Concerning Islamism: Hands On or Off?


Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute is an insightful analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. Of Islamists in particular, he notes they often moderate under moderate repression, as witnessed under Mubarak. But intrinsically he finds them to be ‘illiberal’ in terms of Western values, though there is a strong undercurrent in his writing that the values of democracy demand they must be allowed to govern anyway.

Writing in the Atlantic, he chides President Obama’s ‘do-nothing’ foreign policy for main of the region’s ills, including allowing Egypt’s military remove the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi in a coup d’etat that eventually resulted in hundreds dead during the bloody suppression of the sit-in protest at Rabaa.

America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy.

Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture.

It is a fine argument, though others have praised Obama for the wisdom of his foreign policy in a messy region. But beyond not criticizing the removal of Morsi, Hamid chides America for not holding Morsi himself accountable to a more liberal paradigm:

America’s unwillingness to play such a role increased the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood, empowered by its conservative base and pressured by its Salafi competitors, would veer rightward and overreach, alienating old and new allies in the process. As demonstrated in Egypt, the governance failures of Islamist parties can have devastating effects on the course of a country’s democratic transition.

Hamid appears to extend the ‘moderate repression’ argument to the realm of international politics. He highlights Turkey as an example:

After coming to power in 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed a series of consequential democratic reforms. The prospect of membership in the European Union helped incentivize the AKP to revise the penal code, ease restrictions on freedom of expression, rein in the power of the military, and expand rights for the country’s Kurdish minority. But when the threat of a military coup receded, and negotiations with the EU faltered, the AKP government seemed to lose interest in democratization, increasingly adopting illiberal and undemocratic practices.

His essay highlights that what Islamist believe and what they can accommodate pragmatically are often in stark contrast:

In 2006, the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mahdi Akef, told me angrily that “of course” the Brotherhood would cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if it ever had the chance.

Of course, Morsi did not cancel the peace treaty, though Hamid notes he once called Jews ‘the descendants of apes and pigs’. The Muslim Brotherhood realized its red lines, and even played a functional role in helping broker peace between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, he says.

But I not sure what is his overall argument, or philosophy. He notes Obama’s hands-off strategy, but earlier in the article he criticizes the hands-on support given to the region’s dictators. There is no either-or, of course, and it appears his preference is for the democratizing pressure from the Bush administration circa 2005, that opened up political space in the region, including Egypt, and gave Islamist entities – among others – wider space to operate.

But concerning that ‘illiberal’ nature of Islamism, is his solution altogether continual moderate repression? Whether from domestic or international agents, that seems open to criticism as well. Hamid levels it himself at the Egyptian military [SCAF] after the revolution and through the beginnings of Morsi’s presidency.

SCAF, though, grew increasingly autocratic, culminating in one very bad week in June 2012 when the military and its allies dissolved parliament, reinstated martial law, and decreed a constitutional addendum stripping the presidency of many of its powers.

Hamid calls these ‘egregious violations of the democratic process’, and there is little argument. But it can also be said they were among the few means left of moderate repression to constrain Brotherhood illiberalism. As already noted above, without international pressure from the US the Brotherhood went headlong into the arms of Salafis.

Modern world peace is based strongly on the idea of national sovereignty. Domestic repression is not healthy, while all sorts of pressure exist legitimately in the realm of international relations. Hamid alludes to it as ‘dependency’.

As long as Arab countries are dependent on Western powers for economic and political survival, there will be limits to how far elected governments, Islamist or otherwise, can go.

(If that dependency were to weaken in the long run, Islamists would likely pursue a more ideological, assertive foreign policy. Ideology, to express itself, needs to be freed of its various constraints.)

But if this is his belief, given all that Islamists have said about both domestic and international ideology, should they be given an opening at all? Why risk their partial empowerment? If their moderation came only from modes of repression, will not a true nature reveal itself when no longer constrained?

These are not comfortable questions to ask, let alone answer. But I am curious about Hamid’s answer.

(Note: Hamid’s book, Temptations of Power, likely addresses these issues.)

UPDATE: Hamid has been gracious to respond by Twitter. Below are his comments.


Syria: Evidence, Prayer, and Activism

I confess to not following every detail that emerges about the crisis in Syria, and ask patience from those who have who can bring more to bear in this brief post. Please comment freely.

But in searching briefly for a presentation of the evidence tying the recent chemical weapons attack to the Syrian government, I was disappointed by this article on CNN:

A declassified report by the White House does not divulge all details of the evidence the United States is looking at. And it remains unclear what the “streams of intelligence” cited in the report may be and how they were collected.

It goes on to summarize the result of the evidence, presented by Secretary of State Kerry:

“We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information, and we ask the American people and the rest of the world to judge that information,” Kerry told lawmakers Tuesday.

It “proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instruction to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks.”

Physical, “concrete” evidence shows where the rockets came from, when they were fired, and that not one landed in regime-controlled territory, Kerry said.

“Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21,” the White House says in the declassified report.

“Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred. … The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.”

Here is an analysis of the evidence from Reuters, carried by Ahram Online:

No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some US sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.

While US officials say Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons strike even if he did not directly order it, they have not been able to fully describe a chain of command for the 21 August attack in the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital.

It is one of the biggest gaps in US understanding of the incident, even as Congress debates whether to launch limited strikes on Assad’s forces in retaliation.

The strongest evidence, they say, comes from a link between Assad’s presidential circle and the scientific center responsible for chemical weapons:

Personnel associated with the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Council (SSRC), which has direct ties to Assad’s entourage, were likely involved in preparing munitions in the days before the attack, they say.

A declassified French intelligence report describes a unit of the SSRC, known by the code name “Branch 450”, which it says is in charge of filling rockets or shells with chemical munitions in general.

US and European security sources say this unit was likely involved in mixing chemicals for the 21 August attack and also may have played a more extensive role in preparing for it and carrying it out.


Much of the US claim that Assad is responsible was initially based on reports from witnesses, non-governmental groups and hours of YouTube videos.

Perhaps my disappointment is conditioned by the long wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, the case for which was built on faulty or misrepresented ‘streams of intelligence’. I understand that this work cannot be made public fully. I have a basic trust in the US government, but I also fear the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among world and regional powers, masquerading as concern over chemical weapons.

Here is an alternate explanation along with direct testimony, from Mint Press:

However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”

“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”

As stated above, this article places primary blame on Saudi Arabia, while reporting how different nations seek to influence events:

More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.

Ingersoll referred to an article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.

“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord,” Ingersoll wrote.

“I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” Bandar allegedly told the Russians.

But it is not just Russia:

“They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” it said.

Bandar has been advancing Saudi Arabia’s top foreign policy goal, WSJ reported, of defeating Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Although Saudi Arabia has officially maintained that it supported more moderate rebels, the newspaper reported that “funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar.”

But rebels interviewed said Prince Bandar is referred to as “al-Habib” or ‘the lover’ by al-Qaida militants fighting in Syria.

Certainly there can be misinformation and invented testimony on all sides, but the reporter for Mint Press, Dale Gavlak, writes consistently for the AP and has contributed often to Christianity Today. I have met her once and appreciate her journalism. She states, however, she did not investigate personally in Syria, but relied on a local journalist.

In the end, is this much different than ‘streams of intelligence’? Yes, at least in part, for the journalist is named. Unfortunately, as seen above, not all of his sources are. But the two accounts are almost comically different. The first builds its case on the complexity of the attack, the second on the incompetence of the delivery.

So what should America do? Here I will pause, for I realize that geopolitical realities are messy and our ideals, perhaps, can rarely be realized. In fact, perhaps, they must often be compromised. Among the regional powers listed above, are there any with which our ideals can rest comfortably?

So shall we choose between the least bad options, using language with which President Obama has described the recommended missile strike? Or should we just stay out of someone else’s fight? If so, it is not as simple as saying we will stay out of a civil war, since so many other regional agendas are in play. Should we let them decide matters, and keep our ideals from having any influence at all?

Goodness. I hope we have moral men and women in our administration making these decisions. But I fear that as long as our intervention is portrayed in ‘humanitarian’ terms, we compromise these ideals by not being fully honest.

I fear a situation as in Libya, where a mandate was given to protect the people of Benghazi from Gaddafi’s anticipated assault. Not long afterwards US-supported NATO forces went far beyond their mandate to aid the rebels and facilitate the overthrow of the government, even though, reportedly, there were no ‘boots on the ground’.

But tough decisions must fall to someone, and I am glad the president has involved Congress. Our intervention must now be the choice of the American people, for good or for ill.

In the meanwhile, this call for prayer is apt, from Middle East Concern:

Syrian church leaders have welcomed and endorsed the call of Pope Francis for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria on Saturday, 7th September. The Pope condemned the use of chemical weapons, along with all other forms of violence, and renewed his appeal for urgent effort towards a negotiated settlement rather than military escalation. The Pope’s call has also been welcomed by other religious leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria.

The Syrian crisis is increasingly complex, with the chemical weapons attack of 21st August a particularly heinous example of the numerous atrocities perpetrated by a range of parties. Widespread violence between Government and various opposition groups continues, including in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. There are also conflicts between Kurdish groups and opposition groups as well as intra-opposition clashes.

The death toll continues to rise and the number of displaced people grows ever larger. The most reliable estimates suggest that at least four million are displaced within the country and that more than two million are officially registered as refugees in neighbouring countries (many more have not officially registered).

Syrian Christian leaders are appalled by the continuing violence and violations of human rights. Their consistent message is that a solution can only come through political dialogue and that all parties must prioritise the needs of the Syrian people.

Syrian Christians urge that we join in prayer for Syria at this time. They request our prayers that:

a.  Peace, justice, and reconciliation will be established in Syria

b.  Calls for renewed effort to find a political solution will be heeded by all those in authority and with influence

c.  There will be effective provision for those internally displaced and for refugees

d.  The international community will cease using Syria as a place to pursue their own agendas and act only in the best interests of the Syrian people.

But simply praying is not enough for everyone. Robert Miner is a friend of ours who lived for 26 years in Jordan, working extensively with the Program for Theological Education by Extension. With a small number of like-minded friends, he protested the possible strike at the American Embassy in Amman.

Robert Miner, in the middle
Robert Miner, in the middle

His petition declares:

Please take note that we strongly disapprove of the proposed US attack on Syria, which is soon to be discussed in the US Congress.

The cause of peace in Syria, as well as in the entire region, will in no way be furthered by an attack by the US and its allies on Syria, but will lead to further death, destruction, and the prolonged suffering of the Syrian people.

We demand the US withdraw its military and denounce these threats against Syria.

He also provides links to the White House, Congress, and in particular for Christians, a message of faith programed for delivery to your appropriate representatives.

May God give wisdom to all in determining the right course of action, and bring peace, justice, stability, and consensus to the Syrian people.