On June 12 the world awoke to news of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. From the beginning, the media was full of misleading and politically charged speculation. In the mid-morning of June 12, for instance, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) tersely told CNN that the killer, Omar Mateen, “was from Afghanistan and had weapons training.” Within hours, it was reported that Mateen was US-born and received his training from his employer G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. He had purchased his guns legally in Florida. There was also noticeable discomfort in much of the reaction to the killings about the facts that Pulse is an LGBTQ club and that most of the dead and wounded were Latin Americans. We asked some MERIP friends to comment on the misinformation and the telling silences in the coverage.
In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many people have rightly pointed out that the hyper-masculine homophobic Omar Mateen does not represent Muslims. Fearing increased violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants in the US, some have apologetically made statements about how Islam and Muslims do not condone violence, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
But why is this sense of responsibility imposed on Muslims and not other Americans? What is in a name? Why does a man's name implicate 1.5 billion Muslims? What is erased in the racist obsession with his religion and his family’s national origin?
Let me outline a few erasures that add a level of epistemic violence to the deadly homophobic violence that took the lives of mostly working-class Latin@s (most of them Puerto Ricans) at Pulse.
The characterization of this mass shooting as a terrorist attack against the United States minimizes the gravity of the violence against queers of color and queer immigrants—the nationalist discourse erases brown and black queer immigrant bodies. Despite the fact that Latin@s are criminalized, deported and incarcerated in massive numbers on a daily basis, violence against queer Latin@s becomes newsworthy only when it is packaged as a “terrorist attack” story. As Che Gosset and Christoph Hanssman aptly point out on Facebook, the US colonial and economic violence in Puerto Rico is forgotten in performances of mourning in a seemingly queer- and immigrant-friendly America. The recent US Supreme Court decision against Puerto Rico’s bid to restructure its $70 billion debt is directly related to the economic inequalities that compel queer Puerto Ricans to migrate to Orlando and other mainland cities in the US. Claiming Latinx bodies after death for nationalistic agendas may be too little and too late in the face of anti-immigrant laws and sentiments in the US. The unquestioned characterization of the Orlando tragedy as the "deadliest shooting in the US history” also whitewashes another colonial violence—the massacre of Native Americans. Through collective amnesia, this misnomer holds Muslims and not the settler colonial state responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in the history of the US.
The focus on the shooter’s religion and national origin reproduces Islam and Muslims as exceptionally homophobic and violent, thus exonerating the hegemonic US culture of its own homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. In a time when a white male college student gets away with raping a woman, when violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern people is normalized in US popular culture and video war games, when the bashing and killing of trans people under the rhetoric of safety is legitimized, when the shooting of black people by the militarized police is considered heroic, and when gun violence is legitimized under the cloak of freedom, Mateen’s violent act is more about his toxic masculinity than it is about Islam. The fact that Mateen worked for the world’s largest security firm, which runs several Israeli prisons and checkpoints as well as many US prisons (including Medway juvenile prison where G4S was accused of abusing the incarcerated youth not too long ago), cannot be forgotten or pushed aside. Neither can we overlook his obsession with becoming a police officer and his love for a racist police force that criminalizes, kills and imprisons people of color, queer and trans people, and immigrants.
The focus on Islam as the explanation for violent acts, as Edward Said has argued, is an Orientalist approach to people from a vast region who, despite their differences and various levels of piety, are reduced to their religion. Nobody asked what Christianity or the Bible says about race when Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston. Rather than holding Islam and Muslims responsible for this man's violent rage, perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that he was an all-American boy who took his lessons from the culture of homophobia, transphobia and violence in the US. Perhaps the problem is not Islamic terrorism; perhaps the problem is homegrown US hetero-patriarchal terrorism. This is not to downplay the violence of fundamentalist groups who have opportunistically laid claims on Islam. Nor is it an attempt to deny the existence of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the Middle East or among Muslims. My point is to question the hypocrisy of an exceptionalism that assumes the US to be the bastion of freedom and progress.
By now it is not surprising that when an angry white man commits a mass shooting, he is characterized as a “lone wolf,” but when a Muslim or Middle Eastern man is the shooter, he is characterized as a terrorist, and by default, an ISIS or al-Qaeda agent. There is no evidence, except for Mateen’s last-minute claim (perhaps to make his homophobic attack seem like a heroic act), that he was connected to ISIS. Yet, if we truly believe that Mateen’s murderous act was an ISIS plot, then we have to ask where ISIS gets its support and why it emerged in the first place. We may have to question the instability and chaos that the US military intervention in the region has left behind. We may have to ask questions about the Saudi government’s support of ISIS. As a friend posted on Facebook, ISIS has become the deterritorialized imagined community where anyone who wants to defy certain social rules can claim belonging (or is assigned belonging). I would add that this association only “sticks” to certain bodies, while others are assumed to be misguided or troubled white boys who were denied a proper nuclear heterosexual family upbringing. In fact, on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man with ammunition was arrested at the Los Angeles Pride festival. As expected, this violent homophobe was not characterized as a terrorist. Had he had a Muslim name, it would be unimaginable that allegations of a concerted terrorist attack would not circulate and produce calls for heightened national security and policing. Not only does this racist division of violence assume an inherent risk of terrorism to be hidden in Muslim and Middle Eastern bodies, but it also minimizes the terror that numerous mass shootings committed by white men (including those by the police in places like Ferguson) incite in many people’s lives.
It is also predictable how the US discourse on terrorism recycles its own regurgitations. A day after the shooting, the media was obsessed with Mateen’s alleged queer desires. Not unlike the stories of fagdom among the Taliban, Islam’s promise of 72 virgins in heaven and Mohammad Atta’s perverted desires, we are told that the Muslim terrorist fag’s pent-up sexual desires, repressed by Islam or his “culture” motivated him to kill. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai have argued, terrorism studies, which has been producing this form of knowledge for decades, places the blame on bad mothering or dysfunctional family structure. It is the immigrant and non-white families (like Mateen’s Afghan family), we are told, whose cultural backwardness leads their children to psychological compulsion. The homonationalist (Jasbir Puar) and homonormative (Lisa Duggan) narrative then goes something like this: “Come out, get married and be normal! You can even join the military to kill the terrorists and sacrifice yourself for this great nation! And if you are celibate, we may even let you donate blood! And immigrant families: Get with the program! This is America, land of the free!” Hidden in this narrative is also the assumption that Islam and queerness are incommensurable and that queer Muslims are in need of rescue from their “barbaric and homophobic cultures.”
The liberal valorization of coming out as the remedy for violence distracts from the nuances of this shooting. Despite the criminalization and the profiling of Muslims, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of shooters in the US are white, and all of them are cis men (Dylann Roof, Robert Lewis Dear, Aaron Alexis and George Zimmerman, among others). Perhaps it was not Mateen’s “closeted gayness,” but his performance of a homophobic and misogynistic American masculinity enabled by everyday militarism, and constructed vis-à-vis the “failed masculinity” of the Muslim other, that led to this massacre. As a matter of fact, many people in the US do not “come out,” precisely because they fear this kind of toxic masculinity on the streets, at work, in school and at home. Those of us who are queer and Muslim know what it means to be blamed for anything from natural disasters to mass shootings. We know what it means to be profiled and what it means to be bashed and spat on by those who claim authenticity on the basis of monolithic imaginations of the “Muslim culture” or the “American culture.”
In a time when the US presidential candidates call for the bombing of ISIS as a retaliatory measure, it is crucial to unravel the way that homophobic and transphobic violence, Islamophobia, domestic violence, economic violence, racial violence, police violence, increased security and prisons, and the US imperialist wars are entangled in a web that implicates all of us. It is the time, again, to say not in our name!
The hurried characterization of Omar Mateen as a foreign bogeyman goes well beyond reactionary formulas—it is the lens through which all American Muslims are viewed. The widely held belief that Muslims are incapable of existing as members of American society, and specifically that they are thus incapacitated by their Muslim identity, is used to “other” them in times of tragedy. They are rejected from the folds of American culture, and their crimes are quickly pinned upon the faith they have chosen to follow.
Pundits and politicians continue to say that Mateen’s homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism were all due to his Islam. They refuse to allow his actions to be divorced from the religion he is said to have called his own. His horrific crimes are attributed not to the culture of violence that continues to find safety in US politics and law, but to his parent’s birthplace and the religion they passed down to their son.
For too many Americans, indeed, there are no factors that can override an Orientalist view of The Muslim, who lives a life of irreducible marginalization. It is a caricature of The Muslim that we are sold in the media: The Muslim is only in repose so long as he is able to subdue his barbarity. He is a beast on two legs lying in wait. The Muslim feigns patriotism and practice of American customs, but it is a trick, so he must be watched for signs of savagery as he prays in the mosque and goes about his business. The Muslim American is a hyper-visible yet invisible being who will have his American-ness stripped from him the moment he errs.
What is it about Omar Mateen that made him less American than Eric Rudolph, who so hated what he called an “aberrant [homosexual] lifestyle” that he bloodied Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics? This is a face of America that many refuse to come to terms with, because otherwise they would have to face the implications for the myth they peddle that this hatred is largely imported and not homegrown.
There is nothing foreign about Mateen’s beliefs, nothing alien about his actions. The conversation must change in order for there to be a remedy. What this will take is organizing against those that target marginalized communities, and there can be no organizing without first acknowledging material realities.
There are times when language and analysis seem inadequate to representing the moment, its emotion, its feeling, its horror. The murder of 49 people and maiming of 53 more in a gay nightclub in Orlando is an incident that must be analyzed, and yet it is a spectacular horror that seems to escape representation, at least at the moment. It is enough to focus on the people murdered in Orlando; and yet, the spectacle in Orlando is merely a fragment of a larger mosaic. How can we think about violence relationally without diminishing the localized, focused response to violence and victimhood? And how can we push our analysis beyond nationalism, so that it can account for the violence of the state and the multinational corporation, as well as the violence of a lone individual?
Here is an attempt at piecing together some of the fragments, with full recognition that many more people will need to be heard in order for the full mosaic to emerge.
Just a few days prior to the Orlando massacre the United States attempted to incorporate Muhammad Ali into the nation; President Barack Obama claimed that Ali’s story was only possible in America. At the same service, Malcolm X’s daughter, Amb. Attallah Shabazz, appealed to Ali’s membership in a fraternity of black radical anti-imperialist thinkers for whom the horizons of black freedom were global and not national. At Ali’s funeral, just a few days prior to the Orlando shootings, Islam was adopted into a vision of US nationalism, even though Ali was considered un-American back in the day.
The US has a robust killing program across the Middle East, in Arab and Islamic societies, through a drone program that barely rises to the level of interest in US public debate. In the days leading up to the Orlando massacre, the US committed four murders by drone in Yemen—a country on which the US has not declared war. Arabs and Muslims have been killed with imprecision and regularity by a targeted assassination program across Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. It would seem that precarity for most is the precondition for security for some.
The Orlando shooter worked for G4S, the largest security company in the world. A multinational security firm based in Britain, G4S makes plainly visible the transnational scope of militarized and masculinist violence, as it secures the US national border—another way, perhaps, in which many of the Latino Orlando victims were targeted—and borders across the Middle East, such as in occupied Palestine.
The Orlando victims were in a club made necessary by a homo- and trans-phobic culture that demands that queer intimacy and sociality take place in designated queer spaces, and in which bathrooms are contested terrain. Queer spaces like the Pulse nightclub have been refugee camps, of sorts, or spaces of hope, where queer sociality and freedom are possible, even as they have also been targeted by police, the state’s executioner of rampant and violent masculinity.
The discursive machine will quickly turn to the purported Islamic motives for anti-queer violence. “They hate our freedom,” some will say, even as the queer nightclub was already a space of hope within an American society that hates queer freedom. Hillary Clinton is already appealing to “radical Islam” as a culprit while Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.
The state will raise the specter of gun control and some may even call for revamped hate crimes legislation, but neither of these appeals will incorporate the Yemeni family targeted by the war on terror. No nightclub protects the Afghan family—queer or not—from death by drone, just as there is no safe space for queer freedom in a society structured in heteropatriarchy. Moreover, far more people will call for increased securitization and masculinist violence in geographies designated Muslim.
I am reminded of June Jordan’s poem, “Moving Towards Home,” when, after witnessing the anti-black violence of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police and Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath assault on southern Lebanon, she thought about the relationality of violence. After asserting that she, as a black woman, had “become Palestinian,” she writes, “against the relentless laughter of evil, there is less and less living room, and where are my loved ones?”
It has been almost a week since a mass shooting at Pulse, an LBGTQ nightclub in Orlando, killed 49 individuals and wounded more than 50 on a Latinx night. These killings have inspired national conversations about gun control, the rights of LGBTQ communities and continued homophobia in the US, and Islamophobia and the war on terror. I would like to underline three points that stand out in the media coverage and look forward to action aimed at producing solidarity and political change.
First, it is critical to continue to highlight that the victims of this mass killing are mostly Latinx—and mostly Latinx youth. In much of our analysis, including my own, there is a tendency to focus on the question of terrorism, or the war on terror, and its twinning with Islamophobia and the US security-imperial state. There was also much writing on homophobia and homosexuality “in” Islam, the most helpful and comprehensive of which was written by Mehammad Amadeus Mack. Many of us felt compelled to respond in this register, and these are necessary interventions in a time of war and during a US presidential campaign where Islamophobia seems to be a political platform.
It is necessary, however, to think through the gendered hyper-securitization of Muslim-Americans alongside the gendered hyper-securitization and criminalization of Latinx peoples in the United States. In fact, the hyper-racialization of the killer matched the deracination of the victims in much mainstream and political commentary. It was no accident, since the war on terror works in racialized, national and gendered binaries. The deracination of the victims (and the de-queerification of the club and the victims by many politicians) was necessary to produce the attack as “one on America” at a time when mainstream US political and national culture is deeply xenophobic, homophobic and suspicious of Latinx communities. As academics and as activists, it is important to critically bring together conversations on anti-Latinx and anti-Muslim discrimination and the ways that discourses on gender and sex operate as technologies of hyper-visualization and securitization both nationally and imperially. A vital part of this task is to think about the war on terror alongside the war on drugs. We must continue to research and write on criminalization, racialization and securitization within an expansive framework that includes the ways in which black, Latinx, indigenous, Muslim and immigrant Americans have been and continue to be differently and relationally incorporated into the structure of the white-dominant but “multicultural” US settler state. After all, the two communities directly targeted by anti-immigrant and anti-immigration platforms are Muslims and Latinx, and it is no coincidence that discourses on sex, gender and security are tied together in conversations around immigration and national character.
This point is directly connected to a second one, regarding the global and national hierarchy of human life and the ways in which we mourn those murdered in mass killings and terrorist attacks. It is crucial to think about the politics of citizenship, nationality and nationalism in this context—after all, there are undocumented victims of the Pulse shootings who cannot be mourned nationally precisely because, as “illegal aliens,” they are figured as threats to the nation. Furthermore, the mass shooting at Pulse and the global outcry that followed—which included the almost farcical shows of support and mourning by rulers of Arab states that routinely harass, imprison and brutalize LGBTQ communities—underscores the ways that (deracinated, de-queered) American lives and American tragedies are global tragedies that circulate as international events. In a war-on-terror world, there is an injunction to grieve in public for American lives lost to terrorism in order to ward off suspicion and further targeting. This injunction applies as well to the dead in France or Belgium, but not to victims of terrorism (state or otherwise) in Iraq or Nigeria or Syria. This phenomenon is directly related to the ways in which US political discourse on the war on terror has starkly divided the world into victims (Europeans and Americans) and perpetrators (Muslims and Arabs). Additionally, the public and international circulation of mourning related to the Pulse shooting emerges from the teleology implicit in homonationalism, where the US is configured as the end point—the resting place—of a global journey of LGBTQ struggle.
Finally, it is important to back up our words of outrage with action. Such action includes working toward opening up academic and professional space within the field of Middle East studies. Work in the areas of sexuality, gender and human rights is increasingly central to thinking and writing about the war on terror. More scholars from a variety of disciplines should pay attention to this work, and this frame for understanding what is happening. In terms of professional space, we could use the field’s flagship annual conference, the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association—to combat heterosexism, conservatism and tensions around gender non-conformity in our multiple academic communities.
Release Homa Hoodfar
We are deeply concerned by the arrest and ongoing detention of Homa Hoodfar, an eminent anthropologist and contributor to Middle East Report, by the Revolutionary Guard Corps of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Hoodfar traveled to Iran in early 2016 to visit family and conduct scholarly research. She was scheduled to depart the country on March 10, but on the preceding evening Revolutionary Guards officers went to her home and confiscated her passport, as well as her personal computer, cellular phone and other items. Since mid-March she has been repeatedly interrogated, apparently with the aim of tying her scholarly work and research to political activity of which the state disapproves.
Hoodfar was arrested on June 6 after being summoned for still another interrogation. She is being held incommunicado and without charge in Evin prison in Tehran. Neither her lawyer nor her family have been permitted to see her since her arrest, nor have they been given any reason why she is being detained. More worrisome is that Hoodfar’s family has not been allowed to give her the medication she needs to treat a chronic neurological condition.
Hoodfar is a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. She is a specialist in gender issues, including reproductive rights, family law and the role of women in politics, as well as the intersections of gender with development and public health. She has written for Middle East Report on such subjects on three occasions.
Homa Hoodfar’s arrest and detention are a violation of the rights to freedom of thought, opinion and speech guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a signatory. We join Amnesty International, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association and other organizations in calling for her prompt, unconditional release and the immediate return of her passport and personal effects.
UPDATE: Amnesty International of Canada is hosting this petition calling for Homa Hoodfar’s release.
More than 9,000 people have been killed, according to UN figures, one third of them civilians. Some 2.4 million Yemenis are uprooted from their homes, and a staggering 80 percent of the population lack reliable supplies of food. The displaced and the hungry are unable to flee the country—all the borders are closed—and a naval blockade has prevented all but a trickle of outside aid from reaching those in need. On May 3, the UN inaugurated a program to screen relief shipments, which may ameliorate the humanitarian emergency, but the Saudi-led bombardment and the ground battles have left much of Yemen without fuel, electricity and water.
Why did Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies mount this assault? How did Yemen’s peaceful uprising of 2011 degenerate into civil strife and external intervention? Why has the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led war effort with munitions, mid-air refueling and intelligence, even as human rights organizations have documented war crimes?
To help answer these and other questions, our contributing editor Sheila Carapico assembled Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, an anthology of previously published MERIP material, released on May 3 by Just World Books. The collection includes her introductory commentaries as well as maps and striking political cartoons by Samer al-Shameeri.
The Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the Institute for Policy Studies hosted Carapico to discuss the volume on April 28 and May 3, respectively.
A central premise of Arabia Incognita, she began, is that the Arabian Peninsula is “a distinct political unit.” Upheavals in one country reverberate in the others. The oil-rich monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, have long sought control over the course of events in poor, populous Yemen and its rulers. In the 1960s, the Saudis backed the imam against republican rebels; after unification in 1990, they cultivated the strongman in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. In 2011 came the shock of the revolt against Salih, whose most visible leader, Tawakkul Karman, was a woman. The Gulf monarchs’ attempt to manage the succession to Salih is the backdrop to the Houthi rebels’ overreach, the subsequent internal war, the intervention and the current catastrophe.
The US, for its part, “has a Saudi policy of which its Yemen policy is an outgrowth.” For decades, the US-Saudi “special relationship” was underwritten by the kingdom’s fervent anti-Communism, its hydrocarbon wealth and the petrodollars it pumped back into Western economies. Today, perhaps, it is rooted more in massive arms sales.
Arabia Incognita brings together four decades of MERIP coverage of the Arabian Peninsula—on topics ranging from political Islam, labor migration and resource politics to arts and culture. It is now available from Just World Books.
Jordan Drops the Pretense of Democratic Reform
In September 2012, King ‘Abdallah II of Jordan stopped by “The Daily Show” to chat with Jon Stewart about his commitment to democratic reform in his country. In the wake of the uprisings across the Arab world, he said, “We changed a third of the constitution. We did a lot of different things—a new constitutional court, a new independent commission for elections,” all in preparation for a transition from monarchical rule to meaningful parliamentary governance. “This is the critical crossroads for Jordan to get it right, these next four years,” the king concluded.
It was a pretense that few in Jordan ever believed. Indeed, if anything, those four years have seen King ‘Abdallah peel the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system. In mid-April, Prime Minister ‘Abdallah al-Nusour submitted draft constitutional amendments to Parliament, requesting the body’s approval of changes that give the king absolute power over the judiciary, foreign policy, defense and security. By the terms of the amendments, the king would be able to appoint members of the constitutional court and the head of the paramilitary police force, which is tasked with suppressing domestic dissent, by himself and without further ado. In practice, ‘Abdallah already exercises these powers, but the draft amendments codify them, eliminating the need for lip service to checks and balances. The king would no longer need signatures from the prime minister or cabinet members to rubber-stamp his decrees.
On April 27 the draft amendments passed the lower house of Parliament by an overwhelming margin. They are sure to sail through the upper house, whose members are handpicked by the king. State-run media says the changes “strengthen the principle of separation of powers,” but this claim is too risibly thin to be called a smokescreen.
It is, in fact, a bizarre instance of greater transparency. The constitutional changes effectively acknowledge that Jordan is an autocracy, not the developing constitutional monarchy that the king markets to Western audiences eager to find a likable, “moderate” ally in the region. Perhaps ‘Abdallah thinks that no one will notice: With civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and President Barack Obama struggling to patch up relations with the Gulf Arabs while members of Congress (and other nations) call for suspending sales to Saudi Arabia of arms being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, Jordan’s amendments have attracted almost no international attention.
Let’s take further stock of ‘Abdallah’s critical four years. He told Jon Stewart in 2012 that Jordanians were politically immature, but rather than encouraging a vibrant public sphere, he portrayed Jordanians as politically ignorant, not understanding what it means to be positioned to the right, left or center. Jordan has numerous political parties, however; it is just that the regime treats them as a nuisance rather than a resource to be developed. Many parties boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections as illegitimate because the electoral law and and the boundaries of electoral districts ensure that regions loyal to the royal court are overrepresented in Parliament. A new electoral law passed in March (ahead of the contests slated for 2017) scrapped the controversial one-vote system that significantly disadvantaged the political parties, but failed to address the skewed districting. Jordan’s elected Council of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has always been constrained in its freedom of action, as the royally appointed upper house, the Council of Nobles, can veto any of its legislation. The constitutional amendments formally sign away the last of the elected assembly’s nominal prerogatives of note.
The name of the game in Jordan today is security. The civil wars in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and the attempts by ISIS to launch attacks in Jordan, have led to a near lockdown of the kingdom. But the regime has not limited its repression to those suspected of connections to or sympathy with ISIS. Instead, its reach has been largely indiscriminate: It has imposed severe restrictions on freedom of expression, whether that of journalists, activists or any dissident voices. The penal code has long been banned criticism of the king. But revisions of the anti-terrorism law in 2014 go much further, classifying statements that “disturb” Jordan’s relations with foreign states as acts of terrorism. A Jordanian citizen who questions the wisdom of Jordan’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies, for example, could be prosecuted as a terrorist. So could one who suggests that Jordan’s gas pipeline deal with Israel might be bad for the Jordanian people.
Peaceful dissenters face repeated harassment at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or mukhabarat. The regime has tortured government critics and shut down all forms of public assembly. An event planner at a major Amman hotel told me in March that he would not book any conference or event even remotely connected to political debate without the GID’s verbal approval.
The crackdown extends to the realm of entertainment. The Lebanese alt-rock band Mashrou‘ Leila was scheduled to appear this week at the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, but the concert was abruptly canceled because the group’s songs “threatened the values, customs and traditions” of Jordanian society. The band issued a statement condemning the censorship, noting that it had previously played several times in Jordan, including at the amphitheater. And what were the dangerous ideas in the songs? Gender equality and sexual freedom seemed particularly to offend some powerful regime officials.
If the global history of state repression offers any lesson, it is that wholesale quashing of dissent, even alternative voices in arts and culture, is very likely to radicalize many of those who have been silenced. King ‘Abdallah may be willing to take that risk, but it is not a good bet.
But as the king amends the constitution to concentrate power in his own hands, at last he has dropped the pretense of democratic reform—though not, of course, the parallel conceit that he and the Jordanian regime are “moderate.”
Suspend US Military Aid to Egypt
An Open Letter to President Barack Obama
April 18, 2016
Dear President Obama,
As scholars of Egypt and the Middle East, we the undersigned would like to urge you, on Tax Day, to support civilian, democratic rule in Egypt by suspending military aid to the country.
For more than thirty years, the US government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain a system of rule that does not serve the interests of the Egyptian people. The core of that regime has always been a small military class whose power is underwritten by American taxpayers. This was true under Hosni Mubarak and it is just as true today.
The current president of the country, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, may have been elected, but observers have never ceased questioning the legitimacy of those elections, nor the bloody circumstances of his rise to power. As the Sisi government stumbles from one crisis to the next, it has become increasingly violent toward its critics, the vast majority of whom propose nothing more than civic, pragmatic solutions to the country’s most vexing problems. Their non-violent, civic engagement has been met with arbitrary arrests and incarceration, disappearances and torture. Free speech and expression are a thing of the past, and violations of the right to organize, travel and conduct research are rife. Today, Egypt has become a vast penal colony.
As taxpayers, we morally object to the idea that our money goes to prop up an autocratic and violent regime in Cairo. We urge your administration to turn away from the old policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of Egypt. We call on you to suspend military aid to Egypt’s military rulers until you have time to undertake a comprehensive review of our policy toward the country.
1. Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA)
2. Fida Adely (Georgetown University)
3. Anthony Alessandrini (City University of New York)
4. Samer Mahdy Ali (University of Michigan)
5. Lori Allen (SOAS, University of London)
6. Nabil Al-Takriti (University of Mary Washington)
7. Noha Arafa (National Lawyers Guild)
8. Andrew Arato (New School)
9. Walter Armbrust (University of Oxford)
10. Mona Atia (George Washington University)
11. Aslı Bâli (UCLA School of Law)
12. Beth Baron (City University of New York)
13. Lydia Bassaly (Columbia University)
14. Moustafa Bayoumi (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
15. Joel Beinin (Stanford University)
16. Amahl Bishara (Tufts University)
17. Audrey Bomse (National Lawyers Guild)
18. Marilyn Booth (University of Oxford)
19. Laurie A. Brand (University of Southern California)
20. Michaelle L. Browers (Wake Forest University)
21. Jonathan Brown (Georgetown University)
22. Jason Brownlee (University of Texas, Austin)
23. Rosie Bsheer (Yale University)
24. Charles E. Butterworth (University of Maryland)
25. Sheila Carapico (University of Richmond)
26. Noam Chomsky (MIT)
27. Elliott Colla (Georgetown University)
28. Don Conway-Long (Webster University)
29. Rochelle Davis (Georgetown University)
30. Lara Deeb (Scripps College)
31. Andrea Dessì (London School of Economics)
32. Emily Drumsta (University of California, Berkeley)
33. Mona El-Ghobashy (Independent scholar)
34. Mohamad Elmasry (University of North Alabama)
35. Omnia El Shakry (University of California, Davis)
36. John Esposito (Georgetown University)
37. Ilana Feldman (George Washington University)
38. Alexa Firat (Temple University)
39. James Gelvin (UCLA)
40. Alan Gilbert (University of Denver)
41. Ellis J. Goldberg (University of Washington)
42. Joel Gordon (University of Arkansas)
43. Elaine C. Hagopian (Simmons College)
44. Sondra Hale (UCLA)
45. Hanan Hammad (Texas Christian University)
46. Ian M. Hartshorn (University of Nevada, Reno)
47. Nader Hashemi (University of Denver)
48. Jane Hathaway (Ohio State University)
49. Donald Hindley (Brandeis University)
50. Elizabeth M. Holt (Bard College)
51. Deena R. Hurwitz (American University)
52. Toby C. Jones (Rutgers University)
53. Lorenzo Kamel (Harvard University)
54. Arang Keshavarzian (New York University)
55. Laleh Khalili (SOAS, University of London)
56. Dina Rizk Khoury (George Washington University)
57. Laurie King (Georgetown University)
58. Marwan M. Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania)
59. Vickie Langohr (College of the Holy Cross)
60. Mark Andrew LeVine (University of California, Irvine)
61. Darryl Li (Yale University)
62. Zachary Lockman (New York University)
63. Miriam R. Lowi (The College of New Jersey)
64. Melani McAlister (George Washington University)
65. Clea McNeely (University of Tennessee)
66. Shana Minkin (Sewanee: The University of the South)
67. Timothy Mitchell (Columbia University)
68. Pete W. Moore (Case Western Reserve University)
69. Amir Moosavi (New York University)
70. Norma Claire Moruzzi (University of Illinois, Chicago)
71. Tamir Moustafa (Simon Fraser University)
72. Bruce D. Nestor (National Lawyers Guild)
73. Roger Owen (Harvard University)
74. Sumita Pahwa (Scripps College)
75. Lisa A. Pollard (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)
76. Sara Pursley (Princeton University)
77. Noha Radwan (UC Davis)
78. Aziz Rana (Cornell University)
79. Kamran Rastegar (Tufts University)
80. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (Independent scholar)
81. Mona Russell (East Carolina University)
82. Atef Said (University of Illinois, Chicago)
83. Christa Salamandra (City University of New York)
84. Hesham Sallam (Stanford University)
85. Stuart Schaar (Brooklyn College, CUNY)
86. Aaron Schneider (University of Denver)
87. Jillian Schwedler (Hunter College & The Graduate Center, CUNY)
88. Samer Shehata (University of Oklahoma)
89. Paul Sedra (Simon Fraser University)
90. Omar Shakir (Center for Constitutional Rights)
91. Stephen Sheehi (College of William and Mary)
92. Tamara Sonn (Georgetown University)
93. Josh Stacher (Kent State University)
94. Gregory Starrett (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
95. Rebecca L. Stein (Duke University)
96. Christopher Stone (Hunter College, CUNY)
97. Ted Swedenburg (University of Arkansas)
98. Elizabeth F. Thompson (University of Virginia)
99. Levi Thompson (UCLA)
100. Chris Toensing (MERIP)
101. Judith Tucker (Georgetown University)
102. John Voll (Georgetown University)
103. Jeremy Walton (The Max Planck Institute)
104. Lisa Wedeen (University of Chicago)
105. Max D. Weiss (Princeton University)
106. Mark R. Westmoreland (Leiden University)
107. Jessica Winegar (Northwestern University)
108. John Womack, Jr. (Harvard University)
Open Letter from Scholars of Yemen
US Secretary of State John Kerry
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayraut
On the occasion of a year of the bombardment and blockade of Yemen, we write for a third time as scholars of Yemen to deplore the actions of the governments you represent, which have served cumulatively to erase fundamental principles of international and international humanitarian law: a) drafting the one-sided UN Security Council Resolution 2216 used to legitimize war; b) attempting to protect Saudi Arabia and the other Coalition countries against condemnation by the UN Human Rights Council, leaving the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alone to issue a condemnation of war crimes; c) continuing massive arms sales in the face of documented war crimes by the Coalition; and d) participating in refueling warplanes, identifying targets, and facilitating the blockade of vital imports of food and fuel to Yemen.
We are aligned with no party in the internal political divisions of Yemen and deplore human rights violations by all the warring parties. However, we note that the major targets of the Yemen war, the Houthis and the bulk of the former Yemeni army, have over the past years fought Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which your governments view as terrorist groups and which have targeted Arab as well as European cities—most recently Brussels. Against this background, we renew our call to you to do everything to obtain an immediate and complete ceasefire and the launch of unconditional Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations for the formation of a transition government. And we ask that you offer no cover to the attempts of the Coalition states to extract commercial gains from their war and to avoid, in the name of plans for Gulf Cooperation Council “reconstruction” of Yemen, legal responsibility for war reparations.
Najwa Adra, Independent scholar
Geneviève Bédoucha, CNRS, Paris
Isa Blumi, Stockholm University
Laurent Bonnefoy, Sciences Politiques, Paris
François Burgat, IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence
Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Steven Caton, Harvard University
Don Conway-Long, Webster University
Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
Blandine Destremau, CNRS, EHESS, Paris
Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
Ulrike Freitag, Free University of Berlin & Centre for Modern Oriental Studies
McGuire Gibson, University of Chicago
Michael Gilsenan, New York University
Andre Gingrich, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Najam Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University
Mouna Hashem, Independent scholar
Juliette Honvault, IREMAM, Aix-Marseille Université
Eirik Hovden, Institute for Social Anthropology, Vienna
Lamya Khalidi, CEPAM, CNRS, France
Laurie King, Georgetown University
Thomas Kühn, Simon Fraser University
Jean Lambert, CERMOM-INALCO, Paris
Anne Meneley, Trent University, Canada
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
W. Flagg Miller, University of California-Davis
Martha Mundy, London School of Economics and Political Science
Michael Perez, University of Washington
Christa Salamandra, Lehman College, CUNY
Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, CUNY
Gregory Starrett, University of North Carolina
Lucine Taminian, Independent scholar, Amman
Daniel Varisco, American Institute for Yemeni Studies
Gabriele vom Bruck, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago
Shelagh Weir, Independent scholar
John Willis, University of Colorado
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, University of London
Éloge de la Naïveté
In the week since the attacks on Brussels Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek subway station, there is an atmosphere of deep mourning in Belgium, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright scholar. While I happened to be out of the country on the day of the attacks, I returned shortly thereafter to memorials to the victims marking the urban landscape. Moments of silence have become de rigueur additions to formal gatherings, and public declarations and acts of compassion and solidarity abound, most of them heartfelt and touching. In the university town of Leuven, where I live, many students—even those who knew none of the victims—broke down in grief and fear, their world evidently shaken to the core. They received comfort from friends and colleagues who were themselves feeling conflicting emotions. As in Paris this past November, or in many other places before or since that have experienced equally terrible events, the country seemed to come together in sorrow and succor, as collectively suffering humans beyond any divides of identity or ideology.
But behind such harmony a minor key of rancor could already be heard. If who the attackers were was little in doubt, how they managed to perpetrate such violence in spite of a mobilized security apparatus and national state of emergency raised significant questions both inside and outside the country. Accusations of police or ministerial incompetence, or failures of coordinating among federal, provincial and municipal security forces, pointed toward something broken or failed within the Belgian “state,” seemingly forever culturally and structurally split between Flanders and Wallonia with Brussels in the unhappy and often unloved middle.
But an even deeper line of critique accused Belgian society more generally of complacency and naïveté. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and French Transportation Minister Michel Sapin said as much mere hours after the blasts, even as victims were still being identified, hinting that something in Belgians’ lifestyle (“eat chocolate and enjoy life”) or their blasé approach to “integration” created the conditions of possibility for the attacks. While these comments were resented by Belgians and quickly disavowed by Israeli and French officials, even the distancing took the form of generalizing Belgian society’s failings to Europe as a whole. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, speaking the day after the attacks on Europe 1 radio, said that France too had “closed its eyes,” and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, similarly defended Belgium by citing the Biblical adage, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
What was the nature of this sin? To what had Europeans closed their eyes?
For Valls it was explicitly “the rise of extremist salafi ideas in neighborhoods where a mix of drug trafficking and radical Islam led astray...some of the youth.” These transgressions were by no means new. The accusation of Belgian complacency toward Molenbeek as a breeding ground for terrorists was raised in the immediate wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and indeed since the early 1980s the district had been portrayed within Belgium as a dystopian space of Islamic threat, as anthropologist Nadia Fadil has traced. Similar journalistic portrayals of the French banlieues as spaces of jihad go back at least as far, indeed arguably back to the 1954-1961 French-Algerian war, and have been periodically reanimated after moments of violence, such as the 1995 subway bombings attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which bear eerie resemblance to the recent Brussels attacks in terms of targets, means and likely repercussions. Juncker himself, in his plea against Belgian exceptionalism, cited “terrorism in Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Minimally, then, according to these long-standing anxieties, the Belgian state, like other European governments, had allowed (or even facilitated) so-called radical, extremist salafi or other jihadi groups to establish networks within “immigrant” neighborhoods under the guise of providing religious or social services, sometimes at the behest of Saudi Arabia or other states, sometimes ignoring their warnings. At their extreme, such anxieties build into conspiracy theories about a byzantine plan to transform Europe into “Eurabia,” with Christian or secular societies forced to submit to Islamic authority. Such fantasies certainly have a market amid heightened Islamophobic public sentiment, but remain relatively marginal, mostly spouted by media pundits with minimal traction in official or scholarly circles.
Yet a growing consensus does seem to be emerging across Europe about a more widespread and apparently pernicious form of naïveté: namely, that of past multicultural tolerance whose inherent failures have now come home to roost in terrorist violence, as well as sectarianism, US-style ghettos, criminality and even racism itself. European state leaders seem to be trying to outdo one another in declaring multiculturalism a dead letter. Neighborhoods like Molenbeek, once celebrated for their cultural diversity, now come off as closed spaces of otherness ruled by an ethno-religious code of silence, which protects criminals-turned-terrorists. The new mot d’ordre is national identity and cohesion, with European Muslims called upon to publicly declare their allegiance; apologize for violence; denounce anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia; and even distance themselves from the obligations and prohibitions that Islam entails. Those who fail to adequately perform such mandatory politesse quickly become objects of suspicion and harassment, with personal and professional consequences.
Again, there is nothing particularly new about such a predicament. Indeed, Abdelmalek Sayad, writing about the Algerian-French experience, spoke eloquently of such “suffering” back in the 1980s. But the younger generation of Muslim Europeans is increasingly explicit in demanding their social, political and religious rights as Muslims and European citizens. They refuse to accommodate themselves to a set of pre-existing norms, but rather call for accommodation and even transformation of the societies of which they are fundamentally a part. For these actors, the problem with multiculturalism is that it maintained the (white, Christian-secular) state as that which tolerated, managed and set the terms for public expression of cultural and religious differences—such as what dress might be worn in school or where one might pray. Muslim Europeans had to accede to these terms or be socially or even physically excluded. Young activists are now seeking an active role in setting new terms, much to the chagrin of observers who see in such claims a violent effort to impose the demands of the few on the lives of the many. From this perspective, the Brussels attacks, like the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks before it, were not understood as a transnational military riposte to the war in the Middle East, but as the outcome of a homegrown predicament, perpetrated by those who had failed to “integrate” into European (multicultural) society and resorted to the only language they knew—Islamic extremism.
Indeed, it arguably was naïve—or, more accurately, hubristic—to think that an officially secular (“neutral”) state like Belgium could simply set from above, and based on past accommodations with the Catholic Church, the terms by which its multi-religious citizens could publicly express themselves without people eventually pushing back. And it was naïve and hubristic to act as if Belgium would not transform in the process.
But if the naïveté and complacency that Belgium, and Europe more broadly, is being currently accused of is the belief (or at least hope) that such dissensus would transpire more or less peacefully, then that is not a naïveté we should be willing to give up on. To do so would be to affirm a supposed incompatibility between Islam and whatever defines Belgium or Europe. It would be to ignore all the ways in which Islam—whether as a long-standing religion on the European continent or as a constitutive outside through which the idea of a (Christian) Europe was formulated—is immanent to and indissociable from Europe. It would be to envision a future along the lines laid out by Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilizations. If that is what abandoning naïveté entails, then call me naïve.
Here it’s instructive to recall the scenes of collective sorrow and comfort in Belgium today. For scholars like myself—inured by too many similar events quickly exploited by state actors to justify aggressive foreign policies and constraints on civil liberties—such comings together are but evanescent, superficial moments that will quickly give way to a reality of prejudice, distrust and further violence. Even the attacks themselves fail to shock us, insofar as they seem but the inevitable blowback of US and European war-making in the Middle East—wars that were supposedly designed to keep the conflicts abroad, far away from “home,” but which from the beginning seemed sure to increase homeland insecurity. Cynics that we are, we have plenty of sympathy but ultimately little empathy for our students who break down in tears, who crave their parents’ embrace but are afraid to get on a train to see them. Welcome to the real world, we are inclined to say. You have somehow made it through your first 20 years naïvely protected from the effects of political violence, but for millions across the global south such is everyday existence. Your so-called innocence is a privilege you have done nothing to deserve.
But then we perhaps remember that these students are not just rich Flemish kids, but include twenty-somethings from places like Eastern Europe, East Asia and even the Middle East; from the very multi-ethnic neighborhoods of nearby (but cognitively distant) Brussels so derided in the press; from all sorts of socioeconomically under-privileged and racially under-represented backgrounds. Universities strive to be utopias (or maybe better, heterotopias, in Foucault’s terms—not no-places but different kinds of places), settings of collective striving for knowledge and betterment, where diversity of approach and background is precisely a strength, not an impingement on social cohesion. It was these students and their faculty and staff mentors who had come together in mutual care, support and solidarity, strengthening their own bonds and projecting a model of a compassionate society that could possibly come to be. Such a hopeful future requires forgetting what we think we already know from past experience about the world and how it works. It requires setting aside cynicism and taking inspiration from the Blakeian (or perhaps Lennonian) childlike innocence that had imagined, as much out of ignorance as wishful thinking, a peaceful globe where tragedy is not inevitably lurking in departure lounges and subway cars, at bus depots, music venues and malls. It may indeed require rejecting complacency with the world as it currently is, but only by doubling down on naïveté itself. In the end, all transformative politics is a naïve undertaking.
Did Russian Intervention Break the Syrian Stalemate?
It is now a cliché to say that the Syrian conflict is complicated, and has multiple regional and international drivers.
For some time, all of these complications were adduced to answer the question: “Why is there a military and political stalemate in Syria?” Beginning in September 2015, however, Russian intervention on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Asad dramatically altered the dynamics that gave rise to the deadlock. Now that Russian bombing has been suspended, many hope a political process can bring an end to the war. Instead, the conflict is likely to continue, but on a very different trajectory.
The concept of networks of violence is very useful—not for figuring out who is fighting whom at any given moment, for that is impossible, but in tracing how the stalemate emerged. Networks of violence have formed throughout the country and are a key feature of both regime- and rebel-aligned forces. There are three basic structures that serve as the nodes of the violent networks and which contribute to the non-hierarchical, fragmented nature of violence. The first node is that of the battalion or company. These battalions are typically made up of a small number of fighters who are concentrated in specific areas. An excellent example is the shabbiha groups that eventually evolved into the core of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a regime-aligned militia.
Brigades, the second node in the network, are conglomerations of battalions under a central command. These units have a much wider geographic range than battalions and are active in larger parts of cities and provinces.
A larger, non-hierarchical form of coordination is the front, the third node in the networks of violence. Fronts are amalgamations of brigades that serve more as military alliances than as chains of command. The fronts usually form in situations of battlefield necessity, and are typically composed of dozens of brigades, with a small number of powerful brigades that dominate. Loyalty is often very weak with different brigades pledging and withdrawing allegiance with alarming frequency.
The Army of Conquest, a front formed in March 2015, contained three of the more powerful rebel-aligned brigades in the northern provinces, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as four smaller brigades. Upon its formation, the Army of Conquest made military advances in Idlib and Hama provinces. These advances were halted by regime-aligned forces, as well as the defection of Jund al-Aqsa over administrative disputes. The defection of this powerful brigade emasculated the front’s capacity and led to the eventual departure of Sham Legion, one of the smaller brigades. While still operating in the northern areas, the Front’s advances have subsequently been limited.
A second example is that of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, started in 2014 as a conglomeration of northern-based brigades to coordinate military activities against the Islamic Front and other rebel brigades. Quick defeats on the battlefield led to the defection of some of the Free Syrian Army affiliates backed by the West, who formed a new coalition with Harakat Hazm and other Islamist-oriented groups called the Revolutionary Front. Within less than a year, that front, too, had been gutted by defections, including of Harakat Hazm, which dissolved into another grouping called the Levant Front. Such examples abound. As such, these networks are defined by their fluidity.
In Syria, the structure of the armed groups aligned with both regime and rebel forces is what Paul Staniland calls “fragmented,” based on their weak social and political entrenchment in the conflict landscape. The possible exception is the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units. But neither the Free Syrian Army brigades nor the NDF militias that have terrorized civilians under the pretext of security provision are deeply rooted. This lack of entrenchment is the outcome of many factors, including: the lack of political parties and associations from which to mobilize the population; the atomization of the uprising; material drivers of the conflict; and competing social bases linked to different authorities that change over time. The lack of entrenchment reveals itself in the constantly changing administrations and armed groups present in different areas. In turn, the absence of solid social bases forces different armed groups into cooperative networks that enhance their geographic reach, contribute to resource distribution and ensure their survival. In short, these groups enter into cooperative agreements for material, political or military reasons, and not necessarily ideological ones. Cooperation occurs out of necessity.
The military and political stalemate emerged because these networks are strong enough to continue fighting yet not strong enough to overtake and control territory. Regional rivalries, such as between the Saudis and Qataris on the rebel side, further ensured that resources were directed toward different networks to help maintain the stalemate. Such balances on the battlefield were reflected in the political arena, where major actors, including those inside of Syria, remained intent on a military solution to the conflict rather than a political one. A military stalemate never made political concessions attractive.
This fluid and unstable, yet proliferating, organizational structure of violence in Syria was the immediate backdrop to the Russian intervention.
One of the central questions facing armed groups in conflict is their ability to reproduce, socially, militarily and economically. They need to get recruits, find weapons and make money to finance their operations. The Russian intervention squeezed the ability of these groups to reproduce, thus altering the material and geographic conditions under which the networks of violence form. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, not to mention the suffocation of supply routes, reduced and degraded the capacity of many armed groups to the breaking point.
The disruption of the stalemate resulted in an agreement on a ceasefire, which took effect on February 27. Paradoxically, Russia’s intervention has made politics possible. But the particular kind of politics prefigured by Russia’s intervention is not one in which violence and conflict are discouraged or one in which any meaningful political demands, such as a serious, substantive political transition, may emerge.
The networks of violence have little interest in engaging in a political process that offers no tangible material benefit to them. After five years of conflict, and the development of robust war economies throughout the country, these networks in fact have a larger stake in continuing violence. In the absence of a unified rebel vision and continued infighting and fluidity between networks, there is no reason to believe that a Russian-brokered peace process would help to dissolve the networks.
When the history of the Syrian conflict is told, it will be disaggregated into various stages and periods. The transition from the period of stalemate to the period after the Russian intervention will be seen as a key turning point in the trajectory of the conflict. It will also help give insight into the different forms of authority included or excluded in future political arrangements, and the continuity of different, although no less disturbing, forms of violence in Syria.
Notes on Low Oil Prices and Their Implications
After about three years of hovering around $110 per barrel, with highs of $125 and lows of $90, oil prices began a precipitous decline in the summer of 2014, reaching a low of $48 per barrel in mid-August 2015 before plummeting to just under $30 per barrel five months later. While investors are no doubt reeling from the impact of this price decline on their portfolios and ventures, it’s well worth pondering how the Middle East and its geopolitics are likely to be affected.
But how to explain this downward spiral in the first place? By all accounts, reasons abound.
Among them: The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) chose to drive down the price of oil so as to encourage demand for oil from its member states relative to that from non-OPEC producers. Toward the end of 2014, OPEC took the decision to work to maintain its market share rather than cut production in response to falling demand. This focus on its own share of the oil market is fairly new; previously, OPEC seemed especially concerned to maintain the price of oil within a particular range. (And with that stance as “policy,” Saudi Arabia assumed the role of “swing producer,” tasked with raising or reducing production to maintain the price range.) No doubt, Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of OPEC’s new direction: It is anxious to regain domination of the oil market. And to this end, the kingdom has been keen to push Russia, which is not a member of OPEC, to pump less oil as well.
Be that as it may, analysts insist that another reason is that the supply of oil in recent years has exceeded expectations, due, in part, to the growth in supply of non-conventional oil (from such sources as shale and biofuels), while demand for oil, in an environment of relatively weak global economic growth, has been lower than expected. They add that increased energy efficiency and the declining oil intensity of energy consumption have contributed to the lower demand.
As for the latest fall in prices, some argue that it was prompted by concerns that while the market was already saturated with oil from Saudi Arabia and Russia, it would receive additional supplies from the lifting of sanctions on Iran and the end of the ban on that country’s exports. Needless to say, Iran is unwilling, at this time, to cap its production, having just returned to the global oil market. And despite last week’s agreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut their production, in response to international pressures, nothing really compels them to comply; besides, without the inclusion of Iran and Iraq such an agreement is reduced in efficacy.
Furthermore, the appreciation of the US dollar since 2014 has also pushed down the price of oil. Countries that have experienced an erosion of the purchasing power of their currencies as a result of the strong dollar may respond by curtailing demand.
What about the impact of low and falling oil prices on the Middle East, its international relations and domestic politics? There are likely to be both direct and indirect effects, but much will depend on the duration of the new lows.
Having said that, it is clear that China’s economic growth stands to benefit tremendously from low oil prices. And given that China is the largest importer of oil in the world, it is likely that the ties between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and East Asian countries, and between Saudi Arabia and China especially, will increase and deepen. Indeed, the Gulf’s eastward turn has been underway for some time, and long-term contracts are bound to grow in number and intensity.
Insofar as regional relations are concerned, no doubt the lifting of sanctions on Iran means that as Iranian oil enters the market, Iran will have the means to be more assertive in the region—precisely what gives Saudi Arabia the jitters. Nonetheless, if low oil prices persist, the growth of Iran’s refinery capacity, and therefore of its exports of refined petroleum, will be constrained somewhat.
For those oil-exporting states engaged in war, persistent low prices are potentially deeply consequential. Yet for Russia (in Syria) and Saudi Arabia (in Yemen) today, they do not yet appear sufficiently consequential.
Both countries built up large currency reserves during periods of high oil prices; both are now drawing down those reserves to sustain spending, fight wars and finance a budget deficit. It was suggested that Russia was approaching the limits of its reserves even before the intensification of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015. In October, the Russian finance minister told the parliament in Moscow that at current rates of spending, reserves could be exhausted by the close of 2016. As for Saudi Arabia, its reserves remain substantial. While one analyst, Jean Francois Seznec, has suggested that in February 2015 the kingdom had access to reserves from several different sources amounting to a whopping $1 trillion for a total population—citizens and imported labor—of about 30 million, most sources refer to cash reserves of $750 billion. Ten months later, however, reserves had declined to $600 billion. At this rate of spending (and with access to the reserves of a few domestic funds), Saudi Arabia could manage for a few more years, at least. Indeed, the monarchy has shown no disposition to retreat from its devastating war footing in Yemen.
What about the budgetary implications of low oil prices on government spending more broadly? For one, foreign assistance from GCC states to other Arab countries will likely be reduced. But while the relatively poor, non-oil exporting states of the region are bound to suffer, those to whom assistance is closely linked to political expediency will suffer somewhat less than others. (In this regard, it would be interesting to examine changes to the aid package to Egypt from Saudi Arabia and the UAE since the beginning of the presidency of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.) At home, ongoing budgetary constraints mean that government spending will have to be reduced. No doubt, austerity is far riskier in Algeria than in (most) GCC states since the per capita cushion of cash reserves is not as generous, while the provision of welfare and social services has been wanting, and popular grievances are manifest. There, the resurgence of relative scarcity and rising frustrations in an impoverished political environment could encourage, as in the past, the mobilization of social forces.
If the price of oil continues to fall and/or remains low, the creation of job opportunities (for the growing numbers of unemployed) will be even more difficult (in the short term, at least) than it has been, while subsidies extended to citizens will have to be reduced, to varying degrees. The GCC has already publicized the decision to introduce, for the first time, a value-added tax, to become operational within the next few years. Were low prices to persist, if not continue to fall over the longer term, domestic politics could be affected insofar as the distribution of oil rents functions as a powerful instrument of social control. Recall that in the early days of the 2011 Arab uprisings, fearing contagion, the Algerian regime, as well as each of the GCC states increased allocations from their burgeoning revenues to their citizens (in the hopes that this would keep them happy and off the streets).
But much depends on whether oil prices continue to fall and how long this period of low oil prices lasts. Given these uncertainties, it would be foolhardy to predict revolution in the Gulf monarchies, to say nothing of an imminent end to the Saudi aggression in Yemen.
Defending Academic Freedom
Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.
While the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) was founded in 1966, its Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) was not established until 1989. CAF’s mandate is to monitor violations of academic freedom and, where necessary, to write letters of protest to the relevant authorities, both as a means of publicizing the violations and in hopes of generating some pressure for their redress. In its first decade, the committee’s interventions were limited, in part as a function of the size of the body, but also of the sources of information available.
As use of the Internet increased, however, and through it access to a range of official and non-official news sources, so did CAF members’—indeed, everyone’s—access to information about violations. The explosion in the use of social media in the mid-2000s has also enabled committee members to obtain information from the region and our contacts there much more easily than before. Closer to home, the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the scholarly community’s reaction to it put increasing numbers of US (based) scholars into the sights of a terrorism-focused security state and its fellow travelers. Indeed, by 2007 the need to write regarding academic freedom violations in the US and Canada while maintaining our efforts vis-à-vis Middle Eastern cases led CAF to establish two wings—one covering the Middle East and the other North America. Concomitantly, the MESA board approved increasing the number of committee members. A review of CAF’s work reveals a jump from five or fewer letters annually before 2004 to an average of 20 letters per year in the period 2007-2015.
Many of the letters written about Middle Eastern cases in the last few years are directly related to the security deterioration and violence that has come to plague a growing number of countries since 2011. The scale of the destruction in the educational sector—as an integral part of broader society—has been all too clear, from Iraq to Syria and Yemen. In these cases, where documenting individual abuses is beyond the capability of the committee given the extent of the devastation, CAF has written several broad statements deploring the violence in the educational sector and its future implications.
As some Middle East Report readers who are also members of MESA know, in the first two months of 2016 CAF has already produced an unprecedented 16 letters, and others are on the horizon, including what may well be a series of interventions regarding US state lawmakers’ attempts to curb free speech regarding the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, directed at Israel.
The majority of our 2016 letters have so far been addressed to two countries. The first is Egypt, where the continuing uncertainty of the political transition in the context of a brutal military-security regime has produced a dangerous academic and research terrain in which former red lines are shifting or have blurred. The second, and the one that has triggered the unprecedented number of letters, is Turkey, where against the backdrop of an already clear authoritarian turn, the government has launched a wave of administrative, judicial and security assaults in the wake of the publication of the now famous Peace Petition regarding the escalating violence in the country’s southeast. The criminalization of all 1,128 academic signatories of this Petition, and the arrests, dismissals and threats to which the signers have been subjected, represents, at least in CAF’s experience, the broadest targeted assault against academics that we have ever seen.
There is no question that the increased access to information afforded us by various electronic media has played a role in driving the number of letters. There is also the human factor, however. CAF members are volunteers, all giving to this endeavor hours and hours of research and writing that could otherwise be spent on scholarship to advance their careers. CAF’s mission in the past and today attracts members who, for reasons of professional concern, personal commitment and deep moral outrage, have literally thrown themselves into the work of documenting what are increasingly broad and alarming threats, not just to academic freedom, but to personal freedom and, as we saw recently in Egypt, human life itself. The committee’s work is only as strong as the diligence and concern of its members, and in my experience over the past ten years as chair, its successive iterations have continued to grow in depth of commitment.
So, if it is to the tyrants of the region that we look as the source of our work, it is to committed academics like those currently serving on this committee who have embraced the growing need to defend colleagues, contacts and friends abroad that we can look for examples of some of the highest forms of professional and personal integrity that the academy can claim.