Paradigms Lost: Middle East’s Trends and Drivers

Salem 2014_0Four years after the uprisings that broke the mold of the old Middle East, 2015 promises to be another year of tumultuous change, notes Paul Salem, the Middle East Institute’s Vice President for Policy and Research. The eruptions of 2011 unleashed decades of pent-up tensions and dysfunction in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural spheres; these dynamics will take many years, if not decades, to play themselves out and settle into new paradigms and equilibriums.

In 2014, four Arab countries—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—sank decisively into the ranks of failed states with no longer any effective central authority over the expanse of national territory, he notes:

ISIS arose as the largest radical threat in the region’s modern history, challenging political borders and order and proposing political identities and governance paradigms. Sunni-Shi’i conflict intensified throughout the Levant and reached Yemen; an intra-Sunni conflict also pitted supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

arab reformEgypt rebuked its previously ruling Islamists and elected a military officer as president who has prioritized security and economics and cracked down heavily on dissent. Tunisia’s secular nationalists and Islamists found a way forward with a new constitution and inclusive national elections. Jordan and Lebanon have managed to maintain stability despite massive refugee inflows. A cautious Algeria maintained its status quo, reelecting an aging president to a fourth term. And Morocco continued its experiment in accommodation between a powerful monarchy and a government led by the moderate Islamist PJD party….

2015 promises to be no less turbulent than 2014, as domestic and regional dynamics continue to play out, says Salem:

The Battles of the Youth Bulge

Prime among these is a demographic youth bulge of historic proportions that burst the precarious piping of the old political and socioeconomic structures and will continue to overwhelm the social and institutional orders of the region for some time. Two thirds of the population is under the age of 30 and their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years. …

Power Shift toward the Populace

Advances in technology and communication have led to a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful, and demanding populace, both as communities and individuals. They have access to the global web of information and communication; they can build virtual societies and communities of identity and interest; and they can mobilize and coordinate. …

Failing and Resurging States

ARAB BAROMETER LOGOTwenty percent of Arab states have failed in the past few years, others are teetering, some have adapted, and still others have regrouped to reassert old power. The failed states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—have in common conditions of low national unity, but they have failed for different reasons. .….

Paradigms Lost

The Arab uprisings of 2011 heralded that the past paradigms had broken, but this created a scramble for new paradigms, and to date no new paradigm has emerged as paramount. The old paradigm of repressive authoritarianism and quiescent populations, in exchange for socioeconomic development, broke down in the face of slow and unequal economic growth, growing popular empowerment, and worsening government corruption and repression. The initial uprisings inarticulately threw up outlines of a paradigm of democratic, pluralistic, and socially just government. The Muslim Brotherhood proposed a paradigm of Islamist government. The military in Egypt is proposing a neo-nationalist paradigm in which order and economic growth are paramount. The Moroccan king might be on the road to evolving a constitutional monarchy. Lebanon and Tunisia are managing precarious but pluralistic and power sharing political systems. ….

Three years ago, Arab public opinion was resonant with a loose paradigm of popular empowerment and accountable and inclusive government; today it is a bickering Babel of competing paradigms. Until the region settles on a governance paradigm—as Western Europe did, albeit after centuries of conflict—this cacophony of visions and ideologies will continue to bedevil the region.  In the long run as this century develops, democratic and inclusive government—whether as constitutional monarchy or republican democracy—will probably be the only sustainable paradigm.

Political Islam and Secular Nationalism

islamists nytThese have been the best of years and the worst of years for political Islam. ….. Although nationalism has lost much of the ideological clarity it had several decades ago, in the face of strong Islamist narratives that seek to rearrange community and society along religious lines, there has been a resurgence in some countries of attachment to the broad outlines of nationalism that base community on attachment to the nation-state and the constitutions, institutions, and laws that it promulgates.

State and Civil Society

Civil society remains a key deficit in the Arab world. It played a key role in pushing back against an Islamist hegemony and pushing forward a political transition in Tunisia. It is essential in keeping the complex Lebanese social system together and inching forward. It played a key role in Egypt and other countries in 2011, demanding a new way forward. But in countries where civil society was weak, it was either overtaken by better organized Islamist movements, more powerful sectarian divisions, or a resurging state. In the attempt to rebuild national stability, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, it is important to realize that civil society is an ally in reclaiming public space and social power from divisive Islamist or sectarian narratives, and is a key factor in creating stable and sustainable state structures. Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria were deeply skeptical of civil society and preferred Islamist organizations to fill up social space. This ultimately weakened the state and weakened state-society cohesion. In the long run, a healthy civil and political society provides the living link between state and society and provides the bedrock for state stability and the main antidote for radical movements….

Looking for White Swans

The region will continue to furnish the world with well more than its fair share of crises. The West took about five centuries to transition from medieval to “modern,” working through its wars of religion and battles to establish national identities and state borders, transform worldviews, try out radical ideologies, and eventually evolve toward stability, coexistence, and liberal democracy. This only occurred after two devastating world wars and genocide in the twentieth century. The Middle East started its profound transformation roughly a century and a half ago. It will take more than a few years to work itself out.

In the short term, extrapolating into 2015, the time horizon might be close enough to venture a few estimates. First, I do not mean to imply that the Middle East will be defined only by crisis. The majority of countries in the region, from Morocco to Iran, will likely maintain basic stability while working through various political, social, and economic challenges. Only a minority, including at least Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, will predictably continue in deep crisis….

Iran’s regional policy, led by the Revolutionary Guards, continues to expand and founder at the same time. In the past three years, Iran’s proxies in Baghdad and Damascus have lost control of their countries and control now only rump states. In Syria, Iran had to send Hezbollah and its own commanders, trainers, and valuable resources to save the Assad regime from collapse; this effort has stretched Hezbollah and Iran, but Iran has shown no serious interest in real political change in Damascus as a way out of the crisis. …The trouble for Iran—and indeed its neighbors—is while its influence is expanding in the region, its policies are leading to the collapse of once-functioning states and to explosive sectarian tensions.


Misconceptions of political Islam?

qanta ahmedSocial media has facilitated the recruitment of Western Muslim youth to Isis which had “captured the global imagination” through a strong and well-produced online campaign, says human rights activist Dr Qanta Ahmed (left).

“What Isis has done, and they have exceed al-Qaida in this, is take really spectacular control of the narrative of their organization while sharing that story through masterful use of all mechanisms of the media,” she told The Guardian.

But differentiating between Islam and Islamism is vital to discussions about how to tackle militants.

There was a clear distinction between the two, she said, but the fear of being labeled “Islamophobic” is shutting down debate and preventing people from condemning Islamism.

qanta bookIslamism promotes explicit totalitarianism and the belief that Islam historically had incredible global and geopolitical glory that should be restored through violence, jihadism and barbarity, said Ahmed, the author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom.

“Islamism is more dangerous than nationalism as it is an ideology that steals oxygen from Islam and is colored and injected with the language of a great faith, and in it are implications of religious purity which is dangerous.”

The terminological baggage used to refer to Islamist parties and movements is overly broad, ambiguous and loaded with negative connotations, says analyst Soumaya Ghannoushi :

It designates actors at opposite ends of the Islamic spectrum with visions of Islam and politics that are at loggerheads, from the violent anarchists of Isis and al-Qaeda and the quietist Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who subscribe to a puritanical reading of Islam and firmly reject democracy and its procedures as non-Islamic, to those like Ennahdha and Justice and Development party, who seek to legitimize it within an Islamic reference frame, adopting it as their political methodology, and seeing no contradiction between their faith and human rights, public liberties or individual freedoms. When referring such political parties, it may be more accurate to speak of “democratic political Islam.”

Islamic political movements are byproducts of two interconnected projects, Ghannoushi writes for The Huffington Post:

The first, is modernization in the region, with all its tensions, successes, failures and consequences, foremost among which urbanization and mass education. They are both a result of and a response to the modernization process. Contrary to common wisdom, Islamist parties tend to do better in modernized societies, such as those of Turkey and Tunisia, than they fare in more traditional ones like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The second is the nation state. Islamic political parties are crucially influenced by their local environments and shaped by them. Their concerns and priorities remain largely national even if they speak of the notion of the “ummah,” which is in reality a matter of moral and emotional solidarity, nothing more.

“Islam celebrates diversity,” says rights activist Ahmed. “Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Islam understands we are joined to do good and collaborate with our fellow man, to enhance societies by serving in any way including volunteering and being part of a pluralistic liberal community. These values are essential to believing Muslims.”

“Whenever it comes to religion, all of us are slightly irrational as we have a special attachment to our beliefs, but it is not irrational to refuse to enable a totalitarian ideology that seeks to reverse all kinds of gains in the world made through pluralistic democracy.”


ISIS’ Islamism is rooted in Saudi Wahhabi creed


For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, David Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.

This approach is at odds with the more mainstream Islamist and jihadist thinking that forms the genealogy of Al Qaeda, and it has led to a fundamentally different view of violence. Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful.

“It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”

“Violence is part of their ideology,” said Haykel, who spoke on the issue at the National Endowment for Democracy this week (above). “For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.”

Islamic State ideologues often deem anyone, even an Islamist, who supports an elected or secular government to be an unbeliever and subject to beheading, Kirkpatrick adds:

“This is ‘you join us, or you are against us and we finish you,’ ” said Prof. Emad Shahin, who teaches Islam and politics at Georgetown University. “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”

Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly.

“There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said.


Saudis a liability in fighting ISIS ideology


An official State Department photo of the September 11 meeting in Jeddah between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, posted on Flickr, could be a metaphor for the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, says Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It is out of focus, he writes for the New Republic:

Why such a photo was chosen for Flickr, along with a single (in-focus) close-up of Kerry and the Saudi monarch, can only be a matter of speculation. One obvious possibility is that the U.S. side was upset with the attendance — indeed, the prominence — on the Saudi side of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one-time long-serving ambassador to the United States, later head of Saudi intelligence, now adviser and special envoy to the king as well as secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council (NSC). A fuzzy photo might have served to downplay his involvement…..

Saudi Arabia regards itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and as such sees itself as existing in an existential struggle with Iran for dominance of this world. The centuries old Sunni/Shiite divide, which has opened up dangerously since the 1979 Iranian revolution, is compounded by the political Islam of the Brotherhood, which views Arab monarchies such as the House of Saud as anachronisms at best but, more dangerously, un-Islamic.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Time reports:

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. ….. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

But a growing and influential faction within western foreign policy makers mistrust the Saudis, who espouse a hardline interpretation of Islam and are suspected of being the source of many of the group’s funds and fighters, writes FT analyst Borzhou Daragahi:

“Saudi has shown itself as being barely able to contain terrorism within its borders and certainly a sizeable chunk of fighters, recruiters, funding, support, preachers for Isis has come from Saudi, the country,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi researcher and analyst. “The preaching of jihadist ideology is in Saudi, not Egypt or elsewhere.”…

Taken together the interlacing networks of animosity, mistrust and fear among the spectrum of forces resemble the warring factions in Lebanon rather than the Allied front that invaded Europe on D-Day. That creates ample points of weakness for Isis to press in an effort to turn its enemies against each other or at least corner them into inaction.

Isis already has a record of being closely tuned to the sectarian and political rivalries among its enemies and using them for its own benefit. Many of its seemingly baffling moves, such as its extreme sectarian rhetoric or its high-profile beheading of westerners, make sense as attempts to inspire its enemies to take actions that strengthen its own hand. By drawing Iran, Syria and Shia militias deeper into the fight, or goading larger numbers of American troops to be deployed they would draw more recruits, justify their jihadi world view and gain legitimacy.

“Isis has studied the situation,” Mr Jiyad said. “It knows there is much rivalry among the forces fighting it. Isis are strategic, they are not thugs. Their leaders are smart and know how to sow discord between its enemies.”

A leading Iraqi expert on ISIS told CNN that Obama may already have revealed more about U.S. plans than he should have to the militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The mistake was announcing too much of the strategy, and this was a free gift to al-Baghdadi to prepare and counter what has been revealed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, who has studied jihadist groups and their evolution in Iraq over the past decade.

“Help is needed from Saudi and Egyptian religious scholars in fighting ideology with ideology,” al-Hashimi said. “This is key to extracting ISIS from the roots.”

But another analyst argues that “the West must overcome its reluctance to offend the Saudis, and speak out much more forcefully against the insidious influence of Wahhabism and the ideological support it offers violent extremism.” “The Arab gulf states must choose a side. They cannot continue to finance terrorism and use fundamentalism as a policy tool and yet claim to be fighting it abroad. Saudi Arabia is both a sponsor and a target of jihad — it should wish to be neither,” Ahmad Samih Khalidi writes for the New York Times:

This may well be the real test of the West’s leadership. And if the United States and its allies instead amble into another major military conflict in the Middle East without realistic objectives and a clear-eyed plan to achieve them, they will have already failed.

Opposing democracy at home and abroad: will Saudis stand up to ISIS?


Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest country in the region. It has by far the largest air force, equipped with hundreds of U.S. and British advanced fighter aircraft. With its oil reserves and stature as the birthplace of Islam, the kingdom is an inevitable target for the rolling brigades of ISIS, notes Karen Elliott House, author of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future.

So why aren’t well-trained Saudi pilots flying bombing runs over Mosul or against ISIS command and control centers in Syria? The problem is a failure of will even in pursuit of their own interests, she writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Some wealthy Saudis have provided financial support to ISIS. Some of these funders may be seeking to buy insurance against an ISIS victory, but others apparently share a desire for a Wahhabi resurgence in a kingdom that they see as corrupt and unjust—a kingdom in which royal rulers put their own profligacy ahead of the needs of Allah’s flock. A Wahhabi resurgence that originates from outside the kingdom but is supported inside the kingdom is a serious threat—and another reason to confront the terrorist army. Internal Saudi support for the “caliphate” will only increase if ISIS grows.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, the authorities in Saudi Arabia have pursued an increasingly repressive course, seeking to maintain the status quo in an environment where expectations are markedly changing. In this context, Saudi Arabia faces a series of daunting challenges, including high youth unemployment, an education system ill-suited to meet the needs of a modern economy, an inability to diversify from a hydrocarbon-reliant economic system, and the growth of political extremism. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is taking a more active role in the Middle East in an effort to tamp down nascent reform movements and in response to challenges from Iran, its principal rival in the region.

Join a discussion with three leading experts who will discuss the key issues relating to Saudi Arabia’s opposition to democracy within and beyond its borders.

Sponsored by the International Forum for Democratic Studies


Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Karen Elliott House, Author, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future

Jean-François Seznec, Visiting Associate Professor, Georgetown University

moderated by

Christopher Walker, Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies

Monday, September 22. 12:00 p.m. to 2 p.m. National Endowment for Democrac, 1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C.

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, September 18.

Twitter:Follow@ThinkDemocracyand use #NEDEvents to join the conversation.

About the Speakers

Bernard Haykelis professor of Near Eastern Studies and the director of the Transregional Institute for the Study of the Middle East and North Africa at Princeton University. He was formerly associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at New York University. Haykel’s primary research interests center on Islamic political movements and legal thought. Currently, he studies the history and politics of the Arabian Peninsula and Islamism. He has published extensively on the Salafi movement in both its pre-modern and modern manifestations. Haykel is currently editing a volume with Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix entitledSaudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, to be published by Cambridge University Press in November 2014. He is also the author ofRevival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani, (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Karen Elliott-Houseretired in 2006 as Publisher ofThe Wall Street Journal, Senior Vice President of Dow Jones & Company, and a member of the company’s executive committee. She is a broadly experienced business executive with particular expertise and experience in international affairs stemming from a distinguished 32-year career as a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and editor. Her most recent book isOn Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines-and Future (Random House, 2013.

Jean-François Seznecis a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. His research centers on the influence of political and social variables on the financial and oil markets in the Arab-Persian Gulf. He is focusing on the industrialization of the Gulf and in particular the growth of the petrochemical industry. He is also a senior advisor to PFC Energy in Washington, DC. He has published and lectured extensively on petrochemicals and energy-based industries in the Gulf and their importance in world trade. He is interviewed regularly by national TV, radio, and newspapers, as well as by foreign media.