New Age Islam Edit Bureau
January 6th, 2016
The west should get out of the Middle East
By Jonathan Power
A Muslim as president of France?
By S P Seth
By Mahir Ali
The Saudi-Iran showdown
By Zahid Hussain
The shadowy world of proxy wars
By Faqir Hamim Masoom
Could Trump be the real Captain America?
By Sameer Ahmed
Challenges facing the counter-terror drive
By Imtiaz Gul
The west should get out of the Middle East
January 6th, 2016
The west no longer finds Middle Eastern countries as attractive an investment opportunity as it once did. Much of the region is becoming dysfunctional. Even the more prosperous parts run large fiscal and external deficits, maintain huge and inefficient civil services, and spend heavily on subsidies
The year’s first major atrocity: Saudi Arabia’s execution by beheading on Sunday of 47 people, including an important Shia ayatollah who led Shia protests against discrimination by the Sunni majority but never committed an act of violence. Even Islamic State (IS) does not behead 47 in one day. Although beheading is swift it strikes most of us as being grotesque as well as medieval. The Saudis are aware of their image in the outside world but nevertheless persist, as if they want to tell the rest of the world: “Back off. Our Wahhabi (ultra puritanical) morality is our morality. We are a belief system unto ourselves.”
They exported the political convictions that have evolved out of Wahhabism to Afghanistan (with money for guns along with the theology), first to fight the Soviets, then to arm the Taliban and later to allow them to ‘ignore’ that the Taliban was giving refuge to al Qaeda. Over the last three years, rich Saudis, for lack of policing, have been allowed, in effect, to fund IS.
Saudi Arabia not only has a political and judicial system capable of repulsive acts, it has also a foreign policy that the west should have no part of. Along with Israel it hounded, unsuccessfully, the US, Russia and the EU into not making a deal with Shia Iran over curbing its nuclear programme. Today, it opposes Iran on a wide range of issues, not least its support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now with the beheading of a respected Shia imam, it has made a bid to be the unchallenged tough guy of all Sunni-majority countries in what looks like a potential clash of civilisations between the major strands of Islam, in defiant disregard of the admonishment of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) himself not to kill fellow Muslims.
The west should remove itself from this imbroglio as quickly as it can. Imagine if some outside power (India? China?) had tried in the 16th and 17th centuries to intervene directly in the murderous religious wars of Catholics versus Protestants that devastated Europe. They would have done nothing useful and would have only stirred things up further.
Of course, talking, cajoling, negotiating make for a useful outsiders’ input but not providing guns to this or that side or bombing, and certainly not “putting boots on the ground” as in Iraq and, now with “special forces”, in Syria. The US and Europe do not need Saudi Arabia like they used to. The surge in oil fracking technology has diminished the strategic value of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states.
Foreign policy is no longer aligned. Ten years ago a combination of US pressure and the shock of large-scale al Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself convinced the Saudis and their neighbours to clamp down on jihadist activities within their own borders. Yet today, such is their desire to overthrow Assad, they have, as Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson write in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “subordinated the suppression of jihadism to the goal of overthrowing Assad and hobbling his patrons in Iran. They are doing this by backing Sunni extremist rebels in Syria despite Washington’s exhortations to stop.”
Moreover, the west no longer finds Middle Eastern countries as attractive an investment opportunity as it once did. Much of the region is becoming dysfunctional. Even the more prosperous parts run large fiscal and external deficits, maintain huge and inefficient civil services, and spend heavily on subsidies. On nearly every indicator — infant and maternal mortality, education and health services — they do less well than countries elsewhere with the same income levels. They treat their immigrant workers badly.
Hopes since the 1950s for the ascendancy of a secular, technocratic, western-orientated elite that would bring their societies along with them have been eroded. Egypt is regressing. Saudi Arabia is hoisting itself on its own petard of extreme fundamentalism. The latest manifestation of the historic Shia-Sunni quarrel — tragically triggered by the US/UK decision to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — is coming to the boil. Even if the west believed that politically it should do something, militarily it cannot. The US and its allies are capable of defeating a coherent nationalist state in warfare but it cannot deal with “a transnational clash of ethnicities, turbo-charged by religious narratives”. As in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it is in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict that outsiders run out of solutions as to how to stabilise the political and religious turbulence unleashed by war.
Europe and North America are not seriously threatened at home by these Middle Eastern conflicts. Since 9/11 there have been fewer terrorist attacks on American soil than there were in the 1970s. But if the west does get more involved it will inevitably provoke more attacks. Saudi Arabia and its local allies and enemies should be left to work themselves out of their quagmire without outside interference.
Jonathan Power has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age.
A Muslim as president of France?
S P Seth
January 6th, 2016
In France’s new political world, with a Muslim president, the economy is already looking up with unemployment down, as women leave work and are given subsidies to raise more children
The day of the terrorist attack (January 7, 2015) on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, a novel by a French author appeared with the title Soumission (Submission in English) that soon became a widely read and reviewed book. Its author, Michel Houellebecq, has written other novels too and is now well-established in inviting controversy. His latest novel, Submission, is particularly controversial because of its timing and the subject matter, coinciding with the Charlie Hebdo affair and a succession of other terrorist events like the Paris carnage. Being a work of fiction, it boldly or foolishly, pictures a coalition in 2022 emerging out of a near political deadlock in France led by a Muslim party with its leader, Mohammed Ben Abbas, emerging as the country’s president and setting in motion the transformation of French society on traditional Islamic values. And this happens peacefully and without any real protests in France. This fictional account happens against the backdrop of the violence recently unleashed on France by terrorism. No wonder a novel talking about a peaceful transformation to a political order based on Islamic values was bound to raise hackles.
The novel explores two interrelated themes. The first suggests the progressive breakdown of French/western societies where communal and familial connections are not working. Francois, the main character in the novel, is a 44-year old academic at Sorbonne teaching literature whose life appears drained of any excitement or passion. He does his job routinely and has very little social and intellectual interaction at his work place. He is socially awkward and fails to develop any long-term relationship with women, though he manages to have sex with girlfriends but they always move on. One girl, who is Jewish and has shown some affection for him with the potential to develop into a loving relationship moves to Israel with her parents because of the fear generated by political developments in France surrounding the success of the Muslim Fraternity Party with Mohammed Ben Abbas later becoming the country’s president.
Francois’ sense of loneliness and hopelessness is thus expressed when he says: “There is no Israel for me.” He has no contact with his parents who are divorced and when he is informed by the relevant agency about his mother’s death and the need for arrangements on his part for her burial, he does not respond. The authorities bury his mother in a pauper’s grave, as it might seem. He projects his own sense of loneliness and despair on to larger French society where many, he imagines, live a life of loneliness like him without social connections and a purposeful life.
The politics of the country are as sterile with main political parties, Socialists and Conservatives (UMP), going through the periodic charade of elections, governing the country in turns without any substantial change of policies and politics. Francois’ contempt for such ‘democracy’ is brutal when he says, “Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.” In a sense, France appears to have reached a dead end, both in terms of people’s individual lives and collectively.
It is precisely at this time and against this backdrop that the Muslim Fraternity Party and its leader, Mohammed Ben Abbes, appear as a moderate political force to give the country a clear direction. And they seem like a breath of fresh air. As the novel proceeds towards its conclusion, it thus sums up (as a fictional account) the state of Europe’s decomposition. It says, “The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of new immigrants, with their traditional culture — of natural hierarchies, the submission of women and respect for elders — offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe. These immigrants held out the hope of a new age for the old continent. Some were Christian but there was no denying that the vast majority were Muslim.” Besides, Ben Abbas was planning to expand the political and cultural boundaries of Europe to include some African/Arab countries, but it was all meant to be a peaceful project.
Francois, the novel’s main character and narrator, who lost his academic job when Sorbonne became Islamic, gets his job back after converting to Islam at the persuasion of the new university president who is himself a convert. Francois (or the author, Houellebecq, to the extent he is represented by the narrator of the novel) is very impressed by the university president’s new life with more than one wife as he puts it, “…a 40-year old wife to do the cooking, a 15-year old wife for whatever else... No doubt he had one or two wives in between.” And for Francois this is an ideal society where he does not need to look for his sexual conquests. Like some of his colleagues he will have no difficulty in the department of wives that will be arranged for him and serve him in a submissive (hence the title, Submission) role. In this hierarchical society with structured roles, the woman submits to the man, with final submission to God from all.
In France’s new political world, with a Muslim president, the economy is already looking up with unemployment down, as women leave work and are given subsidies to raise more children. Which would also have the effect of reversing a decline in France’s population. At the same time, Arab money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar starts flowing in to prop up things.
It all sounds very exciting and like a neat solution for Europe’s rebirth under a charter of Islamic traditions and values. But it is too neat and hence not realistic. If anything, the right spectrum of European polity is feeding off of Islamophobia. One reviewer in the London Review of Books called it “deeply reactionary [but], it is not Islamophobic”. Indeed, Houllebecq appears to have made a volte face on Islam, which he had described before as “the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions... doomed just as surely as Christianity.” But in his novel, Submission, he appears to suggest that it might be the solution to the crisis overtaking French/European civilisation. Even though the novel has generated great interest and controversy, one should not lose sight of the fact that it is a fictional narrative and should not be taken as the pathway to France’s political transformation in 2022 and beyond.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia.
January 6th, 2016
IT is difficult to imagine what exactly the Saudi authorities were thinking when they decided to put Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr to the sword at the turn of the year, alongside 46 other men, while simultaneously announcing an end to the barely heeded ceasefire in Yemen.
It’s not just Iran that had warned of repercussions in the event of al-Nimr’s execution, after he was sentenced to death in 2014. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pitched in with a plea for clemency and Amnesty International declared the trial that led to his conviction to have been a farce.
This wasn’t a grievous error, though. It was a deliberate provocation. The Saudis were mightily miffed, just like Israel, by the West’s nuclear deal with Iran. Any effort to prove that it was deeply flawed would therefore make strategic sense. What would be more appropriate, in the context, than stirring it up into a lather of fury?
That’s not the only context, though. The Saudis are displeased by the way things are going in Syria, with Russia pitching in on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and the West seemingly inclined to think this might be its best bet in combating the militant Islamic State group. The fact that Nimr vehemently opposed Assad appears not to have been taken into consideration.
Or at least it wasn’t enough to vindicate his ostensibly pro-democracy stance, which put him on a collision course with Riyadh — specifically in the context of Bahrain, where an intervention by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies was required to put down a revolt by the predominantly Shia populace against the Sunni monarchy.
Regrets over Nimr’s execution have been mild.
A Syrian diplomatic settlement at the moment would likely favour Assad in some ways. That would be anathema to Turkey, as well as to the Saudis, Qatar and the rest. The reinvigorated tensions between Riyadh and Tehran more or less put paid to that prospect.
They also put on the back burner any prospect of a negotiated deal vis-à-vis Yemen, where a ceasefire was officially disrupted at more or less the same time as the announcement of Nimr’s execution. It is extremely interesting, though, that Yemen has been cited among the nations — including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria — that responded vehemently in criticising the killing.
Yemen has ostensibly been targeted because the Houthi rebels are supposedly proxies for Iran, an assumption based largely on the fact that they adhere to the Zaidi Shia sect. There was little evidence of Iranian interest before the Saudis and the UAE barged in with their version of shock and awe — with the Emiratis eventually deploying their army of mostly Colombian mercenaries after the usual suspects, such as Pakistan, opted out of the dubious mission — but that may well change now.
The relentless bombardment of the Middle East’s poorest nation appears to have mostly targeted civilians, yet the nations that have been all too thrilled to fulfil Saudi and Emirati military orders have barely flinched, if they have noted at all the use to which their weapons of widespread destruction are being put.
Likewise, the regrets expressed over the Nimr provocation have been mealy-mouthed and mild. There has thus far been no indication that Saudi Arabia — whose ‘defence’ expenditure, at more than $56 billion, is almost 10 times that of Iran — will cease anytime soon to be a recipient of the latest technology in the West’s conventional arsenal of lethal weaponry.
Meanwhile, the unfortunate but not entirely surprising attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran — strongly criticised as a distraction by large segments of the Iranian press as well as President Hassan Rouhani — has led to the severing of diplomatic relations, with Bahrain and Sudan following the Saudi lead, Kuwait recalling its ambassador, and the UAE downgrading its ties without cutting off trade.
The heightened tensions between the Middle East’s main theocratic states are indubitably a bad omen for 2016, but there can be little question that this is almost exactly what the Saudi hierarchy bargained for.
The extent to which this may relate to a power struggle within the House of Saud — where there is said to be little love lost between Crown Prince and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef (whose father evoked hatred from Nimr, notwithstanding the latter’s general advocacy of peaceful opposition to tyranny) and Mohammad bin Salman, the world’s youngest defence minister, who happens to be not just the monarch’s son but also the architect of the Yemen war as well as the ersatz 34-nation ‘alliance against terrorism’, whose announcement took many of its components by surprise.
Given Iran’s predilection for incarcerating, torturing and executing opponents of the regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s outrage over Nimr can legitimately be considered hypocritical. But Saudi Arabia, the West’s closest ally in the region after Israel, could easily be construed at the moment as the most potent destabilising force in the Middle East alongside IS.
The Saudi-Iran showdown
January 6th, 2016
THE escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric has intensified sectarian polarisation in the Middle East. This has far-reaching implications for the region and beyond. It is yet another provocative action by the new Saudi rulers which has further inflamed the strategic rivalry between the two countries that underpins the current turmoil in the region.
It is surely not just about silencing an outspoken critic of the regime; the execution of Sheikh Nimr illustrates the kingdom’s new aggressiveness under King Salman and his son, the deputy crown prince who is also responsible for the disastrous military intervention in Yemen. Al Nimr was a leader of the Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia community until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted on terrorism charges along with three other dissidents.
Predictably, Tehran’s reaction over the execution was no less inflammatory. The Iranian leaders warned the Saudi regime of “divine revenge” predicting the downfall of the kingdom. The storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran has further aggravated the situation.
Now the cutting off of diplomatic ties has completely disrupted relations between the two rivals, raising fears of their greater investment in the proxy war across the Middle East. With Bahrain and Sudan also severing relations with Iran, the United Arab Emirates downgrading ties and Kuwait recalling its ambassador, the regional fallout of the crisis will get more serious.
Most intriguing, however, was the timing of the execution that came days after the announcement by Riyadh of the formation of a controversial alliance of 34 Muslim countries to fight all manner of terrorism and religious extremism. Unsurprisingly, Iran, Iraq and some other countries were left out from the coalition, reinforcing the perception of it being essentially an anti-Iran alliance. Many of the countries listed in the coalition have already expressed their reservations. It is hard to believe that such an alliance can now take off the ground with the latest Saudi-Iran flare-up.
Rising Saudi-Iran tensions may jeopardise Syrian peace negotiations that had raised hopes of a diplomatic solution.
One of the objectives of the Saudi-led alliance was to fight the militant Islamic State group, but the showdown between the kingdom and Iran has only widened the sectarian fault line and has further divided the Muslim world, thus creating a fertile ground for militant organisations like IS to grow and operate. It is quite obvious that it is Iran and not IS that is perceived as a greater threat by the Saudi kingdom.
With the Iraqi government joining hands with Iran over the execution, there is a big question mark over the proposed alliance really focusing on fighting IS. The crisis has swept aside the illusion that even limited cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh could help end the bloody civil wars taking place in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. Instead, the escalating tension may well intensify their proxy wars leading to further destabilisation of the region.
A major concern is that the rising Saudi-Iran tensions may jeopardise the Syrian peace negotiations that had raised hopes of some diplomatic solution to end the civil war that has left millions of Syrians dead and homeless. Both the countries are part of the process that also includes Russia and the United States. The negotiations are set to begin on Jan 25. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia and their allies are major players in the conflict. While Iran has been actively supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis are backing the Sunni rebel groups.
Meanwhile, the stand-off also threatens the second round of the Yemen peace talks scheduled for this month. A three-week ceasefire collapsed on Jan 2 mainly due to Saudi intransigence. There is now little hope of all those strings of initiatives succeeding in this state of madness.
This disintegrating map of the Middle East is particularly alarming for Pakistan, worsening its dilemma of how to strike a balance in its policy on these two powerful countries in the region. It is likely that Islamabad will come under greater Saudi pressure to actively join the coalition. Pakistan has thus far neither committed nor rejected the Saudi initiative, but it will be difficult for the government to maintain that ambiguity for long. Tehran would expect us to stay neutral at the very least.
Despite its traditional neutrality in the Saudi-Iran conflict, Pakistan has long been pulled into the proxy war between these two powers. That is also the underlying cause of rising sectarian violence that poses a major threat to the country’s internal security.
It is a well-known fact that the Saudi government consistently backed and funded extremist Sunni organisations in Pakistan. Madressahs funded by the kingdom and other Gulf countries have become the main centres of Sunni militancy as well as the recruiting ground for sectarian organisations. The emergence of IS footprints in Pakistan is most worrisome. The reported nexus between the militant group and outlawed sectarian militant groups has caused the situation to turn more explosive. Yet the government refuses to come out of its state of denial.
Pakistani security agencies reportedly busted an IS cell in Sialkot most of whose members formerly belonged to Jamaatud Dawa, a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and with links to the Salafi movement historically associated with Saudi Arabia. Even more troubling are the reports of Pakistanis travelling to Syria and Iraq to join various militant groups including IS.
There have also been instances where Shia volunteers have been recruited to fight along pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East. An international wire agency recently reported that the funeral of two Pakistani fighters killed in Syria took place in Tehran. Similar reports about Iranian recruitment have emerged from Pakistan’s tribal regions, fuelling sectarian tensions.
There is a real danger of Pakistan becoming a battlefield for the Saudi-Iran proxy war if timely measures are not taken to stop these recruitments. The ideologically motivated and battled-hardened could become the biggest challenge for the security agencies on their return home. One can only hope the government and the security agencies stop playing ostrich.
Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.
The shadowy world of proxy wars
By Faqir Hamim Masoom
January 6, 2016
Pakistan has, of late, positioned itself to enhance diplomatic and security ties with its immediate neighbours, namely Afghanistan and China. Pakistan-India relations, however, continue to be plagued by the Kashmir dispute, an active nuclear arms race and perennial border tensions. Add to this the recent attack on the Pathankot air base in India, which has the potential of nullifying gains made by Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore. As the two South Asian giants aggressively pursue their national interests, they refrain from direct armed engagement, so as not to exacerbate nuclear tensions nor act in disobedience to international norms and practices.
South Asia is certainly not the only region that is plagued by conflict largely characterised by the use of proxy forces. Other countries willfully employ similar proxies as an integral part of their security agenda, which runs parallel to diplomatic endeavours. What drives modern states to overtly or covertly support armed non-state actors? Conventional conflicts have diminished in part due to the emergence of uni-polarity. The overarching international order no longer tolerates overt conflicts among nation-states. This does not necessarily mean that modern states have adopted the principles of idealism. Instead, states have begun to pursue alternative strategies to ensure an unwavering commitment towards their rudimentary precept, their very survival. But how are the overbearing principles of liberalism, in effect and very paradoxically, encouraging states to use proxies?
While the international order seemingly matured, it merely shrouded the Machiavellian tendencies of states, which emphasised the need for power maximisation. States began to invest in proxies to further their vested interests, therein avoiding any blatant contradiction to the prevailing idealistic international order and its emphasis on international organisations in addressing inter-state conflicts. Those states that still contemplated open warfare risked being isolated from the international community in some form or the other. Additionally, as in the case of Pakistan and India, the threat of a nuclear war served as a much more effective deterrent.
Take, for example, the ongoing Syrian conflict. As part of the 2011 Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad’s despotic reign was overtly challenged. Protests demanding a change in government soon morphed into a bloody civil war. Factions from Assad’s armed forces defected to form a resistance force, the Free Syrian Army. These domestic resistance groups have also attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom cite sectarian differences as a reason for fighting. Among these foreign groups is the Jabhat-al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that holds an unfavourable view of Assad on account of his sectarian identity.
Subsequently, the lack of governance has created a power vacuum. This has allowed outside powers, both regional and global, to influence Syria’s political future, by extending support to favourable proxies. In 2013, the New York Times reported that “with help from the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters”. By backing an array of anti-government proxies, fears persist of American supplied weapons falling into the hands of religious extremists. The inability of America to track the weapons it supplies to Syrian rebels could pose a security threat to Israel and other US regional allies. Ambitions of regime change via proxies has further embroiled America and other key international players into a crisis in which there is little hope in alleviating Syria’s burgeoning refugee and humanitarian crisis.
Maintaining proxies is a messy business, but why do states continue to do so? And how does it shape the accepted norms of international conflict resolution? Despite a resilient international liberal order in place, regional tensions have triggered both a conventional and nuclear arms race (especially in the case of Pakistan and India). Pushed by a desire to remain within the selectively defined confines of internationally accepted principles, the employment of proxy forces holds an alluring appeal for states to exercise plausible deniability. In essence, an arms race is much like a proxy race, where both are driven by neck-to-neck reciprocity, all in an effort to curtail the mutually-shared sense of insecurity. The employment of proxies has been commonly witnessed in the contemporary dynamics of many conflict-prone regions, thus paving way for the resurgence of proxy wars as a significant feature of today’s conflict resolution and in the process, redefining the tacit acceptance of international norms of conflict.
As long as America’s strategic presence remains unchallenged, countries will continue to pursue their national interests by employing proxies, thus allowing them to engage in international conflicts without acting in blatant disobedience of the overarching global order as defined and enforced by the unipolar hegemon.
Faqir Hamim Masoom has a Master’s degree in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad, and is currently working as a researcher with the chairpersons of the Senate Committee on Defence and Committee on Foreign Affairs
Could Trump be the real Captain America?
January 5, 2016
The American state will not standardise norms, ask you to wear a uniform or cram a speech delivered by the founding fathers. But there is an ideology, there always is
Ever since Donald Trump entered the race there have been voices denouncing him as a voracious right wing dinosaur. “He is just not the US,” the argument goes, “The country is too pluralist to be personified by him.” This is largely because Trump projects machismo, jingoism, wealth and power, things that are not good for the image but things that have always been there. In reality, he may not be that far from the mark as far as what he stands for goes. This is how.
Trump was recently on the Jimmy Kimmel Live television show on ABC network where he talked politics and money. The host, Jimmy Kimmel, cracked jokes, the audience loved it and the show topped cable TV ratings that night. Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and the show itself can be seen as part of the US’ global culture and power projection regime. It is an instance of how the mainstream media, politics and comedy come together to reinforce the US’ socio-political narratives in the US and beyond.
Television shows like The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Late Show with David Letterman follow a set format. A typical show opens with the host reading jokes on current news and newsmakers from a teleprompter. This segment follows a chat with a primary guest and ends with a live musical performance. These shows are watched by millions, not just in the US but also around the world.
The comedy is fun but these shows also serve serious political agendas, sometimes overtly. During the Sochi Olympics, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show on NBC, subjected Russian President Vladimir Putin to a continuous tirade of jokes that started well before the actual games began and subsided only with the closing ceremony. The consistent thread in all the jokes was the country’s portrayal as a padlocked, spiritless society. Some of this is probably true but it harks back to the Cold War imagery of the Soviet Union and perpetuates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ polarities. Take another example. Jay Leno, the previous host of the same show, once had a comic dress up as an Iranian astronaut. Employing old-style ribald, the astronaut was depicted as a near savage, a misogynist and a sexual pervert. It was laugh-out-loud funny but used familiar political themes about ‘the enemy’ that the US routinely uses for Iran. An addition to the equation was medieval cultural stereotypes about Arabs to create humour and reinforce perceptions about the Middle East. It was ironic in the sense that the Bedouin-bashing would not really apply to Iranians who are not fond of the Arabs themselves. But that goes to show how different racial identities can be conflated into the same old stereotypes.
Many a time, the message is carried in subtle undertones and with clever symbolism. The US establishes its hegemony in cultural entertainment by showcasing its cultural icons. Through its celebrities, the US universalises its norms and values. True, the US does not have one homogeneous culture. Unlike say, the former Soviet Union, the state does not ideologically regulate the lives of its people. The US is not North Korea; rather, it makes fun of despots. Qaddafi was pilloried in The Dictator (2012) and Kim Jong-un was assassinated in The Interview (2014). But if that is so, why is Trump — a despot in his own right — the US’ leading candidate? In trying to answer that question you would have to examine the old ‘melting pot’ slogan closely.
When you melt different things in a pot, they lose their original properties and become inextricably jelled with each other. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, when you lose your original shade and assume the colour of those around you, does that not mean you have been homogenised? The American state will not standardise norms, ask you to wear a uniform or cram a speech delivered by the founding fathers. But there is an ideology, there always is.
The guests on the shows mentioned above are not always white, Christian or straight. The producers throw up an array of blacks, Hispanics, Indian, Cuban and Japanese Americans. But all of the guests, regardless of their racial background, are ‘Americanised’, so to speak. Being on prime time US television requires you to be culturally assimilated into American society. The show takes for granted, for instance, that the guests have absorbed the ‘American way of life’ and think of ‘us’ as the ‘good ol’ folks as opposed to ‘them’, the sneaky Russians, barbaric Arabs, mysterious Iranians and out-to-get-the -world Chinese.
So, Donald Trump on Jimmy Kimmel Live is a true homecoming. Trump is the tough-talking, opponent-bashing billionaire the US needs when it is being battered in the far nooks of the world. Here is what is truly interesting. Trump only verbalises many of the things that go unsaid but form the subtext of American culture and politics. Maybe the reason he is so popular is that he does as a person what the US does as a country. Consider. He is a billionaire. The country he is running for is the richest in the world. He is accused of xenophobia and right wing extremism. The US, despite being the freest of democratic societies, often promotes cultural stereotypes of Mexicans, Arabs, Russians, North Koreans, Iranians and Chinese, and continues to define the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. He is arrogant and condescending. The US has been displaying imperial hubris from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Honestly speaking, would the Uncle Sam cutout look any different with Trump’s face posted on it?
All said and done, the US is still a dream destination for many people. And shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live are not all politics and conspiracy. They highlight an important asset of American culture: the ability of people to laugh at themselves. There is seemingly endless creativity and humour that is presented day after day. This could only have burgeoned in a free and vibrant society where everyone — priests, atheists, the president, the army, the CIA — can be the butt of jokes. Even the entertainment business itself can be made fun of.
Before you stand up and clap, here is where it gets really clever. Since everything is telecast to millions in and out of the US, it also becomes a means of self-projection. When the US invades a country (with television channels calling it a ‘liberation campaign’), it is their military and technological might that is on display; when American cable shows are the most watched and discussed programmes on television in the world, it is soft power that takes over. Either way, we are all trumped.
Sameer Ahmed is a lecturer in English Literature at Government College University, Lahore
Challenges facing the counter-terror drive
By Imtiaz Gul
January 5, 2016
By Imtiaz Gul heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate
Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the National Internal Security Policy and the National Action Plan (NAP) are all symbols of Pakistan’s struggle to wrest back the space that the state had lost to non-state actors. Of these, the NAP most probably qualified as the country’s first formal counterterror framework, adopted on the back of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
Both promised to destroy any challenge to the state — from Karachi to Waziristan. They have succeeded in regaining considerable territory that non-state actors such as the TTP had wrested from the state, establishing the government’s writ in the mountains of Waziristan, once considered no-go areas.
For operations in Waziristan and Karachi, the military provided the muscle the government needed to cow down terrorists masquerading as religious crusaders. These successes deserve appreciation as they have helped revive citizens’ trust in the state security apparatus.
But what about the country’s capital, Islamabad, where the civilian administration is still struggling with the remnants of the Lal Masjid? What to make of the more than 306 mosques and madrassas that, according to a report submitted to the Public Accounts Committee a year ago, exist in Islamabad? Has any action been taken against them? In fact, a few more such structures have emerged in sectors F, mostly in the Green Belt, where even government officials offer their Friday prayers. Isn’t this a direct challenge to the NAP, which had promised indiscriminate action against all those threatening state and public interest?
The Capital Development Authority (CDA) — often emasculated by the offices of the prime minister, the interior minister and the cabinet division for finance and land grabbers — is currently pursuing a crackdown against all illegal structures and the unlawful commercial use of residential buildings. More than five dozen restaurants, showrooms and brand outlets have been sealed and several more are under scrutiny.
But mind you, this happened under a directive of the Supreme Court and not as an extension of the NAP. The demolition, last summer, of an illegally constructed seminary in an Islamabad graveyard, also happened under the orders of the Islamabad High Court. While issuing directions for the demolition of the illegal structure, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui observed that “no religious seminary can be constructed in an illegal manner and without adopting a due procedure”. He further questioned the counsel for the illegal seminary, “Do you have the permission from the CDA or any competent authority to establish the madrassa?” The counsel instantly ducked under a lame excuse, claiming that there are a number of madrassas in the capital running in a similar manner. But Justice Siddiqui reminded him that it was against the teachings of Islam to encroach upon another’s land.
While the senior judiciary has taken some action, what has the government done to prevent illegal land grabbing by mighty non-state actors? What measures have been taken to reign in and, in fact, indict the Lal Masjid cleric, who had been demanding the imposition of his brand of shariat? All the administration did was block cellular networks in the capital for several hours on consecutive Fridays.
Secondly, why isn’t the government going after those protecting the Lal Masjid cleric? Where does the NAP disappear in such cases, one wonders? While the NAP has created a huge space for the state and citizens, many of its promises remain unfulfilled, as there is still lack of indiscriminate actions against those challenging the state’s writ.
Indeed, the indiscriminate enforcement of the rule of law and primacy of fundamental human rights constitute the core of any counterterrorism and counter-crime framework. This is the only way to ensure success as well as restore citizens’ confidence in the civilian and military security establishment. While the military is good for surgical and tactical fights, it is the job of the civilians to build on the space thus acquired. Mere sloganeering will not provide remedies. Firm action, and not shallow rhetoric, is needed against all those challenging the state’s writ.