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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"France’s 9/11" and ISIS Grand Strategy Shift

This article appeared in the Huffington Post.

As Paris regained its freedom from Nazi Germany in 1944, a defiant Charles De Gaulle uttered his famous: “Paris, Paris outragé! Paris brisé! Paris martyrisé! mais Paris libéré!” –(Paris outraged, Paris Broken, Paris martyred, but Paris freed). Alas today, Paris, Beirut, Tunis, Sousse, Syria, Iraq, stand broken and violated by the scourge of the radical apocalyptic cult of ISIS. The sense of freedom is becoming ever so elusive for some, and all but a memory for others, especially as ISIS attacks over the past 48 hours have effectively signaled a fundamental change in strategy from guerilla warfare mainly in Syria and Iraq, “lone wolf” attacks by ISIS-inspired terrorists, to small cell organized terrorist attacks on soft targets.

ISIS has struck at the heart of Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad. Together with the downed Russian jet in the Sinai, ISIS has launched a bloody campaign of terror, and a war of attrition against the world. The massacres at the French capital come ten months after the Paris Hebdo attacks and are bloodier in their human toll. In what can be dubbed as France’s 9/11, more than 129 people have been killed, and hundred others injured in multiple coordinated attacks. The scale and scope of the attacks in Paris show a great deal of operational sophistication, and training with a great capacity to evade state surveillance in a country already under a heightened state of alert.

In their communiqué, ISIS claimed the attacks against “crusader France” and pledged more acts of terrorism against other western powers. Many have opined about the organization’s strategy and goals, and their cult of death that perpetrates act after act of barbarism against Muslim and non-Muslims alike. ISIS’s own publications provide a glimpse into the nefarious ideology. In a widely circulated manifesto, ISIS advances a stark Manichean view of the world divided into two diametrically opposed camps: “camp of Islam” exemplified by their extremist doomsday worldview, and a “camp of kufr”, epitomized by the western world writ large. Using fossilized selective readings of Islamic scripture, ISIS takes aim at what they call the “grayzone” of existence between the two camps, between Islam, Muslims and the West. Faced with this perverted uncompromising view and ISIS shift in strategy, world powers must also adapt their approach to the Middle East and in their respective countries.

ISIS shift towards complex, small-cell terrorist attacks against soft targets necessitates intensive police work, border security, and a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. It also requires extensive outreach to local Muslim communities where such radicalism takes place. A thorough examination of the causes of why ISIS has managed to turn local youth into terrorists in sizeable numbers is warranted. This is not legitimizing terrorism, but an analytical examination into the sources of socio-economic alienation that Muslim Europeans feel is responsible for the ease of radicalization in the suburbs, prisons, and neighborhoods all over Europe.

In the Middle East, a strategy to defeat ISIS would require a comprehensive solution to the maelstrom in Syria that would bring Russia, the US, and regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate on a common military strategy. The current sheepish non-interventionist US strategy in Syria has not borne tangible results. While ISIS is feeling the pressure of Russian and US limited operations, those measures could be much more effective if coordinated around local proxy forces already fighting ISIS. Local paramilitary groups like the Peshmerga must benefit from greater logistical and military support, especially in light of recent successes against ISIS in Sinjar. Furthermore, a new coordinated military strategy has to strike at the heart of ISIS oil trade, which continues unabated in eastern Syria and western Iraq with a reported 30000 to 40000 bpd. In addition to military options, the world financial powers must stem the flow of money that have long sustained terror cells all over the world. There remains significant financial support for terrorism and terrorist causes from donors in the Gulf. Money trails must be investigated, jettisoned, and prosecuted.

ISIS presents a formidable challenge for Muslims to wrestle their religion from the claws of a reprehensible cult of death that speaks in the name of Islam. Beyond statements of condemnation and false analogies, Muslims have to engage in an auto-critique of the particular texts that promote such acts of bloodshed on a large scale beyond the perfunctory statements linking Islam to peace and humanism. New avenues for Ijtihad into novel readings of the sacred texts, even questioning the sources of jurisprudence that have been accepted without logical reasoning in contradiction to the higher humanistic goals of the religion, and contemporaneous realities. This would present a discursive alternative to the extremist Islamist views that are frankly condoned by a silent minority of Muslims. Indeed, what is needed is a new synthesis that deals explicitly with passages in the Quran and the Hadith on war, apostasy, and violence. This synthesis would constitute a counter narrative that rejects ISIS radical Manichean distinction between the camp of Islam and the camp of unbelief, and embraces diversity and interfaith dialogue across different faiths and traditions.

A counter-ISIS strategy also has to take into account the political and socio-economic factors behind radicalism in the Muslim world. The persistence of authoritarianism in most of the Muslim Arab countries provides little hope for Muslims to undertake a free and open discussion on the roots of violence in the religion. Discursive resistance against extremism inevitably requires pluralistic societies, not a bevy of dictatorial regimes that have coopted religion, and have censored any meaningful debates of Islam and politics.

As Europeans and the world tackle the atrocities of ISIS, the challenge will be to shun any discourse of collectivization that holds the majority of Muslims accountable for the sins of the minority radicals. The attacks should bring about more solidarity among all of those affected by terrorism in the West and the Muslim world. There are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world with diverse interpretations, rituals, and traditions. The Muslim way of life is under pressure and tremendous scrutiny, but it is high time we reclaimed the religion from those that hijacked it in the most heinous manner.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Morocco’s Islamist Party Has Just Made Another Major Breakthrough

*This article was published in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage on September 16, 2015.

The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) was undoubtedly the biggest winner in Morocco’s recent local elections. The party with the lantern logo lit up the urban polls in its first major electoral test since winning a slight plurality of votes in the legislative elections of 2011.
In a region where other Islamists have failed to capture state and society, either by choice or by coercion, Moroccan Islamists of the PJD have achieved yet another electoral breakthrough, while operating within a system limited by a shadow government of royal advisers and vast royal discretionary powers. Unlike other Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa, and perhaps learning from the experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, the PJD does not seek a change in the configuration of the regime; instead, its members are focused on exerting a new practical and inclusive style of governance predicated on gradual “passive” revolutionary societal and state change.
The September 4 local elections featured a high voter turnout, with 53 percent of the 14.5 million registered voters casting their ballots for some 31,503 seats in urban and rural municipalities across Morocco . More than 30 political parties fielded candidates, but the main contest was among the Islamist PJD, which has lead the coalition government since 2011, the pro-palace Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), and the historic independence party of al-Istiqlal. The PAM fielded more candidates than any other party, especially in rural areas that account for more than 76 percent of all electoral districts in Morocco. However, the pro-palace party, created by a close adviser to king Mohammed VI, managed to only win 21 percent municipal seats in the kingdom, ahead of al-Istiqlal’s 16 percent of seats and the PJD’s 15 percent.
Overall, the PAM won 5 of the 12 regional councils (a regional council is comprised of city councils) compared with the two councils won by the PJD. However, inside these regional councils, the PJD successfully challenged incumbents in most of the big cities in Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakech, the capital city of Rabat, Kenitra, Meknes, Safi, the northern cities of Tangiers and Tetouan, the southern port city of Agadir, and notably Mohammedia, where a PJD candidate defeated PAM secretary general Mustapha al-Bakouri and Fes, where the PJD also unseated mercurial mayor and head of al-Istiqlal Hamid Chabat.
In total, the PJD won 25 percent of the urban municipal seats, to PAM’s 19 percent, and al-Istiqlal’s 17 percent. Most of the major gains for the PAM and al-Istiqlal were in rural districts, highlighting the sharp urban-rural divide in Morocco. The former is generally more educated and arguably less corruptible, while the latter is predominantly illiterate and possibly more susceptible to venal electoral tactics.
The magnitude of the PJD’s electoral breakthrough is best illustrated in contrast to its performance in the 2009 elections, during which it won a meager 5.5 percent of seats. In six years, the party of the lantern has tripled its electoral tally of communal and municipal seats. The PJD victory is particularly symbolic in Fes, a city long synonymous with the ruling political elite in Morocco. Such electoral victories mark a clear departure from key pillars of the ancien regime with its nepotistic and corrupt practices.
The PJD’s electoral gain was due largely to its formidable campaign machine and organization in urban centers. The party ran a clean and orderly grassroots campaign, with a vast mass mobilization network of supporters. In contrast, reports of fraudulent electoral practices plagued PAM and al-Istiqlal, reportedly exchanged money and gifts for vote pledges. The campaigns were especially fierce on social media where each party attempted to cast a positive image of its electoral promises.
As an incumbent of sorts, the PJD campaigned on a record of socio-economic stability, justice, and transparency under the campaign slogan “Our vote is our chance to continue with the reforms.” The party was extremely effective at using elaborate memes,  YouTube videos, Facebook posts and tweets of nifty infographics to illustrate its alleged successes, notably decreasing inflation, reducing the state budget deficit, and working to combat poverty and unemployment. In the days leading up to the elections, the PJD generated significant buzz. Wherever its candidates campaigned, the party commanded huge crowds: PJD leader and president of the coalition government Abdelilah Benkirane delivered his stump speeches to tens of thousands of enraptured supporters.
The PJD has decisively changed the political calculus in Morocco, presenting a governance alternative unparalleled in its style and substance in post-independence Morocco. PJD’s long-term strategy is indeed a Gramscian passive revolution, operating within the political system and rules of the political game set by the monarchy in order to mitigate the authoritarian features of the state, while working on the major socio-economic issues plaguing the country. Many Moroccans now speak of a discourse of honesty and transparency and are increasingly less cynical about the political scene.
In a July 2015 interview I conducted with Abdelilah Benkirane, the rather jovial statesman showed great confidence in his party’s track record and their chances in local elections. Benkirane framed his leadership and that of the party within the contours of a pragmatic strategy that accepts its lower status within the political system. According to Benkirane, the alternative options of “rejection and isolation,” perhaps in a reference to the banned Islamist Justice and Charity party (al-‘Adl wal Ihsane), failed to yield meaningful results. Instead, Benkirane is assertive that the PJD made the right choice as early as 1992 when the party decided to join the political scene.
The Islamist leader is content working within the confines of the constitutional rules of the Moroccan political system, featuring a two-level executive branch, “one at the level of his majesty, and the other at my level as the head of the government. I am obligated to take his view on everything, but the king isn’t obliged to take my opinion since he is the head of the state, commander of the faithful, in charge of the military, and the justice system.”
The PJD’s approach is positively pragmatic and is primarily geared to maintain state stability, while targeting socio-economic problems. For instance, Benkirane claims that, since leading the coalition government in 2011, his party has helped marginalized segments of society including widows, university students, retirees and people with disabilities.
The PJD functions within a circumscribed public and constitutional sphere. However, its long-term goals highlight what Asef Bayat terms “refolutions,” incremental societal change through reforms within the institutions of the current regime, rather than the insurrectionist attacks on state and society favored by Islamists elsewhere. The PJD’s strategy involves not just winning some measure of state power, but also influencing society through institutional, intellectual and moral means. The PJD has taken part in elections within an authoritarian context in order to position the party within the political system, contest the rules of the game, control some parts of the government and adopt meaningful socio-economic reforms. In this regard, the PJD’s strategy is a product of playing “games in multiple arenas,” as it is simultaneously working within the rules and seeking to change them.
Although Morocco remains a carefully engineered political edifice, there has been a palpable change in the political scene and discourse. The PJD is restoring some popular confidence in the ability of political parties to provide real solutions to societal problems, especially among the marginalized and alienated segments of the population in Morocco. The regime is firmly entrenched and shows no signs of deep democratic reforms, but Moroccans, at least those who voted in the 2011 legislative elections and the recent local elections, seem to favor good governance, transparency and social justice discourse over deep democratic institutional reforms. For now, the PJD has to capitalize on its recent gains ahead of the legislative elections in 2016, which will undoubtedly prove to be a bigger test than the local polls.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tunisia's "Will of Life"

** This is my latest piece for the Huffington Post's World Post.

Since the publication of the article, Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency in the country for 30 days. In a televised speech Essebsi cited reasons of national security and stated his concern that the government "would collapse" if there is another terrorist attack. Tunisia is a nascent democratic experiment, and such premature state of exception and the vast autocratic measures contained in the emergency powers could be detrimental to greater institutional development, individual freedom, and press liberty.

Article in the Huffington Post

Early twentieth century Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasem al-Shabbi’s magnum opus poem “the Will of Life” is a passionate call to his countrymen to embrace life in their fight against French colonialism and oppression. Parts of al-Shabbi’s poem are also found in the Tunisian national anthem, and the first stanza reads as follows:

“If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fail
For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air
At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare..”

 A century after al-Shabbi’s poem, a minority of radical Tunisians have instead embraced death and have sought devastation in their quest to establish a murderous fictitious Islamic state. The whole world seems to be firmly in the crosshairs of radical Islamists inspired by the extremist ideology of the Islamic State. The attacks on a beach resort in Sousse that killed 38 people were part of three terrorist attacks in three continents. The first was a suicide bombing inside a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait as worshippers were gathering for the Jumu’a prayer, killing 27 people, while the other attack took place at a gas company in France where a seemingly disgruntled employee decapitated his employer, and injured two others. These acts are not the work of lone wolves, or isolated acts of madness. The radicalism of the ISIS’ death cult has been the unifying ideology in all three acts. Despite the air strikes and active fighting in Iraq and Syria, ISIS murderous strategy to wreak “havoc” in the region through preaching and inspiration constitute a real threat for much of the MENA, and the Mediterranean region.

Tunisia could have tightened security measures after the March 18 attacks on the Bardo museum that killed 21 people, but it is difficult to prevent such attacks on soft targets. The government has reportedly beefed up security protocols around hotels and tourist complexes, and some tourists have even complained of heavy security presence around the same resort that witnessed the attacks. However, recent reports also raise serious questions about Tunisian security readiness and response. Tunisian government and security forces have been criticized increasingly for their failure to adopt a comprehensive security strategy.

A comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy would have to start at the borders with Libya. The neighboring Maghreb state has for the last year descended in utter chaos with more than a thousand active armed militias are fighting in an endless war of attrition. Libya has also been a major hub for terrorist training. The Bardo museum gunmen received training in Libya, and early reports suggest that the Sousse terrorist may have traveled illegally to Libya where he trained on the use of assault rifles.

More importantly, there is a malaise inside the Tunisian society, a nascent democratic state, with deep societal cleavages and an identity battle between secular and religious trends within the country. Tunisia is at once a ray of hope in the menu of Arab uprisings failures, but a society that has contributed more than 3000 foreign fighters to the Islamic State. The legacy of secular policies, the repression of the religious impulse in the country in post-independence Tunisia, and the fragile security situation in the post-Arab spring have produced deep struggles between forces of secularism, religion, and radicalism. The electoral victory of secular Nida’ Tounes in October 2014 may have also served to radicalize more young Tunisian inspired by takfirist ideologies of the IS and al-Qaeda. These struggles are apparent in the complex identity profile of an increasingly violent minority of radical Tunisian youth. Seif-Eddine Rezgui, the gunman responsible for the Sousse attacks, is a case in point. The 24-year old electrical engineering graduate student, was an avid break-dancer, a member of a breakdancing club, and was arrested once for consuming hashish. However, reports also sketch another side of the gunman, who frequented radical mosques in Qairouan, made a number of public statements of commitment to Jihad, support for the Islamic State, and his favorite soccer team Real Madrid on his Facebook page.

The complex profiles of these young terrorists further complicate the task of security forces to combat these types of attacks. The profile of the gunmen also reflects the underlying socio-economic factors for radicalism among the youth. Unemployment and bleak economic prospects are key causes for joining the call of violent extremism as one alternative to clandestine migration to Europe. Alienation, and hopelessness of the youth explain the large number of North African fighters in Syria and Iraq. A “noble” cause in the extremist minds of these “soldiers of despair” is worth dying for, when there is nothing else to live for. 

The threat of radical Islamism is a scourge amongst all Muslim majority, and increasingly minority, societies. The rather successful nefarious use of social media by ISIS and extremist Islamists makes is difficult to prevent such attacks on soft targets. While these are the acts of isolated individuals, the fact that they are inspired by an ideology and a mode of violent thinking do not make them lone wolves as some argued. This radical ideology is in fact a cancer that has been metastasizing far too long, and is arguably the greatest and most pernicious threat facing the religion and people in the Muslim world. An effective strategy against radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world would be to confront head on these ideologies not only in terms of security protocols, and economic reforms, but also discursively. A discursive strategy that embraces peace, not war and devastation, and seeks life, not death, as al-Shabbi rhymed a century ago in Tunisia.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wahhabism is Islam's Greatest Threat

**(This article appeared on Muftah on January 10, 2015)

The attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has heightened debate and acrimony about Islam, Islamic theology, and the seeming propensity Muslims have to violence -  a perception that sometimes seems universally shared by non-Muslims, but which is belied by empirical studies.

It has also fostered the view that Muslims should somehow take to the streets and condemn, or worse, apologize for the actions of the few extremists in their midst. This expectation   emanates from deep frustration with the turbulent acts of violence in the last two days, which have confused and angered so many people around the world.

Logic dictates, however, that Muslims should no more apologize for radical Islamism, than Christians for radical Christian views or  acts of violence. Nor should Buddhists apologize and make amends for the action of Buddhist Rakhine extremists in Myanmar, who have engaged in ethnic cleansing against minority Rohingya Muslims. Nevertheless, Muslims must engage in a deep introspective look at the sources of radicalism in their midst. Like any other religious text, the Quran contains passages of war and violence. Without proper contextualization, however, these passages can become dangerous in the violent hands of radical Islamists, applying their fossilized religious interpretations.

Admittedly, Muslim majority countries face challenges that go beyond religion, and include political and socio-economic problems. The authoritarian edifice of most Middle Eastern states and the lack of appropriate venues for dissent have radicalized a generation of young Muslims in a quest to fight what many of them view as  unjust, and  un-Islamic governments. The deep sense of alienation and marginalization of the young generation of European Muslims is also of deep concern.

All this notwithstanding, however, the greatest threat to Islam is the relatively modern phenomenon of Wahhabism. A  cancer that has been allowed to fester and metastasize within Islam for several a couple of centuries.

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91) advocated a return to the example of the Prophet and the salaf (companions of the Prophet,) as a way to reform what he perceived at the time as a schism in Islam. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab especially abhorred the popular cult of saints and  idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which he believed cast divinity on humans and threatened  Islam's monotheism. He opposed Sufism and Shi’sm as heretical innovations (bid’a). Most dangerously, Ibn Abd al-Wahab called on Muslims to reject the scholarly exegesis developed over the centuries by successive madhahib (schools of jurisprudence). This call undermined the religious authority wielded by scholars in Muslim world, and would ultimately enable generations of self-proclaimed religious experts to interpret scriptures at will to fit their own political or individual interests.

For all of its reformist puritanical zeal, Wahhabism would have been relegated to a mere footnote in the history of the region, if it were not for a literal pact signed with the future founders of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has systematically financed and globalized Wahhabi, literalist interpretations of Islamic texts.  

Wahhabism's globalization has had profound effects on the rise of radical interpretations of Islam, outside the realm of learned theological hermeneutics.  It has fueled extremists from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden to ISIS, who have variously claimed the mantle of radical Islamic reform and engaged in an extremist takfirist war (a war against so-called apostates). This misguided and nefarious battle has, in turn, effectively bastardized the noble concept of greater jihad, as an inner struggle, and transformed it into a call for acts of terrorism.

Wahhabi thought bifurcates the world into two antithetical parts: the House of Islam and the House of Unbelief.  The former rests on a dogmatic, rigid understanding of Islamic theology. The latter is the enemy of Islam and consists of dictatorial Arab regimes, as well as moderate Muslims, among others. Wahhabi extremists prescribe violence against those in the realm of the unbelief,  in accordance with their  radical interpretations of Islamic texts.

Muslims today must reject this radical bifurcation and tackle head on those literalist, radical interpretations of Islamic  texts. Unlike what Ibn Abd al-Wahhab may argue, this task is not the responsibility of average Muslims. Rather it is  the work of honest, brave, and learned scholars of Islam and Islamic theology. In particular, passages in the Qur’an and Hadith, on war, apostasy, and violence are in need of new, unequivocal interpretations to fit the modern social and political realities of Muslim-majority states.

In their own ways, many Muslims have engaged in every day acts of resistance against these assaults on their faith. These include education, outreach, interfaith dialogue, and rejection of those amongst us who hold extremist Islamist views.  But we must also  tolerate positions that attack the holy in our religion. Unless we, as Muslims, develop tolerance, not necessarily acceptance, of negative discourses on  Islam, we will continue to cede ground to  radicals who seek to dictate the limits of the tolerable for Islam and all Muslims.

Acts of violence, faux rage, and self-victimization serve only to foster a negative image of our ability to solve the challenges facing our faith.  Islam has lasted and largely flourished for the last fourteen centuries. Surely, Allah, the Quran, and the Prophet do not need protection from anyone, let alone the most heinous and criminal of extremists and radicals.