-Western.’ Egypt is a ‘vital American ally,’ we hear—but what does this mean? The ruler may have been bought, but the Egyptian people are not allies—indeed they are predictably hostile to the status quo and to the powers that have propped it up. [….]

Like it or not, at this point in history Islamist parties do well all over the Muslim world; they have become the default opposition. Get used to it. They vary tremendously across a wide spectrum, from moderates to radicals, and include a small sliver of violent killers. These movements are constantly evolving. We must learn to work with the more moderate ones; that includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They are not prone to love America, especially in view of our past policies, but the Brotherhood has eschewed violence for half a century and moves cautiously. If they occupy a major place in any new Egyptian government, they could well do with our help. And they will have to meet the political, economic and social demands of the people once in power: Anti-Americanism doesn’t feed bellies or reform the social order.

America cannot go on riding the tiger forever in the Middle East. We cannot expect to have ‘pro-American’ forces in power in the Middle East when the publics don’t like our policies. We cannot continue our endless interventions—out of fear that some states might emerge as anti-American. The world is sick of such meddling. We have to deal with the causes of why populations have become anti-American. And all this comes in the context of the rise of new powers with their own interests, and desire for clout in what they see as a new, emerging, multipolar global order. The costs are rising on our old patterns of imposing Pax Americana.”

These are not the words of the “libertarian socialist” Noam Chomsky but a former CIA station chief, yet Chomsky[4] and Fuller are, in the end, on the same page. One can only hope their thoughts on such matters have at least a modicum of the power attributed to Buddhist prayer flags.


[1] Zachary Karabell, Book review: “A World Without Islam,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2010, accessed online: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2010/sep/26/entertainment/la-ca-graham-fuller-20100924

[2] On Arab nationalism in particular, see Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983 ed.); Bassam Tibi, Arab Nationalism: Between Islam and the Nation-State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 3rd ed., 1996); and Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). On Iranian nationalism (both secular and religious), see Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Mangol Bayat, Iran’s First Revolution: Shi‘ism and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006 [this is a revised edition of Keddie’s 1981 book, Roots of Revolution]). On Turkish nationalism there are any number of books one might cite, but I’ll single out Carter Vaughn Findley’s Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A History, 1789-2007 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[3] On the Society of Muslim Brothers (or the Muslim Brotherhood), see Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 [1969]), and Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press/Garnet, 1998). I have a brief biography of the founder of Al-Ikhwān, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), in Oliver Leaman, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy, Vol. 1 (A-I) (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2006): 70-74. For a recent succinct and accurate take on today's Brotherhood in Egypt, see this guest column for Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog.

[4] See here, here, and here, and then here.

[Images: (Top) - Mohammed Badie, the leader (‘General Guide’ or chairman) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, during a press conference in Cairo following the arrests of hundreds of members and supporters of the Brotherhood just prior to the parliamentary elections 2010. (Bottom) - Archival photograph shows Egyptian women demonstrating in a 1919 uprising. Credit: Wikimedia Commons]


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