What Can the Islamic Golden Age Teach Us about Migration and Diversity?

SONY DSCOver the epoch of recorded history, a number of periods have been labeled as “golden ages”, a label that identifies them as the best of their kind. The term “golden age” implies in some sense a period of growth and progress within a society. Scholars generally date the “Islamic Golden Age” from 750 CE beginning with the overthrow of the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the Abbasid caliphate.[i] The end is often seen as 1258 CE when the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan conquered and sacked Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. During this period, knowledge of and advances in math, science, arts and culture flourished throughout the vast Abbasid Empire and in the Umayyad shadow caliphate in Andalusia – in modern day Spain.

Why did this “golden age” occur when and where it did? The answer to this question lies in a combination of factors that came together in a particular time and place. The term Islamic Golden Age is misleading in that it implies that there was something inherent in the religion of Islam that resulted in this specific period of growth and progress. In reality, this growth and progress had more to do with other societal factors that came together in a vast empire ruled by Sunni Muslim Caliphs.  A critical impetus was the rise to power of a series of forward looking, progressive caliphs, beginning with Harun al-Rashid in 786 CE, who invested heavily in research and scholarship, created enormous libraries containing works of scholarship from around the world and filled Baghdad with the world’s greatest intellects. At that time the military was strong and the empire was secure.  Therefore, rather than spending more money on defense, the caliphs were able to devote more resources to scholarship and research. Another factor was the vast size of the empire, which stretched from Persia in the east, through the Middle East, and into North Africa. This vast empire contributed to economic prosperity which provided resources to the caliph. This empire also broke down tribal and national barriers, resulting in diversity of culture, philosophy, religion and knowledge. The breakdown of barriers also meant that people and knowledge could flow much more seamlessly across the empire. The caliphate was open to people of all cultures and religions, particularly people who brought intellectual prowess.

Both internal and external factors also played a role in ending the Islamic Golden Age, even while the invasion of the Middle East by the Mongol armies was the defining event in the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate. As the Abbasid Empire began to get “long in the tooth,” various provinces and regions broke away, dissipating the advantages of a large contiguous land mass with no national or tribal borders, which facilitated travel and the transfer of knowledge. These breakaway entities engaged in almost continuous warfare; the resulting instability had a devastating effect on their economies. By the 12th century, Islamic orthodoxy began to negatively impact free-thinking philosophy; i.e. faith superseded reason which diminished rationalism and scientific inquiry.

In all states and empires, governments change. In a number of cases, narrow minded, conservative and intolerant leaders succeeded the more open minded progressive caliphs who had ushered in the Islamic Golden Age. These new leaders did not value the multicultural, multiracial, inter-religious environment of the caliphate and persecuted non-Muslims and intellectuals forcing them to flee. The hubris of these self-centered, corrupt new leaders led to political and financial mismanagement and resulted in accelerated decline.

 

Lessons for the United States

 

This tale of the rise and fall of a great empire offers pertinent lessons for the United States. These lessons deserve enumeration and examination if the United States is to continue to be seen as the “shining city on a hill”.

First, leadership matters. The tone and direction of a state or empire is set by the leadership. Their language, statements and actions empower and enable the best and the worst qualities and instincts of the population. The political system needs to produce the best and most qualified people to lead. If it fails to then this raises unsettling questions about the underlying political system.

Second, priorities matter. Where and how societies invest their resources indicates a lot about where their priorities lie. When societies choose to invest an inordinate amount of resources in unnecessary and prolonged wars at the expense of investments that make the lives of their citizens better, these societies are setting themselves up for decline.

Third, permitting the movement of people across borders matters. The day of large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic empires may have passed. Empires have been replaced by nation states based on a combination of ethnicity, religion, language and race. This system has resulted in the creation of national borders which impede the flow of migration. While globalization has, for the most part, facilitated the seamless movement of goods, services, knowledge and financial resources across national borders, human movement is restricted. We need a system that allows for the orderly migration of people to places where their skills and knowledge can be most productively utilized.

Bernard Lewis, the noted British-American historian of the Middle East, once wrote that “[before the rise of Islam] virtually all civilizations…were limited to one region, one culture and usually one race. The Islamic culture of the Middle East was the first that was truly international, intercultural, interracial, in a sense, even intercontinental, and its contribution—both direct and indirect—to the modern world is immense.” The enlightened leadership of the Islamic Golden Age – with its openness to diversity, migration and scholarship – brought unparalleled achievements. The challenge for the United States is to learn from the strengths of this enormous empire and avoid the pitfalls that led to its downfall. America was built on the principles of an enlightened set of ideas. Once we lose sight of these principles, we become just another large country with a big military.

Trump Decertifying the Iran Deal Weakens U.S. Influence, Enhances Iran’s Position on the Global Stage

Trump Iran

The decision by President Trump to not recertify Iran’s compliance with the requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), despite a report by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) declaring that Iran is in compliance, brings the U.S. back into the 35 year war with Iran that has dragged on since the founding of the Islamic Republic. This is nothing new. Western powers have struggled for centuries with how to deal with a strong, independent Iranian/Persian nation strategically situated between the Middle East and Asia. The dilemma has tormented the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, British, French and Americans. This has been true whether the government of Iran was a Persian Emperor, a Safavid Caliphate, the Pahlavi Dynasty, a liberal democracy or an Islamic Republic. The western powers, at various times, have tried military conquest, containment, cooption, sanctions, political interference and cyber-attacks. No strategy has been successful in persuading Iran to abandon its independent policies and resistance to foreign domination.

In recent times, President Obama, in an attempt to bring Iran to heel, tried sanctions, cyber-warfare, assassinations, and political interference. In the end he decided to deal with the nuclear proliferation issue first and to kick the can on the other issues down the road. President Trump seems to be determined to tackle all of the issues at once. While it is unclear what to make of many of his pronouncements and what his ultimate strategy is, President Trump appears to be punting the decision on sanctions to Congress. This move has brought domestic politics into play. Congress and the U.S. main stream media, heavily influenced by expat Iranian opposition groups and the Israel Lobby have long pushed for sanctions and direct action based not only on the nuclear issue, but also on Iran’s ballistic missile testing, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, conflict with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, refusal to allow inspection of non-nuclear military installations, interference in Iraq and Syria, support for various Shia groups and resistance to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Most of these issues are non-negotiable for Iran. Re-imposition of sanctions will require 60 votes in the Senate, which will be a difficult barrier for Republicans to overcome if all Democrats opposed such a step. However, it is possible, or maybe even likely, that hardline anti-Iran, pro-Israel Democrats, such as Ben Cardin, Bob Menendez, Chuck Schumer and others may support Trump on this issue.

While what the U.S. Congress decides is important, it is not the whole story. Because the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement including Russia, China and the EU, how these players react will be critical. It appears from recent statements that Europe, Russia and China will continue to support the JCPOA and as long as they do so, Iran will probably do the same. The EU, Russia and China are beginning to see the U.S. as a rogue state and may not be supportive of U.S. policy choices. Europe will, however, need to find a way to protect their business entities from U.S. secondary sanctions in order for companies be able to continue to do business with Iran and for Iranians to experience the economic benefits that they expected from the removal of sanctions. Iran, for its part, is turning eastward and enhancing its relationship with Turkey, Russia, China and India.

Whatever happens on the political and economic front, threats and coercion are unlikely to change Iran’s policies and behavior. As former Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, noted, “I see no good options vis-a-vis Iran in Iraq or Syria. They’re not going to be easily persuaded, and I don’t think we have the wherewithal to push them out.”

The outcome of this standoff will have major implications for future nuclear non-proliferation efforts and for stability in the greater Middle East. Adherence to global agreements is fundamental to international diplomacy. Trump, having already abandoned or threatened to abandon the Paris Climate Accord, TPP, NAFTA and UNESCO, has already raised questions about the reliability of the U.S. as an international partner. Leaving the JCPOA would be another step in weakening U.S. influence. On the other hand, Iran’s position on the global stage will be enhanced as they will be seen as the “adult in the room”.

Photo by BBC.com

This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune

Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Forward?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

One thing I learned during my military and business careers was that the first step in solving any problem is to recognize the reality. Wishful thinking is not conducive to solving a problem and has, unfortunately, been the basis for U.S. policies related to the situation in Israel and Palestine for far too long. If any progress is to be made toward solving this intractable problem, a large dose of reality is essential.

So, what is the reality?

  1. Approximately 600,000 Israeli Jews live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  2. Over one million Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) live within the borders of Israel defined by the so-called “1967 borders” or “green line.”
  3. With the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, immigrants with little experience with democracy, the Israeli electorate has become more right wing and this phenomenon is reflected in the Israeli government and its policies. The present Israeli government has shown little or no interest in creating a viable Palestinian state.
  4. The religious parties who believe that God gave them the land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea are crucial to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition and thus have power beyond their small numbers.
  5. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is illegitimate (elections have not been held for 10 years.) and corrupt. It has no credibility with the Palestinian people. However, Israel depends on the PA to maintain security control in the West Bank.
  6. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on a unity government and a common negotiating position.
  7. Jews and Palestinians each have a national narrative and identity and want their own state. Neither group wants to see a bi-national state as the solution.
US Middle East Policy Israel Palestine

Credit: Brian Holsclaw/ flickr

Despite the policy statements by the U.S. and its western allies calling for a two-state solution, it is evident that a so-called two-state solution is no longer a viable option and hasn’t been for almost two decades. One might be tempted, given the seemingly intractable nature of the situation, to give up and walk away from the problem. Unfortunately, this also is not a viable option. The current stalemate is a major contributing factor to the instability in the Middle East and, therefore, the U.S. has a national interest, beyond the humanitarian concerns, in a peaceful resolution. The status quo is not tenable. Many policy makers have declared the “two-state solution” to be on life support. This is true. The problem is that the patient is brain dead. We need to pull the plug, hold a funeral, go through the mourning process and get on with life. So what does that look like?

Several years ago, when I attended a conference in Jerusalem that included Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals, one Israeli panelist commented, “The trouble with you Americans is that you think that every problem has a solution.” If thinking that “every problem has a solution” is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great. Despite the obstacles, we can help solve this problem as well. Recognizing that the “two-state solution” is no longer possible, a number of thoughtful analysts on both sides have proposed creative ways to address the issues. Examples are here and here. While I agree with the position that we cannot want a solution more than the parties themselves, we can take steps to make a just and peaceful solution more likely.

By unconditionally funding and supporting both sides of the conflict, the U.S. facilitates risky and unhelpful behavior. Making financial and political support conditional would go a long way toward forcing the parties to face reality and take positive steps toward a solution. Given the political realities in the U.S., making aid to Israel conditional is probably impossible, however, withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority would have much the same effect. The PA would collapse and all responsibility for governance and security on the West Bank would fall to the Israeli government, with significant financial consequences. In the short run, an increase in violence is likely, but maybe that’s what it will take to focus everybody’s mind on finding a solution. The alternative is a continuation of violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive the US elections?

On July 14, 2016 the EU3+3 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. While enthusiastically received by many around the globe, the agreement was less well received by conservative hardliners, particularly in Iran and the United States. Congressional Republicans in a letter crafted by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) warned Iran’s Supreme Leader that the U.S. was an unreliable negotiating partner stating “What…(the) constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” This played right into Ayatollah Khamenei’s view that the U.S. cannot be trusted, will always be hostile, and would never stop its efforts to overthrow the Iranian government.

The JCPOA is very specific concerning what is allowed and not allowed with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and the accompanying sanctions regimes. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to limit its enrichment capacity, reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, redesign the Arak heavy water reactor and much more. In return, economic sanctions are to be lifted. The agreement states, “This JCPOA will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy.” Further, it states, “The E3/EU+3 will refrain from imposing discriminatory regulatory and procedural requirements in lieu of the sanctions and restrictive measures covered by this JCPOA.” While the UN has certified that Iran has meticulously lived up to its obligations, the U.S. has dragged its feet on removing sanctions, particularly the secondary sanctions that restrict Iran’s access to the international financial system.

Contrary to his approach to the opening of Cuba, in which he moved aggressively through executive action to change the political dynamic and get U.S. businesses involved, President Obama has been much more politically cautious with respect to changing the relationship with Iran. Specifically, his failure to begin to unwind the labyrinth of secondary financial sanctions has made international financial institutions leery of participating in or financing business transactions with Iran. The fact that many international transactions are denominated in USD and require so-called U-turn transactions in the U.S. to convert USD into local currency further hinders Iran’s access to its foreign funds and has reduced the economic benefits that Iran expected from the JCPOA. This has played into the hands of Iran’s hardline conservatives.

The situation is unlikely to change for the better after the U.S. presidential election. Of the remaining candidates, all except Bernie Sanders are much more hardline with respect to Iran. Hillary Clinton has said, “Iran is still violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions designations and firm resolve.” Unsurprisingly, Ted Cruz has stated, “On my first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic deal.” While he makes many contradictory statements and one must take everything that Donald Trump says with a grain of salt, he has expressed that he understands that the JCPOA is a signed agreement, but “I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” (Sic) Only Bernie Sanders has expressed complete support for JCPOA and has said, “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

All this said, we need to remember that this is an international agreement and the EU, Russia and China are moving aggressively to live up to their obligations under the JCPOA and consummate business deals with Iran. Iran has signed a $25 billion aircraft purchase deal with Airbus, and Peugeot has signed a $430 million deal to produce automobiles in Iran. If the U.S. stands in the way of effective implementation of the JCPOA or takes steps that ensure its demise, its influence on the global stage will be further weakened. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made his position clear, saying on his website, “Any comments suggesting the sanctions structure will remain in place or (new) sanctions will be imposed, at any level and under any pretext, would be (considered by Iran) a violation of the deal.”

 

 

 

The Russians are Coming

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and gradually morphed into full blown, vicious, deadly civil war, U.S. policies toward the conflict have been affected by some of the faults that have plagued U.S. Middle East policies for over fifty years and which I have described in my recent book, Fault Lines. When the uprisings began as peaceful demonstrations protesting corruption within the government, income and wealth inequality and lack of economic opportunity, the U.S. was faced with conflicting policy choices. On one hand the United States government could work with Iran to influence the Syrian government to negotiate with the opposition forces and to address their grievances peacefully (not likely given the state of U.S.-Iranian relations), recognize domestic political concerns and stay out of the situation, letting the Syrians solve the problem for themselves, or weigh in on the side of the rebel factions in hopes of overthrowing the Syrian government and thereby weakening Iran and Hezbollah and reducing the threat to Israel. The Obama administration decided to try and balance the last two alternatives, providing some support for the rebels while not committing enough American troops to effectively change the facts on the ground.

Continuing its practice of trying to find “good guys” among the myriad of fractious and diverse opposition groups who would become its proxy army, the U.S. tried to organize, equip and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This endeavor was a complete failure as, after millions of dollars spent, the number of troops in the field can be counted on one hand and most of the trainees, arms and equipment have ended up in the hands of jihadist Islamist groups. As the policy gradually fell apart, the conflict deteriorated into a stalemate.

Syrian President Bashar Assad Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Damascus Civil War

Photos of Assad and Russia’s Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria (credit Freedom House)

Enter the Russians. Unencumbered by conflicting policy goals, having only the objectives of keeping the Syrian government in power, willing to work with regional allies such as Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, concerned about violent Islamic groups spreading to the homeland, seeing ISIS as its primary adversary and able to rapidly deploy troops and fire power, Russia seems to have quickly affected the facts on the ground.

In fact, Russia already has expanded and upgraded the Syrian Air Base at Latakia allowing it to conduct over thirty five strikes against opposition forces in the first week in October compared with fewer than ten for the U.S. The establishment of a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish border with Iraq and Syria requires the establishment of air superiority. When Turkey agreed to allow U.S. planes to fly combat missions from Incirlik Air Base, the quid pro quo was that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the first weeks of strikes, Turkey attacked ISIS three times and Kurdish positions over three hundred times. The presence of Russian forces and aircraft greatly complicates Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone. This presence also increases the risk of conflict between Russian and Turkish forces. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, there is risk that the U.S. could be drawn in. Most observers expect coordination among Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces in a major offensive prior to the onset of winter.

The shift in the power dynamic could portend a move toward a negotiated settlement. Iran and Russia now have considerable influence with the Assad government. The U.S. seems to have changed its position on Assad being a party to the negotiations, and abandoning its “Assad must go position.” An Allied offensive against the rebels may bring them to the table with a unified, more flexible position. Negotiated endings to civil wars are rare, but one can always hope. In such an event attention could turn to solving the ISIS problem.