Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
As events unfold in Iraq, the US finds itself in the curious position of moving towards effective support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. Having first intervened in Iraq and then folding on a threat to take action in Syria, the US faces the alternative of the break-up of the nearly century-long construction of the region as a series of sovereign states.
In this, much depends on the strategic capacity and the next tacticalmoves of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, more correctly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS is used by most media because it conflates and hence simplifies two neighboring wars, and perhaps because it has echoes of the ancient Egyptian fertility goddess.
However, the name ISIL better reflects a local and historical understanding of the region, which pre-dates regional states as they currently exist. It also indicates the organisation’s ambitions, which extend well beyond occupation of northern Syria and central Iraq.
Comprised of a number of multi-national groups that coalesced in the latter part of the war against the US-led occupation of Iraq, ISIL split with al Qaeda over a power struggle in late 2013. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, order for ISIL to disband was rebuffed by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This followed an earlier rebuff by al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US air-strike in 2006. A number of jihadi organisations formally claiming allegiance to al Qaeda have since effectively split with the organisation, in part due to al-Zawahiri’s increasing impotence as a leader in hiding and in part due to the differing circumstances in each of the jihadi fields of operation.
Having crossed from Iraq to Syria, ISIL rose by early 2013 to become the most powerful of the country’s anti-Assad factions. It now controls Syria’s north and north-east. With its origins in Iraq, it was unsurprising that ISIL crossed back to challenge the enfeebled government of Iraqi President Nuri al Malaki.
A large part of ISIL’s advantage in Iraq is that it claims to represent Iraq’s minority Sunni Mulsims, who predominate in the centre of the country. Politically dominated by Sunnis, including ousted and executed dictator Saddam Hussein, since its founding, Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims are now in political control and operating to large extent to the exclusion of Sunnis.
ISIL’s intervention has only deepened the Sunni-Shia divide, and in so doing has inadvertently strengthened the strategic position of Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds run a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq and have just taken the main northern, oil-rich town of Kirkuk.
ISIL is now facing a more concerted defence by Iraq’s embattled defence force but, as with Syria, may be expected to hold much of the territory it has gained. Having transitioned from being a guerrilla organisation to a state within two states, ISIL’s longer term ambition is to combine the Arab lands divided by English and French colonial planners in the dying days of the Great War.
As ISIL’s name suggests, its origins are in Iraq, but it rejects the division of the Middle-east based on colonial and subsequent administrative convenience. ISIL’s goal, therefore, is to eventually subsume Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, southern Turkey and Cyprus into a greater Islamist caliphate.
As ISIL’s strengthens its regional grip, the US is increasingly motivated to act, if not with ‘boots on the ground’ then with equipment and, more importantly, air strikes. If this action is successful – and it is a big ‘if’ – the US will have broken the back of the main anti-Assad organisation in Syria, tipping that war in favor of a dictator that, only last year, it was considering ousting.
In so doing the US will be reconfirming that, states loosely based on arbitrary conglomerates of old Ottoman administrative districts, the region can only exist as disaggregated squabbling fiefdoms or, as states, under the control of dictatorial leaders. Whatever dream the US had of exporting ‘democracy’ to this part of the world is now, in a functional sense, quite dead.
Many Australians would have watched Muslim MasterChef contestant Samira get kicked off the show on Wednesday night for cooking the worst pork hot dog.
The peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed on Sunday has, it seems, brought to an end four decades of a bloody and destructive war in the southern Philippines that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives. Assuming the peace agreement holds, it will create an autonomous Islamic homeland for the Philippines’ ‘Bangsamoro’ people and bring much needed stability to an historically deeply troubled region. The peace agreement recognises the long-standing military stalemate between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MILF. A compromise arrangement has long been recognised by the MILF and at least some in the government as the only practical means to ending the conflict.
In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.
The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.
They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.
The tumultuous changes affecting the Middle-East have been widely described as representing ‘people power’ and claimed by many Western political leaders, including Australia’s, as representing aspirations for democracy. The uprisings from Morocco across to the Arabian Peninsula are, to be sure, a reflection of a popular desire for political change, but their chances of democratic outcomes is much less certain.
There is a widespread view in the West that, in its clash with radical Islamism, that Islam and democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable. The view holds that, even in the few cases where an avowedly Islamic country can hold elections, these will reflect tribal loyalties and vote-rigging rather than open and competitive politics.
There are considerable grounds for such pessimism, given the corruption of the electoral process in Afghanistan and Iran and the religious factionalism of Iraq. Even Pakistan and Bangladesh, at best, do little more than stumble between corruption and military coups.
Just two weeks before it recently left office, the outgoing legislature of Aceh, the DPRA, passed the Qanun Jinayat (Islamic Criminal Bylaw). International reporting on this move portrayed the legislation as allowing – or even requiring – the ‘stoning to death’ of adulterers and the torture of women. The international image of Indonesia generally and Aceh in particular suffered greatly, and unfairly.
It is widely assumed that the out-going DPRA passed this law in an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cause problems for the in-coming DPRA. But the real issue concerns the extent to which democratic principles are finding a home in Aceh, and in Indonesia.