Friday, 15 September 2017 – Dealings with the Russians – some reflections
Tyutchev said ‘Russia can’t be understood’ and Igor Guberman ‘it’s high time we tried’. Putin reportedly told Biden ‘we (Russians) are not like you – we only look like you’. Are they right? After postings in Warsaw, Moscow and Beijing, and a decade as a government analyst, Kyle Wilson, now a Visiting Fellow at ANU’s Centre for European Studies, still isn’t sure, but will reflect on his experiences in engaging with the Russians.
Friday, 11 August 2017 – The Islamist insurgency in the Philippines
In this Majlis we move beyond our traditional focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. Through a discussion of the current situation involving the so-called Islamic State in the Philippines’ city of Marawi, we address a number of issues of relevance well beyond that region. To this end we are very pleased to be joined by Dr Steven Rood, Distinguished Visitor at the Department of Political and Social Change in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. We also hope to explore some fruitful parallels between the Philippines and the current situation and future prospects in Iraq and Syria.
The actions of an individual attacker in a Philippines Casino on 2 June 2017 were immediately parsed for possible ‘terrorist’ motives and methodology. Dr Rood has joined others in discounting the connection between this attack and the so-called Islamic State. But this does raise the crucial analytical and political question of how we attribute behaviour to ideologies and institutional movements. The label terrorism does political work. It might justify the imposition of martial law as in Marawi, or the deployment of military rather than policing resources (as we have seen in Australia).
Moreover, Marawi also points to the complexity of factors involving political, social, and economic discontent, and the ongoing pull of violent Islamist ideology as a narrative of resistance. Local practices of clan politics, and specific failures in the policing and broader governance of the Philippines, can all be seen as contributing to societal violence. Yet the Islamic State brand now has transnational appeal, its erstwhile military successes and well-polished messaging perhaps making it the flag of choice for some would-be opposition movements – in the Philippines, in particular, those who have become disenchanted with the Bangsamoro narrative.
Post-conflict situations require massive programmes of rebuilding, both physical and social. However, this requirement arises precisely when infrastructures, capital, and human resources are stretched or non-existent, and in the context of potentially massive social dislocation. The Philippines and Iraq alike have faced these problems of reconstruction with questionable results.
Friday, 7 July 2017 – Caught between two big powers? Central Asia under the weight of Russian and Chinese Influence
In 1991, the Soviet Union’s collapse reshaped the East/West problematic as it had emerged after World War II. Inside Soviet space, a number of cultural elements distinguished the five states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) from the rest of the former Russian empire, namely their shared cultural, linguistic and religious traits with the Middle East. In the beginning of the 1990s these traits were perceived by many observers to be indicators that Central Asia would “rightfully” return to its allegedly natural space, that of Islam. However, after twenty five years of independence Central Asia’s purported “return” to the Muslim world must be relativized. In the domains of politics, geopolitics, economics and culture, the continuance of a Russo-Soviet framework of thought, remains rather striking. Moreover, in two decades since independence, Beijing has become one of the Central Asian countries main partners. It positions itself as the second most influential external actor in the region, surpassing Russia in economic terms.
This presentation will address the evolution of the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asian states, and the numerous questions it raises. How can Central Asian governments conduct an independent and balanced foreign policy in light of the weight of their two big neighbors, and the lack of interest and/or geographic distance of other Middle Eastern or Western potential partners? Moreover, have Beijing and Moscow succeeded so far in conducting in this region a concerted policy, or do we see a rivalry emerging between the two powers? Lastly, Russia’s recent foreign policy (annexation of the Crimea, politics in Ukraine), and the strong influence of China, raise growing concerns among the peoples of Central Asia, especially on the ability of their governments to withdraw from what some see as geopolitical shackles.
In this session, we are delighted to be joined by Professor Sebastien Peyrouse. Professor Peyrouse is a research professor at the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (George Washington University) and a senior fellow at the East West Institute. His main areas of expertise are political systems in Central Asia, economic and social issues, Islam and religious minorities, and Central Asia’s geopolitical positioning toward China, India and South Asia.
Friday, 2 June 2017 – The War on Terror, ‘blowback’ and lessons never learned
Charismatic propagandists have had an extraordinary influence within militant Islamist circles in the West. Perhaps a prime example here is Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American born Yemeni cleric turned Al-Qaeda recruiter regarded by many the most popular, most influential English-language recruiter for al-Qaeda and for the whole jihadist cause. Al-Awlaki’s charisma is rooted in a complex fusion of his image, message and the transformative charisma phenomenon (i.e. the tendency for militant Islamist charismatic leaders to emerge by building on the charismatic capital of predecessors). Moreover, Al-Awlaki’s appeal amongst supporters in the West arises from a powerful mix of inspirational and reflective qualities that simultaneously exacerbate his supporter’s perceptions of crisis and offers a solution to them. Central to these dynamics is how his image and message, particularly posthumously, came to epitomise the ‘blowback’ effects (unintended negative consequences) of the War on Terror, especially in the West. Ultimately, Al-Awlaki can be used as a case study to explore how misguided counterterrorism and Counter Violent Extremism strategies have inadvertently ostracised and even undermined Muslim communities who are most crucial for confronting violent extremists.
The Majlis asks:
- How to understand and confront the propaganda messaging of violent extremists like Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State?
- How can counter violent extremism strategies in the west harness the contribution of Muslim communities?
In this session, we are delighted to be joined by Dr Haroro J. Ingram. Dr Ingram is a research fellow with the Department of International Relations in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the ANU. His primary research analyses the role of propaganda in the strategies of violent non-state political movements with Islamic State and the Afghan Taliban as major case studies. He is also a research associate with the International Centre for Counter-terrorism (ICCT, The Hague). At the ICCT, he works with the Counter-terrorism Strategic Communications (CTSC) Project team and has authored or co-authored several articles on a range of topics related to how best to understand and counter extremist propaganda.
Friday, 26 May 2017 – Human Rights and Contemporary Afghanistan
The situation for women and girls in Afghanistan in relation to their human rights is complex and multi-layered. While Afghanistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, access to basic human rights such as education, employment and rights to divorce remain contested. This is particularly so in the provinces. Dr Sima Samar will speak about her work with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the current status of women and girls in Afghanistan.
Dr Samar is the Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Before chairing the Commission, she was elected as the Vice Chair of the Emergency Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) in 2002. At the UN Bonn meeting on Afghanistan in 2001, Dr Samar was chosen to be the first Deputy Chair and Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan.
Dr Samar has received various international awards for her work on human rights and democracy. In 2001 she received the John Humphrey Freedom Award. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Dr Samar was forced to flee after her husband was arrested. He was never heard from again. In Pakistan, Dr Samar worked to set up medical services for Afghan refugees. In 1987, she helped open the first hospital for women, staffed by women in Quetta, Pakistan. In 1989, she established the Shuhada Organization, a non-governmental and non-profit organization committed to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan with special emphasis on the empowerment of women and children. In 2010 she established Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education which has attracted more than 2400 students since its establishment of which more than 35 per cent are women. Sima Samar was born in February 1957 in Ghazni province. She obtained her degree in medicine in February 1982 from Kabul University; she was the first Hazara woman to achieve this in Afghanistan.
Friday, 21 April 2017 – “The Fads and Fashions of Iraqi History-Telling“
Iraq, since the first gulf war, might seem to be a state confounded by an irresolvable tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Tribes, sects and ethnicities encouraged by outsiders would threaten to break the nascent state into rival and ungovernable fiefdoms. Only the strong hand of a centralised state, managed perhaps by an autocratic rule, would bind these units into a workable polity.
In this Majlis we ask how we ought to read Iraqi history, and about the implications of such a reading for the sorts of political descriptions offered above. We are joined by Dr Hala Fattah who argues that social scientific literature on Iraq has been unduly focussed on the internal dynamics of the Iraqi state. Dr Fattah offers a reading of Arabic language memoirs and autobiographies that indicates a transnational and regional current that challenges this statist methodological bias. Her readings follow Sufi, Shia and other transnational currents, including the surprising involvement of Gulf and rural personalities in the Iraqi polity.
Dr Fattah brings these regional dynamics into dialogue with two overriding assumptions about Iraqi history and politics that flow from this focus on the state. First, she will assess the idea that Iraq is almost genetically vulnerable to internal secessionist movements propelled by external focuses. Second, she challenges the idea that the Iraqi state form is somehow inherently amenable to the Sunni minority and inimical to the Shii and ethnic sub-groups within the polity.
Dr Hala Fattah is a historian based in Amman, Jordan. She received her PhD from UCLA in the history of the Modern Middle East, and is the author of The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia and the Gulf, 1700-1900’ (SUNY Press, 1997) and ‘A Brief History of Iraq’ (Facts on File, 2008), as well as numerous articles. She has previously taught at Georgetown University and Qatar University.
Friday, 7 April 2017 – “Settlements Inc.” Implications of settlement activity in the West Bank
In 1977, Menhamen Begin, Israeli Prime Minister, refused Jimmy Carter’s request to halt settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories which were home to approximately 55,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 1977 marked a turning point with settlement expansion, Begin and his Agriculture Minister at the time Ariel Sharon, established, for the first time, settlements deep in the West Bank’s heartland paving the way for a continuous settlement expansion policy that stretches to the present day. Today, there are 250 settlements and settlement outposts across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, housing an excess of 650,000 settlers in contravention of intentional law.
Settlements are a key driver of humanitarian and economic vulnerability in the occupied territories. According to the United Nations, they deprive Palestinians of their property and sources of livelihood and restrict their access to services giving rise to a range of humanitarian threats.1 Economically, settlement construction in the West Bank is accompanied by the confiscation of large swathes of Palestinian land and destruction of Palestinian property, seizure of water resources, appropriation of touristic and archaeological sites, and exploitation of Palestinian natural resources. Additionally, settlements are supported by an infrastructure of roads, checkpoints, and the Separation Wall leading to the fragmentation of Palestinian communities across the West Bank rendering a viable, contiguous Palestinian state ever less possible as 42 percent of the West Bank is appropriated for settlement activity.23 In light of this background, we ask:
* How do settlement activities impact Palestinian livelihoods in the West Bank? What are the economic and humanitarian impacts of settlements expansion?
* To what extent do settlements really hinder the political process between Israelis and Palestinians?
* What role would settlements play in a future negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and Israeli’s?
Joining us for this discussion is Yehezkel Lein. Yehezkel is the Head of Analysis, Communication and Protection Unit at UN-OCHA in the occupied Palestinian territories. He previously served as the Head of Research Unit at B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the occupied territories, a leading Israeli NGO documenting human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories. Yehezkel has a master’s degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford, and a masters of political science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The following articles are suggested background readings on the topic. They are not required for participation, rather, they are provided for those who would like to prepare for our discussion:
http://fmep.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/12.7.pdf https://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_settlements_factsheet_december_2012_english.pdf https://al-shabaka.org/briefs/how-israeli-settlements-stifle-palestines-economy/
Friday, 3 March 2017 – What has been done, and what can be done, with Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
For our first Majlis of 2017 we assess the state of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. What qualifies someone to be an “expert” commentator, to be called a Doctor of Philosophy, or to teach about the politics, religion, society and cultures of the Middle East? What do definitions of competence tell us about the academy itself? This topic is essential for those undertaking or thinking of graduate study, and for undergraduates seeking to understand the ethical and professional contexts of their studies.
Several factors make any idea of competence highly fraught. For some in the academy, Edward Said’s Orientalism would invalidate any discussion about the Muslim Other that originates in the halls of the Western academy. Scholarly involvement in recent military adventures might confirm this politicisation while simultaneously hinting at the postmodern academy’s inability to speak to the policy agenda. Yet is not Western engagement with the region marked by a profound ignorance desperately in need of cultural literacy? The academy itself seems to be splitting apart, torn between seemingly incommensurable academic disciplines and political agendas.
In this context, we are joined by Professor Dale Eickelman, who will lead our discussion around two themes. Firstly, he will ask about the changing understandings of scholarly competence. Australia, for example, does not seem to value Arabists or Persianists (“With Google translate, who needs language skills?”). Does a graduate obtain higher value for academic credentials for speaking and reading Arabic and Persian? What are the implications of language proficiency for scholarly rigor? Secondly, we will consider the political economy of the academy. As funding sources, incentives, and metrics of success are increasingly bound to state and market priorities, where does this leave the rigorous and analytical study of Islam? The dynamics of Sufi Brotherhoods may be interesting, do these dynamics have relevance for the modern ‘innovative’ economy?
Professor Dale F. Eickelman is a prominent anthropologist and the author of seminal works on the region, many of which are translated into Arabic. These include Knowledge and Power in Morocco (1985), Muslim Politics (1996, revised ed. 2003, co-authored with James Piscatori), The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach (first edition 1981, 4th edition 2002), Public Islam and the Common Good (2004, co-edited with Armando Salvatore) and, classically, ‘The Art of Memory: Islamic Education and its Social Reproduction’ (1978, Comparative Studies of History and Society). He is Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations Emeritus at Dartmouth College.
Friday, 11 November – Wither Orientalism? Islam and the West
Since its publication in 1978, Edward Said’s Orientalism has exerted an overwhelming influence on the way we conceptualise the relationship between ‘Islam and the West.’ The book enjoys a near ubiquitous presence in course reading lists and scholarly bibliographies, and as conflict continues unabated in the Middle East, its central themes are no less relevant today than they were in the 1980s. Simultaneously, Orientalism has met with a consistent barrage of scholarly criticism, hailing from both the Islamic and Western worlds, seeking to expose the book as a piece of polemical sophistry, filled with empirical errors and unsubstantiated libel, covertly motivated by Said’s outrage at the conduct of the Israelis in Palestine. Even Said’s claim to have spent his childhood in Jerusalem has been contested. Fuelling the enduring pitch of this debate was Said’s explicit claim that the ‘Orientalist’ straightjacket continues to circumscribe Western representations of the Islamic world into the 21st century; hence, to criticise ‘Islam’ is to clandestinely advocate Western neo-imperialism in the Middle East. In light of this, the Majlis asks:
- Do any formal problems with Said’s thesis invalidate the substance of his critiques of Western scholarship?
- Is Said’s understanding of the Islamic world irreconcilable with a contemporary cosmopolitan conception of global society?
- Has the Orientalist discourse complicated the efforts of progressive Islamic voices to gain an effective platform for reforming elements of Islam?
- Is it reasonable to suppose that western discursive practices might contribute to providing a platform for reform within the Islamic world? Is this assumption, in fact, a subtle form of Orientalism?
This week’s discussion will be led by John Goldie, an Honours candidate in the School of History. John has travelled extensively in the Middle East. His research explores sympathetic representations of Islam as an instrument of religious toleration in the religious politics of late 17th and early 18th century England.
Friday, 28 October – Post-2003 Iraq and Prospects for National Unity
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and de-Baathification policies, Iraq has struggled to re-establish national unity and effective governance over a fractious society. In the north, antipathy among Sunni tribes towards the Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki and rising sectarianism contributed to the breakdown of government-tribal relations and contributed to the spread of ISIS across northern and western Iraq. The replacement of Maliki with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in September 2014 has failed to produce national unity; lacking a broad constituency beyond his Shia base, Abadi has been limited in his capacity to implement basic reforms. Simultaneously, movements from Shia-dominated regions have emerged to challenge central authority. On 30 April and 20 May 2016, for example, Iraqi supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, breached the Green Zone in Baghdad, entering the Parliament building and demanding an end to corruption; only after violent confrontation with state security forces were these protesters ejected from the area. In the meantime, the oil price fall since 2014 has had devastating impact on the Iraqi economy, which depends almost entirely on oil revenues to finance state spending.
With the Iraqi Army, Shia pro-government militias, Kurdish forces, and an international coalition led by the US currently engaged in the large-scale effort to retake Mosul, Iraq’s largest Sunni-dominated city, from ISIS, this Majlis asks:
- What are the prospects for political stability in what may be a post-ISIS Iraq? Will we see a return to the guerrilla-style insurgency that typified the 2003-2014 period?
- How will the Iraqi state deal with the plethora of militias across the country? How will the militarization of religious and ethnic groups affect the future stability of Iraq?
- Have the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place been alleviated by Al-Abadi’s government, or have they been exacerbated with rising militarization of religious and ethnic groups and rising state penetration by Iran? How could the current Iraqi government navigate ethnic and sectarian rivalries to build national unity?
Robert J. Tyson joined us for the discussion. Mr Tyson is a former career officer in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Until 2015 he served as Ambassador to Kuwait, and prior to that as Ambassador to Iraq (2008-11), the Russian Federation (2005-08) and Saudi Arabia (2001-05). Other overseas assignments have been in the United States, the Soviet Union, Thailand and New Zealand. Mr Tyson has also held senior positions in Canberra with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; and in Melbourne with the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.
Friday, 14 October – Libya Post-Qadhafi: Transition, Conflict, and Prospects for Peace
Five years after the overthrow of Qadhafi in October 2011, Libya remains in a state of economic crisis, political instability, and deteriorating security. Politically, sub-national loyalties pit the newly foreign-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), against an Islamist dominated and Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), and the GNC’s 2014 successor Parliament, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. The presence of armed militias also acting as countervailing political forces complicate Libya’s transition to stable democratic governance. Even more alarmingly, a power vacuum has allowed jihadists aligned with ISIS to establish a foothold in Sirte, Libya’s main oil producing area. In March 2016, following several months of having to convene in Tunis, the GNA arrived in Tripoli by sea on board a Libyan naval vessel, but has struggled to establish political legitimacy. Further steps stipulated under the UN-sponsored December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which created the GNA, have also faltered.
Libya is now characterised by economic indecision, stagnant oil exports, and a stubborn presence of violent religious extremism. Western air support has enabled GNA’s aligned militias to reduce the ISIS foothold in Sirte to an area comprising a single square kilometer. Yet only weeks before, General Khalifa Haftar, another power player with a base in eastern Libya, seized control of the oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte in an effort to accrue bargaining power in future economic and security institutions. Libya now suffers from the most basic “oil curse”: a destructive and internationally destabilizing fight over resource wealth. Authority is fragmented between traditional power structures, government funded militias, and regional preferences. All militate against national unity and responsible government in post-Qadhafi Libya.
In this context, we ask:
–What are the internal Libyan implications of the recent military conflict in the Gulf of Sirte and what might it mean for peace or more violence?
–What is the current status of the long negotiated Libyan Political Agreement (LPA)? How likely is it to be successfully implemented, and what role can the international community play in this regard?
–What form might national governance take if it happens? Should Libya be considering a federal solution, formed around historical Cyrenaica (eastern region), Tripolitania (northwest), and Fezzan (southwest)?
Friday, 30 September – Russia in the Middle East, Beyond Syria
Friday, 16 September – The Israeli Palestinian Two-State Solution: Viability and Alternatives
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently urged Israelis and Palestinians to push towards a two-state solution stressing that “only a negotiated two-state solution could bring the legitimate aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians to fruition”. The two-state solution remains, in the realm of official politics, the only approach to an Israeli-Palestinian final settlement. But is it still viable? Many argue that developments in the West Bank have confounded the two-state scenario, making a viable Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 West Bank border an option of the past. The rise of the Israeli right, their policies of settlement expansion, and the de-facto annexation of Area C of the West Bank and East Jerusalem have contributed to the fading possibility of a two-state solution. On the other hand, the Palestinian leadership, facing rising illegitimacy and corruption charges, fragmentation in decision making between Hamas and Fatah, and a dissatisfied population, has been incapable of providing an alternative after 23 years of failure in the Oslo peace process. In the meantime, Israelis and Palestinians watch carefully as the wider region implodes in anarchy, authoritarian regimes tumble, Islamic extremism rises, and once influential states such as Egypt plunge into economic and political turmoil. In light of this background, we ask:
- Does the two-state solution still represent, or has it ever represented, a viable framework for a final status settlement that will ensure a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
- What are current alternatives to the two-state solution, and who proposes them? Is there a one-state or even a three-state option?
- How are regional developments affecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is the geopolitical importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fading in favour of fighting Islamic extremism and restoring regional security?
Anas Iqtait joined us for the discussion. Anas is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He is a Palestinian native with a keen interest in the political economy of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the effectiveness of international donations in the region. Before his PhD, he worked with the United Nations and other developmental organizations in Palestine. Anas’s previous education includes a masters of international development policy and a bachelor of economics.
Friday, 2 September – Coup Attempt in Turkey: Background, the Plot and the Aftermath
After the coup attempt of July 15, 2016 Turkey has been experiencing the extraordinary times of the state of emergency declared on July 20. The government hastily identified the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen as the coup plotters and then declared a pervasive war against the group. This campaign included confiscation of the property of Gülenists in Turkey accompanied by a campaign abroad to ban international schools affiliated with the cleric. Declared for three-months in total, the state of emergency has consisted of widespread purges in the civilian bureaucracy and amongst the military, together with closure of several media outlets, seizure of hundreds of high schools and universities and also arrests of thousands of people only in its first month. All these efforts were paralleled by an extensive mobilization of masses for daily demonstrations.
Erdoğan and Gülen were allies in their drive to eradicate the legacy of Kemalism and elements of secularism in the regime of Turkey till 2013. Then both drew their swords against each other over the spoils of their victory. Lastly, after the coup Gülenists were declared as “terrorists” by the government. According to most analysts this crackdown represented the elimination of the final power contender for Erdoğan to share the power.
- What is the background of the coup attempt? Was it a “typical Turkish coup” in the manner of the previous 1960 and 1980 coups as well as 1971 and 1996 military memorandums or a complete novelty in ideology and method?
- What has been happening in Turkey since the coup? What do the purges in the military and bureaucracy mean? Is Turkey now under an elected sultan after the state of emergency?
- What are the possible regional and international implications of the post-coup developments in domestic politics of Turkey? Does the post-coup crackdown mean a re-assessment of Turkey’s pro-Atlantic orientation?
Dr Mustafa Murat Yurtbilir, an Associate Lecturer in the Turkish Program of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU. Joined us for the discussion. He has two Master degrees: one in International Relations from Istanbul University, and one in Development Studies from Uppsala University, Sweden. He completed his PhD in the International Relations Department of METU. Dr. Yurtbilir taught at the Kyrenia American University, Cyprus, and he has also been a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. His research focuses on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, nationalism and ethnicity studies, and international relations.
Friday, 19 August – Part II of Islam Sessions: The Politics of the Sect
In our second roundtable focusing on Islam we return to the question of sectarian politics. Building on our first more theoretical session, we inquire about the sectarian dynamics within key international conflicts. In Iraq , for example, the conflict is seen by many as a function of Shia-Sunni intractability reinforced by Iranian interference and tribal competition, or classic power political competition superficially justified and fuelled by sectarian identity. The sect, then, becomes alternatively a primordial source of conflict or an epiphenomenon of politics. It is in relation to the so-called Islamic State, and their Shia enemies in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, that this debate has taken on a special virulence. Should we consider the Islamic State outside of Islam, a heterodox sect within Islam, or a representative of something essential to Islam itself? What about the Shia? What about the Alawites and the Yazidis?
To begin unravelling this issue, we propose to approach the sect from two angles. We ask firstly, what is a sect? Secondly, we ask what role has sectarianism played in the current Iraq and Syria conflict? Do prospects for peace rely on a transcendence of sect, or a Lebanon-style compromise?
Dr Raihan Ismail joined us for the discussion. She is the author of Saudi Clerics and Shi’a Islam (2016), and holds a Masters in International Relations from the International Islamic University of Malaysia and a PhD from ANU. Dr Ismail’s research interests include: Sectarianism in the Gulf region, Political Islam with a strong focus on Egypt and South East Asia, and studies of religious institutions in the Middle East.
Friday, 5 August- What is Islam?
In the first of our more theoretical Majlis roundtables, we confront the core problem of Islamic studies: what is Islam? And how can we know what Islam is? The complexity of this problem is normally confounded by political questions. Is there some sort of propensity to violence within Islam? Is the so-called Islamic State really Islamic? Are liberal democracy and Islam incompatible? For the Muslim, the questions may have a different poignancy. Is the veil a sign of a Muslim’s piety, submission, empowerment, or some mixture thereof? What is the relation between Sharia law and the nation-state’s law? In our second session we will return to the more concrete political question of the sect. But in this our first session on Islam we will concentrate on the various approaches we might take to understand Islam. We propose to do this by isolating a set of more focussed inquiries at the core of the problem. We therefore ask:
- Does it matter who is asking this question? Does the answer change if you are a Muslim, a Christian, or an atheist philosopher?
- What is this object that we are trying to define? Is Islam an object of subjective belief, a fixed doctrine, a social movement, a tradition, or an ineffable experience?
- For what purpose are we asking this question? For political or ideological reasons (eg. to condemn or endorse a particular social movement)? For analytical reasons (eg. to trace the relation between secular law and ‘Islamic’ law in colonial Egypt)? For legal reasons (eg. to exempt a religious group from certain taxes)?
Professor James Piscatori joined us for the discussion. He is the author of Muslim Politics (2004, Princeton University Press), amongst other works, as well as the co-editor of Muslim Travellers (1990, University of California Press). Currently a Professor at CAIS, he has worked at several universities in the UK and the US. In the UK, he was Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford; and Professor of International Politics in the University of Aberystwyth.
Friday, 22 July- Off the Pitch: Sport, Diplomacy, and Nation-building
Amidst the tumult of Iraq’s conflict firing along ethnic and sectarian battle lines, an unparalleled unity can be found on the soccer pitches in the north of the country. The ‘inter-ethnic harmony’ embodied by Kirkuk FC instils hope where many an observer declares it to be lost. In Abkhazia, Kurdistan recently flaunted their panoply befitting the international attention they have long been denied when they competed in the World Football Cup run by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA). Closer to the heart of great power politics, the Kremlin claims that the decision made by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to ban Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Olympics is part of an anti-Russian operation driven by Western crusaders. Meanwhile, in protest over Israel’s attempt to restrict the movement of team Palestine’s players, team Palestine sought Israel’s suspension from FIFA. The disagreement, however, ended in unprecedented levels of cooperation between the two teams’ football associations. FIFA has even granted Palestine the right to hold 2018 Asian Cup Qualification games on home soil in the West Bank. For some states, major sporting events form an integral part of their international business branding strategy; continuing controversy over migrant labour working on World Cup 2022 construction sites has been damaging to Qatar’s international image, as have anti-government protests that coincide each year with Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.
As tides of turmoil continue to wash across the Middle East, we ask:
- Are students of politics neglecting sport at their peril?
- Has sport become yet another forum for omnipresent power struggles?
- What lessons can political leaders take from the sporting arena?
- Is there a role for sport to play in future community building of the Middle East’s fractured regions?
- What insights can we draw from the international brand building of the Arab Gulf states?
Kieren Pender, an Honours student at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies who is writing his thesis on the use of sport by unrecognised states for political legitimacy purposes, joined us for the discussion.
Associate Professor Matthew Gray, who has published recent books on Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Conspiracy Theories of the Middle East, also joined us for the discussion via Skype.
Friday 8 July 2016: The Refugee Crisis
Friday 24 June 2016: Turkey and ‘the Kurds’
On February 17th a bloody car bombing rocked the Turkish capital of Ankara, killing 28 and wounding over 60 more. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly accused the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of launching the attack, while the lesser-known Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK) claimed responsibility. In the wake of the violence, heightened domestic tensions have led to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushing a bill through parliament that will strip politicians of their immunity from prosecution, a move that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) claims is aimed at removing them from parliament. Across the border, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its allies have declared an autonomous federated region in the Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria, better known as Rojava. Meanwhile, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), Masoud Barzani, continues to threaten the Iraqi Central Government with a referendum on independence for the northern enclave. As the domestic tensions in Turkey simmer, and the rhetoric of the multifarious Kurdish groups across the region grows bolder, we ask:
- How has the rise of Islamic State shaped the aspirations of the Kurdish movements across the region? What does the future hold for them?
- Is the breakdown in Turkish-Kurdish relations a by-product of the Syrian civil war? Or is this the likely trajectory of a decades old conflict?
- How coordinated are the Kurdish groups? Who is responsible for what in Turkey’s recent domestic uprisings?
- TAK, PKK, HDP, PYD, YPG, KNC, PUK, KDP, KDP-I, PJAK: Who are all these Kurdish parties? What do they stand for?
Dr Mustafa Murat Yurtbilir, an Associate Lecturer in the Turkish Program of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU joined us for the discussion.
Friday 10 June 2016: Egypt- Bread, Freedom, and Dignity?
- How does Sisi’s economic policy differ from that of the Morsi or Mubarak eras?
- What are the most pressing needs of the Egyptian population? Have they changed since Mubarak?
- What have been the changes made to the constitution since Mubarak’s ousting?
- What is the current status of the possible transfer of Egypt’s two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia? What are the implications of this possible deal?
Friday 27 May 2016: Oil, Gas, and Economic Reform in the Arab States of the Gulf
The Arab states of the Gulf are often depicted as being almost entirely resistant to economic and political reform. With the exception of the UAE – and even there it is oil-poor Dubai that has captured global attention – the prevailing assumption is that oil and gas resources provide these states with an exceptional ability to resist popular pressure and ‘buy off’ their citizenry. The 2014 oil price fall, however, has brought this system into question, as the Gulf states struggle to meet spending obligations. “It’s time for the United States to start worrying about a Saudi collapse,” reads a Foreign Policy article from late 2015, noting growing fissures within the royal family, missteps in their involvement in the Yemeni and Syria conflicts, intensifying antagonism with Iran, and declining foreign exchange reserves. In response to budgetary pressures, the Gulf states have renewed their focus on economic diversification. Major economic reform programmes have been announced in Kuwait and Bahrain, while Oman and Qatar have introduced new corporate taxes and all states, following the UAE’s lead, have cut energy subsidies and raised domestic fuel prices.
In light of a rapidly shifting Gulf strategic environment, we ask:
· Is Saudi Arabia going bankrupt? Which GCC states are most vulnerable to the oil price fall and changing regional dynamics?
· How will these states balance the competing priorities of social welfare with the fiscal cuts and other reforms necessitated by lower oil prices?
· Will economic pressures provoke the re-ignition of social protest as occurred in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in 2011?
· What will the shifting economic dynamics mean for Saudi Arabia and GCC involvement in regional events?
Professor Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Studies Centre at Qatar University, guided us through this fascinating discussion.
Friday 13 May 2016: Human Rights in the Aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring, with special focus on Tunisia
The Arab Spring was reported in the Western media as a spontaneous upsurge of popular sentiment in search of democracy and the realisation of human rights. Yet in the immediate aftermath, the status of human rights in post-uprising regimes was a question rather than a fait accompli. How would the newly empowered Islamist parties (Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), and indeed the largely secular forces of counter-revolution, relate to the nascent human rights agenda? Are human rights just a codified form of neo-colonialism, or do they represent something more indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa? Are the sorts of institutions and the type of civil society presupposed by human rights even possible in the unique socio economic and religious environments of the region? After the return to power of the military under President Abdal Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has been accused of massive human rights violations. But what are the prospects for human rights in Tunisia, often considered the sole “success story” of the Arab Spring?
To address these questions and lead the Majlis’s robust discussion, we were joined by Dr Amna Guellali, a researcher on Tunisia and Algeria with Human Rights Watch.
Friday 29 April 2016: Operation ‘Alawistan’- Russian intervention in Syria
Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict has long been contentious. In September 2015, when Putin announced direct military involvement in the Syrian civil war, Russian media emphasised that the intervention came at the invitation of the Assad regime and was intended to defend Russian national interests and combat the threat of radicalised Russian and former Soviet state fighters. Yet Western analysts have accused Russia of disregarding civilian casualties, of focusing air strikes on rebel-held territory rather than IS positions, and of simply propping up the Assad regime. In March 2016, Putin declared the withdrawal of Russia’s “main” forces from Syria, yet recent reports suggested Russia is repositioning artillery in Northern Syria, fuelling speculation that a renewed assault on Aleppo by the Assad government and allies was imminent. In light of faltering peace talks and continuing debate over Russia’s motivations and goals in the Syrian conflict, we asked:
- What was the aim of Russia’s recent military campaign in Syria, and have they achieved their goals?
- How has the Russian intervention caused the United States and allies to reshape their own policies toward the Syrian conflict? Should it?
- Is Western scepticism of Russian strategy just a foil for the lack of a Western strategy?
- How has Assad’s position shifted as a result of the Russian campaign?
- What should we expect to see going forward? What aspects of the Russian military campaign do we think will continue in Syria, and what does it mean for the Syrian regime, rebel factions, civilians, and other foreign states involved in the conflict?
Two experts from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Dr Robert Bowker and Dr Kirill Nourzhanov kindly led the discussion.