Tag Archives: Middle East

Book Review: ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict’ by Gershon Shafir

Note: The following was initially written for a graduate class assignment as an analytical essay responding to and critiquing a book presentation. The presentation was by UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir, who discussed his book ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict.’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely regarded as the longest running modern conflict in the world, with such longevity that its presence has been taken for granted in the global arena and entire industries having been developed to simply manage it, carrying the implicit assumption that all solutions have been exhausted. In his latest book, A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict, UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir attempts to revive the conversation with a fresh and unconventional approach, going beyond both theoretical discussions rife with idealized notions of radical political solutions (whether from the Left or the Right) as well as traditional analyses which are often dated and lacking in original material.  The crux of his discussion is to argue for the viability of the two-state solution based on a feasibility study of the social sciences, while accounting for these aforementioned approaches and maintaining a humane tenor toward both actors in the conflict that the approaches tend to lack.

Shafir elucidated his argument in a lecture at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University where he presented his book. In the following essay, I will first outline the argument of his presentation and then include an analysis of it. Having read parts of the book as well, I will be sure to include additional details from it that were not mentioned in the presentation.

I argue that while Shafir must be credited for meticulously sketching the granular schema and calculated legal machinery of the occupation to an impressively precise degree, and for accurately portraying the durability of the occupation itself along with the formidability of undoing the ongoing settlement gridlock in the West Bank, he falls short of convincing the audience that the settlement project and the occupation are indeed reversible. Shafir spends a considerable amount of time arguing for the feasibility of two contiguous states, and unlike many two-state advocates who operate without accounting for facts on the ground, he openly acknowledges these as daunting challenges that must be taken into consideration in order for the solution to manifest into reality. However, I believe that where Shafir falls short is not in his accounting for feasibility but in his accounting for desirability.

Shafir divides his text into three main portions. The first portion aims to set the stage for the rest of the discussion by exploring definitions, particularly around the word “occupation.” What is it? How is it perpetuated? Here he must be credited for connecting the post-1967 occupation to the broader project of Zionist colonial settlement which began decades before the establishment of the state, an analysis often missed or outright denied by liberal advocates of the two-state solution. He thus minces no words in describing ongoing settlement-building as colonization.

He accounts for the lived experiences of Palestinians – another rare feat in discussions of realpolitik – who are made to endure the daily machinery of the occupation’s violence which occurs in a continuum, manifesting from technologies as mundane as a checkpoint interrogation to as rattling as a house raid. The violence perpetrated by Palestinians cannot be seen in a vacuum and in isolation to the continuum of state violence perpetrated against them by the machinery of Israeli occupation, he argues.

He then shares the perspective of the international community, citing the ‘Law of Belligerent Occupation,’ which states that a country cannot establish sovereignty over a territory that it occupies and is entrusted to care for the occupied population. He subsequently describes the paradoxical perspective of all Israeli government administrations, which do not recognize the West Bank as occupied (the term they use is “disputed”) except when making a case against the Supreme Court, which does.

The next part of the book asks why occupation has lasted this long, and Shafir does so by elaborating on the methodical, granular, and calculated techniques and mechanisms – along with the ideological rationale – that Israel employs to sustain it indefinitely. For example, Kfar Etzion, which was a Jewish settlement in the territories that was established before the existence of the state, was rebuilt after the 1967 conquest of the territories. Its prior existence served as the legal basis and provided the ideological rationale for its reconstruction.

Other techniques include the colonization patterns of economic monopolization he describes in his previous book on land and labor, and he does an excellent job at tracing the ideological shifts driving settlement expansion, marking the juncture where the efforts took on a more religious fervor. When discussing this second component of the book in his talk, he jokingly quoted an Israeli official who commented something to the effect of occupation being temporary, but permanently temporary.

His final question aims to explore how this occupation has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in what ways it has made reversing the entrenchment of the conflict a formidable task. He tackles each one of the qualities of the occupation that make it appear irreversible, and then ultimately concludes, using maps and statistics, that a two-state solution is indeed a realistic possibility. He argues that a two-state solution would require only (emphasis mine) 27,000 settlers to be removed while the remaining (several hundred thousand) would remain where they are because they are located in territories that would be absorbed into Israel in any territorial exchange (which he calculated to be 4%). Of course, the argument takes for granted the fact that such a land exchange would even take place in any final status negotiation.

Another crucial point taken for granted is that moving 27,000 settlers into Israel and dismantling their homes would be a seamless process. He preemptively answers this critique by citing the Gaza evacuation of 2005 which saw 7,500 settlers moved and notes that eventually, despite initial resistance, the settler leadership assented to it. While this may certainly have been the case for Gaza, his projected number here is nearly four times as many, spread out over a wider geographical plane, and in the context of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in power, so the viability of such an argument deserves to be challenged.

Where he argues that settlement expansion has been limited and slow because of the constraints placed on Israel through international pressure and by Palestinian resistance, I believe his work could benefit from analysis from another text, which should be read side-by-side with Shafir’s. Nathan Thrall’s ‘The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine’ like Shafir’s text examines the last five decades of the conflict but also attends to the question of desirability. Thrall comes to the sobering conclusion that political actors and analysts of this conflict must stop operating under the premise that Israel has a genuine goodwill desire for a solution. In fact, Thrall argues, from the perspective of the United States, the benefits of a contiguous Palestinian state are small in comparison to the cost of pressuring and isolating a significant ally. I would take it further and argue that for Israel, the costs of a negotiated solution (at least initially) far outweigh the costs of maintaining the status quo, and that the occupation lasts precisely because it can.

Thrall argues that the only occasions when Israel – and the Palestinians for that matter – have come to the negotiating table were when they were coerced to. The PLO’s maximalist demand for all of historic Palestine was tempered only after tremendous losses of land after 1967. The Israelis came to negotiate with the PLO only after experiencing the pressure from the First Intifada. Recognizing that both sides will have to compromise, Thrall nonetheless places more responsibility on the more powerful of the two, Israel. Shafir’s book was released around the same time as Thrall’s, so if he were to write a new edition, the quality of his conclusions would be strengthened by taking Thrall’s work into account.

Another text I believe would either complement – or complicate – Shafir’s discussion is ‘The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War’ by Avi Raz. Raz’s meticulously researched book examines the historical archives of every meeting and significant event that took place in the first 21 months after the Six Day War and concludes that there was a complete absence of desirability for a peace deal on part of the Israelis.

Raz’s primary argument is that in the early days and months of occupation, Israel had never intended to abandon its control over the land it acquired, and instead set up avenues for buying time to keep it. The de facto Israeli policy seemed to be that of stalling while settlement creation and the establishment of “strategic depth” in the West Bank continued unabated. Raz’s book is a powerful rebuke to Shafir’s argument. Why feasibility when there is no desirability?

Though the thrust of Raz’s book is Israel’s relationship to its Arab neighbors, the general impart of his book is relevant insofar as it relates to Israel’s overall approach to the West Bank. This brings me to another critique: Shafir comments very little, if at all, on the role of Arab states in peace negotiations. The internationalization of the conflict and the increased role of Arab states – particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – cannot be ignored in any feasibility study, especially when the “right of return” (theoretically) forms the backbone of transnational Palestinian identity and solidarity among diaspora refugees in Arab lands.

One consideration which all three authors have a consensus on is their acknowledgment of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, and it is significant: American complacency – if not outright enablement – of Israel’s intransigent and obstructive policies has forestalled any sort of resolution despite the U.S.’s occasional perfunctory condemnations of the occupation and settlements.

Shafir’s argument for feasibility, Thrall’s argument for pressure, and Raz’s historical backdrop combined would present a more multidimensional portrait of the factors and stakes involved in this conflict. Moreover, the latter two readings would provide some serious challenges to the former.

Insofar as Shafir attempts to accomplish what he intended, which in his words was a “modestly conceived feasibility study from the perspective of the social sciences,” I believe he succeeded. However, his work would significantly improve had he included some of the criticisms mentioned in this paper. Even if a two-state solution is theoretically feasible, it must also be realistically desirable.

And if not, then what next?


Book Review: ‘The Idea of the Muslim World’ by Cemil Aydin

The assumption that there exists a monolithic “Muslim world” is one that is often taken for granted by both those who seek to criticize this imagined world and those who seek to advance its imagined collective interests.

On the one hand, totalizing questions like “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” and “Can the Muslim world undergo reform?” pervade in the arenas of political discourse and punditry in western countries.

On the other hand, if one travels to Muslim-majority cities like Cairo, Istanbul, or Islamabad, it would not be out of the ordinary to hear questions like “Why is the Muslim ummah [collective body of believers] so divided today?” or “How can the Muslim ummah earn victory if it doesn’t unite?”

Underlying both of these discourses is the sustained myth of a timeless, singular, essentialized “Muslim world” that must necessarily have always existed and a concurrently existing “Western world” that must always have existed in perpetual conflict against it.

While the notion of this “Muslim world” has been thoroughly repudiated by scholars and academics in a variety of fields, it has primarily been done through a Saidian approach that critiques representation in film and literature. In his timely new book, boldly entitled, “The Idea of the Muslim World“, Cemil Aydin bolsters the repudiation through the angle of history. He locates the origin of the notion of the “Muslim world” in 19th century colonial politics and in the consequential and reciprocal pan-Islamic (or pan-Islamist, used interchangeably) discourses that came about as a result.

In the 19th century, the existing empires operated within a nebulous web of alliances and enmities as they competed for influence and power. Each one of these empires — be they British, French, Russian, and Dutch, or Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman — ruled over vast numbers of minorities who, despite enduring unequal treatment at times, were not subject to inequalities on the basis of being seen as subordinates in a necessary civilizational religious divide. Simultaneously, these minorities were nonetheless seen as fundamentally inseparable from the empires under which they lived.

This is the central thrust of the book: That throughout history, competing cosmopolitan empires neither saw themselves as operating in a religiously-divided binary of “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” nor imagined “the other” as operating under this paradigm. The imperial rulers of various kingdoms and empires would conduct their domestic and foreign policies based not on assumed religious loyalties, but on political interests and expediencies. However, as time passed and colonial powers began to lose their influence, or as they reneged on their word toward their Muslim subjects and allies, these powers began to fear the potential of a shared “Muslim solidarity” that would emerge and undermine the otherwise-accepted legitimacy of their rule.

This led to the “racialization” of various Muslim populations who were aggregated under one static category where their unique particularities were interpreted as incidental. While this was happening, colonial politics caused Muslims to see themselves under this same racialized paradigm, which led to them mounting defenses of “Islam” and the “Muslim world” using the same civilizational discourses.

Aydin uses various examples throughout history to illustrate the initial absence of the “Muslim world” vs. “Western world” dichotomy. One such example is the issue of slavery. The gradual disappearance of slavery in Turkey and Egypt in the early twentieth century was not done out of consideration to grand ideas of religious or civilizational conflict, but out of political pragmatism and new ideas of morality. “Pragmatic and ethical state policies, new moral ideas about human equality as well as the capitalist labor market ended slavery in modernizing Muslim societies, all without any claims on behalf of the Islamic world and the Western world,” writes Aydin (page 47).

During the Siege of Vienna in 1683 fought between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, Muslims fought on both sides, and the Ottomans fought on the side of Protestant Hungarians. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, it was he, not Muslims, who described Egyptians in terms defined exclusively by religion, even willing to convert to Islam to curry their favor. Though even then, Napoleon’s intent was rooted in political pragmatism and not in ideological fervor.

In 1798, when sultan Tipu of Mysore in southern India looked to the Ottomans to help him fight the British by appealing to a shared Muslim religious solidarity, the Ottomans refused. The notable Ottoman reforms known as “Tanzimat” were also not necessarily interpreted as “pro-Western” or “anti-Muslim” argues Aydin. Even in the late-1800s, when British and Ottoman interests began to diverge,  Muslim religious clerics in India required Muslim subjects to maintain political loyalty to Britain over the Ottomans.

When cracks began to emerge between the British and their Indian subjects in the lead-up to World War I, the British assured their subjects that in the case of war, Muslim holy sites under Ottoman control would be protected. In this case, Indian Muslims did not necessarily see a tension between recognizing the British as a political authority and the Ottomans as a spiritual one, and many indeed fought alongside the British against the Ottomans (who were allied with the Germans) in the war.

Aydin also presents instances when both western and non-western powers exploited the idea of a “Muslim world” if it suited their interests: “[W]hen American colonial officers in the Philippines faced armed Muslim resistance in 1898, they consulted Istanbul. In response, Sultan Abdulhamid sent a message to Philippine Muslim leaders instructing them to refrain from rebellion as long as American rule respected their religion,” he writes on page 95.

On the other hand, Istanbul also leveraged its status as a Muslim metropole to vie for the support of other Muslims whilst simultaneously balancing political alliances with the concert of western empires.

In both of the above instances, the idea of the “Muslim world” was exploited not because it was one that was necessarily believed in, but because it was politically convenient. Once again, pragmatism trumped ideology. Though this gradually changed as alliances shifted and signs of inconsistency began to emerge.

As Indian Muslim subjects under British rule received news that the British were supporting Christian Greeks seeking independence from the Ottomans, they began to question why they, as Muslims, were required to accept British rule. As Christian nationalist armies drove Muslims out of places like Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, the Ottomans responded by brutalizing Christian minorities, particularly Greeks and Armenians, in their own empire. The ethnic cleansing and massacre of the Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915 was directly motivated by such politics, and consequentially ended the cosmopolitanism of the Ottoman empire as it had existed for centuries.

Another instance of inconsistency was when the British made promises to Arabs in Mandate Palestine that they would inherit the land as sovereigns after the Great War, but instead reneged on this promise by producing the Balfour Declaration which favored the Zionist project for a Jewish state. Once this happened, the mufti of Jerusalem sought the help of Muslim intellectuals and activists, convening a conference in Jerusalem in 1931 to deal with the crisis of Palestine,  which became the “symbol of enduring Muslim humiliation” (page 175).

Gradually, through the work of imperial powers, the writings of public intellectuals, and the discontent of the broader masses, civilizational discourses became more solidified.

Even as Muslim states gained their independence and modernized, such processes were done no longer on their own terms, but against the idea of Islamic backwardness, with Turkey ironically being the prime example: Ataturk’s logic was that he was abandoning the stagnancy of “the Muslim world” for the modernization of “the West.”

Once the idea of a “Muslim world” had become thoroughly cemented in public imagination, competing nations began to leverage it to their advantage for better or worse: Be it in World War II, Cold War alliances, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or the post-9/11 War on Terror. These discourses continue up until this day.

Aydin argues that six themes have characterized pan-Islamic thought up to the current era:

1) The idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

2) A notion of Islam as a singular “world religion” defined in response to Christian and secular polemics, e.g., frequent usage of the expression “XYZ according to Islam.”

3) The interpretation of every aspect of Muslim history as a product of Western humiliation.

4) A new historical consciousness positing eternal conflict between “the Muslim world” and “the Christian west.”

5) A growing awareness of the extent of Muslim-majority territory and its populations.

6) Anticolonial internationalism.

As I read the book, a few questions came to mind:

  1. While there is no way that over 50 “Muslim countries” can be boxed into one, is there still a possibility for their peoples to use a shared Islamic vernacular to achieve liberation and dignity without reinforcing racialized and civilizational discourses? Here I think of the “Balkans to Bengal” complex as coined by Shahab Ahmed.
  2. Is it possible to appeal to Islam’s emancipatory, revolutionary, and egalitarian ethos as a driver of the action of various Muslims without subsuming all Muslims into one monolithic category?
  3. Is it worth exploring the potential for an inherent unifying power in Islam at all and can Muslims base their solidarity with other Muslims upon it?
  4. If my pursuit of justice is inspired by the Qur’an, would I be a pan-Islamist?
  5. Does the racialization of Muslim societies fully negate the existence of an Islamic international polity?
  6. Even if the idea of a Muslim world is a historically contingent construct, can it still be used as a sociologically useful conceptual tool in academic analysis? After all, Muslims do still organize around the belief in an “ummah” and the idea of one does animate their debates and engagement with one another.

Surely there a distinction between the pursuit of freedom and justice inspired by Islamic ethics and the pursuit of the modern political project of Islamism. In this regard, I believe Aydin could have done more to delineate between the two and more deeply engage with these questions in his concluding remarks.

At the same time, what Aydin has presented is more relevant now than ever. Our world today is experiencing profound tectonic shifts that threaten to shatter the current global order, and political polarization has exacerbated this process of disruption. Our situation today appears very similar to the conditions in the lead-up to World Wars I and II.

We must then ask ourselves if we — not as a “Muslim world” or as a “Western world” — but as a human civilization, are yet again willing to buy into the same grand narratives that led to the violent destruction of the previous order that devastated entire peoples that came before us.

Indeed, my first time being exposed to the terminology of the “Muslim world” wasn’t by Islamophobic writers or even by well-intentioned non-Muslims. It was by local leaders of my own community. A common grievance today is that the stagnation “of the ummah”, i.e., a collective body of Muslim believers, is because of our division, infighting, and abandonment of Muslim international solidarity.

I grew up learning that the occupation of Palestine and Kashmir, the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the dictatorships across the Arab world, and the rampant corruption, inequality, and stagnancy of Muslim countries as different from each other as Egypt and Indonesia was all a consequence of the “Muslim world’s” collective failures.

It is because of this upbringing that I found this book to be an enlightening and refreshing read. It was a powerful remedy for me because it provided me not merely with relief from spiritual guilt, but with deeper insight into the dynamics of our current international arena and how it came to be the way it is. Do I completely reject every aspect of what I was taught growing up about the Muslim ummah? Not necessarily, but I appreciate knowing that things are a bit more complicated than I have always imagined them to be.

To learn the nuanced mechanics of historical alliances and the particularities that characterized their composite parts allows us not only to counter dangerous myths and assumptions about a divergent range of populations, but it also empowers us to surmount more meaningful and focused ways to pursue justice for those populations. Aydin seeks not just to expand the reader’s understanding of history, but to persuade the reader to act.

This text does not only do an excellent job at undoing the racialization of Islam but also of “the West.” Those seeking to counter orientalist narratives about Muslims should be cautious as to not fall into what the late Syrian academic Sadiq Al-Azm described as “Orientalism in reverse” of the West, as Aydin aptly notes.

To point out that “the Muslim world,” and for that matter “the West,” are contingent constructs born out of certain political trajectories is not enough; one must take it further and understand why this point even has to be made. Indeed, to recognize contingency of contemporary politics and to work from there as a starting point is the most effective way to apply the antidote that will counter and defeat both Islamophobia and radical Islamism without harming Muslims or non-Muslims in the process.

Only then can the idea of the Muslim world finally be undone.

A Sunni Response to the Baghdad Bombing

In the third night of Ramadan 2017, men and women, both young and old, gathered at a bustling ice cream shop in the Karradah neighborhood of southern Baghdad during what should have been an ideal night out with the family to cool off from the long, hot day of fasting.

But the joyful night abruptly turned into a scene of death and destruction, as has too often painfully been the case in Baghdad, when the families were met with a car bomb, detonated by an ISIS fighter, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more.

It sent a tremor to a neighborhood that was known as one of the more secure areas in the city, yet one that was still healing from deep wounds, and the attack resurfaced a kind of trauma that Baghdad has endured one too many times. Muslims, in their most spiritually significant month, were again targeted by an extremist group , nay, a nihilistic death cult, claiming to operate in their name.

But one important detail has been overlooked in this story.

And it is that while Muslims are certainly both the primary fighting forces against ISIS, as well as its primary victims, the attack in Karradah was a deliberate attack on a predominantly Shi’ah Muslim community, calculated for a time when the attacker believed he could reach maximum casualties. This cannot and should not be omitted from the narrative.

This was an attack on a minority denomination that ISIS views as non-Muslim, subhuman, and thus worthy of death. While ISIS is the enemy of all Muslims, it is hard to ignore the fact that it engages in the disproportionate demonization and subsequent targeting of some groups before it does others. To defeat ISIS means to be honest about this, and to overcome its effects in the long-term means to confront this reality.

So what are we, as Muslims, and specifically as Sunnis, to do besides give our “thoughts and prayers?”

Act locally.

I do not believe all Sunnis should be held accountable for the actions of a few, for the same reasons I do not believe that all Muslims should be held accountable for the actions of a few. That we denounce such heinous, callous, reprehensible, and inhumane actions should be a given, and by principle, I do not buy into the notion of collective guilt — for anyone.

However, I do believe that while few are guilty, all are responsible. We each have an individual responsibility to make the world a better place and to work toward healing the wounds that our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity have endured, and our Shi’ah brethren deserve to know that we stand with them at a time like this one.

I speak as a Sunni, and to Sunnis, because it is the manhaj [methodology and denomination] with which I identify.  I know it’s not easy, and I fall short on this quite often, but at the very least, I think we need to take a moment to put aside the Middle East politics, the theological polemics, the whataboutism, and just submit ourselves to the humanity of the other.

To mourn with a community that has mourned alone for far too long.

I am not asking you to agree with any school of Shi’ah theology, to adopt Ja’fari or Zaydi jurisprudence, or to accept that Iran, or that any other entity that lays claim to an entire denomination, is a harbinger of good. I’m asking you to listen, to learn, and to embody the empathy that our Prophet (s) would want from us.

So how do we translate this into tangible action?

Well, on a local level, break bread at a Shi’ah mosque at least once this Ramadan, and use it as an opportunity to build meaningful relationships with the community that transcend superficial or forced bonds. Don’t make your relationship with the people you meet a transactional one that says we can only be friends so long as we work to fulfill our mutual interests; don’t make it a conditional one that says that until they condemn such-and-such that we will not talk to them; and don’t start with politics or theology. That’s not what this is about. This is about human empathy, brotherhood, and communion, which requires transcending transactions, conditions, and limitations.

Yes, you may notice they break fast at a different time, and that they pray slightly differently. You may speak to people who come from vastly different worldviews from yours, and you will not agree with all of it. They may have different experiences than ones that you are familiar with, despite coming from the same broad Muslim community.

These moments will both make you uncomfortable and liberated all at once. It’s up to you however, what you make of it, and which path you choose to take. Remember that unity is not uniformity, and agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the point: Learning and embracing are. And this process will discomfort you.

Remember that it isn’t always about you.

You are not going to untie the knots of the exceedingly complicated politics of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, and you won’t arbitrate or solve centuries of theological disputation (for the record, I do not believe that the former is a result of the latter. I believe that contemporary Sunni-Shi’ah conflicts are political in nature and are driven along the fault-lines of sect and tribe, not theology, though that’s a different conversation), but you will emerge from the gathering a more wholesome human being, capable of shifting the discourse in your locality, even if it be one person.

Allow the experience to be something that deepens your humility and broadens your horizon. Take that first step, break that barrier, even if you’re alone in doing so.

ISIS targeted the same area last year, also during Ramadan, killing over 300 people in a shopping center. It was one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. It tore apart whatever little semblance of security so many Iraqis thought they had. People are hurting.

The attack tragically showed us the depths of depravity that humanity is capable of. But what happened next showed us the heights of love that humanity is just as much capable of.

Iraqis of all stripes — Sunnah & Shi’ah — came together for a joint Eid prayer in response, partaking in an extraordinary display of unity and solidarity in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. There was profound meaning in that action. It showed us all that this doesn’t have to be the way, and that another way is possible.

That love can win.

Let us work toward building a world where something like that no longer has to be seen as an extraordinary feat.

Sunni-Shia Prayer

Sunni and Shia Muslims offering Eid prayers side-by-side in Karradah, Baghdad, at the site of the car bombing attack in July 2016. [Khalid Al-Mousily/Reuters]

– Asad