Friday, September 14, 2012

Egypt Fans The Flames

Why Morsi Exploited The Muhammad Film -- And Why That Was A Bad Move

Just as Mubarak played up the controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 in order to improve his domestic standing, so Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government has stoked popular outrage now. But the flames he has fanned will make life hotter for him as well as the United States.

By Jytte Klausen

 The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (Esam Al-Fetori / Courtesy Reuters)

The storming of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday echoed events following the 2005 Danish publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that led to widespread protest in 2006 and assaults on Danish embassies around the world. Today, Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, and his government are playing the same role that his predecessor Hosni Mubarak did then: provoking protest to consolidate power.

The chaos on Tuesday in Benghazi that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was set in motion the Sunday before when Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, spoke out against a film that he condemned as "offensive to all Muslims." He claimed that it was produced by "some extremist Copts" living in the United States. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government followed Gomaa's lead and demanded a public apology and criminal prosecution of the filmmakers. On Tuesday, as events unfolded in Benghazi, 3,000 demonstrators besieged the U.S. embassy in Cairo. An armed mob attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed Stevens and three other U.S. officials. It remains unclear who exactly planned the Libya strike, but reports point to Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of the Islamic Law), a group connected to al Qaeda.

The film in question, it turns out, is little more than an amateur production made up of sophomoric sacrilegious sketches of the Prophet Muhammad taken from the Internet. It remains unclear who produced the dubious film, but it appears not to have been Egyptian Copts living in the United States. A trailer for the production was posted on YouTube in July, but apparently came to the attention of Egyptian authorities only after a murky Twitter campaign promoted it, with backing from a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, Terry Jones, who got everyone's attention in 2010 for his plans to burn copies of the Koran in a bonfire.
This feels very much like a sequel to 2006, when 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had been published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 sparked a public uproar. Those cartoons, too, had gone relatively unnoticed when they were first published. But when mysterious text messages and posts in Internet chat rooms alerted Muslims to the insult they had suffered and the Egyptian government started publicizing the Danes' sacrilege, people started to pay attention. And even then, the streets remained calm until Gomaa condemned the cartoons and encouraged denunciations during Friday prayers across the Middle East. Over three weeks, mobs burned Danish embassies and consulates to the ground. Two years later, al Qaeda bombed the Danish embassy in Islamabad, leaving eight people dead.

In 2008, I traveled to Cairo to investigate why the Egyptian government had decided to spearhead an international campaign against the Danish cartoons. Some of those with whom I talked pointed their fingers in the air and said, vaguely, "This came from the top." Others were willing to be more specific. They explained that Hosni Mubarak, who was president at the time, must have been involved.

To my great puzzlement, Egyptian diplomats, starting with Amr Moussa, who was then the secretary-general of the Arab League, refused to speak to me about the Danes. Instead, Moussa and his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry began every sentence with "But the Americans must understand," after which they would go on to explain why U.S. pressure to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to compete in free elections would lead to chaos. Presumably, they meant to imply that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the rioting.

In fact, those who suspected Mubarak were right. The objective of his regime's campaign against the Danish cartoons was twofold. First, the cartoons were a convenient way to illustrate the ills of an unfettered media. Buoyed by the cartoon riots, the Mubarak regime was able to push a new media charter through the Arab League in 2008. It restricted satellite television in general and al Jazeera in particular.

Second, the violent and apparently religious protest that followed the publication of the cartoons was a way to demonstrate to the Americans that the Muslim Brotherhood was dangerous. As Moussa told me, the Egyptian government wanted to teach the West a lesson. "We have to be treated equally," he complained, objecting to European and U.S. efforts to compel Egypt to sign a new charter for granting civil society groups freedom to operate outside of Mubarak's control.

The United States seemed to learn the lesson Mubarak intended. In 2008, the leader undid some reforms that had been introduced in 2005 in response to the "freedom agenda," U.S. President George W. Bush's ill-fated attempt to change the Middle East through elections. The move was met with only muted criticism from the United States.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood was eager to make sure that I understood that it was not responsible for the protests. Essam el-Erian, then a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau known to belong to its moderate wing, had just been released from prison when I met with him in his downtown Cairo office. He looked pale and was wearing ill-fitting glasses and teeth. He did not know much about the history of the cartoons but impressed upon me that, although the Brotherhood was offended by Islamophobic portrayals of the Prophet, it also understood that different countries have different traditions. He regarded protests against cartoons as a distraction from the real task of reform. He was suspicious that Mubarak was using the Danish cartoons to suppress the Brotherhood. Today, el-Erian is a Morsi adviser and the acting chairman of the new Muslim Brotherhood party, the Freedom and Justice Party, which controls Egypt's parliament.

My meeting with Khaled Hamza, who was then the editor of the Brotherhood's recently launched English-language Web site, was even more interesting. We met after secretly coordinating an appointment at the Starbucks in a suburban Egyptian mall. Throughout the meeting, Hamza prodded me to explain this "freedom of speech" thing that was so important to those defending the Danish newspaper. That started a discussion of how to establish the legal meaning of blasphemy in multi-religious open societies.

The day after our meeting, the security services came for Hamza. He remained in prison for eight months. Joining a chorus of liberals in Europe and the United States who had decided that working with the Muslim Brotherhood was the only way forward, in February 2008 Marc Lynch wrote on his blog: "Khaled, aside from being a wonderful person, has been a leading voice for moderation and engagement." Eventually, of course, Hamza was freed and the Muslim Brotherhood got what it had long advocated: real elections and the freedom to practice Islam as the conservatives desired. The Brothers did not spearhead the revolution but were its beneficiaries. In June, Brotherhood officials moved into Mubarak's old offices.

But in the past week, ironically, the Brotherhood has continued to follow the old Mubarak playbook. Hours after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood posted that it "strongly condemn[s] the deadly attack ... and the tragic loss of life. We urge restraint as people peacefully protest and express their anger." Even while condemning the attacks, however, the Brotherhood called for mass protests at mosques across Egypt on Friday, virtually guaranteeing that the unrest will spread.

The Muslim Brotherhood's sponsorship of the film protests might be an ill-advised attempt at the diversionary politics Mubarak was a master of, but the costs are high. If Egypt's ultra-Salafists take a harder line on the film or manage to co-opt the protests, Morsi could easily lose ground to them. It is a gamble. The ultra-conservative salafist Nour Party, the second-largest in the new parliament, has stepped up their campaign to turn Egypt's religious authorities into a new Supreme Court and derailed the work of the constituent assembly writing a new constitution.

In Egypt, the film is now being portrayed as the work of Jews and extremist Christians, but no one really knows. It hardly matters. Not everything on the Internet is what it appears to be. The Internet grants people the freedom to say silly things, including things that are insulting to Muslims, and can be exploited for political gain. But that goes both ways. It was not so long ago, after all, that YouTube postings of Mubarak's thugs shooting young demonstrators in the back helped to bring down a regime that Morsi and the Brotherhood had fought for decades to end. If only to set himself apart from the old regime, Morsi should take responsibility for rousing misplaced public anger and turning a non-event on the Internet into a real-world catastrophe.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Affairs on 13/09/2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Agents Of Outrage

The deadly attacks on US diplomatic outposts in Egypt and Libya raises the question, did the Arab Spring make the Middle East more dangerous?


The violence looked spontaneous; it was anything but. Instead it was the product of a sequence of provocations, some mysterious, some obvious. It seemed to start in the U.S., then became magnified in Egypt and was brought to a deadly and sorrowful climax in Libya—all on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The cast of characters in this tragedy included a shadowy filmmaker, a sinister pastor in Florida, an Egyptian-American Islamophobe, an Egyptian TV host, politically powerful Islamist extremist groups and, just possibly, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya. The instigators and executors didn’t work in concert; they probably didn’t even know they were in cahoots. Indeed, some of them would sooner die than knowingly help the others’ causes. Nonetheless, the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was the result of a collective effort, with grievous consequences.

As the Obama Administration struggles to contain the fallout of the killings—and even to piece together exactly what happened—there’s an increasing apprehension that this attack may herald a new genre of Middle East crisis. The Arab Spring replaced the harsh order of hated dictators with a flowering of neophyte democracies. But these governments—with weak mandates, ever shifting loyalties and poor security forces—have made the region a more chaotic and unstable place, a place more susceptible than ever to rogue provocateurs fomenting violent upheavals, usually in the name of faith.

Collectively, these hatemongers form a global industry of outrage, working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world. Add to this combination the presence of opportunistic jihadist groups seeking to capitalize on any mayhem, and you can begin to connect the dots between a tawdry little film and the deaths of four American diplomats.

Start with the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims, a purported biopic of the Prophet Muhammad that, according to some accounts, sparked the demonstrations in Cairo and Benghazi. He goes by the name Sam Bacile, but almost nothing is known about him. Or even whether he exists. Some reports suggest the name is a pseudonym.

There have been other films about the Prophet, but since Islamic traditions forbid any depiction of Muhammad, Muslim filmmakers tend to focus instead on his contemporaneous followers and foes. In the 1977 film The Message, for instance, Muhammad remains always off camera and is never heard, but other historical figures (including his uncle Hamza, played by Anthony Quinn) address him.

The film made by Bacile makes no such concessions to Muslim sensibilities. Indeed, showing Muhammad is the film’s only innovation. The accusations it makes about him are rehashed from old Islamophobic tropes; the script is clunky and the acting high-school-ish. The movie was apparently made last year, and although the filmmaker claimed to have spent $5 million on it, the production values suggest a much more modest budget. Before going into hiding in the wake of the violence in Cairo and Benghazi, Bacile (or someone pretending to be him) defiantly told the Associated Press that he regards Islam as “a cancer, period.”

The film was screened in Hollywood early this year but made no waves whatsoever. Bacile then posted a 14-min. series of clips on YouTube in July; that too got no traction. But it caught the attention of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Copt in Washington, D.C., known for incendiary anti-Muslim statements and blog posts. In early September, Sadek stitched together clips of the film and posted them on an Arabic-language blog. He also sent a link to the post in a mass e-mail. In the meantime, the film had attracted a singularly unattractive fan: Terry Jones, pastor of a church in Gainesville, Fla., who is notorious for burning the Koran and performing other Islamophobic stunts. He promoted the film online and added fuel to the flames by posting his own YouTube video, calling for the “trial” of the Prophet, for fraud and other supposed crimes. Jones’ video features an effigy wearing a demon mask and hanging from a noose.

Soon after that, the thread was picked up in Egypt by a TV host every bit as inflammatory and opportunistic as Jones: Sheik Khaled Abdallah of the Islamist satellite-TV station al-Nas. Supported by unknown backers, the channel traffics in demagoguery and hatemongering. Abdallah is its star. In previous broadcasts, he has called the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring “worthless kids” and condemned newspapers that don’t support his views. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the country’s Coptic Christians, who make up about a tenth of the population.

For Abdallah, the fact that a Copt was promoting an anti-Muhammad film endorsed by the Koran-burning pastor was too much. On his Sept. 8 show, he broadcast some of the clips, now dubbed in Arabic. In one scene that was aired, “Muhammad” declares a donkey the “first Muslim animal” and asks the creature if it likes the ladies. Abdallah’s show, complete with the offensive video, was also posted on YouTube, and it has attracted over 300,000 views.

Abdallah’s show was a dog whistle to the Salafists, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that makes up the second largest faction in the Egyptian parliament. For months, organized Salafist groups had been protesting in small numbers in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, calling for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik currently in a North Carolina prison, convicted for plotting a series of bombings and assassinations in the 1990s. They were joined on Sept. 11 by prominent leaders like Nader Bakar of the Salafist Nour Party and Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy and now head of al-Qaeda.

The leaders had left by the time the mob attacked the embassy and took down the U.S. flag, while Egyptian security forces, hopelessly outnumbered, mostly just watched. The crowd eventually dispersed. Afterward, some Salafist leaders said the flag was snatched by members of a soccer-hooligan group known as the Ahli Ultras.

Not far from Egypt’s western border, in the Libyan city of Benghazi, on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center, the Muhammad movie had provoked another mob of several hundred mostly Salafist protesters to gather at the U.S. consulate. Many witnesses have since fingered a group known as Ansar al-Shari‘a for organizing the protests; the group denies it.

Ambassador Stevens, visiting from Tripoli, was an unlikely target. He had worked closely with the leaders of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and was well liked by most Libyans. But some reports now suggest that lurking amid the mob was a more malevolent force: members of the local chapter of al-Qaeda.

Only the previous day, Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a new videotaped statement from his hideout, confirming the death of his Libyan deputy Abu Yahya al-Libi in a June U.S. drone strike and calling for him to be avenged. Reports from Benghazi say armed jihadists infiltrated the protesting crowds. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades is suspected to have carried out the attack. The White House was still scrambling a day after the attack to piece together what happened and whether it could have been prevented. A senior Administration official said the Benghazi attack was “complex” and “well organized” but would not comment on reports that it was planned in advance by militants using the protest as a diversion.

The terrorists struck twice: one set of grenades forced consulate staff to flee the main building while a second targeted the building to which they were evacuated. The attack did not appear spontaneous or amateurish. Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and two others were killed. The ambassador was declared dead from smoke inhalation.

If Muslims responded violently to every online insult to their faith, there would be riots in Cairo and Benghazi every day of the year. The Internet is full of malefactors who constantly say, write or broadcast appalling things about Islam. (And there are plenty of Muslim Web nuts who vilify other belief systems.) It is the outrage machine, manned by people like Bacile, Jones and Abdallah, who push matters into anger overdrive. They know the outcome of their efforts will be violence and subversion. These men are enabled by media—mainstream and fringe alike—that give them air to bloviate and a political culture that makes little effort to take away their oxygen.

Before the Arab Spring, this chain of events would likely have been stopped early. Dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi either blocked Internet access to prevent their people from seeing inflammatory material (among other things) or used their security agencies to crack down on protests long before they could reach critical mass.

But democratically elected governments don’t have recourse to such draconian methods. Still unused to power, they are unsure how to deal with angry demonstrations, especially when they are mounted by powerful religious or political groups. The tendency has been to look the other way and hope the demonstrators run out of steam.

It doesn’t always work. The Salafists in Libya were emboldened by the failure of the government in Tripoli to crack down on them when they recently desecrated Sufi shrines. The Minister of the Interior (he has since resigned) said he didn’t want to risk the lives of his security forces in order to apprehend the culprits. “The Libyan authorities have been irresponsibly lazy in confronting this threat,” says Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “They have a choice to make. Are they going to be a country connected to the outside world, or are they going to allow a small number of people in their midst to make that impossible?”

At least Libya’s President Mohamed el-Magariaf swiftly apologized to all Americans for the attack on the consulate and promised to hunt down those responsible: 24 hours after the attack on the embassy in Cairo, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy had not issued a similar statement. When he finally did, he seemed less concerned with what had happened at the embassy and more with the affront to the Prophet, which he condemned “in the strongest terms.” The Muslim Brotherhood, on its Twitter feed, condemned the Benghazi attack but made no mention of the one in Cairo.

The Egyptian government’s almost insouciant response, hardly in keeping with the country’s status as the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, will rankle both President Obama and his domestic critics. In the hours after the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, Republicans piled on the President, questioning the wisdom of his outreach to Islamist political forces like the Brotherhood. Even political allies were moved to wonder whether Egypt could really be a reliable friend.

Morsy’s silence has been interpreted by Egyptian analysts as a reluctance to prod the Salafists, whose help he may need to get anything done in parliament. But other political figures were equally pusillanimous. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent liberal secular leader, tweeted, “Humanity can only live in harmony when sacred beliefs and the prophets are respected.” That kind of timidity empowers not only the Salafists but also instigators like Abdallah and his American counterparts.

For an understanding of what can happen when the industry of outrage is allowed to function without check, look at Pakistan, where hatemongers continually stoke anger not only against faraway foreigners but just as frequently—and with more deadly results—against their own people. Minorities like the Ahmadiyya sect are an easy target for extremist TV hosts like Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a former Minister of Religious Affairs. On his show broadcast by Geo TV in 2008, guest scholars declared the Ahmadiyyas “deserving to be murdered for blasphemy.” Soon after, two members of the sect were killed. Hussain was forced to apologize and leave Geo but has since returned to the station.

Other Pakistani provocateurs target the Shi‘ite community, which makes up 10% to 20% of the population. Militant groups with links to political parties as well as the country’s all-powerful military are frequently behind violent attacks against Shi‘ites. Criticism of such groups is often denounced by extremist preachers as blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Pakistani law.

When Salman Taseer, the governor of the country’s largest province and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, was killed by his bodyguard last year, the murderer was declared a hero by many. Munir Ahmed Shakir, the influential imam of Karachi’s giant Sultan Mosque, is just one of many who have pronounced as “non-Muslims” all those seeking to amend the blasphemy laws.

The new normal in Egypt and Libya is not as perilous as in Pakistan. Not yet. But as the fledgling democracies of the Middle East struggle to cope with the genies unleashed by the Arab Spring, you can count on the industry of outrage to work overtime to drag the Middle East in that direction.

-This article is the cover story for Time Magazine on 13/09/2012
-With reporting by Ashraf Khalil/Cairo, Jahanzeb Aslam/Islamabad, Aryn Baker/Beirut, Vivienne Walt/Paris and Massimo Calabresi, Mark Thompson, Elizabeth Dias and Jay Newton-Small/Washington

When Bibi Didn't Meet Barack

Why the American president and the Israeli prime minister just can't get along.


U.S. President Obama (right) with Israeli PM Netanyahu

I understand that Israel is in a tough spot on the Iranian nuclear issue. I live in Chevy Chase and don't have to worry about Iranian nukes falling on my neighborhood. I don't want to trivialize Israel's fears.

And from Netanyahu's perspective, those fears are in the process of being realized. Negotiations, at least in the short term, won't stop Iran from continuing its quest for a nuclear bomb. The fact is that apart from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, four states have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. All are profoundly insecure, and some harbor visions of themselves as great powers. Iran, of course, is the poster child for both insecurity and grandiosity. In fact, had the shah not been overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state.

And on top of all this, Netanyahu believes he's not getting the kind of support and understanding from his "good friend" President Barack Obama that he feels Israel needs. The clock is ticking, the centrifuges are spinning, Israel's window of advantage for a military strike is closing, and Iran's "zone of immunity" is nearing.

So what's a guy to do?

Thus far, Bibi's response has been to lash out. Netanyahu criticized the United States on Sept. 11, of all days, for failing to lay down "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program that, if crossed, would prompt U.S. military action. He was presumably responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that the United States was "not setting deadlines" for a military response to Iran. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," Bibi warned. The rise in tensions -- which were made only worse by reports, later denied, that the White House had turned down Netanyahu's request for a meeting with the president -- prompted an hour-long conversation between Obama and Netanyahu that same night, as the two leaders tried to get back on the same page on Iran.

Netanyahu's broadside -- whatever its intent -- has produced three reactions. And none of them help Israel or the United States.

First, this entire exchange has brought an issue that should have remained behind closed doors into public view. Asked to comment on red lines, Clinton should have simply said that the United States and Israel were discussing these matters privately. The United States is not prepared to strike Iran anytime soon. And frankly, neither is Israel -- not before the U.S. elections on Nov. 7 nor likely by year's end.

Every Israeli red line seems to have turned pink, anyway. Every few months, the media is full of anonymous Israeli sources warning portentously about an imminent strike -- and so far, they have all proved to be false alarms. The more it threatens military action and doesn't produce, the less street cred Israel has in a region where it wants to be feared and respected. If the United States and Israel want to talk red lines, do it in private -- that's where they become real and serious.

Second, it makes no sense to air U.S.-Israeli differences publicly. It sends a signal to America's friends and enemies alike that the relationship is weak and dysfunctional. And the message it sends to Iran is particularly counterproductive: Don't worry.

Third, Netanyahu's remarks could be construed as an effort to intervene in American politics. Let's be clear: Israel and the United States have been intervening in one another's politics for years. And while I don't think the Israeli prime minister had that motivation this time, the timing of these remarks -- 50-odd days (and they will be odd) before the big dance -- will be seen by some as a transparent effort to embarrass and corner Obama, or to actually sway the views of American Jews. Obama bears his fair share of responsibility for screwing up the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but this perceived intervention by Bibi could do major damage. The last thing Israel needs is an angry second-term president who believes his Israeli counterpart played an active role in trying to defeat him. It's unseemly and counterproductive.

The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated enough without two close allies bickering in public about what to do about it. I must say -- having watched American presidents and Israeli premiers since Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin -- that this has to be the most dysfunctional pair I've seen. Since both leaders may well be around for some time to come, let's hope they can find a better way to cooperate. The risks to American and Israeli interests will be too great if they don't.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 12/09/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Don't Give Up On The Arab Spring

Why America did the right thing in Libya -- and freedom will eventually win.


The cruel irony of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens's death will not be lost on Americans. If it wasn't for President Barack Obama's decision, however belated and reluctant, to intervene in Libya, the brutal dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi would very likely still be in power today. Stevens, in particular, had gained the respect of Benghazi's rebels for his strong support of their cause. He was, to use the cliché, a friend of Libya. But he is now dead, for reasons that are apparently tied to a movie that no one is Libya has actually seen.

For ordinary Americans, the understandable reaction is one of anger, even betrayal. We liberated them -- this time for humanitarian reasons, and even though our vital interests were not at stake. And now they besiege our embassy and kill our ambassador. When I woke up today, a friend asked me half-jokingly, "What's wrong with Muslims?" That is, whether we like it or not, the question that many -- including American liberals who have, time and time again, given "Muslims" the benefit of the doubt -- will be asking.

And it is here that narratives will collide. The anti-Islam film in question was a pretext much more than the cause of yesterday's violence. It could have been anything. Anti-American anger, even in Libya, the most pro-American country in the Arab world, remains palpable, lingering underneath the surface of apparent gratitude. But, that aside, even if the United States did everything on Arabs' wish lists, there would remain a small, influential fringe that would find another reason to hate -- or at least dislike and distrust -- the United States.

Outside of exceptional cases where the United States intervenes decisively on one side or another, Arab attitudes toward the world's preeminent power are generally what economists would call inelastic. In other words, even when the United States does "good" things -- such as ending the war in Iraq -- Arab public opinion does not seem to change all that much. Even in Libya, anti-American sentiment will almost certainly increase after the NATO operation fades from memory. In fact, in several Arab countries, U.S favorability ratings have been lower under Obama than they were in the final years of President George W. Bush's administration.

It is sometimes difficult for Americans to understand just how deep-seated Arab anger is. Some of it is illegitimate, but much of it is at least based on things that have actually happened. Algerians will bring up 1991, when what was then the region's most promising democratic transition was aborted by a Western-backed military coup. Iranians will often bring up 1953, when their democratically elected prime minister was toppled in a CIA-sponsored coup. These dates, far from a remote, forgotten history, are very much alive for those who still suffer the consequences of those tragedies. Anti-Americanism can diminish, and probably will, but to expect an overnight transformation is fantasy.

Large pluralities or majorities in the Arab world are 9/11 "truthers" who believe that either the United States or Israel were somehow responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Yes, this is irrational -- one simply has to look at the fact that al Qaeda took credit for the attack. But many Arabs believed, well before Sept. 11, 2001, that the United States was not just a well-intentioned country that sometimes did very bad things, but a veritable force for evil. So it wasn't difficult for them to believe something that the vast majority of Americans simply couldn't -- that Americans could acquiesce or even actively support the murder of their own countrymen.

The easy response, for Americans suffering from Arab Spring fatigue, would be to give up on the Middle East. They could disengage, and treat the Arab world as what it seemed to be yesterday -- a place well outside the grasp of normal, reasoned political analysis. But that would be a grave mistake, especially now. It should be obvious that disengaging from the Arab world is what both Salafi extremists -- not to mention Arab dictators -- want. The more the United States disengages, the more room they will have to grow in influence and power, and the more commonplace events like those of last night will become.

For decades, the United States undermined Arab democracy through its consistent support of Arab autocrats. But the Arab uprisings have changed that basic calculus and upended our Faustian bargains with the region's despots (well, at least with some of them). In countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and of course Libya, interests and values are not fully aligned -- they never will be -- but they are as closely aligned as one can hope. And that is not an opportunity that should be squandered. In all three countries, the United States is finally playing a positive, even crucial, role in supporting the economic recovery of democratically elected governments that, while deeply flawed, enjoy popular legitimacy.

Our commitment to these transitions has at times been tepid -- but there are those who would like the United States and Europe to dial down their efforts even more. Such calls must be resisted.

The White House must redouble its commitment to the Arab Spring. Across the region, Salafist extremists and other unsavory characters are trying to fill the power vacuum left by a weak and confused international community. Americans, now more than ever, need to hear a clear narrative of why Arab democrats need our support in their struggle against radicals. To put it more bluntly, what the Obama administration may need -- both to turn the tables on its critics at home and its enemies abroad -- is to opt for a "don't let the terrorists win" response. To be sure, it's a crude sentiment -- and one that can be used to justify nearly anything, as it was under the Bush administration. But today it actually makes sense. It has the added virtue of being not only good policy for the Arab world, but good politics back home.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 12/09/2012
-Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Turkey Is No Partner for Peace

How Ankara’s Sectarianism Hobbles U.S. Syria Policy

The United States is counting on Turkey to help oust the Syrian regime and bring about a pluralistic government. But Ankara, whose Sunni leadership sees Syria’s conflict in sectarian terms, is not on board.

By Halil Karaveli

Erdogan, right, attends the funeral of two pilots shot down by Syria in June. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

At first glance, it appears that the United States and Turkey are working hand in hand to end the Syrian civil war. On August 11, after meeting with Turkish officials, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement that the two countries’ foreign ministries were coordinating to support the Syrian opposition and bring about a democratic transition. In Ankara on August 23, U.S. and Turkish officials turned those words into action, holding their first operational planning meeting aimed at hastening the downfall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Beneath their common desire to oust Assad, however, Washington and Ankara have two distinctly different visions of a post-revolutionary Syria. The United States insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. But Turkey, which is ruled by a Sunni government, has come to see the conflict in sectarian terms, building close ties with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated Sunni opposition, seeking to suppress the rights of Syrian Kurds, and castigating the minority Alawites -- Assad’s sect -- as enemies. That should be unsettling for the Obama administration, since it means that Turkey will not be of help in promoting a multi-ethnic, democratic government in Damascus. In fact, Turkish attitudes have already contributed to Syria’s worsening sectarian divisions.
Washington is pushing for pluralism. In Istanbul last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon emphasized that “the Syrian opposition needs to be inclusive, needs to give a voice to all of the groups in Syria . . . and that includes Kurds.” Clinton, after meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, stressed that a new Syrian government “will need to protect the rights of all Syrians regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity.”   

It is unclear, however, whether Ankara is on board. As it lends critical support to the Sunni rebellion, Turkey has not made an attempt to reach out to the other ethnic and sectarian communities in the country. Instead, Turkey has framed the Syrian conflict in alienating religious terms. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), a Sunni conservative bloc, singles out Syria’s Alawites as villains, regularly denouncing their “minority regime.” Hüseyin Çelik, an AKP spokesperson, claimed at a press conference on September 8, 2011, that “the Baath regime relies on a mass of 15 percent” -- the percentage of Alawites in the country. Such a narrative overlooks the fact that the Baath regime has long owed its survival to the support of a significant portion of the majority Sunnis.

The AKP has antagonized not only Syria’s Alawites but also its Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that his country would resist any Kurdish push for autonomy in parts of northeastern Syria, going so far as to threaten military intervention. The Turkish government’s unreserved support for the Sunni opposition is due not only to an ideological affinity with it but also to the fact that the Sunni rebels oppose the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds.

Meanwhile, the AKP has sought to sell its anti-Assad policy to the Turkish public by fanning the flames of sectarianism at home. The AKP has directed increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevis, and accused them of supporting the Alawites out of religious solidarity. The Alevis, a Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking heterodox Muslim minority that comprises approximately one-fifth of Turkey’s population, constitute a separate group from the Arab Alawites. But both creeds share the fate of being treated as heretics by the Sunnis.

At the September 2011 press conference, Çelik insinuated that Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, an Alevi Kurd who leads Turkey’s social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), based his opposition to Turkey’s entanglement in the Syrian civil war on sectarian motives. “Why are you defending the Baath regime?” he inquired. “Bad things come to my mind. Is it perhaps because of sectarian solidarity?” In a similar vein, Erdogan claimed in March that Kiliçdaroğlu’s motives for supposedly befriending the Syrian president were religious, stating, “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend.”

On the face of it, the Obama administration’s positions on Syria are consistent with those of Turkey. In their meetings in Turkey, Clinton reiterated that Washington “share[s] Turkey’s determination that Syria must not become a haven for [Kurdish] terrorists,” and Gordon underlined that the United States has “been clear both with the Kurds of Syria and our counterparts in Turkey that we don’t support any movement towards autonomy or separatism which we think would be a slippery slope.” Such statements may comfort the Turkish government, but the preferred U.S. outcome of a Syria where all ethnic and religious communities enjoy equal rights would nonetheless require accommodating the aspirations of the Kurds to be recognized as a distinct group. And that is precisely what Turkey deems unacceptable. Consider the fact that Turkey has persecuted its own Kurdish movement for raising the same demand; in the last three years, Ankara has arrested 8,000 Kurdish politicians and activists to keep the nationalist movement in check.

None of this is to suggest that the United States should not work with Turkey, especially since Saudi Arabia, the other main participant in the effort to bring down Assad, has even less of an interest in promoting democracy. But to have a reliable partner in the Syria crisis, Washington will have to pressure Ankara to rise above its ethnic and sectarian considerations.

The United States should therefore confront these differences in approach head-on and encourage Turkey to see the benefits of pursuing a more pluralistic policy. Despite its fear of Kurdish agitation at home, Turkey would stand to gain from establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with the Kurds in Syria, like the one that it has come to enjoy with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. Indeed, representatives of the leading Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have urged Ankara to forge a similar partnership. In an interview with the International Middle East Peace Research Center, Salih Muhammad Muslim, the leader of the PYD, said that Turkey should get over its “Kurdish phobia.” Erdogan’s government seems reluctant to do so, fearing that by reaching out to Syria’s Kurds and other minorities, and accepting the idea of a pluralistic Syria, Turkey would encourage its own ethnic and religious minorities to seek constitutional reform and equality. But if Turkey allows ethnic and sectarian divisions in Syria to further spiral out of control, those divisions may spill over its own borders.

By now, it should have dawned on Ankara that shouldering the Sunni cause to project power in its neighborhood courts all kinds of dangers. Framing Turkey’s involvement in Syria in religious terms leads Sunni Turks to imagine that they are waging a battle for the emancipation of faithful Muslims from the oppression of supposed heretics. This fanning of sectarian prejudice against Syria’s Alawites naturally engenders hostility toward religious minority groups in Turkey, leading the country’s already fragile social fabric to fray.

There is a bigger risk here, too. The AKP’s pro-Sunni agenda in Syria threatens to embroil Turkey in the wider Sunni-Shiite conflict across the Middle East. By taking on Iran’s ally, Turkey has exposed itself to aggression from the Islamic Republic. In a statement last month, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s chief of staff, General Hasan Firouzabadi, warned that Turkey, along with the other countries combating Assad, can expect internal turmoil as a result of their interference. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel group considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, stepped up its attacks over the summer, notably staging a major offensive in Turkey’s Hakkari Province, which borders Iran and Iraq. Iran denies any responsibility for the PKK attacks, but Turkish officials assume that Tehran is involved and that PKK militants cross into Turkey from Iran.

Until now, the Sunni bent of Turkish foreign policy has suited the geopolitical aims of the United States, as it has meant that Turkey, abandoning its previous ambition to have “zero problems” with its neighbors, has joined the camp against Iran. That advantage quelled whatever misgivings U.S. officials may have harbored about Turkey’s sectarian drift. But if the United States achieves, with Turkish help, its strategic objective of ousting Assad, it will need a different kind of Turkey as its partner for what comes after.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Affairs on 11/09/2012