Archive for the ‘Alejandro’s blog’ Category

Q&A on Saudi-American Relations

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Q.    What’s your perspective on U.S.-Saudi relations from their beginning till now?

A. The U.S. has been entangled in Saudi fortunes through the engagement of America I the Saudi oil industry. American entrepreneurs helped to create ARAMCO and the American public is dependent on Saudi oil. This entanglement has made the Saudi’s an American client state. Their common enemy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War reinforced the alliance and their common enemy in Iran perpetuates that alliance.  

Q.    What are the most prominent points of cooperation between the two countries?

A. Except for a temporary alienation during the Arab oil embargo it has been oil and, as mentioned above, a common enemy in the Soviet Union until its fall and in Iran since the Iranian Revolution.

Q.    There have been some times in history where the relations have been tested (9/11, murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) – were there any changes in the relationship over time?

A. 9/11 and the murder of Jamal Kashoggi have hurt American popular opinion of Saudi Arabia, but have not substantially impacted the alliance. Warming relationship of the relationship between Saudis and Israel has coincided with stronger American support for arming the Saudi regime.

Q.    How would you evaluate relations under the Obama’s administration?

A. Obama’s pro-democracy speech in Egypt caused some concerns about the relationship, but subsequently policies demonstrated business as usual.

Q.    How would you evaluate relations under the Trump’s administration?

A. Relations have strengthened under the Trump administration.

Q.    Will the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act affect the relations between the two countries? How?

A. Saudi threats to retaliate for the passage of the act by selling U.S. Treasuries have not come to pass. It is not clear that the plaintiffs will meet the burden of proving Saudi government complicity in sponsoring the 9/11 attacks. Saudis may end up pleased of the act ends up being used against states Muslim-majority republics like Turkey.

News and Analysis (2/8/2010)

Monday, February 8th, 2010

In a move designed to cripple the Brotherhood’s leadership ahead of Parliamentary elections, ten officials are arrested over five provinces overnight:

The Afghan president says his people’s priority is “ending raids at night on Afghan homes, … ending the arrests of Afghans in their homes and their villages,” and “gaining judicial independence completely and rather very very soon”:

Terrorism experts say the group has adjusted its tactics to incorporate smaller scale attacks that are increasingly difficult to prevent:

An offensive to take down the Taliban Stronghold in Marja is being used as a litmus test illustrating how difficult it will be to train Afghan troops to be self sufficient…

… Meanwhile, pressure mounts for reconciliation negotiations with Taliban:

Confirming Ahmadinejad’s intentions of enriching uranium as nuclear negotiations move forward:

Politics and Policies are the Real Problem, Not Faith

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

[Note: This blog entry was originally submitted as an op-ed respond to Monica Duffy Toft’s article, “Why Islam Lies at the Heart of Iraq’s Civil War” in the Christian Science Monitor on June 2.]

Although we agree with the policy prescriptions of Monica Duffy Toft’s June 2 op-ed in the Monitor, we must point out that her principle premise, that Islam is at the heart of the bloodshed going on in Iraq, is fatally flawed. Starting with the plausible claim that the “evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the war in Iraq is a religious civil war,” she jumps to the unwarranted  “Islam is at the heart of it….” The reasons she offers do not stand up to scrutiny. Her evidence to support such claims are weak and distract the reader from what we see as the real cause: the destruction wrought upon Iraq by the American-led invasion and occupation.


The fact that some of the language framing the conflict employs religious terminology does not necessarily mean that the roots of the conflict are religious. In a July 2006 International Republic Institute poll 89% of Iraqis—across sects—saw a unity government as “extremely important to Iraq’s future.” Toft’s assertion that “Sunnis and Shiites themselves see the war in these terms” is contradicted by focus groups conducted in 2007 by the National Democratic Institute that found almost of the participants stating that politicians speaking the language of sectarianism were only doing so for political purposes. This polling was done during the height of internal violence and they are hardly indicators that Iraqis primarily self-identify along sectarian lines.


The allegation of the relevance of the notion of a Muslim “ummah” is a red-herring argument. Muslims cherish the idea of a unified spiritual community, but it has not been realized at this date. Muslims are not monolithic; they are extremely diverse and also politically fractured, due to different national and regional interests. Furthermore, since the second century of Islam, Muslims have not lived under a single polity. Like the current troubles bedeviling Iraq, early conflicts that split the ummah into different polities and sects were political, not religious.


Although Muslims do not have a single centralized religious authority, like Catholics do with the Pope, the Association of Muslim Scholars and Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani tend to wield the most religious influence among Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq, respectively. Both are strongly against sectarian violence and both, admittedly to varying degrees, are opposed to US-led occupation of Iraq. It is also important to note thatthere have been long-standing divisions among Iraqi Shi’a parties,which have recently turned to bloodshed are not based on theological differences, but rather on essentially political ones.


It is true that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political failures have made him deeply unpopular among most Iraqis of all sects and that he lacks religious credentials. However, it is the political failures rather than the lack of religious credentials that have earned him the ire of his compatriots.


Furthermore, Moqtada al-Sadr does not have much more religious authority to stand on either. He is at best analogous to a mid-level seminary student, which is why he has pursued continuing religious studies in Iran. His popularity skyrocketed during his first uprising against the US-led occupation in 2004 (which reminds many Iraqis of his father’s 1991 rebellion against Saddam Hussein). To keep his position within his prestigious father’s legacy, Moqtada needs to continue Muhammad Baqr’s politics of militant resistance and provision of extensive social services.


We have conducted a qualitative analysis Dr. Toft’s civil war dataset (PDF). We find her definition of a religious civil war to be troubling. She excludes conflicts with less than 1,000 deaths per year. This leaves out the protracted fighting in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. In addition, her definition of a “religious” civil war includes cases where it was “peripheral” and not just a “central” cause. That being said, we wonder why conflicts in Latin America were not included. One could argue that civil wars in Latin America between Catholics that were supportive of or opposed to Marxist and other revolutionary movements (Liberation Theology vs. State-supported Catholicism) should fall under her “peripheral” category. Finally, we question why the bloody 1971 conflict between East and West Pakistan, which seems to meet all her criteria for inclusion, was left out.


Doubts about her dataset aside, the declaration that Islam is involved in “more than 80 percent of all religious civil wars” is too vague. For instance, “Islam” is “involved” in the India/Pakistan partition, but the historical record clearly shows that conservative hardliners like ‘Ala-Abul Mawdudi were opposed to the creation of Pakistan, while Ali Jinnah, who did not pray but did enjoy his whiskey, was its founder. This was a conflict over religious identity rather than religious beliefs or practice.


Further, the implication that Islam as a religion is at fault is worse than unjustified. Like Samuel Huntington’s famous phrase that “Islam has bloody borders,” it also obscures the fact that in most of the cases surveyed, Muslims were the principle victims. Strikingly, in every conflict in which Islam is a dominant religion, there were also lengthy periods of foreign political and military intervention due to their natural resource and/or geo-strategic importance during colonial and cold war periods. The impact of foreign intervention and occupation on countries’ politics, including Iraq, is at least as worthy of consideration as religion for any meaningful investigation of the causes of civil conflict.


Despite our concerns about her research, definitions, and analysis, we nevertheless agree with her policy prescription to have a “wisely executed withdrawal” of troops as “the surest path to peace.” Understanding that foreign interventionism, rather than religion, is the most significant root cause of the bloodshed in Iraq than religion only strengthens the argument for withdrawal. The problem and its solutions are political. Withdrawal will probably not in-itself lead to internal peace, and in the near term it may be accompanied by an escalation of violence; but it is certainly a necessary condition for any enduring peace.


Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute


A Metric of Security Failure: America “Bleeding Green” in the Fight Against Al-Qaeda

Monday, April 21st, 2008

A few days ago Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad wrote an incisive analysis on the economic costs of the US-led military occupation in Iraq. In it he described how the price tag of empire is hitting the American economy very hard. It is something impossible to ignore despite the administration’s best efforts to systematically spin the ongoing failures in Iraq.

I argue that the economics of occupation is also a security “metric” to be constantly scrutinized when examining the fight against Al-Qaeda. Why? Because economic exhaustion is central to Bin Laden’s overarching goal of removing American military presence from the Middle East and other Muslim countries. While fighting terrorism on the cheap may not necessarily be a sign of success, its exorbitant financial costs are certainly a metric of security failure.

Bin Laden rightly recognizes that his bloodthirsty criminal enterprise is no match for American forces in a conventional fight. Drawing from lessons learned during the battles against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he has drawn his militarily stronger enemy into a tactical and strategic form of warfare he could actually win. Tactically it involves guerilla-style cloak-and-dagger methods, while strategically it is an economic (and public) war of attrition.

Under this scenario, size matters and it is a huge disadvantage to the larger party. The Soviets were sucked into an unfamiliar battlefield and got stuck in a huge quagmire that drained them of men, money and materiel. The enormous costs of maintaining the occupation, in addition to keeping pace with US in the arms race led to the Soviet Union’s eventual economic implosion.

This is exactly what Bin Laden is doing in Iraq. The Bush administration fell into Al-Qaeda’s trap by picking an unnecessary fight with Iraq,—which had no weapons of mass destruction, nor any operational links to Al-Qaeda—remaining militarily bogged down and forcing America to financially hemorrage itself.

In an interesting and scary economic analysis by Bin Laden himself, he found that for every dollar he and his affiliates spend in military operations, the Bush administration spends one million dollars in reaction. Those figures led him to calculate the US war debt at one trillion. However recent analyses suggest that these numbers may skyrocket beyond the terror leader’s wildest dreams.

Had the Bush and his neo-con cabal decided to remain focused on Afghanistan, perhaps America would not be faced with a massive military spending bill that will cost at least $2.4 trillion, for the entire war on terror, by the CBO’s relatively conservative estimate, or between $4-5 trillion, for just the Iraq occupation on Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes’ account. Bush’s Iraq adventure has allowed Bin Laden to regroup his forces and carry out other attacks around the world, including other economically sensitive targets like the massive oil refinery in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, we have not been hit with another military attack from Al-Qaeda since the invasion of Iraq. However, the argument of “we’re fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here”—with which I am sure the British and Spanish would not agree—does not hold when examined from an economic perspective. American taxpayers are not bleeding red on their own soil; they are bleeding green instead, just as the enemy planned.

Democratization in Turkey: Stumbling Blocks and the Prospects

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

On April 15, 2008 Georgetown University hosted former Turkish Parliamentarian Merve Kavakci to discuss “Democratization in Turkey and Stumbling Blocks and the Prospects”. The event was co-sponsored by the Georgetown Muslim Students Association, the Lecture Fund and the International Students Association.

The event kicked off with an introduction by Georgetown senior Hafsa Kanjwal. She provided the audience with Dr. Kavakci’s personal background, mentioning Kavakci being banned from Turkey’s parliament and eventually stripped of her citizenship due to her decision to wear the headscarf.

After the personal introduction, Dr. Kavakci opened her remarks by casually reviewing the sentiments of many politicians and analysts on Islam and politics after 9/11. Amid fresh fears and resurrected Orientalist stereotyping of Muslims, Turkey was held to be a “role model” country because of its democracy and secularism. The rhetorical question posed by Beltway punditry was, “Why don’t all Muslim countries become like Turkey which is an Israeli ally, a US ally, a member of NATO, Muslim, and secular?”

Dr. Kavakci pointed out that while Turkey was less authoritarian than many other Middle Eastern and Muslim states, it is not the role model many Westerners have made it out to be. She points out that Turkey currently faces three major stumbling blocks to full democratization, largely linked to the historical development of the secular Turkish republic:

  1. Modernization
  2. Secularization
  3. Gender Roles

On the modernization aspect of the Turkish Republic, Dr. Kavakci noted that it was a topic of discussion during the last 200 years of the Ottoman Empire, and after the 1920s a certain group of elite intellectuals, including Kemal Ataturk (modern Turkey’s founder), were identifying Islam as the cause of Turkey’s lagging behind the West. At first such intellectuals were opposed to the West because the Europeans were attempting to colonize Turkey. In order to fend of Western military imperialism they used Islam as a mobilizing force. However, after the Europeans were thrown out, these same individuals made a 180-degree turn, fully embracing Westernization and establishing the Turkish Republic. This volte face was legitimated by playing off of cultural mythologies about Turks physically journeying westward from Central Asia toward their final destination. Ataturk argued modernization was the cultural completion of that journey.

Dr. Kavakci opined that modernization/Westernization was “very dangerous and unknown.” Intellectuals debated several issues, including whether or not to keep the Caliphate, which was eventually dumped. They largely improvised, imposing their vision from the top down on he assumption that it would eventually be embraced by the people at the bottom.

However, up until today, that has not been the case. Kemalist secularization of society—the political and legal extension of Turkey’s self-imposed modernization—had many dissidents who were either jailed or executed. Dr. Kavakci used this part of her lecture to also point out how Western countries employ a set of double standards concerning discussions of human rights and democratization, by adding an extra element of secularization. She observed that they tend to apply a much more invasive standard of secularism to Muslim countries—the forced privatization of religion (as opposed to state neutrality in matters of faith)—than they do to themselves. Furthermore, she asserted that in addition to Kemalist secularism’s violent coerciveness, the early rhetoric of Kemalism distinctly lacked any mention of democratization. Such re-phrasing came thirty years later, after Turkey began to open up to a multi-party system.

Dr. Kavakci then turned to how secularism created new gender roles that ultimately failed to fully liberate women as contended by some supporters of Kemalism. A group of scholars in the 1980s emerged who were Turkish modernists, but also said that Turkish modernity was not a role model for women’s rights. They castigated the patriarchy of the Ottomans but argued that it had been replaced by “a state-controlled feminism”. Furthermore this state-controlled feminism created new divisions along religious and economic class lines. The economically disadvantaged woman wearing the headscarf was denied intellectual and economic independence for maintaining her religious identity. Such a woman, in the view of Kemalist state-controlled feminism, cannot be, and must not be, anything more than a household cleaner until she sheds her public display of religiosity. Religion cannot be a source of empowerment for women in the Kemalist purview.

Finally Dr. Kavakci spoke on contemporary Turkish democratization from the 70s to 90s. She noted that it has been interspersed with military coups and the rise of Islamism. However, during this same period there was a growth of civil society organizations; people began speaking out more freely and religion reemerged in the public. Since the 90s there has been “a hurried attempt to catch up to the Europeans”, not in rhetoric and ideology, but in human rights, civil liberties, and economic development. According to Dr. Kavakci, in this sense, Islamist governments have brought Turkey closer to becoming European than any secular party in power. However festering corruption due to the lack of accountability and transparency in government is the main challenge to the rule of law in Turkey. As a result the interests of the “deep state” (a group of extreme militant secular nationalists in the army, other government institutions, media and academia)—manifested in the murders and persecutions of dissident intellectuals and the ongoing “judicial coup”—remains entrenched in Turkey. According to Dr. Kavakci, it is due to the AKP government’s pursuit of deep state members, that legal challenges to its hold on power have begun.

At the end of the program several questions were posed, including one I asked on whether different conceptions of non-invasive, non-coercive secularity were emerging and if there is going to be a redefinition of religion-state relations. Dr. Kavakci responded by hoping that Turkey’s modern history of secular fundamentalism ends. She felt that extreme secularism and the deep state were the two biggest problems currently facing Turkey. She felt state and religion could flourish on their own without any interference into each other’s realms. In her view, Kemalism did a good job of preventing a Muslim theocracy, but instead replaced it “with the state religion of Turkish secularism.”

As for the future of religion-state relations, she’s not certain. She feels that the AKP is likely to get banned and that it will represent “a setback.” However Muslim democrats have been down this road before and bounced back. Learning from past experiences, she believes that, “They are prepared for it.”

Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Bonyads and Iranian Liberty

Friday, March 7th, 2008

On March 4, the Los Angeles Times reported the UN Security Council approved imposing a third set of economic sanctions against Iran in response to controversy over its nuclear program.

I shall address the unethical and counterproductive nature of the sanctions at the end of this article. First, while highlighting Iran’s current economic problems, I want to turn readers’ attention to a less-noticed and internal source of its economic woes: the bonyads.

First of all, what are bonyads? Bonyad is the Persian word for what Arabic word is called a waqf, or in English an endowment. According to one definition, a waqf is:

…used in Islam in the meaning of holding certain property and preserving it for the confined benefit of certain philanthropy and prohibiting any use or disposition of it outside that specific objective. This defini­tion accords perpetu­ity to waqf, i.e., it applies to non-perishable property whose benefit can be extracted without consuming the property itself. Therefore waqf widely relates to land and buildings. However, there are waqf of books, agricultu­ral machinery, cattle, shares and stocks and cash money.

Historically waqfs (awqaf in Arabic) were private financial institutions that sustained an entire class of Muslim religious jurists. These jurists, who were the chief interpreters of Islamic law, acted as both a very important check on State tyranny and non-state extremists. This same dynamic has extended to Iran and global Shi’ism. However, nowadays in much of the Muslim world, including Iran, the State controls the financial endowments, religious scholars and seminaries are under government control, Statist tyranny and non-state extremism are a political menace to Muslims, and Islam is suffering from a crisis of religious authority.

Setting aside issues of religious authority, let’s take a look at the bonyads and their effect on Iran’s modern politico-economic context. Unlike its historical role as separate from the State, bonyads after the 1979 Revolution became a mechanism of the regime, jettisoning much of its civil society role. Although bonyads continue much of their traditional social support services, their other non-traditional activities and new relationship vis-á-vis the State resulted in some severely detrimental effects on the Iranian people.

According to Forbes reporter Paul Klebnikov,

…for a decade or so [after the Revolution], the foundations shelled out money to build low-income housing and health clinics. But since Khomeini’s death in 1989 they have increasingly forsaken their social welfare functions for straightforward commercial activities.

These bonyads, which have strong political connections to the regime, use their leverage to escape transparency (a problem within the larger Iranian economy), exempt themselves of taxes that affect other businesses and crowd out other private sector investment and competition. As Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar, a management consultant and Iranian economics researcher notes:

They are involved in everything from vast Soybean and cotton fields to hotels to soft drinks to auto-manufacturing to shipping lines to….. These foundations represent vast economic empires that are neither taxed nor are directly under government control.

It is unclear how much impact they have on the economy, however estimates on much these foundations consume from Iran’s total GDP range conservatively from 10% to as high as 40%. Rather than fostering healthy competition, they hinder it, reinforcing a floundering hyper-Statist economy that encourages a costly “brain drain”, continues inefficient and poor long-term business practices and fails to efficiently exploit its important oil resources.

Yet, as bad as this is, the problems with the bonyads are not only economic, they’re also political. People connected to these organizations are also the same people who are involved in, and help fund, some of the most hard line elements within Iranian State, like the Revolutionary Guard. Entities like the Guard are responsible for crackdowns on independent media and human rights activists and not surprisingly have a strong financial interest maintaining the Western boycott against Iran. Less trade and business competition ultimately means the thuggish Guard and their ilk can maintain the political status quo by continuing to pull many of Iran’s economic strings.

All of this brings me to the concluding analysis of my blog. While some analysts made oddly tout greater sanctions as a means of enacting Iranian political via an outside imposed “regime change”, a cursory examination of bonyads’ role Iranian politics (and the larger issue relationship between its hyper-Statist economics and its authoritarian policies) clearly demonstrates this would be counterproductive. Sanctions only further entrench authoritarian elements while harming ordinary Iranians. If the United States and other Western nations are truly interested advancing liberty in Iran, they should tone down their confrontational policies and instead engage them diplomatically and economically. Economic liberty is the best way to political liberty in Iran. The mullahs’ greatest fear is not the power of a bomb; it’s the power of the bourse.

A Security Analysis of Bush’s State of Union Address

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

On January 29, President Bush delivered his eighth and final State of the Union Address before Congress. Various news reports locked on the President’s emphasis on economic policy and the war in Iraq. A Washington Post analysis saw the President’s speech as cementing his legacy as President by “consolidating past achievements and focusing strategically on where he can win a few more.”

My analysis will focus on the national security issues in his speech which are not limited to Iraq, but also to domestic wiretapping program, democracy promotion, Afghanistan, Iranian policy, and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. I decided to make this my focus, not only because of my personal interest in foreign policy and security issues, but also due to the importance the President attached to them: out of the 5,764 words delivered to Congress, 2,390 of them directly address these topics, or about 41.5% of the text.

I begin with Iraq. President Bush touted the following “accomplishments” as a result of the so-called “surge”:

  • Al-Qaeda terrorists were being cleared out of neighborhoods
  • Reconstruction is taking place
  • The success of Sunni “awakening” groups fighting Al-Qaeda
  • Terrorist attacks and civilian deaths are down
  • Sectarian killings are down
  • Hundreds of Shi’a militiamen are captured or killed

These successes are largely tactical and easily reversible. Credit for reduction in violence is given to the surge although it is not necessarily deserved; Al-Qaeda is largely being driven out of some areas by Sunni tribes armed and paid the US (which has its own risks), Sadr’s six-month ceasefire (set to expire very soon) was voluntary, and the sectarian cleansing—sped up, not slowed down by the surge—has achieved its deadly goals. In other words, it’s putting perfume on a pig.

Furthermore, these developments are not being supported by crucial deeper security, political and economic reforms. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, Bush has only met 3 of 18 crucial “benchmarks”, none of which are the important ones needed to ensure long-term stability in Iraq. The political progress has been minimal at best. While President Bush touts the de-baathification law as a success, groups like the International Center for Transitional Justice say it actually makes things worse. Reconstruction efforts also have a long way to go. Despite recent gains made, security is still not good enough to allow the pace of reconstruction proceed to quicken. Important infrastructures like Mosul dam are in serious need of repair, expensive American contractors like Parsons and Bechtel are failing to do their jobs, and corruption is still rampant within Iraq’s ministries. Although billions of dollars are thrown at Iraq each month, it is a prime recruiting tool for terrorists and has become a risky distraction from other urgent threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The President also seems to be fond of citing NATO’s assistance in Afghanistan and claiming that more kids going to school, but the Afghan ministry of education reported the number of Taliban attacks on schools has tripled since last year, school closings have almost doubled, and 300,000 students aren’t attending class due to security concerns. NATO’s forces are undermanned and struggle to get more troops, they have been taking heavy casualties (some proportionately higher than the US), carelessly inflict many civilian deaths, and have difficulty holding onto any gains made against militants. This is not to forget that Afghanistan’s own security forces are not suitable for combat and economic development is still slow and inefficient. All of these factors leave Afghanistan and NATO ill-prepared for a new Taliban spring offensive.

Bush also mentions Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, but only fleetingly. This is interesting since there’s been such a hullaboo in Western media over the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and concerns over Islamabad’s nukes falling in the hands of Al-Qaeda/Taliban. Of course these two things are very nasty side effects of a large American strategic failure of being “wedded to Musharraf despite growing warnings from experts”. This unholy matrimony is consummated by billions of dollars in unaccountable American military aid meant to fight Taliban militants siphoned off to purchase large weapons systems to counter India. The administration’s policy “alternative” has been to support “democrats” like the recently deceased Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif who are emblematic of Pakistan’s long-standing feudal political culture. There might be some reprieve in sight for Pakistan as rifts within Taliban may weaken them in the long run. However, Bush must realize that long-term stability is not won on the battlefield, but through a viable long-term policy of supporting democracy and real civil society actors.

Then of course there’s Iran. Despite the recent NIE report (PDF) stating that Iran has suspended its nuclear program since 2003, Bush’s continues to peddle the image of Iranian political leadership as hell-bent on remaining an international pariah. However contrary to what Bush and his neoconservative advisers may think, Iran, like any other nation, acts as a rational state actor affected by both international forces and domestic politics. While Bush cites Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, he forgets that he bears significant responsibility for that. According former top administration officials, back in 2003 in secret negotiations, Tehran explicitly expressed its willingness to cease support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, suspend its nuclear program and recognize Israel. Nevertheless Bush continues to pursue a confrontational stance toward Iran through immoral and counterproductive sanctions that punish the Iranian people instead of the state. Ahmadinejad and the mullahs have been destroying their own economy for a long time and don’t need our President’s help. If anything economic engagement and free trade agreements that put the power of the purse back in the hands of the Iranian people and away from the Mafioso-like control of the clerics’ corrupt and inefficient bonyads would be more helpful in advancing the cause of liberty.

Turning to Palestine and Israel, the President seems content to forge ahead with a half-baked peace process initiated at Annapolis in order to achieve “a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side by side in peace.” As with Iran, his bombastic prose is based on a myopic ideology dismissive of crucial facts and lacking in nuance. His attempt to achieve this lofty goal without the necessary inclusion of Hamas and by relying on the politically weak Mahmoud Abbas is foolhardy. Since its inception in 1987 Hamas’ has been continuously evolving, (PDF) attempting to balance ideology with political pragmatism, which includes its most recent attempts at secret negotiations with Israel. By not noticing these continuous changes and excluding Hamas from talks, Bush sets back peace in the Holy Land further and helps Israel shoot itself in the foot by perpetuating its brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Finally turning to a more domestic focus, Bush mentions the successes made in stopping certain terrorist attacks such the transatlantic aircraft plot and the US library tower plot. He uses those two examples to argue for why Congress should make the Protect America Act a bill that legalizes wiretaps without court oversight permanent and include immunity for telecoms that helped Bush’s earlier illegal wiretapping. However the unaccountable domestic wiretapping powers Bush seeks had nothing to do with stopping the foreign plots. This isn’t the first time Bush has used irrelevant examples to mislead people into thinking these unchecked powers will help make America safer. If anything the evidence shows unaccountable spying powers would make us not only less free, but less safe too.

In sum, the President’s State of the Union Address was very disappointing, though not surprising. Full of half-truths, spun facts and missing pieces of information, his discussion of security issues were only colorful words that had little truth or substance behind them. It was just another disappointing speech summarizing a disappointing two-term legacy.

Allahu ‘Alim.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute

Pentagon Removes Incompetent Ideologue on Muslim Affairs

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

On January 4, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz reported that Stephen Coughlin, a so-called “specialist on Islamic law and Islamist extremism” had been “fired” from his job at the Department of Defense (DoD). Supposedly, the reason he was terminated from his position was because he was accused of being a “Christian zealot with a pen” by Hashem Islam, a key aide to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

As a result, neo-con and Islamophobic blogs like “Jihad Watch” and media outlets like the Washington Times have been howling over Coughlin’s dismissal as an “act of intellectual cowardice” and claiming the DoD has been “infiltrated”. Ah yes, the bigotry-masquerading -as-anti-politically-correct canard.

Well is it really PC issues and Christian ideological extremism that have to do with Coughlin’s “firing?” First, it should be noted that Coughlin isn’t any direct employee of the DoD, rather he is a contractor. You don’t “fire” contractors, you terminate their contract. But wait! In this case there was no termination, the agreement with Deputy SecDef England simply was not renewed. Do government contractors have a right to have their contracts renewed? It seems that neoconservatism is less conservatism than government entitlements for Islamophobes.

Second, it’s important to understand who Coughlin is. According to the most detailed publicly available biography, his academic background is in History, Russian studies and Strategic Intelligence. He also has a JD from the William Mitchell School of Law. This has one private intelligence analyst, Jeffery Carr of the IntelFusion Center, to speculate Coughlin was let go not only because his understanding of Islam and Islamic Law was very poor, but also due to his lack of academic credentials. Carr opines:

I haven’t found any new information on the conflict, however I’d like to offer the possibility that Coughlin was fired for reasons other than being a “Christian zealot with a pen.” Perhaps someone recognized that he wasn’t qualified to be the Pentagon’s sole expert on Islamic law. Why would I say that? Let’s see:
• He doesn’t have a degree in that subject.
• He doesn’t speak Arabic, or any Middle Eastern language.
• His thesis on the subject doesn’t provide adequate coverage of scholarly sources.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department official goes further and says:

Coughlin and others of his ilk have been pushing the hysteria that there is only one Islam and all of Islam is intent on conquering the West. (Yes there are some Muslims who believe this, but Islam is not a monolith). Pandering to peoples’ fears is an effective propaganda ploy but it does little to help our soldiers understand the cultural roots and political/religious dynamics they find in the field. You would expect that in a war inside an Arab nation, that is predominantly Muslim, the Pentagon would hire renowned experts on the topics of Islam. Nope. We have Stephen Coughlin. We have a situation in which folks with no real expertise or command of Arabic are making fanciful claims about a religion and cultures they do not know intimately.

It appears that factual reliability, not political correctness is the real reason Coughlin will not be working within the Pentagon for much longer.

Alejandro J. Beutel

Minaret of Freedom Institute

Torture Revisited – The Case of Abu Zubaydah, Waterboarding and Kiriakou

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

Recently, the Washington Post and CNN featured stories story summarizing the statements of a former CIA case officer, John Kiriakou, who claimed waterboarding “probably saved lives”, but also said he believed it constitutes torture and that Americans can “do better.”

While it is very pleasing to hear a former intelligence with field experience like Kiriakou’s recant his views on waterboarding, his alleged success story of Abu Zubaydah’s (AZ) torture doesn’t add up. Before giving a critical scrutiny of his comments, let’s provide a summary of his assertions:

  • AZ, a “crucial and highly placed terrorist”, was caught in the spring of 2002
  • Kiriakou initially tried “softer” approaches to eliciting information from AZ while he was in the hospital, however he was “ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative”
  • By mid-summer 2002 he was already moved to “a secret CIA prison” where he was waterboarded
  • Within “about 35 seconds” of being waterboarded, Abu Zubaida broke down
  • The next day AZ said he would tell them whatever they wanted. According to Kiriakou’s account, AZ’s reason was because “…Allah had come to him in his cell and told him to cooperate, because it would make things easier for his brothers”
  • Torture of AZ led to revelations about the importance of figures such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad

Anyone seriously knowledgeable in Islamic beliefs will look at this collection of assertions and ask “Was Zubaydah insane, ignorant of Islam, or just trying to pull one over on his tormentors?” Researchers like Marc Sageman find “terrorists are surprisingly normal in terms of mental health,” so if he is insane, one must ask if his traumatic interrogation experience drove him that way, or at the very least made him worse if indeed he was unstable prior to his detention. Alternatively, he may not be insane at all but said whatever he thought would stop the torture without regard to its veracity or consistency with Islamic beliefs.

Based on reporting by independent journalist Ron Suskind in his book, The One Percent Doctrine, my guess is that was somewhat mentally unstable before his detention, but made worse after being tortured. In Suskind’s book, and other interviews, he quotes certain intelligence officials, including a former top FBI Al-Qaeda analyst, saying, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” This would perhaps put into context a diary AZ kept for a decade that included entries “ ‘in the voice[s] of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3’ – a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego.” It would also at least partly explain why Zubaydah allegedly heard God’s voice—a delirious-sounding notion at best and blasphemous at worst to Muslims, especially ultra-conservative Salafi/Wahhabis like Zubaydah. The sheer physical and mental stresses of torture probably drove him to further delusion and is likely as the other reason for his alleged Divine revelation. It would also give greater credence to claims by other intelligence officials, cited by Suskind, that Zubaydah was not a high-level operations manager, but a low-level logistics coordinator. It would be an unnecessary and enormous security liability to have a man with mental problems in such an important position.

Contrary to research conducted by academics and the experiences of other former professional interrogators, Kiriakou claims Zubaydah is an example where torture “probably saved lives” by leading to the capture of key terrorists. With reluctance he stated, “It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we’ve moved beyond that.” According to intelligence officials cited by Suskind, under torture AZ gave false confessions that sent law enforcement officials on wild goose chases, except in one case: he correctly identified 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s moniker, “the brain.” Kiriakou alleges this piece of information from AZ was key in KSM’s eventual arrest.

So is this the smoking gun proving that torture works? Not really. According to the 9/11 Commission report, the CIA already knew KSM’s codename as early as August 2001, before the 9/11 attacks occurred and before AZ’s capture in 2002. This small, redundant piece of information did little to contribute to KSM’s capture. The main contributions came from two human intelligence sources—an Al-Qaida defector lured by a $25 million reward and the help of the Emir of Qatar himself—and a careless trail of Al-Qaida’s cell phone numbers and reused Swiss SIM cards that intelligence agencies smartly exploited. Abu Zubaydah’s confession contributed little, if anything to the success of other counterterrorism operations.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kiriakou that waterboarding is torture and immoral, but vehemently disagree that it was ever necessary or that ever worked in this case. Waterboarding and all other forms of torture are just plain morally and tactically bankrupt. Indeed, America can do better.

Allahu ‘Alim.

[My thanks to Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad for conversations and suggestions that contributed substantially to this article.]

Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Report on Trip to Hartford University

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Recently I just came back from a trip to Hartford University, where, on November 1st and 2nd I gave four different presentations on Islam and contemporary politics, collectively entitled “Examining Islamic Politics and Culture” to various student and faculty groups.

The first presentation was an introduction to Islamic beliefs for an Honors Philosophy course taught by Professor Bernard den Ouden. Using the Five Pillars of Islam as my starting point, I proceeded to provide a more in-depth understanding of each pillar and how they overlap with important theological concepts like tawhid (Absolute Unity of God), its antithesis shirk (association of partners with God) and desired moral characteristics such as taqwa (God-consciousness) and dhikr (remembrance). Many questions followed suit to further clarify concepts presented, such as the practical applications of tawhid and taqwa in Muslims’ daily lives and the different lessons stressed during Ramadan fasts.

The next presentation, which followed almost immediately after the Honors class, was based on a paper I recently delivered at the 36th Annual AMSS Conference, on US Counterterrorism and civil liberties and human rights. Like my earlier presentation, I argued that the more US Counterterrorism policies deviate from civil liberties and human rights, the less effective such policies are at dismantling terrorist organizations. A series of questions were posed to me regarding the invasiveness and effectiveness of certain policies such as the NSA wiretapping and what are the real threats posed by terrorists vis-a-vis routine statements given by administration officials that some audience members felt to be “hype”.

The first day ended with a presentation of a forthcoming paper I’ll be delivering in London on Nov. 11 called “Sunni Structural Puritanism” which deals with Islamic religious authority and radicalism in contemporary international politics. I received a good reception from the class and answered questions about abuse of religious authority and used Al-Azhar in Egypt as my main example.

The next day I met up with a small group of professors over lunch and discussed some pressing issues facing the Middle East, especially concerning the Iraq War and the ongoing fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. After the meal I gave my main presentation for the day, entitled, “What You Need to Know About Islam, Muslims and Contemporary Politics and Terrorism.” While expressing my dislike for the lecture’s title because of the implied associations, I noted that it was important to address these issues head on. By putting issues into greater historical context, employing comparative analysis and citing empirical research, I aimed to disaggregate and demystify the topics discussed and provide the audience with an more enhanced and nuanced understanding. Audience members asked questions on other hot button topics like women’s rights, apostasy, Iraq, Iran and US counterterrorism policies. Again, these were tackled directly and without apology.

My experience at Hartford was amazing. The feedback I received from students and professors alike was entirely positive and some new friendship were formed. My sincerest thanks goes to everyone who attended my discussions and a special thanks goes out Professor den Ouden, who set up the speaking engagements and to professor Sandstrom for his engaging discussions with me on Third World and post-colonial politics.

Alejandro Beutel