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The (in)compatibility of Islam and Democracy

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The effects of the Skyes-Picot Agreement are still being felt today. It is true that the modern Middle East is a house built by the Europeans but it sits on the foundations of the Ottoman Empire. The history of the Middle East has been characterised by authoritarian regimes and religious zealots, however the Arab Spring has proved otherwise.

The Arab world is now fragmented, resembling a post-Soviet Eastern Europe with stagnant economies, high youth unemployment and wars based on sectarianism. The question to ask is, with America’s aggressive promotion of democracy which has resulted in two wars, continued insurgency and radicalization, and the quick and brutal rise of Islamic State, is Islam compatible with democracy? More than five years on and the rhetoric in the West seems to be that the Arab Spring has failed to deliver democracy in the Arab world. Examining the Arab world we see that the majority of Arab regimes are classified as non-democratic as there is a noticeable prevalence of authoritarianism, coupled with failed nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan only adds to the Western perception of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.

The Bush administration claimed that “the lack of democracy led to Islamist terrorism,” and therefore, a global war on terror was deemed the only means of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Ironically, in fighting terrorism, the West unwilling supported authoritarian dictators because by pushing for greater political reforms in the Arab world, the West would lose their Arab allies hence the West’s lack of commitment during the Arab Spring. Most scholars in the West base their assumptions regarding Islam and democracy on Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” and concepts such as the separation of religion and state. He argues that in the West, there is God and King i.e. church and state, whereas in Islamic civilizations, God is King i.e. religion if the foundation of state and society, and in Sino-Japanese civilization, the Emperor is God reincarnated.

We must first understand how Muslims, particularly those in the Middle East, view democracy. First, the Traditionalist, who view Islam as both a religion and a state, denying democracy solely of religious grounds. Similarly, Modernist Muslims also view Islam as a religion and state too but however, disagree with Traditionalist as they see Islam being compatible with democracy, viewing democracy as a modern version on shura. Finally we have secularist Muslims who view believe that Islam is not the foundation of a state. Secular pluralist are broken down into two subgroups: the Statist Pluralist such as Ben Ali or Mubarak who believe in a strong centralised government and limited political participation. The majority of the Arab leaders resemble Statist Pluralist and their despotism stems from two fears; 1) democracy could get Traditionalist such as the Muslim Brotherhood elected, thus they opt for the status quo i.e, authoritarianism, save they become a theological dictatorship, and 2) with democracy not being perfect, pursing it could have disastrous implications such as the fragmentation of the state like in Somalia. To continue, the other subgroup is the Pluralist Secularist who are more aligned with Liberal Democracy.

Unfortunately the Western media seems preoccupied on Traditionalist like ISIS and presenting the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It can be argued that the so-called incompatibility of democracy and Islam is reflective of the West’s own need for uniformity revealing fears of the “other”. The reason for this point to the one obvious answer; predictability. If all the states are democracies they will act democratic, and thus predictable, making their foreign policy easy to implement. However, it is clear that America’s aggressive promotion of democracy has, ironically, created a generation who are incredulous towards Western ideas. We must not forget that close to 300 million Muslims have been living under democracy in democratic countries like Indonesia, Turkey and Senegal. The thing you will notice is a lack of Arab countries, and it is here that you realise that Islam and democracy are not incompatible; it is, however, oil and democracy that seem incompatible in the Arab world, particularly the Arab Peninsular.

The argument here is that “oil wealth can be a political curse when oil-rich dictators oppose democratic development” because autocrats sole source of income is derived from oil exports and state institutions become heavily dependent on the oil wealth turning into what scholars call rentier states. The Gulf states have become richer, per capita gross domestic product, and yet remained staunchly authoritarian, explaining the democratic deficit becomes difficult because according to modernisation theory, “greater wealth lead to…..education, political decentralization and…political democracy” as the Arab world remains politically repressed. Furthermore, most will agree that a large middle class is needed for democracy to flourish, however, this is not the case in the Arab world. Oil wealth concentrates power into the hands of the ruling elite or royal family, leaving the potential middle class complicit in the maintenance of the rentier state as the “citizens are satisfied with low taxes and seemingly generous benefits”. For instance, during the Arab Spring, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia oil proceeds were used “to maintain order or to buy social peace.” Simply put, oil wealth is used to buy citizens obedience.

Ultimately, what we are seeing in the Middle East is that the majority of the post-Arab spring states loosely resemble a crude mixture of authoritarianism with noticeable hints of a democratic regime all in efforts to starve of any further protests, and it has been working to some degree. One of the things to take away from this is that democracy is evolutionary and not revolutionary. By this, I mean unlike a revolution where the results are immediate i.e. the ousting of a dictator and installing a new government, democracy, on the other hand, is an incremental process whose full effects will not be felt for generations to come.

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Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Middle East

Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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