The legitimate state of the Middle East

Does the absence of a culture of “settled rule” imply continued instability?

At a time when political unrest is spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Bahrain and other parts of the Middle East, here’s a passage from Deepak Lal’s In Praise of Empires.

In his enthralling history of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the modern Middle East, David Fromkin concludes that [the unfulfilled Allied hope that they were installing permanent successors to the Ottoman sultans in the new states they had created] was due to “a characteristic feature of the region’s politics: that in the Middle East there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on the rules of the game—and no universally shared belief in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.” This is part of a deep crisis of social and political identity, similar to one faced by Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire.

In this search for a political identity, Muslims are not helped by an age-old cultural trait. The empire which the Arabs created was a conquest society, and subsequent Islamic polities have never lost their militaristic nature. The great fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun saw the medieval Islamic polity he observed as consisting of a settled, nonpolitical society and a tribal state, either imported or imposed by conquest. Whereas the Chinese, for instance, in their cyclical view of history saw settled rule as the norm and a change of dynasties as the result of a loss of virtue of an old tired dynasty, the Islamic polity never accepted the notion of settled rule. Ibn Khaldun considered it effeminate. This has been the black hole of the Islamic policy from its inception.

The social ethos of the political culture of Islam (according to Shlomo Avineri) “is imbued with martial values and the spirit of the army” unlike any other existing culture. “In the Arab world, military rule is political legitimacy; it is the only authentic form of government which has ever emerged in the Arab world.” It makes “glory, honor, pride, form—the virtues of chivalry—into the prime motors of the social ethos.” The democratic constitutions imposed by the West in Egypt, Syria and Iraq were quickly overturned once the West’s representatives departed, and the traditional military form of government clothed in various new civilian hues and ideologies was reestablished. In the Middle East “the question ‘what is the army doing in politics?’ is never raised. Of course the army is in politics; this has been its business since Mohammed, so to speak.” No better example of the continuance of this cultural trait in Islamic countries is provided by the fate of the successor states of the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent—India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Their respective armies had a common heritage and training as part of the imperial Indian army. All three countries had similar Westminster-style constitutions at their independence. But only the two non-Islamic polities—India and Sri Lanka—have succeeded in maintaining them and keeping the army out of politics. [Lal, In Praise of Empires, pp88-89]

The public protests in the Middle East are essentially anti-Establishment. It remains to be seen whether the resulting political transformations will prove Professor Lal wrong.

Note: An earlier version of this post wrongly attributed the Avineri quote to Walter Russell Mead. The error is regretted. (It arose due to the ghastly practice of endnotes by chapter. It must be abolished.)

Sunday Levity: Tell me Khomeini wasn’t a Sikh

Did the Ayatollah qualify for a PIO card?

From Hooman Majd’s excellent The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran:

Some secular Persian intellectuals … reserve a special hatred for Ayatollah Khomeini, not just because he founded the Islamic Republic, but because to them he wasn’t even Persian. Since his paternal grandfather was an India who immigrated to Iran (to the town of Khomein) in the early nineteenth century, some Iranians feel that his “tainted” blood means that a true Persian was not at the helm of the revolution, the most momentous event in their country’s modern history, good or bad. And soon after that revolution, when the time came to change the symbol of Iran on its flag from the lion and sun (which the revolutionaries incorrectly associated with the Shahs), Khomeini himself chose a symbol among those submitted by artists—a stylized “Allah”—which is opponents, at least the more race-conscious ones, continue to insist bears a remarkable similarity to the symbol of the Sikhs.

Some of Khomeini’s enemies see it as proof of a foreign hand in the revolution, perhaps British because of their influence in India, or, worse, a secret conspiracy by an Indian religion to destroy Persia, and today, when Iranian exiles and even some inside Iran want to disparage him, they sometimes refer to him as Hindi (which happened to be his grandfather’s surname but is also Persian for “Indian”). One such Iranian in Tehran, when he found out where I was staying, insisted that I take a short walk in my neighborhood past the Sikh center of Tehran, a large white compound with a garden surrounded, naturally, by high walls. “Look at the logo on the gates of the walls, and then tell me that Khomeini wasn’t a Sikh,” he said. I found that there was indeed a Sikh center, right in my neighborhood, and the emblem on the gates I have to admit, does give one pause while viewing it in the Islamic Republic, where its own emblem is ubiquitous. But after a few moments reflecting on the coincidence of its uncanny similarity to the “Allah” of Iran, I moved on, reflecting instead on my compatriots’ love of and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. [Hooman Majd/The Ayatollah Begs to Differ pp168-169]

Khalsa and Iran
The Khalsa and the Islamic Republic

Related Links: With thousand testicles—the Vedic-Avestan divergence; and the ensuing discussion.

Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce

It’s not funny, actually

Richard Rhodes writes in Arsenals of Folly—The making of the nuclear arms race:

…during years of the high Cold War, there was always political capital to be earned from exaggerating the dangers or benefits of any particular nuclear strategy or weapons system. But even for those within the two governments with the best of intentions, trying to find security among the shifting and partly obscured maps of both sides’ evolving force structures led to convoluted and sometimes absurd conclusions.

Robert McNamara, for example, visited the Omaha offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff for a briefing about the US nuclear target list in February 1961, shortly after he became secretary of defense. McNamara was curious to compare the targeting-system criteria to a target known to have been destroyed, Hiroshima, burned out by a mass fire after a fifteen kiloton bomb, Little Boy, exploded 1,900 feet above the city center on 6 August 1945. This dialogue ensued:

Q.—McNamara—Have you applied your procedures to Hiroshima?
A.—Smith—Yes. 3 DGZs of 8o KT each.

That is, were Hiroshima still a target, the JSTPS would have identified three designated ground zeros (DGZs) within the city and would have assigned three nuclear weapons, each equivalent to eighty kilotons of TNT, to destroy them. Such overkill gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s notorious 1954 comment, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.” In the real world, one bomb of fifteen kilotons had been more than sufficient.[Arsenals of Folly]

The Italian militants in Waziristan

Managing cognitive dissonance, the Rawalpindi way

In Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia’s chronicles her journey from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province to its source in Tibet. It is part-travelogue, part-history book, part-commentary on contemporary society and completely readable. Here she is on the Pakistani side, trying to get close to the Line of Control.

Engaged to be married, (the soldier) is being sent to Siachen once he has returned me to Skardu. The tone in which he utters that name betrays his dread. All the soldiers hate it: the glacier where nothing else lives, the high altitude, the inhuman living conditions. They shave off their heads before they go, then slam on their caps and do not remove them until they get back to Skardu, such is the danger of frostbite. In Baltistan, Siachen is known cynically as the army’s Kuwait: ‘the soldiers are paid double, they get very rich,’ a jealous resident of Skardu tells me. But the shiny-cheeked officer protests at the unfairness of this statement: ‘We spend all our extra pay just on rations to make life bearable.’ he says.

‘What is the point?’ I ask. ‘Why are you doing it?’ He looks shaken, and hesitates before answering: ‘To serve my country.’

(Ever since their first foray into the valley of Kashmir in 1947, the army has been labelling the incursions of its own soldiers ‘militant activity’). In 1999, the army once again called the soldiers ‘Mujahideen’, but in Skardu, I meet a man who was employed during the war to cross the border and collect these dead ‘martyrs’. ‘That’s when we Baltis knew there was a war going on,’ he says: ‘wen we saw the bodies of our relatives.’ Even after India captured some of the ‘Mujahideen’, and proved that they were army soldiers, Pakistan continued to insist that the men were not ‘regular army recruits’. This was semi-true: most of those sent to die in Kargil were soldiers local to the disputed Northern Areas, and thus not part of a standard regiment. Forbidden to wear uniforms, disguised instead in tracksuits as militants, the soldiers were ill-equipped for war.

Then there was the ordeal of fighting their co-religionists. The Northern Areas is predominantly Shia—as is Kargil in India. ‘Wo bhi kafir hain [They too are unbelievers],’ a Sunni officer was rumoured to have shouted at a reluctant Shia soldier.’Shoot’.

The Punjabi officers threat Shias as Kafirs, and lies are peddled to young recruits, to make killing fellow Muslims bearable. During the journey from Skardu to Hamzigon, my shiny-cheeked escort draws a parallel with army operations in Waziristan: ‘Ninety-nine percent of the militants killed there by the Pakistan Army were non-Muslim,’ he says. ‘So?’ I ask, amazed. ‘They were Russian, Spanish, Italian,’ he says; ‘internal army reports have confirmed this.’ [Alice Alibinia/Empires of the Indus pp248-250]

Related Links: The book’s official website; and Jai Arjun Singh interviews Ms Albinia over at Jabberwock

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Samuel Huntington, RIP

He pointed out a geopolitical factor that remains politically incorrect to this day

“In this new world,” Samuel Phillips Huntington wrote in his 1996 book,The Clash of Civlizations and the Remaking of World Order, “local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Arguing that future conflicts will be sparked off by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology, he wrote that “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the faultlines between civilizations.”

From the time Professor Huntington’s essay was published in 1993, it became fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject this uncomfortable thesis. But that should hardly be surprising: it is still fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject the thesis of balance of powers, millennia after it was first articulated.

Professor Huntington was onto something when he held that “that cultural identities, antagonisms and affiliations will not only play a role, but play a major role in relations between states.” India, in his book, was the core state of what he described as the “Hindu” civilisation: a choice of words which caused many to reflexively reject his hypothesis. Yet shorn of the famously incorrect interpretation of the word “Hindu” as a religion in the Semitic mould, there is much to recommend his thesis.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview:

NPQ | Your colleague Amartya Sen at Harvard criticizes your civilizational thesis, saying that “identity is not destiny” and that each individual can construct and reconstruct chosen identities. He argues that the clash-of-civilizations theory suggests a “miniaturization of human beings” into “unique and choiceless” identities that fit into“boxes of civilization.” What is your perspective on citizens who have multiple identities?

Huntington | I think that statement by Amartya Sen is totally wrong. I never argued that, and I realize that people have multiple identities. What I argue in my book, as I indicated earlier, is that the basis of association and antagonism among countries has changed over time. In the coming decades, questions of identity, meaning cultural heritage, language and religion, will play a central role in politics. I first elaborated this idea over 10 years ago, and much of what I said has been validated during that time.

NPQ | How do people with multiple identities negotiate that?

Huntington | They work out accommodations, and that’s been done for the past two or three centuries, at least. When you have increased migration of peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, you develop a set of rules and language the larger society can accept and the minority community can accept.

The larger society has to recognize some degree of autonomy for the minority: the right to practice their own religion and way of life and to some extent their language. Many of the most difficult questions concerning the role of ethnic minorities centers on language. To what extent are they educated in their own language or in the national language? To what extent does the society formally or informally become a country of two national languages? Or is only one language used in the public proceedings, courts, legislatures, executive branch and politics? These, as we know, can become very tricky issues. [Amina R Chaudary/NPQ]

In other words, the rest of the world—especially the “core-states” of the Islamic world and also the European Union—has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century. The Indian model is by no means perfect. It might not even be considered satisfactory by many. But it remains among the better ones that can negotiate in a world where there is an unprecedented churning of peoples, languages, cultures and identities. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

Samuel Huntington passed away on December 24th, on Martha’s Vineyard, aged 81. Even before we finished reading all his books.

Praveen Swami’s book on the secret jihad in Kashmir

The Indian edition of a must-read book

Praveen Swami’s 2006 book India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004 is a book that you must read. Now, for reasons best known to the marketing department of its publishers, the international edition was priced out of reach of most people. Yet it is ‘most people’ who should read it, and not only scholars, academics and deep-pocketed specialists. That’s why the largely unheralded release of the Indian edition should be welcome. Here’s the introduction to the book:

This book explores the history of Jihadist groups in Jammu and Kashmir, documenting the course of their activities and their changing character from 1947 to 2004. Drawing on new material, including classified Indian intelligence dossiers and records, Praveen Swami shows that Jihadist violence was not, as is widely assumed, a phenomenon that manifested itself in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir only after 1988. Rather, a welter of jihadist groups waged a sustained campaign against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir from the outset, after the Partition of India. This book first analyses the ideology and practice of Islamist terrorism as it changed and evolved from 1947-1948 onwards. It subsequently discusses the impact of the secret jihad on Indian policy making on Jammu and Kashmir, as well as its influence on political life within the state. Finally, looking at some of the reasons why the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir acquired such intensity in 1990, the author suggests that the answers lie in the transfiguration of the strategic environment in South Asia by the nuclear weapons programme of India and Pakistan. As such, the book argues, the violent conflict which exploded in these two regions after 1990 was not a historical discontinuity: it was, instead, an escalated form of what was by then a five-decade old secret war.[Cambridge University Press/Foundation Books]

It’s available in bookstores as well as from the publisher’s website. The other book you should read is Chandrashekar Dasgupta’s War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48. While Mr Dasgupta’s book is focussed on the political milieu of that period, Mr Swami’s book documents Pakistan’s uninterrupted covert war since then. Both are slim, highly readable volumes and if you’ve not already read them, you ought to do it soon.

(And if you’ve got additional suggestions, share it with the others in the comments section)

Why terrorists are called “militants” in India

Owing to the Panthic Codes

It is not uncommon for the Indian media to call the terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir, or Assam or elsewhere “militants”. In India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004, Praveen Swami tells us why:

Indian journalists who reported on the struggle for the creation of a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, had traditionally used the terms “extremists” or “terrorists” to describe the character of the groups engaged in this enterprise. Khalistan groups subsequently imposed a set of codes on civil society in general, and on the media in particular, which among other things deemed the use of these terms impermissible. Known as the Panthic Codes, these rules of reportage were imposed upon the media at gunpoint. The term “militant”, now widely used in the Indian press to describe armed opponents of the State, was the product of this coercion. As a journalist who worked through that period, and because the term “militant” conflates non-violent political radicalism with specific forms of armed activity, I find its use unacceptable. [India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad]

Pragati August 2008: Should India send troops to Afghanistan?

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Making a leader
Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
Sam HFJ Manekshaw

Our voice in our history
Academic freedom, private funding and historical research
Jayakrishnan Nair

Letters
On whether or not India has a coherent foreign policy

FILTER
A survey of think-tanks
On China policy; Fixing the FATA; An Indo-Israeli alliance?
Vijay Vikram

IN DEPTH
Hold steady in Afghanistan
India is on the right track and it should stay that way
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

A bigger military presence is essential
…if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future
Sushant K Singh

The myth of Taliban tribalism
The folly of trying to set tribes against each other
Joshua Foust

IN PARLIAMENT
Monsoon Session 2008—What’s in store
Legislative brief
Sarita Vanka

ROUNDUP
When it’s good to slow down
The why and what next about rising inflation
V Anantha Nageswaran

The historical roots of the services sector
…calls for a strategy that plays to India’s strengths
Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta

Profiting from education
Resistance against commercialisation is fruitless
Atanu Dey

BOOKS
Four books about Pakistan
On nuclear proliferation, military politics and society
Nitin Pai

Niall Ferguson’s review of Terror and Consent

Fight hard, but according to the rules

Niall Ferguson has an excellent review of Phillip Bobbitt’s new book, Terror and Consent in the New York Times. Readers will find Bobbitt’s arguments on the need for a constitution-circumscribed but aggressive counter-terrorism strategy similar to The Acorn’s:

Bush’s instinct was not wrong. In this war, we do need pre-emptive detention of suspected terrorists; we do need a significant increase of surveillance, particularly of electronic communications; we do need, in some circumstances, to use coercive techniques (short of torture) to elicit information from terrorists. The administration’s fatal mistake was its failure to understand that these things could be achieved by appropriate modifications of the law. By doing what indeed was needed, but doing it outside the law, the administration undermined the legitimacy of American policy at home as well as abroad. Bobbitt is emphatic: all branches of government must act in conformity with the Constitution and the law.

To summarize: Bobbitt believes that there is a real war against terror; that civil liberties as previously understood may need to be curtailed to win it; that we must nevertheless fight it without violating our commitment to the rule of law; and that the United States cannot win it alone. This is certainly not a combination of positions calculated to endear Bobbitt either to the left or the right in the United States today. [NYT]

Bobbitt’s context is US foreign policy. But these arguments are largely applicable to constitutional democracies faced with having to fight wars against “networks” of terrorists and insurgents. The state cannot allow its legitimacy to erode even as it takes its fight to the “terrorists”.