Sunday, April 30, 2006

New Labor Issues

May 1 is traditionally a date to call attention to labor issues, but I feel like starting a day early. In today's Washington Post, Anthony Shadid writes about Dubai, including among other elements the role and position of guest workers in the city. Over at 'Aqoul, Tomscud posts some comments on the piece, noting in the process previous posts on Gulf labor issues by Eerie and Top Secret Anonymous Guy.

I won't be turning up in the Gulf until February or so, but I have talked to a few well-educated and liberal people from the region, and one thing I've noticed is that while many are aware of the plight of migrant workers, they don't seem to consider it with the same intensity as they do the oppression of Arabs by non-Arabs in the region despite the geographic proximity. The guest workers, prevalent as they are, still seem to represent an Other, at least from the few conversations I've had on the subject. I relate this tomorrow's planned protest among Latino workers in the United States, for a key part of that movement is about indicating the Latinos are already here as an integral part of society, and not just an Other stereotyped as illegal migrant workers regarding whom We need to set a policy.

It used to be that key labor issues were about the abuse of employees which developed in relation to industrialization. These continue in many areas of the world, and with a declining labor movement in the United States could easily become prevalent in this country again, as well. However, in an age of increasing human mobility, it's also worth looking at transnational labor diasporas and their place within the nation-states which host them as an important new field where we need to define some expectations and understandings.

Why Zarqawi is Loose

Via Daily Kos, I find yet another reminder that before the war, President Bush let Zarqawi escape to bolster his case for invading Iraq:
"Mr Scheuer was a CIA agent for 22 years - six of them as head of the agency's Osama bin Laden unit - until he resigned in 2004.

"He told Four Corners that during 2002, the Bush Administration received detailed intelligence about Zarqawi's training camp in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Mr Scheuer claims that a July 2002 plan to destroy the camp lapsed because 'it was more important not to give the Europeans the impression we were gunslingers'.

"'Mr Bush had Zarqawi in his sights almost every day for a year before the invasion of Iraq and he didn't shoot because they were wining and dining the French in an effort to get them to assist us in the invasion of Iraq,' he told Four Corners.

""Almost every day we sent a package to the White House that had overhead imagery of the house he was staying in. It was a terrorist training camp . . . experimenting with ricin and anthrax . . . any collateral damage there would have been terrorists.'"

"During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi's presence in the north of the country was used by US officials to link Saddam Hussein to terrorism."

These really should be revelations, as the fact Zarqawi was in the Kurdish area of Iraq and not that controlled by Saddam Hussein was well known before the war.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

2006 Wisconsin NAQT State Championship

Last year saw new faces rise to the top of Wisconsin's high school quiz bowl circuit, with Wausau West defeating Wayland Academy while dressed for their senior prom. They may have graduated, but last December, when I last looked in on the high school circuit, LaCrosse Logan looked good to claim the torch as yet another new school. Certainly their performance all last semester was convincing, but even though they had gained elite status and secured a berth at nationals, they entered the day with a key bit of unfinished business: a state championship.

However, Conserve School and Rufus King, two powers which already have a rich heritage on Wisconsin's young circuit, taking between them five of the six gold and silver slots in the first three years of the five since we started in 2001-02, had something to say about that: Not so fast!

The day began with three round robins of six, and each of those three teams won their bracket by going undefeated. While it seemed clear from all available stats that they were the top three, none of them really stood out, as even their points per game, a fairly reliable measurement, was spread within 25 points of each other. After lunch, we proceeded to the afternoon rounds, in which the top two teams from each of the morning brackets played as a new round robin for the top six places in the tournament. LaCrosse Logan, Conserve, and Rufus King each beat the three erstwhile second seeds, but wound up forming a "circle of death," tied in record while going 1-1 amongst themselves, and while NAQT forbids using stats-based tie-breakers, even if we had wanted to ignore that the spread among them was insignificant.

The normal way of picking a champion is that if two teams are tied, they play a best-of-three series, and if three are tied, you try to do a single- or double-elimination format among the top four. This, however, proved logistically impossible, as the fourth place team, Oshkosh West, finished a full four games behind the front-runners, so that in order to advance, they would have had to beat one of them five times. (Quiz bowl tournaments aren't friendly to would-be cinderellas.) We didn't have enough questions to allow for that possibility.

Digging deeply into the tie-breaker regulations, we found that what we needed to do is have the top three play each other in a series of eight-question matches until the circle of death was broken. These were held in a competition room so full that a number of people wound up sitting on the floor to see the action. The excitement level was also higher even than the usual state championship, for in an eight-question match every question is so important that every answer or non-answer elicited some sort of audience and player reaction. Seriously, this will go down as a classic tournament.

Anyway, fortunately, we only needed one round to have a winner, for the results were:

LaCrosse Logan def. Rufus King 110-70
LaCrosse Logan def. Conserve 65-50
Conserve def. Rufus King 70-55 (OT)

Yes, what was effectively our second-place match went into overtime on top of everything else, and thanks to the aforementioned excitement the whole room burst into applause when Rufus King managed to tie it on the last question. In any case, as you see, Logan emerged as the champion, despite the fact that for reasons I never found out they had to play most of the day without their main history person. Conserve School came in 2nd place, while Rufus King secured a well-deserved 3rd. Oshkosh West should also not be left out of the running, for while they weren't consistly at the top level they did show flashes of excellence: In one of the three matches in which I moderated for them they put up 360 against the fifth-place team, while in another they took Conserve to overtime before losing by a single question.

Anyway, that's all for this year from Wisconsin, where Eli Morris-Heft and Sean Kinney did a great job organizing. All four of the top teams have earned invitations to the national championship in Chicago in early June, where I will probably turn up as a game official.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Arab Regimes and Discussion of Israel

Lisa Goldman links to this Lebanon Profile post on an exploration of the Israeli blogosphere. The anonymous blogger notes:
"What is most striking is that many Israeli bloggers are incredibly knowledgeable about what is going on here (ie, Lebanon, but also the rest of the Arabic speaking region). Note that my mother sent me an article about the Nakba by the editor of An Nahar Literary Supplement from a New York based Jewish newspaper. I didn't read a single article in the Lebanese press on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The lack of news about Israel - not an unimportant country in the region - is astounding...

"Not knowing about 'them' is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don't even matter. They are Stalin's faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil blood suckers whom it is righteous to kill. Our papers definitely need to start covering more than major political events in Israel. We should remember their tragedies. 'They' already have a massive internal debate going on about the Palestinians, the war in Lebanon, and the wall. Given the reception Elias Khoury's book has received in Israel, it seems the Israelis (including the official IDF education officer quoted in the Forward) are recognizing the Nakba. Why deny the Holocaust?"

I think this issue is real, and ultimately hurts the Palestinian cause. During Mustafa Barghouti's visit, I learned I am not the only pro-Palestinian person who finds the Arab political culture on Israel to be a significant problem in trying to sway people to our viewpoint, or indeed maintain our own morale.

My use of the term "political culture" is deliberate here, because I think the poverty of the Arab discourse on Israel is inextricably linked to the authoritarian nature of Arab regimes. Acknowledging the liveliness of Israeli political debate, for example, might encourage imitators in their own population, and generate opinions such as those of Muhammad Dahlan that Israel's success as a state stems as much from the fact its leaders are accountable to the people as from any Western support. Focusing on Ashkenazi political domination also serves a purpose, for if it became widely known in the Arab world that half of Israeli Jews and a clear majority of Israeli citizens are of Arab origin, and that intermarriage is making this less of an issue all the time - the argument that it is a colonial creation would start to founder on the fact that Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan are also colonial creations, as well as force a public accounting of why so many Jews decided (or were forced) to leave Arab countries during the 20th century. It is far better, from the standpoint of Arab dictatorships, to leave in place a status quo which places the blame for most problems on the West, and uses the forms of anti-Semitism imported during the colonial period as a connecting link between American foreign policy, economic neo-colonialism, and the daily suffering of the Palestinians at Israeli hands, and this I think is one reason why for Arabs to hear the opinions of mainstream Israeli leaders in Arabic, they usually have to go to independent satellite stations such as al-Jazeera.

This is not to say the Arabs are unable to think for themselves after the old orientalist stereotype, but rather that they are forming rational opinions given the completely different images of Israel which dominate Arab culture. For most Americans, Israel is a seemingly similar country in terms of its values and lifestyle, and its treatment of the Palestinians is seen in terms of the broader conflict between this society and countries like Ba'athist Syria. For most Arabs, the suffering of the Palestinians is foremost, and Israel appears strictly as an oppressor, a caricature the actions of which can only be explained by conspiracy or stereotyping. Getting past this caricature, however, will be necessary to achieve true peace and understanding in the region, a peace which would ultimately improve the lives of people across the region.

Mustafa Barghouti

Earlier this week, Palestinian leader Mustafa Barghouti was on campus, and I was able to attend several events associated with his visit. Unfortunately the public lecture I made it to was a standard discussion of how the Hamas victory shows that civil society is still thriving in the Occupied Territories coupled with sharp criticisms of the Olmert plan for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. I might go into more of that later, as his presentation crystallized the sense I've had that the Gaza disengagament and West Bank plans are two completely different animals in terms of their probable effect on the future of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I'd want to find some of the graphics he used to make that point.

The other events were of the sort where the blogging would either be highly questionable at best, so I'll just say that Dr. Barghouti definitely made a good impression on me and most other people with whom he came into contact. I often quip that the worst part of being pro-Palestinian is having to be on the same side as the Palestinians, but if people like him had more influence, that would become a strength rather than a weakness. The problem, of course, is that he doesn't have much influence, and certainly not the same level of money that pours into the coffers of the likes of Fatah and Hamas. This is why I was struck by his push to try and organize overseas groups of friends of al-Mubadara, as well as humanitarian aid groups that would support health care in the Occupied Territories and for which he would undoubtedly get some credit, as well. It seems, I think, a plan to develop some sort of grassroots network among the Palestinian diaspora and other overseas pro-Palestinian factions that would allow him to compete with the better funded groups in terms of being associated with public services and providing resources. An analogy might be to Howard Dean's successful attempt to raise lots of money from small donors rather than large ones. Whether Barghouti will be successful remains to be seen.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Final Exams

The end of April is, traditionally, a period when college instructors prepare final exams for their students. In my survey course, the final exam is much easier than the mid-term, partly because I consider the material in the first half of the course more important, and partly because students are so put upon at the end of the semester that asking them to perform feats of anything other than time management doesn't seem productive. In format, however, I follow the same general pattern as Tim Burke, a combination of ID's and essays, with a special primary source section on the midterm.

Also like Tim, I hand out a list of ID's ahead of time to my students. Otherwise I just feel like there are far too many names, places, ad foreign religious, social, and political terms to study constructively, and I'd rather have my students learn the big ideas well than spread themselves too thin trying to cover every possible ID from over 100 pages of reading a week and what we do in class. While I understand the point that knowing what is important represents a key skill, I prefer to deal with that in writing assignments and discussion of the reading, and pitch my ID section differently. This isn't to say I don't still look for some skill - I use something my professors at Quincy University used called the "ID triad," meaning that a complete ID answer will include the definition, context, and significance of the term in question. In some ways, this makes the exam a teaching tool as much as an evaluation one, for this forces students to process the material again on a higher cognitive level than they might have when it was initially presented and they were just trying to "get it all down" or make it to the end of a reading.

The Revolution is Over

According to the Badger Herald, Student Government is disbanding:
"Less than a month after declaring its intention to unseat the Associated Students of Madison as the University of Wisconsin’s representative student body, Student Government announced it would disband Friday.

"The organization was created in the wake of the ASM spring election debacle that witnessed two postponements of the Student Council election and the cancellation of the referendum results...

"However, after experiencing reported difficulty with recruiting members and losing momentum after its initial announcement last March, Student Government members said the organization will break up.

"However, despite the disbanding, Steve Schwerbel, one of the founding members of Student Government, said he and other members were 'successful' in helping enact reform within ASM."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Internet Neutrality

The main issue before Congress that I'm following right now is this one, and you should probably take stock of it, as well.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Al-Qaeda in Sinai?

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli security officials believe that the Sinai Peninsula has become an al-Qaeda hotbed:
"But Monday's bombings did not come as a surprise to the defense establishment, which months ago issued an advisory against traveling to Egypt and particularly Sinai. Military Intelligence believes Sinai has turned into an al-Qaida hotbed whose cells were behind all of the latest Sinai terror attacks, including the bombings in Sharm e-Sheikh last July and in Taba in 2004, which together killed over 100 people.

"Although Egypt has sent special forces into the Sinai hills of Jabal Halal to weed out the terror cells, Monday's attack, security officials said, proved that their efforts were not as effective as they may have thought.

"Evaluations note that the cells operating in the Sinai are composed of local Egyptian Beduin who are easily recruited into al-Qaida due to their disdain of President Hosni Mubarak's regime. It is also thought that the explosives used by the cells are no longer coming from old mines and tank shells left behind by Egyptian-Israeli wars, but are being smuggled into the Sinai from Egypt's neighbors, possibly even Saudi Arabia."

Fund on Cole

Juan Cole can defend himself; however, it's worth noting how silly this column by John Fund actually is. I can't even figure out this paragraph:
"Mr. Cole says that he is often unfairly attacked for being anti-Semitic, when in reality he claims he is only critical of Israeli policy. But Michael Oren, a visiting fellow at Yale, notes that in February 2003 Mr. Cole wrote on his blog that 'Apparently [President Bush] has fallen for a line from the neo-cons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon's ass.' Mr. Oren says 'clearly that's anti-Semitism; that's not a criticism of Israeli policy.' (Exit polls showed that 74% of the Jewish vote went to John Kerry.)

The word "fallen" clearly conveys the sense that the line in question is untrue, so I'm assuming this is the old idea that referring to people as "neocons" is itself anti-Semitic. If that's the best Fund has to go on, and it's up against such things as Cole's suggestion that American policies in Iraq may have made factionalism worse and contributed to instability and questioning the influence of Likud ideology on some policy-makers, that just shows that they really don't have anything substantive to demonstrate Cole's alleged anti-Semitism.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Today's Links

I've been trying to keep a regular Afghanistan beat over at American Footprints, with today's entry being an account of this article on the rise of temporary marriage among the country's Hazaras. Before that, I was following the Parliamentary battle over confirmation of Hamid Karzai's new Cabinet.

One of my students, Zainab al-Khawaja, has a blog, though she has yet to perfect the art of using it to procrastinate. I especially like these poems.

Also, Madison today was swept by rumors of a sweep for illegal immigrants that saw children pulled out of school and lots of people miss work. That's not the only current news issue that hit close to home, however, as Praktike was recently in the Dahab grocery store attacked by terrorists.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday Notes

The CEIP's most recent Arab Reform Bulletin focuses on Islamist groups in government. Among the articles was this one on Hamas caused me to realize the interesting point that the key to Hamas's political victory was an end to Fatah corruption, which would translate in practical terms to more financial benefits reaching the people. However, the foreign situation prevents Hamas from getting much funding at all. I've been skeptical that they will moderate their position towards Israel, but this may indicate a way it could happen.

IWPR reports on the disappearance of a medieval Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijan. It seems difficult to explain this as anything other than an attempt by Azerbaijan to eliminate potential Armenian cultural claims on its territory.

Finally, the United Arab Emirates has announced plans to construct upgraded housing for guest workers. However, this doesn't address the root issue, which is one of legal rights. This is just a ploy to take off some of the pressure from the recent protests and public scrutiny.

UPDATE: Oh, yes. The Jerusalem District Court has ruled that there is a Palestinian state. Will British Airways be next?


This is one of the bridges over the Thames in London. I don't remember which.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Turabi Affair

Hassan al-Turabi has been making waves recently by saying things that really don't sound like the man who invited al-Qaeda to Sudan and was an ally of Osama bin Laden during the 1990's. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat which I couldn't find, he reiterated previously made statements that Muslim women should be free to marry non-Muslim men, saying, "I could not find in the Quran or the Sunna a single word preventing a Muslim woman from marrying a Christian or Jew."

He's actually right about that, and as I understand it, the reasons why traditional interpretations of Islamic law forbid it stem from the idea that men are the heads of household, and women might be forced to do things contrary to Islam. But in any event, al-Turabi has been saying a number of oddly liberal things lately. He has come out against the obligation of veiling or burqa-like coverings, indicated they can lead prayers before mixed congregations, suggest moderate drinking of alcohol was okay, and claimed courts should count their testimony as equal to that of a man.

While I welcome all these positions, I can't help but wonder why they're suddenly appearing at such an advanced age and in seeming contradiction to everything I've ever heard about this guy. Looking around, I saw that late last year he also called on Islamists to stop using the slogan, "Islam is the Solution." It may just be a political position, though it is unclear whom he is trying to win over. It may also be a legitimate outcome of his study of fiqh and an attempt to broaden the appeal of Islamist ideology. Ayatollah Khomeini changed his position on women's suffrage at about the same age, so it is not unprecedented.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Egyptian Unity Protest in Shubra

Last June, I saw a Kefaya-led protest march through Shubra calling for democracy and an end to Mubarak's rule. Today, via Issandr, I find Big Pharaoh's coverage of a national unity demonstration in the same place. The immediate spur is intercommunal violence which has taken place in Alexandria. While Big Pharaoh is right that the groups involved lack grassroots support, the positive reaction from the crowd shows that while religious chauvinism and prejudice is a major problem in Egypt, the feelings are far from universal, and I suspect that a huge majority of Egyptian Muslims are not generally anti-Christian, and would hate the accusation enough to become even less so when violence breaks out.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Tim Burke has another of his typically brilliant posts on modern academia. This part especially stood out in my mind:
"The sin here would be to create a course where all the answers are dictated in advance, where there is no exploration, where every time the course is taught, the journey is entirely dictated as a command exercise, where the professor not only has an opinion but makes clear an expectation that everyone must share his or her opinion in order to be a legitimate part of the course. The sin is to fail to protect, to fail to actively produce a kind of pluralistic space within the classroom. This NOT a space of “tolerance”. I hate that formulation, because it takes every student as a sort of fixed identity with fixed opinions who must be made to feel comfortable or safe. Classrooms are unsafe space, and should remain so at all times. What I’m talking about is an expectation that everyone at all times, including the professor, is expected to navigate the entire range of conceptual possibilities, open questions, and actively argued premises that fall within the course’s boundaries."

I think the "unsafe space" idea has always been the major problem I have with much discussion of academic bias. I've had some very good professors who presented certain politically charged ideas not because they were whole-heartedly committed to them, but because they believed it would generate discussion and challenge students' thinking. After all, the idea of a liberal arts tradition is not just to gain cultural literacy, but rather to prepare to participate in culture, very broadly defined as perhaps the totality of one's community practices and beliefs.

In other words, students need to be actively engaged in a world of ideas, especially those that challenge their existing ones, forcing them to think critically even if they decide to retain whatever beliefs they came into the course with. I certainly believe the class I'm now teaching at Beloit College contains enough ideas and perspectives to shake up anyone from a closet Islamophobe to devout Muslims, and the pedagogical justification need be nothing greater than the fact that even if certain ideas contradict your deeply held beliefs, you need to know they are out there and how to deal with them in an intellectual manner.

There are, perhaps, some exceptions. I can understand, for example, how certain Ethnic Studies classes can become "safe spaces" for examining and coming to value in community a cultural tradition under siege or misunderstood, and in fact I see situations in which I might pitch my own class on that level. A lot depends on knowing the students, which is why I think smaller schools automatically make for better pedagogy. However, the belief that a professor is turning out liberal clones just because of the readings he or she assigns or the ideas they throw out in lecture or discussion does a disservice to students who have minds of their own which they seek to develop.

Ferghana Valley

Although Tajikistan is in the title, this article really focuses on the whole region of the Ferghana Valley as a center of transnational identity and militant Islamist networks. Central Asia's most densely populated region, it is divided between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Of particular interest is the note that the peaceful Islamist group Hizb at-Tahrir is strongest in the relatively free environment of that last of these, and that the southern Kyrgyz city of Karasu functions as an unofficial capital for the movement. It is also the site of many illegal border crossings:
"For instance, as witnessed by this author, every five minutes a homemade boat with people unwilling to pass the customs check crosses the border channel. In the opinion of Kammaluddin, the people cross the border illegally to avoid paying bribes to the Uzbek customs officials. One factor is obvious: the border remains transparent and one can transport not only leaflets, but also weapons."

I wonder if it's safe for Westerners to visit Karasu.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Jesus Movie

Plans by an Orthodox Christian to make a film about Jesus have caused controversy in Egypt:
"Plans by an Orthodox Christian filmmaker to make the first movie in Arabic about Jesus are receiving opposition from Muslims. Muslims - who consider Jesus a prophet - suggested that screenwriter Fayez Ghali request authorization from Al Azhar, the most esteemed institution of Sunni Islam which adjudicates works of art on religion. 'In order for this movie to be made, our position is that the image of the prophet (Jesus) not appear, for it would be impossible to find an actor who could play him, no matter how perfect his work is,' Muslim leader Mohammed Habib was quoted as saying.

I think this might be the same Muhammad Habib affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Global Americana Institute

Allegedly anti-American Juan Cole updates his Global Americana Institute:
"My response has been to found, with some colleagues, the Global Americana Institute, which aims, initially, at getting central works of American thought and history into Arabic. I think we also have to try to endow a chair at an Arabic-speaking university, but more on that later. It has taken a long time to get all the state and Federal permissions, but we are finally done. The Global Americana Institute is a fully recognized 501(c)3 charity, and donations are tax deductible. I am coming to the public with a plea to support us. We will, of course, also be approaching foundations and other funders, but I am hoping that this project is something that can garner grassroots support.

"Frankly, we have been failed by our government and foundations in getting the message of what America really is out to the rest of the world. We have no ministry of culture, unlike France, and no British Council or Goethe Institute. The United States Information Agency was gutted in the mid-1990s, virtually defunded, and folded into the State Department as a poor sister. Its libraries, with American books, in Amman, Istanbul, and elswhere, were shut down and the books remaindered. The AMPART program to bring American lecturers to the Middle East has been slashed to the bone, and politicized (when USIA went into State, it gave the ambassadors more say over who gets invited, and many ambassadors are political appointees). Our major foundations avoid the Middle East as a program priority for the most part. There are dedicated people in the US government who try to make a difference, of course, and there are small publishing programs in Cairo and Amman, though they don't seem to me to get good distribution. Folks, we mostly are going to have to do this ourselves...

"In contrast, there is, as far as I can tell, not a single Arabic-speaking university that teaches about the United States in Arabic. There is a bit of American studies in Arab universities, but it is almost always conducted in English, and it is usually sited in English departments. American literature is virtually the only area of American studies taught in the region, and then rarely and often fitfully. And since the universities and normal schools don't teach it, it is also usually not taught in high school social studies classes. There is a two-tier system in the Arab world. The elite knows English or French, whereas the majority of the population functions almost entirely in Arabic. Most American outreach to the Arab world focuses on the English-speakers, the ones who least need it!

"What is not available in Arabic is startling. American political thought is almost completely absent. You cannot go into a bookstore and get Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, W. E. B. Dubois, or Martin Luther King. I was told the story of how a Lebanese professor went looking for the Arabic text of the US constitution and could not find it. Of course, it exists. I complained to a State Department official about this sort of thing, and he replied that he used to give out pocket copies of the constitution in Arabic to visitors to the US embassies in the Middle East all the time. He didn't seem to grasp that the text is not in the bookstores or in the libraries, and so is essentially inaccessible."

I admit to wondering if some of what he describes is due to market forces: Since translations used to be available of some of these works, wouldn't they simply be republished if there was real demand? The state of publishing in the Arab world is sad in any language, especially on topics other than religion. However, this is a worthy project and one I hope succeeds.

Minbar al-Sham al-Islami

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Stephen Ulph reports on the latest issue of a Syrian jihadist publication, interpreting it as a sign that the movement it represents is on the decline in Syria. As evidence, he cites the fact it is only six pages long, whereas others have been closer to twenty pages, and its contents, which revolve around opposition to secular forces in Syria and notes on the continuing regime crackdown on Islamist militants. I suppose he's write, though I'm not sure it means anything in the long run. Islamic militancy is tough to suppress partly because it is a movement rather than an organization, and if this group is suppressed, another will simply take its place as long as the ideology continues to have appeal.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More Travel Plans

I recently got a history department grant to go examine some manuscripts in the British Library, so I'll head for London in July, at the same time as this conference. This time, I plan to avoid losing my passport, something over which I'm still kicking myself.

As I've said before, I'm also heading to Jerusalem in the fall, though as the Hebrew University academic year doesn't start until late October, I'm first going to take a couple of weeks and make my first venture into Central Asia. As a medievalist, I first had my heart set on Uzbekistan, where I could see Samarqand and Bukhara and get by with my Tajik Persian. However, as the Uzbek government is apparently being really stingy with visas for Americans, I've decided instead to try a multi-country tour, starting in Kyrgyzstan to look in on the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution, and then heading to Kazakhstan and something in the Caucasus - probably Armenia, if the flights work - before returning to Israel.

If all goes according to plan, then six months from now my visited countries map will look like this:

create your own visited countries map
or vertaling Duits Nederlands

There's still a lot of blank space there, though I also need to look in on the Gulf and Turkey during next year, and Cyprus and Malta will each make a nice long weekend at some point.

UPDATE: Actually I'll be flying Turkish Airlines, which doesn't go to Yerevan. My Caucasus stop will have to be Baku. I hate politics.


Jonathan Edelstein says this rather eloquently. After comparing the wall Israel is building around the Palestinian territories to the one Egypt is building around the Sharm al-Shaykh resort:
"And why shouldn't the complaints be similar? The underlying logic, after all, is the same: to wall off a population that has come to be regarded as dangerous. It's the same rationale that underlies fenced-off resorts in the Caribbean and Africa, or gated communities in the United States. All these things protect the haves from the dangerous have-nots, and restrict interaction to what is approved by and in the interest of the former. The Israeli barrier may be the most extensive example, but it's hardly different from the Sharm wall in its purpose or the effect on the people left outside.

"Don't get me wrong - I'm for the Israeli wall, although I'm against it being built outside the Green Line. For the reasons I've stated before, I believe that the wall is the only thing that will enable Israel to retreat safely from the West Bank, and that it has already played a considerable part in shifting Israeli strategic policy toward unilateral withdrawal. Like it or not, the barrier will not only prevent the great majority of bombers from getting through but will also enable the occupation to end even without a successful conclusion to the peace process.

"But just because the wall is a necessary evil doesn't mean it isn't evil. The fence has saved many lives and will save more, but it should be recognized for what it is: an ugly, evil remedy that effectively writes off three and a half million people and denies the possibility of any normal interaction with them. The responsibility for this lies on both sides, and on days like today, it's easy to succumb to the logic of bombs and walls. But even if that logic is necessary, it's important to prevent it from becoming internalized: to guard against the increasing tendency to use walls as a solution within Israel, and to increase the physical and psychological barriers between communities. It's precisely because the bombs make the walls necessary that we should appreciate their consequences, and one more reason to condemn the bombs is that they build the walls higher."

Read his whole post.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Monastery of Anba Bishoi

This is the Monastery of Anba Bishoi at Wadi Natrun, taken from the neighboring Monastery of the Syrians:

Iranian Sufis

This is certainly interesting. BBC reports that Sufism is on the rise among Iran's Shi'ites. Although it transcends sectarianism, Sufism is usually associated with Sunni Islam, as Shi'ites have traditionally felt closer to the institution of the imamate, Hidden or otherwise. According to a professor quoted in the article, there are perhaps five million Sufis in Iran today, compared with only 100,000 before the Islamic Revolution. My guess is that Iranian young people are seeking a form of religious expression that isn't tied to their corrupt and authoritarian government. If so, then this represents a potentially huge development in Iran's religious history, though one that perhaps brings its more recent past full circle: Shi'ite Islam was imposed on Iran in the 16th century by the Safavid dynasty, which began as leaders of a Sufi order whose founder still has a shrine at Ardabil dedicated to him.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Migrant Labor in U.S.

I've said before that I fear President Bush's guest worker program would amount to little more than a corporate recruiting program. Now I read from the Associated Press that such recruiting is already taking place. As reported by Julie Watson and Olga R. Rodriguez, U.S. companies are working directly with illegal sumggling operations for undocumented immigrants, paying transportation costs so as to get cheap labor entirely dependent on the companies for whatever rights they can get in this country. President Bush's plan would simply legalize these arrangements, with the position of the workers staying the same. It will be revealing to see if reports such as this cause a certain segment of activists upset over illegal immigration to shift some of their ire from workers whose skin color and national origin are different from their own to the companies which take advantage of and partially fund the trade in them as a commodity.

While I believe we must control our borders for national security reasons, I have nothing against workers who are here illegally. The issue along the Rio Grande is much as the same as at the Strait of Gibraltar. The demands for workers in the north and the economic imperatives for migration in the south are simply too great for the human flow to be shut off; the most we can do is manage it. Meanwhile, Democrats should shift the focus of this debate from the workers to the companies, allowing them to point out both the flaws of the President's plan while positing realistic solutions.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Casablanca's Slums

I've seen these slums. I felt worn down just going by them on the train:
"Hidden from the road behind a high concrete wall, the jumble of iron-roofed shacks bakes under a relentless midday sun.

"Women chatter as they queue for water and a welding torch briefly lights up a nearby workshop.

"Smoke drifts across open spaces where young boys squat, sniffing glue from plastic bags.

"Time is the only luxury in the shanty towns scattered across Morocco's economic capital, Casablanca.

"Once a small coastal settlement before becoming a major port under the French protectorate in the first half of the 20th century, "Casa" has mushroomed into a sprawling conurbation.

"Its population has grown to more than 3 million as it has absorbed waves of migrants trying to escape poverty in the countryside.

"Public services have struggled to keep pace with the growth and the names given to some of the suburbs Chechnya, Dallas, The Guts reflect their haphazard beginnings and the dark humour of the inhabitants."

Peace Prayer

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord.
And where there's doubt, true faith in you.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness...only light.
And where there's sadness, ever joy.

Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console.
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved, as to love with all my heart.

Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving of ourselves that we receive,
And in dying that we're born to eternal life.

Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Women's Rights in Bahrain

Middle East Online has a story about the struggle for women's rights in Bahrain. The key item on that country's feminist agenda is currently a movement supported by Queen Sheikha Sabika al-Khalifa in favor of a new personal status law, still based on shari'a, but more liberal than the traditional interpretations which are frequently issued by patriarchal Islamic courts. It seems clear that the writer of this article didn't quite know how to handle the concept of shari'a, treating it in some places as a fixed law code which governed Saudi Arabia while acknowledging the Bahraini feminists weren't planning to abandon it. As regular readers know, however, shari'a is better seen in this context as a field of inquiry - "Islamic jurisprudence" might be a better translation than "Islamic law."

In any case, if I recall correctly, Morocco passed a new personal status law including equality for women, and won even some consorvative support by tying it to religious principles. Bahrain, however, is divided along sectarian lines, and King Hamad doesn't have the same religious credentials as Muhammad VI, whose family claims descent from the Prophet and has with some success won acceptance within the country as a source of baraka, or divine blessing. Another point is that King Muhammad VI, though initiatives like the commission investigating human rights abuses under his father, has co-opted some of the liberal set, whereas King Hamad has become famous for stuff like this. His initiatives, such as the e-government proposal from a couple of years ago, have seemed to unambiguously update the power of the monarchy rather than the structure of government. Also, as noted below, I suspect one reason monarchs - or in this case their wives - support social liberalization is for the chance to co-opt the social liberals while putting off the demands of political reformers. Still, a reform is a reform, and if this passes it will be good for Bahrain.

Tajikistan's Dams

IWPR reports on Tajik plans to build a new dam for hydroelectric power along the Vakhsh River. This project is controversial because the Vakhsh is a tributary of the Amu Darya (Oxus River, for us medievalists), Central Asia's longest river, though one already suffering from over-exploitation. If Tajikistan goes ahead with these plans, it will almost certainly shrink the water supply to its largely desert neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Tajikistan, however, has plenty of reasons to go ahead anyway, as they face the prospect of being able to sell energy to neighbors such as Iran and Afghanistan, and in any case feels that given the fact nations which produce oil and natural gas aren't afraid to wield that as a rare commodity, they should feel free to treat water the same way.

UPDATE: There's now a further thought over at American Footprints.

Quiz Bowl on ESPN

I'm not sure if there's a way to link to it permanently, but the 2006 NAQT college championship made ESPN: "Congrats to Cal-Berkeley for winning the 2006 national collegiate quiz bowl championship held Saturday in College Park, Md. No rioting expected."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Taliban Open New Office

The Taliban have opened a new office in the southern part of Pakistan's Waziristan province:
"Participants noted that the crime rate was rising in Wana, particularly murder, robbery and drug trafficking. Local cleric Maulana Maulvi Abass explained in a meeting that the purpose of opening the office was not to enforce Sharia, but to restore peace in the area (Daily Times, March 15). As part of the plan, locals will be able to bring their problems and grievances to the Taliban office where they can be heard by a local judge, replacing the traditional jirga system. Maulana Abass said that the government did not oppose the opening of the office because it knows that it will improve law and order in the area. Maulana Abass was previously wanted by the government. Last year, however, he signed an agreement with the government in which he agreed not to participate or encourage attacks on government security forces (Daily Times, March 15)."

There's an interesting historical point here related to the continuing process of Islamization in South Asia, with Islamic norms comtinuing to replace tribal customs. More immediately, however, a group intimately connected with those who attacked us on September 11 is institutionalizing their foothold on the territory of a key ally in the War on Terror. I'm not reassured by the idea they're not there to introduce shari'a. Am I to assume that when they make rulings, they're not going to refer to the religious beliefs which motivate their organizations? Furthermore, the Taliban were initially welcomed in Afghanistan for restoring order, so this doesn't exactly have a promising precedent. The rise of anti-government militancy also casts this in a bad light. For all the article says about the differences between northern and southern Waziristan, there's a war there, and I'm not sure our side is winning.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Gulf Labor, Afghanistan

I've been posting more at American Footprints lately, with a post today on labor issues in the Gulf, which as I see it the United States should see as a security issue as well as a human rights one, and one on the battle over the confirmation of Hamid Karzai's new Cabinet in Afghanistan, which happens to follow up on this post from a couple of days ago.

Saudi Lingerie Shops

Gulf News reports on Saudi Arabia's push to give jobs in lingerie shops to Saudi women. The government for some time has been interested in combatting female unemployment in the country, which according to the article runs at about 28%. The means taken is apparently one which has been often used to nativize Gulf workforces, reserving certain jobs only for nationals. Here there is a gender component, as well, although it's not clear whether there is a mandate to feminize the lingerie industry or if that is just a goal. Although the problems of women in Saudi Arabia remain - in the case of this initiative, the fact they need a guardian's permission to work, for example - increasing their employment will lead to greater economic power and a chance to increase their political and social power in the future.

Muhammad VI is a King

Laila Lalami notes this Economist article on the current state of Moroccan politics, and particularly it's conclusion that King Muhammad VI still has all the power. This point can't be emphasized enough, for while you can have politically liberalizing monarchs, Muhammad has really not done much to indicate he is one of them. In fact, his social reforms could easily be interpreted cynically as driving a wedge between the social liberalizers and the political ones while improving the country's image abroad. The on major exception, and this is important in the Moroccan context, is the demystification of the royal family, allowing their lives to be portrayed in magazines and the like. Even there, however, one might wonder if the king simply thought that necessary in the modern media environment.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


"Move over, Detroit.

"Madison is now Hockeytown, USA.

"Step aside, Minnesota, North Dakota and all of you other schools that have hogged the NCAA men's hockey championship for the last 15 years.

"The University of Wisconsin is once again No. 1 in the relatively small but madly passionate world of college hockey.

"Slide over, Bob Johnson and Jeff Sauer.

"In his fourth season, Mike Eaves has joined the list of coaching greats who have guided UW to national championships.

"Make room, Gary Shuchuk, Chris Tancill, Mark Osiecki and all of you other standouts from the Badgers' 1990 national championship team.

"There is a new generation of hockey heroes with names like Tom Gilbert, Robbie Earl and Brian Elliott who have taken UW to the top of the mountain and added another golden chapter in the history of one of college hockey's elite programs.

"From start to finish, UW's 2005-06 season was a magic journey. The Badgers were provided with a perfect script, including a path to the NCAA title that never left Wisconsin, and they studied it, memorized it and then never deviated from it by even one line.

"UW's scintillating 2-1 victory over Boston College Saturday night at the Bradley Center - renamed the Kohl Center East for the weekend - gave the school its sixth national championship and so much more.

"It made UW the first school to win both the men's and women's NCAA hockey champions in the same season. Two weeks ago, the UW women won their first title with a 3-0 victory over Minnesota."

Saturday, April 08, 2006


One interesting link I've seen lately is Registan's pointing to this article about an alleged curse on Tamerlane's tomb. Also fascinating is Jonathan Edelstein's post on the Palestinian diaspora in Latin America. I'd noticed before that the name of Belize's Prime Minister was Said Musa, but had no idea of the larger cultural context.

More Mosques

This picture shows the two largest mosques on Cairo's Midan al-Qala'a, which I wrote about here. On the left is the Mosque of ar-Rifa'i, built between 1867 and 1912 and burial site of Khedive Isma'il, King Farouk, and Iran's Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi, as well as the site of an annual Sufi moulid. On the right is the 14-century Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hassan. The scale is not the only thing that makes them impressive.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Gospel of Judas

Via Kevin Drum, I find Stephen Bainbridge's astute post tying the release of the Gospel of Judas to the upcoming film version of The Da Vinci Code. I wouldn't phrase it in terms of legitimacy like he does, but this isn't as breathtakingly revolutionary as it's made out to be.

European Islam

RFE-RL reports on a conference of European imams being held in Vienna on issues of integrating Muslims into Europe without losing their religious identity. I found the framing of this issue rather interesting simply because yesterday I saw a talk by Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, who supervises all the ulama over millions of Balkan Muslims while issueing fatwas for their guidance. He came across as very Western, and had he been a Jew rather than a Muslim the event would have been unremarkable.

His talk, while advertised as dealing with the importance of shari'a in rebuilding Bosnia, dealt mainly with the nature of shari'a itself, with Ceric indicating he practiced an approach based more in kalam than the standard study of classical Islamic thought and precedents. Kalam refers to Islam's religious philosophy, and in the context of shari'a can get to the ultimate purpose of the religious law, such as safeguarding people's dignity, property, and so on. The issues involved were ones I've paid little attention to over the years, so I won't try to comment further, except to note that during the Ottoman period Sarajevo became an important center of Islamic learning, and continued as such until 1946. If Ceric is any indication of current thought in Bosnia, then I hope that Europe's long-standing Islamic tradition can in the post-communist world rebuild itself as an important part of both Europe and the umma, despite the alleged clash of civilizations in which we are enmeshed.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Don't Tread on Me

Some of the articles related to the split in UW-Madison's student government read like shadow versions of American Revolutionary pamphlets:
"For too long, ASM has been little more than a tangled web of over-expansive red tape capable only of siphoning ever-increasing segregated fees from the student body and confusing even the most astute of observers with a labyrinth of do-nothing committees run by résumé-padding students overzealously concerned with their own personal welfare...

"On the question of allocable segregated fees, the Student Government ought not seek to play the role of taxman. Rather, the legal intricacies of a process that has been riddled with corruption should be handled in the most basic of manners, with a simple 'opt-in' system. Every student deserves to make his or her own educated decision as to which groups he or she will fund on this campus, allowing a market-based economy to reward those student groups truly meritorious in nature and to correct those organizations obsessed with bloated payrolls and wasteful spending."

That's it, by golly! No taxation without representation!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

More on Gulf Labor

'Aqoul has input on labor issues in the Gulf region:
"So far, any movement towards improving worker rights seems to be driven by external pressure, rather than any genuine internal motivation. On one hand, awareness is raised by human rights agencies issuing complaints, with additional pressure exerted by the US government during recent free trade talks. On the other, Dubai's government in particular is eager to sell itself as modern and Westernized in order to attract tourists and wealthy Western residents, compelling it to outlaw some of the more visible abuses. For a decade now, workers in the emirate have been transported on buses rather than packed onto flatbed/pickup trucks like cattle. However, workers throughout the Gulf are still largely confined to squalid labour camps on the outskirts of cities, where they are invisible to the general populace. Some categories of low-paid workers live in houses where as many as 12 people share a room in order to save on rent, but they risk being caught by the police and deported for overcrowding. Indeed, ‘bachelors’ – the euphemism for males whose families remain abroad due to government regulations forbidding those earning less than a certain salary from sponsoring family members' visas – are not supposed to live in large areas of Gulf cities. Municipalities have designated these areas as being exclusively for ‘families’ - anyone but single men earning low wages. Much of this discrimination seems unlikely to vanish soon, as seen in a recent decision in Sharjah to prevent members of the working class from using public parks."

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

UW-Madison's Civil War

This is really funny:
"Madison students fled the campus area as a small band of rebels attempting to overthrow the Associated Students of Madison neared Memorial Union on Thursday. By early morning, sporadic gunfire and shelling on the outskirts of campus could be heard. Reports of rebel movements had them heading down Langdon Street, toward the hallowed seat of campus government, with little resistance from government forces.

"During the March 29 ASM Student Council elections, local media reported that the computer systems, having been overwhelmed by large voter turnout (numbering perhaps in the several dozens of voters), had malfunctioned. Opposition leaders said they believed something more sinister was afoot. The opposition party called itself 'Student Government,' and international monitors accused the heavily-entrenched ASM of fraud and voter intimidation. Hundreds of students took to the streets to demand new and fair elections. During the protests, paramilitary police fired tear gas and assaulted demonstrators leaving 14 dead and 75 injured.

"'These so-called elections were a sham,' said 'Student Government' leader Steve Schwerbel. 'We call on the government to cede control of the campus to the rebel forces so that we may establish a democratic regime in Madison.'

"Following the news of the election malfunction last Thusday, a small group of students, led by Schwerbel, collectively called for the current government’s ouster. ASM rejected these calls, arguing that all was done to ensure the elections were free and fair. International election monitors were quick to side with the opposition."

Thanks to The Hippie Perspective for the link. The sad part is, aside from the military aspect, this is basically true. As you can follow here, following a horribly flawed election, a group of students has taken action against the long-derided official student government body Associated Students of Madison and formed a new Student Government for which they are seeking administrative recognition while producing posts like this:
"The Student Government should make fighting the Administration, Housing, UHS, and other institution's policies a key component of the government. ASM is worthless and would rather patronize the University than fight their discriminatory actions and worthless bureaucracies. Any government can do better than ASM in its current shape and form. Also, with The Student Government planning on not having professional staff, deriding the university will be easier. We can put the University of Wisconsin in its place, but clearly not through ASM."

As you might pick up, there is also something of a liberal/conservative divide between ASM and the Student Government that mirrors that between our two student newspapers, with the liberal Daily Cardinal opposing the, err, revolutionary body, while some staff members of the more conservative Badger Herald are actually involved in it.

As a former member of the Quincy University Student Senate, I've long been annoyed by student apathy toward ASM on this campus considering it is actually a productive body that appropriates a good deal of money and is listened to by the administration. While interest in ASM has definitely grown during the past seven years, it is this apathy, as much as anything else, which has often led ASM to become a bastion of those inclined to activism for one cause or another. While I don't know them personally, I suspect there is also a strong activist strain within the Student Government ringleaders. As far as how all this will play out, I don't think ASM is going anywhere, but the credibility of all student leadership could be demolished by this fiasco, and if students can no longer vote from the comfort of their own computer terminals, participation could sink to an all-time low, furthering the downward spiral.

This is interesting to watch, however. I shall have to talk to some undergrads to see how this is playing in the campus version of Peoria.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Rock, by Kanan Makiya

At the recommendation of UW MES Director Dr. David Morgan, I just read Kanan Makiya's novel The Rock. In this work, Makiya has taken stories from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish stories of the rock atop Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem and woven them together to produce a coherent narrative about the relationships among the largest monotheistic traditions, particularly Judaism and Islam.

In terms of plot, it concerns the life of Ka'b al-Ahbar, known to historians mainly for his role in passing on to Muslims Jewish traditions known as the Isra'iliyyat, which were of interest to Muslims for the information they contained about Prophets mentioned in the Qur'an. As envisioned by Makiya, Ka'b was simultaneously both Muslim and Jewish, a perfect example of what modern historians of the 7th century mean when they talk about how the boundaries between religious traditions had not yet hardened, and moving among them was quite easy.

Makiya, however, does not stop there, but instead uses Ka'b as one of a series of literary Russian dolls of which the innermost is the holy Rock itself. The point of this is to show the essential interrelationship of the monotheistic traditions, again especially Judaism and Islam, with another symbolic layer being a possible relationship between the Rock of Mt. Moriah and the Black Stone of the Ka'aba, two rocks which were perhaps together at the dawn of monotheism, which lost touch with each other, and were reunited by the Muslim conquest, and which will one day be again physically joined as well when the Ka'aba moves to the Dome of the Rock at the end of time.

As a historian of this period, I loved the way Makiya brings out the early affinities between Islam and Judaism, such as the caliph Umar's interest in Jewish holy sites as opposed to Christian cathedrals, and was absorbed by his lyrical weaving together of traditions so that it is often hard to tell which elements come from which religion. The Dome of the Rock, too, becomes more than just a Muslim shrine, but a monument to Jewish tradition, built on the Rock explained through Ka'b's stories to honor the figures whom Jews hold most sacred. It is a beautiful, engaging vision, one which we can only hope will one day sink roots into the region in which it is set.

Conversion in Algeria

this is worth noting in the wake of the Abd ar-Rahman affair:
"Algeria, determined to keep religion and politics separate after years of Islamist violence, has passed a law forbidding non-Muslims from seeking to convert Muslims to another religion, an official said yesterday.

"Mohamed Aissa, director of the ministry of religious affairs, told state radio the measure passed on March 20 was prompted by the activities of Christian evangelical sects, particularly in the restive ethnic Berber Kabylie region.

"'We found out that in addition to Islam, Christianity has also been used as a tool to destabilise the country during the last bloody decade,' said Aissa. 'Ten (Christian) sects are active in Algeria. They do not respect our laws. And some of these sects called for revolt in the Kabylie region,' he said."

I know almost nothing about Algeria, so I have no idea if conversion has actually been an issue in Algeria, or if this is just the government seeking to placate Islamist opinion in the country.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


The Jamestown Foundation has an interesting piece on the cult of Iraqi snipers among jihadists:
"The periodic success of mujahideen snipers in Iraq has been stimulating the imagination of jihadist forum readers, and this has taken the form of a number of video productions. A high-quality, 15-minute example of the genre, entitled Qannas Baghdad ('The Sniper of Baghdad') was circulated by the Islamic Army in Iraq last November on, among others, the Abu al-Bokhary jihadist forum (

"The work is of professional quality, complete with American-English language commentary. It features the name 'Juba,' which refers to the infamous 'Juba the Baghdad sniper' who is popularly credited with anything from several dozen to upward of 100 strikes against U.S. servicemen. He has achieved popular status among jihadi readers, with CDs of his work circulating in Iraq and clips even appearing on al-Jazeera satellite television. 'Juba,' however, was also rumored to have been captured last June when quick reaction to an unsuccessful sniper attack resulted in the arrest of a two-man team."

Monday, April 03, 2006

Religious and Political Evolution

Over at American Footprints, I've posted some comments about this RFE-RL report analyzing the Constitutional questions in the Abd ar-Rahman case. My point is that the text of the Constitution isn't an issue; the culture and the standard interpretations of Islam are. The way to change things isn't to force secularism, but increase religious education in the country. Something I didn't go into is that at one time I expected the Iranian system to evolve along the same path I recommend for Afghanistan there. A difference between the two, however, is that in Iran the conservative view of religion is maintained by a corrupt clerical regime which has the capacity to thwart internal dissent and rig the system to perpetuate it's power. This same regime has proven more than capable to revising its interpretations of Islam in response to modernity, such as with some issues related to women's inheritance many years ago. In the present environment, however, I think it's more likely to be deposed than evolve far enough, unless in response to revolutionary conditions Khamane'i or some future faqih decides to keep the trappings of power while surrendering the substance.

Middle East Peace: The Video Game

Kavanah, a student organization with which the UW Middle East Studies Program occasionally collaborates, has organized a demonstration of the video game "Peacemaker" this Sunday at 4 p.m. in Room 1121 of the Humanities Building. In this interesting game, players choose the role of either the President of the PA or the Prime Minister of Israel, and through a combination of political, military, and development tools try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while interacting with their opposite number on the other side, the UN, Egypt, United States, Hamas, Israeli settler movement, and the general publics of both Israel and the Occupied Territories. It sounds fairly intriguing, and for those interested but not in Madison, other presentations around the world are announced here.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Ha'aretz has an article on the game.


I just understood this.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Bahrain Labor Issues

Chan'ad Bahraini has more information on Gulf labor issues, especially in Bahrain:
"While the labour condition in the UAE is particularly exacerbated, and under glare, the same problems obviously exist in all of the Gulf countries, and certainly here at home in Bahrain. The local press this week reported two cases of workers asking for unpaid wages: 24 employees of Hamelco Contracting, and 40 employees of Al Khaja establishment — in both cases the workers allege that they have not been paid in nine months.

"Even though the employers may be to blame, the real culprit is the government’s kafala sponsorship system which prevents migrant workers from getting justice. If a migrant worker wants to take his or her employer to court for any reason, he or she will have not be able to earn a living for the duration of the trial (which will surely be long and drawn out lasting several months if not years). Obviously then, most workers don’t risk taking their problems to the courts. And the only other options that remain are to: (i) continue working in the state of bonded labour, (ii) resort to crime or illegal activities, or tragically too often (iii) commit suicide.

There's more at the link.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Human Rights in Uzbekistan

As a follow-up to yesterday's post referring to the declining human rights situation in Central Asia, Nathan Hamm has posts on the harassment of journalists in the country, a new media bill in the Uzbek Parliament and the expulsion of the UNHCR. All of that is just in the past two weeks.

Foreign Labor in UAE

Human Rights Watch has sharply criticized the treatment of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates. An excerpt from their report:
"Migrant workers comprise nearly 90 percent of the workforce in the private sector in the UAE. They are denied basic rights such as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining...

"Employers routinely deny construction workers their wages. Officials with the UAE Permanent Committee for Labor and Immigration told Human Rights Watch that last year alone, nearly 20,000 workers filed complaints with the government about the non-payment of wages and labor camp conditions.

"Most construction workers secure work in the UAE by taking loans from recruiting agencies in their home country. A typical construction worker uses a large portion of his wages towards repayment of such loans on a monthly basis, and without wages he falls further into debt. The result is virtual debt bondage.

"Death and injury at the workplace are also on the rise. Independent research published in local media found that as many as 880 deaths occurred at construction sites in 2004. These numbers were compiled by surveying embassies of countries that have large number of workers in the UAE. Government figures contrast sharply with these findings, stating that the total number of deaths in 2004 was only 34."

The organization also called upon the United States to insist on fair labor practices before signing a free trade agreement with the UAE. We already insist on non-recognition of the Arab boycott of Israel. This issue is far more important than some sanctions due to a political conflict.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Chellah Tombs

This picture was taken in the Chellah in Rabat, and shows the ruins of a mosque and madrasa, as well as the tombs of three walis in the background. "Wali" in this context is usually translated as "friend of God," and is roughly analogous to a Christian saint. They were believed to have baraka, or divine blessing, which was often transferred to their tombs. The tombs thus became pilgrimage sites. The most important site here is actually not visible in this picture, and that is a small pool behind the mosque/madrasa complex with eels in it. Some believe that feeding eggs to these eels helps with fertility problems.

The Far Right

Those who criticize the Democratic grassroots for alleged radicalism would do well to look through some of the contemptible comments coming from the far right following the release of Jill Carroll. I expect little better from the likes of Little Green Footballs, but such vitriol has even made it to the talk radio scene. Personally, I'll take Daily Kos any day of the week.

For more, see Eric Martin and Progressive U.

UPDATE: Allison Kaplan Sommer tells some people off.

UPDATE: This should end the discussion.

Central Asia Notes

Two articles in RFE-RL's new Central Asia report caught my interest. The first deals with the idea that Uzbekistan is the region's major source of instability. The theory is that because the Uzbek govenment is repressive yet has a weakening grip, it creates turbulence which can spill across the porous borders. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, each of which have experienced their own internal issues in the past few years, are seen as particularly vulnerable, which a decline in Western influence with Tashkent has led Russia and Kazakhstan to take more of a leading role in trying to influence developments there.

The second article concerned the first anniversary of the "Tulip Revolution" which deposed Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev. These events may be linked to problems elsewhere, as regimes such as Uzbekistan cracked down on free expression in their own territory shortly after Akayev's ouster. Kyrgyztstan, however, has yet to consolidate any sort of democracy, as Kurmanbek Bakiev, not entirely an outsider to the old regime, continues to seek a strong Presidency in the face of opposition from the Parliament which won a problematic election last February. Meanwhile, organized crime runs rampant, as I suspect it did under Akayev, as well. I think the country's constitutional questions need at least to be referred to a referendum, as no one in power has the credibility to win the public's trust.