Monday, October 31, 2005


If God had used WD-40 on the Earth's crust we wouldn't have earthquakes.

Zarqawi's Agenda

Stephen Ulph writing for the Jamestown Foundation has produced an analysis of Abu Musab az-Zarqawi's objectives as outlined Abu Abd Allah Ahmad al-Umran, one of his apparent associates. According to al-Umran, Zarqawi's targets are chosen with an eye toward isolating the American forces in Iraq by attacking Iraqis who form a bridge between them and the population, targeting foreign ambassadors so as to isolate the Iraqi government and cut it off, and finally attackin Shi'ites, for a list of reasons he lists.

What's striking about this, as Ulph notes, is it's defensive nature, as if he is trying to defend himself from the criticisms levelled in the Zawahiri letter. If we take the Zawahiri letter as genuine, this in turn could point toward a continuing rivalry between Zarqawi and Bin Laden, as Zarqawi stakes his claim to be more than just a creature of the Iraq conflict. Those calling for an immediate pull-out from Iraq, meanwhile, should note that it virtually promises a failed state in Iraq would become a haven for international terrorism. This does not mean we need to keep our current force posture, but we have an interest in seeing that the current government doesn't collapse. Juan Cole has previously produced some ideas on how this could be done.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hurricane Omega

By the way, has anyone begun work on a disaster movie called Hurricane Omega?

Kyrgyz Mafia

In the wake of the assassination of Kyrgyz MP Tynychbek Akmatbaev, attention has turned to the connections between organized crime the Kyrgyz political leaders which many believe led to the violence. The IWPR, RFE-RL, and Registan both have coverage of protests calling for the assassination of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who came to power through a pre-election deal with President Kurmanbek Bakiev. While the articles don't address it directly, I'm not sure if Bakiev could conceivably oust Kulov given the circumstances, or if the Parliament really wants to make corruption grounds for removal from office. While I'm not a Central Asia expert, it seems like all Kyrgyz political groups are linked to powerful criminal elements, and that the Tulip Revolution may have simply opened up the field of play for these groups to compete more among themselves. It's also noteworthy that one of the anti-Kulov leaders, Roza Otunbaeva, also played a leading role in the anti-Akayev movement early this year.

On an unrelated note, Damian Wampler has an outstanding post on Islam in Kyrgyzstan after the Soviet Union.

Syrian Popes in the Umayyad Period

On page 97 of his The Formation of Islam, Jonathan Berkey notes that five Syrians became Pope of the Roman Catholic Church during the period of the Umayyad caliphate. This surprised me, and overcome with curiosity, I went pope-hunting on wikipedia. The results:

1. Pope John V, who reigned from 685 to 686 and was ill for most of his pontificate.

2. Pope Sergius I, who belonged to a Syrian family which had actually settled in Sicily and was pope from 687-701.

3. Pope Sisinnius, a native of Syria who was pope for about three weeks in 708.

4. Pope Constantine, whose pontificate from 708-715 was taken up mainly with diplomacy involving the Byzantine emperors.

5. Pope Gregory III, who reigned from 731-41, sought Charles Martel's intervention in the iconoclast controversy, and promoted the growth of the church in northern Europe.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Knife of Dreams (Spoiler Review)

Just under two years ago, when I reviewed Robert Jordan's Crossroads of Twilight, I expressed the hope that it was setting the stage for significant action in the next book. Indeed the series has needed some badly. Pacing is not Jordan's strong suit. What you actually have in the recent Wheel of Time volumes is five separate "books" (Dragon Reborn; Mat and the Seanchan; Perrin, the Shaido, and the Prophet; Elayne in Andor; and the Aes Sedai) each of which has been spread over several volumes so that we haven't had a real climax in quite some time as each goes through its beginning, middle, and end. This also means, however, that eventually you'd get to a book in which a lot wraps up at once, and that is what you have with Knife of Dreams.

Rand's story gets the least attention. Although he is the center of the series as a whole, his arc for the moment has been one of character development as he learns to love and be loved, or, as Cadsuane once put it, "laughter and tears." A lot of progress was made on this plot in Winter's Heart, for which it provided a title, but since he has little else to do before the Last Battle he's been off to one side. The Aes Sedai plot also doesn't finish in this book, though it does get a fair amount of attention, and indeed was probably the most compelling of the five. The ties between this and Egwene's time among the Aiel show something Jordan is quite good at - character development. There will be no scullion boys easily adapt to kingship in this series.

Of the plots that finish, I'll be most glad not to spend more time trying to take scheming Andoran nobles seriously, and was quite relieved by the direct hint after Elayne was acknowledged as Queen that Jordan wouldn't try to tie up every last detail. This plot was so boring I'll forgive the irrelevant murder mystery as something that at least gave you something to ponder in it.

Perrin and Mat also reached the end of what they've been doing for the past several books, and have started in a new direction pointing toward the Last Battle. Mat's marriage to Tuon was quite well done, especially considering we've known the outcome of that since The Shadow Rising. Perrin, meanwhile, seems to have finished off the Shaido permanently. I'm still not sure how that's supposed to come into play, though both of Rand's companions now have Seanchan connections. I also wonder if that went the way Jordan had originally planned; all the set-up regarding Perrin and Aram seems really strange if it was just leading up to a duel that would last about half a page.

I can speak more confidently about how things might tie in with future books given how some of the seemingly random developments turned out to have a purpose after all. I mean, if the wanderings of Morgase and Co. had a point, which it would seem they did given where Galad goes, then pretty much anything can. It was also a relief to see characters like Lan and Loial who had all but vanished from sight take up the tasks for which they seem to have been initially conceived.

All this has me really looking forward to the finale, tentatively titled A Memory of Light. Certainly we're set up for some good war drama, with the Uncrowned King of Malkier leading the Borderlands against the Blight, Aludra helping produce gunpowder weapons, and the Ents - I mean, the Ogier - most likely marching off to war, as well. There also looks to be some enticing political drama, as well, with the White Tower not only still divided, but slated to be attacked by Seanchan and potentially the place where Rand will "face the Amyrlin Seat and know her anger." What's more, it seems clear there will be another side to things, as well. Thom, Mat, and probably Noal have an appointment with Moiraine at the Tower of Ghenjei, which may be where Perrin finally confronts Slayer. Rand, furthermore, has to become a blind beggar of some kind, his blood has to stain the rocks of Shayol Ghul, and he has to die to he can live. And Herid Fel was killed for speculating on how the Dark One's prison could have been without the patch when the Bore was made if it was patched now.

Should be interesting.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Israel Stuff

Today I got a recruitment letter from the American Association of University Professors, and it led by trumpeting the role AAUP played in fighting the British AUT's boycott of Israeli universities. Those invariably anti-Israeli college professors strike again!

Meanwhile, for the best post I've read on the Arab-Israeli conflict all year, read this.

This Week with Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments to wipe Israel off the map are drawing outrage in Europe and North America while undoubtedly persuading fence-sitters that we really should worry about whether Iran gets nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a council chaired by Ahmadinejad is re-affirming the country's stance against nihilism and secularism in film. Directors interviews by RFE-RL say there's nothing new, but with a hard-line government in power, will be see stricter interpretations of this ban? Iran has a vibrant film industry even under censorship, and I would hate to see it get choked off.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The inside of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt:

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Blogging Break

I've been having headaches the past few days, and spending too much time on the computer seems to make them worse. Therefore, I won't be blogging until things improve. (I think it's related to some temporary illness rather than the onset of migraines.) When I return, which I guess could even be tomorrow if I'm feeling improved, I'll have a review of Robert Jordan's Knife of Dreams, as well as presumably other things.

Monday, October 24, 2005

MoorishGirl Rising

After reading this review, I decided to see if Leila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was available in the Madison Public Library. It was on order, so I put in a hold, and discovered that I was actually sixth on the waiting list. I always like to see a blogger make good.

Dangerous Rumors

Cairo Magazine looks at Copto-Muslim relations in Egypt:
"According to press reports, Eman Ahmed Saleh, 16, a Muslim girl from Ain Shams, disappeared from her home. Her neighborhood’s rumor mill soon pointed to a local hairdresser, who was accused of forcing her to convert to Christianity. Locals began to gather around the man’s shop to demand that he return the girl. When she reappeared two days later, newspapers gave differing accounts of her story. But one thing was clear: the hairdresser had nothing to do with her vanishing act.

"Although journalists may never learn about the true cause of the disappearance, the case illustrates the sensitivity of both Copts and Muslims to the idea of conversion—particularly conversion through seduction. According to Cornelius Hulsman, editor of the Arab-West Report, a publication that surveys the Egyptian media’s coverage of religious issues, in the past decade there have been 150 cases of Copts accusing Muslims of kidnapping and converting young women. All of these allegations have proved untrue...

"Such a furor took place again last week in Alexandria. Tabloids Al Midan and Al Osboa published an incendiary article in their 9 October edition alleging that the Mar Girgis Church in Alexandria staged a play about a Christian who converts to Islam and then back to Christianity. The newspapers deemed the play 'insulting to Islam.' A few days later, over 3,000 Muslims demonstrated in Midan Moharram Bey demanding that the church apologize for what happened.

"The church responded, issuing an official statement signed by more than 10 priests, which asserted that the play was performed two years ago and that it was banned after its first performance. It also accused Al Osboa and Al Midan of willfully stirring up sectarian tensions."

Sunday, October 23, 2005


If anyone's interested, I just discovered that this blog has a LiveJournal feed.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Palestinian Public Opinion

Over at Liberals Against Terrorism, I've posted some thoughts on Khalil Shikaki's latest survey data. The major finding was that Palestinian priorities are changing from ending the occupation to economic development and political reform. What I can't figure out is the reason. Might it be tied to the Palestinian election campaign shaping public opinion in some fashion? I really don't know.


Earlier this week I received news that Beloit College is hiring me for the Spring 2006 semester to teach a course called "Medieval Islamic Civilization: The Middle East and Beyond from Muhammad to the Gunpowder Empires." The paperwork is all still in process, but everyone important is on board. I'm really looking forward to it.

Hijab Ban

Tajikistan has banned the hijab from secular public schools. I don't know enough about Tajikistan to find the proper context for this, but the article calls it a "symbol" which I don't think is really accurate. For many Muslims, it's a religious modesty requirement. The Minister of Education is also worried about the effects of religion on secular education in a way I find rather amusing given the way those debates run in this country.


RFE-RL reports on developments in an Afghan blasphemy case involving the editor of a women's magazine. This one seems to have had political origins, as it came up when the editor, a moderate Shi'ite religious leader, was attacked by more conservative Shi'ites while running for Parliament. The Media Commission has investigated and found no wrong-doing, and he's probably going to be released. Still, this shows some of the lingering problems in Afghanistan's political freedom, as the state's coercive mechanisms remain within the reach of those who want to stifle expression with which they disagree.

Brown Bags

The UW Middle East Studies Program is now starting a series of brown bags for faculty and graduate students to present what they've been up to. The first will occur October 24. Because of recruitment problems for this time of the semester, we're stuck having a talk by someone named "Brian Ulrich" called "Comments on the Summer 2005 Anti-Mubarak Protests in Cairo." Later, on November 14, David Morgan will discuss "The Decline and Fall of the Mongol Empire" while on December 2 Mohammed Abed presents "Terrorism from a Philosophical Point of View." All these are at noon in 336 Ingraham Hall.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Dropping Majors

This comment on Tim Burke's blog led me to this article which I thought contained a disturbing graft:
"For example, she says that the embrace of business practices is 'also changing what is being taught,' citing a state university where unprofitable 'degree programs in classics, German, French, and several other humanities departments were eliminated.' Subjects like these, its president told her, are 'stuff that you don't need.' At first hearing, this sounds shocking. In fairness, the book might have noted that faculty members in these fields continue to teach; indeed George Mason University continues to list ninety-two courses in these fields, including 'The Age of Goethe,' 'Medieval French Literature,' and 'Greek and Roman Comedy.' At the same time, she might have asked why, with an enrollment of 17,102, so few had chosen to major in the humanities. The standard answer is that students now want practical credentials, like degrees in business or computer science. Yet it is also possible that not enough professors tried to make their subjects interesting to a broader range of students. This can be done without betraying scholarly standards, or inflating grades, or resorting to showmanship. What is wanted is a serious commitment to undergraduate teaching, a trait not commonly found at research universities and those aspiring to that status."

French and German are not exactly obscure topics with no practical value, and to be frank, after a certain level most of the time you spend learning a language is spent reading literature. After all, that's what we do with English. If common foreign languages can't make the grade, what hope is there for the humanities in general?

I've always had another question about this sort of thing, though: How much does it cost to have a major that dropping them fulfills some economic purpose? Here at UW there is no major in Middle East Studies. We do, however, have many undergraduates who choose to construct their own major out of our existing courses. If we were to have a major, we'd have to add some sort of capstone seminar, but that would just take the place of an existing Middle East course and not cost the university anything. If schools still have their existing Classics or philosophy faculty, then what purpose is served by eliminating the major? The only other thing I can think of is student advising at large schools, but if there are that few students then you can just combine smaller majors into a general "foreign language majors" office that handles all of them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Arab Novel

Gulf News has an article on the threatened nature of the Arab novel. Although the figure quoted blames the rise of television, the fact novels have managed to co-exist with television elsewhere suggests other factors are at work.

One take on this is to blame authoritarian regimes that threaten artistic expression. Another is the fact that poetry and short stories have always been stronger in the Arab world than the novel, standouts like Naguib Mahfouz notwithstanding. However, I would really like to see someone analyze this situation in terms of language. Most novels are written in Modern Standard Arabic, which Arabs have to learn in school and understand with varying degrees of proficiency. Using it to read a newspaper or listen to a khutba is one thing, but what percentage of people is willing to spend relaxation time reading in it?

Monday, October 17, 2005


Dan Drezner's denial of tenure has cooked up the usual array of anti-tenure commentary, as seen in the comments to the announcement post. This is an issue I've never had much luck talking about, as much of the general public perceives it as just job security, and I've yet to master the art of defending it based on higher principles in a way others don't perceive as slighting their own occupations. But I'll highlight this paragraph from Sean McCann:
"Ward Churchill is a posterboy for the lunatic right, but can it be doubted that if tenure and the expectation of academic freedom didn’t exist that far milder political expression than his and far more substantial scholarship would be under regular political assault? How many administrators would be able to stand up long to angry donors, threatening politicians, and astroturf outrage? What likelihood is there that media demagogues could resist the chance to brew up culture war? What chance is there that, against highly focused activists, stable political support for academic independence and integrity will be found? (The fight over evolution in public high schools is not exactly encouraging.) For all of its many imperfections, tenure still seems fundamental to maintaining the independence of scholarship and higher education."

Looked at another way, rights in a society which already enshrines democratic government are not so much about letting individuals do whatever they want as about preventing majorities from doing whatever they want. That's why the First Amendment was added to an already democratic constitution. You could have a democratic totalitarianism. This ties in to tenure because unlike, say, a contingent employee who is fired or otherwise forced out after a boss doesn't like something they said in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, teachers - whether in college or high school - are required to speak out all the time about topics many find controversial. It is their job to seek and pass on truth irrespective of the passions of public opinion. Some have complained that the need to appeal to tenure committees makes academics afraid to be too original or interesting. Just wait until aspiring academics have to worry throughout their career about threatening anyone who could potentially make trouble for administrators.


What is Morocco doing with African migrant workers? Apparently bussing them into the Western Sahara and leaving them to die. The foreign minister denies this, but the evidence seems convincing.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Gibraltar from Ceuta

On the right side of the power lines rising just above the water's surface, you see Gibraltar as seen from Ceuta.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


One day you'll look around, and I just won't be here anymore...

You scored as Disappear. Your death will be by disappearing, probably a camping trip gone wrong or an evening hike you never returned from. Always remeber that one guy who was hiking alone and got in a rock slide. He could have died, but he cut his own hand off to save himself. Don't end up like him (or worse, dead).







Natural Causes






Cut Throat














How Will You Die??
created with

(Via Zack Ajmal.)

Harold Pinter

My goal to have read works by a Nobel Prize-winner before they won the prize has now been achieved.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Expediency Council Rising

RFE-RL reports on changes to the Iranian political system which give the Expediency Council the power to supervise the Majlis. Members of the Majlis are, predictably, criticizing this move, which they say goes against the spirit of the Constitution which enshrines sovereignty in the people's elected institutions. The article suggests it may be an attempt by the old guard as represented by figures like Rafsanjani - who heads the body - to hold off the more ideologically charged younger generation of hard-liners. I think this places too much emphasis on policies and not enough on the real key to Iran's political stability, corruption. Ali Ansari has talked about Iran as more kleptocracy than theocracy, and popularly elected institutions threaten the ability of the old guard to control graft. Current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known in the West for his hardline views on ideological matters, but his campaign was rooted in a message of populism and opposition to corruption. That sort of thing threatens the regime far more than social issues they can give and take on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ceuta's Wall

The Inter Press Service is comparing Spain's plans to build a third fence around Ceuta to previous walls built to keep people from crossing certain borders. I'm not sure I buy either of the two analogies being drawn - to the Berlin Wall and Israel's separation fence - but their point that it won't work at stemming the tide of economic migrants is sound. Even if you built a new version of the Great Wall of China, you're going to be defeated by the geography of the area.

I've never been to Melilla, but I did spend a day in Ceuta. It is a peninsula jutting out of the North African coast with the Mediterranean Sea on both sides. Once you cross the Spanish border, you walk along a street for several kilometers before you reach the city proper, and all you pass are a few beach clubs and some open land facing the sea. Finding a place to pull up a boat and slip a few people ashore didn't look that difficult. The north end of the peninsula is a ruralish area around Monte Hacho, which is admittedly topped with a fort where they might keep some look-out, but which still looks a likely spot for illegal smuggling of either goods or people.

Even if you forget about Ceuta and Melilla, the Strait of Gibraltar is really narrow. I have another, presently unscanned, picture in which you can see Gibraltar itself from Monte Hacho. Gibraltar did seem a little harder to penetrate just because of the population density, but there's a lot of Spanish coast not too far away from northern Morocco.

In other words, while border control is important, in this case it's probably hopeless to think you can get a handle on the problem just by beefing up security. That brings us to the "Marshall Plan for Africa" line of thought, which isn't a bad idea of you can swing it.

Daniel Drezner

Via Ralph Luker, I find this article about Daniel Drezner's unfortunate denial of tenure at the University of Chicago. I haven't seen anyone mention what always seemed to me the most career-threatening aspect of his blog, his supermodel blogging. Maybe I've just been in exceptionally sensitive environments, but in today's academy that's what I would fear to imitate most among his topics.

This should not be taken as an actual theory of why he was denied tenure - I think the reasons for that are unknowable without actually being there - but rather just another thing to think about. I have confidence that Drezner has a great career ahead of him, wherever he goes. His raw talent at both research and communication will see to that.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Earthquake Relief

Sepoy is working to make it easier to donate to Pakistani charities.

Ancient and Medieval Carnivalesque

As you could probably tell, I've been too distracted by other things to blog much, but still want to recommend the Ancient and Medieval Carnivalesque over at Archaeoastronomy. There is so much good stuff there it would probably take me most of a day to get through it all.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Pakistani Gay Marriage

I don't think the gay marriage movement really benefits from this story. Has the BBC considered another slant?

Some Links

I still haven't had time to read the International Crisis Group's report on Egyptian reform, but the executive summary suggests it's very much worth reading. I have read Issandr El Amrani's commentary, which I highly recommend.

On a completely different note, Madison readers might be interested in the UW-Madison Middle East Studies Program's fall lecture series, which will feature among others HNN blogger Mark Levine. What you won't find in that article is an event associated with the Center for South Asia called "Peace on the Ground in Israel-Palestine: A Personal Account" by Hebrew University's David Dean Shulman. I don't have a date handy, but it's later this month. I'll update this post when I find it.

UPDATE: Here's the Shulman announcement:

Monday, October 24, 2005
Wisconsin Historical Society, Auditorium
5:30 - 7:00 PM

Dr. David Shulman, Professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"Peace on the Ground in Israel-Palestine: A Personal Account"

Although the very existence of an active Israeli peace movement is perhaps not well known abroad, Israeli activists, together with their Palestinian counterparts, have in fact had a real impact on conditions in the Palestinian territories still occupied by Israel. David Shulman is an activist in Ta'ayush, "Jewish-Arab Partnership," which specializes in direct political and humanitarian action in the West Bank—for example, bringing convoys of food and medical supplies to Palestinian villages under siege, standing up to the settlers who have been trying to drive the cave-dwellers of the south Hebron hills from their homes, and spearheading the struggle against the proposed route of the Separation Barrier that Israel is building, largely on Palestinian lands. On another level, Ta'ayush is one of several groups working continuously toward renewing final-status peace negotiations in Israel-Palestine and building a durable infrastructure for an eventual peace agreement. David will speak of his own experiences on the ground during the Al-Aqsa Intifada and screen short video-clips from the protest demonstrations in Palestinian villages hit hard by the Separation Barrier in the area around Jerusalem.

This lecture is free and open to the public. Co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies, the Middle East Studies Program, and the Center for South Asia at UW-Madison.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Persian Dictionaries

The standard Aryanpur-Kashani Persian-English/English-Persian dictionary could be greatly improved by adding the present stems for irregular verbs. This is important, as every Persian verb has an irregular present stem.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Inter-Insurgent Politics

Mark LeVine as an interesting post about Iraqi Sunnis and foreign fighters:
"At our meeting it was clear that just as President Bush and his advisors underestimated the strength and resolve of the insurgency, al-Dhari and his colleagues miscalculated the willingness of the US both to absorb significant casualties and to inflict a much higher toll on Iraqis in order to remain in the country. As troublingly evident was their belief that they could control the foreign jihadis streaming into the country and use them as a tool in their struggle against the United States.

"They were dead wrong. Though they share a similar conservative theological orientation to Iraq's Sunni religious leadership, the military and ideological leaders of the foreign jihadis saw Iraq as merely a battle ground in a larger war. In fact, they were the ones playing al-Dhari and other Iraqi Sunni leaders; using their support as cover to pursue an agenda that most Iraqi Sunnis didn't share: a holy war not just against America and the West, but against Iraq's majority Shi'i population as well.

"I cannot imagine that sitting in his office almost a year and a half ago al-Dhari imagined, let alone would have supported, the almost daily carnage against Shii Iraqis fomented in large measure by the global jihadis and their ideologues. Yes, some Iraqi Sunnis, perhaps including he, were willing to deploy internecine violence as a tactic to maintain a semblance of their Saddam-era privileges. But al-Dhari--like most every Iraqi religious leader I met, Sunni or Shi'i--went out of his way stress his desire for Sunni-Shi'i unity; (the general view of the Kurds, however, was much more suspicious, and even hostile)."

Read the whole post, and note also the further point that the sectarian conflict we're seeing develop is in large part a creation of the politics of post-Saddam Iraq rather than the emergence of a timeless suppressed enmity.

Moroccan Reforms

The New York Times has a feature on allegedly democratic reform in Morocco. I would go farther than Jonathan Edelstein and suggest there there's next to no "democratization" at all. What you have here is a ruthless monarch being replaced by a more benevolent one whose strategy is to split the reform camp by making social reformers allies of the monarchy. Thanks to Muhammad VI's women's rights initiatives, for example, people whose primary interest is feminism must think twice about throwing the door open to full democratic reform that could easily bring an Islamist government to power. At the same time, such democracy as is allowed conspicuously doesn't threaten the power of the monarchy in any way. All this truth commission stuff is pretty much as Jonathan says it is. One effect of all this might be that people feel free to criticize the current regime more because the lid on criticizing the monarchy and its initiatives is off, but as people in Egypt know, that's a long way from anything resembling democracy.