Monday, 30 June 2014

Malaysia’s ‘Allah’ verdict & the rising far right

The recent ruling by Malaysia’s highest court to restrict non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ has triggered a wider national debate deepening polarization among the country’s various ethnic and religious communities.

Malays, the country’s dominant ethnic group, are constitutionally ascribed as Muslims from birth, and their language borrows many terms from Arabic, including ‘Allah’. Malaysia, along with neighboring Brunei, are among the only countries in the world to regulate the use of the word ‘Allah’ and other terms deemed to be exclusive to Islam among its non-Muslim citizens.

A court ruling in 2007 prohibited a Catholic newspaper, the Herald, from using ‘Allah’ to describe the Christian god in the local Malay-language edition of its newspaper. In its attempts to appeal the judgment, the Church has argued that Christians in the Muslim-majority nation have used ‘Allah’ in Malay-language bibles and daily prayers for centuries.

Although the prohibition of the term only applied to the Herald newspaper, religious authorities in the state of Selangor took the unprecedented step of raiding the offices of the Bible Society of Malaysia in January, confiscating 321 Malay-language bibles on the basis that public disorder would ensue unless ‘Allah’remains exclusive to Islam. The Selangor Islamic Religious Council refuses to return the bibles, in defiance of the country’s attorney general.

When a lower court ruled in favor of the Church to reverse the government ban in 2009, widespread anger ensued that saw arson attacks and vandalism at churches, temples, and other places of worship. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in 2013, which prompted the Catholic Church to bring their case to the Federal Court, which rejected their challenge in a 4-3 judgment last week.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Washington cannot absolve itself from ISIS’ rise

The rapid advance of radical Islamist militants across sections of northern and western Iraq has shaken the embattled government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to its core. As the country maneuvers to stave off the jihadist surge, the integrity of the Iraqi nation-state hangs in the balance.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have deepened their hold over Iraq’s Anbar province and western border crossings, while groups of volunteers are enlisting to defend their communities, following a decree issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest religious authority.

Iraqi Army units have fled their posts in besieged regions through the country to help reinforce and fortify the capital, Baghdad, and other areas under threat. As Shiite militias respond to Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms, ISIS militants are attempting to consolidate control over Sunni regions by capitalizing on popular disenchantment with Maliki’s government.

Sectarian bloodletting on a wide scale now seems inevitable, as the United States deploys 300 military advisers and prepares to carry out airstrikes against ISIS positions. The official position in Washington is that Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, which began overtly sectarian policies following the US withdrawal in 2011, has alienated the Sunnis and created conditions for their rebellion.

On a recent trip to Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration wants Maliki out, in favor of a more representative leader capable of bridging sectarian differences and uniting the country. Washington, however, is also prepared to take military action against ISIS before any new government is formed.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Whose chickens are coming home to roost in Iraq?

As Islamist fighters seize swathes of territory and key cities in northwestern Iraq while edging closer to full control of the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, the emergence and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) requires not only a careful assessment of the political landscape in Iraq, but impartial scrutiny of Western and Gulf strategies to bolster opposition forces in neighboring Syria.

There is much evidence to suggest that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government have politically and economically marginalized the country’s Sunni minority, using punitive measures to violently crackdown on protests and engage in mass arrests. While its true that there exists a broad Sunni opposition to Maliki’s rule, this alone cannot explain the recent developments in Iraq.

The unraveling security situation in the region, as well as the overtly sectarian nature of post-Saddam Iraqi politics, cannot be divorced from legacy of the US occupation of Iraq and policies undertaken since by the Obama administration in Syria, in coordination with partners such as Saudi Arabia. Despite the trillions spent by Washington to fight terrorism, ISIS has emerged as the most efficient, discipline, and well-funded jihadist group in history.

ISIS, the organization now making rapid advances toward Baghdad, formed following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The group likens itself as an ideologically superior alternative to al-Qaeda, due in part to its efficiency and gains on the Syrian battlefield. The group’s central purpose is the creation of an Islamic state that encompasses both Syria and Iraq into a borderless caliphate.

ISIS is said to have around 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, many who previously fought with al-Qaeda, and others who are former Ba'athists and soldiers of the Saddam-era army that fought against the US occupation. The organization is known for targeting Shiites, Christians, and other religious minorities, garnering a brutal reputation for carrying out crucifixions, beheadings and amputations.

According to the Iraqi government, ISIS has looted banks and captured military supplies since taking the northern city of Mosul, and now controls around $2 billion in cash and assets. The jihadist group has also produced professional propaganda videos and a sleek public relations campaign designed to attract private investors and new recruits.

Iraq’s Sunni community has long felt alienated by the Shiite-dominate government in Baghdad, and its true that a wider Sunni revolt against Maliki is taking place, with ISIS serving as the strongest component. Voices from the US political establishment accuse the Obama administration of contributing to the crisis in Iraq by formally withdrawing occupation troops from the country in 2011, under an agreement made during the Bush administration.

These problems are not a product of a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, but rather the results of Washington’s flawed attempt at nation building by the notorious neoconservatives following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The US occupation that began in 2003 entirely dismantled Iraq’s central government, state institutions, and armed forces. To offset the influence of Sunnis loyal to the Ba’athist establishment, the US empowered the Shiites.

The Bush administration’s nation building efforts fueled sectarian divisions by favoring certain groups and religious sects that were seen to be more advantageous and amenable to US interests, effectively restructuring Iraqi society based on the suggestions of intelligence analysts and think-tanks in Washington. Tribal groups and sects were armed by the US to fight forces that resisted the US occupation. It is essential to note that al-Qaeda didn’t exist in Iraq prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein.

A similar argument being made is that the Obama administration failed to do enough to aid the ‘moderate’ elements of the armed opposition in Syria since the war began in 2011, which empowered radical forces like ISIS. The proponents of this argument clearly overlook the millions spent by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sanctioned by the Obama administration to bolster various rebel groups inside of Syria.

Its no secret that Washington and its allies would prefer to see the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it is the massive funding of radical groups from US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar that has destabilized Syria, providing the ideal environment for extreme jihadist militias to train and multiply. The Obama administration has looked the other way as its Sunni allies empowered radical groups, primarily because these organizations proved the be the most effective fighters.

Wealthy donors from the Gulf countries have also fuelled the growth of jihadist groups, but the backing from US-aligned Sunni monarchies has been significant enough to warrant warnings against doing so from the Obama administration, which is now somewhat more cognizant of the blowback that such policies incur. The brutal rise of ISIS and the unraveling of Iraq and Syria are principally the result of outside attempts to shape the politics and resources of the region through force and covert operations.

Some disillusioned members of Iraq’s Sunni population, who are a majority in the northwestern regions of Baghdad, view the advance of ISIS as a positive development, but any further advances into the Shiite-dominated south and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in the north – where three-quarters of Iraq’s strategic oil fields lay – will be met with stiff resistance by Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

In Syria, the black flag of ISIS hangs over the northern provincial capital of Raqqa, from where it has secured several key oilfields in the eastern regions, providing further revenue. The jihadist organization, by attempting to capture the key oil refinery in Baiji, is attempting a similar strategy in Iraq. The fighting has caused oil prices to shoot up to a nine-month high, trading above $114 a barrel. If fighting bleeds further south, oil markets will experience even more radical price volatility, which some analysts suggest will see crude trading at above $120 a barrel.

The ironic miscalculation of US policy in the region is that Damascus and Baghdad look towards Iran for assistance, and in truth, Washington may need to collaborate with Tehran if it intends to contain the spread of ISIS and radical Sunni militias. Iran may provide Baghdad with the kind of training and assistance that allowed the Syrian army to consolidate and make gains against ISIS across large swathes of Syria.

This crisis now unfolding may the be catalyst that forces Maliki and the Shiites to work more closely with the Kurds and nationalist forces, as both the Iranians and Americans have been suggesting. Rather than more overt foreign intervention, all elements of Iraqi society must come together under the banner of a multi-sectarian force to face the menace now attempting to redefine borders and radically reshape the region.

This article appeared in the June 25, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at

Monday, 16 June 2014

USAID & the Cuban Five: Criminalizing counterterrorism, legalizing regime change

The plight of five imprisoned Cuban counterterrorism officers, known collectively as the Cuban Five, has been the subject of a growing campaign to lobby Congress in favor of releasing the men.

The five officers were monitoring Cuban exile groups based in Miami with an established track record of orchestrating terrorist acts inside Cuba. The group had informed US authorities of their actions, and were not in possession of any weapons, nor did they engage in any act of espionage against the US or cause harm to any person.

In September 1998, the five officers were arrested by FBI agents and were accused of conspiracy to commit espionage. Their trial, which lasted over six months, became the longest in US history. Though the group was never directly accused of espionage, nor were any acts of espionage committed, the five Cuban men were sentenced to a total of four life sentences plus 77 years.

The men were initially kept in solitary confinement for 17 months, and were later imprisoned in five separate maximum-security prisons spread across the US without the possibility of communication with each other. Their case represents the first time in US history that life sentences were meted out on espionage charges.

The consensus among various legal experts and advocacy groups is that political and partisan considerations worked against justice and the five Cuban men were not given a fair trial. The trial was held in Miami, a region that is synonymous with maintaining open hostility toward the Cuban government, making it incredibly difficult to seat an impartial jury in such a politically charged atmosphere.

According to reports, the US government commissioned several Miami-based journalists to write negative stories to discredit the five defendants, which were widely publicized to influence public opinion. Moreover, the US government even recognized in writing that it was unable to substantiate the conspiracy to commit murder charges against Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five defendants.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Why Syria’s people want Assad

Since the start of the armed conflict in Syria in 2011, voices from Western and Gulf capitals have maintained a common narrative: that the Assad regime lacks popular legitimacy and stays in power by systematically killing its own people.

The sweeping election victory of Bashar Assad not only shows the depth and breadth of popular support for his government, but also it demands an objective interpretation of events inside Syria.

In the midst of a civil war that has seen rebel militia groups and foreign Islamist fighters occupy areas of territory around the country, polling for the recent elections was held only in government-controlled areas. Assad ran against two challengers and won with 88.7 percent, garnering 10,319,723 votes. According to Syria’s supreme constitutional court, 73.42 percent of some 15.8 million eligible voters took part in the elections.

There are many reasons to explain why Assad – though internationally condemned and characterized as a dictator – is able to conjure up mass support at the ballot box. After three years of brutal fighting that has left many areas of the country devastated, Assad is seen as the only figure that can stabilize the country and ensure a stable, secular rule that respects all minority communities.

Assad entered office in 2000 as a reformer, and is credited with ushering in economic reforms that boosted consumer spending, increased tourism, and emboldened the private sector; his government is also highly regarded for providing free education and healthcare, while heavily subsidizing other public services.

Although the fighting in Syria is known to have a sectarian dimension, Syrian society has been regarded as highly tolerant and fair towards a multitude of religious and ethnic groups, such as the Christian, Alawite, Druze and Kurdish minorities, and the majority Sunni Muslims. The recent election results are to a testament to how Assad – who belongs to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam – can still command huge support from the Sunni majority.

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Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He can be reached at