Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Kramer and the UAE

I haven't been paying much attention to the Dubai Ports World debate, but did see Martin Kramer's post on the UAE from last weekend. Therein, he says:
"As a whole, the United Arab Emirates is much more of a mixed bag. In Abu Dhabi, the capital, they yearn to be political players in the Arab world, which has led them to buy off bad guys and offer money for Arab or Islamic studies to places like Harvard and Columbia. I don't look with equanimity upon gifts from governments that don't respect academic freedom at home. But the UAE's pushing ideas about the Middle East in classrooms seems a lot more problematic to me than its moving containers in Baltimore.

"Whatever happens to the port deal, it's important to strenghten the tie to Dubai. In time, and beneath the glitz, all sorts of interesting cultural interactions might take place. It will also be a very American-inflected exchange. Alexandria in its heyday revolved around Europe. Beirut tilted both to Europe and America. Dubai seems destined to vacillate culturally between New York and Las Vegas, for better or worse."

First of all, I'm flattered that funding Middle East Studies in the United States is now a way to become a political player in the Arab world. I'd always thought it was mainly about trying to improve the image of the Arab world in this country. However, I'm mainly curious why the UAE's giving gifts doesn't represent a valuable tie to the region, and is instead seen as a larger potential threat than port security.

This argument usually boils down to the idea that by funding Middle East centers, Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE guarantee certain forms of coverage. What's always missing is the evidence of this actually happening, such as a university deciding not to hire a scholar critical of Wahhabi Islam for fear of offending Saudi Arabia. (I find it ironic that the King Fahd Center at Arkansas is directed by a Sufism expert.) It's also interesting to look at this in light of the Title VI debate, where scholars are considered capable of duping the American government into thinking they're useful while at the same time willingly serving foreign paymasters.

Putting money into Middle East Studies does much more than just fund research. One plan here at Wisconsin is to create internships, most likely in the UAE, for interested business students. We also have several dozen students study abroad every year, and they often form their own impressions of the Middle East based on their experiences. If there is imbalance in the field, it stems in part from the fact that higher education in the humanities does in fact have strong liberal tendencies (other fields, such as business, may differ) and in part from the fact professors often see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as a corrective on popular misconceptions. It's nothing that convinces me we shouldn't do everything in our power to prepare our students to network in the exciting Dubai of Kramer's visions.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Partitioning Iraq

Aziz posts on why partitioning Iraq is a bad idea. One thing he fails to mention is that while the Kurds may want independence, the debate between Sunnis and Shi'ites is over issues of federalism and regional rights. Arab political unity may be a dead letter politically, but it's a dream still very much alive at the grassroots level, and many still blame the West for creating the multitude of states in the region today. A popular theory in the region is that the United States and Israel want to keep Iraq weak by dividing it. Iraq today and the Balkans of the 1990's may be superficially similiar, but beneath the surface the situation has crucial differences. In any case, a partition isn't just something outside powers can impose at some latter-day Potsdam Conference.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


This picture shows the shoreline near Midan Saad Zaghloul in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. It was taken from my room in the budget-level Hotel Acropole.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Atwar Bahjat

Issandr links to this article on Atwar Bahjat, a journalist who was killed in this week's violence in Iraq:
"The men leapt from the pick-up and demanded the correspondent. Ms Bahjat appealed to the crowd for help. None came. The gunmen began firing in the air. People fled, the fourth crewman among them. Ms Bahjat was not seen alive again. Her body, and those of two colleagues, were found by police yesterday near their bullet-riddled satellite-dish van.

"Ahmed al-Saleh, al-Arabiya’s Baghdad correspondent, said: 'She loved her country and died because of her impartiality.'

"A statement from al-Arabiya said: 'Again, al-Arabiya pays the ultimate price for persistently pursuing the truth.' The station has had 11 employees killed by US and insurgent attacks in Iraq since the US invasion."

Problems with Legalizing Opium

A new IWPR piece mentions several arguments against legalizing opium production in Afghanistan. Some, such as the fact the process of licensing would be corrupt, don't seem convincing to me given the difficulties in eradicating the crop and the effect it has on poor farmers. More convincing was the concern that Afghanistan did not have the security infrastructure to regulate legal production, which combined with the greater market value of illegal opium means legalization's main effect might be making it impossible to eradicate illegal opium fields due to confusion over their legality. That's obviously a problem, but not a long-term one if there is greater investment in Afghanistan's security and political infrastructure, something also need for long-term stability and defeating the Taliban/al-Qaeda militants who continue to plague the country.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Me and My Job

Today I was profiled in Jesse Russell's Dane101 "Meeting the Neighbors" feature. You can read the interview here.

At my Middle East Studies job, I've been working on organizing a conference with the theme "Change in the Middle East," which will take place Sunday, March 26 and be open to the general public. We plan to announce the full program by the end of next week, but can say now that Mona Eltahawy will be the keynote speaker. If you want to make a weekend of it, Dialogue International has just announced the program for the 2nd Annual International Conference on Islam, March 24-25 and also here in Madison.

One last event of general interest is the appearance in town on March 8 of Jerusalem Post Executive Editor and columnist Amotz Asa-El. He will be giving a public lecture called "Politics and the Media in Israel" at 7:30 p.m. at Hillel. This event is sponsored by Hillel, Wisconsin Society of Jewish Learning, the Graduate Student Israel Education Initiative, and MadPAC with collaboration from the Middle East Studies Program.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Budget Numbers

al-Askari Shrine

I'm not sure people will understand the significance of the al-Askari Shrine which was just bombed. The commonly stated idea that Sunnis and Shi'ites differ solely over who should have led the community understates the case. The two largest branches of Islam also disagree over what the nature of that leadership should have been, with the Shi'ites believing that God sent Imams, beings filled with the light of creation who were to guide the people toward him.

Most Shi'ites today belong to the Twelver sect, which takes its name from the number of imams they recognize. The al-Askari Shrine important to the spirituality of the last three. Ali al-Hadi, the tenth imam, was seen as a threat by the ruling Abbasid dynasty, and forced to leave his home in Medina and live in Samarra, then the capital, where he was under constant guard by the caliphs' Turkish soldiers. He died there, as did his son Hassan al-Askari, the eleventh imam. (Shi'ites claim both were poisoned.)

At the time of his death, Hassan had a five-year-old son, Muhammad. Shortly after his father's funeral, this son vanished. In Twelver theology, this is the Occultation, and Muhammad is the Hidden Imam, who continues to guide and protect believers and will one day return as the Mahdi to inaugurate an era of peace and justice. The al-Askari shrine is the burial place of Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari, and next to the cave where the Occultation took place. Because this is the period between Ashura and Arba'in, this is roughly analogous to someone destroying the site of the Crucifixion during Lent.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Communicating with Students

This New York Times article on professors feeling overwhelmed by student e-mail has caused quite a buzz in some circles. My own first reaction was similar to that of Tim Burke, in that I had no idea what all these professors were complaining about and wondered vaguely how reliable the reporting was. One of Burke's commenters is a professor who claims she was misquoted by the story, so apparently it could be another "Little Red Hoax" incident, in which a small component of a longer, wide-ranging interview somehow becomes the key to the whole story when published.

As far as the issues raised by the discussion go, I think a lot depends on what sort of institution you attend. Burke raises the special position of professors at research institutions, though it should be noted that even most of those I know here at Wisconsin are open to if not always eager for e-mail communication from students. Even smaller institutions can vary greatly in the level of formality expected between students and faculty, with some institutions encouraging faculty to allow themselves to be called by their first names while others pride themselves on maintaining a more formal environment in which even students are customarily addressed by a polite title and surname. When there is face-to-face interaction, as with an office visit, expectations can be easily communicated through the terms of initial greeting, tone and body language, but sans that, entering freshmen in particular may simply default to the more familiar behavioral standards of the usually relaxed high school environment.

My own attitude is pretty student-friendly. To be honest, I like people, and enjoy getting to know the diverse array of people who pass through my classes, so some informality in tone doesn't bother me. I like to know that my students have a life outside the classroom and passions and priorities different from those of all my friends in academics. Even when tone in an e-mail slips into something demanding or something where it really should have been handled earlier, however, I think it's important to try and remember where students are coming from. Many faculty who stay removed from their students tend to underestimate the amount of stress students can feel under, especially during certain periods of the semester. This is not something I allow to affect expectations, but I try to be understanding and not make what I see as the root cause of a panicky plea for last-minute help or mercy on a grade worse.

I also noted Daniel Drezner's response, in which he called attention to the use of IM as a communication tool. I went to an undergraduate school where some professors gave out their home phone numbers for use under special circumstances. I hate telephones enough to shy away from that, but am now in my second course of giving out my IM screen name. Because I'm on IM almost all my waking hours, this definitely increases my availability, which is especially important this semester when I'm on the Beloit campus only twice a week. However, it does involve some sacrifice, as there are times when I might want to be available to friends, but not become involved in work, and any time a student IM's you it's going to be work-related. This has not yet become a problem, but I can see where it might be at some point in the future, and I still don't have a good plan for dealing with it, as IM's, unlike e-mail, seem to require an immediate reply.

Anyway, one other thing which crossed my mind - in this age of "helicopter parents," can professors expect to start eventually fielding e-mails from parents arguing on behalf of their kids? This has already happened to me once, and I suspect not for the last time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Over at American Footprints, I've posted a couple of notes on the state of military affairs in Afghanistan, where fighting has been getting more intense for several months. One is on current tactics by the Taliban proper, while the other deals with foreign interference on the side of the insurgency.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Kyrgyz Confrontations

I've occasionally noted the chaos in Kyrgyzstan's post-revolution politics, and chaos is definitely the word, as the nation tries to cough up a stable system of government with both the President and Parliament convinced that they are the best representatives of the people. Todaym RFE-RL rounds up the latest developments and provides some analysis:
"Three broad issues emerge from the fireworks. The first is a profound disagreement over the appropriate form of government for Kyrgyzstan -- presidential, parliamentary, or some mix of the two. Most of the nations that arose after the breakup of the Soviet Union opted for presidential systems, with constitutions that vested expansive powers in the chief executive. While intended to ensure stability in time of transition, presidential systems have also facilitated authoritarianism. In Kyrgyzstan, where the top-heavy presidential system was seen as a contributing factor in the abuses of the Akaev era, a constitutional-reform referendum is slated for 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2005). As the comments by Bakiev and Tekebaev indicate, the battle lines on this issue are already drawn.

"The second issue is what Kulov referred to as 'criminalization.' But high-profile contract killings and public displays of muscle by organized crime groups are only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem runs deeper: an entire parallel, informal power structure of backroom deals, secret schemes, and outright scams that maintains the prosperity of a tiny, well-connected elite and diminishes the prospects of the impoverished majority. The anger at Akaev that was evident in March 2005 was above all anger at a corrupt status quo. When speaker Tekebaev told parliament on 13 February that he feels 'bad that since the March [2005] revolution no changes have taken place in the mentality of officials,' he meant that this status quo has endured.

"The third issue involves the popular perception of the political class that is fated to play a crucial role in any attempt to reform Kyrgyzstan's system of government and remake its status quo. A political elite that goes beyond disagreement and plunges into discord runs the risk of undermining its own credibility. If the president accuses parliament of trying to seize power, if the speaker of parliament calls the president a "disgrace," and if the prime minister warns that criminals are taking over the state, ordinary Kyrgyz citizens anxious for positive change may well get tired of trying to figure out which of them is right, and decide that all of them are."

The situation may be even worse than it appears, as Nathan Hamm takes note of theories the country could become the next Afghanistan. I agree that is unlikely, and note that Afghanistan was torn apart as much by foreign powers as anything else. If the worst does happen, then thanks to Soviet-era national identity policies, any conflict in Kyrgyzstan is more likely to involve grassroots ethnic identification similar to what we saw in the Balkans, though probably without the centrally planned ethnic cleansing. Precisely for that reason, however, open civil warfare can probably be avoided as long as the fractures within the elite don't fall primarily along the lines of ethnicity.

Shana Haba biYerushalayim

Today I learned I've been selected for this exchange program with Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My chances of accepting are at least 85%, so I'm basically planning to be in Israel next year, where I shall in dynamic fashion seduce their women and seize their treasures before fleeing the country with Mossad agents hot on my heels.

Either that or I'll mainly concentrate on finishing my dissertation while learning whatever I find to learn.

Young Guard

Much of the focus on Fatah in the aftermath of Hamas's electoral victory has been over how far they can limit Hamas's power and what sort of control Abbas can exercise through the Presidency and PLO. However, as Benjamin Fisherman and Muhammad Yaghi remind us, the real future of Fatah probably depends on the so-called "Young Guard's" ability to united behind and organized leadership and gain control of the movement. So far, disputes only continue:
"If the elites within Fatah were divided before the election, they are even more so in its aftermath and have yet to devise a strategy for moving forward. Most of the revolutionary council has called for accelerating preparations for Fatah's sixth general conference, a meeting of delegates that sets the policies, direction, and leadership of the movement. Fatah last conducted such an exercise in 1989. Once again the young guard is divided: imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti supports expediting the conference, for example, while Ahmed Hilles of Gaza opposes it as an attempted power grab by a limited group. Although the conference is in theory the appropriate venue to redefine Fatah and its leadership, the young guard appears incapable of uniting in order to advance its agenda—which focuses on the needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza—and resist the priorities of Palestinian leaders based in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere."

Under these circumstances, Israel might be well advised to release prisoners such as Barghouti, which are the best hope for eventually driving Hamas from power. I suspect the old Tunisian clique which currently dominates the movement is a spent force in terms of Palestinian public opinion, unless life under Hamas because truly awful.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Biblical Jihad

Commenter Jareer from this thread led me to the Arabic Life Application Bible, and specifically its translation of 2 Timothy 4:7, "qad jihadtu al-jihad al-hassan," or "I have fought the good fight." That certainly presents an interesting situation for those who believe that jihad represents some purely evil Islamic doctrine which proves that Christianity is the superior religion.

Iraqi Sectarianism

Juan Cole links to this this New York Times story about the rise of sectarianism in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. A frequent point made on this blog, as well as in comments made at UW by Anthony Shadid, Peter Sluglett, and Cole himself, has been that Iraqis have generally not taken religion as their primary means of identification. However, the support networks which have emerged in the aftermath of the invasion have all been either implicitly religious, such as extended family, or explicitly so, such as the political parties and the associated militias who represent the real power in much of the country. As a result, people are identifying more strongly with their religious group in ways that are tearing the country apart at the most basic of levels. This is tragic, as despite what you may hear, there is no timeless enmity between Sunni and Shi'ite that has existed steadily throughout the Islamic world since the 7th century. These enmities form in certain times and places for specific reasons, and now Iraq is becoming one of those places.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)


This is a minbar in Cairo's Muhammad Ali Mosque.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Desert Rain

Children in both Madison and Cairo seem to enjoy playing outside in inclement weather. For Western Sahara refugees, however, a sudden downpour had tragic consequences:
"Aid agencies are rushing to help some 60,000 Western Sahara refugees after freak rains late last week wiped out houses and schools and damaged hospitals in camps in eastern Algeria.

"Because the rains - reportedly the worst seen in the area since 1994 - came on the heels of the UN World Food Programme's February distribution, refugees have lost an entire month's food supply, a WFP official told IRIN on Wednesday.

"'Heavy, concentrated rains [at the end of last week] basically melted houses, administration buildings, the Red Cross building and schools,' said Michelle Iseminger, head of WFP's office in Tindouf, Algeria. Aid workers say flooding also severely damaged hospitals and markets.

"'[Refugees] had just received their monthly distribution,' she said."

Mahfouz and al-Azhar

Egyptian Nobel Laureate in Literature Naguib Mahfouz is petitioning al-Azhar to approve his novel Children of the Alley. This work is a religious allegory long objected to by many conservative Muslims, and the reason one militant tried to kill Mahfouz in 1994. Other intellectuals are criticizing this decision, which they say sets a bad precedent of allowing religious authorities control over Egypt's intellectual and artistic life. I fear they could be right; in the present political climate, this will not remain the personal decision of one man, but an example of what many see as proper behavior. To be frank, however, I think more religious control is coming whether secular intellectuals like it or not. Already the AUC Library keeps off the shelves books which could arouse controversy among conservative students, including certain works dealing with early Islamic history. This trend of bowing to such sensitivities is growing, not receding.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hopeful Gossip

Over on TAPPED, Garance Franke-Ruta has a hopeful possibility about Jill Carroll:
"The answer I got was that word on the ground in Baghdad is that Carroll, who speaks Arabic, has convinced her captors that she's one of the good guys. Certainly she's had a lot of people advocating on her behalf both publicly and behind the scenes. One of Iraq's most popular TV stations is running regular appeals calling for her release and speaking of her love of the Iraqi people. Newspapers in Baghdad and Jordan have advocated for her release, and the managing director of Al Jazeera made an on-air petition on her behalf. She has become a cause celebre in Europe; her picture was hung from the city hall in Rome, where it will remain until she is freed, and a banner reading "Free Jill Carroll" flew from the Eiffel Tower. The Americans met a significant portion of her captors' first round of demands to free Iraqi women in custody, releasing five Iraqi women on January 26, but her captors continued to hold her, for reasons that are unclear. U.S. officials, of course, deny there was any relationship between the women's release and Carroll's captors' demands, and also deny that they will release any more women. That Carroll remains alive after more than a month in custody -- and is now reportedly living with her captors' wives -- suggests that her captors are among the less violent of the local extremists, though certainly that's not the kind of assessment anyone would like to bank on."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cartoon Controversy Hits Madison

Following a controversy at the University of Illinois, the Badger Herald on Monday ran this editorial, which included alongside it one of the offensive Danish cartoons. Here's the crux of it:
"While the Danish cartoons in question are undoubtedly offensive, regrettable distortions of a predominately peaceful religion and illustrations that run against the teachings of Islam, they are also now the impetus of riots that have caused numerous deaths, reduced symbols of global peace to charred ruins and brought attention to a clearly unstable region of the globe.

"As a result, the cartoons in question are clearly newsworthy and it is our firm belief that the media ought not be a gatekeeper guided by prude censorship, but rather a vehicle of facilitation in the grand marketplace of ideas. While one may aptly question the newspapers that originally ran these cartoons, it would seem that the illustrations have now become more than depictions of an unsavory nature and commenced to stand also for the very necessity of free speech.

"People have a right to see these drawings and make their own impressions as to whether they are per se offensive (which we maintain them to be), sufficient grounds for bloody riots (which we firmly believe them not to be) or the sort of speech that is so frightening in nature a society cannot function if it is allowed (which we firmly believe them not to be)."

Letters in response to this decision are here and here, and represent and interesting constellation of opinions, understandings, and misunderstandings of attitudes on all sides. You can read more of the community reaction here.

Many people are saying that the newspaper would not have printed these cartoons if the belittled a group other than Muslims. I'm not so sure. The year after I graduated, The Falcon, Quincy University's student newspaper, accepted an ad from a Holocaust denial organization. Their argument was that they always accepted advertising, and that everyone had a right to be heard. In my mind, that was the wrong decision, as rejecting ads is pretty commonplace, newspapers always make decisions about how to spend limited space, and it really didn't have the news value the Badger Herald staff imputes to the Muhammad drawings. However, I tend to take student journalists at face value when they say they're only acting out of commitment to free speech. College students are, after all, notoriously idealistic, and often radical in their application of those ideals.

Jill Carroll Report

Natasha Hynes continues noting calls for the release of journalist Jill Carroll. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times has an article by one Peter Singer questioning the policy of not negotiating with terrorists. With the provocative title "Will we let Jill Carroll be killed?" it argues that releasing unimportant prisoners is a small price to pay when life is at stake. Is he right? I've been staying away from such issues in this case, but find it striking that they're being raised. I don't remember reading similar things with previous Iraq hostage situations, though admittedly I wasn't watching as closely.

UPDATE: Those of you who read Arabic should definitely check out this editorial. It's quite good. I may try to translate a bit later, but that always seems harder working from a computer screen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Palestinian Democracy

Last month, I suggested that a silver lining to Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections was that an Arab country had held elections in which the opposition peacefully came to power. However, it's turning out not to be that simple. First Fatah has worked to ensure its continued control over the security services. The lame duck Parliament gave Abbas control of the Constitutional court, a move the ramifications of which have yet to play out. Now the President has taken control of the official Palestinian media. This is a far cry from a civil war, but together they clearly represent anti-democratic measures as Fatah and its allies seek to render the election results meaningless. Hamas, meanwhile, is playing up reports of an American-Israeli plan to topple it, and if he's not careful Abbas could wind up being painted as a Western puppet-dictator, as role he has thus far avoided despite the role played by foreign powers in his rise to the Prime Ministership under Yasser Arafat.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Romantic Madison

Allow me to join the chorus of skepticism to Madison's declaration as the most romantic American destination. A "chilly state capital" that "lends itself to cuddling?" Is that the best they could do? I guess that is one way to look at it, as I'm into the romance of winter as much as the next guy, but even so it would seem that Madison's alleged romance highlight lasts for only a few months, and you could probably get even better effects by cuddling over hot chocolate in New England or something.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Umayyad Mosque Art

This is some of the artwork which adorns the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. This mosque, which dates to the reign of al-Walid I at the beginning of the 8th century, is one of the claimants for the head of Shi'ite Imam Husayn, and has a shrine wherein rests what may be the head of John the Baptist, revered in Islam as a Prophet.

Anglican Divestment

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a supporter of the Church of England's move to divest from companies used by Israel in the Occupied Territories, has now apologized to Britain's chief rabbi for the decision. In terms of the how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should be resolved, I support the two-state solution, and feel that Palestinians have more historical grievances against Israel than Israel does against the Palestinians. However, I have a problem with these divestment movements because they all seem unduly pre-occupied with Israel in a way that doesn't make much sense. I don't know the portfolios of any particular organization, but have to wonder how many of them have financial ties to countries like China which are arguable the source of more oppression than Israel is, and even oppression of the same type if one counts Tibet as a potential country under occupation.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Jill Carroll Update

I don't have much to say about the most recent news involving Jill Carroll, but wanted to note it anyway:
"Kidnappers of American journalist Jill Carroll have threatened to kill her if their demands are not met by Feb. 26, the owner of a Kuwaiti TV station that has aired a new tape of the hostage said Friday.

"Al Rai satellite station owner Jassem Boudai said the kidnappers set "more specific" demands than the release of all Iraqi women from prison, which the group laid down in the first videotape released last month. Boudai refused to elaborate...

"Boudai said the sources claimed Carroll, who was abducted in Baghdad on Jan. 7, 'is in a safe house owned by one of the kidnappers in downtown Baghdad with a group of women.'

"He said the sources also claimed Carroll was in good psychological condition and was doing housework with the women in the place of her detention. The sources also said the kidnappers denied killing Carroll's translator when they abducted her at gunpoint, as has previously been reported.

"Later Friday, Boudai told CNN that he believed Carroll's kidnappers were the same ones who seized two Italian aid workers in September 2004 and released them several weeks later. Italian media said a $1 million ransom was paid in that case."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Danger

This is what I've been worried about:
"Some elements of the Fatah military wing have recently resumed terror activities, security sources told Haaretz, following Hamas's victory in the Palestinian parliamentary election last month. Fatah officials in the West Bank had obeyed Palestinian Authority orders over the last year to refrain from terrorism...

"Since the parliamentary election, there has been an increase in the number of attempts to send suicide bombers into Israel. Haaretz has learned that Islamic Jihad, which never recognized an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian agreement to maintain 'calm' and refrain from attacking Israeli targets, is not the only Palestinian group attempting to carry out terror attacks, but has been joined in these attempts by members of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades...

"Military sources told Haaretz that the phenomenon is most evident in Nablus, where the Fatah military networks are relatively strong. However, the sources said that the first indications of terror-related activity can also be seen in other areas of the West Bank...

"They said the PA's partial control of the local gangs is also weakening. The incentive for gangs to act with restraint - assurance that they will earn a living as members of the security services - is losing its appeal in light of the political uncertainty in the territories."

This is why money is important in controlling violence in the Occupied Territories.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Demolishing Heritage

Thabit, a newly minted hajji, posts about the destruction of Muslim holy sites in the Hejaz. Wahhabi puritanism frowns upon anything that they feel could distract from worship of the one God, and this includes monuments related to important figures in Islamic history. Sufism did not long survive the rise of Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula, and the tombs of some Shi'ite Imams and the Prophets's daughter Fatima were closed for most of the 20th century. In his book The Politicization of Islam, Kemal Karpat wrote about how disappointed many pilgrims were that they could no longer find sites associated with historical religious figures important to their personal spirituality. This is a tragic loss not only for Muslims, but for all of us who share the common human heritage of which Islam forms such an important part, and is one more reason why I really hate the Saudi government.

Iraqi Insurgents

Two interesting notes have come up regarding hopes for finding a diplomatic resolution for the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. officials have held initial meetings with Iraqi insurgents, though of course nothing firm has come out of this yet. At the same time, tribesmen in the restive Anbar province may be working to hunt down Zarqawi and his associates. The author of the linked report notes that this comes as many in the guerrilla movement seek to involve themselves in the political process, perhaps creating a situation similar to what happened in Ireland with the IRA and the Sinn Fein. While that's hardly ideal, if mainstream insurgents have decided that al-Qaeda is a liability and should be driven out, then that's still good for what I see as our main interest in the conflict, denying a refuge to international terrorist organizations.

More Cartoon Protest Stuff

Earlier today, I criticized some of the coverage of the global uproar over the Danish cartoons. Joshua Landis suggests the Syrian government did have a hand in the Damascus riots, but that they went further than intended. Meanwhile, reports of violence now focus on Afghanistan, particularly the city of Qalat in the Zabul province, which last time I checked was a stronghold of elements sympathetic to the Taliban.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoon Riots

Juan Cole is inclined to take the Syrian riots at face value. As I noted yesterday, however, I'm not so sure. Now Praktike makes the easy connection between Syria and Lebanon:
"I am worried about the effects of this on fragile little Lebanon, however. It looks like Syria eagerly seized the situation to rile up the Muslim community. Marching and rioting in Christian Achrafiye, a neighborhood that was on the front lines during the civil war, is a good way to stir up sectarian tensions (and indeed, Maronite youths were apparently pouring into the neighborhood in response to the rioting). Syria's strategy is clear: to destabilize Lebanon or threaten to do so that the Saudis will swoop in and cut them a better deal over the Hariri assassination than they otherwise would have gotten. So far, as crazy as it may have seemed to me at first, it seems to be working."

Is this right? Lebanon may have Syrian intelligence still lurking in the shadows stirring the pot, but it also has plenty of sectarian tension on its own. Still, the fact the worst violence has happened in Damascus and Beirut seems pretty suspicious.


And they're off:
"Several top Palestinian Authority officials have fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Hamas scored a landslide victory in the January 25 parliamentary election, PA security sources revealed on Sunday.

"In its election platform, Hamas promised to wage a campaign against corruption in the PA and to punish all those involved. Palestinians estimate that over $1.5 billion have gone missing since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

"The sources told The Jerusalem Post that the PA was planning to seek Interpol's assistance in tracking down and arresting the officials, who are suspected of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds. One of the suspects is Sami Ramlawi, former director-general of the PA's Finance Ministry, who is believed to be living in Jordan.

"The sources denied reports that Ramlawi was detained over the weekend as he tried to cross into Jordan through Allenby Bridge with a suitcase containing $20 million. The reports, which first appeared on a number of Palestinian Web sites, claimed that the money had been hidden in a diplomatic suitcase."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Amona Meta-Commentary

Chayyei Sarah has a very interesting post which takes both the left and right in Israel to task for double standards regarding the way Israeli authorities treat settlers and Palestinians. I'm not sure it's a perfect analogy, since there were no fatalities at Amona, but she's undoubtedly right that people's opinions of security personnel often depend primarily on those with whom the security people are dealing. This is something you see in the United States, as well.

Embassy Burnings

Am I the only one skeptical that protests of this magnitude happened spontaneously in Damascus? I don't know what, exactly, was going on, but I strongly suspect this Danish cartoon flap, while offending many Muslims, is also being used as a propaganda tool by those who already have an anti-Western agenda. The BBC reports that the Danish Embessy in Beirut was burned by Islamic militants, to the chagrin of many others in the crowd. The AP indicates the Lebanese protestors also got bussed in from somewhere. Aziz links to this thread on Mahmood's Den as an example of where "the rational Muslim majority is sheltering from the idiocy storm."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Teaching The Message

Today in my Medieval Islamic Civilization course we watched selected scenes which amounted to 2/3 of the Moustapha Akkad film The Message. I thought this would be a good way to introduce the traditional account of the founding of Islam, and indeed seldom have I seen a class pay such close attention to a film not accompanied by some sort of study questions. In fact, a handful of students asked me after class if we could watch some of what I left out, which consisted primarily of Abyssinia and some battle scenes. The Battle of Badr was an especially tough cut to make given its importance, and I may revisit it next class.

What's important to understand about this film, however, is that as the title indicates, it focuses on the message rather than the messenger. Students will see people reacting to Islam, suffering persecution, building the first mosque, and defending their faith, but they will come away knowing little about Muhammad's mode of life, the wives of the Prophet, and similar biographical details which are also important in the Muslim tradition. It also leaves out a lot of the politics in Medina, though some of that may be made in the longer Arabic version.

We haven't had our class discussion yet, but my initial impression is that showing this was a success, and when supplemented with appropriate readings and lectures can lay out Muslim doctrine in its narrative context rather than simply as a dry list of beliefs and rituals. I expect to use this again in the future.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Guns and Money

Hamas may have won control of Parliament, but in Palestinian politics influence and personal loyalty still count for quite a bit, and perhaps more than loyalty to processes and institutions. The Jerusalem Post is reporting on Muhammad Dahlan's efforts to keep the Gaza security forces under Fatah's - aka his - control. I don't know for sure, but I suspect constitutionally they would fall under Presidential authority, and Mahmoud Abbas is still the President. However, a deeper issue here is that they are Fatah loyalists, and one reason Hamas may be floating the idea of a Palestinian army may be doubt over whether they can transfer their allegiance to whomever is in charge.

Closely linked to this is the problem of money. Already, we've seen militant cells theoretically under Fatah auspices financially co-opted by Iran. An interesting question is whether Fatah's loss of control over foreign aid could lead to more foreign influence over their security apparatus. This may be part of why Israeli's defense establishment is recommending the continued transfer of funds to the PA. I also suspect that is why relatively friendly Gulf states also might fill any gap. Cutting off aid may sound good, and the United States at least will avoid funding a Hamas government for both domestic political reasons and our diplomatic posture. However, I'm starting to think the furthest anyone will go without further provocation is working it through alternative channels while maintaining intense pressure for moderation on issues of concern.

Failed States Warning

John Negroponte was apparently on Capitol Hill today warning that Central Asian regimes could collapse, leading to a rise in terrorism. Does this mean that someone in the Bush administration understands that terrorism thrives primarily off instability and failed states rather than rogue ones?


This pair of donkeys was grazing near the trail which leads to the top of the monastery in Petra.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Free Health Care

I read about Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero's visit to Melilla thinking it might be an occasion to post on migrant issues or the disputed nature of the two Spanisn enclaves in North Africa. Then I read this paragraph:
"But Morocco has limited its protest because relations with Spain are improving and because Ceuta and Melilla provide valuable services, such as a vibrant trade in contraband and free medical care, to surrounding Moroccan towns. Moroccan women account for half of all births in Melilla, for example. Local residents complain that all the beds in Melilla's only hospital are taken up by Moroccans who do not pay social security. During his visit, Mr Zapatero promised the government would build a new hospital for Melilla."

Spain is providing Moroccan towns with free medical care? And the proposed solution to the resulting pressure on the health care system is to build a new hospital? I'd limit my protests, too.

In Reply

Craig Barker has a thoughtful response to President Bush's State of the Union address:
"A nation that can do equations, but has no way of communicating effectively its thoughts and ideas, is not a great nation. A nation that can make great strides in medicine, but does not understand the elegance and complexities of its own constitution, is not a great nation. A nation that can ween itself off petroleum through technological innovation, but does not respect and understand its own history and heritage, is not a great nation. If we want to continue to see America as a great nation, we need to make a greater push in the four major areas of secondary education. I'd also like to point out that Advanced Placement is a registered trademark of the College Board and one which they have, in the past, vigorously defended. Merely raising the level at which many of America's basic math and science classes are taught at the secondary level will achieve many of the same goals you have set forth in your address tonight."

Craig makes other good points, as well. It must come from being one of the know-it-alls mentioned here.