As revolution fever hit the Middle-East and North Africa last year, almost all seasoned analysts stood back aghast at their abysmal failure to see the events coming. Not learning the lesson from being caught so spectacularly off guard, I deign here to predict what the hotspots for 2012 are likely to be. In doing so, I hope to provide a little focus for the aspiring yet overwhelmed analyst. At the same time, I emphasise that it is best to keep the proverbial ‘soft eyes’ roaming too. I have categorised these hotspots into three: firstly, state-led geo-political tensions; secondly, people-led violence, and thirdly non-violent extremism.
In this category, the United States’ and Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran are set to deteriorate. Causes of this may include heightened tensions surrounding Iran’s desire for a nuclear arsenal. However, geo-strategic fault lines played out as Sunna/Shia sectarianism will feature heavily too. Saudi Arabia supports Iraq’s minority Sunni population against the newly independent dominant Shia groups allied to Iran. In Bahrain the reverse is true, where last year Saudi Arabia sent in tanks to protect the Sunni ruling monarchy against a majority Shia led uprising. Both are strategic countries for the US. Further strain will arise from Iran’s support for fellow Shiite Assad’s regime in Syria, against the majority Sunni population.
On another front, tension is also set to grow between Egypt and Israel over their bilateral relations following the fall of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s new Islamist-inclined parliament will be keen to pacify protestors at home. Similarly, Israel’s relations with Turkey may further deteriorate over the status of the Palestinians, in particular following the Turkish government’s support of the Palestinian call for statehood last September and further flotilla missions. Following the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea and her ally China are an area to watch, as the US worries about the North’s nuclear assets. Finally, it is possible that we will see more tension between China and the US (and US allies in the Gulf such as Qatar), over growing Chinese power games in Africa and the Far East. Qatar’s exorbitant funding last year of hardline Wahhabi-Salafist groups in Egypt and Libya may be a sign of things to come for China in the volatile Muslim-majority region of Xinxiang.
Naturally, globalization now means that threats resonate not just from states, but from different non-state actors who are not bound by traditional borders.
In no particular order, the first of these to mention is Syria and its rebel insurrection. With increased bomb attacks the uprising has recently taken a rather violent turn. Post troop-withdrawal, Iraq also grows ever more factious as sectarian Sunna/Shia wrangling among the political elite ignites a new wave of sectarian violence. Domestic stability in Afghanistan is in peril. The Taliban and their allies are set to surge back. With the opening of an office in Qatar, and their signing of a pact - Shura-e-Murakeba - with al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadists in early December, there are clear signs that the group is regaining power and prestige.
Moving to Africa, already a source of extreme violence is the Boko Haram group in Nigeria. Boko Haram is the Islamist-terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for several attacks against churches on Christmas Day across the country. Their name literally means “(Western) education is prohibited”, and Nigeria has since declared an official “state of emergency”. In the Horn of Africa, the role of the Islamist-terror group, the Somali Shabab, will continue to cause consternation. We are already witnessing instances of British and American citizens travelling to fight alongside the Shabab, and Yemeni connections to ongoing violence in this area are certain.
The rise of non-violent extremism
Much overlooked by many commentators, largely because of a lack of cultural comfort in recognizing this phenomenon, is the rise of non-violent extremism. Non-violent extremism is essentially the increase of intolerant and bigoted demands made by groups seeking to dominate society. Post-revolutionary Egypt, and to a lesser extent Libya, has seen a marked increase in the followers of Saudi-inspired Salafism. This austere and puritanical take on religion seeks to impose one version of Islam as law, and seeks to penalize those who beg to differ. Recent elections in Egypt turned in about 25% of the vote to Saudi-Salafists. Strangely for some, non-violent extremism is also set to mark Israeli society. In December 2011, there were violent clashes on the streets of Tel Aviv, as groups of ultra-orthodox Jews attempted to enforce strict segregation rules.
As economic troubles continue in Europe, the rise of far-right extremists such as Norway’s mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, is a trend here to stay. Xenophobic parties across Europe are succeeding in redefining the debate on their terms, and Europe’s more open-minded parties are struggling to keep up. In Pakistan, political Islamism and Muslim fundamentalism will continue to invade the everyday discourse of ordinary folk. The resurrection of the Jamia Hafsa seminary – known for the 2007 stand-off at the adjoining Red Mosque that pitched army troops against militants under General Musharraf - is testament to the increased toleration of militant Islamism in the country. Lastly, the rise in sectarian intra-Muslim fundamentalism in Indonesia is a further area to watch. Traditionally tolerant, groups within Indonesian society have begun to target minority Muslim sects such as Ahmedis with increasing impunity.
The growth of these fault lines so soon after America’s military foray into many of these regions serves to highlight a declining influence for the United States. The US is still the top gun, no doubt. But some of these tensions are rooted in a struggle between nations jockeying for position in a world where the US can no longer afford to maintain an omnipresent foreign policy. Islamist groups that have long been laying the seeds for their “new civilization” are reaping the harvest, while young liberal democrats are only now realizing that relying on Western power to further their ideology was at best a short-term fix. To really influence the grass roots, young democrats will need to start laying their own seeds for change.