Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Juan Cole has a fascinating analysis of the latest Bin Laden audio tape and why he is not convinced it is genuine.  See link.  As Cole notes Bin Laden has not been seen on video since October 2004 and the new tape has generally been ignored in the Arab world.  If Cole’s analysis is correct, Bin Laden’s decline also serves as a lesson on why terrorists with no practical positive plan struggle to maintain support.

Bin Laden at one point attracted genuine sympathy and support in the Arab world.  He was the rich kid who abandoned his wealth to fight a jihad against two superpowers back to back.  The perceived impotence of their regimes against Israel and frustration at the lack of political and economic opportunities contributed to his support.  But Al Qaeda never had a serious or practical program to offer.  Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah whose goals are narrower and nationalistic, Al Qaeda has the unrealistic goals of restoring the  pan-Islamic Caliphate.  The entity Al Qaeda wanted existed only in its imagination.  Of the first four caliphs, three were assassinated.  The distance from the capital of Damascus (and later Baghdad) to the extremities of the Empire (Spain and Morocco in the West and the Indus River in the East) meant that provincial governors would always have a lot of local autonomy.  The “golden age” of the famous Harun al-Rashid also marked the disintegration of the empire as Baghdad could not hold effective sway over such a vast region.

Far less ambitious projects like the union of Egypt and Syria (which barely lasted 3 years) crumbled in the 20th century.  Needless to say, no Arab state took Al Qaeda’s goals seriously.  Ultimately, all Al Qaeda offered was terrorism against its presumed enemies with involuntary martyrdom offered to any Muslims who happened to be in the way.  The terror attacks in Jordan, Zarqawi’s blood lust in Iraq that helped give rise to the Sunni Awakening and the terror attacks in Pakistan last year that forced the Pakistani army to respond with lethal force, all have dimmed the rosy glow some had for this band of thugs.

While vigilance must be maintained and bands of murderous fanatics are still out there, such groups do not present and existential threat to the American way of life (unless we do the job for them).  As Fareed Zakaria noted a few weeks back overreaction plays into their hands (see link).  Meanwhile, the location of the chief evildoer (as George W. Bush once named him) is somewhat of a mystery.  As Cole notes he increasingly appears to be an irrelevancy.

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Religion) by Rashtrakut

France is moving closer to a partial ban on the burqa in certain public places.  Like the previous ban on head scarves in schools, I find it disturbing when a government steps into religious practice that does not pose a threat to its practitioners.  It is correct that the Quran does not explicitly mandate the veil.  The language requiring modest dress in inherently subjective and open to interpretation on cultural norms.  However, that interpretation should rely on the practitioner and not the state.  This is in some ways the other side of the coin of the Taliban and Saudi Arabia mandating the burqa and Iran mandating the head scarves.  They are both wrong and an infringement on religious liberty.

Separation of church and state is a trick subject for Islam since its founders and early leaders combined secular and religious powers in the same individual.  However, after the fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate even Islam saw a bifurcation of these functions.  To the extent Sultans exercised religious authority, it was not different than Christian monarchs proclaiming themselves god’s vice-regents on earth.

I had an interesting conversation with someone who supported the proposed French policy today.  However, I cannot help but wonder whether the support would have remained in place if a similar ban was targeted at that person’s religion rather than at what is currently an unpopular religious minority.  A ban of this nature would not be constitutional in the United States.  While I have no fondness for religious fundamentalism and am generally unmoved by overt public religious displays, I will take the liberty granted by the American constitution to the type of secularism (and cultural xenophobia) rammed down people’s throats in France.

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Posted on 26-01-2010
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

The Indian constitution (and the Indian republic) celebrated its 60th birthday today on January 26, 2010.  Apart from a 2 year suspension when Indira Gandhi imposed a national Emergency, the Indian constitution has been the foundation of the world’s largest democracy.  It is no small achievement.  At its birth few thought that democracy could flourish in a poor country with deep cultural, linguistic and religious divides and with such a large illiterate population.  But the creaky wheels of Indian democracy have kept on churning and have so far overcome some structural flaws within the constitution’s federal layout (see link), an over-centralization imposed as a reaction to the partition of India and from the insecurities and authoritarian tendencies of Indira Gandhi.

A lot of the credit must go to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.  Ever since the dismantling of the license raj and the beginning of free market reforms in India in 1991, it has become fashionable to criticize Nehru.  However, unlike many of the early leaders of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, Nehru was at heart a believer of democracy and its institutions.  He did not attempt to turn his ruling party into a gaggle of sycophants, create a cult of personality or attempt to create a political dynasty by aggressively promoting his daughter Indira.  The ultimate respect for constitutional norms survived Indira Gandhi’s failure on all these three points (and even the Emergency was imposed based on a constitutional provision).  And even with this failure, Indira Gandhi like her father did take steps that created a national identity.

As Kashmiri Brahmins who grew up in the North Indian heartland, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi projected an Indian identity.  Buttressed by the boost to their reputation by their history in the independence struggle they belonged to India in a manner that few leaders other than Mahatma Gandhi could.  While this did have the deleterious effect of choking the growth of an alternative set of leaders, it delayed the rise of regional satraps  until a core Indian national identity was nurtured.  India has suffered secessionist movements along the periphery, but with the rise of coalition politics reliant on regional support some of this tension has eased.  This has eased the concerns (more often raised in Western media about the fragmentation of India).

Finally credit must be given to the professionalism of the Indian armed forces and their willingness to obey civilian authority.  In most newly independent countries, Nehru’s neglect of the army in the 1950s followed by the debacle at the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 war would have sparked a coup.  It did not happen.  Western media raised similar fears of a coup in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, a thought not seriously considered domestically within India.  Today such an eventuality seems unthinkable.

And so India’s democratic republic continues to move on into is projected rise as a new world power.  There are issues of concern.  The division of revenues (as noted in the article linked above) is and will continue to be a source of tension between haves and have nots within India.  India has punted the issue of reapportioning parliamentary seats till 2026.  When reapportionment does happen, it will cause tension as the more prosperous states (which have done a better job implementing family planning policies) lose parliamentary seats (and as a result political power) to poorer states.  Indian democracy, like many young democracies, is often rooted in support of personalities as opposed to policies and political dynasties dot the landscape.  This phenomenon is not unknown in the United States, but the next step to the maturation of Indian democracy has to be the strengthening of parties based on political ideologies rather than vehicles for personalities.

So far India’s politicians have generally shown a sense of flexibility in working towards a common national purpose.  As long as that continues, the passage time will buttress the sense of Indian national identity and the Republic of India will continue to thrive.  So here are birthday wishes to the longest written constitution in the world.

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