Wednesday, April 30, 2003

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

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

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

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

Monday, April 28, 2003

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

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

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

Sunday, April 27, 2003

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

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

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

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Today, Conserve A won the NAQT Wisconsin State Quiz Bowl Championship, with Rufus King taking second place. We had a double elimination play-off, and Rufus King emerged from the winners bracket, but had to leave early to catch a plane, and thus forfeited the championship to whomever emerged from the losing side. Conserve A looked dominant before their loss to Rufus King, but after dispatching Madison Memorial was down by about 100 with 6 questions left. They came back to tie, and then won the three-question overtime 30 to negative 10. Congrats to Conserve A!

A few brief notes on events I've raised here previously...not only is Sharon not responding to the suicide bombing of a couple days ago, but his defense minister is holding a meeting on how to go about disbanding settlements. Either one or two Americans was killed in combat in southern Afghanistan, as well, while President Karzai has promised to make public a list of high-ranking Taliban officials whom he claims Pakistan is sheltering while they launch attacks on Afghan soil. I'll probably have more to say once I've caught up...for now, I need to finish the stats work from today that didn't get done so I can report it to NAQT.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has recently been in Pakistan trying to get the Musharraf government to restrain the Taliban-al-Qaeda attacks on Afghanistan launched from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. Afghan government forces have been taking persistent casualties in this fighting recently, which has also claimed a few American lives. (They didn't get to be on TV, though - this war has officially been declared over and a success.) These attacks are apparently starting to go beyond small raids and show greater levels of military organization and training. I wonder if the Taliban ranks are being replenished from conservative Pakistani tribesmen?

In addition, there's been yet another suicide bombing in Israel, which I mention only because it took place the day after the Arafat-Abu Mazen agreement. It appears to have been done by a small group which broke off from the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and was working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This is not stopping the Sharon government from blaming the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and Arafat's (and Abu Mazen's) Fatah group, and a course of action is being planned. This situation may test Sharon's ultimate intentions regarding the peace process: If Abu Mazen's agenda really does include a plan to disarm the AMB, and if Israel begins launching some sort of attack against that group, Abu Mazen will be in a tough spot from the very beginning of his term.

Finally, I now have an apartment for the summer: A small but comfortable place across from Lake Mendota. I saw John H. on the way to class this morning, and he made a joke about it becoming a new salon, like the ones of French intellectuals in earlier ages. Which caused me to it possible that blogs represent a modern incarnation of those? Will social historians of the future note prominent bloggers as trend-setters in the age, and will groups of artists and intellectuals be known by their blogrolls? It's way too early to tell, but it just struck me as an interesting possibility, as I look around the net and see so many different people sharing ideas and inspirations like never before.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Arafat and Abu Mazen have reached an agreement on the composition of the Cabinet: Abu Mazen will be both Prime Minister and Internal Affairs Minister while Dahlan will serve as a special advisor on security. This seems like a cosmetic compromise giving Abu Mazen exactly what he wanted. Al-Jazeera (the English site is down) strongly implies that only Egyptian pressure brought this about. I take this as further evidence of what I said following Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan of a year ago - the Arab leaders have decided to sideline Arafat. The removal of their support has really been his main undoing. Also interesting is this article by Haaretz which suggests the real fight was over the disarmament of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. I couldn't find the results of this dispute, but if true it could be interesting. Masad has said before that that group is now taking its orders regarding Israel from Iran, their chief arms supplier, and by-passing Arafat. As I notice a growing band of Iranian influence stretching from Herat to Jericho, this could if true be an important regional development beyond the Israeli-Palestinian controversy.

Also, the Washington Post is reporting that the Defense Department dudes have realized the Iraqi Shi'ites might be important. Let's all let out a Bronx cheer for our multi-billion dollar defense planning people.

I would comment on the NHL play-offs, but the result was too predictable. My Blues have made the play-offs something like 24 years in a row, only to get bounced early. In my 14 or so years as I hockey fan, I've seen them in the Conference finals exactly once. It's hard to get psyched up for the first round anymore. Anyway, my Western Conference allegiance is now transferred to the Minnesota Wild until the summer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

I play quiz bowl for Gryffindor.

For you, simply playing the game is as fun as winning, as long as it's fair. You do your best, but you also enjoy the camaraderie of your teammates.

Does absolutely everybody play for Gryffindor?

The quiz is here.
The media is stumbling around trying to figure out what to make of Ashura. First of all, today isn't Ashura - that was 40 days ago, the anniversary of the death of the Imam Husayn (pbuh) at Karbala on the orders of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I. The traditional morning period in Islam is 40 days, and that's why today - Arba'in - is a day of pilgrimage.

The meaning of Ashura is what is especially important to understand. Reuters actually had a story which I can no longer find relating Husayn's death in a dispute over political leadership to the current conflict among the Shi'ite ulama in Iraq. This is kind of like using the story of Jesus's trial before the Sanhedrin and relating it to the controversy among contemporary American Catholics over Senators who vote for abortion. You might be able to make something of it, but it doesn't really help you understand Christian or Jewish beliefs and doctrines.

The Umayyads in Islamic tradition are seen as perverting the early Islamic community into a kingdom. At that time, many looked to the family of the Prophet as people who could provide true moral leadership, but Husayn's brother Hassan had prior to his death agreed to accept Umayyad rule and concentrated on religious matters. Husayn began this way, too, but many sought in him someone who would stand up to the unjust Umayyad tyranny and restore Islamic values in the community. Husayn agreed, but most of those who promised him aid abandoned him, and his very small band of followers was massacred.

The significance of this comes on several levels. One is the fact that not only was Husayn a victim of tyranny who shows how the powers of the world are traditionally evil, but in the hagiography surrounding him, he becomes very similar to Jesus in the gospels in that he basically foresees everything that will happen to him. As told by Shi'ites, one of the important aspects of his life is that he went forward to resist Yazid knowing it would mean his death but believing it was important to cause people to remember the righteous way of living and set an example of self-sacrifice to bring it about. Also important are the Penitents - those who abandoned Husayn to his fate, who were the first to be affected by his sacrifice and quickly went to take up his struggle.

For Shi'ites, Ashura functions much like the Christian Good Friday or the Jewish Yom Kippur. It is basically a time of atonement and self-reflection, but because of Islam's concern with community involvement and reform can have as much public as private significance, especially since in many societies governments have crushed direct opposition, but a story like that of Husayn is an unavoidable part of Islam, and no dictator can crush it even if he feels uncomfortably like people condemning Yazid might be thinking of him. But whatever you see on TV, remember it comes ultimately from people's personal religious values as they consider this story. Do I have the courage of Husayn to stand for what is right knowing ill will befall me? Who are the Yazids of my world, both on the large and small level, and what am I doing to resist them? What things have I done for which I must repent, and how can I turn those sins into virtues during the rest of my life? These are the questions on the minds of Shi'ite pilgrims this day, questions which I think challenge all of us regardless of our religion. After all, as the saying goes: "For every day is Ashura, and every land Karbala."

Monday, April 21, 2003

I have now placed links to Brian-patronized web sites below my blogroll. Others may eventually be added if I think of them. Until then, I hope you find some of these useful or interesting =)
According to al-Jazeera, Arafat will appoint a new Prime Minister unless Abu Mazen agrees to his demands regarding the Internal Affairs post. The article painted a grim picture of the entire situation. At the same time, the European Union has said they will only accept Abu Mazen as Prime Minister. If Arafat loses legitimacy with the EU, it's hard to see how he could survive as more than a sort of institutionalized civilian warlord in the Occupied Territories. But being Arafat, he seems insistent on clinging to shreds of power he's proven he can't accomplish anything with. Haaretz claims Dahlan has even offered to accept another post in the government, but Arafat seems intent on leaving control of the PA's internal security forces in the hands of someone loyal to him. This is really a crucial power struggle, and even with everything else going on doesn't deserve to be buried the way it is.

I got invited to Jill and Dominic's wedding today...the last of the QU romances to be finished off. Somehow that seems like the end of an era. (Not that I've managed to get a date since then...)

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Al-Jazeera has an interesting article on the current Syrian-American situation. Today the noises from the administration were much more positive regarding the Syrian situation. At the same time, Abu Mazen threatened to resign over his Cabinet dispure with Arafat in the Palestinian Authority. Are these two developments connected? Possibly..the administration is committed to releasing their "road map" to a Palestinian state only if there is a Prime Minister in the PA with real power, and that road map was to be the cornerstone of their policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration has clearly been expecting Abu Mazen to take office shortly, as seen in the pressure they're starting to exert on Sharon. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects Syria because Syria's involvement in tension with Israel is much more direct and unavoidable than Iraq's.

Incidentally, the main point of tension between Arafat and Abu Mazen is the appointment by the latter of Muhammad Dahlan as Minister of Internal Affairs. Dahlan is an interesting figure in his own right...I first read about him about a year ago, and he's basically the main rising star in the Palestinian leadership. I forget his precise agenda, but he tends to combine opposition to terrorism, commitment to the peace process, and resistance to Israeli occupation in interesting and credible ways.

Easter has come and pretty much gone...I was going to make devilled eggs, but was missing too many key ingredients. All well. Maybe next year. I also did nothing religious today whatsoever, though generally the Incarnation has been more central to my sense of spirituality than the Resurrection anyway.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

This is from an e-mail I sent out today...for what it's worth, a Syrian friend said he found it all logical.

I keep getting asked if I think the United States will invade Syria in the near future. My answer: I see no chance whatsoever that that will happen. The main reason is that no one involved with the administration is advancing that as a policy. The war in Iraq came about because an alliance of factions within American politics which had long wanted to put an end to Saddam's regime found enough of a casus belli in September 11 to finally have their way. The same factions argue that they can achieve their goals in Syria via diplomatic and economic means. The biggest hawks on Syria appear to be among Congressional Republicans who are mostly grandstanding and some anti-war Democratic Presidential candidates who advocate missile strikes mainly, I suspect, for political reasons.

Unfortunately, one option being talked about with Syria is, in my judgement, worse than war, and that is imposing sanctions similar to those used against Iraq. Why people would want to use a policy that has chronically proven to be a failure in totalitarian societies is beyond me, but that is what is being discussed. The reason Iraq is in such awful shape is not because of the Anglo-American military campaign, but rather the fact that Iraq had been economically crushed prior to that military campaign. Even when they say they exempt food and medicine from sanctions, the reality is you can't crush the life out of someone's economy and not expect all sectors to suffer from it. Thousands of people died in Iraq every year as a result of the sanctions regime there, and given the choice between that and a random cruise missile every now and then, I'd take the cruise missile.

To be honest, I think the real story to watch right now is still Iraq. CNN's "The New Iraq" banner is unduly catering to the U.S.'s current triumphalist euphoria while ignoring the fact that the end of Ba'athist Iraq has not automatically led to anything new. Iraq currently has no national leadership whatsoever. It is highly unclear to me whether the recent meeting of Iraqi leader sponsored by the Anglo-American administration in Iraq actually mattered much to the country as a whole. The most important power struggle may be in the Shi'ite community, as chronicled recently in my blog. Most recently, the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim has called for anti-American protests, and is planning to return to Iraq on Tuesday. Alliances and interests are being fought and negotiated among him, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Sadriyun, and others, and these will have a huge impact on what happens next in Iraq. In addition, the U.S. must find a way of working with the large number of leaders who have sprung up to fill the power vacuum on a local level. This is not as simple as simply "letting the Iraqis run their own country," because there is presently no Iraqi in a position to do so. But this is the challenge and responsibility we accepted in toppling Saddam Hussein.

In addition, there could soon be important developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (I didn't say a breakthrough, I said important developments.) It looks like Mahmud Abbas/Abu Mazen will soon be installed as Prime Minister of the PA, and Sharon has agreed to meet with him soon after. Sharon has also suggested removing a few settlements, but this should be seen as largely symbolic as the Israelis are likely to keep building new ones at the same time. However, the Bush administration has recently begun putting pressure on Sharon to make real concessions, pressure which is real because it is being delivered in part by strongly pro-Israeli elements of the administration. What will happen in all this remains to be seen, but it will be crucial to the aftermath of the Iraq war and the continuing situation involving Syria.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Yoda was apparently wrong about war not making one great...check out this site dedicated to Muhammad Saeed as-Sahaf, former Iraqi Information Minister.
In the U.S., people get upset about al-Jazeera showing pictures of dead American soldiers, when that is simple the way Middle Eastern media approaches covering the horrors of war on all sides. In the Arab world, people get upset about pieces like this Onion article which tap into tragedy for humor value. I remember several people who got upset when David Letterman made fun of some Palestinians who were killed in the West Bank a few years ago. The Onion article had a certain amount of political commentary to it, but I guarantee that it was something that would be lost in cultural translation. I am in no way coming out against The Onion here. I am, however, suggesting a point about cultural understanding.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

The Wisconsin State Championship Quiz Bowl Tournament seems to be snaping up rather well, though if we get three more teams we could have a problem. Leo can't help now, and Jordan's still uncertain, but if no one else pulls out, we have enough moderators to go around. I don't feel stressed at all...I guess looking back the fall tournament happened around a bunch of other stressful stuff, and then Elvis had its own issues, so here I can just focus and get things done.

I have some mixed feelings about the end of my playing career, but it is really time to go. I miss way too much stuff I knew two years ago, and I simply won't be taking the time to go back and re-acquire the knowledge. I may pull a David Cone in a few years before finishing my Ph.D., but until then it's the masters circuit for me. I'm not even enthused about Mad City Masters, especially since I can't seem to find anyone else interested in contributing. Though paradoxically I might play Chicago Open, or TTGTE if it actually happens.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

With luck, I will now have a comments option...
For once I found myself taking issue with Thomas Friedman's NY Times column. I think the main reason is that he overrates the importance and potential influence of Lebanon in the Arab world. For one thing, the country has never been as trouble-free as he seems to think...even though it did have a series of elected leaders, Lebanese democracy seemed to bear a strong resemblance to that found in certain African countries, such as modern Nigeria. There was also always a fair amount of tension caused by using a decades-old census to determine communal representation. Even now, it's not entirely clear the country would remain stable were it not for the Syrian presence. Many also see Lebanon as a colonial creation which should rightfully be part of Syria, anyway, though I get the vague impression the current occupation is resented. Basically, the Lebanese situation is much, much more complicated than the "two-for-the-price-of-one" comments currently floating around our triumphalist euphoria.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

I just read that Saddam City, the poor slum of Baghdad, has been renamed Sadr City, presumably after the late Ayatollah Muhammad-Sadiq Sadr. (There are two Ayatollah Sadrs, so I'm not 100% sure.) This may or may not show that the Sadriyun have broad appeal.
There is an important difference between Iraq and Syria which the media is not driving home enough. Iraq was under one-man rule, and the Ba'ath party had been purged of all who were not loyal to that man. Syria, on the other hand, has a weak central ruler whose control over his inner circle remains uncertain. Indeed, many have suggested that Bashar al-Assad only holds office because the Ba'athist old guard in Syria can't determine which of them should hold the reigns in his place. Bashar al-Assad himself appears to have some liberal tendencies, and while the "Damascus Spring" was brought to an end once the old guard got cold feet, the country is still much more open than it was several years ago.

What I think this means for American policy is this: The hawkishness that I feel was the only option in Iraq would be badly misplaced in Syria. For one thing, where there are competing faactions, this is also opportunity. Furthermore, according to a distinguished expert on modern Syria who recently came to campus, what really hurt the cause of civil liberties in Syria was September 11. Before that al-Jazeera had taken up the case of Syrian political prisoners. After that, they lost interest in favor of the "War on Terror," and the pressure on the Syrian government abated.
Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!

Monday, April 14, 2003

For some reason, I woke up feeling refreshed and alive this morning. I liked it, and wonder how it happened.

I'm still not sure if I'll make it home for Easter this weekend, but it's starting to look like I won't. My dad also might have to go on strike, so my parents' visit the first weekend in May is also in limbo, and may be until the eve of the event.

According to Juan Cole, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, Muqtada Sadr heads a weird cult-like organization called the Sadrayun which essentially promote the teachings of his martyred father, a belief in the supremacy of a late religious scholar which runs contrary to traditional Shi'ism. They are also ardently pro-Iranian. In any event, they have abandoned their siege of Ayatollah Sistani. What happens next is uncertain, but I can't see these guys getting much mass support.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

The turmoil in Najaf seems to be caused primarily by a group led by one Muqtada Sadr, son of an Ayatollah Muhammad-Sadiq Sadr who died at Ba'athist hands in 1999. Ayatollah as-Sadr had a large anti-Saddam organization, though I can't find much about their alternate program. When they went after al-Khoei, it was because he was defending a pro-Saddam mullah on his reconciliation mission. Now they are targeting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, using the line he is Iranian-born, and the spiritual leader of Iraq must be an Iraqi.

It is difficult to know precisely where any of these figures would come down on current events, save that all are anti-Saddam and al-Khoei was actually pro-American. Sistani was a student of al-Khoei's father, but that may not mean much under the present circumstances. The main question on my mind is how a 22-year-old like Muqtada Sadr is able to compete for leadership of the Shi'ites in Najaf when Shi'ite leadership has traditionally depended so much on a long career of religious learning. It may simply be that Saddam failed to effectively crush the Sadr organization a few years ago. But in the realm of pure speculation, I also can't help but notice that Sadr's actions and philosophy leave the door wide open for an entrance from Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of an Iran-based group opposed to the American administrion of Iraq. Iran will definitely not be sitting idly by while the U.S. has its way in Iraq. In Afghanistan, they have essentially used the warlord Ismail Khan in Herat to establish a foothold of influence in the Afghan government, and it is very logical they would try to do the same in Iraq. There's no solid evidence for this yet, but it's something to bear in mind. In the end, I'm not sure it matters much who wins this fight, as long as we don't see a descent into anarchy.
Al-Jazeera is reporting a power struggle among Shi'ite leaders in Najaf. I'm not sure it's possible at this point to say how strong the different groups are and, more importantly, what their differences are. I will seek to learn more.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has proposed a popular referendum on the resumption of ties with the U.S., according to IRNA. Rafsanjani was Iran's President from 1989-1997, and though today he's lumped in with the hard-liners, he's really more of a moderate figure, and I vaguely recall hearing his election touted as one showing hope for reform back when I was a wee lad watching CNN in my parent's house. Today he chairs the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians. I doubt this will actually amount to anything, but it does show how much pressure for taking the revolution in Iran to its next phase of development has built within Iran over the past 10 years. The administration hawks should just shut up and let things in that country take their course. to the library!

Friday, April 11, 2003

Well, I almost died last night, I think. I was out driving, when I came to an intersection where the stoplight was blinking, as they do when they're not working. I stopped; seeing no cars, I went ahead. Suddenly I hear this whistle, and glancing I see a train coming at me. I hit the gas and make it across, rather terrified, to the point where I paused briefly to collect myself. Because I remember seeing cars in the rearview mirror after I was across, it must not have been quite as close as it seemed, but still I spent the rest of the evening thinking anyone who wanted to criticize my driving most certainly could. Though today it occurs to me my error was primarily one of negligence in not looking at the train tracks carefully as well as the street, as there was no railroad signal, nor was there the clanging noise. I still remember how eerily quier everything seemed. But still, yeesh!!!!

I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and now feel like casting magic spells. I've already checked the best way to get the second book. Guess one thing that will appear on my Recommended Reading list this spring!

I've also been dipping into the world of Farscape, after Jordan told me they were rerunning the series from the beginning. I've seen small bits of episodes that looked cool, and sat through most of two whole episodes that bored me to tears. Last night I finally had a whole episode that appeared cool. I think the show will rank above Stargate, about on the same level as the early Sliders, but I could be wrong. Meanwhile, they're also rerunning Babylon 5 - at 8 a.m.! I'm going to start setting my VCR next week, though the first season is kind of bland.

NHL play-offs tonight - upset city is in the world. I would have picked the Wild against Vancouver - glad to see them up on the Avalanche. Martin and I share joint glee that Anahiem beat Detroit. I BLEED BLUE!!!

Thursday, April 10, 2003

This morning Abd al-Majid al-Khoei was killed by a mob armed with swords and knives in Najaf. He was one of the leading pro-American Iraqi dissidents, but also had local connections as his father was the Ayatollah Abd al-Qasim al-Khoei, one of the most revered Ayatollahs in the world who died under house arrest in 1992. The younger al-Khoei had gone to Najaf on a mission of reconciliation with the mullahs Saddam had placed in charge of the shrines at Najaf. The man he was going to meet was reviled for his Ba'ath connections, and the mob basically demanded his head. al-Khoei stood in the way, and fired a gun either into the air or into the crowd as they attempted to swarm where the two were. Both al-Khoei and the former Ba'ath mullah (whose name I forget) was killed. This was a major loss, and its full significance remains unknown.

An interesting debate has begun over how to handle the trials for crimes against humanity by Ba'athists in Iraq. The U.S. favors an Iraqi court run totally by Iraqis, while the EU is advocating an international tribunal. This mirrors policy on tribunals in general, with the U.S. always favoring national sovereignty over international justice while the EU seeks legitimacy in the international community. However, I think the Iraqi-court option would probably be for the best in this case. We really need to get as much Iraqi leadership in as many areas as we can as quickly as possible.

Today in Persian we learned the present perfect tense. Verb tenses in Persian are complicated to learn because they have as many shades as in English, but the shades are different. For example, as the professor explained it, the present perfect is used for events in the past which still affect the present. As an example, she said that Firdawsi writing the Shahnama would count as present perfect because people still read it. I guess as a historian I should get used to always using the present perfect!

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

This morning at a panel for freshman English students, I got asked a question about the ideological use of history, with Hitler references by the U.S. and U.K. and Crusades references by Arab leaders. I talked about the fact that both conflicts were seen as absolute right against absolute wrong. In the U.S., World War II is (definitely with good reason) seen as the ultimate just war, and so conflict overseas can be legitimized by casting it in those terms. In the Arab world, the Crusades are taught in such a way that the Muslims were always right and just and the Crusaders always aggressive and barbaric (again with good reason).

The very reason the Crusades are linked with colonialism and the present is that Arabs developed a historical topic called the Crusades (or "Wars of the Cross," rather) during the 19th century - before then what European historians see as the Crusading movement was not taken as a unit in and of itself. The "Crusades" concept entered the Arab intellectual landscape via the colonial education system, and it became natural for Arab intellectuals to see in these events historical lessons for their own time, and from there of course it's an easy link from colonialism to neo-colonialism.

What you could add, of course, is the moral lessons drawn from history. The lesson of World War II for the West was about appeasement, which we have heard endless doses of concerning Iraq. With the Crusades, a key lesson is patience. Israel is seen in the Arab world as a modern Crusader state, and people remind themselves that it has only been around for a little over 50 years, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted 88.

Another issue that came up was possible historical analogies for the rebuilding. I can think of some ideas, but I'll save them for later. One that's been making the rounds in the Arab world, though, is Beirut in 1982. Shi'ites anxious to be liberated from the PLO threw flowers on Israeli tanks as they crossed the border. However, the Israelis dream of setting up a pro-Israeli Maronite republic was not accepted by the majority Muslim population, and we wound up where we are today. I doubt that's my analogy, but its another important viewpoint, and perhaps a warning.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Here is an article from al-Jazeera about the civilians caught in the urban combat currently happening in Iraq. I found it to be definitely worth reading - it's not gruesome like many al-Jazeera war reports, and quotes mostly American soldiers. My take on media is that every news source is fairly strong at covering people culturally closest to it. Hence, for the doings of Congress, I would look nowhere but American networks. Al-Jazeera in this article is simply cutting to what in the Arab world is the most important story, danger to civilians from both American and "Ba'athist" (as they specify) soldiers. They also had an interesting story about the lack of uprisings that I thought cut to the chase of the problems the U.S. has in the region. Basically, many of the people al-Jazeera talked to don't think the U.S. will really remove Saddam, much as in the on-line poll I sent to my e-mail list earlier. Interestingly, the al-Jazeera political analyst thought that people attitudes would probably shift once the reality of American and British victories became apparent.

Now back to Persian. I have seldom been less motivated in a class than I have been there this semester, for reasons I can't fully fathom. Persian is an interesting language - its sounds are more beautiful to my ear than those of Arabic, yet Arabic has a certain grammatical elegance Persian lacks with all its random Indo-European word morphologies and tons of helping verbs. But Persian is also the easier of the two languages to learn in pretty much every way you can think of. Perhaps I am simply complacent.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

First off, the English al-Jazeera site is now up. You can read it here: In terms of bias, I would describe it as equal to yet different than that of FOX News. However, I strongly recommend taking a look at it, because in the most important sense, learning about the world isn't so much about the day-to-day events, but rather the views and perceptions of different people, all of which are shaped by different social, historical, and cultural factors.

ICT this weekend was really fun. We didn't do quite as well as we hoped, but managed to avoid some annoying weather back in Madison. The social aspects of the trip were definitely fun, and I decided to reverse course and now love sushi. We didn't get to see that much of LA, but I was happy with what we did; I figure realistically I'll be back in the city sometime in my life. There was a great deal of sentiment that I should have rented a car, but I'm not too sure what we would have done with it given the time we had. The fact I'd never done it before contributed to a few bubble-bursting knock-downs regarding my recent thoughts that maybe I was finally becoming relatively cultured and well-travelled (see last Thursday's entry).

One of the friends I was with casually and unself-consciously mentioned that his parents were giving him $2000 as a graduation gift. To me, that's 2.5 months' wages, and he's just getting it as a handout! Of course, this person also will make as a grad student an income closer to what my father made providing for a family of four than what I'm making now, yet he muses he can live "comfortably" but probably won't be able to save much. He also suggested $500,000 as an income cut-off for the middle class. Don't get me wrong - I'm astounded, not critical. I like the guy a lot, but really hope he never has to live in the real world, because I'm not too sure how he would react to it.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest-ranking Shi'ite religious leader in Iraq, has issued a fatwa stating that Shi'ites should not resist the American invasion of Iraq. Earlier rumors suggested he - or other Shi'ite mullahs - might go so far as to endorse the invasion after some Iran-based mullahs condemned Saddam for using holy sites to shield his military. All of this is absolutely splendid, and highlights one of the most important differences between this situation and Vietnam: In Vietnam, the U.S. intervened to keep what was basically a capitalist dictatorship in power against a communist-nationalist revolution with a great deal of popular support. In Iraq, we are overthrowing the dictator with the passive or active support of huge segments of the population. Furthermore, these kinds of rulings from a figure of Sistani's stature will go a long way to minimizing the notion that this is a war between the U.S. and the Islamic world. Now all we need is for Bush to accept Blair's insistence that post-war Iraq be governed by Iraqis ASAP so the anti-Saddam crowd in Iraq doesn't later turn around and become anti-American.

As far as my life goes, a possible sublet fell into my lap this morning - a two-bedroom on the south side. I'll need to find at least one other interested person though, and make sure we can get the lease extended to cover August. I should probably ask my roommate, since he's getting booted from Harvey Street, too. Otherwise I will probably plow into the qb team and see what happens.

I also got into an incredibly deep conversation with Rob last night, perhaps the deepest I've ever been in at UW-Madison. I realized fully how much of my life is good. It used to be I was seen as untravelled and uncultured and stuff, and now I'm gradually taking care of that. It was kind of a shock earlier this semester when Adam Bissen referred to me as well-travelled, although I reserved my first-ever airline tickets just last week. But I'm still at the stage where I get excited by the opportunity to see things like operas or musicals regardless of what they are, just because I lack the first-hand experience to be able to distinguish precisely what I want. And it's still tricky to find others who are interested in the things I'm trying to expand into. It will come with time, though. The Barber of Seville is on the first weekend in May; once I find out for sure what my parents are doing, I can look into that.

Off to Los least tomorrow! (another place I'm excited just to be going)

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

OK...counter and blogroll are now up...more frills to come, probably after ICT. Now, time for the Mariners game!
Yesterday I went and read a bit of, the web site of my hometown newspaper. It was a little weird. It's one thing to see a poll that shows 42% of Americans believe Saddam was behind 9/11 and over half think Iraqis were among the hijackers and Saddam is aiding al-Qaeda. It's quite another to read quotes from serious people seeming to take that sort of thing for granted being printed without comment. I'd say the first two statements above are definitely not true, and the Saddam-al-Qaeda links look really tenuous at this point. The Bushies were happy to tout that they found documents linking Ansar al-Islam to al-Qaeda, which no one seriously doubted. However, they appear to have nothing linking the group to Saddam. As Juan Cole pointed out (, Ansar al-Islam was in the Kurdish-controlled area anyway, not Saddam's Iraq. The fact the administration is grasping at such straws leads me to belief there's really not much there.

Back to the main subject, people who have family and friends fighting in Iraq are people whose views and opinions I can at least respect, though I wish they'd grant the same respect to people who know innocents on both sides of this conflict and might take a different view. What I can't stand are the people who have no personal connections to all this whatsoever and just rant, regardless of what side they're on. To be honest, the anti-war protestors who put up all the anti-military signs are just as bad as the people insisting opposition to the war is treason - both seem to be doggedly pursuing an ideology without regard for the intricacies of the actual situation.

At least the actual war news is better this week, regardless of the spin. The fact we're already in house-to-house fighting in Basra without the worst-case scenarios coming true is a good sign, as is the positive trend in the tone of reports concerning the Iraqi reception of our troops and the news that there are now small numbers of Iraqis fighting alongside us. I still hold out hope of a sudden breakthrough, but we'll see. And then, winning the peace was always going to be the toughest part of all this.

That aside, it's April...which means I'm already starting to miss people who will soon be leaving. Last year the effect was kind of delayed, as most people I knew who were leaving stayed around for the summer, but I'm not sure that will happen this year. April is the cruelest month...

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Because Halliburton will profit so much from the reconstruction of Iraq, it's become even more fashionable to say this is a corporate war cooked up by Dick Cheney for his oil buddies. I really don't think so. Halliburton has gotten pretty much every rebuilding contract for the last 15 years. I'm sure they have government connections, but not a causal effect on foreign policy. Actually, I think the idea that this is a war for oil is pretty weak. Most oil companies voiced concerns about it. Perhaps even more telling: The oil industry would just love to get into Iran. As I write this, the aforementioned Halliburton is having to review its Iran operations. Exxon-Mobil, the leading corporate supporter of President Bush, is also the company leading the lobby to end sanctions on Iran. Yet compared to the Clintonian olive branches, Bush has taken a generally hard line on Iran. I think some factions within the administration do have an oil agenda, but that's about oil as a geostrategic resource, not cheap gas or more profits for big business.

As far as my life goes, the ICT this weekend is pretty much set. I'm most worried about Jeff, as he didn't seem to be having much fun Thursday, though he was getting some questions. I suppose if word got back that I at least preferred Joel and Jordan to him, he might feel unwanted. But that should pass with time. I'm fairly sure Matt and Vince will have fun regardless of what happens. After Elvis, I hope we manage to avoid the Maryland team. I definitely want a post-ACF crack and Michigan C, though.

OK...back to work.