Tag: Political Islam

Is Islam exceptional?

At last Thursday’s Brookings event celebrating the launch of his new book on Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid laid out the historical and religious reasons for Islam’s resistance to liberal secularization. He argued that the differing contexts of Christianity and Islam’s founding moments shaped the histories of interactions between the state and religion in European and Islamic civilizations.

Jesus and Mohammed, Hamid argues, had different historical roles. Jesus was a radical dissident in the Roman Empire. He avoided politics. The New Testament has little to say about governance, making it easy to divorce Christianity from political life. Mohammed was the author of a constitution and for part of his life a head of state. The Qur’an guided governance in the Middle East and North Africa for well over a thousand years, with the reign of the Prophet serving as an example to live and rule by. Liberal ideas like the inevitability of progress and secularism have no analogues in traditional Islam.

The end of the Ottoman Caliphate left the Middle East struggling to create a new, legitimate form of government. Mainstream Islamism is the latest successor to generations of Muslim thinkers attempting to parse the legacy of Islamic governance beyond its eighth century origin. The current Islamist project of reconciling pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state has never been attempted before. Islamism is inherently modern in a way few conservative religious movements can claim to be.

Brooking’s Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy, Leon Wieseltier, joined Hamid in discussing one of the most controversial arguments in Islamic Exceptionalism. Islam does not fit with Western concepts like secularism. This exceptionalism challenges the liberal tendency to explain away difference and argue that all peoples and civilizations are fundamentally the same—or are at least similar in fundamental ways. Hamid contended that the differences between the Islamic world and ‘our’ largely Christian world tangibly affect what forms of government and policies are feasible or practical.

Wieseltier and Hamid then dove into the questions of Islam’s compatibility with liberal democracy and the values essential to it, namely equality. Hamid argued that Islam is compatible with democracy, but it runs into some problems with liberal democracy. Islamic concepts such as Shura can be adapted into democratic structures, but equality doesn’t fit neatly into Islamic law or many Islamic societies. Wieseltier challenged this point; he claimed that certain concepts like equality are as universal as algebra, and therefore can be compatible with a ‘modernist’ vision of Islam.

In Hamid‘s view, the ‘metaphysical’ nature of this discussion reflected the political debate happening all over the Middle East. Rather than contesting budget reports, Islamists and their opponents are dealing with big questions about the role of religion in public life. The conversation about that will not be over soon.

Here is the video of the event:

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Peace picks February 9-13

  1. A Visit to Tehran: former Congressman shares his outlook for U.S.-Iran Relations | Monday February 9 | 2:00 – 3:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) enter what could be their final stage, former Rep. Jim Slattery will provide insights about the attitudes in Iran toward an agreement and the obstacles a deal may face both in Tehran and in the U.S. Congress. Slattery, who made his first visit to Iran in December, will also discuss his extensive experience promoting interfaith dialogue with Iran as part of an effort coordinated by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Norway and the Catholic University of America. The event will also feature Bharath Gopalaswamy, Acting Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council and Jim Moody, Associate Director-Investments, Oppenheimer Company and will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council.
  2. Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers with Srdja Popovic | Tuesday February 10 | 10-11:30 am | Rome building of SAIS | RSVP to itlong@sais.edu | Blueprint for Revolution is not only a spirited guide to changing the world but a breakthrough in the annals of advice for those who seek justice and democracy. It asks (and not heavy-handedly): “As long as you want to change the world, why not do it joyfully? It’s not just funny. It’s seriously funny. No joke.” – Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties and Occupy Nation
  3. Egyptian Women: Small Steps Ahead on a Very Long Journey | Tuesday February 10 | 12:00-1:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Women were pivotal cogs in the wheel of Egypt’s political development over the past four years. Whether it was the popular uprisings against former President Hosni Mubarak or Islamic rule, or referenda or elections, women were called upon at times of the country’s greatest need and never failed to heed the call. Now that the country is gearing up for parliamentary elections, will women’s efforts finally be recognized with appropriate political representation and will their voices be heard? The Wilson Center invites to a discussion with Moushira Khattab, Chair of Women in Foreign Policy Group, Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs; former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; former Minister of Family and Population, Egypt; and former Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa and to the Czech and Slovak Republics.
  4. Making Sense of Yemen’s Power Crisis | Tuesday February 10 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Houthi advances in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a and the subsequent resignation of the president and his cabinet have thrown the country into chaos in recent weeks. In this new reality, will Yemen be able to find a balance of power, or will it descend into greater violence and instability? This event will explore the factors driving the Houthis, the current government, the former regime, the Islamist Islah party, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and address how these forces will shape Yemen’s domestic political map going forward. Carnegie invites to a discussion on Yemen’s political players and the outlook for the country’s future. The discussion features Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a and founder and president of Yemen Alaan, a media production company, Nadwa Aldawsari, co-founder and executive director of the Sheba Center for International Development and Laura Kasinof, freelance journalist and author of ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen’. Carnegie’s Intissar Fakir will moderate.
  5. The State of Islamism: The New Generation | Wednesday February 11 | 9:30 – 11:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Over the past year, Islamists have triggered tectonic shake-ups across the Middle East. Borders have been redefined. Tactics have turned bloodier. States are unraveling under the pressure. Moderate Islamists are being sidelined as militants alter the region more than any trend since modern states became independent. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt’s Sinai are flashpoints, but no country is exempt. The impact has rippled worldwide, evident in the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Woodrow Wilson Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Institute of Peace, is hosting a debate on the state of Islamism, with Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, David Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center and Les Campbell, Senior associate and regional director, Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute. Opening remarks will be made by Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Woodrow Wilson Center.
  6. Managing Conflict in a World Adrift | Wednesday February 11 | 14:30-17:00 | USIP |REGISTER TO ATTEND |The recent eruptions of violence in the Middle East, parts of Africa and Eastern Europe illustrate the high hurdles of conflict management amid rapidly shifting power dynamics. Rafe Sagarin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, will open the event with a keynote address on what we can learn from nature about the important role of institutions in adaptive approaches to conflict management. Pamela Aall, senior fellow at Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and senior advisor for conflict prevention and management at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), will lead a lively and thought-provoking conversation examining these forces and potential approaches with one of her co-editors and two contributing authors of the new book, Managing Conflict in a World Adrift co-published by USIP and CIGI. The volume is the fourth in a landmark series by Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall.
  7. Conflict and Convergence: Toward Common Interests in the Troubled Middle East | Wednesday February 11 | 4:00-5:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Paris attacks earlier last month were the most recent in a spate of violence connected to the proliferation of extremist groups throughout the Middle East. When coupled with trends like rising sectarianism, the dark side of individual empowerment, the diffusion of power, and demographic shifts, the outlook for the region remains murky: ISIS and other terrorist groups are upending regional security; Iran is moving closer to having a nuclear weapons capability; Libya is disintegrating; and the “promise” of the Arab Spring has clearly been unfulfilled. While ISIS’s advances have led to the formation of an international coalition led by the United States to counter this virulent extremist group, some of the underlying causes of ISIS’s rise and growth – state failure, political illegitimacy, and economic underdevelopment – remain unaddressed.  Too often, the West attends to the region in reaction to its ills, with a view to containing them. The Atlantic Council invites to a discussion on the major strategic issues at stake in the Middle East and a long-term assessment of the opportunities and challenges for 2015 and beyond. Panelist are Salam Fayyad, Former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, The Hon. Stephen J. Hadley, Former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and The Hon. Francis Ricciardone, Vice President and Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.
  8. 2015 Sheikh Abdullah Saleh Kamel Symposium: An Energy Revolution? The Political Ecologies of Shale Oil in the Middle East, US and China | Wednesday February 11 – Friday February 13 | Georgetown University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) is hosting its annual Sheikh Abdullah Saleh Kamel Symposium, this year looking at the impact of the shale oil revolution on the Middle East. The symposium will feature panels on environmental, social and political economy implications of shale oil as well as ramifications on foreign policy issues. It also features a wide range of scholars, including Osama Abi-Mershed, Director Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Dr. Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder, Pacific Institute, Dr. Jeremy Boak, Director of the Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, Dr. Mark Giordano, Director of the Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs, Georgetown University, Dr. Mohamed Ramady, Visiting Associate Professor of Finance and Economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Dr. Eckart Woertz, Senior Research Fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and Mr. Fawzi Aloulou, Energy Economist at the Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy.
  9. High Stakes: How This Year’s Climate Negotiations Will Impact National Security | Thursday February 12 | 9:00 – 10:30 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it,” said President Obama in his recent State of the Union Address. But what does that mean for international climate negotiations? The Wilson Center invites to a discussion with Nick Mabey, chief executive of the environmental NGO E3G, who will present new analysis on the relationship between successful climate diplomacy and national security. Mabey will discuss how critical the next year is in climate diplomacy and how the UNFCCC and Montreal Protocol processes can help improve international risk management. As climate change negotiations accelerate leading up to this fall’s UN climate conference in Paris, it is essential that decision-makers in the executive and legislative branch understand these delicate connections and how their actions may have unintended security consequences.
  10. Nuclear Bargains Reviewed: Washington’s Cold War nuclear deals and what they mean for Iran | Friday February 13 | 1:00 – 2:30 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Or Rabinowitz, author of ‘Bargaining on Nuclear Tests’, will discuss her research in the context of the looming dead-line for the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Bargaining on Nuclear Tests demonstrates that the 1969 bilateral American-Israeli deal on Israel’s nuclear ambiguity was not an exception; it served as the model for two following nuclear bargains with Pakistan and South Africa. Dr. Rabinowitz’s research demonstrates that Washington’s willingness to reach such nuclear bargains is influenced by superior geo-strategic considerations that override non-proliferation policies. The fate of the Pakistani and the South African deals should serve as a stark reminder to Israeli policymakers that understandings can expire when bilateral interests no longer converge.
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Peace picks January 26-30

  1. Expanding Counterterrorism Partnerships: US Efforts to Tackle the Evolving Terrorist Threat | Monday January 26 | 12:00-14:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Washington Institute for Near East Policy | The attacks in Paris were a stark illustration of the serious terrorist threat confronting the United States and its allies, not only in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, but far closer to home as well. In his May 2014 West Point address, President Obama emphasized that a successful long-term counterterrorism approach will revolve around strong partnerships with key actors overseas. What steps is the United States taking to bolster its counterterrorism partnerships with other governments and with nongovernmental actors? How should the U.S. strategy evolve in light of the Paris attacks and the continuing challenge posed by foreign terrorist fighters and the conflict in Syria and Iraq? What is the role of the State Department in this effort? To address these timely issues, The Washington Institute is pleased to host a Policy Forum with Ambassador Tina Kaidanow. Tina Kaidanow is the ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department. She has also served in high-ranking positions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Note that this event will be off the record.
  2. Where is Turkey Headed? Culture Battles in Turkey | Monday January 26 | 12:00-13:30 | Rumi Forum | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Turkey is a pivotal country: It is one of the few countries with a functioning democracy, it links the West with the turbulent Middle East, and it has been a reliable partner in NATO in difficult times. But Turkey is also a pivotal country in crisis: Under President Tayyip Erdogan it is drifting towards authoritarian rule, being neither a good partner for the West nor having leverage in the Middle East. Inside it becomes less democratic, internationally it becomes more isolated. Rainer Hermann, an international expert on the Middle East and long time correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, will present his analysis of the current affairs in Turkey with prospects for change and the challenges before the West. He has recently published a new book, Where is Turkey Headed, Blue Dome Press: New York, 2014, which is a comprehensive examination of the changes the last decades of Turkish politics have witnessed. He will be available to sign books at the end of the event.
  3. The Awakening of Muslim Democracy | Tuesday January 27 | 12:00-14:00 | George Washington University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Jocelyne Cesari is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and visiting associate professor in the department of government at Georgetown University. She will discuss her recent release, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The discussion also features Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University and Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University.
  4. US Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: Priorities and Problems | Tuesday January 27 | 13:00 | School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) | REGISTER TO ATTEND | SAIS’ Foreign Policy Institute invites to a discussion with Ambassador Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs on the priorities and problems of U.S. Middle East policy. The discussion is moderated by Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute. This event is off the record. No audio, video, transcription or digital recording is allowed.
  5. Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide | Wednesday January 28 | 12:15-14:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915–1916 was the greatest atrocity of World War I. Around one million Armenians were killed and survivors were scattered across the world. Although the issue of what most of the world calls the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is now a century old, it is still a live and divisive issue that mobilizes Armenians across the world, shapes the identity and politics of modern Turkey, and has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians for years. In Great Catastrophe, the eminent scholar and reporter Thomas de Waal, senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, looks at the aftermath and politics of the Armenian Genocide and tells the story of recent efforts by courageous Armenians, Kurds, and Turks to come to terms with disaster as Turkey enters a new post-Kemalist era. Please join us for a conversation with the book’s author, moderated by Charles King. Great Catastrophe will be available to purchase, and the event will conclude with a book signing. De Waal will be joined by Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. Lunch will be served.
  6. Ethnic “Homelands”: Imagining a New Middle East, 1919 – 1948 | Wednesday January 28 | 15:30 | George Washington University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After 1919, as much of the Middle East was absorbed into the beleaguered but still powerful European empires, a new ideology took hold in the region: the concept of physical separation as a “solution” to a newly identified “problem” of ethnic and religious pluralism. Across Europe and the United States, Armenian, Assyrian, and Jewish diaspora groups proved anxious to demonstrate their belonging in the ingathering of civilized nation-states by supporting the project of a homogenous national “homeland,” however remote it might be from their actual lived experiences. Diaspora lobbying, fundraising, and vocal support for creating ethnically based political entities through strategies of transfer and partition also found a reflection in some Arab discourse, as Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi Arab nationalists sought to make claims to independent statehood within a global framework that demanded national homogeneity as a corollary to sovereignty. This talk will explore how diaspora communities shaped the emerging political landscape of the modern Middle East as they declared that the only path to legitimate, recognized political status in the new global order was through identification, however distant, with an ethnic “homeland.” Laura Robson is a historian of the modern Middle East. Her current research and teaching focus on the history of religious and ethnic minorities in the twentieth century Arab world. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2009 and is now Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
  7. Global Security and Gender – A Forum with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström | Wednesday January 28 | 16:00-17:15 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The new Swedish government has pledged to increase its focus on global women’s issues with what it describes as a feminist foreign policy. The U.S. Institute of Peace, in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden, will host a forum with new Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström on diplomacy and gender equality in a challenging global security environment. Following her remarks, Minister Wallström will be joined by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a USIP senior advisor, who will moderate a discussion with the Minister, as well as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, and U.S. Ambassador Donald Steinberg (retired), a former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development who now serves as President and CEO of World Learning.
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Peace picks January 19-23

  1. A Year in Crisis: The Middle East in 2015 | January 20 | 9:30 – 11:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Middle East, already the world’s most volatile region, faces some of its toughest challenges in a century: Borders have been redrawn in Syria and Iraq. States from Libya to Yemen are collapsing. Autocracy is again on the rise in Egypt. And diplomacy is teetering with Iran. Meanwhile, the United States is being sucked back into the region. Come hear four top experts explore the crises of 2015, the stakes, and where they’re headed. The panel of speakers includes Robin Wright, USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, Marina Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, Shaul Bakhash, Professor of History, George Mason University and David Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center.
  2. Managing, Ending and Avoiding Wars in the Middle East | Tuesday January 20 | 13:00 – 15:30 | Middle East Policy Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Middle East Policy Council is organizing its 79th Capitol Hill Conference on the management and resolution of conflict in the Middle East. The conference will feature Michael Hayden, General, USAF (ret.), former Director, CIA and Principal, the Chertoff Group, Daniel Bolger, Lt. General, US Army (ret.), Dafna H. Rand, Deputy Director of Studies, Center for a New American Security and Francis Ricciardone, Vice President and Director, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. It will be moderated by Omar M. Kader, Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council, and Thomas R. Mattair, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council will be the discussant.
  3. Breaking the Cycle: Creating Solutions for Water Security in the Middle East | Wednesday January 21 | 9:30 – 11:30 | Hollings Center for International Dialogue | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Often overshadowed by political turmoil, the Middle East faces increasing environmental and resource-based challenges, notably its depleting water resources. Overuse enabled by government subsidies, growing demographic challenges and misuse of what scarce resources do exist challenge the long-term sustainability of the region’s resources. Despite the gravity of the issue, many innovative ideas for solutions do exist and technological improvements provide hope for addressing these challenges. Please join us for a conversation exploring these potential solutions. The panelists are Raymond Karam, Program Associate at EastWest Institute, Scott Moore, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and Paul Sullivan, Adjunct Professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University. The talk will be moderated by David Dumke,Director, Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research and Studies, University of Central Florida, with introductions by Michael Carroll, Executive Director, Hollings Center.
  4. New Challenges for Islamist Movements | Thursday January 22 | 12:00 – 14:00 | POMEPS| REGISTER TO ATTEND | From the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the regional suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and decline of Ennahda’s prominence in Tunisia, Islamist movements across the Middle East are confronted by new challenges at the start of 2015. Join POMEPS for a panel discussion on the organizational challenges facing Islamist movements and how Islamists, from youth members to senior leadership, are responding. The panelists are Khalil al-Anani, Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Raphaël Lefèvre, Gates Scholar, University of Cambridge, Monica Marks, Doctoral Researcher, Oxford University and Quinn Mecham, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University. The discussion will be moderated by Mark Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University.
  5. Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story | Friday January 23 | 13:00 – 14:30 | New America Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In his new book, Once Upon A Revolution: An Egyptian Story,Thanassis Cambanis tells the inside story of the 2011 Egyptian revolution by following two courageous and pivotal leaders—and their imperfect decisions, which changed the world. In January 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a group of strangers sparked a revolution, but had little more than their idealism with which to battle the secret police, the old oligarchs, and a power-hungry military determined to keep control. Basem, an apolitical middle-class architect, jeopardized the lives of his family when he seized the chance to improve his country. Moaz, a contrarian Muslim Brother, defied his own organization to join the opposition. While Basem was determined to change the system from within, becoming one of the only revolutionaries to win a seat in parliament after new elections were held, Moaz took a different course, convinced that only street pressure from youth movements could dismantle the old order. This book launch features a discussion with Thanassis Cambanis, Fellow, The Century Foundation, moderated by Nadia Oweidat, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation.
  6. Politics, Comedy, and the Dangers of Satire | Friday 23 January | 16:00 | Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center | The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics will host this timely forum, presented in association with the U.S. premiere of Ajoka Theatre of Lahore’s Amrika Chalo (Destination USA). Ajoka Theatre has been the target of violent threats, and Pakistani authorities have banned Nadeem’s Burqavanza for the play’s criticism of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Nadeem himself lived in exile until 1993 because of violent responses to his satirical plays. The tragic incidents in Paris provide a bracing reminder and a highly charged political and ideological context for the complex and essential role satire and freedom of expression play in our society. The forum will feature Shahid Nadeem, Executive Director, Ajoka Theatre, Nikahang Kowsar, Iranian-Canadian cartoonist previously imprisoned in Tehran for his satirical cartoons and Imam Yahya Hendi, Georgetown University Muslim Chaplain. The forum will be moderated by Prof. Derek Goldman, Co-Director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics.
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The troubles we see

This year’s Council on Foreign Relations Preventive Priorities Survey was published this morning. It annually surveys the globe for a total of 30 Tier 1, 2 and 3 priorities for the United States. Tier 1s have a high or moderate impact on US interests or a high or moderate likelihood (above 50-50). Tier 2s can have low likelihood but high impact on US interests, moderate (50-50) likelihood and moderate impact on US interests, or high likelihood and low impact on US interests. Tier 3s are all the rest. Data is crowdsourced from a gaggle of experts, including me.

We aren’t going to be telling you anything you don’t know this year, but the exercise is still instructive. The two new Tier 1 contingencies are Russian intervention in Ukraine and heightened tensions in Israel/Palestine. A new Tier 2 priority is Kurdish violence within Turkey. I don’t believe I voted for that one. Ebola made it only to Tier 3, as did political unrest in China and possible succession problems in Thailand. I had Ebola higher than that.

Not surprisingly, the top slot (high likelihood and high impact) goes to ISIS. Military confrontation in the South China Sea moved up to Tier 1. Internal instability in Pakistan moved down, as did political instability in Jordan. Six issues fell off the list: conflict in Somalia, a China/India clash, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo Bangladesh and conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Remaining in Tier 1 are a mass casualty attack on the US homeland (hard to remove that one), a serious cyberattack (that’s likely to be perennial too), a North Korea crisis, and an Israeli attack on Iran. Syria and Afghanistan remain in Tier 2 (I think I had Syria higher than that).

The Greater Middle East looms large in this list. Tier 2 is all Greater Middle East, including Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Yemen (in addition to Tier 1 priorities Israel/Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine). That makes 11 out of 30, all in the top two tiers. Saudi monarchy succession is not even mentioned. Nor is Bahrain.

Sub-Saharan Africa makes it only into Tier 3. Latin America and much of Southeast Asia escape mention.

There is a question in my mind whether the exclusively country-by-country approach of this survey makes sense. It is true of course that problems in the Middle East vary from country to country, but there are also some common threads: Islamic extremism, weak and fragile states, exclusionary governance, demographic challenges and economic failure. From a policy response perspective, it may make more sense to focus on those than to try to define “contingencies” country by country. If you really wanted to prevent some of these things from happening, you would surely have to broaden the focus beyond national borders. Russian expansionism into Russian-speaking territories on its periphery might be another more thematic way of defining contingencies.

One of the key factors in foreign policy is entirely missing from this list: domestic American politics and the difficulties it creates for a concerted posture in international affairs. Just to offer a couple of examples: failure to continue to pay Afghanistan’s security sector bills, Congressional passage of new Iran sanctions before the P5+1 negotiations are completed, or a decision by President Obama to abandon entirely support for the Syrian opposition. The survey ignores American “agency” in determining whether contingencies happen, or not. That isn’t the world I live in.

For my Balkans readers: no, you are not on the list, and you haven’t been for a long time so far as I can tell. In fact, it is hard to picture how any contingency today in the Balkans could make it even to Tier 3. That’s the good news. But it also means you should not be looking to Washington for solutions to your problems. Brussels and your own capitals are the places to start.

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In the long term…

Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.

The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.

This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.

Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.

The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.

The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.

Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.

The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.

But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that  bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.

The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors:  demographic  and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.

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