A Bad Map and Stale Crackers

Three items.


1. Last week, Passsport mentioned a cartographic error on Newsweek‘s map “The State of Islam Around the Globe”: Rather than marking the Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza) it labeled Israel as such. While this is a sure fumble, it is easily changed. More problematic is that the map only includes 15 “Muslim” countries, concentrated in the Middle East and Central Asia. Only Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines break the mold. But even still here, the Philippines cannot be called a “Muslim country” with a straight face. It’s population is barely 5% Muslim. The struggle in the southern part of the country raises the community’s profile, but this still does not make it a Muslim country and it is disappointing that the Philippines is included in the tally but countries such as, say, Malaysia, Sudan, Mali, Senegal, Tunisia, Gambia or Bangladesh are not. This paucity of valuable information is the most troubling part of the map, not that a small country, with a small number of people is mislabeled on a map that is easily corrected.

2. Accompanying the map mentioned above is a medium sized article by Farid Zakaria which urges policy makers to “learn to live with radical Islam,” citing important trends in Islamist behavior in Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan that suggest it is unwise to dismiss political Islam out of hand as reactionary or wholly unworkable. Instead, Zakaria contends that while “we should mount a spirited defense of our views and values,” noting that it is important to reject “the burning of girls’ schools, or the stoning of criminals”,  “the veil is not the suicide belt”. He concludes “all Islamists, violent or not, lack answers to the problems of the modern world. They do not have a world view that can satisfy the aspirations of modern men and women. We do.” Therefore, it fails whereever it is tried, much like communism. Muslims will get over political Islam in time and it is therefore more useful recognize and seek engagement with those Islamists who are not militant and those who merely use Islamism as a means towards more secular ends. Similar ideas have been around since the time first Bush adminstration (when they were dismissed or tabled until the second one), and the article would have been more useful then than now. Problematic is the following paragraph:

We have placed ourselves in armed opposition to Muslim fundamentalists stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, which has made this whole enterprise feel very much like a clash of civilizations, and a violent one at that. Certainly, many local despots would prefer to enlist the American armed forces to defeat their enemies, some of whom may be jihadists but others may not. Across the entire North African region, the United States and other Western powers are supporting secular autocrats who claim to be battling Islamist opposition forces. In return, those rulers have done little to advance genuine reform, state building or political openness. In Algeria, after the Islamists won an election in 1992, the military staged a coup, the Islamists were banned and a long civil war ensued in which 200,000 people died. The opposition has since become more militant, and where once it had no global interests, some elements are now aligned with Al Qaeda.

The point here is well taken, but poorly illustrated. While Algeria’s political process is not an open one, the fact remains that there are Islamists in the government, and that the “opposition” is not in fact “more militant”: It has, for the most part, been broken — with results that have not necessarily been positive. If Zakaria defines the Algerian “opposition” as the GSPC/AQIM, he is surely missing critical features of both Algerian and North African politics generally. Chief among these is the fact that the militant elements allied with al-Qaeda remain few in number, though still explosive, and their existence as truly independent organization (fully separate from government control or influence) is unclear. Zakaria’s piece would be more interesting if it were not so cliche. As is often the case with the Algerian anecdote, he offers no real discussion of the situation beyond an AFP blurb oversimplifying the Algerian problem. It is disappointing that 17 years after 1992 American observers still have yet to give North Africa the proper examination it is due (which is to say nothing of so much of what is written about other Muslim societies). The Algerian case would likely not have gone well with rest of Zakaria’s piece, given its particularities and unresolved problems (though the cases Zakaria uses are all unresolved or only partially resolved, solved only by his confidence in American ideology).

3. The Economist has a strong piece on Algeria’s upcoming elections, correctly labeling the country stable and stale. However, it is confused on the MSP’s inclusion in the ruling coalition. The paper writes:

Mr Bouteflika tries to surf the trend rather than resist it. His government includes the Islamists of the Social Movement for Peace, who trace their line back to Egypt’s Muslim Brothers. Their views are echoed in mosque sermons broadcast every Friday on state television.

This is true, but it should be noted that MSP was never a part of the FIS and that its inclusion is for more superficial reasons that substantive ones. While it has had success in making the police tougher on those munching during Ramadan and keeping women from regaining their rights usurped by the Family Status Law during the 1980’s, its influence is somewhat minimal and their views are rather moderate relative to the “hardcore” Islamist platform that was popular in the early 1990’s. They have become court theologians more than anything else and most people know this. Its final assessment that “[u]nder five more years of Mr Bouteflika, do not expect drastic change” is valid, though if there is any change — drastic or otherwise — it will be from the bottom up. The regime does not respond to demands for change until the eleventh hour after riots or massive strikes have occurred. It is not unthinkable that the government may be forced into making piecemeal changes that become larger as dissatisfaction grows.


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