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Cyprus Internet Directory [ Time for clear definitions ]

Time for clear definitions

THERE ARE probably four main issues on the world agenda today, in no particular order: climate change, energy security (for as long as there is supply), food poverty, and political Islam. I'd like to focus a little on the latter.

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer made reference to the emerging 'new Middle East' last week. He traced the region's history, describing how Arab socialism and nationalism lost its drive following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region's authoritarian military regimes and dictatorships soon lost the backing of the people, allowing space for socially-aware and anti-Western political Islamists to fill in the gap.

Today, argues Fischer there is a new set-up with both state and non-state actors playing significant roles. Following the monumental cock-up that is the Iraq war, a few countries remain in the old Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria and Fatah-controlled Palestine), while others represent the modern face of the region, for better or for worse (Dubai, Gulf emirates, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, jihadi terrorism). The rest are caught in between (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco). He probably added the latter for its religious affiliations and not its geographic location which as far as I know, remains a stone's throw from our festival-loving Spaniards.

So, what is political Islam and is it a threat? I'd like to answer that question but I don't have the space or knowledge. One thing's for certain, the way we define an issue has a performative role on how we deal with it. Can 9/11 be seen as an expression of political Islam? If the answer is yes, then all other forms of political Islam will be seen and treated in a very particular way, without reference to their specific surroundings or the multitude of influencing factors (historical, economic, social, political and regional).

Do Christian Democrats represent a form of political Christianity? Probably, though in context, they have developed out of a gradual separation of church and state brought about through Europe's own struggles. Watch this space, however. Tony Blair just launched his Faith Foundation in New York, which proposes to make the case for 'faith' as a force for good in the world. During the launch, Blair said: “Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century,” raising once again the spectre of a “civilisational clash”. Tony, Tony, Tony... it's not about religion, it's about inequality and big boys pissing on little boys. As Graham Fuller put it: “Culture is the vehicle for expression of conflict, not its cause.”

With the help of Alastair Campbell, Blair managed to suppress any notion that religion guided him during his tenure as PM but you can't help get the feeling that it was a whole lot of misguided blind faith that got Britain involved in Iraq in the first place. It certainly wasn't for cheaper oil.

Whatever political Islam is, it’s threatening enough to get the US and EU up and about, though nowadays, spitting in someone's general direction is enough to launch a pre-emptive strike. The US has been quietly assisting Ethiopia's military activities in Somalia against the Islamists, having learnt the hard way that if you're going to enter a foreign country, you can't just send a few helicopters. You've got to be prepared to go the full nine yards, and then, when you've done that, have a post-conflict reconstruction plan in your back pocket ready to implement... or else get someone else to do it for you.

The threat of political Islam drawing a line from Somalia all the way to Mauritania was on the mind of one EU official last month when briefing a group of reporters on why the EU was sending troops to Chad. The French and Irish troops can help facilitate the protection and care of refugees escaping from the volatile Darfur region. But their real purpose is to act as a buffer between Chad and Sudan, to stop any spillover from either side to the other. Unbeknown to most, Chad is having its own rebel crisis, and the rebels there will not take kindly to French troops, who stopped them from storming the capital last year, even if they're flying the EU flag this time. And the only reason they're in Chad now is because they can't be in Sudan. The humanitarian crisis is certainly a factor, but it would be negligent not to note that political Islam is on people's minds when making policy.

Fischer describes political Islam as being “trapped in radicalism and invocation of the past”. And says it remains to be seen whether political Islam will “remove its shackles and move toward democracy and acceptance of modernity”.

He casually adds: “The forefront of this battle is, at the moment, not in the Middle East, but in Turkey; nevertheless, the result is bound to have more general significance.”

Now, it may sound like I disagreed with his whole article, but in fact I quite liked it. However, it raised certain issues, like what exactly do we understand of political Islam and are we trying to join too many dots on different pages?

Take his reference to Turkey for instance. Moderate political Islam there is a direct product of Turkey's secular history and military influence in politics, where the Kemalist Republicans (comprising the military and bureaucracy) suppressed all freedoms of expression, identity and religion, in their efforts to mould a homogeneous, secular state. At the risk of violating Code 301, Turkey is neither homogeneous nor secular. It espouses a military-approved form of Islam. What Erdogan is doing is trying to manoeuvre the country, with the backing of intellectuals, businessmen, the less marginalised Kurds and Islamists, into a position where the military's role is reduced while religious freedoms and minority rights are entrenched. Hence, the EU project. As we all can see, he's having a few problems.

Fischer is not alone in his aspirations. After the Cold War, the US found a role for Turkey to play in its Greater Middle East Project as a model of a democratised, Westernised and Islamic state. Paul Wolfowitz was quoted in 2004 saying that Turkey's job was to act as a model in the Arab world and democratise the Middle East, just like Japan did in South East Asia, so that Arabs could enjoy democracy.

He ignored a few important factors: First, no one in the Middle East believes America believes in democracy, based on their own dealings with the beacon of light. Second, Turks are not Arabs. Turkish-Arab relations were until recently still affected by ancient hatreds and mistrust as a result of Turkey's Ottoman legacy. Added to that, many Muslim Arabs frown upon Turkey's style of Islam. Third, unlike its neighbours, Turkey has been pro-Western since the birth of the Republic. It is a member of every major 'Western' international organisation, including, most importantly, NATO. Fourth, Islam is not monolithic. Fifth, there is a common notion in the West that Islam defines the political identity of the Arab world. It doesn't, ethnicity and tribal affiliation often take precedence. Sixth, propping up autocratic rulers in Arab countries doesn't help. It suppresses moderate opposition, leaving the mosques open to abuse by extremists as the only open channels of communication with the people. And seventh but not l
east, globalisation plays a role: it divides the haves of the Arab world (who tend to be Western leaning) from the have-nots who fill the slums of Arab cities, making potential recruits for extremists. Though, post-London bombings, the Middle East is not the only breeding ground for extremism.

So, yes, there are problems and dangers with political Islam, but it's time to get some clarity and transparency in our definitions and, by extension, policy-making.

On a final note, congratulations to the 111 nations that signed the treaty banning cluster bombs. Boo hoo to those who didn't: Russia, China, United States, Israel, India and Pakistan.

(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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