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Georgia's Election Matters as Putin's Global Threat Looms

Vladimir Putin's global offensive began in 2008 when Russian forces invaded Georgia. This week on October 8, the imperial resurgence Putin launched could receive its first serious setback when Georgians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Pro-Western parties could retake power but polls indicate a virtual dead heat. It will be near-run thing. It shouldn't be and wouldn't be but for America's neglect of the region—really since the invasion—alongside the EU's passionless embrace. Should we care if Georgia drifts further back into Moscow's orbit? I reported on the invasion for the Wall Street Journal and, yes, we should care. It matters a lot. To understand why, we need a brief history excursion.

Dueling Narratives: EU Overreach vs Hungary's Resistance

"Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" This was the question asked to Hungarians on Sunday's special referendum. It was prompted by an outcry from Hungarians at the throngs of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants that have crossed into their country in the past two years, and President Victor Orbán's disgust at the European Union's plan to distribute refugees amongst all of its member countries regardless of the wishes of the citizenry.

The referendum was Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party's opportunity to snub their nose at European Union and German leadership on the issue. But things did not go precisely as planned. While the results were as expected—a resounding 98.3 percent said 'No' to the above question—the turnout numbers have proven to be the fly in Orbán's ointment.

What Just Happened in Colombia?

By a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a proposed peace plan that would have formally ended the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

Almost everyone thought the referendum would pass, that it was a mere formality after years of painstaking negotiations in Cuba, but no.

The UK’s Independent calls the vote “Farcxit.” Indeed, the peso crashed hard against the dollar for the same reason the British pound fell after Brexit—international markets hate uncertainty, especially where war and peace are concerned.

“If Colombians were dinosaurs,” one supporter of the peace deal said on social media, “we would vote for the meteorite.”

For more than five decades, the Soviet- and narco-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has waged a brutal insurgency against the Colombian government and its people. When Soviet largesse dried up at the end of the Cold War, the guerrillas turned to kidnapping and drug trafficking to fund their insurgency, and they’ve used just about every terrorist tactic short of suicide-bombings since the very beginning. More than 220,000 people have been killed since the war started in 1964, and more than seven million have been displaced.

So why did a slim majority of the population vote “no” in a national referendum to end the war once and for all?

Because the peace deal was too nice to the FARC.

Amnesty was part of the package, of course. All the FARC leaders could have stayed out of prison if they confessed and made reparations. Worse, the peace treaty would have given the FARC ten seats in Congress—five in the Senate and five in the House—for ten years.

Plenty of wars end with amnesty for the losing side, including the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders surrendered partly because they lost on the battlefield but also because they knew they’d be citizens with equal rights rather than corpses, prisoners or subjects. President Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln in the White House, issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to all but a few who had participated in the rebellion against Washington. The war would have lasted longer and ended even more bitterly otherwise.

Giving the FARC ten seats in Congress, however, would have rewarded them for their violence. Colombia is a democratic country. The only people who deserve seats in the Congress are those with enough popular support to win a proper election.

The FARC is and has always been communist. Communists prefer bullets and barbed wire to ballots. Every communist nation in the history of the world has been a police state. All communist rulers murdered their way into power and murdered and jailed opponents to stay in power. Rewarding the FARC’s kidnapping and bloodshed with an unearned share of an otherwise functioning democracy would have been a travesty far worse than amnesty.

Former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe led the political opposition to this treaty, which should surprise no one. He’s the man who turned the conflict around during his presidency between 2002 and 2010. He did it by clearing and holding guerilla-occupied territory, ramping up the police and army presence in dangerous areas, improving the government’s human rights record, assisting internally displaced people and convincing murderous right-wing militias to disarm. Call him Colombia’s David Petraeus. He knows how the beat the guerrillas and is confident that they can be whipped even harder if need be.

If I lived in Colombia, I probably would have voted for the peace deal with extreme reservations. At the same time, I’d probably be relieved that it failed by a miniscule margin because it will force the FARC to accept harsher—and much fairer—terms.

Make no mistake. The FARC is willing to negotiate because the government spent a good solid decade kicking its ass. It has been losing and losing badly for a long time and has absolutely no chance of a miltary or political victory, ever.

Even without a final peace treaty, violence in Colombia has dropped so sharply during the last couple of years that the country is becoming a must-visit tourist destination. The city of Medellín, once among the most violent and hellish on earth, has won a number of international awards for its urban dynamism, including the City of Year Award from the Urban Land Institute, the Lee Kwan Yew World City Prize, and another for urban design from Harvard University.  

We’ll know the Syrian civil war is well and truly over, whether or not it says so on paper, if Aleppo ever wins these kinds of prizes.

The Colombian vote was so close that the results were in range of a rounding error. Just 50.24 percent voted no. Another treaty with just slightly harsher terms should at least narrowly pass, and it might even pass by a lot.

So the FARC leaders are spectacularly unlikely to ramp up the violence again. They’ll go back to Havana and swallow that pill if the alternative is more fighting that they can’t possibly win and that could easily lead to their death, imprisonment or permanent exile.

I could be wrong, of course, but if they’re willing to risk that by setting the country on fire again, I’ll eat my hat. Colombians are used to war. Most of them have never known anything else. If it takes a little more fighting to end this thing properly, they’ll do it. And they’ll win. 

Putin Consolidates Power as Young Loyalists Enter Duma

When the final results of the September 18th Russian Duma elections were announced on Friday, the outcomes were entirely as expected. President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party was victorious, though reports of electoral fraud indicate that, particularly in cities, those results had to be manipulated. Turnout was down to only 48 percent, helping United Russia push its share of Duma seats even higher than it had been before. When the new Duma is seated, 76 percent of its deputies will be from United Russia and will hold 105 more seats than it had previously. The remaining seats went to the systemic opposition parties that Putin trusts to not rock the political boat: the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party. Each of these saw their share of Duma seats shrink markedly.

Trump Botches Iraq

Donald Trump hit Hillary Clinton hard on foreign policy during the first presidential debate Monday night.

“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS,” he said. “Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out -- what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”

Bernie Sanders has made a similar argument. Lots of people on both the left and the right have made similar arguments. Democrats love to blame ISIS on George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while Republican partisans blame ISIS on Obama and Clinton for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely.

They’re all wrong for one simple reason.

ISIS is a product of the Syrian war, not the Iraq war.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, eight years after the United States invaded Iraq and three years after President Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that included a deadline for all American troops to leave the country. All combat forces were out in 2010. Only a small “transitional force” remained until 2011.

Whether or not invading was a good idea, leaving almost certainly was, and in any case, it was inevitable. The war was over. Americans didn’t want to be there anymore. Iraqis didn’t want us hanging around either. Public opinion in both countries mandated withdrawal.

I visited Iraq seven times as a foreign correspondent. On my final trip, in 2008, I was bored. It was a hard country to write about then because it was more or less stable. The various militias and terrorist organizations had been routed. If the Iraqis had their act together, they’d be in fine shape by now after eight years of peace.

An entirely separate chain of events led to the rise of ISIS. It started in Tunisia when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and lit a match to protest the crooked authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Non-violent protests swept across the country like a human tsunami. After a short and furious month, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has enjoyed several free and fair elections in the meantime and is currently governed by a secular center-left government.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story, and ousting Ben Ali triggered copy-cat revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. All failed in their own way, though no revolution has failed as spectacularly as Syria’s.

What began as a non-violent protest movement for reform against Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party transformed over time into an armed insurrection. Relatively moderate forces fought both alongside and against Islamist factions like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Foreign fighters poured into the country from all over the world, and three years into the bloodshed and mayhem, in 2014, ISIS declared its “caliphate” in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the wake of the withdrawal of Assad’s armed forces.

That’s how it started, and the Syrian civil war is emphatically not a product of the Iraq war. Follow the international chain of causation backwards and you won’t end up in Baghdad, but in Tunisia. ISIS—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—would have sprung up in Syria even if Iraq were an Arab version of Switzerland.

To be sure, ISIS is the reconstituted and rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, so in that sense it does appear, at a glance anyway, that ISIS is the product of the Iraq war rather than the Syrian war, but here’s the thing: Al Qaeda in Iraq effectively ceased to exist for years after losing to the American and Iraqi armed forces in the mid-to-late 2000s. It lost every scrap of territory and its entire leadership was erased.

If ISIS didn’t exist, and if Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed, the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, would be recruiting all the foreign fighters, and the Nusra Front has never even set foot in Iraq.

Donald Trump (along with Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and so many others) talks about Iraq as if the Middle East would be fine if the Baath Party were left in place in Baghdad. It’s a frankly ludicrous proposition. The Baath Party is still in place next-door in Syria, and how’s that working out?

These kinds of governments can only keep a lid on things until they can’t.

Trump is partly right in one sense, at least. If Presidents Bush and Obama had acted differently, and if Iraq were somehow—miraculously—stable, ISIS would not have been able to invade and conquer the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi from Raqqa. ISIS (or something like it) would still exist, but might be confined to Syria.

How much of an improvement would that be? By focusing all its attention on Syria instead of spreading itself thin across two separate countries, ISIS could very well  control twice as much territory in Syria and might even have overthrown the Assad regime by now. (We could speculate all day, but nobody can possibly know.)

Anyway, ISIS is spreading all over the world from Syria, not just into Iraq. It has roughly 20,000 fighters. The overwhelming majority aren’t from either Syria or Iraq. It’s a genuinely international terrorist army, forged in the vacuum left behind by the cleansing of Assad’s army in the Syrian Desert.

At least it’s not spreading everywhere. ISIS controls no territory in Tunisia. It controls no territory in Morocco or Jordan or Algeria. ISIS and organizations like it can only conquer and hold ground in failed states and other anarchic places, of which there are legion.

We’d have a deadly serious ISIS problem on our hands even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had been running the White House for the past sixteen years and never went anywhere near Iraq. The problem would have a different shape and different details, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves here. There is no policy recipe that any American president can come up with that will prevent failing Middle Eastern countries from failing. Nor is there any conceivable policy prescription that can stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar entities from recruiting the disaffected, the radical, the extreme, and the psychopathic.

America’s available foreign policy options are so narrow at this point that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely make similar decisions about tackling ISIS next year. They’d both use the Air Force and drone strikes, and they’d both assist local ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. They’d both work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia whether they want to or not, they’d both have to deal with the increasingly deranged Turkish president whether they like it or not, and neither are remotely likely to mount a full scale invasion of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.

It’s not America’s fault that that part of the world is a mess. It’s the fault of the people who live there. When we aren’t busy taking partisan shots at whichever political party we love to hate most, we all know it’s true, so please, for once, let’s stop blaming America and Americans for what the Middle East does to itself. 

The United States has made plenty of mistakes over there, no question about it, and only a stubborn fool refuses to learn anything from them, but Iraq is so dysfunctional that it would still be in catastrophic shape even the United States did everything right. And if Iraq had its act together, it wouldn’t matter how many mistakes Americans made—Iraq would be fine.

China's Warplanes Stalk Japan, Unite Neighbors

On Sunday, the Chinese air force flew more than 40 aircraft through Japan’s Miyako Strait into the Western Pacific Ocean.

The exercise, involving H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighters, and tankers, is the largest of its kind for China through this airspace. Previous exercises involved fewer than 20 planes according to Li Jie, a military analyst based in Beijing.

China flew through the strait, an international passageway that separates the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, for the first time in May of last year.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, in a statement quoting air force spokesman Shen Jinke, said the planes Sunday flew “systematically” to conduct early warning, sudden assault, and refueling tasks. Shen noted the exercise was to protect China’s “sovereignty and security” and “maintain peaceful development.”

Russia’s 2016 Election: Despair, Apathy—and Hope?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA—The biggest winners in Sunday’s election for the Russian State Duma were despair and apathy. The years of manipulated elections and overwhelming government control over politics and media under Vladimir Putin have convinced most Russians that voting is meaningless. The turnout on September 18 was the lowest on record: the official (and likely inflated) figure was 48 percent, with the turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg—the most politically active parts of the country—at a dismal 35 and 33 percent, respectively.

Making Humanitarian Aid Work in North Korea

North Korea is still reeling from what state media is calling the “worst disaster” since 1945.

Floods caused by Typhoon Lionrock at the end of last month have killed 138 at last count. Some 400 are missing, and 68,900 have been left homeless. The UN estimates 600,000 are in need of clean water and other essentials.

The wind and the rain have also split South Korean politicians and raised critical questions about humanitarian relief for horrific regimes.

On Monday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said, through spokesman Jeong Joon-hee, that Seoul would consider granting aid to the North only if it received a request from Pyongyang and that no such request had been received. Then he said that, even if North Korea asked for aid, it was unlikely the South Korean government would provide it. “God helps those who help themselves,” Jeong added.

From Kosovo to Oman

After a brutal firefight Monday morning, police officers in Linden, New Jersey, shot and arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami for detonating improvised explosive devices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and along the Jersey Shore two days earlier.

The media and political response was predictable. Willful naifs wondered aloud what on earth might have motivated Mr. Rahami. Suspect's Motive Unclear In New York, New Jersey Bombings, reads an embarrassing NPR headline.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s surrogates say it proves only he can save us by cracking down mercillessly on immigration from the Middle East and North Africa.

A lot of us find this exasperating. A person has to be willfully obtuse at this point to not see that Rahami was motivated by radical Islam. It is also obvious to some of us (but clearly not all of us) that Rahami is an extreme outlier in the American Muslim community.

As many as a million Muslims live in the New York City area. If Rahami were even remotely mainstream, Manhattan would look like Aleppo.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Muslims all over the world and interacted with thousands. I would not be alive if a large percentage of them were even remotely like Ahmad Khan Rahami. At the same time, we wouldn’t have to go through this polarized ritual on a regular basis if radical Islamist terrorism wasn’t a deadly serious problem.

Most Westerners only see or hear about Muslims after the likes of Rahami, Rizwan Farook, Omar Mateen, the Tsarnaev brothers, Major Nidal Hasan, Mohammad Atta, Osama bin Laden and other ISIS- and Al Qaeda-affiliated psychopaths murder innocents by the dozens, hundreds or even thousands. Hardly anyone else—least of all moderate Muslims—gets any coverage or attention whatsoever, and some of those who do, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are falsely described as moderate when they’re not.

So I asked Gökhan Balaban, an authentic moderate Muslim I know via email correspondence, if he’d like to have a public conversation with me about all this.

His parents immigrated to the US from Turkey and he was born and raised in New Jersey. He has lived and worked in Kosovo on a State Department grant, spent some time with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and today lives and works as a teacher in the Sultanate of Oman.

MJT: Let’s start with the argument that never ends.

In the United States, we’ve got Barack Obama on one side who is allergic to even using the words “radical Islam,” and Donald Trump on the other who has threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

Trump climbed down from his extreme position a while back and now only wants to ban immigrants and refugees from countries with a history of terrorism like Syria and Iraq, but millions of his supporters haven’t mellowed out in the least.

What do you make of all this?

Gökhan Balaban: I don’t think Donald Trump’s inflammatory speeches and policy proposals will help promote cultural reconcilation or bolster counter-terrorism, but mocking millions of his supporters as bigoted buffoons is unfair and inaccurate. Muslims need to ask themselves why there is so much unease and suspicion all over the world about Islam.

Islamic radicalism holds back development in Muslim societies, and it perpetuates the atmosphere of apprehension, unease, and hostility that non-Muslims have towards Muslims. As long as Islamic radicalism remains a strong force, we can be sure that it will be answered with the kind of reactionary politics we’ve being seeing from Trump and the far-right in Europe.

Fundamentalists ostracize, punish, and kill people who they think are criticizing Islam or weakening the Muslim community. They’re basically saying, don’t mess with Islam because Muslims will fight back. This may be why some Muslims seem indifferent to terrorist attacks. Perhaps deep inside they see terrorism as a statement by Muslims that they are strong and that it’s unwise to stir up trouble against them.

Behind the self-assured façade of strength and unity, though, lies a deep insecurity among fundamentalists and the searing conflicts Muslims have with each other. The insecurity stems from recognition that Muslim countries are behind other parts of the world and that they’re dependent on foreigners and foreign expertise to advance. They don’t consider that perhaps Islam’s pervasive chokehold is what impedes their societies’ advancement in the first place.

Muslims have to stop blaming the West and the media for their own problems, and they should refrain from joining in the culture of victimization in America. We shouldn’t call people Islamophobes for every little thing they say or do. In some cases, Muslims set themselves too far apart from mainstream American society and should strive more to assimilate.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Muslims like myself who turn to Islam for the same reasons people turn to other religions. My wife likes to remind me that we practice our religion for the well-being of our personal spiritual lives and that of our family and that I don’t need to be concerned about every broader social, theological or political isssue that involves Muslims.

There are sometimes considerable cultural differences between American Muslims and other citizens in the US, but it hardly is cause for alarm, and the difference is more about being religious versus being non-religious, rather than about being Muslim or non-Muslim. All you have to do is go to my home state of New Jersey and see how religious communities like the Orthodox Jews live, which is quite different from how my secular Jewish friends live, simply because of differences in religiosity.

MJT: You lived in Kosovo, and you live in Oman now, so you must have seen quite the range of Islam in practice. I spent a month in Kosovo and can hardly imagine a more liberal Islamic country. The Persian Gulf is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Gökhan Balaban: Kosovo’s Albanians do an exceptional job blending many cultural elements together: Western, Albanian, and Muslim. They’ve created a partly conservative and partly liberal cocktail that I find well-balanced and worthy of emulation.

There are people who keep up with their daily prayers and go dancing at nightclubs, though their behavior at these clubs is more conservative than what you see in the clubs of Western Europe. In Western Europe, it’s common to see people who’ve met for the first time dancing with one another. In Kosovo, people only dance with the friends and family members they go to the clubs with.

Kosovo’s Islam inspired me to study the Qur’an and learn how to perform the Islamic form of prayer called salah. Unfortunately, Kosovo, like too many other countries, has been plagued by Islamic radicalism. Countries like Saudi Arabia are going to great lengths to make Islam in Kosovo more fundamentalist. Among European countries, it has sent the highest per capita ISIS members to fight in the Middle East.

What makes up the social conservatism and religious piety in Oman is a reflection of what the society truly values and wants to uphold. Omanis see Islam as a primary source from which societal norms should be based. There are considerable numbers of men congregating and praying in mosques for the five daily prayers. Even so, Oman is the most relaxed and liberal of the Gulf countries, especially from the perspective of expatriates like myself.

There is a liberal and secular contingent in Arab countries, but it faces strong opposition from staunch Muslims and other authoritarian-minded folks. I often hear the latter ilk deride freedom, human rights and democracy as if these ideas were a sham or undesirable because they clash with their own beliefs, yet some of the anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment may have less to do with the values people hold and more to do with historical conflicts between Arabs and the West.

In the US we often hear that the terrorists hate us because we are free. Terrorists also hate the fact that many Muslims around the world love America because it is free. Many Muslims are happy to leave their strict societies and breathe the free air of the West, and it infuriates the fundamentalists.

There isn’t an incompatibility between being a pious Muslim and valuing democracy and liberalism. Just like other Americans, plenty of Muslims devoutly practice their religion and proudly support the freedom and rights the US stands for.

Still, some Muslims are so blind that even when they benefit from living in a Western country they will continue berating what they view as the degenerate nature of Western culture. Don’t expect a word of praise from these people about what the West has achieved. If you were to tell one of these characters that the Enlightenment enabled Western societies to advance—partly because of its critique of religion—and that perhaps Islamic societies may benefit from an Enlightenment-like movement, they’re the types of people who, rather than open-mindedly absorbing new information, will go on YouTube to find an Islamic lecture that derides the Enlightenment.

Most of these hard-headed Muslims are relatively benign and ignored by Muslims like me. We need to remember that the majority of Muslims move to the West for the same reasons as other immigrants—for freedom and prosperity. 

Muslim Americans contribute a lot to American society thanks to our strong family values and emphasis on education and hard work. Unfortunately, I suspect that some of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment comes from people who are resentful that they are not as successful as some minority groups.

Strong families create strong communities and successful individuals, but many Americans suffer from familial dysfunction. A year or so ago, The Economist published a really informative essay about how children born out of wedlock are becoming an entrenched feature of some communities in American society. Single mothers are working and caring for their children and distancing themselves from their children’s fathers who do not provide. Muslims, along with some other immigrant groups, avoid family problems like these because a tight-knit and stable family life is a strong part of our culture.

On the other hand, there are obstacles to assimilation that some Muslims face when they start a life in a Western society. I personally know a Syrian who has done an exceptional job of integrating into Europe after escaping the war in Syria, but an article in a recent issue of The Economist cites a Syrian-German man who immigrated to Germany in the 1960s. He recently spoke with 10 young Syrian refugees living there. The man said that just two of the young refugees speak German and are integrating well. The others told him, “Allah gave us Germany as a refuge, not the Germans”. What a mindset! Being accepted in Germany as a German is difficult even for people who master the language and who are well integrated, but why make your road to integration all the more difficult by not even showing gratitude to the people who have welcomed you to their land? Stubborn pride and unconstructive posturing is an unfortunate reality when cultures mix.

MJT: You zeroed in on something that’s extremely important. Terrorists hate the fact that many Muslims love the West because it is free. They view that as a threat to their religion and culture, don’t they?

I don’t think political liberalism is a threat to Islam per se, but it is a threat to fundamentalist Islam, or Wahhabist Islam or Salafism or whatever we want to call it. If enough Middle Easterners yearned to live like people in America and France, Middle Eastern Islam would become like Albanian Islam.

This whole business looks to a lot of Westerners like a war of Islam against the West, but it looks more to me like it’s primarily a civil war within Islam. ISIS spends 99 percent of its energy attacking and killing people over there, not over here.

Are we more or less on the same page here?

Gökhan Balaban: Nearly 33,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in 2014, and the majority of the victims were Muslims. The fundamentalists believe that their fellow Muslims in their own societies are not true Muslims, that their societies are not Islamic enough, that they’re too Western.

The fact that some Muslim societies suffer from horrendous political and economic crises also has led people in these societies to seek change, and a significant portion of the rebellions in failed Arab countries derive their legitimacy from Islamic foundations. ISIS justifies its barbarism by cloaking it within the religion that the societies of Arab countries value and practice. A lot of people lured to groups like ISIS are disaffected youth. When countries suffer from armed conflict, or political/economic instability to the extent that Arab countries are experiencing, some segments of those societies will be especially vulnerable to recruitment into groups like ISIS.

Part of the reason why the Sultanate of Oman doesn’t suffer from this problem is because the government has been modernizing the country since the 1970s and offers its citizens decent chances to prosper. There’s a stable functioning government here. The civil society is more conservative and religious compared with most Muslim countries, and I actually think that’s one reason Oman is a peaceful place. We don’t have to worry that radicalism will take hold here. I think we should be more concerned with addressing the problems of failed states rather than pursuing some kind of Islamic reformation.

MJT: What do you think about the darker passages in the Qu’ran and Hadith that ISIS uses to justify mass-murder and terrorism?

Gökhan Balaban: Various groups throughout human history have justified mass murder by citing whatever source or inspiration they thought was useful. It doesn't seem fruitful to debate whether more mass murder has been committed by one group or another. People in general point to another group's actions and values as worse than their own in order to sanctify themselves and denigrate others.

Anti-religious people condemn the Crusades and other atrocities committed in the name of religion, and religious people respond by pointing to the horrors inflicted in the name of Godless communism. Which group is responsible for worse? Does it really matter? Maybe we should just acknowledge that any group of people at any time is capable of doing cruel and horrible things.

MJT: Do you personally argue with Islamic hardliners about this stuff? And if so, what do you say? Westerners almost never hear the arguments that Muslim liberals and fundamentalists have with each other. From our standpoint, it's as if that conversation takes place on the dark side of the moon.

Gökhan Balaban: I don't argue with Islamic hardliners for the same reason I don't argue with any other hardliners. It’s pointless. It’s fairly easy to tell when a person is not considering information that’s critical of their hardened views and beliefs. They claim to have found the “complete” way of life, embodied in the Islam they embrace, and strive through proselytizing to make it the complete way for others too. In this complete system, everything from how to urinate to how to appropriately laugh in public is covered. Deviation from their norm is not to be tolerated. Thankfully, I don’t encounter such people often, not even here in Oman.

MJT: Okay, fair enough, but let’s go a little deeper than that. What, in your view, is the Islamic case for liberal as opposed to fundamentalist Islam? What do you do with the darker passages in the Qu’ran? Do you ignore them? View them as outdated? Do you think the peaceful passages overrule them?

I don’t mean to give you a hard time about this. Christians and Jews have to answer the same questions.

I’m asking not only because ISIS is my problem and yours, but also because lots of non-Muslims think Islam itself—and therefore all Muslims—is potentially dangerous. It doesn’t help when people like the Turkish president says, “The term ‘moderate Islam’ is ugly and offensive. There is no moderate Islam. Islam is Islam.”

I asked a Moroccan scholar about that quote a couple of years ago and he gave me a great answer. “Islam is not absolute,” he said. “It is yoked to the human dimension. It is we humans who understand Islam. It is subjected to my reason, my way of understanding the world, and my analysis. Religions encounter previous cultures, previous religions, previous visions and cosmologies. It merges with all of them. No religion falls from the sky onto bare ground.”

Gökhan Balaban: I’m not an expert on the Qu’ran, nor am I an Islamic scholar, so I can’t speak with authority on it, but from my amateurish study and understanding of what some scholars say, it is an extraordinarily nuanced and complicated book that has elicited a huge range of interpretation and behavior throughout the centuries.

I’m personally drawn to a lot of the metaphysical and mystical ideas in it about the nature of the divine. Some Muslims look to the Koran for guidance on anything and everything. They see Islam as a complete way of life. Others incorporate certain aspects of Islam into a life that includes a constellation of other influences as well.

There’s a lot in the Qu’ran that isn’t relevant in my own life, so sure, I ignore those parts. And as a person who thinks that a fuller development of society should come not only from religion but also other sources like the arts and democratic liberalism, it doesn’t bother me if some Muslims think I’m not Muslim enough because I think that music and literature are integral to life and society. We all live with contradictions in our lives, and if the fact that I like punk rock and also happen to pray five times a day irks some people, so be it.

We should differentiate between reforming the Islamic religion and reforming Islamic societies to change the role of religion. Reforming Islam as a religion is a tricky and complicated endeavor, and I think the Islam analyst at the Brookings Institution, William McCants, offers several important points worth considering.

He points out that a liberal reformation of Islam as a religion has been ongoing for two centuries, but it has faced formidable opposition from groups like the Salafists and the ultraconservatives in the Persian Gulf. But even within the liberal reformation movement, I wonder to what extent its members are truly what we could call liberal. I agree with McCants when he says that liberal reformers in Islamic societies don’t believe that conservatives and liberals should compete with each other for shares in the marketplace of ideas.

Both liberal and conservative Muslims want the other locked up or legally prohibited from promoting their ideas. McCants points to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and says that liberal reformers are to willing to overlook his excesses as long as he promotes Islamic reform and suppresses Islamic activists and political parties. “This is not liberalism” McCants writes, “this is intolerance dressed up as liberalism.”

Despite differing practices and views among the various Muslim sects and schools of thought, we all agree that some foundations of the religion must never be changed, such as the obligatory five daily prayers. I’m impressed by how Muslims have preserved and cherished their scripture and their main practices for more than 1,400 years.

Political theorist Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame argues that the West is committing a kind of civilizational suicide, and in a way I agree with him. My students in Oman are overwhelmingly united and clear about who they are and what sources they should tap for guidance and purpose in their lives. They get it from a societal and individual commitment to their religion and local customs. Of course, some young Americans are grounded in a foundational set of beliefs and practices, and they come from a variety of religious backgrounds, but there are a lot of lost and aloof youth in American society too. Ask them about their purpose, what they think the meaning of life is, or who and where they get their inspiration and moral guidance from, and many have no coherent answer or are indifferent to the questions entirely.

MJT: I can't imagine that radical Islam will be a problem forever. There will always be extremists, sure, but even a couple of decades ago radical Islam wasn't such a potent force in the world. Cultures aren't static and history is always moving. If things can get worse, they can also get better. The question, though, is how. How does this end and what do you think it will take?

Gökhan Balaban: Some people assume that Islamic radicalism is a force that people in Muslim-majority countries encounter frequently, but it’s not. I’m confident that radicals won’t get far in the long run because the majority of people in the world, no matter where they live or who they are, simply don’t want anything to do with the radicals’ nonsense.

What we need to worry about is the kind of destabilization experienced in Iraq, Libya and Syria. ISIS is able to launch attacks in relatively stable Tunisia, but only in unstable countries like Libya can it build up a strong presence.

Everyone has to take responsibility for what they are accountable for. Saudi Arabia’s leadership must do something about the fact that their country exports a version of Islam that leads to militancy and terrorism around the world, and America’s leadership must be very careful about how it intervenes militarily so we avoid disasters like the one we’ve seen in Iraq.

In the meantime, there are significant differences between the Muslim world and the West that we’re just going to have to live with. One of the biggest is how secular the West has become and how religious Muslim societies have remained.

US-India, China-Russia Exercises Reflect New Alliances

The US and Indian armies are presently conducting joint exercises in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, about 100 kilometers from India’s border with China. This is the 12th edition of the Yudh Abhyas drill, and it has never been held in such close proximity to the People’s Republic.

Soldiers often train in regions where conflict is considered most likely to develop. With that in mind, Uttarakhand was not a bad choice. Last July, Chinese troops crossed the border into that state – a border that has been relatively free of such transgressions over the years. Indian defense planners have reason to be alert because the state, which has a 350-kilometer boundary with China, is not far from New Delhi.

Kremlin’s Election Games Provide Opening for Opposition

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA—This Sunday, Russians will vote in their seventh parliamentary election since the fall of the Soviet Union. The last three of those elections—all of them under the government of Vladimir Putin—were assessed by Western observers as falling far short of European standards of democracy. The last vote, in 2011, was marred by especially high—and especially blatant—manipulation and fraud, as some 14 million votes were estimated to have been “stolen” in favor of Putin’s party, and was followed by mass protests across the country, when tens of thousands of people went to the streets to demand free and fair elections. This was the first time Putin’s Kremlin was not in control of the political agenda—and, for a short while, it seemed that the regime was beginning to crumble.

Cuba’s Walled Garden

The United States government no longer bans tourists from visiting Cuba. American commercial flights to Havana resumed this week for the first time in more than a half-century.

Most Cuban people are thrilled. Their isolation from their estranged American neighbors has finally drawn to a close. A certain kind of American tourist is also excited but wants to get down there in a hurry, enough to prompt Natalie Morales to write an op-ed with a rather blunt title: Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.

Americans who sport Che Guevara T-shirts can rest assured that Cuba is still as oppressive and backward as ever.

A tiny percentage of Cubans have cell phones now, but text messages that contain words like “democracy,” “protest” and “human rights” are being swallowed up by the state. If you send a text with one of those words or phrases in it, your phone will say the message was sent, but it goes straight into the bit bucket. Your intended recipient will never see it. 

The Spanish-language blog 14ymedio first reported this, and Reuters reporters confirmed it by sending test messages from their own phones.

“We always thought texts were vanishing because the provider is so incompetent, then we decided to check using words that bothered the government,” Eliecer Avila, the leader of the dissident group Somos Mas, said to Reuters. “We discovered not just us, but the entire country is being censored. It just shows how insecure and paranoid the government is.”

Cuba is one of the least free countries in the entire world, and it’s among the least connected to the Internet. Most citizens have no access to the worldwide web whatsoever for a number of reasons.

First, they’re too poor to purchase the hardware. That’s not going to change any time soon. The last thing the regime wants is everyday citizens dialing up the Wall Street Journal every morning before heading down to the ration card line. That’s why, In 2009, the state sentenced USAID employee Alan Gross to fifteen years in prison for carrying computer equipment into the country and setting up broadband networks for Cuba’s Jewish community.

Those who do have laptops, smart phones and tablets only managed to acquire them because their relatives who escaped bought them in Florida. The government doesn’t mind too much since only a handful of wi-fi hotspots even exist, and using them is prohibitively expensive for just about everybody.

The Castro government is under relentless pressure from both inside and outside the country to lighten up, so it promises to boost access to the Internet by creating 35 wi-fi hotspots around the country. Stop for a second and ponder that sentence. Think about all it implies and you’ll understand why Cuba is so far behind almost every other country on earth and why, Castro propaganda to the contrary, it is not because of the US embargo.

There are more than 35 wi-fi hotspots within a one-minute walk of my house. Counting my own, there are 13 within range of my home office. (I just counted them.) All of these hotspots are private. None are provided by the government.

If I had to rely on a government hotspot, zero would be within range of my home office. God only knows how far I’d have to walk, drive or fly to find one.

I’d have to walk, drive or fly even farther if I had to rely on a government that deliberately keeps me ignorant and poor to protect its own ass. That’s what the Cuban government is doing. Why else censor text messages? Why else ban every newspaper and magazine in the world except the handful published by the local Communist Party? Why else ban commercial billboards to make room for billboards that browbeat citizens with soul-crushing slogans like “Socialism or Death”?

And why else make it virtually impossible for normal people to use the Internet in the first place?

The United States has a minimum wage. Cuba has a maximum wage, and it’s just 20 dollars a month. Cubans are required by law to be poor. Prosperity is a crime. And when I visited the island in 2013, it cost 15 dollars an hour access the Internet on a shared dial-up connection in a hotel lobby. It goes without saying that nobody who ekes out a meager existence on the state-imposed maximum wage and a ration card could afford that. Those hotspots were strictly for tourists.

The government recently dropped the price to $2.25 an hour. That sounds almost reasonable, except for two things. It’s still vastly more expensive than using the Internet in America—which is free at most public hotspots and only costs a few dozen dollars per month to use at home. Cuba’s new “low” price still costs more than ten percent of a person’s monthly salary, and that’s just to use the Internet for an hour.

The average monthly salary in the United States is a little under 4,000 dollars. How often would you use the Internet if the government required you to pay 400 dollars an hour? Probably not very often.

Even if you do manage to get onto the Internet in Cuba, you won’t get very far. Forget watching the news on CNN. Loading even a simple text-only site takes forever with Cuba’s deliberately excruciating download speeds. At the Hotel Habana Libre, I burned through 20 dollars in Internet costs just to open my inbox in Gmail. I would have spent the entire day and hundreds of dollars if I wanted to read and answer a half dozen messages.

It’s no secret that the Cuban government wants to adopt the Chinese model for the transition from old school communism, where technological and market reforms are strictly controlled by the state and only permitted when the state feels confident enough that the reform in question won’t threaten its power.

I suppose it’s better than no change at all. Living in a walled garden beats rotting away in a dungeon or being worked to death in a slave labor camp. China is a much better place now under authoritarian one-party state capitalism than it was under Mao’s totalitarian communism, so if Cuba does evolve along those lines, life will no doubt be a whole lot better for the average person. Perhaps in time Cuba will end up hewing closer to the Vietnamese model, which is a more relaxed and lenient version of the Chinese model. Who knows? Either way, Cuba is decades behind both and has a long road ahead of it.

Cuban citizens, of course, yearn for the Czech model where communism collapsed in spectacular fashion and was replaced all at once with political liberalism and a market economy. It’s what those of us in the free world should hope to see down there, too.

If you want to visit Cuba before it changes, fine. Go. I did. It’s interesting. Just understand that change is a good thing, and the more change the better. Doubt it? Ask yourself if anyone but a political psychopath thinks abolishing communism destroyed Prague.

India and Vietnam Unite Against China

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Hanoi Saturday to discuss their countries’ deepening relationship and sign various agreements. The word “China” rarely passed their lips in public, but that was the topic dominating the get-together. 

Beijing was able to scrub the formal agenda for the G20 of controversial geopolitical issues, like the South China Sea, but that did not mean regional leaders stopped talking about them privately. Modi, before proceeding to host city Hangzhou, stopped off in the Vietnamese capital to discuss the worsening situation in East Asia.

Is the Chinese Military Stirring Conflict in South Asia?

The killing of Burhan Wani, a young militant, on July 8 by security forces has triggered the worst crisis in Indian-controlled Kashmir in a generation. The continuing disturbances—they’ve been collectively called the “Second ‘Intifada”—not only threaten relations between New Delhi and Islamabad but also could draw Beijing into deeper involvement in South Asia.

Kashmir, in ways not evident at this moment, might affect ties between the world’s two most populous states.

China and India are not destined to be adversaries. Madhav Nalapat, the influential Indian thinker at Manipal University, believes they can develop an enduring relationship because Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look like they share that goal.

To Ban or Not to Ban the Burkini

France is all over the news this month, first because several coastal towns banned “burkinis” on Mediterranean beaches, and again this week when its supreme court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned one of the bans.

Burkini is a loosely defined word describing what basically amounts to a cross between an all-enveloping burka and a bikini which ultra conservative Muslim women wear to the beach and in the water so they don’t show any skin.

American commentators overwhelmingly oppose the French ban. There is no chance our own Supreme Court would fail to overturn legislation that forbids wearing anything in particular, even T-shirts bearing a Nazi swastika or the face of Osama bin Laden.

Even so, Peter Beinart in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz laments what he calls “the American Jewish silence” about an “outrageous assault on religious liberty.” “The ‘burkini ban’ can’t possibly be justified by national security,” he writes. “It’s a purely ideological effort to define French secularism in a way that forces conservative Muslim women either to violate their religious beliefs or vacate public space.”

He’s right, but that’s not the whole story.

Before we get to the rest of it, let’s get something out of the way: None of the severe clothing worn by some conservative Muslim women is mandated by the Islamic religion. Women are just told to dress modestly. That’s it. And “modestly” is an entirely relative concept.

The only places in the entire world where it’s the cultural norm for women to wear a full burka, which covers the face and even the eyes, are certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lots of women on the Arabian Peninsula wear a veiling niqab which conceals their face but at least leaves one or two eyes uncovered, but almost everywhere else in the world, Muslim women simply cover their hair with a scarf, or hijab, and leave it at that. 

Headscarves have been mandated by law in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before that, Iranian women dressed like Western women. Don’t believe it? Take a look at these photographs from old Iranian magazines. Iranian women back then could have worn headscarves if they wanted to, but most didn’t want to. That’s why the reactionary clerical regime forces them to wear headscarves. Otherwise, most women wouldn’t.

In Tunisia, maybe half the women cover their hair. Only one percent at the most cover their face, and everyone on the street stares at that tiny minority as if they’re aliens. Whenever I’m in Tunisia and see a woman dressed like that, I assume she’s not even from there, that she’s visiting from Saudi Arabia. Morocco is a bit more conservative than Tunisia, but not much.

In Lebanon, no women cover their faces, and not even Saudi women on holiday bother to put on a headscarf. Kurdish women likewise never cover their faces. Maybe half cover their hair and call it a day. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in Turkey with her face covered, but perhaps I saw one or two and just don’t remember.

The point is, burkas and burkinis aren’t even normal by Muslim standards let alone French standards where women can go topless on beaches without causing a stir. Showing up there, of all places, in a burkini is perceived by huge numbers of French people as a fat middle finger. It’s the offensive cultural inverse of going topless on a beach in Iran.

France isn’t Iran. It’s not the kind of place that’s supposed to tell people what they can wear and what they cannot, which is why the court struck down the burkini ban.

The ban isn’t racist, though, nor is it bigoted, and American journalists should resist the temptation to write about France as though it has been taken over by a bunch of Islamophobic Orcs. Rather, the French are pushing back against extremists who are menacing all of French society, including most of France’s Muslim citizens.

“The burkini,” Benjamin Haddad writes in The American Interest, “which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle. The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.”

All this, alas, is lost on most of the American commentariat. Here’s Paul Berman in Tablet:

The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.

And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.

Berman effectively rebuts this simplistic thinking. I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and add the following: the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, and France is one of the least racist countries in Europe. (Critics can let me know when any European nation elects a head of state with African heritage, and also, at the same time, explain why the supposedly Muslim-hating France has more Muslim citizens per capita than anywhere else in Western Europe.)

Some French people are bigots, for sure, but most of them are revolting against extreme Islamic dress codes for the exact same reasons Tunisia’s government led by Habib Bourguiba, and the Turkish government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also did so in their time—not because they hate Muslims, but because they wish to protect moderate Muslims, and the society at large, from the radicals.

As Berman notes, this controversy didn’t start with Muslim immigration to France. It started with the rise of the Islamists.

If Islamic fundamentalists were like the Amish in America—if they were ludicrously conservative compared with everyone else but peaceably keeping to themselves—hardly anybody would care what they wore. The problem is that Islamic extremists routinely bully the moderates and at times lash out with psychopathic mass violence against everyone. Live-and-let-live can’t be a one-way street, at least not for long.

Here’s Berman again:

The veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.

Governments are in a tough spot here. They have no choice, really, but to compromise liberal-libertarian values no matter what they do.

Banning any kind of clothing is precisely the kind of heavy state action expressly prohibited by the United States Constitution, and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our Founding Fathers were rightly appalled by governments that micromanaged the daily lives of citizens, especially on religious grounds. Yet banning severe Islamic dress codes liberates moderate Muslims from the bullying and at times violent pressure from extremists who will only stand down when they’re forced to stand down.

The way forward, for many of us anyway, is not obvious.

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