Top Ten (Plus 1) Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed)

Cheerful Saturday morning reading I thought I’d post in its entirety, though I do think anyone who has the slightest interest in the Middle-East and Central Asia should make a habit of reading Juan Cole. Wish that I hadn’t missed number 8 though…

We all too often focus only on negative developments, and while it is understandable for people to keep their eyes on impending calamities, obsessing about the bad sometimes causes us to miss good news. We see a lot of that even with regard to the US. For instance, there has been a 23% decline in violent crime over the past twenty years in the US, but people who watch a lot of television (especially, I presume, police procedurals) tell pollsters they think crime has gotten worse.

I see significant positive stories in the Muslim world in 2008 that don’t get a lot of press in the US, but which will be important for the incoming Obama administration.

1. The Pakistani public, led by its attorneys, judges and civilian politicians, conducted a peaceful, constitutional overthrow of the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in 2008. Last February, the Pakistani public gave the largest number of seats in parliament to the left of center, secular Pakistan People’s Party. The fundamentalist religious parties took a bath at the polls. In August, the elected parliament initiated impeachment proceedings against Musharraf, who resigned. A civilian president, Asaf Ali Zardari, was elected. George W. Bush is reported to have been the last man in Washington to relinquish support for Musharraf, who had rampaged around sacking supreme court justices, censoring the press, and imprisoning political enemies on a whim. Pakistan faces an insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas, and problems of terrorism rooted in past military training of guerrillas to fight India in Kashmir. But the civilian parties have a much better chance of curbing such military excesses than does a leader dependent solely on the military for support. True, the new political leadership is widely viewed as corrupt, but South Korean politics was corrupt and that country nevertheless made progress. Besides, after Madoff/Blagojevich, who are we to talk? The triumph of parliamentary democracy over military dictatorship in Pakistan during the past year is good news that Washington-centered US media seldom could appreciate because of Bush’s narrative about military dictatorship equalling stability and a reliable ally in the war on terror. In reality? Not so much.

2. The Iraqi government succeeded in imposing on the Bush administration a military withdrawal from Iraq by 2011. The hard negotiations showed a new confidence on the part of the Iraqi political class that they can stand on their own feet militarily. The relative success of PM Nuri al-Maliki’s Basra campaign last spring was part of the mix here. But so too was the absolute insistence by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that any Status of Forces Agreement not infringe on Iraqi sovereignty. The Sadr Movement resorted to street politics, aiming to thwart any agreement at all, thus providing cover to al-Maliki as he pushed back against Bush’s imperial demands. The Iraqi success in getting a withdrawal agreement has paved the way for President-elect Obama to fulfill his pledge to withdraw from Iraq on a short timetable.

3. Syria has secretly been conducting peace negotiations with Israel, using the Turkish Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan as the intermediary. There are few more fraught relationships between countries in the world than the Israel-Syrian divide, but obviously Bashar al-Asad and Ehud Olmert felt that there were things they could fruitfully talk about. Ironically, the clueless George W. Bush went to Israel last spring and condemned talking to the enemy as a form of appeasement. While he got polite applause, the Israeli mainstream is far more realistic than the silly Neocons who write Bush’s speeches, and Olmert went on talking to al-Asad. Unfortunately, the Israeli attack on Gaza has caused Syria to call off the talks for now. It should be a high priority of the Obama administration to start them back up.

4. There has been a “near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.” “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” conducted numerous bombings and shootings in the period 2003-2006, during which the Saudi authorities got serious about taking it on. Saudi Arabia produces on the order of 11 percent of the world’s petroleum, and instability there threatens the whole world. The dramatic subsiding of terrorism there in 2008 is good news for every one. Opinion polls show support for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia plummeting, and determination to fight terrorism is overwhelming. In polling, a solid majority of Saudis say they want better relations with the United States. Yes. The Wahhabis are saying that. And their number one prerequisite for better relations? A US withdrawal from Iraq. (See above).

5. The crisis of state in Lebanon was patched up late last spring by the Doha agreement. Qatar’s King Hamad Al-Thani showed himself a canny negotiator. Hizbullah came into the government and received support as a national guard for the south as long as it pledged not to drag the country into any more wars unilaterally. Lebanese politics is always fragile, but this is the best things have been for years. Lebanese economic conservatism allowed its banks and real estate to avoid the global crash, and hotel occupancy rates are up 25% over 2007, with a 2008 economic growth rate of 6%. The new president, Michel Suleiman, has also pursued responsible diplomacy with Syria, and the two countries are normalizing relations after years of bitterness. For all the potential dangers ahead, 2008 was a success story of major proportions in Lebanon.

6. [pdf] Indonesia’s transition to democracy that began in 1998 has been ‘consolidated’ and it has regained its economic health, paying back $43 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund. Indonesia is the world fourth most populous country and the world’s largest Muslim country, comprising something like 16 percent or more of all Muslims. It faces many challenges, as do all young democracies, but when 245 million Muslims have kept democracy going for 10 years, the thesis that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy is clearly fallacious.

7. Turkey avoided a major constitutional crisis in 2008 when the constitutional court declined to find the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) guilty of undermining the official ideology of secularism. AKP is mildly Muslim in orientation, in contrast to the militantly secular military. The verdict gave Turks an opportunity to work on bridging the secular-religious divide. Turkey, a country of 70 million the size of Texas, is a linchpin of stability in the Middle East, and it survived a crisis here.

8. Major Arab pop singers jointly performed an anti-war opera that called for co-existence among the region’s Christians, Muslims and Jews and an end to the senseless slaughter. It ran on 15 Arab satellite channels,and one satellite channel ran it nonstop for days. It was the Woodstock of this generation in the Arab world and it got no international press at all.

9. King Abdullah II of Jordan pledged an end to press censorship in Jordan. Tim Sebastian reports,

‘The man at the center of this event was King Abdullah of Jordan, who last month gathered together the chief editors of Jordan’s main newspapers and told them that from now on there would be big changes in the country’s media environment. Specifically, no more jailing of reporters for writing the wrong thing and a new mechanism would be created to protect the rights of journalists, including their access to information. “Detention of journalists is prohibited,” he said. “I do not see a reason for detaining a journalist because he/she wrote something or for expressing a view.”‘

It is legitimate to take all this with a grain of salt, to be skeptical, to wait and see. But Sebastian is right that if the king means it, it is big news for Jordan and the Middle East, and the court in Amman should be pressured to stand by the new procedures.

10. The United Arab Emirates is creating the first carbon-free city, “Masdar,” as a demonstration project. That the Oil Gulf, a major source of the fossil fuels that, when burned, are causing climate change and rising sea levels, has become concerned about these problems, it is a very good sign.

— Informed Comment

And the eleventh, from the comments:

Anonymous said…

Not surprising that you forgot, but for millions in South Asia recently, there was very good news: Bangladesh just had free, fair, and peaceful elections. In a nation of 160 million (90% of whom are Muslim), a secularist party was elected with landslide mandate. Bangladesh is now the second largest Muslim democracy (after Indonesia) and the 6th largest democracy in the world.

http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/560410

Shayer said…

Don’t forget Bangladesh, the 4th largest Muslim country in the world just had their largely peaceful, free, and fair elections in 7 years with the secularists capturing 230 of 300 seats in the Parliament and Jamaat-i-Islami (the Islamist party)went from 20 seats in the 2001 election to only 2 seats effectively wiping them out and showing a great rejection of islamist ideologies.

The Awami League, the winners in this election, offers to share power with the losing parties and the losing party BNP conceded defeat showing a change from part politics where the oppostion would always take to the streets and protest.

The good news shows the Bangladeshis commitment to democracy and the resilience of a moderate Islam that renounces violence.

you must wait for democracy

China and democracy. Well there goes easy access to my website in China. The meme of China and its globally expanding economy under a dictatorship (or bureaucratic oligarchy) that may or may not be moving towards direct elections is the subject of a somewhat bizarre Asia Times piece.

Discounting the comparisons to the situation in Iran, the piece, which is worth a read for an overview of China’s rapid urbanisation really loses it with this line: No system of government is more successful than America’s, and the accompanying high-rotation noise of “America!!! Fuck yeah!!!”, and the basically pretty stupid sub-text that what China needs is an American-style system of government while tripping itself up with the ‘peasants aren’t ready for democracy’.

At the risk of showing profound ignorance on the political, legal, and social affairs of China, and unmitigated arrogance in even thinking I have any idea, as well as an almost total lack of research which would display on no uncertain terms why my opinion really sucks, my response to the weird belligerence of this article is this:

A Swiss-style secular direct participatory democracy under the rule of law in which each province is composed of cantonal alliances, and each province retains effective autonomy from one other and individual sovereignty in an EU-style confederation.

As China historically likes to test this stuff out in small areas then expand – or not – according to success, I think starting in my sometimes home province of Guangdong would be a fine idea, and even have a slogan: “Cantons for Canton”. harhar.

Continue reading

women’s social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy

I have pretty much steered clear saying anything about the great neo-colonial escapade in Iraq, despite keeping up with the Joneses on several blogs who are eminently competent and exceedingly well versed in the war. I’m going to make a change today, and it’s because of the last quote in this piece. It was originally posted by Other Lisa at The Paper Tiger, and cross-posted at The Peking Duck. The title of this post is from a quote of Reuel Marc Gerecht and it’s worth making yourself a coffee now, sitting down and reading the whole thing, and the comments at Peking Duck which further add to the post.

Everybody Look What’s Going Down…

With 60% of Americans now dissapproving of the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq, prominent U.S. Republican senator Chuck Hagel has joined the chorus of criticism, saying that Iraq is looking more and more like Vietnam. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, also stated that far from making us safer, the conflict has helped further destablize the Middle East:

“We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Hagel said on “This Week” on ABC. “But with this understanding, we cannot leave a vacuum that further destabilizes the Middle East. I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.”

Hagel said “stay the course” is not a policy. “By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq … we’re not winning,” he said.

Hagel’s statements come on the heels of an announcement by the Army’s top general that the Army is making plans for a “worse-case scenario,” in which US troop strength would be maintained at its present levels, over 160,000 soldiers, for the next four years. Hagel, once a partisan of greatly increasing troop strength in Iraq, now believes that we are past the point where more troops can bring any greater stability to Iraq:

“We’re past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar… to where we were in Vietnam,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”

Moreover, he described the Army contingency plan as “complete folly.”

“I don’t know where he’s going to get these troops,” Hagel said. “There won’t be any National Guard left … no Army Reserve left … there is no way America is going to have 100,000 troops in Iraq, nor should it, in four years.”

Hagel added: “It would bog us down, it would further destabilize the Middle East, it would give Iran more influence, it would hurt Israel, it would put our allies over there in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a terrible position. It won’t be four years. We need to be out.”

To put a capper on this misbegotten, morally dishonest venture, word out of Iraq today on the new constitution is that the US is conceding to Iraqi Islamists:

Islam will be “the main source” of Iraq’s law and parliament will observe religious principles, negotiators said on Saturday after what some called a major turn in talks on the constitution and a shift in the U.S. position.

If agreed by Monday’s parliamentary deadline, it would appear to be a major concession to Islamist leaders from the Shi’ite Muslim majority and sit uneasily with U.S. insistence on the primacy of democracy and human rights in the new Iraq.

(IF the draft is approved – Sunni representatives have just appealed to the US to help stop this draft from being pushed through parliament by majority Shi’ites and Kurds, warning that it will worsen the crisis in Iraq).

So there you have it. Every justification this administration made for this war has now officially been swept into the dustbin of history. Wasn’t one of the reasons we fought this war to prevent the expansion of radical Islamists? Can a government based on Islam possibly be “dem0cratic” in any real sense?

Of particular concerrn is the status of women, who, at the risk of stating the obvious, have not fared well under Islamic regimes. Sharia law has been used to justify women’s lack of suffrage, unequal right of inheritance, of divorce, to control their freedom of movement, their access to education, as an excuse for physical abuse, even murder, at the hands of their husbands and fathers and brothers. I’m going to quote blogger Digby here, as he puts it better than I can:

Iraqi women have enjoyed secular, western-style equality for more than 40 years. Most females have no memory of living any other way. In order to meet an arbitrary deadline for domestic political reasons, we have capitulated to theocrats on the single most important constitutional issue facing the average Iraqi woman — which means that we have now officially failed more than half of the Iraqis we supposedly came to help. We have “liberated” millions of people from rights they have had all their lives.

This is not to say that an Islamic theocracy is fine in every other way. It will, of course, curb religious freedom entirely. Too bad for the local Jews and Christians — or secularists, of which there were many in Iraq. It will restrict personal freedom in an infinite number of ways. Theocracies require conformity in thought, word and deed.

And all of this must be viewed within the conditions that exist in this poor misbegotten place as we speak. The country is on the verge of civil war. Chaos reigns. Daily life is dangerous and uncomfortable.

It simply cannot be heroic for the richest, most powerful democratic country on earth to claim the mantle of liberator only to create a government that makes more than half the population second class citizens and forces the entire country live in conditions that are less free and more dangerous than before.

It is certainly not acceptable for that country to take any credit for spreading freedom. Creating an Islamic theocracy is anything but noble. It is a moral failure of epic proportions.

As an update, Digby passes us over to James Wolcott:

Reuel Marc Gerecht (American Enterprise Institute, neo-con war hawk), discussing the forthcoming Iraqi constitution on Meet the Press, August 21: “Women’s social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy. We hope they’re there, I think they will be there, but I think we need to keep this perspective.”

Gosh. Thanks, guys. Good to know that this Administration’s war architects don’t think women’s rights fundamentally contribute to democracy. Funny, I’m somehow not surprised…