Crescent Moon, Waning West

November 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The decline of Western power in the Arab world

ShowImage.ashxAFTER a slow summer, the Arab spring has turned into a turbulent autumn. The past few days have seen the gruesome end of Muammar Qaddafi, the more edifying spectacle of an orderly and open election in Tunisia (see article) and the death of Saudi Arabia’s ancient crown prince Sultan amid demands for the kingdom to modernise faster. Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country, is poised to hold its first proper election next month. Revolts and civil strife continue across the region, from Syria to Yemen and Bahrain.

For the West, whose ties to Arab dictators once gave it great clout in the Middle East, events in the region have spun way out of control.

That fact was underlined this week by the Iraqis’ insistence that all American forces must quit the country by the end of the year. Yet the West should not regret this turn of events. The power that it has lost in the short term should, in the long run, be replaced by influence born of good relations with decent governments.

On balance, the Arab world is in far better shape than it was less than a year ago. For sure, the economies of all the countries affected by the democratic upheavals have slumped. That is true even of Tunisia, which has the best education and skills in the region. But dictatorship and state control suffocated the Arab economies—even those awash with oil. Once Arab countries’ borders open up and their governments become accountable to their citizens, they are likely to grow faster. And that will not happen until they have put in place a system of government that gives a far wider degree of participation than before.

It is beginning to happen. Tunisia has led the way. Egypt promises to follow, though the generals in charge of its transition have been horribly inept of late, raising fears that the country may slip backwards to disorder or military control. But a parliament is due for election next month. It is to choose an assembly that may take a year or so to write a constitution providing for the election of a new Egyptian president. Libya, too, should have elections within a year.

Everywhere risks lapsing into bouts of chaos and strife. But this trio of north African states looks set to give a democratic fillip to other Arab countries, including those such as Syria that seem destined for a time to be soaked in blood while they strive for liberation.

The rise of political Islam is not necessarily cause for alarm among democrats in the West and the Arab world. In Tunisia an Islamist party, Nahda (“Renaissance”), that was brutally banned for decades has won a stunning victory at the polls. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers are likely to do well too. In Libya the Islamists may also be gaining ground. This rattles secular-minded Arab liberals and many well-wishing Westerners.

But a more open and tolerant brand of political Islam better suited to the modern world seems to be emerging, especially now that its proponents must compete for the favours of voters who admire the Islamists’ hostility to corruption, but dislike the sectarian and conservative attitudes that many of them expressed when they were underground.

No one can be certain that if Islamists gain power they will give it up at the ballot box, but secular rulers sometimes fail that test. And, on the whole, the threat of religious extremism with which strongmen used to justify repression has not materialised. Barring a few ungoverned pockets in Yemen and on the fringes of the Sahara, al-Qaeda has failed to benefit from the democratic wind.

It’s a local show these days

The strength of these revolutions is that they have been almost entirely home-grown. Those in Egypt and Tunisia had no outside help.

Syria’s brave protesters are on their own and may, in time, triumph.

Libya’s new rulers could not have succeeded without NATO’s bombers, but the absence of Western ground troops and of proconsuls telling the locals what to do has been in salutary contrast to what happened in Iraq eight years ago, where democracy was crudely imposed on an unprepared people (see Lexington).

After the deaths of some 150,000-plus locals and around 5,000 Americans and other foreigners, Iraq has a freely elected government. But it has not developed the habits of tolerance between communities and the independent institutions that underlie all truly successful democracies. A decade of American hard power has been less effective than a few months of peaceful protest in setting countries on the road towards representative government.

Partly because of the Iraqi adventure, America—at least its foreign policy—remains heartily disliked by Arabs across the region. That is only slightly less true under Barack Obama than it was under George Bush. America’s unpopularity stems partly from its backing of Israel and the continuing humiliation of the Palestinians, partly from its willingness to use force to get its way and partly from its history of supporting useful Arab dictators. Prince Sultan’s death may make this last point particularly salient. If the reactionary Prince Nayef becomes the crown prince and de facto regent, America may struggle to maintain an alliance with him alongside friendships with the Arab world’s nascent democracies.

Yet in the decline of Western power lie the seeds of hope for healthier relations in the future. Although the Arab world’s revolutionaries in general, and the Islamists in particular, are unlikely to hail the West as a model, they seem to be moving towards open political and economic systems. Nobody in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya is arguing for a Saudi Arabian, Iranian or even Chinese model. Arab students, businessmen and tourists in their thousands still choose to go to the West for their studies, their deals and their fun.

The prospects for Western influence in the Arab world are good. But in the future it will be won through education, investment and, when requested, advice on building up institutions. Such levers do not work as quickly as those that were forged from deals with unpopular and unstable dictators. But, in the end, they are likely to prove more reliable.

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Ten Lashes

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

cane

“Corporal punishment is as humiliating for him who gives it as for him who receives it; it is ineffective besides. Neither shame nor physical pain have any other effect than a hardening one.” 

~ Ellen Key

You hop in the car, fumble with the keys, start the engine and prepare to take that first sip of coffee as you back out of the driveway. This is the way that many Americans start their morning as they set out to work for the day. For most people, getting on the road safely and reaching your destination on time are the primary concerns. However, for the women of Saudi Arabia, there is a new concern to be considered before getting behind the wheel.

This past week Saudi Arabian national Shaima Ghassaniya was found guilty of driving without the permission of her government. Her punishment, which would be a mere slap on the wrist in America for the same “crime,” is flogging. By definition the word flogging means, “To beat severely with a whip or rod.” Ghassaniya is to be flogged a total of ten times with her punishment to undoubtedly serve as an example for other women in the kingdom that dare to drive.

There is no law on the books in Saudi Arabia that says women are legally barred from driving. However, there is a law that states anyone driving on the roads of Saudi Arabia must have license. The catch is that women are not issued drivers license. Denying a woman the right to drive means that she must rely on a male relative, or sometimes even a male chauffer, in order to travel. For women who are single, getting around without a car is often a nightmare.

The driving laws seem archaic compared to the full driving rights that women enjoy in neighboring Arab countries, like Kuwait and Oman. “I would be lost without my car,” laments Raina Ahmed who is a schoolteacher in Kuwait, “I have to drive myself to and from work every day. I also use my car to take my children for all of their doctor’s appointments.” Female drivers in other Arab countries share the roadways with their male counterparts and are often safer drivers.

The news of the Ghassaniya’s flogging punishment comes on the heels of another announcement that could have been promising for the women in the region. King Abdullah recently announced on state-run television that Saudi Arabian women have been granted the right to vote and run in local elections. However, they will have to wait until the year 2015 to exercise these newly given rights. Perhaps, by then, they will be able to drive themselves to the ballot box.

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Clinton Backs Saudi Drivers

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Andrew Quinn

2011-06-22T173003Z_1967305151_GM1E76N047F01_RTRMADP_3_SAUDI-DRIVING

Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh June 22, 2011. Saudi Arabia has no formal ban on women driving. But as citizens must use only Saudi-issued licences in the country, and as these are issued only to men, women drivers are anathema.

REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday praised “brave” Saudi women demanding the right to drive, but she tried to avoid an open breach with a close U.S. ally by saying the Saudis themselves should determine the way forward.

The Saudi driving ban has been publicly challenged in recent weeks by women who have risked arrest to get behind the wheel. Clinton, one of the world’s best-known advocates for women’s rights, has come under mounting pressure to take a stand.

“What these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right, but the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them,” Clinton said in her first public comments on the issue.

Clinton’s carefully phrased remarks appeared to be an attempt to balance her deep-held beliefs with the need to keep smooth relations with Riyadh in an era of huge political changes sweeping the Middle East and concern about oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have seen their traditionally close ties strained in recent months as popular protests erupted in a number of Arab countries including Bahrain, where Saudi security forces were called in to restore order.

Prior to her remarks, the State Department had said that Clinton was engaged in “quiet diplomacy” on the driving ban — drawing a fresh appeal from one Saudi women’s group for a more forceful U.S. stance.

“Secretary Clinton: quiet diplomacy is not what we need right now. What we need is for you, personally, to make a strong, simple and public statement supporting our right to drive,” the group, Saudi Women for Driving, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

Clinton did just that on Tuesday, although she repeatedly added the caveat that the issue was an internal matter for Saudi Arabia to sort out.

“This is not about the United States, it is not about what any of us on the outside say. It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government,” she said.

Clinton raised the issue in a telephone call with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Friday and said the United States would continue to support full universal rights for women around the world.

Clinton said mobility was important for women to both find jobs and help care for their families.

“We will continue in private and in public to urge all governments to address issues of discrimination and to ensure that women have the equal opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potential,” she said.

Saudi Arabia — a key U.S. security ally and important oil supplier — is an absolute monarchy which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam. Religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

Besides a ban on driving, women in Saudi Arabia must have written approval from a male guardian to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

Riyadh is also an important factor in both Yemen and Syria, where protests have challenged autocratic leaders and left Washington trying to balance its support for democratic reform with concerns over stability and security in the region.

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The Birth of the Dental Spa

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

dentistA trip to the dentist often results in some degree of pain or a jolt of fear-induced adrenaline, as the various instruments required in dentistry buzz and whir inside your mouth. For this reason, a lot of people fear going to the dentist and put it off until the pain of a tooth ailment forces their hand. Fear of dental treatment is something universal regardless of whether you live in the USA or somewhere like Kuwait. However, if you reside in the latter, a new type of dental facility has been born that will not only facilitate repairing your teeth but will also soothe your senses at the same time.

Currently known in the Middle East as “dental spas”, the facilities are a hybrid of a regular spa and a dentist’s office. And they can be found all over Kuwait and in neighboring Arab countries. A typical dentist’s office looks a bit banal with its minimalist décor and stench of disinfectant floating in the air. However, a dental spa is something extraordinary that is evident the moment you walk in the door. The reception area of a dental spa is the most notable with plush sofas and heavily decked out tables. You won’t find a stack of outdated magazines on the tables in a dental spa, but what you will find are aromatherapy candles, natural stones and knick-knacks scattered about for the sole purpose of creating a relaxing atmosphere. Depending on the poshness of the dental spa, you will also find an espresso or cappuccino machine complete with ornate glass teacups perfect for sipping.

When it comes to services, once you get behind the façade of the waiting room and staff decked out in colorful matching uniforms, it really is just the same as any other dental office. However, in the Middle East at least, the services are far more state-of –art than what you would find in an ordinary government run dental clinic which is heavily subsidized by the state and offers the bare minimum of dental services. In a dental spa, close attention is paid to both repairing teeth and giving clients that Hollywood smile. Dental implants, whitening sessions and lumineers are just a few of the specialized services offered in a dental spa. And while you won’t be treated to a foot massage or even a back rub, dental spas do succeed in numbing a bit of the anxiety that results from visiting the dentist.

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Let’s Stop Blaming America

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dr. Khalid Al Nowaiser

We are still the prisoners of a culture of conspiracy and inferiority

I am a proud and loyal Saudi citizen, but I am tired of hearing constant criticism from most Arabs of everything the United States does in its relations with other countries and how it responds to global crises. No nation is perfect, and certainly America has made its share of mistakes such as Vietnam, Cuba and Iraq. I am fully aware of what happened when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unprecedented abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. However, what would we do if America simply disappeared from the face of the earth such as what happened to the Soviet Union and ancient superpowers like the Roman and Greek empires? These concerns keep me up day and night. It’s frustrating to hear this constant drumbeat of blame directed toward the United States for everything that is going wrong in the world. Who else do we think of to blame for our problems and failures? Do we take personal responsibility for the great issues that affect the security and prosperity of Arab countries? No, we look to America for leadership and then sit back and blame it when we don’t approve of the actions and solutions it proposes or takes.

For instance, if a dictator seizes and holds power such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi, fingers are pointed only at America for supporting these repressive leaders. If the people overthrow a dictator, fingers are pointed at America for not having done enough to support the protestors. If a nation fails to provide its people with minimum living standards, fingers are pointed at America. If a child dies in an African jungle, America is criticized for not providing necessary aid. If someone somewhere sneezes, fingers are pointed at America. Many other examples exist, too numerous to mention.

I am not pro-American nor am I anti-Arab, but I am worried that unless we wake up, the Arab world will never break out of this vicious and unproductive cycle of blaming America. We must face the truth: Sadly, we are still the prisoners of a culture of conspiracy and cultural inferiority. We have laid the blame on America for all our mistakes, for every failure, for every harm or damage we cause to ourselves. The US has become our scapegoat upon whom our aggression and failures can be placed. We accuse America of interfering in all our affairs and deciding our fate, although we know very well that this is not the case as no superpower can impose its will upon us and control every aspect of our lives. We must acknowledge that every nation, no matter how powerful, has its limitations.

Moreover, we conveniently forget that America’s role is one of national self-interest, not to act as a Mother Teresa. Every great nation throughout history has used its power and gained ascendancy in order to serve its own strategic interests. America is not just its foreign policy. We must not forget who promoted education and respected learning, who took on research as a way to discovery, who made the airplane that carries us to our destination and the luxurious car we want to own, who created the Internet and developed social media that has transformed the way we do business and interact with one another, who conducted the scientific research that has saved lives and treated cancer, renal failure, AIDS, malaria, poliomyelitis, and who discovered genetic engineering. When man walked on the Moon, it was an American. Who did Japan turn to for help after the devastating earthquake and tsunami? America that led and organized the international relief effort of the Red Cross. Who do people turn to for support when their leaders seek to brutalize them? Who organized NATO air cover and saved the Libyan city of Benghazi from certain destruction by Qaddafi’s brutal armed forces?

Anyone who is a student of history knows that America is simply doing what all other civilizations before it have done for thousands of years, which is to protect and further its own self-interest. The Greek civilization could not have lasted had it not served its own interests, and the same applies to the Persian, Roman, and Chinese civilizations. All of these civilizations put their own welfare before all others, and by doing so, they strived to achieve great things. The truth is that no nation can ever become great without understanding this reality. Indeed, the Islamic civilization has been through horrible and cruel phases. Hideous events that send goose bumps up one’s spine can be extracted from Islamic history, such as that of As-Saffah (The Shedder of Blood), founder of the Abbasid Caliphate, who took out the remains of the caliphs of Bani Umayyah, one after the other, but found nothing but the tip of a nose from the remains of Hisham Bin Abdul Malak. He took him out and whipped him. He then crucified and burned him and sprinkled his ashes in the wind, without mercy, oblivious to any religious or moral restraints.

There are many other similar examples. But does this mean that Islam is unholy? Of course not. Does this imply that Islamic civilization only had Saffahs? Absolutely not. Islamic civilization has given the world brilliant examples in the areas of art and education and promoted a culture of forgiveness, peace and love. However, today, we as people, not Islam, are in desperate need of an intellectual earthquake, a cultural tsunami to get us back on track, to revive Islam’s cultural intellect and combat our undeniable inferiority complex.

The Holy Qur’an states Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. He has the power to change them, but He prefers that they change with their own will power which He respects.

What we are seeing now in the Arab streets is a new hope and a step forward to change what is in ourselves. I remain very optimistic because we have now begun to realize that simply blaming the United States for our problems will not help us progress toward great personal freedoms. Our enemy is not America but an inferiority complex from which I am sure the Arab world with its rich culture and history will eventually recover.

— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah. He can be reached at: Khalid@lfkan.com and/or Twitter (kalnowaiser).

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  Arab News.com

Could Bin Laden Become An Arab Icon After All?

May 26, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

With A Little Help From A Foe

By Stephanie Doetzer

The reactions following Bin Laden’s death are a disaster. A person’s death may sometimes be good news. But somebody’s assassination never is. A commentary by Angela Merkel is happy. Hillary Clinton is happy. Barack Obama claims that justice has been done and hundreds of Americans celebrate cheerfully right next to Ground Zero. Hmm. Is this the Western world that likes to think of itself as an epitome of civilisation?

Bin Laden has never been the Arab icon that many Westerners believed him to be. And during the last four months of Arab revolutions Al Qaida has become even more irrelevant. But the fact that he was shot by American Special Forces on a “kill mission” changes the picture. He now has a chance of becoming an icon after all.

To be sure, many Arabs aren’t even interested in Bin Laden’s death. There are far bigger issues to care about these days and the young revolutionary crowd doesn’t have time for a man they perceive as a mere Western obsession. They didn’t care while Bin Laden was still alive, and why would they now?

German chancellor Angela Merkel comments on the death of Bin Laden in front of the press:

Epitome of civilisation? Chancellor Angela Merkel was chided in Germany for expressing “joy” of Osama Bin Laden’s death Others, however, do care quite a lot. They started caring when the news of the killing broke and changed the tone in which Bin Laden is being talked about. While most Western media prefer to use the word “killing” rather than “assassination”, Arab media go for either ightiyaal, meaning political murder, or istishhad, which is martyrdom said to lead straight to paradise.

More than ever, Bin Laden is now referred to as “Sheikh Osama Bin Laden”. In most Arab countries this is a sign of respect – or at least, it’s not the kind of word one would use to describe a heretic who has besmirched religion and misused Islam for his own goals.

Complex picture of Arab realities

In secular media, formulations are neutral and almost indifferent, but in many more religiously conservative outlets the tone is clearly one of mourning. But how to write about this for Western media without distorting the complex picture of Arab realities with its many shades of grey?

Does it make sense to quote the most outrageous reader’s comments from Al Jazeera Arabic’s website? From “May God have mercy on his soul and let him enter paradise” to “If he’s dead, then we’re all Bin Laden”?

Or is it more appropriate to quote those Arabs who say exactly the kind of stuff that Westerners want to hear? Like the commentators in Egypt’s Al Wafd newspaper who call Bin Laden a “black spot in Islamic clothes” and hope to close a dark chapter of Arab history.

There has been plenty of both. What is new is that people who are neither Salafi, nor particularly religious now defend Bin Laden as a person. They don’t approve of attacks on civilians, but they do consider him a fighter for a just cause rather than a criminal. And not because of 9/11, no. It’s because of his criticism of the Saudi royal family, because of his speeches about Palestine and because he allegedly relinquished his family’s fortune to lead a life of poverty.

Those who praise his principles and ‘good intentions’ don’t hate the West, nor are they likely to ever turn terrorist. But they feel an immediate urge for solidarity when one of them – and that’s what Bin Laden remained after all – gets shot by the special forces of a country of which they have ceased to expect anything good.

What may sound offensive to most Westerners, doesn’t shock many Arabs. After all, Bin Laden’s image in the Arab world has never only been that of a ruthless mastermind of international terrorism. He was the man that you could see on those Al Qaida videos from time to time, until they were replaced by audio-tapes. A man with a calm voice, a charismatic face and a captivating way of speaking classical Arabic – which is not exactly what the Western world got to see. Outside the Arab world, Bin Laden was reduced to fear-inspiring sound bites without context.

Front page of a Pakistani newspaper covering the death of Bin Laden

Is Bin Laden merely an obsession of the West? Al Qaida believes in violence as a political means, and, writes Doetzer, “the problem with many Western powers is that they believe in similar things, but without ever openly acknowledging it” By listening to him directly, Arabs could disagree, discard his ideas and compare him with their official leaders they liked even less. Unlike most Westerners, they knew Bin Laden wasn’t only talking about US foreign policy and Israel, but also about climate change and food security. And that he sometimes came up with suggestions for a US withdrawal from the Middle East that weren’t completely preposterous.

Emotional mishmash and contradictions

But events in these days also show that many Arab Muslims never quite figured out their own take on Bin Laden: Within one conversation, the same person may well claim that Bin Laden was on the payroll of the CIA, then deny his involvement in the 9/11 attacks – and end up by saying that the attack could be morally justified given the American atrocities on Arab soil.

It’s usually an emotional mishmash without much moral reflection, but a high dose of an intra-Islamic sense of unity that allows downplaying crimes committed by one’s own group by pointing to those committing by others.

The mechanism is strikingly similar to what Americans and Europeans do when they celebrate the extrajudicial killing of an individual and justify their reaction by highlighting his crimes.

It’s yet another example to show that the current enemies may have much more in common than they would ever admit: The problem with Al Qaida is that it believes in violence as a political means. The problem with many Western powers is that they believe in similar things, but without ever openly acknowledging it.

Watching those YouTube videos of Americans cheering in front of the White House feels a bit like a Déjà-vu. Last time, it was some Palestinians cheering the killing of Israeli settlers. And if I remember it rightly, Westerners were appalled by the pictures.

US Americans celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden in front of the White House in Washington

An eye for an eye:

Doetzer criticises the extrajudicial killing of Bin Laden, arguing the victory of Al Qaida’s ideology would have been more sustainable had it been achieved in court those chanting “U.S.A.” and “We did it” in New York and Washington don’t sound fundamentally different from Islamists chanting “Allahu Akbar”. And in both cases, it’s not the words that are problematic; it’s the spirit behind them.

A myth rather than a man

Both are tearing at each other for double standards, but neither truly believe in the rule of law. After all, things could have been done differently: Bin Laden could have been captured and put on trial. We could have listened to his version of events and might have found out what kind of person he was.

Instead, all we have are a couple of pictures: Bin Laden as a young fighter in Afghanistan, and then the man with a turban and a greying beard. It’s not much. And it allows him to be a myth rather than a man who has lived until a couple of days ago.

Had he died of kidney failure instead of the bullets, it may indeed have been a blow to Al Qaida.

But as things are, American Special Forces did him a huge favour by making him a martyr in the eyes of many. “I swear not to die but a free man” he said on an audio tape released in 2006.

He got what he wanted – with a little help from a foe.

Source: Qantara.de

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