Monday, February 23, 2009

Olivier Roy is the man; Politics of Chaos in the Middle East is the book

Everyone should read Olivier Roy's book The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East NOW. It is amazing. (Also read his The Failure of Political Islam while you're at it...)

Usually a book makes one or two brilliant points throughout; this one has like 50. Here are the two I found most interesting:

1. He emphasizes the importance of political legitimacy - he believes in neither neocons nor in NGOS. Neither the top down democratisation/ state-building, (like what the US did in Iraq establishing a Parliament etc. in Baghdad), nor the bottom up run of the mill civil society building will work because these structures do not come from indigenous (and therefore legitimate) actors. Roy also points out that civil society building attempts divide local actors between those working with the western institutions and those that do not - driving a wedge among players that should be working together.
(Sidenote: I happen to have always been of the school that believes that as foreigners we can be effective in encouraging civic engagement/ indigenous participation, building frameworks within which local actors can thrive, building relationships with leaders and their constituencies, voter participation, training candidates, rule of law etc. Olivier Roy and led me to question this belief.)

2. Roy brings up the problem with how the US media and Bush administration use the terrorist label. To call every group that attacks innocent civilians terrorists is an oversimplification and does not reveal the nuances of these groups. If you dismiss groups as simply 'terrorists' you miss their motives and goals and if you do not understand their motives and goals how can you ever hope to prevent the attacks? Terrorist attacks can not be stopped by militaries and force - they will always win bc their tactics (no rules etc) will have far worse consequences than those of traditional militaries and states.
So Roy says you must take into account the purpose of the terrorist acts. Terrorism is used nowadays in two main areas: One, it plays a role in the nationalist movements (IRA, Basque, Tamil Tigers, Palestinians, Chechens) and then the global deterritorialised sort (AQ). Negotiation is possible with the former - their 'terrorism' is a means to an end, whereas negotiations with AQ are impossible and ineffective bc they attack the 'system' in general.

Applied to what is going on now, I would translate this section read 'Engage with Hamas.' I really hope someone in the Obama administration has read this part of this book and tells the Pres about it.

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