Mounting concern about the President’s ISIS strategy, or lack thereof

Two months after the United States Air Force began its attack on territories controlled by ISIS, criticism of the Obama Administration’s strategy toward the organization continues to mount. Or to be more precise, American critics of the Administration increasingly charge that it lacks a coherent strategy. As columnist Tim Mak put it in The Daily Beast on November 13, the President is yet to answer three key questions: Where is the legal justification for the war? Will American troops fight? And who are they really battling? The heightened concern was stoked on Wednesday when CNN reported that the president had commissioned a review of the ISIS strategy, a sign of discomfort with the approach that had been taken thus far. When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was subsequently asked by members of Congress whether there was or would be a shift, his answer, as characterized by Mak, was to avoid the question “by responding in the present tense.” As Mak pointed out, Secretary Hagel told the Congressional committee, “There is no change Continue Reading…

An unexpected turn in a campaign of psychological warfare

- Here is a translation of Joseph Braude’s weekly broadcast in Arabic, Risalat New York, for October 20, 2014. To hear the broadcast, click here. For some time now, a campaign of disinformation and psychological warfare has been waged against the United States and its allies by a terror group that brutalizes the innocents who live under its rule. In recent days, however, there have been signs that the group could itself fall prey to the trap it set for others. We are referring of course to the so-called “Islamic State,” otherwise known as ISIS. Reports have been numerous over the past half-year that the organization excels in the use of social media, such as Twitter, as a means to recruit fighters from around the world as well as intimidate various powers in the West. In addition to the infamous beheadings of American and European hostages, some militants in Iraq and Syria went so far as to photograph themselves, smiling, next to the gruesome remains of locals who had also been Continue Reading…

On the Politicization of Jewish-Muslim dialogue

From New York, we send to all the Muslims of Morocco the very best wishes for an Eid Mubarak, and every year may you be well. And to the Jewish community of Morocco on the occasion of the day of atonement, “Yom Kippur,” we say, Shana Tova. It was perhaps a sign of hope to find these two important monotheistic holidays coinciding on one weekend this year, at a time of unprecedented sectarian strife in so much of the region. As Moroccans are well aware, King Mohammed VI continues to play a distinguished role in supporting tolerance and reconciliation among faiths — and he has not missed an opportunity to advance the cause of dialogue between Muslims and Jews in particular. The world is fortunate, moreover, that the king is not alone in this endeavor. Recent years have seen an uptick in interfaith conferences, both in the Arab world and the West. Here in New York, for example, a young Jewish American named Daniel Pincus regularly hosts gatherings in his Continue Reading…

Some Women Have Joined the Ranks of ISIS, But Others Can Help Defeat It

by Ahmed Charai and Joseph Braude – After the grisly execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff by an ISIS terrorist earlier this month, a chilling message from inside ISIS-controlled territory reached tens of thousands globally via social media: “I wish I did it.” It came from Umm Ubaydah, a Western woman who had converted to Islam, moved to Syria, married a jihadist fighter, and joined in the ISIS media campaign to drum up support for the movement among English-language Tweeters and bloggers everywhere. According to estimates by American and European centers for the study of radicalization, Umm Ubaydah is one of hundreds of Western women who have either joined the ranks of ISIS or been intercepted en route to the territory it now controls. Some are converts to Islam: Nineteen-year-old Coloradan Shannon Maureen Conley, arrested in April by the FBI on her way out of the country via Denver International Airport, pleaded guilty on September 10 to planning to join the group. Other female recruits hail from Muslim immigrant communities, Continue Reading…

Teaching Critical Thinking in the Middle East

Whether a conflict involves enraged spouses or a nation embroiled in sectarian warfare, feuding parties can de-escalate by employing civil discourse and rational argumentation. They can talk and reason empathically, for example. They can call out each other’s logical fallacies and agree to stop using them. They can pinpoint irreconcilable differences, accept them, and negotiate a compromise. But doing so is hard enough in the heat of an emotional exchange; it is much harder under the yoke of a religious dictate, or in an environment where rational argumentation is neither taught nor even available to learn in the local language. There are many such places, and one is Saudi Arabia, according to Omar al-Anazi, a 23-year-old medical student at King Abdelaziz University in the Saudi port city of Jedda. “When people talk to each other here,” he says, “too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.” In his view, an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, Continue Reading…

A Saudi psychologist on jihadism, clerical elites, and education reform

by Joseph Braude – Clinical psychologist Abdullah al-Garni serves a niche clientele: recovering jihadists. He heads the mental health division at the Mohammed bin Naif Center for Counseling and Advice, a halfway house for members of Al-Qaeda and other groups who have served prison time in Saudi Arabia or at the US Government-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The Center aims to persuade its “beneficiaries” to forswear terrorism, then release and reintegrate them into Saudi society. To these ends, a team of Muslim clerics use traditional Islamic legal texts to argue against jihadist ideology, while teachers offer vocational training in other fields. Garni employs psychotherapy techniques to address personal problems which may have played into the violent mindset, and families of the fighters pay visits to ease their homecoming. Claiming a recidivism rate of 12 per cent, Center staff say they hope to create a model which can be exported to the region – and have indeed begun to work with officials in nearby Yemen and the United Arab Emirates in Continue Reading…

US Congressman Eliot Engel on Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria

Here’s the English-language text of my interview with Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, published in today’s Asharq Alawsat (Arabic) during President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia. (Link here.) Elliot Engel to Asharq Alawsat: Saudi Arabia plays an important role in the region, and it is essential to strengthen relations between Riyadh and Washington The United States Congressman asserted that the Syrian people deserve better, and foreign “jihadists” represent a serious threat to the United States and its allies. Congressman Eliot Engel represents the 16th district of New York, and is the Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. An architect of United States sanctions on Iran, he has recently introduced the “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act” with his colleague Ed Royce. The bill would broaden economic sanctions on Tehran, as well as increase oversight and enforcement of existing sanctions, while the negotiations over its nuclear program continue. Though a member of the Democratic party, Engel has been critical of the Middle East policies of the current Democrat-led White House, particularly with Continue Reading…

A Retrospective on US Negotiations with Iran

Last year I had the opportunity to speak with former Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama White House officials, about the history of efforts at diplomacy with the Iranian regime — on behalf of America Abroad, a Public Radio International broadcast.  The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been at loggerheads since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries held 59 Americans hostage for 444 days. Since that time, successive US presidents have been aware that Iran was pursuing a program to develop nuclear power, and probably nuclear weapons. After September 11, 2001, Iran’s nuclear aspirations took on added urgency for the administration of President George W. Bush, who singled out Iran among three countries which he considered to be the worst global threats in his “Axis of Evil” speech. European leaders, meanwhile, had similar concerns about Iran. They were also deeply engaged with Iran commercially and reluctant to press Iran too hard. In August 2002, attitudes changed sharply with the discovery that Iran was building two underground facilities for use in Continue Reading…

The policeman and the journalist: A Mid-East policy dilemma

by Joseph Braude – The January 2010 assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a cofounder of the military wing of Hamas, briefly drew international attention to the man who went on to investigate it: Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai’s long-serving chief of police. Within a few weeks, he had identified 29 suspected hit-squad members, issued international warrants for their arrest, and released their photographs to the public—along with video footage of their movements before and after the killing. Pinning responsibility for the operation on Israel’s Mossad, Tamim also called for the arrest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Tamim became a folk hero in the Arab world for publicly embarrassing the Mossad—which is why many Arabs were surprised, a year and a half later, to see Tamim declare that he would not hesitate to relay intelligence to Israel to help thwart terror attacks on its soil. In a September 2011 interview on Al Jazeera, he told a reporter, “Rest assured: If I know that a Continue Reading…

Joseph Braude on Reuven Snir’s ‘Baghdad – The City in Verse’

by Joseph Braude – An Arabic poem about Baghdad, like a Hebrew poem about Jerusalem, inevitably evokes the collective memory that binds the place, the language, and its people together. Iraq’s 1,251-year-old capital was built by a Muslim empire that held the torch of civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the thirteenth century it was sacked by Mongol invaders who, according to legend, made the river Tigris flow red with blood and blue with the ink of books from the city’s great libraries. It was resurrected in the twentieth century by modern state builders who made it a capital of tolerance, prosperity, and Arab nationalism—only to be ruined again by a dictator and his wars and further destabilized by American occupation. A vigorous yet densely complex poetic tradition has traced popular memories of this tumultuous history, and a small portion of that literature can be found in Baghdad: The City in Verse, a sleek and informative volume edited by Reuven Snir, a professor of Arabic literature and dean Continue Reading…