Quantcast

Blogs

Hanging with the People's Mujahadeen of Iran

In 1997, US President Bill Clinton added Iran’s People’s Mujahadeen (Mujahideen Khalq in Persian, or MEK) to the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, and in 2012 his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took them off.

One of them erred and erred badly.

The MEK fought hard against the Shah Reza Pahlavi before and during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Afterward, when the Islamist faction led by Ayatollah Khomeini emerged the strong horse in the ensuing struggle for power, they fought the new government alongside Iran’s leftist movements and lost.

Iran’s government insists on calling them terrorists and convinced Bill Clinton to do so as well.

They’re based in France now. They have to base themselves somewhere outside Iran because they’ll be tortured and executed if they go home. And they’ve formed a larger umbrella organization that includes other opposition movements called the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Every year they hold a huge rally in Paris that’s broadcast live on television (via satellite, of course) into Iran.

They invited me this year, so I went.

I was a little bit skeptical at the outset. Hillary Clinton only took them off the terrorist list a couple of years ago. Their roots are quasi-Marxist and Islamist. Their most strident critics insist that the MEK is some kind of a cult and that nobody inside Iran likes them. But I went anyway because…why not? I don’t work for them or answer to them. I can write whatever I want. I could denounce them as a gaggle of hysterical charlatans and propagandists and nothing bad would happen to me.

And they get that. “We won’t tell you what to write,” said Ali Safavi, the man who invited me. “We wouldn’t dare.”

He isn’t stupid. If they pressured me to write anything positive—or even anything in particular—I’d bust them for it in public and warn my colleagues in the media to avoid them.

I won’t, though. Whatever they were when they started out back in the 70s, they’ve gone mainstream in the meantime—not by Middle Eastern standards, but by Western standards.

They were squishily Marxist at the beginning, though they were never communist or even socialist, really. Mostly they belonged to Ali Shariati’s school of wild-eyed anti-imperialism. Since the United States backed the Shah, they were anti-American.

In the 1970s, when the Shah was still in power, they violently attacked Iranian targets. Some accuse them of attacking Western targets as well. Supposedly they bombed American-owned buildings and assassinated US military personnel in Iran. They insist, however, that they never attacked Westerners, that those hits were carried out by the communist splinter faction Peykar.

I don’t know who’s right. Maybe they didn’t do it. Maybe they pretend that they didn’t because they’re pro-American now and need American help. Either way, the 1970s were almost half a century ago. It’s not clear to me how much it should matter today even if they’re guilty.

What else was going on during the 1970s? Vietnamese officials were executing landlords and sending dissidents to “re-education” camps. Their soldiers killed tens of thousands of ours. (Ours killed many times more of theirs, of course.) America’s relations with Vietnam today are outstanding, though, because the past is the past. People change, parties change, governments change and history rolls ever onward.

Likewise, our relations with the MEK are outstanding. They haven’t even allegedly done anything bad to America for at least three and a half decades. Why would they? We have common enemies now. They’ve been ruthlessly persecuted by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Khomeinists insist the MEK is “contaminated” with atheism and the “Western plague.”

Here’s another reason the regime hates them so much: the MEK is the only major Middle Eastern political movement led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi. She is Iran’s Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled woman who wishes to overthrow an illegitimate government by rallying forces around her from abroad. (Unlike our Game of Thrones heroine, Rajavi is not angling to be queen, nor does she command any dragons.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK assassinated a number of regime officials and military officers inside Iran. Hence Iran’s designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is a difference, though, between guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Declaring that any and all violent action against a tyrannical regime is terrorism ignores the vast moral and political differences between the likes of Osama bin Laden and Thomas Jefferson. The imbecilic answer that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is not going to cut it. Crashing civilian airliners into the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism by any and all definitions while the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation was in practice and spirit its opposite.

Bill Clinton didn’t designate the MEK a terrorist organization because of what it did during the 1970s or even the 1990s. He added it to the list because he was trying to improve relations with the Iranian government after the alleged “moderate” Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 and Khatami asked him to do it. Never mind that Khatami wasn’t a real moderate or even Iran’s head of state. Iran’s head of state, then as now, was “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei. Iran during Khatami’s time was no more “moderate” than it was with the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president. 

Want to know what real Iranian moderates look like? Take a look at the MEK’s 10-point platform for a future Iran.

1.                  A republic based on universal suffrage.

2.                  Individual freedoms, including free expression and a free press.

3.                  The abolition of the death penalty.

4.                  Separation of mosque and state.

5.                  Gender equality.

6.                  The rule of law.

7.                  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

8.                  Private property and a market economy.

9.                  A foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence.

10.              A non-nuclear Iran.

There’s nothing Marxist or Islamist in there. Those ten points read like the first draft of a constitution in a modern liberal democracy.

Under what theory should the West spurn these people in favor of a government that tortures dissidents, supports terrorist armies all over the Middle East and hangs homosexuals from cranes in the capital?

It’s disgraceful that the United States called them terrorists at the behest of a totalitarian regime, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when we try to make peace with our enemies before they’re ready to stop being our enemies. At least Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had the decency to reverse what her husband did, but not until after a years-long legal battle finally forced her.

*

The event in Paris was a grand spectacle. It lasted eight hours.

Roughly 100,000 people attended, the vast majority of them Iranians living in exile. Never in my life have I seen so many human beings in one place. The MEK may not be popular inside Iran, but it sure as hell is in the European diaspora, which suggests its popularity back home may not be quite so near the floor as its critics allege.

The gathering was out by the airport. It couldn’t be held anywhere near the center of Paris. None of the Haussmann-era buildings are even remotely large enough to hold so many people.

Honestly, I thought I’d be bored. I was jet lagged and exhausted, and if I’m going to spend a few days in France, I don’t want to be stranded in the suburban asteroid belt near the airport. I want to hang out at a café in the Latin Quarter and peruse the Musee d’Orsay.

Yet I wasn’t bored for even five minutes. The organizers managed to keep things interesting and engaging with a splendid diversity of programming, including thunderous speeches, riveting films, and music and dance.

Most of the speakers weren’t Iranian. They were high profile officials from the United States, the European Union and the Middle East, including Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal. He delivered a real stemwinder in Arabic, opening with heartfelt praise of the high accomplishments of Persian civilization since the time of the Zoroastrians—Persians are not accustomed to hearing this sort of talk from Arabs—and ending with a clarion call for regime-change in Iran.

Thanks to the MEK’s reputation and past, I expected the event to be strange, perhaps even a little surreal, but it was as conventional as the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, partly because the organization is so wired into Washington now.

Here is but a sample of who attended from the American side of the Atlantic:

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia)

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (Democrat)

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Democrat)

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island.)

Former Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey)

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (Republican)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) was also scheduled to be there, but couldn’t make it.

How far the MEK has come. From an officially designated “terrorist organization” to an organization with bipartisan clout inside Washington rivaling Britain’s.

Every single one of those speakers flew to Paris not only to support the Iranian opposition, but also regime-change in Iran. “The regime is doomed,” Howard Dean said during a pre-event panel discussion, “and we’d like to help it along on its path to doomsday as fast as possible…It stands for everything that is evil and bad about humanity. Our job is to make sure they don’t succeed, and the faster we get them out of there, the better.”

It was refreshing to see so many American officials from across the political spectrum on the same stage agreeing with each other about something so fundamental. They all made the current occupant of the White House and our current White House contenders look pale by comparison. Nice to see Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, but it would have been even better if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump decided to come.

Unlike Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, Clinton and Obama are not calling for regime-change in Iran. Clinton almost certainly privately wants it, but there’s no real evidence that Obama does. Clinton is more skeptical than Obama about Washington’s new arrangement with Tehran, but she’s campaigning in part on his nuclear deal.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, would have prohibited every single one of the MEK’s members and supporters from even entering the United States on a tourist visa before he finally climbed down from his ludicrous proposition to ban every foreign Muslim on earth from setting foot on American soil. 

Critics say the MEK has little or no support inside Iran, in part because it opposes the nuclear deal. That deal is extremely popular on the Iranian street. It partially ends Iran’s international isolation and should, at least in theory, boost Iran’s anemic economy. Perhaps the critics are right. Honestly, I have no idea.

What I do know, without any doubt whatsoever, is that whatever these people were in the 1970s, today they’re genuine liberals and moderates. They are not the fake moderates of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian presidency. Nor do they resemble, in any meaningful way, Turkey’s false moderate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is rapidly transforming himself from the Middle East’s Hugo Chavez into its Stalin. No, these Iranian folks are the real deal, and it’s nice to see Western capitals treat them accordingly.

Karaganov Shows Pathology of Putin’s Realism

Sometimes, Vladimir Putin snarls and reveals his true self to the world. More often than not, one of his minions shows his teeth. This time, it was Sergey Karaganov’s turn to terrify the world with a short interview in the German weekly, Der Spiegel.

Karaganov is no bit player. Here’s how Der Spiegel identifies him: “Sergey Karaganov, 63, is honorary head of the influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which develops geopolitical strategy concepts for Russia. ... Karaganov is an advisor to Vladimir Putin's presidential administration and deacon of the elite Moscow college National Research University Higher School of Economics.”

In a word, Karaganov is speaking for Putin. And what he has to say reveals the full and frightening extent of the Putin regime’s chauvinism, imperialism, and paranoia.

China Defiant in Wake of Int'l Ruling on South China Sea

On the 12th of this month, an arbitral panel in The Hague rendered its award in the landmark case of Philippines vs. China. The decision, interpreting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, was a sweeping rebuke of Beijing’s position, invalidating its expansive “nine-dash line” claim to about 85 percent of the South China Sea.

Many are hoping that China will bring its claims into line with UNCLOS, as the UN pact is known, and some even think it has actually begun the process of doing so. Unfortunately, a series of hostile reactions in the last few days, including an implied threat to use nuclear weapons to defend its outposts in that body of water, suggest Beijing’s reaction will not be benign.  

China maintains it has sovereignty to all the features—islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations—inside its now-famous dotted boundary. Five other states—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—also claim those features, and China’s nine-dash line impinges on the exclusive economic zone of a sixth, Indonesia.

Slow Blogging For Now

This isn’t exactly a slow news week with another ISIS massacre in France and an aborted coup attempt in Turkey. It is, however, a slow writing week for me.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran invited me to an Iranian opposition conference in Paris last week. I’m still in Paris at the moment, cat-sitting and house-sitting for my friend and colleage Claire Berlinski while she travels away from home to research her next book about Europe.

I’ll write about the Iranian opposition when I get home in a couple of days. It was a fascinating event attended by roughly 100,000 people, including Newt Gingrich, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (whom I was lucky enough to have dinner with, though our chat was off-the-record), Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, and too many other big shots to keep track of.

I won’t be home for long, though, because City Journal is sending me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I’d cover the Republican convention also except that I’ll still be in Paris when it begins and, alas, I haven’t yet developed the ability to be in two places at once.

So please stand by while I pack and head (briefly) home.

Ukraine is Winning on the Linguistic Battle Front

Many Ukrainians are persuaded that their language is dying out. Many Russians and Russian speakers believe Ukrainian is incapable of serving as a means of sophisticated communication among educated urban dwellers.

Both are wrong. In fact, the Ukrainian language may be doing far better than its supporters and detractors suspect.

Forget the statistics, which are useful but cannot capture what is really taking place on the ground. Instead, take a look at the remarkable growth of the YE chain of bookstores in Ukraine.

YE—written Є in Ukrainian—means “it is” or “there is,” a boldly self-assertive claim that the Ukrainian language, despite the insistence of Russian chauvinists since tsarist times that “it never was, is not, or will be,” in fact IS.

YE is unique in that it specializes in Ukrainian-language books. A few shelves might offer some Russian- and English-language products, but easily 95 percent of all the books YE sells are in Ukrainian. In most of Ukraine’s bookstores, the proportion is likely to be tilted in favor of Russian-language books, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Asia Divisions Deepen after South Korean Missile Defense Deployment

On Friday, Seoul’s Defense Ministry and the US Defense Department announced their joint decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea. The first battery will be placed to protect American forces on the peninsula against a North Korean missile attack.

China reacted within hours, lodging protests with both South Korea and the US. Then on Monday the Chinese foreign ministry continued its tantrum, threatening, in the words of spokesman Lu Kang, to impose “relevant measures” against South Korea.

South Korea’s deployment of THAAD, as the Lockheed Martin-built system is known, is a setback for Chinese attempts to move Seoul away from Washington and marks an end of President Park Geun-hye’s moves to entice China to abandon North Korea.

Expansionist China and Russia Deepen Ties

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met on the 25th of last month in Beijing and issued statements bound to upset their neighbors and the US. For instance, the two leaders, who are both using force to expand and secure their borders, drew upon Orwellian logic when they charged that the nations defending themselves are the ones destabilizing the international system, undermining “strategic stability,” as they put it.

Yet Putin and Xi typically issue provocative statements intended to intimidate neighbors and threaten the international order when they meet. The more important story of the one-day get-together is that the two countries remain on course to become “friends forever”—Xi’s words—and they are cementing that friendship with trade.

Will Brexit Unite Ireland?

The British decision to exit the Europe Union may end up dissolving the United Kingdom and uniting Ireland.

Northern Ireland may not be part of the UK for much longer. While the majority of English voters chose to leave the European Union, 56 of Northern Ireland’s want to remain. The (Protestant) Ulster Unionist Party and (Catholic) Sinn Fein both supported the Remain faction, only the second time in history they’ve stood on the same side of a big political question. They’ve been at each other’s throats for the most part, even before the island’s partition.

The Irish Free State declared its independence from Britain in 1919 and won it in 1922 at the conclusion of a three-year long war. Britain retained most of the northern province of Ulster, though, ostensibly to protect the Protestant majority there. Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority was not very happy about this, of course, and continued to view the British as a foreign occupation force.

War broke out in the 1960s when Catholic and Protestant nationalists battled it with each other, Middle Eastern style, in the streets. Gun battles, assassinations, car bombs, and kidnappings became numbingly routine for three decades. Hideous walls like those in Baghdad and between the West Bank and Israel still keep Catholic and Protestant neighbors away from each other.

More than 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles. It’s a trifling number compared with the civil wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, but it’s a huge number for Western Europe, and in any case it’s worth keeping in mind that Northern Ireland is miniscule compared with Yugoslavia, Syria and Colombia. Fewer than two million people live in the entire region. Belfast, the largest city, is home to barely 300,000 people. Metropolitan Boise is larger than metropolitan Belfast. With that in mind, the number of dead doesn’t look quite so small. If Northern Ireland were as large as Syria, for instance, the number killed would be close to 40,000.

It finally ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. There is no longer a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Citizens can carry British passports, Irish passports or both, regardless of their religion, nationalist identity or political affiliation.

Good Friday wouldn’t have happened without the European Union. Northern Ireland’s membership in the EU made its membership, so to speak, in the United Kingdom almost superfluous. Catholics and Protestants didn’t have to argue anymore about whether or not Dublin or London should be the capital since Brussels trumped both.

When the British partitioned Ireland, the north had a clear Protestant majority. It doesn’t anymore. According to the 2011 census, 42 percent identify as Protestant while 41 percent identify as Catholic. (17 percent don’t identify as either.) Catholics have a higher birthrate, so the Catholic minority may well be a slight majority now.

You might think this means the population has been more or less evenly split about remaining in the UK or uniting with Ireland, but no. The Good Friday Agreement worked so well for so many people that even most Northern Irish Catholics said never mind to a unified Ireland.

In 2013, 65 percent of poll respondents said they would vote to remain in the UK if a referendum were held. Only 17 percent said they wanted to unite with Ireland. Last year, only 25 percent of Northern Ireland’s Catholics said they wanted a united Ireland.

But what about now? A majority of Northern Ireland’s people want to remain in both the EU and the UK, but they can’t.

Northern Ireland (nor Scotland, for that matter) can remain in the EU if the UK leaves. “The EU rules are very clear,” says Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. “Membership is at member state level, it's a national question.”

The next question then is, which do these people want more? To be part of the UK or part of the EU? Will they be willing to ditch the UK for Ireland if it’s the only way to remain in the EU?

Maybe.

Northern Irish Catholics aren’t as willing to go along with the status quo as they were even a month ago. “Unionists would have to rely on Catholics not wanting to be part of a united Ireland,” says Peter Shirlow at the Institute of Irish Studies in the UK. “That has been the trend up to last Friday, but I think that trend is now changing.”

After Brexit, even many Protestants are applying for Irish passports, not because they identify more with Ireland than the UK but because they wish to remain citizens of Europe, and they can only do so now through the Republic of Ireland.

“Our political structures,” SDLP leader Colum Eastwood writes in the Irish Times, “were shaped in the context of European membership.” The SDLP is the mainstream Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Unlike Sinn Fein during the Troubles, it disavowed the Irish Republican Army’s physical force republicanism

We have known and understood the positive impact of Europe. We have known and experienced the example of its architecture and its advocacy for co-operation and peace. We opted to stay true to that vision. We have not given any consent to change it. Unionists and nationalists alike backed that verdict.

The paradox therefore persists. The change chosen by the English people was not chosen by the Irish people. Nor was it chosen by the Scottish. The simplicity of those facts point to one reality: their future cannot now be our future.

The Northern Irish—along with everyone else in the rest of the UK and Ireland—will be doing a lot of soul-searching and arguing about this in the days ahead. Minds will change. Heels will dig in. New banners will fly. And votes will be cast.

Hopefully, bullets won’t fly.

Culture and Corruption in Ukraine

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, member of the board of the NY Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and international outreach coordinator for the Babyn Yar Project for the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.

Motyl: You just returned from the Bruno Schulz festival in Drohobych. How did a Russian-speaking Jewish Ukrainian from Donetsk become interested in a Polish-Jewish writer from Galicia?

History Returns to Europe

The British decision to leave the European Union is the most momentous event across the Atlantic since NATO bombed Belgrade. 

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but it’s not hard to see why the majority voted to Leave. I wouldn’t want the United States to join the EU for the same reasons the Brexiters want out of it.

The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all. (I wouldn’t want to be confined to a place as cramped as Belgium for the rest of my life, but I’m one of those cosmopolitan “elites” everyone likes to complain about nowadays.)

The actually existing EU, though, isn’t so brilliant. It includes all the good stuff, yet it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states. It’s hardly a gulag empire, but it’s autocratic enough that Europe’s democracy deficit has its own Wikipedia page. And its internally borderless nature is bringing more immigrants than can be absorbed all at once without shocks to the system.

Here’s how my Canadian pal Terry Glavin put it, who also would have voted Remain if he lived in Britain. “You can’t tell the British people, as Tony Blair’s Labour government did a decade ago, that there will only be 13,000 new immigrants arriving in Britain every year in the absence of EU transitional controls and expect them to shrug it off when they discover, as they did last month, that last year’s arrivals numbered roughly 330,000. Racism doesn’t explain everything.”

No, it doesn’t. Every racist jackhole in Europe is whooping it up over the Brexit results and pining for more, but even the most welcoming people and nations can only take in so many strangers at any one time, and Europe has never been as good at assimilating immigrants as the US and Canada anyway. (We have a lot more experience on this side of the Atlantic.)

I’ve always been skeptical that the EU would survive beyond the medium-term. Uniting nations as diverse as Britain and Greece isn’t as daft as merging the United States and Mexico into a single polity, but it’s a lot less likely to work than marrying Maine and Texas—or even British Columbia and Quebec. It’s more like combining British Columbia and Argentina. That kind of arrangement can only work if the federation is incredibly flexible.

The EU is not incredibly flexible, and English people don’t appreciate having decisions made for them in Belgium any more than Canadians would enjoy decisions being made for them by Americans, and vice versa.

Britain would have been better off without joining the EU in the first place if it wasn’t going to stay. That would have been fine. Switzerland is flourishing outside the EU, and so is Norway.

It may be a bit premature to say the EU is dead just because Britain left. The British were always the most likely to leave. They never joined with the same enthusiasm as other people. Many have always felt that “Europe” is somewhere else, that it’s the Continent, not the islands, and they refused to scrap the Pound for the Euro.

That said, this could well mark the beginning of the end of the EU. Leaving is no longer unthinkable now that the UK actually did it. If one country can leave, any country can leave, and Euroskepticism has been on the rise all over the place for a while. The EU can get along just fine without Britain, and it would probably get along even better sans Greece, but it won’t survive if France and Germany head for the exits.

The United Kingdom itself may come apart. England and Wales voted to Leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. Scotland held its own independence referendum two years ago and narrowly voted to stay in the UK, but only because leaving the country would have meant leaving Europe, and Scotland doesn’t want to leave Europe. Within hours of the Brexit vote, officials in Scotland mulled a second referendum on independence. It’s far more likely to pass next time than last time.

People in Scotland don’t enjoy having decisions made for them in England any more than the English like having decisions made for them in Belgium. Nationalism in Britain cut both ways. English nationalists voted to Leave while Scottish nationalists voted Remain.

Cosmopolitan “citizens of the world” need to understand something: Nationalism isn’t necessarily bad. It can be—that’s for damn sure—but a lack of it can be just as destructive. Nationalism is exclusive, yes, but it’s also inclusive. It draws a line between those on in the inside and those on the outside, but it also binds those on the inside together.

Look at Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Precious little glue binds them. Huge numbers of people in all three identify more with their sect—Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian—than with their own country. They’ve formed military alliances with belligerent foreign states against people who live down the street. More than a million have been slaughtered because of it. "Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation," Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran wrote about his homeland a century ago.

The two Baath Party regimes in Syria and Iraq attempted to gloss over their sectarian differences with a patina of pan-Arab Nationalism, yet they still butchered hundreds of thousands of people from enemy sects inside their own countries. Fractious Northern Ireland is as homogenous and pacifist as Japan by comparison.

But Northern Ireland is not homogenous, and it is not pacifist. Belfast is the most car-bombed city in the history of Europe. There is no “Northern Irish” identity that binds everybody together. The Catholic half of the population identifies with the Republic of Ireland while the Protestant half identifies with the United Kingdom. If the UK breaks apart after Brexit, what will become of Northern Ireland? It can’t be neatly partitioned any more than Baghdad can be neatly partitioned.

The European Union may have helped calm nationalistic furies in Belfast. It makes less of a difference if the region belongs to Ireland or the UK if it’s part of a larger transnational entity either way—if Brussels is its ultimate capital either way—but that pressure release valve is now closed.

I would have chosen to Remain if I were British. Better to reform and liberalize the EU than to scrap it. The uncertainty following Brexit is nothing compared to what could happen if the whole thing collapses. Those economic shockwaves will hammer us here in the US. I guarantee it.

And what would become of Eastern Europe? Romania is no longer a Third World country thanks in part to the European Union, while Hungary—which likewise hasn’t fully recovered from Soviet-style totalitarian government—is lurching in an increasingly disturbing direction even from within the EU. “The era of liberal democracies is over,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in Romania recently. “Copying Western models is a kind of provincialism that will kill us.” There’s only so much Brussels can do to prevent a nation like Hungary from descending into a Putin-esque hell of its own making, but it will have even less ability if the EU doesn’t exist.

This could be the beginning of a slow-motion and potentially ugly collapse, but who knows? The future isn’t yet written.

I can say this, though, with confidence: history is not over. The next quarter-century in Europe will not be the same as the last quarter-century. History never stands still for long, nor does it move in a straight line for long. It’s always turning corners, and it’s always surprising.

War and Energy in Ukraine

The following is an interview with Margarita Balmaceda, Professor of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. She is the author of The Politics of Energy Dependency: Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania Between Domestic Oligarchs and Russian Pressure.

MOTYL: In your books you maintain that independent Ukraine inherited a highly inefficient energy system centered on the Donbas that became increasingly controlled by regional elites and oligarchs who used subsidies to line their pockets while producing less energy for domestic consumption and neglecting the needs of Donbas residents and Ukrainians. How has the ongoing war with Russia affected this system?

BALMACEDA: The war has affected this system in three key ways. First, Kyiv has stopped financing the coal mines located in the secessionist territories. 

Russia's Parliament Ends Term with More Repression

Last week, the Russian State Duma of the sixth convocation held its last plenary session, breaking up ahead of the September 18 parliamentary election. The end of this legislature was fitting: its very last act was to adopt a draconian package introduced by United Russia lawmaker Irina Yarovaya that lowered the age of criminal responsibility for some offenses—including “mass disturbances” (Kremlin speak for street demonstrations) and failure to report a crime—to fourteen, and required cellular and internet providers to help security services with deciphering all messaging applications.

China Steps Up Provocations

Chinese incursions along its southern and eastern peripheries this month suggest an increase in the pace of territorial provocations.

On June 15, one of China’s intelligence-gathering ships entered Japan’s territorial waters in the wee hours of the morning. The Dongdiao-class vessel sailed near Kuchinoerabu Island and the larger Yakushima Island as it shadowed two Indian warships participating in the Malabar exercise with the US and Japan. The intrusion was the first since 2004, when a Chinese submarine entered Japan’s waters, and only the second by China since the end of the Second World War. Japan filed a protest, but China countered that it was transiting in compliance with international freedom of navigation rules. China's ship lingered for some 90 minutes, possibly in violation of international transit norms.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Radical Islam

Americans have been arguing about Islam since 9/11. It was perhaps inevitable that our presidential candidates would bicker about it eventually.

It finally happened last week when Donald Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for refusing to say the words “radical Islamism.” Clinton responded by saying the words “radical Islamism.”

President Barack Obama is a little more stubborn about it. He even insists that ISIS, or ISIL as he and other government officials call it, “is not Islamic” at all.

Of course ISIS is Islamic. The first letter in ISIS stands for “Islamic.”

Every literate person who knows what letters and words mean must at the absolute minimum recognize that ISIS claims to be Islamic. It sure as hell isn’t Christian, nor is it Jewish. It is not Buddhist, Hindu or Zoroastrian. No human being on this planet thinks ISIS is atheist.

Obama comes off like he’s living in an airy fairy fantasy land. “Unless,” Trump said last week, “you're willing to discuss and talk about the real nature of the problem and the name of the problem radical Islamic terrorism, you're never going to solve the problem.”

“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama angrily said in response. “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away…Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around. If someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Of course Obama knows who we’re fighting and why. He’s been bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year now. He’s been doing it half-assedly, sure, but he’s not bombing the Middle East’s Christians, Jews, Druze, Yezidis or Alawites.

And he’s quite right that we aren’t losing because he doesn’t use the phrase “radical Islam.” He could change his mind and use the phrase every day for the rest of his term and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference on the battlefield.

What he’s doing here is picking up where former President George W. Bush left off when he repeatedly called Islam “a religion of peace.”

Trump says this is political correctness and that it’s killing us, but this is something else. It’s diplomatic correctness.

“There are good reasons why Obama—and President George W. Bush before him—did not describe jihadists in explicitly Islamic terms,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “It was not because they are cowed by political correctness. Rather it was because the wider war on radical Islamic terrorism requires the tacit and at times active support of many radical Muslims.”

Lake’s case in point is the Anbar Awakening during General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, when every tribal leader in the western Anbar Province aligned themselves with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda.

“These sheiks were pious Muslims,” Lake writes. “Many believed that apostates should be punished by the state and that fathers had an obligation to arrange marriages for their daughters.”

He’s right. I spent more time than was good for my health in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. These places are painfully, even brutally, backward. Not every Muslim who lives there is a fanatic, but virtually none can be described as liberal or cosmopolitan with a straight face.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. The United States has had a transactional alliance with the House of Saud since the 1930s. The Saudis provide the world with oil in exchange for American security. Since then, Washington and Riyadh have drawn closer together for other reasons. We share many of the same geopolitical interests, especially when it comes to Iran.

The Saudis are kinda sorta allies, yet they preside over and promote the most puritanical sect of Sunni Islam in the world—that of the Wahhabis, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. The Saudis spend enormous amounts of money spreading this noxious and dangerous brand of Islam all over the world. It’s a serious problem, and it’s long past time for the United States to demand they halt it or else, but the Saudis are nevertheless helpful in other ways and have been for almost a hundred years. 

So yes, we have fanatical as well as moderate and liberal Muslim allies, and Obama, like Bush before him, is reluctant to alienate them. American presidents have to weigh the diplomatic consequences of their words. Journalists, intellectuals, activists and historians don’t.

The downside is that people don’t like or trust leaders who appear disconnected from reality. And Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be. All he needs to do is be honest and reasonable. He just needs to make it clear, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did when he was bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan, that “the war against terrorism is not a war against a religion.”

Middle Easterners are among the least “politically correct” people in the entire world. The very idea of Western-style “political correctness” in the Middle East is absurd. They are far less “sensitive,” in the progressive sense of that word, than virtually anyone in the United States. And they know damn well that ISIS is Islamic. We’re not earning any points with our allies in the Muslim world by denying this, nor would we alienate any of them by acknowledging it.

The United States government surely would alienate our friends and allies over there if we had a bombastic bigoted blowhard in the White House, but calling the Islamic State “Islamic” isn’t even in the same time zone as bigoted or bombastic.

Whatever Obama and Trump say, the rest of us need to get something straight. At one end of the American spectrum is the notion that Islam is a religion of peace while the other end insists that it’s a religion of war and jihad. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Islam is not a single monolithic thing any more than Christianity is.

Former Muslim and Somalia-native Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains this better than almost anyone in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, which I reviewed last year for Commentary.

She divides Muslims into three groups, ignoring the theological and cultural distinctions between Sunnis and Shias and smaller sects like Wahhabis and Sufis. She also sets aside national differences between countries like Kosovo and Azerbaijan, where almost everybody is secular, and ultraconservative realms like Saudi Arabia where almost nobody is.

First there are those she calls Mecca Muslims, traditional and largely peaceful people inspired by Mohammad’s benign example during the religion’s early years when he lived in Mecca and politely invited others to follow him. The majority of the world’s Muslims fall into this camp.

Then there are the Medina Muslims, the often violent minority that follows Mohammad’s example when he lived in Medina and assaulted those who refused to convert. Medina Muslims include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the ayatollahs in Iran.

Both types of people are authentic Muslims. Both can cite the Koran to back up their beliefs and behavior. Both can say they’re following Mohammad’s example. 

Hirsi Ali’s third group are the dissidents like herself. Some are ex-Muslims while others are reformers—including imams and respected scholars—who are doing everything they can to modernize the religion and discredit the Medina Muslims.

Insisting that the Medina Muslims aren’t Muslims is as pointless as it is wrong. It may be defensible as a diplomatic fiction, but it’s also unnecessary. The dissidents and the reformers know damn well who and what they’re up against. They wouldn’t need to reform the religion if it did not need reforming. They also know perfectly well that the Islamic State is Islamic. These people are our best friends in the Islamic world, and they won’t be the least bit offended if Obama or anyone else calls a radical Islamic terrorist a radical Islamic terrorist. 

The Saudis wouldn’t sever the alliance either if the White House calls a spade a spade. They need us more than we need them, after all. People like the sheikhs of Iraq’s Anbar Province wouldn’t refuse to work with an American president for using phrases like “radical Islam” either as long as the White House made it clear we’re not at war with an entire religion.  

Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be, and Trump isn’t worried enough. A commander-in-chief who bares his teeth at 1.2 billion Muslims in the world would be a catastrophe for a reason that ought to be obvious: winning wars against radical Muslims without enlisting the help of friendly moderate Muslims is impossible.

Inaugural Nemtsov Prize Awarded to Lev Shlosberg

On June 12—Russia’s national day that has its origins in a 1990 parliamentary declaration that asserted Russia’s sovereignty over the Soviet government and promised its citizens political rights and liberties—the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom held its inaugural ceremony to award the Nemtsov Prize. The event took place in Bonn, Germany, where the foundation is based and where its founder, Zhanna Nemtsova, resides after fleeing Russia last year following her father’s assassination on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, in plain sight of the Kremlin.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - blogs