Monthly Archives: December 2012

Israel, Islam, and the Muscular Left

Hezbollah rockets often have sayings written on them such as “Remember the Khaybar, the armies of Mohammed will return.” Or it is not uncommon in a moment of victorious joy to hear a Muslim call out “Remember the Khaybar.” Khaybar was a battle in 629 where the prophet Mohammed defeated Jewish tribes. This victory is typically recalled in the chants and sayings expressing military victory and the defeat of the Jews.

The old European left, forged in the fires of Nazism and Fascism, identified with Jews and the struggling State of Israel. The left understood Jewish suffering and supported the State of Israel as a justifiable political collective deserving of national and political identity. Israel was understood to be emerging in the tradition of freedom and the struggle against oppression of all types. This was a time in the history of the left when they made distinctions and substantive decisions. It was a time when oppression and terrorism were clearly unacceptable and could not be justified by any argument. Historically, leftist and progressive political ideology was responsible for the defeat of Nazism, Fascism, and the development of human rights.

But in the last couple of decades the intellectual left has lost its moral compass and has now never met a minority group that did not consider oppressed. The European and American left are getting weaker and less able to defend themselves as a voice of moral legitimacy and progress. Israel is a very good case in point. Once, Israel was the darling child of the left because they had suffered so much discrimination, betrayal, and extermination. 50 years ago the State of Israel was bathed in the celestial glow of growing political strength and national identity. A longtime oppressed people were reconstituting themselves in their ancient homeland.

I grant you the changing conditions on the ground – settlements, checkpoints, and Israel’s military strength. But this is part of what I mean when referring to the left’s inability to make distinctions and decisions. They seem to be unable to distinguish between the peaceful and democratic trends in Israel and a discriminatory religious state. The left’s ideology has circled around and flanked itself. They now see everything filtered through a colonialism lens and robotically take the side of the smaller minority group. This is true in Vietnam, Rhodesia, Israel, and other causes such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The rigid blindness caused by this colonialism lens is evidenced by the number of political regimes that are thoroughly authoritarian and repressive but still receive the sympathy of the left, especially the European left. And they have occasionally made the distinction between vulnerable European Jews and Israel as a modern-day Sparta, but this distinction between Israel and Jews is indefensible. The left’s ideological criticism of Israel coupled with Islam’s blatant anti-Semitism makes for a combustible situation. Even Christopher Hitchens, who later in life gravitated toward the muscular left in his support of the Iraq war, maintained his criticism of Israel right up until his end.

A Muscular Left

I would encourage you to read a statement on muscular liberalism called the Euston Manifesto. It is a document that tries to reinvigorate progressive politics by focusing on egalitarian liberalism and democratic commitments that are true to authentic liberal values in the actual tradition of the term and not so flexible so as to include defending all sorts of anti-liberal causes such as extremist Islam. Muscular liberalism makes no apology for tyranny; there are no excuses to “understand” violence and repressive regimes that harm their own people and stifle political progress. The muscular left does not countenance apologies and drawn out explanations designed to justify violence and repression.

Egalitarian politics has always been a staple of the liberal tradition especially between ethnic communities because even after peace treaties are signed it is interpersonal and cultural equality and respect that makes for lasting peace. A muscular liberal tradition accepts differences of opinion and perspective as normal and requires contentious issues to be solved through the communication process. The only legitimate battles are rhetorical and argumentative designed to manage conflict.

The left must remember that it once apologized for Stalinism and Maoism. The modern version of these apologetics is making excuses for suicide terrorism and religious extremism. Muscular liberalism challenges anti-democratic forces wherever it sees them – even if they emerge from historically oppressed groups.

How to Respond to Radical Islam

The post below was originally published in HartfordFAVS. You can access it here.

There are two ways to begin to approach the problem of radical Islam. The first is political and sees radical Islam as a problem of political will and development. The first question to ask here is, “what are the goals of an Islamist group?” Is the goal one of military takeover of the geographic area, or the spread of ideological and religious Islam? Take the case of the Gaza Strip and Hamas. Much of Hamas is militaristic and seeks political control of the Gaza Strip. Other elements, mostly smaller elements, want to impose religious law and work with offshoot groups that are Salafi-Jihad groups.

Hamas in Gaza receives international attention for its conflict with Israel but they also compete with other groups that are more radically Islamist in nature – even though the numbers are small and they are poorly organized. The competition is between principles of political Islam and not so much about military strength. There are more than a few members of the Hamas leadership who have little interest in debating political Islam and find these Salafi-Jihad groups to be annoying at the moment. Most Hamas leadership prefers to spend their time threatening Israel and organizing the Gaza Strip rather than finding new ways to express political Islam. In fact, there are times when Hamas has quite an oppositional and antagonistic relationship with these religiously-based groups. One leader of a radical Islamist group a couple of years ago challenged Hamas and declared in Islamic emirate in Palestine and demanded that Sharia law be imposed. At present, Hamas resists these groups and prefers to keep them at a distance while they maintain their more contentious relationship with the PLA and Israel.

So what is the best way to challenge and perhaps overcome radical Islam? These groups are very extreme, wishing to reestablish the Caliphate and bring all Muslims under a single rule, and removing anyone (especially Israelis) from what they considered to be Islamic holy land. And they usually classify declared Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran as illegitimate because they are not Islamic enough. This leads to infighting among Islamist groups and is troubling and destabilizing for governments. Governments in Central Asia and other places have contributed to the problem by engaging in strong repression. This radicalizes the group and forces them to respond even more aggressively. Worse yet, these groups can give governments a license to carry out violent retaliation that usually exacerbates the problem. Below are some suggestions for dealing with groups with a dangerous agenda and a threatening form of political Islam. All of these suggestions are based on the assumption that authoritarian political systems, which are economically undeveloped and lack legitimate democratic outlets for conflict resolution, contribute to the popularity of these groups and encourage citizens to turn toward them.

  1.  Governments confronting extremist Islamic groups must establish conditions for these groups to operate within legal confines of democracy. In other words, the government should allow Islamist groups to organize and express themselves on the basis of free symbolic behavior. This allows citizens to begin the habits of listening to alternatives. Imposing repressive sanctions on these grou I ps drives them underground and radicalizes them.
  2. Begin a program to work with young people explaining the consequences of political Islam. People in a community in general should develop more knowledge about religious issues and various leaders. What will it mean for the state to adopt or Islamic principle and its governance? Include in these discussions secular political groups as well.
  3. Allow democratically defended opportunities for criticism and complaints. This must be done within the confines of the law and proper modes of political expression. The press of course can be a good platform for the presentation of issues and ideas.
  4. Use the language of Islam to understand the language of extremist Islam. That is, the best way to challenge the political ideology of extremist Islam is within the discourse of Islam itself. This will require using imams and scholars to engage in such debate.
  5. Maintain proper control of police and security forces. They should be used mainly to control and manage criminal behavior and not to stifle political activity.

Steps in this direction will prevent Salafi-jihad groups from radicalizing and going underground which makes them only more secretive and difficult to manage. By eliminating the conditions under which these groups thrive, it becomes possible to control them. The process is difficult and slow but more open political systems, economic development, and freedom of expression will keep these groups exposed and under more control.

Palestinian Labor Pains

The vote in the United Nations to grant the Palestinians nonmember observer status was certainly as expected. Those supporting the move were overwhelming with 138 countries voting in favor, 9 against, and 41 abstentions. The vote was testimony to the international public relations campaign that has evolved over the decades to establish the Palestinians as a political and legal entity. But I do not mean that cynically. There is no simple state agency or decision-making mechanism that determines precisely when a collection of people have cohered enough to be considered a particular ethnopolitically identified group. There are rules of thumb and good practices such as a history of cultural continuity, recognizable borders, established political institutions, and a desire for statehood, but conclusions about when these things have been sufficiently achieved remain at least somewhat subjective. That’s why there’s always a little bit of “persuasion” or as I referred to it above “public relations” involved in convincing the world that official recognition is justified.

In earlier posts on this blog (April 17, June 5, September 19, and September 25) I argued against the Palestinian effort to achieve recognition by the United Nations. See those posts for details, but I essentially signed on to a series of disadvantages such as (1) making it more difficult to negotiate with Israel, (2) damaging or even voiding the Oslo accords, (3) confusing security arrangements, (4) failing to make progress on unity between Hamas and the PLA, (5) annoying Israel and the United States who oppose UN recognition, and others.

Yet, it is pretty difficult to be in favor of the two-state solution and be overly critical of this latest development. In one sense, Netanyahu got what was coming to him. He has been sufficiently difficult and intransient such that the Palestinians were forced to entertain alternatives. Part of the hue and cry by supporters of Israel is little more than the painful recognition that a Palestinian state, in the real sense of the term, might actually happen. The phrase “two-state solution” has become a cliché, a shibboleth that rolls easily off the tongue but doesn’t really taste very good.

I would still argue that the best solution is for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But I have softened my position a little and believe that the new United Nations status for Palestinians might be early labor pains that will one day give birth to a state. I would reiterate that a two-state solution is best for the maintenance of Israeli identity and Israel’s democracy. No other political solution to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians guarantees the unity of the State of Israel based on Jewish particularity. Netanyahu can claim to be amenable to a Palestinian state one day all that he wants, but he is simply incapable – to use an unfortunate metaphor – of pulling the trigger. You could never convince me that a Palestinian state will be established on Netanyahu’s watch.

This is a first step and a baby step to be sure. Of course, being designated an observer state is mostly symbolic but not completely. The Palestinians will improve their international standing, call greater attention to themselves, and have an internationally legitimate body from which they can express themselves. It will also give them access to the International Criminal Court as well as participation in certain UN agencies. It is not full membership or recognition, but it is not unimportant.

Not much will change, however. Mahmoud Abbas even in his formal UN speech was graceless enough to refer to Israel as racist and colonialist. Netanyahu announced that the UN action “will not change anything on the ground.” He strongly asserted that Israel will not compromise its security and that “peace can only be achieved through negotiation between the sides…” Abbas asked the United Nations to issue Palestinians a birth certificate and that is fair enough. But the Israelis have to prepare for the new arrival by controlling settlers, negotiating in good faith, and recognizing at least certain aspects of the Palestinian narrative. The PLA must find some way to control Hamas and continue their recognition of Israel. Nothing really has changed on the ground, but the Palestinians do have a new toy.

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