Commentary Magazine


Topic: Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Wahhabi Intolerance in the 21st Century

In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

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In early 2011, along with a handful of other American journalists, I interviewed Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in Jerusalem. Ayalon pressed the need for recognition of Israel on the part of the Palestinian leadership–but not in English or Hebrew. “Say it in Arabic, to your own children and to your own people,” Ayalon had said. The habit of Arab leaders to say one thing in English and another in Arabic has been a hallmark of Palestinian politics perfected by Yasir Arafat, and it’s long been a sticking point in Israel’s objection to Palestinian media manipulation.

“Say it in Arabic” encompasses more than just the Palestinian Authority. American intelligence agencies have been unusually public about their need for Arabic speakers. The language barrier gives Arab leaders unrestrained leeway to say whatever they want, and tracking what these leaders say in Arabic to their home audiences has been an essential part of attempting to hold these leaders accountable. So it’s encouraging to see a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies spearheaded by FDD’s vice president for research (and COMMENTARY contributor) Jonathan Schanzer.

With the understanding that in the age of social media it’s no longer sufficient just to analyze Arab leaders’ public speeches and sermons in mind, FDD contracted with the Washington-based technology firm ConStrat to analyze six months worth of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media messages from Saudi clerics in English and Arabic. The result is contained in the in-depth report, written by Schanzer and FDD research associate Steven Miller, “Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media.” The whole report is worth reading, as is this interview the Jerusalem Post conducted with Schanzer, but the report makes clear there have been both promising and troubling trends:

The tone and tenor of the conversations ConStrat coded was mixed, but was generally marked by an absence of overt militancy. This does not, however, indicate an absence of intolerant or xenophobic positions. According to the data scored with ConStrat’s proprietary VX software, views that were hostile to America, the West, and non-Muslim or secular cultures represented nearly 52 percent of the English data, while in Arabic they represented 75 percent….

Saudi Arabia’s success in reducing militant online content is a positive sign that the Saudi government can, when sufficiently motivated, temper the radicalism that percolates in the kingdom. This is also a sign that when the U.S. properly applies pressure, it can have a noticeable impact.

However, the kingdom’s recent attempts to convince the West that it is promoting “religious tolerance” and embracing change do not resonate with the content mined during this study.

As Schanzer told the Post, that’s not a lot of violence, but it’s an overwhelming amount of intolerance and misogyny. And it explains why Ayalon’s appeal to “say it in Arabic” remains good advice for proponents of true peace and reform in the Arab world.

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The Green Movement: A Work in Progress

The Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a timely program in Washington, D.C., this morning entitled Iran: Prospects for Regime Change. It comes at a time when the Obama administration is inching toward itty-bitty sanctions and has apparently rejected a serious policy of advancing the Green Movement’s efforts at regime change. Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mohsen Sazegara of the Research Institute for Contemporary Iran had a thoughtful discussion moderated by Bill Kristol.

Several key points emerged from the panel. First, the Green Movement is a work in progress. While we may look toward the end goal of regime change — toppling of the supreme leader — it has, as do most revolutionary movements, intermediary goals, the first of which Khalaji describes as the delegitimatization of the regime — which he contends has been largely successful within Iran, especially among the middle and upper classes in the first year of the Green Movement. He cautions  that “the Movement is young,” but it has already expanded geographically beyond Tehran to new social groups and to labor organizations. Those who contend the Movement has failed because the regime is still in place miss the ongoing process of revolutionary movements — delegitimazation to paralysis to regime change.

Second, the greatest hope for the movement is the loss of legitimacy and the isolation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Sazegara explained, loyalty to Khamenei has replaced ideology or constitutional authority as the essence of the regime, casting as “soldiers of the cultural invasion every influential human being” who is not entirely loyal to the supreme leader. As a result, Khamenei is increasingly isolated. Sazegara notes that “every move was wrong” since the June 12 election — fueling opposition and solidarity against a regime increasingly viewed as corrupt and brutal.

Third, the Green Movement is  making efforts to reach out to the under class, which remains Ahmadinejad’s  base of support. The message will need to tie economic opportunity to political freedom to complete the process of undercutting the regime’s final base of popular support.

Fourth, the Revolutionary Guard, which was previously comprised of those who were ideologically motivated and dedicated to defense of the regime, is increasingly corrupt and needs to be “subsidized.” As the Guard has expanded, the opportunity for factions, rivalries, and divisions has also multiplied.

Finally, the U.S. can play a role. As Sazegara noted, “Every move, even indifference, affects the internal situation in Iran.” Silence in the face of brutality emboldens the regime and demoralizes those seeking to exploit its weaknesses. Efforts to aid the Green Movement’s essential communication tools — internet and satellite TV — can have a meaningful impact.  Gerecht summed up that in the 1980s,  it was apparent that “the regime was losing legitimacy. That process has only accelerated.” The Green Movement, he explains, “owns the middle and upper classes. The regime can’t replicate itself.” He urged those hoping for regime change to “be more patient. The regime has lost the best and the brightest. It eats its own.”

That the Obama administration has so obviously turned its back on the Green Movement and instead has gone out of its way to confer legitimacy on the brutal regime is a great moral and geopolitical failing. What the panel made clear is that the Obama adminstration is also missing a critical opportunity to assist and accelerate a movement that is steadily undermining the Islamic dictatorship.

The Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a timely program in Washington, D.C., this morning entitled Iran: Prospects for Regime Change. It comes at a time when the Obama administration is inching toward itty-bitty sanctions and has apparently rejected a serious policy of advancing the Green Movement’s efforts at regime change. Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mohsen Sazegara of the Research Institute for Contemporary Iran had a thoughtful discussion moderated by Bill Kristol.

Several key points emerged from the panel. First, the Green Movement is a work in progress. While we may look toward the end goal of regime change — toppling of the supreme leader — it has, as do most revolutionary movements, intermediary goals, the first of which Khalaji describes as the delegitimatization of the regime — which he contends has been largely successful within Iran, especially among the middle and upper classes in the first year of the Green Movement. He cautions  that “the Movement is young,” but it has already expanded geographically beyond Tehran to new social groups and to labor organizations. Those who contend the Movement has failed because the regime is still in place miss the ongoing process of revolutionary movements — delegitimazation to paralysis to regime change.

Second, the greatest hope for the movement is the loss of legitimacy and the isolation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Sazegara explained, loyalty to Khamenei has replaced ideology or constitutional authority as the essence of the regime, casting as “soldiers of the cultural invasion every influential human being” who is not entirely loyal to the supreme leader. As a result, Khamenei is increasingly isolated. Sazegara notes that “every move was wrong” since the June 12 election — fueling opposition and solidarity against a regime increasingly viewed as corrupt and brutal.

Third, the Green Movement is  making efforts to reach out to the under class, which remains Ahmadinejad’s  base of support. The message will need to tie economic opportunity to political freedom to complete the process of undercutting the regime’s final base of popular support.

Fourth, the Revolutionary Guard, which was previously comprised of those who were ideologically motivated and dedicated to defense of the regime, is increasingly corrupt and needs to be “subsidized.” As the Guard has expanded, the opportunity for factions, rivalries, and divisions has also multiplied.

Finally, the U.S. can play a role. As Sazegara noted, “Every move, even indifference, affects the internal situation in Iran.” Silence in the face of brutality emboldens the regime and demoralizes those seeking to exploit its weaknesses. Efforts to aid the Green Movement’s essential communication tools — internet and satellite TV — can have a meaningful impact.  Gerecht summed up that in the 1980s,  it was apparent that “the regime was losing legitimacy. That process has only accelerated.” The Green Movement, he explains, “owns the middle and upper classes. The regime can’t replicate itself.” He urged those hoping for regime change to “be more patient. The regime has lost the best and the brightest. It eats its own.”

That the Obama administration has so obviously turned its back on the Green Movement and instead has gone out of its way to confer legitimacy on the brutal regime is a great moral and geopolitical failing. What the panel made clear is that the Obama adminstration is also missing a critical opportunity to assist and accelerate a movement that is steadily undermining the Islamic dictatorship.

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Re: Leveretts Revealed

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

Read Less




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