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American Public Designation: The ‘Liberal’ Fatwa Machine by Enri Çeno

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American Public Designation: The ‘Liberal’ Fatwa Machine

Before I begin—and in view of the recent vicious attack on Salman Rushdie—I would like to make clear my use of the word “fatwa” in the title of this article is not another self-righteous attack on political Islam. I only wish to observe an interesting historical resemblance between the centuries–old Islamic fatwa with the modern-day American ‘public designation.’ For those who have not heard about it yet, the U.S. Secretary of State has the power to publicly identify foreign individuals on account of human right violations, corruption and terrorism. These identifications, termed ‘designations,’ impose obligations on U.S. citizens and business organizations worldwide, and on anyone residing or doing business within the United States. Far from opposing it, I think that public designation is a powerful, spot-on U.S. foreign policy tool. 

Let us get back to our comparison between the U.S. public designation and the Islamic fatwa. In Islam, a fatwa is an authoritative ruling issued by a sharia lawyer or a religious leader. Fatwas are a powerful mechanism, and as all grand mechanisms, they can go terribly wrong. The cause behind the latest attack on Rushdie was 1989 Khomeini’s fatwa ordering Muslims anywhere in the world to execute him over the publication of The Satanic Verses. It had Rushdie run for cover under a UK protection programme. And it saw his book banned, removed from circulation, and even publicly burned in countries as diverse as Venezuela, England, and Bangladesh. 

Yet, this story does not mean that a fatwa, just one of the many instruments available in the immensely rich array of legal arrangements found in Islamic law, is a terrible thing per se. The example is simply meant to depict the forceful misuse of a time-honoured instrument of the sharia, quite similar to the Roman jus respondendi.  Similarly, the global sword of the U.S. public designation, noble as it may be, if wielded unwisely, will end up yielding the same impact, cause as much mayhem, and perhaps share the same fate of public condemnation as that one globally terrifying fatwa. 

Indeed, I believe that, by undermining its principles, the American practice of public designation will ultimately defeat its purpose.

Now, how unwise can the U.S. be when publicly designating foreign officials? For those opposing the U.S.-led, unipolar, liberal world, the answer is beyond doubt very unwise. For those holding a more benign view of the U.S. global leadership, the response will sound vaguer, along the lines of “mistakes do happen, but the overall effects of the policy are positive. But of course mistakes will be made.”

The question is simple: At what cost?

Today, public designations for involvement in corruption are being issued all over the world. They are, in my view, the new ‘liberal’ global fatwa. The problem is not merely American; the UK has joined its ‘big brother’s’ global club, issuing complementary designations of its own. Focusing on the U.S., just over the last few months, there was a ratcheting up of designations, with the latest issued on former President of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, a conservative leader. One year ago, it was the turn of Albania’s former President, former Prime Minister, and current opposition leader, Sali Berisha, another conservative.

A Reuters article from December 2020 noted: “President Biden will not shy away from using President Trump’s weapon of choice—sanctions—as he seeks to reshape America’s foreign policy, according to people familiar with his thinking.” Of note is the fact that the Trump administration 

issued around 3,800 new sanctions or ‘designations’ compared with the 2,350 of Obama’s second term, while approving fewer delistings, the means by which Washington rewards those who change behaviour. 

The Trump administration pioneered the imposition of U.S. visa bans, hitting more than 200 foreign officials with travel sanctions rarely used before Trump, and sharply escalated the use of so-called secondary sanctions that punished friends as well as foes. 

We should remember here that the U.S. Magnitsky Act first went global as of 2016, enabling the U.S. to impose visa restrictions all over the world.

To give credit to the Reuters forecast, it is clear by now that sanctions indeed remain a central instrument of U.S. power under President Biden in 2022—although “no longer deployed with the America First bravado that drove Trump’s foreign policy.” 

‘America First’ rhetoric aside, under Biden sanctions for human rights violations and corruption are not simply centrally important to the projection of U.S. power, as they were under Trump—they have skyrocketed. According to Erica Gaston’s February 2022 article, aptly titled “Targeted Sanctions Are Trendy, but Not Very Effective,” Biden issued 173 such designations under the Magnitsky Act in 2021, compared to just 12 issued in 2020. According to Benjamin Press, who tracks these issues for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “visa bans have become one of the Biden administration’s preferred tools for punishing bad actors abroad.”

Thus, as we stand in the perpetual fight of good versus evil, public designations are bound to become the modern reincarnation of Solomon’s sword. Those wielding it are sharply aware that they are no Biblical kings; they know such designations are not silver bullets, they know blacklisting foreign officials often has a symbolic (read ‘political’) meaning, rather than an effective impact on their often fraudulently acquired wealth. And yes, it was clear from early on that the overuse of such sanctions would potentially backfire at some point. And so it did.

Previously, I mentioned Sali Berisha, founder and current leader of Albania’s Democratic Party. To me, he is one notable example to illustrate this point. In May 2021, he was designated by U.S. Secretary Blinken on alleged involvement in significant corruption. At that point, Berisha, 77 years old, a former conservative leader, was on his natural way out of politics. Had the Biden administration not intervened, he would be just another politician in retirement in a small country in southeastern Europe. Once designated, however, he saw himself forced back on stage, enraged and surprised, in a quest for self-preservation as much as for vindicating his honour. This ended up bringing him back, once again, to the party’s helm. 

On 7 July 2022, the opposition acknowledged Berisha’s leadership, by joining his call for a massive rally in Albania’s capital against what he termed “A corrupt Socialist government.” 

In analysing recent events in Albania, several absurdities come to mind.

The first absurdity: An Albanian conservative, anti-communist leader—formerly retired—is resurrected and restored to duty because of his inclusion on a U.S. blacklist. 

The second absurdity: The former, and now actual, leader standing accused of his corruption in the past, spearheads a massive protest of the opposition against an allegedly corrupt government of the present.

The third absurdity: A few days after the protest, on 21 July, the United Kingdom, a country that left Europe few years ago, joined the United States in the war against corruption in southeastern Europe. 

The fourth absurdity: the United Kingdom chose to return to the scene of European affairs by piloting its overseas anticorruption effort in a country, Albania, that technically is not (yet) part of Europe. 

The UK pulled the stunt by designating the usual, distant, maybe irrelevant, hopefully minuscule, but at any rate resurrected Berisha, on account of his past corruption of ten years ago. Several hours before the UK designation was published, pro-Government Albanian media triumphantly predicted that the Albanian opposition leader, first disgraced by a U.S. blacklist, would be finally doomed by a UK designation.

The Albanian conservative opposition was hit hard, the Albanian Socialists, the actual heirs of the Albanian Communists, were exultant. In the perpetual war between good and bad, they were (once again!) not the baddies. Moreover, they had insider information from UK that it was so. And they were more than happy to leak it!

It would be absurd not to call this action concerted; it would be absurd to fail to recognize it as political. It is a political action, of course, but it was launched as a holy war against corruption. Holy wars—whether against terror, corruption, weapons of mass destruction, violent extremism, or populism— may well be fought on behalf of just and noble causes, but they are unavoidably reminiscent of the medieval Crusades. After several decades of critical theory, it is difficult to claim that the Crusades were nothing less than a perfectly moral endeavour that resulting exclusively in justifiable outcomes.

Yet if the U.S., or the UK, purport to keep wielding the holy swords of justice, they should do so with reasonable foresight in order that their actions do not end up making messy local realities even messier. In my own nation Albania, their actions brought back to political relevance and gave a political future to the very man they wanted to disgrace on account of his past. They did not make America greater, the UK grander, or Albania safer—they made our Anglo-American friends look weaker, and they made the Albanian quasi-autocratic Socialist government look stronger.

And what about the human limitations to the power of deciding the fate of international figure, as, after all, U.S. sanctions are levied by fallible human beings? Should Berisha and those who, like him, feel betrayed by their historical allies, have the right to confront the accusations through a transparent process? Should there be the right to an appeal? 

Apparently not.

American public designations invoked under provision 7031 (c) were designed to serve as a versatile and powerful tool of foreign policy. They were meant to disincentivize nations throwing their lot with corrupt leaders in hopes of helping educate the countries. They effectively endow an aura of high priest of global anticorruption upon the Secretary of State. There is of course no point denying the great positive impact this tool can have when used prudently and sparingly: against actual dictators, highly corrupt officials, and leaders guilty of mass murder and human rights violations.

But there is another point: sometimes the holy altar of world justice is half empty. Sometimes the high priest may be wrong. At times, playing God backfires. Carefree handling of powerful instruments inevitably creates innocent victims—and by that I don’t mean the ‘poor’ designated foreign officials—I am sure more than often, whether corrupt or not, they manage to take care of themselves. By innocent victims, I mean entire young democracies, entire government systems of friendly nations built on the rule of law, the future of alliances built on mutual respect, the future of our perception of the U.S. as a responsible global power, as the keystone of liberal democracy.

Is the blanket bombardment with public designations a sign that the U.S. is going down ‘the easy path’ of fighting the evils of this world by raining down a hailstorm of fatwas or, eventually, by handing over a handful of indulgentias on the unworthy leaders of our nations? Wouldn’t anything causing political turmoil in allied countries constitute a political intervention, and wouldn’t it be utopian to claim the opposite? What happens if well-meaning, enlightened, perfectly or, for what it is worth, poorly-informed American officials, keep pouring down politics and utopia in a one-size-fits-all cocktail shaker?

An Israeli historiographer, former Communist, and former Anti-Zionist, once wrote: “Don’t mix utopia with politics, it’s very important. Utopia has to direct politics, not to replace politics, it’s too dangerous.” The mind behind this statement is Shlomo Sand, a professor of contemporary history, a man with a complicated and fascinating background and with a strong reliance on left-wing orientation and ideology.

Whilst I approach today’s global mess we call foreign relations from a conservative perspective, I still feel tempted to resuscitate Sand’s ideological take on “capitalism’s permanent state of crisis” which, to the detriment of the humanity in all of its shapes and forms, fuels a vehement pursuit of scapegoats. 

And whilst I frankly object to any Marxist political teleology, I cannot deny that one of the most tempting instruments open to misuse for the US to try to come close to Sand’s gloomy prediction is the actual centrepiece of its current foreign policy—the “liberal” fatwa.

I do not believe today’s scapegoats are created because of the permanent crisis of the last stage of capitalism, and neither do I believe we need a permanent revolution or an intellectual vanguard in D.C. or elsewhere to deal with its—not so few—evils. 

Yet scapegoats do exist. Sometimes they are packed in concrete, designated on accounts of significant corruption, and dispatched right onto the foundations of today’s crackling edifice of what we may call ‘post-Twitter diplomacy,’—more than ever ridiculously reliant on daily PR stunts, fake smiles and cheeky algorithms, instead of a realistic conception of a growingly gloomy, adversarial and controversial world. 

One of the instruments used to accomplish this, a centrepiece of current U.S. (and lately also of UK) foreign policy is, whether we want it or not, the liberal fatwa—the one that came next, once the U.S. gave up on the one that read “America First.” 

What we need to do to keep America as a beacon of hope in a world of gloom is exactly this—prevent it from becoming a machinery churning out liberal fatwas at a growingly astonishing rate.

Enri Çeno is the foreign relations secretary for the Democratic Party of Albania.