Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Paradox Of Higher Education In MENA

By Shanta Devarajan*

Image result for american university of beirut
American University in Beirut 

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was the cradle of higher education.  The three oldest, still-functioning universities in the world are in Iran, Morocco, and Egypt.  The University of Al-Karaouine in Fes has been granting degrees since 859 A.D.  The Ancient Library of Alexandria, in addition to being repository of books and manuscripts, was a center of learning during the Ptolemaic dynasty, with scholars traveling to there from all around the Mediterranean and beyond.  And scholars such as Ibn Khaldoun discovered fundamental economics four centuries before Adam Smith and others. In short, all of us who have benefited from a university education owe a debt to the MENA region.

Yet, today the quality of higher education in MENA is among the lowest in the world. Only two or three Arab universities are in the list of the top 500 universities in the world (and none are in the top 200).  Employers in the region complain that university graduates lack the skills needed to work in the global marketplace. Many are not trained in science, mathematics, engineering, and other technical subjects where the jobs are. Furthermore, these graduates lack the “soft skills,” including creativity and teamwork, partly because their training has emphasized memorization and rote learning. In Egypt, despite an unemployment rate of over 10 percent, some 600,000 jobs remain unfilled. About 40 percent of university graduates in MENA are unemployed; the labor force participation of women, most of whom are better educated than the men, is the lowest in the world.  Worse, violent extremist groups have used universities as one of their sources of recruitment.

How could this have happened? How could the same region that created higher education have a system that is so dysfunctional that it’s contributing to, rather than alleviating, the problems facing MENA?  And how can the situation be turned around, so that the universities are once again the best in the world?

We can start by seeking the reasons behind the current problems of the region. To be sure, the reasons for the high unemployment rate among university graduates are manifold and have mostly to do with the investment climate and the (lack of) growth of the private sector. But there is one feature that is common to all the countries in the region:  The majority of university graduates received jobs in the public sector. The state was the employer of first and last resort.

This feature had an impact on the quality of university education:

 The subject of specialization didn’t matter as much in the public sector, so students didn’t choose to study science and engineering; they chose somewhat “easier” subjects such as literature and history.
The public sector was not demanding of soft skills. 

The nature of the curriculum, with its emphasis on memory, repeating what the professor says without questioning or debating, may have been acceptable for the public sector—but it didn’t help the private sector, which is looking for creative minds who will invent the next Uber, for example.  This curriculum may have also made it easier for radicalized groups to recruit students. 

The second, more controversial, reason has to do with the pricing of university education. Almost all the universities provided education free of charge, based on the notion that poor people should have access to higher education as a means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, the result has been that the overwhelming majority of students in universities come from the richest parts of the population. The pattern is not unique to MENA: It is found in Asia and Africa. And the reason has to do with economics.  Whenever something is provided for free, there is excess demand. Universities ration the excess demand by requiring students to pass an entrance exam. The rich can afford to send their children to the best secondary schools to prepare them to pass the entrance exam. As a result, the universities are full of students from the richest strata of society. Put another way, free higher education confers a huge rent to those who have access to it. And the rich are better placed to seize those rents than the poor.

In fact, the problem is worse because free education gives weak incentives to improve the quality of university education. The university has little to gain by investing in improving the curriculum (since more students doesn’t mean more revenue). Meanwhile, students don’t demand better quality as much as they would if they were paying for the education and needed to recoup their investment. The experience of Tribhuvan University in Nepal is instructive. When they started charging tuition fees in their institute of engineering, the quality improved so much that they started attracting students from all over South Asia. Moreover, the reforms spread to the rest of the higher education sector in the country.

To be sure, simply charging for higher education will not solve the problems of universities in MENA.  For one thing, poor people should still be able to afford tertiary education, but this should be addressed by providing means-tested scholarships, rather than an across-the-board subsidy that, as we noted, the rich can take advantage of. For another, the transition needs to be managed because such shifts are likely to elicit a political reaction. However, the principle has to be that universities should be given incentives to invest in higher quality education, and students should have an incentive to demand higher quality instruction.

If we can bring about these two changes—a shift in the focus of higher education away from public-sector jobs and a system of financing that aligns incentives with quality—we can go a long way towards restoring the grandeur of higher education in MENA.  As I mentioned at the beginning, the whole world owes the MENA region a huge debt for having created and nurtured university education a millennium ago. It is time to repay that debt.

·         Shanta Devarajan is the Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa, World Bank

Note: This is an English version of the keynote speech given by Shanta Devarajan at the recent MENA conference on “Paradigm Shifts in Tertiary Education” in Algiers on May 30-June 2, 2016.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Khamenei’s Counterrevolution Is Underway

Iranians thought the nuclear deal would spark a new relationship with the West. But the supreme leader had other plans.

BY Foreign Policy SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 Khamenei’s Counterrevolution Is Underway
President Hassan Rouhani walk in front of Khmanei's picture
It was, in the words of the Washington Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, “the grimmest” of milestones. On Dec. 3, Jason Rezaian, the newspaper’s Tehran correspondent, spent his 500th day in Evin Prison. He has now been detained in the Iranian capital two months longer than the 52 Americans who were held captive in the U.S. embassy by radical students who stormed the building in 1979, heralding a revolution and the end of Iran’s formal diplomatic relations with America.

For the moment at least, the prospect of Rezaian being freed appears based more on hope than solid facts. There is no sign Iran’s judiciary, in spite of last summer’s nuclear deal with the West, is softening its stance. If anything, it has been sending strong indications that it will refuse to be influenced by outside pressure. On Nov. 22, a judiciary spokesman in Tehran confirmed Rezaian had been convicted on charges of espionage and that his punishment included jail time. The length of his prison sentence was not disclosed; the offenses are thought to carry a maximum jail term of 20 years.

Having first warned of foreign “infiltration” in September, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took an even harsher line on Nov. 25. “There is a deceitful, crafty, skillful, fraudulent, and devilish enemy,” he told commanders of the Basij militia, a volunteer paramilitary force that takes orders from the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. “Who is that enemy? Arrogance. Of course today, the manifestation of arrogance is America.”

Khamenei went further, suggesting foreign investment and cultural influences would be the first way the West would try to bring down Iran’s Islamic system. “The most important means are two things: One is money and another is sexual attraction,” he said, warning that Iran’s “decision-makers and decision-builders” would be targeted by foreigners who want to change the beliefs and lifestyle of Iran’s people.

The comments are a world away from the pragmatism Khamenei showed in agreeing to the nuclear deal just months ago. While the supreme leader seemingly wanted a deal to end sanctions so that Iran could rejoin the global economy, his actions since suggest he doesn’t want to upset loyal elites who have been enriched in the past decade.

Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi wasted little time in following the supreme leader’s cue. Two days after Khamenei’s remarks, he claimed the United States had allocated $2 billion to depose the regime in Tehran. He explicitly placed Secretary of State John Kerry, the man with whom Iranian diplomats negotiated the nuclear deal, at the center of the conspiracy. “Some $200 million out of this sum was given personally to John Kerry,” he said. “Kerry has so far headed 34 projects to depose the Islamic regime.”

Both Rezaian’s imprisonment and Naqdi’s allegations signal not only a split within Iran’s political elite over its future relations with the United States, but also a deeper divide between its politicians and long-suffering people. While the religious power center of the Islamist establishment seems more vehement than ever about the need to protect the principles of the 1979 revolution, many of Iran’s technologically savvy young population shun the mosque and look outward to the West for its entertainment and inspiration.

As such, many are still leaving the country, convinced their hopes cannot be realized. “I am not free,” said Golnaz, a 33-year-old MBA graduate who recently moved to Canada to join a tech firm. Being friends with foreigners led to her being followed and her emails being hacked. She believes President Hassan Rouhani is trying his best, but, given the resistance he faces, it is not worth the risk of continuing to waste years of her career.

Rouhani and his top officials are caught in the middle between the people and the regime. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif initially said that he hoped Rezaian would be found not guilty but has since backed off that line when questioned about the reporter’s fate, probably sensing the backlash in an increasingly abrasive domestic climate. “The charges are serious and it’s a judiciary process,” Zarif said on Oct. 17, five days after the Washington Post first reported Rezaian had been convicted.

Rouhani, meanwhile, has openly raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, thought to involve at least three Americans, including Rezaian, for 19 Iranians convicted of sanctions offenses in the United States.

“If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well,” Rouhani said of the 19 jailed Iranians at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 27.

His remarks, however, were followed by a sharp reminder at how little control he apparently exerts over many of his country’s security institutions. Barely two weeks later, the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards arrested an Iranian-American businessman, Siamak Namazi, at the home of relatives in Tehran. Around the same time it emerged that a Lebanese IT expert with residency in the United States, Nizar Zakka, had disappeared after a conference in the Iranian capital a month earlier. Adding to Rouhani’s image of powerlessness, Zakka had been invited to Tehran by the government. State television, a fiefdom of hardline conservatives who operate under Khamenei’s authority, later said Zakka was arrested for spying.

Namazi, though long based in Dubai, is well known in Iran. His family’s Atieh Group had strong business connections with the government during the presidency of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, from 1989 to 1997. Namazi also spoke out in favor of better Iranian-American relations and, while serving as a partner of Atieh’s Tehran consultancy, had advised foreign companies on how to do business in the Islamic Republic.

The latest arrests are another embarrassment for Rouhani who has made a major play for foreign investment to rebuild Iran’s sanctions-ravaged economy. On Nov. 28, more than 100 foreign companies in the oil industry, headed by Shell, BP, Total, and Petronas, came to Tehran and heard Iran’s oil minister make a pitch for $30 billion of investment. There was undoubtedly interest among the visitors — but if the IRGC continue to arrest foreign businessmen, the enthusiasm could quickly disappear.

As harsh as Khamenei’s remarks appear, a more optimistic interpretation is that the government is willing to take symbolic actions that signal a staunch anti-American stance — while in reality having no practical effect. On Nov. 5, for instance, the Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Trade announced it would ban the import of all American consumer goods. A push “to boost national production” was necessary instead, officials said.

The announcement was greeted by laughter among many Iranians. “They are already here,” Sara Ahmadi, a 30-year-old business executive, said of foreign brands, pointing out that there are three Nike stores on one Tehran street alone. Those shops, stuffed with clothing and exercise equipment bearing the famous “swoosh” logo of the world’s largest sports manufacturer, feature genuine merchandise — not the Chinese knock-offs sold in street markets in the capital. Several of the massive malls that have opened in Tehran in recent years also have Nike stores.

But it’s instructive that those malls were all built by companies linked to the IRGC. Iran has had commerce in Western goods in recent years, but it has mostly been restricted to regime loyalists. The hiked prices of the Nike goods on sale in Tehran suggest they were smuggled in to the country, likely from Dubai or Turkey, with the cooperation, whether tacit or explicit, of the Iranian regime. The inflated prices for premium Western products also mean that only the country’s economic elite, which overlaps strongly with its political elite, can afford to buy them.

While such contradictions perturb Iran’s rapidly aging clerical leadership, they leave Rezaian and his fellow captives looking like bit part players in a much bigger puzzle.

The nuclear deal may well have made the diplomatic deals struck in the past considerably more difficult today. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, three American hikers detained by Iran were freed after Oman brokered their release. Then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered them to be freed, only to be temporarily thwarted when the judiciary cancelled their release.

Iranian authorities, such as the IRGC and the judiciary, seem inclined to play the same game with Rouhani. Even talk of a prisoner exchange in the aftermath of the nuclear deal seems certain to provoke hard-liners dead set against any broader opening toward the United States.

“To the hard-liners that would look like another deal with America, and they don’t want to send that signal,” said a Western diplomat in Tehran.

The growing list of people languishing in prison, including dozens of Iranian nationals on political charges, continues to dent Rouhani’s “moderate” reputation ahead of parliamentary elections in February next year, seen as a crucial test of the president’s clout and his hopes of re-election in 2017. Though most Iranians see the judiciary rather than Rouhani as the culprit, he is a potential fall guy for the frustrated.

“The government has been backed into a corner and, whatever they do, Rouhani and his people face a problem in getting out of this mess that the judiciary has created,” the diplomat said.

But more hopeful Iranians say Rouhani retains public confidence and shouldn’t buckle in the face of provocations from the most anti-Western elements of the regime. If the hard-liners are routed in the February elections, Rouhani will have a stronger mandate to pursue his agenda.

“Ahmadinejad and his cronies are not coming back,” a veteran political analyst said. “The public mood has shifted and this is the hard-liners’ last hurrah. The worst thing Rouhani could do would be to kowtow to them. But for now at least, none of that helps Jason Rezaian.”


This article was published first by Foreign Policy on 9/12/2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lebanon's Deal with the Devil

The Prisoner Swap with Jabhat Al Nusra


Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters carry their weapons near Lebanese soldiers and policemen during their release in Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, December 1, 2015.
Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters carry their weapons near Lebanese soldiers and policemen during their release in Arsal, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, December 1, 2015. (REUTERS)

On  December 2, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda known as Jabhat Al Nusra freed 16 Lebanese soldiers and policemen in exchange for the release of 29 Islamists and their children, who were all imprisoned in Lebanon and Syria. Broadcast live on Lebanese and Qatari satellite television, the prisoner swap was a spectacle. More than that, its symbolism, strategic significance, and regional ramifications were immediately the topic of vigorous debate.

It didn’t take long for the Lebanese to critique the transaction. As the freed hostages were hugging their parents in Beirut upon their return, Lebanese commentators were already bemoaning the “tragedy that had just transpired.” Politicians from all walks of life couldn’t believe that their government had just completed a “deal with the devil.” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for example, called the episode a “sovereignty scandal,” despite the fact that Hezbollah, with which Berri is allied, had an active role in securing the deal.

A closer look at who got what explains the general mood of anger and disillusionment among most Lebanese. 

Starting with the positives: First, by getting back its men alive, Beirut communicated to the country’s military that, no matter how long or how much it takes, it will not abandon Lebanese soldiers when they are abducted. Whether Lebanese officers will find comfort in their state’s performance is unclear, though, since several of their comrades were slaughtered by the same terrorists not too long ago. But this event’s happier ending might boost morale and maintain the unity of an army that is overstretched and under equipped and that is fighting terrorism day and night across the country, particularly along its northern borders with Syria. 

Second, even though the events are still murky, the Lebanese authorities have claimed that they refused to release any Islamist extremists from prison who have blood on their hands or active terrorism cases against them. It is hard to verify that without access to sensitive information, though.

Third, and perhaps most important, the deal was a product, or a harbinger, of political accommodation between rival Lebanese political factions, specifically between the Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement. Indeed, the swap would have been impossible had Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri not cooperated. For instance, Hariri flew to Doha to persuade the Qataris, who acted as brokers throughout this 16-month hostage crisis, that Abbas Ibrahim, chief Lebanese negotiator and head of the country’s General Security Directorate, is someone worth trusting, despite his strong support for Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Nasrallah convinced his ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release three women and nine children imprisoned in Syria that were on Jabhat Al Nusra’s demand list (one of those women is Khalidiyya Hussain Zeiniya, the sister of Abu Malek Al Talli, the group’s commander in the Lebanese Qalamoun area). This moment of accord between Nasrallah and Hariri could facilitate the election of a new Lebanese head of state after a year and a half of political vacuum.

Yet this outcome came with heavy costs. The sight of terrorists waving black al Qaeda flags and operating in full military uniform with impunity on Lebanese soil and in broad daylight was painful and humiliating for the Lebanese people. More practically, by agreeing to the swap, the Lebanese state projected weakness, or at the very least, sent the message that it is not opposed to doing business with terrorists. That, in turn, could invite more kidnappings and longer lists of demands. The Islamic State (ISIS) holds nine other Lebanese soldiers and police members hostage; one wonders what Beirut would give up to release them. ISIS, a larger and more powerful movement than Jabhat Al Nusra, might be able to extract more from the Lebanese state should it decide to negotiate. But beyond the popular astonishment and the fears over the price tag of potential future terrorist deals, the Lebanese state’s inability to expel Jabhat Al Nusra from Lebanese territory and end its control of the northern town of Arsal is the clearest evidence of Lebanon’s failure to win in this exchange what mattered most: the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

For its part, in addition to the safe haven of Arsal, Jabhat al Nusra, might have also benefited from creating an image of a terrorist group that is capable of mercy and pragmatism in ways that ISIS is not. That reputation could help it gain a political future in Syria.

To be sure, there were some costs and compromises for the group too, including the failure to release hundreds of other high-profile extremists from the Lebanese prison of Roumieh or to force Hezbollah to withdraw its men from Syrian territory. But Jabhat Al Nusra knew that the latter demand was unrealistic and the formal loss was tolerable, compared to what it was able to gain.

For a relatively small prisoner swap, this deal’s complexity was remarkable, as evidenced by the number of local, regional, and internationals players that were involved. Key to the success of the deal was Qatar. In a previous article in Foreign Affairs called “The Dishonest Broker,” I wrote about Qatar’s desire to cement its role as a go-to mediator in the region. Its active involvement in this hostage crisis, which Doha made sure to air live on its satellite channel Al Jazeera for all the world to see, is the latest example of the small country’s commitment to playing an oversized mediation role, despite serious concerns by its neighbors about its real intentions. Yet regional questions about Qatar’s good offices notwithstanding, the truth is that Western countries, including the United States, find value in Doha’s access to some of the Middle East’s bad actors. After all, if bombing terrorists and adversaries fails, somebody has to facilitate talks. 

The level of pragmatism that Doha displayed throughout the negotiations was notable. Qatar and Hezbollah have a visceral and strategic disagreement over Syria—the latter doing everything in its power to ensure Assad’s survival and the former committing to his toppling—but it didn’t stop Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani from cooperating with Nasrallah to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages. Specifically, following instructions from Tamim, the Qatari intelligence services convinced Jabhat Al Nusra leaders to refrain from upping their demands in the final minutes of the negotiations and go for the deal. 

But realpolitik wasn’t limited to Qatar and Hezbollah. Turkey, which provided logistical assistance by hosting talks on multiple occasions between lead Lebanese negotiator and leaders of Jabhat Al Nusra under Qatari mediation, agreed to receive some of the freed prisoners of the terrorist group. Russia and the Syrian government, who have adversarial relations with Ankara, agreed to a ceasefire between Hezbollah and Jabhat Al Nusra along the northern borders. Iran implicitly blessed the deal through Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to the Supreme Leader who recently visited Beirut. And although Saudi Arabia did not have a direct involvement in the swap, its controversial and surprising approval of the nomination of Suleiman Franjieh as Lebanon’s new president, despite his close personal friendship with Assad (whom Riyadh is committed to deposing) and undeniable support for Hezbollah (which is suspected of killing Rafik Hariri, Saudi Arabia's main man in Lebanon), contributed to the overall de-escalation of tensions.  

Prisoner swaps typically require compromises by both sides. But in this particular deal, it must be said, Jabhat Al Nusra emerged as a winner. What’s tragic is that Lebanon is not in a position to correct wrongs and retake what was lost. The Lebanese army is incapable of dislodging all terrorists from the north and Hezbollah, despite its tactical successes against Sunni extremists, is busy securing its own areas in the southern suburbs of Beirut and fighting its enemies on Syrian territory. Only the end of the Syrian conflict can effectively neutralize the Sunni militant threat to Lebanon and prevent another costly swap. That sworn adversaries momentarily set aside their differences to achieve this latest deal offers hope, but it will take a much bigger dose of pragmatism and compromise to reach a solution to the civil war in Syria.


·         This article was published first by Foreign Affairs on 06/12/2015 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Czar vs. the Sultan

Putin and Erdogan see themselves as heirs to proud empires. But fighter jets and tough talk can’t mask imperial decline.

BY JULIA IOFFE
The Czar vs. the Sultan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin

Before Crimea was Russian, or Ukrainian, or even Soviet, it was Turkish. Well, Ottoman. And Russia had already annexed Crimea once before 2014, long before — in 1783. This was after a six-year war with the Turks, in which the Russians essentially wiped out the Ottoman navy. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Kainardrji, signed in 1774, which has come to be seen by historians as the first partition of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of its long, slow decline. In losing Crimea to Russia, the Ottoman Empire, for the first time ever, lost Muslim subjects to a Christian power. (The Crimean Tatars, who have been especially opposed to Moscow’s newest takeover of the peninsula, are the vestigial limb left behind by the Ottomans, bucking again at its new Russian owner — which has, in turn, cracked down on them.) That war and the treaty that ended it, Bernard Lewis wrote some 200 years later, was “the turning point in the relations between Europe and the Middle East.”

Nor would it be the last time the Russians and the Turks butted heads. Over the next two centuries, they would clash again and again as the Russian Empire pushed deeper and deeper into the Ottoman heartland: the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Dardanelles. One young Russian army officer wrote about his experiences fighting the Turks, French, and British at Crimea, in 1854. The work, which came to be called The Sevastopol Sketches, was the second the young man — Leo Tolstoy — ever published.

Which is all to say that what happened yesterday, when the Turks and Russians clashed over who was where when in the skies over a small sliver of land is nothing new in the relations of these two erstwhile empires.
For that is what they are. Both 

Turkey and Russia have the hearts and souls of massive, multi-ethnic empires, hearts and souls that still beat inside trunks shorn of their expansive limbs, limbs for which they still hunger today. Both exist today as greatly diminished, regional powers struggling to project greater influence — the kind that befits empires and their histories. And, in doing so, they assume their old stances, as if from muscle memory. “When you travel to Turkey, do you trust even one Turk?” wrote Maxim Kononenko, a prominent, pro-Kremlin blogger. “And so it is with all those who spoke in Turkey’s name today. They are all Turks and you cannot trust them.”

Some Russians have described yesterday’s shoot-down in larger historical terms: it is the first time that there has been a real, military conflict between Russia and NATO, wrote the liberal Slon.ru. Russian officialdom, however, is framing this squarely as a conflict between Russia and the hotheaded, trigger-happy Turks. Wednesday’s evening news, dedicated almost exclusively to the incident, made much hay out of the fact that Washington and Europe, even NATO, spent all of Tuesday chastising Turkey and throwing cold water on the idea that one plane and one territorial incursion would lead to a wider conflict.

If anything, NATO and the Europeans are the good guys in this interpretation of events — certainly a first in recent Russian history. Why? Because Turkey, the villain in this story, is trying to derail a grand, historic coalition against terrorism, one that has Russia as its main axis. The de-escalation facilitated by Western powers, the evening news report noted, “is needed so that this conflict doesn’t harm the fight against terrorism in general and against ISIS specifically.” That is, Russia sees itself as doing the work necessary to protect the civilized world against the threat of terrorism, work that benefits France, Britain, and the United States as much as it benefits Russia. (Left unstated is the assumption that it doesn’t benefit Turkey, or its Islamist-sympathizing government.) It is analogous to the way Russia has portrayed its role in World War II, especially recently: Russia fought back the menace of fascism for the good of the ungrateful West, which would have drowned if not for Moscow’s help.

This is why, beneath the propaganda and cynical geopolitical maneuvering, Moscow finds Western critiques about its role in Syria so deeply frustrating, insulting even. To Russia, such complaints are as old as time, centuries-old efforts to block Russian imperial ambitions at every possible turn for no apparent reason — even to the point of lining up with the Muslim Ottomans against Christian Rus in the mid-19th century. And, much to Russia’s chagrin, this constant Western interference greatly slowed Russian imperial expansion.

At the same time, Russia has historically viewed the Turks as a good buffer against European expansion. “If we have allowed the Turkish government to continue to exist in Europe, it is because that government, under the predominant influence of our superiority, suits us better than any of those which could be set up on its ruins,” wrote Karl Nesselrode, the Russian empire’s foreign minister, in 1830. Sound familiar? The instinct for maintaining the stability of unsavory neighboring powers, even as Russia slowly chips away at their peripheries, is an old one, encoded deep in the Russian state psyche. These other powers exist, in one form or another, as mirrors in which Russia can see itself as an empire, and preen.

I mention all this ancient history because the conflict over the Russian plane in Turkish airspace — and, according to my sources in the U.S. government, it was in Turkish airspace — is not about the plane, or the airspace, or the Islamic State, or even NATO. It is about two empires, the Russian and the Ottoman, that continue to violently disintegrate to this day, decades after they have formally ceased to exist. Look at Ukraine and Moldova, look at Syria and Iraq. These are the death throes of empire, the long tails of their legacies, shaking themselves out as the rest of the world tries to contain and smooth the convulsions of transition.


And it is about two men, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, without much irony, see themselves as heirs to the two mantles of these two long-gone empires. They, in turn, have revived those empires in the minds of their subjects, constantly dangling before their eyes the holograms of greatness past. It is no surprise, then, that, as the number of actors and the potential for conflict has grown in Syria, that the first flash of it would happen between two men who feel so keenly their countries’ phantom limbs.

* This article was first published by Foreign Policy on 25/11/2015

Saturday, August 15, 2015

ISIS Enshrines A Theology Of Rape

Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool.

Qadiya, Iraq -Rukimini Callimachi 

Ibleesis with their sex-slaves:
 In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.
He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.
When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.

“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said in an interview alongside her family in a refugee camp here, to which she escaped after 11 months of captivity.

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. Interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped the Islamic State, as well as an examination of the group’s official communications, illuminate how the practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets.

The trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.

A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.

“Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said F, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on the shoulder of Mount Sinjar one year ago and was sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. Like some others interviewed by The New York Times, she wanted to be identified only by her first initial because of the shame associated with rape.

“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.

“He said that raping me is his prayer to God. I said to him, ‘What you’re doing to me is wrong, and it will not bring you closer to God.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s allowed. It’s halal,’ ” said the teenager, who escaped in April with the help of smugglers after being enslaved for nearly nine months.

Calculated Conquest

The Islamic State’s formal introduction of systematic sexual slavery dates to Aug. 3, 2014, when its fighters invaded the villages on the southern flank of Mount Sinjar, a craggy massif of dun-colored rock in northern Iraq.

Its valleys and ravines are home to the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority who represent less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 34 million.

The offensive on the mountain came just two months after the fall of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. At first, it appeared that the subsequent advance on the mountain was just another attempt to extend the territory controlled by Islamic State fighters.
Almost immediately, there were signs that their aim this time was different.

Survivors say that men and women were separated within the first hour of their capture. Adolescent boys were told to lift up their shirts, and if they had armpit hair, they were directed to join their older brothers and fathers. In village after village, the men and older boys were driven or marched to nearby fields, where they were forced to lie down in the dirt and sprayed with automatic fire.

The women, girls and children, however, were hauled off in open-bed trucks.
“The offensive on the mountain was as much a sexual conquest as it was for territorial gain,” said Matthew Barber, a University of Chicago expert on the Yazidi minority. He was in Dohuk, near Mount Sinjar, when the onslaught began last summer and helped create a foundation that provides psychological support for the escapees, who number more than 2,000, according to community activists.

Fifteen-year-old F says her family of nine was trying to escape, speeding up mountain switchbacks, when their aging Opel overheated. She, her mother, and her sisters — 14, 7, and 4 years old — were helplessly standing by their stalled car when a convoy of heavily armed Islamic State fighters encircled them.

“Right away, the fighters separated the men from the women,” she said. She, her mother and sisters were first taken in trucks to the nearest town on Mount Sinjar. “There, they separated me from my mom. The young, unmarried girls were forced to get into buses.”
The buses were white, with a painted stripe next to the word “Hajj,” suggesting that the Islamic State had commandeered Iraqi government buses used to transport pilgrims for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. So many Yazidi women and girls were loaded inside F’s bus that they were forced to sit on each other’s laps, she said.

Once the bus headed out, they noticed that the windows were blocked with curtains, an accouterment that appeared to have been added because the fighters planned to transport large numbers of women who were not covered in burqas or head scarves.

F’s account, including the physical description of the bus, the placement of the curtains and the manner in which the women were transported, is echoed by a dozen other female victims interviewed for this article. They described a similar set of circumstances even though they were kidnapped on different days and in locations miles apart.

F says she was driven to the Iraqi city of Mosul some six hours away, where they herded them into the Galaxy Wedding Hall. Other groups of women and girls were taken to a palace from the Saddam Hussein era, the Badoosh prison compound and the Directory of Youth building in Mosul, recent escapees said. And in addition to Mosul, women were herded into elementary schools and municipal buildings in the Iraqi towns of Tal Afar, Solah, Ba’aj and Sinjar City.

They would be held in confinement, some for days, some for months. Then, inevitably, they were loaded into the same fleet of buses again before being sent in smaller groups to Syria or to other locations inside Iraq, where they were bought and sold for sex.

“It was 100 percent preplanned,” said Khider Domle, a Yazidi community activist who maintains a detailed database of the victims. “I spoke by telephone to the first family who arrived at the Directory of Youth in Mosul, and the hall was already prepared for them. They had mattresses, plates and utensils, food and water for hundreds of people.”

Detailed reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reach the same conclusion about the organized nature of the sex trade.
In each location, survivors say Islamic State fighters first conducted a census of their female captives.

Inside the voluminous Galaxy banquet hall, F sat on the marble floor, squeezed between other adolescent girls. In all she estimates there were over 1,300 Yazidi girls sitting, crouching, splayed out and leaning against the walls of the ballroom, a number that is confirmed by several other women held in the same location.

They each described how three Islamic State fighters walked in, holding a register. They told the girls to stand. Each one was instructed to state her first, middle and last name, her age, her hometown, whether she was married, and if she had children.

For two months, F was held inside the Galaxy hall. Then one day, they came and began removing young women. Those who refused were dragged out by their hair, she said.
In the parking lot the same fleet of Hajj buses was waiting to take them to their next destination, said F. Along with 24 other girls and young women, the 15-year-old was driven to an army base in Iraq. It was there in the parking lot that she heard the word “sabaya for the first time.

“They laughed and jeered at us, saying ‘You are our sabaya.’ I didn’t know what that word meant,” she said. Later on, the local Islamic State leader explained it meant slave.
“He told us that Taus Malik” — one of seven angels to whom the Yazidis pray — “is not God. He said that Taus Malik is the devil and that because you worship the devil, you belong to us. We can sell you and use you as we see fit.”

The Islamic State’s sex trade appears to be based solely on enslaving women and girls from the Yazidi minority. As yet, there has been no widespread campaign aimed at enslaving women from other religious minorities, said Samer Muscati, the author of the recent Human Rights Watch report. That assertion was echoed by community leaders, government officials and other human rights workers.

Mr. Barber, of the University of Chicago, said that the focus on Yazidis was likely because they are seen as polytheists, with an oral tradition rather than a written scripture. In the Islamic State’s eyes that puts them on the fringe of despised unbelievers, even more than Christians and Jews, who are considered to have some limited protections under the Quran as “People of the Book.”

In Kojo, one of the southernmost villages on Mount Sinjar and among the farthest away from escape, residents decided to stay, believing they would be treated as the Christians of Mosul had months earlier. On Aug. 15, 2014, the Islamic State ordered the residents to report to a school in the center of town.

When she got there, 40-year-old Aishan Ali Saleh found a community elder negotiating with the Islamic State, asking if they could be allowed to hand over their money and gold in return for safe passage.

The fighters initially agreed and laid out a blanket, where Ms. Saleh placed her heart-shaped pendant and her gold rings, while the men left crumpled bills.

Instead of letting them go, the fighters began shoving the men outside, bound for death.
Sometime later, a fleet of cars arrived and the women, girls and children were driven away.

The Market

Months later, the Islamic State made clear in their online magazine that their campaign of enslaving Yazidi women and girls had been extensively preplanned.

“Prior to the taking of Sinjar, Shariah students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis,” said the English-language article, headlined “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which appeared in the October issue of Dabiq.

The article made clear that for the Yazidis, there was no chance to pay a tax known as jizya to be set free, “unlike the Jews and Christians.”

 “After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided” as spoils, the article said.

In much the same way as specific Bible passages were used centuries later to support the slave trade in the United States, the Islamic State cites specific verses or stories in the Quran or else in the Sunna, the traditions based on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, to justify their human trafficking, experts say.

Scholars of Islamic theology disagree, however, on the proper interpretation of these verses, and on the divisive question of whether Islam actually sanctions slavery.
Many argue that slavery figures in Islamic scripture in much the same way that it figures in the Bible — as a reflection of the period in antiquity in which the religion was born.
“In the milieu in which the Quran arose, there was a widespread practice of men having sexual relationships with unfree women,” said Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University and the author of a book on slavery in early Islam. “It wasn’t a particular religious institution. It was just how people did things.”

Cole Bunzel, a scholar of Islamic theology at Princeton University, disagrees, pointing to the numerous references to the phrase “Those your right hand possesses” in the Quran, which for centuries has been interpreted to mean female slaves. He also points to the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence, which continues into the modern era and which he says includes detailed rules for the treatment of slaves.

“There is a great deal of scripture that sanctions slavery,” said Mr. Bunzel, the author of a research paper published by the Brookings Institution on the ideology of the Islamic State. “You can argue that it is no longer relevant and has fallen into abeyance. ISIS would argue that these institutions need to be revived, because that is what the Prophet and his companions did.”

The youngest, prettiest women and girls were bought in the first weeks after their capture. Others — especially older, married women — described how they were transported from location to location, spending months in the equivalent of human holding pens, until a prospective buyer bid on them.

Their captors appeared to have a system in place, replete with its own methodology of inventorying the women, as well as their own lexicon. Women and girls were referred to as “Sabaya,” followed by their name. Some were bought by wholesalers, who photographed and gave them numbers, to advertise them to potential buyers.

Osman Hassan Ali, a Yazidi businessman who has successfully smuggled out numerous Yazidi women, said he posed as a buyer in order to be sent the photographs. He shared a dozen images, each one showing a Yazidi woman sitting in a bare room on a couch, facing the camera with a blank, unsmiling expression. On the edge of the photograph is written in Arabic, “Sabaya No. 1,” “Sabaya No. 2,” and so on.

Buildings where the women were collected and held sometimes included a viewing room.
“When they put us in the building, they said we had arrived at the ‘Sabaya Market,’” said one 19-year-old victim, whose first initial is I. “I understood we were now in a slave market.”
She estimated there were at least 500 other unmarried women and girls in the multistory building, with the youngest among them being 11. When the buyers arrived, the girls were taken one by one into a separate room.

“The emirs sat against the wall and called us by name. We had to sit in a chair facing them. You had to look at them, and before you went in, they took away our scarves and anything we could have used to cover ourselves,” she said.

“When it was my turn, they made me stand four times. They made me turn around.”

The captives were also forced to answer intimate questions, including reporting the exact date of their last menstrual cycle. They realized that the fighters were trying to determine whether they were pregnant, in keeping with a Shariah rule stating that a man cannot have intercourse with his slave if she is pregnant.

Property of ISIS

The use of sex slavery by the Islamic State initially surprised even the group’s most ardent supporters, many of whom sparred with journalists online after the first reports of systematic rape.

The Islamic State’s leadership has repeatedly sought to justify the practice to its internal audience.

After the initial article in Dabiq in October, the issue came up in the publication again this year, in an editorial in May that expressed the writer’s hurt and dismay at the fact that some of the group’s own sympathizers had questioned the institution of slavery.
“What really alarmed me was that some of the Islamic State’s supporters started denying the matter as if the soldiers of the Khilafah had committed a mistake or evil,” the author wrote. “I write this while the letters drip of pride,’’ he said. “We have indeed raided and captured the kafirahwomen and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword.” Kafirah refers to infidels.

In a pamphlet published online in December, the Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State detailed best practices, including explaining that slaves belong to the estate of the fighter who bought them and therefore can be willed to another man and disposed of just like any other property after his death.

Recent escapees describe an intricate bureaucracy surrounding their captivity, with their status as a slave registered in a contract. When their owner would sell them to another buyer, a new contract would be drafted, like transferring a property deed. At the same time, slaves can also be set free, and fighters are promised a heavenly reward for doing so.
Though rare, this has created one avenue of escape for victims.

A 25-year-old victim who escaped last month, identified by her first initial, A, described how one day her Libyan master handed her a laminated piece of paper. He explained that he had finished his training as a suicide bomber and was planning to blow himself up, and was therefore setting her free.

Labeled a “Certificate of Emancipation,” the document was signed by the judge of the western province of the Islamic State. The Yazidi woman presented it at security checkpoints as she left Syria to return to Iraq, where she rejoined her family in July.
The Islamic State recently made it clear that sex with Christian and Jewish women captured in battle is also permissible, according to a new 34-page manual issued this summer by the terror group’s Research and Fatwa Department.

Just about the only prohibition is having sex with a pregnant slave, and the manual describes how an owner must wait for a female captive to have her menstruating cycle, in order to “make sure there is nothing in her womb,” before having intercourse with her. Of the 21 women and girls interviewed for this article, among the only ones who had not been raped were the women who were already pregnant at the moment of their capture, as well as those who were past menopause.

Beyond that, there appears to be no bounds to what is sexually permissible. Child rape is explicitly condoned: “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty, if she is fit for intercourse,” according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute of a pamphlet published on Twitter last December.

One 34-year-old Yazidi woman, who was bought and repeatedly raped by a Saudi fighter in the Syrian city of Shadadi, described how she fared better than the second slave in the household — a 12-year-old girl who was raped for days on end despite heavy bleeding.
“He destroyed her body. She was badly infected. The fighter kept coming and asking me, ‘Why does she smell so bad?’ And I said, she has an infection on the inside, you need to take care of her,” the woman said.

Unmoved, he ignored the girl’s agony, continuing the ritual of praying before and after raping the child.

“I said to him, ‘She’s just a little girl,’ ” the older woman recalled. “And he answered: ‘No. She’s not a little girl. She’s a slave. And she knows exactly how to have sex.’ ’’


“And having sex with her pleases God,” he said.

-This article was published by the NEW YORK TIMES on the 14th of August 2015