Monday, May 26, 2003

An anti-climatic moment: I went to e-mail Isam al-Rawas, the historian who wrote the most recent book close to my dissertation topic and dean of the college where I'll probably be affiliated when I do my research. I wrote up a spiffy e-mail introducing myself, explaining my interests, and asking what I needed to ask, then clicked send, only to get an "account over quota" message. So I guess I try again in a few days. Aisha tells me he doesn't check his own e-mail, so maybe there's break or something at SQU and I can send it when everyone comes back.

On an impulse, I tried eel rolls today. They rocked.
In the U.S., the popular image of the Middle East conflict has all the radicals on the Palestinian side. In the wake of the Israeli Cabinet's approval of the Road Map, however, the Israeli radicals are speaking up big-time. Haaretz talked with settler leader Elyakim Haetzni, whom I will let speak for himself:

"The Jews also willingly boarded those trains, believing everything that the Germans told them. The Jews are a people which is very dangerous to itself. It is a people that brought Holocausts down on itself throughout history"

"Our sovereignty ends with the beginning of the American mandate. What they are doing in Afghanistan and Baghdad they will now do in Jerusalem."

Haetzni also accused Sharon of national treason. Members of the settler movement also used that term to refer to Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination by a Jewish militant. Unfortunately, I think the settlers might be getting upset over nothing. The approval of a Palestinian state by a conservative government does set a sort of precedent, but Sharon's 14 Red Lines would seem to contain some deal-breakers, such as #9, the refusal to discuss settlements. Also unclear is how the PA can crack down on terrorism when they reportedly still haven't fully recovered from the Israeli assault on them last year.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

According to Reuters, the Bush administration is leaning toward plans to begin attempting to destabilize the government of Iran. In my judgement, this is a serious mistake. I have discussed what I see as Iran's current role in the region here. I have also discussed why I don't find the administration's claims against the Iranian government convincing and what I think of the specific details that are now circulating.

Destabilizing the Iranian regime could easily create the conditions that would allow a radical hard-line government dominated by the IRG to seize power. It would disrupt the native Iranian debate over the nature of Islamic government and force conservatives throughout the region to choose between hard-line and American models. Furthermore, because my reading of Iranian blogs and media suggests that reformists and conservatives are closing ranks on foreign policy matters, it could easily undo any help the American reputation in the region might eventually get if we properly rebuild Iraq. With regard to the "War on Terror" It would remove the major contributor to rebuilding Afghanistan, weakening the government of that country to allow an al-Qaeda return, while possibly creating even more safe havens in a destabilized Iran.

For years I have been a hawk on Iraq, to the annoyance of my liberal friends. I am, however, completely dovish on Iran. The way to handle Iran - the most democratic Muslim country in the Middle East save Turkey, despite propaganda - is through engaging any aspect of the Iranian government we can while undercutting the conservatives by acting to solve the region's major problems. Iran is a country in continuous evolution, and the U.S. and the region will get more long-term benefit from a native Iranian development than if we let the CIA start mucking around like they did when we restored the Shah. Iran is not Iraq - almost everyone in the region sees their role as fundamentally benevolent. An Iranian Cabinet minister, for example, was recently in Lebanon opening a new hospital in a poor southern region there. That is the image they will put up against our situation in Iraq if Bush goes through with pushing a hard-line conservative agenda under the guise of the "War on Terror."

Friday, May 23, 2003

What's floating around now is that the al-Qaeda presence in Iran is in some manner aided by rogue elements in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. After Iraq I'm just a little skeptical of the whole "intelligence sources" line, but this is plausible, and if so could be even more disturbing than if the Iranian government were behind things.

The IRG is the same segment of the Iranian armed forces which is said to be generating terrorism in the Occupied Territories by smuggling through Hizbullah. (This is probably the most recent example.) A bit of googling suggests they - and especially the al-Quds Division - might be the key to Iran connections to terrorism, and I see a lot of quotes in that direction from the Saudi Arabian newspaper ash-Sharq al-Awsat. However, that may not mean that even the hard-liners in Iran's government are behind this, as I've long been curious about their relationship with the the most extreme elements in Iran. Three years ago, there was an alleged "crisis committee" within the IRG which drew up plans for a coup against President Khatami. (One surviving link from then is here.) The most interesting thing is that getting the support of Ayatollah Khamanei was a step in the plan, which implies strongly that these "senior officials" in the IRG were not acting in concert with him, despite the fact he is officially in charge.

I would be very interested in reading a current report on the IRG and their links with both the Iranian government and terrorism. It may be that there are really three power blocs in Iran - the reformist camp led by President Khatami, the post-Khomeini conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamanei, and the militants in the IRG and elsewhere. What that means for Iran's internal political battles is uncertain.
So tonight I walked around Capitol Square for a bit, and discovered that the eating establishments there definitely cater to a well-to-do set which patronizes them primarily during the day. I got a sandwich from Quizno's that was more expensive than the Quizno's by where I normally live, and noted that they closed at 6 p.m. weekdays and didn't open at all on weekends. All well...I have a car. I also noticed this morning that The Two Towers has come to the dollar show. I'd been watching so long I'd given up on it, and now I'm not sure how long its been there or how long it will last. Hopefully I'll jump over there before it leaves.
From the Eurasia Research Centre mailing list, I got an article from the Washington File on how a recent CSID panel discussed the need for scholars to reinterpret Islam so that it accepts democracy. "Is Islam compatible with democracy?" is a frequently asked question I wish would simply retire. If you go to the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, you find a democracy (led by a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri). The world's second largest Muslim population is in India, also a democracy where there have been a few Muslim Presidents. In Qatar, there were recently several days of celebrations at the approval of a more democratic constitution.

The question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy in the Islamic world comes from a belief still floating around much Western scholarship that everything that happens in the Middle East must have its root cause someone in Islam. Yet I have to ask a simple question: During the 19th and 20th centuries, did the ulama (Muslims religious scholars) suddenly decide to stop having agrarian empires and begin having military dictatorships and family-run emirates? The 19th century is a vast hole in my knowledge of history, but I sort of doubt it.

The best evidence of Islam's compatibility with democracy, however, is in the polls quoted by this very article. According to a November 2002 poll by the World Values Survey, 98% of the people in Bangladesh consider democracy the best form of government, as do 89% of Jordanians and 88% of Turks. These three nations ranked higher than the U.S., where only 87% of Americans support democracy, or the 78% who favor democracy in the UK. Are Bangladesh, Jordan, and Turkey overwhelmingly Muslim? Yes, and at least from my experience of Jordan a significant part of the population is conservatively so. Just because a few radicals might see democracy as a Western evil and just because historical circumstances have produced an undemocratic Middle East doesn't mean Muslims are in a crisis over whether they can be democratic and religious at the same time.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

I need the obligatory "Who are you?" post, so this is it. My name is Brian Ulrich, and I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Islamic history at the University of Wisconsin. I started this blog on a whim way back here, and seem to have decided to stick with it. My main area of posting is the Islamic world, defined in its broadest sense, though following my academic interests I concentrate on the Middle East. I should add a disclaimer: I am a historian of the medieval period, so very little of what's on here represents "expert opinion." The rest is just the views of someone who has some applicable context and experience working with issues related to the Islamic world. Finally, almost no fact content here will originate with me - if I don't mention or link to a source, then its either just generally out there or I forgot. I will, of course, also include occasional notes about my own life, as well as other topics of interest such as sports and literature. Hope you enjoy reading!

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

In the aftermath of the Riyadh bombings, the administration is once again accusing Iran of being in league with al-Qaeda. However, as near as I can tell, the case that Iran is in league with al-Qaeda is more or less the same as the case that Spain is. Iran has arrested numerous al-Qaeda members, including high-profile ones, and sent them to their home countries for trial. However, there remain al-Qaeda activists in the country. Yesterday while making supper I saw an administration-connected terrorism expert on FOX News making the connection case, and he argued that Iran was not rooting al-Qaeda out of Khurasan, along the Afghan border, though he admitted there had been some cooperation between Iran and the U.S. on that score.

So...the presence of al-Qaeda cells you can't root out now qualifies you as in league with terrorists. Sure. Even Brit Hume seemed to want to question that a bit. Iran probably has a lot of al-Qaeda members for the same reason Pakistan does in the NWFP. One Iranian I know said that there are probably a few radical mullahs in Iran just like there are in most countries, and some of these might be sheltering al-Qaeda in some way, but that's about it.

Defending the border isn't as easy as Rumsfeld would have us believe. During the days of the Taliban, that area was the site of massive drug smuggling, and if the Iranians could have shut that down, they certainly would have. The fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism is also irrelevant to the question of whether they support al-Qaeda. Iran supports terrorist groups which attack Israel, which in the Muslim Middle East, regardless of where you stand on it, is considered a separate issue. Iran is most prominently a sponsor of Hizbullah, which many people even in Europe don't consider a true terrorist organization.

There may be some case that Iran is helping al-Qaeda, but based on what we're hearing, I sort of doubt it. The administration was convinced Iraq was in league with al-Qaeda, and the most we've found even after raiding the Ansar al-Islam camp is a document suggesting some people were thinking about cooperating five years ago. Compare this to the connections between al-Qaeda and Liberia, which I discuss here and which AfricaPundit goes into here. As it is, one must at least suspect the Bush administration of simply continuing old conservative foreign policy goals under the "War on Terror" propaganda banner.
Here at work, one issue I've worked on over the past few months is our logo, or lack thereof. Internal questioning revealed no one knew of a logo when I was making lecture flyers, and when someone from the International Institute asked for it, another search turned up nothing. Hence, I was a bit surprised when I just saw a flyer with a contest to match each area studies center to its logo, and saw that we were included. So apparently we do have a logo, it's just that no one knows what it is. I've got it narrowed down to three...

Oh, yeah, I'm more or less settled into my new apartment. The best part is lakeshore proximity, though directly in front of me the view is mostly blocked by trees. The thing that is driving me the most nuts is the smallness of the kitchen. I take after my mother in terms of food stockpiling, and I can also see a need for more counter space than I have at some point. But everything fit...more or less. A while back there was a sale on olive oil, and I bought what at my present rate of usage looks like about 5 years worth in large glass bottles. These are currently on their side crammed in with paper products.
The al-Jazeera story on Monday's protest in Baghdad indicated that the protestors were demanding a government role for the main clerical establishment in Najaf, of which the Sadriyun certainly consider themselves a part. They also called for respect for all Iraq's religions and people and a war crimes tribunal to investigate the Ba'ath party. The withdrawal of American forces was also an important issue. I guess those are fairly basic demands. Desire for religious government and respect for all religions are not necessarily in conflict: Muslim states have had situations in which different religious communities lived according to their own laws under one government for almost 14 centuries now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a series of terroristic attacks in Kyrgyzstan which authorities are blaming on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. After 9-11 this group dedicated most of its resources to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they were crushed; however, they seem to have revived along with the rest of the al-Qaeda-associated network. This could be bigger trouble than al-Qaeda's activities. Ahmed Rashid and others have been warning about the potential powderkeg that is Central Asia for a long time, and Kyrgyzstan is one of the weaker states in that region.

My Arabic dictionary remains AWOL, but this Washington Post article confirms my suspicion that yesterday's Baghdad protest was largely a Sadriyun event. In addition, Juan Cole (archives confused) has been watching numbers, and seems less than impressed with the turnout, saying, "It appears to be the case that Iraqi Shi'ites are just not that upset with the U.S. at the moment."

Hamid Karzai today won an agreement from 12 regional governors (including Ismail Khan) to start getting the tax revenue from the provinces, which would certainly help bolster the authority of the central government in Kabul. Karzai has threatened to resign if the political situation has not improved by August. An additional note: According to the RFE-RL Daily Afghan Report, a Kabul newspaper called Iffat has called for a constitutional provision making women responsible for the care of their husbands' personalities and moral purity.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Ze'ev Schiff has an article on the current Israeli/Palestinian crisis in today's Haaretz which is well worth reading. Once again, too, we see the imporance of timing in Hamas's terror strategy. This wave follows the publication of the "road map." Last year's Seder massacre came when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah produced his peace plan for the Arab League. The whole current Intifada started when Barak was offering Arafat pretty much everything he wanted. You get the idea. I think in order to make progress, someone's going to have to cut the IRG/Hamas-Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade link through Hizbullah.
Today there was a large protest in Baghdad against American plans to put off the formation of an Iraqi interim government. The Western media just calls it a "Shi'ite" protest, but the articles generally describe people and places associated with the Sadriyun, the most anti-American faction and the one with the strongest organization, though not necessarily the largest base of support. Al-Jazeera spells out their complaints in detail, but I haven't unpacked my Hans Wehr yet and I don't feel comfortable translating it without that - I do plan to do so later, and will update accordingly. Even if this is just a Sadriyun thing, however, that doesn't mean that SCIRI and even other parts of the Iraqi population won't have some sympathy.

Incidentally, I'm noticing a growing trend of at least the English-language Arab media referring to the Iraqis as glad to be liberated from Saddam. Last week there was a Gulf News article to that effect, and today the Lebanon Daily Star briefly mentioned the Iraqis as "relieved Saddam's 24-year rule is over."

Saturday, May 17, 2003

We now interrupt this commentary for personal musings. Tonight is the last night I will spend in this apartment with everything intact. Not only was this the first place I lived on my own, but I've been here for four years, which when you think about it could be the longest I live in any one place for a few years to come.

The apartment is marked with the memories of those four years. Between this desk and my bookcase sits the water bottle I brought back from Jordan, still with water in it. In the bottom of the box next to me are some QU items related to things I felt nostalgic for when I first moved here. The box I use for cardboard recycling is the same one that held the bulk cereal purchase I made with leftover QU meal money. On the shelf above my TV is the box to the tea my parents got me a few years ago for Christmas, which basically made me a tea drinker. This computer itself is the first I ever owned, and when I checked e-mail and surfed the net for the first time from my own place it was right here in this very chair. And who knows what I'll find when I dig up my closet tomorrow.

Other memories are bound up in the feel of the place itself. How many times have I in the darkest hours of a weekend night looked out on a dark and quiet neighborhood, taking some strange thrill from being the only one awake around me. In the other room I sat while packing to go to Jordan, a bit nervous, and enchanted by the severe summer thunderstorm that ensured I'd have every little bit of midwestern seasonal weather the day before I left. In this apartment I first cracked a Benet's to become a better quiz bowl player than I was at QU, and fervently planned to go see my first professionally done musical, Miss Saigon.

And of course there's all the grad school stuff. I remember being in this room writing my first grad school paper (on Saladin), talking about the coup in Pakistan with my roommate, working on my master's thesis, studying for prelims, and knowing the thrill of choosing one's final dissertation topic. In this room and the common area I graded my first papers and developed my first lesson plans. Here, too, I cooked my first meal for myself, baked my first cookies from scratch, and did all the other things one does as one passes from college kid to adult. And naturally, I did all the usual things of talking to friends like Aisha and Raghavan while moping after this olympiad's collection of females who didn't like me and all that jazz.

On Sunday, I will be somewhere different, and I'm probably someone different, as well. Being around all the graduation buzz makes me think back, and there are some subtle changes that have crept up on me. Perhaps part of this is that I know that every new place brings new memories, rewards, and challenges. This summer remains unwritten in my little place by the lake, just like I don't know what will happen to me next year in my one-bedroom in this same compound. But whatever it is, I can't wait, because one thing I don't foresee changing is that I am an explorer at heart, and the future remains the greatest unknown of all.

Friday, May 16, 2003

The War on Terror is back. For several days there've been threats by al-Qaeda of a sustained campaign similar in scope to 9-11 consisting of the types of attacks we saw in Riyadh and directed at targets primarily in the Arab world. In addition, al-Qaeda seems to have kicked up a new crop of leaders to replace those they've lost so far.

There is also a new terrorist organization in the wings. Its named is al-Muwahhidun, meaning "those who believe in the unity of God," and its leader is Shaykh Ali al-Khubayr, a former al-Qaeda member who was probably in Iraq at the start of the U.S. invasion there. It is led by former members of al-Qaeda, but also has new recruits whose main cause seems to be opposition to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Gulf sources describe it as "Al-Qaeda II."
UPDATE: In response to queries, the source for this was a translated article from al-Ilaf from the Eurasia Research Center list-serve.

These kinds of threats come and go, but the amount of reporting and everything on this one is quite large, and now we've had the Casablanca attacks following those in Riyadh, both seemingly by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself for these kinds of attacks, perhaps using their experiences working with Indonesian groups as a model. This whole situation also shows the difficulty of a "war on terror" model, as you can't just capture some leaders and occupy a country and thus end the war. I'm politically liberal, but when Bush talks about a campaign that will go on for years with no clear victory, he's just calling it like it is. The only way to fight this is to wear these groups down while disrupting them as much as possible until they finally lose all credibility.

I'd also suggest that while I supported the Iraq war, we are about to start seeing in groups like al-Muwahhidun the price of that campaign in new terrorism people talked about. Some would have happened anyway, of course, but Iraq did add logs to the fire.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Last week there were two protests in Kabul. The first was workers seeking pay and fair hiring practices. The leaders also spoke out against American "interference" in Afghanistan; however, people interviewed by whatever source I was reading indicated they didn't have a problem with the American presence, indicating it was better than war. The second was against the Karzai government for offering a general amnesty to members of the Taliban who had not committed actual crimes against the Afghan people. Ismail Khan, the Iranian-backed governor of Herat, supported this, and both leaders are saying it is necessary for national unity. Neither protest drew more than a few hundred people.
The Middle East "Road Map" already appears to be in serious trouble. According to Haaretz, Arafat's Naqba Day address honored the 55-year struggle against Israel, and included the right of return of refugees as essential to the Palestinian cause. This will go perfectly with Palestinian public opinion, but also undercut Abu Mazen, who is left with the tough task of negotiating away the right of return. Abu Mazen's hope for legitimacy depended on getting results, and instead we see more Israeli incursions leading to dead Palestinians. Today a 12-year-old boy bled to death, apparently because the IDF prevented doctors from arriving to treat him. Furthermore, Arafat is apparently still a main source of authority with the PA. President Khatami's recent visit to Lebanon praised Hizbullah's success in ending the Israeli occupation there through armed resistance. In this Jerusalem Times Perspectives piece, an imprisoned Fatah leader passionately explains the need he sees to continue the Intifada.

Perhaps worst of all, the Sharon government is considering ways to forcibly open Temple Mount to worship by non-Muslims. Ideally, of course, a spot sacred to three religions should be open to all three. Since Sharon's controversial visit there in October 2000 basically sparked the current Intifada, however, the Muslim authorities have allowed others to visit only. If this can be done through agreement, all fine and dandy, but these articles are giving me nasty visions of IDF troops imposing something in the Haram ash-Sharif. Things would quickly spiral downward from there.

Muhammad Dahlan has yet to be heard from. Long considered "the future" among the Palestinian leadership, the fight between Arafat and Abu Mazen was largely over him and his agenda. If there is hope for the peace process in the short term, the future must begin now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Reuters is reporting that people with the new Iraqi TV station have accused the U.S. of trying to censor them. I find this report credible just because I can't find a motive for the journalists to lie, unless there is some plot to emphasize that it won't ultimately be censored.

Speaking of censorship, Iran's new Internet censorship has taken effect, but apparently it isn't very effective. Meanwhile the recently arrested blogger has been released on bail.

After looking at the Iranian situation, it now seems to me that Iran is drawing closer to the U.S. on Iraq much like they did on Afghanistan, but they remain wary of the influence of a hostile American power in the region and seem uninterested in meeting all our demands without more concessions on our part. I should also mention that both reformists and hard-liners seem to be carving out a common line toward the United States, with the main difference boiling down to whether or not we're worth talking to. Both groups defend the nuclear program and most Iranian foreign policy.

This morning I got to wake up to "The Coming of Shadows," the first TV episode not The Twilight Zone or Star Trek to win a Hugo. Exquisite...I hope Babylon 5 is always around, but its not quite like most series in that you can't really come in halfway through and see the full genius. On this run, I have been noticing a lot of Tolkein feel to the second season. JMS once compared Sheridan to Aragorn, and the Minbari make good elves, especially with that Grey Council member saying things about having started on the path and not knowing where it will lead. In addition, Elric, the Technomage leading the migration, was apparently based on Gildor from The Fellowship of the Ring. The enemies are called Shadows, and G'Kar's softly, slowly spoken report to Na'Toth of his journey to confirm the return of "our ancient enemy" seemed very Tolkeinesque: "On dark deserted worlds where there should be no life, where no living thing has walked in over a thousand years, something is gathering its forces, quietly hoping to go unnoticed. After a thousand years, the darkness has come again." Neat!

Speaking of sci-fi, it's interesting how few episodes of a show you can have seen before you hit a rerun. I've seen less than 10 Farscape episodes, yet I suspect if I watch tonight I'll see someone turn into a statue, which I've seen before.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The Bush administration has now confirmed what everyone knew: The U.S. and Iran have been in diplomatic contact, presumably for years. Iran itself continues to be the country to watch in the new Middle East. Today President Muhammad Khatami was in Lebanon, where he signed economic agreements including a $50 million loan, and was expected to call for restraint and non-violence, a message also being touted by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in Iraq. This comes after SCIRI, the Iraqi Shi'ite group closest to Iran, joined the U.S. interim administration. At the same time, the U.S. has now begun disarming the Mujahadeen-i Khalq, a terrorist group which attacks Iran with which the U.S. had earlier agreed to a cease-fire. Is all this the result of secret negotiations, or intimidation? I suspect it will be the former.
UPDATE: Khatami actually praised Hizbullah's resistance in his big Beirut speech. However, it remains to be seen what he will say in his private meeting with Nasrallah. My main point is really that Iran-related diplomacy is an important story.

The largest mass grave yet has been found near Basra, holding the remains of as many as 15,000 victims. Given the people who have for years accused me of spouting American propaganda when I discussed Saddam's brutality, I hope this gets plenty of notice. We are not talking about some small-time dictator who just rigs elections and imprisons people. I have long regarded Saddam's as one of the three most brutal regimes on the planet (the others being Myanmar and North Korea, and I should probably toss in Liberia for different reasons), and he will probably go down in history as one of the worst dictators of the 20th century. His targets were not just dissidents, but whole ethnic groups, the Kurds and especially the Marsh Arabs, and when I read up on his record using Human Rights Watch back in March, I came to a figure of about 400,000 people who have died at his hands since 1991. Current NGO numbers I've seen say 2700 civilians died during our war to remove him. Comparative math in these cases can be misleading, but the numbers here are pretty extreme.

Monday, May 12, 2003

One of the media's favorite stories during the Iraq War was the coalition's use of precision weaponry. Unfortunately, they are not being nearly so eager in reporting the new details on the allied use of cluster bombs. These are weapons fired from the air or on land that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller detonation devices which they spray over the target area. The Pentagon claims only one civilian was killed by cluster bombs during the war, but in this they are counting neither those launched from the ground nor the 147 or so reported cases of people (half children) killed by unexploded cluster bombs after the war. Human Rights Watch has begun covering the situation here.

Because I've noticed new people starting to wander in to this blog, I'll just say here that I was in favor of the war, but do feel the American public needs better information than they've been getting, both to continue to make informed decisions for themselves and better understand the attitudes of the rest of the world. As I recently read in an El Pais story in World Press Review: "In the United States, people lost no sleep over the tragedy of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, the 12-year-old boy who lost his family and both arms to a bomb. Most of the media chose to ignore his story. From Omaha or Kansas was a war of American heroes against "death squadrons," a war of devoted army doctors attending the civilian population, a war that peaked with the rescue of U.S. prisoner of war Jessica Lynch. The media itself chose to brush over the bloodier images, offering their audience what it wanted to see."

Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim has returned to Iraq touting an anti-American line and contrasting his version of the Islamic Republic with the secular ideologies of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. I suspect, however, that most Iraqis in the cities, where the political battles will be fought, will differentiate the secular nationalist ideology from the government which used it as propaganda. According to Juan Cole, among his other comments were a call to "jihad for reconstruction, and of love and amity, not of hatred and destruction." This caused me to wonder somewhat vaguely how that was phrased with the rest of his speech, as in Shi'ism only the Imam can issue a call to jihad, and in Twelver Shi'ism the Imam happens to be in occultation.
UPDATE: Upon further review, only the duty for offensive jihad is in abeyance, and all the normal types are still a binding obligation on all Muslims.

Persian exam and article revisions are now complete. Will work on NAQT stats during tonight's hockey game. I've also started organzing a session on "Teaching Early Islam" for Kalamazoo next year. It hasn't actually been approved yet, but I gather that's not a big deal.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger, is back on-line. It's a fascinating read for those trying to figure out the "ground news" from Iraq.

My counter appears to be double-counting visitors. It did that for a few days earlier, too...hopefully it won't last.

Bleah...I still feel the weight of various moderate-sized tasks ahead of me...Persian final, NAQT stats, revisions for some encyclopedia articles I wrote last summer, figuring out my spiel in Quincy next month, meeting to finalize my sublet and moving...maybe one day I'll even catch up on whatever's happened in the Middle East while I was in Kalamazoo!

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

First off, the Middle East Studies Program web site now has links to media sources throughout the Middle East, as well as Western news sources which have good coverage of the region. Hope some of you find it a useful spot for one-stop Middle East news shopping!

At work, I've recently stumbled across the Iranian blogosphere just as it seems to be coming under attack. This article from Tech Central Station describes the role Iranian bloggers play as voices of dissent in a society which features wide open civil discussion with attempts from the regime to limit people's behavior in spite of the democratic institutions they really can't abolish because Ayatollah Khomeini himself put them there. The regime has recently begun cracking down on bloggers, with one being arrested April 22. Then, in today's Iran Daily, there was an article about the government taking action against new types of Internet crimes, which in this context could refer to bloggers. Some have suggested that a loud public outcry might make things worse, but because the Iranian bloggers themselves seem to have made the choice to speak out, I figure a low-traffic blog like this can't hurt anything, especially when there are also snippets about them in the BBC.

Interesting developments in the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Gulf News reports that Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim may step down as its leader so as to remain above the political fray, while little brother 'Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim has been named as one of five members of an Iraqi interim administration. The latter isn't actually shocking, as SCIRI was part of the U.S.'s original opposition coalition, and his inclusion probably means Rumsfeld and Co. and coming down to earth about possibilities. I haven't thought through the Ayatollah's resignation, though...I guess we just have to wait and see.

The University of Wisconsin today began billing students at the end of semesters for photocopied hand-outs made during the course of the semester. I received an e-mail notification of my bill.

Tomorrow I leave for the International Medieval Congress, and will return late Sunday night. So that's all until next week!

Monday, May 05, 2003

Kathleen wonders why an American-educated scientist would work for Saddam. I'm not sure this needs that much explanation. Most high-level scientists like that have at least some Western education, just because Europe and the United States - as well as perhaps the Far East - have the best facilities for it. Many of the world's dictators went to Western universities. Western education does not guarantee altruism.

There's another aspect to this as well: Service to one's country, regardless of who rules it. Americans tend to look at a country and see just its government. People in a country often won't have that option. At least during the 1980's, the Ba'athist regime was supported by people who saw it as modernizing the country and strengthening it in relation to other powers in the world, especially Israel. Saddam's oppressive dictator stuff was easy to ignore if it wasn't happening to you. The idea of Iraq as a potentially strong Arab country is what helped motivate some Arabs to support Saddam during the last war, just as most responded to the plight of the Iraqi people.

Kristin, meanwhile, is "getting rather fed up with the continuous claims posed by the White House that Iraq must have weapons of mass destruction stored away somewhere." I agree you would have thought we would have found something by now, but the fact remains the materials we know he possessed have to be somewhere, even if they're not in weapons form. And in the unlikely event Saddam did abandon his WMD programs, I suspect it will only have been under the pressure of containment, the humanitarian cost of which was in my mind unacceptably high. Remember: Before there was a war, people protested the sanctions, with good reason.

Today's challenge: Stop confusing the Persian words for "Hebrew" (ebri) and "eyebrow" (abru). Especially since over the next week I will do my oral exam tomorrow, leave for a conference at which I'm giving a paper on Wednesday, and return Sunday evening to sit for a 7 p.m. Persian written final.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

For a quick view of some current Baghdad statistics, check out these from Juan Cole. He's been having permalink trouble, though.

My parents were in town this weekend, which was really fun. It's always good to see the place you've gotten used to living through new eyes. Saturday was their anniversary, so I took them out to TGI Friday's, then Sunday I showed them some highlights of the city and campus. We couldn't find parking downtown, so we also walked around Old Middleton, where my Mom bought a bunch of stuff from antique and craft stores.

I feel like I should have accomplished more work. I worked my second consecutive Friday night, but on Saturday realized I wasn't actually working, so I just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire instead. Looked over some Fulbright stuff and found one requirement rather intimidating, but one I can probably put off until the fall. I feel annoyed with myself because even though I'm going to be "good enough" at a lot of things for the rest of the semester, it won't be as good as I could have been if I'd been working harder. But I'll come around. I have the whole summer to catch up on dissertation stuff, and Jordan has told me papers are only secondary to the IMC anyway. I never did find anyone interested in The Barber of Seville, and while Martin wanted to see X-2 at University Square I'd already decided to get work done at that point.

Saturday, May 03, 2003

I keep saying I have things to say about Iran. Here they are:

Basically, Iran has now become the most important regional power in the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, and the forces are only now moving to limit its influence. In Iraq, Iranian influence is well-documented through its sponsorship of the important SCIRI faction in souther Iraq and the fact the Sadriyun follow a pro-Iranian policy, though there is no overt political backing. Even the clerical establishment in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, can be expected to tilt Iraq in a pro-Iranian direction politically just by nature of their political common interests and the ways in which they are pursued. Furthermore, the new most important TV news outlet in Iraq, al-Alam, is broadcast from Iran, and I strongly suspect that Iranian charities are preparing to pour in plenty of aid.

Less well-documented is Iran's role in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich recently commented that not a single road has been built in Afghanistan since the war. He was wrong: The Iranians have built roads. The American media sometimes refers to the fact Iran has provided military supplies to Ismail Khan, the warlord who rules Herat, and the fact Iranian agents are cultivating influence elsewhere in the country. The U.S. has accused Iran of supporting al-Qaeda, but in Afghanistan it is Pakistan that has come under fire for not doing more to prevent attacks from their soil. Iran's support for various warlords has allowed them to bring stability to areas under their control which is allowing for economic development supported by Iran's $560 million Afghan aid package. In areas of Afghanistan close to Iran, people are now getting such amenities as cable television.

This is added to Iran's existing influence in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. Hezbullah is largely an Iranian creation, despite its popular association with Syria. Syria's power as the occupying force in Lebanon is to prevent Hezbullah from acting; yet a Hezbullah leader's web site clearly shows the group's Iranian orientation. Furthermore, Mossad has said before that the current Intifada is kept alive largely through the influence of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Some may remember the seizure of the ship illegally carrying weapons to the Palestinian Authority in January 2001. (Admittedly I remember this in part because it happened the day after an airing of my favorite Star Trek episode, "The Wounded.") According to Mossad, IRG people working through contacts in Lebanon both supply and direct operations by at least the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade regardless of the directions of the Palestinian Authority.

I will not at this time give my reasons why I don't consider Hezbullah much of a terrorist organization (such as they fact they attack military targets) or all the reasons why the U.S. and Iran should really not be mortal enemies. In analyzing policy, however, I notice that if the U.S. succeeds in getting Syria to crack down on Hezbullah, it could sever the link through which Iran supports the militant Palestinian groups and make it easier for the Abu Mazen-led PA to regain control of the territories. I also notice that Bush's sudden declaration that Syria was cooperating followed Syrian comments carried by al-Jazeera about how much they could influence the Shi'ites in southern Iraq, currently Iran's base of influence. All of these suggest that the new alignment in the Middle East will involve attempts by different powers to curtail Iranian hegemony through cooperation with the U.S. or form a common front with Iran against the U.S. Hopefully the end result will be further steps toward resolving the Palestinian issue and better relations between Iran and the U.S.

Friday, May 02, 2003

Best Books, 2002-03

Looking for anything to read this summer? Try these, as usual, the best books I've read for the first time during the past year...

Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt)

This book was first recommended to me by Jill Steffens while she was working in Brenner Library back at QU, and I finally read it last August. It tells of the author's childhood as the poor son of an alcoholic in Limerick, Ireland. The book's greatest strength is its style, which recalls the plain voice of a child telling the world through his eyes, with the innocence which suggests that his life is universal and to be taken for granted. At the same time, the mature hand behind the story fixes the emotional pacing so that the reader moves from laughing out loud to brushing back tears at the many incidents which go into the life of a rather ordinary human being. This is definitely not a book to miss!

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

This long novel takes the form of a murder mystery at a monastery in 13th-century Europe, a mystery which falls amidst a backdrop of that period's social change and political turmoil. For those interested in serious literature, the many discussions between Brother William and others lead to interesting thoughts further illustrated by the plot, while the thrill aspect is kept up by the continuing series of uniquely performed murders to its thrilling conclusion. To be honest, I would have had trouble following some of this book were it not for Fr. Ken's church-focused medieval history class, but that is actually part of the reason I liked it. This book can appeal to a wide variety of tastes which actually alienating none.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling)

OK, so I've finally become part of the warp. Other Harry Potter books have flashier endings and darker secrets, but you need to start with this book, because it is the one that will make you fall in love with Hogwarts, its traditions, its classes, and its people. Perhaps it is indicative that whereas the other books so far have left me interested in their plot, this one left me with a desire to wave a magic wand and say "wingardium leviosa" ... in other words, to become part of that universe. Not for kids only, pick this up and read it in a day as soon as you get the chance.

Pilgrim (Leonard Biallas)

Leonard Biallas is not a theologian, but rather a student of theology and religion. This, I think, is an important distinction that is revealed in the way Pilgrim is written. Biallas does not have a complicated system of thought to pass on or argue for; the tourist/traveller/pilgrim typology he posits is mainly a didactic technique to show different ways in which people travel, and to lead us from simple escapism to the type of spiritual engagement with creation he advocates. By including examples from his own experience, he opens windows into humanity, tempting us to go outside and experience the world for ourselves. Perhaps the most striking sign of his sincerity is how much of his focus is on the people he meets; I see many travel books as using the locations visited simply as backdrops to an individual's story.Even if you read only a few chapters, this book can enrich your entire outlook on life, much as it did mine long before I encountered it in book form.

Sundiata (Anonymous)

This is the national epic of medieval Mali, and can stand easily next to the works of Homer or Valmiki with the great epics of world history. The title figure is the first King of Mali, the son of the Buffalo Woman who overcomes the various rivals in his family who wish to make him no longer alive and with the aid of some and the opposition of others ultimately defeats the evi wizard-king through shrewdness and persistence. Literary types will also enjoy his griot Balla Fasseke and his defense of oral story-telling instead of writing. So go forth, read this, and be cultured!

The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)

This book is actually in a similar vein to The Name of the Rose, in that it takes the form of a mystery, albeit a less formal one, and ultimately leads one to a similar unresolved philosophical nihilism reminiscient of modern life. Pynchon, however, tells this tale of Oedipa Maas and her sometimes surreal adventures with humor and bizarreness that only begins to truly fit together near the end. In the end, of course, the whole thing may have been a joke. This books is shorter and perhaps more accessible than the name of the rose - but it's not set in the middle ages.

The Sound of Waves (Mishima Yukio)

This book is basically a very simple, enjoyable love story which one can enjoy despite the rather questionable social and political agenda embedded in it. Set in a small Japanese fishing village, it tells of the love of the poor fisherman Shinji and Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of a rich man. Perhaps it is a tad cliche, but Mishima's beauty of expression and attention to rich scenic detail help decorate the landscape of this modern fairy tale, sucking us into its world and the myths and rituals it contains. This book proves that even in the modern world, it is still possibly to wite a pure romance novel and pull it off.

So that's that! Whatever you happen to pick up, hope you enjoy it!


News on Afghanistan is hard to come by, but it appears Pakistan is now trying to more actively hunt down the Taliban-al-Qaeda remnants on their territory.

Israeli Minister of Tourism Benny Elon is coming to the U.S. to meet with members of Congress so as to lobby them against the "Road Map." Elon is a leading edvocate of ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories under the euphemism "Population Transfer." In its current guise, it takes the form of Elon's own "peace plan" which involves declaing Jordan the Palestinian state, dismantling the PA and refugee camps, and annexing the Occupied Territories to Israel proper. Somehow I suspect the American media won't raise a fuss about the influence this man will be exerting on our elected leaders, given how difficult it is for anyone to seem even mildly critical of Israel.

Last night saw my last qb practice as a player. It felt good playing, but it really is time to go. NAQT SCT was fine, but at ACF Regionals and NAQT ICT the way I played was just embarrassing. But next year is starting to come together more as far as our team's leadership is concerned, and there's plenty of other stuff I need to be doing with my time. But still, it's been a great many years...hard to walk away from it.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Al-Ahram Weekly had this article on the Arafat-Abbas standoff which indicated Arafat fears that Muhammad Dahlan is being groomed as his successor. That may validate what I've been saying about him. If Dahlan becomes the key figure in a crackdown on militants, however, it could wind up hurting his standing among Palestinians unless accompanied by serious Israeli concessions.
Matthew Yglesias in this post raises a number of issues about the possibility for democracy in Iraq with the presence of Islamist forces. First of all, a coalition between Sunnis and Shi'ites is possible. Technically, modern Sunnism recognizes Shi'ite Islam as a fifth school of Islamic law which they call the Jafari, after the last imam recognized by both Isma'ili and Ithna 'Ashari Shi'ites. True, some fundamentalist groups persecute different sects, but others argue for Muslim unity using analogies like the Crusades for why it can be beneficial.

However, it is far from clear that Islamic fundamentalism is opposed to democracy. Consider this Gulf News article about an attempt by Islamist MP's in Bahrain to give women the right to drive while veiled. Islamist politicians, like those on the religious right in the U.S., respond to all sorts of political pressures. Also, haven't we seen Islamist parties function democratically in places like Turkey and Indonesia? The issue of clerical rule is obviously different, but that is hotly debated even among the Iranian clerical establishment. (This is, incidently, why I think people like Thomas Friedman are over-playing the ethnic aspects of Shi'ite theological dispute.)

Obviously, if I were voting in Iraq, I would not support someone like SCIRI. But for the U.S. to fear this the way we do is because of a certain amount of Islamophobia and a certain accurate sense that Islamist parties are more likely to oppose American policies than some other shades of the political spectrum in the Islamic world. And its better than the alternative: Confessional politics which could one day turn Iraq into another Lebanon.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Eighth Level of Hell - the Malebolge!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)High
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)High
Level 2 (Lustful)Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Moderate
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very Low
Level 7 (Violent)Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)High
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Hell Test
Yesterday, Abu Mazen/Mahmud Abbas was sworn in as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. I still think the more interesting figure to watch is Muhammad Dahlan, whose appointment as Internal Affairs Minister was the main sticking point in his struggle with Arafat. Among Dahlan's political beliefs is that Israel is successful in part because it is a democracy, which means its leaders must deliver on their promises to keep power. In addition, he has said he respects David Ben Gurion as a political leader because he accepted only part of the land the Jews wanted and chose to build that rather than keep fighting forever hoping to win everything. Last night, I heard an MSNBC reporter say as a sort of throw-in before ending his report that most of Abu Mazen's inaugural speech emphasized the need for one Palestinian Authority. If so, that sounds significant: It was the argument used by Ben Gurion when he gave the order to sink the Altalena, a ship carrying supplies to a militant Jewish organization in the 1940's.

At work, I've been doing some web site revisions, and am looking at a lot of web sites for possible linking purposes. This banner headline from the Yemen Times struck an interesting note in how much we take our democracy for granted. The fact the 2000 election was settled openly and legally through the court system has been a major crisis, and has the losing side still sometimes complaining that Bush was "unelected." A quote I read from the recent Nigerian elections was something like: "Well, I've cast my vote. What the big men decide to do now is out of my hands." Are we simply naive about our own system, as the far left would claim? Maybe. But I think it's more likely we're lucky to have it. In Qatar, they just voted to have a Parliament in which 2/3 of the members will be elected by universal suffrage. And in the Qatari media, it's still the Emir in the picture voting.
UPDATE: The Yemen Times headline has now changed. It was "14 Injured in Generally Successful Elections" following by "No Surpises!" above a graph showing the ruling party had swept to an overwhelming victory.

By the way, this blog passed 30 hits for the first time yesterday, including two google searches. In case you read it to learn about me, sorry I've been lying low lately. Most of the interesting stuff happening I don't want to post on-line for one reason or another. (Work stuff, for example)

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The Middle East now has yet another 24-hour news station. Its name is al-Alam, it is sponsored by Iran, and it has become the major news source for Iraqis who can't afford a satellite dish to watch al-Jazeera and find the American broadcasts superficial. What I'm going to spell out in more detail when I have time is that Iran's two major neighboring enemies - Saddam Hussein and the Taliban - aren't there anymore, and Iran is playing now playing a decisive role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Added to their influence in the West Bank and Lebanon, it leads to the possibility that if current trends continue, one long-term effect of the Bush foreign policy will be to leave Iran as the pre-eminent regional power between Central Asia and the Mediterranean.
The United States has come to a cease-fire agreement with the Mujahadeen-e Khalq, the terrorist group most linked to Saddam Hussein. Saddam used it as a tool against Iran, the government of which they seek to depose, and now the U.S. appears to be doing the same thing. Originally a Marxist-Islamist group opposing the Pahlavi dynasty, their ideology changes a lot, and they have in recent years sought to reinvent themselves as campaigning for capitalism and democracy. Under the agreement, the MEK will keep its weapons and be permitted to use force against Iranian interests in Iraq. So the global "War on Terror" crowd are now willing to employ terrorists they like. This move, together with Iran's highly understandable claim that the U.S. has done more "meddling" in Iraq recently than they have and the fact that while the U.S. talks about rebuilding Afghanistan Iran is actually doing it will all hurt the U.S. in the battle for public opinion in the Middle East. But as I've keep saying, I have more thoughts on the Iranian situation than I have time to go into here.

By the way, with the airing of "A Voice in the Wilderness,", Babylon 5 has officially hit its stride. Yay!
A bit more about the Shi'ite factions in souther Iraq: The Sadriyun boycotted the protests yesterday as well as the conference, and claimed that neither the Najaf clerical establishment nor the SCIRI spoke for the majority of Iraqi Shi'ites. (I didn't post that yesterday because it was a tough paragraph to translate, but I've since seen it in other places.) A couple of weeks ago the Sadriyun failed in their program to evict Ayatollah Sistani from Najaf, and may be waiting before declaring what they will do politically. This would seem to support my main line on Iraq: There are many, many things which could go wrong in Iraq, not the least of which is civil war. At the same time, it's far from certain that they actually will go wrong, simply because no one seems sure what precisely they are going to do. I can't see Shi'ite clerical rule being imposed in Iraq, but to be honest I suspect when push comes to shove SCIRI at least will be more realistic than to try, and the Sistani faction is saying religious scholars should express opinions, but not be in positions of power. Even public opinion is, I feel, not set: No one's gone out and polled the Iraqis about what they think, and buried within the statements you read are lots of "ifs." If someone sticks a microphone in your face and demands to know if you're happy Saddam is gone and what will you do if a foreign power occupies your country and takes your oil, what will you say? I think based on what we know about conditions inside Iraq that we may see a race to provide basic services as a means of gaining legitimacy before opinions become firmly set.

By the way, to understand how pervasive English is in the world, consider SARS. This is an acronym of English words, but rather than use an acronym of the Arabic equivalent, the Arab media simply transliterates "SARS."

Monday, April 28, 2003

Just so everyone knows, I seem unable to republish my archives due to an Error 203 (illegal character) I can't find. Let me know if you have any theories.
UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I sent in a troubleshooting question to blogger. The problem was fixed within the hour. Way to go blogger!
Today the second meeting to form a new Iraqi government was held in Baghdad. In attendance were low-level representatives of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had boycotted the first meeting altogether. Taking them for an ideologically anti-American organization is a mistake: They were actually part of our anti-Saddam coalition before the Defense Department bumped them out due to their Iran ties. Their presence now may indicate one if several things. Perhaps the belated U.S. realization of the Shi'ites' importance has led to secret negotiations of some kind we don't know about. Perhaps they were only trying to make a point all along.

Perhaps, too, they felt that most Shi'ites were simply willing to buy into temporary American occupation and decided to follow the path of least resistance. One thing I noticed from the coverage of the meeting was that the exile opposition leaders were the ones calling for a quick withdrawal, while the leaders of groups within Iraq wanted the U.S. and U.K. to remain and help rebuild. Even the great pilgrimage to Karbala seems not to have been as huge an anti-American outpouring as some media reported. Al-Jazeera, for example, focused mainly on a day of religious rejoicing and relief that Saddam was gone, while "some" also warned the U.S. against a long occupation. This was also what I saw from various wire services.

The other two main Shi'ite factions were unrepresented at the conference, which makes SCIRI's move even more interesting considering that the main clerical establishment in Najaf is the one considered most pro-American. Also, the demonstrators outside the meeting all kept calling for "one Iraq." If that's the major demand of the day, we're in good shape, as I have yet to hear anyone on the planet call for anything else.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Buried in the BBC Africa news yesterday was this story about President Bush signing a new law to crack down on conflict diamonds. This interested me because Global Witness recently issued a report on how al-Qaeda had been cutting into the conflict diamond trade at least from 1998-2001, yet from the article Bush didn't seem to be mentioning anything about terrorism or funds that may have helped pay for September 11. I will say, however, that the very cursory BBC article is all I could find - if anyone has read anything else about this move, let me know.

As long as the issue of conflict diamonds has come up, the situation with Liberia and al-Qaeda is both interesting and disturbing. The Global Witness report chronincled strong ties between al-Qaeda, the RUF of Sierra Leone, and the regime of Liberian President Charles Taylor in which the RUF and Taylor arranged for diamonds to be smuggled to fund al-Qaeda operations in exchange for al-Qaeda procuring weapons for RUF/Liberia. These ties involved meetings between Taylor himself and high-level al-Qaeda operatives in which they plotted to do evil, nasty things like shoot down helicopters to destabilize neighboring countries to allow Taylor to sink his claws into them. In December 2001, the U.S. apparently based a special forces team in Guinea to conduct operations in Liberia, but they never did anything. So if we know where particular illegal diamond mines are that are funding al-Qaeda, if we know certain rebel groups have ties to al-Qaeda, what, if anything are we doing about this? Perhaps the administration just follows a standard American prejudice that Africa is somehow "off the planet" in terms of foreign policy, but unfortunately others do not.

Juan Cole has reported an important development in Iraq: The Sadriyun have a spiritual leader. He is the Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri. I actually don't have anything to say beyond what Dr. Cole posts, so I'll just let you read that if it interests you.