Monthly Archives: February 2010

SPEAKING OF RULE OF LAW AND A GRAND MASTER PLAN

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

The current crisis will be solved within the framework of the constitutional order and the frameworks of the laws. This was the bottom line of the statement from the presidency after the crisis management meeting Thursday the 25th of February in Ankara between President Abdullah Gül, prime minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan and chief of general staff İlker Başbuğ. Considering the serious political crises and the way it has rubbed off on the financial markets, it was about high time to send the message that people in and outside Turkey must trust in the political and legal institutions of the country to be able to deal with the crisis. Needless to say that a repetition of the February 21, 2001 incident, where former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer quarreled with then prime minister Bülent Ecevit in the National Security Council  thereby more than adding to a severe financial crises Turkey if not directly setting it off, must be avoided at all costs. This is seemingly recognized by all parties in the political conflict.

 

That the statement centered round the issue of the workings of rule of law and the institutional checks and balances in Turkey should come as no surprise. Not just due to the recent historical experience of 2001. Rather one has to understand how the judiciary is for better and worse the gravity point of the crisis. The question of whose ideological outlook dominates within the judiciary is a key concern by supporters as well as adversaries of the AKP government. The former explains how the judiciary has traditionally been in alignment with the Kemalist etatist elite including the military. The rulings of the Kemalist stong-hold par excellence, the Constitutional court, serve as prime examples. The closure case against AKP and DTP in 2008, and the recent overruling / annulment in January 2010 of the reform package passed by parliament in July 2009, which would among other have allowed civilian courts to prosecute military personnel. Even though this overruling has had limited practical effects, military personnel do in fact face trial by civilian courts in the on-going Ergenekon-Sledgehammer investigations, it has been seen as a strong symbolic support to the conceptualization of some people in Turkey as being above the law in the interest of the nation-state. Hence, they argue that what is in fact going on is democratization and strengthening of rule of law in Turkey. Those adversaries with a more conservative Kemalist leaning lament, how the whole Ergenekon-Sledgehammer case is nothing but a politically initiated witch hunt on behalf of the current government, thus revealing how the AKP has succeeded in a civilian take-over of not only the bureaucracy but also the judiciary. In this context the problematic structuring of the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) where the minister of justice among other has a seat is presented as one of many examples of the ways in which government can somehow pressure the judiciary.

 

The current case of prosecutor Ilhan Cihaner really shows the intricacies of these relations (intricacies which can barely be disclosed in the brief section that follows but nevertheless). In mid Feburary 2010 Cihaner was arrested and interrogated as part of the Ergenekon case. The arrest was warranted by another prosecutor, Osman Şanal, with special authorities. Cihaner had launched an investigation into an Islamic religious sect in 2007 and later in 2009 attempted to launch an investigation into the Gülen movement. These acts had put him squarely in the secular Kemalist camp who are fighting what they believe is an anti-secular AKP government. Immediately following upon the arrest the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) removed the special powers of the prosecutor who had had Cihaner arrested. In the light of HSYK being seen as a Kemalist stronghold, this removal was interpreted as the secular Kemalist elite showing its muscle, an opinion among other aired by the ministry of justice. Yet the very same ministry of justice was accused by critics of intervening in order to slow down the removal of Şanal, something which gave him time to forward the investigation file on Cihaner to the courthouse. Meanwhile AKP critics also saw the detainment of Cihaner in the first place as an attempt on behalf of the government to stop any investigations relating to Islamic religious networks. The underlying assumption is of course that such investigations might hurt the ruling party since they have close relations to the Gülen movement and (excuse the expression) God only knows who else.

 

It is easy to get caught up on either side of the polarized debate. There are however also those observers in Turkey who argue for the necessity of once and for all ridding Turkish politics of the legacy of military influence, while simultaneously criticizing the AKP for replacing military tutelage with civilian tutelage. AKP may say that they are acting in the name of democratization but they are not themselves acting as true democrats. On the contrary they are using the existing rules and regulation aimed at state control with civilian politics to consolidate their own power. Upholding the 10 percent threshold in national elections is but one example of this. In this sense AKP follows in the footsteps of a long and by no democratic standards glorious political party tradition in Turkey. It is also in this context that one can hear speculations as to the extent to which government is able to affect the judiciary. Of course there are problematic areas for example regarding the HSYK. But does this simply mean that the continued politicization of the judiciary is the only reasonable explanation to everything that is going on including the arrest of military personnel, or could it be that part of the explanation has to do with circles in the judiciary who are tired of accusations of lack of independence, and tired of a reputation as somebody’s lapdog? Could it be that there are in fact people in the judiciary who act as they do because they pursue a strengthening of rule of law and the separation of powers?

 

Why is it, one may now ask, that this latter seems as such a naïve idea in a Turkish context? This I believe has partly to be explained by how the current tensions and political struggles between various elites have reasserted the prominent and popular notion that all acts are part of a larger master plan. Be it the plan of etatist elements or the AKP, the notion that acts are symbolic representations of a larger strategy and initiated by somebody for some higher purpose is by now the dominant lense through which all things must be interpreted and understood. As if there are not enough threats against the development of a democratic culture in Turkey, this is for sure one more problem to add to a long list.

The Muslim Internet

by Sune Haugbolle.

My review of Gary R. Bun’t recent book, i-Muslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, has just been published by H-Net. Despite my criticisms (it’s a review, after all), I hope it also conveys my admiration for Bunt’s untiring work to make sense of the Muslim Internet. I highly recommend his webpage Virtually Islamic.

Here is the review:

Not so much a “new media” anymore, after twenty-odd years the effects
of the Internet are discernable everywhere. It is spewing out an
outrageous amount of information, which has become part and parcel of
our daily lives linking phenomena in the real world with virtual
information and representations, just as it is linking people with
each other in truly different ways than before. Some things remain
the same, however, and scholars of Internet-based media face the
basic problem of the social scientist. Namely that, since as Max
Weber said, social reality is infinite, the most difficult choices
are methodological. What do we do with all this information, and how
can we study media flows, the incessant stream of ephemeral material,
in a way that provides more than a snapshot of the media? One answer
is to adopt an approach modeled on the Internet itself by forming
research networks that document and analyze particular phenomena on
the Net. Others link the Internet to an emergent historiography of
mass media and modernity dating back to the printing press, which can
be a healthy antidote to the hype about new media. Finally, with
regard to other mass media like cassette tapes and television,
anthropologists such as Charles Hirsckind and Lila Abu-Lughod have
adopted an ethnographic approach that goes close to the processes of
production, usage, and network formation.

To date, hardly any research of this sort has been done on the
Internet in the Middle East, although the topic is often commented
on, particularly in relation to Islam. Gary Bunt’s _iMuslims_ should
therefore be welcomed as one of the first major works that tries to
develop a coherent analyses of the ways in which Muslims around the
world use the Internet and the impact it is having on the duties and
rituals of Islam. Building on his own work of more than a decade
published in _Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and
Cyber Islamic Environments _(2000, also the name of his Web page),
and _Islam in the Digital Age_:_ E-jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber
Islamic Environments_ (2003), as well as the limited existing
literature, Bunt explores diverse aspects of online Islam, from
Islamic textual sources to blogging and jihadism. _iMuslims_ is more
grounded in the age of Web 2.0; hence the reference to mobile media
like iPhones and iPods, and more broadly to the integrated role of
information technology and mediatized social networks in the life of
Muslims in the book’s title. Bunt clearly shows that as scholars of
Islam and the Middle East, we cannot afford to ignore the Web, or to
treat is as incidental to politics, culture, and social life. The Net
revolution must be constantly analyzed. As Dale Eickelman, Jon
Anderson, and others pointed out in the mid-1990s, the Internet has
from the very beginning transformed how Muslims interact and practice
their creed. Since then, Internet media have become increasingly
user-oriented and mobile, and more and more people even in developing
countries have gained access to their riches, resulting in ever more
Islamic material online.

The Muslim Internet, writes Bunt, is essentially a number of venues,
or environments–playgrounds where new actors are drawn into the
discursive and symbolic contestation over Islam. His term for these
virtual places for Muslims to communicate and engage in
reformulations of their creed is “cyber-Islamic environments,” or
CIEs. The first chapter, “Locating Islam in Cyberspace,” includes a
spider web-like diagram illustrating the complex ways in which Web
2.0 is giving shape to CIEs. Although it is hard to distinguish where
non-Muslim media end and Muslim media begin in this diagram, it is
clear that everything from chat rooms, blogs, and vlogs (video
blogs), to social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and flikr
can be given an Islamic coloring on today’s Internet. Through this
process, Bunt argues, Islam is developing into an open-source system
that allows non-elites the opportunity to participate in the
reformulation of their creed. To some extent, this transnational
development in the age of globalization, theorized by Peter
Mandaville, Olivier Roy, and others, can be seen as a return to the
formative period of Islam when Islamic scholars collaborated across
boundaries. The forging of new interpretations, communities, and
global networks brings with it a number of challenges and dangers,
many of which are accentuated by the Internet.

At the same time, Bunt stresses the barriers that prevent the
formation of a transnational community, in terms of language,
sectarian orientation, and government censorship. While English was
the language of choice in the early CIEs, today Arabic, Persian and
Urdu, as well as numerous smaller languages compete for attention.
None of them are likely to become a lingua franca, even if Arabic
CIEs dominate. Furthermore, limited Internet access in most
Muslim-majority countries means that only select social groups are
connected to the new ostensibly open-source Islam. In terms of
digital opportunity, the GCC countries rank as high as some European
countries, while Yemen and Sudan are at par with most African
countries. These unequal opportunities have serious implications,
allowing some states to become power centers in the new Muslim public
sphere, while others are backwaters, even if this power does not
emanate from the state itself. Nation-states, even formally Islamic
ones like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are busy policing CIEs, which
engenders subversion. As Bunt argues, the latter is often the more
important kind of activity online, as the Net gives otherwise
marginalized groups a space for expression. Islamic bloggers and
programmers, just like (and often in tandem with) secular ones, are
finding ways to express dissent, even in repressive states like
Syria.

An interesting question is to what extent subversion and disagreement
has the potential to translate into actual debate about the common
good (_al-maslaha_), be it political or religious, in a diffuse
public arena like the Internet. This theoretical debate about a new
(real or idealized) public sphere and the particular role of the
Internet, has been dealt with extensively by, among others, Armando
Salvatore and Dale Eickelman. Bunt is mainly concerned with the great
multiplicity of CIEs and less with power relations involved in the
contestation over _al-maslaha_. For instance, in chapter 3 he
discusses how the sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the _sunna_, have
become mass-mediated and in the process are changing the way Muslims
use these sources and construct expert knowledge. For example, Bunt
details how the main duties of ordinary Muslims, the five pillars of
Islam, have become reinterpreted through various software that makes
it possible for more and more devout Muslims to connect and create a
shared set of practices and beliefs. Equally, the Web facilitates
praying, Muslim dating, fasting, and not least, counseling. Most of
these are perfectly prosaic quotidian aspects of Muslim life which
have become easier to perform because of the Net.

However, the Net also showcases conflicting interpretations, and this
is where the question of _al-maslaha_ becomes critical. Perhaps the
most critical effect of new media on Islam is the way in which they
challenge traditional religious authority. Men with less training
than traditional _ulama_ have emerged on television and computer
screens, offering alternative roads to _fiqh_. Perhaps even more
critical, Wiki counseling now makes it possible for a democratic
concept of _al-maslaha_ to emerge which bypasses Islamic
institutions. Of course, _ulama_ and Islamic centers of learning like
al-Azhar University also use the new media to resists the challenge
mounted against them. But CIEs generally favor dissenting voices. A
recent example is the October 2009 _niqab_ affair in Egypt, where the
Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar University Muhmmad al-Tantawi’s ban on
_niqab_s was met with a virulent Internet campaign from devout Muslim
students who ridiculed the learned man. Such (counter)public
undermining of an Islamic authority would have been unthinkable
before the Internet age.

In chapter 3, and throughout the book, one is left with questions
about the political implications of the plurality that Bunt
describes. Who stands to gain from the dispersion of Islamic
authority? What is Saudi Arabia’s role? What is al-Azhar’s? Do the
apparently organic developments of authority that Bunt describes
dovetail with existing, highly politically charged attempts to
create, maintain, or resist an Islamic international? These are
obviously open questions, but not all of them are raised.

The last two chapters of the book deal with what Bunt calls jihadist
online forums. The development of Al-Qaida from the mid-1990s has a
close affinity with computer networks and is closely linked to the
Web. The connection between jihadists, salafis, and the Internet is
the most researched area of CIEs, often motivated by security
interests. But even if jihadi research often takes place in a grey
zone between academia and security services, its extensive use of
collaborative research and number-crunching may still hold lessons
for the study of other Internet phenomena. Through Bunt’s insightful
description of jihadi milieus online, it becomes clear that jihadi
networks showcase both highly sophisticated network models for
publicity and communication, and examples of how the Net has become
an open-source entry to formulations of Islam. Jihadis put these
tools to use most places in the world today, but particularly in Iraq
and Palestine (treated separately in the book’s final chapter). He
provides plenty of examples of online radicalism, but also of the
many intersections between Islamic radicals and groups with other
agendas. Indeed, as Bunt stresses, the pressing need to map and
understand cyber-jihadis should not make us blind to the many
peaceful ways Muslims use the Net, or indeed the many other ways
Muslims live their lives.

At the end of the day, many Muslims are first and foremost media
users. In the emergent research on Islam and new media there is a
tendency to fall into the old Orientalist trap of particularizing
social processes which Muslims actually share with everyone else. In
addition, Muslims also use non-Islamic media, including Web-based
ones. A case in point is the blogosphere, dealt with in chapter 4. As
Bunt notes, Muslim blogs can sometimes be hard to differentiate from
other blogs. What characterizes the blogs he describes is often not
so much Islamic content as the way in which they interact with other
CIEs. The interactivity–the creation of Islamic pathways on the Net
through RSS feeds and other links–may be the key to understanding
the effect of blogs. However, the fact that some blogs interact with
other CIEs does not completely resolve the problem of
particularizing. Many, if not most, of the bloggers quoted in Bunt’s
overview of the most vocal or active Muslim countries in the
blogosphere, debate social affairs rather than religion as such. In
fact, many Muslim bloggers prefer not to be identified as Muslims,
but rather just young people, bloggers, or activists.

_iMuslims_ is the best overview of the Muslim Internet to date. It is
up-to-date, comprehensive, and should be compulsory reading for
students and scholars of Islam, media, and politics in the Middle
East. However, the paradox between, on one hand, identifying Muslim
public spheres energized by new media, while, on the other hand, also
admitting that they intersect with secular issues, aesthetics,
traditions, and forms of expressions, is never completely resolved in
_iMuslims_. Perhaps the most glaring illustration of the problem is
when Bunt categorizes the communist, Shiite professor Asad Abukhalil,
known as the Angry Arab, as part of the Islamic blogosphere (p. 173).
Of course Abukhalil regularly comments on Islamic topics, but so do a
large list of bloggers, hacks, and ordinary people on the Net. In
fact, the Angry Arab is one of the most secular Arab blogs. Would
Abukhalil mind being labeled an iMuslim? The term itself is  not
convincing; it sounds a little too much like a different species.
Could we for example imagine a book called _iChristians_, other than
perhaps about very fundamentalist Christians online? By subsuming
every phenomenon in Muslim contexts, or related to Islam, under an
Islamic heading, we risk underwriting claims about Islam as the
primary, sometimes the only valid, identity marker. The more
interesting debate concerning mass media, perhaps, is how we as
scholars can come to grips with contestations and intersections
between revivalist Islam and secular modernity.

The Lost Utopia

by Sune Haugbolle.

Last week in Ramallah, while relaxing in between interviews and trips around the West Bank, I had the pleasure of reading the Swedish journalist and author Goran Rosenberg’s L’utopie perdue. Being present on the West Bank with its gruelling checkpoints, its towering Separation Wall, and its tense, tense atmosphere of suffering and mutual hatred – and being present inside Israel too for that matter, with its pervading fear and securitisation – nothing seemed more fitting to describe the situation than that feeling of a lost utopia.

The book, originally written in Swedish, is not yet translated into English, but should be. It is an excellent account of Rosenberg’s departure from post WWII Sweden to Israel in the 1960s, his involvement with youth movements including periods spend in Kibbutzim, and then his eventual disenchantment with Zionism. Intermixed with the personal narrative is the story of Zionism, from the European enlightenment and its Jewish followers who saw universalism as a way to break out of the Ghettos, to the subsequent Romantic turn which left Jews on the margins of European nationalist intellectual currents. In this historical development, Rosenberg emphasises the way in which Jews internalised European anti-Semitism to create the utopia of the strong, unaffected, son-of-the-soil settler who would build the new country through hard labour and be a thousand light years removed from the grey, downcast Ghetto Jew. Rosenberg lived this ideal in the early years of the young country, amidst the fervour of other idealist supporters of “muscular Zionism.”

His realisation of the parallel tragedy of the Palestinian people on which the country was built is one of the things that begin to make Rosenberg away from his ideals.

Being in Ramallah, somehow Rosenberg’s description of lost utopia put things into relief for me: the ideals of strength on which the state of Israel was built; the incredible hopes; the perceived need to create an Iron Wall to protect these hopes from enemies, and the inevitable feeling (for anyone with the slightest sense of reality) that things have gone awry since the 1990s – it all added layers of explanation to the tragedy that is Israel and Palestine.

Rosenberg’s book intersects with one of the latest pieces in the New York Review of Books by Tony Judt, the Jewish American historian who is suffering from near complete paralysis but continues to write remarkable short pieces of memoirs. In it he describes his youth in a kibbutz in the 1960s and the influence of what he calls Labour Zionism. The primary influence of having lived the ideological fervour of those years was to make him, “perhaps a bit prematurely,” suspicious of identity politics in all forms.

It is possible to shed the utopia and critique it and explain it from the outside. Judt has in fact been a longstanding critic of Zionism and written a number of articles which made him a target of Zionist sympathisers in the past, including a majestic 2003 defence of a binational state.

Now, his latest series in NYRB has brought a number of personal attacks on Judt that quite shamelessly link his “self-hating” “anti-Semitism” to his disease. The attacks come from the British Neocon Anthony Julius (in an interview with the Guardian), and Middle East scholar Martin Kramer. The comments are quoted on Mondoweiss blog, and include Martin Kramer ostensibly saying on his Facebook profile that “Tony Judt has become a metaphor for Jewry before Israel: a disembodied amalgam of grand ideas, unable to act in the physical world or move about freely to create or defend, incapable of self-sustenance, and therefore utterly dependent on the good will of others. The loss of muscularity that he wishes upon the Jews as a collective, fate has imposed on him as an individual. As ironic as it is tragic.”

If this is an accurate quote from Kramer, it isn’t just mean, it is despicable. And it brings back the point that the utopian need for of a strong Jewry, the internalised anti-Semitism of modern Zionism, which Rosenberg and Judt historicise, is so deep in the bones with many Jews inside and outside of Israel that for them it seems to justify any means and transgressing any boundaries, be they military or moral.

Why Lebanon’s economy continues to thrive

by Sune Haugbolle.

After a long hiatus due to the fact that I was finishing my book, here is an analysis of the Lebanese economy. It is somewhat baffling, and a nice piece of good news from the Levant, that in a time when Western countries fear a lapse into recession, the Lebanese economy continues to thrive.

Lebanese politics ended 2009 on a positive note with the visit to Damascus on December 20 of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. It was the first such visit since the assassination of his father in February 2005. His visit signalled that Hariri, backed by France and Saudi Arabia, is willing to accept a regional role for Syria.

This year has started in the same vein: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, another staunch government critic of Syria, has now moved to what he calls a ‘centrist’ position, leaving open the possibility that he, too, will achieve reconciliation with Damascus. Since regional reconciliation holds the key to national reconciliation in Lebanon, the thaw between Syria and its enemies in Beirut bodes well for national unity, political reforms and economic progress during 2010.

By Lebanese standards, 2009 was a quiet year. The chief development was the drawn out government formation process, which concluded in November with the election of Hariri to the premiership. The improvement in political stability had a positive effect on the economy, which showed signs of having completed its recovery following the politically disastrous period of 2005-08.

Thus, Lebanon saw the second highest growth rate in the region after Qatar, with government and World Bank estimates at 7%. The conservative lending strategy of its banks protected it from some of the effects of the global recession. The World Bank estimates that growth will continue at the same rate in 2010.

Moreover, bank deposits grew by 20% thanks to increased savings from Lebanese nationals living abroad. Foreign exchange reserves also increased to a record level of 28.6 billion dollars. Despite the fact that many Lebanese expatriates lost capital in the downturn, this has been outweighed by the fact that local banks are now seen as a safe haven.

Stability also boosted tourism. In the first ten months of the year, Lebanon attracted 1.57 million visitors, an increase of 42.7% over 2008. Although average spending per tourist was down on previous years due to the global recession, the tourist sector thrived on increasing numbers rather than fewer but wealthier visitors from Arab and European countries. Finally, the balance of payments recorded a surplus of 12 billion dollars, the highest in recent history.

Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the heavy debt burden continues to cloud the outlook: it is now estimated at 51 billion dollars, or 155% of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further 5 billion dollars this year.

Inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions and must be addressed if the country is to reduce its debt. Finance Minister Raya Haffar Hassan has vowed to focus public spending in 2010 on a number of key areas.

One of them is transport. A high-speed railway has been proposed along the coast to alleviate the heavy environmental costs imposed by road traffic. New roads are also planned, with special emphasis on integrating the underdeveloped northern regions into the economy.

Another important area to address is modernisation of public education is planned in order to bridge the gap between public and private schools, and to alleviate sectarian divisions among the youth. Moreover, new power plants are envisaged to alleviate frequent power cuts and reduce high electricity prices, and the government has promised to improve efficiency of the information and communications technology sector, which is so crucial to facilitate private business activity and attract foreign investment.

Such large public projects are likely to require an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) — a move which could undermine the government’s current popularity. On the other hand, these projects will create new jobs and further reduce unemployment, which was down from 18% in 2008 to 10% last year.

Reform of infrastructure and education are in line with the pledges made to donor states at the Paris III meeting in 2007. So far, only half of the total 7.6 billion dollars pledged to help authorities reduce the public debt, achieve reforms and stimulate the economy, has been disbursed. The remainder is tied to proposals that are still awaiting parliamentary approval, the most important of which involve privatisation. Here the government will find itself in some difficulty:

The composite nature of the coalition and deep divisions among ministers threaten to stymie economic reforms. Hizbollah, which holds two ministries, is opposed to privatisation. Its ally, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, controls the Telecoms and Energy and Water Ministries, seen as crucial to privatisation efforts.

Telecoms Minister Charbel Nahas has expressed concern that selling the entire cellular network to private companies could turn a public monopoly into a private one. However, the current providers will come under scrutiny and be forced to improve their services, which are among the most expensive in the world.

Although Lebanon is plagued with an acute power shortage, and the national Electricite du Liban is in poor financial shape, a viable private alternative is still lacking. This suggests that no restructuring of the electricity sector, which accounts for almost half of the national budget, is likely in the short term.

Despite these difficulties, the prospects for 2010 look good for Lebanon’s economy. Barring major political crises, the economy will continue to expand, even if sharp divisions in the government will impede its ability to conduct the much-needed economic reforms.