Thursday, 13 September 2018 20:45

Ideological Struggle in the Middle East

Article by Shehab and Maria Al Makahleh

The thick smoke and chaos in the Middle East is a camouflage for the real ideological conflicts, which are not religious but rather political and economic interests.

Using pious and holy frameworks in political rivalries, deployment of armies and abusing media have become outstanding since 1970s, amplifying a convoluted deliberation on conceptualisation and enactment of the said loci in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The core issue lies in finding a common ground between politics and dogmatic religion. Emphasised by imprecise and erroneous media coverage and primeval analytical tools, ideological conflicts started to be ignited by ideologies due to media coverage and to politicising such differences for the sake of rulers who promote themselves as saviours against the unreal enemy or the Yeti that does not exist except in the rulers’ imagination to keep everything under their control. This does not only apply to the Middle East but rather it can be a trajectory to the whole world regardless of Sunni-Shiite dispute, there are other conflicts worldwide such as capitalist versus socialist, secular versus conservative, orthodox Christian versus Catholic/ Protestant and other Christian dogmas.

The thick smoke and chaos in the Middle East is a camouflage for the real ideological conflicts, which are not religious but rather political and economic interests. The rise of political axes and alliances are not attributed to ideological conflicts but rather to political and economic in reality, the scapegoat is of course ideologies, which turn into vehicle to meet the needs of rulers and leaders in the world and in the Middle East.

The true follower or believer does not know whether such ideological conflicts fundamentally are the real reason behind ongoing wars or not, whether such conflicts are real necessities whose results are the yield of objective circumstances of a well-rehearsed plot, driving people to resort to their strongest heritage and ideological reserves to defend themselves in the war of shifting maps and bloodshed supervised and monitored by world masters, who delegated other regional powers. The so-called “Arab Spring” and the outbreak of creative chaos in Arab and Muslim countries, has been part of this game.

Nationalism dream failure 

The ideological vacuum experienced by the (MENA) region, the state of the “political quagmire” and the evasion of national cultural and ideological projects, with brilliant slogans, have appeared in the past because of the Soviet Union support. However, this has shortly disappeared after the disintegration of the USSR in the early nineties of the 20th century, causing a blow to all nationalist parties in the region.

The historical failure of the nationalist parties in the absence of a unity between Syria and Iraq in the early 1980s, after having the appropriate and ideal conditions in two neighbouring countries under the Baath Party, has marred the region, as Arabs cannot be unified again by all means. This is of course true due to external interventions in Arab affairs and due to the interests of some Arab leaders who prefer disunity. The idea of Arab nationalism failed and it has gone with the wind. The Arabs did not seize Arab unity opportunities that time; at present, they cannot have a one say in the age of open spaces where the world has become one village.

The apparent rule of political opportunism and Machiavellian favouritism, which was launched by Islamist populist parties whether Sunni or Shiite has been intended to internally destroy people’s trust in both sects about the true Islam. This has succeeded somehow to widen the gap between both sects which would lead to future wars for many years to come. The wedge between Muslims was pre-planned by intelligence agencies and they allotted huge budgets for the project. As the collapse of communism in Russia tacitly means a vacuum has been created and this vacuum should be filled by an illusionary enemy: Islamists. This enemy serves two goals. First countering the remnants of communism and second destroying the true image of Islam by demonising acts of Muslims which include jihad.

Most of the Islamic movements turned against their traditional supporters and financiers, seeking power. The conflicts now taking place in the region are chaotic, and not systematic. Such Nationalistic Parties and Islamist Sects are struggling to pave the way for political and dogmatic instrumentalisation of their identity: Nationalist Arab or Islamist. Such matters are more prospective to create new network-like realisations on the periphery and interstitial to endorsed power systems depending on religion’s superiority and perfection and socio-spatial all-encompassing society.

Power seizure or distribution of power would prompt the formulae of relations and linkages. Any of the two: Nationalist or Islamist seek power to rule and this is a taboo for leaders of Middle Eastern countries. When the Muslim Brotherhood win seats in any country in the MENA, that is deemed a source of threat to the regime and when nationalist parties win seats in the parliament. This is another danger that the regimes take into consideration. The absence of identity of Arab communities is used by some rulers and leaders for their interest to gain more power and allegiance.

It is no longer the poor condition of the Arab world today is the subject of the need, the ordinary citizen and the educated and the political elite – who belong to the authority or the opposition – with all their political and ideological tendencies. Everyone recognises the tragic situation we live as an Arab nation which was once a civilisation and had intellectual, educational, cultural, scientific and human achievements.

The deterioration of the Arab nations is a by-product of colonialism; yet, most of what Arabs are undergoing is due to policy failures resulting from external conditions and influences such as domination, colonisation and conspiracies.

Since cognition is a reflection of reality; thus, a dialectical relationship between thoughts and realities do exist. Arab thought is imbued with reality of plots and conspiracies. Therefore, it is impossible to understand the problems of the Arab world without taking into consideration their strong beliefs about Arabs being victims or targets of other nations’ wars.

Article published in Valdai Club:

Photo credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

Published in Tribune

Talks about the necessity to reform Islam are conducted for many centuries. Throughout the history of Islam theologians and thinkers never stopped attempts to give a “right” interpretation to the Moslem scriptures.

Absence of a hierarchal structure in Islam that does not imply existence of a single legitimatizing religious body as well as lack of a “core state” in Moslem civilization, according to notorious Samuel Huntington, has led to appearance of a huge number of Islamic schools, thoughts, branches and sects.

Before wide-spread dissemination of radical Islamism and terrorist attacks against peaceful civilians the talks about reform in Islam had been mainly prerogative of a narrow circle of Moslem thinkers and intellectuals.

Today as secular paradigm is being gradually substituted with the religiosity the rebirth of traditionalism is taking place all over. And Islam, being world’s most actively growing religion (the number of adherents will presumably have a 73% increase by 2050), is facing today challenges of terrorism and extremism, being involved into global political, economic and ideological games. Such state of affairs can easily discredit any religious system as well as divide the world into its advocates and adversaries.

Thus, the reform of Islam is a vital necessity for the humankind in general and for the Moslems themselves in particular.    

Not long ago the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has declared himself as world’s leading initiator of Islamic reform as he made several statements regarding the necessity of reform and even revolution in Islam.

In January 2015 at the world’s leading Moslem Sunni university “Al-Azhar” Al-Sisi made a legendary speech addressing country’s leading clergy: “It's inconceivable that the thinking, which we hold as most sacred causes the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible that this thinking – and I am not saying the religion – I am saying this thinking <…> It's antagonizing the entire world! <…> I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word... because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost from our own hands”. Later in his speech at the Davos Forum the Egyptian leader referred to this issue again, saying Moslems must change the religious discourse and remove things that have led to violence: “Islam is a religion with values of tolerance. It should not be evaluated by the actions of murderers. We must mobilize all our efforts to eliminate the scourge of terrorism”, - he stated.  

However it is very unlikely that “Al-Azhar” scholars, who receive a very particular type of religious education and consequently adhere to conservative and sometimes even retrograde views would be capable of accomplishing the presidential task.

Moreover, the idea of reforming Islam by theologians of Egypt or even the Arab world at large seems doubtful. This assertion originates from the particularities of the Arab culture, which is rightly described as a culture of shame (or shame culture) as opposed to the culture of guilt (guilt culture) that is characteristic for the Western world.

The shame culture presupposes orientation towards face preserving of individual or group. Dignity, honour and reputation are priority values and are subject to protection at any cost. The same applies to group honour. For a European as a representative of guilt culture the main barometer of acts and emotions is his or her personal feelings, Kant’s “moral law within”, consciousness or “inner god”. For an Arab the factor defining behavior would always lie outside, be external – be it public opinion, prescribed rules or group guidelines.  

Primary questions put forward by the guilt culture would be those of truth, freedom and preservation of individual rights. In the shame culture priority belongs not to ideas of a person, but to what group members think altogether, i.e. group morals, rules and norms.

The guilt culture is characterized by self-criticism, self-reflection, personal responsibility for one’s own life and actions. Shame culture is determined by lack and fear of self-criticism and self-reflection, while responsibility for individual’s life and actions to a great extent belongs to group or society.

According to researches, there is causal link between the types of cultures and societies: guilt culture is originating from individualistic (industrial) society and shame culture comes as a result of collectivist (traditional) society. 

It’s obvious that any changes to say nothing of reforms begin with discovering and realizing flaws of religious system or/and its interpretations. Yet, if we take the present-day Arab culture it would be clear that public criticism of religious interpretations is factually impossible. Attempts of this kind threaten to damage Moslem ummah’s reputation and are perceived as discreditation of Islam itself and its adherents, which is inevitably leading to accusations of blasphemy. Thus, Arab shame culture can not afford itself to have a critical view on Moslem religious tradition, especially taking into account self-awareness of Arabs as guardians of Islamic doctrine and theology. In other words non-readiness of Arab thinkers and society at large for a religious reform lies in the sphere of value orientations of Arab culture at the current historical stage.

Meanwhile living in mono-religious Moslem ummah does not help in critical analysis of one’s own religious system, while Moslem activists and thinkers residing in the countries of greater religious variety, who are permanently introduced to communication with adherents of different religions, are more open to rethinking Moslem guidelines.

In this context it is only natural that attempts to find new approaches to Islamic teaching are taking place outside the Arab world – especially in the region of Asia (India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan) and among Moslems of the West (EU, USA, Canada and Australia). Enough to say that the majority of “Muslim Reform Movement” founders originate from Asian and Western countries being graduates from American and European universities and permanently residing in either EU or the USA.

Reform in Islam at present remains to be absolutely acute and greatly demanded by both the world and Moslem ummah. However, the probability is high that innovative ideas in Islam would be formed outside the Arab world due to the Arab cultural particularities.  


Published in Research

Modern Egyptian society can have various definitions: traditional, collective, developing, industrial and many more. But above all it is religious. Having played fundamental role in country’s formation throughout several thousands of years religion is still playing significant role penetrating almost every sphere of life including politics, economy and culture. Described by the famous ancient Greek historian Herodotus in the V century BC as “the most god-fearing people in the world” Egyptians till today seem to bear this very characteristics. Throughout the history Egyptians had always been profoundly religious developing remarkable religious consciousness, which would be appropriate to call theocentric as long as the idea of God is central in their world perception.

Undoubtedly a key-role in value formation of Egyptian society belongs to the religious factor. The data of value surveys for Egypt conducted by the World Value Survey in 2011 perfectly illustrates this point: when asked about the importance of religion as much as 94.1% respondents said it was very important. The question about religion as an important child quality made 83.4% of Egyptians say they thought of it (for more details see “World Values Survey. WV6 Results – Egypt 2012”). Risking to fall into precarious generalization it is still possible to assume that religiosity is predominantly detected in the lower and middle strata of the country’s society.

Another paradigm that is often reasonably perceived as confronting religiosity in Egypt is secularism. Being associated with such form of globalization as westernization, the secular tendency is merely associated with the upper strata of Egyptian society. These two concepts – religiousness and secularity – inevitably tend to periodically clash arousing public unrest. Moreover, in the past few decades it is religiosity/secularism dichotomy that defines the tension fluctuations of the Egyptian public discourse. Enough to mention the two famous Egyptian-born formulas: “Islam is the Solution” used by the notorious radical Islamist organization “Moslem Brotherhood” and “Secularism is the Solution” used by the local liberals.

As mentioned above religion is inseparable from all spheres of life in the land of pyramids and marketing strategies are no exception: they are naturally worked out with serious consideration of the religious factor.

Consequently these two tendencies – religious and secular – are shaping modern female images used in Egyptian marketing presenting them in two various ways: either as a “Good Housewife” or as a “Liberal Beauty” (or sometimes “Femme Fatale”). (Photo Religious 1 / “Religious image ad pasta” & “Secular ad Eva cosmetics”)

The first case deals with the image of a carrying mother, who in most cases would be middle-aged, veiled, corpulent and representing a moral ideal of Egyptian woman. This type is targeting the audience of Egyptian housewives, predominantly conservative or religious as long as it portrays a real woman, with whom a potential consumer is capable to associate herself. This image is mostly used to market household products (laundry washing powder, dish washing liquid, laundry conditioner, soap, etc.) or food products (oil, ghee, pasta, sauces, etc.)
(Persil commercial

The second case portrays a secular young lady intentionally challenging traditional and conservative social norms. (The secular case would also include inviting local female stars and foreigner ladies to be the images of advertising campaigns). This image is targeting two categories – secularly oriented females and men. On the one hand, this beautiful woman becomes a dream model for young girls and ladies, who wish to acquire the same striking attractiveness (of course on condition they buy the advertised product). In this case the image is used to market either beautifying products (shampoos, body creams, etc.) or any other products associated rather with pleasure then with necessity. (Photo “Secular ad chocolate”) On the other hand, female sexual appeal is being actively used to target male audience. Such approach is applied to market goods that are traditionally purchased by men (be it real estate, ceramics, water heaters, etc.). (Photo “Secular ad of ceramics”)

Needless to say that these two images are precisely reflecting the two female stereotypes existing in contemporary Egyptian society. These main types of female images are perceived as exemplary.

Among the main Egyptian values shaped by Islam is family: religious tradition implies that family is the most important thing in human life. Thus, Egyptian women are expected to become one of these two – either ideal wife and mother happy with her family life or independent beauty-heartbreaker, who is attracting men and, thus, acquiring a high possibility to grasp a husband. So it’s all about getting married in the end – the necessary step in Egyptian successful life plan.

Interesting that there is a strict differentiation in the usage of female and male images in advertising as if these two worlds hardly intersect. For instance, banking and industrial spheres are believed to solely belong to men and consequently their advertising is aimed at purely male audience.

Saibank  commercial:

Misr Bank:


Since several decades now mass communication (and advertising being part of it) has become one of the most influential factors forming human concepts, ideas and worldviews. Consequently, marketing should bear social responsibility along with promoting successful sales. And this point is unfortunately not there yet – Egyptian advertising campaigns of today tremendously lack images of women aiming to achieve in life something more than just a happy marriage. It needs to promote images of successful and passionate female scientists, artists, writers, journalists or businesswomen, who freely pursue their high goals, be it impressive personal career or involvement in social matters.  






Published in Research
Tuesday, 14 February 2017 21:59

Deciphering Trump’s Opaque Foreign Policy

President Trump has set loose several competing – and contradictory – strands of foreign policy with the big question now whether he can avoid tripping himself up, writes ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

It is now a commonplace to note that President Trump is advocating a mercantilist “America First” foreign policy, at odds with the prevailing globalist view of a cosmopolitan, super-culture; that he is intent on dismantling this globalist zeitgeist that he believes imposes moral and cultural norms which have weakened America’s mercantile “animal spirits” and whose embrace of the politics of diversity has sapped the strength from America’s moral and cultural sinews.


In practice, the policy that emerges will not be so black and white, or so easily categorized. “Team Trump,” in fact, embraces three distinct approaches: the “benevolent American hegemon” traditionalists, the Christian warriors pitted against an Islamic “hostile” ethos – and, of course, Trump’s own “America First” mercantilism. Each of these trends distrusts the other, yet must ally with one or the other in order to balance the third or at least avoid having it act as spoiler.

This inter-connectivity makes it especially hard to read the runes – the Trump administration’s marks of mysterious significance – of likely U.S. policy given the jostling and elbowing ahead between three distinct world views. And it is made even harder given President Trump’s and strategic adviser Steve Bannon’s deliberate embrace of a politics of feint and distraction, to throw opponents off-balance.

Trump’s style of mercantilist politics – though novel in our era – is not new. It has occurred before, and in its earlier setting led to profound geo-political consequences. It led then to war and ultimately to the emergence of a new geo-political order.

That is not necessarily to say that the same will occur today, but on Sept. 17, 1656, Oliver Cromwell, a Protestant puritan who had fought a civil war in England against its Establishment and its élite and who had deposed and then executed the reigning king, addressed his revolutionary parliamentarians in Westminster by posing the question: Who are our enemies? There was, he answered to the gathered parliamentarians, an alignment of “wicked men” in the world led by a powerful state – Catholic Spain with the Pope at its head. The “enmity” that Cromwell’s countrymen faced was, at its root, the evil of a religion – Catholicism – that “refused the Englishman’s desire for simple liberties … that put men under restraint … [and] under which there was no freedom.”

Since Cromwell’s day, the mainly English-speaking (Protestant) world has demonized its “enemies” as opponents of “God’s will” through their clinging to the failings of a static and backward religious ethic (as the Puritans characterized Catholicism). And, as for the complaint of “restraint” and “lack of liberty”? At its crux lay English frustration at the impediments faced by its traders and merchants. The Puritans of that time saw in Catholicism an ethos that was not welcoming to individual enterprise, to profit or to trade.

English “hawks” – usually Puritans and merchants – wanted an aggressive anti-Spanish policy that would open new markets to burgeoning English trade. Catholicism was not an ethos, the Cromwellians fervently and dogmatically asserted, in which the nascent capitalism of the time could thrive.

Cromwell’s address to Parliament in 1656 was an early articulation of the Protestant ethic: one that has contributed hugely to shaping American entrepreneurial capitalism, and in taking America to its position of power (Steve Bannon does in fact acknowledge the parallel: “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” he once said to a reporter).

A Religious War

Today, for one significant Trump constituency (the Tea Party base), Iran is today’s Spain, and it is Islam (vice Catholicism) that is frustrating “God’s will,” by embracing an ethos that hates the Christian “ethic.” And, it is secular globalization that has sapped America’s mercantile animal spirits, imposed restrictions on trade (i.e. NAFTA), and whose cultural and “value” norms are sapping America’s moral and spiritual muscularity.

Why should this Cromwell analogy matter today? In one sense, Trump had little choice. In opposing the (“restrictive”) globalist, foreign policy – with its spinal cord of a U.S.-led global defense sphere – the President needed to stand up some alternative foreign policy to the embedded totem of “America as the gyroscope of the global order.”

Pure mercantilism – in the style of businessman negotiator-ism – is not really, of itself, a foreign policy. The power of the “benign U.S. hegemon” meme would require something more powerful to be set up, over, and against it, to balance it out. Trump has opted for the “Christianity in peril” narrative. It is one that touches on deeply buried cultural veins of Protestant imagery within the President’s Tea Party constituency.

Retired General Michael Flynn, now Trump’s National Security Advisor, perhaps best represents this religiously based, pro-Christian Republican foreign policy, while retired General James Mattis, now U.S. Defense Secretary, perhaps has a foot in both Republican camps — as Martin Wright from Brookings explains:

“Republican foreign policy since 9/11 has had two basic strands, which sometimes contradict each other. The first is that the United States is in an existential fight against radical Islam. The second is that America’s global interests involve the maintenance of U.S. leadership in Europe and East Asia — interests, in other words, that extend far beyond combating radical Islam. The Republican establishment has always toed the line on the first, but it has increasingly focused much more on the second. The global war on terror has, of late, taken second place to balancing China and containing Russia.

“But a group within the Republican tent never made this shift. These are the people who believe the United States is engaged in a war against radical Islam that is equivalent to World War II or the Cold War. They believe it is a struggle rooted in religion to which all else should be subservient — that America’s overwhelming focus must be on radical Islam instead of revisionist powers in Europe or Asia. They also generally favor moving away from a values-based foreign policy to harsh methods to wage a major war.

“For the most part, the leaders of this school of thought have been dismissed as cranks or ideologues. But their views were widely shared in the Republican electorate, who were increasingly alarmed by the Islamic State. And they found an ally in Trump.” (emphasis added)

In short, we should expect the Administration’s policy to oscillate between these two poles of Republican foreign policy, as Trump plays off one against another, in order to insert his own (“non – foreign policy”) of radical mercantilism. The Cromwellian meme of making Iran the “number one” terrorist state and radical Islam the “hostile ethos” does fit well for the U.S. President to embrace the businessman-negotiator modus operandi  under the cover of belligerency towards the Islamic “ethos.”

A Popular ‘Enemy’

Belligerency towards Iran is, of course, popular and in this way Trump’s policy translates well or at least understandably to the mores of the Washington Beltway. This “hostile Islam” meme also provides the rationale (defeating Islamic terror) for détente with Russia. I have suggested earlier that détente with Russia is key to Trump’s dismantling of Washington’s “benign hegemon” global defense sphere. Trump argues that the “blanket” U.S. defense sphere precisely limits the possibilities for the U.S. to negotiate advantageous trade terms with its allies on a case-by-case bilateral basis.

In effect, under the cover of fighting a hostile Islamic “ethos,” Trump can pursue détente with Russia – and then toughly “businessman-negotiate” with allied states (now stripped of the Russian “threat” elevating them to a status as America’s somehow privileged, defense allies). This seems to be Secretary Tillerson’s intended role.

Martin Wright again: “This is why naming Rex Tillerson as secretary of state was so important for Trump. A week before he was named, Trump’s senior aide Kellyanne Conway told the press that Trump was expanding the list of names for secretary of state and that the most important consideration was that the nominee ‘would be to implement and adhere to the president-elect’s America-first foreign policy — if you will, his view of the world.’ The implication was clear: [Mitt] Romney, David Petraeus, and others would not fit the bill, so Trump would have to look elsewhere. He found Tillerson.

“Tillerson is a pragmatist and a dealmaker. In many ways, he is a traditionalist. After all, he was endorsed by James Baker, Robert Gates, Hadley, and Condoleezza Rice. However, Trump also sees him, based on his personal relationship with Putin and opposition to sanctions on Russia, as someone willing to cut deals with strongmen and who sees national security through an economic lens and is thus an embodiment of his own America First views. Speaking in Wisconsin hours after naming Tillerson, Trump said, ‘Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with, and some people don’t like that. They don’t want them to be friendly. That’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex, ‘cause I like what this is all about.’” (emphasis added)

Is this – the war with a “hostile Islamic ethos” – then just a ploy, a diversion? Something for Iran to ignore? We suspect that Iran should not assume that Trump’s targeting of Iran and radical Islam is just some harmless diversion. It is not likely that Trump actively seeks war with Iran, but were Iran to be perceived to be deliberately humiliating Trump or America, the President (self-confessedly) is not of a temperament to let any humiliation pass. He likes to repay those who do him harm, ten-fold.

End of White America

But additionally, since, as polls show, and a leading American commentator on religion and politics, Robert Jones, has written, the Trump phenomenon is also deeply connected with the end of an American era: The End of White Christian America (as his book is entitled). In point of fact, the era has already passed. For, as Jones notes, “1993 was the last year in which America was majority white, and Protestant.”

Jones writes of the “vertigo” felt – even within the insular settings of many Southern and Midwestern towns where white Protestant conservatives continue to dominate society, and politics – at their “loss of place at the center of American culture, democracy and cultural power.”

Salt has been rubbed into this wound by a Democratic Party that has somewhat reveled in the passing of white majority America and exacerbated the sore through rebranding itself as the new “majority” of minorities. Jones remarks that while some in America “might celebrate” its passing, white Christian America did provide some kind of “civic glue,” and he ruminates on how the sense of void and anxiety on “what might serve that purpose [in the future], might well turn destructive.”

This is, Iran might recall, Trump’s core constituency, which he must mollify if he is to remain in office. The destructive impulse of Tea Party-ists, if scratched repeatedly, might seek to let off steam at some convenient target.

But secondly, it seems that Trump shares in some measure, this embrace of Judeo-Christian values. Certainly Steve Bannon does. He has said plainly that American capitalism – if it is to survive – must be reconnected to Judeo-Christian values. But what explains Trump’s paradoxical focus on Iran, which is fighting Islamic radicalism, rather than say, Saudi Arabia, which is not?

Here, Martin Wright gives us the clue: “In January and February [2016], Trump was under pressure to unveil a foreign-policy team. The Republican foreign-policy establishment overwhelmingly condemned him, largely because of his America First views. It was at this point that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn started advising him. … Several weeks after Flynn came on board, Trump rolled out a list of foreign-policy advisors. Most were completely unknown, but the name Walid Phares stood out. Phares has a controversial past as a leading figure in a Lebanese Christian militia, and is known as a hard-liner in the war on terror.”

Mother Jones’ investigative report is plain: Phares, a Lebanese Christian Maronite, is a Samir Gagea man, who has a long history, dating back to Lebanon’s civil war of (intellectual) animosity towards Iran and Syria. It seems Trump (and Flynn too?) may have imbibed deeply at the bitter well of Lebanese prejudice and civil war hatreds?

Translating the Runes

So what do the runes tell us? The occult alphabet of Trump’s foreign policy will prove hard to read. The essential tension between, on the one hand, the “America Firsters” and the religious warriors – and all those who adhere to the American “traditionalist” policy position – portends the prospect of policies that might oscillate, from time to time, between these three diverse and conflicting poles.

Let us remind ourselves – “traditionalist” includes “all those officials who support the institutions of American power, and are generally comfortable with the post-World War II bipartisan consensus on U.S. strategy, even though they may seek to change it on the margins.”

It is quite likely that some of Trump’s team members who are mercantilists (such as Tillerson) or “Christian warriors” (such as Flynn), might be “bi-polar”: that is to say will be pulled in both directions on certain policy issues. We perhaps might be advised, therefore, to disregard most leaks, as more likely to constitute self-serving exercises directed towards influencing the internal struggle within “the team” (i.e. kite-flying exercises), rather than as true leaks that describe a genuine consensus reached within the “team.”

But the runes will be harder to read precisely because of Trump’s tactics of feints and distractions. As one astute chess-coach-turned-analyst has observed, Trump seems to be a pretty accomplished hand at chess:

“Chess is a game where the number of possible positions rises at an astronomical rate. By the 2nd move of the game there are already 400 possible positions, and after each person moves twice, that number rises to 8902. My coach explained to me that I was not trained enough to even begin to keep track of those things and that my only chance of ever winning was to take the initiative and never give it up. ‘You must know what your opponent will do next by playing his game for him.’ was the advice I received.

“Now, I won’t bore you with the particulars but it boiled down to throwing punches, at each and every turn without exception. In other words, if my opponent must always waste his turn responding to what I am doing, then he never gets an opportunity to come at me in the millions of possibilities that reside in the game. Again, if I throw the punch – even one that can be easily blocked, then I only have to worry about one combination and not millions.

“My Russian chess coach next taught me that I should Proudly Announce what exactly I am doing and why I am doing it. He explained to me that bad chess players believe that they can hide their strategy even though all the pieces are right there in plain sight for anyone to see. A good chess player has no fear of this because they will choose positions that are unassailable so why not announce them? As a coach, I made all of my students tell each other why they were making the moves that they made as well as what they were planning next. It entirely removed luck from the game and quickly made them into superior players.

“My Russian coach next stressed Time as something I should focus on to round out my game. He said that I shouldn’t move the same piece twice in a row and that my ‘wild punches’ should focus on getting my pieces on to the board and into play as quickly as possible. So, if I do everything correctly, I have an opponent that will have a disorganized defense, no offense and few pieces even in play and this will work 9 out of 10 times. The only time it doesn’t work for me is when I go against players that have memorized hundreds of games and have memorized how to get out of these traps. With all that said, let’s see if President Trump is playing chess.

“First, we can all agree that Trump, if nothing else, throws a lot of punches. We really saw this in the primaries where barely a day could go by without some scandal that would supposedly end his presidential bid. His opponents and the press erroneously thought that responding to each and every “outrage’ was the correct thing to do without ever taking the time to think whether or not they had just walked into a trap. They would use their turn to block his Twitter attack but he wouldn’t move that [chess] piece again once that was in play but, instead, brought on the next outrage – just like my [Russian chess] coach instructed me to do.

“Second, Trump is very vocal in what he is going to do. Just like I had my students announced to each other their [chess] strategy, Trump has been nothing but transparent about what he intends to do. After all, announcing your plans only works if your position is unassailable. It demoralizes your opponent. You rub their face in it. Another benefit to being vocal is that it encourages your opponent to bring out his favorite piece to deal with said announced plans. This is a big mistake as any good chess player will quickly recognize which piece his opponent favors and then go take them.

“Time has been the one area that our president is having problems. Executive Orders and Twitter Wars have pushed the opposition off balance but he has not been able to use this time to get all of his pieces into play. The Justice Department (his Queen) is still stuck behind a wall of pawns. Furthermore, only 5 of his 15 Cabinet picks have been confirmed as of this writing. Without control over these departments, the president can fight a war of attrition but he really can’t go on the offensive. In chess, I will gladly trade a piece for a piece if it means you have to waste your turn dealing with it. It isn’t a long term strategy if you do not have all of your pieces ready to go.”

Well, maybe its best just to sit and observe, and stop trying to read the runes?

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.

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Published in Tribune

I would like to start our conversation with an interesting and important question - the future of political Islam. This topic has been discussed in our conversation with Mustafa Tlili. Examples of Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamists coming into power had a short time in office then faced a complete defeat, let us raise this question. Many experts beleive that political Islam is not able to gain a foothold in power for a long time and will inevitably give way to secular forces soon. Some experts think that after this failure, both in Egypt and Tunisia, the political Islam is on the brink of complete decomposition. What do you think of the future of political Islam in the Middle East?

 It’s a difficult question. It needs excursion into history to understand, firstly, what the political Islam is. Secondly we need an excursion into the history in order to understand why it has acquired such strength. It is difficult to answer unequivocally, what will happen to political Islam. A whole lecture is required.


But if not to take this question in a historical perspective, its formation, its development? What if to talk about the future of political Islam taking the Arab Spring as a starting point, which in turn was quite a unique phenomenon, given its absolutely secular slogans and then the subsequent arrival of the Islamists? And then these Islamists’ rule did not last long. At the current moment in history and in the foreseeable future, after this failure, in your opinion is  it also difficult to make predictions about the future of political Islam?

 Well, I would say that it is still very difficult to give an answer. Firstly, because there is no clear definition of what the political Islam is. The arrival into power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia has shown the two things: on the one hand, that the people wanted a change and rejected the autocratic regimes that did not give them the freedom and security, that they could not withstand the omnipotence of the elites, unemployment, corruption etc. any longer. On the other hand, political vacuum has been created, and it turned out that the most organised political force was Muslim Brotherhood that had carried out much work with the population in the social field and had a good position. As a result, the Islamists have won the elections, both in Egypt and in Tunisia. But in the future, indeed, they have failed as they did not have any adequate program, because all their slogans were designed to overthrow the existing regimes, there were no constructive, positive action programs: how to withdraw their countries out of the crisis, how to proved people with work. And so they have not existed for long. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, this failure of relatively moderate political Islamists led to a dramatic rise of the radical Islamists, who took advantage of the situation and have considerably strengthened their positions in many areas. Today they spread their influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya and in several African countries. And there is no understanding how the other events in the region of the Middle East will develop. The fact to be admitted is that the radical methods of struggle, barbaric, savage cruelty, are quite effective. The young people who are in a state of frustration, who were disappointed, because of being jobless with no perspectives, with no chances to live a decent life, more and more of them join these radical Islamists because they do not see another way. After all, all they want is to have everything they want here and now, as soon as possible.

All phenomena have a dialectical side. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a big blow, and it is unlikely that they will resurrect as a phoenix, at least in Egypt. But many of their supporters and fans now join the ranks of radical Islamists.

I would like to stress once again the fact that political Islam should be correctly identified - what do we mean by this term. Because those theocratic regimes that exist in the Gulf States may fall under the definition of political Islam too. And they do a lot to put the struggle, which is now underway, in the mainstream of the Shiite and Sunni Islam etc. I would not jump to conclusions that political Islam disappears or is weakened. It is transforming, taking new forms. I think that now we see the strengthening of radical Islam against the background of the moderate Islam weakening. 

 The future of political Islam depends on how the rulers will be able to solve the problems of social development. First of all:  to get rid of the terrible poverty, to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, to deal with unemployment, corruption, etc. Anyway, in my opinion, we witness now if not a victorious march of radical Islam, then something like that. Boko Haram militants have sworn allegiance to ISIS. In Libya ISIS rebels are quite successful, having manifested themselves through the execution of the 22 Copts. And more and more Islamist movements swear allegiance to the Caliphate led by Caliph Ibrahim. So I think that these processes are far from being completed. We see them in the dynamics. What will the outcome of this process be depends, firstly, on foreign intervention, which always determines a lot. And secondly, it depends on how successful the Assad’s Syrian Army actions against militants of ISIS will be and how successfully the Iraqis will be able to press the ISIS. In any case, now even the US, who actually provoked the rise of these radicals, begins to realize that it’s impossible to defeat this terrible evil without cooperation with the Iraqi and Syrian authorities.


Despite the bombardments of the coalition forces the ISIS still augments its influence, which has already expanded beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria and even the Middle Eastern region as in case with Boko Haram in Africa, and according to some sources the ISIS is already entering Afghanistan. The efficiency of the measures taken by the coalition is debated.  What do you think that the international community should undertake in order to stop and abolish ISIS? What should be revised in the current approach to this problem resolution? And what are the prospects of the struggle against the Islamic state in the current situation?

We should be ready for the new victories of ISIS and new complications, tensions, new conflicts. Why? The support of these radicals among the Muslim youth that does not want to wait is increasing. And despite its cruelty ISIS is considered efficient. The main thing attractive for the new recruits is the injustice of current conditions. Aspiration for justice is natural. The willingness to see this justice during one’s life makes many young people enter the ranks of these fighters. They believe that in such a way they will be able to deracinate the root of evil of the injustice. 

New turmoil should be expected.

I always say that the Americans are interested in the instability in the Middle East. The do not depend on the Middle Eastern oil anymore. These conflicts allow them to control their allies – Europe and Asia as they depend on this oil much more.

The shortsighted position of Europe that depends much on these resources and moreover supplies many new recruits to these Islamist groups is unclear. In fact, by such position it sets fire in its own home. During the execution of the Copts the leader of this gang pointed his knife in the direction of Rome по тексту что-то другое было  and said: “Wait for us”. The Europeans do not make proper conclusions from the latest terrorist acts.

They have focused all their efforts to cut Ukraine form Russia. This is a very shortsighted policy. And while it goes on there will be no progress in fight against ISIS. The so-called coalition with the US in head is active for a year and nothing has changed. The Iraqi are even unable to take Tikrit. They say they need help from coalition. Additional forces are required.

The international efforts should be combined. Not only in the military sphere but also the fight against this ideology, education measures for this Muslim youth, cutting the funding channels. But it is virtually impossible in the conditions of international tensions and ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The understanding that the international efforts should be united to fight this cancer tumor is coming to the Middle East. The efforts are fruitful only if the international community is united.

This was the same in the Syrian case. A big war – the US bombardments, was averted then. We have agreed on the chemical weapons destruction with the Americans. And now we are on the verge of a new turn of tension.

For example the Saudi already voice their intentions to get the nuclear weapons as they are not content with the US agreements with Iran. Egypt is considering nuclear programs. Turkey as well. That will be the result. The situation is difficult and explosive.

However our Western partners believe that they will manage to avert new terrorist acts – that is not the case. Western Europe is unable to elaborate an adequate program to integrate 30 millions of Muslims. They do not have an understanding of how to pacify their own Muslims, not speaking about the efforts to suppress radical Islamists in the Middle East. If they do not change their approach – the situation will not change and will severely deteriorate. I do not share the optimism that the bombardments will help to stop ISIS and vanquish them. I think that further everything will be worse and more complicated.

In the conditions of crisis with the West Russia has declared its turn to the East now. And the first step was an important strengthening of relations with Egypt. Moreover, Russia was among the first countries to declare support for Egypt after the execution of Copts. And that provoked some assumptions in the international community that Russia may even join the international coalition.


How Russia is important for the Middle East now? And is there possibility of its joining the international coalition?

Russia is a great power. And it has such potential that nothing can be done without it. All the more it concerns the Middle East, where we have rather strong positions. It is not only regarding the Syrian crisis. It is also about Turkey. Though there are some differences with Turkey on the Syrian crisis, the cooperation between our countries is increasing and Russian-Turkish cooperation is strengthening in all the spheres. There is also an intensive cooperation with Egypt. There is an active exchange of delegations. Many of them are not covered in media. We exchange information. There is an ongoing military cooperation. And all this will continue. Russia is awaited in Iraq. The Iraqi warmly recall their cooperation with Moscow in all the spheres, and mainly in the weaponry.

There is the same for Libya. I was an Ambassador there. Two Libyans from opposition have come saying that all the parties of the Libyan conflict, including the Islamists believe that Russian participation is essential to preserve a united Libya. They do not trust others. Even the Islamists! The Italian Prime Minister has recently arrived here and besides the discussion of the Ukrainian crisis he asked to help with Libya as the crisis there is the direct threat for the Italians. And this is really so. They are not so far away: the Libyan shore is close enough to Sicily. How to resolve the Libyan crisis? Only with the participation of Moscow.

The Eastern turn does exist and it will go on. The second meeting with Syrian opposition and representatives of the Syrian government will take place in April. Russia does much effort to achieve a real settlement. Russia sticks to a position that no conflict can be resolved from the position of force in the 21st century. Everybody should make agreements. This position is becoming increasingly attractive for the Arab capitals. Everybody is positive towards Russia.

And there are more and more examples. We have wonderful relations with Sudan, there are traditionally admirable relations with Algeria. In the Persian Gulf they also say that Russia is a trusted partner. And I believe that it will be soon reflected in the figures of trade and economic cooperation. But it requires some time.

 The main idea is that there are so many issues today that they should be resolved exclusively by the political means and only on the basis of collective cooperation and efforts. There are some elements of understanding now. There were some attempts before to resolve the Syrian crisis by the “Friends of Syria”. There were constant meetings. And now Kerry says that this problem cannot be resolved without the dialogue with the government of Assad. And the CIA director says, “You take out Assad and what will happen? The thugs will come?” The signs of understanding are visible. But they are just the first ones.

As far as joining the international coalition is concerned – we have already voiced our position that we condemn this format. We believe that the struggle with ISIS should be complex. And it should be multifunctional: not only the military one by supplying arms, but by cutting the financial influxes, serious educational measures for the youth, not to make it susceptible to the blandishment of these wild preachers that say that one should live as in the 7th century. It is essential to cope with this evil. But as currently the West is focused on arguing with Russia over the Ukrainian issues, we are unable to speak about any real political, efficient cooperation now. It is an incorrect choice of priories.

The Europeans should understand that taking into consideration their problems with migration policy and successful recruitment of Europeans by the ISIS, they are able to resolve them only in cooperation with Russia. We coexist more than a millennium: the Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches. Of course we have misunderstandings. But we coexist perfectly. We have created our own system. But we should fight the extremism together. And the particular attention should be paid to the system of education so that it does not produce partisans of barbaric extremists.


Published in Interviews