Tag Archives: Muslim Brotherhood

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

Found: Disunity

Many Americans have a simplistic view of “all Arabs” being the same.  (Or is it “all Muslims”?  The two phrases are usually synonymous, and sometimes includes Sikhs.)  I just read a news article that lays out the political differences between the member states of the Arab League clearly and concisely.  I thought I’d link to it here, mostly for myself, so I can find it again later.

Why does the Muslim Brotherhood Hate the Copts?

In retaliation for the government crackdown on the protest camps ten days ago in Cairo, supporters of ousted president Muhammad Mursi attacked government buildings and over a dozen churches (one source says as many as 80) belonging to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.  This leads to the question, why were Coptic religious sites targeted by certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood?

This question is intermittently raised by the Anglophone news media I have read, but the answers provided seem to me unsatisfactory.  It is usually explained as irrational violence toward a vulnerable minority, end of story.  But I think this question is a very important one to answer for Egypt today.  In attempting to understand the reasons for these attacks, I am not in any way legitimizing violence.  I am merely rejecting the comforting fiction that mob violence is irrational and incomprehensible, which we repeat in order to reassure ourselves that “we” are superior to “them” and perhaps there’s nothing we can really do about “that” anyway.  Instead, as Natalie Zemon Davis demonstrated long ago with regard to religious violence in 16th century France, violent mobs have a logic of their own.

But let’s be clear on what the question is first.  Who is doing the arson?  Certainly not all Egyptians, nor all Egyptian Muslims, as some photos on Twitter showed lines of Muslims defending Coptic churches.  Not even all Mursi supporters or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who number at least tens of thousands, went about torching churches.  It’s more than a handful, but fewer than the majority.  Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the attacks in two news posts to its English-language website (here and here).

On the other hand, these condemnations were first issued very late at night on Thursday 15 August, while the attacks happened on Wednesday 14 August, so the Brotherhood took its own sweet time to condemn the arson.  In the meantime, a Facebook page which claims to belong to the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) in the Cairo suburb of Helwan posted on Wednesday evening an inflammatory justification for attacks on churches (translated from Arabic in the second screenshot on this Coptic webpage, but reported sufficiently elsewhere to confirm that this is not made up):

The Pope of the [Coptic] Church participates in deposing the first Islamic president elected.  The Pope of the Church accuses the Islamic shari’a law of backwardness, inflexibility, and reactionism.  The Pope of the Church uses Black Block groups to stir up chaos, to block roads, to besiege mosques and to take them by storm.  The Pope of the Church mobilizes the Copts in the 6/30 demonstrations to bring down the Islamic president.  The Pope of the Church objects to the articles of Islamic identity [in the Constitution] and withdraws from the Constituent Assembly for the Constitution.  The Pope of the Church is the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorize him with the killing of Muslims, and the result of that mandate was the slaughter today of more than 500 killed.  The Pope of the Church sends a memo to the present Assembly to abolish the articles of shari’a.

After all this, people, you ask, “Why are they burning the churches?”  A hint: burning places of worship is a crime, but that the Church should wage war against Islam and against Muslims is a greater crime.  For every action there is a reaction.

The second condemnation on the MB’s English site refers to this and alleges that these sentiments have nothing to do with the party itself:

Currently, there are false Twitter and Facebook accounts in the name of the Freedom and Justice Party publishing justifications for the burning of churches.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood is widely accused by its critics of talking out of both sides of its mouth, it is plausible to many that the English condemnations are intended for an international audience, while the Arabic list of grievances on Facebook were intended for an Egyptian rank and file.  While every mention of Copts on the English website is positive, referring to Mursi’s alleged attempts to include Copts in the Egyptian government and a Coptic presence in the pro-Mursi sit-ins recently broken up in Cairo, the Arabic page tells a different story.

It is striking to me that the English condemnations are very different in Arabic on the Brotherhood’s Arabic page (starting with a different MB representative condemning the attacks in the different languages).  The later article is closer to the English condemnations: “Based on our Hanafi law and by application of our principles which cannot be divided, we condemn with all our might any assault, even in speech, against the churches and properties of the Copts.”  The earlier Arabic article condemns “violence against mosques, churches, or state institutions.”  While the article then reiterates that “all citizens” condemn “violence against churches and state institutions,” it goes into greater length regarding the specific source of outrage: “Likewise [the MB spokesman] condemned emphatically and with all his might the burning of any of the houses of Allah, such as happened in the Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya mosque, adding, ‘Those who commit wrong will know what fate they will meet'” [Qur’an 26:227].

So what do these reveal?  The later Arabic condemnation of the attacks on churches asserts MB’s integrity (“our principles which cannot be divided”), but it is indisputable that Hanafis (a variety of Sunni Islam) have in fact participated at various times in history in riots against Coptic Christians, so it is not clear what appeal to Hanafi integrity accomplishes.  The earlier Arabic condemnation of the violence barely refers to the attacks on Coptic Christians, instead raising anger at the state’s crackdown on the main pro-Mursi sit-in.  The second English condemnation by the Brotherhood would have us believe that the Facebook message condoning burning churches has nothing to do with them, but “are attempts to ignite sectarian divisions to distract everyone from the real issue,” which is presumably the military coup which deposed Mursi.

Whether the incendiary Facebook message was part of a central Muslim Brotherhood plan to have their cake and eat it too, or whether it represents the views only of certain more violent or perhaps less savvy members of the MB, it was most likely posted by a disgruntled Mursi sympathizer.  It seems to present an argument that burning churches is okay because all churches belong to the Coptic Pope, who is somehow responsible for the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  The final line seems to imply both an inevitability of the attacks on Coptic churches and the accusation that the Copts started it.  The take-away message seems to be that the Copts brought this violence upon themselves.

The particular complaints primarily revolve around the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi.  Copts were certainly not the majority of those who protested against Mursi on 30 June, nor was Pope Tawadros II the only religious leader depicted in al-Sisi’s televised announcement of Mursi’s ouster (Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni religious leader, also supported the ouster).  Pope Tawadros II was also not the only member of the Constituent Assembly to boycott the deliberations over allegations that the Islamists were pushing through an Islamist constitution – liberals and secular Muslims also protested and withdrew from the Assembly.  Whether Pope Tawadros II was the first to respond positively to al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate to respond forcefully to the Muslim Brotherhood seems irrelevant to me, since his support was hardly the most significant, and the allegation of the Coptic Pope employing the army (“black-block groups”) to besiege mosques also seems to presume a far greater level of Coptic influence in Egypt than seems remotely plausible to non-Islamists.

On the other hand, perhaps the very identifiability of Copts as a subgroup with public institutions in the form of churches makes them more vulnerable.  The Muslim Brotherhood cannot very well attack the Grand Imam of al-Azhar without losing its credibility as the voice of Sunni Islam.  While Muslim Brotherhood preachers can fulminate against liberals and secularists among Muslims, those groups do not have publicly-known headquarters or separate mosques which could be targeted.  Coptic Christians, however, are a small portion of the population and do have public buildings which can be destroyed.

Of course, the particular conflict over the ouster of Muhammad Mursi should not obscure the fact that many of these attacks may be simultaneously motivated by more local concerns.  A rivalry between two neighboring businesses means one thing if both are owned by members of the same group, but when one is owned by a Muslim and another by a Copt, then the rivalry is a potential site for religious strife as well.  Or a neighbor who does something which inconveniences other neighbors can take on a religious dimension if there is an identified religious difference.

One aspect of the recent violence against Coptic Christians cannot be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and that is the lack of protection of minorities by state institutions such as the army and the police.  Attacks against Coptic Christians increased towards the end of Hosni Mubarak‘s presidency, and have progressively increased with each successive twist and turn of Egypt’s revolution, under the army generals who replaced Mubarak, under Mursi who replaced them, and now under the army-appointed civilian government which has replaced Mursi.  In each case, complaints arose that the police did not take steps to prevent or repel the attacks, often only arriving at the site hours after being called.  This official non-protection of the Coptic minority cannot be blamed on Mursi or the Muslim Brotherhood, since the police were one of the government sectors which resisted Mursi’s control.  Instead, as pointed out by an article on al-Jazeera, the lack of public protection for Copts is a “decades-old problem.”

In the slug-fight between the Egyptian army under al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no question that the army can win the physical battles.  This is already appearing in the muted response to calls for public protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday.  On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood survived under decades of repression before being legalized in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.  Whether the army can ultimately defeat the Muslim Brotherhood will depend on who does a better job at the war of words and public opinion.  But if one side is actively targeting Coptic institutions and the other is unwilling to defend them, life will only grow more difficult for the minority.

Found: The Power of Lost Causes

A week of peaceful demonstrations on opposing sides of Egypt’s political divide is a welcome change from last week’s news of violent confrontations between activists for and against deposed President Muhammad Mursi or between Mursi supporters and the Egyptian armed forces which deposed him.  As the anti-Mursi demonstrations shrink in size, having achieved their goal of removing the president, the sit-in of Mursi supporters around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية) may become an important canary in the coal mine of Egyptian democracy.

This demonstration of Mursi supporters is almost assured to be futile.  Mursi will not be returned to power by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his forces, the very people who deposed him and now have him in custody.  Mursi supporters in the square may have rallied tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, but that is far less than the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and perhaps over a million across Egypt who called for Mursi’s removal on 30 June.  This will not be sufficient popular pressure to bring Mursi back, even as participants vow not to leave the square until Mursi is reinstated.

But to be powerful, the pro-Mursi protest must continue and remain peaceful, neither of which is assured.  If Mursi is a lost cause, the place of the military as arbiters of election results is a very real issue.  Although al-Sisi claimed that the removal of Mursi was not a military coup but the army acting out the will of the people, the group which organized the 30 June demonstrations against Mursi publicly complained that they were not consulted in the constitutional decree speedily issued by interim President ‘Adli Mansur.  If Egyptians too quickly pack up and go home, they will have handed the Egyptian military a precedent that can be invoked to remove any future elected official unappreciated by the armed forces.  All future civilian Egyptian heads of state are certain to have learned the lesson.  Since the anti-Mursi camp sees their job as done, the pro-Mursi sit-in can keep the question of the army’s role in the ouster of President Mursi in the public eye, but only if it continues.

But if the pro-Mursi demonstrations turn violent, then the army will have an excuse to crush the protesters as opposed to the Egyptian state.  Unfortunately, it really does not matter whether this violence is started by the protesters or by the army, because in either event both sides will blame the other, as we saw with the violence of last Monday.  The power of the pro-Mursi demonstrations to call for democracy depends upon their continued peacefulness.

But if the pro-Mursi sit-in in Cairo continues and continues peacefully, they represent a salutary challenge to the army-run interim government which is desperately claiming that it did not come to power through a coup but through the will of the people.  The government’s ability to maintain this claim may depend on its ability to allow a peaceful protest of thousands of people who view it as illegitimate.  Although many, perhaps most, Egyptians do not sympathize with the die-hard Mursi supporters, a government crack down on a peaceful protest may increase their public support, and certainly would increase the plausibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it is being illegally suppressed.  The continuing – though futile – pro-Mursi sit-in around the Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque may demand that the army and its interim government live up to their promises of supporting democracy for the entirety of the Egyptian people, even those who disagree with them.  The continuation of that sit-in will build Egyptian trust in their developing democratic system; the cessation or termination of the pro-Mursi movement will only lead to further troubles.

Strange as it may sound, Egypt’s best hope for democracy may lie in a long-running, peaceful, and ultimately futile sit-in of Mursi supporters.

Needed: Egyptian Definition of Freedom

Yesterday’s ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was greeted by jubilant crowds celebrating in Cairo’s Tahrir (or “Liberation”) Square.  It was also greeted by tears from Mursi’s supporters staging a sit-in around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية).  It was described as a military coup by members of the deposed government, while international heads of state such as US president Barack Obama were hesitant to call it a coup, due to the political ramifications.

So the question is: is the ouster of Muhammad Morsi a return to the dark days of undemocratic military rule under Hosni Mubarak, as Morsi’s supporters allege?  Or is it the renewal of the stalled 2011 revolution by the removal of Morsi the “mini-Mubarak”, as his opponents claim?  Is the intervention of the Egyptian army to depose the elected president in response to massive public protests a step forward for freedom, or a step back?

This question, like so many questions that matter, is difficult to answer not only because the future is unknown, but also because the question is poorly framed.  As it stands, this question presumes that freedom is a thing which can be possessed or lost, or perhaps a substance which one can have more of less of.  But freedom is neither, nor is it an agreed-upon concept, but rather notions of freedom vary widely.  Even leaving aside Janis Joplin‘s dictum, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the situation in Egypt throws into sharp relief how one person’s freedom is another person’s tyranny.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as ex-president Mursi) want to be free to enact laws in accordance with the system of government which they have constructed with the mandate, such as it is, of the 13 million voters who voted for Mursi over his opponent Ahmad Shafiq in the run-off election in June 2012.  Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood want to be free from the sorts of laws enacted by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.  At its most basic form, freedom is always freedom from something or freedom to do something (although it is often, more perniciously, freedom for someone to do what they want at the expense of someone else).

These desired freedoms in Egypt are not compatible, any more than the clash between the French government (founded upon the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“) banning the hijab in public schools in the name of freedom of religion, while some French Muslims desire freedom of religion to be able to wear the hijab.  Similarly, at the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Ataturk’s notion of freedom of religion in a secular state involved closing the madrasas which train Islamic religious scholars, while some Turkish (and Kurdish) imams still desire the freedom to attend a madrasa in their own country.  The Turkish military staged repeated coups to bring down governments considered too Islamic, although the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have sufficiently curtailed the power of the military through his earlier purges of senior generals on charges of plotting a coup.  This is not a problem facing only Islamic society, but a challenge facing all human society: my getting what I wish (my freedom) may prevent or hinder you from getting what you wish (your freedom).  In the crass terms of the old saying, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.”  Nobody’s freedom is complete freedom, and all freedom in actual societies restricts the freedom of other people.

Indeed, some people attack others in the name of exercising their personal sense of freedom.  One aspect of both the 2011 and 2013 popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo which is only now receiving increased news is the spike of sexual violence in the unstable situations of the protests.  Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN a thoughtful opinion piece which argues that the increasing numbers of rapes on Tahrir Square are a political message telling women that they have no place in Egyptian politics.  (A small quibble: I accept the feminist critique of the old view that rapes are about excess lust; feminists instead pointed out how rapes are about power.  But I doubt the rapists on Tahrir Square are self-consciously using rape as an articulated political tool to send a conscious message.  Instead, a culture which encourages sexual harassment of women in public mixes with the heady optimism of successfully ousting the president, leading some men to feel empowered to take whatever they want with impunity, even to the point of raping women.)  As Burleigh points out, rapes in the atmosphere of the demonstrations are not merely “an unfortunate byproduct of mob violence,” but a pervasive and culturally condoned crime for which the victim is falsely blamed while the perpetrators go free.  But if I analyze the causes subtly differently than Burleigh, the take-home message for many Egyptian women is certainly the same: the freedom of Tahrir Square may be an exclusively male freedom, which comes at great cost to certain women.

So if freedom is not a thing to be had or not had, nor simply a quantity to be increased or decreased, what is it?  It is a set of societally and culturally defined parameters by which the society regulates those aspects of individual life which are explicitly allowed to vary.  It is, as it were, the regulation on the regulations.  Egyptians need to work out what sort of freedom Egyptian freedom will be.

In that regard, it is telling that when Egyptian defense minister ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi read the army’s statement announcing that President Mursi was deposed on national television, among the people shown by the camera as seated beside him were former director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Coptic pope Tawadros II.  This image of al-Sisi with the seated leaders of Egyptian society sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will be welcoming of secularists and of Christians.  The placing of Mursi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders into “political isolation” (an odd euphemism for military arrest) sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will not be welcoming to Brotherhood-brand Islamist policies.  The lack of any women depicted in the video of al-Sisi reading the army’s statement (here in Arabic) was hardly a surprise, but itself reinforces the possibility that free Egyptian society may be a man’s world.  The individuals depicted in that video, broadcast alive across the country and onto big screens in Tahrir Square, is no accident: the army has taken a stand on what free Egyptian society should look like, who should be excluded and who included, and who should stand at the podium speaking for all Egypt (namely the defense minister al-Sisi himself).  It remains to be seen whether Egyptians accept the army’s definition of Egyptian freedom, or rather which Egyptians accept it and to what degree.

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.

Related News:

The Sins of the Fathers…

In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran.  In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo.  When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities.  Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi.  As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north.  The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.

After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered.  When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”).  Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.

In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil.  The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet.  The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars.  The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.

In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria.  Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments.  By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum.  The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.  The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.

I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all).  I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad.  An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”

In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole.  The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises.  To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road?  The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad.  Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region.  These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.