Tag Archives: Saddam Hussein

Is Islam Compatible With Democracy? NO WAY

By Alon Ben-Meir

The question raised by the ouster of Egypt’s President Morsi is whether Islam is compatible with democracy or any form of government that empowers the people and limits the power of leaders to hold merely representative offices with limited terms of public service.

Islam is the most recent of the Abrahamic religions to emerge on the world stage. Monotheism in general, and specifically as it developed in the Dark and Middle Ages, in principle reflects extremely authoritarian regimes.

Theologically, it posits a cosmic or heavenly hierarchy with absolute authority in God, angels in go-between positions, and a fallen humanity in need of salvation at the base of the pyramidal power structure.

It is no surprise then that in the centuries wherein the Catholic Church was at its zenith of influence in the West, political power was held by kings, popes, emperors, and powerful nepotistic and despotic elite with huge economic chasms between the people and their rulers.

Obviously, these structures were not compatible with democracy.

Christianity and Judaism, being monotheistic, are no less inheritors of this stratified and centralized power paradigm, but unlike Islam these religions were effectively secularized and toned down during the century of the European Enlightenment.

Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Hegel paved the way for Marx, Schopenhauer, Buber, and Sartre to challenge conventional approaches to religious ideologies and political formations.

Traditional monotheism, with its highly categorized view of man and God, may not in itself be wholly compatible with democracy, but modern Western monotheism gradually molded itself to new ways of thinking during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and was certainly forced to do so amid rapid scientific and technological advances.

The Islamic world enjoyed its own renaissance during the Islamic Golden Age (mid-8th to mid-13th century) with advances in the sciences, mathematics, and literature, yet the period declined and has never been restored to its former glory.

Where are Islam’s corresponding great modern philosophers and scientists who can pave the way for a similar transformation of both radical and even secular Islam in the Arab world?

In the Arab world today, the majority of its intellectuals are clerics, imams, and thinkers emerging from the core of Islamic values. Radical Islam simply does not routinely nurture free thinkers willing to brave the fires of what might otherwise become an Islamic Inquisition.

Is it even possible to transition from hierarchical religious authoritarianism to a modernized and even secularized form of Islamic democracy — one that accepts the separation of church and state?

While the possibility and harsh eventuality remains, this is a tall order since Islam, perhaps more than other monotheistic religions, invites itself into every aspect of social life. More specifically, Islam is inherently and by definition inconsistent with the separation of church and state.

It is instructive that the seeming separation between the two occurred under ruthless secular dictators such Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad’s family in Syria, and Qaddafi’s Libya. In all these instances, the authoritarianism seen in the rule of the Islamist Morsi was still there.

The Middle East is not the only place where religious ideology might compel people to vote against their own social, economic, and political interests. But history teaches that if there is any prospect in wedding Islam to democratic ideals, efforts to do so must concurrently work on religious, economic, and political levels.

Religiously, the concept of the separation of church and state has practically no hold in Islamic thinking. The idea is entirely foreign to most Islamic orthodoxy, and even if a political party were secular in name, they dare not forsake the basic tenets of Islam.

The strong religious identity currently imposed on the average citizen would effect a transposition of Islamic views on political affairs, thus nullifying this vital separation of powers and coloring political discourse.

Turkey provides us with a perfect example of the failure to wed Islam to democracy. While Erdogan was supporting economic advances and paying lip service to liberty, he was imprisoning journalists and drawing to himself more and more power, leading the country increasingly by Islamic ethos rather than democratic principles.

As such, Turkey under Prime Minister Erdogan’s stewardship, who claims to have found the perfect formula that balances Islam and democracy, provides a poor model that deeply disappointed the liberal-minded Arab youth who are now fighting against Islamic despotism in Egypt.

Citizens of the Arab world first require a change from the ground up in the way their religion is approached and instituted socially, politically, and economically.

With the rise of free-thinking youth and exposure to new ways of interpreting Islam, a secularized and modernized Islam adapted to modern democratic principles must emerge.

Second, the Arab world needs egalitarian economic development that distances itself from tribal, clannish, and centralizing hegemonic models and seeks to build a strong middle class provided with basic social support in education and health care.

Third, the Arab world needs, perhaps more than anything, time. We must bear in mind that it took centuries for the Western world to free itself from the bondages of religious ignorance and the divine right of kings.

But it won’t take centuries for Arab states to emerge from the past and grow into functioning democracies because unlike the West, it does not need to wait for the concurrent advances in social, physical, and political sciences that paved the way for the industrial revolution and the information age.

The Arab youth are already exposed to new technologies, thus accelerating their ascent to democracy and the supremacy of reason, not revelation, in political discourse.

But that acceleration comes with its own pitfalls, making the current situation doubly serious and potentially calamitous for millions of innocent men, women, and children who are already suffering heavy fallout.

Hence, it is not enough, in the long term, for a country to have just economic development, like Saudi Arabia, or just elections, like Egypt and Iraq. Without balanced development, extremism in even one of the three social institutions will, left unchecked, color the other two.

Even if elected democratically, radical Islamic parties invariably presume upon themselves forms of power reminiscent of tyrannical kings. They simply have few other models for their political might or personal manliness other than monarchical rule. Egypt’s Morsi and Iraq’s Maliki provide telling examples.

I disagree with the notion that the ouster of the freely-elected Morsi will encourage opposition Islamic parties throughout the Arab world to dismiss democratic forms of governing and violently pursue their socio-political agenda in the streets as they lose faith in a free electoral system.

On the contrary, Islamic parties that seek power will do well to learn from the Egyptian experience. Being elected democratically does not bestow authoritarian powers, and governing must be inclusive, representing all the people while equally caring about their welfare, regardless of any political affiliations.

Morsi was not ousted because he is a devout Muslim; everyone who voted for him knew that only too well. Rather, by acting from a radical Islamic bent, he betrayed the premise of a freely-elected leader, which requires accountability, inclusiveness, and the responsibility to live up to the spirit of the revolution.

Moreover, Morsi failed to separate between his Islamic instincts and the democratic principles by which he was empowered to govern.

Morsi repeatedly rejected appeals from the military, the U.S., and even the Salafists to form a new inclusive government to end the crisis.

Intellectuals as well as ordinary Egyptians want their country to be modern, pluralistic, and outward-looking, and do not wish to replace one dictator with another, albeit elected.

Indeed, the blame falls squarely on Morsi’s shoulders; he subordinated politics to religion and succumbed to the conservative and religious branch of Islamists who view political Islam as the answer to centuries of deprivation and of injustice.

He worked tirelessly to consolidate his powers while doing next to nothing to save the economy from pending collapse. He placed himself above judicial review and largely appointed fellow Brothers into key posts while allowing Brotherhood hooligans to beat up liberal opponents.

If this was not enough, he undermined the core of freedom of speech by intimidating the media and failing to build democratic institutions. Moreover, he pushed for a new constitution fully reliant on Sharia law, expanded blasphemy prosecutions, and supported discrimination against women.

To be sure, Morsi surrendered to Islamic siege mentality and authoritarianism in a time when the nation was demanding inclusiveness and political freedom, which was the essence of the revolution against his predecessor in the first place.

Yes, political Islam and democracy can work, but not by pushing for early elections. A transitional government, led by a respected leader who is not shackled by a strong ideology and who can cultivate consensus and has wide public appeal, must take at least two years to allow secular and Islamic parties to develop their political platforms and make the public fully aware of their socio-economic policy and other urgent issues facing their nation.

In the interim, a new constitution should be written based on freedom, democracy, and equality with separation of church and state constitutionally enshrined. Any new constitution written in Egypt that does not clearly separate church and state will be doomed to fail, potentially ushering in yet another revolution.1

Brighter days will yet come to Egypt as long as Tahrir Square remains true to its name, “Liberation Square.” The Egyptian people have now acquired the ultimate weapon that prevents despotism — be that military, religious, or secular — from rising to power. Those who seek to lead will do well to remember that.

1. This point will be expanded in a following article, which will model a separation of church and state in Egypt that still provides a prominent role for religion in daily life.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. alon@alonben-meir.com Web: www.alonben-meir.com


Al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents exploit Iraq’s sectarian woes


Civilians gather at the site of a car bomb attack at Jadidat al-Shatt in Diyala province, 40 km (25 miles) north of Baghdad, June 10, 2013. (Reuters)

Masked gunmen stopped the bus full of Shi’ite Muslim police officers and families at what looked like an Iraqi army checkpoint on a western desert highway in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.

Two of the gunmen asked passengers one by one where they were from and then shot 14 dead in their seats, leaving one woman alive with a simple message: “Go back and tell them how we are killing you.”

Last week’s bus attack, whose details were recounted by local officials, strengthened fears that Iraq is edging back into sectarian mayhem, with al Qaeda again striking at will in a drive to provoke civil war.

Baghdad has now banned off-duty officials, police and soldiers from using the desert highway without an escort.

More than 70 people were killed on Monday alone when car bombs and attacks hit cities across northern Iraq. One assault on a police base involving suicide bombers, rockets and gunmen killed 40 people, mostly police and soldiers.

Invigorated by Syria’s Sunni-led revolt and fed by Sunni frustrations at home, al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing and other insurgents pose a violent challenge to Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government.

Iraqi officials say that in the desert near Syria men with black jihadi flags are reclaiming their former strongholds to use as staging posts in their deadly campaign.

Suicide bombers wearing explosive belts – a signature of al Qaeda – are hitting with a frequency not seen in years, implying there is no shortage of recruits ready to sacrifice themselves.

Nearly 2,000 people have died in attacks since April, according to UN figures, in the worst spike of bloodshed since Shi’ite-Sunni bloodletting eased five years ago.

Al Qaeda’s local wing, Islamic State of Iraq, may spearhead the violence, but other Sunni armed groups are also resurgent, including the Naqshbandi army, an expanding network of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party members and ex-army officers.

Shifting alliances

A few years ago Sunni tribal leaders turned on al Qaeda, disgusted by its indiscriminate killings and cadre of foreign fighters, helping US troops defeat the insurgency in Anbar.

But with the Americans gone, Iraqi forces no longer have the air cover and intelligence that US forces once supplied.

Iraqi political tensions have also favored an al Qaeda revival, with Sunni resentment against perceived discrimination by the Shi’ite-led government fuelling insurgent recruitment.

Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki now accuses some Sunni tribal sheikhs of sheltering al Qaeda militants.

“There are those who want to incite sedition by targeting a certain sect,” he said in an interview this week. “Yes, al Qaeda has a presence, but the painful thing is some tribes do not cooperate. These gangs are protected by some tribes.”

Al-Qaeda’s revival in Iraq worries Washington, which pulled out its troops at the end of 2011. Shi’ite leaders in Baghdad also fear that the conflict in Syria may bring to power Sunni Islamists who might encourage Sunni rebels in Iraq.

Iraqi government officials say Shi’ite militias, which once engaged in tit-for-tat killings with Sunni insurgents, have yet to be drawn into a new cycle of sectarian revenge.

Sunni mosques, neighbor hoods and tribal leaders have also been attacked – in some cases perhaps by Al-Qaeda provocateurs. But some Sunni leaders blame Shi’ite militias.

Al Qaeda and other insurgents no longer control vast areas or towns as in the heyday of their campaign against US troops, and Sunni support for armed rebellion is far from universal.

Yet anger among minority Sunnis over perceived slights and abuses has deepened, leading to months of mass protests. After a deadly army raid on a protest camp in the town of Hawija in April, Sunni gunmen appeared in Falluja, Mosul and other cities and fought street battles with government forces.

One Sunni lawmaker, who asked not to be named, said militants were steadily gaining strength. “They are recruiting now among the protesters, and the government has no response.”

Al Qaeda fighters use abandoned hamlets in Anbar’s Jazira desert for safe haven and temporary shelter, often with the compliance of local communities, security officials say.

“Tribes won’t revolt against them as long as they do not target their people,” said one senior police officer who asked not to be named. “They say protecting soldiers and policemen is not their responsibility, it’s the governments.”Apart from Al-Qaeda, which is partly focused on helping fellow-Sunni militants in Syria, other groups are trying to channel Sunni discontent into armed revolt against Baghdad.
In January, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, head of the Baath party and of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, formed in 2007 to fight US troops, urged Sunnis to rise against Maliki.

The Naqshbandi army plays on Sunni grievances over a law used by Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership to exclude Baathists and officers of Saddam’s disbanded army from public office. Limited concessions by Maliki have done little to defuse the anger.

Naqshbandi is now extending its influence beyond its traditional base in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, often in coordination with Al-Qaeda, security officials say.

Despite – or perhaps because of – its associations with deposed strongman Saddam, Naqshbandi has some advantages over the Islamist militants linked to global jihad, according to Ramzy Mardini, at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.

“[It] is an indigenous movement and better integrated in Iraq’s Sunni landscape than Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” he said.

The meaning of Halabja

Article Highlights

  • A chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces 25 years ago killed thousands of Kurds in the Iraqi town of Halabja, making it an international symbol and hastening negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • But the international community failed to acknowledge repeated Iraqi chemical attacks that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war, including an especially indiscriminate gassing of the Iranian town of Sardasht.
  • The international denial of Iraq’s chemical attacks is central to Iran’s defiance in regard to its nuclear enrichment program.

Halabja is a name etched in the history of chemical warfare. There are few documented instances of deliberate chemical weapons attacks against civilian communities; the one that Saddam Hussein’s forces made against the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja 25 years ago is the largest. Human Rights Watch recorded more than 3,200 immediate fatalities, with many more Kurdish citizens exposed to clouds of poisonous gas. Since the March 16, 1988 assault, thousands of people have succumbed to injuries suffered then, as well as to exposure-related health problems, including secondary infections that overwhelm compromised immune systems. Children are born with genetic defects or die prematurely because genetic damage is being passed down the generations.

In two years, the world will commemorate the centennial of modern chemical warfare. Just as the Belgian city of Ieper — where the German Imperial Army introduced the first gas attacks during World War I — is indelibly linked to its chemical past, Halabja stands as an international symbol for the many chemical attacks during the 1980 to 1988 Iran–Iraq war and the genocidal campaigns that Iraq conducted then against its Kurdish minority. In the immediate aftermath, Iran went to great lengths to publicize the bombing of Halabja, so the world would finally take notice Iraq’s violations of humanitarian law.

Despite the powerful pictures of mothers and elderly men having dropped dead in their tracks, still clutching infants, and of the discolored, bloated bodies of children, Iran has had difficulty accepting Halabja — located some 15 kilometers inside Iraq — as a symbol of the pain it suffered from chemical weapons attacks.

From the end of 1983 onward, Iran’s soldiers were regularly exposed to Iraqi chemical attack. Unprotected and ill-prepared for chemical warfare until the war’s final year, they suffered many casualties from mustard gas, tabun, and sarin; many died prolonged, painful deaths. Iran still must tend to tens of thousands of people exposed to toxic chemicals during the war.

One attack was especially indiscriminate. On June 28, 1987, Saddam’s air force struck the northern Iranian town of Sardasht. Almost three quarters of the 12,000 inhabitants were exposed to mustard gas; half of those exposed required medical treatment. Some 130 people, overwhelmingly civilians, died. Iran has since pressed for Sardasht to be internationally recognized as a memorial to the victims of chemical warfare, just as Halabja has been.

The story of Halabja is a tale of two cities and a struggle over symbols.

The legacy of Halabja. At the end of the 1980s, negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) were sputtering. The United States had just started production of then-new binary artillery shells that would, when fired, deliver the nerve gas sarin. Revelation of the Halabja attack injected impetus and urgency into the treaty negotiations and forced nations across the world to focus on terminating chemical weapons programs. Despite Western concerns about the size of the Soviet chemical arsenal and its purpose in Warsaw Pact military doctrine, almost all European NATO members vehemently opposed any plans to have binary munitions or their components pre-positioned on their territory. National political debates forced the US Army to withdraw its forward-deployed chemical munitions from West Germany in 1990.

In 1989, because Iraq had so blatantly violated international law, French President François Mitterrand convened an international conference in Paris to restore the authority of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Western complicity in Iraq’s chemical warfare — through the sale of chemical precursors and relevant equipment, arms shipments, and political and intelligence support of Iraqi war operations — had seriously undermined the protocol, the only legal instrument banning chemical weapons use then in existence.

The meeting was eventful. While Iraq was given all the consideration of a party to the Geneva Protocol, Kurdish representatives were denied a platform to address the delegates. Iran was furious about the continuing refusal to hold Iraq responsible PDF for six years of chemical warfare, claiming a moral high ground for having never retaliated in kind, despite its right to do so under then-existing international law.

In the end, delegates agreed on a final declaration that supported the Geneva Protocol and urged redoubled efforts to adopt the Chemical Weapons Convention at the earliest possible date. Following the Paris conference, several other high-level meetings that involved stakeholders other than governments — including the chemical industry — in CWC negotiations were held later in the year. In September, the United States and Soviet Union concluded the bilateral Wyoming Agreement, by which both sides agreed to verified destruction of their respective chemical weapons arsenals. It was one atrocity among many during the Iran-Iraq war, but Halabja heralded the beginning of the end of legitimate possession of chemical weapons by anyone.

The tale of two cities revisited. Iran’s struggle to have Sardasht recognized as an international symbol of its suffering reflects the isolation the country felt during the eight-year war with Iraq. The ramifications of that isolation continue today.

When the United Nations independently confirmed that chemical warfare had been conducted PDF during the Iran-Iraq war, Western nations imposed chemical weapons-related export controls on both belligerents, even though Iraq was a violator of the Geneva Protocol. Iran was denied the right to retaliate against Iraqi chemical attacks, and, according to Iranian officials I spoke with, it was also denied the defensive equipment and medical stores that would have protected its soldiers and citizens from the effects of poison gas. Iranian diplomats had to turn to the black market in the countries where they were stationed for ingredients as basic as charcoal for gasmask filters. Often they were conned, and the country started developing indigenous offensive and defensive capabilities in regard to chemical weapons. In the years since the end of the war, Iran has declared the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Today’s political leaders and much of the population belong to a generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. The experience of chemical warfare taught them that they must overcome technological backwardness to survive. It also taught them that they cannot rely on the international law for justice, or on the international community to come to their assistance in the darkest hour.

The international community’s denial of Sardasht — even more than material support for Saddam Hussein that enabled the attack on Halabja — is central to Iran’s defiance in regard to its nuclear enrichment program. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky — in all security-related matters, these are the concerns that drive the present leadership of Iran. Economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the bloody soil of the trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja may have instilled urgency in the negotiations that led to the Chemical Weapons Convention, thereby contributing to the establishment of a global prohibitory regime on the acquisition, manufacture, possession and use of an entire category of non-conventional weaponry. However, the international disregard of legitimate claims of major violations of international law for immediate geostrategic reasons makes the town also a symbol of the long-term danger of pursuing short-term interests.