Thursday, January 7, 2016

Life and Death in Gaza

Published on Brown Pundits - August 4, 2014

This article was written during Istael's last military invasion of Gaza which was exceptionally brutal. Given the emotions aroused by the events at the time, many readers complained that the article was a case of blaming the victim. But the goal in writing this piece was to take an analytical rather than an emotional look at the situation, and reading it today, I think all the points I made then remain valid today.


"On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, unfortunately, we seem to be trapped in a nightmare. Unless one of the parties changes its stance radically, we are likely to see escalating cycles of violence, initially with mutually facilitated radicalization, and eventually reaching mutually assured destruction. And while most of the deaths will no doubt occur on the Palestinian side, Israel would do well to remember that there are ways of dying other than losing one’s life."

The full article can be read here.

Why It May Be Different This Time

Published on Brown Pundits - June 26, 2014

This piece was written when ISIS was just becoming known in rest of the world. The fears expressed in it have proved to be all too real, though ISIS has not really proved to be as strategically mature as I had feared. Above all, its strategy of using extreme violence to achieve its ends is ultimately self-limiting. Successful enterprises need to be attractive, and the attraction of ISIS is severely constrained by its violence (though see the viewpoint of Scott Atran). It is worth noting that we have also had a significant ebola epidemic since the writing of this article, so perhaps the ISIS virus is even more dangerous than it seemed"

"The jihadis will truly become an existential threat to the rest of Muslim society the day they turn away from mindless violence and start building social capital. That's why ISIS, with its financial resources and organizational savvy, is so especially dangerous. Because of the large area they have already acquired, the sympathy of a significant population based on deep resentment and, above all, their very deep pockets, ISIS is the first jihadi force that may actually be able to create a de facto state in the name of their ideology."

The whole article can be read here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Mapness of King George

Apparently, King George III - that "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king" - was an avid collector of maps!

The Saudi-Iran Conflict and the Resonance of History

A brief piece  in the Atlantic on Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution by the Saudis has led to the latest crisis with Iran. This article barely scratches the surface on the deep and complex issue of the Shi'a population of Saudi Arabia and the significance of the state's current crackdown on it.

Here I want to comment on a side issue raised briefly in the early part of this article: The idea of a centuries old conflict between Shi'as and Sunnis. As the article points out, this idea has been "debunked" by several writers, and there is ample justification to reject the simplistic, black-and-white version of this notion that one often finds in the Western media. However, I think that it is problematic - even dangerous - to paper over the issue completely and pretend that ancient history plays no role in the problems we're seeing -- that they are purely of modern origin, e.g., triggered by the Iranian revolution or the rise of Hezbollah, or even a little older and grounded in the emergence of Wahhabi-Saudi power. All these factors are major contributors to what we see today, but so is a longstanding historical context that is both real and alive. Much of Islam's early political, intellectual and doctrinal history was shaped by the dialectic between Shi'a and Sunni views of the world and how God acted in it. And though the Shi'a have always been outnumbered numerically, Shi'a dynasties have held sway over various parts of the Muslim world for significant periods, and exerted strong cultural and intellectual influence. Indeed, successful theocracies in the history of Islam have tended to be Shi'a rather than Sunni for a variety of plausible reasons. Outbreaks of sectarian conflict at various levels has been a regular feature of the history of Islam in its core region (Iran to Morocco), culminating in the long, cruel and civilization-shaping conflict between the Ottomans and the Safavids.

It is true that, throughout the centuries of intermittent conflict, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims have lived together, interacted socially, intermarried, and often dissociated themselves from the rigid views of their religious scholars and political leaders. However, the resonance of history cannot be ignored. This is especially true on the Shi'a side, which has a fundamentally more history-centered worldview with a highly developed eschatology. It is also more rooted in the ideas of charismatic leadership, struggle against oppression, and martyrdom. These ideas do exist among Sunnis as well, but mostly in a diffuse, inchoate form due to the lack of formalization by an organized clergy. By colonial times, most Sunni populations in the Muslim world had settled into political and social systems they found themselves in, with only minor outbreaks of historically-driven zealotry. However, that has now changed. Several of the Sunni revivalist movements that have emerged in the last few centuries -- including Wahhabism -- do have a more history-centered worldview, albeit with none of the sophistication that has developed in this regard on the Shi'a side. Thus, it is not surprising that these two worldviews with strong ideas about the very nature of history and world order should find themselves in conflict. But it is also important to accept that this current conflict connects readily with the historical memory and symbolism of Shi'a-Sunni conflicts through the centuries, and supercharges them with an existential significance. Cynical firebrands may exploit this symbolism for narrow purposes, but the emotional effect of the symbols is all too real. Yes, ordinary Shi'as and Sunnis have lived together in harmony in South Asia and the Middle East for centuries, but when the specter of history -- or worse, the specter of mythology -- begins to loom large in minds, people often forget about human relationships.

Let's hope that the present outbreak of hostilities turns out to be a footnote rather than a new chapter in a long and terrible history.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Scott Atran on ISIS as a Revolution

Agree with him or disagree, Scott Atran remains one of the most thoughtful Western analysts of the phenomenon of jihadism - and especially ISIS. This very long article is an excellent statement of his views.

"As pundits and politicians stoked the recent shootings in California into an existential threat; as French troops were deployed in Paris; as Belgian police locked down Brussels, and US and Russian planes intensified air attacks in Syria following yet another slaughter perpetrated in the name of the so-called Islamic State, it was easy to lose sight of a central fact. Amid the bullets, bombs and bluster, we are not only failing to stop the spread of radical Islam, but our efforts often appear to contribute to it.


While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.


The Caliphate seeks a new order based on a culture of today. Unless we recognise these passions and aspirations, and deal with them using more than just military means, we will likely fan those passions and lose another generation to war and worse."

The entire piece can be read here.  

An interesting and rather positive analysis of the Atran essay by Razib Khan can be found here

I agree with both writers that the problem posed by ISIS and the cult of jihad is not likely to be minor or transient, but how truly existential it will become for the world order will depend not only on what the jihadis do but also on how the rest of the world responds. The system as a whole is too complex to admit of simple predictions beyond "almost anything is possible", which isn't very useful at all. I think we may have more success trying to analyze possible futures at a finer spatial and temporal resolution - say, country by country, or issue by issue (e.g., impact on the Saudi-Iranian conflict). But the fact remains that jihadism is a global phenomenon, and we ignore its global emergent effects at our peril.

Atran's central point, which I think is quite perceptive, is that ISIS should be seen as a worldwide transformative movement rather than as a parochially nihilistic one -- an almost Byronic cause which many idealistic, though hideously misguided, young people see as a way to rediscover meaning in their life and to commit themselves to something greater than self-gratification. Those who leave their homes and families to go kill and die are not doing so based on any formal piety or doctrinal analysis; they are drawn like moths to a flame by the desire to participate in history. I think that this insight is crucial to developing strategies to counter ISIS, but it isn't clear to me that such thinking at the gut level is even possible in the world of think tanks and academic analysis. What is the analyst to do when game theory and the standard economic model fail? Well, perhaps use insights of behavioral economics and good old marketing strategies! ISIS has put salvation on sale. Can the world -- and especially the world of Islam -- offer a better product?

All successful movements in the history of the world -- peaceful or violent -- have been based on an intuitive but sophisticated understanding of human motivations and psychology. ISIS certainly embodies this attribute in the most ferocious way possible. Any counter-strategy will need to be similarly grounded in psychological rather than conventional methods. I tried to make this point in more detail in a recent piece on 3QD.

More on this to come in this space, I'm sure....

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Apprehensively Optimistic

Published on Brown Pundits - May 28, 2014

This brief article was published as the Modi government took power in India. In Pakistan, politics at the time was being rocked by a very public rift between the Army and Geo TV, which had implicitly blamed secret military agencies for an assassination attempt on its star anchor, Hamid Mir.

It is interesting and depressing to note that, though much has happened since then, India and Pakistan are still caught up in the same vicious cycle of mutual mistrust, hidden agendas, media jingoism and conspiracist mindsets.

Here's how the post ended:

"A friend asked me how I felt about the outcome of the Indian elections. My answer was "apprehensively optimistic". That's where we are today. May the apprehensions diminish and the optimism grow!"

The whole can be read here.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Under the Magic Tube-Light: A Fantasia

Published on Brown Pundits - Feb 18, 2014

This is a satirical piece about the dysfunctional politics of Pakistan. It will be meaningful only to those familiar with that endless theatrical production...


"The other day, having just watched the last episode of Sherlock, I dozed off on the couch and found myself transported to the land of fantasy where most of Pakistan’s elite dwells. There, under a flickering fluorescent light outside a pub somewhere between Badshahi Masjid and Mazar-e-Quaid (hey, this is fantasy, y’all), I heard a voice within the tavern cry out something that Sherlock Holmes once told Dr. Watson: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This revelation re-awakened that ancient part of my brain that had been pickled for many years in Pakistan Studies, and the natural urge to explain the absurd behavior of Pakistani political leadership through serial conspiracy theories became irresistible. After all, conspiracy theories are cheaper in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world, except when Shireen Mazari dines alone at a bistro in Manhattan during her periodic fundraising visits to the Land of Yahood-o-Nasaara. So why not indulge a bit in the national pastime?"

Read the full piece here