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An Imaginary Conversation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the Current Predicament of the US

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]dams: Good morning Thomas. What is your ghost up to, strolling through the streets of Washington DC so early in the morning?

Jefferson: Good morning to you too John. I surmise my reason is the same as yours: I’ve been unable to rest in my grave. A grave is supposed to be one’s final resting place, but these days I’ve been tossing and turning at the mere thought of what is happening in our beloved country. So I decided to take a walk and see what our ordinary fellow citizens are up to some 230 years after I wrote the Declaration of Independence. It’s a good thing that we are invisible and nobody can see us.

A: quite right Thomas, quite right. I have been in the grave just as long as you have been. Remember that we died the same day on the 4th of July 1826, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence. In any case, it’s more reassuring to stroll through Washington and simply see ordinary people going about their business unconcerned with all the Byzantine political machinations taking place in the halls of government. To look at them, you’d think that all is well with the world and nothing extraordinary is going on.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day on the 4th of July 1826

J: Ah, ignorance is bliss! But I suppose that had one taken a stroll through the streets of Philadelphia any day or hour of the week during the revolutionary times, things wouldn’t have appeared that much different. Surely you remember.

A: Indeed. But that “business as usual” atmosphere was quite deceptive even then. I remember only too well the words of Benjamin Franklyn reverberating in my head as I walked in the Philadelphia streets at the time: “either we hang together or we shall surely hang separately.”

J: Indeed, that was an urgent and wise warning to all of us revolutionaries. To rock the boat is to run the risk of being branded a subversive and a traitor fit for hanging.

A: no doubt about it. Had we lost the war of independence, we the signers of the Declaration of Independence would all have been hung together; every last one of us. All those ideals we spelled out in the Declaration of Independence would not have been very useful to any of us. Power would have trumped liberty, pun intended.

J. Yet, as you know John, today in America we have the spectacle of people in national security departments of the government who think nothing of conducting secret deals and negotiations with foreign powers, even acting as secret agents of the same, out to dismantle the whole security apparatus built over many years, not to speak of the Constitution. Some make no secret of wishing to “deconstruct” what they now dub Deep State. One such advisor is inside the White House, almost as a Trojan horse, and his name is Steve Bonner.

A. What did the Roman senator and orator Cicero say? “O tempora, o mores.” I suppose that is what you had in mind when you counseled that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” and that as Plato warned democracy built on ignorance is a pseudo-democracy.

J. Indeed, John, one cannot take liberty for granted just because we, the founding fathers, wrote its principles in a document called the US Constitution. Democracy demands education and eternal vigilance from all its participants. A democracy based on ignorance and apathy ignorant of its noble identity, is like a house built on sand.

A. How true. And history confirms it. As you know, I conducted a study of the history of republics throughout human history, and was somewhat surprised to discover that most republics died after an average span of approximately 300 years. That sounds rather natural, most human phenomena are born, grow and eventually die. What I found surprising and somewhat disconcerting, however, was that most of them did not die of natural causes, so to speak, or by external invasion by their enemies, but by self-inflicted suicide. The most common cause for the eventual termination was public corruption.

J. But the ancient Roman Republic lasted much longer than 3 short centuries. Can we not hope that the American republic will go beyond 300 years?

A. I wish I could answer yes but unfortunately, even Rome did not go on for very much longer after its imperial corruption culminating with the installment of the likes of Caligula and Nero.

J. Could you please elaborate on this point?

A. What happened with Rome, is that it held on to power and control but in effect the republican spirit had all but died by the time one gets to Caligula. That is to say, Rome was no longer a republic of virtue. It was on its way to becoming a swamp of corruption which would defeat it internally. It was not the barbarians that overrun the Empire; it was the Empire that forgot its foundations and traditions.

J. And how did the ancient Greeks and Romans understand virtue?

A. As you well know, Plato in the Republic, and Aristotle in his political and ethical tracts outline which virtues are necessary to govern a city. In the first place there is prudence and wisdom with concern for the common good as distinct from individual egoistic self-interest, there is also harmony among the various factions and branches of government, there is honesty, enterprise, free speech, the sincere belief and search for truth. There is democracy; there is the rule of law but also the rule of reason, compromise, tolerance; there is respect for the rights of others, for civil rights, human rights coupled with an intuition that all of these derive from the very nature of what it means to be fully human. There is the persuasion that unalienable rights are not granted by a powerful state but by the Creator and are integral part of human nature. They cannot be given and they cannot be taken away. This is the great mistake we made at the outset of our republic: we proclaimed unalienable right on paper but forgot to practice them when it came to the slaves who were also fellow human beings.

J. So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that there is a strict correlation between the loss of those virtues you just enumerated and the eventual demise of any polity that conceives itself as democratic or republican?

A. Precisely Thomas. That’s why I coined the expression “Republic of virtue.” A republic of virtue has a better chance of surviving and going on for a while, albeit all of them came to an end eventually. Some of them went on for many years, even centuries, but it was only a semblance of democracy.

J. I concur. If one loses the very identity of being a republic or a democracy, one has for all intent and purpose ceased to be one. Not to be a republic of virtue is to be something else while continuing to delude oneself that one remains a democracy. That’s why I counseled “eternal vigilance as the price of freedom.” Not to be republic of virtue and of ideals, that is to say a perfectible political entity, is to become a tyranny or an oligarchy catering to special interests. It is to have as one’s core value the worship of power. And we have seen what absolute power does to individuals and nations.

A. Quite right, Thomas. Then voting and public debates become a charade. Voting is not the essence of democracy per se; it is merely a sign. The essence resides in truth and liberty. Once those are lost you have a floundering republic. A floundering republic is one where the principle of perfectibility (“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union” begins the US constitution) has been abandoned and that of the path of least resistance and greatest advantage has been instituted.

J. And what would you say, is the most glaring sign nowadays that the present American Republic (which we and other founding fathers started as a noble experiment some 230 years ago), is a floundering social experiment which doesn’t allow us to rest in peace in our tombs?

A. The most glaring sign, I dare aver, is the fact that many citizens no longer possess a great deal of respect for what the Greeks called the transcendentals: True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We seem to have gone back to the cynical question of Pilate: “What is truth?” Some talk of an Orwellian Deep State controlling everything which needs to be dismantled, or, as they put it “deconstructed.”

J. You seem to be saying that the centrifugal process of political disintegration is already an ongoing one in our country, just as there was one just before the Civil War that almost broke our country apart.

A. Yes, it is going on as we speak. All you have to do is look around. Cooperation and solidarity is the exception, fierce competition and survival of the fittest, a la Ayn Rand, seems to be the norm. There is a general disdain for institutions that have served us well for over two centuries. The conspiratorial counselor in the White House calls it “deconstructing the Deep State.”

J. No doubt, our country is in deep trouble. And we have not even broached the subject of our present presidential descendant, Mr. Donald Trump. He seems to be the elephant in the room here.

A. Indeed, Thomas. But we have proceeded correctly by first examining the theoretical implications of democracy and republicanism, before dealing with particular individual charges that may appear biased and unilateral to those who have voted for and support Mr. Trump.

J. I suppose we now need to address the principal cause for our turning and tossing in our graves lately. Let’s therefore talk about Mr. Trump.

A. Consider this: how do you think I would have felt had I, the second president of the US, been accused by you, the third president of the US, of subversive and traitorous acts toward you while you were the president elect? Let’s say, of spying on you, with secret traitorous letters, given that there were no telephones at the time. We had our differences, God knows, especially on the issue of slavery, and sometimes they hurt our friendship, but they never induced us to go beyond the threshold of honor and civic duty to our country.

J. True, John, our mutual love for our country always managed to restrain us from descending to such a low level as slander and false accusations. But today honor and genuine patriotism has become a sham, not to speak of respect for the objectivity of truth. What seems to be all important is self-interest, narcissism and what is convenient and useful at the moment, never mind Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

A. I keep hearing the slogans “the era of post-truth” and “making America great again.” But it stands to reason that without truth, justice and fairness also become a chimera. The Greeks taught us as much.

J. I think we have arrived at the crux of the issue, John. It has to do with the issue of truth. What we may have sitting in the same place we used to sit in in the White House is a veritable embarrassment. We were not perfect men, far from it. Like most men, we were flawed, and historian has created for us the myth of men who never told a lie, but we never put in doubt the very concept of truth. We never denied that it had rained when the road was still wet, or that a crowd was there when it was not there, or that people had protested by the thousand in N.J. when the tween towers came down, or that unemployment statistics were fake when one’s predecessor was in office but true when one was in office, etc. etc. etc.

A. Indeed, the inability to distinguish truth from falsehood is a sure sign of psychological derangement, never mind metaphysics. What is most troubling of all, is that almost half of the country actually ignored the issue and elected the man to the presidency, which says something about the present collective psychological status of our country. As in the Andersen tale, few dare proclaim, like the little boy in the tale, that the emperor goes around without clothes.

J. Which also says that my warning has not been heeded. As I walk throughout the country, I get the feeling that there isn’t much of a “republic of virtue” to be discovered; that a great purging via some social catastrophe may soon ensue. That perhaps it will lethally be brought about by the deconstruction of a Bannon. That perhaps at this crucial point the burden to save the republic will fall on the shoulders of a few heroes who understand the real peril of the crisis. In 1861 that purging, or perhaps divine retribution as one may wish to interpret it, came via the civil war and a hero like president Lincoln almost failed in his mission. But I ask, what are the lesson that should have been learned? Has anything been learned? Or shall events follow their inexorable course toward extinction?

A. I am afraid I cannot offer a positive answer Thomas. I see the same resurgent centrifugal forces at work now that were in place then. Let’s hope we are both wrong in this regard, but the omens do not look very good, and unfortunately my study of republics and their demise confirms it.

J. Well, it was good to see you again and chat for a while, as of old, John. We can now return to our respective tombs. History will soon render a verdict on the present dire situation. Perhaps then we can meet again under the capitol and resume our conversation.

A. I am already looking forward to it, Thomas. Perhaps we can involve a few more former presidents who must also be turning and tossing in their graves, not to speak of those who are still alive and are incredulous at what they are witnessing.

J. By all means. Be well, and God bless America.

Note: this article has appeared already as part of the Symposium Section of Ovi magazine of March 15, 2017.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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