22 July, 2008

Book: "100 Myths About the Middle East" by Fred Halliday

Are you the kind of person who likes to begin everything you say with "Actually, I think you'll find…"? Then this is the book for you, because in it Fred Halliday takes and repudiates a hundred widely held propositions about the Middle East. Halliday does all this with an acerbic writing style that displays a contempt for lazy formulas or uncritical thought processes, but he does this without drifting into the kind of facile contrarianism of someone like Christopher Hitchens. Halliday seems less to be saying that stupid people believe his 100 myths, but that anyone who pays attention and applies thought to these questions should be able to see through them. This book is very critical of the kind of duckspeak that masquerades for analysis on the part of the War on Terror's supporters, but he is equally dismissive of the knee-jerk positions of many Islamists and those on the political left. I would still nevertheless class this book as belonging in broad terms to the world of the left, if only because of its evisceration of arguments and propositions advanced by Bush and the neo-cons.

One thing that is striking in this book is Halliday's dismissal of arguments based on the claimed essential natures of the various Middle Eastern religions, or on the idea of peoples in the Middle East having fixed national characters or their being locked into permanent and timeless conflicts. Rather, Halliday sees the nature of a religion or a "national character" as being moulded and shaped by contemporary circumstances and objective conditions. This kind of analysis is broadly Marxist, in the sense of seeing culture as being a dependent variable rather than the other way round. It seems nevertheless to fit well with any kind of serious analysis of the region and the religions that came from there, given that one can see how all of these have changed and behaved differently in separate historical periods. Perhaps arising from this kind of viewpoint, Halliday seems especially hostile to the idea that a solution to the problems of the world is for the leaders of the middle-eastern religions to engage in some kind of interfaith dialogue. While this kind of ecumenical get together sounds entirely laudable (and is not without its merits), seeing it as the main way forward is to give a load of self-appointed bearded fuckwits* the right to speak for everyone else, excluding the voices of the secular or those of heterodox religious ideas.

The book also comes with a useful and somewhat ironic list of terms used to discuss either the Middle East or the War on Terror. And just in case you are wondering who this Fred Halliday chap is, he is an International Relations academic who focuses on stuff to do with the Cold War, the Middle East, and International Relations theory.

This is not the third in my troika of books about the Middle East, but it can be approached as one of the other useful books about that region.

*OK, so not all leaders of the three great monotheistic faiths are bearded or fuckwits, but you get the idea.

20 July, 2008

Phantom Countries: The Secret Life of Abkhazia

CAVEAT: I can't claim to know too much about Abkhazia, so I am willing to take corrections from my many readers on any factual inaccuracies contained here.

Abkhazia is a separatist region of Georgia, the country in the Caucausus that used to be part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the past, the region had a degree of autonomy within Georgia, but when the Soviet Union broke up a separatist movement came into being. Perhaps the Abkhaz separatists feared that their distinct ethnic identity would be swamped in an independent Georgia, or perhaps there were more sinister forces at work. Either way, the Abkhaz separatists successfully fought off Georgian armed forces and established a de facto regime in the former autonomous region. This achievement is all the more impressive when one recalls that ethnic Abkhazians were apparently only a minority of people in the Abkhaz autonomous region.

Since the war (which took place at some point in the 1990s), Russian troops have been deployed in Abkhazia, supposedly as peacekeepers between the separatists and the Georgians. It is widely believed, however, that the Russian troops are primarily there to protect the separatist regime and prevent the re-absorption of Abkhazia into Georgia. There are even those who see the whole business of Abkhaz separatism as a scheme of the Kremlin to weaken Georgia and undermine its independence, a proposition supported by the astonishingly well-armed and trained forces the Abkhaz separatists were able to deploy against the Georgian state. Further evidence of Russian partiality was seen recently when the Georgian flew an unmanned drone over the separatist region, only for it to be shot down by an unidentified jet. The Abkhazians do have their own air force (largely consisting of First World War biplanes and balsa wood aircraft powered by rubber bands), but the unidentified jet had the kind of twin tail-fin only seen in the latest Russian air force interceptors.

I am not clear on whether the Abkhaz separatists wish to set up their enclave as a little independent state, or whether they would ultimately prefer to merge it into Russia. Given the apparent links between Abkhaz separatism and the Russian state, it is perhaps not really appropriate to think in terms of the separatists as having any actual autonomous goals and desires – they may well be simply creatures of the Kremlin, people whose goals are defined by Russian political interest.

Picture from Wikipedia

13 July, 2008

Meanwhile in Mongolia...

Talking of semi-presidentialism, Mongolia has been seen as something of a success story for that institutional setup, with writers like M. Steven Fish crediting the bifurcating power structure with helping to embed democracy and protect Mongolia from dominance by either of its larger and more populous neighbours. Recently, however, the country has seen disputed elections and a state of emergency declared following riots accusations of electoral fraud against the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (the country's former communists). Perhaps not even semi-presidentialism can save Mongolia from sliding down the road towards the authoritarianism of other post-communist steppe countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkemenistan, etc.. I don't know that much about Mongolia, but I wonder if this kind of thing suggests a triumph of objective social conditions over institutions - supporting quasi-marxist ideas about institutions being fluff that sits on top of the real economic determinants of socio-politicals life.

Hey, nice blog!

If you have ever wanted to follow the latest semi-presidential action in blog form, then check out THE SEMI-PRESIDENTIAL ONE. As you know, a country is semi-presidential if its president is directly elected and it has a prime minister responsible to parliament, with presidential powers added to taste.