Saturday, December 19, 2009

Outbreak of the rule of law in Pakistan?

So argues Juan Cole:

The US punditocracy has never understood that the central political narrative of Pakistan in the past 2 and a half years has been the restoration of the rule of law (in the form of the Supreme Court chief justice and then the rest of the SC) and the ending of the Musharraf military dictatorship in favor of a return of the major political parties.

That twin project was riddled with a contradiction, though, since the political parties capable of supplanting the military were themselves often corrupt, while Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was determined to clean house. So what has happened is that the contradictions have just come to the fore.

How flat-footed the US commentariat is in this regard was obvious in the reaction of CNN's Wolf Blitzer to Malik's detention. He asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani if it was the sign of a military coup. Haqqani was taken aback, and the Urdu press headlined the interchange.

No, Wolf, it is the opposite. It is an outbreak of the civil rule of law. It was a military dictator who had amnestied Malik. It is the Supreme Court calling him to account. The US media think the Pakistan Story is 'violent fundamentalism, military rule, and nuclear threat.' The reality-- that most of the Pakistani public wants a civil rule of law, is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp.

The hysteria in Washington about Pakistani political instability (read: civilian politicians elected to office and an independent judiciary instead of a military dictatorship) will be heightened by this development. And it does potentially weaken president Asaf Ali Zardari, against whom there are outstanding cases. But most judicial authorities hold that Zardari cannot be tried while in office, and there is no obvious way to unseat him, since his party is the largest in parliament.

The rule of law is more important for the structural integrity of Pakistani society and politics than the back door deals of the Musharrafs, Bushes, Rices and Cheneys. Pakistan has a parliamentary system. It will go to new elections in a couple of years. If the government falls before then, it will just have early elections and someone will form a government based on their electoral performance. It might be Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League. So what? Sharif once agreed with Clinton to send in a Pakistani SWAT team against Bin Laden, and it was Musharraf who nixed that plan. And whereas Zardari has never shown an ability to run anything, Sharif is a steel magnate-- though his last term as PM was marked by an overly authoritarian style and a cozying up to Muslim fundamentalists substantially to his right.

And who knows, maybe some of the new non-corrupt PPP voices such as Aitzaz Ahsan will emerge if Zardari falters.

Then there is this development, also drawn to my attention by Juan Cole (originating in the International edition of the News, a Pakistani newspaper:
ISLAMABAD: Ulema and Mashaikh, belonging to different schools of thought, unanimously declared suicide attacks in the country un-Islamic and forbidden in Islam.

A large number of Ulema and Mashaikh, who attended the Ulema Mashaikh Conference arranged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs at the National Library here, denounced on Thursday the killing of innocent people in the name of religion. They spoke against suicide attacks in particular.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Ulema Mashaikh from across the country participated in the conference. The interior minister also briefed the Ulema and Mashaikh about the security situation and the measures taken by the government for curbing the menace of terrorism.

The Ulema said it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that killing of innocent people is un-Islamic and it could not be justified in any way. They said the Shariah introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) is complete and adequate for us and we do not need anything more.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi said the conference was arranged with an aim to devise a strategy against terrorism.He said those who launched attacks upon mosques and educational institutions could never be called Muslims. He said Islam does not allow anyone to kill innocent people or attack mosques.

Those laying down their lives in the fight against terrorism are martyrs as they are fighting to save the motherland, he said.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Juan Cole explains the limitations of the US media

Discussing coverage of yesterday's coordinated bombings in Baghdad, he makes this worthwhile point:

Aljazeera notes that some US media outlets did not bother to cover these attacks in Iraq, and wonders if the story will return. I think the answer depends on the journalistic integrity of the outlet. For many, the answer will be no. Many US media are nationalist media, and cover stories having to do with US national projects. Americans have already decided that Iraq was a mistake, and they know the US military is leaving, and so what happens there is not "news" as much of the corporate media defines it (i.e. a story that generates profits because of wide public interest in it).
This may strike some readers as too charitable, but I think it captures one dimension of the problem of the US media. If you really want to know what is going on in the world, you've got to sample other sources.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has a very interesting article called Indian Muslims Refuse to Bury Militants (following a BBC story). I quote extensively:

The Muslim community in Mumbai says it doesn't want the gunmen who attacked Mumbai to be buried in the Muslim cemetery, on the grounds that they are not Muslims.

A spokesman for the Muslim council said, ""These terrorists are a black spot on our religion, we will very sternly protest the burial of these terrorists in our cemetery . . ."

Certainly the perpetrators are criminals from the point of view of Islamic law. The Qur'an forbids murder (qatl) and the classical jurisprudence on jihad forbids the killing of innocent noncombatants, sneak attacks, or the undertaking of military action without the authorization of duly constituted Muslim authorities.

Although removing an avowed Muslim from status as a Muslim, which is called 'takfir' or faith-denial, is frowned on by the mainstream Sunni tradition, it may be legitimate in this case, given the egregious departure from Sunni law, practice and belief in which the perpetrators engaged. It is an ironic twist, since the radical vigilantes are the ones who have been declaring normal people non-Muslims for the past few decades.
More here.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, by Juan R.I. Cole

This book is not a general discussion, but is focused on Egypt in the 1870s and early 1880s, as indicated by the subtitle, Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt's 'Urabi Movement. Ibn 'Urabi was an Egyptian army officer who led an uprising against the European-dominated Viceroyal government of Egypt and the culturally-Turkish upper-class, in the name of "Egypt for the Egyptians." His revolt had many causes, but was particularly inspired by the crushing taxation that European governments insisted that the Viceroy enact and enforce, to guarantee that holders at home of Egyptian government bonds would be paid on time. The revolt was aimed as much at European infiltration of Egyptian life as it was at a cruel and unresponsive government; the two things went hand in hand. The revolt was also a failure; the British invaded Egypt and imposed a "viceroy" of their own who could control the Viceroy who supposedly ruled the country for the Ottoman sultan. Britain continued to occupy the country in whole or in part until the 1950s.

This book is not an action-packed narrative like Cole's more recent Napoleon's Egypt -- it doesn't tell the story of Urabi's revolt or much about Urabi himself -- but I found it, given my interests, a more valuable book. In my course on the History of Islamic Civilization, I've lectured on this period, using standard books, but I learned a great deal from this treatment.

First, the relationship between Ottoman reform in Istanbul and what might be called Ottoman reform in Egypt is well drawn-out. It's easy to treat Egypt as not really part of the Ottoman Empire, given its undoubted autonomy and its diverging history in later time, but there was lots of interaction between Constantinople and Alexandria and Cairo.

Second, I had no idea how strong the European influence was in Egypt, though I knew it was strong. Details of influence by elite Europeans and expatriate European workingmen add up to a fascinating if rather gruesome picture. (Can you say, "hit by a runaway locomotive"?)

Third, Cole's big contribution here is to discuss different Egyptian social and political movements that led to the explosion of the 'Urabi movement, many of which are entirely ignored in more general accounts. I was particularly interested in the role of the urban guilds and their internal electoral institutions, institutions which may have by example encouraged the push for parliamentary, responsible government at the level of the state.

Finally, I found little to object to in the style of this book, unlike Napoleon's Egypt. Did in fact NE's editor urge Cole to repetitively explain what I found obvious.

I think as I find time I'll continue to read on Modern Egypt.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, best known for his daily blog Informed Comment, which discusses developments in Iraq, the United States and elsewhere from a critical perspective. He's been criticized for saying (before it was self-evident and even popular) that Bush's policies were disastrous. I look at his blog every day because he takes his information not from the US press, which has shown itself to be pretty useless to those who want to understand the situation, but from a variety of Middle Eastern sources. Cole's perspective is useful because he understands Arabic, has lived in the Middle East, and is an expert on Shiite movements.

Somehow in the last while he has found time to write a good book on Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. That invasion, which I always thought put Napoleon in a particularly bad light, is often treated as some kind of aberration, which need not be taken very seriously when evaluating Napoleon or his era.

Cole thinks that the invasion of Egypt is far more important than that, and for me at least he makes his point. In my reading about the great revolutionary era on either side of 1800 I have been struck by how just about all revolutionaries were fascinated by the possibility of an "Empire of Liberty." There is a great deal of that in this account and it makes perfect sense to me. Cole believes that the motives that took Napoleon to Egypt were not absent from other revolutionary-era projects, and were indeed central motives.

There is one fault I see in this book, and it almost drove me crazy before I decided to relax. Cole again and again (and again) quotes some participant and then explains the significance of the quotation immediately thereafter. Good practice, perhaps? Well, it seems to me that he overdoes it, and as a result repeats some of his favorite conclusions and observations too many times. Was he urged to do this by his editor, or was he afraid that his audience really, really needed some pretty basic things spelled out?

However, the book has two great virtues.

First, Cole is an opinionated writer, but he's very straightforward in admitting his opinions, and does not pretend to be an omniscient observer. He is careful to tell the reader where he got his data, specifically which French officer's journal or Egyptian chronicle he is using at a given point. He has his opinions about their usefulness, but doesn't think any of them necessarily tells the whole story. This should be basic scholarly procedure, but even with the repetition noted above, I think Cole does a very good job in depicting the variety of contemporary views and how they have affected and limited modern understanding of the Egyptian invasion.

Second, Cole succeeds in making his subject come to life. When readers of English in the next few years or decades look into this episode of European/Middle Eastern interaction, they'll pick this book up, and many of them will get excited. For some, it will be the beginning of their own investigations, and a good start, too. For even more, it will fill in a blank page in their understanding of Islamic and Middle Eastern society. They will be unlikely to leave Cole's account with the idea that Napoleon had, that the Muslim world was asleep and waiting for the touch of a prince of modernity.

Note: Speaking of good scholarly practice, Cole is supplementing Napoleon's Egypt on a continuing basis in a blog of the same name, in which he includes documentary material that just wouldn't fit into the printed work.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What motivates terrorists

It's often said that terrorists, especially those who are genuinely willing to die for their cause, are desperate and poor and marginalized. The fact that the latest round of bombers in Britain were doctors challenges us to look past that easy generalization. Juan Cole has what I think is a sensible consideration of the subject.

I should point out that several commenters say, wait until they are charged with something before analyzing their motives. I still think that the scenario Cole sketches is a plausible one.

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