Sunday, February 29, 2004

Saudis and Jewish Tourists

This is a clear case of opposition to Israel drifting into anti-Semitism. (And no, it doesn't convince me that all opposition to Israel is anti-Semitic.)

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Kyrgyz vs. Russian

A big issue in Kyrgyzstan right now is a proposed law which would boost Kyrgyz at the expense of Russian. Most of the debate centers around the concerns of the Russian minority and Kyrgyz nationalism, but this article suggests some economic questions, relating the situation of Russian in Kyrgyzstan to French in Morocco. It cites a study in which the decline of French in Morocco led to a decline in earnings among young Moroccans.

In much of the developing world, knowledge of a European language is the key to future economic prosperity. Some of this is due to globalization and the chance to work for a company that does business overseas. In addition, English is required for many jobs where people come into contact with foreigners. When I was in Jordan, for example, I found that although young people having jobs was rare, McDonald's was filled with them because the company required proficiency in English to work with all the tourists who came there. In addition, access to higher education is a huge reason for learning a European language. This vignette from when I was in Aleppo, Syria a few years ago is perhaps instructive:

"In the suq you find merchants with all kinds of wares, from boxes to carpets to food to clothing, generally friendly, usually with at least one son of around 10 and another family member sharing the day's labor. To buy, you have to bargain, though we quickly found a friend of one of the girls who was here last year and who just started giving us the "rock bottom prices" without us having to bother talking him down. His neighbor had a son who was there, kind of a chubby kid in a red T-shirt; while I was waiting on a friend the father asked if I would mind speaking English with him so he could practice, though the kid was generally a less then enthusiastic student since the kid across the hall - apparently the smartest kid in their class, kept snickering at him. Later the father of the smart kid, after shooing the obnoxious kid back into the shop, sent his younger son over, too, and I wound up speaking/teaching English with both of them, with the father of the smart kid sort of hanging out trying to help things along but mostly getting in the way.

"As we were leaving, the father of the first kid thanked me and said that when he inherited the shop from his father, he didn't have a choice in what to do with his life. His son wanted to go to the U.S. to study medicine, and he wanted him to have that choice. This is a common story, I think, throughout the region, as people seeking new opportunity turn toward the language of the land of opportunity. In this part of the Middle East, the United States may function as the hegemonic Western power despised in global politics, but even more relevant to the lives of the people, it symbolizes hope and the future - the dream that going to America will get you a great job, the reality that knowing American English will open more doors than you can possibly imagine, and the media image of the U.S. as a place of unmatched technological prowess. The trade made by people such as these suq merchants, of course, is in the cultural arena - an exposure to American values in place of Arab ones, a straight-up deal of "culture" for "opportunity." It is not my place to evaluate this trade-off, and given the past I'm not sure it's as drastic as liberal intellectuals like to make it (see the Islamization of Western Africa for what I suggest is a similar situation). But it does exist, and forms a real part of the lives and plans of millions of people."

The real issue in the above aeticle isn't bilingualism, but the economic benefits and cultural costs of retaining certains ties with a more powerful neighbor. After all, I haven't heard of Russians worrying about the state of Kyrgyz in their country. And it's still not a issue I'm inclined to judge.

Friday, February 27, 2004

NATO and Uzbekistan

NATO officials were in Tashkent yesterday discussing the possibility of a Partnership-for-Peace training center in Uzbekistan. Maybe it's just me, but if we start allowing states like Uzbekistan to participate in PfP activities, it calls into question the very core of what NATO supposedly stands for.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Meeting the Emir

Uzbek Aid Tax

Uzbekistan, current poster state for American support of dictators, is imposing a 40% tax on foreign humanitarian assistance. David Asednik also has some thoughts. This story certainly validates his point about releasing a political prisoner on the eve of Rumsfeld's visit.

By Comparison...

I should note that virtually all modern historians are more comprehensible than the medieval Kufan scholar Abu Abdullah Sayf b. Umar al-Usayyidi al-Tamimi. I tried to read a passage from him yesterday that was completely opaque; Gautier Juynboll's introduction to the translation indicated I should not feel alone in this sentiment. I'm rapidly developing other reasons to dislike him, too. More on that later, perhaps.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Writing History

Crescat Sententia's Amy Lamboley has a round-up of some recent discussion about the current state of historical writing. For my part, I agree with almost everything that's been said, but can't resist adding a few thoughts of my own.

First, I wonder what the relationship is between the evolution of academic writing about history and the growing association between history and the social sciences. Anthropology, political science, and sociology all provide valuable models through which to understand the past, yet they do so with an often specialized vocabulary and manner of expression which is foreign to mainstream English. Rendering something like "symbolic capital" or "political legitimacy" in a way that remains faithful to the concept which you are trying to apply yet makes clear sense to the average reader is a much more difficult task than simply saying that the government was popular.

Secondly, I'm not convinced that the dearth of readable historical writing really exists. Let's admit that there are no Edward Gibbons among us, but also add that the high cultural preferences of the current age don't lend themselves as well to history. There is still tons of well-written history, perhaps better for the fact it is based on the pain-staking research of armies of scholars who focused on figuring out that narrow topic that allows for another solid paragraph or two in a general work. On my desk right now, for example, is John Keay's India: A History, a highly readable work of the type Schama would love which has in its bibliography books such as Muzaffar Alam's The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab 1707-1748. Theodore Hall Partrick's Traditional Egyptian Christianity probably benefitted greatly from D.P. Little's article "Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks" in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Any interested reader would also get a lot out of the "Cambridge Illustrated" histories and "Oxford" histories of different groups all over the world. On my sidebar you see The Oxford History of Islam, edited by Georgetown University's John Esposito and containing chapters by the University of Chicago's Fred Donner, AU-Beirut's Majid Fakhry, Stanford's Ahmad Dallal, and others, all scholars at the top of their field who contributed to this volume because they found it worthwhile. The current director of UW-Madison's Middle East Studies Program, David Morgan, has a wonderfully written (very witty) book called The Mongols, one of a number of such books published by Blackwell Publishers all written by serious scholars.

The average dissertation or monograph will probably always be somewhat difficult to read, simply because it serves a different function than an authoritative book for general readers: Convincing other scholars that your interpretation of the evidence or suggested approach is correct or useful. For my own dissertation, I need to go over why I accept some transmitters of Muslim historical traditions more than others, or why I take the stands I do in historiographical debates so that 1.) Other scholars will see I know what I'm talking about a give me a job teaching students and 2.) Knowledgeable readers will take my ideas and put them into the more well-written works for the general public. Does that mean I'm a scholar writing for other scholars? Probably, but we're to a point in history where we can do that and still make a contribution.

One additional point about broad vs. narrow topics: Back in the Middle Ages, there were people like Ibn Sina who aspired to know all of human knowledge up to that time. Now, no one would dream of that. There's simply too much knowledge floating around. Ira Lapidus can write A History of Islamic Societies after decades of working in the field soaking up knowledge and experience. Those of us on a 5-year dissertation clock must content ourselves with more modest goals. Peter Partner's God of Battles discusses the idea of holy war in religions of Middle Eastern origin from ancient times to the present, yet the "By the Same Author" page begins with The Papal State under Martin V.

So to reiterate, I do agree that there's a lot of really opaque stuff being written by academic historians, and that a lot of this could be better. However, I don't see evidence of a crisis, but rather of a system that works fairly well and advanding historical knowledge, digesting new ideas and discoveries, and feeding that into the public consciousness in a variety of formats. As long as everyone involved can learn from and respect each other's different priorities and approaches, we should be in good shape.

Entering the Library

Here at the University of Wisconsin, one cannot enter Memorial Library without showing a campus ID. I just ran over there to get a book, showed my ID to the ID-checker, and was told I could enter. I then spotted something I wanted to pick up at a stand a few feet away, and stepped over to get it. This took less than 30 seconds. As I began to enter the library, I was stopped and the ID-checker demanded to see my ID before entering. I guess I'm not particularly memorable =)

Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

A figure claiming to be Ayman az-Zawahiri is threatening U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and there are reports suggesting that he and Osama bin Laden have moved back into that country from Pakistan. This is a little surprising as earlier reports had suggested that the Taliban were planning to concentrate on Iraq rather than Afghanistan. One possibility is that we have no idea what they're really doing, and all reports should be viewed with suspicion. Another is that they'd rather take on an American puppet and some unpopular warlords in turbulent Afghanistan than the rising power of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other leaders in Iraq.

U.S. and Arab Media

If all aardvarks are this smart, humanity is in serious trouble:

"Which brings me to the fatal flaw in Kristof's analysis, and the real hypocrisy which cripples American Middle East policy. Arab public opinion does in fact criticize Arab rulers relentlessly for its failures - the absence of democracy, failure of economic policies, foreign policy, everythinge else. Arab governments generally respond defensively, lashing out at al Jazeera and al Arabiya and its peers as 'terrorists,' as fomenting divisions, as irresponsible, as enemies. If the Bush administration were serious about promoting real political diversity, challenging the monopoly on power of repressive and undemocratic regimes, it would be taking the side of al Jazeera and al Arabiya. The US should be defending not only their freedom of speech, but also tacitly endorsing their substantive criticisms of Arab regimes. Instead, the Bush administration lashes out at the Arab media using exactly the same language used by the Arab leaders, declaring al Jazeera the enemy, and starting its own official state run television station (al Hurra), exactly as do Arab leaders. That hypocrisy, siding with the repressive regimes against their critics, siding with repression and state media over independent and critical media, hurts American policy in the Middle East enormously."

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

To Any IRS Readers

The 2003-1040 form and instruction booklet would benefit greatly from having a table of contents.

UPDATE: In addition, do not, in the instructions to form 1040-C-EZ say to look at the instructions to form 1040-C. Most people only get the instructions to forms they are actually using.

UPDATE: "An expense does not have to be required to be considered necessary." - 2003-1040 instructions, page 29

Saudi Women and Driving

A French delegation failed to persuade the Saudi government to legalize women's driving. You know, Muhammad's favorite wife after Khadija was 'Aisha bt. Abu Bakr, who stands in the Muslim tradition as one of the most important transmitters of hadith, the stories of the Prophet's words and deeds which serve as a key basis for Islamic law. Historically, she also played a role in the politics of the early community, and was a leader in the Battle of the Camel. I wonder how she would fare in modern Saudi Arabia?

Omani Resort

Oman is preparing to build a major seafront resort. This surprises me, because Oman by reputation tends to be somewhat less than travel-friendly by Gulf standards, and has taken a "quality not quantity" approach to prospective tourists. I guess the beachfront resort crowd counts as "quality," and sensitive to local customs. Based on what I saw in Aqaba, I'm not convinced.

Comment Spam

Based on the number of spam-related posts I've seen lately, the amount of comment spam is growing. Al-Muhajabah has developed one means of cutting it down, for those interested. This found on this Invisible Adjunct post may also help.

Uzbekistan Assessed

A team from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development recently visited Uzbekistan to assess that nation's progress in reaching various standards of governance, economic policies, and human rights. According to RFE-RL, the nation fell short, especially in the human rights and governance areas. This raises at least the possibility that the EBRD will suspend loans to Uzbekistan, though since the pressure on the group apparently stemmed from criticism of its holding a conference in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, I'm not convinced it isn't window-dressing. The fact Uzbekistan was cited for progress in economic privatization and currency conversion provides cover for continuing the loans.

U.S. officials, however, are pleased, saying that they have learned of a secret anti-torture plan and grassroots support for greater human rights in the country. They also mentioned lots of discussion of human rights issues, and touted the success of a program to reduce corruption on college campuses. The key to the aid, though, seems to be economic privatization. They also discuss attempts to beef up border security, presumably to cut down on terrorists moving around Central Asia. Some of this is probably worthy, but our realpolitik connections with dictators have a way of blowing up in our faces, and if grassroots support for liberty now counts as political progress, we should have cited Saddam Hussein's Iraq for it.

Donald Rumsfeld is in Tashkent today meeting with Uzbek officials. Al-Jazeera also reports on this issue.

Americana in Arabic

Monday, February 23, 2004


According to Gulf News, Bahrain is rapidly moving toward the adoption of a Microsoft e-government system based off Windows 2003. There was an earlier article about this here. Last month, His Excellency Shaykh Muhammed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa signed an agreement with Bill Gates to gain access to Windows source code and technical support. All of this causes me to wonder whether intelligence services will now try to infiltrate software giants, or whether an ambitious executive of the future could shut down whole countries.


For every crisis there is a blog. Via Daniel Drezner, I find HaitiPundit.

UPDATE: Mike in comments points out John Engle actually blogging from Haiti.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Same Old Title VI Argument

Martin Kramer is now attacking Michigan in the ongoing Title VI debate. The two main targets of the Campus Watch crowd seem to be Columbia and California-Berkeley. I really don't know much about those schools, but I do know things about Michigan. They've told me they actually do train people for government service all the time. I believe them. The fact that they are opposed to one specific program doesn't change that. We're also back to the tactic of conflating research with teaching and relating that to producing Arabic speakers for government service. It seems fairly well-established that a major problem we have is the lack of Arabic teachers to increase the pipeline size. These Arabic teachers will be people who do research in Arabic literature, simply because even as an undergraduate, at the upper levels of language learning you are essentially studying literature.

Another way to look at this question is to ask why Republicans in Congress - including Peter Hoekstra, a Campus Watch ally - blocked Democratic attempts to make undergraduates eligible for FLAS funding under Title VI. If we need Arabic speakers, surely we should open the doors to promoting foreign language study among undergraduates as well as grad students? Of course, the much-reviled Title VI program already does that in many ways. The program we applied for at the University of Wisconsin specified that the focus must be on undergraduate program development and include a language acquisition component. However, you won't be reading that on a site geared more toward a political agenda than anything else.

Haloscan is Here

I have just replaced my old comments system with Haloscan. This should be much easier to use for everyone involved. I don't see a way to import the old comments, though.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Khamene'i Pleased

According to al-Jazeera, Ayatollah Ali Khamane'i has praised the recent Parliamentary elections, calling them the most important in Iran's history because the people of Iran showed that conspirators would not succeed in driving a wedge between the people and the government. The conspirators, of course, are the Americans and Israelis, who were the real losers.

Well, he might be right about them being important, but only for what came before.


I just picked up a card for someone whose mother passed away after a long illness. Sympathy cards are always depressing, and the "Loss of Mother" ones especially so. This posed a problem, because the person I'm sending to is likely to get it after spending a fair spell of time with her family before returning home psychologically seeking to move on. I finally found one that struck what felt like the right note, focusing on the memories without seeming too "peppy," if you take my meaning.

The other thing I picked up on the trip was toothpaste. In such forms does the eternal coexist with the mundane throughout the fabric of our lives.

Iraqi Territorial Claims

Mohsen Abd al-Hamid, current President of the Iraqi Governing Council, said today that in the future, Iraq may lay claim Jordanian and Kuwaiti territory, though not immediately. Please, please, please let this be a misstatement of some kind.

Al-Qaeda Says No

The U.S. is now saying that al-Qaeda is refusing to help Ansar al-Islam attack Iraqi Shi'ites. Since I had thought al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam were very close, this surprises me, though it may be that al-Qaeda is simply opposed to attacking the Iraqi Shi'ites as a tactical move of some kind. Still, this doesn't exactly do wonders for the Bush administration's case for war.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Pirate Jesus

Taliban in Zabul

In this IWPR story, former Zabul governor Hamidullah Tokhi claims that the central government controls only 3 of 11 administrative districts in the Afghan province of Zabul, with the Taliban influencing or controlling the rest. He blames his recently replaced successor, saying that Zabulis wouldn't follow someone from Kandahar. That successor claims everything was just fine when he was in charge. In the Pak Tribune, however, current governor Khyal Muhammad says American efforts against the Taliban in that province are failing. Delegates to the loya jirga testify to IWPR of Taliban strength in the province, and a Kabul source claims they control most of the province as a mobile motorcycle militia.

Last August, there was information (1, 2) suggesting the Taliban had retaken Zabul, followed by Operation Mountain Viper, aimed at driving them out. Trying to get a clear picture from much of Afghanistan is murky, as no one has a real interest in revealing the truth, and Afghan officials have quite clearly picked up the part of democracy where you either blame other people for problems or deny that they exist. Still, one gets the feeling that people intimately tied to the September 11 attacks are there, just waiting to stage their comeback as soon as they get an opening.

Iranian Election Coverage

Al-Jazeera reports that Iranian hardliners are poised for a landslide victory in today's Parliamentary elections. Getting rid of all the reformist candidates will do that for you. They also banned the last two major reformist newspapers. All this seems part of a continual downslide in civil liberties in Iran and an expansion of hardline power, both of which have been going on since at least last summer and seem to reverse trends from the late 1990's.

Conservatives in Academia

Timothy Burke has posted thirteen insightful points about the conservatives in academia debate. I wish I could go through and comment on all of them. Here's just one:

"On the other hand, collegiality is a powerful cultural force in many colleges and universities, and its stultifying or comforting effects (take your pick) often have nothing to do with politics in any sense. A conservative or libertarian who is a mensch about his or her views and research may well be admired, even beloved, by liberal or left colleagues, and fondly regarded as valuable because of their views. On the other hand, someone like Daniel Pipes who is running around picking broad-brush fights with everyone whom he perceives as a bad academic, usually based on a paper-thin reading of their syllabi or even just the titles of their research, is going to be loathed, but as much for his behavior as his political views. A liberal or leftist who plays Stalinist Truth Squad in the same way is going to be equally loathed and avoided. I’ve seen departments where everyone treats a particular person as a “politicized” pariah even though the political views of that person are exactly the same as the general distribution in the department, and it’s entirely about strident, personally confrontational, abrasive, self-aggrandizing behavior. Now it may be that conservatives, having been sneered at, are more inclined, almost out of necessity, to go on the offensive, and create a feedback loop in the process. But the mode of action is more important than the views."

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Shakespearian Howard Dean

I've thought before that Shakespeare could have made something out of the Dean campaign, but I see that someone else is already on it.


Tonight I went to the grocery store to get milk. On the way home, I saw a fire engine in my rearview mirror, so to save the hassle of having to stop and everything while it passed, I turned off onto the side street where I live about a block before I normally do. Shortly thereafter, I started smelling something hot, and wondered if there were a problem with my car heater, but before I could really worry, I heard sirens and saw the fire engine coming straight at me on my just-barely-two-lane street. I pulled over, and then was almost boxed in as it stopped right by where I had. All well - it apparently wasn't a huge fire, as there was no evidence of it on the outside of the building.

Saudi Arabia's Wall

Arafat and Dahlan

According to Ma'ariv, Yasser Arafat and Muhammad Dahlan are now reconciled. Back when Mahmood Abbas was trying to form his government, he wanted Muhammad Dahlan to head all security agencies, which Arafat refused. Arafat also believed Dahlan the highly talented Dahlan was being groomed to replace him. After Abbas resigned, Dahlan announced he would never again serve in a Palestinian government. I strongly suspect this "reconciliation" relates to Sharon's proposed pullout of the Gaza Strip, where Dahlan is highly popular and could rise to prominence in Palestinian affairs.

Russian Afghans

IWPR has an interesting profile of Russian soldiers left behind in Afghanistan, many of whom are now part of the general mix of Afghan society.

Effects of Iraq

Abu Aardvark takes Tom Friedman to task for this column in which he traces a bunch of political developments in the Middle East to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is something people have been doing a lot of lately, and it drives me nuts. There has been lively Arabic political discussion for years - the region practically lives off talking politics. Assuming that everyone in the region is now convinced of the need to reform because of the exercise of American military power suggests that people in the Middle East believe American military power was employed largely for pro-democracy purposes. They are not that naive, and the situation with Libya gives them no reason to change their minds. But read Abu Aardvark's piece. He even has pre-September 11 Friedman quotes about Arab political discussion.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Laying It Out...

Ma'ariv reports that Muhammad Reza Khatami, outgoing Majlis speaker and President Khatami's brother, has called for the abolition of Iran's Islamic Republic. The paper theorizes the reformists might be planning a campaign of civil disobedience after the elections on the grounds that the hard-liners have violated the constitution.

Sistani and the Kurds

RFE-RL is also reporting that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Kurdish leader Jalal Talebani have had a breakthrough in election talks. Talebani also claims Sistani has endorsed the principles of Kurdish autonomy. Recent months have seen generally good relations between Shi'ites and Kurds, both of whom have an interest in breaking the Sunni Arabs' lock on political power. This deal really doesn't surprise me. It is sort of fascinating to watch Ayatollah Sistani essentially cobble together a functioning Iraqi governing system while the Americans scramble.

Working with the Elders

RFE-RL reports on how the U.S. and Pakistan have developed a new strategy against al-Qaeda/Taliban which places the emphasis on relations with tribal leaders as people responsible for their own territory. This sounds like something that could work, and I'd thought we were doing it earlier. The current Pakistani crackdown on militants is aimed at driving them to Afghanistan, where the Americans will scoop them up.

American Politics

Howard Fineman said on NBC's Today show this morning that Howard Dean will effectively suspend his campaign today and begin moving toward support of John Edwards. Fineman indicated that Dean apparently has a strong distaste for Kerry as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American politics. Judging from the media coverage, Edwards now has momentum. Tom Schaller writing at Daily Kos suggests New York could hold the key on March 2. California is also that day.

UPDATE: I should also add the Edwards's Wisconsin showing was very likely due to Republican crossover support. In Wisconsin, you don't have to declare which party's primary you are voting in. They all share a single ballot. So if a Republican came to the polls to vote on a referendum or something, they could very easily just vote in the Democratic primary because it was there.

Koufax Awards

Wampum has announced the winners of the 2003 Koufax Awards for the liberal blogosphere. Atrios won as Best Liberal Blog. Winners on my blogroll include Daily Kos for Best Group Blog and Best Design, Juan Cole's Informed Comment for Best Expert Blog, and Tacitus for Best Conservative Blog. Congrats to all the winners. (By the way, I was apparently nominated for Best New Blog, but ineligible. Thanks to whomever nominated me!)

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

CBS News

CBS News must absolutely hate Howard Dean. With an unbridled passion. I don't think he's going to win, but their bias is so obvious it boggles the imagination.

More Bernard Lewis

Most of my Bernard Lewis posts involve ritual praise for his abilities as a historian, followed by a thorough condemnation of his political views. Just to flesh out the first part of that, here's a profile of him by his former student Martin Kramer from the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. Here's a key paragraph:

"Lewis drew upon the reservoir of Orientalism, with its emphasis on philology, culture, and religion. But while Lewis possessed all the tools of Orientalist scholarship—his work displayed an astonishing mastery of languages—he was a historian by training and discipline, intimately familiar with new trends in historical writing. He was one of the very first historians (along with the Frenchman Claude Cahen) to apply new approaches in economic and social history to the Islamic world. While a student in Paris, Lewis had a brief encounter with the Annales school, which inspired an early and influential article on guilds in Islamic history. A youthful Marxism colored his first book, The Origins of Ismailism (his doctorate for the University of London, where he taught for thirty years). He subsequently jettisoned this approach, refusing the straightjacket of any overarching theory. But his studies of dissident Muslim sects, slaves, and Jews in Muslim societies broke new ground by expanding the scope of history beyond the palace and the mosque."

I think part of the reason Lewis is such a lightning-rod is that he far outstrips the ability of most Middle Easternists to write for a general audience. The very excellent works by scholars like Ira Lapidus and Albert Hourani just don't have the same artistic flair. This is why Lewis is so influential, and why so many people continually cite him as The Voice of Authority on all matters related to the Middle East and Islam. Most historians today disagree with him for a lot of very sound scholarly reasons, as I have discussed before, but I think the key to advancing those perspectives outside the academy is to find ways to reach the general public in the same manner. The only person I can think of presently doing so is Karen Armstrong, who works from outside higher education and concentrates solely on writing for non-specialists.

UPDATE: Now see, this isn't exactly what I had in mind. Students at Columbia College are being taught to write in the style of Michel Foucault. As a Ph.D. student, I can hardly read the style of Michel Foucault. Via Martin Kramer.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Jane Austen Goes to Middle-Earth

Via Austentatious, I found this amusing intro to a Jane Austen interpretation of the Lord of the Rings.

Arabic Translation

Somehow this whole situation makes me feel better about my occasional Arabic difficulties. I mean, these are the professionals!


Very soon, we're going to be hearing a lot about the Shi'te holiday of Ashura. Last April, I wrote this post on the subject. In addition, via Oxblog I see this excellent Slate article on the same subject.

Sunday, February 15, 2004


You know, it can be really inconvenient when a language has the same word for "brothers-in-law" and "ancestors." Though in this case I should have been able to tell by the present tense of the verb. ("Our aslaf are there," as the reason the Bajila wanted to invade Syria.)

Plight of Afghan Women

Th Pak Tribune paints a very bleak portrait of the plight of Afghan women. Most of it is stuff one unfortunately expects from areas under chaotic warlord rule, such as the prevalence of rape. The rest relates to the imposition of fundamentalist regimes by warlords. Reading this, one is left wondering if many women might actually be worse off than under the Taliban, as the lack of rights now exists along with a lack of security. On the other hand, the situation in Kabul is somewhat better, and if Afghanistan ever becomes stable that could spread to the rest of the country, given time. Unfortunately, I'm still a pessimist in this case, and expect that Afghanistan will remain a deeply troubled land for years to come.

Robert Dick-Read

Some time ago, I wrote about Robert Dick-Read's theories about the Indonesian role in early African civilization based on this Guardian article. I just received an e-mail from Mr. Dick-Read claiming the article exaggerated his theories, which is quite likely. With his permission, here are his comments:

"Inaccuracies in Carroll piece. Well ... journalese!
"1st Para ...over dramatised, vastly over-simplified.
"2nd para 'filling their vessels with gold and silver' creates wholly wrong im pression ... and who says 'silver'? Not I.
"3rd para 'Gave Africa secrets of iron...' this is a possibility in the east and south - even in the west. NOT a certainty. etc. etc. ETC.

"'Robert Soper disagrees'. Robert went to Nigeria when I went there to set up a museum. He has recently published a book on Nyanga (Zimbabwe). Unfortunately he has never studied Madagascar and is thus unaware of the deep and ancient linkages between the island and central Africa. His lack of knowledge in this field has led him into some horrible traps. By his own admission, he does not know much about the East Coast archaeology which he has never studied critically. BUT Robert is a 'paid professional', so even though he has never looked at my specialist subject, he is the one who people naturally believe!! That is the way of the world!

"Incidentally I am absoluitely not a 'racist', nor is my (as yet unpublished) book ... I have lived most of my life among people of other race, and have huge respect. I have a son - Aragorn by name - who is an artist in the Caribbean, and another who has a surfing magazine that sells well in the States - 'The Surfers Path.'"

I still haven't read the book, and so can't comment myself. There is, however, more discussion brewing here for those interested.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Pre-Emptive War

According to Abraham Lincoln:

"Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever HE shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, WHENEVER HE MAY CHOOSE TO SAY he deems it necessary for such a purpose - and you allow him to make war at pleasure."

As I noted here, preserving the ability of politicians who oppose controversial wars to remain politically viable is a major reason I am still supporting Dean.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Al-Jazeera Condemned

A Shi'ite cleric close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called for the banning of al-Jazeera for allegedly trying to incite sectarian violence. I have no way of judging the merits of these claims, but suspect in part it is a case of certain Iraqis needing to get a hang of the whole "free press" concept and in part al-Jazeera convering things in a senationalistic manner even worse that FOXNews.


It's sort of interesting how my busiest days are my least productive. In recent weeks I've been able to spent a lot of time just focusing on my dissertation, which frequently keeps me involved until late evening before I decide to put it down. In contrast, last semester I was always rushing to finish a fellowship application or some reading for Arabic, and it usually didn't seem worth it to read some random part of a book in the time I had between such other commitments.

Today, however, was a temporary return to last semester. I got up, went in to drop off at the copy center a poster for our lecture series made using this picture from Mahmood's Den, got a book I needed from the library, then had an hour before lunch and another hour before going to the dentist, after which I have perhaps another hour or so before dinner. I could have used this time to at least get started on something, but every time I crack open a book and find my train of thought, there seems to be some distraction. I think I can try now, though.

The good news is that I had only one cavity, despite taking too long between appointments and drinking too many sugar-containing beverages. I was a tad concerned going in. I am also amused that since I'm going back August 13, I'll have to consecutive appointments on Friday the 13th.

Americana in Arabic Library Translation Project

Juan Cole has an idea:

"The classics of American thought and literature have been little translated into Arabic. Worse, even when they have been translated, they have appeared in small editions (typically no more than 500 copies printed). Worse still, the distribution system for Arabic books is poor, and there are few public libraries, so that many books that have been published in the past are no longer available to most readers.

"I have therefore decided to begin a project to translate important books by great Americans and about America into Arabic, and to subsidize their publication so that they can be bought inexpensively. I hope also to subsidize their distribution. This is a non-profit project, but until it grows large enough to become a proper foundation, it will not be tax-deductible."

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Iran's Fate

When all's said and done, this article about how and why the students and reformists failed to work together in the recent election crisis may contain the key explanation for the eventual fall of the Islamic Republic. For some time now, I and many other. have felt that Iran was the country to watch in terms of bringing democracy to the Middle East, and that over time the reformists backed by public opinion would weaken the power of the hardline institutions until they became more or less ceremonial. Like Jonathan Edelstein, however, I think these past few weeks were it, and change in the regime will now be revolution from without rather than reform from within. I've sort of wondered about this since at least the summer, when I read of the formation of regional versions of the Council of Guardians to supervise local governments, long a key reformist bastion. Had the reformists and the student protestors worked together, they might have been able to win meaningful concessions, as the reformists I believe were close to mainstream opinion and the students had the power to apply real pressures. As it stands now, all we can probably do is determine which forces are most likely to consolidate the anti-Khomeinist revolutionary forces and seek to strengthen their hand for the eventual confrontation.

Terrorism 101

I wonder if anyone taking this course will ever fly again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Exit Clark

Well, Clark's out. At least now the Babylon 5 fan in me won't be cringing for the next four years.

More on Afghan Opium

UN official Antonio Maria Costa is insisting that foreign troops in Afghanistan combat the drug trade, though NATO says that is not their responsibility. They are, however, planning to increase the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Afghanistan is such a tough place precisely because it has so many problems you can be doing really well and fixing one and the others will still come back to bite you. Provincial reconstruction is nice, but what if the political situation degenerates do to drug-funded warlordism and the reconstruction gets undone? On the other hand, some of these projects might ultimately improve the economic situation enough that farmers wouldn't turn to drugs. It's all a very tough balancing act, and I'd much rather be in Iraq.

Federalist Papers

In posts of long ago, Oxblog's Patrick Belton raised the issue of Arabic translations of the Federalist papers. Today, Juan Cole talks about a similar issue in the context of our public diplomacy efforts. I think this discussion could actually lead somewhere. Who says blogging is irrelevant?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Children's Parliament

The Yemen Observer reports on what might be a meaningful attempt to bring democratic values to that country, the Children's Parliament. Childen from ages 12 to 15 will vote this April on representatives to serve a two-year term to the body, which will focus primarily on drawing attention to children's issues such as education and child labor.

Saddam's Victims

However they feel about the CPA occupation, Iraqis are clearly happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein. IWPR's Aqil Jabbar reports on how different groups in Iraq are supporting the families of Ba'ath victims, giving them preference for employment and social services. This is causing some controversy, as people who simply lay low during the Saddam years are being passed over.

Afghanistan's Drug War

RFE-RL reports from today and yesterday show the opium issue rising to the forefront in Afghanistan. This is critical as illegal drug money probably represents a greated threat to the country than the Taliban, and at least some of the warlords have their hands in the opium trade. How this will affect the larger context of Afghan politics remains to be seen.

Day the Music Died?

Al-Jazeera reports on the threat posed by Muslim fundamentalism to Iraqi musicians. Similar pieces have turned up in the Western media, discussing threats, intimidation, and violence against those who don't follow fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, especially in the south. For those interested, there is a great deal of dispute among Muslims over whether music is permitted. this scholar claims it is clearly forbidden, while these people are convinced that it isn't. The case that music is forbidden rests pretty strongly on the hadith corpus, which is contradictory on the subject, and the belief that all the verses forbidding that which distracts from religion mean quite literally anything that is not religious. To my outsider's perspective, these are some pretty thin arguments.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias points out a key source on the subject.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Rebuilding Iraq

This fairly basic Iraq article has at least one graft I'd like to point out:

"Some observers worry that instead of the many capital-intensive projects being promoted in exhibitions and conferences in neighbouring countries to attract foreign companies, there should be a labour-intensive public works programme launched in Iraq itself.

"Such a programme could utilise available small- and medium-sized Iraqi engineering and construction companies and the tens of thousands of unemployed professionals and workers to rebuild the roads and schools and other public facilities that were neglected by the previous regime and lacked maintenance because of the UN’s sanctions regime."

The Bush administration is trying to rebuild the Iraqi economy from the top down, bringing in global corporations to provide jobs and mobilize Iraqi resources for the world economy. However, I tend to believe that economic prosperity is best built from the ground up, and that empowering local Iraqis to undertake their own reconstruction has better long-term prospects for success. The economic models may show that corporations can do something more efficiently, but human beings tend not to follow neat models. What if high unemployment continues to lead to rioting? What if the corporations set up infrastructures in a way that suits themselves? And what about the popular view of such corporations as neocolonial looters, against whom resistance can be justified? I'd feel much better with a small business or labor rights approach to things.

Watch Carefully

The U.S. is really playing up this evidence that Iraqi insurgents are seeking to work with al-Qaeda. I agree that they probably are and have been saying so for some time. However, the administration's rhetoric bears watching at this point. Will they try to paint this as evidence for an existing link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi Ba'ath party? Developing...

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Dean Returns to Madison

I've just learned that Howard Dean will be at the Madison Concourse Hotel tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. for a town hall meeting on his health care plan. If you're still undecided, consider checking it out. I have stuff to do at work, and so won't be there.

Featured Books

If you look to the left and down, you'll see I have finally jumped on the Amazon referrals bandwagon with some featured books of my own. I expect these to mainly reflect the content of the blog, which means they'll mostly deal with the Middle East and Islam, with occasional forays into other areas. I also plan to replace the links in my "Suggested Reading" posts with amazon referrals once they get off the front page.

The first book I've chosen is the really nice The Oxford History of Islam. The chapters in this book each give an overview of a given topic or geographic region, such as "Science Medicine and Technology" or "Central Asia and China." There's even a chapter on "The Globalization of Islam" dealing with the experience of Muslim communities in the West. The illustrations are excellent, and make this a good thing to set out on your coffee table and just flip through.

Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid is what looks like an updated version of the work by Ralph Magnus and Eden Naby that was a key general reading for my "Afghanistan" seminar from Spring 2002. After a brief introduction to the aland and people, it goes over developments of the last few decades with an emphasis on the importance of Islam, introduction of Marxism, and the rise of the mujahadeen. The Taliban appear only in the last chapter, but this is still a good introduction to the geopolitical and social landscape into which they came and that we're still dealing with over there today.

Finally, Madawi al-Rasheed's A History of Saudi Arabia is a good one-stop introduction to Saudi history, covering the rise of the Wahhabi movement and their early links with the Saudis to the relationship of foreign powers to the new royal family to the internal developments of Saudi society during the 20th century. al-Rasheed is a historical anthropologist by trade, and I think a couple of parts of this get a bit complex, this is still the place to go to understand Saudi society from the perspective of how it got to be the way it is.

Suggested Reading, 2000-01

Here are the best books I read during the 2000-01 academic year.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway)

My top pick on the year, I sat down on the front porch one Saturday afternoon last summer to start reading it, and put it down finished much later that night - and this book is not short. It really has nothing to do with Robert Jordan's mission to destroy a bridge, which serves as an excuse to make a journey through the Spanish Civil War in all its twisted idealistic horror. The descriptions of the war and its effects on people represent the most powerful sections of this work, dwarfing the fairly forgettable romance between Jordan and Maria. Also interesting was the portrayal of the unforgettable characters - from Jordan to Pablo and Pilar to El Sordo and even that Fascist lieutenant near the end - as they seek to achieve some sort of surreal heroism in this world of fractured causes and fragmented alliances. And the title says exactly who it's aimed at...

No Longer at Ease (Chinua Achebe)

This book made me wish I were back in an English class, because after reading it I had this ovepowering need to discuss it with someone. The third book in Achebe's Africa trilogy, its protagonist is Okonkwo's grandson Obi, who studied in England and returned to get a job with the colonial administration. Through Obi's relations with his father and a woman whose name I'm actually stuck on remembering, Achebe illustrates the breakdown of the traditional kinship and community networks under the pressure of European values, leaving everyone in a strange moral netherworld in which they are "no longer at ease." It is in this netherworld that the moral economy of money and power replaces that of community, leading to Obi's fall in a bribery scandal as discussed in the first chapter. In this novel, Achebe tackles other issues like colonialism and the formation of prejudice much more head-on than in Things Fall Apart, and it also puts a new spin on the murder of Ikemefuna representing the worldview of its new lead character.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon (Jose Saramago)

I had a lot of fun reading this book, but then how could I not with the story of Raymundo Silva, a copy editor who decides to change a "Yes" to a "No" in a book on the Second Crusade and finds true love as a result? I did find parts of it a little contrived, and they must have hired Star Trek: Voyager's preview people to do the cover jacket, but there's some marvelous discussion in here about the relationship among history, life, and literature - if history is life, as Silva suggests, then are we not alive? But if it is story, as his later actions seem to suggest, then can we not make our own stories for our own lives? Fans of Saramago will also find his standard worldview of essentially nameless, storyless people performing mechanically under the direction of distant, all-powerful corporate forces, the sense of distance between people, and the idea that it is only by acting randomly to break the routine that we can truly find meaning in life.

Shakuntala (Kalidasa)

This is one of those works everyone talks about but nobody reads, and since I talk about it all the time I decided to actually read it. The play by India's greatest poet and dramatist adapts a story from the Mahabharata about a girl named Shakuntala who falls in love with a king named Dushyanta, who gives her a special ring. Unfortunately, somebody curses them so that Dushyanta will only recognize his beloved by her ring which is lost in a river. Fortunately the ring is caught by a fisherman, and everyone lives happily ever after. According to the little bit of information I've checked out, Sanskrit drama features works governed by one emotion or spirit, which is commented on through a different emotion/spirit in each successive act. Here the dominant love theme is maintained brilliantly, yielding the best poetic love story I've read since Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.

The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)

Like the Shakuntala, this is another work I read just to check out the action, and I came away finding it not underrated. Sam Spade is appropriately hard-boiled, Bridget O'Shaughnessy is as femme fatale as advertised, the secretary nags a lot, the villains are all villainous, and there's a nice if not 100% unexpected twist at the end. As a student of the Crusades, I was glad to see that Hammett at least knew enough to put the Hospitallers on Malta instead of the Templars. A good read for a balmy summer evening, this cultural landmark both entertains and leads an important genre of American fiction.

Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata)

In quiz bowl, I used to complain that all questions involving the plot of Kawabata works sounded the same. After reading a fair sampling of them, I've figured out why: They are all the same. But I've finally figured out you're not supposed to get the meaning from the plot, but from the ordering of images, like a series of haiku images strung together as a commentary on the events described. Kawabata's plots all involve an older man seeking purity in a beautiful young woman, which in this case takes place in the hot springs area of the west. Upon reflection, I really don't understand the book - I only figured out what I was supposed to be looking for when I got frustrated and read something on Japanese literature to figure out what the point was. But this was definitely good, the clear masterwork of Japan's first Nobel laureate in literature.

The New Africa (Robert Press)

Despite being a journalist, Robert Press writes with keen insight and vividly detailed depth about the current state of affairs in Africa. The origins of this work lie in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which Press witnessed and credits with changing his life. His experiences there - which he describes unforgettably - alerted him to the ways in which the portrayal of Africa as a "dark continent" filled with interminable ancient enmities and unfallible corruption contributed to the situation by causing people to belittle African conflicts and tragedies. So he set about chronicling positive change in Africa in a number of arenas - successful economic growth programs in Kenya, a popular uprising in Mali, and many others. While not denying the problems of this region of the world, he shows in a highly accessible and personal way the reasons why the world shouldn't forget Africa and brings to life places and experiences even most educated Americans know about only vaguely.


Saturday, February 07, 2004


In re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I can't help but wonder what exactly Gandalf did with all his time. He and the other wizards showed up about 1000 TA, with the sole purpose of preparing Middle-Earth to fight Sauron. According to Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, about 1100 TA the wise realized an evil force had inhabited Dol Guldur. Then, in 2063, Gandalf went to check it out. 2063!!!!! Since Middle-Earth doesn't really seem to be filled with mysterious evil forces, why did Gandalf wait almost 1000 years before popping in to see what was up?

Then, when Sauron returned to Dol Gulder in 2460, Gandalf didn't go back until 2850. What was he doing for all that time? I guess you could say he had to become familiar with the lands of Middle-Earth, but if you have me a solid century or two, I think I could have done that much. And in The Fellowship of the Ring, he said he'd only been to Moria once, Now Moria was allegedly the great center of Dwarfdom for the first 1000 years or so of Gandalf's life. If he had spent all those years getting to know the world, would he really have only been there once?

This is just something I've noticed. I'm curious if anyone else has theories.

Fatah Resignations

Hundreds of members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement have resigned due to the lack of reforms.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Asifa Quraishi

I just found out that Asifa Quraishi will be joining the University of Wisconsin law faculty next year. Wow.

Tajik Shuffling

IWPR reports on President Imamali Rahmonov's reshuffling of Tajikistan's government, including moving Lieutenant-General Ghafur Mirzoev from his military commant to a post in the Drugs Control Agency. Mirzoev played a major role in securing Rahmonov's power during the Tajik Civil War, and his ouster undoubtedly signals an attempt by the President to consolidate power. IWPR also ventures that taken as a whole, Rahmonov's moves suggest that Tajikistan will adopt a pro-Western Europe/United States foreign policy as opposed to an alignment with Russia.


I had tofu yesterday at a co-worker's retirement party. I definitely liked it better than the first time I had it. I think if I became a regular eater, I could easily learn to enjoy it. In other news, a bunch of things I've been waiting for at work have finally happened, so I'll be able to get lecture publicity out, update the web site, and so on. Now all we need is for the International Institute to hire a new financial specialist for when we pay the bills.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Bernard Lewis

Angry Arab has a pretty good take-down of Bernard Lewis:

"In writing about contemporary Islam, for years Lewis has been largely recycling his 1976 Commentary article titled The Return of Islam (“return” from where?) In this piece, Lewis exhibits his adherence to the most discredited forms of classical Orientalist dogmas by invoking such terms as 'the modern Western mind.' He thereby resurrects the notion of an epistemological distinction between 'our' mind and 'theirs,' as articulated by Ralph Patai in The Arab Mind (which, incidentally, went into a new printing after September 11th). For Lewis, the Muslim mind never seems to change. Every Muslim, or any Muslim, regardless of geography or time, is representative of any or all Muslims. Thus, a quotation from an obscure medieval source is sufficient to explain present-day behavior. Lewis even traces Abu ‘Ammar’s (Yasir ‘Arafat’s) own name to early Islamic history and to the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, though ‘Arafat himself had explained that his name derives from the root ‘amr (a reference to ‘Arafat’s construction activities in Kuwait prior to his ascension within the Palestine Liberation Organization). Because ‘Arafat embraced, literally, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran when he met him, Lewis finds evidence of a universal Islamic bond. When Lewis revised his book years later, he took note in passing of the deep rift that later developed between ‘Arafat and Khomeini by saying simply that 'later they parted company.'

"The Islam of Bernard Lewis is an unchanging Islam. Indeed, according to Lewis, Islam is religion, culture, history, people, geography, law, outlook, paradigm, and, of course, texts (preferably, ancient religious texts). Muslims are dominated exclusively by Islam. He: 'For Muslims, Islam is not merely a system of belief and worship, a compartment of life, so to speak, distinct from other compartments which are the concern of nonreligious authorities administering nonreligious laws. It is rather the whole of life, and its rules include civil, criminal, and even what we would call constitutional law.' The dangers of this view does not lie merely in its impact on college and public education in the United States, where no student of Middle East studies can escape Lewis’s books. Lewis now has access to the highest circles of the US government. None other than Vice-President Richard Cheney once answered a question in public by saying: 'I’ve talked to Bernard Lewis about that very subject.'"

I find Lewis one of the touchiest blogospheric topics to talk about. The man was a very good historian, and a few of his books have been required reading during my graduate career. However, his approach to history has fallen by the wayside, with good reason. This is independent of his political views, which are also of course under attack from many quarters. And, of course, he's been invoking his recent scholarship on behalf of his chosen political causes, coming to be the administration's expert par excellence despite the fact he's so out of step with the field.

Enter Edward Said, of course, who is also a figure of widely known political views who has academic influence. His work Orientalism was an attack on Lewis's way of doing history, and its influence has been that scholars like myself have increasingly turned to social and economic studies rather than just religious explanations for Middle Eastern life. The most direct offspring of Saidian thought is post-colonialism, a school of thought most influential in South Asian Studies that seeks to understand the effect of colonialism on societies and ultimately discover their pre-colonial constructs. Please note that this does not necessarily imply colonial exploitation, merely differences as Western ways of doing things were overlaid on existing native cultures. Some key questions can be found here:

"How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over so large a portion of the non-Western world? What traces have been left by colonial education, science and technology in postcolonial societies? How do these traces affect decisions about development and modernization in postcolonies? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? How did Western science, technology, and medicine change existing knowledge systems? What are the emergent forms of postcolonial identity after the departure of the colonizers? To what extent has decolonization (a reconstruction free from colonial influence) been possible? Are Western formulations of postcolonialism overemphasizing hybridity at the expense of material realities? Should decolonization proceed through an aggressive return to the pre-colonial past (related topic: Essentialism)? How do gender, race, and class function in colonial and postcolonial discourse? Are new forms of imperialism replacing colonization and how?"

Some of these have political overtones, but most seem good and necessary topics for examination, unless you believe that Africa, Asia, etc. would all look exactly the way they do today with European-style nation-states, education systems, and so on regardless of whether there had been colonization.

Back to Said and Lewis, politics and scholarship are, of course, not completely unrelated. A key element of Said's criticms was based on the idea that traditional orientalism was the handmaiden of racism and the colonial enterprise. This is actually considered the weakest part of his argument. The three most influential orientalists were probably Carl Becker and Ignaz Goldziher (both German and not serving someone's Middle East empire) and Louis Massignon (something of a radical who tried to get himself martyred in the cause of Algerian independence). However, Lewis has to some become the stereotype of the Saidian orientalist. You can also see the political implications for today of this precise dispute: If Arab hostility toward the U.S. is religious in origin that means one thing, whereas if it relates to concrete social and political causes it means something else. This February 3 Angry Arab post shows Lewis's current political influence as refracted through the Wall Street Journal. (I haven't read The Crisis of Islam, but his earlier works did show far more nuanced thinking.)

I don't have a real point in all this, other than to beware taking the words of experts at face value, and always be aware of how the knowledge given to you gets put together. Old habits and concepts die hard. Here at UW, the graduate seminars I take are all called "Problems in Islamic History," yet there is no "Problems in Hindu History," "Problems in Shinto History," "Problems in African Traditional Religious History," and so on for those regions of the world. A key reason is that Europeans have had contact with the Middle East since the Middle Ages when their Muslimness counted for far more than their ethnicity. Albert Hourani has a book of essays called Islam in European Thought that gives some interesting insights into the development of the field from a non-Saidian perspective.

Sistani Survives

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has just survived an assassination attempt.

UPDATE: Or maybe he didn't.

Sistani and Iran

According to Juan Cole, Iranian reformists have reached out to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to intervene in the Iranian election crisis. Sistani is the highest-ranking religious scholar, not just for Iraq, but for all Twelver Shi'ites, and if he chooses could provide a key rallying point for Iranian disaffected with the regime. Granted, Sistani is a bit busy at the moment, but Cole's right, this could get really interesting.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Dean in Madison

I went to my first meet-up tonight, as well as saw Dean in person for the first time. It was a real treat. The event was held in the Club Majestic, and I was standing on the completely full balcony, looking across at another completely full balcony on the other side and above the table area which was, of course, completely full. The volunteers were going around with their sign-up cards, where I signed up for a couple of things, and people all over were talking politics, from the Bush AWOL story to pre-emptive war. The crowd as a whole was so big that, as noted in the comments below, they had to start sending people into nearby buildings, and I think we in the Majestic were less than half the total turn-out.

I didn't recognize the first speaker, but he rocked, listing cities in Wisconsin which we are going to win before letting out the patented Dean "Yearrgghhh!" Kathleen Falk, the popular Dane County Executive went next, introducing the Governor. And then, Howard Dean stepped out. I had a brief period of adjustment, as happens when you've seen someone on TV for ages and ages and then suddenly he appears before you in the flesh, a real live human being with a voice and hair and skin. Yet that only lasted for a moment, for truly had you been there you would not think it too melodramatic to compare him to an avatar of the American spirit, exuding and drawing us into a vision of hope and can-do idealism before he even opened his mouth.

This was a charisma like I have never experienced before, and his presence is such that I say that although Dean is not known for his great height, in the mind's eye he was one of the taller figures around, taking control of the atmosphere in the room as surely as he has the atmosphere of this entire campaign. His only "gaffe" was when he talked about Michigan's affirmative action policy; regardless of the issues, defending Michigan is not permitted in Madison, a fact of which he was quickly informed by the audience. I keep hearing that John Kerry is Presidential because he looks like a President from central casting, but the people who say that do not have a sense of history. I have to admit the Kerry does look like a movie President, but then most movie Presidents are failing at defending us from aliens or something, not being "Presidential."

Howard Dean is a leader. He has led Vermont for over a decade. He has led his supporters to heights no one thought they could reach. He has led the Democratic field to its present stance on the issues. And soon, if all goes well, he shall lead America. For Howard Dean alone among all the candidates carries the aura of vision and the credentials of ability that make a true President. When deciding what counts as Presidential, we should not look at who's been in Congress the longest or who does the best job at following the standard political scripts - after all, Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest President, was elected after a single term in Congress.

Rather, to be Presidential is to make people want the future which you can bring about. I want health insurance for every American according to a plan that will actually pass through Congress. I want to repair our international alliances so that the United States once more stands as the moral leader of the world. I want to globalize human rights and not just corporate rights so that we can have a world where people are more than just business assets to be discarded at will. And I want a country I can be proud of, a democracy where the special interests don't rule from the shadows, and where ordinary Americans once more control the processes of our own lives.

And that is why, when we picture the world 50 years from now, we can see the Howard Dean we've all come to know, a Howard Dean aged by his office, his face cast in marble like the great Presidents of old sitting before a painting of him in the oval office dealing with a crisis today unforeseen. And as schoolchildren pass through on their field trips, they are told of how in a time of despair, this man brought the promise of a new beginning; of how when the forces of fear threatened to overwhelm our values this man brought hope and restoration; of how when people said he couldn't do something, he went ahead and proved them wrong, and most of all how he showed that the United States is not just a nation of special interests and pundit-identified population groups, but a community of shared ideals, ideals every generation of Americans has sought to live by and succeeded at just a little more than the one which came before. And then the schoolchildren will file out, anxious to be on with their lunch time, except for one little girl who remembers, and takes to heart the message of Howard Dean, and message which transcends today's issues even as it responds to them. And that little girl will go on to solve the problems of her day, enriched by an understanding of society and an example of how to lead it.

That is what it means to be Presidential. And while I think all the other Democrats are probably electable, I see only one as truly Presidential. And if that's the test for whom we should nominate, then let it be Howard Dean.

More on Uzbekistan

Matthew Yglesias weighs in on the Uzbekistan issue. He mentions the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which may have been involved in last spring's terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan. However, as this article points out, the main group currently being opposed by the Uzbek government is the Hizb at-Tahrir, which while fundamentalist believes in non-violence as a way of achieving their goals. The argument is that they might one day develop violent intentions. American support for such actions clearly takes "preemptive war" to new heights. Unfortunately, one of the surest ways to persuade people to turn to violence is to attack them.


Today is one of those days when you have to remind yourself of why as a medievalist you regard the rise of bureaucracy as a good thing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

CBS Annoys Me

I just had CBS news on, and they covered today's primaries using the storyline that today we would learn if John Edwards could beat Kerry in South Carolina and prove it's a two-man race. This is absurd. First of all, leaving Dean aside, Wesley Clark had the lead in Oklahoma polls over the weekend, and was gaining in the southwest. Dean is making his stand this weekend, and so should not be written off, either. Crowning Edwards as the "anti-Kerry" at this point is journalistic irresponsibility.

I'm not alleging a conspiracy here, but the way the media covers campaigns needs serious reform. "Momentum" is all that matters. Most people still get their news from these network newscasts, and by talking about only two candidates, the media exert an undo influence through their editorial decisions. Secondly, the horse-race coverage that is annoying enough most of the time becomes dangerous during the primary season, when every contest is treated not as a single group of voters stating their preference, but rather as a statement about "Where the race stands." There is no logical reason why a candidate should gain "inevitability" after winning two states that have only a handful of delegates. This cannot continue.

By the way, I haven't posted much at Dean Nation lately because I have some sort of campaign writer's block. Hopefully I'll snap out of it soon.

Uzbekistan Funding Safe

The new American Ambassador to Uzbekistan has assured Uzbek leaders that financial assistance to the country will not be reduced, despite their terrible human rights record. This brings us back to the old debate about supporting dictators when it seems to be in our national security interest. Despite administration rhetoric, this policy really hasn't changed. Uzbekistan supported the Iraq invasion and the conflict against the Taliban/al-Qaeda. Therefore, we are supporting Uzbekistan's ruthless dictator Islam Karimov. Beware of moral issues and future blowback. An optimist might say that if Afghanistan becomes stable, however, we'd be in a better position if we needed to confront Uzbekistan down the line, as we would then have a nice wholesome democratic prospective ally in the region.

Sharon's Latest Move

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is considering land swaps with the Palestinians wherein Israeli Arabs would live under Palestinian rule, presumably with Israel gaining formal rights to areas of dense Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories. The first question that comes to mind here is whether the Israeli Arabs will go along with this. And regardless of whether Sharon is serious, the fact he's proposing all this from the right really affects the overall Israeli political climate. Meanwhile, Labor party leader Shimon Peres has promised to join the government if settlements are removed, a sentiment echoed by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Ehud Barak.

Blog Names

The University of Chicago gets some really good blog names. We've already seen Crescat Sententia, now we have Gnostical Turpitude!

Iraqi Women's (Lack of) Security

Sara Butler posts a very good article on rape and the abduction of women in Iraq. It's definitely worth a read. In general discussions of security, the special situation of women is too often overlooked.

Iran Round-Up

I wish I had more to say about the current events in Iran. Fortunately, Oxblog's Patrick Belton has a round-up of views.

Apology to Saddam

Dear Saddam Hussein-

For years, I listed you and North Korea as two of the three most brutal regimes on the planet. For the record, I still think you were an evil dictator, even without weapons of mass destruction. Your deposition made the world a better place. But I must nonetheless apologize for linking you with this.

Winter Weather

Ahh...temperature in the 20's, and lots of pure snow. Now this is the way winter should be!

Monday, February 02, 2004

Iran Developments

I haven't commented much on Iran just because I have little to add to the actual news accounts. Today the leading reformist party pulled out of this month's Parliamentary elections. This comes after massive resignations among reformists in Parliament when the hardline Council of Guardians only reinstated a fraction of those candidates it had previously banned from running. I think this would probably be a good time for some street demonstrations like we saw last summer. If the reformists can win this round, they will have seen their power and likely have the upper hand. If they lose, then the idea of reforming the system from within will stand revealed as an illusion, and the government will quickly lose all legitimacy.

Iraq Stuff

Juan Cole has a brief analysis of the Irbil bombing, in which he with probable accuracy blames Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Islam is a terrorist group with known links to al-Qaeda. During the run-up to the Iraq war, its presence in Iraq was listed with evidence of Saddam's supposed al-Qaeda links, even though it was actually based in the Kurdish territory. And speaking of questionable administration arguments, here is yet another example of the sudden blaming of the CIA for the WMD intelligence failures. I'm surprised no one has gotten whiplash from all this yet. True, the CIA did overestimate the Iraqi weapons programs, but the conservative attack on them was that they actually underestimated it, which is why the administration set up the Office of Special Plans to produce their own conclusions. Hopefully people will remember all this and not fall for these attempts to murk up the truth.

Leaving Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced plans for a complete end to Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip. Over break, I learned that during the Camp David negotiations under President Carter, it was Sharon who declared to Begin that the Sinai settlements were unnecessary for defense purposes, and later Sharon who saw to their evacuation. The settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, however, have different ideological associations, and I've been wondering if Sharon would take the same attitude. This is a positive sign.

UPDATE: Jonathan Edelstein has a good analysis of this. There's also discussion at An Unsealed Room.

UPDATE: Imshin also weighs in, including a description of Gaza from her days in the reserves:

"Rafah horrified me. I’d never seen so many people in my life, just standing about, hanging around, in the streets and alleyways. It looked like prison. And to make things worse, the town was cut in half by a border. Half the town was in Israel, the other half in Egypt. The Egyptian side didn’t look any better than the Israeli side, by the way. We drove along the border in a jeep. I believe you can’t do that today, unless you’re in a heavily armed vehicle, and even then it’s very dangerous. That’s the border they tunnel under to smuggle arms in."

Read the whole post. As far as the heritage of the Gaza Strip goes, Gaza City is home to the tomb of Hashim, namesake of the Prophet Muhammad's Hashemite clan. According to EB On-Line, it was also a Philistine city where Samson allegedly died and the birthplace of ash-Shafi, founder of the Shafi'i madhhab.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Building Walls

I wonder if this wall being built by Saudi Arabia will be met with the same vociferous opposition as this wall being built by Israel. You know, in the "From the Editor" to the February 2004 World Press Review, Alice Chasan suggested the wall was a monument to failure. Fine, so what's wrong with that? Having a big, ugly wall separate Israel from Palestinian territory will result in hurt feelings for the world's idealists. Not having it will result in dead Israelis. Why is this even controversial?

Of course, the big hole in the above argument is that the wall cuts through a lot of the Occupied Territories, thus giving the impression it is a land grap by the Sharon government. This is a valid case, and the main thing that prevents me from being a whole-hearted wall defender. However, even this wall might be better than no wall if the international community is willing to apply the pressures necessary to eventually ensure an full Israeli withdrawal if an Israeli government at the peace table proves reluctant. At the moment, I think the most practical route to peace may lie through increasing Israeli security, allowing the the rise of political forces within Israel who want negotiations. This may not be fair to the Palestinians, but again in practical terms I don't see anything resembling a policy from their leadership that would change the status quo. Arafat seems content to sit atop the territories and ride whatever waves come along, which means other people will direct them where they will.