The increasing desperation in the Middle East

The news reports are preoccupied with the many families fleeing the Middle East — mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — desperately trying to get into Europe, as if Europe were a safe haven.  As is becoming evident, after so many days and so much expense in order to make the journey, they are being greeted by reluctance if not open hostility.  Europe is in no way ready to receive them. But it is evident that these peoples — Muslims, Christians, people of all kinds and of all walks of life — are desperately voting with their feet.

In a sense this pattern of migration is not new.  The western world has benefited for many years by the flight of the middle classes, the professional and educated elements of these societies.  Those folks have been fleeing the troubled parts of Asia and Africa for years.  What is new here is that these refugees are from all levels of society:  the poor, the weak, the sick, the broken.  Everyone that has the means to flee seems to be fleeing.

So what drives them out of their homes, their whole social worlds?  Here is a note I received from a friend from one of those countries.

Tragedy and pain have found their way into my every organ today. What has turned my world upside down is that I have no solution to the problems I see. I have become mute. There’s too much suffering — way beyond my comprehension. Why God punishes its people when they are innocent? It’s on these trying days that we’d like to doubt God’s existence, His glory, His powers. But as I probe into the territory of the divine, it’s then that I see Him most vividly. Suffering and pain — contrary to the conventional belief — can make us a whole lot closer to the Almighty. I’m a fighter. Even though I despise the world and all its designs sometimes, I am grateful for all that has been bestowed upon me; and I feel lucky to be alive, fully functional — with all my cognitive faculties intact. In the midst of darkness, there’s always light. And that’s why I must remain sanguine and continue to stay in the fight and forge ahead.

At some point in the course of events we can come to the point when desperation leads us, as he says, to appeal to and seek help in the notion that there is a God who is above it all, who is well aware of the messy world that we live in, and is the only hope for any sense to be made in the human condition.  If there is no judgment, if there is nothing to look for beyond this life, if there is no mercy, then there is no hope.  It’s not good enough to rail at God.  At some point we have to throw ourselves on the mercy of One who is bigger than the world as we know it and has, as generations before us have desired, a bigger plan.

In the mean time, “In the midst of darkness” we seek the light, and remain sanguine, and continue the fight, and forge ahead.

[See the following site for a helpful analysis of what has caused the movement to flee Syria: Click here]



Is The Democracy Sought in the Middle East Being Abandoned in the Neo-liberal World? Corrected version

At the very time that the societies of the Middle East are crying out for democracy many folks in the the neo-liberal societies of the world are losing faith in the democratic process.

A recent poll in the United States indicates that many Americans are dissatisfied with the way their democratic system is working.

A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday morning indicates that only 15 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Last September that figure was at 25 percent. Seventy-seven percent of people questioned say they trust the federal government only some of the time, and an additional eight percent volunteer that they never trust the government to do what’s right. [from]

And today’s New York Times says that folks in other “democratic” societies are also dissatisfied.
In India, Israel, Spain, Greece and elsewhere there is a deep frustration with the failures of the democratic system to satisfy public needs, especially the need for adequate employment opportunities.

The Times reports that

complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

We are living in fluid times, when the certainties of the past are ever more questioned, and the familiar conventions of social life being challenged. Such fluidity fosters uncertainty, insecurity, on many levels of society. It is easy — from my position — to see why Americans are frustrated, but the question is “What is to be done”?

Demands for social justice, for better opportunities, for “freedom”, don’t always produce such conditions. In the past there have been many social movements calling for more justice and more freedom. But how many of them have yielded positive transformations? Not many. And those, such as took place in the Americas, developed in fields of opportunity that will never exist again.

The Neo-liberal “democracy” of this country has failed to cope with the demands of our times. Our duly elected representatives have on many crucial issues been unable to act in the best interests of those who elected them, apparently because powerful moneyed interests have found ways to intervene in the process.

Addendum and correction to the earlier draft:
The sources mentioned above stress that the move in both contexts — the Arab Middle East and in the neo-liberal countries — the hope is to develop something that resembles a more open system of the sort enabled by the web.

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

My concern is how such a system should be enabled. It would seem that in the American context there might need to be revisions in the constitution as well as the standing laws. What would have to happen for such a change in the system to take place?

The hope is to develop a better “democracy”. Certainly if democracy fails, it is hard to envision a better system. I still wonder: What can be done? In the mean time what will happen to the calls for justice and equality in the Middle East? Will the cry for help by the young Yemeni woman that was featured on the previous post be left unanswered? So far it has not.

The way Egyptian officials honor Al Jazeera: Raid their offices

Al Jazeera has become one of the most valuable sources of information on what’s going on in the Middle East. One wonders if the “Arab Spring” could have taken place without the involvement of the media to broadcast what was going on. Al Jazeera was crucial. But publishing what was happening in the Arab world — what was really happening — made Al Jazeera unpopular.

That the Egyptian government has had no use for Al Jazeera is no surprise. New York Times describes Al Jazeera as “known for attentive coverage of street protests” and “known for its attentive, if not sensational, coverage of street protests, including the Israeli Embassy attack on Friday.” And for reporting on the attack on the Israeli embassy the other day they were raided by “officials” {not thugs?}. Here is what The Times has to say about this affair:

“The raid also came after a warning last week by Egypt’s minister of media, Osama Heikal, that the government would take legal action against stations that “endanger the stability and security” of the nation, and some analysts said they feared the raid could signal a broader effort to curtail the new freedoms of expression experienced since the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak this year.

“The network, Al Jazeera Live Egypt, was founded in the aftermath of the uprising and has become known for its attentive, if not sensational, coverage of street protests, including the Israeli Embassy attack on Friday. The raid forced the network to halt its programming for a period before it resumed broadcasting from Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

“Officials of the Interior Ministry said they had raided the network because it lacked a license, and that neighbors had complained about noise. … But Islam Lotfy, a lawyer for the channel, said the channel had applied for a license in March without a response.”

The raid took form as “officers in plain clothes” entering “without showing a warrant or identifying themselves.” They “confiscated equipment and arrested an engineer operating it.”

But the response of manager of the television channel had an eminently quotable response to all this: “If broadcasting the truth is considered endangering stability,” he said, “then it is an honor for any media outlet to be endangering stability.”

Grenier on the indifference of the Arab world to the death of Bin Laden

In Al Jazeera [May 13, 2011] Robert L. Grenier has commented on the relative indifference of the Arab world to the death of Osama Bin Laden. I have copied below a portion of that statement that aptly describes the issues that have informed some of the public demonstrations in the Middle East. [Click on the title for a link to the whole article.]

From Al Jazeera

The end of one dream and the birth of another: The Arab Spring has empowered Muslims to create new forms of leadership – dictators and mass-murderers “need not apply”.

. . .

Osama’s resistance was outdated
No matter how steadfast the Sheikh may have seemed in resisting perceived western encroachment, no matter how sincere he may have been in pursuit of his twisted aims, it is difficult to muster great sympathy for a man so utterly misguided, whose takfiri legacy was to inspire the wanton murder of thousands of Muslims by other Muslims in East Africa, in Iraq, and in any number of other places extending from Morocco to Indonesia.
Even in South Asia … – even there, one cannot find the groundswell of popular emotion one might have found had bin Laden been killed, say, in 2002.

Too much has happened since.
The response of the West to 9/11 and the explosion of regional militancy it has inspired has led, ultimately, to a degree of Muslim-on-Muslim violence heretofore unimaginable, employing the most alien and macabre of methods, in what was already a violent part of the world. Even the demonstrations of the usual suspects, from the Jamaat-e-Islami to Lashkar-e-Taiba, have had a ritual, self-serving quality – and their participants betray the dispirited knowledge that they can hope to generate little resonance in the population at large. Indeed, their public outpourings appear to have more to do with them than they do with genuine devotion to Osama.
It was the fate of bin Laden that, in the end, he would become to most in the Muslim world a sterile symbol of ineffectual resistance, fundamentally rejected by those whom he would presume to represent. There is no greater indictment of the legacy of bin Laden than that his appeal was based upon an overwhelming sense of Muslim weakness. It thus is fitting that he should meet his demise precisely when a new generation is rising up to forge a different path, one based on an overwhelming sense of popular strength.

There is precedent for this. I remember well the feeling in the Arab street in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and defied the calls of the West and of the international community to withdraw. I saw it from the streets of Algiers, where mass demonstrations built inexorably in size and vigour as momentum increased for a US-led attack on Saddam’s Republican Guard. Those who surrounded the US embassy chanting pro-Saddam slogans surely had no illusions about the man: He was a thug and a known mass-murderer of his own people, whose greatest atrocities were yet to come. But then and there, the reality of the man counted for little. What mattered was the image, the symbol of a seemingly powerful Arab leader willing to stand up to the West.
Paper tigers
When, in the end, Saddam was overwhelmingly and ignominiously defeated, and his army revealed to be a paper tiger, one might have expected to see a popular explosion. In fact, we saw nothing of the kind. It is the singular fate of the personally discredited symbol to lose all popular support when his resistance is revealed to be a sham – and has come to an end. In the case of the Iraqi dictator, it was like air escaping from a balloon: As Saddam’s legions fled northward in disorder, the headline of a popular newspaper in Algiers said it all: The End of the Dream. In the Arab street, there was a collective shrug, and everyone went back to what they were doing before.
In truth, the promise represented by Saddam Hussein was not a dream, but a nightmare. It should not be the fate of the Muslims to be “liberated” by mass-murderers, whether Saddam or Osama, whose contempt for the core beliefs and aspirations of most of those whom they pretended to lead was palpable.
Instead, and in spite of the many obstacles ahead, one can see in the middle distance a very different sort of liberation, one forged by and for the people themselves, based on models which exist within the Muslim world, and carrying the tangible hope of a future where the leaders are servants to the desires of the people, and not the other way around.

American troops in Afghanistan: A worthy expression of outrage that is overdone

It’s hard to object to the harsh criticism of the US military in Afghanistan by Malalai Joya Kill Teams in Afghanistan: The Truth, but it is also hard to picture what can reasonably hoped for in Afghanistan, or any of the other countries of the Middle East / Central Asia, if there are no military mechanisms to stand behind social institutions. I agree with her outrage at the behavior of the Americans who intentionally but indifferently murdered several Afghans and then photographed themselves preening over the bodies. But Joya’s blanket condemnation of American troops is excessive; indeed, she seems to feel there is no need for American troops to be there at all. My question is, without them, or at least some military support, how could an orderly, just society ever be developed?

She seems to think that public demonstrations will make it happen. There is a line in her statement in the Guardian that stuck out to me:

[W]e are seeing the growth, under very difficult conditions, of another resistance [movement] led by students, women and the ordinary poor people of Afghanistan. They are taking to the streets to protest against the massacre of civilians and to demand an end to the war. Demonstrations like this were recently held in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Farah.
This resistance is inspired by the movements in other countries like Egypt and Tunisia – we want to see “people power” in Afghanistan as well. And we need the support and solidarity of people in the Nato countries.

How is “people power” going to work without the help of a viable military institution? — that is, the institutional support that the American/Nato forces are supposed to be providing.

If anyone whose situation demonstrates the need of a society for viable institutions of government — military and police institutions that are subject to just rulership, and an an effective system of adjudication of disputes — Joya herself is the ideal example, for she cannot live in Afghanistan under present conditions because the threats to her life. She directly, and correctly in my opinion, confronted the warlords of the country for their past crimes, and embarrassed them in a Loya Jirga. Good for her, we said. But they, at least someone, will not leave her alone if she dares to live to Afghanistan. She correctly identified the problem, at least one of the problems: Many of the power holders in the country, some of them in the current government, are former warlords with blood on their hands.

My question is how to encourage the establishment and maintenance of just institutions of governance in any society — in our own as well as all the rest. I don’t think it can happen merely by demonstrations in the streets, as much as I welcome them. Effective institutions of governance have to be developed — indeed, as happy as we can be for the progress made in Egypt and Tunisia, and we hope elsewhere, we all know that much remains to be done if those countries are to have a just, open, free society. The demonstrations in Afghanistan mimicking those in Egypt and Tunisia are a good sign, but what is to be done with the warlords? with the Taliban? with the Pakistani ISI that has been supporting the Taliban? Everyone would love to have the Americans and Nato forces out of Afghanistan, but what would happen to the Afghanistan people?

Societies have to be structured — that is, they must have mechanisms of social control and adjudication that are sufficiently effective for the society generally to be in support of it. And such institutional structures can only be established as all sides commit to establishing a working society.

And that entails having everyone with competing interests to seek mutual understanding and agreement, compromise through honesty and mutual respect.

It’s the failure to represent others fairly that I have a problem with in Joya’ critique. Yes, the behavior of American troops who killed several Afghans for sport and then bragged about it is outrageous, an offense to the Afghanistan military and the American people, and it should be punished. At the same time, though, Joya’s blanket condemnation of the American presence in Afghanistan is overstated.

Moreover, she claims that that Afghanistan would be better of without the American/Nato troops. It is hard to envision Afghanistan at this time solving its problems without help in stabilizing the country and controlling the insurgency. In an ideal world none of it should be necessary: the warlords would be tried for criminal behavior, Pakistan and Iran and India would not meddle in Afghanistan affairs, and the Americans would keep their troops home. Tragically, no one lives in an ideal world.

How is the problem of power to be solved in Afghanistan? When mobs can overrun a UN compound and kill several expatriates and a half dozen Afghans because they are offended by another outrageous act [Quran burning by a daft and foolish minister in Florida]; when Malalai Joya herself cannot show herself in Afghanistan for fear of being murdered in the streets — then there remains a fundamental problem of how to establish a functioning society. Mechanisms for the exercise and control of power have to exist in any society. Also, because human beings have differing opinions and perspectives they must practice the courtesies of social life: describing offenses accurately and fairly; also seeking ways of confronting each other with respect. Such conventions seem critical if progress is to be made in establishing institutions of governance that will ensure safe and effective social relations.

Worry about a stamp commemorating Muslim holidays

An email is being circulated expressing concern about a new stamp being published by the American government commemorating two Muslim holidays. The Arabic script on the stamp says “Mubarak Eid” which translates “Eid Greetings” [See:]. An email is going around telling people not to buy this stamp because so many Americans have been killed by Muslims. [And no one knows what the Arabic means!]
Whoever is promoting this view seems unaware that there are over seven million Muslims living in this country, many of them citizens, many of them refugees from countries whose wars and internal disturbances have made life difficult and in some places untenable. Moreover, their concern ignores the fact that the Islamists that they refer to – Al Qaeda and others allied with them — have killed far more Muslims than people of any other faith. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world Al Qaeda cannot represent more than .007% of the total. Also their concerns about Islamic symbols play exactly into the hands of Osama Bin Laden who claims that the American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting “Islam.”
This is a time when all over the Muslim world – notably at this moment in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Iran – folks are asking through their public demonstrations for more open societies, in many cases at the risk of life and limb. The animating force of these movements is a desire for differences of opinion and faith to be tolerated in their societies as they seek popular suffrage of a sort they admire in this country. Not one of these demonstrations is animated by a desire to establish Islam or Muslim institutions in their governments.
This is a time, that is, to encourage our Muslim neighbors and friends, in the hope that as these affairs take place they will indeed succeed in producing societies with more openness of inquiry and more diversity of thought, even in faith and politics.
The behavior of those who would circulate such a notice prompts me to speak to them also, to encourage them to seek better ways to deal with what has become a fact of nature: that we are all living in a world whose diverse interests and perspectives and agendas are crowding in upon of us, forcing us to deal with the diversity of the human condition, requiring us to put into practice the fundamental premises of the American experiment: that is, to allow perspectives and opinions different from our own to be voiced, to accept those who have suffered, who need to be welcomed, no matter where they come from, what religion they practice. We want to demonstrate to each other and the rest of the world what an open society can be like.

[2/25/11 Addendum: Information on the artist who created the map, Muhammad Zikriya, can be found at:]

What the rising demand for popular suffrage is doing to the world

The new imaginative hope for authentic popular suffrage has enthralled the Middle East where true freedom has scarcely ever been known. Here are some ways that it is being expressed [besides the new announcement in Kazakhstan noted here earlier:

Bahrain doles out money to families:
Latest appeasement comes as activists call for protests to demand political, social and economic reforms.

Algeria protesters break cordon: Pro-democracy demonstrators, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, ignore official ban and march in the capital Algiers.
Algeria to lift emergency powers: President says country’s 19-year state of emergency will be lifted in near future in apparent bid to stave off unrest.

Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi: In an interview from her native Syria, Atassi shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.

American duplicity in the Middle East could be dangerous

American double-sided diplomacy in the Middle East can be dangerous

The American government policy in the Arab world has a double aspect that may be catching up with it. On one hand the official policy is to support democracy and representative government; this poses the Americans against the regimes in the Arab world where authentic representation scarcely exists. On the other hand, the Americans have a working relationship with the current dictators in the Arab world, so they are reluctant for these regimes to change. It is no secret that if there were honest elections in the Middle East none of those elected would be pro-American; in fact, one would have to be anti-American to get elected. So the American interest in the Middle East, despite the high-minded claims, is for the regimes in place to remain in power. By simply encouraging “all sides” to resolve their differences peacefully the American government is displaying its support for ruthless leaders in the Middle East — their responses to the demonstrations will display how ruthless they are.

This is a dangerous game. When Jimmy Carter was elected he was much admired by the young people of Iran because he initiated a policy of what he called “human rights.” The Shah regime had become broadly despised for its repressive policies and they hoped for Carter’s support against the Shah. But Carter went to Iran and claimed that the Shah was his friend, alienating the young people, indeed people from all elements of the society, from him. They turned against Carter, despised him. And when students took over the American Embassy they refused to release their hostages until Jimmy Carter was out of office. The Iranians believed they had driven Carter from office.

By claiming that all sides in the demonstrations in the Middle East should sit down and talk the American government may be losing whatever respect it still has in the Middle East.

The Islamists never generated such public movements as these.

I wonder what the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Albania mean to the Islamist leaders — Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, especially. These demonstrations have an appearance of spontaneity that the Islamist demonstrations in various places never had. In those demonstrations the core among the activists were the students of religious figures — this was the element that could be counted on to help the movement. But here we have demonstrations that appear to arise from a broad sense of distress among the abused populations of these countries, and they are animated by ideals very different from the call to return to a strict practice of Islam. In fact, the Islamists never generated such broad based expressions of public outrage, even though admittedly they did represent the frustrations of many. These populations have suffered for so long under repressive regimes that any expression of public outrage was accepted and in many cases, supported by the public. But there is good reason to suppose that even then it was not religious concerns that motivated the popularity of Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists. It was instead an authentic quest for relief, for recognition as human beings by rulerships that could not bear to be questioned.

Lawrence Wright says in the Looming Tower [p 49] that in the 1980s the the Egyptian Islamists believed that the assassination of Sadat and other key officials would unleash “a popular uprising against secular authority all over the country.” It never happened. And it was this disappointment that led the Islamist theorists to decide that the Egyptian people, and indeed Muslims everywhere, were so infused with the decadent values of the West that they were hopelessly delusioned. Only extreme measures could save the Muslim world from its decay into the moral depravity of the West.

What must they be thinking now? A popular uprising now taking place, and not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere. But the moral animus of these demonstrations is not Islam but the demand for democracy. The secular — that is, the non-religious — ideals that drive these movements are too evident to be ignored.

The Islamist movement is not dead, but other ideals are being promoted and it looks like they have more authenticity and power to represent the public frustration than many of us expected. I surmise that the Islamists are astonished.

The continuing question is, how will these movements be harnessed into structural changes of the sort that so many crave? The Iranian Revolution was as authentic a public movement as has ever happened — rich, poor, educated, illiterate, all were opposed to the Shah — but as the new regime took form it became evident that the movement had been co-opted by a ruthless element [not all] of the clergy. Let us hope and pray for something better in these cases.

The new idiom of popular frustration: Democracy

Behind many of the movements in the Middle East is simple repression. Many have suffered for generations under regimes that were never elected and would not be elected if the ordinary people got a chance to collectively select their preferred leaders. This is why the various movements — demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen — are not unlike the Islamist movement. In a way, what we see today is evidence that the Islamist appeal no longer appears to be the most salient idiom of public frustration. Consider the following, from Al Jazeera.

The ‘bin Laden’ of marginalisation
The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation. by Larbi Sadiki 14 Jan 2011

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘terror’ in the Arab world is monopolised by al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. There may be some truth in this.

However, this is a limited viewpoint. Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.

The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death.

[for more click on the title above]