Tag Archives: Hafez al-Assad

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

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Needed: (Near-)Consensus on Legitimacy

When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech.  His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word.  His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).

In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy.  One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed.  The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold.  On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one.  These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.

Legitimacy matters.  In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion.  It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression.  Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate.  A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government.  For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.

This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul).  In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name.  To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name.  When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile.  To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen).  On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name.  Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.

In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough.  These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody.  If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule.  Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together.  Legitimacy matters.

But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy.  So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed.  Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement.  Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.”  When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not.  A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death.  (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.)  In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.

But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice.  Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned.  Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle.  In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious.  Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling.  Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.

In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms.  Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.

In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup.  Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box.  (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.)  Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.”  To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms.  (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.)  But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government.  The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war.  Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime.  The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government.  Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.

Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square.  Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.

The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy.  Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries.  But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts.  In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained.  This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it.  The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone.  They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.

Also about Egypt:

Also about Syria:

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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Who is George Sabra? (part 3)

The third installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 15, 2012 (Arabic here).  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (3)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes his stories by saying, “Here let me say that Qatana in the month of May, 2011, departed from the control of the authority and came into the control of the rebels, and there no longer remained in it police or guard or party men or the army.  The regime wanted its people at that time to commit stupid errors so that the army would come in and level it upon the heads of whoever was in it, but the people had sufficient awareness of the administration of the city.  When I said to the youths, ‘We are the owners of the revolution, and our language is the language of the Qur’an, and not the language of abuse and insults, therefore you must clean the walls of the city from abuses and insults to the Alawites.’  The next day the city’s youths got up and cleaned the walls of the city from the insults.”

George Sabra asked me while he was speaking, “Do you know, Ahmad, what is the thing that amazes me with this revolution?”  I said, “What is it?”  He said, “For nearly forty years, the generations have been raised on the view of the Avant-Garde (a newspaper linked to the ruling Ba’ath Party), one view and one organization, namely the Ba’ath Party, and one man who was sanctified, namely Hafez al-Assad.  And despite all that we have found before our eyes an astonishing generation which takes their lives in their hands and goes out to destroy the idol whose worship they tried to impose upon the people throughout forty years. 

“Indeed, I have not forgotten my Muslim neighbor who had four children, and in the demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution I heard her say to her four children when they were wanting to go out together to one demonstration, ‘I hope you will not all go out to one demonstration.  Let each pair of you go out with someone, so that all four of you won’t die in one day.’  The greatness of that woman makes me cry, for she certainly knew that her four children would die, but she desired that the fall of the blow upon her would be light.

“And there is another story which a young man named Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a recounted to me.  He told me that he was at work when the first demonstration broke out against the regime in the city of Dar’a.  She said to him, ‘Where are you?’  He said to her, ‘I am at work.’  She replied to him saying, ‘What work do you have that you must return to immediately?  All of your brothers have gone out to the demonstration and you have to catch up with them and participate with them.’

“People have witnessed perhaps dozens of demonstrations in which children participated with their fathers and mothers.  All went out bare-chested before tanks and guns and aircraft, seeking freedom and the fall of this corrupt regime which has brought down woes upon Syria and the Syrians.  The metal intrinsic to this people has appeared out of this revolution, so that the solidarity and compassion between people in this revolution has no limit.

“And here I will mention that at the beginning of the revolution one of the Christian clergy met me and said to me, ‘The Christians are afraid.’  I said to him, ‘What will remove the fear from the souls of the Christians, joining the revolution and society and union with the people, or joining a failing regime?  We Christians must join the revolution and the people.’ 

“And I remember that when I came out of prison on May 10, 2011, after they arrested me the first time, Easter had been in the middle of April, after which I found that the priest had ordered a guard of youths for the church to protect it from attack against it.  So I went and said to him, ‘From whom are you protecting it?  It is the Muslims who built this church!’  And that’s a fact, for at the building of the church of Qatana in 1998, a delegation of the church went to ‘Awad ‘Amura, the owner of one of the largest aluminum companies, to purchase aluminum for the doors and windows of the Church.  The bill was huge, so the company employees asked the delegation, ‘Is this quantity of aluminum for a housing project?’  They said, ‘No, it’s for the church.’  And the owner of the company vowed, and he was a Muslim, that he would not take a single penny and that all of the aluminum would be a donation to the church.  As for the contractors and builders, they were all from the Muslims. 

“Indeed, Syria has lived according to pluralism and religious toleration for many centuries, and I remember when I came out of prison the last time and went back to my house, I found young men standing around my house.  So I went out and asked them if they wanted something.  They said, ‘Master George, we are from the youths of the revolution and we are responsible for guarding your house around the clock.  We take turns in guarding without your knowing.’  I said to them, ‘Who made you responsible for this?’  They said, ‘We made ourselves responsible, and no one else assigned us.'”

He will finish on Saturday.

Whether I finish translating the last installment of al-Watan’s series on George Sabra from last November by Saturday remains to be seen.  In the meantime, it is interesting here how Sabra presents himself as reigning in sectarianism against the Alawites and answering the concerns of his fellow Christians as voiced by a priest.  It is especially interesting that he rejected sectarianism by saying, as a Christian, “our language is that of the Qur’an.”  Also interesting is the presentation of the pre-revolution days as, on the one hand, a period of intense Ba’athist brainwashing through periodicals like the Avant-Garde (الطلائع) in support of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, and on the other, a haven of diversity and religious toleration.  Undoubtedly, Sabra blames all that is wrong with Syria before 2011 on the Ba’ath party and the al-Assad regime, while the Muslim-Christian cooperation is presented as “how Syria has lived for many centuries”.

In the paragraph about Muhammad al-Hariri from Dar’a, either the identity of his female interlocutor is omitted through an accidental omission, or the feminine pronouns are being used of “demonstration” (تظاهرة), surprisingly understood to be a collective noun for the protesters.  I have not come across this latter usage, so I have presumed the former, but it could be interpreted otherwise.