A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Violent Attack in Libya: A test for all Muslims

Like many around the world I woke up today to the sad news of the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, three of his staffers and ten Libyan security guards who battled to protect the US Consulate in Benghazi last night. The savage attack was reportedly in reaction to the leaked movie called "Innocence of Muslims" released in the US about the Prophet of Islam Mohammed. I watched the leaked 10-minute segment of the video, and I was shocked, not only at the offensive content portraying the prophet as a pedophile, homosexual and a philanderer, but also at the low quality of the production, and the poor acting performance.  The video, at least in my mind, was clearly leaked right before the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, maybe in an attempt to inflame the passion of the irrational and fanatic few. The same kind of radical Muslims that took to the streets during the Danish cartoon furore and pastor Terry Jones' threat to stage a Quran burning event. So far, there is still wide confusion about the source of the video, since the early reports of an Israeli-American filmmaker were deemed untrue.

No matter what the movie’s content is, the reaction that it elicited was equally as offensive and savage. Egyptian mobs stormed the courtyard of the US embassy in Cairo, tore the US flag and erected an Islamic flag. Discontent continues to foment in Egypt today in clashes with security forces, amid a deafening silence from the Egyptian government, and Islamist president Mohamed Morsy. However, the more heinous attack occurred next door in Libya last night, where armed gangs of about 100 people reportedly launched a barbaric offensive on the US consulate.  Once again, Muslims around the world are at a loss of words, trying to defend the peacefulness of their religion. We, as Muslims, have to stand steadfast against the cancer of extremism and the fossilized modes of thinking that have gnawed at the core of our societies. Acts of violence only perpetuates the pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes that Islam is a religion of war, and Muslims as radical fanatics thirsty for blood at the slightest act of provocation.

The Prophet of Islam himself was a peaceful, rational, and a patient individual, who preached temperance and condemned acts of foolish anger. I am not a religious scholar, but I was taught early on about well-known hadiths (Prophet’s deeds and sayings), in which he proclaimed that: "The strong man is not the one who can overpower others; rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry." Where are these extremists from the prophet’s teachings? And does the prophet need their protection from every little incitment? These acts that solely seek to inflame the passions of Muslims are a true test for all of us to channel our angst towards displaying a positive view of Islam. 

Muslims continue to define their religion in terms of what it is not, instead of focusing on reaching out to other faiths and traditions to build the foundations for true inter-cultural dialogue. Others have engaged in the facile trope of blaming all the ills of the Middle East and the Muslim world on United States foreign policy. There are indeed too many shortcomings of a myopic US foreign policy in the region with its double standards, moral relativism and narrow focus on geo-strategic interests. However, we, Muslims, have to look inward and take action against the increasing, worrisome trend of extremism. Failing to educate and emancipate our own in the name of religion, while engaging in acts of abject violence to prove the virility of Islam does harm to Muslims and the religion we espouse.

This religion of peace has been bastardized to suit the purpose of those that resist and fear change. Contextualization of texts is blasphemous, adapting Quranic and Hadithic teachings to modern day realities is apostasy, and granting some basic individual and group freedoms is un-Islamic. People have not fought despots to succumb to the tyranny of the fanatically religious and misguided few. They've transgressed the limits of God and they are the blasphemers as they continue to spew hatred and sow the seeds of discord in Muslim land.

Ambassador Stevens was optimistic about the future of Libya, where he traveled with relatively little security. He interacted with average Libyans, and was integral to the US and NATO mission during the rebels’ push to topple Gaddafi. Libyans were and are grateful for the US, France and the UK for their assistance in their liberation. Ambassador Stevens would have been particularly pleased to see the many Libyans that took to the streets today in Tripoli and Benghazi to condemn the terrorist attack on the US consulate. Friends in Libya are all ashamed and unnecessarily apologetic about the vile attack on the consulate. They have demanded, along with other Libyans, stricter response from their government against armed extremist groups in their midst. Libya still struggles with internal issues of security and order, as many violent extremist groups are trying to hijack Libya’s path towards political progress. Now more than ever, Libya needs more assistance to steady its course towards a transition to democratic rule. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Stephen Zunes’ Statement about Morocco, Israel, & the Western Sahara.

*This article appeared in Muftah on September 10, 2012.

In a recent interview for Al Jazeera English with Mark LeVine, Professor Stephen Zunes provides a scathing critique of Morocco as an occupying force in the Western Sahara. Zunes, a well-respected scholar of international relations, goes so far as to compare Morocco’s 1975 annexation of the Western Sahara to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Zunes declares:

"Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory. Morocco, like Israel, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally built a separation wall through the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law. Morocco, like Israel, is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations."

While a number of those claims are factual, Zunes’ statement is also deceptively one-sided, simplistic, and fails to account for the political and historical dimensions of the conflict.

The Western Sahara has been the subject of controversy, international litigation, and bellicose conflict since 1975 when Spanish colonial forces left the territory. The territory was thereafter divided into two, with one part controlled by Morocco and the other by Mauritania.

Immediately after Spanish decolonization, a rebel Sahrawi group in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria led by the POLISARIO (Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) and supported by the Algerian government, declared the territory's independence and unilaterally proclaimed the establishment of the Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic.

After Mauritania's withdrawal from the territory, Morocco quickly assumed control over the southern part of the Western Sahara. A decade of violence ensued, lasting most of the 1980s, between the POLISARIO and Moroccan forces. The conflict ended in 1991 with an UN-brokered cease-fire and a planned UN-sponsored referendum for self-determination, which has yet to take place.

As Zunes states, it is true that the UN has labeled Morocco an occupying force in the Western Sahara. It is also true that, during the long years of military conflict with the POLISARIO, Morocco built a fortified defensive wall called “berm” in the region.

However, in his interview, Zunes never mentions Algeria's influence over the conflict or its consistent rejectionist stance toward any solution to the stand off. Algeria has been the POLISARIO's principal benefactor since the beginning of the conflict in 1975, and has maintained a closed grip on the POLISARIO camps in Tindouf.

While talk of the referendum has diminished because of Morocco's plans to grant autonomy (though not independence) to the Sahrawi region, Zunes squarely blames Morocco for the referendum's failure. This allegation is misleading, and, again, fails to provide an accurate picture of the process.

Moroccan opposition to the referendum centers on two issues: the difficulty in determining voter eligibility, and Morocco's historical ties to the region.

The concept of self-determination has long dominated discourses on the Western Sahara conflict. As such, the conflict's resolution has depended on identifying who qualifies as Sahrawi, and is, thereby, eligible to vote in the referendum.

Modern theories on self-determination lack the basic parameters for defining a "people" entitled to self-determination or autonomy. As with most conflicts, the dizzying number of UN resolutions on the Western Sahara conflict fail to demarcate the contours of identity, while clearly positing self-determination as a sine qua non to self-governance.

This approach to the Western Sahara also reflects the UN's lack of historical knowledge about the territory. Such knowledge could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues at stake for all parties to the conflict.

Historically, the Western Sahara was not demarcated and may local tribes paid allegiance to different powers. Sahrawi tribes, which had their own internal governance structure, led an autonomous life and paid allegiance to the central authority of the Makhzen, or monarchy, in Morocco.

This power-sharing structure is similar to what Morocco is offering the Western Sahara today - under the autonomy plan, the region's residents would pay allegiance to the Moroccan king while leading an autonomous life within their tribes.

In his interview, Zunes refers to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion, which sought to determine whether the Western Sahara was “terra nullius” (no man’s land) during Spanish colonization. On October 16, 1975, the Court rendered its opinion, finding no evidence “of any ties of territorial sovereignty” between the Western Sahara and either Morocco or Mauritania. It found, however, that there were “indications of a legal tie of allegiance between the Moroccan Sultan (King) and some of the tribes in the territory.” It is on this basis that Morocco annexed the territory, albeit unlawfully according to the UN.

Zunes provides scant detail on the ICJ's decision and its historical context. Indeed, the interplay of power within the Makhzen between bled al-makhzen (territories firmly under state control in terms of rule and taxation) and bled es-Siba (territories paying allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan, but not necessarily paying taxes) is often de-emphasized both by analysts of the conflict and referendum advocates in the international community.

In North Africa, territorial boundaries are colonial creations, which were drawn with no respect for the nomadic tribes that roamed sub-Saharan region. The UN referendum seeks to define the Western Sahara based on colonially imposed demarcations of the region. What Zunes and other analysts fails to understand is that Moroccan opposition to this approach lies in its complete disregard for the Makhzen's historical ties to the Western Sahara.

The Western Sahara conflict will remain a contentious issue in the Maghreb region, especially in the absence of strong international pressure, Morocco's intransigence regarding its historical ties to the region, and Algeria's realpolitik, rejectionist posture. Arguments about Moroccan occupation of the territory, while valid from the point of view of international law, do not do justice to the intricate issues of identity, sovereignty, and history that define the conflict. In order to resolve the Western Sahara standoff, negotiators must reconcile these issues with the geopolitical aspirations of the involved parties.