Political Crisis in Lebanon/ The case for “Jihadism”

Nov 30, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 30, 2007
Number 11/07 #12

As readers may be aware, Lebanon has had no president since last week. The term of the last president, pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, ended on Nov. 23. However, no successor has been elected because of a stand-off between the pro-Syrian opposition, led by Hezbollah, and the anti-Syrian government, led by PM Fouad Sinora and Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

First up, Lebanon specialist Robert Rabil details the complex twists and turns of the negotiations between the two sides for a new president, and French and American diplomatic efforts to try to push for a compromise. He has some strong advice for the international community if it wants to help Lebanon prevent a resurgence of Syrian domination. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. Recent reports say that most of the current discussion centres around army chief  Gen. Michel Suleiman, a compromise that would require a constitutional amendment.

Next up is some comment from Lebanese journalist and commentator Michael Young on the danger to Lebanon and the region of appeasing, or engaging clumsily, with Syria, at a time when Lebanon’s future hangs in the balance. Young worries that there might even be some inclination to abandon the UN-sponsored tribunal into the murder of Rafiq Hariri, which, he argues, would remove the only leverage the West has to prevent Syrian misbehaviour. For this take on the current political stand-off in Lebanon and especially Syria’s role in it, CLICK HERE. Also, don’t miss this bittersweet story of a Lebanese protest movement,  Khalass! — Arabic for Enough.

Finally, we offer an interesting article by British historian Timothy Garton Ash on what to call the “people who want to kill us.” He discusses the virtues of a few possibilities, such as “Islamofascists” and “Islamists”, before settling on “Jihadist.” It’s an interesting argument, well worth a read, whether you agree or not, HERE. Also, an American Muslim on how to tell the difference between Islamist and non-Islamist Muslim schools. And a long New York Times piece on the psychology of Jihadists and suicide terrorists.

Readers may also be interested in:

Lebanon’s Presidential Crisis

Robert Rabil

PolicyWatch #1310
November 26, 2007

As the end of the Lebanese presidential term neared and then passed on November 23, domestic and international forces have ratcheted up their involvement in electing the country’s new president. But the political focus of the presidential elections has shifted from democratic and constitutional ideals to concerns about preventing civil strife — a potential reality if no consensus on a candidate is reached between the two major Lebanese camps, the pro-Western March 14 alliance and the Hizballah-led opposition.

Although many divisive political issues exist, the major obstacle has been Hizballah’s insistence on a presidential candidate who would reject UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which together call for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon (i.e., Hizballah), the end of Syrian intervention and presence in the country, and the support for an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Any compromise candidate who does not support these resolutions will rob the March 14 movement of its political legitimacy and pave the way for Syrian, and possible Iranian, suzerainty over Beirut.

The Battle over Candidates
Hizballah has successfully confounded Lebanese political parties and the international community by threatening a military takeover of the state and waging a shrewd and calculated political campaign to undermine the prospects of March 14 presidential nominees. Pressured especially by the French, and fearing a constitutional power vacuum, Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir reluctantly agreed to create a list of acceptable presidential nominees. (The Lebanese constitution requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, making Sfeir a possible presidential power-broker.) The list, which Sfeir prepared following a November 13 meeting with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, included Michel Aoun, Nassib Lahoud, Michel Edde, Boutros Harb, Michel Khoury, Robert Ghanem, and Riad Salameh.

Negotiations ensued between the March 14 parliamentary bloc leader Saad Hariri and Nabih Berri, the Amal speaker of parliament who represents the opposition. Their talks immediately focused on selecting a compromise candidate, thereby eliminating Aoun for the opposition and Harb and Lahoud for the March 14 alliance. While the March 14 alliance was compelled to consider Ghanem, who has cordial relations with Syria but has demonstrated sympathy for several key March 14 issues, the opposition vetoed Ghanem and Khoury. The opposition then started to press for the candidacies of Edde and Salameh, and simultaneously requested that the chief of staff of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Gen. Michel Suleiman, be added to the list.

Salameh, the director of Lebanon’s central bank, was subsequently removed because a constitutional amendment was required to approve his candidacy; a similar constitutional problem scuttled Suleiman’s candidacy (although Sulieman may still be Syria’s preferred candidate). As a result, only Edde remained, but he was rejected by the March 14 alliance. An octogenarian and former president of the Maronite league, Edde is known for his anti-Semitism and for his support for Syria — best demonstrated by his infamous boast that he would “lie down before Syrian tanks to prevent them from leaving Lebanon.”

To complicate matters, the dynamics of the negotiations have been affected by international considerations. For example, although the French preferred the constitutional formula of electing the president with a simple 50-percent-plus-one parliamentary majority — something that would neutralize Hizballah and Syria — the French instead persuaded the March 14 alliance to forego such a move because of its potential consequences. The March 14 alliance subsequently lost its leverage once it agreed to the French initiative of seeking consensus with the patriarch’s list. The tacit U.S. approval of the French initiative, and Washington’s reluctance to be involved, has also been construed by some members of the March 14 movement as U.S. backtracking from recognizing an elected president by a simple majority.

Consequently, Walid Jumblatt, a key member of the March 14 alliance, changed his position from demanding a no-compromise president to supporting a compromise candidate. Moved by his desire to remain the central figure in his ruling coalition, Hariri — a Sunni Muslim — also shifted his position, favoring the idea of a weak Maronite president to ensure his own political ascendancy. All of this has taken a toll on March 14 solidarity, which Hizballah has exploited.

An Emerging Power Vacuum
Since no agreement was reached, the November 23 parliamentary session to elect a president failed to convene. Although March 14 deputies attended the session, an opposition boycott deprived parliament of the two-thirds quorum needed to open the session. Subsequently, Berri scheduled a new session for November 30.

This constitutional impasse has further polarized the country and disheartened the March 14 movement despite the facade of solidarity it projects. Immediately after Berri announced the new session’s date, the March 14 alliance issued a statement asserting it would not undertake any action that might provoke civil strife. In sharp contrast to the opposition’s audacious attempts to elect a pro-Syrian president, the March 14 movement is apparently making concessions, driven by concerns of what Hizballah would do if the majority continues to support a no-compromise candidate.

Two things continue to be central for the March 14 movement: U.S. reaffirmation of its support for the 50-percent-plus-one formula; and American recognition of the Lebanese cabinet’s executive powers until a new president is elected. Before departing office last week, President Emile Lahoud asserted that the March 14-led government is unconstitutional, and authorized the Lebanese army to handle the country’s unraveling security situation.

Differing Concerns
Each party in the March 14 movement is now assessing its support and power relative to the opposition, and is pondering the next steps. Decisionmaking within the movement’s constituent parties are, not surprisingly, affected by their respective vulnerabilities. For instance, Jumblatt’s Druze party is concerned about a potential dual attack from Hizballah and pro-Syrian Palestinians, whose headquarters are not far from his stronghold. Hariri’s constituency — Sunnis who had no significant experience in the country’s civil war because they relied on the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Syria for protection — is struggling to come up with a defensive plan. In addition, Samir Geagea’s group is concerned more with potential intra-Christian fighting than with defending the Maronite heartland. Nevertheless, it is fairly confident that the Christian communities of East Beirut could withstand a potential Hizballah onslaught as they did in January 2007.

Lebanon faces dangerous scenarios ranging from a political vacuum to civil war. It is up to the Lebanese to choose whether their country will be part of the international community or a militia-state linked to an Iranian-Syrian axis. Nevertheless, given the high stakes of this struggle, the international community should continue its support for the March 14 alliance by helping Hariri obtain Arab cover and support, especially from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and allaying Jumblatt’s fears by warning Damascus against any proxy attack on his Druze fiefdom. So far, the consequences of this deepening crisis remain to be seen.

Robert Rabil is an adjunct scholar at The Washington Institute and director of graduate studies and an assistant professor of Middle East studies in Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Political Science.




Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In September, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner canceled a meeting at the United Nations with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, following the assassination of Lebanese parliamentarian Antoine Ghanem. “I was, forgive me, shocked by this latest assassination, as I am shocked every time,” Mr. Kouchner explained. “I thought that I should not meet my counterpart as planned. It’s an intolerable situation. We are trying not to be tolerant.” He denied that he was blaming Syria for the killing, but his statement could not be read in any other way.

Almost two months later the French managed to overcome their shock, offering Syria normalized relations in exchange for facilitating the election of a Lebanese president. French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent two top aides to Damascus to secure a deal. Nothing came of it as Syria’s Lebanese allies and adversaries could not agree to a candidate. Now Lebanon is without a president, with no clear sign of when an election will take place.

However, the message from France was plain: The West is willing to overlook Syria’s violations of U.N. resolutions seeking genuine Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Damascus is likely behind the assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians, journalists and others in recent years, and is using its Lebanese allies to undermine the government in Beirut. Yet foreign capitals are increasingly engaging Syrian President Bashar Assad, whether on Lebanon’s future or on regional peace talks, as Syria’s inclusion in yesterday’s Annapolis conference shows.

If this engagement is done clumsily — as it has been so far — we will soon be reading the Cedar Revolution’s obituary. The 2005 popular demonstrations that helped end a 29-year Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the election of an anti-Syrian majority in parliament will have been in vain.

Syria has spent the past two years in the eye of a regional storm it has helped create. The Assad regime has exported instability to Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian areas, while strengthening its relations with Iran. Yet far from paying a price in terms of international isolation, Syria has seen foreign petitioners rush to its doorstep. They have attempted to convince Mr. Assad that he is better off abandoning Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But why would the Syrian leader have any incentive to do so when it’s his dangerous liaisons that are precisely what encourage foreign visitors to talk to Syria?

Because of the fear that Islamists might replace Mr. Assad if his regime fell, no one truly wants to see him destabilized. The Israelis told the French as much during the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Russians and Chinese agree. The U.N. has an aversion to fiddling with regimes, no matter how thuggish. And major European states — particularly those with military contingents in south Lebanon, such as France, Italy and Spain — worry about what Syria or its local partners Hezbollah might do to their soldiers in the event of a confrontation with Damascus.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, has advocated “behavior change” in Syria, not “regime change.” That’s reasonable, but Syrian behavior has not changed — and Washington, for all its post-2005 aid to Lebanon, has done nothing about it. Indeed, the U.S. has not even made Syria regret supporting the anti-American insurgency in Iraq.

A silent coup is taking place, with Syria striving to prevent the consolidation of an independent Lebanese political order. Syria’s strategy for the presidential election was to agree with Hezbollah and the followers of Lebanon’s parliament speaker, Nabih Berri (whose appointment was engineered by Syria), to boycott the presidential election. Mr. Berri simply refused to open parliamentary election sessions unless prior agreement was reached on a “compromise” candidate, effectively meaning someone acceptable to Damascus. The two parties were supported by Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, who has tried to use his alliance with pro-Syrian groups as leverage to become president of Lebanon himself. While not technically illegal, the scheming by Syria and its allies represented a travesty of democracy in denying the majority its rights. It also undermined the spirit of the constitution by obstructing a vote.

European and Arab governments have backed this “compromise” demand. Even the U.S. went along with Mr. Sarkozy’s opening to Syria — even though France, by asking Syria to facilitate the Lebanese election, was undermining Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for “a free and fair electoral process…without foreign interference or influence.”

Ironically, the anti-Syrian majority could momentarily benefit from this stalemate. Lacking an elected president, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, so reviled by Syria, has constitutionally taken over those powers. Now the pro-Syrian opposition might demand an election so that a new government will be formed in which it has a say. This could buy Syria’s adversaries some latitude to impose a president closer to the ideals of the Cedar Revolution. But Syria still has plenty of means to engender chaos in Lebanon.

Especially troubling are signs that the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is faltering. Former lead investigator Serge Brammertz of Belgium has until now refused to name any suspects, although Lebanese press reports suggest he might do so in his final report next week. His German predecessor Detlev Mehlis, never hid his conviction that senior Syrian officials were behind the crime. The fear is that Mr. Brammertz has been playing it safe, realizing that the U.N. is not keen to subvert the Syrian regime. His recent departure to the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a promotion of sorts, suggests that his instincts may have been correct. Canadian judge Daniel Bellemare will succeed Mr. Brammertz. And while we should give Mr. Bellemare the benefit of the doubt, it is troubling that he has never been in charge of an international terrorist case.

If the Hariri trial is abandoned in favor of an under-the-table arrangement to protect the Syrian regime, the international community would lose the only serious leverage it has over Damascus. Abandoned, too, would be that rare instance in which the rule of law could have been used to punish a political crime in the Middle East.

Mr. Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.


In identifying those trying to kill us, we should choose our words carefully

‘Islamofascists’ and ‘Islamists’ are not the right labels. But Muslim opinion leaders must condemn violent jihadists

Timothy Garton Ash

Guardian, Thursday November 22, 2007

What should we call the people who want to kill us? Islamofascists? Islamists? Jihadists? Or just plain murderers? You might say it doesn’t matter that much; the point is to stop them. But finding the right words is part of stopping them. It means we’ve correctly identified our real enemies. It also means we don’t unnecessarily create new enemies by making all Muslims feel that they’re being treated as terrorists.

Take, for comparison, the last major terrorist threat we faced in Britain. Clearly it made a huge difference whether we described the people bent on blowing us up as “the Irish”, “Catholics”, “Irish Republicans”, “Catholic terrorists”, “nationalist extremists”, “the Provos” or simply “the IRA”. On the whole, and fortunately, we stuck with “the IRA”. That helped us to win, after a long struggle. In this case, it’s not so simple. “Al-Qaida” won’t do as the functional equivalent of “the IRA” – not on its own anyway. We need a wider term to describe the kind of violent extremists who perpetrated the London and Madrid bombings. Counter-terrorism experts talk carefully of “al-Qaida-inspired” violence, but that’s too complicated for everyday use, as are alternative suggestions such as “violent Muslim extremists” or “modern Islamic militancy”. We need a simpler shorthand.

So how about “Islamofascists”? There are some very suggestive resemblances between the mentality and life-paths of self-styled fascists of Europe’s bloody 20th century and those of the evil men who have bloodied the beginning of Europe’s 21st century. Perhaps the most important common feature is the aestheticisation of violence and the cult of heroic death – the Heldentod. Add to the brew a profoundly ambiguous attitude to modernity; a yearning to overcome what is felt to be the historical humiliation of your country or civilisation; festering anti-semitism; a particular appeal to young, socially and sexually frustrated men; and you have a strong case.

However, the arguments against settling on this tag are stronger. First of all, in the last 50 years the label “fascism” and “fascists” has been profligately over-used and hollowed-out to mean little more than “something the left hates at the moment”. If it’s bad, and you’re on the left, you call it “fascist”; if it’s fascist, it feels good to be against it. The list of things described by people on the left as “fascist” over the last half-century would fill several pages, and certainly include Margaret Thatcher, the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, capitalism, men (aka male chauvinists) and the Daily Mail.

Early 20th-century fascists called themselves fascists. They knew who they were and we knew who they were. To be an anti-fascist in 1938 was to fight Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Today’s “Islamofascists” do not identify themselves as such and it is unclear who exactly is included.

In the form “Islamofascism”, and with the added spice of references to “totalitarianism”, the label elides two things that need to be kept separate. One is the mentality of death-seeking and death-delivering fanatics. The other is a totalitarian political system that controls major states. This is, if you will, the difference between 1921 in Europe and 1938, when fascism controlled Germany, Italy and Spain.

Now, if nuclear-armed Pakistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia fall the wrong way, we could be there sooner than we think – but at the moment the only serious contender for the title of Islamic-fascist state is the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of Iran’s leading dissidents, Akbar Ganji, has just written an interesting article in Newsweek discussing the application of the label to Iran. Ganji speaks with the unique authority of a man who did time in the ayatollahs’ prisons for suggesting that elements in Iran’s regime were trying to organise it “along fascist lines”. But, he writes, “Iran’s political system is very different from that of a totalitarian fascist state”. Yes, “warnings about fascist readings of religion can sensitise us to the dangers posed by an organised clerical minority within the Iranian state … But when leaders like Bush and Blair speak about ‘Islamic fascism’, many Iranians view it as nothing more than an attempt to prepare public opinion for war.”

If “Islamofascists” doesn’t work, what about “Islamists”? Islamism, unlike Islamofascism, is a term accepted by all serious analysts of the Islamic world and by many Islamists themselves. It refers, broadly speaking, to Islam recast during the decades since the collapse of the Ottoman empire as a political ideology, a proposed organising principle for state and society. In this sense, we talk of Islamist parties – in government in Turkey, contesting elections in Morocco, officially banned yet massively organised as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But precisely for that reason, to use the label “Islamists” for the people who are plotting to kill us obscures an important distinction.

Most Islamic terrorists are, in some sense, Islamists, but most Islamists are not terrorists. They are reactionaries. They propose a profoundly conservative religious vision of society which, in its attitudes to free speech, apostasy, homosexuality and women, is generally anathema to secular liberal convictions (including, emphatically, my own). But for the most part they do so through peaceful political means, not through violence. At the most moderate end of the broad spectrum of political Islamism, as represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party in the secular state of Turkey, they are closer to the Christian religious right in the US (for many of whom homosexuality is a sin and abortion is murder) than they are to al-Qaida. For us secular liberals, this religious reaction is also a very bad thing, to be combated with all the peaceful means at our disposal, but it is a different thing – and we make a mistake if we blur the distinction.

So what should we call the suicide mass murderers and would-be mass murderers? The best answer I have found so far is “jihadists”, especially in the form “jihadist extremists” or “jihadist terrorists”. I know that “jihad” can also be construed as peaceful spiritual struggle, but the Muslim opinion-leaders that I have consulted seem ready to accept this usage. It places a clear demarcation line between ordinary Muslims, and even non-violent political Islamists, on the one hand, and the dealers in death on the other – yet it does not obscure the connection to their religion. In fact, it makes it clearer than either of the alternative terms. Jihad, holy war, is precisely what the suicide bombers tell us – in their pre-murder valedictory messages – that they were proudly engaged upon.

These are the people who are out to kill us and tear apart the civil fabric of our societies. When I say “us”, I don’t just mean secular liberals or Christians; I mean equally the innocent Muslim citizens whom they murder in the same blasts and whose acceptance in the wider society they jeopardise. Two obligations follow. There is an obligation on those of us who are non-Muslims living in open societies like Britain, to choose our words carefully. Until someone comes up with a better one, I think “jihadists” is the most appropriate shorthand. There is, however, an equal and matching obligation on our Muslim opinion leaders. That is to condemn, audibly and unambiguously, the jihadists who threaten us all.


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