Archive for the ‘Culture & Society’ Category

23
Sep

By Cameron Abadi

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To state the obvious: Angela Merkel, who has just won a third term as German chancellor, isn’t very macho. Her preferred free-time pursuit is recreational nature walking. (Also, baking: she admitted during the campaign season that her husband was sometimes displeased by the paucity of crumbs atop her cakes.) She hardly ever indulges in public demonstrations of authority; she speaks softly, and mostly refrains from displays of emotion, except for occasional flashes of a nervous smile. As for body language, her signature gesture is the Merkel diamond, which seems laboratory-tested to avoid appearing confrontational.

Compare that, for a moment, with the testosterone-soaked state of U.S.-Russian diplomacy, which has devolved in recent weeks into a high-profile pissing match. Vladimir Putin raided U.S.-backed NGOs, while Barack Obama chided Putin’s posture; Putin extended asylum to America’s most-wanted fugitive, as Obama canceled a bilateral Moscow summit. For a while, it seemed as if the confrontation would have to be settled with a round of one-on-one basketball or some judo sparring. Eventually, they both managed to claim credit for averting war with Syria—Putin from the op-ed page of the one newspaper that Barack Obama professes to care about.

There was something transfixing about the display of presidential one-upsmanship; even Germans seemed more drawn to the Putin-Obama show than their own election campaign. But if Putin and Obama ever do manage to stop their reciprocal bouts of preening, they’d do well to consider cribbing from Merkel’s machismo-less political methods. There’s an argument to be made that it’s Merkel who is the Machiavelli of our day—better, and certainly shrewder, at power politics than any of her peers, including her colleagues in the White House and Kremlin.

Merkel’s quiet affect shouldn’t obscure her influence. Germany has more power today than at any time since World War II. Merkel is prima inter pares in the European Union, capable of determining the shape of the bailout packages given to the continent’s ailing economies and, thus, capable of determining the shape of their national economies for years on end. Even the ostensibly independent European Central Bank seems to take its directions from the chancellory in Berlin, afraid to get too far ahead of Merkel’s plans. Read more…

Cameron Abadi is Deputy Web Editor at Foreign Affairs.

As published in www.newrepublic.com September 22, 2103.

13
Sep

The Christian Exodus

Written on September 13, 2013 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Foreign Policy, International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East

The Disastrous Campaign to Rid the Middle East of Christianity

By Reza Aslan

Egyptian Coptic Christian holds cross during a demonstration outside Egyptian embassy in Athens

A Coptic Christian holds up a cross in Cairo, Egypt (Courtesy Reuters)

As I write, the city of Maaloula in Syria has become a ghost town after being briefly occupied by members of the al Qaeda–linked jihadist group al-Nusra Front. Conflicting reports claim that al-Nusra fighters have desecrated churches and statues in what may be one of the oldest Christian cities in the world, a place where residents still speak Aramaic, the language presumably spoken by Jesus. 

Sadly, the experience of Maaloula’s residents is becoming all too common in the Middle East, where examples of brutality against Christians have been mounting in recent weeks. In Egypt, the coup against President Mohamed Morsi was followed by a wave of Islamist pogroms against Christians in which 42 churches were attacked, 37 were burned or looted, and an untold number of Christians were assaulted or killed.

As tempting as it may be to attribute these events to the atmosphere of post-insurrectionary anarchy in Egypt and Syria, that is not the best vantage point from which to view the problem. Take a step back, and it becomes clear that the recent assaults are part of a bigger offensive against Middle Eastern Christians, one that can be traced back to decades-long developments in regional politics and Islamic society. The Arab Spring may be the proximate cause of some of the worst violence, but its roots run much deeper — and the stakes are much higher than one might think. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.

At the start of World War I, the Christian population of the Middle East may have been as high as 20 percent. Today, it is roughly four percent. Although it is difficult to be exact, there are perhaps 13 million Christians left in the region, and that number has likely fallen further, given the continued destabilization of Syria and Egypt, two nations with historically large Christian populations. At the present rate of decline, there may very well be no significant Christian presence in the Middle East in another generation or two.

This would be a profoundly important loss. Christianity was born in the Middle East and had a deep, penetrating presence in the region for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when tens of thousands of heterodox Christians were forced to flee a Roman Empire that considered them heretics, the lands of the Middle East and North Africa became a haven for them. In the years thereafter, the region became the epicenter of Christian theology. In the Arabian peninsula, a large, thriving Christian population played a pivotal role in influencing the early theological and political development of Islam. During the Inquisition (the twelfth to fourteenth centuries), Christian sectarians found refuge under Islamic rule, which classed all Christians, regardless of their doctrinal differences, as “people of the Book” and accorded them protected, albeit inferior, societal status. Read more…

Reza Aslan is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As published in www.foreignaffairs.com on September 13, 2013.

4
Sep

By Daoud Kuttab

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Throughout the post-colonial period, Arab countries have consistently failed to produce an efficient – let alone democratic – system of government. Now, after a half-century of competition between military or royal dictatorships and militant Islamist regimes, many Arabs are again seeking a “third way” – a path toward a credible form of representative democracy. But will their efforts prove as futile now as they have in the past?

The Middle East – named for its geographic position between Europe and East Asia – was under Ottoman rule for 400 years before the Allied powers, after defeating the Ottomans in World War I, partitioned the region into distinct political units that, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, fell within spheres of influence carved out by the United Kingdom and France. But, in response to these new divisions, an Arab awakening – shaped by pan-Arabism and support for Palestine – was occurring.

Charismatic young military rulers-turned-dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad used these popular causes to win public support. But their failure to deliver better lives to their citizens, together with the discrediting of left-wing ideologies following the Soviet Union’s collapse, fueled the rise of a rival movement: political Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood – established in the Egyptian town of Ismailia in 1928 and political Islam’s oldest, best organized, and most widespread proponent – was (and is) despised by both secular Arabs and Arab monarchies. Indeed, secular dictators have worked to suppress the Brothers at every turn – often violently, as when Assad ruthlessly crushed a Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama in 1982.

Forced to operate clandestinely, the Brotherhood built its support base with a social agenda that targeted the needs of the poor, while consistently reinforcing its Islamic ties, even using the compulsory zakat (annual financial contribution to religious causes) to build up its social network. The Brothers, with the help of a conservative society and the mosques, were prepared to seize power whenever the opportunity arose.

Another Islamist movement, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, almost had such an opportunity in 1991, when it won the first round of a general election. But the military prevented its victory by canceling the second round, triggering a brutal eight-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died. Palestine’s Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, succeeded at the ballot box in 2006, but has since failed to deliver credible governance. Read more…

Daoud Kuttab is a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.

As published in www.project-syndicate.org on September 4, 2013.

3
Sep

By Haizam Amirah Fernandez, Associate Professor at IE School of International Relations

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The worst forecasts are unfolding in Egypt. One year of the Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetent and sectarian governance polarised Egyptian society. For the past month and a half, the return to a regime dominated by the military has set Egyptians violently at odds with one another. Uniformed and bearded men now clash on the country’s streets on the basis of hatred, exclusion, cynicism and death. While many average Egyptians justify and applaud the actions of the army and the police, others consider themselves to be victims of a great injustice and cry out for revenge and martyrdom. This is how armed civil conflicts begin.

The sit-ins of the supporters of the deposed President Morsi constituted a serious threat to public order. The problem could have been resolved through political negotiation, which EU mediation advocated until the end. The army, however, along with some ‘liberals’ thought they could crush the Muslim Brotherhood and eradicate them as a political force by the use of force. In their cynicism, Islamist leaders needed to increase their list of martyrs; in their arrogance, Egypt’s generals are providing them with just that. The collective unreason and dehumanisation of the enemy seem to be the only points in common between the factions that are dragging Egypt towards social fracture, political instability and economic ruin.

Abandoning institutionalised politics and substituting it for machine guns, flaming torches and explosive belts is disastrous not only for Egypt; it also gives rise to nefarious ramifications in the entire Middle East and on both shores of the Mediterranean. Massive extrajudicial executions –widely distributed on social networks– in the name of the fight against ‘terrorism’ is fostering a new generation of radicals that will see that resorting to terrorist methods is justified. The prophecy will be self-fulfilled, although the return of a police state will not guarantee that instability will not lead to chaos, or even, lawlessness.

The Egyptian economy is in a critical state and is solely maintained thanks to Gulf-State petrodollars (mainly from Saudi Arabia). Today’s socioeconomic crisis is even more serious than when Mubarak was dislodged in February of 2011. The current head of the Egyptian army, general Sisi, will attempt to present himself as the ‘saviour of the country’, but in a context of increasing repression and instability he will find it very difficult to be the ‘saviour of the economy’. Even if the military are able to neutralise the Islamists, which is highly unlikely, the social upheaval on the streets will only continue. In the absence of democratic mechanisms to channel that frustration and search for solutions, the only paths available are the old formulas of repression, information manipulation and ‘conspiracy-paranoid’ nationalism. Read more…

As published in www.realinstitutoelcano.org on August 29, 2013.

14
Aug

Russian President Vladimir Putin has created an anti-CNN for Western audiences with the international satellite news network Russia Today. With its recipe of smart propaganda, sex appeal and unlimited cash, it is outperforming its peers worldwide.

By Benjamin Bidder

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The political evening program often kicks off with a mixture of chaos and tabloid news. Abby Martin, the American host working for the Kremlin, has her lips slightly parted and is applying red lipstick, which goes well with her black top, high heels and ankle tattoo. Then she swings a sledgehammer and destroys a TV set tuned to CNN, the American role model and nemesis of her employer, the Russian international satellite TV network Russia Today.

This show opening is apparently meant to illustrate one thing over all else: that Russia is aggressive and enlightened — and looks good in the process.

A photo of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower the United States wants to bring home to face charges, is projected onto the studio wall. Then there is a report on the detention camp at Guantanamo, which has hurt America’s reputation. Russia Today uses the source material America supplies to its rivals untiringly and with relish. Even Washington’s relatively minor peccadilloes don’t escape notice. For instance, the show also includes a story about Gabonese dictator Ali Bongo Ondimba, whom US President Barack Obama supports.

Many in the West are also interested in seeing critical coverage of the self-proclaimed top world power. Russia Today is already more successful than all other foreign broadcast stations available in major US cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York. In Washington, 13 times as many people watch the Russian program as those that tune into Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster. Two million Britons watch the Kremlin channel regularly. Its online presence is also more successful than those of all its competitors. What’s more, in June, Russia Today broke a YouTube record by being the first TV station to get a billion views of its videos. Read more…

As published in www.spiegel.de on August 13, 2013.