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Archive for September, 2012

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

  Barely a week into what is becoming Islam-wide rioting against America, we have learned that the authors of the film that started the troubles are: Egyptian Coptic Christians, fundamentalist American Christians, an Israeli-American, assorted Israelis, fundamentalist Muslim terrorists and God knows what else. The fact remains that we have no idea of the true origins of this provocative film. Any of the purported authors could be guilty. Any real author could be well hidden behind a wall of obfuscation.

Yet we are faced with the issue of increasing attacks on our embassies in the Muslim world. Worst of all, we have seen the deaths of our ambassador and three other staff members in Libya. To understand what has happened, we need to identify the results of the event and determine who gains from it.

We have a dead American ambassador, an initially unrepentant Egyptian leader, ambivalent Libyan and Yemeni leadership and wildly anti-American mobs throughout the region. Who gains from that?

The United States, despite the periodic resistance of both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, has consistently sought a peaceful, two-state solution to the now more than 60-year-old struggle over Palestine. We have almost always been castigated by Arabs for our positions, however, only in the recent past, under Israel’s Likud leadership, have we seen the Israelis ramp up their rhetoric and their pressure on the U.S. government. Most recently, this has peaked over the reluctance of the Obama administration to succumb to Israeli pressure to join in an attack on Iran.

And this has not been a problem for the Likud only in America, where the vast majority of Americans have no interest in a further military involvement in the Middle East. It is also a problem in Israel, where important past and present Israeli leaders have shown no interest in or seen no reason for attacking Iran, a view shared by a healthy portion of the Israeli Jewish population.

The attacks in Egypt and Libya were provoked by a nasty amateur film portraying Muhammad in a most incredibly unfavorable light. Media outlets reported that a man calling himself Sam Bacile claimed he was the film’s director and producer, that he was an Israeli American real estate developer and that 100 Jewish businessmen had backed the venture.

The results of the showing of that film, which was translated into Arabic for local television, were riots and death. Who openly promotes that? Muslim fundamentalists who seek to stay in permanent conflict with America.

Who can benefit from that is a far more complicated matter. Clearly, Muslim fundamentalists benefit, but so do those Israelis who have struggled against Palestinian interests and for American support for an attack on Iran. Anything they can do to turn America against Palestine, against Arabs and Muslims in general, and against a two-state solution, as well as toward stronger support of their causes is, by definition, a good thing. In that context, a Muslim attack on U.S. interests abroad might be just the thing to move U.S. public opinion further toward the more extreme Israeli positions that we have so far managed to avoid, such as a military attack on Iran.

It is painfully clear that there are groups of people in the Arab world that are eager to commit violence against American interests. The provocative and negative actions of anti-Muslim individuals and groups here in America play right into their hands. Such Americans, whether they commit spontaneous acts or are motivated and guided by foreign influence, can precipitate anti-American violence at will through their anti-Muslim provocations. This simply creates more anti-Muslim Americans, which happens to be a good thing in the eyes of not only fundamentalist Muslims, but the Likud as well.

The frightening fact is that anyone who wishes to enrage the “Arab street” can do so with ease and great effect. That fact remains a thorn in the side of any person, group or country that would like to see peace and quiet in the area. This will always be a potential trigger for trouble, a trigger that can be directly and openly pulled or that can hide and obfuscate the identity and motives of the hunter.

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Originally published in the “Valley News” of New Hampshire and Vermont
There is a persistent call here in the United States, particularly in today’s
politically charged campaign season, for democracy to take over in the Middle
East. We hear it from virtually every quarter — from the White House, from Republicans of almost every hue, and from pundits who write on Middle Eastern affairs.
Clearly, America wants democracy to prosper in that region.
And it certainly would be nice. But just how likely is that to happen?
Today’s Middle East and North African national borders were established or codified
under European colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries for the advantage,
convenience and profit of those colonial powers. Those borders ignored or
cynically exacerbated many sectarian, tribal and ethnic differences that were
of major importance to local populations.
The virtual ignoring of tribal and sectarian issues, particularly in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, and the discounting of the importance of ethnic-identity issues
for Kurds, Persians, Arabs, Central Asians and Turks in virtually all of the
post-World War II states that emerged out of the European colonial era, stand
as examples of the indifference of the colonial powers to issues that
ultimately would create the major divisions and difficulties that exist today.
Much of America has long believed that we have the world’s best existing economic
(market) and governmental (liberal democracy) systems. This belief has been
often been the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Coupled with an inherent American
tendency to evangelize, we have often sought to spread our systems around the
world and to combat those systems that were not compatible with it.
The problem with this approach is that it does not sufficiently take into account
already existing governmental, economic and belief structures. It never asks,
as can be seen in our recent Middle East policy, whether the ground
abroad is sufficiently fertile for the cultivation and establishment of
democracy.
The unfortunate fact is that the region has virtually no experience with liberal
democracy. The region is mired in tribalism, sectarianism, brutally imposed
secularism or Islamic law, dictatorships and monarchies. None of these are
steppingstones to liberal democratic governance. We have tribes almost everywhere,
significant military power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and Jordan, to
name but a few, and Islam everywhere.
Democracy doesn’t simply spring up, particularly in populations with little to no history
of self-rule. Democracy has certain preconditions: It must have the active,
unfettered participation of the people as citizens in politics and civic life;
national and regional tolerance of pluralism; a general and equal right to
vote; free and fair elections; the rule of law;and a guarantee of basic human
rights vis-a-vis the state and its authorities, not just for individuals but also for
all social groups, particularly religious ones. Not least of all, it must have a
constitution to codify all these preconditions.
Muslims tend to believe in and be content with Islam. Islam may have glaring
deficiencies from our point of view, but by and large our view is not shared by
Muslims. Islam provides the believer with a complete blueprint for life. An
essentially content group of Muslim believers cannot be viewed as ripe for
conversion to democracy as many of democracy’s basic tenets are diametrically
opposed to the teachings of the Koran.
In this regard, the Koran states “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women,
because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend
from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard
in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard”.
Issues involving women’s rights, violence against women, divorce, dress code,
education, employment, rape, sexuality, etc, etc, although they do vary from
country to country, do not recognize women as even vaguely equal to men or
deserving of the same rights.  On the issue of women alone, democracy and Islam
have little in common.
Almost all of our politicians and pundits, both past and present, speak glowingly of a
transition in the Middle East to democracy. However, there is nothing in past
history or contemporary reality that could logically argue that the region is
ready for such a transition. Unfortunately, when American politicians speak of
democracy this way, their American audience assumes this to mean that we will
see a democratic Middle East in the near future.
There is no magic democratic wand for the Middle East. The absolute best we can hope
for are moderate Islamist regimes. The worst result will be fundamentalist
regimes of the type supported by the Salafis and Wahhabis, or any other group
that a calls for a return to the fundamentalist practices of the early Muslims, or for
renewed dictatorships. We need to get the notion of a democratic Islam in the
short term out of our heads and focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only
they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremists and
ultimately evolving into liberal democracies. The timelines for that kind of
change are likely to be measured in decades at best and centuries at worst.
In the interim, we might want to concentrate on proving to a skeptical Middle East
and greater world that our systems work for us Americans, let alone anyone
else. What has happened to John Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill”?

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