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.)

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”

Excerpt:

No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir

More than self-determination for the disaffected, India as a whole needs a dispensation where individual rights and freedoms are truly respected

A version of the following was published in Mint today.

Public consciousness in India received a rude shock a few weeks ago when public demonstrations erupted first in the Kashmir valley, and then in Jammu. For a public fed with accounts of a peace process with Pakistan, talks with Kashmiri separatists and a decrease in terrorism in the state, this return to a “1989-like atmosphere” was sudden enough to be incomprehensible. Coupled with a very sophisticated psychological operation (psy-ops) from Kashmiri separatists—and one that was met with a paralytic silence from the UPA government—this resulted some commentators despondently suggesting that it is time to “let go” of Kashmir.

But surely, it was always unrealistic to expect that just over five years of the Mufti-Azad government would reverse the impact of two decades of a violent proxy war that sharpened the differences between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri on the one hand, and Muslim and non-Muslim on the other. Since 2002, the geopolitical environment compelled Pakistan and the separatists to lie low, for their old formulations found no purchase in the wake of 9/11. The moment this began to change, politics in Kashmir took a turn for the worse. Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, being bandwagoners, could always be counted on to join the side they thought was winning.

But how did they arrive at this conclusion? Well, because of a highly successful psy-ops that transformed concerns over a temporary transfer of uninhabitable land in remote snow-covered mountains into a narrative of a demographic invasion by ‘Hindu’ Indians. In a single masterstroke, this achieved something that two decades of militancy had failed to: generating ill-will for the Kashmiris among the Indian people. Kashmiris came out not so much to protest against the land transfer, but against a diabolic Hindu plan to reduce them to a minority in their own state. Non-Kashmiris saw this as a sign of Kashmiri religious intolerance. This led to, on the one hand, protests by the Hindu community in Jammu, and on the other, to suggestions that allowing Kashmir to secede would not be a bad idea at all. The UPA government in New Delhi was a feeble, non-entity in the entire affair. For instance, it took over 10 days to announce that Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz was not killed, as had been projected earlier, by Indian security forces at protest march. By the time M K Narayanan announced this, more damage had been done.

But let there be no mistake: there is a great affective divide between the Kashmiri people and the rest of India. The solution, however, is not secession. Continue reading My op-ed in Mint: A new compact with Jammu & Kashmir

Fethullah who?

Of popularity contests and public intellectuals

Foreign Policy magazine, Rohit Pradhan alerts us, has published the results of their poll to find the top 100 public intellectuals.

And on top of that heap is Fethullah Gülen. Now that we know that he is the top public intellectual, we might perhaps get to know a little bit more about his intellectualism. Wikipedia tells us that he is Turkish, the head of the Gülen movement, a modernist Islamic scholar, author of 60 books and never married.

Second on the list is Bangladesh’s very own Mohammad Yunus, he of the Grameen Bank fame. But public intellectual? Hmm. Next come Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Orhan Pamuk, Aitzaz Ahsan, Amr Khaled, Abdolkarim Soroush, Tariq Ramadan, Mahmood Mamdani, Shirin Ebadi. Hey, why are the top ten public intellectuals representatives of moderate Islam?

Covering up Naxalism

The bias shows in a Chennai-based national newspaper

The Darul Uloom at Deoband is one of the most influential Islamic institutions in India. Since Deobandi militants have been responsible for much of terrorism and violence, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in India, it is natural to take notice when that institution organises an “All India Anti-Terrorism Conference”. According to the Indian Express the Deoband Declaration strongly condemned terrorism and urged “all Muslims to rise above sects and denominational differences to close ranks and fight terrorism”. Predictably, it blamed the government for unduly targeting Muslims “while letting Naxalites get away with their “acts of terrorism”.

The Hindu carries a report on the Deoband conference too. It starts with the complaint about Muslims being ‘hounded’ by intelligence agencies in the name of terrorism, mentions that the UPA’s “tilt” towards the West was assailed, cites the marginalisation of Muslims, calls India a “police state”, before finally telling us that the convention condemned terrorism. Conspicuously though, The Hindu’s report does not say anything about the Deoband gathering’s mention of Naxalites.

All newspapers—more or less—report what they wants their readers to hear. The Hindu hides what it doesn’t want them to know.

Recognising Kosovo is a bad idea

Kosovo’s independence is a product of the lazy belief that multi-ethnic secular states won’t work

The manner in which Serbia treated its province of Kosovo, the argument goes, leaves it with little legitimacy to retain control over it. Ergo, independence.

Forget that such concern for wronged populations is highly selective and exceptional. Underlying the West’s support for Kosovo’s independence is the lazy surrender to the belief that secular, multi-ethnic, liberal states cannot be realised. The objective issue around Kosovo’s declaration of independence—with the West’s connivance—is whether it helps reconcile age-old Balkan enmities. Leaving Serbia with a sense of grievance is unlikely to help in its transition to a liberal state.

Now, Kosovar Albanians suffered immensely under the repressive rule of the Communist Yugoslavia, and under Slobodan Milosovic’s post-Yugoslav regime. But today’s Serbia is different. Kosovo’s separation will set liberal Serb politics back by strengthening the most chauvinistic elements.

Realists will find nothing surprising about selective application of laws and principles. But it is difficult to see what Kosovo’s promoters will gain from backing its independence. The US will have the gratitude of 1.84 million ethnic-Albanian Muslim citizens of Kosovo, and perhaps some more of their counterparts in neighbouring Albania. But is that worth escalating the confrontation with Russia? Even some EU states and American allies won’t condone an independent Kosovo—Spain, Greece and Turkey are against the idea. China is against it. In other words, Kosovo isn’t going to receive international recognition any time soon.

What of Kosovo itself? How likely is it that it will treat its own Serb minorities well? Its leaders have tried to reach out to the minorities. The new Kosovo flag is supposed to enshrine equal treatment of all its citizens. Yet, in a story that has been replayed over centuries, Kosovo’s Serb minority is declining in number. Popular sentiment is a very different thing:

But in a sign of how hard it will be to forge the kind of multiethnic, secular identity that foreign powers have urged, the distinctive two-headed eagle of the red and black Albanian flag, reviled by Serbs, was everywhere Sunday, held by revelers, draped on horses, flapping out of car windows and hanging outside homes and storefronts across the territory. [NYT]

Not all foreign countries though, will see the “multi-ethnic, secular” identity. Pakistan’s Daily Times heralds the announcement of its independence declaring “A Muslim Kosovo is born”. “Being a Muslim state”, it says, “— not yet Islamic — we hope that it survives”. It warns that the pan-Albanian movement could set off a regional scare, and “when Middle Eastern princes and kingdoms start knocking at the door with pots of money…may seduce the new state and cause its Muslim population to choose the wrong path”.

India must not recognise an independent Kosovo. In a narrow interpretation of its interests, good relations with Russia outweigh any gains from backing the breakway state. In the broadest sense, it is in India’s interests to see the emergence of secular, liberal, multi-ethnic democracies. India must not feed the defeatist logic of ethnic-religious nation states.

Update: In an op-ed in Mint, Bharat Karnad argues that “New Delhi should not only firmly decline to (recognise Kosovo), but it should wage a sustained diplomatic campaign to deny Kosovo international recognition and seating in the United Nations. The principle on which Kosovo is founded is antithetical to the concept of an inclusive democracy and India.”