The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy

It is reading time again here at AFOE. I am happy to invite you to read The politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy. If you like the world to be simple and easy to understand then you will hate The Politics of Chaos.

Olivier Roy offers his readers a descriptive overview of the many and ever moving social and political currents and dynamics in the Middle East. Understanding these will give a clearer insight into many of the conflicts in the region. Roy places the conflicts within their own context and separates them from the idea of ‘a clash of civilizations’. As the title of the book suggests, there is no single formula, or a ‘geostrategy of Islam’ as he calls it, that would explain everything that currently goes on in the Middle East. In the rather provocative introduction to the book, which you can read at the Columbia University Press website (pdf), Roy States:

Far from bearing out the prevailing theory that there is “a clash of civilizations” and a confrontation between the Muslim world and the West, the conflicts and realignments affect primarily the Muslim world itself and operate along fault lines that have very little to do with ideology.

It is true that some people, in their discussions about Islam, tend to forget the actual social and political ‘realities on the ground’ and see the Muslim World as a huge monolith. Olivier Roy addresses this issue in the first chapter of the book called Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy?, in which he describes how current Western, and notably American, Middle East policy was shaped and why it failed. Talking about the failure of the democratization of Iraq he writes:

Why then, is there talk of failure? Fundamentally because, for the neoconservatives and international institutions alike, democracy is a simple question of building institutions and electoral mechanisms. (…) What is lacking in this theory of democratization is the entire political dimension of a modern society (state), and the entire anthropological depth of a traditional society.

In short, the West looked at the problems in the Middle East from a purely Western perspective that largely ignored ‘the reality on the ground’.

Olivier Roy then goes on to describe ‘this reality on the ground’ in a second chapter called The Middle East: Fragmentation of Conflicts and New Fault Lines. It would be impossible to give a decent summary of all the different actors and complex dynamics Roy describes at length in this most fascinating part of the book. To give you an idea, consider this quote:

A major problem in the Middle East is that of political legitimacy. Local nationalisms generally develop around states, not regimes, but the political ideologies on the market are supra-nationalist while the political “grammar” (the game of individual alliances and loyalties) is inter-state (all that is contained in the term asabiyya or “solidarity group”: clannism, tribalism, sectarianism). (…) And yet nationalisms remain the key to conflicts, but are undermined by internal divisions (…) which can be linked to ideologies and transnational networks.

It is in this chapter that we discover the true political, social and ideological kaleidoscope that is the Middle East. If there is one thing that does unite the countries of the Middle East, it is not a desire to bring down Western civilization but rather an ongoing search for identity (based on nationalism or religion) in a globalised world. And this search is very much influenced by the role the West has played and continues to play in the internal affairs of this region.

The complexity continues in a third chapter that is dedicated to Iran and in which Roy sheds some light on the internal dynamics of that country, its ambitions as a regional power, its nuclear programme and the Ahmadinejad phenomenon. And in the fourth and last chapter of the book Olivier Roy discusses Al-Qaeda and explains why this organization, potentially lethal as it may be, has no real future and that its activism is increasingly detached from actual political developments. As Roy states, “Al-Qaeda’s recruitment map in no way reflects the flashpoints in the Middle East” and, one of many surprising facts in this chapter, “10 to 25% of activists are converts”.

With this short summary, which does no justice to the wealth of insights and information this new book by Olivier Roy provides, I can highly recommend The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East as an excellent introduction to the diverse political and social realities in the Middle East. If you are interested in the subject, you can use this book as a primer to get a better understanding of the Middle Eastern Zeitgeist, its contemporary history and sensibilities with regards to Western influence in the region.

For more information you can visit the book’s webpages of Columbia University Press and Hurst & Co.

And, as a bonus, go have a quick browse through the books on offer in Columbia University Press’ White Sale. Today (Monday June 2nd) is the last day of the sale.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend two other books that I received from Hurst & Co: Iran in World Politics, The Question of the Islamic Republic by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and Hamas in Politics by Jeroen Gunning.

Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

Everyone’s now blogged about Jacques Chirac’s unexpected remarks about Iranian nuclear weapons.

But I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had. Chirac stated that, should a hypothetically nuclear Iran launch a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be destroyed before it had gone 200 metres. This is a pretty basic statement of nuclear deterrence, with the further point that in a sense, having one or two nuclear bombs makes you weaker than having zero nuclear bombs but the capacity to make them. Once you fire the one bomb, you have no further deterrent, and you’re definitely going to be nuked.

Quite a range of powers have credible deterrence against Iran – there’s the US, obviously, Israel, obviously, but less obviously France, Britain, Russia, India, China, and Pakistan. So, Chirac argued, the real danger wasn’t so much from a North Korean-style couple of bombs, but that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt also rushing to obtain nukes as a counterdeterrent. (In yesterday’s Libération, Francois Heisbourg, the director of the IISS, restates this point adding Jordan to the list of presumed possible proliferators.)

He was of course right. Saudi Arabia has been quietly and consistently making noises about nuclear bombs for years, and it has close military-to-military ties with Pakistan. Some say Saudi money financed the Pakistani bomb project, and alone among nations they are in a position to actually buy the bomb. Egypt would probably see a Saudi bomb as unacceptable, and start using its own considerable scientific-technical establishment to work on going nuclear. (Chirac saw this differently – he suggested rather that the Saudis would finance Egyptian efforts – but I doubt this due to the historic competition for Arab leadership between the two states, and the Pakistani option.) Gah.
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Bahrain blogger Mahmood censored

This falls under the category “Not Europe” here at AFEM but on the internet the world is a global village and one of the voices in that village has just been silenced, albeit in his own neighbourhood, along with a few others. Mahmood from the Bahrain weblog Mahmood’s Den was presented with a site blocking order and, as he wrote yesterday:

I just heard confirmed news that this site (Mahmood’s Den) will be blocked effective immediately, together with 6 others (don’t know which yet) by order of the Minister of Information. The memo has been printed and delivered to all the ISP’s this afternoon apparently. I am yet to receive my copy. But if I go off the air for too long, you know the reason, and it’s not inconceivable that prisons will be used to silence criticism.

This is not good. And really bad PR for the Bahrain government.

Update (November 6th): Mahmood has been unblocked. Long live Bahrain!

The liberalism of fools?

I cannot recommend highly enough Ken Macleod’s post (found via Crooked Timber) on how the “socialism of fools” – Engels’ description of anti-semitism – was accompanied by a sort of “liberalism of fools”, to wit, the anti-Catholicism of the pre-WWII era. Macleod, acknowledging that anti-Catholicism is rather passé these days, wonders if hatred of something else, perhaps another sect, might fill the roll as a modern liberalism of fools.

And, on a not entirely separate topic, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (no website, not that kind of paper) is republishing the images, along with one on its cover of Mohammed crying “It’s hard to be loved by fools”. An effort by the Conseil français du culte musulman to stop publication through the French courts was rejected on a technicality.

Chirac, however, has demonstrated that he is not, contrary to widespread belief, the biggest fool in Europe. Unlike the Danish Prime Minister, he has “condemned all manifest provocations that are liable to dangerously arouse passions.” Alas, he has only retreated to the number two slot in European political idiocy. He also said, “Anything susceptible to harm the convictions of others, particularly religious convictions, should be avoided. Freedom of expression should be exercised with a sense of responsibility.” Right on count two, wrong on count one. Responsible freedom of expression means that when you go out to offend people, you can’t claim to be surprised when they are offended. But there is little point in free speech if it is forbidden from trying to change convictions.

And round and round this totally avoidable fiasco goes.
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What You Look For Is What You Get?

Ok, I’m feeling in a wicked mood today, so how about something really controversial (just for a change). It’s now as near to official as we’re going to get it that Sadam Hussein wasn’t making any serious advance towards the development of WMDs.

So, this being the case, what exactly is going on in Iraq?
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Suspicion and divided loyalties

Perhaps the most damaging effect of 9/11 and all that has followed will be its role in making divided loyalties one of the most dangerous things a person can have. From the beginning, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still burning, any effort to hold non-trivial positions about terrorism and Islam were attacked. People opposed to the war in Iraq were branded as terrorist supporters, people unimpressed by a programme of reform in the Middle East imposed at the end of a gun were castigated, people who asked questions about whether there was more to things than “they hate us for our freedom” were branded as traitors.

Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece in Wednesday’s New York Times which must be read in this light. The key paragraph – the statement of where he stands – appears at the end:

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

But it is not that hard to see the threat in it. To encourage western Muslims to at once see themselves as having a place in the West and a role in the Islamic world is tantamount to asking them to divide their loyalties. To all too many people right now, divided loyalties are a synonym for treason. The charge of divided loyalties is an old one, and a very damaging one. It was once the most mainstream charge that people made against Jews. To see it revived today – against Muslims in Europe, against Mexicans in the US by the likes of Samuel Huntington, and yes, against Jews in many countries – is very, very troubling.
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