Turkey

The West continues to look for a country that proves Islam and democracy can coexist peacefully, the alternative – a billion people, many of them in big and strategically important countries, with whom we can never share any common values – being too grim to contemplate. The Arab Spring provided new hope, but the signs from Tunisia, Libya, and above all, Egypt, are not too encouraging. Things could still come right in one or more of those countries, but at this point we simply don’t know. So we fall back on Turkey as the default poster child for democratic and moderate Islam, but there too the hope is increasingly tinged with anxiety. [click to continue…]

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Eurasia Group founder and emerging markets guru Ian Bremmer has come around to the view that the BRICS construct is nothing more than a bunch of countries “united by a catchy acronym” and little else. His op-ed piece in last Friday’s New York Times  notes that Brazil, Russia, India, and China “have formalized their club and extended their reach by inviting South Africa to join” – a development that occurred in December of 2010 and asks, “But do their meetings and joint statements really allow them to punch above their individual weight? What do these countries share beyond a common interest in bolstering their global clout?” Several hundred words later he concludes that these five countries “will sometimes use their collective weight to obstruct U.S. and European plans. But the BRICs have too little in common abroad and too much at stake at home to play a single coherent role on the global stage.” Has he been reading my blog? [click to continue…]

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If any event could illustrate the fragility of the BRICS conceit, it is the recent blackout in India, which left as many as 600 million people without power for up to two days. More than anything else, it reveals the sorry state of India’s governance. Yes, there are some extenuating circumstances: an unusually hot and dry monsoon season, which has reduced the available flow in hydroelectric plants while also causing the wealthy to use more power to run their air conditioners, while at the same time farmers are using more power to run pumps bringing up irrigation water from deep wells.

But the real story is under-investment in power generation, in coal production, and in transmission and distribution infrastructure, which in turn are attributable to monopoly pricing, hugely inefficient subsidies, endemic corruption, and political stagnation. The power outage was unique only in its extent and duration. Businesses, households, and public institutions all rely on diesel generators, which to a large extent have gone from a backup to the primary source of electricity, as “load shedding” – the system of rolling blackouts that utilities impose to reduce the strain on an overtaxed network, which often deprive whole areas of a city of power for as much as 14 hours a day. The event, and the global publicity it has attracted, has put a dent in India’s self-image as a nascent superpower. India has nuclear weapons and a space program – it launched a lunar probe in 2008 and has announced plans to send an orbiter to Mars next year – but it can’t keep the lights on. [click to continue…]

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The global bank HSBC, in its Business Without Borders newsletter,  tells us that while the past decade was all about the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – we are now in the decade of what it has dubbed the CIVETS, which stands for Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa, a set of countries “whose rising middle class, young populations and rapid growth rates make the BRICs look dull in comparison.” I have previously made the point – that BRIC, while a useful shorthand for a set of big emerging economies, makes no sense as an actual group, even as BRIC summits have taken place (in which South Africa was invited to join, adding the “s” to make up BRICS) and BRICS investment funds have been established. There is little, if anything in the way of common features or shared interests to unite the BRICs countries. Russia and China are authoritarian states, while Brazil and India are noisy democracies. Brazil and South Africa, both big agricultural exporters seeking freer trade, have little in common with India, which protects its farmers with high tariff barriers. Russia, whose economy is based largely on energy exports, has little in common with China, a net oil importer. China, with over 1.3 billion people, is more than 25 times bigger than South Africa, population 50 million.  But the BRICS are a model of solidarity when compared to the CIVETS.

Organizing the CIVETS into a coherent group could be as difficult as, well, herding cats. Not inappropriate, since the word civet is also used to refer imprecisely to a number of cat-like creatures of different genii and species. The more fundamental problem is that CIVETS by necessity excludes certain countries that should merit inclusion but which don’t fit the linguistic straitjacket. According to the HSBC article, “the six countries in the group are posting growth rates higher than 5% — with the exception of Egypt and South Africa – and are trending upwards.  Lacking the size and heft of the BRICs, these upstarts nevertheless offer a more dynamic population base, with the average age being 27, soaring domestic consumption and more diverse opportunities for businesses seeking international expansion.” So why is Thailand (population 69 million, forecast 2012 GDP growth of more than 6.0 percent, median age 34) excluded? Egypt’s poor economic performance can be considered temporary fallout from the Arab Spring upheavals, but what about South Africa, which in the nearly 18 years since the advent of majority rule has chalked up an average annual GDP growth of 3.3 percent? For that matter, why exclude Bangladesh (150 million people, median age 23, GDP growth averaging 6.0 to 8.0 percent)? Or Nigeria (140 million people, average 6.9 percent GDP growth since 2005, median age 19)?

One problem with the CIVETS designation, which almost guarantees that it will never catch on, is that it’s hard to add new countries or eliminate laggards from the group without ruining the catchy acronym. This is why over a year ago I suggested replacing BRICS, CIVETS, and other similar groupings with a more flexible term, which allows for countries to be added or taken out as they fall behind or graduate, namely, BEEs, for Big Emerging Economies. The real standouts in that group could be called Killer BEEs. I’m still waiting for it to catch on.

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Few current issues have become more emotionally charged than the head coverings worn by many Muslim women, both in traditionally Muslim countries and in the West. This plays out in Turkey, where the ruling Islamist AK Party has struggled to allow women to wear the hijab in public universities and public buildings, something that has been banned for most of the past 85 years or so under resolutely secularist rule. Among Muslim countries, Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco have also imposed some restrictions on the practice. Now comes the latest salvo in the war on headscarves: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s introduction of a ban on wearing of the face-covering niqab or similar garb in public, which comes into effect next month.

A brief taxonomy may be useful. In America we tend to lump the different categories of Muslim headgear under the catchall term “burka” – sometimes spelled “burqa,” but this is incorrect. The most common form of female Muslim head covering is the hijab, a headscarf that hides the hair and may or may not cover the entire neck. The hijab can be seen on women wearing tight jeans, high heels, jewelry and makeup. It can also be seen on women wearing shapeless, long-sleeved, floor-length garments, sometimes with gloves, and in just about any configuration between the two extremes. There is the chador, the black Iranian garment that covers the entire body and the hair, but leaves the face exposed. Similar to the chador is the abaya, typically worn in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which may or may not be worn together with the niqab, a veil that covers the entire face, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Finally, there is the Afghan burka, typically light blue in color, which covers the head and body, with only a grid through which the wearer can peer dimly. Walking the crumbling pavements of Kabul can be a challenge in such a garment. Eating in public while wearing a niqab or burka is all but impossible. In Saudi Arabia restaurants have “family sections” in which women can relax their guard to a degree, sheltered from the lascivious glares of single men, but no such option exists in Afghanistan.

The French ban covers only the niqab, burka, and similar garments that cover all or most of the face. Many other European countries are debating similar bans, though only Italy, which bans all face-coverings (including motorcycle helmets) in public facilities, has enacted one. In Britain, both the House of Lords and an employment tribunal ruled several years ago that teachers could be prohibited from wearing a niqab, and could be sacked if they refused to comply with the prohibition.

It would be unfair to characterize all proponents of any kind of ban on veils as racist, though there is no question that many of them, apparently including Sarkozy, do pander to racist sentiment among the electorate. But there are legitimate concerns about the proliferation of the veil. Many, if not most, Turks favor a secular society, and Turkey has succeeded where few other Muslim countries have, in creating a Western-style separation of religion and state. This separation has come under increasing threat from the Islamist government (the wives of the President and Prime Minister both wear the hijab), and it makes many people uneasy. In the West, many immigrant Muslim populations have failed or refused to integrate. Some of this is certainly due to the host countries’ own attitudes and official policies, which can make it hard for Muslim immigrants and their children, religious or secular, integrate into a society they feel is closed to them. But there is no question that many immigrant communities, unlike preceding generations of immigrants, have no interest in integrating, and expect the host country to change its laws and practices to accommodate them. Leaving aside the idiocies of many countries’ immigration policies – why, for example, can it be easier for an illiterate Somali to gain the right of residency in the U.S. than for an Indian with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT? – growing populations of immigrants who can’t or won’t integrate, many of whom seem to detest the culture and values of the countries that have taken them in, represent a real social problem, even if most right-thinking people would prefer to ignore it.

This is not to say that the “solutions” proposed by the likes of France’s National Front or Holland’s Geert Wilders (which include banning construction of new mosques, repealing the clause of the Dutch Constitution that guarantees equality under the law, imposing what Wilders calls a “head rag tax,” and a ban on preaching in any language other than Dutch) should be adopted. Wholesale deportation of immigrants, in addition to being unfeasible, is also undesirable. Banning public manifestations of religiosity is also unfeasible and undesirable. If a woman who, by tradition or choice, wears the niqab, how can banning her from going out in public improve her life? Still, secular Western countries – I wouldn’t presume to tell majority Muslim societies how to organize their social and religious arrangements – could apply some common-sense measures, which could include:

1.     First, reform immigration policy, not by banning immigrants but by encouraging immigration of people who have the education and skills to contribute to the economic and social life of the country, regardless of religion or country of origin. Does this mean that you may get an occasional suicide bomber who has an advanced degree and a good job? Yes, but a policy designed to eliminate the slightest risk of this will do much more harm than good.

2.     With regard to the hijab-niqab issue (I refer only to Western countries here – Muslim countries will need different approaches):

a.     Government employees may not wear the niqab or burka on the job (hijab, it’s up to the individual). As a citizen, you should be able to see the face of the official you are dealing with and the teacher who is instructing your children.

b.     Government offices do not transact business of any kind with anyone wearing the niqab or burka. Government employees should be able to see whom they are dealing with, while access to government buildings, already the object of security concerns, could legitimately be denied to anyone refusing to show his or her face (Italy already has such a policy, which applies to Halloween masks and motorcycle helmets as well as Islamic face coverings).

c.     Private companies or organizations should be allowed to make their own policies, but cannot require anyone to wear it (religious establishments excepted).

d.     Individuals should have the right to wear it in public places, including shops and other facilities that allow free public access. Access to public transport is more problematic.  Security concerns could dictate that all passengers show their faces.

e.     Driving while wearing the niqab or burka is strictly forbidden. Riding in a car while wearing it is no concern of the state.

It’s not a perfect solution, it may not fit all countries, and it is likely to infuriate some people on both sides of the question, but it’s a basis for discussion.

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