Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dealing with President Trump's unbridled and imprudent nationalism

David Gushee presents three ways that are being used to critique the heavy dose of Trumpian nationalism that was administered to the Americans and to the world during the first week of Trump's presidency (Read the article here). Gushee argues that people who do not agree with the President's policies are criticizing him using alternative patriotism, transcendent values, and alternative primary community paradigms.


The alternative patriotism paradigm is based on a different national vision. Those who believe in American exceptionalism and see America as the best country in the world are using this argument to critique President Trump's policies. They are as patriotic and nationalistic as Trump supporters are but think that American interests are being damaged by what the President is doing. Gushee puts Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and most of their supporters in this category and explains:

Here the assumption is that every American is and should be committed to American well-being and national self-interest, but the question is how best to get there. The reigning paradigm on this side has been that the United States is best served by being wired into global economic, alliance, and governance relationships and playing by shared international norms, that our long-term best interest is served by being open rather than closed to the rest of the world, and that showing a compassionate face to the world better reflects who we really are as a people and engenders goodwill toward us.

President Trump's policies can also be criticized on the basis of transcendental values paradigm. Transcendental values are universal values that transcend nationalities, races, religions or ethnicities. These values acclaim humanity, do not prioritize any nation or race or religion, and consider divisions based on these notions/philosophies/moral systems not only abhorrent but also dangerous.  

The transcendent values strategy is to say that US policies should reflect values that many of us believe in at the core of our being — such as tolerance, inclusion, ecological sustainability, hospitality, care, mercy, and justice. These values, we say, matter more than other, more parochial values, including the mere value of national self-interest.

The final paradigm that is being used to counter President Trump is the alternative community paradigm. I think it will be better if the paradigm is labeled as alternative nation paradigm. People, who believe their primary allegiance is not to America but to another nation, can critique President Trump using this paradigm. Gushee considers himself part of the group that is using this paradigm to criticize President Trump:

The alternative community paradigm is the most radical. Adherents of this paradigm grant that nations are inclined naturally to advance their self-interest, but then say that their particular community of people simply does not believe that the nation is their primary community.
For some, their alternative primary community might be defined by another identity marker, such as national origin, immigrant status, gender, or race. For others, the alternative community is religious. If your primary identity is, say, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, then your primary commitment is to follow his Way, not to advance any nation’s self-interest.
While I am attracted to all three approaches, this last paradigm is where I stand most fundamentally. My primary identity is as a follower of Jesus. My primary community is with others thus committed, wherever they may be found here or around the world.
While Gushee thinks that the alternative community/nation paradigm is powerful, I think the only paradigm that can really challenge Trumpian nationalism is the alternative patriotism paradigm. Nationalism is very powerful and getting more powerful in the US so anyone trying to criticize Trump, without giving primacy to the US, is delegitimizing oneself and so likely to fail. Most Americans today will not follow or even listen to people who believe in transcendental values or claim to be part of another nation. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Indonesia: Ahok's trial and religious right resurgence

Indonesia is not only a Muslim-majority country (MMC) but the biggest MMC in the world. However, in the 1940s, after getting independence from Netherlands, its elite decided to  adopt secular Pancasila nationalism and ignored the demands for an Islamic state. The multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic diversity of the Indonesian nation surely played a part in this decision. Since then, the hardliners in the religious right have been trying to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia but without much success (See the comparison of India and Indonesia). In 2014 elections, the religious right again tried to eke out a victory and to increase the role of Islam in state affairs but they were soundly beaten (See Indonesian Elections: A Victory for Pancasila Nationalism).

Currently, the religious right is again resurging in Indonesia as Jakarta's governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Chinese nickname Ahok) faces blasphemy charges. Ahok became governor of Jakarta after the previous governor Jokowi won the 2014 Indonesian presidential election. Ahok, a popular deputy governor, took charge of Jakarta governorship in November 2014. Well ahead of his rivals, Ahok was due to be re-elected as Jakarta's governor in February 2017, despite his double-minority status (a Christian Chinese in a Muslim-majority Javanese country). Ahok was expected to win around 40% of the votes polled. Ahok was such a strong candidate that the opposition parties initially tried to put up a single candidate to defeat him but failed to do so. One group (PKS and Gerindra) then nominated former culture and education minister Anies Baswedana, who had fought against these two parties in the 2014 elections (See The profiles of the Jakarta election contenders: Ahok, Agus, Anies).

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Ahok (left) after the latter's swearing in as governor on November 19, 2014 (Source: Indonesian President cancels Australia trip after violent protests)

But then something happened on 30th September that completely changed the scenario. Ahok in a rally accused the Islamic hardliners of using the following quranic verse Al-Maida 51 to deceive voters:

"O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." (Al-Maida 51)

The verse, according to many religious scholars, is for a specific context and Prophet Muhammad had many Christian and Jewish allies during his lifetime. However, Indonesian hardliners were not letting Ahok get away and accused Ahok of insulting Quran/Islam:

Ahok provoked the ire of hardliners after he cited the Al Maidah 51 verse from the Qur’an during a campaign visit to the Thousand Islands in September. He said the verse had been used to deceive voters and justify the assertion that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims. The governor later apologised, saying it was not his intention to cause any offence.
However, an edited version of those comments was subsequently circulated online, changed in a way to make the governor’s comments appear more offensive, angering hardliners further. As a Christian, and the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, Ahok is somewhat of an anomaly in Indonesia’s political scene. The capital’s willingness to be led by a man who represents a double minority has in the past been hailed a symbol of progress and pluralism, the latter a virtue enshrined in the Indonesian constitution.
In a country where 90% of its more than 240 million people follow Islam, the national motto is, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity. (See Jakarta's Christian governor to face blasphemy trial over Islam insult claim)

Initially, Indonesian government led by Ahok's friend and former boss President Jokowi did not pay much attention to the blasphemy accusations but later religious groups managed to gather more than a hundred thousand protesters in Jakarta twice on November 4th (around 100,000-150,000) and December 2nd (around 200,000) forcing government on the backfoot. The government decided to charge Ahok under the blasphemy law and President Jokowi assured that he would be neutral. President Jokowi even joined the protesters in Friday prayers on December 2nd. Counter-protest rallies, organized by the Indonesian military, on November 30th across the country, affirmed the unity and diversity of Indonesia and may have helped government ignore more extreme demands of the protesters, like arresting Ahok.

Source: Jakarta protests: Muslims turn out in force against Christian governor Ahok

Ahok's trial is set to begin in December. Irrespective of the result of the trial, it is clear that religious forces, which were soundly defeated in 2014, are now resurgent and emboldened. Some have suggested that the whole idea of focusing on the 55 seconds of more than hundred minutes long Ahok's speech was to defeat Ahok and lessen the chances of an unbeatable Jokowi-Ahok presidential ticket in 2019 (See Commentary: Indonesia's Democracy Making Progress in Reverse).

There is no doubt that besides religious prejudice, racism and Ahok's aggressive personality has also contributed to the success of protest rallies:
Ahok has never been afraid of ruffling feathers. He is loathed as much as he is loved, with his policy of evicting slum dwellers angering the urban poor and his plans for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay attacked by environmentalists.
His political rivals have successfully exploited anger over the alleged blasphemy comments to undermine both Ahok and his ally, President Joko. Ahok is now behind the other gubernatorial candidates in some polls.
There is also little doubt racism is at play. Only around 1 to 4 percent of Indonesia's 250 million people are ethnic Chinese, but their economic success has caused resentment to bubble away for centuries. Ahok has been described as both a "Chinese bastard" and "the Chinese Infidel". (See Verdict in Ahok blasphemy trial likely to put Indonesia's democracy in the dock)

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's not conservatism,religion or racism, only regular, common nationalism?

Mark Movsesian makes an interesting argument about events happening in 2016. He argues that local politics were important but what we saw is the rise of nationalistic anti-global movement (See The New Nationalism).

One can easily perceive nationalism’s role in the politics of 2016. Repeatedly, the side advocating a recovery of sovereignty from supranational bodies and a limit on immigration prevailed. In the Brexit campaign, the “Leave” supporters argued that Britain must take back control from EU bureaucrats and assert authority over its borders. Here, Trump famously called for withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and for renegotiation of other free-trade agreements, including NAFTA; for a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants; and for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Conservatism, racism and religion were contributing factors but cannot explain the movement:

To be sure, traditional conservatism played a role in these developments—but only an indirect one. Although the Right, broadly defined, achieved victories in the United States and Europe, what we think of as “movement conservatism” did not. In Britain, the leaders of the Conservatives opposed Brexit; in America, many conservatives opposed Trump. In France, the Republican Party has worked hard to distance itself from the National Front, which it views as an embarrassment. In Italy, the Five Star Movement declares itself non-aligned and draws votes from both the Left and the Right. 
Nor did Christian conservatism triumph in 2016. True, the majority of British Christians wanted their country out of the European Union and the majority of American Christians voted for Trump (the members of some denominations by wide margins). But both the Brexit campaign and the American election downplayed religious themes. Trump did not make Christian values a centerpiece of his agenda. Many Christians who supported him did so from a fear of what a Hillary Clinton administration would mean for their religious freedom rather than a belief that Trump shared their values. In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen strongly supports secularism. For an express appeal to Catholic values, one must turn instead to the Republican Party’s candidate, Fran├žois Fillon. 
In short, although traditional conservatism has been on the winning side in recent political contests, it has been a junior partner in a larger project: the revival of nationalism.

Movsesian argues that this rise of nationalism does not necessarily mean that liberalism has been rejected. It is the liberalism tied with globalism that is rejected by many

The resurgence of nationalism upsets the conventional wisdom, which for some time has predicted the eclipse of the nation-state and the triumph of global, free market liberalism. Even Francis Fukuyama, who originated the idea of “the End of History” in 1989, has begun to reconsider. (Access to his article in the Financial Times is best from this link.) Why was the conventional wisdom wrong? Many observers argue that the financial rewards of global liberalism have been poorly distributed, with benefits going to a small number of elites within each country. Global liberalism may look great to cosmopolitans in New York and Los Angeles, who enjoy cheaper goods and services and higher returns on their investments, but to many in Middle America, who have lost well-paying factory jobs, and whose communities have been decimated by unemployment and other social ills, the advantages are harder to discern.
The lagging fortunes of what used to be called the working class are only part of the story, though, and not the most important part. As Fukuyama acknowledges, many well-educated Americans with reasonable professional prospects, who could expect to benefit from global liberalism, also supported Trump. For these Americans, too, the new world order of multiculturalism and ever-freer trade seemed lacking.
Does that mean these Americans reject liberalism itself? Maybe. Political scientist Yashca Mounk points to some worrying trends. But not necessarily—they may just want a liberalism tied to a coherent national community. Liberalism is not simply an abstract set of propositions; it is a tradition embedded in a particular political culture. Ultimately, it depends on a shared identity beyond markets and human rights, on a cultural and social unity that transcends cheaper prices and due process of law. A global liberalism divorced from local communities is a pale substitute for the deeper sources of belonging to which people naturally turn when they face a crisis. That, more than anything else, is the key political lesson of 2016.

The question I would like to ask Movsesian is about the basis of this new nationalism. Okay, it is anti-global and anti-immigrant but why? Is it economic nationalism or racial nationalism or religious nationalism or a combination of all of them. Secondly, nationalism is inherently divisive so a 'national' liberalism may not be benign in the end.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is Persian Identity rising again in Iran?

The tussle between the Islamic/Shiite identity and the Persian ethnolinguistic identity has been a constant theme in the modern Iranian politics (See blogpost Iranian 'Persian-National' Identity). Sometimes, one type of identity becomes so powerful that it seems that the other type has been completely evanesced. However, soon the apparently evanesced identity reappears and dominates the political scene, making the once primary identity vanish. For instance, the Persian identity remained dominant during the reigns of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah and the Islamic identity was on the fringe and mostly invisible but, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic identity became the paramount identity and Persian identity was nowhere to be seen.

During the last decade, it appears the Persian identity is gradually rising again. Former President Ahmadinejad was the first one from the top elite of the Islamic regime to acknowledge/lay claim on the Persian identity (See blogpost Afraid of Ahmadinejad). For the first time after the Revolution, Ahmadinejad loaned the famed Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum and exhibited it in Iran. His advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei even linked Cyrus with the prophets of Islam, drawing severe censure from the conservative circles.

Recently, there is more evidence of the growing influence of the Persian identity in Iran. During recent years, more and more Iranians are visiting the Tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae on October 29, the internationally designated day of Cyrus the Great. In October 2016, there was an unprecedented traffic jam near Pasargadae as thousands of Iranians tried to reach the tomb and President Rouhani also joined the celebrations via Instagram:

The number of people who showed up at Pasargadae was surprising. The event fell on a Friday, which is a weekend in Iran, and reportedly saw a traffic jam in a 30- to 40-kilometer (19- to 25-mile) radius on the roads leading to the tomb. Those who had witnessed similar get-togethers say they had never seen such a large gathering. The locals, including those dwelling in the nearby Pasargadae village, were also quite amazed by the sheer number of visitors. Reports say people started gathering in the area, especially around the Tomb of Cyrus, from as early as the evening before and that there was heavy traffic on roads to the site. As such, the main entrance to Pasargadae was closed the night before, with no more cars allowed to enter. On Oct. 28, social media users shared widely circulated videos and pictures of the gathering of Cyrus devotees, showing some of them shouting slogans praising the Achaemenid king.
President Hassan Rouhani even published a picture of himself next to the nearby Achaemenid capital of Persepolis on his Instagram page, with the caption: “Persepolis is one of the invaluable and unique remains of the ancient history of this land, which demonstrates the antiquity of the civilization, the ingenuity, the wisdom, and the management skills of the great people of Iran, as well as their monotheism.” (See ‘Cyrus the Great’ enters Iranian politics)

Source: The rise of nationalist fervour in Iran

Not surprisingly, this gathering was criticized by the conservatives. Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani, one of the most senior clerics, said on October 30th: 

"People rose and brought about the revolution and allowed the emergence of a true Islamic system. The shah used to say, ‘O Cyrus, sleep in peace as we are awake.’ Now, a group of people have gathered around the Tomb of Cyrus and they are circumambulating it and have taken their handkerchiefs out and cry [as they do for Shiite Imam Hussein]. In the time of Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini, too, a group of people started commemorating Cyrus. The imam [Khomeini] said that these people have gathered and are crying because we have brought Islam to this country.” He added, “These are the same [people]; they are counter-revolutionaries. I am amazed that these people get together around the Tomb of Cyrus, shouting the same slogans for him that we shout in support of the supreme leader, and yet we are sitting here, alive and well, and just watching this...Who in power has been so negligent to allow these people to gather? We are in a revolutionary and Islamic country, and this revolution is the continuation of the actions of the prophet and the imams, and their point was to create a perfect populace."(See ‘Cyrus the Great’ enters Iranian politics)

After this statement, the local officials sprung into action and some organizers of the gathering were arrested. However,  Rohollah Faghihi (See What Iranian clerics really think of Cyrus the Great) argues that it would be wrong to think that conservatives are united in disowning Cyrus. Many Iranian clerics consider Cyrus, the Great, Dhul Qarnayn, an ancient king praised in Quran:

In verses 83 and 98 of the chapter Kahf, the Quran narrates a story revolving around an individual named Dhul-Qarnayn, who is praised as a believer and ruler: “Indeed, we established him upon the earth, and we gave him to everything a way.” Allameh Muhammad Hossein Tabatabai, one of the most prominent thinkers of philosophy and contemporary Shiite Islam, cautiously identifies Cyrus as Dhul-Qarnayn in his 20-volume work of Quranic exigesis, the "Tafsir al-Mizan." Other scholars engaged in Quranic exigesis, such as Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi — one of the most senior clerics in Qom — have also described Cyrus as Dhul-Qarnayn.

Faghihi also quotes an anonymous Shiite scholar:

In an interview with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, a Shiite scholar and cleric who has been teaching at the Qom seminary for the past two decades said, “Islam doesn’t seek to take away national pride from people. What is currently happening is a political issue.” He added, “The seminary and religion do not dismiss Cyrus and the ancient history of Iran at all. Some who are expressing their opposition to Cyrus aren’t speaking on behalf of the whole seminary. I should say that even those who have voiced their opposition regarding this issue do not hold an opinion against Cyrus. For instance, Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani criticized the tears the crowd there [in Pasargadae on Oct. 28] shed, not Cyrus himself.”

Are things going to change soon? Is there a coming together of the two Iranian identities? Not likely. Clerics consider nationalism as unislamic/Western import and the advocates of Persian ethnolinguistic identity consider clerics and their rule un-Iranian:

Like many other pious Muslims, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, viewed the concept of nationalism as un-Islamic. He thought nationalism was in opposition to the concept of ummah (Muslim worldwide community), which fundamentally rejects borders that divide Muslim societies. He asserted that “nationalism is designed by the plotters to create discord among the Muslims and it is being propagated by the agents of imperialism.”
Ayatollah Khomeini further remarked that “the plan of the great powers and their affiliates in the Muslim countries is to separate and divide the various strata of Muslims, whom God, the Blessed and Exalted, has declared brothers. … Those who, in the name of nationalism, factionalism, etc., create schism and disunity among Muslims are armies of Satan, opponents of the Holy Quran, and helping agents of the superpowers.”
Additionally, the conservatives view nationalism – essentially a secular movement that advocates separation of state and religion – as a serious threat to the foundation of the state’s ideology, which is based on the guardianship of the Islamic jurists. During the 28 October gathering, one of the slogans chanted was “freedom of thought cannot take place with beards,” a reference to the figures in power. (See The rise of nationalist fervour in Iran)