Friday, August 31, 2007

The Iran Campaign

Coming from Barnett Rubin, these concerns that the Bush administration will fully rev up the Iran war machine this fall deserve to be taken serious.

Aside from the fact attacking Iran would be a terrible idea even in a vacuum, I am reminded of a quote from Babylon 5 character Londo Mollari: "Only an idiot would fight a war on two fronts. Only the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Idiots would fight a war on twelve fronts."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Levy's Views

Daniel Levy, back from an August hiatus, has provided some invaluable commentary on the Arab-Israeli diplomacy leading up to the November peace conference. While I don't have anything close to his sources or experience, though, I will express some disagreement with this:
"There is one caveat, and that is the looming threat of the publication of the final report from the Winograd Committee investigating last summer's war. The schedule for publication is towards year's end (unless a court appeal procedure that is being used by army officers threatened by the report's findings causes a long delay). The Winograd's findings will be harsh and could set in motion a political unraveling, if Barak makes good on his commitment to take Labor out of the coalition. The current assessment is that this is unlikely. Olmert appears to have a parliamentary majority for a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians. Even if Avigdor Lieberman's right wing 'Our Homeland Party' quits over progress with the Palestinians, Olmert can still have a majority and may even be strengthened by demonstrating resolve. It is also worth noting that Olmert is considered by many inside Israel, and among the Palestinian Ramallah leadership, to be the best option available for a peace process right now, given that the alternatives are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak."

As I've said before, if Lieberman's party bolts, that will leave Olmert with 67 of the 120 Knesseteers in his coalition, which is still a majority. The question is whether all 29 Kadima members will stay put, or whether some will head back to Likud, either because they see it as a better political bet or because they feel Olmert's concessions are too far-ranging. (Anyone who heads back to Labor will, of course, still be in the coalition.) Things could get chancy at that point. If there was a serious chance of a final status agreement, Meretz would probably prop up the government, and Olmert might even consider including Arab parties, but if things fall apart and an intermediate stage, the majority could easily be lost.

That said, you should definitely read Levy's entire post. He's absolutely right that this is a critical moment, and a high-profile failure could put the two-state solution beyond reach as Israeli settlement and land seizures continue unabated. For the Bush administration not to be more engaged with this process is incredibly negligent.

One final note: I won't be able to enter the West Bank to see what's happening there. A little-noticed provision in my fellowship banned travel there, and when the program found out I'd been going there, they threatened to revoke my funding if I went back. This is the way of university bureaucracy.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Coffee Rules

This sign hangs in a Quincy, Illinois eatery called Nothing Special.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jenin Rescue

Israeli government officials are thrilled at the PA's rescue of an IDF officer from a Palestinian mob:
"The Palestinian crowd surrounded the Israeli military officer who had taken a wrong turn and found himself lost in the West Bank city of Jenin, a place whose name is synonymous with bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Palestinian security officers pushed past people tossing rocks and bottles and shouting 'kill him,' grabbed the Israeli, and hustled him off to the safety of their headquarters, where he was given some coffee and a phone to call his commanding officer."

It's far from clear, however, whether Palestinians support Abbas's government in its cooperation with Israel:
"How much support this one event has among Palestinians is debatable. Security sources in Jenin said that after the dramatic turn of events in Jenin, renegade members of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which were supposed to disarm this summer, were engaged in gun battles with the PA. Members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad decried the events as cooperation with the occupation. Many Palestinians complained that the Israeli army is still making deadly incursions into Jenin, despite promises to stop."

And while Abbas may be earning trust from Israel, it sounds like Palestinians don't see the favor as being returned:
"Ghassan Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC), says Palestinians are upset at the lack of improvements in daily life, such as in removing checkpoints and easing travel restrictions. 'We Palestinians have learned to judge things on a practical basis,' he says. 'When we look at practices on the ground, we don't see change. While these [summit] meetings seem to give the impression the situation is improving, there's a disconnect between the reality and the image.'"

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iranian Economic Management

I don't know enough about Iran's economic institutions to really analyze this, but here is the latest in a series of reports I've seen claiming that Ahmadinejad is assuming more direct control over that area of policy:
"Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said in Tehran on August 26 that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has accepted the resignation of the head of the Central Bank, Ibrahim Sheibani, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). He added that the appointment of Tahmasb Mazaheri, the head of the Exports Development Bank and former finance minister, to replace Sheibani is 'in its last stages, and the president will issue his [appointment] writ after the Central Bank general assembly is convened' on August 28. The change is seen as part of Ahmadinejad's plans to give the executive branch firmer control over the economy, Radio Farda observed. It added that Sheibani was opposed to Ahmadinejad's recent decision to lower and fix bank interest and lending rates for state and private banks, at a level many consider below the effective inflation rate in Iran."


Soccer Balls

Another chapter in American cultural literacy:
"A spokesman for the U.S. military said on August 27 it regrets any offense caused by a recent public-relations exercise in which it distributed soccer balls inscribed with the name 'Allah,' AP reported. The military dropped the balls from a helicopter to children in eastern Khost Province on August 24. At least one of the balls showed a Saudi Arabian flag featuring the Islamic declaration of faith in Arabic script, including the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. As Muslims revere any printed material bearing the name of Allah, his prophet, or verses of the Koran, villagers reacted strongly to the ball, said Khost Governor Arsalah Jamal. 'The distribution of soccer balls was done in the spirit of good will, something that we hoped would bring Afghan children some enjoyment,' said a coalition forces spokesman, Sergeant Dean Welch. The coalition regrets 'any disturbance' caused by the gesture, he added.


Gul Wins

Abdullah Gul has just been elected President of Turkey:
"Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was elected today in a third round of voting by parliament to become Turkey's first conservative Muslim president. That has 'Ataturk's children,' including the military, concerned that, with Gul as president, the AK party will have a free hand to push through what they see as a secret agenda to undermine secularism...

"Many Turkish secularists decry what they see as the AK party's insincere stance on secularism and its champion, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey.

"The protests sparked in April by Gul's first bid to become president triggered a political crisis and a stern warning by the staunchly secular military, which has unseated four elected governments in the last half century.

"But in early elections on July 22 called to end the crisis, Erdogan's pro-business AK party emerged even stronger, taking nearly half the votes. That new strength in parliament is set to elevate Gul to the presidency.

"Now, the question is whether the secular foundations of Ataturk's republic can survive with a conservative Muslim president whose wife wears a head scarf -- a taboo in Turkey."


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Islam in Azerbaijan Stats

The latest report on an Islamic revival in Azerbaijan comes from IWPR, and they have some statistics:
"Surveys suggest that Azerbaijan has become a much more religious country since it became independent in 1991. According to a recent poll taken by the ADAM agency, 88 per cent of young people said they believed in God and only five per cent said they were atheists. A quarter of young people said they believed the country should be run by Islamic law.

"At the same time, most of those polled said they did not worship actively.

"Ibrahimoglu says the changes have really been rather superficial. 'A lot needs to be done so that people can get through the post-Soviet period,' he said. 'At the moment we see only the extremes. The quality of Islam is not reflected in the number of believers. A lot of practices are not being observed as before.'"

However, see Steve Schwerbel's comment here.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Iran's Kurdish Angle

Discussions of Iran's role in Iraq usually forget that they're not just supporting some Shi'ite groups, but opposed to Kurdish nationalists. The latter position gives them a common cause with Turkey:
"Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül voiced support for a possible cross-border operation by neighboring Iran into Iraq to fight a wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) there, saying countries have the right to defend their borders.

"'Unfortunately, terrorists have the ability to operate in Iraq's north due to a power vacuum in Iraq,' Gül told a press conference after talks with Iraqi Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi in Ankara after he was asked to comment on reports that Iran was preparing for an incursion into Iraq. 'They pose a threat to Turkey as well as to other neighbors. Therefore, every country has the right to defend its borders and take legitimate measures for its own security,' he said.

"News reports on Iraqi Kurdish Web sites and Turkish agencies said Iran's army crossed the border into neighboring Iraq and shelled the Kandil Mountain located in northern Iraq, where PEJAK, the Iranian wing of the PKK, has camps.

"Iranian troops penetrated five kilometers into Iraqi territory causing massive material damage, the Anatolia news agency said yesterday. Similar reports were released by Iraqi Kurdish Web sites on Thursday, which quoted local officials in the region as saying Iran has launched a 'full-scale war.'"

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Without having studied the matter in detail, I can say that Afghanistanica's picture of the difficulties in getting people with area studies expertise into government jobs clicks with a lot of anecdotes I've heard from people working in Middle East Studies. Basically, going to the region regarding which you will be helping devise and/or implement policies counts heavily against you. One friend was even told that time in Israel would hurt her chances of employment.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Peace Ploys

Regardless of whether trying to negotiate a peace with Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah while isolating Hamas is a good idea, the train has left the station, and serious negotiations have been under way for several weeks. Today Haaretz published specifics of the ideas under discussion ahead of the November peace conference:
"Borders -- The starting point is the separation fence, without additional areas slated for the expansion of settlements. This leaves 92 percent of the area of the West Bank in Palestinian hands. The final area of the new state will be larger than the area east of the fence, but smaller than the area proposed in the Geneva Accord.

"Among themselves, Israeli officials talk about the need to begin applying the principles of the Evacuation-Compensation Law on West Bank settlers. Two bills have recently been proposed on this issue, one by Colette Avital (Labor) and Avshalom Vilan (Meretz), and the other by Amir Peretz and Yuli Tamir (Labor).

"Jerusalem -- According to a government official, Israel would be willing to transfer to the Palestinians at an early stage a number of neighborhoods and refugee camps outside the fence and in the area of the Seam Line. At a later stage, it would transfer more or most of the Arab neighborhoods.

"The guiding principle is similar to that of the Clinton Plan: Jewish areas for Jews and Arab areas for Arabs. The 'basin' of sacred sites in the Old City would be administered jointly by representatives of the three religions, each responsible for its own sites.

"Refugees -- Israel would recognize Palestinian refugee suffering and accept indirectly some responsibility for the refugees from the 1948 war. Israel would also take part in an international project to rehabilitate refugees in Palestine, in areas Israel would transfer to the Palestinians and in the countries where they are now living."

There are some interesting ideas here, but left to one side is the overall political reality, one which works both for and against the peace process. Both Olmert and Abbas are weak leaders looking for dramatic moves in the peace process to buttress their own popularity. Coming to an agreement, however, isn't really as hard as people say it is. The hard part is coming to an agreement that your constituents will support and trust you to implement.

I suspect Abbas has been deliberately giving the impression of frustration with Israel so as to counter the impression that he is a Palestinian quisling. I don't think, however, that this will have much bearing on the real problem from a realpolitik point of view, which is whether factions rejecting the agreement, and the operating assumption has to be that Hamas will be among them, can scuttle the agreement via the too frequently successful "bomber's veto."

Olmert, meanwhile, is not without problems from his end. Today's Jerusalem Post reports that ten or more Kadima MK's are considering leaving the party before the fall release of the final Winograd report. That would leave intact Olmert's coalition, which currently has a 78-42 majority, especially if some of those defectors join up with Labor. Kadima, however, could force Olmert out as chairman. We don't know whether his potential successors would chart the same course. At the same time, Olmert has been able to hold his ship together thus far, so the man's political survival skills should perhaps not be underestimated.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Blue Sox Win!

As a diehard fan of the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, I want to congratulate them on winning the championship in the Israel Baseball League's first season.

Granted, I didn't notice this until today, four days after it happened, but by the IBL's standards, that still allows me to claim diehard fan status.

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Public Service Announcement

Haifa's intercity bus station has moved since the publication of the 2005 Lonely Planet - Middle East guide. If you leave it and then follow HaHaganah Street in the direction that book tells you to go for Elijah's Cave and a couple of museums, you will soon discover yourself beyond the Haifa city limits, probably drenched in sweat and with a nascent sunburn.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Internet Speech Crackdown

Mahmood calls attention to a crackdown on internet speech in Kuwait:
"Some very sad news from Kuwait, a neighbouring country which we in Bahrain - and I suspect the whole Gulf - regarded until now as the beacon of democracy with the longest serving parliament in the region. A country where we celebrated their new Press and Publications Law which we again held in high regard and wished that we in Bahrain could just approach the freedoms it contains, a country who we fought for each in his and her own capacity when it was overrun by that criminal Saddam and opened our houses and hearts to our Kuwaiti brothers and sisters, a country which we deeply share our destiny and culture with much more than any other Gulf country. It is therefore very sad to hear of the news that their security forces have not only detained online publishers, but also tortured them simply for having an online presence and are being held to account for an anonymous comment left on their publication they had nothing to do with, and for daring to take pictures of the apprehension."


Monday, August 20, 2007


I was just reading through my policy for the health insurance I get through Hebrew University, and found under their exclusions the following:
"The participation of the insured in any activity such as: military or civil war, police, undercover or subversive activity, active revolt, riots, sabotage, fights, violence, terrorism, strikes and/or illegal activity."

I guess insurance companies here have more to think about than American ones.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Saudi Reeducation

The Jamestown Foundation reports on the elements of a jihadist reeducation program in Saudi Arabia:
"The centerpiece of the Saudi strategy is dubbed the 'counseling program,' which is intended to assist those individuals that have espoused takfiri beliefs 'repent and abandon terrorist ideologies' (al-Ikhbariyah, April 27). The program seeks to de-radicalize extremist sympathizers by engaging them in intensive religious debates and psychological counseling. It is important to stress that participants in the counseling program are only terrorist sympathizers, and at the most individuals caught with jihadi propaganda. They are not individuals that have been active in terrorist violence in the kingdom; people 'with blood on their hands' are barred from participating...

"The Religious Subcommittee is the largest of the four sub-groupings. It is made up of approximately 100 clerics, scholars and university professors, and it is the group that directly engages in the prisoner dialogues and the reeducation process. The Psychological and Social Subcommittee is comprised of around 30 psychologists, social scientists and researchers. They are tasked with evaluating a prisoner's social status, diagnosing any psychological problems, assessing the prisoner's status and compliance during the process and determining what support the prisoner and his family may need. The Security Subcommittee performs several functions: they evaluate prisoners for security risks; make release recommendations; advise prisoners on how to behave upon release; and monitor prisoners and who they associate with once they leave prison. The Media Subcommittee produces materials used in the program and also makes other educational materials for use in schools and mosques. The Media Subcommittee is focused on outreach and education, and targeting young Saudi men...

"In their first meeting, committee members will simply listen to the prisoner. They ask them about what they did, why they did it and the circumstances that brought them to be in prison. Throughout the process, the scholars engage prisoners in discussions about their beliefs, and then attempt to persuade them that their religious justification for their actions is wrong and based upon a corrupted understanding of Islam. The committee first demonstrates that what the prisoners were tricked into believing was false, and then they teach them the proper state-approved interpretation of Islam.

"The Advisory Committee runs two programs. The first includes short sessions, which typically run about two hours. While some prisoners recant their beliefs after the first session, typically a prisoner goes through several of these meetings. The others are called 'Long Study Sessions.' These are six-week courses for up to 20 students led by two clerics and a social scientist. Ten subjects are covered over the six weeks, including instruction in such topics as takfir, walaah (loyalty) and bayat (allegiance), terrorism, jihad and psychological courses on self-esteem. At the end of the course, an exam is given; those who pass the exam move to the next stage of the process, while those who do not pass repeat the course."

The use of psychology against dissidents in some former Soviet republics makes me nervous about its use by any government I don't trust in combating ideologies. Leaving that aside, however, and accepting that Saudi Arabia does and will continue to claim, with popular support, the right to define the correct parameters of religious belief, a program like this strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that could work at reducing support for jihadi ideas in the Islamic world. As I've said before, what certain areas need is more education in Islam, not necessarily less or some sort of forced secularism.


Saturday, August 18, 2007


The ongoing debate over the merits of the "foreign policy community," excerpts from which you can read here, here and here, has recently been invoking the idea of "experts" and "expertise." It seems worth remembering that while those terms do convey a sense of knowing an undetermined amount more about a topic than a well-informed average person, there's still a wide range of forms and styles for "expert knowledge."

Just sticking to the world of academia and think tanks, you have on the one hand people who focus on a particular region of the world, such as the Middle East or Central America, and others who do comparative work across regions on one or more topics, such as democratization or occupation. There are also debates between theorists, who study societies through the lens of models and concepts from sociology, political science, or whatever, and empiricists, who prefer to just focus narrowly on their sources and observations, often drawing their conceptual framework from that specific research. And then, of course, people within all these intellectuals traditions can disagree with each other if, for example, they follow radically different theories.

My sense in the lead-up to the Iraq War was that, while the neoconservatives were strongly in favor of it, and some other scholars in the world of theory also provided support, scholars specializing on the Middle East were strongly against it. The exception, interestingly enough, were Iraq specialists like Juan Cole and Peter Sluglett, who while not precisely signing up in support of it, didn't mind the idea of attacking Iraq all that much either, largely on humanitarian grounds. That said, that doesn't mean area studies specialists should henceforth and forever always be deemed right. My sense is that if you ask most Middle East experts if they think the U.S. can, not only encourage democracy in the region, but have a good chance of getting results, they would say no, whereas democratization specialists would have plenty of ideas they think would work.

Ideally people from both trends could get together, with an idea that democratization folks would have a perspective not limited to the experience of one region, but the area studies people determining not all of those perspectives formed from other places are relevant to the specific problems to which they are being considered for application. That said, making judgments about these matters involves far more than simply listening to a supposedly monolithic block of "experts."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mar Saba: The Photograph

In this picture, you see part of the Eastern Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba amidst the caves of the Kidron Valley.


Mar Saba

(I didn't initially think of posting this, but my description of the West Bank monastery of Mar Saba, which I visited in early June, might be of interest.)

I vividly remember, on one trip to the West Bank, being in a dark blue room dimly lit by candles, as well as a single lantern, and after a moment realizing it was filled with human skulls. It took me a moment to process that fact before I could notice further how they were all neatly arranged in rows in their series of wooden cases and in good condition, white and mostly intact. In addition to the few cases next to us, more were piled together in the shadows at one end of the room, carefully, but definitely with a sense of their being "stored" rather than "displayed." None of them were identified, but laid out in this manner in this place there was only one real possibility. "These are the skulls of the monks who were killed when the monastery was destroyed in the Persian invasion," I whispered as I pointed them out to my friend, who was eying the barely visible icons by the altar across from them. "They are martyrs," said the Cypriot monk who was showing us around.

We were at the monastery of Mar Saba, or in English that of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, considered the most remote place in the West Bank. We were lucky in that our taxi driver was willing to take us the full way; most will not grapple with the steep, winding road which leads to it from the last village, leaving people with a two hour hike there, followed by another two hours back. The monks, fortunately, are much more hospitable than those at the Monastery of Temptation outside Jericho, and offer you refreshment while insisting on filling up your water bottles and giving you something called 'arak which was probably a form of ouzo serves to cool you off instantaneously. They also try to put you on a path toward conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, though not rudely; someone above us in the guestbook noted that she had never before been called a heretic so politely. As the monk put it, he doesn't mean to give offense, but his love for us as fellow children of God is such that he didn't want us to wind up facing eternal punishment for following the wrong path.

Mar Saba was founded in the 5th century, and has been occupied continuously since that time except for two weeks during the Persian invasion of about 614, when it was destroyed by the Persians' Bedouin auxiliaries seeking treasure. Visiting it was one in a series of trips beginning with my Easter in Madaba that started giving me a sense of the region's Byzantine history and geography. As I mentioned, I'm pretty sure that Queen Ayola, noted in a number of Madaba place names and a native of that city, was the Aelia Ariadne who elevated Emperor Anastasius to the thone; St. Sabbas visited Anastasius as an opponent of his moderate religious policy, probably in the now-long gone Byzantine palace by the Hippodrome in Istanbul, where I was for a couple of days last October. In the early 8th century, the Umayyad caliph Hisham, whose palace I visited in Jericho, dismissed from his circle of advisors St. John of Damascus when he was accused of plotting with the Byzantines. John retired to Mar Saba, and here wrote his defense of the use of religious images which gave him his place among the Church Fathers.

Touring the monastery today, you see dozens of caves surrounding it in which the monks lived before an actual building was constructed. There is also a river, and the monk lamented how polluted it was, a major waste dump for Jerusalem. Why dump your waste into a river that flows through the West Bank? It's not as if the Palestinians have functional channels through which to complain. Even here in one of the most remote sites in the area, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes itself felt.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Turkmenistan's Image

I think John C.k. Daly is mistaken in reading some recent moves by Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov as an effort to improve the country's human rights image. I can't remember where now, but I got the impression from other articles that the sentencing of former security chief Akmurat Redzhepov was more about his consolidation of power within the regime, while mass pardons of prisoners aren't that uncommon in dictatorships, serving primarily to enhance the dictators' image and hence power as holders of life and death. I suspect Berdymuhammedov will be more liberal than Niyazov was, but only because it would be hard to even approach his level of repression. We're a long way even from neighboring countries like Kazakhstan.


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Firefly Episode 7: "Jaynestown"

"Serenity" and "Bushwhacked" proved that the Firefly writers could do some great storytelling, but "Jaynestown" showed that they can make those stories meaningful, as well. The episode provides a well-designed commentary on faith, one not every series could do given that many flawed characters, such as Battlestar Galactica's Baltar and Babylon 5's Londo already delude themselves into thinking they are heroes. As we learn, Jayne's arrogance doesn't extend into the moral realm, which adds nice character development for him, as well.

The episode starts off with one of the episode's many secondary themes, with Simon and Kaylee arguing over whether he ever swears. The fact he doesn't when he sees what Jayne has done in the infirmary only emphasizes the moment when he does after seeing the statue of Jayne in Canton. This also fits with their discussion on propriety later in the episode, a discussion which suggests that as much as Kaylee sees his reserve as a form of arrogance toward her, in her own way she's failing to accept him, as well.

Canton is probably the worst place we've seen so far on the series, inhabited by indentured workers whose life consists of messing around in mudpits, with the profits going to the magistrate, whom Jayne once robbed. I loved the way the crew didn't find out the reasons for his fame until partway through the song. The dropping of a box of money from the robbery was also perfectly believable, as was people's reaction to it.

Jayne, who initially had contempt for the mudders, is overwhelmed by the idolization, to the point of having scruples over using it to further the crew's job. He cites the difference he made in their lives. His decidedly unheroic side, however, comes out with the appearance of Stitch, whom he pushed out of their escape vehicle before giving up on any of the money. Stitch appears as Jayne is speaking on "Jayne Day," and tries to burst people's bubble by telling them the real story. The gathered crowd takes this in, but when Stitch moves to shoot Jayne, one of them jumps in front of the bullet, sacrificing himself despite everything. Even after that, a boy returns Jayne's knife to him, while Jayne, overcome with guilt over the part he is playing, pushes down the statue of himself before the crew returns to the ship.

Emphasizing one point of this story is the B-plot involving Book and River, with River trying to fix mistakes in the Bible and Book explaining that: "You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you." Mal makes a similar point to Jayne, later: "It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sommbitch or another. Ain't about you, Jayne. It's about what they need." In both cases, the flawed object of reverence isn't the point. People's need to "be fixed" is, and they look to heroic symbols to show them the way. There's also a bit of meaning in the idea of taking pages out of the Bible and making them just paper as opposed to the symbol that is the whole, but I don't know quite how to express it, so I'll just leave it at that.

The episode didn't address the point directly, but I suspect Jayne's fame rested more on his having stood up to the magistrate than his accidental largesse afterward. It certainly inspired them to stand up for themselves in keeping the money, and then rioting over the statue. There's also some suggestion of this in Fess's story, a forgettable sub-plot made even more forgettable by Zachary Kranzler's totally flat performance. This is not to deny the importance of the "Robin Hood" element, but given how hated the magistrate is, I suspect Jayne would still be a hero without it. This also points toward why Stitch's tale doesn't dent his stature among the mudders. He's still a proud, independent man, exactly what they dream of being.

After everything I've said above, this probably goes without say, but I rate this as 10/10.
Folk Singer: "Jayne / the man they call Jayne / He robbed from the rich, and he gave to the poor / Stood up to The Man and he gave him what for / Our love for him now ain't hard to explain / The hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne / Our Jayne saw the Mudders' backs breakin' / he saw the Mudders lament / and he saw the Magistrate takin' every dollar, and leavin' five cents / so he said, "You can't do that to my people" / he said, "can't crush them under your heels" / Jayne strapped on his hat / and in five secons flat / stole everything Boss Higgins had to steal / He robbed from the rich, and he gave to the poor / Stood up to The Man and he gave him what for / Our love for him now ain't hard to explain / the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne / Now here is what seperates heroes / from common folk like you and I / The man they call Jayne he turned 'round his plane / and let that money hit sky / He dropped it onto our houses / he dropped it into our yards / the man they call Jayne he stole away our pain / and headed out for the stars / He robbed from the rich, and he gave to the poor / Stood up to The Man and he gave him what for / Our love for him now ain't hard to explain / The hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne! "


Ice Bar

People in the United Arab Emirates can now experience freezing cold:
"Everything is made of ice: the walls, tables and chairs; cups, glasses and plates; the art on the wall, the sculptures depicting Dubai's skyline, the beaded curtains, the 7-foot-chandelier and the bar...

"The $17 cover charge gets you one drink and the rental of a hooded parka, woolen gloves and insulated shoes. Customers don them outside, then spend a few minutes in the Buffer Zone, a room set at 41 degrees to adjust before entering the restaurant.

"Sami al-Muhaideb, a 25-year-old Saudi travel agent, warned his friend Yousef Badr going in to expect a blast of cold air, like a freezer. Thirty minutes later, Badr emerged shivering, with a red nose.

"While the new, $3 million hangout, which opened in a Dubai mall in June, is expected to become a must-see tourist destination, it also is expected to raise questions about already high energy consumption in this desert land...

"The average person in the Emirates puts more demand on the global ecosystem than any other in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"Energy consumption in the Emirates runs high for many reasons, particularly because of the air conditioning that cools houses, malls, cars and public places not only during the furnace-hot summers but in the warm winters.

"Making matters worse are Dubai's audacious developments. The emirate has transformed itself into a financial and tourism center, building up its name with dramatic projects — the world's tallest skyscraper, island resorts in the shape of palm trees and maps of the world, even an indoor ski slope that still creates snow amid the inferno of summer."


Friday, August 10, 2007

Islam in Azerbaijan

RFE-RL reports on an Islamic revival underway in Azerbaijan. While the article dances around it, this does not seem to have political implications, and I suspect the government remains popular. People are instead turning to Islam out of a need for ideology or a belief system. I wouldn't be surprised if it also carried elements of cultural revival, such as one sees in Georgian and Armenian Christianity.


Egyptian Persecution

Gulf News reports that the Qur'anists arrested last May are still in prison:
"An Egyptian court has ordered that five members of a banned group be kept in detention for 15 more days pending further investigations, judicial sources said yesterday.

"The group believes solely in Islam's holy book the Quran and calls themselves Quranists. The detainees, arrested on May 29, face charges of contempt for Islam. Paradoxically, a State Security Court this week annulled a decision by the Ministry of Interior to detain the five."

The article quotes an al-Azhar professor as claiming that these Qur'anists are apostates since they do not believe in hadith. That is a sharp accusation, and one not really supported by the classical Islamic tradition.

Meanwhile, some Copts have also been arrested:
"Security forces on Wednesday arrested the Egyptian country director of the Middle East Christian Association (MECA) Adel Fawzi, 61, and the association's photographer Peter Ezzat, 35, their lawyer Naguib Guebrail told AFP...

"The source said the pair had been arrested for insulting Islam on the British-based United Copts website. 'The Egyptian public prosecutor ordered Fawzi and Ezzat arrested for publishing articles and declarations that are damaging to Islam and insulting to Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] on the United Copts website,' the source said."


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Firefly Episode 6: "Our Mrs. Reynolds"

With the possible exception of "The Train Job," Firefly didn't seem to have any episodes that were bad in the sense of unwatchable. "Our Mrs. Reynolds," however, while it contains a lot of interesting pieces, never seems to fit together, and the way the characters move according to the script rather than vice versa puts it in the series's bottom half.

The best part of the episode is Saffron, who would have been a great recurring villain. Her attempts to seduce Mal are convincing, and her comment at the end that the payoff isn't the reason she plays that game opened some interesting character questions. She's clearly her own agent, rather than just a member of a petty crime ring as she seems to be until that point, and one wonders what real status she might eventually enjoy in the series's underworld.

Several of the crew's reactions, however, seem off. Mal's attitude is fine, and exactly what we would expect of him, which makes Book's suspicion that he will take advantage of Saffron seem an off flip-flop from his confidence in previous episodes that Mal will do the right thing. Inara also seems oddly irritated about the whole thing considering Mal is clearly not interested in Saffron and wants to dump her from the ship as soon as possible.

The largest problem with the story as we have it, however, is one that occurs via absence. River clearly could have sensed what was going on, but rather than deal with the issue up from, they omit her from the story altogether, which seems strange. Then, as noted above, other characters seem to move by the demands of the story rather than having the story flow naturally from them. Once the writers need Inara's affection for Mal, she flips on a dime. This could be explained by her discovery that Saffron had Companion training, but then why couldn't she figure that out in the cargo bay earlier?

Near the end, Mal talks about the value of having a crew that trusts each other. Even if that was meant as a throwaway line in response to Saffron, it seems oddly out of place in this episode, which contains no obvious examples of trust, and several of clearly misplaced distrust. Still, there were some good moments, like the crew making fun of Mal when Saffron first appears. On the whole, this episode merits a 4/10.
Saffron: "Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does. We play parts."


Wednesday, August 08, 2007


IWPR carries a report on Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan separated from the rest of the country by Armenia. Its status as a poor sub-dictatorship under Vasif Talibov is perpetuated by the ongoing Karabakh conflict with Armenia, which cuts it off economically from the rest of the country while causing the government in Baku to maintain tight control due to its strategic importance. Like Karabakh, it was part of Armenia before Stalin, though my sense is that the Armenians don't care about it as much. In any case, count this as yet another reason that the end of the Karabakh conflict would be good for all involved.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ben Gurion Security

Kudos to the Israeli Transportation Ministry for attending to discrimination in airport security checks. But what's up with this:
"In profiling, the investigators focus on passengers that belong to designated risk groups: Arabs are considered a higher security risk than Jews, young people are considered a higher risk than elderly people, and educated people are considered a higher risk than non-educated people."

Why does having an education make you such a risk?


Fatwa Against Honor Killings

Via 'Aqoul, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah has issued a fatwa against honor killings:
"Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric issued Thursday a fatwa, or religious edict, banning honor killings, calling the custom of murdering a female relative for sexual misconduct 'a repulsive act.'

"The fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was a rare condemnation by a prominent cleric of the practice. Fadlallah's office said he issued the statement in alarm over reports on an increase in honor killings.

"'I view an honor crime as a repulsive act condemned and prohibited by religion,' Fadlallah, the most revered religious authority for Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites, said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.

"'In so-called honor crimes, some men kill their daughters, sisters, wives or female relatives on the pretext that they committed acts that harm chastity and honor,' said Fadlallah, warning that the practice was on the rise in region.

"'These crimes are committed without any religious evidence, and mostly on the basis of suspicions,' added Fadlallah."

Fadlallah is best known for his association with Hizbullah, though he also has some feminist leanings.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, August 06, 2007

A Bird's Passing

It is with sadness that I report the death of Smurfy, my parents' budgie who was previously pictured here. She apparently suffered from a hereditary liver defect, and, as birds do, concealed the symptoms until it was too late. She will be missed, but the many birds whom she inspired others to buy and care for will live on.

Smurfy, January 2007 - August 5, 2007


Friday, August 03, 2007

Another Example

Tajikistan has announced new licensing requirements for imams:
"The head of the Dushanbe municipal Department for Religious Affairs, Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, announced on August 2 that new requirements for the licensing of Islamic leaders, or imams, of local mosques will be imposed, including a new review process overseen by the Tajik Council of Ulemas (Islamic scholars), according to the Avesta website. Nuriddinov explained that a new 'appraisal commission' will be formed to supervise the process and is to be comprised of representatives from the Council of Ulemas, as well as 'prosecution bodies and law-enforcement agencies.' Speaking to journalists in Dushanbe, an official of the Council of Ulemas, Qobiljon Boev, added that the formation of the appraisal commission, which 'may start its activities in the coming days,' follows a number of public complaints over 'the illiteracy' of Islamic leaders in the city. The move is also the first such state effort directly to supervise the selection and work of Islamic leaders in Tajikistan."


Regional Summit

The Christian Science Monitor reports on Israel's new willingness to negotiate with groups of Arab states instead of just one at a time. Left unsaid is the probability that they would be more willing to reach a peace agreement using each other as cover. The Gulf states especially would really like to move past this conflict; it's just a matter of selling it.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Heathrow Airport Security

Via Tim Burke, I found this extensive interview with TSA administrator Kip Hawley. What it reminds me of, though, is Heathrow's continuing "one bag only" policy. That wouldn't be so bad, except that they count anything and everything as a bag. My laptop case is definitely out, one reason why I made it my only carry-on this trip. However, one guy had a camera case strapped around his waist, and that was counted as a bag in addition to his carry-on. These requirements are now being enforced at the start of your trip, at least in O'Hare, so you can't even get by with this seemingly silly evasion.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Regulating Religion

RFE-RL reports on a proposed law in Tajikistan:
"Under the draft law, only Tajik nationals would be allowed to register or lead religious organizations. The bill also requires a minimum number of registered followers in each district and town...

"The draft would require those seeking to establish a religious organization or build a church or other religious facility to first present authorities with adequate lists of members.

"The proposed bill requires at least 400 registered members in districts, 800 in cities, and 1,200 in the capital, Dushanbe, in order to be recognized as a religious organization. Members must disclose personal details that include their identity and sources of income...

"The bill also would prevent small or unsanctioned religious gatherings or events. Such meetings or ceremonies could only be conducted with at least 200 participants and in coordination with local authorities."

One expect quoted in the article said this legislation could prevent the dominant Sunni Muslims from practicing their religion. I would like to figure out where he's coming from with that, because it would be consistent with other recent moves by the Tajik government.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Economic Wrecking Ball

RFE-RL looks at how Iran's economy has suffered under Mahmood Ahmadinejad:
"Within the general population, sharp price rises and a lower standard of living in Iran under Ahmadinejad's administration have made his policies unpopular. In recent months, a number of significant protests and strikes by workers and employees over low or unpaid wages have been reported in Iran.

"Perhaps the most vivid example of unrest came in the form of well-attended protests and demonstrations organized by Iranian teachers in March and April 2007 to call for higher wages.

"The protests were confronted by the government, and hundreds of teachers across the country were arrested and detained...

"While the government says the inflation rate is currently between 12 and 13 percent, sources like Iran's Parliament Research Center indicate that the number is up around 20 percent...

"An open letter signed by 57 economists from around the country and issued in June lambasted Ahmadinejad's economic policies and accused him of 'ignoring the basic principles of economy.' The university professors warned in the letter that 'government mismanagement is inflicting a huge cost on the economy and underscore that high oil revenues over the last two years can only delay the imminent economic crisis.'

"That crisis was not long in coming. On June 26, angry Iranians attacked several gas stations to protest the government's suddenly imposition of long-threatened new limits fuel rationing. The Oil Ministry announced the start of the new rationing regime just three hours before it was due to begin at midnight, and the rush of the car owners seeking one last chance to fill up appeared to spark the violence."