Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Ailing Pope

These requests that people pray for the pope's health and this decision to move up the creation of 31 new cardinals cause me to believe someone other than Pope John Paul II will be leading the Roman Catholic Church come next year. I noticed a few weeks ago that in his appearances, he was even more frail than usual, and I've gotten used to the slow decline of his health. For me, this has two implications:

1.) Pope John Paul II should win the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. There are no clear favorites who would come before a sort of "lifetime general achievement" award, and there won't be another chance. I certainly don't agree with JP II on many matters of doctrine and social morality (being a Protestant, my opinion doesn't really count anyway), but believe he will be remembered as one of the greatest popes in history. First there is his role in the fall of communism - it was no accident the anti-communist forces first gained headlines in Poland shortly after the pope's ascension and determined visits to his homeland. More important is the way he has reinvented the position of the papacy, making it into a sort of global pastorship respected by people of all religions as he travels the world with his message of peace.

2.) A new pope will be chosen. Catholic politics fascinates me because it is so unpredictable. Pope John XXIII's selection is the classic example of this, as he was chosen as a place-holding transitional figure yet once in charge called the Vatican II council that reinvented Catholicism for modernity. The BBC reports speculation the next pope could be from Latin America, and also mentions the idea that he will favor devolution of authority to local and regional churches. When I was at QU a trendy favorite was Austria's Christoph Schoenborn. I would suggest people not overlook Nigeria's Francis Arinze, who is theologically conservative but a specialist in inter-religious dialogue. After John Paul II's flurry of theological activity, the hierarchy may decide a breather would be nice, and that Arinze addresses pressing issues of the modern world.

More "Reformist" Offspring

According to IWPR, Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is converting her Asar youth group into a political party, probably as a stepping-stone to succeed her father as President in the near future. Nazarbayeva already more or less controls the state news agency, and it wouldn't surprise me if she consolidated her position as "heir," or even succeeds during her father's lifetime so she can gradually assume control of the relevant power blocs.

Current Music

I'm not really a big music critic, but right now I'm listening to the Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman duet of "Time to Say Good-Bye," and it really interests me. I've had it since a friend from qb sent it to me around a year ago, and it's always excited in me visions at once epic and personal in a way few pieces do. If you like the type, go find a copy and give it a try.

Monday, September 29, 2003

New PA Cabinet, Separation Fence, Muhammad Dahlan

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, aka Abu Ala, has named his Cabinet, which will now go for approval before the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Cabinet is stocked with Arafat people, as well as one Hamas supporter, which suggests Arafat is trying to co-opt rather than confront the militants politically. Unfortunately this will cause him to take a harder line in peace negotiations, and probably allow terrorist groups to strengthen themselves in the territories.

In other news, Ariel Sharon announced the "separation fence" would eventually enclose the West Bank settlement of Ariel, despite the fact this will cut through territory most of the world considers Palestinian. However, Israel has changed plans to have the fence cut through the heart of the al-Quds University campus, where it would have run through the basketball court, soccer field, and some parking. A new route in that area is forthcoming.

Finally, long-time readers may remember my close tracking of Muhammad Dahlan, Abu Mazen's security czar and the man Arafat really didn't want involved in the government. (here, here, and here) His supporters protested today in Gaza, burning Arafat aides in effigy, while Dahlan himself told a Lebanese newspaper the Intifada was a mistake.

Baseball Play-Offs

I am pumped...today is just a prelude in which I get my work done before settling in to watch games tomorrow. The Cubs, as my favorite NL team, have my vote there, while in the AL I think it would be nice to see Oakland come through. What do I think will really happen?

American League
Minnesota def. New York in 3
Boston def. Oakland in 5
Minnesota def. Boston in 7

National League
Chicago def. Atlanta in 4
San Francisco def. Florida in 4
San Francisco def. Chicago in 5

World Series
San Francisco def. Minnesota in 5

The nice thing about baseball, though, is how unpredictable it is...I have a friend who lives and dies by the numbers and missed almost every division. You really never know who the good post-season teams are until the games start. And that, my friends, is just a little over 18 hours away...

UPDATE: This Daily Kos post suggests we should all really, really hope the Cubs don't win.

Machiavelli Lives

My friend Joe revisits an earlier passage from Machiavelli on taking advice from exiles. One sentence: "As to their faith, we have to bear in mind that, whenever they can return to their own country by other means than your assistance, they will abandon you and look to the other means, regardless of their promises to you." Read the rest...

Sunday, September 28, 2003


Via Ed Cohn I find a link to a New York Times story titled "Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?" There's a difficulty with how that question is framed, however, as medieval Andalusian Islam was as diverse as Islam in general, and it depends on where you were and who was in power at the time. Two dynasties, the Almohads and the Almoravids, conquered the peninsula from North Africa under the banner of almost Taliban-like ideologies, while other dynasties were more open.

Another point I could make here concerns the term "tolerance," which as Bernard Lewis pointed out in The Jews of Islam is a modern concept people in the Middle Ages simply didn't think about. Indeed when you have a One Righteous and True Religion, whether Islam or Christianity, people would have found it absurd to treat its followers the same as those who rejected it, and the only question was one of what place the unbelievers did have in the world order. In my master's thesis, "Sultans and Patriarchs: The Social Practice of Coptic and Muslim Elites in the Early Thirteenth Century," I focused on the relationship between individual members of different religious communities during a certain series of events in Egypt as an alternative means of looking at things. Others have attempted to study the framework created by Islamic law and how people applied it. In any case, you need to move beyond just "Was Islam tolerant?" to understand the way past societies actually worked.

Gamal Mubarak's Reforms

Via al-Jazeera I see that Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party has adopted a political and economic reform package pushed by Husni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak. Husni Mubarak is getting old, and many believe Gamal is slated as his replacement, though all involved deny that. The New York Times also discusses these issues, calling attention to the difference between announcing reforms and actually reforming. If the U.S. wanted a more democratic Middle East, some pressure in the right places could ensure that these new policies are implemented. However, given the Bush administration's track record, we're not likely to see that, even though Egypt is far closer to the mainstream of the Arab world than Iraq.

Best Books, 2001-02

The Mistress of Spices (Chitra Divakaruni)

My top pick on the year, this tale set in the Indian immigrant community of Califorinia combines legend and reality into a seamless poetic metaphor of life between cultures and away from your familiar enivironment. The plot centers around Tilo, an old woman who owns a spice shop where she dispenses not just groceries, but magical spices meant to solve problems. What stands out most is the writing style, a magnificient blend of poetry and prose that makes even a visit to Sears into one of high drama. The surprise ending reaffirms the main theme: Breaking down traditional barriers to arrive at understanding of both ourselves and other. Right now this is being made into a movie, and even though I'm not always a big movie person, it's one I'll definitely want to see.

The Liveship Traders (Robin Hobb)

The best new epic fantasy series I've discovered since Wheel of Time, this trilogy takes for its setting the high seas and port cities along the edges of great kingdoms, and its characters are the merchants, ship captains, and pirates who dot the edges of more stereotypical works. One distinct element are the ships of the Bingtown Traders, which are magically alive and possess the knowledge and experience of all the captains who have died on their decks. The author's strength is in characterization and the relationships between characters: I think Hobb is the only writer who could have an idealistic young priest make a ruthless pirate his adopted father and actually have it develop naturally and make so much sense that by the end it seems inevitable. The resolution in the third book is easily satisfying, and in the end everything is revealed, right down to the last page when we learn even the name of the man whose hand marks mar Paragon's hull.

Les Miserables (Victor Hugo)

Hugo's epic vision of Paris in the early nineteenth century needs no introduction. I read this for seven of the eight weeks I was in Jordan, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, even feeling emotional at the end. Hugo's writing is evocative and meaningful, with a cast of characters so memorable that the names of Cosette, Javert, Gavroche, and Jean Valjean have entered into the popular consciousness even turning up as metaphors in TV episodes. Even if it's just for cultural literacy, this is a can't-miss candidate for some hard-core summer reading.

Woman at Point Zero (Nawal el-Sadaawi)

This novel by the Islamic world's leading feminist is the powerful story of Firdaus, based on an inmate the author met while researching conditions in women's prisons in Egypt. Firdaus is a prostitute scheduled for execution for murdering her employer, and her powerful personality literally pounds you from the page as you read the opening scenes. Her story is an important look at women's issues, not only in Egypt, but throughout the world.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

As a guy, I am bound by the guy code to mock this book, but it really isn't that bad. Teenage girl types will, of course, dig the love story aspects which sustain the book's fame; however, there is also a core of important social commentary about, well, pride and prejudice. Interestingly, both Elizabeth and Darcy, at the very least, seem to suffer from both the title ailments in ways that call to mind the dangers of being too self-righteous in your own principles. The writing is also clear, and it reads quickly and easily.

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Jas Elsner)

This volume in the Oxford History of Art series traces the development of Christian civilization from its Greco-Roman roots, taking advantage of much current thinking about the role of change and continuity in cultural transformation. The illustrations are themselves worth a couple of hours, and the account of different art forms and pieces in their cultural context reveals much about where our own beliefs about both art and elements of Christianity came from. In that sense, this book transcends its original topic and becomes of general interest to all the curious-minded.

The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)

I did my senior English thesis on Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek, so it makes sense that I'd eventually get around to reading her other major short story anthology. This book has more of a common thread running through it, as all the pieces concern Esperanza, and artistic young girl developing in a poorer area of an American city. In that sense, it is a lot like a coming-of-age novel in vignettes. As with Divakaruni, the greatest draw is perhaps the writing - no one can turn a phrase like Cisneros can, doing more with two words than some people do in 20 pages. All in all, this won't win the Nobel Prize any time soon, but is worth the time nonetheless.

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Saturday, September 27, 2003

Bush's Public Diplomacy

I've noticed I'm really really bad about actually writing posts I promise. An update on the al-Jazeera side of the story: According to Abu Aardvark, Bremer may be seeking to pressure the Iraqi Governing Council into reversing its decision against the Arab satellite channels. Hopefully he will succeed...removing a free press isn't the best way to convince people you're trying to build an open society.

As far as the "public diplomacy" goes, I see this as another example of how ideologically driven the Bush administration is in some areas. They are completely and totally convinced their policies will make the world a better place, whether in the Middle East or on tax cuts or virtually any other issue. If you share their agenda, then you probably regard them as noble and refusing to back down. However, in terms of the Middle East, there appears to be a fundamental problem in their philosophy: They totally don't understand the region or its problems. Not under that, their ideology calls for countries to act unilaterally in their own best interests. The Bushies undoubtedly see themselves as doing that. Unfortunately, the Arabs in many cases might have different interests, such as keeping OPEC strong or ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And if that is the case, what "public diplomacy" is really all about is trying to persuade Arabs that the U.S. is more important than they are.

Nigerian Satellite

I know Africa is making a lot of progress these days, but I admit I was caught off guard by Nigeria's launch of a satellite into orbit. The satellite will monitor the country's environmental resources, as well as oil pipelines and infrastructure. The article implies the resources might have been better spent at home, but given the satellite's mission, it may help Nigeria solve problems more efficiently in the future.

Friday, September 26, 2003


Al-Jazeera has a very brief portrait of the Mandean community in Baghdad. I confess I've never heard of this religion before, but it appears to be sort of a Gnostic combination of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. They trace themselves back to John the Baptist, or the Yahya b. Zakaria of the Qur'an. I also found their official web site here. This site also has a brief but very interesting FAQ.

Break Time

Yesterday, Daniel Drezner posted on the value of the social lunch. A key graft:

"University study is not a wind sprint, it’s a multiyear intellectual marathon. The students who thrive are the ones smart enough to pace themselves. Letting one’s mind wander playfully at the noon hour is excellent preparation for the mental rigors that are sure to come in the post-meridian hours. The mind at play is often able to generate the counterintuitive ideas that would never occur otherwise."

I used to say that when I came to grad school, the thing I missed most was the meals in the common dining room of my small, liberal arts college which guaranteed a spot during the day when you could touch base with people and let go of whatever projects might be taking up your time. Now, as meals become something to be consumed in an apartment while blogging or hoping there's something on TV, I would extend it to breaks in general. As predicted, I took most of Wednesday night off, reading only during the commercial breaks of a baseball game. It was almost as if the tension were physically draining out of me, and after a few hours of literally doing nothing, my entire outlook on life had changed as I saw beyond the issues of the moment. I also went to a "meet your neighbors" gathering a couple of people across the way were having, and it helped, as well, so that when I woke up Thursday, I was basically able to put in a day of solid accomplishment in an optimistic way rather than just "to get it done."

Obviously, people may have different learning styles, and if you're someone who really can do nothing but work, more power to you. But everyone has an effort ceiling, and they shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge it when the time comes. For me, I need to see the context of life beyond my work before I can get really into it, and when work is stressful, there's nothing quite like sitting and talking with similar people dealing with the same sorts of issues, finding laughter in our different situations and offering advice that at the very least let's you know you have friends. Without that, I at least would become a burned-out hulk of some kind filled with countless facts about the Islamic world that I neither knew nor cared what I should do with.

Tuesday I ate sitting at my desk reading Title VI stuff. But if I tried to do that every day, I really believe I would have left school long ago. In life, there's always a bit of some project you could be working on. But if you always did them, what would be the point?

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Syrian Activists in Prison

Al-Jazeera is reporting that eleven anti-smoking activists have been imprisoned in Syria since last May. I suspect that the reasons for their arrest stemmed more from criticism of government officials than their anti-smoking activities, however. In addition, fourteen people in Aleppo will appear next month before a military court for holding an illegal discussion of democracy.

With stories like this, we see why al-Jazeera is important in the Arab world as an independent voice, even if some of their stories have certain editorial slants many in the U.S. might disagree with. Last March I talked to a noted scholar of modern Syria who said that pressure generated by the network was important in influencing the 2001 "Damascus Spring." Let's hope the same thing happens again, this time without a major terrorist attack stealing the headlines. Because in the long run it is al-Jazeera, not Ahmed Chalabi, that will help bring democracy and respect for human rights to the Middle East.

RIP, Edward Said (1935-2003)

Edward Said, one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of modern academia, died today of leukemia at the age of 67. In their lengthy obituary, the New York Times focuses mainly on his role as an advocate for the Palestinians, which he most assuredly was. Within academics, he is probably best known for his book Orientalism, considered the founding text of modern post-colonial theory from which spring all our notions about the the importance of understanding cultures on their own terms. In all his efforts, he was a man who spoke out sincerely about his beliefs and forced others to answer, starting new debates which have made the world a better place. For that, he will be sorely missed.

Moorishgirl has a good round-up of links to interesting Said articles, as well as her own notes on his passing.

Omani Elections

Gulf News has an article about the buzz surrounding next week's elections for the consultative council in Oman. A lot of the article dwelt on how the elections are generating excitement in the rural areas. My impression of a lot of Gulf nations is that politics tends to focus on the capital, with everything else as a sort of hinterland. If that is correct, the chance for people from remote regions of the country to have any sort of voice at all in Muscat is important. Another interesting note: Oman's elections will be fully electronic.

Wisconsin State Quarter

Via Dwight Kidder I see we in Wisconsin are being asked to vote on the design for our state quarter. I'm leaning toward the scenic one. The heritage quarter talks about trading between Native Americans and white settlers; however, if I remember correctly, white settlers did a bunch of other things with the Native Americans than trade with them, most of them bad. On the other hand, the quarter design could also function as an ideal "mission statement" or something. Somehow the agricultural one just looks rather boring, though I'm definitely a cheese fan. Overall, though, we've had too many historically or economically themed quarters, and while I'm expecting more scenery as we get out west, the scenic Wisconsin design includes images which to me reflect both heritage and economics, from the agricultural lands to the woodlands which once covered the entire state.

I wonder if the fish is a carniverous snakehead fish.

Israeli Reservists Protest

According to Haaretz, the reservists who signed a letter stating their refusal to attack civilian areas in the occupied territories are being disciplined. If they don't recant, they will be dismissed from the service. Incidents like this are fairly common in the Israeli military, but I don't think I've ever really commented on it before. I think the actions of both sides are justified. Protests like this can help ensure that the Israeli public remains aware of the controversial policies in the territories, and certainly individual conscience and decisions about the greater good are also important. At the same time, any military needs to retain discipline in the ranks, and stating a refusal to disobey orders is definitely not something one should tolerate. So the soldiers, having made their point, will probably go in peace.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Coming Attractions

Abu Aardvark has posts up on the reaction of Syrian intellectuals to the U.S. style of public diplomacy and the Iraqi Governing Council's decision to ban two Arab TV networks. I'll have things to say about these developments in a day or two.

Where Am I?

As you may have guessed from the lack of posts, it's been a busy couple of days, and today will also be packed. For different reasons, I'm also feeling psychologically tied in knots, though it's nothing I can really blog about. I will say the thing I hate most about graduate school is the uncertainty...there are very few jobs in the real world where you can't sit around and say for sure what country you are going to be in next year, for example. But things will get better. They always do...

I'm actually in full work mode until tomorrow night. Wednesday's have become my mid-week down time, mainly due to the TV schedule. Wednesday night baseball should have the big Marlins-Phillies game, which will help decide the NL Wild Card race. Enterprise, which I stopped watching regularly last year, has started to actually intrigue me, with the discovery of this Death Star-like sphere and the Xindi database they were downloading when the episode ended. The preview for this week looks like it could go either way. And The West Wing will have its season premiere: At the end of last season, there were some terrorists on the loose and the President's daughter had been kidnapped, after which he decided to invoke the 25th Amendment, which in the absence of a Vice President caused the Republican Speaker of the House (portrayed by John Goodman) to become Acting President. Via Craig Barker I see producers want to have a more bipartisan perspective, so maybe this is part of that. It's definitely interesting television.

And now, I should do some real work...

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Al-Qaeda Faces Budget Cuts

An official at the Treasury Dept. is saying that al-Qaeda has cut their budget by two-thirds due mainly to efforts on the financial front in the War on Terror. This reminds me of something I saw on RFE-RL a while back that al-Qaeda had pressured the Taliban into taking a more aggressive posture in Afghanistan as sort of a "use it or lose it" approach to those the terrorist organization funds. (link long since gone, unfortunately)

This story may not be as sexy as capturing senior operative, but it's arguably more important because it limits what al-Qaeda and related organizations can do. Chemical and biological weapons, for example, definitely cost money, as do all sorts of training that people could use in various evil and nasty ways to commit acts of terrorism. On the black market, things like visas and passports also have a cost - when I was in Jordan, they warned us just how valuable our passports could be to others if lost. I'm not an expert, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the funding situation led to the change in al-Qaeda tactics many have noted in recent months.

Unfortunately, of course, you have to hope this is real and not just political game-playing...

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Israel's Separation Wall

Haaretz is reporting that Israel is now proposing a "broken" separation fence in that they simply won't build a section near the West Bank settlement of Ariel. This follows word that the Bush administration would make a deduction form Israel's loan guarantees if the Israeli's built that section of the wall, which would enclose on the Israeli side land most see as the future Palestinian state. Sharon indicated they might build that area of the fence later if "the international political climate became more favorable." It's good to see the U.S. willing to use the stick with Israel as well as the Palestinians. Now let's hope the PA finds a way to control militants so the peace process can move forward.

Attack on Governing Council Member

According to AP, there has been an assassination attempt on Aquila al-Hashimi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. She was hospitalized with abdominal wounds, but is now in stable condition. Something like this was obviously expected, and one can't help but wonder how long it will be before one succeeds. The resistance forces are also sending a message: If we can hit the governing council, we can hit anyone who cooperates with the U.S.

UPDATE: Juan Cole has more background to this situation. Apparently al-Hashimi worked in Saddam's Foreign Ministry before the war, and there's been some mystery about how she wound up on the IGC.

Zack Ajmal on Kashmir

Zack Ajmal has put together highly informative posts on Kashmir's religion and geography. If you're interested in this issue, go check them out.

Thursday, September 18, 2003


I'm too distracted to post today. It's been busy at work, and I've had professional developments to deal with. I won't go into details. It's just that, even when you're sure you're on the right career path for you, sometimes you wonder if it's really worth it. I've had a lot of those moments in recent months.

Arafat the Bold

If anyone wonders why I'm so cynical about formerly "irrelevant" Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, consider the situation at this moment: He's making defiant speeches saying he's willing to die a martyr and cares only about the Palestinian people, while at the same time his partisans are surrounding his compound with women and children to shield him from any attack. Ain't that guy just plain heroic.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Iraq's New Army

In the June 2003 Strategic Forum, a periodical pamphlet from National Defense University, Joseph McMillan had an article advocating building the Iraqi army off conscripts rather than volunteers. I haven't been following the rebuilding of the Iraqi military, so I don't know what the CPA is doing now, bu McMillan's case was at the very least interesting. Sunni Arab domination of the armed forces has been a characteristic of Iraq during the 20th century, and the armed forces have allowed Sunni Arab regimes to dominate the Kurds and Shi'ites. Having conscription - especially if it involved a service requirement similar to Israel's - would ensure that all Iraq's ethnic and religious groups had representation in the army, that the army would be more difficult to turn against individual communities, and that Iraqis who went through military service together would form the cornerstones of a united Iraqi society.

From my cursory glance through the piece, I think McMillan's onto something, but I do have a couple of concerns. One is that there have always been, for example, Shi'ites in the Iraqi army - it's just that the Sunnis have run things. So you would have to find officers from the Shi'ite and Kurdish populations, as well. In addition, I'm not sure the divisions within Iraqi society are really that sharp, though they could become sharp if the Ba'athist remnants succeed in provoking the Shi'ites into Sunni/Shi'ite confrontation. But that's not really an argument against conscription, just noting a flaw in an argument for it.

If the army is built on a volunteer basis, these goals should still be attainable depending on the focus and conduct of recruitng efforts and the loyalty different regions come to feel toward any emerging central authority. However, even in the best-case scenario, the Kurds in particular might be difficult to draw in.

Women's Rights in Afghanistan

According to RFE-RL, Afghanistan's Chief Justice has ruled that women cannot travel for more than three days without a husband or male relative, and can't leave the country at all without one. This strikes me as far more serious than the hijab requirement with which the article leads. The ruling, in addition to the obvious hassles and discrimination it entails, will leave many women trapped in abusive situations simply because they can't physically leave them without violating the law. Overall, however, women's condition in Afghanistan seems improved from what is was under the Taliban.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Mark Prior

I'm watching the Cubs-Mets game, and the Cubs just gave up a run in the 9th to make it 3-2 in their favor. Mark Prior is still on the mound. I have to ask: There is a consensus in baseball that Prior is wearing down. He is a young pitcher who has never thrown this many innings before. So why is he still in the game and not Borowski? Is the bullpen really that atrocious? I understand Prior missed a month, but still wearing down is wearing down. All well...I've been distracted with other things, so maybe his pitch count isn't that high.

Enter Wesley Clark

Associated Press says Clark's in. I've decided to add a link to my sidebar. We'll see how he looks once he starts producing ideas...

Monday, September 15, 2003

Bush Cracks Down on Israel

According to Reuters, the Bush administration is withholding loan guarantees for Israel as a form of opposition to its policy of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are also considering some concrete form of action against the security barrier, which does not follow the Green Line, cutting through the occupied territories most believe consider the prospective Palestinian state. Similar actions by the first President Bush helped push Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir out of office and helped the Oslo peace process get moving, and one hopes this will have a similar result, forcing Israel to at least not make the situation worse for the Palestinians than it already is.

Iranian Politics

Via RFE-RL (link will expire), I see that Iran's next parliamentary elections will be on February 20. I also see that the Council of Guardians is moving ahead with their plans to create regional offices. The C of G is responsible for vetting candidates for elections, and I've been taking this expansion of that branch of the government as a sign the hard-liners are looking to expand their influence. I'm not sure where this will lead to them rejecting more candidates for office, or whether they are preparing to move into local politics. In the actual elections, the key number to watch will be turn-out...if it is relatively high, that will show Iranian still have faith that the existing power structure can reform from within.

Travels in Ivanovo

If you share my affection for accounts of out-of-the-way corners of the world, be sure to check out Ed Cohn's account of the Russian city of Ivanovo. Now if only I could prod him to spend a week in a fishing village on Kamchatka.

Palestinian Politics

A Haaretz piece by Arnon Regular gives an interesting portrayal of Abu Mazen's account of his fall from power, for which the former PM blamed Arafat, Israel, the U.S., and Arab TV networks. The bulk of this article was taken up with depictions of Arafat, which revealed him to be obsessed with holding on to power, and paranoid about losing it. The last three paragraphs especially suggest that Arafat is definitely not entirely with it, accusing even his allies of trying to topple him with little or no reason whatsoever. I'm not sure where that leaves us as far as peacemaking goes - it would seem Arafat would be most likely to make a deal if obsessively flattered and given concessions to enhance his personal power, but neither Israel nor the U.S. is likely to adopt that approach, and in my judgement they should not. By the same token, he won't risk attacking the terror groups if it could undercut his position, and they're the real obstacle to peace. Perhaps in the short term, the best we can hope for is a cease-fire, but even then Israel will continue to expand settlements and build a security wall through Palestinian territory, making things much more difficult down the road.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

More Arafat

I continue to be too busy to really blog much, but plenty of people are weighing in on the Arafat expulsion issue:

Arab Street Bum explains the reasons for Arafat's popularity among Palestinians, as well as suggesting his absence would actually make peace more difficult.

Allison Kaplan Sommer worries that Arafat is becoming stronger under threat.

Juan Cole evaluates the situation from the standpoint of international law.

Writing in Haaretz, Ze'ev Schiff believes these threats have rebuilt Arafat's standing in the world.

And incidentally, let it be known that I'm not deliberately linking to posts that oppose expulsion. It's just that lots and lots of people I read regularly seem to think it's a very bad idea.

UPDATE: Civax also has arguments against deporting Arafat, as well as a plan for dealing with him.

Two Quizzes

Via Zack Ajmal:

You are a siren.

What legend are you?. Take the Legendary Being Quiz by Paradox

Via Crescat Sententia:

Elizabeth Bennet
You are Eliza Bennett from Pride and Prejudice! Yay, you! Perhaps the brightest and best character in all of English literature, you are intelligent, lively, lovely-- in short, you are the best of company. Your only foibles are that you stick with your first impressions... and your family is quite intolerable.

Which Jane Austen Character Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Favorite Books

I've noticed a lot of blogs have reading suggestions somewhere, so I added some to the sidebar, below the "Other Links" to news sites and such. I traditionally come up with the seven favorite books I've read in the past year each May and suggest them to people - this is the 2002-03 list. I probably have a couple of others saved somewhere, and may add them in the future.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

In the Bookstore

My parents were in town this weekend, and we went to Border's where I noticed that Bernard Lewis has published a new book, The Crisis of Islam. Interestingly, it was dedicated to Harold Rhode, whom Josh Marshall blogged about here, describing him as "at the center of all the grand-planning for America's new role in the Middle East." Lewis is often listed as the U.S.'s leading voice on the Middle East, but in reality much of his approach is out of step with the field today, conflating past and present, religion and other aspects of society, in ways most believe are deeply flawed. And he's definitely come to have a political horse to root for: The neocon approach to foreign policy. Let the reader beware!

On an unrelated note, I see where there is now a fantasy series based off the Ramayana, the first volume of which is Prince of Ayodhya. I'm not sure how much it follows the traditional narrative, but that doesn't bother me, as epics often have a rich history all their own, and producing an innovative retelling is often in the spirit of the cultures which created them. I do hope it catched on, as I think there are rich and untapped fields in the legends and stories of the non-Western world.

UPDATE: Oh, yes, and I also saw Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, the author whose Woman Hollering Creek was the subject of my senior seminar paper in college. I'm not sure when I'll get around to reading it, but I've always really enjoyed Cisernos's style. And that reminded me to do this search, which revealed that Chitra Divakaruni has a couple of books I haven't read. I loved her The Mistress of Spices when I read it a couple of years ago, though the style of her other books is reputedly different, and that was a lot of the attraction.

Shi'ite Militias in Najaf

Juan Cole conveys az-Zaman reports that Shi'ite militias no longer patrol Najaf.

Expelling Arafat

Matthew Yglesias wants to know if anyone thinks expelling Arafat is a good idea. I don't have a lot to say about this, because it depends far too much on what individuals do in response, and I obviously don't have intelligence assessments to theorize about how things might shape up. However, in terms of the short-term big picture, I think that The Talking Dog is in the neighborhood - see the seventh comment on the Yglesias thread.

UPDATE: Civax also has thoughts on why kicking Arafat out might not be a good idea.

Friday, September 12, 2003


Don't expect any substantive posting today...I'm far too tired and preoccupied. Last night I was kept awake by noisy neighbors, and even after they finally went to bed I couldn't sleep because I'd become caught up in that sometimes dreadful activity known as thinking. The amount of work I have to do over the next month looks truly over-whelming, though I know it won't be, and some of it - like applying for the grants necessary to do my dissertation - is pretty important to my future. I haven't gotten much workish work done today because I've been too caught up with those, which means I'm going to need to play catch-up in the office next week. I can't decide whether I most feel like hanging out with a friend, which I haven't done in awhile, or just curling up and relaxing in my apartment with some pleasant but academically relevant book that will make me feel I'm getting something done. I'll probably do both before the day's over.

Religion in the Jahiliyya

Over the summer, there was an ongoing discussion of the methods and value of Western Qur'an scholarship, much of which focused on the accounts of the Luxenberg book carried in the mainstream press. G.R. Hawting's The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam, which I just finished reading, is an example of more mainstream work on the subject by a leading expert from the University of London. He writes in response to what he sees as clear problems with the existing history of early Islam, and quotes extensively from Muslim scholars, even including Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. (Yes, that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.) His conclusions if accepted definitely overturn some conventional views of the 7th century religious picture, but do so without the arrogance one sometimes sense from media portrayals of the need for Muslims to question their tradition so as to catch up with an implicitly superior Christianity.

Hawting's concern is that the picture of Qurayshi religion in the Qur'an does not appear to match what one reads in the Muslim tradition. One finds his conclusion on p. 149: "The image of Arab idolatry and polytheism offered by the tradition bears little relation to the koranic (sic.) material attacking the mushrikun for their attachment to intermediaries between themselves and God, their hope for the intercession of angels, and their half-hearted an imperfect monotheism. The traditional material in general portrays a world of primitive idols and a multiplicity of gods." Before reaching this point, Hawting shows convincing similarities between the Qur'anic arguments against the mushrikun, or those who associate others with God, and the arguments of other monotheistic faiths against each other and their own dissidents. He then points out how scholars' views of pre-Islamic Arabian religion, such as the "Daughters of Allah," have been shaped not by the Qur'an read in this light, but by Muslim traditionists of the Abbasid period with particular reasons for forcing the historical narrative of Arabian religion into one in which Ibrahim brought a monotheism which was gradually corrupted before Muhammad restored it with his revelations.

I'm not qualified to assess all Hawting's arguments, and to be honest the book left me hungry: I can see the point that the Quraysh may not have been polytheistic in the literal sense, but what we're left with instead is a sort of uncertain monotheism which is neither Christian nor Jewish and probably having a well-developed angelology. However, given the available sources for that topic, that may be the best we can hope for: I am aware of no non-Muslim Qurayshi voices speaking through the historical corpus that could explain where they were coming from. Still, the book was interesting, and for those who wanted some reading suggestions, the bibliography and introductory arguments contain such works as F.E. Peters's Muhammad and the Origins of Islam and The Sectarian Milieu and Quranic Studies by John Wansborough (neither of which I have actually read, though I see them cited a lot.

Unfortunately, after reading this, I'm a lot more pessimistic the traditions about the pre-Islamic religion of the Azd will be useful for my dissertation. But you can't have everything.

Thursday, September 11, 2003


I am glancing through the new International Institute Handbook to see if there are any changes I need to know about. I found pages and pages of info on how to have a meeting. Two pages were dedicated to room selection alone! How have I managed all these years...

September 11

I could post something about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But, two years later, it seems the issue has already been overtaken by politics. A Smarter Cop would probably accuse me of spitting on the graves of those who died, while some commenters on this Daily Kos thread would probably accuse me of turning the world against the U.S. or something else. I was not directly involved in the events, and I will not use them as a springboard to condemn my political opponents. Perhaps one day, there will be a holiday commemorating those Americans such as the police officers and firefighters who daily put their lives on the line to help ensure that all of us live a safer life, even when the danger is from more than a local thief or arsonist.

For now, I will say nothing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Arab Media Debate

Abu Aardvark reports on the debate in the Arab media over whether to seat the Iraqi Governing Council in the Arab League. (Incidentally, the AL did give them a seat.) I link to this primarily because when most Americans hear about the "Arab media," it's some radical story about Westerners poisoning food or water, and hence people conclude the Arab media is a hopeless problem and part of the reason "they hate us." As someone who has read a fair sample of the Arab media and was responsible for updating the our department's "Middle East Media" site (though I didn't read all the sites we link to), I can tell you things are much more balanced and intelligent than that.

Al-Jazeera in particular takes a lot of grief, some probably warranted: I tend to look at them as an Arab version fo FOXNews more than anything else. But they're still reasonable. I've changed the sidebar link to their English site. Go see for yourself whether the media portrayal of this network fairly represents what you see.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Fulbright Applications

Posting has been slow because I'm buried under a ton of work, not least because of the imminent deadline for my Fulbright application. I've been feeling a lot better about my Arabic lately, so I'm not worried about my ability to do research. But at the top of the language reference form, it says: "You should be able to follow university lectures in the foreign language, participate in seminar discussion, take notes, and understand written material in your field. Specifically, what are you doing now and what are you planning to do to bring your language facility to this point?"

Well, actually, I don't need to do all that, I just need to read medieval texts and function in daily life. So how do I handle the rest? Yet another question to ask my advisor and the campus coordinator, I guess...

In addition to this, I'm working on our program's Title VI-A application (federal funding for undergraduate area studies curriculum development) and coordinating a lecture series, with a probably visit by Reza Pahlavi looming on deck. But things should settle down soon. It feels odd that the end of the semester is no longer the busiest time for me.

Monday, September 08, 2003


Has anyone else noticed how cute the bunny rabbits are this fall?

Palestinian Leadership

According to Haaretz, Ahmed Qureia has accepted the post of Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, replacing Mahmud Abbas who resigned a few days ago. Watching this changeover has reminded me of one of the biggest problems faced by the Palestinian cause: terrible leadership. Mahmud Abbas genuinely wanted an end to terrorism and a peace deal with Israel, but was completely unable to deliver.

Part of this was just his situation: Abbas was obviously the choice of Washington and Tel Aviv, and hence had a credibility gap with the Palestinian street. But as near as I could tell, Abbas never did much of anything except negotiate the hudna with Egyptian assistance. Like so many Palestinian leaders, we got the line that he wanted peace as quickly as possible and would make all the relevant hard choices, but the Palestinian people were opposed, and so he had to appease them. That's not leadership, that's following the crowd. Leaders help shape opinion, they don't just respond to it, and I saw no evidence that Abbas was willing to go beyond easy talk in the halls of power to actually argue his stands on issues like the right of return to marshall those Palestinians who support a peaceful resolution.

Ahmed Qureia begins his term by setting conditions: "I don't want to see more [Israeli] military checkpoints. I don't want to see assassination of Palestinians. I don't want to see the demolishing of houses." This may be a smart move, and these will sound a lot better to the world than prisoner releases, the issue I most remember Abbas talking about. I also don't want to completely absolve the Israelis from guilt over the Road Map failure - I didn't see much more from them toward addressing the real issues than some settlement removals which were speedily undone by the settler movement. Thomas Friedman's Sunday column on the security wall and why it's an issue is also a must-read. But it strikes me that some Palestinian leaders have to get out there and stop making excuses about weakness and start working on becoming stronger.

So you're worried that confronting Hamas will start a Palestinian civil war. Then don't confront Hamas - get out there and stop incitement in media you do control, changing those messages to ones which lay out the situation in realistic terms that show why the path of peace is the right path for the Palestinian people. This need not be a defeatist message. Someone can say that people like Ariel Sharon didn't start talking about an end to the occupation out of nowhere, they simply realized the occupied territories were indigestible. You could make the case that stone-throwing Palestinians who seek liberation from Israeli occupation are now in a position to harvest the fruits of their victory, despite the hateful light in which Hamas is casting their cause before the world. During the cease-fire, there were mobs that protested people plotting terror attacks. That is the constituency waiting to be harvested and made into a new "Palestinian Street."

But that would require leadership. Leadership like Israeli leaders have shown when they say in front of conservative groups that there will be no greater Israel, thus helping to shape the debate in Israeli society rather than simply riding it. Right now, the Israelis have a government firmly in right-wing hands that may or may not sign an appropriate deal, but the majorities which elected Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak can rise again, if there emerges a Palestinian leadership which cares more about the future of Palestine than their own careers. As it stands now, Prime Minister Rabin died in service to peace, but the dream of peace died in service to Yasser Arafat.

It is, of course, easy for me to sit here in the ivory tower and pontificate about these things, but I don't think that makes my viewpoint illegimate. Indeed I've always thought the outside perspective can see things in a different light just because we're not caught up in the hate and fear of the moment. Yes, Palestinians would be taking risks for peace with a government they do not fully trust. However, Israelis have already shown a willingness to take risks of their own. One of the most terrifying blogs on the internet is Allison Kaplan Sommer's An Unsealed Room. It is terrifying because of all the casual touches which show you just how small Israel is, small enough that a few suitcase-sized nuclear weapons could completely obliterate it. If 20 years from now Jordan has some anti-Israel fundamentalist government, it wouldn't take much for an army of some kind to steamroll through the whole place. These scenarios for the future are pretty unlikely, but when your consciousness remembers that it just happened 30 years ago, and when there are people around who want it to happen again, you tend to be careful.

The issues of the Middle East peace process can be solved, but for that to happen, you need leaders who can marshall the brigades of hope rather than simply follow those of fear, even at the risk of becoming a martyr like unto Ali b. Abi Talib, who was stabbed by a radical supporter for agreeing to negotiate at Siffin. Whether Ahmed Qureia (and Ariel Sharon) can display those qualities remains to be seen.

President Bush's Speech

Juan Cole's discussion of President Bush's Iraq address is a gem. His main concern is the way the administration continued to link Iraq to the War on Terror with little or no evidence to back it up. He's also skeptical of the pledge to build a democratic Iraq. A key paragraph:

"Iraq isn't at the center of the Middle East. Egypt is. Egypt's ruling National Party is drafting a new election law. All the US would have to do is lean on them a bit, and Egypt could suddenly be much closer to being a democracy. But the US coddles Mubarak's soft police state because it is a US ally. Apparently you have to virtually declare war on the US to have any hope that the Americans will turn your country into a democracy. Otherwise you are stuck with pro-US dictatorships. As for a decent and democratic society, what the Iraqis have so far is a peremptory American administration of the country, a huge crime wave, lack of electricity and potable water, and an unemployment rate hovering around 60%, not to mention deep insecurity from huge bombs going off."

The whole post is definitely worth reading. I was glad to see the President reaffirm the U.S. commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the budget request is a sign that we will follow through on it. However, I worry it might be too late to salvage the situation in Iraq. It is no longer simply a matter of reconstruction, but of containing a volatile political situation which threatens Sunni/Shi'ite violence in the wake of the Najaf bombing, growing resistance to the occupation leading to more sabotage, and an American public which apparently thought this would be a short-term commitment. It's good to see President Bush adjust his course, though, and I hope his stated agenda succeeds, for the sake of all Americans, Iraqis, and Afghans.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Arrival Day

Tomorrow is Arrival Day, the anniversary of the landing on September 7, 1654, of the first Jewish settlers in what would become the United States. Jonathan Edelstein has been organizing an Arrival Day Blogburst, and inviting all to participate: "Everyone, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, is welcome to take part in the blogburst. Those who want to participate can post on any topic having to do with Jews and Judaism, and need not do so from a Jewish point of view; gentile readers are welcome to write about their encounters with Jews or Jewish culture, or any other relevant Jewish-related subject. I will link to all Arrival Day posts." I was going to post something, but due to a lot of other things that is now doubtful. Nonetheless, I thought I'd advertise it, and encourage participation by all.

A Dervish's Du'a

I just added to my blogroll A Dervish's Du'a, a blog by a woman named Maryam focused primarily on religions in general and Islam in particular. I'm not sure where she's from. Of particular interest is her "Scholar of the Month" feature, focusing this month on the 9th-century philosopher Abu Yusuf Ya'qub ibn Ishaq ibn al-Sabbah ibn 'Imran ibn Isma'il ibn al-Ash'ath ibn Qais al-Kindi (generally just called "al-Kindi"). Look at her sidebar on the right.

Badr Brigade Patrols Najaf

The U.S. is now allowing the Badr Brigade, armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to patrol Najaf despite earlier demands that the group disarm. There probably wasn't much choice: Much as a high casualty rate in Fallujah caused the U.S. to hand that city over to a local police force, here the terrorist attack which killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim has forced the U.S. to give in to a force which, if not precisely local, is at least locally supported. The sad fact is that many people looking at this situation will conclude that resistance to the occupation is working, and that if such resistance continues the U.S. and U.K. will soon leave entirely. I think this could have been avoided with better post-war planning. Behind the scenes, I suspect Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, SCIRI's new leader, may have set this as his price for remaining on the Governing Council.

Friday, September 05, 2003

Know Thy Harry Potter

Fixing the Mid-East Peace Process

Jonathan Edelstein links to an article in al-Ahram by Abdel-Moneim Said on fixing the Middle East peace process, and adds some commentary of his own. They share a common concern with the way the process lies in the hands of different parties - the U.S., certain Arab states, and so on - that often aren't on the same page and following a common policy. Getting all these groups together would add legitimacy to the Road Map as Israelis and Palestinians lose the manuevering room they currently have by playing different outsiders off against each other. Israel and the PA also face problems controlling elements of their own societies which act independently to undermine the process in favor of their own agenda.

Read both the article and Edelstein's comments. I'm too tired to do more than point it out.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Graduate School


Victory in Zabul, War Continues

The New York Times is reporting that the joint Afghan-American military operations against the Taliban in certain parts of Zabul have been successful. This is definitely good news, though tainted by the fact this doesn't appear to be the entire story. For example, the article implies that only one American was killed, yet adding up casualty reports I've seen in recent days, I'm thinking there were at least four in the wider operation. My guess is this is one unit's experience which is being highlighted for PR reasons. I'm sure other units are also winning in this offensive, but this kind of spin offends me.

However, it was also good news that Pakistan appears to have been providing covert military support to this operation. Meanwhile, RFE-RL, which temporarily doesn't have a weekly report to provide permanent links, is saying that the Taliban have established a recruiting presence at Kabul University. We are still not out of the woods yet.

North Korean Politics

According to North Korean news sources, Kim Jong Il has been reelected as Chairman of the DPRK's National Defense Commission. Saith the article:

"The session solemnly declared at home and to the world that it reelected Kim Jong Il...who has performed immortal feats to be recorded in the history of the country forever and glorified the DPRK as the everlasting country of the great sun, chairman of the NDC of the DPRK, reflecting the unanimous will and desire of all the servicemen and the people."

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Neocon Quiz

Via Zack Ajmal I took the Neocon Quiz on the Christian Science Monitor. I came out a realist, as opposed to isolationist, liberal, or neoconservative. I think I'm a bit more to the liberal side, but the questions it asked were mainly on current issues, where the War on Terror is causing some breaks with the most liberal people I know.

Operation Mountain Viper

Pak Tribune has an update on the American and Afghan government offensive against the Taliban in Zabul province, which is officially Operation Mountain Viper. This is a significant assault on people responsible for September 11 that should be getting more play in the American media. Both Americans and Afghans have died in the fighting, though it looks like we're winning.

Afghan History

IWPR has a story up about the recovery of Afghan artifacts after the Taliban. As a historian, this is definitely an issue I care about. A lot of people don't realize just how magnificient the history of Central Asia really is. This area was considered almost an inland mirror of the Indian Ocean, with the Silk Road carrying trade between east and west for millenia. My last ever seminar paper was on Buddhism in Afghanistan, and gave me the chance to explore the Kushan Empire, which reached its height at the same time as Imperial Rome and Han China. This position also made the region a crossroads between different worlds: Alexander the Great founded several Afghan cities (Herat and Qandahar, I believe), and for awhile there was a Greek-speaking kingdom there called Rob which we still know little about. When I read about the Umayyad dynasty and they mention the booty won in different conquests, the amounts from the eastern from are incredible. If Afghan history is again brought before the world, we'll all have a better sense of our common human heritage in this land where so many have trod.

Al-Jazeera in English

Al-Jazeera now has an English web site. This will mean all the non-Arabic speakers who love bashing it will have the chance to read it.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Najaf Bombing Fall-Out

As hundreds of thousands attended the funeral of slain Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, his brother Abd al-Aziz, a member of the governing council and now head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, blamed the U.S. for not providing adequate security in the country. He also called for Iraqi unity and demanded security responsibility be turned over the religious militias. Al-Hakim seems to have gained in death a stature he never had in life, when he was just one Islamist leader with little or no grass-roots support. Now the Badr Brigades, the SCIRI-affiliated militia which was officially disarmed a while back, has played a role in providing security for the funeral, and public opinion will likely draw a contrast (unfair, really) with American efforts in that direction. There's also a lot of anti-Ba'athist anger, which could easily spill into anti-Sunni anger depending on how things develop. This would be the worst-case scenario for the American occupation of the country, and probably for Iraq's future.


Returning from work today, I found a new issue of the Middle East Studies Association newsletter, including an update on the activities of CAFMENA, the Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. MESA is often accused of turning a blind eye toward the problems of autocracy in the Arab world, but this organization shows that this is not the case, and that scholars who have travelled to, befriended the people of, and in many cases even hail from the region care about its problems just as much, if not more, than most Americans. And if you scan their letters page, you see them condemning terrorist organizations as much as Israel. Just a sample:

"Hamas spokespersons have attempted to justify this and other recent suicide bombings as retaliation and reprisal for Israeli attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians. However, under international humanitarian law, the absolute prohibition against targeting civilians includes acts of reprisal. This prohibition is categorical, and applies to attacks committed by armed opposition groups as well as government security forces."

This might be something to keep in mind when reading some of the pieces on Campus Watch.

Monday, September 01, 2003


Tired of being cut off from society, I have made a mad dash to my office just to post something. My mood is a little off, just because lots of little things haven't gone right yet, but it's nothing overwhelming, and they will. My apartment is cool - the furniture is entirely new, and they put in wooden windows that look a lot better than the old ones. I could use more counter space, but I always think that. I must cook too elaborately for a grad student. I've put up some actual pictures in order to make it more homelike...Nighthawks in my room, my Seattle Mariners pennant on my door, the Basilica of St. Clare picture I got in Italy in its customary spot on my VCR, and a picture of a cat rising out of the sea from the Madison Art Fair over the summer in the area of my main room with my bookshelves.

Almost entirely moved in now...except for the books.

Real blogging should return tomorrow.