The Arab Spring and the Shift of Middle Eastern Power

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For the past two years, the Arab world has been undergoing one of the most significant upheavals to be experienced by the region since the end of the Second World War. Although many analysts have chosen to focus on the factors preceding the Arab Spring, there has been another important, albeit understudied, consequence of the revolutions. Due to these uprisings, power has shifted from the traditional centers of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This shift has led to the implementation of an aggressive foreign policy carried out by these new centers of power as well as a much larger role of Islam in Arab politics. It should be taken into account that the Arab Spring by itself was not sufficient to cause these changes, nor was the rise of political Islam and the fall of Arab nationalism unfamiliar phenomena to the region. However, the Arab Spring served as a catalyst which accelerated this ongoing development.

  While Saudi Arabia possessed the oil wealth and a recipient of military patronage of the United States, it should be unsurprising that Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were considered the traditional centers of power in the Arab Middle East. With their population, economic strength, and general cultural standing, these states had the ability to influence the larger discourse in Middle Eastern politics. It is also worth noting that these three states also represented some of the most fervent supporters of Arab nationalism. Even with the humiliating defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war and the ostracizing of the country in the aftermath of the Camp David Accords, it is hard to deny that Egypt continued to play a major role in Arab politics and still embodied some of the principles of Arab nationalism.

 Political Islam gained a strong foothold in the years following 1979. Three key events helped precipitate the rise of a new political force: the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three events created a theocratic Shia power that was willing to use its religious imagery and language for political power, the strengthening of Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia, and the use of religion as a motivational vehicle to bring in fighters to resist the Soviets. This last event is particularly important for the role it played in the spread of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This period also witnessed a boom in the Gulf countries as the oil wealth led to rapid changes in standards of living and economic power.

 While the 1991 Gulf war and subsequent sanctions regime greatly weakened Iraq, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country removed Iraq as a significant power broker in the Middle East, and deposed one of the most fervent nationalist Arab leaders. Iraq served as a proxy battleground for conflict between the Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each country supported different militias as well as government officials in order to have a say over the country’s future. Here, Saudi Arabia’s growth as a Middle Eastern power broker could be witnessed through the funneling of money to Islamist elements in various Middle Eastern countries in addition to the spread of Wahhabi influence in general. Qatar also started to use its vast oil wealth and popular news station Al Jazeera to gain soft power in the region.

 The continuing effects of the Arab Spring have embroiled Syria in a very destructive civil war and made Egypt too domestically unstable to exert power effectively in regional affairs. With the three traditional centers of power in the Arab Middle East consumed by domestic instability, this has led to the emergence of new players. Accompanying this has been the use of a more aggressive foreign policy by these states to cope with the changed regional atmosphere. The perceived rise of Iran has led several of these states to break their traditional public compliance with American policy as well as the birth of a new rivalry between these new power centers. Lastly, these new states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, carry a much more Islamist influenced identity, leading these countries to try and label themselves as moderate Islamic powers rather than a moderate Arab power. This represents the most significant development (in my opinion) in the Arab world. But the question remains, is the trend bad for the Arab world? If so, can anything be done to counter it?

It is worth nothing that this trend of politicizing religion is not new. While the world has followed the rise of political Islam, Christianity has also continued to play a growing role in the politics of several nations (Uganda, parts of Europe, or even look at American politics). Buddhism as a political identity has also taken root in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, with their extremist incarnations causing great harm to religious minorities in the country. Political Judaism and Hinduism have also grown in prominence in Israel and India respectively (there will be a post in the near future where I will examine political Hinduism in the future). While I must confess that I am not a fervent supporter of having religion play a role in politics (hell, I’m not even the biggest supporter of nationalism), it seems inevitable that people will use different aspects of their identity as a political device to help rally people to their cause. Nor do religious parties differ greatly from their secular counterparts. Perhaps this is the cynic in me, but both parties will use similar tactics and images to promote their objectives when they find it favorable to do so.

So is the rise of political religious groups bad? Not quite, the difference is where on the political spectrum the party places itself. Just like extreme nationalism can lead to xenophobia and fascism, extreme religious parties can also lead to divisive outcomes. If the current problem is that the religious parties in the Arab world are that they are extreme, what can be done with it?

The solution is simple, let them rule. So far, religious parties in the Middle East have not had much success in governing in the perception of people with the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Gaza Strip coming to mind. At the moment, the AKP in Turkey has also been facing resentment against their rule. The reality is that these religious parties are here to stay. With regular democratic elections that see peaceful exchanges of power, the larger of these parties will have to moderate themselves. The problem is that external support for these parties will encourage them not to moderate their platform, nor will it encourage them to implement reforms that might be needed for their respective countries. Qatar had given so much aid to Egypt under Morsi that the government felt no need to implement the economic reforms necessary for the economy. With the Qatari and Saudi governments playing a proxy power game throughout the Middle East, this will unfortunately lead to the rise of extremist groups whose interpretation and use of Islam is divisive and fundamentalist. While this external support will need to be dealt with, any attempt by the United States to sideline one party will encourage excess by the ruling party as well as a less democratic country.

Weekly Linkage

Hey guys, in this weeks linkage, with a special emphasis on the Indian elections:

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Stephen Walt asks the question of have the Asian states involved in the ‘pivot’ are willing to balance against China or if they want to pass the buck onto the US.

Ira Trivedi asks if Modi can deliver more than economic growth.

Fareed Zakaria discusses U.S. policy towards India in the aftermath of Modi’s victory.

David Ignatius writes about the current state of the Middle East peace process.

David Rothkopf and Michael Oren (the former Israeli ambassador to the United States) have a discussion about the identity of Israel and its relationship with American Jews.

Here’s a round up of experts on their opinion of what Modi’s election means.

Was the outcome of India’s election as historic as most commentators think it is?

Marvin Weinbaum writes about Pakistan’s relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia

On a random note, here’s an article talking about Indian gun laws.

Will there be rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Malik Neal writes about peace and illiberal democracy in Sri Lanka.

Corri Zoli and Emily Schneider examines Pakistan’s constitution.

Badriah al-Bouchr writes a great denunciation of how groups like Boko Haram and ISIS do not represent Islam and the general problem with rigidity in a person’s belief. (Article translation from Al-Monitor).

A coup attempt in Tripoli.

Monday Linkage

 

A backgrounder on Boko Haram from Peter Tinti. Here’s also another article looking at the strategy of terrorism to attract media attention, and how the #bringbackoutgirls campaign is helping them.

India is buying weapons from Russia to arm the Afghan government.

Is it time for the U.S. to lift the visa ban on Modi? Also, what is are Modi’s plans once he becomes prime minister? (Here’s a satirical website related to the topic.)

Also, related to those undocumented immigrants in the North East of India, is the policy of deportation even a realistic one?

And lastly, here’s a post from Paul Pillar talking about reconciliation after conflict.

 

‘Religious’ violence in Assam?

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A lot of attention has been given to the #bringbackourgirls campaign that began after the horrific kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram. But recently, I saw this message posted to Facebook.

Putting things into perspective:

Truly, we all want to #BringBackOurGirls, and we all condemn the crazy actions of Boko Haram. And I’ve commented a few times on this insane act.

But let us also remember that there are many serious tragedies that are going on in the world, and the media, and politicians, choose which ones to highlight for their own agenda. As we speak, three major calamities come to mind (and I do not wish to ignore others – but these three are happening simultaneously with the kidnappings)

1) Scores of Muslims brutally massacred in villages in Assam (India) by Hindu gangs, merely for supporting the ‘wrong’ political candidate. Women were literally hacked to death in front of their children. The government has done nothing substantive to bring the killers to justice.

2) Thousands of Muslims forced to flee on foot in the Central African Republic, while hundreds have been killed in the last few weeks, by mobs of scimitar-wielding blood-thirsty Christian fanatics. Hardly any Muslims are left in the capital, and the plight of the Muslim refugees is heart-wrenching.

3) Thousands of Burmese Rohinga are still in limbo: living in barbed-wire camps, surrounding by Buddhist terrorists waiting to burn them alive, protected (after Allah) by a handful of UN peacekeepers. The pictures of their malnourished bodies barely makes it into any mainstream media outlet, and the world has done practically nothing to provide a solution for them. This, after hundreds of them have been killed, and the rest forced into limbo.

 

Now let’s ignore the fact that the news about the Rohingya Muslims has been probably the most prominent story to come out South-East Asia in the last couple of years (with the exception of the protests in Thailand). Also let’s ignore the fact that both the African Union and France have sent peacekeepers to contain the violence in Central Africa, as well as ignore that much of the violence is in reprisal for the violence committed by Muslim Séléka groups. And let’s also ignore that much of the problems that require solutions would involve violating the sovereignty of nations with military action, something that itself is troublesome. Also it might be that these problems don’t have simple solutions (nor are their origins simple) and like the Boko Haram issue, simply posting about it on Facebook will not help. Finally let’s ignore the fact that the reason that the story gained prominence was this act is a very unusual act carried out by a terrorist organization, on such a mass scale, and the government’s initial response generated much anger among the Nigerian population. While we’re on the topic violence towards religious minorities, let’s not forget what happens in Sri Lanka, the general Middle East, Pakistan, Malaysia, etc.

But, there is another problem with this post. It assumes that these are all instances of religious violence. Although I cannot go into detail about the Rohingya and anti-balaka case, let us examine the Assam case for a second.

The author gets some points right, most of the victims were Muslims, and part of the motivation for the violence was that the victims voted for the wrong political candidate. But let’s start with the first part of the post that he got wrong, it wasn’t the Hindu identity of the attackers that drove them to commit the violence. To look at the motivation of these extremists going around killing, we need to examine a brief history of the region.

Police claim that the violence was carried out by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a groups that is designated a terrorist organization in India. So the fact that these massacres are carried out by terrorist organizations already makes it difficult for the Indian government to bring these men in for justice (they don’t exactly make themselves easy to find). There’s also the fact that much of the violence was committed in in very remote villages in the North East of India, making a rapid government response difficult. Some of the villages were also very close to the Bhutan-India border, making escape into a foreign country a possibility to avoid Indian forces. As of now, violence seems to have subsided.

So why did these terrorists target Muslims? Was it on the basis of their religious identity? Again, closer analysis suggests otherwise. In the past, many ‘outsiders’ were attacked, even Hindi speaking Hindus. There has been a push by these organizations to protect their ‘traditional’ culture from outside influence. This already suggests that religious identity was not the driving factor for these attackers. So what is it with the Muslims?

The Muslims are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. Unfortunately, politicians in their bid to get reelected have chosen to emphasize the “threat” that these undocumented migrants possess to the culture of the region. Seeing that these same extremists who were willing to target Hindi speaking workers of the same nationality, how are they going to react to immigrants from another country?

As we can see, the violence here is more ethnic in nature rather than religious? Yet, why is it important that we recognize it as ethnic violence rather than religious violence/

Using the rhetoric of religion is dangerous. Similar violence in the region occurred in 2012 where the same rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim violence was used. The result, extremist Muslims in other parts of India sent threats to Indians from Northeastern India, causing a large exodus of Northeastern workers from the other parts of India. The rhetoric of Hindus attacking Muslims also encouraged Hindu extremist groups to encourage violence against Muslims in other parts of India in revenge for the exodus of Northeastern Indians. By making this a religious conflict, it expands the scope and scale of the conflict. Religious conflict is an unfortunate reality in India, with the unfortunate examples of 1984, 2002, and the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 as reminders of this.

Looking at his last point:

These stories, and more, don’t make national coverage, and are for all practical purposes completely ignored. By selectively highlighting atrocities committed by only one religion/ethnicity, over the course of a few years an average person receiving this slanted perspective becomes so brainwashed into associating evil/terror with only one group (i.e., Muslims) that it is almost impossible to ‘de-program’ him to think otherwise.

And while we’re at it, let’s not selectively highlight atrocities where only the members of one religion or ethnicity is painted to be the victims of the world without any regards to the complicated history/politics/narratives present in each conflict. In terms of religious groups, every religion is both victims and perpetrators of violence to such an extent that it would be disingenuous and dishonest to call your religious group the victims while other the perpetrators. The problem is that while pretending to care about the injustices happening the world, only to actually care about when your own religious group or ethnicities are the victims. Nor is this limited to Muslims, it wasn’t uncommon for me growing up to hear stories of the persecution of Hindus from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even in India. The problem is that we portray ourselves so much as victims that we forget about the other victims in the world, and spread harsh perceptions of other groups.

 

P.S. Also spreading on Facebook was this message supposedly from Assamese Muslims. Again, it is not religion that is emphasized, but rather the “illegal” immigrants. This rhetoric towards the undocumented immigrants in those regions is troublesome, but again suggest that the riots and violence are ethnic/nationalistic in nature rather than religious.

 

Sources and Reading

http://www.mha.nic.in/BO

http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/05/07/india-election-violence-assam-idINKBN0DN09320140507

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/in-assam-a-familiar-pattern-of-violence/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://allafrica.com/stories/201405021859.html

http://iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/vol1-issue5/H0154245.pdf

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6683767.stm

http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/officials-offer-assurances-in-effort-to-stem-exodus-to-the-northeast/

http://borjournals.com/Research_papers/Oct_2012/1023%20M.pdf

 

Hello

Hello, hola, namaskar, and marhaba to Al Raiy. Our names are Hari Prasad and Yasir Kuoti. Yasir is currently a graduate student of international affairs at Marquette University focusing on Middle Eastern and Security politics. In the Fall of 2014, Hari Prasad will be starting his master’s program of international affairs at George Washington University with an interest in Middle East, South Asian, and Security politics. We are hoping with this blog to help highlight issues that are currently happening in the Middle East and South Asia, though we might talk about other parts of the world when necessary. We plan on going past the current discourse present on these topics to introduce a more analytic and personal approach to the problems and issues in these regions as well as to correct some of the misconceptions that exist in the media about these areas. 

Yasir, born and raised in Iraq, is a fluent speaker of both Iraqi and Modern Standard Arabic (as well as some Kurdish) who has also lived in several other Middle Eastern countries before moving to America. Hari is an American of Indian descent who has spent time in the Middle East, India, and a student of Arabic (and soon will begin Hindi lessons). We hope to bring sources from these regions to offer readers a better perspective of the events going on. We will also be sharing news, papers, books, and articles that we think are worth reading as they either provide a fine background to a specific topic in the region, or are just analytically well done. 

What does al raiy mean? Al raiy in arabic (الرأي) means opinion (in hindi, raya राय). 

Enjoy.