On that ISIS Conspiracy

Maybe Archer created ISIS. From Reddit 

An unfortunate trend has been sweeping social media the last several weeks. This particularly popular conspiracy has been claiming that ISIS is actually a creation of the CIA and Mossad, with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi being an Israeli Mossad agent. Just a small amount of knowledge about international security can tell you that this whole “theory” is fictitious.

This conspiracy has two different origin points. The first alleges that Edward Snowden released documents that detailed the CIA’s and Mossad’s complicity in the creation of ISIS. This by itself should be a signal to people that this theory is completely false. As Time reported, this variation comes from an Iranian newspaper who has attempted to claim that ISIS is a U.S.-Israeli plot to destabilize the Middle East (for an in depth forensic analysis of how this conspiracy has spread, read this fantastic post by Alan Kurtz.) Another variation of this is that in Hillary Clinton admitted that the U.S. created ISIS.

The second variation is easier to disprove by simply reading the book (hint: it’s not there). So let us focus on the Edward Snowden conspiracy. Upon reading, it should be clear to any knowledgeable person of international affairs that this is a fake. Of course there were no documents released by Snowden claiming that the CIA/Mossad had created ISIS. All of the documents that had been released by Snowden has discussed what the NSA had done, not the CIA. All the documents released by Snowden, because they relate to the NSA, all deal with electronic or signal intelligence.

There are still many of the Snowden documents that have not been released. Situations like this can arise for large scale leaks such as this. This occurred during the U.S. diplomatic cable leaks at WikiLeaks when Pakistan tried to spread fake cables to make itself look better. Initially, many newspapers in Pakistan carried these false cables as many people though these were the newest cables to be released from WikiLeaks. It wasn’t until the newspapers that had access to the full database of cables confirmed the falsity of the stories did the Pak newspapers realize their mistake. As with this conspiracy, all those who had access to the Snowden documents have refuted this story.

Why do some people like to believe conspiracies such as these (I have not read enough of the academic literature on this topic to cite here, so most of what I write will be inference)? There are always individuals who are going to believe that the U.S., ‘the Jews’, or some other country are secretly running the world in order to keep certain groups down. While this conspiracy does belong in that corner, it is with some level of confidence that the majority of the initial followers of this conspiracy (many who now recognize that the conspiracy was false) are not some Protocols of the Elders of Zion believers. For many, the case of the U.S. sponsoring a group that went rogue falls in line with the Frankenstein narrative. An arrogant power creates an organization to control and secure U.S. interests, only for the organization to go rogue. Rather than being a deliberate attempt of the U.S. or Israel trying to control the world, the group ISIS is just another form of blowback. After all, this is the narrative that was spread post 9/11 (while the U.S. did sponsor the mujahedeen to fight against the Soviets, the U.S. did not directly sponsor Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The history of U.S. involvement in the country is a bit more complicated than that).

But for many Muslims, they initially embraced this conspiracy as it gave an explanation for why ISIS was committing such horrendous acts in the name of Islam. Despite the insinuations of some people, it’s no secret that the majority of Muslims abhor ISIS and the other who commit acts of violence in the name of their religion. Muslims are like everybody else; many of the beliefs that a Muslim will hold are the same as their neighbors’. Religion is interpreted by the follower. Islam, like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other major religions have followers that range from the liberal to the conservative. Unfortunately, non-Muslim societies have demonized Islam as an inherently violent religion compared to the peaceful Christianity and Hinduism. Random verses, devoid of context, are brought up to prove the violence of the religion, or even false verses are used all the while ignoring the same substance in the commentator’s own religion (as a Hindu, I recognize there are verses in my holy books that can be interpreted or used to justify violence depending on how interprets it. Though also, growing up as a Hindu, my family found it hilarious when Christians would say how violent Islam is when we viewed the two religions as equal in their advocacy of violence). 

On top of that, there is also the fact that people don’t like to see extremists act in the name of their religion or see their religion corrupted. While Americans have been quick to label ISIS as Islamic extremists, they have been just as reluctant to call certain groups Christian terrorism. Joseph Kony, whose organization is a mix of Christian fundamentalism and Acholi nationalism, many people just denounced him as a terrorist or as a maniac. Similarly, it is easier for Christian Americans to call ISIS an Islamic terrorist group or the 969 group in Myanmar a Buddhist terrorist group than it is to say that a group like the LRA is a Christian terrorist group. For many Muslims who initially gave credence to the conspiracy theory, this was a justification that those committing those horrendous acts weren’t Muslim. This conspiracy had died down among those who initially believed it with the media providing articles that debunked the theory. The world, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, has come to condemn the barbaric acts of ISIS. Indeed, Muslim leaders (the talking point of how Muslims do not condemn extremism enough or ignore Middle Eastern atrocities except for Israel is pure nonsense) has come out strongly in condemning ISIS. The discussion has now turned on what the U.S. can do to defeat ISIS.

As for the Snowden-ISIS conspiracy, PolitiFact categorized this best with the rating on how bad the lie was: Pants on Fire.

Why Didn’t the Blockade and Operations Against Hamas Work?

From NBC.

Over at Al Monitor, Shlomi Eldar has written an article discussing the background of the siege of Gaza in the aftermath of Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. According to Shlomi (and other analysts), the motivation for the imposition of the blockade was “Israel’s working assumption was that economic pressure on the Gaza Strip would cause unrest among its residents, forcing Hamas to relinquish authority when it would not be able to provide for their well-being.” The logic behind these types of policies (embargoes, blockades, sanctions, strategic bombing, etc.) often is that the addition of coercive force against the general population will cause the people to blame the ruling party for this action. The hope is then the citizens will overthrow their government or put pressure on the government to change their policy in a way that will be more suitable for nation/s imposing the coercive policies.

Multiple authors have written about the use of coercive policies. The economist Thomas Schelling in his book The Strategy of Conflict discussed coercive policies (called compellence in his book) and the conditions needed for those policies to be successful. But perhaps one of the most famous studies was carried out by Robert Pape in his book Bombing to Win. In his book (and several articles), Robert Pape examined several case studies where the targeted nation suffered through coercive policies such as air strikes and economic sanctions. Instead of making the population turn against their government, they will actually support their government more.

This is easily observable in the case of Gaza and Hamas. It’s no secret that Hamas is not popular in the Gaza strip. Perhaps this is most visible in the manifesto from youth groups with much of their anger directed at both Hamas and Israel. Before the current war, Hamas had been facing increasing levels of disapproval in Palestine, especially in Gaza. But when Israel starts to bomb the Gaza strip, the same people who normally do not care for Hamas; rally around them. When Israel attacks Hamas is perceived as fighting for the survival of the Palestinian people, fighting against the siege, fighting for the independence of the Palestinian people. This can be observed in opinion polls following the conflicts in Gaza.

Lastly, blockades and coercive policies give the targeted government an opportunity to shore up its control. During the time of sanctions on Iraq, Saddam Hussein was able to control the limited amount of humanitarian aid given to him to give it to his supporters and to punish his enemies. Although there isn’t any literature I know of discussing how Hamas keeps itself in power in Gaza, it is possible that Hamas’s use of tunnels to smuggle in goods (both military and civilian) gives the militant group a tool to keep itself in power. Due to the very limited amount of goods allowed into the strip, civilians need to smuggle basic goods like medicine and food through the tunnels. 

Unfortunately, Israel’s strategy of trying to defeat Hamas has caused a large amount of suffering for the inhabitants of the Gaza strip without Hamas actually being defeated. The loss of Morsi in Egypt as well as the tightening of the blockade has starved Hamas financially, however that has not diminished its abilities to strike Israel nor has it lost control of the Gaza strip. Israel’s constant bombardment of the area only strengthens the group. The use of coercive policies such of the blockade and aerial bombardment usually backfire.

Bad Analysis and the Israel/Palestinian Conflict

When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually erupts, a lot of ink is spilled by various analysts and commentators trying to explain the circumstances of the current burst of violence. While I might not agree with everything that is published, usually there are enough high quality articles that allow the curious reader to learn about the history and perspective of the different warring sides. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of commentary that have little to no value and do little but blindly support their own side to such an extent that it could be considered comical. If it wasn’t for the fact that these are usually the perspectives and articles that are the most widespread in the mainstream media.

Finally, there are the articles that pretend to be neutral and thought provoking, but end up being (for the lack of a better phrase) pure crap. Luckily, many of these authors and commentators are usually not taken seriously by academics, but they do spread among the general public. This is one such article. Let’s start:

“1. Why is everything so much worse when there are Jews involved?”

This is actually the first major argument that Ali Rizvi decides to advance in his article. The attention given to the plight of the Palestinians by the Muslim world is because the conflict involves Jews. So essentially, the conflict garners a lot of Muslim sympathy because Muslims must be anti-Semitic. Indeed, Rizvi’s opinion that Muslims attention to the Palestinian issue is so great that Muslims do not care about the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in Iraq. He even goes as far as to state:

“If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I’d be thanking God I’m not Jewish.”

Has Rizvi been paying attention the last three years? Before this flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the focus on the Muslim world has been on Syria. This along with the rise of ISIS has been the focus of commentary and debate within the Muslim world. For the last couple of years, the issue many of my Muslim friends on Facebook brought up was the atrocities happening in Syria by the Assad government and ISIS in Iraq. Along with the #supportgaza hashtag, the most popular hashtag among my Muslim friends were posting statuses such as “I am a(n) __________ (insert ethnicity here) Muslim and #ISIS does not represent me nor does it represent Islam”. Just going to Al Monitor and reading the various commentary and articles from the Middle East on Syria and ISIS has been great. Unfortunately, there are some anti-Semitic elements that can be found on the pro-Palestine side, just like there is Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment on the pro-Israeli side. That said; this conflict is more than Muslims vs. Jews. If it was simply Muslims vs Jews, why do leftists and anti-colonialists support Palestine? Also, why did non-Muslim figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela also support Palestine?

Did Rizvi maybe consider that a reason why this conflict has received so much attention is that the conflict has been going on for 60+ years, has undergone various attempts at mediation with little to no success, has influenced Middle Eastern politics to a great extent, and was the first conflict for the first UN peacekeeping mission?

2. Why does everyone keep saying this is not a religious conflict?”

At the heart of it, this is a territorial conflict, not a conflict about religion. The early advocates of Zionism were not religious. Many of the early Palestinian groups fighting against Israel were secular in nature. Indeed, religious oriented groups on the Palestinian side did not erupt until much later in the conflict (roughly around the same time that religion became a much more prominent force in the Middle East, a topic I had written about earlier). No one is denying that religion doesn’t play a role in the conflict. It also played a role in the Sri Lankan conflict, India-Pakistan conflict, as well as many others. Is religion the driving force of these conflicts? Of course not. I wouldn’t categorize any of these conflicts as religious conflicts, but religion does play a role. However the role it plays is a minor one.

Rizvi attempts to support his argument by looking at some verses from the Old Testament and some hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as proof, ignoring the fact that religion is often looked at afterwards to support one’s political belief. Just like some Jews believe that the creation of Israel is not valid because the Messiah did not lead to the Jews back to the homeland, there are plenty of verses and stories that Muslims use to justify their beliefs, which might or might not align with what other Muslims believe. Again the hadiths and verses that Rizvi quotes about Islam are to help paint a picture that Islam is inherently a violent and racist religion. I’ll deal with that more near the end.

“3. Why would Israel deliberately want to kill civilians?”

I happen to agree with Rizvi here. I don’t think most nations that enter into military conflict try to deliberately kill civilians. Whether they care is another thing. Indeed, collective punishment or pain inflicted on the civilian population has been a part of Israeli counter-terrorism strategy. Nor is Israel alone in this. Sri Lanka and other countries have attempted to use collective punishment as a counter-insurgency/terrorism strategy.

“If Israel wanted to kill civilians, it is terrible at it. ISIS killed more civilians in two days (700 plus) than Israel has in two weeks.”

This is a popular way to try and deflect criticism by talking about another conflict. Just like I can compare the fight with ISIS to the fight in South Sudan, where more people died at a faster rate than ISIS has killed. Does that change the circumstances of what is happening in Iraq? No. Because ISIS is killing at a faster rate than Israel or Hamas make it worse than those two? By itself, no. I can also point that Israel has killed about 1,065 Palestinians; the vast majority are thought to be civilians. 50 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority of them soldiers. So by this logic, Hamas must be an extremely moral participant in the conflict, ignoring the fact that they’ve been shooting off rockets into civilian areas with little or no regards for who the rockets hit.

Rizvi’s 4th point on Hamas for the most part is true, although he ignores the many civilian targets that Israel has bombed, the fact that Israel has also targeted civilian shelters despite being told 17 times that the school was a shelter for civilians, or the little regard for Palestinian lives.

And listen, I’m not saying Hamas are the good guys. They have little to no regard for civilian lives, Israeli or Palestinian, and many of the statements that they issue are downright awful and horrendous. Just don’t pretend that Hamas is the automatically the worst of the group, and don’t pretend Fatah are good guys either. Just talk to a Palestinian about them, I’m sure they would love to tell you about how ‘moral’ Fatah really is.

“5. Why are people asking for Israel to end the “occupation” in Gaza?”

According to Rizvi, Gaza is no longer under Israeli occupation.  Gaza has been under siege with little or no way to conduct economic activity or live normally. Many of the tunnels that Hamas has created are also used to smuggle food and medicine for the population.

But more importantly, Gaza is still under occupation. Rizvi should probably learn a bit about international law. Iraq, despite having elections and their own government during the U.S. war was considered occupied. The Israeli military still controls Gaza. The UN has come out and said that Gaza is still occupied. Many international lawyers still consider Gaza to be occupied (here’s a good overview of why it is still considered occupied).

Rizvi’s 6th point focuses the blame of Palestinian casualties only on Hamas. Hamas does deserve blame for not protecting civilians, and so does Israel for targeting civilian areas and not lifting up the siege for Palestinians to seek shelter outside of Gaza. 

Rizvi’s 7th point is where he attempts to show he is neutral by putting Israel under the stoplight. This is the first time he tries to say bad things happen on both sides, whereas before he puts the blame more on Hamas or the Palestinians (and Islam). But first, not everybody is pro-Israel. In most parts of the world, the public sympathy is on the Palestinian side. Second, it is worth noting that the Israeli public sphere does do a good job of portraying the different sides to each story. Indeed one thing that can be observed about Israeli media is that it will put in a more diverse and critical take of Israeli actions than even the American media.

The title of the article is the “7 things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East”. Yet this article is not neutral, nor does it actually talk about the conflict in general. Instead, the ‘questions’ are put in way to negatively question one side.  Better questions would be: What are the claims of the two sides to the land? What are the situations for both sides (e.g. living in terror)? This article does not do that.

Instead, this does little to be neutral. It actually makes claims that give little to no consideration to what is happening on the ground nor does it pay homage to the complexity of the problem. There are plenty of bad arguments on both sides (an example of this is when a Palestinian says “we can’t be anti-Semitic, we are Semites), advancing these type of arguments does little to help us understand what is happening there. 

To borrow from Daniel Drezner, this article is unadulterated horses**t.

*Rizvi has a tendency to cast Islam as an inherently racist or bigoted religion that affects his whole analysis. Nor is he the only commentator that does this. But this is a topic for a future post.

What is Israel Hoping to Accomplish?

 

Air strikes on Gaza. From JPOST

Unfortunately, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has flared up again, leading to yet another bombing run by Israel on the Gaza Strip, rockets from Gaza into Israel, and revenge attacks against Palestinian civilians in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. This all started due to the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli students, culminating in the arrests of hundred of Palestinians, a revenge killing by extremist Israeli soccer fans, and the current bombing happening in Gaza. Of course, this have also been complemented by attacks on Palestinians by police and settlers leading to the deaths of several Palestinians by Israeli security forces during the arrests and search for the murderers. Hamas has praised the kidnapping, though it claims that it had nothing to do with it.

While the people responsible for the kidnapping were in the West Bank and the supposed planner of this kidnapper living in Turkey, Israel has chosen to bomb Gaza in what looks like a case of collective punishment. There has been evidence that the kidnapping was carried out by members of a prominent clan in Hebron. While this clan is nominally aligned with Hamas, they are also known for going against what the Hamas leadership wants. If this is true, why is Israel targeting Hamas? There are two explanations that have been suggested: to dismantle Hamas’s network, and/or to destroy the unity deal. The former explanation is what has been given publicly by Israeli officials. If this is truly their aim, it most likely isn’t going to work. This was Israel’s rationale in their 2008 and 2012 operations, but they failed each time. Of course, Hamas is facing some dire times right now. With the Egyptian and Israeli militaries cooperating more closely to squeeze Hamas and Gaza, Hamas has lost its sources of revenue and military aid. Of course, Iran does still send the group missiles every now and then. But with the borders being sealed and the area carefully watched over, Hamas has been having a difficult time obtaining these weapons.

With the recent unity deal, Hamas has been able to shift the burden of civil expenses onto the Palestinian Authority (PA) and start operating more freely in the West Bank. While critics have argued that the unity deal doesn’t do enough to curb Hamas’s ability to attack Israel, it is also important to remember that Hamas does not hold any key positions within the cabinet of the government. The unity government has also promised to continue the peace negotiations with Israel. If anything, Hamas ordering this kidnapping of Israel is questionable as this would go against their vital interests.

Which brings us to the latter of the two possible explanations: that Netanyahu is trying to put pressure on the new unity government. Israel had originally failed to convince the world powers against recognizing the new government (with India, China, Turkey, and even the US agreeing to cooperate with the unity government). During the search for the missing Israeli students, the PA was perceived as having aided Israel’s arrest of Hamas members in the West Bank, putting a great amount of strain on the new unity deal. Indeed, several analysts have argued that this is what Netanyahu is attempting to accomplish.

But this is short term thinking that will only escalate tensions and possibly lead to a third intifada (uprising). It is no secret that there is a lot of tension between Hamas and the PA. When Hamas and Fatah (the largest faction in the PA) signed an unity agreement in 2011, this was met with skepticism throughout the region. The recent unity government is a surprise, but it does little to address the inherent distrust between the two Palestinian parties. A greater way to insure the breakup of the Palestinian government would have been to let it run their course and see if it broke up. Instead, Netanyahu has elected to choose a path that leads to more suffering for the Palestinian people escalates tensions, and internationally isolates Israel, without any real indication that this will break the unity deal or lead to the dismantling of Hamas.

The Security Dilemma and ISIS

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The security dilemma (also known as the spiral model) remains one of the most important concepts in international relations and the school of realism today. The basic premise of the security dilemma is that as one state takes measures to increase it’s security (e.g. increasing its military strength, making alliances), another state might take similar measures to make up for the shortfall in power. This will cause both states to continually takes measures to increase their security. This in turn will create tensions between the two states which can escalate into conflict between the two states, even if conflict wasn’t desired. (For influential article on the subject, read this article by Robert Jervis).

Barry Posen decided to apply the security dilemma to the issue of ethnic conflict. As it was the anarchical condition in international affairs that makes security a primary concern for states, according to Posen, the collapse of a central government in some countries created a similar anarchical situation. Instead of being between states, it will be between groups. As Posen argues, there remains two characteristics that will determine how intense the security dilemma will be: whether offense and defensive forces are distinguishable (if similar, it is much more difficult for a state to signal its defensive intentions) and that offense is more effective than defensive. Because of this latter fact, states will chose offensive capabilities if they want to survive. In the case of ethnic conflict, the insecure group will chose offensive capabilities, thus amplifying the security dilemma. The final important theoretical point of Posen’s article involves the ‘groupness’ of the ethnic groups and how people of different ethnicity assess the offensive implications of another group’s intentions. On the latter point, groups will turn to history to gauge the intentions of other ethnic groups. On the former point, ‘groupness’ is inherently offensive, causing an intense security dilemma. While there are other important points of discussion in the article, the ones I highlighted above are those I will focus on in the discussion of the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL).

While I’m focusing my analysis between the Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq (which are not specifically ethnic groups), I believe the principles of the security dilemma can be used as an explanation for the rise of ISIS. The Maliki government is primarily Shia and its no secret that Maliki has not made any attempts to form an inclusive government. With accusations from the Sunni community of authoritarianism and sectarianism by members of the Maliki government, this has led some Sunni tribes and cities to ally themselves with ISIS fighters (though whether this alliance will last is another issue). Of course, the Saddam Hussein government was secular albeit Sunni dominated and the rise of the Maliki government has led to fears, both real and imaginary, of marginalization of the Sunni Iraqis. Since the fall of the Hussein government, there has been violence between Sunni and Shia forces. In some cases, this fighting has even resulted in the cleansing of different religious groups from Sunni and Shia dominated areas. Sunnis have also tried to various methods to try and fight this marginalization.

So there is a recent history of sectarian violence between the two groups in Iraq along with some added historical interpretations of conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Islamic history (aided by the influence that Iran and Saudi Arabia have in the country). With the rise of Shias in the government, with Iranian and American support to the central government, the balance of power has changed significantly in favor of the Iraqi Shias.

Posen concludes his paper by examining the policy purposes of using the Security Dilemma in relation to ethnic conflict. By using the security dilemma, policy makers should be able to identify the potential breakout of ethnic conflict and enact policies that would help alleviate the ethnic tension. However, he does not discuss what should be done if ethnic conflict has already began.

Currently, analysts believe that Maliki needs to go and be replaced with a unity government that contains a better representation of all minority groups. At the moment, it does not look like this will happen with Iran providing support to the Iraqi government and with other Gulf States providing support to the Sunni factions; helping to solidify their positions instead of compromising. The U.S. bears a large part of the blame for the situation in Iraq (it all starts back to that fateful decision to invade the country). However, one of the few successes the U.S. had was its ability to bring in the Sunni tribes to fight against Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening and take part in the political process. The Maliki government did not really take this further instead preferring to use his Shia base to govern. This is continuing with his recent statements of not bending to pressure to form a more inclusive government.

While this is not a traditional application of the security dilemma, it does fit well into explaining the current situation of Iraq, and should be used to try and prevent violence such as what we’re seeing.

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.