Call for Two Postdoctoral Researchers on the Sahara

Readers may be interested in the following opportunity: two postdoctoral fellowships for a research project covering parts of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The call for applications can be found here. The deadline for applications is March 20.

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“Tribal Dynamics” and Wannabe Gordian Knot-Cutters

Reading Crisis Group’s latest report on Yemen, two sentences jumped out at me:

Western analysis tends to explore [al-Qaida]’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain. Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.

This observation about Yemen can be broadened to discussions of “counterinsurgency” in general. At policy-oriented conferences and in my reading, I’ve repeatedly run into the idea that attending to “tribal dynamics” is the key to understanding and solving conflicts, particularly in terms of stripping away local support from jihadists. Western analysts who glom onto the “tribal dynamics” hypothesis tend to speak as though they’re Alexander ready to cut through the Gordian Knot – as though they can slice through complexity with a single analytical tool.

It’s also remarkable how superficial the analysis of “tribal dynamics” often is. Whether the subject is Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., the template such analysts like to apply is simple and generic: a lot of talk about “honor and shame,” “revenge and feuds,” pre-modern societies, and so forth. Funny: if we’re talking about ultra-local dynamics, then how come the same framework can supposedly be applied in extremely different places? Are all tribes fundamentally the same? If analysts know the “local” so well, why do they so rarely provide any details about the specific tribes, situations, and customs involved? Analysts in this vein talk as though all you need to do is show up, find an old shaykh under a tent, remember not to eat with your left hand, butter him up about honor, and you can magically solve the world’s worst conflicts.

Additionally, as the quoted passage suggests, the emphasis on “tribal dynamics” is almost always a de-politicizing maneuver – a conscious or unconscious flight from the messiness of politics. It would convenient if conflicts could be solved just by appealing to shaykhs under tents, because that would eliminate the necessity to sort through the incredible complexity of state failures, elite infighting, ethnic and sectarian conflict, historical memory, etc.

At the end of the day I don’t think there’s a sword that can cut through these Gordian Knots. Conflicts are complicated. Societies are complex. Power is fickle and diffuse. Sometimes you don’t get a sword: you just have to try to pull the strings you can find. And sometimes you can’t even do that.

Peter Mandaville and J.M. Berger on CVE, Past and Present

The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs has published an interesting interview with Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, who recently left the US State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. (There’s no relationship between the Centre and the Office, despite the overlap in names.)

One exchange stood out to me:

There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

Recently, there has been some well-placed concern the Trump administration’s plans to change CVE to focus entirely on Muslims. As J.M. Berger wrote earlier this month,

Theoretically, up to now, [CVE has] been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism…The administration is taking advantage of yet another opportunity to ratify white nationalism and white supremacy.

I see Mandaville’s and Berger’s points as entirely compatible. One might even sum it up as “old CVE, naive; new CVE, dangerous.”

A Roundup of Arguments Against Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization

An extremely important debate is occurring in Washington now: whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, or otherwise use the powers of the U.S. government to constrain the Brotherhood’s operations. The main debate now concerns a bill (.pdf) by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would ask the State Department to either designate the Brotherhood a Foreign Terrorist Organization or provide an explanation as to why not. There is also talk of a presidential Executive Order demanding a designation. As I wrote on Twitter, I oppose the designation of the Brotherhood for various reasons.

Here are some experts weighing in on why the designation would be a bad idea:

  • William McCants and Benjamin Wittes: “The Brotherhood as a whole, in several different respects, does not meet the criteria for designation under the statute. That’s why, despite pressure from governments like Egypt and the UAE over a protracted period of time, it has not been designated to date under any of the previous three administrations. Barring a change in statute that would almost certainly render the material support law unconstitutional, a designation, notwithstanding the ferment for it, would not be lawful today either, even under a Trump administration.”
  • Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne: “There is no single thing called the Muslim Brotherhood, but instead a number of organizations, movements, parties, associations, and informal groups that take some inspiration, sometimes direct and sometimes remote, from the original movement founded in Egypt in 1928 and the core texts its founder produced. Brotherhood-inspired movements long ago concluded that their circumstances were so distinct that each would follow the path it saw as appropriate in its own society. And there are many organizations that have been formed with varying degrees of participation from Brotherhood members, but their ties to any Brotherhood organization are often informal and vary in scope. Nor is their use or espousal of violence, a key aspect of the terrorism designation, a given, even if one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that has unarguably used violence in recent years is the Palestinian organization Hamas, which the United States declared to be a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.”
  • New York Times Editorial Board: “It is wrongheaded and dangerous to tar all Brotherhood members with one brush. The Brotherhood is associated with political parties in Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen and even Israel, and runs schools and hospitals. Many of those parties are America’s partners. The governing party in Turkey, a NATO member, also has connections to the Brotherhood. If the group is named to the terrorism list, how will Washington continue these relationships without violating the law?”
  • Arjun Sethi: “If the Brotherhood is designated a foreign terrorist organization, the government could bring criminal charges against [American] Muslims, Arabs and their institutions by invoking dangerously broad and expansive material support of terrorism laws. They could be criminally prosecuted for providing support, services, resources, expert advice or assistance to the Brotherhood without any intent to support terrorist activity. These laws can be easily exploited and manipulated for political gain, as even the most remote connection to the Brotherhood could pass muster in a court of law.”
  • Georgetown Bridge Initiative: “If the US designates the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO, the signal sent to masses of Muslims is that the United States welcomes autocracy, but not democratization. A controversial review of the Muslim Brotherhood by the UK government, somewhat similar to a requirement under the Republican proposal, could not arrive at evidence of complicity in violence. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been a strong opponent of oppressive dictatorships and radical Muslim extremists…Putting the Muslim Brotherhood in the same general category as the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) would be a victory for the extremists because it would take away from the United States an important resource in the battle against ISIL.”
  • Andrew March: “There is a hidden danger for academics and journalists lurking within congressional legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Most of the discussion has focused on whether the legislation’s premise is correct about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with terrorism and the potential impact on Muslim American organizations. There is another threat more specific to academic researchers and analysts: Those who conduct research on the organization could find themselves at risk of prosecution for “material support” of terrorism.”

A final thought from me, Sahel-specific: a designation would complicate U.S. relations with two countries this blog covers, Mauritania and Sudan. With Mauritania, the effect could be to constrain political space for the opposition. With Sudan, the effect could be yet another source of conflict and tension, given that the Muslim Brotherhood is, at least in some loose sense, the ruling party in Sudan.

African Studies Association Statement Against Trump’s Refugee/Muslim Ban

The African Studies Association, of which I am a member, has issued a strong and laudable statement against President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. A few key excerpts from the statement:

The fact that all seven are majority Muslim countries and that the rhetoric preceding the exclusion specifically talked about a ban of Muslims suggest that US policy is targeting Muslims. This creates an image of bias and hostility that undermines efforts to build understanding and cooperation. It also blatantly disregards constitutional protections of freedom of religion enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and makes those of us who work abroad less safe.

[…]

The ASA includes many scholars who have worked in countries with autocratic governments, and who conduct research on authoritarianism, and we are particularly troubled by the signs of emerging authoritarian practices in the United States. We are alarmed by the administration’s attacks on the free press and the harassment of civil society. This executive order targets people based on race, religion, and national origin and is a form of scapegoating commonly associated with authoritarian regimes. The failure to adequately consult with Congress on this order and the disregard for court rulings limiting its impact represent an overreach of executive authority that undermines democracy.

I am proud to be a member of ASA.

International Crisis Group Hiring Northern Sahel Analyst

Readers of the blog may be interested in applying for this position with the International Crisis Group:

Based in the region, and preferably in the Crisis Group Office in Dakar, the Analyst will research and produce reports and other works on security, political, legal, governance, human rights and social issues related to Northern Sahel region, including in Northern Mali and Northern Niger.

Crisis Group’s reporting is top-notch, I almost always agree with their policy recommendations, and everyone I’ve met from the organization is highly professional, intelligent, and good-hearted. In other words, I imagine it’s a great place to work.

Key Africa-Related Assignments in the 115th US Congress

The 115th U.S. Congress began on January 3. Both the Senate and the House are controlled by the Republican Party, as was the case before the November 2016 election. That makes for substantial continuity in key committee assignments in both houses of Congress, but here, for informational purposes, are key assignments related to Africa:

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy: Chairman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA)
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on Multilateral International Development: Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), Ranking Member Tom Udall (D-NM)
  • House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations: Chairman Christopher Smith (R, NJ-4), Ranking Member Karen Bass (D, CA-37)
  • House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa: Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL-27), Ranking Member Theodore Deutch (D, FL-21)
  • House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade: Chairman Ted Poe (R, TX-2), Ranking Member William Keating (D, MA-9)