Monday, April 14, 2008

Factions in Islamic Politics

For outsiders, factions constitute one of the most misunderstood aspects of Islamic politics, in part because of lack of familiarity with local culture and politics but also because all too often the dynamic is perceived by outsiders as static. Outsiders tend to underestimate the degree to which the very process of Western intrusion into a Moslem society causes change. In a desperate search for understanding, outsiders quickly label individuals and groups “good” or “bad,” “anti-somebody” or “pro-somebody,” in the assumption that not only are these labels meaningful but that they remain so, failing to understand the degree to which their very intrusion causes the perceptions, attitudes, tactics, and goals of the factions to evolve. Complexity is about adaptation, not stability, and a Western-Islamic sociopolitical confrontation is nothing if not complex.

Such a confrontation challenges rules of morality, norms of behavior, methods of organizing society, and power relationships at every level. This pressure sets off an unpredictable jockeying among all the political forces in the society, as they try to figure out where they should stand and where they want to stand. Since the answers for each individual and group are greatly a function of the conclusions that all other individuals and groups draw, an enormous amount of calculation and recalculation ensues.

This situation gives rise to an endless series of practical questions of enormous import for anyone concerned with taking effective action but whose answers are not only difficult to determine but frequently ephemeral:

  • Should the Taliban in Pakistan be viewed as distinct from al Qua’ida? What about the local Uzbekis or various tribal activists? When groups differ, even slightly, what are the long-term implications of subjecting them to the same military pressure?
  • Should the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabaab be viewed as parts of the same faction or should the former be seen as a relatively moderate reformist group and the latter seen as “terrorist,” as some now call it? Do those labels matter? Should a foreign government wishing to have influence refuse to deal with a violent group that arises in reaction to outside military attack?
  • How many factions even exist in, say, Iraq? If we simplify and say that, for some purpose, there are four: the Kurds, Abdul-Aziz Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISIC) and its Badr Organization militia, Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and the Sunnis, then would it be preferable for some purpose to have three (removing sadr)? What impact will it have on the Sunnis, with their new 100,000-man militia, if the majority Shi’a are reunited under one faction? How would that influence the behavior of the Shi’a? Would a united Shi’a majority be more likely to share oil with the Sunnis, invite them to participate in national government, or admit their Awakening troops into the national army? And how will all this affect the behavior and popularity of the smaller factions (e.g., Maliki’s Dawa) that we so conveniently ignored in order to create the simple mental model of a four-faction political environment?

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