Thursday, March 27, 2008

Persian Friends

Iran continues to cultivate links among the three Persian-speaking countries:
"At the conclusion of a two-day summit in Dushanbe, the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran signed on March 25 a joint 12-point communique pledging tripartite cooperation in the energy and transport sectors and vowing to expand economic cooperation, Avesta reported. The three hailed the meeting as an important step toward 'economic integration' and greater regional cooperation, adding that they also agreed to establish a new Dushanbe-based Persian-language television channel to broadcast in each country. Addressing reporters following the signing, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi added that they confirmed their readiness 'to intensify economic and humanitarian cooperation,' but stressed that the trilateral summit was not directed against any third party, according to ITAR-TASS. The trilateral summit was intended to bolster new efforts at 'trilateral cooperation' and establishing a Tajik-Iranian-Afghan 'economic council' (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). Iran is actively engaged in developing several hydroelectric power plants in Tajikistan and is also working to complete construction of a planned Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran highway."

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Career News

I've mentioned my job search on here before, so I might as well go ahead and post that it's been evident for about two weeks that my search for a tenure-track position this year has failed. The reasons undoubtedly vary from institution to institution, but the most consistent issues were my lack of experience teaching world history and/or modern Middle Eastern history. Because the huge drop-off in interest came between preliminary interviews and campus visits, there may also have been an expense issue when they looked at bringing someone in from Jerusalem. I'm now on the market for temporary positions, and still feel optimistic I'll land somewhere.

On the other side of things, today I got the proofs of my first peer-reviewed article. If you are a young aspiring academic, this is terribly exciting.


Kuwaiti History

For some reason, until recently all the Kuwaiti history I've read has focused on the period between the polity's founding in the mid-18th century and the death of Emir Mubarak the Great in 1915. During the past week or so, however, I finally got around to reading up on the 20th century, mainly with an eye toward trying to understand why Kuwait has the most thriving democratic culture among the Gulf states, if not the Arab world as a whole.

One book which was focused on the evolution of Kuwait's political culture is Jill Crystal's Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. (I should note that I read the first edition, published in 1990.) Crystal did a good job explaining how the merchants, whom today we might better call businessmen, were bought out of politics in exchange for economic opportunity. I admit, however, that looking at the matter as a historian I found her overall presentation unsatisfactory. Crystal is a political scientist, and I'm pretty sure this began life as her dissertation. It feels like a stereotypical political science dissertation in that she takes two similar countries and tries to account for their political differences. She concludes that the key factor was that Kuwait had a strong merchant class when Qatar didn't. The democratic tradition arose in part because this merchant class developed a sense of group identity and wanted to continue to participate in state decision-making, leading ultimately to the 1938 Majlis movement usually cited as Kuwait's democratic beginning.

As I said, I find this unsatisfying. The presence of merchants doesn't automatically lead to the formation of a democratic tradition. One is left, not so much why the merchants developed a sense of corporate identity, which I can see evolving out of the Kuwaiti taxation system, but why their political activity took the form it did. I haven't looked at the primary sources, and have doubts as to whether the British records we usually rely on for these events would really address the issue, but I suspect a better explanation lies in the same reason Kuwait had all these merchants, and that is geography. Kuwaitis had a lot of ties to Iraq, and during the 1930's many of the merchants behind the Majlis movement were Arab nationalists who wanted the country to become part of Iraq. Iraq had a parliament, and I suspect that is the model the merchants were following. Frankly, I also think Kuwait's rulers also over-reached more, prompting a series of reactions.

Mary Ann Tetrault's Stories of Democracy highlighted another relevant aspect of Kuwaiti history, and that is the Iraqi invasion of 1990 as transforming Kuwaitis sense of nationhood and political action. I know when I was there back in December, it seemed like it had become a key event in the consolidation of a Kuwaiti identity; it was good to have this perception of a mere two days confirmed by an actual Kuwait expert, who adds critical nuance about the difference between those who remained in the country during the Iraqi occupation and those who were outside. Her account of the interplay between the invasion and the democratization movement is fascinating and difficult to summarize, but in describing the effect, she was at pains to point out that the sense of popular organization carried over into the post-invasion politics, as did a new self-confidence. She reported many people as saying: "We aren't afraid of the Sabah. We survived Saddam Hussein."

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Kirkuk Still Looming

I haven't blogged much lately because my internet connection has been just awful. However, I will note this piece on the continuing Kirkuk dispute, which I haven't seen addressed lately. I suspect that even when it's not making news, this is a factor underlying popular responses to other issues, especially on the part of Kurds.

This is also my 3000th post.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Arabic in the UAE

I've noted before what I consider the probability that some of the Gulf states, particularly the UAE, will wind up becoming English-speaking instead of Arabic speaker. Today Gulf News has a package taking a look at Arabic education in the country's private school system. This shows the depth of the problem:
"Many Emiratis live in the UAE their entire lives but struggle to learn Arabic. They say they regret having to enter wider society and the job market not knowing their native language. Such cases often come from graduates of private international schools.

"Born in the UK to an Emirati father and a British mother, Hassa speaks primarily in English at home and in school.

"'I had to quit my job recently because most of my work was in Arabic,' said the 22-year-old, who admits she prefers to converse in English.

"'I understand Arabic but I avoid speaking it because I don't want to make mistakes,"'she said, adding that sometimes she is looked down upon by Arabs when she tells them she does not speak Arabic."

There are more case studies in the article. Not only are we talking about bilingual education declined to make students fluent in English for the global economy, but with intermarriage, many Emiratis no longer get Arabic at home, which I hadn't considered before. You can read more about the situation here, here and here.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bahrain's Political Crisis

There has also been a political crisis underway in Bahrain. Mahmood explains:
"Over the last 3 weeks, parliament, at least the House of Representatives part in it, could not be convened due to vociferous demands by Al-Wefaq (+1) to question the main minister involved in Bandargate on financial irregularities which might be enough to impeach him. The other side of the House adamantly refused to let that intrinsic legislative tool be used claiming that the questioning is unconstitutional and using every single trick they can get hold of to hinder it. So much so that the House’s main legal council quit rather suddenly and flew back to his native Egypt - some say due to him being pressured and cajoled to change his position of which he maintained the constitutionality of the motion...

"Al-Dhahrani, the speaker of the house, still insists on the unconstitutionality of the motion and wants the house to vote on it. A process that Al-Wefaq is completely against due to it being against the House’s bylaws first, and second, because they can never win that vote given that the current make-up of the House is 22 against and 18 for. You will be interested to know that Al-Wefaq is represented by 18 votes in the House, even though they have gained 63% of the actual vote! But that’s another story...

"My mind is still boggled as to why the parliament itself is against using a very important tool like questioning a minister. Other than them being interfered with and pushed into their respective positions, I really have no explanation to this laughable situation."

Bahrain's situation is, of course, a striking contrast to Kuwait's. One difference, as noted in the second paragraph I excerpted, is that the Bahraini government can still rig the elections. The speaker knows he and his party can't win a fair fight, so they stick up for the government, and ultimately allow that government to look reasonable by contrast. I suspect a deeper issue is that the royal family has manipulated sectarianism in the country to prevent the population from developing a common protest agenda.


A Parliament Dissolved

Emir Sabah of Kuwait has dissolved parliament and called for elections May 17. This follows a long period of wrangling between the opposition-dominated parliament and a government appointed by the emir and including several members of the royal family. One key element has been the frequent questioning of government ministers, while the government has apparently also been reluctant to approve many parliamentary measures.

The linked article quotes one Khalid al-Ali as saying that, "We badly need to establish a party system under which the government is formed from parliament on the basis of a clear programme." He's right, but think about the implications of that for a second. With the possible exception of Lebanon, Kuwait is already the most democratic Arab country. Such a step would put it indisputably within the constitutional monarchy category. What's more, I can actually see it happening during the next few years, as popular protests have already led to important political reforms that limit the emir's ability to rig the elections.


Obama's Speech

In case you missed it, the text of Barack Obama's speech on race in the United States is here. Where it will enter history as one of the great American speeches remains to be seen, but rhetoric does matter, in both politics and governance. One of the most important powers of the presidency is that of the bully pulpit, which presidents use to direct and frame national discussion. Ronald Reagan didn't really govern as a pocketbook conservative, but has influenced our view of the role of government through his rhetoric.

For one thoughtful conservative reaction, check out Andrew Sullivan. I was also interested in what Tim Burke had to say:
"Obama’s central argument in this speech very much mirrors the kind of work I’ve tried to do in my own blogging, which is to commit to seeing things as other people see them before I set out to criticize them, as much as I’m able to do. It doesn’t do any good to get on your high horse and complain about all the people in the world that you think are vile and horrible and stupid if they represent some kind of situated, lived world. You have to make the commitment to trying to understand people in their own terms, to find out why certain ways of thinking and speaking and acting flourish in their world. Then you’re entitled to criticize, if you want, but now your criticism is going to be entangled in that understanding of a lived world, and limited by it.'

This, frankly, is the core of multicultural education, which is intimately involved in my own career. It applies just as much to issues within the United States. I'm reminded of the opposition on Babylon 5 between the Shadows' "What do you want?" and the implicitly superior Vorlons' "Who are you?" as ways of understanding, followed by the show's own, "Where are you going?"


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Snake Path

If you are afraid of heights, note that the sign below appears at the upper end of the Snake Path you hike to and from Masada.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Facebook Kerfuffle

Israeli West Bank settlers can now list their home country as Israel.



Ezra Klein is right on here:
"It's fine to be a Christian extremist in America. It's fine to believe, and say publicly, that everyone who hasn't accepted Jesus Christ into their heart will roast in eternal hellfire, fine to believe that the homosexuals caused Hurricane Katrina and the feminists contributed to 9/11, fine to believe we must support Israel so the Jews can be largely annihilated in a war that will trigger the End Times, fine to believe we're in a holy battle with the barbaric hordes of Islam, fine to believe that we went to the Middle East to prove 'our God is bigger than your God.' What you can't believe is that blacks have suffered a long history of oppression in this country, that they're still face deep institutional discrimination, and that a country where 100 percent of the presidents have been rich white guys is actually run by rich white guys. More to the point, even if you do believe those things, you certainly can't be angry about it!"

The different reactions to Obama's and McCain's religious associations is striking, but sadly what we've come to expect.


Iranian Elections

I haven't said much about the Iranian elections because I've been waiting for information on this aspect:
"What was always at issue was how well the reformists/centrists and the more pragmatic conservatives critical of President Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and management would do (and conversely how badly his supporters do). The reformists/centrists are hoping for a stronger minority status (both in terms of numbers and more influential candidates), while the more pragmatic conservatives are hoping for a stronger presence particularly in the leadership of the Majles as a means to create a working majority in a more centrist and effective Majles (more on conservative divisions below). The Seventh Majles had been criticized for being weak and ineffective on economic issue vis-à-vis an erratic and yet forceful president.

"With results in, incomplete as they are, it seems to me, one should expect an even more fractured Eight Majles than the Seventh one. But this same Majles has the potential to move to the center with effective leadership on the part of pragmatic conservatives; with pragmatic conservatives, centrists, or even perhaps reformists working together to put up more resistance to Ahmadinejad’s expansionist economic policies and erratic management. The reported low number of incumbent returnees(33%) should also give the new leadership a chance to mold this Majles in a pragmatic direction if there is political will. This at least is the expectation the so-called more pragmatic conservatives, such as Ali Larijani - Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator - who was elected with over 75 percent of the vote from Qom, have placed on themselves or have created. Whether they can pull it off, is of course yet to be seen."

For what it's worth.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

More Palm Sunday

This morning I was disappointed that there were no palm fronds and no "Hosanna" at the service this morning. It's too bad I didn't know about this:
"Waving palm fronds, thousands of Christians from around the world celebrated Palm Sunday, walking the path they believe Jesus rode on his
donkey as he entered Jerusalem days before his crucifixion.

"The procession with the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Patriarch Michel Sabbah, started at the Bethphage Church, where tradition says Jesus mounted the donkey. Participants walked up to the Mount of Olives, then down to the ancient stone walls of the Old City. Marching pilgrims strummed guitars, some of them wearing 'I love Jesus' shirts, as they braved unseasonable heat in an early Jerusalem springtime.

"Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus' followers shaking branches to greet him as he entered the holy city. The festivities mark the start of Holy Week when, according to the New Testament, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, crucified and then resurrected on Easter Sunday."

On the other hand, religious crowds in Jerusalem can include quite a few characters, so perhaps I am better off this way. I know it's a prejudice, but I tend to avoid people in "I love Jesus" T-shirts.


Palm Sunday

After one year, six months, and four days in Jerusalem, I finally went to church.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Facebook Geography

Israeli settlers aren't happy with Facebook:
"Ma'aleh Adumim resident Julian Czarny woke up recently to discover that he lived in 'Palestine' - at least according to the popular Internet social networking site Facebook.

"Facebook no longer allows members from Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Betar Illit and other settlements over the Green Line to list their hometowns as situated in Israel, but instead provides only a preset location, with their country listed as 'Palestine.'

"'Someone at Facebook is simply prejudging whatever may or may not come about in future negotiations,' said Czarny. 'Who exactly decided on this computerized transfer of over a quarter-million Jews from Israel to Palestine?'"

Facebook isn't prejudging future negotiations, it's reflecting the situation today. Israel has never annexed these settlement blocks, even the big ones. Given how integrated the area is, however, I'd appreciate it if they would let me be in both the Israel and Palestine regional networks.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Labor Reform in Kuwait?

This is maddeningly vague, but still good news:
"An alternative to the sponsor system is being seriously looked into as a new state policy, international labour officials say.

"Thabet Al Haroon, a representative of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Kuwait told Gulf News on Wednesday that Kuwait's current sponsor system has been criticised since the 1980s but the country 'is now taking serious steps to abolish this system'."


Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Race Card

I agree with Josh Marshall here:
"If Obama's the nominee, we will see no end of this kind of stuff. And there's probably some small benefit of getting a preview. But the simple fact is that we wouldn't be seeing this stuff now if it weren't for the fact that this is the kind of campaign Hillary Clinton's campaign has decided to wage -- often directly and at other times indirectly by not reining it in in her supporters when it crops up on its own. Wright is news today because Ferraro's been news yesterday. Are her comments racist? That's a loaded, too copious, word. And there've been cases where the Clinton team has gotten a bum rap on these matters. What I do know, however, is that Clinton's campaign and her surrogates have injected the subject of Obama's race into this campaign too many times now for it to be credible to believe that it is anything but a conscious strategy.

"Lincoln's quote of Matthew 18:7 is instructive here: 'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.'"


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Karabakh Clash

While I was away last week, there was an incident along the Karabakh frontier:
"The uneasy ceasefire on the frontline held by Armenian forces from Nagorny Karabakh and the Azerbaijani military was broken early on March 4.

"Azerbaijani defence ministry spokesman Eldar Sabirogli said Armenian units broke the ceasefire by firing on Azerbaijani positions near the villages of Cheliburt, Talish and Gapanli in the Terter district, and the Tapgaragoyunli settlement in neighbouring Geranboy district. Both districts are to the north and east of Nagorny Karabakh.

"Armenian sources confirmed that the fighting was in this general area, adjacent to the Mardakert district of Nagorny Karabakh.

"Sabirogli said four Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and two civilians injured.

"Senor Hasratian, spokesman for the defence ministry of the unrecognised Karabakh government, also cited a figure of four Azerbaijani dead and said two Armenian soldiers were injured, although in neither case were the wounds life-threatening.

"He dismissed the accusations coming out of Baku, saying, 'They are deliberately distorting things. If we had launched an attack, the bodies of the four Azerbaijani soldiers who died would not be lying on territory held by the army of Nagorny Karabakh.'

"The two sides agreed on these casualty figures, although according to Reuters, the Azerbaijanis also claimed that the Armenians lost 12 soldiers, which Hasratian denied.

"The defence ministry of Armenia itself, which treats Nagorny Karabakh as a separate and independent entity, came out with a statement blaming the Azerbaijanis for starting the firefight...

"Anar Mamedkhanov, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, told IWPR that President Ilham Aliev was visiting that part of the country, so it would hardly have made sense to launch military operations near to where he was."

My suspicion - and that's all it is - is that Azerbaijan was the aggressor here. President Aliyev has been rather bellicose lately, and the country's leadership generally believes their military is much more capable now than it was during the war, which ended in 1994. They were probably taking advantage of Armenia's internal distrations to show they need to be taken seriously going forward, especially in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence.

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West Bank Construction

Once again, an Israeli Prime Minister is authorizing West Bank construction to appease an element of the Israeli right:
"Olmert agreed to thaw out a number of the frozen construction permits after Shas threatened last week to abstain from the no-confidence vote against the government. The vote was held in the Knesset Monday.

"Two weeks ago Shas leaders Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias warned that the party would not support the government in the no-confidence vote unless the construction was authorized."

If the peace process falters, as seems inevitable, the new housing will still be there, and the two-state solution will be even harder to achieve.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Notes on Historical Conceptions

I've been meaning to blog about Imshin's post on her mother-in-law's memory of growing up in Palestine under the British Mandate. One thing it brings home is the problems with treating Israel strictly as a colonial project. In many ways, it was, but in important ways, it wasn't. The fact Israel's claims to legitimacy usually cite the Balfour Declaration has, I think, obscured the fact that the years leading up to the British withdrawal involved a Jewish uprising against the British, who were seen as the real colonial power. Here in Israel, memories of a national history based in this land rather than negotiated in European capitals should not be underestimated.

Also, in the last paragraph of her post, Imshin says the Ottomans never called this land "Palestine." It's true that Palestine was never a separate administrative unit under the Ottomans, but that obscures that fact that the people living here still used the term. "Filastin" is the Arabic for "Palestine," and was an administrative category under the early caliphate. In later centuries, including under the Ottomans, it's still used in informal contexts, perhaps like people today use terms like "New England" and "French Riviera" even though they don't have any formal administrative definition. In fact, at the very end of the Ottoman period, there was a leading Arabic newspaper called Filastin.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Incited Right

About that incited right I mentioned:
"Upon leaving the seminary Tamir was verbally attacked by dozens of youths who called out 'murderer,' 'get out of here' and 'the Left is to blame for everything.' She was also kicked in the back twice...

"The education minister was eventually whisked away by police officers and security guards.

"'I am deeply saddened that people cannot differentiate between a condolence visit and a political one,' Tamir said. Earlier the minister told Ynet that 'this reminded me of the days before (former Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin's murder. It's unfortunate that that there is a public which cannot put limits form itself. I only came to pay my respects to the murdered, not to engage in politics.'

"Meanwhile it was reported that the seminary has responded negatively to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's request to pay a condolence visit of his own, but sources in the PM's Office are still hopeful."


The Mughniyeh Theory

The day of the Mercaz HaRav attack, Hizbullah's al-Manar television network reported a claim of responsibility from an unknown group which was allegedly seeking revenge for the death of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus several weeks ago. No one took that very seriously, but now anonymous Palestinian sources claim Hizbullah coordinated the attack with Hamas leaders in Damascus. Israeli sources also say they are looking into Hizbullah connections. In the absence of other claims, it is definitely plausible that Hizbullah decided to undertake this operation at a distance much like Israel probably took out Mughniyeh without leaving clear fingerprints.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mercaz HaRav

Thursday night's attack on the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem was clearly an unacceptable terrorist act. It is a radical yeshiva, the flagship institution of the religious Zionist movement associated with Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, but contrary to some reports, it did not combine study with military service, and in fact was involved in many charitable community projects. Most of the students killed were under 18, and children under international standards.

I suspect the gunman did not see this as taking aim directly at the peace process so much as he did seeking revenge for Israel's ongoing siege of Gaza, which Israel sees as an attempt to halt Qassam fire, which Hamas sees as resistance to the continuing occupation of Palestinian land, and so on ad nauseum. However, as Amir Mizroch says, it will inflame the rejectionist elements of Israeli society:
"The people directly affected by the deadly terrorist attack on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva are not just the students, their relatives and friends, but the much wider larger segment of the religious Zionist public. This segment of the population, already seething with anger, which started with the Disengagement in 2005, the Amona pullout, the government promises to America remove illegal outposts, the continued diplomatic process launched at Annapolis and its emphasis to talk about all topics, including Jerusalem, is going to be extremely unhappy about this attack. Together with the grief and sorrow, there is going to be a lot of angry talk about good and evil, about a religious war over the Holy Land...

"Being messianic religious people, the religious Zionists are going to see this attack through the prism of messianic prophecy. Already I am hearing on religious Zionist radio stations people talking about the attack in prophetic terms, such as Isaiah 59 verse 20: And a redeemer will come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord.

"Settler radio talk-show hosts are interpreting this prophecy by saying that if the Jews don't stop Hamas, the Palestinians, Hizbullah and any other Islamic fundamentalists God will force the Jews to do it. The talk-show hosts blame Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres, and several callers into the broadcasts are unanimous in their condemnation of the Israeli government and calling on its removal."

The mood here in Jerusalem yesterday was similar to what I remember after Columbine in the United States. The Mercaz HaRav shooting has temporarily granted the religious Zionists a moral high ground within Israel they only rarely occupy. I can see their "Death to Arabs!" chanting at the funerals as of a piece with many slogans shouted at Hamas or Islamic Jihad rallies, but that is seldom the view of those buried within the conflict.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Minimum Wage

It looks like India will back off its proposed minimum wage for guest workers in Bahrain:
"New Delhi's hope to emulate its success in imposing a minimum wage for Indian maids looks doubtful after a decision to help unskilled labourers is likely to be withdrawn on Monday.

"The decision to fix a BD100 (about Dh978) minimum wage for Indian labourers signing new contracts in Bahrain was scheduled to come into force today, but has been frozen until the Overseas Indian Affairs Ministry resumes work on Monday and may be withdrawn following the unexpected resistance by Bahrain's government and contractors.

"A New Delhi decision to fix a minimum wage for maids last October was accepted by Bahrainis despite some limited protests, and the success seems to have encouraged the Indian authorities to push to apply the same measure for its 230,000 unskilled workers."

Bahraini plans to begin seeking labor from other sources, such as Vietnam, a dictatorship that won't be as responsible for its citizens, was apparently a key factor behind this move. For the moment, there's still far more of an untapped labor supply in the developing world than there is a demand for it.



In addition to making my comments on Palestinian non-violent resistance look strangely timed, the rocket fire currently hitting Ashkelon is a serious escalation on the Gaza front. Sderot has 20,000 people and hugs the Gaza border. Ashkelon has 120,000, and by hitting it Hamas demonstrates a firing radius encompassing many more.