Final Reflections

Before I took this class, I honestly knew little to nothing about the Middle East or North Africa. Looking through my blog now, I’m honestly amazed by how much I’ve learned in the past four weeks. All of the work I’ve done has literally worked to build my entire knowledge of MENA. I don’t think that it would be possible for me to detail everything I’ve learned this semester in a 1,500 word post, so I’ll do my best to summarize. First, I learned a lot about the effects of colonialism in MENA. I learned how the current economic and political aspects of these countries were largely shaped by the Western examples (namely, Britain and France) who once colonized them. I learned about the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, the weak states left behind in MENA by European imperialism, and that the U.S. now has a military presence in almost every Middle Eastern country. I also learned about the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s security apparatus under Saddam Hussein, and all of its multiple and overlapping (but importantly separate) organizations. I learned about Egypt as a hopeful revolution, under Morsi, and under Sisi. The hopeful revolution (led by Morsi) happened due to the extremely repressive dictatorship of Mubarak, as well as horrible financial issues and lack of dignity of the Egyptian people. The revolution ended via many Egyptians’ requests for the military to overthrow Morsi, as many thought that he was trying to turn Egypt into a theocracy. Thus, the military took over, and al-Sisi gained power. I learned why there was an uprising in Syria, why that uprising turned into a civil war, the role that external powers have played in the civil war, and the many, terrible costs of the civil war. I then learned about the role of the Wahhabi ‘Ulema in Saudi Arabia, and the tricky balance of power between the ‘Ulmea and the royal family. The two have a sort of symbiotic relationship, where the royal family grants the ‘Ulema power over the social sphere, and the ‘Ulmea grants the royal family the religious legitimacy which they sometimes require to pass certain laws without the people rebelling. I also learned about the political rights of the people of Jordan, and those rights compared with the rights of citizens of other nations in the region. I learned that Jordan is walking on seemingly thin ice. The king and the government are trying to meet the demands of the people for more civil and political rights, but only incrementally, as they do not want to lose power. The people are trying to gain more civil and political rights for themselves, but are also trying to avoid a civil war. In regard to Lebanon, the most interesting thing that I learned was that it is in the middle of a terrible garbage crisis. This was very interesting to me, as I have a lot of Lebanese family, and had no idea that this was going on. I also learned that Lebanon has an extremely corrupt government, and that most citizens don’t trust it at all. I also learned about the disparity between academia, the media and the public on their knowledge of Islam and Islamism. The frankly incorrect and insulting image that many people have of Islam is very depressing to me. I learned about the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the roles that Islam plays in each of them. I learned that Iran is the only example of an Islamic state that has ever been installed via a popular revolution, which I found to be very surprising. I also learned about the Iranian “Supreme Leader”, or “Faqih”, who has immense power over the people, despite the fact that Iran is (in part) a democracy. Next, I learned about the Islamist groups Hamas and Hizballah. Hamas is located mostly in Gaza, while Hizballah is in Lebanon. Hamas and Hizballah both have a history of using violence, but both are also currently in the process of participating in the political sphere of their countries. Despite this, chances of either of them going totally “legit” in the near future is unlikely. Beyond the Mukhabarat, I learned much more about Iraq. I learned how years of U.S. occupation left the country in terrible shape. Babies are being born with horrible diseases and deformations (likely from the residue of bombs dropped by the U.S.), there are over 3 million IDPs, and many citizens are lacking basic necessities. In addition, in many cases the Iraqi government will arrest their own citizens without due process, and will even deny the citizens a right to an attorney. Finally, I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in great detail. I learned how Israel became a state, how the Palestinians waged war on it, and how Israel then expanded into Palestine’s borders. I learned that Israeli settlers were (illegally) moving into the West Bank, and establishing neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and segregated roads there. I also learned how seemingly impossible the conflict is to solve. In short, I learned a LOT in this class.

In my blog, I mostly created infographics because I thought that this class presented an awesome opportunity to stray from the typical essay/ test structure of learning. I had a lot of fun working with different colors, organization styles, and information. I’m very much a visual/ auditory learner, so I feel that for the most part, I learned and retained more information via the infographics than I did via the short writing assignments.

If someone else were to stumble upon my blog as a journal of my “fieldnotes” in studying the Middle East, I think that they would notice that I tended to gravitate toward the themes of war and corruption. I am very interested in the Syrian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian-Palestinian conflict, etc. I am also interested in learning about the injustices committed against the citizens by the governments of Iraq, Syria, etc. I think that it’s interesting to study governments that are so vastly different than our own. I am so used to studying American politics that studying the politics of the Middle East came as a very welcome and interesting change.

I wish that we had had time to learn about Libya and Tunisia. From what I know (not much at all), Libya is a failed state, and Tunisia is very stable. I think that it would have been interesting to study these two extremes. I also would have found it interesting to have had a unit on Afghanistan. Overall, however, I realize that this is a 4-week class, and that an in-depth study of every country in MENA is unrealistic. I am very happy with the amount of information that we did get to cover in this class.

As for the future of Middle Eastern politics, I don’t think that it can all be grouped into one overall prediction. MENA is full of diverse states, people, cultures, and situations. I think that the future of Egypt will either be glued to al-Sisi’s rule of an iron fist, or will break back down into rebellion and chaos. In order for the latter to occur, the people would have to be defiant enough to stand up against the military, and surely many, many lives would be lost. In Syria, I unfortunately think that Assad will eventually regain total authoritarian, if not totalitarian, control of the state. I really do not see how Syria could ever be any sort of real democracy anytime in the near future. Assad is already regaining control of many previously opposition-held cities, so honestly, not much has to change in order for my prediction to occur. I do not think that the symbiotic relationship between the Wahhabi ‘Ulema and the royal family in Saudi Arabia is sustainable. As Dr. Brown pointed out in his mini-lecture on Saudi Arabia, there have recently been some “awkward” exchanges between the royal family that the ‘Ulema. I think that greater conflict between these two powerful groups is inevitable. In my opinion, the future of Jordan is very difficult to predict. While many consider Jordan to be incredibly democratic and liberalized for the Middle East, I’m not too optimistic about the direction it’s been heading in recent years. It’s been decreasing its citizens’ internet freedoms drastically in the past few years, and many of the most skilled Jordanians are leaving the country in search of better-paying jobs. Overall, I don’t think that Jordan will ever sink to a level as low as Syria, but I’m not sure that it will indefinitely remain as seemingly democratic as it is right now. In order for this to happen, the people would have to attempt to protest and rebel, and the government would have to crack down hard. The future of Lebanon is hard to predict, as well. Lebanon is such a sectarian country, and it is at such a current standstill politically, that it’s difficult for me to imagine how it might change in the near future. However, what I do know is that the Lebanese garbage crisis is either going to get resolved or get horribly worse with terrible consequences, and unfortunately, it currently seems that the latter is far more likely. If the politicians continue to ignore the problem, then things will only get worse. In the case of Iran, I think that a more real form of democracy is a real possibility for the future. Iran recently elected a new Assembly of Experts, who are in charge of selecting the next Supreme Leader once the current one dies or becomes very ill. The current Supreme Leader is likely to die soon. This opens up the possibility that this new Assembly of Experts could possibly elect a new Supreme Leader who is far less theocratic. As for Hamas and Hizballah, it is unlikely that either of them will go fully “legit” anytime in the near future. However, if one were to go legit, then Hizballah would be a more likely candidate than Hamas. Hamas is far too caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to consider completely halting their violent tactics anytime soon. As for Iraq, I unfortunately don’t think that the future will be bright. The nation is still suffering greatly from years of U.S. occupation, their government is terribly corrupt, and many lack basic services such as water, electricity, and healthcare. There are over 3 million IDPs in the country, many with no place to live. When you combine this with Iraq’s infamous Mukhabarat and corruption, it does not look like there is much that could change to lead to a brighter future for the Iraqi people. Finally, and possibly more bleak than anything else that I learned in this class, I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My prediction for the future of Israel-Palestine is, unfortunately, that Israel will (illegally) continue to push further and further into Palestinian territory. Now that the U.S. has backed out of the UN Human Rights Council, they will surely continue to fund Israel, and perhaps even more than they had originally been. Either way, I don’t think that the future will be bright for the Palestinian people. This will likely lead Hamas to commit more violent acts. Overall, the conflict seems like it can only get worse for the time being.

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All of the sources that I used to come to the conclusions in this reflection can be found on my blog.

SUBTOPIC 13.2: A PEACEFUL FUTURE?

The year is 2028. As I look out across the ancient city of Jerusalem from my veranda, I see nothing but holy ruins, children playing in the streets, and tourists bustling along to site after site. The only sound in the air is the singing of birds, the light whistling of the breeze, and the hearty laughter of former enemies finally settling down into the peace they never thought they could attain. This is nothing like the Jerusalem I remember from 2018. I am experiencing nothing like the fear that used to strike my heart at the sound of the bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip, the air-raid sirens warning of incoming rockets fired from Gaza, or the F-16s and Apache helicopter gunships overhead. This is peace. This is impossible peace.

It all began with what they are now calling the “New Two-State Solution” of 2019. The 1967 Armistice lines endorsed by the United Nations, European Union and Russia, and the United States just weren’t working out for the people of Israel-Palestine. Nevertheless, the solution had to come in the form of a two-state solution. In a study by Maoz et al., it was discovered that when it came to peace proposals, may Israelis and Palestinians actually had quite similar opinions on what solution would be best (one-state vs two-state solutions, etc.) (2002). The point of the study’s findings was that it didn’t particularly matter to the people what the solution was chosen, so long as they believed that it was chosen by their own nation, and not the nation of their enemies. Nevertheless, the solution had to be a two-state solution because so many feared that a one-state solution would inevitably lead to an apartheid-like situation (Brown, 2018). While many believed that Hamas would never recognize Israel as a state, and that this would permanently prevent a two-state solution from ever working, “what Hamas and other Palestinians [did] not recognize as legitimate [were] the [then-current] borders of the Israeli state and the policies enacted by the state of Israel, especially with regard to the Separation Wall, ever-increasing illegal settlements in the West Bank, and the unrelenting Israeli military and political occupation” (Brown, 2018). It wasn’t necessarily the state of Israel itself which Hamas was so against (as of around the year 2000), but more so the actions of Israel. Thus, while peace seemed impossible to most in 2018, the future would soon prove them wrong.

The United Nations, the European Union, Russia, the United States, and a few of the Gulf States (most notably, Saudi Arabia), all agreed to contribute financially to the seemingly crazy idea of building on an extra landmass to the Western border of Israel, extending into the Mediterranean Sea. They were all fed up with the hatred, violence, and violation of international laws happening in the region, and they decided to work together to fight the injustices happening on both sides of the conflict (particularly, the horrible violence cause by Hamas, the Israeli military, and the violation of international law via Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and Separation Wall). Moreover, they were terrified that if the conflict were left unattended, it could spawn the third Intifada (Ehrenreich, 2013). The United States was the most reluctant to join this solution at first, but by their presidential election in 2020, they attained refreshingly new leadership and decided to join the other nations in their pursuit of peace. This landmass was the key aspect of the New Two-State Solution. They hired thousands of unemployed workers from both Gaza and from Israel in order to build the landmass, lowering unemployment by a record amount in just weeks (Booth and Taha, 2017). This landmass has not only created more space for the Israeli settlers to migrate to, but has also helped to solve the problem of the 9 mile-wide, “impossible to defend” strip of Israel which once laid between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea (Burgess, 2011). In addition, this helped to solve the problem of the Israeli occupation of the Jordan River Valley, in which Israel previously wanted to maintain a military presence because it insisted that it was necessary in order to ward off attacks from the East (Burgess, 2011) and (Zahriyeh, 2014). Slowly but surely, the barrier wall which Israel had been building (sometimes as far as 10 miles into the border of the West Bank) was altered to reflect the true borders of the 1967 lines. As forcible population transfer is illegal under international law, the Israelis could not be forced out of their homes within the Palestinian borders. (Brown, 2018). Many of their communities there were very established, with schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods. To attack this issue, the same group of nations who contributed to the building of the landmass in the Mediterranean Sea also hired out many of the unemployed citizens of both Israel and Gaza to build even nicer schools, neighborhoods and hospitals on the new landmass. They also paid for these workers to build a vast train network and new roads to facilitate the movement of Israelis from the West Bank to this new landmass. Incentivized by the idea of moving away from their enemy Jordan, and by distancing themselves from their Palestinian neighbors, as well as the idea of the very nice, affordable infrastructure of the new landmass (and the newly facilitated means of travel to get there), many Israeli settlers began to move from the West Bank to the new landmass. This same logic also applied to the Israelis who had moved to the Palestinian side of Jerusalem (Burgess, 2011). Many of them packed up and left for the new landmass in the years after the New Two-State Solution was implemented. The New Two-State Solution required that the Israeli constructions which blocked off Palestine from their Eastern half of the holy city be brought down, so that the two nations could once again share the city (Fisher, 2016). Another provision of the New Two-State Solution completely delegitimized the idea of the “Areas A, B and C” of the West Bank, as made under the Oslo Agreement (Brown, 2018). Full Palestinian authority (both political and security control) was to be the new norm for the entirety of the West Bank. All Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank were closed down in the years following the implementation of the solution, and the previously segregated roads were returned to the Palestinians. This was yet another factor which incentivized Israelis to migrate to the new landmass. Once the Israelis left, the Palestinians were free to move into their nice neighborhoods and occupy the fertile farmland they left behind, vastly improving their way of life.

An additional positive effect of all of this was the fact that many Israelis and Palestinians spent hours, days, months, and even years working side by side in order to build all of these new additions to the former Israel-Palestine, forcing them to work together. In many cases, the people of the two bickering nations came to see each other as more human, and to hate each other less. In some cases, friendships were even fostered. However, it was not just the Israelis who had to uproot their lives in order to make this peace negotiation a reality. There were also many Palestinians who had to make some major changes. Namely, in exchange for the re-instatement of Gaza and the West Bank for the Palestinians, Hamas had to turn in its weapons and finally become a fully legitimate political party. In addition, the Palestinian Authority had to go. It had, for years, been a government of corruption and impotence (Brown, 2018). It spent more money on its police apparatus than it did on education and health combined, did nothing to stop the Israeli settlers from bringing physical harm to Palestinians and their property, and it even killed scores of its own Palestinian citizens in order to coordinate its security activities with Israel and the United States (Brown, 2018). Instead, the Palestinian government was replaced with a new, far more legitimate democratic government. They now have a central capitol in the West Bank, but are very much in connection with Gaza. The new government is simultaneously less corrupt than Fatah, and less fundamentalist than Hamas. The two nations now each have established borders, Israel has a new landmass for its settlers, and the eyes of more than a few world powers are on the region in order to prevent any potential further conflict.

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I came to this alternative scenario by looking at the maps listed on the Module. I realized that a lot of the issue was that Israeli settlers kept moving into the West Bank for various reasons, and I wanted to find a way (if very far-fetched) to solve that, and other, problems. I realize how ridiculous this plan sounds, but honestly (and unfortunately), it seems to me that this is no more impossible than any of the other peace plans that have been proposed. Dr. Brown was absolutely right in his mini-lecture. This issue induces nightmares. The creative writing style of this assignment helped me to realize just how ridiculously complex this conflict between Israel and Palestine is, and why it is so controversial. I now understand why the conflict hasn’t been resolved yet. Honestly, I can think of no feasible way to solve it anytime in the near future, unless something changes drastically.

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Belnin, Joel, and Lisa Hajjar. “Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.” Middle East Research and Information Project, 2014.
Booth, William, and Sufian Taha. “Israeli Occupation Turns 50: A Palestinian’s Commute through Checkpoint 300.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/occupied/checkpoint/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3ece111c8f75.
Brown, Dan. “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” MENA. 5 July 2018, Norman, Oklahoma.
Burgess, Joe. “Challenges in Defining an Israeli-Palestinian Border.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2011, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/05/world/middleeast/challenges-in-defining-an-israeli-palestinian-border.html?_r=0.
Ehrenreich, Ben. “Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/magazine/is-this-where-the-third-intifada-will-start.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all&.
Fisher, Max. “The Two-State Solution: What It Is and Why It Hasn’t Happened.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Dec. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/world/middleeast/israel-palestinians-two-state-solution.html.
Robinson, Glenn E. Palestine. 2017.
Sucharov, Mira, and Hamed Mousavi. State of Israel. 2017.
Zahriyeh, Ehab. “Maps: The Occupation of the West Bank.” Al Jazeera America, 2014, america.aljazeera.com/multimedia/2014/7/west-bank-security.html.

SUBTOPIC 12.1: IRAQ A FAILED STATE?

ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ AFTER NEARLY A DECADE OF CONFLICT

All over Iraq, many people are fed up with the lack of basic services and jobs, political corruption, and the regional powers which seem to have more influence over the people’s destinies than the people themselves do. They possess a deep, lingering bitterness about what invasion and nine years of U.S. presence in Iraq has created (Rewind, 2018). The Iraqi people fear the prime minister, and specifically his expansive grip on power. They fear the government’s security forces (Mukhabarat), the armed groups of sectarian politics, and regional power struggles. They fear that the “ghosts of the past will never stop haunting the present” (Rewind, 2018). Even more horrifying, all of this distress took place before the rise of DAESH in Iraq. From 2006-2008, Iraq was at a breaking point, dangerously close to a civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites (Rewind, 2018). By 2012, the Americans were leaving Iraq, the AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) had been defeated, and DAESH began to form. Much of the recent conflict in Iraq has centered around DAESH. According to Brown (2018), “there is no DAESH without the fall of Iraq… DAESH emerge[d] from former Iraqi soldiers mixing with AQI”, and was originally led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Today, the number of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Iraq is over 3 million, and the Iraqi government has been a big part of the problem (Rewind, 2018). The living conditions of these 3 million people are severely bad. Many of these people are taken through screening procedures where families are separated. Many of them are arrested under suspicions of collaborating with DAESH. Tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been arrested in the last few years with no due process and no access to legal guidance (Rewind, 2018). These arrests have mostly been made based on tips form informants. As if that weren’t enough, the reconstruction effort which has been promised to the citizens by the government has not even started. Much of the infrastructure of Iraq is devastated after nearly a decade of conflict. Babies are being born with horrific birth defects, and many are dying (likely from the chemical residue left behind by American warfare) (Rewind, 2018).

THE STATIS OF THE POLITICAL SYSTEM IN IRAQ: THE STATE’S INABILITY TO MAINTAIN ORDER AND PROVIDE THE BASIC FUNCTIONS OF A STATE

When the Americans pulled out of Iraq in 2012, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki began to intensify his efforts to consolidate his power among the Shia majority, thus marginalizing the Sunni minority. This led to massive Sunni protests, and a surge of sectarian killings became the new normal in Iraq. According to Vice, “in 2012 alone, there were more than 1,600 deaths” (2013). Doostdar elaborates on this, stating that “in the sectarian bloodshed that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invasion, beheadings by Sunni insurgents turned into a morbid form of reciprocity with Shi‘a militiamen who bore holes into their victims using power drills” (2014). Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, many Iraqis today find themselves missing the stability of his regime. Hundreds of the checkpoints established by the U.S. military during their occupation of Iraq are still in use today in order to check for car bombs (Vice, 2013). Every street in every major area has a checkpoint. Unfortunately, much of the technology that the Iraqi soldiers use at these checkpoints is largely overpriced and ineffective (Vice, 2013). Many Iraqis believe that their political leaders “perpetrate conflicts for their own collective and personal benefits, while ignoring big and important issues” (Rewind, 2018). As an example, a lot of the money that was meant to help Iraq get back on its feet has either been stolen or squandered, “sometimes with deadly results” (Vice, 2013). Additionally, DAESH “has had to work with secular Ba‘athists, former army officers, tribal councils, and various Sunni opposition groups, many of whose members are in administrative positions”, which does not exactly speak well of the government (Doostdar, 2014). Doostdar also says that “CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting ‘young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology'” (2014). The fact that this has all happened under the Iraqi government does not suggest that it is robust and capable of maintaining order as well as the basic functions of a state. In Mosul, many of those who joined ISIS in the summer of 2013 had been “previously imprisoned by the Iraqi government, and they numbered in the thousands and included peaceful protesters who opposed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule” (Doostdar, 2014). Overall, I do not believe that the Iraqi government is robust and capable of maintaining order as well as the basic functions of a state.

THE MOST PRESSING RECENT ISSUES IN IRAQ, THE PRINCIPAL PLAYERS IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE, AND THE MAY 12, 2018 ELECTIONS 

One of the most pressing recent issues in Iraq is most definitely the 3 million IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who are largely living in horrible conditions. Many are without electricity, sufficient food, and live in constant fear of eviction from their terrible makeshift homes (Rewind, 2018). Another pressing issue is that tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been arrested in the last few years with no due process and no access to legal guidance (Rewind, 2018). In addition, as previously discussed, the reconstruction effort which has been promised to the citizens by the government has not even started. Much of the infrastructure of Iraq is devastated after nearly a decade of conflict. There are countless homes without electricity, and much of the peoples’ food is being provided by foreign aid. Babies are being born with horrific birth defects, and many are dying (likely from the chemical residue left behind by American warfare) (Rewind, 2018). Many Iraqis believe that their political leaders “perpetrate conflicts for their own collective and personal benefits, while ignoring big and important issues” (Rewind, 2018). In fact, conditions are so unstable now that many Iraqis find themselves (somewhat) reminiscing about the stability of Saddam Hussein’s regime, despite his horrible dictatorship. Iraqi society is also currently facing two extremes: on one side, a very conservative, religious Islamic group, and on the other a group which attempts to copy Western society without really understanding it in the first place. This obviously leads to many conflicts (Vice, 2013). All of these are recent, pressing issues in Iraq.

The principal player in the Iraqi political sphere is Prime Minister is Haydar al-Abadi, who has been in power since 2014 (Ahram, 2017). Iraq’s President is Fuad Masum, and its major political parties include the State of Law Coalition (29%), Sadrist Movement (10%), the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (9%), the Kurdish Democratic Party (8%), the United for Reform Coalition/ Mittahidun (7%), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (6%), the Nationalism Coalition/ al-Wataniyyah (6%), the al-Arabiyah Coalition (3%), the Fadilah (2%), the National Reform Trend (2%), the Iraq Coalition (2%), and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (1%) (Ahram, 2017).

The May 12, 2018 election in Iraq was very complex, but one thing was clear: the Iraqi people are sick of Iranian and American interference in their country (Ibish, 2018). Thanks to a 2010 court ruling, the “first crack at forming a new government does not automatically go to the electoral victor but, assuming nobody has an outright majority, to whoever can assemble the biggest post-election bloc” (Ibish, 2018). Thus, the actual results of the election could take months to discern. One possible outcome is that Moqtada al-Sadr may win a governing majority in the parliament. He is a “mercurial, hyperbolic, idealistic… and ever-changing man”, with “‘Iraq first’ rhetoric, which is simultaneously anti-American and anti-Iranian”, and “a fiery condemnation of existing politics and governance and demands for professionalism and technocrats in government, all the while lashing out at those he casts as political hacks or religious demagogues” (Ibish, 2018). Needless to say, he’s not America’s top pick. However, his win could mean a new “Iraqi government that is surprisingly independent of Tehran’s influence and open to reintegrating Iraq into the Arab world” (Ibish, 2018). On the other hand, however, an overtly pro-Tehran government could emerge if all of the pro-Iranian forces in parliament (“including the Fatah Alliance representing the sectarian Shiite militias, along with parties loyal to Abadi and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as smaller groups such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan”) choose to band together (Ibish, 2018). However, in a recent development, Iraq has decided to hold a manual recount of the May election results, due to Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi’s claim that there had been serious violations during the original count (Aboulenein, 2018). This act “pits the government and parliament against the election commission, which is meant to be independent”, and has only raised further uncertainty in Iraq. Much of this uncertainty is spurred by the fact that the anti-Iranian, “Iraq First” Moqtada al-Sadr had originally won the election (Aboulenein, 2018). The prime minister’s own bloc came in third. The leadership of Iraq’s Independent High Elections Commission has been suspended by a parliamentary vote, and is to be replaced by “nine judges”, all picked by Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council (Aboulenein, 2018). Despite the fact that the “new electronic vote counting system was introduced by IHEC on the grounds that it could reduce fraud and speed up delivery of the results”, it has been indefinitely banned, and all election results will now be processed manually (Aboulenein, 2018).

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EXTERNAL PIECE OF INFORMATION ON THE OUTCOME OF THE MAY, 2018 ELECTION (REFERENCED ABOVE, ALSO THE SOURCE OF THE PHOTOGRAPH)

Aboulenein, Ahmed. “Iraq to Hold Manual Recount of May Election Results.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 6 June 2018, www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-election/iraq-to-hold-manual-recount-of-may-election-results-idUSKCN1J2228.

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How did roleplaying as a journalist affect how you approached and described the issues and how you answered the questions?

I think that roleplaying as a journalist on this particular subtopic was particularly helpful because of all of the videos (Vice, Rewind, etc.) that are associated with this Module helped me to get into the “journalist” mindset. This mindset helped me to approach and describe these issues with the voices of the Iraqi people in mind, as I heard many of them in the videos. All my life I’ve grown up hearing terrible things about places like Iraq, and this perspective helped me to see it in an entirely new light. Unfortunately, I am not too hopeful for the future of Iraq after the May 2018 elections. Before the mandatory manual recount, Ibish (2018) said that “there [was] no likelihood of an overtly anti-Iranian government in Baghdad. But there [was] a real possibility, and arguably even a likelihood, of a Sadr-led coalition that is non-Iranian in orientation. How stable that could be, and to what extent it could really contribute to the emergence of an increasingly independent Iraq not under the control of the U.S., Iran or the Arab countries, [would have remained] to be seen”. Reading this gave me hope. Then, I learned of the recount. After Sadr had already won, the sitting prime minister demanded a mandatory, manual recount, going to ridiculous lengths, likely to ensure that the current pro-Iranian government remains in power. As Vice (2018) found in their documentary, “today, Iraq is looking to the past instead of the future”. That being said, I do not think that Iraq is “doomed” to be a failed state. There is still somewhat of a promise for a stable Iraq, no matter how slim it may be. Although things are certainly not headed in a good direction right now, there is still time for the course of events to change. This is not likely, but it is not impossible.

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Aboulenein, Ahmed. “Iraq to Hold Manual Recount of May Election Results.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 6 June 2018, www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-election/iraq-to-hold-manual-recount-of-may-election-results-idUSKCN1J2228.

Ahram, Ariel I. Republic of Iraq. 2017.

Brown, Dan. “IRAQ/ISLAMIC STATE (DAESH).” MENA. 2 July 2018, Norman, Oklahoma.

Doostdar, Alireza. “How Not To Understand ISIS.” Jadaliyya – جدلية, 2014, www.jadaliyya.com/Details/31296/How-Not-To-Understand-ISIS.

Ibish, Hussein. “Who Lost Iraq’s Election? Iran and America.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 25 May 2018, www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-05-25/iraq-s-election-the-u-s-lost-but-iran-lost-worse.

“Iraq after the Americans.” Rewind. Al-Jazeera English, February 9, 2018. 

“Iraq: Battle for Mosul.” 101 East. Al-Jazeera, March 30, 2017

VICE. In Saddam’s Shadow: Baghdad 10 Years After the Invasion, 2013.

SUBTOPIC 11.2 – INCLUSION AND MODERATION

The future of Hamas does not look bright. It is true that “ever since Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, the U.S. and EU have demanded that Hamas disavow violence and extend de jure recognition of Israel. Hamas’s support for the [peaceful protest] march does not mean it is ready to take such steps—but it is significant nonetheless” (Stock, 2018). Hamas has certainly taken steps toward a more peaceful protest of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but I am unfortunately not so sure that this approach can last. Hamas has been “backing largely unarmed demonstrations and calling on protestors to maintain the peacefulness of the movement”, which in theory could force Israel to lift its sanctions against the Palestinian people in “five to 10 years”, as has been the case in both South Africa and in India (Stock, 2018). If this peace could be continued, then Hamas could have a real chance at “going legit”. Unfortunately, though, “given the gradual collapse of its economy, as well as rapidly-failing health, water and electrical infrastructure, it is difficult to envision Gaza being able to sustain such protests—absent significant aid from the international community and a real change to the Israeli-Egyptian closure regime” (Stock, 2018). The future of Hizballah, while certainly still unlikely to move toward moderation and complete legitimacy, may have a slightly brighter future. Ever since 1992, Hizballah has had a “reputation—even among those who disagree vehemently with their ideologies—for being a “clean” and capable political party on both the national and local levels”, and more recently it has emerged as a “strong contender in local as well as national elections” (Deeb, 2006). In the year 2000, when the Israeli troops suddenly pulled out of Lebanon, everyone thought that only chaos would fill the void. However, “those predictions proved false as Hizballah maintained order in the border region” (Deeb, 2006). Although there is still undeniable conflict between Israel and Hizballah, some of it violent, “Israel has violated the Blue Line between the countries ten times more frequently than Hizballah has” (Deeb, 2006). This does not mean that Hizballah intends to move toward a completely peaceful approach. In fact, “Hizballah does not regard its participation in government as contradicting its maintenance of a non-state militia… the first item on Hizballah’s 2005 electoral platform pledged to ‘safeguard Lebanon’s independence and protect it from the Israeli menace by safeguarding the Resistance, Hizballah’s military wing and its weapons, in order to achieve total liberation of Lebanese occupied land'” (Deeb, 2006). Therefore, I would expect more violence from Hizballah in the future, despite its move toward slightly greater political legitimacy.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that both Hamas and Hizballah are very unlikely candidates for moderation, and are also unlikely to “go legit” anytime in the near future. As Stock makes clear, “the situation is so desperate and volatile that… any event could ‘spark a big explosion’… if sustained protests fail to improve conditions on the ground, militants in Hamas and other factions invariably will have a stronger hand” (2018). However, if either were to “go legit”, I think that Hizballah may be more successful than Hamas. Schwelder says that political inclusion will “deny radicals portions of their support base and thus produce an overall effect of moderation even if no political groups have substantively changed their normative commitments” (2007). Thus, the move toward politics by both Hamas and Hizbullah is a good sign. Hamas and Hizballah have followed largely similar paths up to this point. Both movements have moved from “pure resistance strategies to mixed strategies emphasizing politics over violence but maintaining paramilitary wings”, they are both “radical movements with sometimes Jihadist tactics”, and they are both “unlikely candidates for moderation and a turn toward” political legitimacy (Brown, 2018). However, I do not believe that they both have to continue to follow the same path. It seems to me that Hizballah may be more likely to “go legit” then Hamas largely because it is currently experiencing a lesser degree of threat from Israel than is Hamas. According to Alahga, “the objective, sociological, and political reality of Lebanon compelled this originally Islamist movement [Hizballah] onto the post-Islamist path, even though such post-Islamism remains inconsistent, selective, and pragmatic”. Hamas, on the other hand, as described above, is in a much more desperate situation than Hizballah and is therefore much less likely to turn to moderation any time soon.

SUBTOPIC 10.1 – MUCH ADO ABOUT MULLAHS?

Are we making too much of the clerical structures in these countries?

I do not think that we are making too much of the clerical structures in these countries. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi are literally “constantly indulged as the co-rulers of the Saudi government” (Real Stories, 2016). The political and social influence of the Wahhabi (and the ‘Ulema) as co-rulers of the dynastic monarchy that is Saudi Arabia is immense. Under the guidance of the Wahhabi, “Islamic law has always formed the basis of the Saudi constitutional system and is supreme, reigning even over the king” (Maisel, 2017). Therefore, it seems quite impossible to make “too much” of the clerical structure in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, there is somewhat of a democratic system, but the clerical structures still play immensely important roles in society. While there is a (relatively) democratically elected president, parliament, and “experts”, there is also velayat-e faqih. Velayat-e faqih is essentially the principle which gives the Islamic faqih (jurist) sweeping power over the people (Zubaida, 2018). The faqih and the Council of Guardians watch over the compatibility of the legislation with Islamic law and general principals (Zubaida, 2018). The faqih in Iran is also known as the “Supreme Leader”. The Supreme Leader is unelected, but nevertheless has control over the “armed forces, the intelligence services, the media, the judiciary, and the clergy” (Sciolino, 2014). In addition, Imam Khomeini has been quoted as saying that “the will of the people must be second to the will of God” (Sciolino, 2014). This being said, it seems quite impossible to make “too much” of the clerical structure in Iran. However, it is much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia. I will expand on this in a moment.

Can you understand these two regimes without understanding Islam as a governing structure?

I do not think that you can understand Saudi Arabia without understanding Islam as a governing structure. Article I of Saudi’s Basic Law of Government (1992) makes this clear, stating that “The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s book and the Sunna are its constitution…” (Maisel, 2017). Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime. The balance of power between the royal family and the Wahhabi is crucial to the regime, and has been since Muhammad ibn Saud (the founder of the dynasty) became the patron of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (a zealous Sunni revivalist of the Hanibal School of Islamic Jurisprudence, the most conservative Sunni school of Islam) (Maisel, 2017). On the other hand, I think that it is possible to understand Iran without understanding Islam as a governing structure. While Saudi Arabia exists as a dynastic monarchy with the Wahhabi as its co-rulers, Iran is partly a theocracy and partly a democracy (Vox, 2016). It is true that right now, “the theory of the [Iranian] constitution is clear. It is a democratic model. The practice might be something different” (Sciolino, 2014). However, it is much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia. As previously mentioned, Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime. Without the balance of the Wahhabi and the royal family, Saudi Arabia would be a very different place, as the royal family derives much of its legitimacy from the religious clerics. Iran, however, is already (in part) a democracy. According to Vox (2016), in 2016 the people of Iran voted to elect a new Assembly of Experts, who are currently serving an 8-year term. The Assembly of Experts are the body responsible for selecting the new Supreme Leader once the sitting one dies or becomes too sick to rule. The current Supreme Leader has announced that he is likely to die in this time (Vox, 2016). If this does happen, then Iran might have a chance to expand its democracy. According to Rezaian (2018), “theocracies — governments rooted in religious law with clerics holding the bulk of decision-making powers — [like Iran] are a relic of the past that can’t stand up to time or scrutiny”. Although there are many different people in Iran with many different wishes for the future (everything from totalitarianism to (more) real form of democracy), right now, “for the first time in history… all sides of the regime acknowledge its mortal deficiency: it isn’t delivering to people what they want” (Rezaian, 2018). Those in power may not want to make reforms, but they are seeming to realize that they have no other choice. Rezaian (2018) also points out that “Iran was the first country in the region to be run by the clergy in modern times, and there is a very good chance it will also be the first where theocratic rule reaches its expiration date”. The one downside to all of this is that, even if the theocracy is toppled, there is no currently no viable form of government which could replace it (Rezaian). Overall, however, I believe that it is still much easier to envision a future Iran separate from the clerical establishment than a future Saudi Arabia.

All sources used can be found in the “Works Cited” section of the infographic above. 

SUBTOPIC 8.2: The Lebanese Garbage Crisis

There is without a doubt a relationship between sectarianism, corruption, and the “Garbage Crisis” in Lebanon. Corruption is widespread in the Lebanese government, and it has been officially decided that it is LESS corrupt only than the governments of 32 other countries (out of 180) in the world (BBC, 2018). In regard to the Garbage Crisis, “instead of opening up the decision-making process, and inviting civil society to be part of the solution that could save the treasury a considerable amount of money, [the Lebanese government] did what it does best: monopolize the process, ignore the voices of society, and attempt to split the pie among the political elite themselves” (Atallah, 2015). The political elite in Lebanon do not seem to care about their constituents at all, unless their constituents are particularly loyal to them. In fact, “the real question is: who do the political elite represent in the first place in a country where elections are an opportunity for the political elite to select their constituency rather than citizens to elect their representatives?” (Atallah, 2015). This is just another example of the political corruption in Lebanon. In regard to the protests over the Garbage Crisis, this corruption has even begun to take on a violent nature. As of 2015, “failing to outmaneuver the protesters thus far, the government has shamefully used violence to silence the people. They beat up citizens, accused detainees of being drug addicts, and forced them to take urine test to prove their innocence” (Atallah, 2015). The Lebanese people are fed up with the trash in their streets, yes, but more than anything they are fed up with the corruption of their government. The government has failed to provide basic services to its people, and instead continues to divide up its resources primarily among the elite class.

In Lebanon, political power is rewarded based on religious affiliation (Cammett, 2009). According to Harris, religion in Lebanon is not just a set of beliefs and practices, but it actually relates directly to your family and also to who you are as an individual (2017). Because of this, sectarianism runs deep, primarily between Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims. Interestingly, the Garbage Crisis may actually be easing tensions between these groups. In 2009, “some activists [were] challenging Lebanon’s sectarian culture by working through the nongovernmental organization sector to promote a ‘culture of rights’ among citizens. For example, explicitly anti-sectarian NGOs such as the Amal Association or the Mouvement Social [ran] social programs that offer[ed] medical care, vocational training and other social services” (Cammett, 2009). Much in the same way, the Garbage Crisis seems to be bringing the citizens together. This is an unprecedented protest because, in the historically sectarian society that is Lebanon, for the first time people of all different religions, ages, etc. are gathering together to protest against one common foe: their government (Vice, 2015).

If this conflict is to be resolved, Lebanon’s sectarianism would need to be solved before its political corruption. I believe that the sectarianism is a very important aspect of the corruption itself. According to Cammett, “because power is awarded based on religious affiliation, there is little scope for citizens to vote as citizens rather than as members of sectarian groups. All of these factors combine to distort the translation of voter preferences into electoral outcomes” (2009). If Lebanon could rid itself of this rampant sectarianism (which would be incredibly difficult to do), then it would have a chance to make real political reforms. It would have a chance to find an effective political method that works for the people, and which would give people the legitimate voices in the government which they so desperately need. This would be an enormous step in the right direction. If the citizens could organize and work together as a country, and not based on their religious or ethnic differences, then they could much more easily communicate with their government and and with each other and make real changes which could lead to the solving of this Garbage Crisis, and so much more.

All sources have used here have been cited on the infographic above. I apologize that it posted in two separate parts, I couldn’t find any other way to make it clear enough to be legible. Thank you for your understanding.

Subtopic 7.1 Jordan – Is it All Roses?

POLITICAL AND CIVIL RIGHTS IN JORDAN

R E P O R T

TO KENNETH ROTH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

23 June, 2018

____________________________________________________

JACQUELYN F. HOOPER

EXPERT ON JORDAN

EMPLOYEE OF HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

Political Rights in Jordan 

Pictured above is life on the ground for the Jordanian government (or more specifically the royal family, pictured at the top) juxtaposed to life on the ground for many Jordanian citizens (bottom). The people of Jordan (and in particular, the middle class) are simply fed up with the country’s economic and political corruption. In Jordan, “a system has long been established to benefit the few at the expense of everyone else. Everyone who doesn’t come from a well-connected family, with well-established business and/or political ties…”, is considered to be expendable (Tarawnah, 2018). Despite the recent massive tax hikes, the money is not going to “a world-class public education system or universal health care system, or free college, or comprehensive national and local public transportation systems, or even consistently efficient public sector services”, but it’s going primarily to the elite class, which is getting richer and richer (Tarawnah, 2018). The civil and political liberties in Jordan are dramatically deteriorating. This can be seen in the case of former parliamentarian Toujan Faisal, who was arrested for simply writing an open letter accusing Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb of “‘benefitting personally’ from a government decision to double car insurance premiums” (Schwelder, 2002). Jordan has legalized “political parties and holding elections, but manipulat[es] the electoral system to prevent opposition voices from gaining any real power” (Schwelder, 2002). The Jordanian regime has tried fervently to rid itself of all political dissent, such as expressions of opposition through newspapers, political parties, organizations, rallies, or legal civil society organizations (Scwelder, 2002). Overall, the political and civil rights in Jordan are not in nearly as good of a condition as many Westerners seem to think.

Comparative Political Rights

According to Freedom House Scores, Jordan is considered to be a “partly free country”, with a score of 5/7 (7 being the lowest) for its political rights, 5/7 (7 being the lowest) for its civil liberties, and 5/7 for overall freedom (7 being the lowest) (2018). It has also given Jordan an aggregate score of 37/100 (100 being the most free) (Freedom House Scores, 2018). While Jordan is much more free than other places in the region such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, it is still not as free as Israel (Freedom House Scores, 2018). As discussed in other sections of this report, the situation in Jordan on the ground is not entirely a bright one. There have been massive tax hikes which have gone almost entirely to increasing the wealth of the elite class. The elite get richer and richer, while the middle and lower classes experience no economic improvement at all (Tarawnah, 2018). In addition, the government and ever-present Mukhabarat are restricting the political and civil liberties of the Jordanian people more and more every day, shutting down all talk against the king’s regime by restricting access to the internet, prohibiting groups of people (6 or more) from gathering in public spaces, etc. (Scwelder, 2002). While this is not quite as bad as the Mukhabarat in Iraq, it is most certainly not all roses.

Increasing Political and Civil Liberties While Avoiding Civil War 

First and foremost, Jordan must not become another Syria or another Libya. It must not fall to violent civil war. This being said, there are a few strategies by which Jordan may be able to increase its political and civil liberties (but they may be a bit of a long shot). Essentially, Human Rights Watch recommends that the state “tak[e] serious stock of how it does business, what kind of business it condones, and whether any of it is accountable to the people it is supposed to be serving… hire competent, accountable people to bring [Jordan] back from the economic brink, and dismantle an entire system of beneficiaries within its folds” (Tarawnah, 2018). While this all sounds relatively unlikely given Jordan’s current situation, Schwelder suggests that Washington may be a powerful tool in promoting democracy in Jordan (should they decide to do so), as “the administration already has significant influence” in regard to the Jordanian government (2002). However, even if the Jordanian government does make these changes, they will “mean little unless they are accompanied by a clear political will from the state to carry out a comprehensive review of the current approach to governing the country” (Muasher, 2018). Every citizen would need to be given a real decision-making voice. Elections would have to become much more free, fair and competitive. Human Rights Watch recommends that Jordan create a new elite class, void of corruption and capable of proper, democratic governing. We recommend that instead of continuing to raise taxes, Jordan create a feasible plan to stimulate its economy and to attack its institutional economic and political corruption (Muasher, 2018).

The Future of Jordan

Unfortunately, the future of Jordan in terms of civil and political rights does not look exceedingly bright. According to one source, “the State, practically speaking, is broke”, so prices will inevitably rise, and skilled Jordanians will leave the country in search of better pay (Tarawnah, 2018). This will only increase the unrest of the lower and middle classes. In addition, Jordan’s economic struggles are not improving, as “yes, there’s the bare minimal spending required to keep services in a functioning condition, but nothing that has dramatically improved the standard of living” (Tarawnah, 2018). Jordan’s problems go far beyond economic strife. In this situation, the “people are more adept at fighting against something (e.g. tax hikes) than for something (e.g. political change), but if left long enough to simmer, the former can quickly evolve into the latter” (Tarawnah, 2018). In the words of Muasher, “the street today will not back down as easily as it did in 2011” (2018). The elite class is currently “facing unprecedented criticism and has lost the trust of those in the street” (Muasher, 2018). All of these factors will likely lead to the government even further restricting the civil and political liberties of its people, in an attempt to hold onto its power.

____________________________________________________

I came this scenario entirely by reading the articles (and watching the lecture video) assigned to this unit/ subtopic. I initially had little to no knowledge of Jordanian political and civil liberties at all. Writing this subtopic in the style of an NGO brought to light Jordan’s very disturbing, underlying political and economic tensions (which I previously had no idea existed at all). I have detailed the specifics of these tensions in the NGO report above. I now know that the general Western view of Jordan’s current situation is off-base, to say the least. The United States largely views Jordan favorably, as it has “enough” democracy and a “friendly” leader (Tarawnah, 2018). It is absolutely true that compared to Syria, Iran, Iraq, etc., Jordan is a pretty good place to be. However, after learning so much about the dire state of Jordan in regard to its people’s political and civil freedoms, I fear that things may take a turn for the worse if nothing is done to reform the corrupt politics and economics of this state.

A journalist might present this information a bit differently, as they rely on dramatic, attention-grabbing stories that can sell. They might focus on more specific events, such as the arrest and later pardoning of Toujan Faisal, rather than a complete story of the situation in Jordan. Their job is to sell stories, and they can’t sell them if they are not compelling. A State Department employee might present this information a bit differently than either an NGO worker or a journalist. A State Department employee may try to gain an objective view of the situation in Jordan in order to determine whether or not it is relevant to the United States. As an NGO worker, however, “my” job was to attempt to objectively assess the situation in Jordan, determine its problems and their roots, and try to come up with solutions.

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“File: Hrw Logo.svg.” File: Cholesterol (Chemical Structure).Svg – Wikimedia Commons, 2018, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hrw_logo.svg.

“Freedom World 2018 Table of Country Scores.” Freedom House, 16 Jan. 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2018-table-country-scores.

Muasher, Marwan. “End of the Rope.” Carnegie Middle East Center, 7 June 2018, carnegie-mec.org/diwan/76551?lang=en&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWVRjME1HVTFZVEF4WldJNSIsInQiOiI2WVVvbTE2bm10VW5aV25XREJMc0g1STk2RDRYR3FyNWMyWnlEYUV4S2hkc1A1TngydTVuTkJZNUFCR2ZhRkI3XC9RVzhtc0JqdWhVZ0Z2VnJucjM3K3NYdGliU0tKNDBjbzZhZTF1dXlrZVlHbTNRcThpWkd5anI5WUJuTEhvcnoifQ==.

Sawalha, Jawanna. “Meet Jordan’s Royal Family: King Abdullah II, His Siblings, Queen Rania and Their Children.” StepFeed, 21 Feb. 2017, stepfeed.com/meet-jordan-s-royal-family-king-abdullah-ii-his-siblings-queen-rania-and-their-children-4339.

Schwelder, Jillian. Don’t Blink: Jordan’s Democratic Opening and Closing. 2002, Don’t Blink: Jordan’s Democratic Opening and Closing.

Tarawnah, Naseem. “JORDAN’S GABBA3AT MOMENT.” The Black Iris, 4 June 2018, black-iris.com/2018/06/04/jordans-gabba3at-moment/.

Subtopic 6.1: The Role of the Wahhabi ‘Ulema

THE ROLE OF THE WAHHABI ‘ULEMA IN SAUDI ARABIA

R E P O R T

To Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

21 June, 2018

______________________________________________________________________________

Jacquelyn F. Hooper of the State Department

Expert on Saudi Arabia

 

Religion and the ‘Ulema in the Saudi Regime

The importance of the role of religion in Saudi Arabia cannot be exaggerated. At the genesis of the Al Saud dynasty, Muhammad ibn Saud (the founder of the dynasty) became the patron of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (a zealous Sunni revivalist of the Hanibal School of Islamic Jurisprudence, the most conservative Sunni school of Islam) (Maisel, 2017). The bond that these two leaders formed in the 1700s is representative of the symbiotic nature of church and state in Saudi Arabia today (Brown, 2018).

The followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab were called “Wahhabis” by outsiders, but the followers themselves preferred to be called “Muwahhidins” (unitarians or monotheists), as the former title seemed to imply that they were worshipers of a human man rather than worshipers of the one true God (Maisel, 2017). Nevertheless, this is the nominal source of the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia today. The ‘Ulema heads the Wahhabi, and is composed of the country’s most important religious clerics.

Despite the fact that the Saudi Arabian government has claimed that there is “no such thing as a Saudi Arabian religious establishment”, The Wahhabi religious establishment is “constantly indulged as the co-ruler of the Saudi government” (Real Stories, 2016). The primary function of the ‘Ulema is to issue religious opinions to the people, but they are also in charge of overseeing all other institutions. Religion plays an inexplicably important role in Saudi society, as “Islamic law has always formed the basis of the Saudi constitutional system and is supreme, reigning even over the king” (Maisel, 2017). Article I of the Basic Law of Government (1992) makes this clear, stating that “The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s book and the Sunna are its constitution…” (Maisel, 2017). Religious legitimacy is the cornerstone of the Saudi regime. 

The Overarching Power of the Clerics

I believe that the Saudi Arabian clerics of the Whhabi ‘Ulema hold too much power. They have control over the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Pilgrimage, and they control the Judiciary, as well as most of the state’s education system (Real Stories, 2016). In conjunction with the Wahhabi ‘Ulmea, the Saudi government spends billions of dollars to spread Islam around the world, funding more than 15,000 mosques, 202 colleges, and almost 2,000 schools in non-Islamic countries (Real Stories, 2016). Saudi Arabia has enormous influence in Britain through their support of mosques and Imams. The Saudi government claims that they are not trying to spread a fundamentalist message of any kind, and yet they spend billions and billions of dollars on such projects (Real Stories, 2016). While there are certainly other factors involved, I see this to be a clear indicator of the control the Whhabi ‘Ulmea hold over the Saudi government.

The Relationship Between the ‘Ulema and the Royal Family

In Saudi Arabia, there is a “balance of politics and religion for the sake of not only the survival but the strong, lasting impact of the ‘country of the two holy places'” (Mecca and Medina) (Maisel, 2017). The royal family allows the ‘Ulema to control the social sphere, public space and morality of the country. The royal family also grants the’Ulema their salaries and other subsidies (Real Stories, 2016). In return, the ‘Ulema provides the royal family with tacit religious approval for potentially controversial policies (Brown, 2018). Thus, the royal family and the’Ulema share a relationship which is symbiotic in nature. They each benefit from the existence of one another. However, in a sense they are also each controlled by one another. The monarchy has control over the salaries of the’Ulema and their sphere of public control, but the’Ulema also have control over the monarchy, as the monarchy often requires their tacit approval to legitimize its actions to the people.

A prime example of the monarchy getting religious approval from the’Ulema for a controversial policy involves the right of women to drive. The monarchy wanted to pass a law which banned women from driving, but they knew that it would be controversial. For this reason, they reached out to the’Ulema for religious approval. The’Ulema declared to the people that women must be prohibited from driving, not because the state was trying to control their actions, but because driving presents “horrendous dangers to a woman’s uterus and ovaries” (Brown, 2018).

The Unsustainable’Ulema/ Royal Family Dynamic

I do not think that this symbiotic system is sustainable. Monarchies are not skilled at modernization, and I do not think that Saudi Arabia (or any state) can last indefinitely without eventually giving more power to the people. One scholar has argued that monarchies cannot possibly survive the modern era because political participation is necessary to avoid revolution, and it’s impossible for modern monarchs to achieve political participation (Brown, 2018). In addition, the relationship between the monarchy and the’Ulema has not always been perfect. In recent times especially, there have been notable “awkward” disagreements between them (Brown, 2018). I cannot say for sure how the ruling bodies of Saudi Arabia may change in the future, but I will not be surprised if tensions continue to grow between the ruling family and the religious elites. As of right now, Saudi Arabia does not tax its citizens, so they have no rights. I will also not be surprised if, in the future, the people choose to rise up and demand that this change. In the end, it seems that something will have to give. 

______________________________________________________________________________

Brown, Dan. “Saudi Arabia.” Politics of the Middle East. 21 June 2018, Norman, Oklahoma.

“File: Seal of the United States Department of State.svg.” File: Cholesterol (Chemical Structure).Svg – Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_State.svg.

Maisel, Sebastian. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 2017.

“Wahhabi Infiltration In The Saudi Government.” Real Stories, YouTube, 2016.

Subtopic 5.2: The Genesis of the Syrian Civil War

By creating this infographic, I learned about the causes of the uprising in Syria in 2012, the reasons why the uprising became a civil war, the role that external powers played in the civil war, and the many costs of the civil war. Surprisingly (to me, at least), one very significant factor which led to the uprising in Syria in 2011 was that of climate change. It is thought that climate change is what caused the 2006 drought in Syria, which was the worst drought in 900 years (Mansharamani, 2016). The drought led to ruined farms and the loss of livestock, and many people were forced to move from the rural areas into the cities. In addition, there were many food and water shortages. All of these factors caused great unrest among the people. In 2012, the Arab Spring reached Aleppo (Vice, 2018). President Bashar al-Assad responded to the peoples’ largely peaceful, democratic protests with absolute horror. He sieged rebel-dominated cities, cut food and essential supplies from civilians, ordered mass shellings, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and indiscriminate bombings (Vice, 2018). Because of this, many people felt that their only choice was to fight back against Assad and the Syrian military with violence. I think that the Arab Spring in Syria turned into a civil war instead of toppling the regime or the regime offering some kind of concessions to the protesters largely because Assad wanted war. According to the Vox article, Assad’s main goal was to “turn the broad-based protest movement from a political struggle – which Assad’s unpopular regime was bound to lose – into a military one, where his control of the army meant he might be able to kill his way to victory” (Beauchamp, 2018). Assad did just that, and started the Syrian civil war. In 2011, “defectors from Assad’s regime formed an organized militia called the Free Syrian Army to protect protesters and strike back at Assad” (Beauchamp, 2018). By 2012, Syria was in a full-blown civil war. Assad receives direct aid from Russia and Iran (BBC, 2018). Turkey fights against the Kurdish forces, and Israel attacks Hezbollah and Assad’s forces (BBC, 2018). Saudi Arabia provides the rebels with deadly weapons to use against Assad, while the USA has armed and trained the Kurdish forces to fight against DAESH. Recently, the USA has also bombed Syria in a failed attempt to “deter” Assad’s chemical weapon use (BBC, 2018 & Beauchamp, 2018). As of 2016, the civil war had “claimed almost half a million lives, wounded close to 2 million people, generated 4.8 million refugees and displaced almost 7 million people within Syria” (Mansharamani, 2016).