Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Irineos I Watch

A week after some general Eastern Orthodox assembly in Istanbul decided to stop recognizing Irineos I's authority over the Palestinian church, leaders of that autocephalous body chose a temporary replacement. Irineos, however, still isn't taking the hint, and is refusing to resign.

Two-Man Debate

Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, who has emerged as the main conservative candidate in Iran's Presidential race, is now set to debate Rafsanjani. I haven't followed Qalibaf that closely, though Praktike notes changes in his attire. According to RFE-RL, he was one of the IRGC commanders who threatened to take matters into their own hands if Khatami did not act to quell the 1999 student protests. If voters came to perceive a two-man race between Qalibaf and Rafsanjani, my money would be on Rafsanjani despite his shockingly bad showing in the Parliamentary elections.

CSF Ice Cream

Those CSF guys sure like their ice cream. I wonder if there's any way they could get an endorsement deal? Does anyone have a suggested ad script?

Monday, May 30, 2005

Mo'in's Candidacy

Mustafa Mo'in, whose candidacy for President of Iran was initially rejected by the Council of Guardians but who was reinstated after intervention from Ayatollah Khamene'i, has confirmed he will stay in the race. Earlier speculation had him withdrawing to protest the regime's manipulation of the democratic process. Personally, I think he should have stayed out. A few weeks ago he and Mehdi Karrubi, the other lead Reformist, had reached a deal where whichever one was behind in the polls close to the election would withdraw to improve the other's chances. At least one poll I saw had Mo'in trailing Karrubi pretty badly, and if he's been hurt with the students, his main bloc of support, I don't see where his campaign is going. At this point he might simply be trying to keep the bully pulpit of a candidacy for as long as possible, or hoping that he can run as the guy the hard-liners were most afraid of.

Also noteworthy in this story - we see again the students' passionate opposition to any accomodation with the regime, while the politicians hope to use it to reform itself. This is the central issue both groups need to overcome if they hope to get anywhere.

UPDATE: MEMRI has a couple of old polls showing very different results with different samples. They also indicate there was no Mo'in-Karrubi deal as I suggested above, though I don't remember if I read that before or after this was published. Is it just me or are none of these guys running away with things? Anyway, let me also just say now that I have yet to see statistical confirmation of Rafsanjani's alleged lock on the race.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Liberation Square, Cairo, Egypt/Mounira, Cairo, Egypt

For over 5000 years, there has been a city within the boundaries of modern Cairo. For ancient Egypt, it was Memphis, most famous as the capital of the Old Kingdom in the far southern reaches of the modern city. In Roman times it was Babylon, today known as Misr al-Qadima, or "Ancient Cairo." When the Arabs conquered the country in the 7th century they founded Fustat just to the northeast, between Misr al-Qadima and Islamic Cairo, the latter of which the Fatimids founded in the 10th century as al-Qahira, "The Victorious," and which in English became Cairo. Cairo grew until it absorbed all the other cities and spread across the Nile until today it is the endlessly throbbing heart of the Arab world, the capital of its most populous country and in which you can wake up in the middle of the night and still crack open a door to hear car horns blaring on the street below.

Today Cairo is also the scene of historic events. For over 50 years it has been ruled by a series of dictators who came to power after the deposition of King Farouk - first the colorless Muhammad Naguib, then the nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the pro-Western Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak. Now events have reached a potentially critical point. Mubarak is old, his rule failing as he seeks to install as next his line his son Gamal. Opposition forces are using this moment of uncertainty to press for change in the system, chief among the the Kefaya movement (Arabic for "enough," Nasserist in orientation) and the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood (name self-explanatory). Attempting to retain control of the system, Mubarak has instituted a fake reform known as Referendum 76 which would greatly curtail the ability of the opposition to field candidates in this fall's Presidential elections. The regime, fresh off praise for this move from U.S. First Lady Laura Bush on her visit here last week, set the referendum for May 25, my first day here, while the opposition called for both boycott and a response.

The heart of modern Cairo is a large traffic circle known as Liberation Square. On the south is the large Borg-like government administrative building, the architecture of which seems Stalinist in inspiration. Next to it is a small mosque. To the left facing the square in front of it is the Arab League headquarters, well-guarded by one of Egypt's many services, which continuing around you find the Nile Hilton, one of the many five-star hotels which line the river, the large red Egyptian Museum, home to countless pharaonic artifacts, then along the north and east a string of businesses beneath apartment complexes, including two Kentucky Fried Chickens and a Hardees along with travel agencies and felafel and koshari joints. Finally, back across the street from the administrative building is American University - Cairo, home to perhaps just over a thousand sons and daughters of wealthy Egyptian families and foreign students there for study abroad purposes.

This square is always busy, and crossing on foot was a serious challenge until I discovered you could just take the tunnels connecting various points along the permeter with its centralized subway stop. The morning of my arrival, however, there was a sight one doesn't normally see, as convoys of black armored trucks lined up all around, including many of the side streets and at other points throughout the city. Inside each was a swat team of smartly groomed troops from the Egyptian Central Security Forces armed with riot gear and automatic weapons. These were the regime's key security forces, the official frontspiece of their plan to imtimidate the opposition's planned protests for that very day.

In the end, nothing happened there - the only potential protest I saw was when a van went by really fast with someone shouting something through a megaphone which other answered in unison. But protests did occur elsewhere, in Mounira district to the south and the City of the Engineers across the river. And these the regime met with violence, bussing in hired thugs to pose as members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party who attacked the Kefaya supporters, kicking and beating them and even ripping the clothes off of and groping the women. (Josh has pictures here.) I've been told that the government chooses illiterate people to work the protests so they can't read the banners, and often lies about the purpose, suggesting, for example, that the protestors are seeking something highly unpopular in Egypt like gay rights.

By the end of the day it had passed, and the government announced the referendum had passed with 83% support. Not that the opposition is giving up. Meanwhile, life in the tourist sector went on much as before, and I talked to a bunch of people who hadn't even heard that anything happened. Most Egyptians resumed their daily routines, and Felfela, a fast food chain with a distinguishing ship logo made from its name and the slogan "the height of religion," was just as busy as always, with people in orange of white chef suits whipping up fu'uls, kebabs, or schwarmas to go, young Cairene lovers continued to gather on the Corniche el-Nil, talking softly in a world all their own, and foreigners continues to bus around to all the sites. I personally went to the Egyptian Museum, where one finds that ancient Egyptian preservation techniques were so effective that the 4500-year-old internal organs of pharaoh Khufu's mother can still be displayed in an open canopic jar, albeit in a much-decayed state, and that all we know of ancient Egyptian games survives for some weird reason from the archaic pre-dynastic period, including one played on a board three squares by ten with two sets of perhaps 9 pieces each moved by ivory sticks to an unknown object by unknown rules.

This is the core of Cairo, a magnet for tourists from around the world, the poltical heart of the largest Arab country if not the whole Arab world, and the sophisticated epicenter of modern Arab culture. And at the end of every day, you never know what you'll find - on the day of protests I found myself having tea at about 10 p.m. in a shop somewhere within Mounira district, near the street which had earier been the site of some clashes. Now all was quiet, and the official Egyptian TV news omitted mention of anything out of the ordinary. But when the referendum story came on the guy in the shop looked at the TV like, "I can't believe this." And soon after my tea was done, I left to return to my own world.

UPDATE: The above should read an amendment to Article 76, not "Referendum 76." Also, upon closer inspection, the CSF trucks are a very dark green. My mistakes.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Cairo, Ho!

I have arrived in Cairo. Unfortunately hotmail isn't working from here, so I can't actually e-mail people to tell them this.

Monday, May 23, 2005


The Gibraltar lighthouse, in hopes that I might one day find my way home.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

24 Hours

Exactly 24 hours from now I will be getting ready to board a bus to Chicago, from where I'll fly to London and then on to Cairo. I'm pumped. My main paranoia at the moment is that I'll be denied an entry visa at the airport. I can't actually think of a reason why that would happen, but it gives me something to worry about. There's always something.

Holy Books and Desecration

As Juan Cole explains, Jeff Jacoby is living in a different world from the rest of us and producing bigoted columns as a result. Just out of curiosity, how often do Israel's (Jewish) security forces have to look into threats against the Dome of the Rock by Jewish militants? I've never heard the Oklahoma City bombing linked to Christianity before, but if that doesn't work I'm pretty sure we can find other examples. Meanwhile, via Pejman Yousefzadeh, I find Ali al-Ahmed's Wall Street Journal column highlighting the hypocrisy of one nation which criticized the alleged desecrations, though for some reason its headline and concluding paragraph jump from "Saudi Arabia," which he actually writes about, to "Muslims," despite the fact that Wahhabis are just a sliver of the global population.

Par for the course for the American media. Why do people keep falling for this stuff?

Islamists and Democracy

Writing in the New York Times, Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim makes the case for including Islamist parties in the democratic process:
"Seen as efficient and uncorrupt, these Islamists began to gain in popularity even among secularists and won parliamentary pluralities in Algeria in 1991 and in Turkey 11 years later. (In Algeria the Islamists were not allowed to enjoy the fruits of their victory thanks to a Western-condoned military coup.) Today, some two-thirds of the estimated 1.4 billion Muslims in the world live under democratically elected governments in which Islamists are major players - with Indonesia, Bangladesh and Morocco joining Turkey as bright spots.

"Clearly, on grounds of principle and pragmatism, Westerners should not be dismayed at the thought of allowing religious parties a role in the emerging political structures of the Arab world. For one thing, as citizens, Islamists are entitled to the same basic rights as others. It would therefore be hypocritical to call for democracy in these countries and at the same time to deny any groups wanting to peacefully contend for office.

"Second, Islamists tend to be fairly well organized and popular. Yes, some have created armed wings to their movements, ostensibly to resist foreign occupation (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Palestine) or in response to authoritarian regimes. But in all cases, a moderate, less-violent Islamist core exists. Excluding the religious parties from the political mainstream risks giving the upper hand to the armed factions at the expense of their more moderate centers.

"Repression has had high costs. Where Islamist groups are denied access to political space, their cause takes on an aura of mythical martyrdom, and their abstract calls for a return to Islamic principles of governance are not put to the test. A phrase like 'the meek are the inheritors of the earth' resonates with the masses, though it is empty of any practical content. As long as these groups don't have to deal with the complicated business of forging actual political policies, their popularity remains untested. The challenge, therefore, is to find a formula that includes them in the system, but that prevents a 'one man, one vote, one time' situation."

I would actually disagree that Morocco counts as a democracy, but Ibrahim's point in that paragraph stands. The most interesting current test of Ibrahim's overall view is probably Palestine, where Hamas recently won an important role in municipal government. Jonathan Edelstein notes some reasons for optimism, and they are actually negotiating with Israel over local issues. Militant opposition to Israel is Hamas's signature issue. If they can deal practically with that, constructive participation in the democratic process is nothing. The best way to reduce the influence of these groups is not to ban them, but prove other agendas are better.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

I think a lot of that movie was there either to set something up for another movie or to provide fans with a needed confrontation or humor moment. Taken as a unit, Shakespeare would have done it better. I still enjoyed it, though.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Iran in Iraq

Over at Liberals Against Terrorism, Praktike notes reports of Iran's growing influence in Basra. I agree with him that the Hamas analogy is an odd one. What Iran is reportedly doing to win support in southern Iraq is exactly what they did in southern Lebanon and western Afghanistan. Hamas gets a lot of support for their social services, but they also get some for their hardline stance against Israel. Of course lately I've been wondering what's up with RFE-RL, as the tone of their coverage has been one that would definitely warm the hearts of Bush administration officials. The organization's attitude toward the Arab media has also seemed skewed.

Kyrgyz Leaders Unite

Kyrgyzstan's two top political leaders have decided to join forces in the upcoming elections, with Kurmanbek Bakiev running for President and Feliks Kulov slated to be his Prime Minister with expanded powers. This is being cast as a move to preserve national unity in the face of deep divisions between north and south. One of the fears prior to Akaev's overthrow was that the Kyrgyz opposition was too divided to work together and effect change. This is definitely a sign that these fears were misplaced.

Everybody Blogs

Darth Vader has started a blog. (Thanks Pejman!)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

My Life This Summer

Women's Rights and Democracy

As Kuwaiti women celebrate their new freedom, many in the United Arab Emirates think maybe they should be next. Seeing the story, however, reminded me that my earlier comment about how only Saudi Arabia denies women the right to vote leaves out that fact that the UAE doesn't have elections at all. Meanwhile, this article quotes a bunch of democracy activists in other Arab countries as saying that the Kuwaiti move represents an important step for the whole region. However, if you look at what happened, it's pretty clear this came from the Emir, and probably wouldn't have happened without him. This shows the tension in which liberal democracy activists sometimes find tension between their political and social reform agendas.

Fisher on Iraq

If you haven't read much on life in Iraq lately, check out William Fisher's guest post at Informed Comment.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Taiwan's Dangers

Yesterday, the American Prospect ran an article dealing with the possibility of military confrontation over Taiwan, which included mention of Chinese thinking that sinking an American aircraft carrier would be enough to chase us off. As Matthew Yglesias puts it:
"A disturbingly high number of foreigners appear not to have learned the appropriate lessons from Vietnam, namely that even under the best (worst?) case scenario where an apparently hopeless situation involving a vague-to-nonexistent security threat eventually provokes sufficient war-weariness to lead to American withdrawal, the conflict still goes on for a very long time and involves us wreaking massive death and destruction on your population. Since the Chinese government seems to have a perennial bug up its ass regarding Japanese history textbooks, they might want to peruse some of the literature dealing with the Imperial military's thinking about the likely consequences of Pearl Harbor which seemed to involve a similar miscalculation."

This is not a game of chicken I want to get into.

Protests in Afghanistan


I don't have much original to say about the recent massacre of Uzbek protestors, but IWPR has reports here and here which are definitely worth reading. I also don't understand why the Bush administration needs to hedge its bets in this situation. RFE-RL also has photos.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Kuwaiti Women Win Vote

Kuwaiti women now have the right to vote and run for office after the much-discussed women's suffrage bill passed Parliament by a 35-23 vote. This version contained an amendment that women had to follow Islamic law, but no one is really sure what that means yet. This is a great leap for Gulf women, and leaves Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that doesn't allow women the franchise. Praktike links to some pictures of the victory party.

History Carnival #8

History Carnival #8 is up at Saint Nate's blog.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Qur'an Stuff

Manan Ahmed provides context for the Qur'an desecration riots:
"The Afghanis and Pakistanis are burning and dying in the streets while the Saudis are merely expressing their "ire". Explanation lies in the difference in the treatment of the 'book' vs. the 'text' between Arabia and South Asia. In South Asia, the physical Qur'an becomes a holy relic - to be placed in a scented and clean spot above head; to be handled with veneration and respect. In Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, such veneration is frowned upon and they are apt to treat it just as a special book."

I must be missing something here. Wouldn't desecrating the Qur'an be just as likely to make prisoners hate us even more and steel their resolve?

Bronze Equestrian

This is the only surviving equestrian bronze statue from the Roman Empire. It survived mainly because people thought it was a statue of Constantine, even though it's really Marcus Aurelius.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shadi Hamid on Jordan

Shadi Hamid has a good piece on the woeful state of democracy in Jordan. At the International Conference on Islam he was introduced as a former Middle East advisor to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a fact which increased my regret that she never ran for President.

UPDATE: Shadi Hamid e-mails to say he was not exactly Middle East advisor to Senator Feinstein, but rather a legislative fellow focused on Middle East affairs.

Sea Horse Island

Qatar isn't the only nation that has too much money.

Afghan Protests

Violent protests in eastern Afghanistan, which originally focused on allegations of Qur'an desecration at Guantanamo Bay, have taken on a more general opposition to American military bases in the country. This is seen as a repudiation of Hamid Karzai's plans for a "strategic partnership" with the United States, plans approved at a recent loya jirga by a bunch of tribal elders. I doubt the students will get Karzai to change course, but these events will likely place it firmly on the agenda of the Afghan Parliament, assuming one is ever elected and formed.

Irregularities in Wisconsin

This doesn't surprise me:
"A task force looking into potential voter fraud on Election Day said Tuesday that it found more than 200 felons voted illegally and more than 100 instances of people voting twice or using fake names and addresses.

"The investigators found hundreds of fraudulent votes in all and counted 4,600 more ballots than registered voters in Milwaukee — but did not uncover any proof of a plot to alter the outcome of the hotly contested presidential race in Wisconsin's largest city. They also found ballots cast using the names of dead people."

I've felt like this might be happening ever since 2000 when I heard students discussing rumors about people who had cast an absentee ballot in their hometown and then registered to vote on Election Day in Madison. This wasn't a conspiracy, either - someone made the comment that they didn't realize it was illegal, since they lived in both places. It's completely unsubstantiated, but the sort of thing that could easily happen, and probably will given a large enough population sample.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yay Kristin!

Congratulations to my friend Kristin, who won a department prize for this paper.

Chandler Out

This AP story on the resignation of East Waynesville Baptist Church's Rev. Chan Chandler gives a good view inside the contemporary Baptist denomination and the split between an older generation with the sort of values and attitudes I got in my Baptist upbringing and more radical elements which have gradually been taking over.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Signs of Influence

Via Praktike, I found this article which bothered me more than a little. The Moroccan government was allegedly wondering how they could influence U.S. government policy. So they looked at interest groups that had power in Washington, and found one they could win over fairly painlessly. Specifically, they decided to have some politically active evangelical Christians do a rock concert. That in itself was fairly harmless, but what frightens me is that it seems to be working, as one of the group's leaders is now saying the religious right needs to "reassess their position on Western Sahara."

Let's leave aside the question of whether a Christian religious group really needs a position on Western Sahara. Are they really that easily influenced? I found some echoes of our worst Cold War mistakes, when foreign powers could easily win American support by painting their opponents as communists. Beyond that, what does it say that foreign governments now look at the religious right as a valuable foreign policy conduit? Do we really like where this could lead?

The New Imshin

Not a Fish has moved.

Egyptian Nawruz

Here's a neat article on how Nawruz, the Iranian New Year, was celebrated in medieval Egypt.

Rafsanjani In

Rafsanjani will announce his candidacy for President of Iran tomorrow.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Dr. Poonawalla

Belated congratulations to Aziz for successfully defending his dissertation! May his job search be as successful as that of the three Islamic world-related history students who defended their dissertation's at UW, all of whom found tenure track employment.

Cole on Kingdom of Heaven

When I was at Kalamazoo a couple of years ago, a group of medievalists were making fun of how picky people in the field could be about medieval movies with the mock complaint, "The armor's wrong!" In his post about Kingdom of Heaven, which I haven't seen yet, MESA President-Elect Juan Cole is apparently reaching out to medievalists by proclaiming, "The weapons are wrong!"

OK, so he admits that's quibbling. He does, however make the point that Saladin was definitely concerned with creating an Ayyubid state and not just defeating the Crusaders. However, his ideological program could perhaps best be seen as the promotion of an ideal Sunni state, one without the disputes caused by petty independent principalities and with a government which promoted Sunni institutions of learning and worship as well as fighting against the Crusaders who had occupied Muslim territory. For a good modern biography of Saladin, I recommend Saladin: The Politics of Holy War by Malcolm Cameron Lyons and D.E.P. Jackson, which I just added to the sidebar.

A final perspective, and one that would dovetail nicely with Cole's lamenting the lack of character change. About six years before he died, Saladin went through a near-fatal period of illness. He began to focus his attention on the Crusaders after that, and I think it was R. Stephen Humphreys who first suggested that it was the illness which on a personal level refocused the sultan from personal and dynastic ambition onto his religious duties. Motivations of people in the Middle Ages are, of course, relatively inaccessible to modern scholars, but it's definitely a thought.

UPDATE: The film definitely made Angry Arab angry.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

East Waynesville Baptist Church

I love the way this story has played out so far, with Christians from across the political spectrum reacting against the idea of expelling members over their political affiliation. This Reverend Chandler appears to be back-pedalling in response to pressure both from within and outside of his congregation, and I suspect he'll wind up losing his position before this is over.

What makes me a little nervous, however, is the presence of lawyers in this whole affair. The Baptist denomination has a form of organization known as the "gathered congregation." This means that churches are based not on where you live, as in Catholicism, but on like-minded believers coming to worship together. In this context, I'm concerned about legal - and hence government - intervention in what could easily be seen as a matter of doctrine. It sounds cliche, but the freedom that allows a bunch of right-wing radicals to run a church their way is the same one that allows someone like Hugo Schwyzer to worship where he does. Let's settle this, but let's keep it a religious matter.

Egyptian Non-Reform

As some of us feared, Egypt's election reform has turned out to be a sham:
"The draft legislation says that 300 people from the Maglis al-Sh`ab, Maglis al-Shura, and Maglis al-Mahlaya (local councils) have to endorse a potential candidate. A candidate needs at least 65 MPs (14.6%) to be signed on, 25 Shura Council folk (around 10%) as well as 10 elected local councilmen in 14 of Egypt’s 26 governates. That is 140 mostly local NDP councilmen.

"The NDP commands 90% majority in the parliament and a 98.5% majority in the local councils. This all be ensures the exclusion of independent candidates (read Muslim Brotherhood but any other independent opposition figure i.e. Saad Eddin Ibrahim)."

This means some minor opposition parties can slip by, but no one who can seriously threaten Mubarak. The regime knows this, and will always adjust the election laws as necessary to rig the field.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Gulf of Aqaba

This was taken near the city of Aqaba in southern Jordan.

Palestinian Municipal Elections

Palestinian municipal elections were held today, with Fatah holding onto a majority of the cities despite a strong challenge from Hamas. I haven't been following things that closely, but from what I've read most Hamas support came over people who were upset with Fatah's corruption and happy with Hamas's ability to provide services. Fatah's vote was probably helped by the perception of progress in making peace with Israel, progress which could be set back if Palestinians elected a bunch of militant rejectionists. One thing I do wonder is how Hamas will govern. Do they actually seek to impose Islamic law in territory under their control? And if so, how will people respond?


Nauru afficionadoes should know that the island's first high-profile blogger is now guesting at The Head Heeb.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Evening Notes

British election returns are fun to watch. The multi-party system does interesting things to the dynamics you get used to with just two, and the way they have all the candidates lined up at the count with ribbons pinned on them is priceless.

Baheyya looks at Egypt's Central Security Forces as people within the regime rather than just imperial stormtroopers as we can get accustomed to thinking about them.

Finally, an e-mail from the organizers tells me that the papers from the International Conference on Islam will be posted within a couple of weeks. Assuming I'm still in the country then, I'll link to them, and probably comment on some that struck me as especially interesting.

Gibraltar's Apes

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting piece on the lore surrounding Gibraltar's Barbary apes.

Craig's Students

Craig Barker praises his history students. I feel like highlighting this out just because I've read/heard so much cynicism about students lately that one would assume they're completely worthless cretins who haven't had any interesting thoughts all year.

Irineos I Watch

Eastern Orthodox leaders in Jerusalem have announced they are breaking off all contact with Patriarch Irineos I who stands implicated in several scandals including the sale of church land in Jerusalem to Israeli investors. This increases the pressure on Irineos to remove himself from the patriarchate. Meanwhile, Ha'aretz apparently got an interview with wanted financier Nikos Papadimas, who said Irineos was trying to win Israeli approval with the deal:
"The Israeli government refused to approve Irineos' election as Jerusalem's patriarch for two years as ministers accused him of hating Israel and being close to Yasser Arafat.

"In January 2004, the government gave its approval for his appointment, as required by tradition. Irineos negotiated the sale of the properties to a Jewish buyer and signed the deal soon afterward, in what could be seen as a payoff for making his installation as patriarch possible. The land's buyer is concealing his identity, apparently fearing international criticism of Israel for continuing to sponsor the acquisition of property in East Jerusalem."

Meanwhile, Danny Rubinstein contemplates who the Israeli investors were. All he has is speculation, but it's an angle worth considering.

Gulf Guest Workers

Middle East Online reports on the tribulations of foreign guest workers in the Gulf states. The article pretty much speaks for itself, though it leaves out the fact that in many of these countries the population boom is leading governments to try and nativize the workforces, meaning jobs for these guest workers are getting harder to come by. Because they already form such a huge chunk of the population, I worry that these social tensions could erupt more frequently in years to come.

On a side note, I also worry that President Bush's guest worker program will lead to these sorts of problems in the U.S. The weakness in guest workers' position is often that their ability to stay in the country depends on their employers' goodwill, so legal guarantees that abuses will be dealt with don't always mean a whole lot. After all, someone has to actually report or testify to the abuse.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Zarqawi and Bin Laden

Over at Liberals Against Terrorism, I've noted an ongoing Jamestown Foundation report that examines the functional relationship between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab az-Zarqawi. I liked it especially because it takes to a new level the observation made on this blog as well as other places that Bin Laden-influenced terrorism was evolving into a group of loosely knit regional organizations rather than a single centrally controlled group.

Rafsanjani's Supposed Plans

Because of Abu Aardvark's commentary on the source, I'd take with a grain of saltreports of what a new Rafsanjani administration would look like in Iran. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat claims that he wants to support the Saudi peace plan with Israel and restore relations with the United States. The former represents a sharp break with previous Iranian policy, and I'd guess it's tied in with the latter, which is the more important goal. Oh, and by the way, he wants to completely overturn the current Iranian governing system of velayat-e faqih. That last might get a bit of attention if true, don't you think?

For now, I'm mostly interested in where this story originated and what, if anything, lies behind it.

Cole on AUT

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Today's Random Comment

If the Emirate of Qatar can afford to send us this much junk mail, then they clearly have too much money.

ICI Papers

The International Conference on Islam has posted some abstracts of papers delivered at the conference last weekend. I suspect they won't actually get around to posting the text of most papers. There is also a message from Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen (PDF file) to the conference, at which he was frequently discussed. Some of you might find items of interest.

Monday, May 02, 2005

No Quorum

The Kuwaiti women's rights bill has failed to pass in Parliament due to a lack of quorum. No one's apparently sure what happens next, but if they can take a new vote, it should pass, as 29 of the 31 votes needed to pass it were there yesterday. I'm really curious why people who voted for this measure previously abstained this time around.

The Trouble with Lee Smith...

...is that he doesn't know what he is talking about. Issandr El Amrani links to this New York Times travesty which reveals that Lee Smith doesn't know much of anything about Islamic history. To begin with, most scholars today are reluctant to use the word "Shi'ite" with its modern sense as far back as the 7th century. What you probably had instead was a widely held belief that a member of the Prophet's family should be caliph, as opposed to the reigning Umayyad dynasty. This belief played a key role in the Abbasid Revolution of 750, and attitudes only hardened in favor of Ali after the new rulers failed to live up to expectations.

That didn't stop future Shi'ite dynasties from coming to power. The Fatimids, founders of Cairo, are fairly well-known. Less known are the Buyids from the 10th century, who became the Abbasids' puppermasters during the so-called "Shi'ite century." But even if Smith would bother to check the alleged highlight of his narrative, the martyrdom of Hussein, he'd find it happened in 680, not 656. The latter date was when Uthman was assassinated and Ali, Hussein's father, became caliph. That seems to be a rather blatant error from a supposed Middle East expert.

Then, of course, we get to the really ridiculous stuff, in which the rise of the Shi'ites is related to the emancipation of African-Americans at the time of the civil war. You know, close social and political identification with one's religious group has come about largely as a result of the political environment after the fall of Saddam Hussein - the situation of the Shi'ites in Iraq before that was largely the result of the clan-based nature of political power in the country rather than religious disrcimination.

I'll grant him that Sunni fundamentalists are very anti-Shi'ite, but there really is no grand sectarian Cold War raging in the Arab world. Smith is writing a book on Arab culture. I bet it'll be a wonder to behold.


My future in-laws are seeking votes in this contest. Vote #186!

Exam Time

I may be getting ready for a Persian exam, but Kyrgyz Presidential candidate Feliks Kulov is facing a much weightier exam, a Kyrgyz proficiency test required of Presidential candidates. Most Kyrgyz do speak the language, but under the Soviet Union instruction at the top schools was in Russian. President Akaev's administration promoted Kyrgyz in government even though most of its business has been conducted in Russian since independence. While I admit having a required exam for candidates is problematic, the country will have to move toward Kyrgyz eventually lest a linguisitic rift develop between government and the people.

Best Books, 2004-05

Every year in early May, I recommend the best books I've read during the past year. I didn't read as much as usual due to my Moroccan travels, but here's this year's collection nonetheless. Recommendations from previous years can be found at the sidebar.

A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)

My top pick on the year is easily this massive work whose characters kept me intrigued while I was overseas. Set in the early years of Indian independence, it is written in an epic style which passes from grand speeches delivered in Parliament to a shoe executive's hunt for the ideal job to a prodigal son's time in the countryside. The title refers to the quest for a mate for Lata, but that is only one thread in this stunning exploration of lives and worlds that will be read for centuries to come.

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Murakami Haruki)

The title of this book refers in part to song lyrics that fascinate a youth before he learns they just refer to Mexico and a fable about Siberian peasants who, overwhelmed by the vastness of the sky, set off to find what is "west of the sun" until they collapse. It concerns a man named Hajime who, successful both personally and professionally, still wonders after what might have been, and yields to tempation with the appearance of Shimamoto, a mysterious specter from his youth. With its central theme of choosing to let go of the past to be happy in the present, this novel has a bittersweet element to it, yet at the end the characters find an important key to happiness in choosing to be content and work with the life you have.

Our Cosmic Habitat (Martin Rees)

I've always tried to keep up with theoretical astrophysics, and this book is a great way to explore this fascinating field in the hands of a guide capable of explaining its workings while pointing out its subtlety and wonder. From the smallest subatomic levels to the grand scale of the possibility of other universes, Rees has provided a tour that will leave one thoughtful and as eager as he to find out what lies on the next page of the ongoing history of science.

Cities of Salt (Abd ar-Rahman Munif)

This book is a good study of how the coming of Western oil companies changed the Arabian Peninsula in the 20th century, as well as how cultural differences led inevitably to conflict. The work is written strictly from the Arab perspective - I don't think any Westerners even had names - and highlights the perceptual gap as the two communities which come to live in such close economic dependence on one another never truly understand each other as more than a curiosity. This isn't great literature in the sense of exploring timeless truths of life, but is an excellent way to begin thinking about the past hundred years of history in the Middle East and how issues are not always what they seem.

The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

The effects of dictatorship on society has in recent years become the subject of much public discussion. In this stream-of-consciousness work, Garcia Marquez explores the psychological workings of dictatorship with his usual brilliant style and imagery, weaving together both the story of an already amoral man corrupted by power and the need to keep it with a population that has known no other way. As we see at the very beginning, as tyrannical as the unnamed dictator was, people can barely believe that he is in fact no more, and are unsure what to do next.

Dumb Witness (Agatha Christie)

About three years ago I started reading some Agatha Christie novels over a break, and I've been hooked ever since. What separates Christie from other mystery writes I've read is that she prods readers not just to solve crimes, but to understand them, and her stories become as much about the lives of the characters as they do clues and dead bodies. The dramatic personality of Hercule Poirot adds another level of entertainment in a genre that still thrives on drama. Dumb Witness, in which the irrepressible Belgian detective finds murder where everyone else assumes it was just old age, is really a group recommendation for all Christie's Poirot novels.

The Happy Warriors (Halldor Laxness)

This novel by the 1955 Nobel Laureate in Literature was just plain fun. A satire of Old Norse saga featuring two Viking warriors who wander around doing the usual Viking warring and pillaging, Laxness's real target is the modern world and its mythologies, as seen in such scenes as the nominal conversion of a bunch of Vikings to Christianity. I really didn't care about the social satire though - the melodramatic adventures of Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Bessason were enough to keep me going until the end. The work also guest stars England's King Ethelred II.