Thursday, July 31, 2003

Al-Qaeda's Silence?

Matt Bruce has been blogging about the lack of al-Qaeda activity since September 11, in this case by linking to this Lee Harris article about how al-Qaeda's silence is affecting the psychology of the War on Terror.

I've seen comments like this in a lot of places, and I think there're a couple of things wrong with where they're coming from. First of all, much is being made of the fact that there has been no major al-Qaeda attack since September 11. However, there were also no major terrorist attacks before September 11. That did not mean al-Qaeda was not a danger, or that they were on the run in the war they had already declared against the interests of predominantly Christian and Jewish nations in the Islamic world. Second, there has been a fair degree of al-Qaeda activity around the world, ranging from the Bali bombing which now looks al-Qaeda-related to fighting in Afghanistan to the bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca and lots of smaller things. From al-Qaeda's perspective, these are not remote and indignificant - they are close to home in areas where the members are seeking to effect the real changes they seek.

I think something needs to be said here about the nature of al-Qaeda. I'm far from a terrorism expert, but I remain far from convinced it is a tightly run terrorism ring in which a small group of leaders thinks up evil plots and gets their card-carrying members to carry them out. One friend who's looked at this in a little more detail says they remind him of a sort of grant foundation for terrorists: They have issued a call to war, and if you answer it and have a plan, they'll give you some money to carry it out, possibly with advice and logistical support. Another point which has always been in the back of my mind: My first year in grad school, I did a bit of work on Lebanese Shi'ite groups, and found that often they tended to be banners as much as real organizations. People would say they were with Amal if they agreed with their program and methods, rather than if they had gone down to the local Amal office and joined. Ages ago I mentioned a group called al-Muwahhidun, which claimed to be a new al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group operating in the Gulf. In the Kurdish region of Iraq, there was a training camp for a group called Ansar al-Islam which is kind of al-Qaeda and kind of not, as I read the analyses. A while back there was also a claim of responsibility for some attacks in Iraq from an al-Qaeda chapter there. I read that as a group of people saying, "We're with them," not a central al-Qaeda leadership moving into new areas.

The above isn't a clear description of what I think al-Qaeda is because I don't know for sure what it is. In fact, what I've done is little more than brain-storming. However, these are the sorts of models in my mind when I think about terrorist groups. It also suggests something else: There may or may not be much central strategy behind al-Qaeda's terrorism. If not, the silence here on the American front may not have the strategic significance some are giving it, and could end at any time.

The Mughal Empire

I sometimes wonder if slight changes in my past experiences would have led to me studying something radically different in graduate school. Leaving aside English, my other major, there are several areas in history I find fascinating. When Rob went to Japan, I used the chance to give an outlet to some of my interests in old Japanese history. I have a friend named Cathe whose brain I routinely sucked when she went to Thailand, and others named Scott and Dania who are currently in Egypt and susceptible to the same treatment. Since I began blogging, threads like this one on the Byzantines have definitely gotten my interest. Yet I've noticed that while the Middle East always seems to turn up some new subject of interest, most other areas I come to need a serious break from.

One area I think I could have been happy studying is the Mughal Empire. I'm not sure why, but the Mughals brought India one of the greatest periods of prosperity and cultural productivity in its history, and their empire has left a mark on the modern world. The Urdu language, today spoken primarily in Pakistan, was formed as a cross between the court Persian and Indian languages in Mughal cities and army barracks. While Babur was never a big India fan - he complained about it a lot in his autobiography, and regretted he didn't conquer Central Asia like his Mongol ancestors - his descendants came to embody much of what India represented during their periods, and interestingly, of the six emperors who reigned before the monarchy lost real control, all were fairly important, and at least four were unquestionably competent. Akbar was perhaps the greatest - it was his policies that allowed Hindus and Muslims to coexist in a single political system, and his minister Todar Mal produced an economic system which while not always beneficial to the peasants, provided a stable income for the regime for decades. Shah Jahan, of course, left his mark on the world in the Taj Mahal. One little-known figure in the dynasty was Nur Jahan, a woman who had coins struck in her own name and ruled as sovereign during periods of her husband Jahangir's incapacity.

No empire lasts forever, however, the the Mughals seem to fall into that Gibbon-defying class that fell without having first bothered to decline. Really, though, it might have had to do with over-extension under Aurangzeb, who also undid a lot of Akbar's work regarding Hindu integration. Also, it's not so much a question of falling into chaos as it was a reversion to traditional Indian political patterns, with the Mughal Emperor filling the position of maharaja. Still, from a historian's standpoint, the source material for those social topics which interest me is excellent, and I kind of regret that John Keay's India: A History, the book which inspired this post, didn't make use of more of it.

I do have two former officemates who work on this period, though oddly both concentrate on areas outside Mughal control. Chris Chekuri, currently working on his dissertation while on a short-term appointment in New York, does "Between Family and Empire: Nayaka Strategies of Rule in Vijayanagara, c.1400-1700 A.D." (Vijayanagara was the big Hindu power just before and during the early Mughal period.) Ian Wendt is off in the Netherlands poring over archives learning about "The Textile Industry in the Early Modern Coromandel, 1500-1800." I should talk to my peers more to find out what they're doing.

But I still love my own work, which now has a working title: "Horses' Reins and Ships' Cables: The Azd in the Early Islamic Centuries." One thing about the medieval Middle East is the way it reaches tendrils out into virtually every region of the Eastern Hemisphere. This topic focuses on one of the groups doing the reaching...the Azd, an Arab tribe which came to dominate the Indian Ocean trade. I'm looking mainly at the ways in which they changed with the coming of Islam and the development of the caliphate. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Post Titles

Thanks to reader John Emerson, who fixed my template so people other than me can see my post titles!

Middle East Studies and the Military

Awhile back, I meant to respond to Martin Kramer's comments that no one in Middle East Studies today would train a career military officer, but never got around to it. I was just going to point out that two UW MES grad students I know have chosen military in history who joined the special forces, and another in Arabic who was waiting to see which branch called him first. The latter was not only an advisee of a liberal professor who even opposed the war in Afghanistan, but he was what in grade school might have been called a "teacher's pet."

Today, though, Juan Cole posted in his blog a response to liberal criticisms of his Iraq comments, and included the following: "I freely admit that September 11 had a big impact on me, and I am a hawk in the war on terror. If I had been a younger man, I would probably have joined the military on September 12. I know all about blowback and the Reagan administration policies that helped set that stage, but the practical task of keeping more buildings from being blown up is in my view a noble and heroic one and I a make no apologies for that much patriotism." Cole is a major player in the MESA scene, and currently edits the International Journal for Middle East Studies.

I don't deny that the personal views of most in the field - myself included - tilt to the left. But once again, I'm not sure I see that affecting the field's ultimate value to American society.

Ismail Khan

Over the Eurasia Research Centre Yahoo Group, I have received the July 29 RFE-RL Daily Afghan Report containing a piece by Amin Tarzi that Herat warlord Ismail Khan has disarmed his tens of thousands of fighters. If so, that is a decent sign for the reconstruction, though since the weapons are still around, if he needs an army for something he can rearm his fighters quickly. However, I wonder: If training for the Afghan National Army is going so slowly, and if all these "loyal" warlords have highly trained troops they're not planning to use, why not just stick them in the army?

Iraqi Cell Phones

Steve Gilliard at Daily Kos has reported on an Iraqi cell phone controversy. There are two cell phone protocols in the world: GSM, which most of the world uses, and CMDA, which the U.S. has. A Bahraini firm has been establishing a GSM network in Iraq, but the U.S. stopped it, apparently to leave the door open for an American firm to install a CMDA system. And people wonder why some don't trust our intentions...

Qur'an Studies V

Anyone tired of Qur'an Studies yet? (BTW, does anyone have a theory on why my titles never work?)

There was a major post on the subject yesterday from al-Muhajabah, which should be read by any interested parties, especially for its discussion in the footnote dealing with the houris in the context of Muslim beliefs rather than media sensationalism.

I want to divide the issue in two:

The media treats the world like a giant version of the video game Civilization III, in which all civilizations are more or less clones of each other climbing an identical technology tree. In the game the technology tree includes not just scientific stuff like chemistry and flight, but political and spiritual developments, as well. It's rather amusing to be playing Japan and have the computer tell me I need to develop monotheism as the prerequisite to monarchy, much less democracy. The media is doing something similar, looking at the history of Christianity and trying to spot comparable developments in Islam. These are two different religions and will develop in their own unique ways. The media is making it worse by selling these stories with a lot of anti-Muslim bias in terms of the treatment of women and terrorism. So I don't consider them a reliable source for developments in Qur'anic Studies.

Zack Ajmal has found a favorable review of Luxenberg's book from a scholarly source. After reading it, I don't think the book itself will be that overwhelming. In terms of its philological methodology, I have no doubt it will be quite sound, and that it will be possible to read the Qur'an in the manner indicated. Yesterday I was reading M.A. Shaban's Islamic History, and he has a theory in there that the word historians have usually read as "Qur'an readers" in early Islam should actually be translated as "villagers." Most scholars disagree with his work, though I haven't found out why yet. But what this shows is that you can read early Arabic a lot of different ways, and there is subjectivity to the translation.

The major flaw that leaps out at me about Luxenberg as presented, however, is that the Qur'an is a book with a history that you have to deal with in any interpretation. You can't really bring up the hadith, because people will just counter wtih the Schacht thesis that almost all the hadith currently accepted as canonical are false. However, there's definitely a written Islamic tradition as recently as the early Abbasid period, and the people writing it were using sources from a bit earlier. In order for Luxenberg's reading to be taken seriously, someone needs to explain how the Qur'an went from being a Christian liturgical manual to the holy book of Islam during that period. I don't see where Luxenberg provides one. I think there is probably value in looking at Syriac terms in some difficult passages, just as I think there's value in using the Sana'a manuscripts all this started out discussing. But this rereading will not be credible until there is a fairly impressive and equally revolutionary historical explanation to accompany it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Howard Dean

Those wondering why I haven't jumped on the Howard Dean bandwagon should check out Matthew Yglesias's comments on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. The key issues: "The thing about renegotiating a deal is that normally it takes two to renegotiate. In the case of a trilateral agreement like NAFTA, it takes three. I've seen no sign from Mexican President Vincente Fox, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, or Chrétien's heir apparent Paul Martin that there's any interest in persuing a renegotiation of this sort. What, exactly, does Dean propose to offer his negotiating partners in exchange for these concessions? Alternatively, if he's not offering anything, what is he threatening to do if they don't agree? Will he pull out of NAFTA? For that matter, before we get into the question of what Dean's going to offer, what is he asking for?"

I like Howard Dean a lot, but wonder if he can play international politics, especially in terms of more complex foreign policy issues. He's made headway on this with me as I've heard more from him, but the ability to implement ideas is as important, of not moreso, than the ideas themselves. The jury remains out...

Iraqi Presidents

The Iraqi governing council has chosen a President. Presidents. Nine of them, actually.

Councillings of Guardians

According to RFE-RL's most recent Iran report, the Council of Guardians, a conservative body responsible for supervising government activity, is trying to create copies of itself at local levels. The justification seems to be that these regional councils can create dossiers on people who might run for office, thus making the job of the national Council of Guardians easier. Opponents have some fears it could be the beginnings of an internal security apparatus. I think this is bad news. Within the conservative faction of Iranian politics there are those who want to work within the Constitution and those who simply want to get rid of the Reformists as quickly as possible by any means necessary. This has the fingerprints of the latter all over it.

There was also an interesting bit that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, currently the head of the Expediency Council, may have been involved with secret negotiations with people close to Condoleezza Rica. The claim is that he's willing to work with the U.S. in exchange for unspecified American support for his 2005 Presidential campaign, a proposition the U.S. didn't go for. Several months ago, Rafsanjani called for a referendum on Iranian-American relations. If this is true, I wonder what support he wanted.

Syria and the War on Terror

Yesterday my friend Tim e-mailed me this article about how neo-con plans for the Middle East may be disrupting the War on Terror by interfering with our developing relationship with Syria. In the wake of September 11, the Syrians quickly became an important source of intelligence about al-Qaeda. The article gets specific:

"In one instance, the Syrians learned that Al Qaeda had penetrated the security services of Bahrain and had arranged for a glider loaded with explosives to be flown into a building at the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters there. Flynt Leverett, a former C.I.A. analyst who served until early this year on the National Security Council and is now a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, told me that Syria’s help 'let us thwart an operation that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans.' The Syrians also helped the United States avert a suspected plot against an American target in Ottawa."

Like most hard-liners in the Arab world, Syrians draw a distinction between global terrorism and that against Israel, which they characterize as resistance to occupation. (This should not, in my mind, obscure the fact that resistance to occupation which follows basic rules of warfare is legitimate under international law.) I would argue that while all attacks designed deliberately to kill civilians for the purpose of terrorizing them are equivalent, the American interest is to prioritize terrorists who want to kill Americans. On the other hand, Syria is a dictatorship, and if the liberal line is going to be that supporting dictatorships ultimately leads to anti-American blowback, then getting too close to them here could create problems for the U.S. down the road.

I guess this means that I favor constructive engagement in the Syrian case. I went into what I see as the main differences back on April 15. Since then I've seen this Middle East On-Line article about the reformist winds now blowing in Damascus, though it could easily be a false start meant to keep dissent from getting out of hand. If the U.S. gets Iraq right, it could legitimately help democratic forces in Syria the same way al-Jazeera did two years ago. Working on a peace deal with Israel would also remove the Syrian government's major foreign enemy and a major source of popular legitimacy. In the meantime, the Syrians help us save lives by going after al-Qaeda. It might not be a long-term solution, but it has advantages.

Liberia, History, and Terrorism

Via Matthew Yglesias I found Jacob Levy's Liberia post at the Volokh Conspiracy, which is worth a read. One key graft: "Liberia's wounds are an ongoing result of the state's creation as a haven for resettled American former slaves-- on territory that was already inhabited." might cause one to have a sense of foreboding about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian controversy. Still, I think the best rationale for American involvement there is Taylor's al-Qaeda connections, which are bizarrely not getting play in the American media. To his credit, however, I just saw Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold bring them up while channel-surfing to C-Span. That's why I vote for the man.

Qur'an Scholarship IV

First off, Samer, a reader in Saudi Arabia, e-mails with a factual correction: There are three extant copies of the Qur'an from the time of Uthman, and he has sent pictures of one of them. I apologize for the error.

Secondly, in response to a comment to this Zack Ajmal post, the name of the third caliph is indisputably "Uthman." However, Persian changes Arabic's soft th's to s's, and so in Persianate Islamic culture - basically Iran and points east - he was passed into tradition as "Usman." Calling him "Usman" today is a little like calling Kaisar Wilhelm II "William" or Mikhail Romanov "Michael." They are still done, but only if your language has a readily available equivalent to the name. Hence, English-speakers use the Arabic "Uthman," except when discussing the founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

On the linguistic points, the notion that Arabic was not a written language in the 7th century and that the Arabs spoke Aramaic is so off base I'm going to assume that's not what Luxenberg actually said, and its just getting refracted through too many intermediaries. I suppose the merchant class in Mecca might have used Syriac as a lingua franca for business dealings, but there was definitely plenty of Arabic being spoken in daily life, and an already established Arabic oral poetic tradition much of which is still preserved. There are also plenty of inscriptions in Arabic from that time. I also know there's a tradition that the language of the Qur'an is explicitly stated to be "Arabic," though I don't know if that's in the Qur'an itself or a hadith.

At the same time, I suspect that much of the vocabulary of 7th-century Arabic comes from other languages...Arab culture would almost certainly have had to borrow words for new things with which they were coming into contact, and if a different language were used in a certain area of life some of its vocabulary would tend to be used, as well. I kind of doubt that the Arabs spontaneously developed their own word for "tea" that is miraculously like the word in all the neighboring languages, just as in modern Arabic there is a word for bank, "bank," that does not come from the Arabic root "b-n-k."

Finally, Samer brings up the "science of hadith" used by Muslims in sorting out authentic from false hadith. This is true, but I guess what that leaves open is whether it is permissable to apply new methodologies to that science. Increasingly, I think the intensity of this dispute is caused by the links between culture and geopolitics. Islamic culture right now sees itself as on the defensive, and hence a questioning of its methodologies is seen as a questioning of the religion itself. One of the comments on Zack's thread shows that sometimes this is the case. This also explains why many serious historians shy away from the issue until such time as it can be pursued in a less political environment.

Thus ends this contribution to the Quranic Studies debate. Stay tuned for more as discussion warrants.
UPDATE: This site contains information about old Qur'an manuscripts.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Working Against Muqtada Sadr

Juan Cole reports an article in az-Zaman saying that several tribal leaders have asked Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to issue a ruling forbidding the carrying of weapons in the shrines of Ali and Husayn. This he interprets as a move against the Sadriyun who are seeking to control those shrines. I haven't read the article for myself, but it does show that the Sadr movement does have serious opposition with the Shi'ite community. I wonder if these are the same tribal leaders who defensed Sistani back in April when Muqtada Sadr tried to force him out of power.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Wisconsin vs. Illinois

Since coming to Wisconsin, I have often questioned the stereotype that Wisconites are all sophisticated progressives as opposed to those of us from Illinois, who hover right above the dreaded Mason-Dixon Line. After all, in the last election, the most liberal candidate for governor went out of her way to talk about how much she enjoyed hunting, a position which I just now realized this state is probably a lock for Howard Dean. My theory was cultural: Illinois culture seems to focus around Chicago, the great cultural center between New York and Los Angeles, while Wisconsin's identity is built off Northwoods ruggedness and Milwaukee drunkenness.

However, I might have to concede defeat, after learning from Jordan of the Wausau Daily Herald article "Condoms need more respect." Wausau is basically Wisconsin's version of Quincy, from where I hail, and there is no way an article like that would see the pages of the Quincy Herald-Whig. I still remember the storm which ensued when they ran a student essay questioning the existence of God. Nonetheless, I shall continue to make fun of Wisconsinites as often as I deem necessary, even as I eagerly consume the cheese they produce so wonderfully.

UPDATE: As if to prove my point, the Herald-Whig site currently features the article "The Harry Potter Controversy: Dark Fantasy or Gateway to the Occult?"

Middle East Optimism?

Yesterday, Jonathan Edelstein expressed optimism with regard to the Middle East peace process. The reason for this seems to be some Israeli initiatives designed to improve Palestinian life, such as the issuance of more work permits. I agree it is possible that everything could work out, but I remain something of a pessimist. The goal of all current negotiations is to get back to the conditions which prevailed before the al-Aqsa Intifada, with the idea that negotiations on a Palestinian state can then resume where they were between Arafat and Barak.

My main reasons for pessimism lie in the fact that no one seems interested in doing any irrevocable. Sharon, for example, still has not moved meaningfully and forcefully against the settlements...a few were dismantled, more were built, and most of those dismantled were uninhabited. The PA is becoming stronger, but the rejectionist groups reportedly are, too, at least in terms of infrastructure, which means that the PA leadership will have to win political battles before they can decisively confront them. To that end, I would like to see them do more to connect with grassroots elements supporting peace the way Arafat seems to have connections with the radicals, but that just doesn't seem to be part of their current game. In addition, Jonathan speculates that Marwan Barghouti will be among the prisoners released. I'm not sure whether he ultimately helps or hurts the peace process: He has been a strong supporter of Palestinian reform and could rein in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, but he's also historically been an opponent of the peace process.

I think what I expect to happen is that the Intifada will end, and security will be more or less restored for both Palestinians and Israelis, but I don't think there's a clear path from there to a final deal. We would basically need to get back to what Barak offered Arafat, and have a strong Palestinian leader in place who would accept it. There's a chance this could happen, but I'll be more convinced once dabbling around the edges is replaced with a serious commitment to action from both sides.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Short Break

I need to take a break from blogging. I think as a result of working almost exclusively on the computer for awhile, I'm developing carpal tunnel syndrome or more likely some lesser pain-causing condition. So I'm going to be using my computer the minimum for a couple of days, though for me that of course means I'll still be reading e-mail as I get it and answering any IM messages thrown my way. I've linked to Juan Cole for Iraq news. You can also check Jonathan Edelstein for Israeli/Palestinian developments and Oxblog for Afghanistan news. If you come here to experience my charm and wit, thanks and I don't plan to be gone long!

Iraq Rebuilding

For the glass-is-half-full-in-Iraq people, check out this bit of information from Juan Cole: "Iraq can only produce 2/3s of the electricity it needs without the building of more electrical plants; this is a heritage of the neglect of infrastructure by Saddam." He also has a good update on the doings of the governing council, and some signs that the U.S. and U.K. should leave sooner rather than later.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Afghan Army in Action

According to the BBC, the Afghan army under the control of the central government in Kabul has seen its first combat action as part of a campaign in the south against Taliban-al-Qaeda remnants. One finds some interesting information about the composition of this army and their local reception in this IWPR report. I hate to rain on the parade again, but after all this time we've apparently managed to train only 1000 troops. Herat warlord Ismail Khan alone has around 25,000. The U.S. is really still working with individual warlords and "tribal militias" in the south, who have at best a loose affiliation with Kabul. I'm not saying we could do significantly better, necessarily...just calling it like I see it.

Obscure Arabic Grammar

Woohoo!!! I just found a nun at-taqleed!!! The only other one of those I've seen was in a piece of the Qur'an they gave us at Yarmouk as a challenge!!!

Now if only I could remember precisely what it did...something about intensifying, I think.


A few people wrote replies to my posts yesterday: Ed Cohn on Harry Potter scholarship and Chris Blanchard and Waldheim on globalization. Check them out if those issues interest you.
UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias also chimes in on Iraqi politics.

Surprise Alarm

So now that I'm inescapably awake, I can present reason #21965 why I dislike living on top of a busy street: Car accidents involving cars with alarms.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Developments in Iraq

Today's major point of Iraq discussion is whether or not the deaths of the Hussein boys will help the coalition in Iraq. Your opinion on this probably depends almost entirely on your view of the Iraqi resistance. Given what I have said here and here, you can probably guess that I think it might help in the short term of they were personally involved in bankrolling this sort of thing. But in the long term, there are two many reasons people are opposing us for any one development to become a magic bullet in knocking down the resistance.

I still think the real story is not the guerrilla movement, which has more political than military significance, but the developments in Iraqi politics. For that reason, I read with interest al-Jazeera's story on Masud Barzani's refusal to disband the peshmerga fighters. Barzani's statements on this matter were filled with rhetoric about the pride of the Kurdish people, and stern warning about making them second-class citizens again, though he did restate his commitment to Iraqi unity.

What this tells me is that Barzani, a political actor on the ground doing what he thinks will cause him to achieve his goals, doesn't think the game has changed any. He's sitting on the governing council, but finds it handy to keep an army around. My knowledge of Iraqi history isn't that great, but in the 20th century it has been about shifting factions of individual leaders fighting over the reins of power. Saddam Hussein temporarily ended this when he came to power by making his first act a purging of other possible leaders, a move which has roots closer to those Ottoman sultans who strangled rival princes rather than let them become focal points of opposition rather than the brutal dictatorships to which I would compare most of his regime. Now we still have different political factions with shifting alliances, but they're all sitting in a room together trying to elect one of them as an interim leader (and failing). The development to watch for in Iraq isn't "Will there be a stable democracy?" but "Will they develop some mechanism for containing the factional disputes which before Saddam resulted in almost continual coups and revolutions?"

The good news is that all the major factions seem to be involved, with the main exception being the Sadriyun, who might not be as healthy as people say they are. RFE-RL briefly mentions the developing links between Muqtada Sadr and Tehran. Juan Cole earlier discussed how Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri, the Sadriyun's Iran-based spiritual leader, has begun angling for greater power for himself. Right now this group serves as a rallying point for all Shi'ite rejectionists, but if they start seriously devouring each other, or if it starts to become clear that Iran is really pulling their strings, they will decline. Even now they're mainly reacting to the governing council, which gets the top billing on az-Zaman, the only on-line Iraqi paper I know of, though due to the small print I seldom read it.

How will all this end? I don't feel comfortable making predictions, and I think that once the current harvest season is over we might see more issues developing in Kurdistan (most recent background here). But the current key is in what happens on that governing council in Baghdad.

Clinton on WMD

Former President Bill Clinton has weighed in on the WMD controversy. A key quote: "People can quarrel with whether we should have more troops in Afghanistan or internationalize Iraq or whatever, but it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons." He also said he thought people were still paying too much attention to the Yellowcake affair.

International Minimum Wage

Crescat Sententia's Amy Lamboley has a post on one of Dick Gephardt's more curious notions, the International Minimum Wage, which upon further inspection seems to be more of a requirement that countries set their own minimum wages. Her basic criticism is that a livable wage in most of the world would still be so far below ours that it wouldn't make much difference. I suspect she's right. The main counterargument would probably be that there's more to the equation than just wages: If you decide to make your shirts in a Honduras sweatshop, you're saying what you can save on labor costs is more than what you're going to spend shipping your goods to the U.S. Working to close that gap might be a good thing. Gephardt himself is talking about a downward spiral as companies which stay in the U.S. worsen their working conditions to compete with the sweatshoppers, and I do think stopping that would be a good thing, though I'm not sure this will work.

What I actually think about globalization is what Clinton said about affirmative action: "Mend it, don't end it." I've usually called for doing this by regulating corporate behavior using existing American laws...why can't we say that a corporation chartered in the U.S. has to uphold some basic labor and environmental standards even when operating overseas? (I think I got that idea from a Green Party platform somewhere.) After all, they are representing us, and usually quite badly, except in cases where public pressure forces them to behave themselves, as with Unocal's pressing the Taliban to improve their human rights record (See Ahmed Rashid's Taliban). That would help the environment, achieve the same domestic labor agenda as the IMW, preserve the development benefits of putting capital into the hands of the developing world labor market, which they well spend in their domestic economies, still allow businesses originating in the developing world to afford to hire employees, and in the best of all possible worlds actually show the corporate face of the U.S. to be a force for good in the world.

I'm curious what those with more experience on these issues think.

Bedouinization in Kuwait

Amir Taheri has an opinion piece in Gulf News discussing the rising political power in Kuwait of the Bedouin, who tend to oppose both the modernizing liberal and Islamist factions of the cities. It struck me as interesting because we've seen something similar in Iraq, where Iraqi tribes have been both a cornerstone of resistance in the Sunni triangle and defenders of moderate cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani when the Sadriyun went after him in April. However, I'm not sure it actually represents a broad regional trend, because in terms of sheer numbers only in what is essentially a small city-state like Kuwait could they decisively influence any elections.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Harry Potter and Isaac Bashevis Singer

Ed Cohn has a pointer to a New York Times article on Harry Potter scholarship that includes a discussion of human rights violations in the wizarding world, among other things. I couldn't help but think of Harry Potter when I recently read Isaac Bashevis Singer's speech at the 1978 Nobel Banquet:

"Ladies and Gentlemen: There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them. Number 1) Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics. Number 2) Children don't read to find their identity. Number 3) They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. Number 4) They have no use for psychology. Number 5) They detest sociology. Number 6) They don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake. Number 7) They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff. Number 8) They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes. Number 9) When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority. Number 10) They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."

Words of wisdom, perhaps, for some the the HP critics. Incidentally, I'm finding Singer's work to be rather interesting, and will have Satan in Goray finished before I go to sleep tonight. After I also finish The Magician of Lublin, expect a post on the subject.

Iraqi Headlines

Here is the Iraqi newspaper az-Zaman's article on the deaths of Qusay and Uday Hussein. The first part reads: "American Forces Suddenly Attack/Raid the Sons of the Deposed President." I found it interesting because the word they used for "deposed" was not "khali'a", but "makhru'a". That makes some sense because the latter is the passive participle whereas the first is also used for things like firing an employee. However, "makhru'a" is also the Arabic for "mad, crazy," and I kind of wonder if any pun was involved. If anyone more experienced in Arabic has insight, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Getting Work Done

Blogging is rather light so far today because I'm getting academic work done. I read 1.5 pages of Tabari while doing laundry, and while the accuracy was still not quite where I wanted it, it's getting better, and I'm especially happy about how I'm able to get through stuff more quickly. I've also written my encyclopedia article on the Bedouin during the Crusades, which is the one I had to do the most poking around for. I'd earlier finished simple articles on Qalawun (Mamluk Sultan of Egypt from 1279-1290) and the Second Battle of Homs (where Qalawun defeated the Mongols in 1281), and now just have "Turks" left. Encyclopedia articles always make me paranoid about plagiarism, because the standards of what need to be cited are so different from scholarly articles. When I was doing my Greenwood stuff on Africa and the Ottoman Empire I continued to cite obsessively, and still worry that I missed something. The Crusades project came with guidelines specifying quotes and statistics, which I didn't use any of, so I guess I'm ok there.

I think the thing that freaked me out most recently is the note in the Crusades guidelines about having to get the rights to republish long quotes. As an academic, I just think about the citing part, and while I haven't really used any long quotes, it makes me wonder what other business-type things might be lurking out there, especially on the Greenwood project. I have an intense desire not to have my career come to an unhappy end because of a plagiarism scandal for a random reference entry written in grad school. But I figure I'm probably just paranoid.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Arafat and the Militants

This article from the Lebanon Daily Star details Arafat's intervention to secure the release of the PA's governor in Jenin who had been accused of collaboration with Israel and kidnapped by militants. Arafat apparently has enough influence with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to get them to release a governor, but not to stop terrorism. Of course by reputation the AMB are pretty loosely organized, so I might be making too much of this. Also interesting from the article is a Palestinian protest against militants last Thursday in Nablus.

More on the Iraqi Militia

I didn't quite finish this because I had to run to work, but the Iraqi newspaper az-Zaman has more context for the formation of the Iraqi militia. If I translated this correctly - and my confidence is high - it is designed primarily as an urban defense force. The initiative came from the Iraqi Governing Council, which is selling it as a way to reduce the American and British presence in the country as quickly as possible. The U.S. is definitely eager to get out of the cities first, but still, the numbers involved seem really small. I'm curious to see if they begin this program in the Sunni triangle where the U.S. is taking the overwhelming majority of its casualties.

Rebuilding Iraq's Military

The U.S. is set to begin training a new Iraqi militia to gradually take over security in the country. "Gradually" is a key word here, as a year from now this force will be only 12,000 strong, when the U.S. has like 150,000 troops in Iraq right now and probably needs a few more. The main importance of this will probably be demonstrating that the U.S. is dedicated to Iraqi sovereignty. However, those Iraqis who reject the governing council will probably turn on this force, as well. I also noticed they said that the ethnic composition of each unit in the new militia will reflect the ethnic composition of a given area of the country. This is not really a national army. I haven't generally taken the line that Iraq will wind up in a civil war, but if it does, the U.S. may regret organizing things that way.

Iraqi WMD

I haven't had much to say about the Iraqi WMD issue lately, because I really don't have much to add to the general debate you can all tune into yourselves. Via Oxblog, however, I would like to point toward an old column by Robert Kagan about how pretty much everybody agreed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons somewhere. I don't agree with everything Kagan brings up - I'm not sure the preo-1998 stuff is relevant, for example, as Clinton and Blair set out to destroy those programs during Operation Desert Fox. However, the fact remains that Saddam really wasn't cooperating with the inspectors, and that the UN reports did talk about stuff that was unaccounted for, and that the global consensus was that he was hiding something. This is, at the very least, a significant mystery.

The potential abuse of intelligence information by the White House is a separate issue, however. Before the war started I essentially accused Bush of making up both the al-Qaeda connection and the nuclear program, and everything I've seen and heard since then confirms those beliefs. If there has been systematic manipulation of this information by the Bush administration, that administration should pay serious consequences.

As far as what I think of the war itself, I supported it for several reasons, but also raised concerns about 1.) Its effect on the War on Terror and 2.) Our ability to handle the aftermath. I regard the jury as still out on both those points. In addition, Steve Gilliard is teaching me a lot about just how thin our combat forces are, and that raises another concern: the effect of this war on our security elsewhere. I have to question where North Korea would have moved forward on their nuclear program were we not so tied down elsewhere, and that is not a situation where Bush seems to have any plan at all.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Jewish Terrorists

Haaretz today has a discussion of Shin Bet investigations of Jewish terrorists, such as a group planning to blow up a school and maternity clinic. These groups are easily on a level with Hamas and other terrorist groups. Admittedly there don't seem to be as many Jewish terrorists as Muslim ones; however, the Israeli government has been far more effective at protecting its citizens from the Intifada than the PA has at resisting the Israeli occupation. (I am not suggesting that IDF operations are the moral equivalent of terrorism, but rather that the IDF's success creates a different dynamic in Israeli society than you find in Palestinian society. When Palestinians believed Arab armies could defeat Israel, there was little or no terrorism.)

Sidebar Changes

The observant will note that I have widened my blogroll, and added three new blogs: Zack Ajmal's "Procrastination," Ed Cohn's "Mildly Malevolent," and "The Leaky Cauldron," a Harry Potter blog. ("Harriet J. Potter" is actually my friend Jordan, who simply prefers on-line anonymity. I've also deleted a few blogs which are no longer updated regularly, and added Mexico to the list of countries from which I have had visitors.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Sense and Sensibility

"His errand at Barton, in fact, was a simple one. It was only to ask Elinor to marry him; -and considering that he was not altogether inexperienced at such a question, it might be strange that he should feel so uncomfortable in the present case as he really did, so much in need of encouragement and fresh air."
-Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)

I'm not sure why I found that so funny, but I did. I have finally finished the book, and found that while the beginning is incredibly dull and full of tortured dialogue from Elinor, a little over a third of the way through it takes off and becomes interesting. The question arises, of course, of what we make of the different philosophies of Elinor and Marianne. The back cover holds that the difference is one between "prudence, discretion, and self-control" and "emotion, openness, and enthusiasm." I'm not sure that's quite right. Elinor's emotions are just as strong as Marianne's; however, they are more mature. Marianne's problem was not in her loving, but in her loving too quickly, and by placing all of her affection in the hands of an unworthy ideal. Still, I'm not entirely convinced by her eventual fate in marrying Colonel Brandon - the notion that she eventually became as devoted to him as she had been Willoughby seems accomplished simply by writer's fiat. I guess where I come down is where we'd all like to: Let our hearts fly after the manner of Marianne Dashwood, but always channel the good sense of her wiser sister.

Next up: The King of the Fields, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Friday, July 18, 2003

Iraqi Resistance

RFE-RL also has a new Iraq report with some interesting stories about the Iraqi resistance. Near the bottom, it quotes John Abizaid as saying that the Iraqi resistance is becoming more organized. He described the attackers as "pro-Hussein resistance elements from the Iraqi intelligence services, Special Security Organization, Special Republican Guard, and mid-level Ba'athists that are working at regional levels in cell structures of six to eight people." Further up the page, however, are stories about a number of small, newly formed resistance groups dedicated to ending the American occupation but strongly denying any ties to Saddam Hussein. One, the "1920 Revolution Brigades," has said it is beginning to coordinate its attacks with other groups, which could be the increasing organization Abizaid described. Another group, the "Iraqi Liberation Army," is threatening attacks against any embassies which open in occupied Iraq. If these groups continue to get together, the situation in Iraq will become much worse before it gets better.

The Afghani-Pakistani Border

A new RFE-RL Afghanistan Report says that three southern tribes have issued a statement supporting President Karzai's tough stance on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the new fad is to blame a third country for the dispute, with Pakistan pointing fingers at India while according to Amin Tarzi the U.S. suspects Iran. Central Asia is becoming an increasingly murky place. The Great Game is afoot, my dear doctor!

The Bishop Speaks

According to the BBC, Severius Hawa, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Baghdad and Basra, has criticized the U.S. for their failure to restore basic services in Iraq, which he said in endangering lives. However, he praised the U.K. for their administration in Basra, as have many others. Perhaps most disturbingly, he said he was unsure whether the U.S. administration was an improvement over Saddam. Given the brutality of Saddam's regime, that's a rather serious indictment of the job we've done since the fall of Baghdad.


William of Baude says why he opposes sanctions against Burma, and by implication sanctions against most other governments, as well. I think he makes at least one excellent point: "I think it's not just bad policy but profoundly perverse to punish American citizen and Burmese citizen alike when all that most of the Burmese citizens have done wrong is to fail to stop their chosen leader from being ousted by the military."

I can find no evidence whatsoever that sanctions work, except against countries that have a strong semblance of democracy among at least some segment of the population, as in the cases of Yugoslavia and South Africa. But have they affected Iraq? North Korea? Cuba? Moammar Qadhafi has been attempting to get Libya off the "rogue state" list, but I kind of doubt simply escaping sanctions was the reason. When you look at Iraq today, remember that the Iraqi economy was torn apart not by the war or Saddam's dictatorship, but by 12 years of sanctions, sanctions which maye have emasculated the regime with respect to its neighbors but left its population clinging to minimal standards of living and dependent on aid from that regime for their day-to-day living.

I will now for the first and probably only time on this blog agree with something Pat Buchanan said during his 2000 Presidentian campaign: Sanctions are a weapon of cowards. They allow politicians to look like they're standing up for something without making any real sacrifices. Do I always support going to war in these cases? No, of course not. But in Iraq, the sanctions killed far more people than the war. Those now cheering the sanctions on Burma should probably ask the Burmese people what they think.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Head Heeb's "Good News from Palestine"

For those tired of hearing only bad news about the Middle East, check out Jonathan Edelstein's collection of good news from Palestine. Featured achievements in this installment include a furniture industry topping $100 million in exports for the year, the opening of a new $2 million teacher training center in Rafah, and getting a date with Lauren Bush.

Public Drinking Fountains

I live across the street from a drinking fountain, which is highly popular with walkers and joggers in the neighborhood. I just watched some woman walking a dog get a drink from it, then she helped her (rather large) dog up onto it so he could get a drink, as well. The dog was apparently really thirsty, since he just now got down.

I guess I won't plan on ever getting a drink there.

Sadriyun Split

Juan Cole reports on a split with the Sadriyun leadership, as Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri attemptes to sideline the movement's main leader in Iraq, Muqtada Sadr, son of the martyred Ayatollah for whom it is named. Muqtada's main weakness was his youth and consequent lack of religious authority, so he got the Iranian Ayatollah al-Haeri to support him, apparently hoping he'd serve as a rubber-stamp-in-exile. Now al-Haeri wants real power. The Sadriyun have been the most rejectionist Shi'ite group in Iraq with no representative on the interim governing council. If we get really lucky, this split may help change that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

P & A Commission

The BBC reports that a joint commission has been set up to investigate the border situation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Note what seems heavy U.S. involvement in setting it up.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Pakistan vs. Afghanistan

I wonder how it would affect the War on Terror if Pakistan and Afghanistan declared war on each other.

I mean this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because I don't think that will happen, but the most recent RFE-RL Afghanistan report continues a troubling tale of tension between the two neighbors who are the key to our strategy for defeating the Taliban-al-Qaeda "remnants" in Central Asia. There was always room for trouble here: Pakistan has historically aspired to control of Afghanistan, and many elements in Afghanistan dream of the annexation of all "Pashtunistan," which includes a rather large chunk of Pakistan. But in recent weeks Pakistani troops have crossed the border into Afghanistan, where they have engaged in firefights with several wounded. According to these reports, artillery fire was continuing along the border as recently as a week ago, and Reuters takes it up to last weekend.

This was the context for Hamid Karzai's big foreign policy speech discussed in the RFE-RL report, which correspondent Amin Tarzi read as laced with veiled threats against, Pakistan, which I think holds water. Pakistan's intelligence helped create the Taliban, and Karzai has regularly accused Pakistan of continuing to harbor terrorists, as I have blogged about several times previously. I may have taken these reports too much at face value, because Karzai may have motives to raise a row with Pakistan - specifically, the rivalry between the two nations caused by their conflicting historical claims and Karzai's own 2004 re-election campaign. Some reports have said that Karzai's brother marched in an anti-Pakistan protest, though I can't find that now to link to. In Afghan culture, that kinship tie will be noticed.

I'm not too worried about the radicals, especially on the Afghan side: Most Afghans are probably sane enough to realize that they should probably rebuild their own country before taking parts of other peoples'. But with Afghanistan justifiably threatening to take strong action unless Pakistan withdraws from Afghan territory, observers should note the fact that both the rhetoric and conduct of the war in that region is becoming caught up in these regional disputes. And as Tarzi's main article closes: "There is a feeling held widely among Afghans that was illustrated by Karzai: that Afghanistan will be delivered to the will of Pakistan. As Karzai has rightly warned, the international community should 'not repeat that mistake again.' "

More Qur'an Talk

Zack Ajmal and Ed Cohn both link to an Atlantic Monthly article dealing with Qur'anic Studies, as well as some opinions on different sides of the question. The debate highlights some issues which I think are worth addressing.

First is the motives of the scholars, which people assail as being either out to attack Islam or out to defend it. That hasn't actually been my experience. Here at UW, we recently did a job search for a Qur'anic Studies position, and all the applicants seemed to be to be scholars who just wanted to know what happened. The one we eventually made an offer to was Shahab Ahmed, a Muslim who is considered the world's leading expert on the Satanic Verses controversy (in the Qur'an, not the Rushdie affair), and was strongly aware of the Muslim scholarly tradition on the subject and the different approaches there informed his work as much as Western methodological developments. However, Western historians always maintain a stance of skepticism in dealing with religious claims. In my undergraduate "Introduction to the Bible" course, the professor, Fr. William Burton from the Pontifical Gregorian Institute in the Vatican, freely took the stance that Christ's correct prediction about the destruction of the Temple shows that the gospels post-dated that destruction, rather than the "Christ was thus definitely the Son of God" most Christians would take in their religious lives. This is the same impulse that motivates Western scholars to treat the Qur'an as a human rather than divine creation.

From such a standpoint, there is room for debate as to the integrity of the Muslim historical tradition. The only source widely accepted as contemporary with the Prophet is the Qur'an, and even then we don't have extant copies from that period. The writing down of the hadith corpus and the earliest histories and biographies of the community did not start until around a century later. Before that time, you are in oral tradition, and your opinion of the integrity of oral tradition is what will heavily influence your opinion of the reliability of this Muslim testimony. Muslims themselves discovered many forgeries among the hadith, and several scholars produced authoritative collections of reliable hadith during I believe the 10th century. This was a monumental achievement accomplished mainly though an analysis of the chains of transmission - if one said that Hassan had heard it from Amr, but Hassan had been born in 768 and Amr died in 765, you know its a forgery. However, some scholars today - almost exclusively Western - suspect that there remain in the authoritative collections a large number of false hadith. The surrounding controversy is one if the reasons I stay away from those topics in my scholarly research. We also know that there were a lot of different movements and shades of opinion running around the early Islamic world...a quick read through Tabari has lots of people carrying around sacred chairs and stuff. It should be of interest to scholars to learn how the version of Islam today considered orthodox came to be that way.

I suspect that part of the reason the application of Western methodologies to questions of the Islamic past lies in the current geopolitical situation. I've noticed a lot of the critics of these methodologies seem to have read a bit too much Edward Said: They label what they dislike as "orientalist" and toss it around like the name of an enemy. Said himself, talked about such people in the 1994 afterword to his Orientalism. Historically, Islam has been as much a product of its social and cultural context as any other religion. Because in its formative centuries it was basically confined to the Middle East, it had all the characteristics of Middle Eastern religions: Prophet, sacred text, universality, and religious scholars studying a sacred law code. Theologically it was influenced by plenty of ideas circulating in the Fertile Crescent, such as Greek philosophy and Christian theological debates. Majid Fakhry's article in The Oxford History of Islam talks about some of this. As Islam spread, people from different regions all interpreted Islam in their own terms, and while over the past 300 years or so the spread of literacy has greatly standardized things, all these regions have left their own mark, as well. It seems to me inevitable that Western practices and intellectual ideas will leave their mark on the religion, as well, and I think were it not for the history of colonialism and everything most intellectual Muslims would not object to this so strenuously.

In any event, like I say, as a historian, I stay out of the theological side of things, aside from reporting on whatever the recent developments have been. I do caution against taking what's picked up by the media as representative of all Qur'anic Studies. In Biblical Studies, the guy who thinks Jesus spent his "Lost Years" with Buddhists has been popularized by media exposure because it attracts interest, but the work being done by your average scholar is far more involved, if difficult to sell newspapers or magazines with. I suspect the same of the houris/grapes thing...these people probably know that they're doing, and the reporters just don't explain the whole thing. Meanwhile, I shall continue to apply the words Edward Gibbon wrote about the study of early Christianity:

"Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favorable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church."


I just read another page or so of Tabari, and continued to get 70% accuracy, though I'm not as worried about it this time. One mistake was because I decided to translate "white scroll" somewhat poetically as a report of his good name, rather than just a blank scroll. Then the end of the section got messed up when I kept reading some guy's name as an actual word, but that was because I wanted to finish before my laundry was done. Maybe things are looking up after all.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Daniel Drezner, Jonathan Edelstein, and Zack Ajmal all have extensive analyses of the poll showing most Palestinians wouldn't return to Israel and subsequent attack on the pollster. Many people, myself included, have argued that the right of return is the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace, as Israel cannot remain a Jewish state if it admits all the Palestinian refugees who used to live there, yet the Palestinians have historically refused to give it up. This poll suggests that there is room for negotiation there - while 95% of Palestinians said Israel should concede the right, only 10% said they would actually use it.

An overwhelming majority of Palestinians said they would accept either compensation and a home in the Palestinian state, or residence in a third country. And as someone whose day-to-day hassles include persuading people that not all Palestinians are terrorists-in-training out to drive the Jews into the sea, I was especially interested in the fact that only 13% of those polled object to any peace deal whatsoever. Still, I feel cautious about whether this can really change the dynamics. The rejectionist forces are especially strong, and none of the moderate Palestinian leaders has really mobilized the street on their behalf against the extremists. Besides which, this is just one poll. But only time will tell...
Al-Muhajabah sends a long a thoughtful e-mail in response to this post about recent developments in Qur'anic Studies. The last paragraph: "Quite frankly, from what I have read, analysis and interpretation was being done on the Quran by the year 1000 that was more sophisticated than anything being done on the Bible until the late 1800s or after. Is this not of value because it doesn't use modern methodology? How do we judge what type of methodology is best? I would prefer to see scholars work within the Islamic tradition of scholarship first and go beyond it when they find it lacking rather than starting from scratch with the implication that there's nothing of value in the old works."

My answer to the question, speaking as a historian, is no. In fact, I make a point in class of the importance of the work done by Muslims on everything from hadith scholarship to Qur'anic exegesis for our modern understanding of the context of these works. However, I don't think the scholars working on these projects are saying that at all. Basically, what the critical edition project seems to spring from is a questioning of the Uthmanic recension of the Qur'an, and wondering if other extant versions might possibly affect interpretation. This is analogous to Biblical scholars finding some manuscript in the Dead Sea Scrolls that might shed light on some reference in the canonical books of the Bible. I think any methodology with the potential to enhance understanding should be fair game for any scholar of any subject.

I should add, however, that as I am not a Muslim, I prefer to stay out of the theological aspects of this debate, if that is at all possible. Issues like the application of hadith to Qur'anic interpretation have been revisited by modernist Muslims before, and shari'a is a subject so complicated that truly mastering even a branch of it requires a commitment similar to what I do as a grad student in history. Al-Muhajabah suggests the web site Islamic Awareness for those interested in looking at these sorts of issues further.
Gulf News today reports that the Emir of Kuwait, Jaber al-Ahmed as-Sabah, has named a new Prime Minister, and in a break with tradition it is not the Crown Prince, Shaykh Saad al-Abdullah as-Sabah, but the emir's brother, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmed as-Sabah, the former Foreign Minister. This may not seem terribly important, as power remains in the hands of the royal family, but separating the two posts has been a key demand of reformers, as the Crown Prince is considered above criticism, and people wish the right to criticize the Prime Minister. Of course, the fact that something this minor is heralded as a major reform probably says something about the present state of democracy in Kuwait.
OK...I traditionally own two pairs of shoes, one of tennis shoes and the other high-top boot-style shoes. Last week my tennis shoes, which had been declining for some time, simply snapped apart. I decided I'd replace them "later," and began wearing the high-top ones. Yesterday, I discovered these had developed an actual crack in the top, where the joint connecting my big toe to my foot presses when I curl up my foot. And I just bought them over Winter Break! So now I've gone out and gotten new tennis shoes, at least, which is what I want to wear over the summer anyway, when not in sandals.
Courtesy of Juan Cole, I found these brief profiles of the members of the new Iraqi Governing Council. There appear to be 25 members, rather than the 30 I reported yesterday. Some of the names are familiar, such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi and the Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. Others seem to be drawn from local leadership positions involving the social services, such as Raja Habib al-Khuzaai, who headed a maternity hospital, or members of a particular constituency such as the Christian leader Younadem Kana.
I've found a flaw in my plan to quit quiz bowl. During grad school, qb has gradually become the cornerstone of my social life. This summer is the first time I haven't had qb practices to go to in ages, and I've basically been without outlets, just the usual array of plans floating around that never materialize. I was thinking of volunteering with a theater of some kind, but haven't felt comfortable making the time commitment when I'm not even sure if I would like it. All well...grad school is supposed to be monkish. I just wish I wasn't so much of a people person.

ADDENDUM: I feel like I should update this so it doesn't sound like I'm moaning so much. I guess what group activities cure is the sense that you're operating inside some sort of closed box. I actually socialize a fair amount, but in reality 90% of it is on-line. That just isn't the same. Sometimes tone is lost...a few days ago there was the possibility of going to an art fair with someone, who decided they just wanted to go a little piece of it, the same as I did. Had it been an actual conversation, I would have picked up on the tone indicating it was backing out. Instead, I took it as the tone of discussing what would happen. Then there are the people you don't really socialize with so much as use. I was playing Literati last night and had an amazing come-from-behind victory to win by one point. The person then booted me from the table. This is a form of aggression you generally don't have to deal with in real life. There's also avoidance...trying to make plans over e-mail and wondering how long you should wait and at what point you should just assume they've gone and decided on something else. In RL, you just know, as people deal with each other more directly.

I guess that's my contribution to the on-line socialization debate =) It probably explains why I'm so resistant to the idea of on-line dating, too. But there's no help for it - especially when people scatter around the world, its much better to have a way to keep in touch than not. Even on the argument about whether its appropriate to tell people about your day via blog, I find it helps when otherwise you'd just miss people, and haven't seen any evidence it encourages laziness in keeping in touch. So I guess the foibles are something we'll all eventually develop reflexes for as time passes.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Iraq's new 30-member governing council has had its first meeting. This is an important step which gives actual Iraqis a voice in governing their country, regardless of how they were selected. If this group can win legitimacy, it will go a long way toward helping to stabilize Iraq. One thing that concerns me, however, is the groups composition. There are 14 Shi'ite Arabs, but only 4 Sunni Arabs. The latter figure sounds like its quite a bit below their actual share of the population, and taken with the fact that the Sunni Arabs have dominated the country points to the reason the U.S. is encountering such strong resistance in the so-called "Sunni Triangle."

Saturday, July 12, 2003

The Lebanon Daily Star has an interesting article about a current project to produce a critical edition of the Qur'an influenced by manuscripts found in Sana'a which differ from the standard text. Muslims, of course, consider the Qur'an the divinely revealed word of God, and hence do not subject it to the same styles of exegesis you find among many Christians with the Bible, though the interpretation of the Qur'an by Muslim scholars is more complicated than generally believed by the average non-Muslim. However, the standard edition of the Qur'an was actually compiled during the reign of the caliph Uthman, and hence there is a certain room for uncertainty as to what other versions of the text might have existed.

Another issue discussed in the article is the possibility that many of the words in the text are not Arabic, but loanwords from Aramaic or Syraic used to express concepts not found in 7th-century Arabic. Looking at these two languages for clues has led scholars to some interesting conclusions, such as the theory that the righteous will receive in heaven not beautiful virgins, but grapes. (Incidentally, such a conclusion would remove the main incentive for me to ever convert to Islam.) I am in no way qualified to discuss this article much further...if you're interested, read the whole thing.
Kim Jong Il has the reputation of world's craziest dictator, but I wonder how he really stacks up aginst Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who according to IWPR on July 3 issued a decree banning cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, and bees while limiting pets to one per household in the capital city of Ashgabat. Two days later government forces bulldozed illegal livestock pens and executed surplus pets. This has been especially hard on residents who had no other income than their livestock, and basically lost their livelihood because they couldn't sell them. Some residents, however, appear skeptical that the decree will last. According to one resident named Timur, "If I have two canaries singing in a cage, then I'm in breach of the new regulations. So what are the authorities going to do - open the door and let one of the birds fly away?" Other recent decrees by Niyazov have banned all-night parties following graduation, loud music after 11 p.m., and required special permission for weddings, funerals and anniversary celebrations.
A little mid-summer hockey blogging: According to this article, the St. Louis Blues are considering trading Doug Weight to the Detroit Red Wings for University of Wisconsin alumnus Curtis Joseph and replacing him with Sergei Federov. This makes me happy, not least because Joseph was a member of the first Blues team I became a fan of, which featured him and Vince Riendeau as an outstanding goalie tandem as they overcame a 3-1 deficit to oust the Red Wings from the play-offs. Then the Blues could presumably trade Osgood for some help on defense. Incidentally, the same article said that if Patrick Roy wants to retract his retirement, all 30 NHL teams must give written approval. That seems kind of unfair...shouldn't there at least be a gentlemen's agreement among the clubs not to prevent people from playing if they decide they want to?

Friday, July 11, 2003

Perhaps the biggest trouble spot for the U.S. in Iraq has been Falluja, a city near Baghdad which we have now left, on the insistence of the police force we trained there. There are now just one or two Americans stationed at the central police station, and even they appear unwanted. The Iraqi police seemed to feel that the U.S. forces were both endangering them by making them appear to be collaborating with occupiers and somewhat inept at dealing with local issues.
Many people talk about the sacrifices you make as a grad student: social, financial, and years of your life spent in the library hunched over books. One I've noticed in me is my ability to write. I used to dabble some in poetry, and write essays some people loved just for their aesthetics. In grad school, however, you spend so much time worrying about the technical definitions of everything you don't have time for anything else. I just came back from a walk that took me along the lakeshore and saw lots of little things that a few years ago would have immediately caused me to pen a few lines. At one point I stopped, and tried to bring to mind a poem in my head. And there was words, no imagery - just a vague sense of beauty that affected me, but that I could find no way to express.

And incidentally, AIM appears to be horrifically slow tonight.
Salam Pax has recommended a new blog from Basra called Ishtar Talking. Its rather interesting...I'll probably blogroll it eventually.
Fun with airline fares: The current cheapest fare for a single adult flying from Providence to Madison in October is $361. I then did a search for the same date with an accompanying child. The fare for the two tickets? $355, on the same airline.

Does that mean we should get our speakers to recruit children to travel with them?
According to Haaretz, Yasser Arafat has escalated his rhetoric against Mahmud Abbas, saying, "Abu Mazen is betraying the interests of the Palestinian people.". He has given mayors the right to command security forces, and has now offered Jibril Rajoub a position as head of all mayors in the West Bank. This would by-pass Abbas's security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, whose appointment was the main sticking point in the political crisis surrounding Mahmud Abbas's appointment.

Other interesting notes: According to interviews with Palestinian prisononers, Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader currently in prison, took a hand in persuading the al-Aqsa Martyrs Bridage to sign the cease-fire. The Bush administration has authorized direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, thus helping strengthen it against the militant groups. And Jonathan Edelstein finds information that "A brawl took place several days ago between residents of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, in southern Gaza, and a terror cell that refused to comply with the residents’ demand to halt terror attacks."

Thursday, July 10, 2003

I haven't posted much today despite some interesting headlines floating around because I had decided to spend the entire day vigorously working on my dissertation. The decision was not effectively carried out, as I found myself doing everything from a bit of net-surfing to playing Yahoo Literati to watching random bits of television. I basically just read about 70 pages of Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition As History, half of that while waiting for my laundry.

At the moment, I'm reading Fumio Niwa's The Buddha Tree, which appears to be the first clunker for the summer, though I'm in to the point where I'll try to finish it. I can't really explain - I just don't care for it. The second half might get better, though. I've decided that soon I want to read more Latin American literature, because I've somehow managed to overlook it when I make my library visits, yet what little I have read is excellent. Earlier this summer I was impressed with Carlos Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz, and in earlier days I remember really enjoying Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude while finding Chronicle of a Death Foretold rather interesting. The only other thing I've tried was Love in the Time of Cholera, which I started just before an overseas trip and never got back to. Of the works of Paz, Asturias, Borges, and all the others I have only quiz bowl knowledge. Recommendations welcome...
Yesterday's major protests in Iran were cancelled because the opposition leaders feared a serious retaliation from the regime. However, some protests went on anyway, and there was a large amount of street fighting between protestors and the basiji vigilantes, with the police arresting people from both sides. I'm not sure what the specific consequences people feared were; there have been thousands of arrests by the regime, and the prisoners may have been involved somehow, or they may have threatened to step up the level of violence. I think for the resistance to be effective the students need to do more to support the reformists in Parliament...when the different reform-minded groups work in concert, as they do on prison sentences and such, they are far more effective than when the students take the radical line they have lately.
UPDATE: Hossein Derakhshan reports that major blogging sites are now blocked in Iran.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Today was definitely a productive day at work, as I figured out our basic situation with next year's lecture series, cleaned a bunch of junk out of the office, got the new computer set up and all the software installed onto it, and assembled the new HP combination color printer/scanner/copier/FAX machine. Unfortunately, I have been unable to complete the installation of the HP because I can't find the USB cable, which I need to connect it to the computer. I thought maybe I'd mistaken it for a twistie-tie and even searched the trash, but it wasn't there. So that project is now delayed until tomorrow. Then I can start making a spiffy new poster for our fall lectures (featuring Roxanne Euben, Jonathan Berkey, Farian Sabahi, and Brinkley Messick) and get it to the printer for distribution before the end of the month.

I've also realized I have just over a month left before that period of homelessness between the end of my current housing contract and the start of my fall one. I've decided to cart as many books as I can to the Middle East Studies office and then see from the remainder if I need to pay for storage somewhere or if I can pull off a combination of just taking everything home and begging corners off people I know who have houses. How the summer flies...

Incidentally, I have now added to the blogroll Crooked Timber and Crescat Sententia, both of which have remarkably cool names as well as interesting content.
More fluctuations in local government in Iraq: A Shi'ite judge named Wa'il Abd al-Latif is the new governor of Basra, while Ali Kammouna, chosen by the U.S. to lead Karbala, has resigned due to allegations of corruption. The Karbala resignation is being tied to a city council investigation, much like the recent arrest of the mayor of Najaf was officially on the orders of a local judge. I wish the media were paying more attention to these issues, as I'm really curious what's really going on.
Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan have soared recently, with Pakistani forces engaging the Afghan army inside Afghanistan, and Kabul continuing to accuse Islamabad of allowing the Taliban to operate from their territory. Now a mob has attacked Pakistan's embassy in Kabul. Pakistan has had aspirations in Afghanistan since the nation's founding, and the Taliban was originally intended as their puppet regime. Karzai's government, on the other hand, has frequently been controntational, and I expect Pakistan to begin seeking clients among the warring Afghan factions. Musharraf's statement that Karzai's government did not adequately reflect Afghanistan's ethnic composition may represent some sort of nod to the Pashtuns.

Here is the most recent RFE-RL Afghanistan report. Just read the litany of fighting and chaos and then compare it with President Bush's declarations of victory.
Vasil Bykau, the greatest living writer of Belarus, has died.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

According to this, Spike Lee's lawsuit against the network formerly known as TNN was partly because, "I don't want to be associated with that Stripperella crap." Somehow I never thought I'd find myself in such agreement with Lee. I suppose it's no different than a restaurant like Hooter's, but then I boycott them, too. When human beings become little more than caricatures used in fantasies of orgasmic pleasure, it is an offense not only to the women who must live as demeaned objects of the male gaze, but to all who believe that God created us as uniquely valuable individuals that we might contribute to the world from our flowering innate specialness. There are healthy ways to approach sexuality, and there is crass exploitation, and when it comes to the latter, I will resist it to the last breath of my dying day.
Yesterday the Jenin branch of Islamic Jihad carried out a suicide bombing which threatens to unravel the truce between Israel and the militant Palestinian groups. The group said they were protesting Israel's plans to release only a few hundred Palestinian prisoners. However, coming as it does at the start of President Bush's Africa trip, I wonder if it might be an attempt to unravel the truce before the peace process develops further momentum and the PA starts gaining the tools necessary to crack down the IJ, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations. The current negotiations are basically George Bush's creation, with help from the likes of Egypt and Jordan. He needs to send Condoleezza Rice, his personal agent in foreign policy, to the region immediately to show that he is still monitoring the situation and willing to take action.

Incidentally, on the Palestinian side of things, , Mahmud Abbas resigned from the Fatah Central Committee due to a conflict with Arafat, but the committee rejected his resignation. This internal PA battle is more significant than whatever happens in Jenin, as Arafat has already proven he either can't or won't make a peace deal. He will, however, cling to power at any cost, and unless he is decisively shoved aside into being a mere symbol, will continue to undermine Abbas for the sole purpose of seizing the PA's reigns once again.
To Whom it May Concern:

When you have two left turn lanes both of which are rather busy, it is inadvisable to change lanes during the course of your turn, especially without signalling.

Thank you
I've noticed lots of people expressing surprise that a Republican President would go to such great lengths to promote Africa-related issues. I think there are sound reasons to expect this. The grassroots base of the Republican party is the religious right, and evangelical Christians have been pouring tons of missionaries and associated social workers in Africa for years, bringing back horror stories to their local congregations. Bill Frist has only the highest profile of this brand of Africa activist. Hence, initiatives like the African AIDS proposal have as much to do with appealing to the GOP base as anything else.

Monday, July 07, 2003

From the Eurasia-Geopolitics Yahoo Group: Al-Alam TV has aired a report from Fallujah on the "Awakening and Jihad" group, which has vowed to resist the American occupation in that country. One interesting excerpt from the group's spokesperson: "I tell the Muslims everywhere that what is happening in Fallujah and other cities, in spite of the media cover-up by the invading forces, are sporadic operations. In doing so, we do not wish to declare war on them, but to make America understand that we are people who do not accept occupation, particularly after it made big false promises to the Iraqi people to rid it of the dictator Saddam." I find it curious that the American pledge to oust Saddam is called a "false promise." The spokesperson goes on to tout various anti-Semitic beliefs found on the streets of Baghdad today which I will not repeat here. There is of course no way of knowing how big this group is, as they didn't take credit for anything specific. I suspect we'll see lots of small groups of various sizes and ideologies spring up as the occupation continues. Unfortunately, this means the attacks on U.S. troops probably won't end because of major military operations, as you have to basically round up every group individually and hope that no more start while you're doing it. Winning local support is thus a vital part of stabilizing Iraq.
The recent elections for the Kuwaiti Parliament have resulted in massive turnover among the actual representatives, but the composition remains almost entirely Islamist and pro-government, with reports varying as to the exact size of each faction. This is being widely portrayed as a defeat for the liberals, who had aspired to significant gains. Important issues for the new Parliament include whether women should have the right to vote and whether the Crown Prince should continue to act as Prime Minister. Kuwait, of course, is not really a democracy, however, and it remains to be seen how the royal family will choose to work with the new majority, which Gulf News describes as "strong opponents of privatisation, foreign investment in the vital oil sector and all attempts to pass strict rules to monitor the numerous Islamic charity organisations."
So how is it that after all this time I can still look at a basic Arabic text and not make it through? A few months ago I read my first al-Jazeera article without using a dictionary. Yesterday I tried to look at their story on the Kuwaiti elections and it was just a big slog and I'm not sure I got that much out of it before giving up, though I think I was running into unfamiliar names for part of it. For my dissertation I've been dipping into the well of medieval chronicles. Last semester I read part of Akhbar as-Sin w'al-Hind without much difficulty. Recently I tried to read some of at-Tabari, and while it seemed easy, when I looked at the translation I got only 70% of it accurately, mostly (I think) due to rusty grammar. Last night I went a bit further, and got stuck on what seemed like basic vocabulty. There's this word azdad that looks like it should be so easy to find, and isn't, and then another one, ashwathu, that was almost as frustrating. One day I'll have all this figured out, I hope. Meanwhile, I know my spoken Arabic has decline beyond recognition due to lack of practice, so let's not even go there...

Sunday, July 06, 2003

As reported by this New York Times article, General Richard B. Myers has said that armed opposition to the U.S. in Iraq is mainly limited to a small area around Baghdad and coming from five groups: Ba'ath remnants, Ansar al-Islam, criminals, Sunni extremists, and foreign fighters. I'd feel better if he'd mentioned the situation among tribal groups which had benefitted from Saddam's rule. this RFE-RL report from last month tells of at least one tribe in the Ramadi area that tried (and failed) to get other tribes to join them in a revolution against the U.S. Maybe Myers is including them under Ba'ath remnants. Still, I think this peace is going to be won or lost politically, and that means the Shi'ite and Kurdish areas continue to bear watching. The Times also raised the possibility of cooperation between Washington and Shi'ite religious leaders. Some of us have been suggesting that for months...

Saturday, July 05, 2003

The U.S. has detained members of the Turkish special forces operating in northern Iraq, possibly on intelligence that they were plotting to assassinate a Kurdish official in Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a northern oil city where tens of thousands of Kurds were forced from their homes and replaced with Arabs under Saddam's regime. As seen in this news report from last week, the Kurds are understandably determined to undo that ethnic cleansing, which is helping to inflame ethnic tensions in the city. According to the New York Times, there have been discussions of Turkish troops helping to patrol Iraq, something for which Turkey, a strong opponent of Kurdish rights, would likely demand concessions on those issues. The U.S. currently has its hands full trying to end resistance in Arab Sunni central Iraq. It does not need the situation to spiral downward in the Kurdish north.

Friday, July 04, 2003

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." - The Declaration of Independence
Martin Kramer e-mails to point out this post about a Georgetown University MA program which requires students to read Orientalism the summer before they start the program, along with Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples and a book about women in the Middle East with with I am unfamiliar. I'm not sure this affects what I said below that much, though it does point out the problem with anecdotal evidence. Between my experiences and those of another e-mailer, I now have Kramer out-anecdoted 2-1, though since he's been following this longer he would probably win if I dug into his archives and counted all his anecdotes. In addition, I think the question of how Said is used is more important than whether his books are assigned. Bernard Lewis is a man whose political views most people in Middle Eastern Studies despise, yet his The Middle East was the main textbook for the 200-level medieval Islamic history course here, and I was assigned his Race and Slavery in the Middle East for a seminar on that topic that also included a reading by Daniel Pipes. Finding out why all these people want to read Orientalism is just as important as the fact they do read him.