Friday, June 30, 2006

Kuwaiti Election Results

The fact women voted in Kuwait's Parliamentary elections yesterday is good, but mainly a catch-up thing. The only Arab countries where women don't have voting rights are arch-conservative Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where no one does. The elections are still important, however, because Kuwait is arguable the most Democratic Arab country aside from Iraq, and certainly the one coming to put the most emphasis on the "constitutional" part of the idea of "constitutional monarchy." Last January, when Emir Sa'ad was forces out due to illness, the decision may have been largely uncontroversial, but it's still significant that it was done through Parliament.

In any case, the Financial Times reports results:
"Reformist candidates, the majority of them Islamists, have made significant gains in Kuwait's parliament in election results likely to reverberate around the Gulf's Arab nations...

"Political parties are not legalised in Kuwait, making it difficult to determine the precise make-up of the new parliament - the only one among the Gulf's Arab nations with robust powers over legislation.

"But ideological groupings are tolerated, and analysts said as many as 36 of the 50 contested seats - there are 65 seats in total because 15 members of the cabinet, dominated by the ruling family also vote in parliament - were now controlled by candidates who campaigned publicly for electoral reform, up from 29 in the outgoing parliament.

"This represents a big setback for the new emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who dissolved parliament in May when opposition members confronted the government over plans to dilute electoral reforms.

"It means the government is potentially in a minority on key issues. It may be impossible in the short term, for example, for it to push through plans to raise oil production from 2.5m to 4m barrels a day by allowing foreign companies to operate in ageing northern oil fields."

The next big question is how the Emir will respond. If he tries to thwart these results too brazenly, the world may see a second Orange Revolution.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Middle East Studies

Today was my last day as Project Assistant and de jure Assistant Director for UW-Madison's Middle East Studies Program. They might keep me around for a little while as an hourly employee, but that would involve just a small amount of processing faculty travel grants, sorting through supply orders and watering the office plant rather than the organization of conferences and lectures and occasional grant writing which have occupied me for the past three and a half years.

There is a less than happy note to the occasion, as yesterday we learned we hadn't made the cut for this cycle's Title VI competition, meaning it's unclear if or how we will get funding for the next four years. Still, the program is in good hands with incoming director Dr. Uli Schamiloglu, and we have just enough money left for a K-16 pedagogy conference this October. Hopefully Dr. Schamiloglu and my successor will dig up some non-governmental sources of funding to keep things operating for the next few years. For my part, I'm quite content to bid farewell to administrative and bureaucratic duties and spend next year on fellowship in Jerusalem.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Baluchistan and al-Qaeda

My knowledge of Baluchistan is all but non-existent; however, this week the Jamestown Foundation has run articles on Baluchi militants in both Pakistan and Iran. Both governments allege al-Qaeda involvement, but the only evidence in the articles is the fact some people were arrested while crossing Pakistani Baluchistan to reach Waziristan and join the anti-government insurgency there which al-Qaeda and probably the Taliban are spearheading. That doesn't sound convincing, as Baluchistan is the shortest overland route to Waziristan that's outside government control, and militants thrive on loosely governed or restive areas. At the same time, however, outside involve can't be ruled out as quickly as the articles seem to. Pakistan in particular seems like it has many strands of Baluchi militancy, and it would be just like al-Qaeda to start involving itself with a nationalist movement against a common enemy. International jihadist networks may not have made serious inroads, but this close to the Durand Line people are right to be watchful for their presence.

Humanitarian Costs and Ending the Conflict

Juan Cole is right to call attention to the humanitarian costs of Israel's Gaza operation. I haven't mentioned this in my blogging because I think of the occupation mainly in terms of humanitarian costs anyway. I think there's an infant mortality rate just connected to people giving birth at checkpoints. Israel has been a miserable failure at meeting the humanitarian needs of the occupied Palestinians.

However, the surest way out of this, like so much else, is to end the conflict. The Palestinian authorities have shown little capacity to do so, though frustratingly the recent Hamas-Fatah agreement might have created a block capable of making and selling an agreement to the Palestinian people. In any case, I long ago threw in my sympathy with the Israeli left as the only block capable of leading the way to a just resolution of the conflict. This, in practice, means unilateralism, and for that to happen, the territories from which Israel withdraws can't become sources of further insecurity.

I am not as committed to this as I was a year ago, as the Olmert proposals give the Palestinians little enough that they might actually move resolution of the conflict much further down the line. However, before the Fatah-Hamas deal, it was the only serious option on the table, and even to have room to negotiate, Israel's center-left would have to demonstrate security credentials. I've found the phrase "Defense Minister Amir Peretz" jarring every time I hear it, and I've only known about the guy for a year or so now. Security is also the trump card in Israeli politics, and Israelis need to see that the West Bank won't become another base for Qassam fire and similar attacks. The logic of Palestinian military resistance falters before the fact that it isn't going to work.

Lisa quotes a Hebrew blogger called The Consumer:
"The situation in Gaza resembles Somalia. The territory is controlled by warlords who have no desire to stop the conflict against us. They make a living from it. They make their money in several different ways: budgets from states that support terror; criminal control of their territory; and smuggling from Egypt. The last thing they need is an organized state. By getting involved in a military operation we will end up increasing the power of those gangs. A lack of order is their daily bread."

If Israel can disrupt the factions which both attack it and prevent stability in the Gaza Strip that would benefit Palestinians, then this operation will have been worth it, though The Consumer doesn't think it will work. However, this explains why I'm not simply condemning the incursions the way I might be expected to.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Israel's Response

My posts yesterday and the day before didn't really go into whether I thought kidnapping soldiers was a good idea for the Palestinians or whether Israel's response was a good idea from their perspective. The question on the Palestinian perspective seems meaningless, as the biggest problem there is preventing a full-blown civil war between Hamas and Fatah and restoring order to the Gaza Strip, neither of which involves directly confronting Israel. From the Israeli side, I have to differentiate between whether an incursion into Gaza is a good idea in the abstract, an issue on which I can see both sides, and whether it is a good idea for Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz given the objectives of the current government and the way they project developments on the Palestinian side. (It also goes without saying that I would love for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and for the Palestinians to make their national movement into one dependent primarily on non-violent resistance.)

However, I will question the wisdom of rounding up the Palestinian government right after it reaches an agreement with Fatah that provides for negotiations with Israel. Although not a Hamas fan, I find these arrests precipitous with regard to the escalation of the conflict I mentioned earlier, and in the present climate one has to wonder if all of this is designed in part as a means of intervening in the Palestinian power struggle on Fatah's behalf, or even weakening the Palestinian leadership enough that they can implement their preferred solutions unilaterally claiming that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. I have trouble seeing Peretz going along with the latter, though.

UPDATE: I'm far more tolerant of the pressure being applied to Syria over Khaled Mashaal. Mashaal is exactly the sort of Palestinian leader who drives me crazy. As near as I can tell, he hasn't been in the West Bank or Gaza Strip since he was 10 or 11, and insists on upholding the hardest of hard lines regardless of the will of the Palestinians who actually live under the occupation and would like to see peace at some point in the foreseeable future. He probably thinks he's doing the right thing, and I'm sure he finds these positions intellectually satisfying and endearing to Arab nationalists throughout the Middle East, but he doesn't seem to have actually accomplished anything to improve Palestinian lives, nor does he have plans that would do so in the near future.

Abd al-Malik

I just read an interesting biography of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik by Chase Robinson, one of dozens of titles in a great new series from Oneworld Publications called Makers of the Muslim World. Abd al-Malik inherited a claim to the caliphate from his father Marwan, who had been elected at a gathering of Syrian tribal notables in 684 to succeed his second cousin twice removed Mu'awiya b. Yazid as heir to the Umayyad dynasty, which his second cousin Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan had founded 23 years earlier. Marwan died after only a few months, however, and so Abd al-Malik was the one who had to win control of the Muslim domains against other factions such as al-Mukhtar's proto-Shi'ite movement, the Azraqi Kharijites, and the widely recognized Abdullah Ibn Zubayr, based in Medina.

In 692, Abd al-Malik had finally emerged as the last man standing, thanks mainly to his general al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who subsequently became his governor in Iraq. During the remaining 13 years, Abd al-Malik remade what had been an empire governed mainly indirectly through ad hoc arrangements with notables in various regions to a centrally administered Arab and Muslim state. Under Abd al-Malik, the jizya tax was imposed on almost all non-Muslims, Arabic became the language of administration, and the first distinctively Islamic coinage was issued, except for some Zubayrid coins from the late 680's.

Abd al-Malik has come to play an important role in many revisionist theories of Islamic origins. It was he, for example, who built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and made significant renovations to the Ka'aba in Mecca. He clearly claimed religious as well as secular authority: The Arabic khalifa means both deputy and successor, and Abd al-Malik and the Marwanids styled themselves not "caliph of God's messenger," but "caliph of God," putting their claims closer to the Catholic papacy than the caliphate as traditionally understood. (Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, in a book called God's Caliph, argued that Shi'ite beliefs about the imams are closer to the original understanding of the caliphate than Sunni attitudes.) Robinson suggests that the production of a standard version of the Qur'an was a project of Abd al-Malik only later projected back to Uthman. Some say he used this authority to elevate Muhammad's position and regularize many Islamic practices, perhaps even being the first to make is a religion separate from the other monotheistic faiths; my own belief is that he was simply the first to make it the ideology of a centralized government.

Regardless of how much he contributed to the Islamic faith, Abd al-Malik remains the one who put Muslim political power on solid institutional foundations. Robinson takes it as a testimony of his importance that he was succeeded by four of his sons, the last of whom died in 743, just seven years before the Umayyads would be swept to Spain by the Abbasid Revolution. Hopefully this highly accessible book will lead to more people learning about his fascinating role in history.

Gaza Incursion

The Israeli Defense Forces have begun an incursion into Gaza aimed at prying hostage soldier Gilad Shalit free from his captors. Private Shalit's kidnapping, however, is not the root cause of this development, which represents in part just the latest escalation of the tit-for-tat violence along the Gaza border and in part the desire of Israel's leaders to win support for further withdrawals, both by bolstering their own military credentials and by demonstrating a capacity to respond to security threats from areas over which Israel has relinquished control. In comments below, Martin Kramer pointed out that Israel and the Palestinians were not at war. This is true, but there is ongoing low-level conflict which is now in danger of significant escalation. I could opine about how the Palestinians need to gain the ability to prevent these small groups from free-lancing and Israelis need to accept that there is, in fact, a conflict and avoid labelling as unacceptable every element of Palestinian resistance, but in the end that doesn't really move us much closer to the goal, which is to resolve the underlying issues in the conflict. Unfortunately, John McCain's "stop the bullshit" brand of conflict resolution seems unlikely to work.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Gilad Shalit

I'm not outraged by the kidnapping of Private Gilad Shalit, nor do I regard it as a terrorist act. In the past, I've argued that if Palestinian militants cast themselves as fighting a war against Israeli occupiers, then Israel certainly has the right to assassinate their leaders as part of the conflict. By the same token, however, they are certainly justified in attacking an Israeli military outpost. This is not the same as a suicide bombing in a nightclub. It was a highly focused attack on a military target designed to achieve a specific objective.

I can worry about Private Shalit, just as I can anyone else who briefly becomes a name and face from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some demonize the entire IDF; however, in a nation with mandatory military service, demonizing the armed forces is the same as demonizing the entire population, and I know better than that. There are too many Israelis I like and respect for me not to give any one of them the benefit of the doubt. However, the way to stop this sort of situation is ulimately to work for a just end to the conflict, not calls for revenge and teaching the enemy a lesson.

UPDATE: The fact this post is the #10 google hit for (Corporal) Gilad Shalit is very strange. See this and this for my more complete thoughts on the situation.

Democracy in Kuwait

The Emir of Kuwait has a warning:
The Emir, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has issued a stern warning to candidates for the June 29 elections not to criticise the government, vowing he will not allow anyone to 'sabotage' Kuwaiti democracy.

"The warning came in a statement read by state minister for cabinet affairs Mohammad Sharar."

I think it's safe to say Kuwait's new ruler is not wholeheartedly behind democratization in his country.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


This picture was taken on a dusk felucca excursion on an atypically choppy evening on the Nile in Cairo.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Suskind's Book

Moorish Girl calls attention to this review of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, and it's worth reading. Here's an early quote:
"At this point, one could forgive readers for asking, 'How many more damning portraits of the Bush administration do we need?' From yellowcake to Joe Wilson to Abu Ghraib, the list of Bush scandals and outrages is endless, but nothing ever seems to happen. As the journalist Mark Danner has pointed out, the problem is not lack of information: The problem is that Americans can't, or won't, acknowledge what that information means."

The problem is that on foreign policy issues far removed from most people's experience, they don't do a lot of careful study and examination of the evidence. Modern American life already has plenty of other hassles. Instead, they trust people, and for most of his Presidency, Bush has held that trust. I haven't read this book, but Suskind has a solid reputation, and this tracks with, well, almost everything that's been reported about the way the Bush administration works, so I'm inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. For most people, however, books like this just fade into the din. After all, the Clinton years produced plenty of literature both for and against.

Then there's this:
"But this is not news. Suskind's more momentous disclosure is the degree to which Cheney deliberately kept Bush in the dark, so as to be able to achieve his desired ends. For example, when Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, visited Bush in 2002, the advance packet sent by the Saudis to prepare Bush for the meeting was mysteriously diverted to Cheney's office. Bush never read it. As a result, he had no idea what the agenda of the meeting was and failed to respond to the Saudi's requests for American help with the exploding Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which severely weakened Abdullah's position as an ally in the 'war on terror.' Nor did he extract any concessions from them. For Cheney, it seems, the less Bush was prepared for Abdullah, the less chance he would make any concessions to the Arab leader. Or perhaps Cheney simply wanted to control the meeting for the sake of control.

"Cheney and Rumsfeld, Suskind writes, viewed Bush as an inferior, the child of their contemporaries. A master at bureaucratic stealth, Cheney quietly orchestrated the war, which was 'about the only matter on which all three agreed ... So, as America officially moved to a detailed action plan for the overthrow of Hussein, only three men would be in the know: Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.'

"Cheney's strategy of keeping Bush in the dark, Suskind argues, went back to Watergate. The break-in and violation of laws was not the problem for Cheney, Suskind writes: The problem was that Nixon should have been 'protected' from knowing about it. It was his knowledge that ultimately led to his undoing. Keeping information from Bush allowed the president to say anything without ever being held accountable. 'He could essentially be 'deniable' about his own statements.' The most notorious case of this was the National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, laying out the case for war. Bush was given only the summary, which did not include the U.S. intelligence community's caveats about the yellowcake and aluminum tubes claims. Since Bush had not read the actual NIE, when those claims later turned out to be false, no one could accuse him of lying. And in the meantime, the higher good -- the war -- would have been achieved."

This is an example of why I think Bush could be a candidate for Worst President in American History. It's not just that he makes bad decisions, it's that he seems unable to perform the most basic Presidential tasks, such as finding out what's going on around him.
Another excerpt:
"Suskind's coup de grâce on this subject is his reminder of Osama bin Laden's message to the American people just before the 2004 elections. The CIA's consensus: 'bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection ... On that score, any number of NSC principals could tell you something so dizzying that not even they will touch it: that Bush's ratings track with bin Laden's ratings in the Arab world.' When Bush speaks, bin Laden's popularity soars -- and vice versa.

I don't think this surprises anyone who pays close attention to both the United States and the Arab world.
Finally, the reviewer has some things to say about the Democrats:
"That centrist Democrats like Hillary Clinton cannot clearly reject Bush's catastrophic war seems to reflect their deeper inability to articulate, or perhaps even to understand, two things: that Iraq has severely damaged our national security, and that the process by which the Bush administration sold their war has severely damaged our democracy. Yes, those are harsh claims, which go beyond Beltway decorum. And yes, we are at war. But gentlemanly behavior can be a betrayal of the country, as Suskind's sad portrait of Tenet makes clear. And the mere fact that troops are in the field should not end all debate. By refusing to use these legitimate arguments against Bush, the Democrats are not only committing a tactical political error, they are allowing the disease he imported to fester."

All the evidence I have here is anecdotal and for the most part un-bloggable, but my sense is that the farther up the ladder you go in most relevant government institutions, the more people have a sense of just how awful the past few years have gone. However, the mere fact this is outside the mainstream of what American politicians have managed to screw up means that pointing it all out falls outside the mainstream of American attack politics. I think the ground has shifted enough, though, that these sorts of attacks will start to have the desired political effect. And really, the root cause of all this is that presumably because of his isolation, President Bush as lost his common touch. The President who told "Brownie" he was doing a "heckuva job" after Hurricane Katrina was not the same as the one who stood at Ground Zero with the bullhorn in September 2001.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bride Kidnapping

IWPR reports on the problem of men kidnapping women to marry them in Georgia. While kidnapping and forced marriage are clearly bad things, I don't have anything original to say about them. I was, however, intrigued by the note that some young people used a kidnapping routine as a way of getting around the need for parental consent, which is an interesting and obvious way of using one customary practice to circumvent another.

Another interesting spin on matrimonial kidnapping is found in Tuareg tradition, where women own the tents and husbands have to move into them, but the women must join the man's clan. What often happens is that the man would move in with the woman, and after a brief period they would both be "kidnapped" by his kinsmen in a mock raid.

UPDATE: By the way, Georgia will be included in my October tour of the Caucasus. It should be an interesting time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

After Akmatbaev

Erica Marat reports for the Jamestown Foundation that following the death of Rysbek Akmatbaev, the Kyrgyz government has been able to control organized crime in the country:
"Organized criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan have significantly weakened since the death of criminal kingpin Rysbek Akmatbayev on May 10. According to Deputy Minister of Interior Omurbek Suvanaliyev, today Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies are able to curb criminal organizations and thwart the merger of the political and criminal worlds. This is the first time since the March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution that Kyrgyz power structures have asserted their dominance over criminal groups.

"Organized criminal groups in Kyrgyzstan spread their influence after the Tulip Revolution, as weak central power structures sought cooperation with the underground world. According to Kyrgyz experts, the presidential administration, members of parliament, the prosecutor-general, and various representatives of the judicial branch reportedly supported Rysbek. Many of the current members of parliament had known Rysbek before entering the political scene. MPs members active in the business sphere had first encountered Rysbek’s racketeering in the 1990s. 'Ninety percent of parliament members today feel more relaxed after the death of Rysbek,' a Ministry of Interior representative told Jamestown...

"Representatives of the Ministry of Interior assure the public that Kyrgyzstan today is able to fight organized crime and to prevent its infiltration of the state. Rysbek’s death dethroned his criminal network, which had extended from northern Issyk-Kul to southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. Other existing criminal organizations in Kara-Balta, Talas, Osh, and Jalalabad are reported to be declining as well. The faction led by the imprisoned Aziz Batukayev, an ethnic Chechen, is also losing membership...

"Indeed, removing one mafia boss has not solved the broader issues of drug trafficking and the shadow economy. However, the rise and fall of Rysbek during the last year was an important lesson for Kyrgyz political leaders. By resorting to the service of criminal kingpins, state officials risk becoming dependent on them."

This, incidentally, is what I meant when I said that Akmatbaev's death was comparable in scope to Rafiq Hariri's in Lebanon. It's hard to draw direct analogies, but I think the level of change in Lebanon has been somewhat overstated despite the dramatic protests, and that what's happening in Kyrgyzstan is slower but just as important for national leadership.

Crackdown in Turkmenistan

Joshua Landis updates us on the World Cup of Dissent Decimation involving Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and Zainab al-Khawaja calls attention to Bahrain, but no Arab regime compares in tyranny with Turkmenistan, where a new security crackdown is underway against some reporters and human rights workers who allegedly threatened national security. Reports suggest Turkmen authorities planted evidence on Annakurban Amanklychev of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation and accused him and others of being in league with exiled dissidents to create a Ukraine-style Orange Revolution in Turkmenistan. It's really just an excuse to crack down on human rights activists and journalists.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Air War

During the past three months, the United States has conducted more than twice as many airstrikes in Afghanistan as in Iraq.

Imminent Doom?

I don't know how strong Ron Suskind's book is, but it sounds disheartening. What troubles me more, however, is found in this piece which questions why Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly called off a cyanide attack on New York City. The author concludes that al-Qaeda is instead hoping for a nuclear attack, and goes on to describe the availability of nuclear technology. Personally, I doubt you can stop technical knowledge like that from falling into the wrong hands, and thus would rather focus on the materials needed to build a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, there's this:
"When asked by Congress in February 2005 whether he could assure Americans that no nuclear weapons were available to terrorists, then-CIA Director Porter Goss replied, 'No, I can't make that assurance. I can't account for some of the [Former Soviet Union's (FSU) nuclear] materials, so I can't make the assurance about its whereabouts.' In the spring of 2005, the U.S. National Intelligence Council also categorically assessed that 'undetected smuggling [of nuclear materials] has occurred, and we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted or stolen [from the FSU] in the last 13 years,' and a former Soviet military officer said that 'small tactical nuclear loads' had been found missing from the Soviet army's inventory in the 1990s [7]. Bin Laden himself has made clear that al-Qaeda has been nuclear shopping in the FSU. 'It is a fact,' bin Laden wrote to Mullah Omar on June 5, 2002, 'that the [FSU's] Islamic Republics region is rich with significant scientific experiences in conventional and non-conventional military industries, which have a great role in the future jihad against the enemies of Islam' [8]."

As usual, I don't want to be too alarmist, as the springboard for the piece is speculation based on the aforementioned alleged chemical weapons plan, and the "loose nukes" angle is hardly a revelation. However, it is a sobering reminder of the types of long-term dangers we face.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Somalia Test

Jonathan Edelstein has a great rundown of the current situation in Somalia. Looking at it strictly from the standpoint of American foreign policy, this presents an interesting test of our policies toward international terrorism.

In the first place, do we really believe that the Islamic Courts Union is in cahoots with al-Qaida? If not, then our only stake is promoting a popularly legitimate form of stability, which might as well come from the ICU if no one else. However, if as seems likely al-Qaeda does have a horse in this fight, then we need to decide what our policy is going to be toward governments that work with the still undefeated enemies which attacked us on September 11.

I was quite comfortable with President Bush's September 2001 statement that we would make no distinction between terrorist and those who harbor them, and interpret the idea of a "War on Terror" as primarily a campaign directed against al-Qaeda and its related organizations. Osama bin Laden and Co. have killed thousands of Americans, as well as guests in our country and employees at our foreign embassies. They are interested in and seeking capabilities for even more deadly attacks. This cannot be treated simply as a criminal investigation even if the most important tools will often be those of intelligence operations rather than conventional military campaigns.

If, however, we believe that al-Qaeda might be establishing a new shelter under the protection of a de facto government in Somalia, don't we have an obligation to stop it using military force if necessary? Since I don't know the exact situation I'm not actually calling for anything, and certainly the situation in Iraq compromises our ability to respond to such security threats, but what sorts of measures would be justified here, and should be called for if there is confirmation of an al-Qaeda presence and the ICU is unwilling to cooperate with us? Should we support the warlords with special forces and air power instead of just cash? Do we even consider invading Somalia? These are the sorts of things that should be on the table in what I would consider a real war against al-Qaeda.

UPDATE: Gulf News carries a reminder of why I wouldn't back the warlords unless there were clear national security grounds.

Alaa Freed

Alaa Seif al-Islam, who has been the poster boy for Egypt's recently detained activists, has been freed.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Freedom Now

In honor of those wrongfully detained in Egypt, here's a picture I took in Shubra last summer:

Friday, June 16, 2006

Troops in Iraq

I think Juan Cole might be right about this:
"I agree with Congressman Murtha that the main lesson of the killing of Zarqawi is that we don't need all those ground troops in Iraq, who mainly take casualties when driving around. If we didn't have so many troops there, they would not have to drive around so much. They aren't trained as police, aren't mostly doing counter-insurgency, don't have the language or local cultural skills to track down the guerrillas, and their search and destroy missions probably alienate more Iraqis than they are worth. We'd be ahead of the game with some Jordanian intelligence units coordinating with Iraqi forces,and maybe some US special ops teams who could call down the 500 pound bombs once the terrorist location is identified.

"The argument coming from the American military-industrial complex that the US could not have killed Zarqawi if there had been a troop draw-down is simplistic, as with all purely interest-driven arguments. It depends on which troops are withdrawn. The onces in Najaf province are acting really just as an occasional support to the Badr-infiltrated police in their struggle against the Mahdi Army militia. Those troops did not help get Zarqawi. Most of the US troops in Iraq don't have the linguistic or cultural knowledge to do effective counter-insurgency. In fact, my own suspicion is that it was the enlistment of Jordanian agents that was crucial. That, and Zarqawi stupidly alienated the Dulaim by blowing up police recruits in Ramadi. Tribal feuds tend to follow you once you start them."

As I've said before, I'm interested in ensuring Iraq isn't a safe haven for terrorism, not supporting one side in a civil war. The issues which underlie most of the insurgency will ultimately have to have a political resolution. The most military force can do is pressure the insurgents into an accomodating diplomatic posture, and in my mind the jury is out over whether that is happening. Then there's this about the proposed amnesty for insurgents:
"Those 'involved in shedding Iraqi blood' will be punished, but those who attacked Americans will be eligible for pardons. According to Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, identified in the Post as an advisor to Maliki, 'That’s an area where we can see a green line. There’s some sort of preliminary understanding between us and the MNF-I,' the U.S.-led Multi-National Force-Iraq, 'that there is a patriotic feeling among the Iraqi youth and the belief that those attacks are legitimate acts of resistance and defending their homeland. These people will be pardoned definitely, I believe.'

"Do those strutting about on Capitol Hill today yammering about how Democrats don’t 'support the troops' on Capitol Hill have anything to say about the fact that we are now putting those troops into a country where their mission is to protect a government that has said that attacks on those same troops, and civilians, are 'legitimate acts of resistance' eligible for pardon?

I accept the fact that in a war, there are two sides, so the idea of pardoning insurgents doesn't bother me, as much as the administration has tried to paint them all with the Zarqawi brush. However, Schmitt's point is a good one about the direction negotiations are taking and where American forces stand in them.


This is probably a stupid question, but does anyone know why there have been so many cows around town lately?

UPDATE: I have my answer:
"About 100 of the fiberglass variety are currently at the Alliant Energy Center, getting ready for their big debut at Cows on the Concourse on Saturday. The cows will then be "pastured" at various locations around Madison until mid-October.

"The colorful cows are part of CowParade Wisconsin, in conjunction with the official kickoff of June Dairy Month. Then they will travel the state as part of the world's largest public art event.

"CowParade is a small company headquartered in Connecticut. CowParade dates to 1988 when a Zurich, Switzerland, businessman headed a display of fiberglass lions (the modern Swiss symbol) as a promotion. The event was renewed in 1998 using the old Swiss symbol of a cow rather than a lion."


The Jamestown Foundation has just published a piece by James Brandon on the PJAK militia in Iran. PJAK is a Kurdish militant group which seems to operate as a defensive force designed to protect Kurdish political leaders from Iranian crackdowns rather than as a guerrilla movement fighting directly for independence. Brandon links the group's increasing activity to growing Kurdish nationalism inside Iran. One obvious factor that could be causing this increased nationalism is the growth in Kurdish influence in Iraq. However, as I noted during the Azeri protests last month, one shouldn't discount that the resurgent Persian nationalism we've heard about isn't causing a backlash among all non-Persians inside the country, one potentially more dangerous for the regime as a potential tool for foreign governments interested in bring it down than pro-democracy college students.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Ralph Luker links to several recent posts on wikipedia in higher education. One problem I don't see coming up very much is that the fact anyone can edit it means that students can edit it and then cite what they just wrote as a source. People who work in UW libraries have told me they've seen that sort of thing go on.

Me & the Mosque

One of the most challenging issues to address in the classroom is the position of women in Islam. Even though you can sit around and have a class discussion about it, people's perceptions will still be dominated by accounts like this one from Afghanistan. One useful tool to help counteract these impressions and create a more nuanced impression of the relationship of Muslim women with their religious communities is Zarqa Nawaz's documentary Me & the Mosque. The director, a Canadian Muslim, travels Northern America examining the policies different mosques have toward women, with a particular eye on separation barriers between men's and women's areas of the mosque. They quite rightly bring out the overwhelming evidence that no such barriers existed in Muhammad's day, and in fact it's only in recent years that such barriers became common in the United States and Canada. More pedagogically valuable than this sort of information, however, are images of Muslim women, including hijabis, being, well, normal people. It's only one documentary, but still an interesting flick to take a look at.

Thanks to UW's Islamic law expert Asifa Quraishi for loaning me the DVD!

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia

Time for the big Arab world smackdown.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Soccer in Somalia

The new Islamist powers in Mogadishu have come out against soccer:
"Hardline Islamic courts in the Somali capital have banned people from watching the action in Germany on television believing it to be against Muslim teaching.

"In a brief but violent protest, two people were killed as gunmen, reportedly allied to the Joint Islamic Courts, forced three cinema halls to shut and warned football lovers against watching the matches which were being relayed through satellite.

"'The Islamic courts have ordered the closure of three cinema halls,' said Sukahola resident Abdulaziz Hanad.

"'They want to make sure that nobody in Mogadishu watches the World Cup.'"

If you're a new government hoping to maintain legitimacy while consolidating your power, I'm not sure coming out against World Cup viewing is a good first move.

Egypt, Islam, and Political Activism

Despite having some personal ties to the situation, I don't blog that much about Egypt. One reason is that the country is already so well served in the blogosphere that I would feel superfluous. Another is that I still feel like there are huge gaps in my understanding of the Egyptian situation that would make anything I said sound quite stupid, naive, or ignorant. It is with the latter in mind that I ask readers to forgive me if what I say here completely misreads the situation and shows ignorance of broad political trends that just aren't making it into blogland or the mainstream media.

One issue facing Kefaya and its protesting offshoots is that they struggled to bring out more than a few hundred people even in the most favorable conditions. The largest problem is that Egypt just doesn't seem to be ripe for revolution at the moment, perhaps because there is no credible leader or group of leaders for such a revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood could probably rally huge support if they provoked a confrontation and tried, but they show no signs of doing so. A broader context to this, however, is that despite people's best efforts the messaging just isn't connecting with enough people.

Last summer in Cairo I observed a number of anti-regime protests. One was in Imbaba. As I described here, someone began adding "Allahu akbar" to the chants, only to be hushed by his predominantly fellow demonstrators. Several months before, I had seen a talk by Mark Tessler about polling data from certain Arab countries. A gaudy 89% of Egyptians said they thought religion should have an important role in government, higher by double digits than any other country. You're not going to win many people over by banning God from your protests.

In contrast, a couple of weeks before, the Wednesday protest had been at Sayyida Zaynab, a place heavy with religious and historical symbolism that cut close to the core of the protestors' opposition to the Mubarak regime and the events of the May 25 referendum protests. I understand this was controversial among the protest organizers. This is highly unfortunate, as I think the opposition would get further if they went out of their way to appear as traditionally Egyptian as possible, including in a religious sense. They already face an uphill battle, as most seem to be well-educated, Westernized children of privilege, privileged enough to get away with marching through Shubra under a banner associated with a Western leader named Leon Trotsky whose ideas they've all studied.

What I'm suggesting isn't endorsing an Islamist platform for Egypt such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. I'm also not suggesting the conventional Islamic liberalism, which tends to be geared more toward theological debate than street activism. I am saying that protestors should work to frame more of their demands and actions through religious rhetoric and symbolism. During the 20th century, Shi'ite leaders did this brilliantly, turning the Ashura story into a template for modern revolution. The same power exists in Islam, and this can be manifested at the levels of slogan and story, which are really the keys to the heart of any faith.

In this great post, the worthy Elijah Zarwan quoted someone as saying, "You’ll never get the people behind you telling them they need to support the judges because some guy in France called Montesquieu talked about the separation of powers." You could, however, ask if God gave humanity laws or kings, and who has the right to command the good and forbid the evil. You don't need to mention anything more expressly religious than that if secularism is something you value. Depending on how aggressive you wanted to be, you could work with the saying attributed to the Prophet, "Command the right and forbid the evil, or God will put the worst of you in charge of the best of you, and the best will supplicate God and be left unanswered."

The use of such rhetoric need not be tied to a conservative religious agenda, and in fact may help counter Islamists by portraying liberals as concerned with Islam and in touch with its values. One survey showed that only 5% of Egyptian Muslims considered the gates of ijtihad closed, so there is popular support for an Islamic politics not grounded in the classical legal schools. In the meantime, Islam has great liberal symbolic power, as seen in Muhammad's opposition to the corrupt Quraysh of Mecca, the important role of Aisha as a political force in the early caliphate, the Constitution of Medina (that that one cuts multiple ways), and many of aspects of the Islamic heritage. Given her status as Cairo's patron wali, the mosque of Sayyida Zaynab is essentially a gift to opposition groups in the present climate. In order to try and straddle Egypt's growing sectarian divide, activists can do the same with Christianity, calling for the money-changers to be throne from the temple, for example.

You can't provoke an uprising by trying to convert one person at a time in street debate. You have to move masses by appealing to them on an emotional level. That's not going to happen under a hammer and sickle, even white ones. I'm also not saying this will be an instant cure. Fear will stay until something reaches a crisis in any event. However, as Elijah indicated in comments to his post, crises are bad. Activists would do well to set things up so they can get by with the smallest crisis possible.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Gaza Shelling

I don't have any original insight on Friday's tragedy in Gaza, but I can string some people's thoughts together. Laila el-Hadded writes about what happened:
"Just as I've made my way back to Maryland, getting ready to post about how the rest of my trip went, and my stint on Democracy Now this morning, I learned that 10 palestinians have been been by Israeli shelling in northern Gaza as they were picnicing on the beach. 3 of them were children-two under the age of two. And their mother. And forty others wounded. We called my Aunt, who works with the al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza. She was hysterical, and this is a woman who seldom loses her grip.

"She just spoke of blood and body parts, and how one of the cameramen at the hospital couldn't hold it together and dropped his camera as he was filming after he heard a bloodied, batterd girl crying out for her father."

I don't know the tactical details of the tit-for-tat violence that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a day-to-day basis, but I trust what Jonathan Edelstein says:
"I've never been in favor of shelling Gaza launch sites as a response to Qassam fire. The shelling has never been effective in suppressing the Qassams, and nobody's been able to come up with a plausible scenario under which it would be effective. It's part psychological warfare, part palliative to Israelis who need to believe that the government is protecting them from the rockets, and not very good at either. And most of all, it was inevitable that the shelling would lead to something like what happened today, with families killed as they took a Friday holiday on the beach."

If this is right, then I agree with vasi's comment that politically motivated yet ineffective attacks which endanger civilians start to blend into the same moral level as intentional terrorism. However, while maintaining sympathy for the victims, we also need to bear in mind that, just as not all Palestinians are terrorists, so Israelis are often upset at the excesses of their defense establishment. In that vein, both the liberal Lisa and more conservative-seeming Sarah have thoughtful, introspective posts on the matter.

UPDATE: See also Yael:
"I plan to blog about my thoughts on what occurred on Friday on the Gaza beach but I have and still am too upset about it to even think about writing. I don't have any words at the moment and I am haunted by it. I feel physically sick when I even think about it, exactly as I feel when a suicide bomb has gone off here but differently too, worse in a way. Well, later, I don't have the words now."

View of Aleppo

This is a view of Aleppo from the Citadel.

Nation Building

Aziz Poonawalla has finally broken the champagne off the bow of the long-delayed Dean Nation revamp:
"I have been arguing for something called 'purple politics' for some time now. In a nutshell, I think that the dichotomy of our political system is artificial, sustained by the self-interest of the pundit class and the apathy of the establishment media. I believe that there is a True American Majority that is neither red nor blue, but purple - reflected in the 2004 election results when you strip away the binary us vs them perspective and allow for shades of gray (er, purple). I believe that what is needed is more unifying rhetoric, less dividing - and I took Howard Dean to task on that score as well. And I believe that the future of American political discourse hinges on that silent purple majority...

"So, I present to you our new identity: Nation-Building.

"The name refers both to the classical liberal goal of promoting genuine freedom and liberty abroad, and to the liberal progressive goal of empowering human potential and justice. I will solicit views from across the spectrum of classical liberal thought - including some who might ordinarily be labeled 'conservative'. The ultimate goal however is to apply principles to policy, and to foster genuine debate, so that the voice of the True American Majority - the silent purple masses - are finally represented."

Friday, June 09, 2006


I guess I'm rooting against Togo in their group:
"Togo coach Otto Pfister has quit his job with the World Cup debutants due to an unresolved dispute over bonus payments among the squad.

"'Otto Pfister left the hotel with his co-trainer Piet Hamberg at 2220 (local time),' team doctor Joachim Schubert was quoted as saying on the website of the respected German magazine Kicker early on Saturday...

"The players had demanded 155,000 euros ($196,200) each to play in the tournament plus 30,000 each per win and 15,000 per draw. Officials from the small West African country said it was too much money."

Soccer Truce

A Tanzim leader has offered a truce for the World Cup and invited Israelis to the Occupied Territories to watch it:
"World Cup season has broken out and the entire world is watching-Although as yet another example of American exceptionalism,most of the U.S. is not engaged. In Israel and the Palestinian occupied areas, however, World Cup fever has struck. A record number of Israelis have signed up for the expensive cable package. The Israeli newspapers reported that 111 trucks filled with televisions lumbered into Gaza where the Hamas government seems prepared to hotwire cable packages for the masses. According to Israel's Maariv newspaper, a Tanzim leader from one of the groups that has committed terrorist attacks inside Israel,has offered to halt any terrorist attacks during the World Cup so that both sides can watch in peace.

"According to the news report, Zarakiya Zubeidi explained that: 'There will be a bit of quiet in the next few days because everybody here loves the World Cup, watches television, and isn’t all that interested in the Intifada and things like that,' Zubeidi says, and adds that this quiet is not only dependent on the Palestinian side, but also the Israelis. 'The quiet is also dependent on Israel, because the Israeli GSS doesn’t care about the World Cup, Christmas or Passover. They always work.' When Zubeidi was asked if Hamas and Islamic Jihad would also lay down their arms for the next month, he said: 'Listen, all these guys watch the World Cup. Even the most fanatic. All of them watch the World Cup and with us, unlike with you, it’s free.' Zubeidi, known for committing terror attacks in which many Israeli were hurt, is aware of the price of the World Cup package in Israel. 'Why not come here,' he says, 'ahalan wasahalan. Welcome.'"

UPDATE: Apparently Hamas and the IDF have different ideas.

New Israeli Poll

According to a new Ha'aretz-Dialog poll, a majority of Israelis oppose Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for unilateral action in the West Bank. However, the article suggests most of these opponents are in either the right-wing parties or, perhaps, Meretz and the Arab parties, meaning that the pivotal Israeli center wants to move ahead with Olmert's proposal, which would draw unilateral boundaries in the West Bank highly favorable to Israel while crushing the Palestinians.

By the way, the article also said that, "The poll also ratifies the commonly held opinion that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is one of Israel's most popular politicians of all times. Fifty-three percent is satisfied with her performance, according to the poll." 53% makes someone one of the most popular politicians of all times? If you transfer those sort of approval ratings to this country, Bill Clinton was a national hero for most of his second term. What makes Israelis so cynical?

Helmand's Economy

I hit this a lot at American Footprints, but for those who don't read both sites, I thought I'd call attention to the problems posed by current poppy eradication policies in Afghanistan. As noted a couple of days ago by RFE-RL, the campaign in Helmand province is failing. Officials are simply demanding bribes not to eradicate crops, which means that poor farmers are suffering since they can't afford to pay any sort of protection money and still make ends meet. Even if the crop were to be destroyed, however, you'd still have problems, and perhaps bigger ones. As noted by Senlis Council leader Emmanuel Reinert:
"'It represents more than 50 percent of the Helmand economy,' he added. 'The rest is basically international aid. So, it is used as a currency; it is used as a way to gain access to credit; it is the only economic activity. So, I would say there are two currencies in southern Afghanistan. It's opium and Pakistan's rupee.'

"That is a main reason why the Senlis Council recommends that eradication policies be rejected in favor of controlled, licensed opium poppy growing for pharmaceutical production.

"The Senlis Council says research carried out in Afghanistan shows that such a plan would not only be financially viable, but also workable on a local level. That is because the very traditional communities have strong social and ethical bonds that could be called upon, and the local jirgas (councils), shuras, and elders would readily cut their links with drug mafias.

"'It would be a way for the central government to collaborate with the local communities, and not to alienate them or antagonize them, as is currently the case with the eradication policy,' Reinert says. 'So, not only [will you] develop sustainable economic activities for Afghanistan, but on top of that you will bring the rule of law and good governance in the provinces.'"

Destroying the Afghan economy is not a good way to ensure the country's stability.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Insurgents Helped

The AP is now reporting that Zarqawi was killed with the help of Sunni insurgents in Iraq:
"What may have partly enabled the success now after so long was Khalilzad's efforts to patch up relations with Sunnis.

"At the same time, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who was sensitive to U.S.-encouraged derision of a foreigner killing Iraqis, began cozying up to Sunni insurgents. It was probably the move that led to his undoing, said Ed O'Connell, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who led manhunts for Osama bin Laden and others in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

"'Once that happened, all we needed was a guy inside the insurgency to tell us where he was and, bam, we got him,' he said."

Regular readers know this has been building for awhile. You have tribal leaders who resented losing authority to outsiders, and others willing to reach a deal of some sort with the coalition and Iraqi government which would almost have to involve cooperation against terrorists. This cooperation may be a turning point, even if the actual death of Zarqawi is not.

UPDATE: For some reason, posting this caused my original "Zarqawi is dead" post to disappear. All well - you all know what happened.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Steps for Bahraini Women

Mona al-Kawari has become Bahrain's first female judge. Steps like these are real, because on many issues that come up in judicial settings, women have a distinct perspective which can make the institutions better. This is aside from the obvious points that women in prominent positions can help inspire other women and girls to strive for their dreams and not simply accept a given social position. The article also mentions that another Bahraini woman will soon chair the UN General Assembly.

Freedom Democrats

For ages I've had it in my head to write a post explaining why I am a Democrat. Lately, however, I've read some other pieces that reflect key trends of my political growth and philosophy. Today, Kos offered up one with his description of "Libertarian Democrats":
"Libertarian Dems are not hostile to government like traditional libertarians. But unlike the liberal Democrats of old times (now all but extinct), the Libertarian Dem doesn't believe government is the solution for everything. But it sure as heck is effective in checking the power of corporations.

"In other words, government can protect our liberties from those who would infringe upon them -- corporations and other individuals.

"So in practical terms, what does a Libertarian Dem look like? A Libertarian Dem rejects government efforts to intrude in our bedrooms and churches. A Libertarian Dem rejects government 'Big Brother' efforts, such as the NSA spying of tens of millions of Americans. A Libertarian Dem rejects efforts to strip away rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights -- from the First Amendment to the 10th. And yes, that includes the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms...

"A Libertarian Dem believes that true liberty requires freedom of movement -- we need roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want. A Libertarian Dem believes that we should have the freedom to enjoy the outdoor without getting poisoned; that corporate polluters infringe on our rights and should be checked. A Libertarian Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living without being unduly exploited by employers. A Libertarian Dem understands that no one enjoys true liberty if they constantly fear for their lives, so strong crime and poverty prevention programs can create a safe environment for the pursuit of happiness. A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age. Same with health care. And so on."

Proponents of smaller government too often make that an end in an of itself, forgetting that it is supposed to be one thing leader to greater individual freedom. However, every step toward a laissez-faire society is also a step toward a society in which the strong dominate, and unlike the government, they are not answerable to the broader public. You'll note I chose the term "Freedom Democrats" as opposed to "Libertarian Democrats" just because I think it sounds better politically. However, the post above highlights some of the things I liked about Howard Dean in 2004, such as his focus on supporting the working class by making it easier to organize unions and fight for themselves rather than new layers of regulation regarding working conditions and the like mandated from Washington.

Something else that struck me was on American Footprints:
"For Americans under 30 years old, 9/11 was a formative experience. But they do not easily fit into conventional liberal-conservative, hawk-dove dichotomies, argue Rachel Kleinfeld and Matthew Spence. They are generally more patriotic, confident in the military, and supportive of free trade than any other age group. Yet they also distrust large corporations and media spin. Many of them are making a home in the Democratic Party as Truman Democrats. Leaders can appeal to them if they espouse a worldview that is rooted in the principles of progressive internationalism."

This is about a chapter in a book called With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty, one which I want to find a copy of and take a look at. The only thing I might add is that the genocides of the 1990's were also formative experiences and give me, and I believe many others, a sense that there is a cost to breakdowns of international order and failures to lead on the international stage. Aside from the free trade element, the ideas above describe candidates such as Wesley Clark and Howard Dean who appealed to the under-30 crowd in 2004. There's also a strong connection to the War on Terror, for as regular readers know I believe global terrorism thrives more on failed states that rogue ones, a point highlighted by Josh Marshall as differentiating Democratic and Republican approaches to the problem. One can read some of the leading Democratic foreign policy minds contemplating global order building at America Abroad.

You will not find these attitudes among long-time Democratic insiders, but they seem to be defining characteristics of a new rising leadership class within the party. Domestically I'm already sure Kos nailed it, and I suspect we'll manage to avoid the isolationist trap, as well. As the Republicans move further toward becoming the party that seeks to impose a theological agenda and freeze us into a cultural golden age that never existed, that believes that an economy is strong if the corporations are making more money and that believes peace comes only through the blind use of strength and that love of country equates to love of that strength, the Democrats will become home to those who seek real freedom, real security, and real patriotism.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)


Natasha Tynes recommends a cool free on-line music source called You put in songs or artists you like and it plays similar selections, creating a free on-line "station" tailored to your tastes. Check it out for yourself!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Egyptians and Tourists

Last summer, I touched on how the Egyptian government favors tourists above its own citizens. The examples I noted there were relatively minor, such as having personal bus stops, but you could go on about the existence of special tourist trains and resort areas in which Egyptians are simply not allowed. Now, Matthew Carrington mentions that laws may soon restrict how Egyptians interact with tourists. Apparently tourists are leaving Egypt with a bad personal impression of Egyptians, so the government feels the entire country must be remade to service the empire, with everyone now a hospitality worker. The Egypt Today article from which this springs didn't give many details, but it sounds like feeling ripped off is one complaint, as are lack of English skills and personal hygeine. So are we to understand now that individual Egyptians will no longer be able to take advantage of the vast differences in income between most Arabs and even Western grad students who pass through the country to make a few extra bucks and try to take care of an older relative or educate their children? Is the government really going to be worried about tourists who apparently think that everyone should speak English? And notice how signs of poverty, such as regular access to clean water, are now a government concern not because poverty is bad, but because these aforementioned signs are upsetting to those from wealthier nations?

The Egyptian people are really friendly, even when they're ripping you off. Hustling is kind of a problem, but I didn't think it was as bad as in Morocco, and you don't need this sort of massive campaign to deal with it.

I've read somewhere recently that Cairo is also replacing it's ancient taxi fleet, though I can't find it now. It's all undoubtedly part of fixing the country's image. As Carrington notes, "So, while one section of the regime has guys in polyester shirts beating demonstrators and shoving rolled up cardboard up their butts, another is going to pass a law that bans frowning at foreigners." These will often be foreigners who show no respect at all for local culture.

Billmon in Egypt

Like Praktike, I've been noting Billmon's travels in Egypt. Those of you who like my occasional travel blogging should definitely give him a read. Here's how he begins his impressions of Sharm al-Shaykh:
"Sharm is one of those Third World beach resorts specifically designed to be as far removed as possible from the gritty realities of how the other four-fifths of humanity actually lives. It's the Cabo San Lucas of Egypt, an incongruous little bubble of luxury and suntan lotion perched on the southern most tip of the Sinai peninsula, like a cheap piece of costume jewelry pinned to a mummy's desiccated earlobe. You can fly here nonstop from Frankfurt, spend a long weekend working on your tan, and be back in the office with Gunter and Hans without ever setting eyes on an Egyptian who wasn’t checking you into your room or serving you a Mai Tai.

"If Sharm had existed when the Israelites were wandering Sinai around looking for the Promised Land, they would never have made it. They'd still be lounging by the pool ordering drinks and trying to put the tab on Moses’ room.

"I’ve always detested places like this, and initially I saw nothing about Sharm to make me feel any differently. After being shepherded through the Cairo airport, my connecting flight and the Sharm airport by my WEF minders, I was shuttle bused to an anonymous hotel complex on the shores of the Red Sea – one in a long line of holiday bunkers that stretch down the coast as far as I can see. I suppose there’s a 'downtown Sharm' around here somewhere, maybe clustered around an old fishing village or fort, but so far I’ve seen no sign of it – just the hotels, a highway, a pathetic line of palm trees along the highway, most of them dying or already dead, and behind them a desolate plain pockmarked with little piles of rubble and garbage, and behind them the mountains of Sinai, as barren as the moon."

As the "initially" implies, he eventually comes to like it - you'll have to read the whole thing to find out why. Then you can head for his Cairo tale and finally the absolute best Middle Eastern travel post I have ever read, his train trip down the Nile Valley. When I inevitably return to Egypt during my year in Jerusalem, I was planning on doing a cruise, but he may have convinced me to try a train trip instead.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Windy City

I'm off to Chicago for the weekend to help with this. See you next week!

From the Geniza

I've been reading through the section of S.D. Goitein's Geniza study A Mediterranean Society which deals with intercommunal relations. I haven't read it in a couple of years, but it's so interesting I wish there were a public domain copy I could just link to. The framework Goitein sets up is that:
"The religious minorities formed a state within a state, by law as well as in fact. The group consciousness of members of the various religions was similar to that of modern nations. The adherents of another faith were not necessarily enemies, but certainly foreigners...

"In view of these facts, the modern term 'discrimination' can be applied to the Middle Ages only in a qualified sense. When an alien today is treated differently from a citizen...he is not being discriminated against, but is so treated because he does not share the financial and other responsibilities of citizens or permanent residents. Similarly, Christians and Jews regarded it as natural, albeit burdensome, that certain restrictions were imposed on them by the Muslim community in the midst of which they lived, but to which they did not belong. They, too discriminated against Muslims." (Vol. II, pp. 273-4)

Goitein argues that there was anti-Semitism in the society covered by the Geniza, which the writers of the Geniza documents called sin'uth. However, this term is only used to describe certain groups or individuals. Much as today, the worst interfaith relations were apparently in Alexandria. In one incident which set off a lot of sin'uth, a Jew was accused of raping a Muslim girl. The Jews appealed to the Muslim qadi to address the situation. This also seems to support my earlier point about the kinds of stereotypes current in the medieval Middle East - today when we think of social elements likely to be stereotyped as rapists, "Jews" doesn't leap immediately to mind. Letters also indicate there was a lot of Jewish-Christian enmity in that city, for one letter says, "These days no Jew does one a favor; it is as if one went for help to a church," while another describes a certain Christian's attitude toward him, "As if I personally had killed Jesus." (Vol. II, p. 281)

According to Goitein, circumstances such as these were very much the exceptions. Despite what one might expect from the Covenant of Umar, new synagogues were built, usually without any hassles. In one case, there is a record of a qadi concerned about a Fatimid caliph's opinion helping the Jews to find a loophole allowing them to build a synagogue in Hebron. We read of a pious Muslim who is lax about collecting rent from a building the Jews were using as an informal synagogue because he wanted to show respect for all religious devotion. Restrictions on clothing were apparently not only unenforces, but most of the time no one even seems to have thought about them, except during certain periods of the 12th century and more frequently thereafter. (This would correspond with the period of the Crusades, as I noted in my last post on this subject.) Jews report that Muslims with whom they travelled were understanding of their need to observe the Sabbath.

In terms of social and economic interaction, Goitein compares the Geniza society, which is basically the Muslim Mediterranean, especially Egypt, from the 10th-13th centuries, to the modern United States. (Vol. II, p. 289) Even when you had a "Jewish Quarter," evidence suggests some non-Jews also lived there while Jews lived outside it, and the author declined to even try counting instances of interfaith renting. (Based on outside knowledge, I suspect Morocco was an exception.) Although there was usually a strong preference for working with people of the same religion, all markets were intertwined, and there were interfaith business partnerships even into the 13th century. Relations between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders seem to have often been cordial. On at least one occasion, Muslims turned out to celebrate Purim, though this was more common with Christian religious holidays.

All in all, judging from the writings of literate Jews as preserved in the Cairo Geniza, life as a Jew in the Western Islamic lands during this period doesn't seem to have been all that bad.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Women in Islam

In the midst of a review essay, MoorishGirl has great comments on perceptions of women in Islam.

Azeri Protests

By most accounts, the Azeri protests over the Iranian cartoons depicting an Azeri as a cockroach are widespread and significant, and have even spread from Iran into the Republic of Azerbaijan itself. They are clearly larger than the protests one hears of now and then in Khuzistan and Kamandaran, perhaps because there are simply so many more Iranian Azeris than there are other ethnic minorities. These are not, however, pro-democracy protests. Their grievances include demands that there be public schools in Azeri, which would require changing Article 15 of the Constitution. I suspect these grievances would exist even under a Reformist government, as the reform movement in Iran is even more influenced by resurgent Persian nationalism than the regime, which sought to place a unifying Shi'ite identity in place through much of the 1980's.

I have, incidentally, purchased plane tickets which will place me in Azerbaijan in less than four months.

Events in Egypt

I want badly to do something to help the Egyptian pro-democracy activists, a few of whom I've met and many of whom I've spent time around. However, events there are being ably covered by The Arabist Network, Free Alaa!, Elijah Zarwan, Big Pharaoh and others. You can also read Sandmonkey's article in the Christian Science Monitor and this Washington Post article on the government crackdown on Egyptian bloggers. Their courage is an inspiration to us all.