Can Islam be democratic?

The fact that there are hardly any Muslim countries that are democratic gives rise to the question, is Islam anti-democratic?  The short answer to this question is yes.

Islam is not only a religion, but also a system of governance.  In Islam there is no separation between Church and State as developed in Christendom, allowing a secular power to develop independently of the Church and in fact in time take over from it.  In Islam the State power and the religious power are unified in one structure. This has led ironically in the Muslim world to the development of military dictatorships which represented secular power as opposed to religious power.  For example, the military dictators, Ben Ali Abidine in Tunisia, Boumedienne in Algeria, Nasser and his successors in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, Atatutk in Turkey and The Shah in Persia/Iran, all took power and repressed religious authority.  Although the history of each country was different, in each case in order to develop and modernize required a power outside the religious structure and in each case it was only the military that had that capability.

Of course, there have been military dictators within the Western or Christian world.  But, generally they have been anti-democratic, even fascist, for example Franco in Spain. While by contrast in the Islamic world military dictatorships have generally been guarantors of secular power.  So in the Western world military dictatorship is generally seen as negative, while Ataturk, Nasser and the above list have actually been reformers. In order to carry out this function they have often repressed and persecuted the religious parties that developed, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoots elsewhere.  For example, Hafez Assad in Syria massacred ca. 20,000 in Homs in 1982 to put-down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.   Similarly Nasser, Saddam Hussein and the others suppressed the Muslim religious parties.  Note that the secular Ba’ath party of Assad and Saddam Hussein was founded by Christian Lebanese influenced by the French.

The so-called “Arab Spring” was initially misunderstood in Western terms to be a removal of military dictatorships and a move towards democracy.  But, the above explains why the replacement for the dictators was a pro-Islamic religious take-over and not a democratic revolution. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood won the election, but the military could not accept this, and so intervened and replaced the Morsi Government with military control that has now morphed into quasi-civilian rule again under Pres. Al Sisi.  But, the opposite direction is being taken in Turkey, where the democratically elected President Erdogan (equivalent to Morsi in Egypt) has used the failed coup to quash the military and all opposition and become more Islamist. This is also the case in Iran, where the Mullahs have taken power and control the armed forces.

The rise of the Islamic State in the midst of the Arab world can be seen as the result of the removal of the secular military dictatorships and the freeing of the Islamic tendencies towards anti-Democratic and anti-Western norms.  This also explains why there were no similar uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States, because they already have authoritarian regimes (monarchies) that are also the religious authority.  So the conclusion is that for the West it is preferable to have military dictators in control in the Muslim world, at least until they morph into some form of secular and democratic system.

The Modern Pharaohs II

The third episode of the BBC series “The Modern Pharaohs” continued after the assassination of Pres. Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981.  He was killed by an Islamic extremist for making peace with Israel and joining the American camp.  His deputy Hosni Mubarak took over as President. His first order of business was to revert to what his predecessor Pres. Nasser had done when he first seized power, namely suppress and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and its offshoot the deadly Islamic Jihad (al Gama’a Ha’Islamiyah) that had been responsible for the assassination.

Given the economic plight of Egypt, Mubarak could not afford to give up his friendship with the US and the b$3 that Egypt received annually, at that time the same amount as Israel. While Mubarak reaffirmed his adherence to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty he was also trying to repair ties with other Arab countries.  Egypt is a large, complex country and the hinterland remained extremely conservatively religious, and there the Ikhwan retained great loyalty.  While Mubarak suppressed the Ikhwan and any real opposition, they remained a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes.  Also, the Islamic Jihad continued to carry out a campaign of terrorism against Egyptian officials, against the Coptic Christian minority, as well as against tourists.  In 1999, 62 tourists were massacred in Luxor, devastating the Egyptian tourist industry.

In exchange for the massive aid program there was continual pressure from US Administrations for Egypt to democratize and liberalize. In 2005 Mubarak began to do this. by allowed opposition parties, that were unofficially aligned with the Ikhwan, to participate in elections.  Gradually they gained power and prominence and this became a threat to his regime.  So in 2007, he banned parties based on religion, but then another party popped up in its place.  The Ikhwan was the jack in the box that he could not eliminate. And there were serious human rights excesses in Egypt carried out by the regime.

This all came to a head in 2011 when the so-called “Arab Spring” riots that started in Tunisia spread to Cairo.  Under pressure from the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian military intervened and took over the government and replaced Mubarak. Mubarak received no support from the Obama Administration.  In a  month a constitutional assembly was called and this led to the first free election in Egypt which the Ikhwan led by Mohammed Morsi won.  Mubarak and others were then arrested and put on trial for ordering the killing of 550 demonstrators. However, in 2012 Morsi attempted to institute his own control of the regime, and this led to renewed widespread demonstrations, which resulted in another military intervention to restore order.  This time the military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi really cracked down on the Ikhwan, imprisoning its leaders, including Morsi, and killing many of them.

In 2014 a new constitution was introduced based on a referendum and a government was elected with al Sisi as the new civilian President of Egypt.  The US Obama Administration did not support the removal of the democratically elected Morsi Government, even though it was an Islamic one, and refused to support al Sisi.  In effect, Obama “lost” Egypt, much as before him Carter had “lost” Iran, by refusing to support a pro-American dictator.

 

A child in a time of evil

A Polish Catholic child named Jerzy Mikuczyn, aged 3 , living on a farm near Slonim in eastern Poland, was very disturbed in 1944 near the end of WWII, when a man suddenly turned up and claimed that he was the boy’s father.  His mother of course refused to let the man take him.  But, the man went to the Communist authorities and told them his story, that he was in fact the uncle of the boy, whose true Jewish parents Jakub, his brother, and Helen Glikson, had died fighting in the forests with the partisans against the Nazis.  Documents proved that in fact the child had been taken into the Catholic Orphanage in Slonim where he had been looked after by two nuns, Sisters Martha Wolowska and Ewa Nojszewska, and had been converted to Christianity by the Jesuit priest Father Adam Sztark.  The priest had then arranged for him to be adopted by the Mikuczyns.

Under the circumstances the Russian judge decided to give Josef Glikson custody of the child.  Mrs. Mikuczyn, the boy’s  adopted mother then testified that had she known that she was raising a child for the Jews, she wouldn’t have taken him in.  The boy, now called Jurek Glikson reluctantly went with the man, who he believed was his real father, and they traveled east by train via Moscow to Tashkent, where he met his third mother, Cypora.  The Gliksons adopted Jurek and returned to Warsaw as soon as the Soviet authorities allowed Polish nationals to repatriate.  But, finding that most of their relatives had perished in the war, they became DPs and moved on to Stockholm, Paris and finally in 1948 to New York.

Although at first speaking no English, Jurek learned the language very quickly.  He also began to learn what being a Jew meant, having already experienced anti-Semitism in Poland. He also took classes in Yiddish and Jewish history, literature and culture and returned to his roots.  At 18 during his US citizenship proceedings, having been formally renamed as Jerry David Glickson, he finally learned the true story of his origins. Eventually he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia University.  He became Professor at several US Universities and was a former scientific colleague of mine.  Now married for the second time, he has 5 children and 3 grandchildren, all of them Jewish.

In 2005, Jerry returned to Slonim for a visit, which proved to be very enlightening.  He learned about the Orphanage where he had been looked after by the two nuns and the priest.  From a monument commemorating the Jewish Community, he learned that 35,000 Jews had been murdered in Slonim and that the priest and two nuns had been executed by the Nazis for helping Jews and had been buried in a mass grave with 21,000 Jews outside of Slonim.  He found this mass grave on a hill in a remote suburb called Petrolowicze.  This hill is in fact a man-made hill resulting from the burial of 21,00 Jews, plus several hundred Poles.  On top are four memorials, one to the Jews, one to the Poles killed by the Nazis, a cross commemorating the two nuns and the priest and a monument commemorating the Russian soldiers who fell fighting to liberate the town on July 4, 1944. The two nuns have been beatified by Pope John Paul II, and the priest has been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Now that he knows the almost complete story of his origins, Jerry is writing a memoire of his life.  I thank him for letting me see it in its current form and allowing me to write this summary.  He is one of a few child survivors out of three million Polish Jews who perished in Poland during the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators.

 

 

 

A simple a/c repair

One night as usual I went to turn off the central a/c with the remote control, but it did not work.  I tried again and again and then I was surprised to find that the remote control was wet.  I opened it up and it was even wet inside.  The remote usually sits on the wall just below the electronic switch that turns the a/c on/off that is located on the ceiling.  Then I saw that water was dripping down from the hole where the wire comes through the ceiling just above the electronic switch.

So I went into our bedroom, climbed onto the chest of drawers and looked inside the crawl space (boyden) where the a/c fan unit is located and found that water was dripping from the a/c fan unit and the floor of the boyden was soaking wet.  This has happened before. The hose that takes the condensed water out from the a/c connects on the bottom left of the unit and previously the hose was blocked and the water overflowed and it flooded the bathroom below.  But this time water was also dripping out of the right of the unit and was seeping through the hole where the wire exits to the switch.

I realized that the outlet hose was blocked again.  So I disconnected the hose and tried to blow it out (with my mouth as I’ve seen techncians do it before), but I didn’t know if it cleared or not.  Then I needed to switch the a/c off, but could not since the remote didn’t work and there is no manual switch.  Then Sahlee our carer suggested switching off the electricity at the mains board outside (why didn’t I think of that).  So I went there and there is a specific switch for the a/c, so I turned that off and then when I checked in the boyden the dripping had stopped.  So I called an a/c guy that had been here before and he said he would come the following afternoon.

But I woke up at 5 am the next morning and was thinking about how to fix the a/c.  There was a plastic bowl that I had put under the left side of the unit where the hose connects to collect dripping water.  It was full of water and I could not take it out without spilling all the water.  So I worked out the steps I would have to take to solve the problem.  I got up at 6 am and systematically began the process.  I first removed the TV that stands on the top of the chest of drawers because I remember that last time I did this about a year ago I knocked the TV down and it fell on the floor, but it still worked OK.  Anyway this time I disconnected it and removed it.  I then put a small stool on the chest of drawers to extend my reach into the boyden.

Then I placed an absorbent floor cloth into the water in the bowl and that soaked most of the water up, and then I removed the bowl and also disconnected the hose from the unit.  Once again I blew through it and this time it seemed clear.  Then I attached a small plastic funnel to the hose and  poured the rest of the water into that and I was happy when I ran to the window and saw the water exit from the end of the hose far below onto the ground.  But, to be sure I dripped some specially concentrated solution (containing copper salts) that kill algae that tend to grow in the flowing water and block the hose.  Then I poured water containing detergent through to remove bubbles and this also poured out the other end onto the ground.  Then I reconnected the hose and replaced the empty bowl underneath it.

I had left the remote control open on the table overnight with the batteries taken out. Now I reinserted the batteries and the remote was working.  So I turned the a/c on at the mains and then tested the remote and it worked perfectly, turning  the electronic switch of the a/c on and off.   I went back to the boyden and checked that all was OK, I mopped up the rest of the water and made sure that water was dripping out of the end of the hose onto the gound when the a/c was running.  I used to do this regularly but I had forgotten, a simple but necessary check.

Finally, later that morning, I was glad to be able to call the a/c repair guy back and tell him not to come, since I had fixed the problem myself.  And I had prevented a worse flood in the bathroom. Later on we ate lunch out on the money I saved by fixing this simple a/c problem myself.

The Modern Pharaohs I

A three-part series on BBC TV entitled “The Modern Pharaohs” describes the reigns of the three modern Egyptian dictators Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was responsible for forming the officers group that overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and installed Gen. Naguib as the President of Egypt.  But, Naguib did not last long and was replaced by the power behind the throne, Nasser, in 1956.  Nasser then ruthlessly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) that had been active in Egypt since the 1930’s.  Nasser saw the Ikhwan as a threat to his rule and so he imprisoned and murdered their leaders. In 1956, he kicked the British out of the Suez Canal zone and nationalized it and this led to the Suez Campaign, in which British and Israeli forces defeated the Egyptian forces, but were then forced to withdraw under international pressure.  Nasser was not only the ruler of Egypt, but he was the “poster boy” for the whole of the Arab world and he became the leader of the so-called pan-Arab movement.

In 1962, Nasser initiated sweeping socialist reforms in Egypt and also began work on the Aswan Dam on the Nile.  But, his policies left Egypt nearly bankrupt.  His moment of glory was to come in 1967 when, contrary to international law, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping going to Eilat and kicked the UN peace-keeping force out of Sinai.  The Egyptian mobs bayed for Israeli blood, but the incredible victorious Israeli victory in 6 days, in which the Egyptian Air Force was decimated and the Egyptian army dealt a total defeat, caused Nasser to resign.  However, the Egyptian mobs called for Nasser’s return to power and he willingly obliged.  He tried to carry out further attacks against Israel in the War of Attrition in 1968, but this also failed and his sudden and untimely death in 1970 dealt the death knell to so-called pan-Arabism.

Nasser’s successor was his deputy, Anwar Sadat, who was regarded as a quiet and ineffectual leader.  Almost immediately after he was proclaimed President other pro-Nasser leaders together with some Army leaders began to plot to overthrow him.  But, he struck first.  He released the leadership of the Ikhwan and used them to counter-attack his enemies and also found loyal members of the Armed forces.  With this coalition he managed to remain in power.  But, it was an insecure situation.  Meanwhile his enemies accused him of being soft on Israel.  To outflank them he took over the Nasserist plan to re-attack Israel and made it his own plan, although he delayed it until 1973.

In 1973, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War that although they had ample warning took the Israeli intelligence community by surprise (they underestimated the Egyptian improvements).  Using Soviet hand-held anti-tank missiles and a large Soviet anti-air missile system, the Egyptians were able to overcome the Israeli defences on the Suez Canal and push into the Sinai desert.  But, because they were winning and because Pres. Assad of Syria, who had launched a coordinated attack, was in dire trouble on the Golan, the Egyptians went beyond the range of their air-defense system.  The Israelis immediately counter-attacked and the rest is history.

Some think that Sadat calculated that he could not defeat the IDF and wanted a stalemate so that he could negotiate a ceasefire/peace.  This required the Americans to act as intermediary, notably Henry Kissinger, US Secty. of State.  This allowed Sadat to get out from under the Soviets and move to the US side and to start modernizing Egypt. However, this move to the American side and dealing with Israel caused a great deal of opposition within Egypt from all the leftist organizations and the Ikhwan. In order to proceed Sadat had them all arrested and in effect sealed his fate.  In 1979 Sadat visited Israel and signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.  At the ceremony in 1981 honoring the second anniversary of the Treaty, Sadat was assassinated by the brother of one of those he had executed, Khalid Istambouli, an Army officer and a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a violent offshoot of the Ikhwan and a precursor of al Qaeda.

Correction.  In my last blog posting “An unlikely alliance” the word “not” in the third paragraph should be “now”

 

An unlikely alliance

Russia and Turkey are an unlikely alliance, as they say politics make strange bedfellows. In this case, both Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan are looking for friends in unlikely places.  For they share much in common, even though they have lately been at loggerheads.

What caused a rift between Russia and Turkey was the Turkish downing of a Russian warplane that they claimed entered their airspace from Syria a few weeks ago.  Of course, Russia denied this and cut off diplomatic relations.  They also forbade all Russian tourists from visiting Turkey and cut trade relations.  This was a great economic loss for Turkey and was a major problem for Erdogan, after losing Israeli tourism and much more as a result of terrorist incidents.

But, the recent coup attempt gave Erdogan much more to worry about.  However, he used the botched coup as an excuse to get rid of his enemies, and to purge the army and the judiciary, as well as the educational establishment, of all his opponents.  You could say that he staged a pro-Islamic counter-coup against the basis of secular Turkey.  Now that Erdogan has become Turkey’s virtual dictator he shares much in  common with Putin, Russia’s strong-man.  So they are now natural allies, even though the case of the downed Russian plane has not been resolved.   Nevertheless it is in both their interests to put that problem aside and make amends.

Where the US has under Obama left a power vacuum in the Middle East, it is now being filled by an unlikely combination of Russia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and the Kurds.  The only democracy in this group is Israel, but it also has the most effective Air Force and Army in the region.  In opposition is Iran with its proxies, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Assad’s Syria.  Although Israel and Egypt are not directly engaged in the war in Syria or against IS, they are nevertheless solidly on the anti-IS side.  Hence Sunni Muslim countries, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are covertly engaged in exchanging information on the subject.  Where this new strategic, but loose, alliance will lead is still uncertain.

Escaping Europe

Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) was a famous Jewish historian born in Belarus, who wrote a magisterial 12 volume “World History of the Jews.”  He was neither a socialist, nor religious, nor a Zionist, but rather a secular Yiddish speaker who identified with the Bundist Party that advocated local Jewish autonomy.   He was rounded up by the Nazis and murdered along with thousands of other Jews in Riga, Lithuania, during WWII.  He predicted that “if Germany and Russia go to war the Jews will be crushed between them.”  Foresight, yes, but not enough to follow Zeev Jabotinsky’s advice, who tried to warn the Jews of Eastern Europe to get out to save themselves while there was still time.

Currently there is a similar situation brewing in Europe.  The European Jewish communities are caught between the Muslims, who now constitute about 20% of the population in some countries, and the local populations, formerly known for their endemic anti-Semitism, in Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, etc.  If there is a violent confrontation between Islamic radicalism and European nationalism, the European Jews will be crushed between them.

This is especially true in France, which houses the largest Jewish community in Europe (ca. 500,000) and the largest Muslim population.  Neither the entrenched Muslim community, nor the growing French nationalist political movement (Marine Le Pen’s National Front) will do anything to defend the rights of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”  The French Jews are now flocking in their thousands to Israel and more are beginning the process of leaving. French has now replaced Russian as the most common spoken language in the center of Netanya.  Mind you, now is August, the hallowed time for the French to take vacations. But, many of those here on vacation are either planning to stay or are preparing their escape (see http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/22/middleeast/france-israel-jews-immigration/ ).

Of the many movements that attracted Jews before WWII, socialism, communism, Bundism, and assimilation, only Zionism has become a successful movement.  Not only did it establish the State of Israel, but this State has made amazing progress, with a stable democratic system, strong currency, technological development, excellent armed forces and investment opportunities.  Let’s hope more Jews get out of Europe in time, before they are caught in the next European cataclysm.