Donald Rumsfeld tweets on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war

With last month marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, many reflected on the controversial war and its long-term global implications.  With a single tweet, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld started a new controversy that tested many people’s assumptions about what a just war entails, and how far the United States’ influence extends in the promotion democracy across the globe.  The controversy is not solely a phenomenon in the US, however, as this article from Australian newspaper East Coast News describes.  The world is now closely examining the situation in Iraq as it currently stands, and discovering that with one tyranny overthrown, another is quickly taking hold. 

The article seeks to describe the current situation in Iraq from the viewpoint of actual Iraqis, rather than American policymakers.  Local infrastructure is still struggling to rebuild itself, while free elections are being held, they are marred by domestic terrorism and accusations of fraud, and the federal government is rife with corruption.  More than anything, most Iraqis are still dealing with the incredible death toll, a tangible loss that the Iraqi people will never be able to overcome.  Democracy, promised to Iraqi’s by the US government, is tenuous and in disarray.  While it is clear to all involved that Hussein needed to be removed from power and prosecuted for his crimes, and equally clear that for the protection of the United States’ economy and national security armed forces needed to withdraw. To call the Iraq war a success is to revise history, and the war will surely be examined in the future as the wrong way to go about post-war reconstruction. 

Art still has its force in the power play of global politics today

One of the cornerstones of democracy is the free exchange of information.  Citizens without access to the facts cannot truly participate in free elections.  Non-democratic governments frequently deny their people information by limiting the press and the Internet to ensure that their citizenry cannot make informed opinions that might threaten the regime. When faced with government-controlled media and frequently enforced laws regarding dissent of the state, artistic expression is one way that citizens can spread information and change hearts and minds, both at home and abroad.  For this reason, art has been used as a political tool for as long as history has been recorded.  From Machiavelli to Os Mutantes, Joe Sacco to Jonathan Swift, Picasso to Public Enemy, Frauke Eigen to Frederick Varley, artists have boldly spoken about the truth of their political and social lives in order that others might gain insight about the problems they are facing.  This trend is continuing with the work of pioneering artists in the Middle East.  An article for Christian Science Monitor highlights some of these artists that are using the political turmoil of the region as inspiration for powerful self-expression.  Artists like Nermine Hammam, with a show currently open in London, manipulate images to seek a greater truth in a situation that has been overanalyzed and emotionally neutered.  Others, like all-female photography collective Rawiya, create an emotional connection to their subjects, enabling the viewer to see them as humans rather than theoretical and imagined Other.  These artists, in addition to creating beautiful and compelling works, are also adding much to the political discourse of the region, despite the inherent risks in doing so in a politically instable and often dangerous world.  With the Western world grappling with reduced arts funding and an art world that has been accused of pretentious superficiality, politically active artists should be celebrated as honoring the long-held relationship between art and politics.

Dictatorship vs. democracy: reflections on my two opposing worlds

To vote for the first time is to experience the overwhelming joy of democratic civic participation. In many countries in the region in which I was born and raised, general elections are not held, and authoritarian leaders preside over nations rife with political repression, press manipulation, and human rights violations. Other nations continue to have elections that are farcical, with vote-buying and other forms of electoral fraud a common occurrence. So when a citizen of a truly democratic nation votes, it represents more than just choosing your local, state or federal representative. It is emblematic of a system where individual votes matter and the people can have their say.

For this reason, it pains me greatly to see this system undermined through gerrymandering and the disenfranchisement of certain segments of the voting public at the ballot box. For two centuries, the United States has been an example to the world of how a representational democracy can be run, and how a country, although politically divided, can be unified through the celebratory act of casting a ballot. In the last ten years we have witnessed attempts by political parties and governmental agencies to utilize institutionalized racism to dissuade certain voting blocs from enjoying their Constitutionally-given rights, and congressional redistricting that has the obvious goal of ensuring that each vote cast, no matter who for, means less. It seems that when a party does not like the outcome of an election, instead of rolling up their sleeves, going to the people, and finding out how they may better serve their constituents, they examine voter maps and manipulate laws to ensure the odds are in their favor next time. This is not what Lincoln envisioned of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and I doubt Jefferson would call this “the rational and peaceable instrument of reform.” With the 2014 election marking 100 years of senatorial elections, Americans must, collectively, value their voting rights enough to ensure that their voices are heard and their rights upheld, not just for themselves, but for the many nations who hold them as a model and long for the same democratic freedoms.

The role of oil and islamism in the political structure of the Middle East

In her talk to the City Club of Cleveland, Jamal devotes a lengthy portion of her time to a question and answer period, a valuable contribution to the continuing education of her listeners and the opening of a dialogue, something which should be considered in both the Arab and Western worlds. Two important questions centered on the role of oil and natural gas in the political structure of the region and the use of large-scale violence in the region and the conception of Islamists as violent. Jamal discusses at length the role oil plays in the geo-strategic interests in the region of Western nations such as the United States. This issue has a large political impact, as can be seen in the foreign policy of the United States when compared to the level of energy dependence on foreign nation relationships.

She also speaks at length about the Western conception of Islamists as a group to be confronted and contained; something Jamal argues would “only inflame sensibilities and win them more supporters.” However, this idea has its basis in a false assumption, which is that all Muslims are Islamist, and draws the distinction between Islamist ideologues, the small portion of the population which have a “political and theological agenda,” and the Islamist supporters who support the movement because they cannot find a “better or more organized” group that is attempting to solve the practical problems of the nation. From a Western conception, there seems to be no distinction between Islamist supporters who are seeking to improve the infrastructure, economy, and quality of life experienced by Arab citizens, and the Islamist ideologues who are using violence as a tool for seeing their agenda realized, but this important distinction is one that would do much to further the education and understanding of the issues. Instead, the idea that a condemnation of these actions should not necessarily be a condemnation of Islamism and Islamist conceptions of democracy should be advanced, as to not would only serve to further anti-American sentiment and inhibit the democratic progression being seen throughout the region.

Similar to arabic countries, Pakistan’s voters prefer sharia over democracy

The issue of democracy in the Middle East has three distinct areas of opinion: the opinion of policymakers, influencers and political leaders both in the nations dealing with this struggle, and in nations who may have some economic, political, or philosophical stake; the opinion of the citizenry itself; and the opinion of academics and journalists who devote their careers to the issue. Over the course of this blog we have studied each of these opinions in turn, noting the particular areas of bias that we must take into consideration when evaluating the response. We look back, then, to the talks by Amaney Jamal, one academic who is leading the way in using public opinion, as well as the political theory, region history, and the current political process in formulating her ideas which she shares with the world through her teaching, books, and public talks. These ideas are not solely of academic value as they contain recommendations for practical application that may improve both the public opinion and policy of democracy in the Middle East.

In the talk Jamal gave to the BCIU Education Centre, she focuses on the Arab region, with particular focus on Egypt, as she explores the historical implications and connotations democracy holds in the Arab world, and the reason the concept continues to be so controversial. But she also focuses on the groups serving either as advocates or opposers of democracy, as well as the particular areas that democracy is struggling, such as women’s rights or free elections. She notes, for example, that despite the unfavorable view towards gender equality espoused by many Islamist political leaders, women continue to be one of the largest supporters of an Islamist government – not because they agree with inequality, but because they feel more strongly about eliminating corruption and inefficiency from the government. Adding to this, she mentions how the youth movement in many Arab countries, despite being overwhelming pro-democracy in theory, may still tend to lean towards a stricter, sharia-based legal system and Islamist political structure, for the very same reasons. This tendency is supported by polls throughout the Arab world, as these articles on Pakistani voters under the age of 30 attest.

The problem, then, seems to be not in democracy itself, but in the concerns and values that the average voter weighs when deciding their nations’ political future. The Western world, not experiencing the average Arab citizens daily struggles, may seem to think the issue is a simple matter of choosing between democracy or authoritarian rule, and then wonder why an argument even exists. But the issue, like most, is far more complicated than that. For a democratic party to garner real support from the populace, they must show that they have the capability to govern efficiently and equitably, with acknowledgment of the strong role that Islam plays in the daily life of their voters. A more likely solution, as Jamal continues to discuss in her talks, is an incorporation of democracy into Islamist political groups that already hold popular support, ensuring that gaining power does not necessarily mean morphing into the kind of totalitarian regime the Arab populace has already lived through.