Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don't be fooled by Francis

[Originally posted at NOW]

Desperate as they ever are to believe that inside every scrofulous and reactionary organized religion is a cosmopolitan beacon of enlightenment crying to burst out, liberals have once again allowed themselves to be taken for a ride by a shady cleric, this time the current Bishop of Rome and former friend of Argentina’s notoriously murderous military dictatorship of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

What’s seduced them is Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks to journalists on Monday regarding homosexuality. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he asked rhetorically, adding that gays should not be “marginalized” but rather “integrated into society.”

Which is apparently all it takes to melt the more soluble hearts among us. “Pope Francis took a huge step forward for the Catholic church,”said The Atlantic Wire’s Connor Simpson. “[This] real blockbuster […] is a radical change of position from Francis’ predecessor.”

“May he next open the door on contraception,” cooed the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.

Yet, as the merest flicker of skepticism should elucidate, the statements don’t amount to any tangible departure from orthodox Catholic doctrine at all. The first sign of this came from Francis himself, who rushed to explain that it was gay “lobbying” that was the real “problem,” a pronouncement sinister and plain weird in about equal quantities.

Besides, what constitutes “search[ing] for the Lord and [having] good will”? Refraining from having gay sex, presumably. Certainly no one with serious Vatican expertise seems to believe anything will differ henceforth. “I don’t know that we’ve learned anything new at the level of content,” said National Catholic Reporter John L Allen, who was present when Francis made the remarks. “Church stance will not change,” was Papal Adviser John Haldane’s rather blunter message for the BBC. Veteran LGBT activist Peter Tatchell perhaps put it best:

“Pope Francis has offered a change of tone in Vatican pronouncements on gay people but not a change in substance. The church’s hardline stance against gay equality and relationships remains intact. It opposes same-sex marriage. The Catechism condemns homosexual love using strident, inflammatory and homophobic language.”

As it will continue to do so long as it is safeguarded by a man who just three years ago declared the idea of gay marriage “an attempt to destroy God’s plan.” So far from showering servile praise on such characters, it’s high time the intellectual class recognized them for the contemptible bigots they are – and confronted them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Syrian refugee businesses facing closure in Lebanon

I spoke to Monocle 24 radio yesterday about unlicensed Syrian refugee businesses facing closure in Lebanon. Episode available here (I come on at 16:35).

Friday, July 26, 2013

Syrian refugee businessmen lament coming crackdown

[Originally posted at NOW]

This article is the first in a multi-part series focusing on a string of recent policies cracking down on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

MASNAA, Lebanon – At the final stretch of the Lebanese portion of the Beirut-Damascus highway, between the villages of Bar Elias and Masnaa in the eastern fringes of the rural Beqaa Valley, almost every other shop has the word “Sham” (which can mean both “Damascus” and “Syria”) in its name. And, aptly enough, nearly every person here these days is Syrian, most of them refugees from the brutal war raging just a few kilometers away on the other side of the snow-capped Anti-Lebanon mountains.

Cut off from their livelihoods at home, many of them have opened small businesses – mostly restaurants, grocery stores, and cheap goods outlets – almost invariably without obtaining legal licenses. Having operated for months without disturbance from the Lebanese authorities, these small enterprises will now face closure from next week, according to a government announcement Tuesday, in a move that coincides with a wider crackdown on Syrian refugees, including stricter measures at border crossings. Speaking to AFP Thursday, Caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas said the 377 identified refugee-owned businesses in Lebanon were creating “unfair competition,” and that Syrians in Lebanon did not have the right to work in “business and commerce.”

Though most Syrian business owners NOW met in the area on Thursday insisted they had licenses – claims of which their neighbors were quietly skeptical – they were nevertheless unhappy with the government’s decision.

“What’s the reason for this? Give me a reason!” said a cell phone accessories store owner, who preferred not to be named. His tone was not so much angry as genuinely confused: “Are we really harming the economy? Does it really hurt the Lebanese for us to be here as Syrians, selling to other Syrians, keeping to ourselves?”

Others, too, dismissed the idea that their presence was undermining the Lebanese economy.

“They say we’re stealing Lebanese jobs, but we’re doing manual labor work that the Lebanese don’t want to do anyway, and we’re only here in the first place because of the war back at home,” said a restaurant employee.

Everyone NOW spoke to agreed the financial burden was the key factor discouraging the refugees from obtaining licenses.

“It can cost $1,000 a month or more to get a license, and most of these places don’t make more than $200 a month,” said a grocer.

“Even without paying for licenses, most of our businesses only stay open for a month or two before going broke and closing down,” said a baker. “Many have already returned to Syria – better to be killed there than die of hunger here.”

Some, however, merely shrugged off the news, saying they doubted the government would carry out its pledge.

“It’s well-known that all restaurants in Bar Elias are Syrian-owned, operating without licenses,” said a restaurateur from Homs, who admitted to not having a license himself. “The previous owner of this one told me that State Security came to him once and told him to get a license, but they never came back again to check if he did.” If the government really did close him down this time, he said, he would simply move and start another business elsewhere.

Analysts NOW spoke to shared the refugees’ scorn for the notion that the coming crackdown is driven by economic concerns, saying instead the government is responding to political pressures pertaining to Lebanon’s notoriously delicate power-sharing arrangements between sectarian communities.

“I don’t buy the claim that the refugees are cutting into Lebanese business,” said Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The reason is political […] remember these are Sunni Muslims for the most part, and Lebanese are very sensitive to demographic numbers. Lebanon proved to be inhospitable to Palestinian refugees, mainly because they are Sunni, and here you have an even larger influx of Sunnis.” From the perspective of sectarian opponents, therefore, “this threatens to tip the demography in favor of the Sunnis.”

Nor does Khashan expect such tensions will alleviate any time soon.

“Initial expectations were that the Syrian conflict would not last long and these refugees would soon be returning to Syria. As it happened, the influx has increased steadily, and it seems that this conflict does not have an end in sight.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

So Hezbollah did fight in Abra after all?

[Originally posted at NOW]

I’ve just returned to Beirut after a week’s holiday, so apologies if I’m late to this, but judging by the lack of any mention of it in the Lebanese news that I can find, it seems I’m not the only one.

Buried in the comments section of the most recent post on Elias Muhanna’s Qifa Nabki blog is a reference to Hezbollah MP Nawwaf al-Musawi’s quiet admission, made on the Kalam Ennas TV show on July 4th, that the Party of God did in fact get militarily involved in the Lebanese army’s deadly battle with Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s gunmen in Sidon last month.

Musawi’s exact words, which can be heard from 21:30 in this video, were: “At the time that [Assir] attacked the Lebanese army […] he began to fire on all its surroundings […] on Haaret Saida, on all the areas, in which it’s known that we [Hezbollah] have a presence […] We, within the limits of self-defense, dealt with the fire that was coming at us.”

The choice of the phrase “dealt with” (“تعملنا مع”) obviously invokes the ominous ambiguity of cigar-chewing mobster speak, but Muhanna at any rate interprets it to mean “returning fire when they received it”. To me, even more interesting is the Orwellian invocation of “self-defense,” with its echoes of the Party’s characterization of its intervention in Syria (remember the 30,000 border village residents?). After all, if armed Sunnis in Syria are legitimate military targets, why on earth shouldn’t their counterparts in ‘The Gate of the South’ be too?

Which is not to say, of course, that Hezbollah played a major role in the Abra clashes – indeed, the evidence suggests their involvement was marginal. But it does rather call into question the continuing, indignant insistence of people like Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, as well as the Lebanese army itself, that the Party had no involvement of any kind. (How much longer they can keep this going is unclear, particularly if Future MP Ahmad Fatfat is telling the truth about having video footage of the Party’s cadres in action in Abra.)

And it might, conceivably, be a lesson in humility to those who ridiculed the very notion of Hezbollah fighting in Abra, as though for the Party to turn its guns on fellow Lebanese were something atypical or out of character. Such people have apparently learned nothing at all from Hezbollah’s unapologetic and unembarrassed invasion of Syrian rebel-held territory, in alliance with a regime that commits daily crimes against humanity. Minor though the Abra fight was in comparison to this appalling transgression, it cannot be understood except as an extension of the same fundamental ethos, and those who persist in ignoring or distorting this do so at the expense not only of their own credibility, but of the interests of the Lebanese (and Syrian) people themselves.

Thanks to Maya Gebeily for translation.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Actually, secularism might be against Islam

[Originally posted at NOW]

In 1925, a distinguished Egyptian religious scholar named Ali Abd al-Raziq produced a highly unusual book, titled Islam and the Origins of Governance, in which he made the unprecedented argument that the caliphate, or state ruled by Islamic law, was not in fact a requirement of the Muslim faith.

Steeped in the most rigorous theological training as he was – being a graduate of and jurist appointed by al-Azhar, then the preeminent institution of Islamic learning worldwide – al-Raziq built his case entirely on religious grounds, marshaling to his side an ostensibly impressive set of observations. For one, neither the Quran nor the Hadith actually makes any mention of a caliphate, he noted. For another, there is no evidence that the Prophet Muhammad presided over any kind of institutionalized Islamic state, nor did he leave instructions for his followers to do so, he argued. Instead, the caliphate was an innovation devised by venal, self-serving tyrants who distorted the Prophet’s essentially apolitical message, with the result that by the 20th century the caliphate had become “a plague for Islam and the Muslims, a source of evils and corruption.”

The reader can probably guess how this thoughtful suggestion was received by the gatekeepers of the faith at the time. The al-Azhar clerics issued a formal condemnation of the book, enumerating with exhaustive quotations from Quran and Hadith exactly how very gravely it was mistaken, and then fired al-Raziq from his post. Muhammad Rashid Rida, probably the single most influential Islamic thinker of his generation, called the book the work of the “enemies of Islam,” while other notables such as Muhammad Bakhit argued at painstaking length that the Prophet did in fact govern a caliphate-like entity in Medina. Central to all these rebuttals was the fundamental conviction that, in Islam, religion and politics could not be separated. As Bakhit put it: “The Islamic religion is based on the pursuit of domination and power […] and the refusal of any law which is contrary to its sharia and its divine law, and the rejection of any authority the wielder of which is not charged with the execution of its edicts.”

This episode came to mind when on Sunday I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Ahmed Benchemsi and Karl Sharro in which they argued, among other things, that “secularism is not against Islam.” Of course, things have moved on a bit in the last nine decades – only a crackpot fringe minority of Muslims seriously calls for a revived caliphate, and many are those who would call themselves both Muslims and secularists – but the idea that Islam must have some kind of role in politics remains very much the official view of the clerics today. Indeed, state theologians continue to wield legislative power in every country in the Arab world, including supposedly ‘secular’ Syria and ‘liberal’ Lebanon (where they recently decreed civil marriage “apostasy” and blocked a draft law against domestic violence on the grounds that it “[violated] the Islamic law”).

Is secularism, then, compatible with Islam? Or, to put it another way, can Islam be separated from the clerical apparatus – the ulama – that converts its teachings into legislation in the real world? It’s a question that ultimately only Muslims can decide (and part of the problem to begin with, of course, is there is no single “Islam”), but the prevailing scholarly view for now seems to be that it can not. To claim otherwise is to make the rather large claim that one knows Islam better than its own clergy.

Which is obviously not to say there aren’t muftis and mullahs out there who would disagree vehemently. The point is rather that so long as such dissidents are firmly in the minority – so long as the great mass of their peers continue to dismiss and discredit them – then it cannot be accurate to say that “Islam,” as it is generally practiced around the world today, is a secular phenomenon.

Not that Islam is alone, of course. Every religion has a theocracy problem. Catholicism, as practiced in the Vatican, is not compatible with secularism. Judaism, as practiced in Israel, is not compatible with secularism. Even the quaint variety of Protestantism in my native UK is, in fact, a state religion, “defended” by a priestess-queen and granted 26 unelected and unaccountable seats in parliament. These are all by necessity the foes of any secularist worth the name, and I don’t think we should be embarrassed to say so forthrightly.

NB: All quotes and information on Ali Abd al-Raziq come from Albert Hourani’s indispensable Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Humbled Qatar may curb Lebanon extremists

[Originally posted at NOW]

As Saudi Arabia elbows aside Qatar’s influence across the region, militant Islamists in Lebanon may feel the squeeze.

The dramatic ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi last Wednesday has been quickly interpreted by analysts as a significant setback for the foreign policy of Qatar, the Gulf state which had asserted itself as the prime supporter and financier of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Having poured $8bn into the country under Morsi, the argument goes, Qatar had placed its biggest bet yet on the Islamist movement of which it is the key global patron, and with the fall of Morsi this has turned out to be a blunder. The revelation Tuesday that Qatar’s rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have collectively pledged $8bn in aid to the post-Morsi government – exactly matching the sum offered by Qatar previously – appeared to further signify the Gulf state’s loss of influence.

Egypt is not the only country in which Qatar appears to have lost ground to the Saudis. Last month, NOW reported the Kingdom was seeking to monopolize control of the political opposition in Syria, which has long been criticized as too heavily weighted toward the Brotherhood. The subsequent selection of Saudi-backed Ahmad Jarba as head of the Syrian National Coalition, quickly followed by the resignation of Qatar-backed Ghassan Hitto from the post of rebel prime minister, have been seen as the successful fruits of these efforts.

Not all analysts, however, see such developments as straightforward losses for Qatar. “It’s not really that clear,” said Andrew Hammond, recent author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, currently based in Doha. “The Qataris in recent months have obviously been involved in a process of succession… so I think they’ve been happy to be out of the picture to a certain degree and [to be] acceding to these pressures of the Saudis muscling in on the scene,” he told NOW, referring to the recent replacement of Emir Hamad al-Thani by his son, Sheikh Tamim, as head of state. “I think they’ve bought themselves time by having this shift in who’s in charge officially here. I don’t think it necessarily means they’re not going to come back.”

Nor, argues Hammond, is Qatar likely to drop its historical alliance with the Brotherhood. “The Brotherhood’s representatives in Qatar have been here for a long time. [Prominent pro-Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf] Al-Qaradawi is just as close to the new emir as he was to the father. So, it would be a lot to imagine that they would suddenly shift in one go when they’ve had a relationship with these people for a long time.” Indeed this relationship, adds Hammond, while partly based on self-interest, is also “more nuanced.… there is a certain sympathy [Qatar] has for [the Brotherhood]. They do genuinely see them as being in the middle of the Arab political spectrum.”

In any case, to the extent that Saudi has gained at Qatar’s expense, the effects could be beneficial for Lebanon, according to former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Ahdab told NOW that while Saudi chiefly sponsors the non-Islamist Future Movement, Qatari funds in recent years have been primarily directed at Islamist factions, including the majority of militant groups in his native city of Tripoli.

“It would be very reassuring if the Saudis started taking an interest in Lebanon again, because for some time we have been in the hands of Qataris who have been throwing money left and right, radicalizing the whole situation, and creating fighters who have no coordination and no goal. It’s been very dangerous.”

Future MP Mustafa Alloush agreed, adding to NOW that the unwinding of Qatari influence in Lebanon is already underway, as evidenced by the recent crushing of the armed movement of Sidon-based cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, often rumored to be a Qatari client.

“Qatar played some dangerous games by financing radical and extremist movements in an attempt to counter the Saudi influence on moderates. What happened [to Assir] and the [limited] reactions proves that these movements are weaker now. So in Lebanon, we will see empowerment of the moderate movements, and weakening of the extremist ones.”

Hammond, however, argues that Lebanon may not necessarily benefit from an ascendant Saudi Arabia.

“My impression is that it won’t necessarily make the situation more peaceable in Lebanon because the Saudis have their people there, and they’re going to push them, and that’s going to lead to more conflict with Hezbollah. From their perspective, they just want to fight Hezbollah, to push their influence back, and whether that in the short term leads to a calmer situation in Lebanon is another question entirely.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dahiyeh residents mostly unfazed by blast

[Originally posted at NOW]

Damaged cars across the street from the blast site (NOW/Alex Rowell)

The flames that had engulfed over a dozen cars in an outdoor parking lot as a result of Tuesday morning’s explosion in the Bir al-Abid neighborhood of Haret Hreik, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, had been doused by the time NOW arrived at the scene, but the damage wrought by the reported 35kg bomb planted under a car was extensive.

For at least a hundred meters down the adjacent residential and commercial street, the sidewalks were smothered in glass shards blown out of the now-bare window frames of shops, parked cars, and multi-story apartments. The awnings of a bakery and an accessories shop across the street from the blast site sat mangled like collapsed construction girders, while the wall of the car park itself had been punched in with a meter-wide crater.

As hundreds of local residents flooded the streets, snapping camera-phone photos and straining to get a view of the charred car park, a team of private security officials carrying walkie-talkies and wearing red baseball caps – presumably members of Hezbollah, the preeminent party in the southern suburbs – deployed on the scene, urging the crowd over megaphones to disperse. Meanwhile, the team of security officials prevented non-Hezbollah-affiliated journalists from entering or even photographing the blast site. “Only take pictures in that direction,” said one to NOW, pointing away from the car park. “Stay here,” said another, motioning in vain for a colleague to come over, before getting distracted elsewhere and forgetting.

According to eyewitnesses NOW spoke to at an electronics store near the blast, a man driving a red Nissan 4x4 had parked in the lot that morning. When asked by the concierge how long he planned to park, adding that more money would be required for a lengthy stay, the man apparently paid the extra without specifying a time. Minutes later, said the eyewitnesses, the same Nissan car exploded.

Others nearby were more preoccupied with personal trauma. A middle-aged woman sitting in an adjacent shop breathed heavily as she recalled her fears for her niece, who had suffered minor injuries from the blast. “Thank God she’s all right,” she repeated as NOW moved onward.

However, despite injuring over 50 people, the bomb did not appear to have dampened local spirits in general. “Wait a second,” said one resident as NOW was preparing to take a photo of a smashed store façade. “Let the Sayyid [Hassan Nasrallah] be there first,” he said with a grin as he placed a photo of the Hezbollah Secretary-General on a shelf. In adjacent Dahiyeh neighborhoods, residents appeared entirely unfazed by the bomb, with men, women, and children walking around as though nothing unusual had happened.

Indeed, the only tangible ill-will from the crowd at the blast site was directed at Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who arrived at around 1pm to heckles from Hezbollah supporters, from whom he took refuge in a nearby building for around twenty minutes. Video footage later emerged showing him being escorted to safety by police under cover fire from Hezbollah gunmen. The reason for this hostile reception is unclear.

Nor, as of Tuesday evening, have the perpetrators of the attack been established. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has previously claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on pro-Hezbollah towns in the Beqaa Valley, denied responsibility for Tuesday’s car bomb, saying the blame fell “directly or indirectly” on Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Though rebel brigades have threatened in the past to attack Dahiyeh, the FSA also denied involvement in a dual rocket attack on the area in May.

Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the Lebanese divide accused Israel of involvement, with Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar saying the attack “bears the fingerprint of the Israeli enemy and its tools,” and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri describing it as an “[attempt] by the Israeli enemy to push [Lebanon] to strife by organizing terrorist attacks.”

Yara Chehayed and Vivianne El Khawly contributed reporting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

What's really wrong with Aaron David Miller?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Last week, readers of Foreign Policy were treated to another installment of the “distinguished scholar[ship]” of Aaron David Miller (he of the recent ‘Tribes With Flags’ notoriety), this time entitled, ‘What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East?’ 

So breezily are the facts distorted, so woefully are the points missed, and so cheerfully are the region’s more than three hundred million people insulted that it prompts the arresting question: What’s really wrong with Aaron David Miller?

The piece comprises Miller’s diagnosis of the “top five” reasons for the “jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence” that have been the real fruits of an Arab Spring that was supposed to be the “big transformative moment.” These are, in order: the mistreatment of women, the lack of secularism, excessive conspiracy theorizing, “narcissism” (yes), and lack of leadership.

In addition to the many generic, or what might be called orthodox, ways in which the overall argument is wrong-headed, there are some particularly egregious bits of mendacity and nastiness that are worth highlighting.

First is his callous jab at the Lebanese, all of whom (in their narcissism) “think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night.” Perhaps I’m ill-trained in the hard-nosed, cut-the-crap school of “realism” in which Miller affects to excel, but I feel those Lebanese who have taken serious risks (and paid serious prices) to stand against the menaces of Syrian Baathist totalitarianism and its murderous proxies deserve something better than the scorn of those they were led to believe were their friends.

Second, and speaking of the Damascene dictatorship, it’s simply contemptible of Miller to pretend that “America’s loss and lack of credibility” is what prevents it from providing meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition (who also, evidently, have an inflated impression of how much attention is paid to their sacrifices in Washington). Instead, it’s perfectly obvious that it is the Americans’ failure to lift a finger in defense of the revolution that is eroding what was left of their credibility – as the cartoonists of Kafranbel have been trying to tell everyone for two years now.

Things only get worse when he turns to the Holy Land dispute, complaining of being “really tired of Israeli peaceniks […] and of Arabs” asking America to work toward peace (his patience for Israeli hawks, apparently, has not yet waned). His message for these irritating supplicants is as crass as it is dishonest:

“Here's a news flash: the cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.”

A pretty straightforward reason why this won’t “sink in” is because, for one party, the cavalry in fact arrived a very long time ago, and is showing no signs of disappearing soon (indeed, its ranks grow with each passing year). An administration that has used its veto power to protect Israel at the UN Security Council, upped the annual military aid package to an unprecedented $4bn a year for ten years, while throwing hundreds of millions of additional dollars at programs like the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems can hardly be said to have washed its hands of the Middle East quite yet.

Nor has the “cavalry” exactly neglected other areas of the region. Miller is, of course, perfectly right that many of the Arab world’s greatest villains are fellow Arabs, but when the young men and women of Bahrain took to the streets in 2011 to peacefully challenge their despot, it was with American-made bullets and tear gas canisters that their efforts were quite literally shot down. Since then, while Martin Luther King-quoting human rights activists have been rounded up and tortured before being sentenced to life imprisonment, Obama has responded by selling the Khalifa regime $53 million in arms.

Which is why it isn’t at all “ironic,” as Miller claims, that the “authoritarian monarchs” of Jordan and the Gulf have proved to be “the most durable.” Their durability, while partly sustained by popular will, is also quite openly guaranteed by American policy, with Bahrain being merely the most brazen example. It isn’t just the massive weapons sales to Islamist autocrats across the Gulf, including an eye-watering $60bn consignment of fighter jets, attack helicopters and missiles to Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s bloggers in the UAE and Jordan, poets in Qatar, or clerics belonging to the wrong sect in Saudi, Gulf regimes crush every conceivable form of dissent without ever incurring tangible reproach from Washington.

Indeed, if I were to propose a real irony, it would be that the poorest performers of all Arab nations on Miller’s criteria of women’s rights, secularism, and religious fundamentalism are precisely the US’ most cherished allies and business partners.