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September 24, 2011

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My piece “The Islamic Republic’s Inner Mossaddegh” was published today at Tehran Bureau, a terrific site that covers just about everything newsworthy on Iran and the Iranian diaspora. I highly recommend it as a resource for those seeking information and insightful commentary on what many consider an enigmatic nation.

In Winter 2008-2009, Israel unleashed the full wrath of its military during Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip with the stated purpose of halting Hamas attacks from the occupied territory. Support within Israel for the offensive was virtually unconditional, and Western leaders and opinion makers applauded the assault as an action necessary to discipline a belligerent adversary. Human rights groups, though, condemned the attack on humanitarian grounds. As they methodically documented in the event’s aftermath, ordinary Gazans – not Hamas – appeared to be the frequent and deliberate targets of Israel’s firepower.

This disparity between the official line and the considerable evidence of Israel’s violations of wartime conventions provides the foundation for ‘This Time We Went Too Far’, the new book by controversial Jewish-American historian Norman Finkelstein. In a writing style accessible to a wide audience, Finkelstein asserts that the Gaza operation was launched not to curb Hamas, but to restore Israel’s deterrence capability following its disastrous 2006 incursion into Lebanon.

To construct his argument, Finkelstein juxtaposes the Israeli narrative with post-conflict reports by well-respected human rights advocates, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Richard Goldstone. For the author, the credibility of claims similar to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s “The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is the by far the most humane military” is irrefutably undermined by findings that the IDF fired white phosphorous on positions known to shelter noncombatants, such as a United Nations building,1 and the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza,2 among others.

The groups’ findings are also employed by the author to disprove what are judged to be knowingly false explanations for Gaza’s high civilian death toll, which is estimated at 1,400.3 During the campaign, Israeli officials routinely attributed this “collateral damage” to Hamas’s use of human shields in densely populated centers. Yet, as Finkelstein makes clear, no conclusive evidence has ever been presented to support this claim. In fact, post-conflict reports alleging the use of human shields solely cite official Israeli sources.

While the rights organizations’ conclusions buttress Finkelstein’s position, the most disturbing and damning accounts of officially-sanctioned noncombatant targeting is provided by IDF soldiers. Finkelstein’s selections from their testimony reinforce the contention that Israel misportrayed the realities of the combat. In one of the most memorable quotes, an IDF soldier likens military engagement in Gaza to taking a magnifying glass to an ant hill, ostensibly to emphasize the sheer vulnerability of those in Israel’s crosshairs. Other anecdotes confirm that commanders ordered soldiers to fire on anything that moved.

For Finkelstein, Israel’s lip service to human rights served to pacify the Western public while its actions on the ground were intended to warn its adversaries. Israel’s image of invincibility – once an essential component of the nation’s deterrence capability – was shattered following its defeat to Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006. For the first time since Israel’s formation, it was not the clear victor in a military engagement. Seeking to restore Israel’s formidability, leading decision-makers resolved to convey to its regional enemies that Israel’s security would be defended at all costs, even to the point of wantonly disregarding the humanitarian protocols of warfare. To put it more plainly, Finkelstein determines that the Israeli government regarded the lives of people of Gaza as merely pawns in a regional chess match.

Readers well-informed on Middle East politics will find few groundbreaking ideas presented in ‘This Time We Went Too Far’. Criticism of Israel’s conduct in Gaza has received – albeit limited – media exposure and the idea that the assault was a political-military response to Israel’s failure in Lebanon has been proposed by a number of other commentators. But, then again, the book’s intent is to forcefully rebut the narrative repeated ad infinitum by Israel and it’s unquestioning allies. By rehashing the facts of the Gaza siege, Finkelstein reintroduces a conflict that many in the United States and elsewhere in the West have either misunderstood or dismissed as another chapter of violence in the Holy Land. At its core, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ is more than an attempt to raise awareness of the travesty befallen an occupied people. As addressedin the Foreword, “This book is not just a lament; it also sets forth grounds for hope.” Armed with the righteousness of truth, Finkelstein believes that individuals spurred to protest can “enable everyone, Palestinian and Israeli, to live a dignified life.”4

1Norman Finkelstein, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’ (New York: O/R Books, 2010), 77-78.

2Finkelstein, 60.

3Finkelstein, 76.

4Finkelstein, 14.

Social scientists have debated the origins and goals of militant Islam for years. Some have adopted variations of Samuel Huntington’s argument that inter-cultural animosity is the result of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” in which ethnically homogenous blocs attempt to preserve their interests in the face of encroaching globalization.1 Others contend that the violence is purely a vengeful response to socio-political indignations caused by Western states.2 Yet, with an intricate and compelling thesis, Faisal Devji’s The Terrorist in Search of Humanity upends these conventional analyses of Islamic militantism. Through a dialectical examination of al-Qaeda and others’ proclamations, Devji contends that Muslim terrorists perversely mime Gandhi by acting out of a moral, non-ideological conviction that aims to create a post-humanist global politics.

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity takes it inspiration from the philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, both of whom noted that the atomic age ushered in an era of global politics that, because of the destructive potential of the weapons in the context of the Cold War, introduced humanity as a single entity into the global conscious. Militant Islam, says Devji, envisions itself as a contemporary moral representative of a threatened humanity in which the ummah casts itself the “global victim.” This role is made possible by the extremists’ non-ideology. In opposition to those claiming militant Islam promotes a revolutionary political agenda, the author points out that Muslim extremists, unlike traditional agitators, have yet to detail the future political landscape for which they strive. In militant communiques, the aims are vague and emphasize the suprapolitical, in reference to the establishment of a moral global order.

The non-ideological character of Muslim extremists, however, is ineffective without the pluralism it affords. Devji finds this significant in two respects. First, pluralism refers to the globality of moralism. In other words, the pluralism of al-Qaeda and its spinoffs allows it to take up the banner of the disposed and downtrodden, regardless of their religious orientation. To support this argument, Devji cites multiple examples of fundamentalist Muslims championing Hindu causes and vice versa throughout the twentieth century and extremists’ adoption of environmentalism. Second, pluralism allows militant Islam to appeal to the morality of individuals in Western states. Devji explains that this endogenous pluralism accounts for why ostensibly secular Muslims take up the banner of extremism in their host countries. While this partially explains why fundamental Islam gains adherents, it does not answer the question of: Why violence as a means?

To affect change, Islamic militants believe that they must absolve the West of its previous transgressions by redeeming its morality through a mutual recognition of suffering – an awareness that can be triggered by spectacular violence. It is not, as some political leaders and commentators contend, the aim of these militants to subject the West to a modern Caliphate (the specifics of which, as mentioned earlier, have yet to be outlined). Rather, Islamic militants seek to stimulate the West into a non-religious conversion that accepts and establishes suprapolitical concerns as political. As such, Islamic militants are engaged in a friend/enemy dialectic with their Western foe, an interaction that Devji notes is sustained at the human level through detainee abuse in Western facilities. In this relationship, punishment is an act of love.

The West’s transgressions against humanity, though, are not directly related to economic or physical violence against Muslims and others, but the inability of the West (or, in theory, any other offender) to practice the moral standards it espouses in the global arena. The United States’ hypocrisy of preaching human rights while torturing detainees at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib detention centers is not lost on the Islamic world. Devji refines this idea further by arguing that liberalism is unsustainable globally because the values of liberalism are restricted to the institutions of the nation state:

Such limits [of liberalism] are evident in the circular definition that has marked liberalism from its founding days: only those will be tolerated who are themselves tolerant. Such a definition deprives tolerance of any moral content by making it completely dependent on the behavior of others. Tolerance therefore becomes a process of exclusion in which it is always the other person who is being judged…the definition is severely limited, because its circularity works only within the bounds of a nation state.3

To Devji, this shortcoming is untenable in the globalized world. To demonstrate, he points to Muslim uproar over the 2005 Mohammad caricatures published by a Dutch newspaper and Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial statements about The Prophet’s supposed endorsement of violence in 2006. The source of the Muslim community’s subsequent furor was not the blasphemy but the mass interpretation of these acts as a calculated insult coupled with the inability of an institution-less Islam to respond. What is needed, then, is for tolerance to be interpreted as a moral, not legal, concept. The establishment of suprapolitical norms would bypass the rigid legality that denies liberalism a global flexibility.

In an interesting juxtaposition interspersed throughout the text, Devji notes that the tactics and goals of Islamic militantism are perversions of Gandhian resistance. Both, for instance, support a politics of sacrifice which, through the act of martyrdom, transforms self-violence from a political expression with worldly ends into an existential statement. Through this self-negation, militants, like Gandhi, mean to symbolically actuate more morally acceptable inter-human relations by withdrawing from the objectionable realpolitik. The spectacle of this rejection allows for the emergence of the new suprapolitics. By employing Gandhi as a foil, Devji explicates the universal duality of the moral. Simultaneously, the moral motivates individuals to deliberate pacifism or violent barbarism. Without this deconstruction, Devji is unable to formulate his conclusion: that the establishment of a global politics premised on suprapolitical concerns is necessary to avoid the conflict endemic to the liberal system.

For all the intellectual weight of Devji’s argument, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is deficient in some respects. For example, questions linger regarding the intentionality of Muslims extremists when making their pronouncements, on which a bulk of the book’s hypothesis rests. The author appears to waver on whether to take the militants’ words at face value, and the timidity is justified. Considering that direct access to these individuals is scant, his interpretations are impossible to substantiate. Additionally, Devji’s approach avoids analysis of extremist violence perpetrated in the pursuit of national aims, which has been explored by Robert Pape and others4. If news reports are accurate, how can the organized al-Qaeda inspired groups attempting to undermine the Iraqi government on sectarian grounds be labeled globally pluralist, much less concerned with the state of human morality? Certainly, al-Qaeda’s pluralism attracts individuals, but it is these individuals that create networks of resistance – the goals of which are dependent on the context. Devji’s dogged focus on pluralism neglects this aspect of militant Islam.

Despite its shortcomings, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity is a revolutionary piece of literature on the subject of terrorism. By questioning both the Other and the Self (an approach often ignored by positivist social scientists) Devji constructs a cohesive and ahistorical argument that transcends the polemicism indicting either Islam or Western liberalism as the source of militant violence. The true culprit is instead an essential human demand: the ever-present insistence for morality in human actions.

1See Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

2See Michael Mousseau, “Market Civilization and its Clash with Terror,” International Security 27 (2003), 5-29.

3Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 176.

4See Robert Pape. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The American Political Science Review 97 (2003), 1-19.

Since Iran’s contested presidential elections in mid-June, the world has watched with shock and horror the Iranian regime’s systematic silencing of political dissenters. From the perspective of some Western commentators, the nation’s political turmoil is indicative of an fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democratic governance.1 Subsequently, these observers contend that the experiment that is the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed because its Islamic-ness restricts its capacity to respond to the ‘modern’ social and political yearnings of the nation’s youth. This common interpretation of Islamic governance and the Iranian experiment is deeply flawed, however, due to its reliance on superficial observations influenced and reinforced by a modernity discourse that situates the modern in the West. In fact, recent research persuasively demonstrates that adherence to Islam is not antithetical to representative governance.2 With this information available, the Iranian regime’s current legitimacy crisis must be analyzed at the subjective, rather than objective, level. An examination of the country’s dominant political elite – and their stake in the status quo – will reveal that the Iranian government has long deviated from its official title. That is, the regime presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is neither a republic nor Islamic, but a well-established oligarchy with a vested military elite.

For some Iran-watchers, the suspect victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Khamenei’s unwavering support for the declared victor, signaled the country’s shift from religious to military rule. In Spring 2008, distinguished Islamic historian Richard Bulliet even warned a group of Columbia University students and academics that Iran’s recent presidential election could redistribute power from religious authorities to the military establishment. He noted, as others have, that during the mid-1990’s the IRGC methodically seized political and economic power from some of the revolution’s most influential clerics – most notably Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – with the support of the Supreme Leader. The June 2009 election, predicted Bulliet, would determine the IRGC’s future level of participation (or one might say interference) in the nation’s politics. While individuals such as Bulliet correctly identify the IRGC as the nexus of power in Iran, they misplace the group’s emergence on the nation’s political time line. Iran’s political transformation from an incomplete republic to a martial oligarchy commenced the day following death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when Ayatollah Khamenei, a religiously unqualified but politically adroit individual strongly affiliated with Iran’s security establishment, was appointed to replace the father of the Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s collaboration with the security forces began in the early days of the Islamic Republic. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the current Supreme Leader served as Deputy Defense Minister and later as a leader of the IRGC. In both positions, he frequently visited the front to assess the situation and boost morale. In early 1981, Ayatollah Khamenei was wounded by a would-be assassin and, later that year, was elected president following the assassination of his predecessor. The political chaos fomented by internal and external foes impelled the Khamenei administration, under supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, to crackdown on opposition groups and implement policies that ensured the security establishment’s loyalty. Initially, it seems unquestionable that the president was dedicated to preserving the gains of the revolution. Yet, at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime was burdened with the task of reintegrating veterans into civilian society. Ayatollah Khamenei, secure in the position of the Supreme Leader, understood both the nation’s indebtedness to the soldiers and the existential dangers of inadequately responding to the needs of an armed, battle-hardened constituency. In a stellar example of selectorate theory, the Khamenei-led government thanked IRGC members by implementing social and economic assistance programs benefiting veterans and their families. The state’s generosity, though, did not stop at the individual level. Iran was not only indebted to the veterans, but the IRGC organization, which planned and performed the bulk of the ‘holy defense’.

As the 1990’s progressed, the Revolutionary Guards emerged as an economic and political powerhouse. With the tacit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC and umbrella organizations were awarded no-bid contracts by the state, from benign construction projects to nuclear technology research and development. Eventually, the organization’s growth in economic power translated into political influence. During the middle of the decade, former guardsmen formed political alliances and movements that today dominate Iran’s government at the national and local levels. Tehran’s current mayor, for example, previously spent virtually his entire adult life in the Revolutionary Guards and internal security apparatus. Moreover, in Iran’s 2008 parliamentary elections, just over 40 percent of the candidates had served in the Iran-Iraq war, the vast majority as guardsmen. While the IRGC is more overtly participating in politics – in both democratic and non-democratic capacities – they have dominated decision-making for over a decade. With economic clout and political legitimacy conferred by a Khamenei-led coalition, the group drowned-out the voices of more democratically-minded clerics. The IRGC, with its sizable economic concerns, predictably used its position to preserve the status quo and enhanced its political position over the years. There is even evidence suggesting that the group’s power has exceeded that of the Supreme Leader, whose orders are not infrequently dismissed by Ahmadinejad.3 By brazenly ignoring the concerns of supposed allies, the IRGC has revealed its previousl-veiled leading role in the governing apparatus. When a subordinate actor influences the policies of a excessively responsive superordinate actor, it logically follows that the subordinate will take actions to supplant the superordinate when its privileged position is jeopardized. Such a scenario presumes the entrenched, demanding power of the subordinate. Consequently, the violence following the June election did not signal the inception of a military-heavy regime. It was merely the existing martial oligarchy’s first public exposure.

The IRGC’s preferential treatment from the Supreme Leader displaced the revolution’s old guard, comprised of politically active ‘reformist’ clerics including the aforementioned Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and laypersons committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic such as 2009 defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For many in the West, these figures represent Iran’s ‘Western-liberal’ movement. Yet, as a group the ‘reformers’ promote the Islamic Revolution’s post-modern elements. According to scholar Reinhard Schulze, post-modern Islamic politics is determined by the practitioners of Islam: “Stated simply, Islam is what the Muslim makes of it.”4 While Ayatollah Khomeini certainly embraced a modern, post-colonial notion of Islamic politics that sought to create a utopian Islamic society founded upon religious jurisprudence, he simultaneously endorsed the post-modernist vision. As Khomeini once said, “The measure [of legitimacy] is the people’s vote.” Inspired by this pronouncement, the ‘reformists’ have constructed a counter-revolutionary political platform aiming not to replace the idea of an Islamic system, but to imbue the state with the 1979 revolution’s post-modern ideology. In what seems like an odd pair to those in the West, an alliance between Iran’s clergy – which has traditionally provided moral legitimacy for dissent and facilitated unrest – and the people is forming to combat the IRGC’s usurpation of the Islamic Republic.

By and large, the West has framed Iran’s current political unrest as a predominately secular society revolting against Islamic overlords hellbent on subjecting the nation to tyrannical rule. This interpretation of the events unfolding in Iran, though, is deeply flawed. Ayatollah Khamenei, in his capacity as the nation’s Supreme Leader, elevated the IRGC at the expense of the post-modern revolutionaries, creating economic and, eventually, political schisms that, when exploited by the IRGC resulted in the organization’s political ascension. Iranian resistance to marital-oligarchical rule, though, is deriving political inspiration from Islamic post-modernism, to the chagrin of Western secularists. Protestor’s oft-repeated slogans of “Marg bar diktator” (death to the dictator) and “Allah akbar” (God is great) and their adoption of the color green, which is as much a symbol of allegiance to Islam as it is Mousavi, is a testament to the desire for the post-modern symbiosis of Islam and republicanism. In the end, the protesters’ struggle against the fraudulent result of the June 2009 presidential election has not only bared the licentious role of IRGC in Iranian politics but also – and perhaps more importantly – demonstrated the compatibility of Islam and representative governance.

1See Michael Lind, “Wanted: Freedom from religion,”, 23 June 2009, [] and Martin Amis, “The end of Iran’s Ayatollah’s?” The Guardian, 17 July 2009, [].

2Mark A. Tessler and Ameney Jamal, “Attitudes in the Arab World” Journal of Democracy 19 (2008): 101.

3Muhammad Sahimi, “Showdown between Khamenei and IRGC?” Tehran Bureau, 28 July 2009, [].

4Reinhardt Schulze, “The Ethnization of Islamic Cultures in the Late Twentieth Century or From Political Islam to Post Islamism” in Islam, Motor or Challenge of Modernity ed. by George Stauth (Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 190.