An Organizational Explanation for Anti-American Protests

Apparently, colleagues of mine at MIT reacted to the most recent anti-American protests in the Middle East as any person would: by opening up statistical software packages. While my first instinct was to look at other’s work, theirs was to see whether existing data held predictive power to identify where protests erupted to date. Nick Miller and Chad Hazlett, writing on the Foreign Policy website, find “countries’ wealth, growth rate, unemployment, age structure, state capacity, civil liberties, democracy level, and the percentage of the population that is Muslim were all utterly unhelpful in predicting where protests would occur.” Instead, they argue for an organizational explanation: “Accounting for all the variables listed above, we find that protests occur most frequently in countries that had any reported demonstrations during the Arab Spring movement (a measure of recent mobilization), have an Islamist political party, and/or have organized radical militant organizations.” They admit that none of these variables are causally identified; in other words, it is possible or even likely that other unobserved variables lead to the emergence of both Islamist political parties and anti-American protests. But I still think it’s an interesting finding that these measures of organizational presence dramatically outweigh the explanatory value embedded in huge social factors like wealth, youth population, and regime type.


Do Elite Fights Lead to Anti-Americanism? Maybe.

After a burst of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world triggered by a now-infamous Youtube video, there has been considerable interest in assigning causes to the violent protests. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Washington Post opinion writer David Ignatius both argue that the protests were the result of intra-elite competition. And perhaps political science should feel reasonably good about the tools it had in its toolkit to think about these situations. Work on elite “out-bidding” and violence goes back to Jack Snyder’s writing in the early 1990s (here, here, and here) if not earlier. Even better, the American Political Science Review published a particularly timely article before this round of protests, in which Lisa Blaydes and Drew Linzer argue, “Muslim anti-Americanism is predominantly a domestic, elite-led phenomenon that intensifies when there is greater competition between Islamist and secular-nationalist political factions within a country.”

This has all the hallmarks of a landmark finding. It is counterintuitive: elite competition (a good thing) might be associated with anti-Americanism (a bad thing) creating a tricky problem for U.S. policy in the Middle East, since encouraging democracy might also generate more elite competition. (Recall that contestation was one of two axes in Dahl’s democratic landscape.) It also uses a reasonably nifty hierarchical model to determine its findings, so it ticks the quantitative political science box. Yay political science? Not so fast. While Blaydes and Linzer should be commended for examining an important contemporary topic in a rigorous way, policymakers should not overlearn from their answer.

The problem with Blaydes and Linzer’s conclusion is that it is derived almost entirely from answers to a Pew Global Attitudes Project cross-national opinion poll. And, we might ask, are the twenty countries (and the Palestinian Authority) sampled by Pew a reasonable representation of the Muslim world? Simply put, Pew is able to operate in places that are relatively freer than the average Arab or Muslim-majority state. Pew results provide little to no information about what is going on for individuals in states without Pew polling. Of the twenty-one countries represented in Blaydes and Linzer’s “Islamic world,” four have Muslim minorities (Ghana, Kenya, India, and Uganda). Of the remaining states, how do the Pew-sampled countries compare to other Muslim-majority states on indices of political rights? Using an average of Freedom House’s political rights and civil liberties scores from 2003-2012, we see that our intuition (political pollsters only operate in freer places) is true. (Using Freedom House scores means I did not include the Palestinian Authority, which is not assessed by that organization.)


ImageThe important takeaway is that Blaydes and Linzer do not have data relating to the levels or causes of anti-Americanism in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, because Pew’s surveys did not include individuals in those places. This missing data is almost certainly not missing at random. And this is a problem because when people think about the Islamic world they think about places like… well… Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. Insights from places like Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Pakistan, or Turkey are not irrelevant, but they are substantially bounded in terms of what they tell us about the Islamic world as a whole. It may well be that the most authoritarian places are both not sampled and also the most anti-American, despite modest levels of intra-elite competition. As with so many contemporary political controversies, the unsatisfying answer is we just don’t know the full relationship between elite competition and anti-Americanism. Extrapolate with care.

Update: For an alternative explanation of anti-American protests, see here.

At the Frontline of the Battle for Syria

Earlier this week PBS’s Frontline aired a powerful new documentary on Syria that lets viewers see the ongoing fighting up close and through the eyes of the rebels, the regime, and those trapped in the middle. It does a fantastic job of integrating the micro-level dynamics of the violence on the ground with the macro-level political forces operating in the country more broadly.

The Battle for Syria is gripping footage and courageous journalism. In the first of two segments, freelance cameraman Jeremiah Bailey Hoover joins The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as the two use smuggling routes to slip inside the country from across the Turkish border. They journey to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and meet a squad of rebel fighters engaged in street-to-street warfare against the tanks, snipers and air force of the regime.

The battle line cuts through the heart of Aleppo. Graves are dug in local gardens, waiting to receive the still-warm dead. The rebels retreat and advance. They kill a sniper and retrieve bodies lying in the street. They receive a defector and capture a spy who betrayed himself by mistakenly praising Assad at the rebel checkpoint. With the front line moving by the hour and death in the air, it’s not clear who controls the neighborhood.

The streets are typically deserted but civilians pop up here and there. In a telling scene, a man approaches the front with an absurd level of nonchalance as he walks hand-in-hand with his young children, ignoring the rebel’s entreaties to stay back, telling them that the regime snipers will not shoot as they walk on by. Another man shouts angrily at the rebels, cursing them for inviting the Government’s artillery and air power to bombard the neighborhood without discrimination.

Just as The Battle for Syria lays bare the micro-level uncertainties that prevail on the frontlines among civilians betwixt and between the two combatants, the film’s second segment recounts the macro-level narrative of how the fighting resulted from a series of increasingly polarizing events beginning with a few kids from the town of Daraa, who had the balls to spray-paint anti-Assad graffiti on the walls of their school.

The film traces how the torture subsequently suffered by the boys at the hands of the regime was recorded and shown on YouTube, quickly becoming a focal point for people to organize collectively and express their outrage. Although their demands were limited and relatively inchoate, the regime responded with a brutal crack-down. Even so, the examples of successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened the people and the protests gained momentum and the repression of the regime only served to empower those willing to use violence to meet the violence.

How is it that such a small spark could light this kind of fire and how does it relate to the broader structural forces that drive political instability in some countries but not others?

Timur Kuran has suggested one way to think about how broad structuralist forces interact with the individual determinants of opposition. In a famous analysis of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kuran distinguished between an individual’s private and public preferences. Citizens living under authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe were often afraid of expressing their true desires—i.e., opposition— publicly for fear of punishment. Instead, they behaved as though they supported communism in a form of “preference falsification,” cloaking such private truths with public lies.

Individual support or opposition to a political regime is not uniformly distributed throughout society. In Syria, for example, Sunni Islamists have a long history of resentment against the Assad regime and are die-hard opponents; others like the Alawite minority are die-hard supporters, many of whom fear for their lives were Assad to fall from power. Most people, however, are somewhere in between.

Kuran’s second point is that the mere sight of people collectively engaging in public defiance can inspire those on the sidelines to take part. He suggests that the die-hard opponents who mobilize early in protest can lower the threshold of others who, though privately sympathetic, would otherwise remain on the sidelines out of fear or social pressure. The participation of these individuals, in turn, add to the size of the protest movement and make it even easier for even more reluctant yet privately dissatisfied individuals to join in. This process is further accelerated if dramatic events like the torture of children can serve as focal points to channel public dissatisfaction. Subsequent repression by the regime that results in additional casualties can raise grievances and lower thresholds even further. Such a cascading effect helps explain how seemingly minor incidents can have major repercussions. Though apparently unpredictable in advance, they seem obvious in hindsight.

Preference falsification helps us see why authoritarian regimes seems so stable until the eve of their disintegration. In Eastern Europe, when citizens realized that there were thousands of others who were just like them, the regimes collapsed remarkably swiftly. This, according to Kuran, is why seemingly strong dictatorships are actually highly vulnerable to the public expression of political opposition. Indeed, as Lisa Wedeen has shown, fears of public unrest drove a remarkable effort by Bashar’s father, Hafez, to build a cult of personality. That pretty much everyone privately knew this cult was ridiculous missed the point: ensuring the mere semblance of outward support was enough to keep citizens engaging in docile preference falsification and unaware of the true scale of discontent.

In a cruel irony, The Battle for Syria recounts Bashar’s elderly mother, Anisa, chiding her son for lacking the firm hand of his father.

Essentialism Goes Both Ways: More on Islam and the West

I received an interesting comment on my last post about the recent protests in the Islamic world. Instead of commenting there, I wanted to expand my response into a brief follow-up post because the comment brings up some points that are essential to understanding my argument.

It’s true that we shouldn’t support people who are using this film as a pretext to inflame sentiments against Muslims, or the US. But in your post, why haven’t you considered the reasons WHY so many ordinary people could be easily mobilized by such messages? (I’m going to leave out the US side of things, because deploring extremists on both sides without considering the massive imbalance of power is a little silly). We shouldn’t ignore the sordid history of US intervention, war, and destructive policies in the region which very clearly contribute to resentment against the US.

This is not an anti-US policy screed, but rather the reasonable idea that we should take seriously the reasons large masses of people feel massive anger and resentment toward the US, and not write them off as the misguided masses exploited by political opportunists. As far as I can tell, this post was about how Bad Extremists Are and how we’re all the same – ok fine, but don’t you think you could consider the context a little bit more? Otherwise those are just empty platitudes.

The commenter’s point, as I understand it, is that my post was slightly vacuous in the sense that it “merely” deplored the existence of extremists, be they Islamic or Western. This is a fair criticism. What I wish to highlight in response also answers the commenter’s initial question. Political entrepreneurs on both sides of the world take advantage of publics by promoting false, often unnecessarily provocative narratives for the sake of political support. My argument in last week’s post emphasized this point.

On the other hand, one could argue that circumstances make publics in the Islamic world more susceptible to feel resentment toward the West and, by extension, more susceptible to be taken advantage of by political entrepreneurs. Moreover, one could argue that this resentment is legitimate and can be traced directly to actions of the United States over the past half-century or so. This would be the equivalent to the commenter’s recommendation not to “write off” the reasons behind these protest. However, arguments about legitimacy and blame miss the point.

Actions cannot be justified by motives that trace guilt to a generalization. This was the error of the attacks of September 11th, this was the error of the invasion of Iraq. My argument is that the type of thinking that leads to violent action occurs in both worlds and needs to stop. To address this, we need to realize that the problem is fundamentally the same for both sets of people. Contextualizing Islamic violence, while understandable and fair normatively, does little to further the cause of peaceful resolution.

It is, of course, wholly unfair to blame the entire Islamic world for isolated events in the Western world. This is essentialism at its worst. But essentialism goes both ways. It is similarly unfair to blame all Westerners for fostering the conditions that have made so many Muslims angry at “the West.”

When the Ayatollah Khomeini first issued a fatwa against Salman Rashdie, Suzannah Lessard wrote in the New Yorker about the effect of the threat on the Western socio-cultural zeitgeist:

The terror we feel when we put ourselves in Salman Rushdie’s shoes is a new kind. As far as we know, never before has an international lynch mob of millions called for the blood of someone like him—someone who is not a leader or an official, someone who until now was probably unknown to most of the people calling for his death and of whom they still know little…

20 years later, this is no longer a “new” kind of terror. It’s a familiar one. Terror, anger, resentment, protest, and violence for reasons false or unknown to the actors involved. Even worse, we in the West now have extremists hoping to incite violence of our own. Instead of responding to extremism as Salman Rushdie did–with a puzzled distance–we have seen many Western leaders respond with opportunistic rhetoric that has only made matters worse.

If we wish to move past this “clash of civilizations”-type of thinking, we need to recognize the danger of political entrepreneurs who continue to antagonize for political benefit. Surrounding conditions will change but political entrepreneurs will remain, ready to take advantage of those who may be susceptible. The only remedy is to stop the type of sweeping generalizations that led to the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the protests that followed.

For more on this clash of civilizations, follow William on Twitter.

Dommage for Catalonia: Identity and Economic Crisis

Since the beginning of the Euro crisis, there has been a substantial amount of analysis, and more than a bit of hand-wringing, over the (arguably counterproductive) resurgence of nationalism among the European Union’s constituent states. Nicholas Sambanis’s New York Times op-ed from a few weeks ago is representative: he suggests that the crisis has refocused the European populace on their parochial national identities at the expense of their (potentially) continental one, and that such socio-psychological (re)orientation is preventing concerted action to solve the problem:

As Europe’s status declines, the already shaky European identity will weaken further and the citizens of the richer European nations will be more likely to identify nationally — as Germans or French — rather than as Europeans. This will increase their reluctance to use their taxes for bailouts of the ethnically different Southern Europeans, especially the culturally distant Greeks; and it will diminish any prospect of fiscal integration that could help save the euro.
The result is a vicious circle: as ethnic identities return, ethnic differences become more pronounced, and all sides fall back on stereotypes and the stigmatization of the adversary through language or actions intended to dehumanize, thereby justifying hostile actions. This is a common pattern in ethnic conflicts around the world, and it is also evident in Europe today.

Indeed, the economic malaise plaguing Europe provides some interesting evidence for the interaction between crises, insecurity, institutions, elite behavior, and political identity. It has certainly provided a clarifying moment for those who argue that European identity is sufficiently well-developed to have coherent political meaning. The importance of identity is difficult to observe when peoples’ various subject positions (religion, regional identity, nationality, etc.) coexist in harmony. It is when identities are brought into conflict—via social unrest, economic crisis, political competition or war—that they become the most salient. Events of recent years have not boded well for the European project, and have arguably reaffirmed the primacy of the nation-state as the locus of mass political allegiance.

Recent days have added another wrinkle to this narrative. Underreported in the American press, September 11th saw a colossal Catalan nationalist rally in Barcelona. Local police reported 1.5 million attendees. To put this into perspective, that’s nearly as many people as live in the city, and more than 20 percent of the total population of Catalonia. September 11th is Catalonia’s “national day,” commemorating the 1714 Siege of Barcelona that, according to the relevant national mythos, marked the end of Catalan independence. The holiday often draws a decent-sized crowd. This week’s demonstration, though, was orders of magnitude larger than usual. Reports indicate that protesters expressed grievances over their homeland’s disproportionate tax burden within the Spanish state, itself cash-strapped as it struggles with a balance-of-payments crisis originating in Brussels and Berlin.

There are a few points to be made here. The first is to reiterate that for European elites who profess such dedication to their continent-wide project of neoliberal cosmopolitan governance, austerity policies have been highly counterproductive. By requiring Europe’s periphery to deflate its way to renewed growth, Brussels (read: Berlin) is imposing scarcity and economic misery on the very populations it seeks to bind into a unified community of fate. Competition for a shrinking resource base is a poor breeding ground for mutual identification and positive fellow-feeling, yet rather than play savior by easing the damage done to places like Catalonia by international capital markets, institutional Europe has only exacerbated their ill effects.

The second is to note that the last few years provide a measure of support for the account of modern nationalism advanced by Karl Polanyi more than a half-century ago. For Polanyi, the overly-intensive identification with volk and fatherland that plagued midcentury Europe had roots in the collapse of the nineteenth century economic order and the incapacity of extant institutions to assert control over the fates of their societies. The renewed intensity of Catalan nationalism suggests that it continues to function as a kind of psycho-social defense mechanism through which people search for communities of fate with the capacity to control their own destinies. Madrid lies at the mercy of international creditors and lacks the institutional capability to address Spanish problems with any kind of decisiveness. In some ways it’s not surprising that the citizens of Catalonia search for other notions of community with the potential to do better.

Will Syria’s Refugee Crisis Prompt A Military Intervention?

This post originally appeared in the World Policy Journal’s blog here.

Two hundred thousand Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring countries in recent months as their country descends ever deeper into civil war. In August alone, over 100,000 refugees fled Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The flood of refugees has pushed Turkey to amplify its calls for a no-fly zone near Idlib along its border, not unlike the no-fly zone imposed on northern Iraq to protect Kurds from becoming refugees in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. All of which invites the question: Is there a magic threshold before outside powers intervene to stem the tide of asylum seekers?

The relationship between refugee crises and humanitarian interventions remains unclear. On one hand, the use of brute and indiscriminate force appears to be a deliberate tactic by the Assad regime to displace locals and create refugee flows, thereby raising the costs for outside powers like Turkey to either provide humanitarian assistance or intervene militarily. But this tactic could also backfire, prompting calls for greater military involvement by the West.

A look back at recent interventions is instructive on how the size and scope of refugee flows has swayed policymakers and the public to intervene militarily. One of the major motivations behind the northern Iraq no-fly zone, established in 1991 was to relieve the burden of an estimated million-plus Kurds seeking shelter in Turkey by creating a secure zone for them within Iraq. Ankara was particularly worried about the influx of refugees exacerbating tensions among its own Kurds in the southeast, creating a kind of “Kurdish Gaza Strip” that could become a lawless zone of instability. In Bosnia and Kosovo, similar spillovers of refugees and the threat they posed to regional stability provided the catalyst for greater involvement and eventual military intervention. As then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “Spreading conflict … could flood the region with refugees and create a haven for international terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminals.”

That being said, obviously not all refugee crises lead to international interventions. In fact, most don’t. The Great Lakes refugee crisis of 1994—when over 2 million Rwandans, most of them Hutus, fled during the aftermath of the genocide into neighboring countries—resulted in little humanitarian relief or interventions from outside parties like the U.S., just a few Dutch medics and nurses and a French field hospital. The biggest refugee crisis in recent memory—Iraq between 2003 and 2007—was the consequence of U.S. intervention, not the cause.

But refugees can create humanitarian crises and export instability, which in turn can ratchet up domestic pressure for military interventions. In Haiti, for example, the 1991 coup by General Raoul Cedras and an attack against pro-Aristide shanty towns two years later by forces loyal to him set off a chain of events that left some 500 Aristide supporters dead, over 300,000 Haitians internally displaced, and roughly 100,000 refugees, mostly forced to flee on ramshackle rafts heading for the U.S. coast. The coup and subsequent refugee crisis ratcheted up pressure on Washington to respond with military force. The intervention was preceded by an arms and fuel embargo against the Cedras regime by the UN Security Council, the deployment of international monitors to document human rights abuses, and the freezing of all government funds. The only real threat posed to the U.S. homeland was the boatloads of Haitians seeking refuge, but it hardly posed a vital national security interest. Still, the Black Caucus and pro-Aristide camp pushed President Bill Clinton to issue calls for a multilateral intervention in 1994. Peacekeeping responsibilities, however, were not handed over to the UN until March 1995, well after the 20,000-strong force, almost all of them American, landed in Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy.

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The West or Islam: a False Choice

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions [between the West and Islam] in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

– Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4th, 2009

I’m a big fan of the maxim “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Often, as a political scientist and, especially, as a contributor to a politics blog (and ardent Tweeter), this is easier said than done. This week, however, has been a bit of an exception. As Americans mourned the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, protests over an anti-Islamic extremist film grew into violent riots in Egypts, an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi killed the US Ambassador to Libya and three others, and, in a still-developing story, protesters attempted to storm the embassy in Sana, Yemen.

Although I have some thoughts on the ongoing politicization of these effects and the American reaction to them at home, it has been difficult–personally and professionally–to cultivate a cogent response to the events themselves. Overreaction to events such as these has become the mode and, as such, our response should be measured. But how measured? How should we as Americans interpret national security crises in the post-9/11 era that seem removed from traditional great power politics?

I’m not sure. I do know, however, how we shouldn’t respond. These attacks, by small groups, seek to divide two parts of the world that have more similarities than differences. If the lesson of the Cold War was that ideological differences do not make conflict among humans and the states that represent their interests inevitable, the lesson of the post-9/11 era should be that religious or cultural differences similarly lack such teleological effects. In 2012, after the Arab Spring, the Western and Islamic worlds are more similar than 2009 when President Obama spoke in Cairo and more similar arguably than at any other point in history. The structural forces pushing and pulling toward conflict that drove the behavior of states in eras past do not apply.

In the blogosphere, perhaps the aforementioned maxim could be changed to “if you don’t have something good to say, blog about somebody who does.” Thankfully, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva does a great job of highlighting the dynamics underlying the false choice between the two worlds presented before us:

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other…

…there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved.

In brief, as we react to and process these attacks, Americans should be wary of the voices of polarization and conflict at home and abroad. The choice between the West and Islam is a false one and the clashes that arise are avoidable, not inevitable.

For more of his thoughts on the attacks, follow William on Twitter.