Skip to content

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

By Bridget Coggins

Statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang. By flickr user calflier001.

Statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang. By flickr user calflier001.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died last Friday. Salman bin Abdulaziz has been the Crown Prince and successor to the throne since his appointment in March of 2012 and his ascension to authority was uncontested. So far, few have expressed concern that the country will experience instability as a result, even though unconfirmed reports indicate that Salman may be gravely ill and the wider Middle East is going through a particularly turbulent period.

In contrast, when North Korea’s Kim Jong-il died in December of 2011, many anticipated that unrest would follow even though his son, Kim Jong-un, had been the heir apparent since 2009. Indeed, during the younger Kim’s recent hiatus from public life, (reportedly due to gout or another illness affecting his ability to walk) speculation ran wild about a power struggle in Pyongyang and North Korea’s imminent collapse.

How often does a leader’s death presage violence, instability or outside intervention? Is it more likely in cases like Saudi Arabia and North Korea, where leaders enter office as a result of “ascription” or based upon their relatively arbitrary placement in power by birthright? We might expect that these political arrangements are outmoded and more likely to be challenged by ideals like popular authority or even by authoritarian alternatives like military rule or other relatively more meritocratic means of leader selection like party leadership or ideology. The death of a leader seems like the perfect opportunity for a break with the past, but is it? Are hereditary regimes going the way of the dodo and cable TV?

Since I’m working on a related question for a project in my academic life, I have some data handy to help. Using Goemans, Gleditsch, and Chiozza’s terrific Archigos data on political leaders as a base, I added data on civil war and on countries’ political characteristics during each year that a leader was in office. Particularly interesting for us are the years in which a leader dies in office and the year or two that follows.

The Archigos data contains information on political leaders from 188 countries between 1875 and 2004. During the study period, there were 1,918 years in which a leader exited office and 154 leaders died while in office. So dying in office occurs in about 8% of exits; it’s not common, but it’s not terribly uncommon either. Of those 154, only 12 occurred in countries where succession was hereditary. And in none of the hereditary cases did civil war break out in that year or in the following year. Nor did an anarchic breakdown, political transition, or foreign intervention (regime interruption) take place that year or shortly thereafter. The regimes were remarkably durable in the face of their leaders’ deaths. In every case but Afghanistan (where the subsequent leader was imposed by a foreign government), a regular transfer of power occurred. It is worth noting that 50% of the successors were ousted in an “irregular” manner, usually overthrown. But in technical political science terms, a lot of time and sh*% often went down before that happened. The leadership transfers were relatively smooth.

In order to make a suitable comparison to the cases above, we’ve so far looked at all deaths, but we might also be interested in whether “irregular” death in office is more likely to be followed by internal instability — what if someone assassinates the leader. In the 12 cases of a hereditary leader’s death, only one was not due to natural causes, and that was the assassination of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar of Iran on May 1, 1896. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a pattern with only one case. If we broaden our gaze to include all irregular deaths in office though, we do see a bit more instability. Thirty leaders left their offices as a result of irregular leadership changes that caused their deaths. In two countries, the United States and Vietnam, it happened twice. Six of those countries were involved in civil wars in that year or the following year, three experienced political collapse and one experienced a fundamental political transition.

In the end, the disparate expectations regarding political stability upon the death of King Abdullah and Kim Jong-il probably have more to do with the political inclinations of their authors than the actual chances of regime change or governmental collapse. The two countries disparate economic circumstances may explain a bit of the difference, but other poor countries with similar systems of rule, like Haiti during the Duvalier period, have also not faltered with a leader’s death. In the few countries where hereditary leadership remains, there’s a fairly good chance that it will endure, even if the designated successor is more likely to falter than his predecessor.

Divining Divisions in Egypt’s Deep State

Guest post by Scott Williamson


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi salutes the country’s flag. By Faris Knight.

Several leaked conversations have been causing embarrassment for the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. On January 19, a pro-Islamist satellite station aired an alleged recording of Sisi’s then office manager and the military’s then spokesperson discussing how to manipulate the media during last year’s presidential election. Two additional leaks in December reportedly captured senior officers and officials close to the president talking about attempts to tamper with the judicial process. By all accounts, Sisi has consolidated his power effectively since Egypt’s July 2013 coup; certainly, he has gone to great lengths to project an image of a state apparatus firmly united behind his rule. Occasionally, however, the public has been treated to hints of divisions inside Egypt’s deep state—of which the leaks might plausibly be the latest.

Egyptians, of course, have been busy speculating over the source of the leaks. The government claims the recordings are forgeries (which is entirely possible), but even pro-government media personalities have covered them as potentially authentic. One obvious possibility is that Islamist sympathizers within the military or intelligence services passed the recordings to favorable media outlets. Such sympathies would not be unheard of—40 cadets were recently expelled from the Police Academy for alleged Islamist ties, and a militant who attempted to assassinate the interior minister was a former army officer. But Egypt’s state institutions are famously closed to outsiders, and these incidents at least seem to have been outliers since the coup.

Another possibility is that the leaks reflect political maneuvering inside the regime, with anti-Sisi factions releasing the recordings to embarrass the president or his allies. As documented by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Egypt has been no stranger to nasty internal fights between competing political, bureaucratic, and security institutions. On one level, this maneuvering has involved institutional competition for greater power and resources, but these struggles have also been tied up in personal political conflicts. Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all fought to prevent challenges from rivals—potential and actual—in the state apparatus. Despite his apparent popularity and control of the military, Sisi is not immune to the same dynamic, and the president has already demonstrated a sensitivity to potential challengers with their own connections to the deep state.

On December 14, for instance, security officials censored the Egyptian newspaper Al-Mesryoon. No official explanation was given, but it was reported that one of the censored articles had discussed the recent leaks in connection with political competition between Sisi and Ahmed Shafik—a former Air Force commander, prime minister, and presidential candidate. Shafik has been in Dubai since losing the 2012 election to Morsi, but he continues to be an influential figure in Egyptian politics. Prior to Sisi’s election last year, rumors were circulating that Shafik would jump into the race. The former prime minister publicly backed Sisi, but more leaked recordings allegedly captured him criticizing the field marshal and complaining that the vote would be rigged.

Sisi also seems to have a particularly tense relationship with Sami Anan, the former chief of staff of the Egyptian military whose retirement coincided with Sisi’s rise to defense minister in 2012. Anan publicly flirted with a presidential run last year, until he backed out after claiming divisions in the military and an alleged assassination attempt against him. The former officer has tried to stay politically relevant, but he has been smeared in the press and in December his political party was denied registration by the government, blocking its ability to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections.

While Sisi tolerated the cosmetic candidacy of leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi in last year’s presidential race, he has clearly been less willing to countenance a potential competitor with a background in the military and security forces. Sisi has already been shuffling around government officials as well, recently replacing his former mentor General el-Tohamy as director of Egyptian General Intelligence. Without his own organized political base, the president is all the more reliant on the state apparatus and cannot afford rivals who might undermine his control. That dependence, not to mention the suppression of popular politics since the July coup, points to the importance of politics within the deep state for understanding current political developments in Egypt.

Unfortunately, determining the extent to which internal divisions actually exist or matter is an almost impossible task, since speculation over rumors and the occasional leak is often the best information available. It could very well be true that Sisi has “surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious…institutions in the modern Egyptian state.” But the reality is that it remains difficult to gauge the firmness of Sisi’s internal support, or to predict how potential divisions within the state apparatus might play out if Egypt fails to escape its political and economic morass in the coming years.

Update (1/31/2015): On September 28, Sami Anan’s political party won its appeal at the Supreme Administrative Court to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Scott Williamson is a PhD student in political science at Stanford University.

Yemen is Even More Dangerous Than We Think

By Barbara F. Walter and Kenneth M. Pollack

A man displaced by the war between Houthis and the former Yemeni government walks with his camel in northwest Yemen. By IRIN.

A man displaced by the war between Houthi forces and the former Yemeni government walks with his camel in northwest Yemen. By IRIN.

People think Yemen is dangerous to United States because of terrorists and civil war. They are wrong. Yemen is dangerous because it could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia.

That’s a provocative statement but also accurate. By itself, Yemen is far less important to the United States than most countries in the Middle East. True, a lengthy civil war could eventually bring the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda or the Iranian allied Houthi to power. True, a civil war could fragment the country, creating a lengthy period of chaos and instability, allowing even more extremists to thrive. But the fact remains: Yemen will never be of great strategic importance to the United States because it is weak and poor and has very little oil.

Saudi Arabia is an entirely different story. Saudi Arabia is critical to the United States, both strategically and economically. If Saudi Arabia becomes destabilized and if it falls into civil war, oil production will plummet and the tenuous Sunni-Shi’a balance in the region will be disrupted.

The greatest danger Yemen poses to the United States, therefore, comes from Saudi Arabia. This is especially true now that King Abdullah has died. Why? Because the Saudis are obsessed with Yemen and have found it impossible to resist meddling in Yemeni affairs.

The historical record is fairly clear that it is a mistake to send military and economic aid to the weaker side in a highly unbalanced civil war or to continue to finance factions in wars that appear unwinnable. Both of these strategies are likely to prolong the civil war, increasing the chances that it spreads, and creating conditions for extremism. As Patrick Regan has shown no mix of economic or military intervention while a civil war is raging shortens the length of the conflict, unless it is all directed at the stronger side. Outside economic and military aid that is given to multiple sides during a civil war simply serves to lengthen the war.

The problem is that the Saudis continue to back what appears to be the weaker side in the Yemeni civil war – the Sunnis who have lost control of the Yemeni government to Shi’a Houthi forces. The greatest danger to American interests is that the Saudis will keep doubling down in Yemen and in so doing will overstrain themselves—politically, militarily and possibly even economically. The Kingdom cannot afford to get dragged deeper into a Yemeni quagmire it cannot stabilize on its own. This is especially true given the challenges the Kingdom is likely to face as a result of 3 recent events: (1) historically low oil prices, (2) exorbitant new financial commitments due to attempts to stave off the Arab Spring, and (3) succession issues surrounding King Abdullah’s death.

What should the U.S. do? The U.S. should not devote significant resources to try to end the civil war in Yemen or engineer its outcome. Not only is there no evidence that such an intervention would have any positive effect, but there is not enough money, political will or strategic interest to warrant it. Instead, the U.S. should continue counter-terrorism measures in Yemen while devoting most of its time and energy toward the Saudis. There U.S. policy should be quite simple: the U.S. should do everything possible to convince the Saudis to refrain from any further commitments in Yemen and instead convince them to concentrate on stabilizing their own internal affairs. Saudi meddling in Yemen will do no good and is likely to only prolong the war and weaken Saudi Arabia’s government. The United States should be far more concerned with that potential outcome than with anything that happens in Sana’a.

Kenneth M. Pollack is Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

How Repression of Nonviolent Dissidents Backfired on Mexico’s “Imperial Couple”

Guest post by Gina Lei Miller

In October, Mexicans protest the disappearance of 43 aspiring teachers. By Realidad Expuesta.

In October, Mexicans protest the disappearance of 43 aspiring teachers. By Realidad Expuesta.

On September 26, 2014, student protesters from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college were attacked by local police while traveling outside the southern Mexican city of Iguala.[1] Six people were killed and 43 students were taken into custody. One student’s mutilated body was found later, but the other activists have not been seen since the night of the attack and are presumed dead. A federal investigation into the disappearances revealed that the former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, authorized the attack and kidnappings to prevent the students’ supposed plans to stage a protest during political events honoring Pineda. The investigation revealed that Abarca and Pineda, dubbed by the media as the “Imperial Couple”, were closely connected with the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel and had worked with local police to have the students attacked, arrested, and turned over to cartel members.

News of the attack sparked large-scale protests throughout Mexico and around the world, with thousands of people mobilizing to express outrage over the political corruption and violence plaguing Mexico. While many demonstrations remained peaceful, others turned violent as angry protesters clashed with riot police. The domestic and international outrage following the attack prompted the arrest of numerous Iguala police and city officials with connections to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, including the Imperial Couple, who spent most of October on the run from federal authorities. Across Mexico, people continue to call for the country’s president and other top officials to resign, claiming that political leaders have not done enough to control corruption and may have known about the attacks in Iguala as they occurred.

Why did the Iguala attack backfire on the Imperial Couple and other political leaders when other instances of state violence against dissent in Mexico have met with popular silence?

The protests that erupted around this case of repression and the subsequent political consequences illustrate why scholars must think about violent and nonviolent dissent differently when explaining or predicting repression. In my dissertation, I argue that theories of repression should distinguish between violent and nonviolent dissent, as each type involves distinct tactics and participants that threaten political power and shape the potential consequences of repression in different ways.  Because nonviolent dissidents use peaceful tactics and are more representative of the wider population than violent dissidents, domestic audiences are more likely to sympathize with these groups and sanction leaders who repress them.[2]  Strategic leaders anticipate that repression is more likely to backfire when used against nonviolent opponents and will weigh the benefits of repression against the costs they could incur if repression backfires.

In the case of the Iguala attack, if the protesters planned to use violent tactics (say they were found with bomb-making materials or a weapons cache), local officials could justify the attack as an attempt to protect citizens and officials from the radical activists. But the protesters were young students with no apparent plans for violence, and they were unarmed when the police opened fire. While observers may believe the former use of violence to be within the authority of the state, the latter is a violation of agreed-upon limits of state force.[3]

What’s more, the participants involved in the protest activity could have been anyone’s sons or brothers. These students were training to be teachers in poor, rural areas of Mexico, and many were working to escape their own impoverished backgrounds—backgrounds shared by many across Mexico. According to an article in The New Yorker, the protests in Iguala were many of the students’ first “activity fight”, a regular tradition among students at the left-wing school. The general public was incensed by the brutal treatment of student activists who posed no violent threat and were representative of many idealistic young students.

Pineda allegedly instructed the police to attack the protesters in order to “teach them a lesson” for planning to interrupt celebrations honoring her community service and announcing her mayoral run, but for most Mexican citizens, this punishment did not fit the (uncommitted) crime. This attack was troubling for ordinary citizens—if peaceful students can be so arbitrarily killed by the state, can the same thing not happen to any Mexican? This sense of injustice and ongoing frustration with political corruption motivated ordinary citizens to mobilize against the current regime.

If leaders should expect that the public will disagree with the use of repression against nonviolent dissidents, why did Pineda order the attack? She and her husband had gotten away with similar brutality in the past, and this likely caused her to underestimate the possible consequences for such callous action. According to The Daily Beast, Abarca allegedly assisted in the execution of several protesters who verbally attacked him during a public forum in May 2013, and Mexican officials claimed that he was constitutionally protected from criminal charges and didn’t pursue the case further. Despite national media attention on Abarca’s possible involvement, the public response was muted in comparison to the events of September 26. Abarca and his henchmen strategically placed signs on the bodies of the men killed in 2013, implying that the homicides were drug related. Locals who were aware of his involvement and knew the killings were not drug related kept silent out of fear. Pineda likely believed that the slayings in Iguala would go unnoticed as they had the year before or that she had enough political support to weather any consequences if word of the attack spread.

If Pineda had accurately predicted the political and legal consequences following the attack, she certainly would have done things differently. She had to know that the general public would be outraged by her actions if they learned of the attack—the students were peaceful and could have been anyone’s sons, brothers, or husbands. So she either believed that the attack would go unreported or that those audiences who learned of it wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything to sanction her. This miscalculation cost her—and many other Mexican authorities—severely.

What lessons can be drawn from the Iguala tragedy? The public response to the attack demonstrates three key points of interest to scholars of repression and dissent. First, the public represents a powerful actor that can affect conflict outcomes. A growing number of studies model dissent and repression as a three-actor game that considers the public as an important player, and future scholarship should not overlook the critical role played by domestic audiences.

Second, not all dissent is created equal, and scholars should develop theories that account for the different consequences of repressing violent and nonviolent dissent. The public outrage following the Iguala attack suggests that the public may be less willing to tolerate repression of nonviolent dissent, and we can expect strategic leaders to consider the possibility that repression will backfire.

Finally, if leaders fear repression will backfire and create a worse situation than if nothing had been done, then we should expect them not to repress. The threat of repression backfiring and producing undesirable consequences can serve as an effective constraint against the use of repression, but as the Iguala tragedy highlights, not all leaders believe repression will backfire. My dissertation research examines how certain domestic institutions can increase the likelihood that repression will backfire and allow leaders to more accurately estimate the potential consequences of repressing nonviolent dissent. While the Imperial Couple does not appear to have worried that repression of nonviolent protesters would backfire and cost them so severely, their contemporaries in power will most likely take note of their downfall at the hands of an angry public.

[1] I am grateful to Emily H. Ritter for her feedback on drafts of this post. Any errors are my own.

[2] Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[3] Weingast, B. R. (1997). The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law. American Political Science Review, 91(2), 245-263.

Does Conflict Correlate with Better Cuisine?

By Lionel Beehner

Three Egyptians enjoying ful. By David Lisbona.

Three Egyptians enjoying ful. By David Lisbona.

Food has always been a potent symbol of international politics. Images of Soviet-era bread lines or of Syrian bakeries being shelled come to mind. Food incites something deep within each of us. As Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jewish and Palestinian chef respectively, note in Jerusalem: A Cookbook. “There is something about the heated, highly animated spirit of the city’s residents that creates unparalleled delicious food.”

Indeed, food has always enjoyed a fond, almost sacred place during wartime (beyond the MRE). Remember the old subway ads calling for conservation by the U.S. government declared: “Food will win the war! We observe Meatless days, Wheatless days, Porkless days [sic].” Yet food is also a weapon of war. It’s no secret why during its recent conflicts, Russia banned Georgian wine or Polish sausage, or why it sent health inspectors to shut down its McDonalds in Moscow.

Food can also be taboo to talk about. A New Yorker writer was briefly detained and interrogated for asking too many questions about bread prices in Tehran. Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, got into trouble with Egyptian police after trying to shoot a segment on ful, the street food Egyptians gorge on.

In my past life as a freelance reporter based in post-conflict countries, I used to think there was a direct relationship between war-torn places and good cuisine. Maybe an inventive menu was a sign of ethnically diverse cultures, which may be synonymous with internecine conflict. Conflict zones, after all, tend to bestride former empires. Or perhaps the horror of war is what lends itself to good food – as a form of culinary escapism.

The tastiest kebabs I’ve tried are in Aleppo (in a former merchant guesthouse since leveled during the war). Which should come as no surprise: Syria sits at a cultural crossroads — its cuisine benefits from Ottoman, Armenian, Jewish, and French influences. That would also explain why the best falafel in Jordan, at least according to aid workers there, is in a Syrian refugee camp. I remember sampling the best cheese and wine I’d ever tried in Tbilisi shortly after Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia. That makes sense – Georgia has been invaded by the Mongols, the Persians, the Turks.

Blander food conversely seems to go hand in hand with peace and stability. Until Rene Redzepi’s Noma lit up the latest New Nordic foodie craze, peace in northern Europe corresponded with a dull and unpredictable diet of meat and potatoes. The Balkans may be a less stable place, but anybody who’s tried a cevapi in Sarajevo can say that Bosnian cuisine is anything but bland. I have fond memories of my trip last year to Tanzania – a country at relative peace since a border scuffle with Burundi in 1996 – but tasting its native cuisine was not one of them. Ethiopia, which has seen no shortage of war and conflict, boasts perhaps the continent’s best food.

For whatever reason, good native food also tends to correlate with a dislike of America, not just in France but also among countries like Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Iran. In Pittsburgh, a restaurant that calls itself Conflict Kitchen serves only dishes from “rogue” states – think Cuban tostones or Persian-style kebab. The owners even inadvertently waded into the Middle East conflict after recently featuring native food from “Palestine,” which sparked protests from pro-Israel Americans.

Perhaps a byproduct of world peace might be blander, or at least more commoditized and risk-averse, cuisines. Or maybe we should deploy peacekeepers to places based on their number of Michelin stars. The State Department, after all, recently created what it calls its “Chef Corps,” a program that dispatches top chefs abroad to carry out “culinary diplomacy.”

The idea of, say, Tom Colicchio or Gordon Ramsay hammering out a nuclear agreement with some anti-American ayatollah may not be a bad idea. Chefs are everything diplomats are not: brash, independent, blunt, creative – just what we need in good ambassadors. Let’s send Guy Fieri to North Korea.

Food is strangely both an enabler of peace yet also a divider of countries, a way to elevate one’s culture as well as a cudgel to punish one’s enemy. As Ottolenghi and Tamimi write, “[H]ummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”

That may be wishful thinking. But in a world perpetually awash in war, with U.S. troops redeploying to Iraq and Russia militarily salivating over Eastern Europe, maybe it’s time to break out the hummus.

Who’s Afraid of “Waging Nonviolence”?

By Erica Chenoweth

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. By Pasu Au Yeung.

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. By Pasu Au Yeung.

Since at least 2011, the Chinese government has censored numerous websites on the topic of nonviolent resistance, including websites for the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an online bibliography of scholarship of nonviolent action, and the website for the NAVCO data project, among others.

This week, the Chinese government allegedly blocked Google, along with a variety of search terms such as the phrase “waging nonviolence.” It’s revealing that content related to nonviolent struggle would be so concerning to the Chinese government. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. They aim to stifle ongoing nonviolent resistance in Hong Kong. Despite its absence from the front pages lately, Hong Kong is still in the midst of a political crisis, with protests continuing against Beijing’s refusal to honor the One Country, Two Systems agreement put in place in 1997. In fact (and perhaps not by coincidence), one of the best English news sources on the ongoing struggle there is the online magazine Waging Nonviolence, whose coverage on Hong Kong has been extremely informative.
  1. Dissent is on the rise in mainland China. Over the past few years, protest and open dissent have increased dramatically in China. Much of this dissent has been localized and has kept within the “acceptable discourses” of environmental politics, anti-corruption, and good citizenship. But increasingly, even local groups are pushing back directly against China’s national centers of power.
  1. They really, truly believe nonviolent struggle is a technique the U.S. government uses to promote regime change abroad. Never mind the empirical research that shows that foreign governments cannot successfully export nonviolent resistance campaigns. Governments in China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and even Turkey have openly stated that they view nonviolent dissident movements singularly as foreign plots to disrupt their domestic politics. Although it may be true that certain segments of the U.S. government would like to manipulate such movements if they could, as in Victoria Nuland’s leaked statements on Ukraine, the actual ability to engineer, manipulate, and maintain long-term influence over the outcomes of nonviolent movements is just not something that governments are capable of doing. Nonviolent movements—the kind that could actually work—are only successful when they have broad-based, popular support from diverse sectors of the societies in which they emerge. So if Chinese elites are truly worried about a foreign-imposed plot of regime change, then they badly misunderstand how and why mass mobilization takes hold—and how it succeeds.

Past and Present in France: Don’t Give Them What They Want

Guest post by Aliza Luft

Protesters in Madrid hold pens aloft in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. By Adolfo Lujan.

Protesters in Madrid hold pens aloft in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. By Adolfo Lujan.

On November 7th, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris at the German embassy.[1] Grynszpan was Jewish. He was born in Germany but his family had immigrated to Poland, then France, in an attempt to find refuge from increasing discrimination against Jews sweeping through Europe at the time. Grynszpan’s actions were used as the pretext for the Nazi-organized Kristallnacht in Germany and Austria. We rightly tend to think of Kristallnacht as the main response to vom Rath’s murder. However, less well-known is the numerous demonstrations and attacks against foreign Jews that followed in France. In Paris, Dijon, St. Etienne, Nancy, and Alsace-Lorraine, French men and women took to the streets in anger towards the Jews in their midst ‒ anger especially triggered by one Jewish immigrant who shot and killed a man seen as simply doing his job.

Last week, two Muslim brothers walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and murdered 10 journalists and two police officers, supposedly for their blasphemous caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.[2] Most French civilians demonstrated peacefully in response, claiming Je Suis Charlie/I am Charlie as they flooded the arrondissements in and near where the attacks took place, pens in hand as a form of symbolic solidarity with those killed. However, some French reacted violently, targeting mosques with grenades and gunfire, a kebab shop near another mosque, and a prayer hall. While driving their car, one French Muslim family was splayed with bullets; they managed to escape unharmed. These acts represent but a mere continuation of rising Islamaphobia in France: in 2013, the Collective Against Islamaphobia (CCIF) recorded 691 Islamaphobic acts, an increase of 47% compared to 2012. Numbers for 2014 are not out yet, but a significant decline would be shocking.

It is impossible to draw a straight line between Herschel Grynszpan’s anger towards Germany in 1938 ‒ the country that made it impossible for him to live as a Jew without fear of persecution, forcing his family to flee to Poland, where things were equally as bad, and then to France, where they were beginning to look no better ‒ and the murderous actions of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. At the same time, we can see parallels in the reactions of the far right who seek to build on the fears of a growing number of French that consider themselves “real French” in contrast to the supposedly unassimilable Jews and Muslims in their midst, then and now. Not only do this week’s reactions have a historical precedent but they also fit with the findings of a vast amount of research on what explains prejudice and discrimination.

One key finding from a significant body of scholarship is that prejudice is related to the threat that a majority group feels towards a minority group, especially if they think the minority group is increasing in size and thus impinging on what the majority feels is rightly theirs (see here, and here for useful reviews in sociology and political science; here and here for literature specific to Europe). Obviously, what any majority claims to “own” depends on the context, but more often than not, researchers have found that it boils down to two things: material goods (money) and cultural goods (values).

France today has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. The most visible segment has its roots in North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, though a large majority comes from French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, as well. Many are secular and speak French as a first language; some have been in France for generations and do not even speak with a non-French accent. Like the Jewish immigrants before them, these Muslims came to France as laborers and also to escape conflicts back at home.

Also like the Jewish immigrants before them, Muslims in France are trying to make a living in a time of economic and political crisis. Shortly after the flood of Jewish immigration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Great Depression struck France, leading to a crise économique matched only by the mass unemployment that France is experiencing as a result of the Great Recession today. In France, youth unemployment is currently above 24% (and French Muslims are more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population).

French protestors in the 1930s blamed Jews for their supposed capitalistic tendencies, for stealing jobs, for forcing French civilians out of the economy. Today, Muslims are stereotyped in France as stealing jobs and welfare, living off state benefits, and bringing down the country’s economy. French citizens who consider Muslims not really French see them as threatening to their material goods; as scapegoats for the country’s current economic woes.

In terms of culture, the parallels between past and present are clear here, too. The years preceding the Holocaust saw a surge in stereotypes of Jews as leftist revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the state and transform it in their own interests. Radicals like Marx, Trotsky, and Kun were Jewish and so the French right reasoned that Jews living amongst them must also be dangerously radical and threatening to the French way of life. It of course didn’t help that the leader of the Socialist party in France at the time was Leon Blum, also Jewish. In 1936, the Chief Rabbi received a letter from a group of business leaders, warning: “Beware that the crimes of Léon Blum and his band not rebound upon your entire race.”[3]

Likewise, on the day the Houachi brothers committed their crime, the cover of Charlie Hebdo was a cartoon mocking Michel Houellebecq, author of the forthcoming book, Le Soumission (The Submission). Houellebecq’s Soumission  envisions a future France under the control of a Muslim political party in the year 2022. Women are forced to wear veils and children are required to learn from an Islamic curriculum. Everyone must convert to Islam or risk losing their jobs. Le Soumission is satire, but satire that plays on many French fears of a Muslim takeover only exacerbated by the recent violence.

Many see the current events in France as likely to lead to more support for the Front National (FN), a nationalist, conservative party run by Marine Le Pen that espouses an extreme anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda. Under its founder (Le Pen’s father), the FN was openly anti-Semitic until it became socially unacceptable, at which point the Muslim migrant became the new racialized “other” targeted by far-right political parties. And social trends notwithstanding, to imagine that past anti-Semitism in France is dead is naive. In addition to the 691 Islamaphobic acts in 2013 mentioned above, there were 423 anti-Semitic incidents in France the same year (a 31 percent decrease from 2012), thus marking France as a world-leader in violent anti-Semitism. The attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings is not at all shocking to anyone who follows the news. Those who fear others cast a dangerously wide net.

With reference to the recent rise of the FN, Patrick Lozès, president of the Council Representing the Associations of the Black People of France (CRAN), proclaimed: “This appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. Those who a few decades ago saw the Jews as the enemy now use Muslims, saying, ‘They are among us, but they will never be like us, will never share our values.’” It is likewise wrong to equate the Houachi brothers with all of Islam as it was once wrong to perceive Herschel Grynszpan’s murder of a German diplomat as reason to suspect all Jews. Political violence often leads to political opportunities, especially for extremists seeking to recruit followers and promote their agendas. The time to bind together ‒ Jews, Muslims, and other ‒ is now. Whether terrorists or politicians, let’s not give extremists what they want.

Aliza Luft is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research examines how people make decisions to support or resist genocidal regimes.

[1] I am grateful to Jacqueline Feldman, Jared McBride, and Terrence Petersen for their feedback on a previous draft of this post. Any remaining errors are my own.

[2] As cited in Jacques Bonhomme, “La France Libre; Lettre ouverte à M. le Grand Rabbin de France,” in Alliance Israélite Universelle, Archives, Paris (AIU), Ms 650, Boîte 15 (51).

[3] At time of writing, the identity of the third terrorist involved in the attacks remains unknown. Hamyd Mourad, brother-in-law of the Hebdo attackers, was released without charge after being cleared of any involvement in the shooting.

How Not To Respond to the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

By Barbara F. Walter

A cover image for Charlie Hebdo from November 2011. Via Kanichat.

A cover image for Charlie Hebdo from November 2011. Via Kanichat.

Let’s be clear. The main goal of the three gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo yesterday was not revenge for printing cartoons critical of Islam. This misses the larger strategy al Qaeda was likely pursuing. The main goal was something far deeper.

Terrorism succeeds based on how a target responds to an attack. In this case, the three attackers from al Qaeda Yemen were likely seeking two larger goals. The first was deterrence – the desire to silence public criticism of Islam. Al Qaeda has an incentive to deter journalists and publishers from printing anything critical or inflammatory about their group. Criticism of Islam undercuts their message and their base of support and makes it less likely that they will eventually establish a Muslim caliphate.

The second goal was recruitment. The attacks were almost certainly designed to try to increase al Qaeda’s support among moderate Muslims both in Europe and abroad. This was supposed to occur by provoking a harsh response from European governments toward their Muslim populations. European governments that responded punitively toward Muslims living in Europe would provide hard evidence that the West was untrustworthy and liberal democracy corrupt. The result would be a shift by some moderate Muslims toward the more radical extreme.

This suggests 3 things that the West should definitely not do as it responds to yesterday’s attack:

  1. Don’t stop publishing. If Western media self-censors, deterrence succeeds and terrorists win.
  1. Don’t implicate all Muslims in the crimes of a few radical ones. Moderate Muslims throughout the world will be watching carefully to see how the French government responds and any overly harsh response could help to radicalize them.
  1. Don’t make martyrs out of the attackers or treat them any differently from common murderers. Part of the game the group is playing is an outbidding game where the goal is to prove that al Qaeda is more committed to Islam than other Muslim groups. (“Our group cares more about Islam because we are willing to fight and die for it.”) Treating the gunmen like common murderers helps to undercut this message.

There are lots of things we don’t know about yesterday’s attack that will trickle out in the next few days and weeks. But one thing we do know is how al Qaeda would like the West to respond. Treating this as an isolated act of revenge that deserves a harsh response plays into the hands of the gunmen and the organization that supported them. Let’s make sure that our response is exactly the opposite of what they seek so that their larger strategy fails.

How Religious Competition is Fueling Electoral Violence in Sri Lanka

Guest post by Matthew Isaacs

Incumbent Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to the crowd at a political rally. Via President Rajapaksa's flickr account.

Incumbent Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to the crowd at a political rally. Via President Rajapaksa’s flickr account.

This Thursday Sri Lanka’s voters will go to the polls to determine the fate of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in office since 2005. Until November, Rajapaksa’s grip on power seemed alarmingly secure. In addition to enjoying popular support among the Sinhalese majority in the wake of his 2009 victory over the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa has significant influence over the Sri Lankan media and security forces. Close family members occupy many of the most influential positions in Rajapaksa’s government, including Defense Minister, Economic Development Minister, and Speaker of Parliament.

Although the President’s re-election seemed a foregone conclusion as recently as November, Rajapaksa has been placed in the hot seat following the defection from his ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition of Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena along with dozens of other high-ranking UPFA officials and coalition members. Sirisena now enjoys the support of dozens of opposition parties, including the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (which defected from UPFA coalition in December), and a number of Tamil parties. The unexpected unification of a diverse opposition has put the presidency within Sirisena’s reach.

However, the poll has already been marred by a number of violent incidents, including a shooting prior to a Sirisena rally in the central town of Kahawatta and an attack on election officials in Trincomolee in the Eastern Province. Evidence points to Rajapaksa supporters as the perpetrators in both incidents.

The unexpectedly contentious election has been fueled in part by conflict between the two politically active branches of the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy, or sangha. While the hardline Buddhist Power Force (Bodu Bala Sena, BBS) supports President Rajapaksa, the slightly more moderate National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU) defected from the UPFA to support Sirisena in November.

Though unprecedented for putting the presidency in play, this monk-on-monk conflict is the latest in a long line of escalating stages of competition within the Buddhist clergy. Following a dismantling of the sangha’s organizational hierarchy in the twentieth century, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks have become increasingly politically active as a means of securing influence over the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist population. Political activism has, in turn, engendered competition between groups of monks over the direction and leadership of the sangha.

Since its founding in 2012, the BBS has been implicated in dozens of attacks against religious minorities, including dozens of incidents in which monks directly incited violence against Christians or Muslims. Though the BBS has alienated many moderates, these tactics have increased their appeal among more radical elements of Sinhalese society. These campaigns demonstrate a clear attempt to take hold of the mantle of conservative leadership in the Buddhist clergy.

This movement thus poses a real threat to the current holders of that mantle, the JHU. While the BBS has taken an active role in protest events, the JHU has pursued a similar agenda through legislation. Since entering government in 2004, the all-monk political party has introduced legislation banning religious conversion and has called for the arming of Sinhalese Buddhist civilians to combat the threat posed by religious minorities.

While the JHU’s decision to leave the UPFA was in part a response to widespread corruption, Sirisena’s defection provided the JHU with a clear opportunity to undercut the influence of the BBS. In the context of power struggles within the sangha, the JHU’s defection to the Sirisena camp is a clear declaration of war against the BBS.

In this sense, the outcome of this election will have a significant impact on the balance of power within the Buddhist clergy. A victory for Rajapaksa is a vote of confidence in the BBS. This outcome may well mean several more years of deadly riots targeting Sri Lanka’s religious minorities and a more comprehensive politicization of Buddhism on the island.

A victory for Sirisena is a more complicated prospect. Such an outcome will certainly slow the rising tide of religious violence in Sri Lanka’s streets. However, an empowered JHU may take the opportunity to increase the influence of Buddhism through legislation – a less violent prospect in the short term, but just as threatening to religious minorities in the long term.

That being said, the JHU is only a small part of Sirisena’s coalition. A victory for Sirisena is also a victory for Sri Lanka’s Muslim parties as well as a number of Tamil parties that have been snubbed by the Rajapaksa government despite (or perhaps because of) the end of the Civil War. Should Sirisena win the election, long-term stability in Sri Lanka will depend on the new president’s ability to hold together this diverse coalition.

What does this mean for the prospect of electoral violence? All evidence suggests that a fragmented and politically active Buddhist clergy could spell trouble. By allowing both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena camps to claim religious legitimacy, the fragmentation of the sangha has contributed significantly to the salience of Buddhism in this election. Considerable scholarly research has found that political conflict involving religion is more violent, longer lasting, and less likely to be resolved through negotiated settlement than other forms of political conflict.

The religious character of this election coupled with Sirisena’s growing popularity suggests a high likelihood of violence. If Rajapaksa perceives a real threat from Sirisena on election day, there is little to stop the President from deploying security forces to impact the vote in key opposition areas. Given that both sides claim a degree of religious legitimacy, continued violence across party lines could have devastating effects for a country still reeling from decades of civil war.

Beyond this week’s election, the continued fragmentation of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy and the increasingly combative moves taken by the BBS and JHU are likely to have lasting ramifications for the political stability of Sri Lanka. By pushing religious rivalry into the political sphere, these organizations ensure that once violence starts, it will be exceptionally difficult to stop.

Matthew Isaacs is a PhD candidate in Politics at Brandeis University. His dissertation examines the relationship between formal religious organizations and the political representation of ethnic identity.

Friday Puzzler: The Mystery of the Un-Recovered Nigerian Girls

By Barbara F. Walter

Protesters gather in New York City in May. By Michael Fleshman.

Protesters gather in New York City in May. By Michael Fleshman.

Today’s puzzler is short and sweet:  How is it possible that no government, including the United States, has been able to recover the 276 Nigerian school girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,651 other followers