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Today an international coalition began attacking military forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar al-Qadhafi, with the official aim of protecting civilians in rebel-held areas of the country, especially the major city of Benghazi. The Obama administration is working hard to ensure that this is not perceived as an American operation. I believe this scenario is correct:
“Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.
“The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was ‘indispensable,’ Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader’s load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding).
“In Libya, the Obama administration followed the old Bush-Clinton playbook, but stuck with it much longer. For weeks, nothing much happened. Hawks bemoaned the fecklessness. Doves praised the ‘strategic reticence.’ And Qaddafi steadily slaughtered the rebels.
“Finally, the French and British couldn’t take it anymore and, just before the rebels couldn’t take it anymore, forced through the Chapter VII UNSCR that made military intervention imminent.”
This fits with Obama’s usual modus operandi, which centers around patience and sticking to a strategy past the point where everyone else is a nervous wreck clamoring for action, as well as his public statements and what appears to be actually unfolding in the conflict zone. The United States has been involved in missile warfare to degrade Qadhafi’s air defense capabilities, but the French are leading publicly and actually flying the bombing runs into Libya. Whether the domestic and international perceptions are what Obama hopes they will be remains to be seen.
Regardless of the allied leadership configuration, however, I have concerns about where this is headed. The textbook successful no-fly zone, in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990′s, depended on the group we were protecting having ground forces who could defend a perimeter such that the U.S. and Co. really only had to worry about the Iraqi air force. This is not the case in Libya, which is why we also have the “no drive” zone.
Another difference, however, is that unlike the Kurds the Libyan rebels are not interested in just maintaining autonomy, but want to topple Qadhafi. The international community has just offered to supply an air force allowing them to do so. What happens, however, if the civil war in Libya becomes a stalemate? This whole operation reminds me of Operation Deny Flight, which led after two years to a wholesale aerial bombardment of Bosnian Serb targets. If this conflict drags on, I expect the alliance currently enforcing UN Resolution 1973 to determine that eliminating Qadhafi is better than a commitment of resources with no end in sight.
Then, too, there is the aftermath. The ad hoc organization of the rebels does not seem to provide a clear, nationally recognized leadership which could take over if Qadhafi falls. We should even keep in the mind the possibility that civil war could continue among different factions, with the country possibly even splitting into Tripolitanian and Cyrenaican, or western and eastern, factions fighting for control of the oil in and around the Gulf of Sirte. It is possible the coalition could pull out once the threat of Qadhafi’s massacres is removed, but that would defy history and certainly leave a sour taste in mouths in the participating countries.
I am not opposed to a mission to stop massacres from happening. I am, however, concerned about the future direction these events could take. “Mission creep” seems not just a possibility, but a certainty unless the rebels quickly regroup and finish off the regime, and even then, if the country collapses, former colonial powers are not the ideal choices to manage the aftermath. This could indeed be the dawn of an odyssey on which none want to embark.
Recent days have seen Moammar Qadhafi’s forces advancing steadily against Libya’s rebels and gathering for a final assault on their stronghold in Benghazi. The United Nations Security Council just voted in favor of strong action:
“The United Nations Security Council approved a measure on Thursday authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm at the hands of forces loyal to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“The measure allows not only a no-fly zone but effectively any measures short of a ground invasion to halt attacks that might result in civilian fatalities. It comes as Colonel Qaddafi warned residents of Benghazi, Libya, the rebel capital, that an attack was imminent and promised lenient treatment for those who offered no resistance.
“‘We are coming tonight,’ Colonel Qaddafi said. ‘You will come out from inside. Prepare yourselves from tonight. We will find you in your closets.’
“With the recent advances made by pro-Qaddafi forces in the east, there was a growing consensus in the Obama administration that imposing a no-fly zone by itself would no longer make much of a difference and that there was a need for more aggressive airstrikes that would make targets of Colonel Qaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery — an option sometimes referred to as a no-drive zone. The United States or its allies might also send military personnel to advise and train the rebels, an official said.”
When Libya’s uprising first started, I posted in support of a no-fly zone. Subsequent discussion made me realize that would not work under Libyan conditions the same way it did those in late Ba’athist Iraq. What we have now is what we could even have gotten then, a full assault on air and ground forces in conjunction with Libyan rebels. In other words, the United States and its allies are about to become a full part of this war.
Undemocratic regimes don’t consist of just one powerful person. They exist with the support of certain elements in society that profit from their continuation. Because of this revolutions aren’t just protests which depose rulers, but broader social movements by which different social groups try to improve their position, whether economically, politically, or even culturally. Egypt is clearly following this trajectory, as protests since Mubarak’s resignation continue to reshape the country.
Perhaps the most significant development for the future of Egyptian society, however, is that noted by Ursula Lindsey
“One of the most interesting (and hard to follow) phenomena of the moment in Egypt is the proliferation of demands for reform at the level of institutions and workplaces. At all sort of different organizations, workers are demanding the resignation of top officials and the institutions of more equitable pay scales.
“I just did a piece looking at this for the radio show The World. One of the people I spoke is my old friend Sabah Hamamou, who is one of the leaders of an effort to reform state newspapers. She and 300 other journalists wrote a letter of apology to readers for Al Ahram’s coverage of the protests. The editors refused to print it so they called a press conferences and read it out loud.”
“Workers were critical in bringing the reluctant generals to the decision to ask Mubarak to step aside (or force him out, it’s unclear). They also continue to play a role by engaging in strikes since Mubarak’s departure…
“Certain kinds of anti-corruption demands also have a specific working-class component. For example, workers demanded the dismissal of the CEO of the public sector Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra, the largest textile enterprise in Egypt, on the grounds of corruption. And they won this demand after a three-day strike…
“The business cronies of Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former Egyptian president, people like the steel magnate Ahmad Ezz, have been dealt a strong blow. But they will not disappear so easily, and it is very possible to imagine that once ‘stability’ has been re-established they, or others like them, will return.”
“A look at the most prominent discourse making the newspapers and airwaves during the last week indicates that the army (or parts of it) and elements of the old regime will resist attempts at meaningful democratic reforms. While paying lip service to the youth, the revolution, and the martyrs, the ubiquitous appeal in all the local media has been to urge Egyptians to get back to work in order to get the economy back on track – as if the economy was ever on track in the first place…
“In the Egyptian context, the counter-revolutionary ‘who’ is not too difficult to identify: It certainly includes those officers of the despised state security services who fear being eventually brought to trial (however unlikely that scenario is) for their participation in the systematic torture of Egyptians, as well as people in the intelligence service who are loyal to Omar Suleiman. It includes corrupt businessmen who fear future prosecution and forfeiture of their wealth, and high- and mid-level operators of the now-defunct National Democratic Party for whom it would be almost impossible to do a facelift in a new era. It also includes those media executives, editors-in-chief, journalists and pundits who “spun” the most for the Mubarak regime and who are anxious about their own ouster…
“In this counter-revolutionary discourse, Mubarak’s name is being invoked in nostalgic terms, whereas Wael Ghoneim, who emerged as one of the most prominent figures of the revolution, is being written and talked about as a foreign stooge, a member of the Free Masons, and even as a yes-man for the security services…
“The counter- or contra-revolutionary media blitz has been in full swing over the last week. Mona Shazly, whose program 10 pm has a large following, deserves to become an honorary member of the High Army Council for her recent performance when she interviewed three of its generals and only one young activist. She helped paint the military in the best possible light by allowing the generals to repeat the same vapid media catchphrases: ‘forgive and forget,’ ‘we are all one,’ and ‘Egypt is above all.’ It was a tour de force, which suggests that this police state might be able to get away with the same crimes that it has been committing for the last 30 years if public opinion is persuaded to embrace this discourse of forgiveness and the parallel discrediting of continuing revolutionary ‘chaos.’”
Implicit in this is the assumption that the Egyptian military concluded that Mubarak was lost, but that his ruling structure as a whole, one from which they benefited, could still be preserved. Recent weeks have seen the army attack protestors. More dramatic, if away from the cameras, was the attack on Coptic desert monasteries which had built walls for their protection in the unstable revolutionary security situation. At issue seems to be the fact they did not seek government permission for this construction, but in practice it looks like the continuation of the Mubarak regime’s policies which forbid construction on Christian religious buildings without explicit government permission. A deeper issue is the level of force used, which was clearly excessive and designed to send some sort of message.
Several days ago, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released the following video showing demonstrators outside a charity fundraiser by a Muslim group in Yorba Linda, California:
Because of the recent spate of activist video clip manipulations, I held back to see if anyone protested. All I’ve seen is a statement by Congressman Ed Royce, stating that he was actually at a nearby park, and said of the protesters in the clip: “I disavow those remarks and conduct. It was wrong.” He also specifically defended his involvement with the park rally, which was targeted at two keynote speakers, who seem to be the reason it was singled out all along. The more important was Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who was at one point one of 170 people named in an attorney’s memo as a possible unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and who testified as a character witness in the 1995 trial of Omar Abd al-Rahman, who masterminded that bombing. Although right wing sites frequently assert that he was officially named an unindicted co-conspirator, or even “a co-conspirator of 9/11,” I can find no supporting evidence of that and several denials that he was so named. He has apparently refused to condemn Osama bin Laden, but also apparently doubts that Bin Laden perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. As an expert witness in a 2001 trial, he testified that Islam prohibited terrorist activities. He seems to be a theologically conservative religious community activist who believes in conspiracy theories against the U.S. government, and that’s about it. In explaining his opposition to Wahhaj, Congressman Royce repeats some of what I mention above as right-wing activist tropes, as he probably got his information from conservative activists in his district.
What I want to focus on about this video, however, is what the protestors are shouting. The “Go back home!” chant and terrorism references are obviously reprehensible to anyone likely to be reading his post, as Muslims have been in the United States since independence, and Founding Fathers explicitly mentioned Islam and Judaism among lists of Christian denominations to which they foresaw extending freedom of worship. More significant Muslim immigration began in the 1920′s, and chances are almost all the Muslims pictured were natural born American citizens. Part of what’s happening today, however, is that the U.S. is becoming more multicultural, and people who are used to living in a Christian bubble are having that bubble popped.
What mainly interests me is the emphasis on shari’a, which is becoming central to grassroots hostility toward Islam in the United States. Shari’a is usually translated as Islamic law, and is probably best thought of as God’s all-encompassing path for how people should live their lives in the world, including not only basic faith and morals, but personal status and criminal law. (The word was used in the 7th century to refer to a path which led to a desert watering hole.) In Sunni shari’a, there have for centuries there have been four recognized schools of thought, as well as a long-standing belief that the use of individual reason was no longer permitted and all Muslims should follow versions of shari’a as codified by these four schools around 900 CE. The consensus on this latter point as been steadily breaking down since the 1800′s, though medieval views continue to dominate in the Middle East which is what most Americans think of when they think about Islam.
“Last week, Tennessee state senator Bill Ketron introduced a law that would prosecute any practice of Shariah law — defined as a ‘legal-political-military doctrine’ that promotes spread of ‘homegrown terrorism’ — as a felony, punishable with a minimum of 15 years of jail.
“In no unclear terms, the law equates the practice of Shariah — the oft-debated guidelines of the Muslim faith — with treason. ‘[K]nowing adherence to Shariah and to foreign Shariah authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government — with the aim of imposing Shariah on the people of this state.,’ it reads…
“Like the Vatican’s Code of Cannon Law for Catholics, Shariah, derived from the revelations of the Quran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad and interpreted by various scholars of Islam , offers a nebulous outline on how to practice Islam and adjudicates on matters of faith. Given that it many of the guidelines are highly specific instructions on religious rituals — for instance, on whether feet must be washed in each pre-prayer ablution — it is hard to imagine why legislators are so concerned with it.
“On a purely factual level, Shariah law has in fact been used and recognized in U.S. courts. If enforced, a major effect of the laws which include language banning not only the use of Shariah but foreign laws as well, could be that Shariah-compliant marriage contracts and international business contracts are rendered void.”
Ahmed does not mention the conservative, highly codified idea of shari’a, but does report on the idea of shari’a as it is lived and advocated in the United States. As she correctly points out, the Tennessee bill bans the practice of Islam, if not belief, and as such is sure to be struck down under the U.S. Constitution’s “free exercise” clause. These efforts, however, serve to keep a hostile vision of Islam front and center in the public mind. Part of this may relate to the insecurity felt by many conservative Christians at the bursting of their religiously monolithic bubbles mentioned above, which is also seen in their declining ability to use state power to promote their religion. It is also linked to support for American military ventures in the Middle East, conservative support for Israel, and perhaps in some cases holds shadowy hands with the idea that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.
Certain politicians and media outlets are using shari’a to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States for use in political grand-standing, as a wedge issue, and perhaps for ratings. As with Congressman Royce, most who partake of this discourse do not harass individual Muslims, or even condone such behavior. A portion of them do, however, and since the entire line of concern is fantasy, those who are stirring the pot bear a moral burden for the social climate they create. And that this is a social climate problem for American Muslims can be seen in the way the spreading of the shari’a meme even co-opts other people and institutions into its service.
The best example of this is Catholic Bishop of Springfield Thomas John Paprocki, who in his Christmas Eve homily said, “If we are lukewarm about our Christianity, the Islamists won’t need to invade with armies like they marched into Vienna in 1683, but they could simply continue to move in peacefully and legally as they are already doing in Western Europe and even here in the United States until they reach a majority and impose Islamist values and sharia law with little or no resistance.” Paprocki later said in response to the uproar that: “The context of my homily was the fact that Christian churches in Iraq had cancelled their Midnight Mass and other Christmas celebrations due to the threats of al-Quaida on their tiny Christian community that was still terrified from a bloody siege on a Baghdad church this past Oct. 31…My Midnight Mass homily was a call ‘to live our Catholic faith and practice our Christian beliefs much more fervently.’” I happen to believe him. Junaid Afeed called his comments, “misguided opinions of a priest dabbling in matters far beyond his expertise.”. The man can’t even spell al-Qa’ida correctly. The quote just mentioned, for example, references “Islamist” immigration, not “Muslim” immigration in general, and I believe that this would have been written differently by a man who hated all Muslims. On the issue of Christians in Iraq, Juan Cole among others has called attention to their plight.
Consider, however, the way in which this was done, which as Afeef pointed out was “dangerous an inflammatory.” One thread is Paprocki’s historical sense of a clash of religious civilizations, which probably resonates because of the survival over the centuries of a centralized and authoritative top hierarchy within the Roman Catholic Church. This is clearly not the case in Islam, however, and I can think of little Osama bin Laden has in common with the Ottoman Empire aside from Islam and the fact they both fought people. The other thread, however, is conservative orthodoxy. Bishop Paprocki’s comments about Iraq read like a vintage 2004 Republican campaign assessment. He also called for racial profiling, and then there’s the central bit about the non-existent creeping shari’a. In this case, I suspect that many within the Catholic hierarchy, based mainly on common views of abortion and gay rights, have come to identify strongly with American movement conservatism, despite the latter’s roots in American nationalism and conservative evangelical Protestantism. As part of this, they rely mainly on conservative media outlets, and so fall victim to the epistemic closure of the American right, which proves critical in shaping opinions on all issues where there is not a strong countervailing trend, such as that found in Catholicism on immigration, Orthodoxy on the environment, and so forth. In any case, however, Paprocki’s homily functionally cast a pall of suspicion over Muslim immigrants, and especially since most people still see Muslims as Others within the United States, all American Muslims, even if at this point nothing has happened in Springfield as has happened elsewhere.
This is the path of a dangerous falsehood . Produced with those with an agenda, it is passed to those who are either naive, ignorant, frightened, or culturally anxious, picked up by new potential channels of authority from those who might not listen to the original sources. And from there, even if most do no more than grandstand or propose meaningless laws, some act to harass and intimidate, and that is felt by Muslims throughout the country.
“Indeed, the striking aspect of today’s demonstrations was their national character. For one thing, we have seen Kurds rise up against the dominant Kurdish parties, Shiites challenging the hegemony of Maliki’s own ‘all-Shiite’ alliance, and Sunnis complaining against their Sunni local politicians. The cries for better services and employment conform to a universal pattern that has been in emergence over the past few weeks. But more importantly, in terms of slogans and demands, there are signs of a true synthesis of genuine nationwide opposition to the supposed ‘government of national partnership’ that was formed, tentatively at least, in December 2010…
“In Dhi Qar, demonstrators demanded better services, an end to corruption, and, importantly, criticised the system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing that forms the basis for all of Iraq’s post-2003 government and that is supported by the United States and Iran alike. In Baghdad, protestors are trying to destroy the concrete blast walls put up by the United States since 2007 in its own attempt to engineer ‘sectarian’ reconciliation, American-style, and are calling for a unified Sunni–Shiite political project, with echoes from the uprising against the British in 1920. Again, this seems to indicate a desire for more profound reforms and system change. Some of the activists are highlighting the absence of properly elected local councils at the sub-governorate level across Iraq as one very immediate grievance.”
One again, it needs to be emphasized that Iraq’s sectarian divisions are not timeless enmities, which of course never actually exist, nor are they that comparable to the ethnic nationalism of post-communist eastern Europe. Alongside them there is an ideal of Iraqi nationalism among Arabs, which is why we see factions competing for the apparatus of the central state with regional autonomy as simply an occasional fallback position. Grassroots counter-sectarian activism is plausible, quite possibly sustainable, and welcome, and if the Kurds want to join in, then so much the better.
Libya’s unbalanced dictator Moammar Qadhafi is hoping to avoid the fate of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak by lashing out forcefully. Reports today show an escalating massacre of anti-government protestors, a massacre carried out by aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, killing hundreds. There have been defections, not only among the diplomatic corps, but in the military, but unconfirmed reports from inside Libya allege soldiers who refuse orders are being burned alive inside their barracks.
By these actions, Qadhafi and his entire family have secured a place alongside Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad as the great monsters of the late 20th century Middle East. Not since the former’s response to the 1991 Shi’ite uprising and chemical weapons assault on Halabja has the Arab world witnessed such brutality, and there is little doubt that Qadhafi would create another Hama if the situation called for it.
In addition to the humanitarian implications, the rest of the Arab world has a stake in what happens, for if Qadhafi is successful, he will have crafted a path to regime survival for those facing their own protests, while if he fails, they will be more likely to give in with less struggle. For this reason, I wholeheartedly agree with Marc Lynch that the international community must intervene:
“By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors. It could also mean a clear declaration that members of the regime and military will be held individually responsible for any future deaths. The U.S. should call for an urgent, immediate Security Council meeting and push for a strong resolution condeming Libya’s use of violence and authorizing targeted sanctions against the regime. Such steps could stand a chance of reversing the course of a rapidly deteriorating situation. An effective international response could not only save many Libyan lives, it might also send a powerful warning to other Arab leaders who might contemplate following suit against their own protest movements.”
A no-fly zone has already been called for diplomatically by none other than Libya’s own deputy UN ambassador, one of those diplomats who, along with his colleagues in New York, has sided with the people against his government. Qadhafi’s lack of friends in the Arab world has also led to a call for Arab League action by Qatar, which echoed the call for action by the UN Security Council.
As I’ve commented before, Yusuf al-Qaradawi matters, as a conservative Sunni Islamist who appeals to massive youth audiences through television even as the older generations remember his connection to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. On Friday, he gave a sermon in Midan Tahrir. I can’t find a complete English text, but here is some of what he said:
“On Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. He began his sermon by saying that he was discarding the customary opening ‘Oh Muslims,’ in favor of ‘Oh Muslims and Copts,’ referring to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt’s revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian ‘martyrs’ who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. ‘I invite you to bow down in prayer together,’ he said.
“He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to ‘a civil government’ founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. And he called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners and rid the cabinet of its dominance by officials of the old Mubarak government.
“‘We demand from the Egyptian Army to free us from the government that was appointed by Mubarak,’ Sheik Qaradawi declared. ‘We want a new government without any of these faces whom people can no longer stand.’ And he urged the young people who led the uprising to continue their revolution. ‘Protect it,’ he said. ‘Don’t you dare let anyone steal it from you.’”
“Qaradawi, a spiritual leader to the Muslim Brotherhood here, sought to reassure Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority saying ‘in this square sectarianism died’ and praised Copts for linking hands to symbolically protect Muslims while they prayed during the uprising.
“‘The regime planted sectarianism here … in Tahrir Muslims and Christians joined hands for a better Egypt,’ said the theologian, who has lived in semi-exile in Qatar for decades.”
In my post from a week ago, I commented that the illiberal opinions of many Egyptians was a greater problem for developing a pluralistic society than the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, and that there is no reason to suspect the latter of secretly planning a theocratic dictatorship. While I still expect to see an increase in, for example, blasphemy trials, there is an optimistic scenario in which strong comments by respected leaders such as Qaradawi mute popular attitudes towards, say, conversion much like American popular Islamophobia remained somewhat muted when President Bush repeatedly worked against it.