Saturday, June 28, 2008


I wasn't sure what to make of the recent unrest in Tajikistan, but fortunately IWPR has solid coverage. There may be a link to drug smuggling out of Afghanistan.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Genital Mutilation in Egypt

According to Ursula Lindsey, not only has Egypt banned female genital mutilation, but the rate is declining sharply on its own:
"One things I discovered is that while the figure that’s commonly mentioned is that 96% of women in Egypt are circumcised, the figure for teenage girls is about 80% and they project (from government health surveys in which they ask mothers whether they plan to circumcise their daughters) that the rate for young girls will be 60% by 2015."

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Israel, Syria, and Water

The issue of water resource management in the Gulf reminds me of a point I've been meaning to make about its role in the conflict between Israel and Syria, particularly amid reports that Turkey may be using it as leverage. Israel's most important source of water is the Sea of Galilee, from which the National Water Carrier carries it to the populated center and arid south. For that reason, Israel seeks to retain control of the entire shoreline, which Syria finds unacceptable. The issue of water rights in that area was a source of conflict even before the Six Day War, when Israel bombed a Syrian dam aimed at diverting water from the sea at Israel's expense.

Over the decades, however, desalination technology has become much more affordable. Desalination one cubic meter of sea water costs on average about 50 cents. Israel's National Water Carrier can carry about 600 million cubic meters per year. Replacing its entire capacity would this carry annual running costs of only about $300 million, and certainly no one is talking about Israel losing all, or even most, rights to that body of water. When compared to the cost of maintaining state-of-the-art military equipment, that of investing in new sources of water isn't really that great, though perhaps something most easily ponied up by a willing superpower.

One more aspect of this is that, based on my time there, Israel appears to have more water right now than it really needs. Water pressure is generally what you would find in the United States, and many times greater than that in Jordan or Syria. I'm also not sure they're doing all they can to conserve water, both in agricultural processes and day-to-day living. To give just one example, the place I did my laundry used top-loading washing machines. I'm not sure how much stuff like that matters, but "water shortage" in Israel's case seems to denote something still above having enough to live comfortably.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Feeding the Arab Gulf

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to lock in food supplies by investing directly in South Asian farmland:
"With Gulf countries importing 60 percent of their food on average, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are taking the lead in investing in Asia and Africa to secure supplies of cereals, meat and vegetables...

"Calling for transforming the buyer-seller relationship in the energy sector between India and the Gulf countries into a more substantial and enduring relationship, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research last month, 'I see India’s requirement for energy security and that of the Gulf countries for food security as opportunities that can be leveraged to mutual advantage.'

"Similarly, during Prime Minister Yousaf Gillani’s visit to Saudi Arabia in early June, Pakistan sought 6 billion dollars in financial and oil aid in return for 'hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land, which could be tilled by the Saudis.'

"Such arrangements are likely to become increasingly common since inflation and food shortage are likely to worsen worldwide in future, said Shoaib Ismail, a halophyte agronomist who studies utilising plants for food, fuel, feed, and fiber...

"Media reports indicate that the UAE government and private entities like Abraaj Capital have already acquired about 800,000 acres of farmland in Pakistan. As incentive, Islamabad is offering legal and tax concessions to foreign investors in specialised agriculture and livestock ‘free zones’, and may also introduce legislation to exempt such investors from government-imposed export bans."

From the standpoint of the Gulf countries, this move replaces ill-starred attempts to develop their own agricultural sectors. Outside of Oman, which has lots of fertile wadis, only the UAE sits atop enough water in aquifers to meet its own consumption needs. Developing agriculture would require huge investments in desalination and irrigation. I am, however, interested in what deals like this might mean for the global markets in both food and oil. If some gets locked in to direct bilateral exchanges, there's less to meet rising demand on the open market, right?

UPDATE: Sticking with the UAE angle on things, I've been poking around with water use statistics, and what I find is mostly in the ballpark of this 2002 report from Abu Dhabi. Between 85% and 90% of water use in the UAE is for agriculture and other purposes which require irrigation. This has led to over-pumping of groundwater at up to 20 times the natural replenishment rate. I don't know how much of that agricultural use is related to the government's efforts to promore self-sufficiency, but you can see that without it, the problem would be reduced to manageable proportions.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Labor-Kadima Deal

Last night, Israel's Labor party, which had been poised to bring down the government, agreed to remain within the coalition in exchange for primaries in Kadima by September 25. This is the right course of action for both Labor and Kadima, which would lose badly to Likud if national elections were held with the current array of party leaders. Kadima's problem, however, is Ehud Olmert, not the party's program for the country, and it would remain competitive if led by someone like current foreign minister Tzipi Livni. If that happens, then Kadima could again turn to Labor as its coalition partner allowing Barak and Co. to retain their positions.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Forcibly Settling Ruhubelent

Turkmenistan's government is forcing a number of internal relocations, particularly to a desert area in the northeast called Ruhubelent:
"Most Dashoguz residents are reportedly being forced to move to a new district named Ruhubelent, in the country's northeast. It was set up in March 2007 by a decree issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov...

State media reported that the district administration buildings, the local office of the National Security Ministry, and a trade center were built in October. The construction of schools is not finished, and the gas, water, and electric infrastructures are also not yet completed...

As for the houses, the new residents are expected to build them themselves...

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service listeners say the government offers no financial reward for leaving everything behind and moving to this desert area. They say they are only given an opportunity to get a bank loan of some 50 million manats ($3,300)."

An official Turkmen web site sings the area's praises:
"The Ruhubelent Etrap, one of the youngest regions of Turkmenistan, was establishment in the tracts of land - Shasenem, Ashik Aidyn and Diyarbekir in the Dashoguz Velayat last year. During the year over 6,000 hectares of fallow lands were developed, of them 3,500 hectares were sown with winter wheat and 2,600 hectares with cotton.

"Ruhubelent grain growers work tirelessly so that the harvest would be plentiful and heavy-eared. They observed the agricultural requirements and prepared the agricultural machines including the John Deer and Case highly-powered harvesting combines and trucks for the campaign."

As I've often said, just because the Berdymuhammedov is better than Niyazov, we're still light-years away from any sort of decent regime.


PJAK and the U.S.

Iran accuses the United States of supporting PJAK, a Kurdish nationalist terrorist organization:
"In an apparent escalation in its insurgency, however, PJAK forces are reported to have attacked the Command Headquarters of the Iranian Air Force in the capital of Tehran. This attack represents the first time Kurdish insurgents have used violence in the capital (Rooz, June 5). This move may signify a strategic escalation of PJAK’s campaign to include striking at targets outside of Iranian Kurdistan. Kurdish and Iranian assessments of casualties sustained by both sides differ dramatically. PJAK sources claim to have killed over 90 members of the Iranian security forces [1]. Official Iranian sources, however, report far fewer casualties (Fars, June 5).

"Although ethnic Kurdish dissident groups have a history of political activism and violence in Iran, Tehran accuses PJAK and Komeleh of acting at the behest of foreign interests seeking to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, Iran implicates the United States in allowing PJAK to operate from Iraq, where it is alleged to be enjoying support from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a group engaged in its own violent nationalist struggle against Turkey, the PKK is widely regarded as PJAK’s ideological inspiration and its operational partner—a claim PJAK denies. Unlike PJAK, however, the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. In fact, many observers believe that the creation of PJAK represents an effort to circumvent the restrictions on the PKK due to its designation as a terrorist organization (see Terrorism Monitor, May 15).

"Tehran considers the low-key visit of exiled PJAK leader Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi to Washington in 2007 as proof of a U.S. hand in PJAK’s armed struggle (Iran Daily, September 12, 2007). Iranian concerns about foreign meddling in its internal affairs are exacerbated by the belief that vocal American elements advocating violent regime change in Iran see groups such as PJAK as leverage over the Islamic Republic, possibly in the run-up to a future military campaign. Ironically, in a May 7 press release, PJAK criticized the United States for providing Turkey with intelligence used to attack PJAK positions during missions targeting PKK positions in northern Iraq. The statement went as far as to threaten retaliatory strikes against the United States for its support for Turkey [2]. The group later denied making what was apparently an unauthorized statement (see Terrorism Monitor, May 15; Today’s Zaman, May 5)."

I'd actually be interested in finding out what this PJAK leader did on that visit to Washington. The United States hasn't really figured out what to do with the Kurds, who have been our one dependable ally in Iraq, but whose demands alienate Turkey and may hinder a nationwide settlement. I also suspect some elements in the Bush administration want to use PJAK against Iran even as others want to restrain the organization in support of our other alliances.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Dissertation

One question I had trouble addressing on the job market was the standard request for a brief statement as to the main argument of my dissertation. This was because in inspiration I was not so much addressing myself to a particular historical problem as I was dissatisfied on several different levels with the way early Islamic tribal history was being written. In common usage, the English term "tribe" is often understood as denoting some form of social organization seen as primitive, and has incorporated everything from Native American groups to Bedouin to the peoples of southern Africa. While Arabs embrace the term as the equivalent of certain Arabic words, people in other areas of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, have rejected it as bigoted and pejorative.

Anthropologists have tried to derive from "tribe" a concept useful for cross-cultural comparisons, and produced a range of definitions too numerous to go into. In the Middle East and Central Asia, however, this has usually involved some sense of group solidarity and fictive kinship, or an ideology of descent from a common ancestor who often supplies the tribe with its name. There are also subdivisions which also express their relationship through genealogy. The best-known example of this is probably that in the Book of Genesis, where you have Jacob coming to be called "Israel" and his twelve sons as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Table of Nations, Genesis 10, is a tribal people's conception of the whole world as they knew it at a certain time in history, probably the Egyptian New Kingdom with a later emendation.

In any case, an issue that has occupied both anthropologists and historians of the Middle East has been the relationship between tribes and states. For my dissertation, I decided to focus on the particular case of the relationship of the early caliphate with Bedouin tribes. One problem I had with the existing historiography is that standardized anthropological models derived mainly from Central Asia and southern Sudan had been somewhat uncritically imported. The former has led historians to see tribes, conceived of chiefly, it seems, in terms of a solid group sharing an ideology of common descent, as creations of states, or at the very least of a world in which states were dominant. My own concerns approaching these issues were: 1.) The fact these Central Asian models didn't match the ethnographic studies of Bedouin in Arabia, the Fertile Crescent area, or North Africa 2.) A lack of clarity in the historiography as to the processes which led to the change their mentalities over time from a hypothesized tribal one to that of the agrarian high culture of the 9th century Middle East 3.) A need to, if I might use a buzzword, allow some agency to the tribespeople in their social organization 4.) The fact these models often didn't match the sources, which may indicate the sources were written based on suppositions of "what must have been" but may also indicate that something is wrong 5.) Doubt that the same broad theories could be applied throughout the territory of the early caliphate and 6.) In the case of some of the existing literature, the persistence of tribal labels and rivalries well past the point at which they had allegedly ceased to have importance.

My methodology was therefore to approach the sources informed strictly by Bedouin ethnography rather than comparative studies of other regions. There is some weakness here in that I'm using studies of the past 150 or so years to talk about events from over 1000 years ago, but I felt like just as moving across that space and time you saw lots of differences and particulars but still a family resemblance, so during the period under study would be recognizable as a member of that same family, the details of which would form part of my historical reconstruction. In any case, it did seem to match the sources I was reading. In delimiting matters, I decided to focus on a particular tribe, al-Azd, both for the amount of available source material and because they were important in the Gulf, an inchoate interest in which had led me to think about some of these issues in the first place.

The Bedouin ethnographies I was looking at focused on tribe, not as a solid group that ran around doing everything together, but as an identity agreed upon by individuals and smaller groups which conceived of themselves as free and who experienced tribal ties as assets, options, and obligations more than Emile Durkheim's mechanical solidarity. The bulk of the dissertation was a reading of Azdi history from the period before Islam up until the early 9th century, moving from pre-Islamic Arabia into the garrison towns of southern Iraq and from there to the Jazira region of northern Iraq and the Khurasan frontier region in what is now eastern Iran and western Afghanistan. What I said in my conclusion is:
"This dissertation has explored the ways in which the group of people identified as the Azd adapted to and exploited the changes of the seventh and eighth centuries associated with the rise of an ever more imperial caliphate occurring simultaneously with the massive and widespread settlement of the former peoples of the Arabian peninsula in the settled world. It has argued that the relation of tribe to state in this formative period cannot be understood through a simple logic of action and reaction, but rather as a set of dynamic processes in which each redefined itself as it sought to come to terms with the other. This type of relationship was not a new feature of the early Islamic world, but rather a continuation of patterns of interaction which had characterized late antiquity. If the economic and social content of tribal identity for a tribesman was an arrangement of assets and options, then the changing nature of state interest in tribally organized populations and the different ecological and cultural niches in which tribesmen found themselves led to transformations in the nature of the available assets and obligations, and hence to changes within the practice of tribesmen within the same conceptual identity framework.

"At no point during the period under study was there a centralized leadership for all the Azd. In every period, however, there were individuals who had the natural ability or material resources to influence the behavior of others through combinations of persuasion, coercion, or enticement. Some of these, such as Sa’ad b. Safih ad-Dawsi, were known primarily for their military skill, perhaps with some ability to control a surplus from oasis farming or herding. Others, such as Dhu al-Taj Laqit b. Malik al-Azdi, added to their power by performing services for a state such as that of the Sasanians. This relationship, however, need not have been simply one of subservience, as the tribal leaders so empowered, and conceivably many of their followers, gained important benefits in terms of reputation and perhaps economic and military goods from a relationship they entered into freely. Mikhnaf b. Sulaym may be a similar figure in early Islam.

"The early caliphate enacted policies to make the tribesmen easier to administer and control, policies which played a crucial role in delimiting the tribe as an administrative unit. At the same time, state control was far from rigid, except perhaps in Khurasan where tribesmen were transferred by the central authority for military purposes in which they were continually engaged. In Kufa and Basra, however, the governors may have created tribal divisions, but they grew unevenly based on a series of independent decisions taken by tribesmen, both those who chose to migrate to lower Mesopotamia and seek association with certain groups already there, as well as the leaders of the garrison town divisions and others who chose to accept them. Furthermore, while the state could influence tribal leadership positions, this power was not absolute. The most important tool was using control of economic resources to enhance the quality of the assets a chosen leader could offer those whom he would lead, and occasionally to punish those who opposed him or the government. In the period under study, such leaders were always local.

"At the same time, the policies of the early caliphate often had a significant impact on the Azd in ways that were often incidental to their most important purpose. This often involved the empowerment of individuals who retained their tribal ties even though the reasons for and basis of the empowerment was focused elsewhere. One example of this was the Muhallabid family. Al-Muhallab b. Abi Sufra may have been appointed over Khurasan because the Azd were weak in that region. However, his career and those of his descendants were tied to their involvement in high politics, their military careers, and their success at establishing local and regional bases of power. During these processes, they often relied on Azdi support, using those linked to them by that tribal identity, however distant, as a base and thus introducing significant Azd populations to new regions. This also made of the Muhallabids important assets for those Azd who followed them to these new regions where they enjoyed some favoritism. In addition, the Muhallabids increased the honor of the Azd through their success and the ever expanding corpus of tales and fables lauding their virtues. Pseudo-‘Awtabi’s account of the family shows the role they came to play as heroes for all Azdis.

"A similar phenomenon is seen in the region of Mosul. Here policies of both Umayyads and Abbasids led to the creation of an urban elite of Arab heritage. At the same time, the ecological conditions in the region, both in the Jazira and the mineral-rich mountains to the north, led to a continuation of pastoral and/or semi-pastoral Bedouin existence. Connections continued between these populations and the urban elite, who maintained prestige amidst the rural population and could call upon them for support when urban politics erupted into military confrontation. A key to their continuing influence may have been their estates, though further research is needed to understand the nature of the ties involved.

"To argue for the continued importance of tribal identity in these contexts, however, is not to deny that there were other factors influencing people’s behavior and choices. Some older ideas concerning tribal behavior have led scholars to consider unflinching group solidarity the essence of tribalism, and thus to interpret individuals acting from other motivations, such as religious loyalty or individual economic gain, as signifying a decline in tribalism. More recent research, however, leads us to expect tribesmen to conceive of themselves as free, and to act on their own interests and ideas within their value system. Seen in this light, the theorized decline in tribalism during the early Islamic period would be in relative terms, long maintained as an ideal even in situations where certain individuals accrued so many other ideas and options that tribal connection seldom required attention.

"The fact that individuals who had become detribalized in the practical sense still maintained an allegiance to never-activated tribal values is one element in the development of the role of tribal identity among the literate elites of the imperial high culture mentioned above. Another is tied into the continuing prominence of tribe as a form of identity. People for whom tribal identity continued to provide ways of thinking and organizing the world intellectually frequently chose to define Arabness in the genealogical idioms of the tribal world and to adapt pre-Islamic tradition which once upheld tribal honor to bolster the Arab identity in a world of literate court culture. The result was not an imagined community of the sort associated with modern nationalism, but rather an extension of what was important about the tribal identities to the Arab intelligentsia of the eighth and ninth centuries."

The last point was important to some conclusions about the development of Arab identity in the context of the Persian- and Aramaic-influenced Middle East and the discovery in pre-Islamic Arabia of a glorious heritage for Arabs, often conceived of as "a nation of tribes," to set against the pride of the Persians in particular, who claimed cultural superiority despite their political subjugation and adoption of an originally Arab religion.

This, in any case, is the dissertation I've often referred to, though I was only able to recapture the big picture late in the progess, as in each chapter I was more concerned with a number of smaller historical problems such as garrison town administration, Sasanian influence in Arabia, and that sort of thing. This is also the main reason I never blogged about it, as taken comprehensively it seemed a lot to go into, while a number of the smaller issues were likely to be interesting only to specialists. That said, I hope it will make a contribution to our understanding of the development of early Islamic society and culture, as well as serve as a good beginning for my long-term projects.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Corruption Debate Rises

Even if Abbas Palizdar's recent accusations weren't the opening salvo of Iran's 2009 presidential elections, and I suspect they were, they have become an early issue:
"Last week, the fiercest battle of ideas about corruption and Palizdar's comments took place between Ahmadinejad's presumptive rival in next year presidential election and newspapers such as 'Kayhan,' which strongly back the hard-line president.

"Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the charismatic mayor of Tehran, wrote in his blog that 'just talking about corruption and accusing people without any basis is by itself corruption and the main crisis of today's Iran is that morality is absent from the political scene.'

"In response, pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers attacked Qalibaf. But they may have missed a key sentence he also wrote: 'Don't chop down a tree branch if you're sitting on it.'"

The fact coverage of these explosive allegations has been absent from the American media shows just how little we keep up with what's actually happening inside most Middle Eastern countries.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Friday, June 20, 2008

Censorship Debate

I didn't know this was happening, but it's a big deal:
"The document, drafted and approved in February, represented an intensely controversial bid by Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among others) to impose political controls over satellite television. Annoyed by al-Jazeera and other politically troublesome broadcasters, they proposed a sweeping set of principles which would have in effect internationalized their own domestic systems of censorship and control. While its defenders tried to present it as equivalent to America's FCC, ensuring standards and good taste, few Arab media practitioners or analysts bought the analogy...

"That's why it was heartening to read this morning that the Arab Information Ministers failed to reach agreement on the implementation of the document. According to al-Quds al-Arabi, its backers (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria) were surprised by the reservations expressed by Qatar, Lebanon, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Syria. Objections ranged from the political (unacceptable restrictions on political freedom of expression... some, no doubt, felt this more sincerely than others) to the technical (concerns over efforts to establish a common 'dictionary', presumably so that nobody would use the word 'martyrs', that sort of thing) to the economic (the UAE reportedly objected that any censorship authority would hurt business at its media city)."

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Anti-Coptic Rhetoric

Egypt's Islamist al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya has unleashed some pretty inflammatory rhetoric:
"Christian community has raised fears of a return to sectarian violence. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah, formerly one of Egypt’s most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups, has weighed in on Coptic claims of persecution, claiming in a June 10 statement that the Copts were using the incidents to create 'a parallel state,' suggesting that 'many men of the Coptic Church have become, together with their churches, enmeshed to the marrow in political activism.' The statement went on to claim that Church leaders were 'seeking protection behind its walls to proclaim from behind them their mutiny against the state and rebellion against it' (al-Hayat, June 11). Even some Copts have suggested that the flow of funds from the successful Coptic diaspora has enabled the church to assume responsibility for aspects of their community that were once the sole domain of the state (al-Araby, January 6, 2005)."

A bigger problem than Coptic remittances is the refusal to many mainstream Egyptian Muslims to acknowledge that anti-Coptic prejudice exists, and thus doing the things necessary to combat it.


Kuwait's Salafis

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the Salafis elected to Kuwait's new parliament:
"Since winning control of the legislature in the May 17 polls, not only has the conservative bloc begun pushing proposals calling for the banning of reality TV and private parties in hotels, but they have also created a parliamentary committee mandated to 'study the negative effects of foreign phenomena' in Kuwait.

"Islamist member of parliament (MP) Waleed al-Tabtabae, known for his opposition to female sports teams whose athletes would wear shorts, slammed the popular reality music show 'Star Academy' (the region's version of 'American Idol') when its recruiters came to Kuwait looking for contestants.

"'The recruitment of youth for a program that destroys morals and fights our [Islamic] values is no less bad and dangerous than recruiting them for terrorism or for peddling drugs,' said the fiery parliamentarian in a statement to the press in late May.

"Several Islamist MPs walked out of parliament during its opening session to protest the appointment of two female ministers – one for education, the other for housing.

"Islamist tribal MP Mohammad Hayif al-Mutairi said they were boycotting the opening session because the two female ministers 'were not abiding by sharia (Islamic law).' Neither of the women wear the hijab, the Islamic head scarf worn by many Muslim women."

Although Kuwait is a conservative country, I doubt the victories of these candidates signal an endorsement for their agenda. They mostly came from the tribal districts, and were probably elected primarily as service candidates whose constituents hopes for significant pieces of central government revenue. My guess is that the Salafi movement in Kuwait was able to recruit candidates who were likely to win the tribal seats based on their status within the tribal communities.

Looking at the future, however, I wonder what this means for the future of democracy in Kuwait. One pattern in the contemporary Arab world is for authoritarian central governments to divide social from political reformers by siding with the former. Social reformers often fear that free elections would lead to Islamist victories. Kuwait's royal family has played such a card before, when the late Emir Jaber promoted women's suffrage in the face of parliamentary opposition. The current ruler is no friend of democratic institutions, and may at some point use the Salafi influence to suspend parliament, perhaps with support from a large portion of Kuwaitis.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Israeli Overtures to Lebanon

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is interested in direct peace talks with Lebanon:
"Government spokesman Mark Regev said on Wednesday that Israel is interested in direct, bilateral talks with Lebanon in order to reach a peace deal between the two bordering countries.

"Regev said that every issue of contention would be on the table, including a key border dispute over the Shaba Farms, a small piece of land controlled by Israel, the dispute over which is a key sticking point between Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

"Regev's comments were the government's most explicit overture toward Lebanon. Last week, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted Israel would be interested in talks with Beirut, the Lebanese government rejected the notion. On Wednesday, a Lebanese government official said that position hadn't changed."

This is obviously part of the broader package of talks with Syria. I've commented on that here and here at American Footprints, where there has been some discussion. One thing pushing this on the Israeli side is, of course, Ehud Olmert's desire to have a rationale for his candidacy in the upcoming Kadima primaries. I don't think his personal political weakness means this is all pointless, however, as I can see probable Kadima successor Tzipi Livni also getting behind these overtures and arguing to those who support them that she's the one who can do it right.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Job Opening

Readers in the Madison area might be interested in this opening for an "on-line community leader" (blogger):
"BA required. Masters or additional experience preferred. Demonstrated ability to create online content, preferably for a journalism-oriented site. Demonstrated writing skills suitable for online environment. Demonstrated knowledge or interest in Islam, or a demonstrated ability to become knowledgeable about pertinent issues, required.

"Demonstrated versatile online production skills, including ability to create content in a variety of formats, including text, audio, video or flash-type environments. Demonstrated ability to work in a fast-paced, flexible environment. Desire and ability to talk about online activity in a broadcast setting. Ability to write effective online copy. Knowledge of basic html, blogging platforms, and online communities. Ability to work constructively with team members. Knowledge of public broadcasting environment, and online news evolution. Ability to develop creative approaches to stimulating online conversations on a variety of topics. Read widely and interact with community in order to research subject matter for this program."


Water for Peace Details

Joshua Landis notes more on the idea of using Turkish water to foster a Syrian-Israeli peace deal that I first called attention to last month:
"The plan provides for the pumping of two to three billion cubic meters of water a year - more than the current total combined consumption of Israel and the Palestinian Authority - from two rivers, the Ceyhan and the Seyhan, in southeastern Turkey, for use in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The water would be channeled from Turkey, which enjoys a huge water surplus, in underground pipes and overland canals through western Syria to the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, where it would flow into a dam along the length of the northern stretch of a new Israeli-Syrian border, providing hydro-electric power and serving as a major obstacle against a tank blitz from the Golan Heights, which would be returned to Syria as part of the projected peace package. Some of the water en route would be diverted to Lebanon and water from the dam channeled to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

"'Everybody wins,' says the plan's author, water engineer Boaz Wachtel, an Israeli fellow at the Washington-based Freedom House, which promotes democracy, peace and human rights. 'The Arabs and Israelis get water and stability, the Turks hard currency and enhanced international status.'"

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Iran's Third Rail

Accusing establishment officials of corruption does seem to be the third rail of Iranian politics:
"Iran's judiciary said on Tuesday it has detained six people and was in pursuit of five more linked to a man arrested after making unprecedented allegations against top Iranian clerics.

"Abbas Palizdar -- a mid-ranking civil servant -- was arrested on June 11 for spreading lies after the publication of his comments made in a speech aroused a wave of condemnation from the government and clerical establishment.

"'So far, arrest warrants has been issued for 11 people, six of whom are in detention,' judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters...

"Palizdar made corruption allegations against prominent clerics including ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Teheran Friday prayer speaker Mohammad Emami Kashani, former parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri and former judiciary chief Mohammad Yazdi.

"He had been working for a parliamentary body that was compiling a report into the investigative work of the judiciary, which would have likely given him access to confidential information."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, June 16, 2008

Delegation to Qatif

Wahhabi religious leaders praying in a Shi'ite mosque isn't just a big deal, it's actually rather shocking:
"In a rare gesture of unity and amity with their brothers in Islam, a delegation of Sunnis performed Juma prayers at one of the Shiite Mosques in the eastern city of Qatif, the only part of Saudi Arabia where Shiites are a majority.

"Observers see it as an unprecedented move to soothe the feelings of alienation among the Shiite minority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"The delegation, headed by Shaikh Mukhlef Bin Daham Al Shamri, were attentive to the Friday sermon delivered by the well-known Shiite Shaikh Hassan Al Safar, in which the preacher underscored the significance of strengthening Islamic and national unity and closing ranks among followers of Islam."

I suspect King Abdullah's reformist tendencies lie behind this, as they did the visit of the Shi'ite delegation to 'Uyaynah a year or two ago.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dying of the Humanities

Margaret Soltan finds the following comment in a discussion of the woes of Florida's higher education system:
"Poetry and philosophy and the rest do not put food on the table, solve global warming or do other things that improve our lives."

This reminds me that I've wanted to link to AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel's comments on whether anyone has ever "died of the humanities:"
"Anyone who says 'no one ever died of the humanities' has not thought much about what happens when states claim the right to define what humanity is, or who is good and who is evil, and therefore justify movements like ethnic cleansing. Given the current situation of the world, I can't think of anything more important than reaffirming the intrinsic humanity of all peoples, however different ethnically, religiously, politically, or even medically. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of the ways that peoples and societies live and think. One of the reasons I like teaching medieval history is that, as the modern West's historical 'other,' it sounds this message on a daily basis, and demonstrates its deep truth in a thousand different ways. The notion that there is something that can be called 'a life unworthy of life' should become, quite simply, unthinkable. The humanities teach this most importantly of all the disciplines, in that they require an imaginative, not merely objective or logical, investment in their investigations."

Everyone has their own exact spin on this, but the common link is that the humanities matter because ideas matter. After all, the very fact that science today is seen as something that should lead to practical improvements in life, in other words, that the most important purpose of science is to produce technology, is an idea that developed over centuries.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Iran and the Houthis Revisited

A member of Yemen's government has declared that Iran has been supporting the Houthi movement since 1982. As I've admitted on here before, I'm not really up on Yemen's politics and recent history, and didn't realize the revolt was that old. In 1982, it would have made a great deal of sense for Iran's revolutionary regime, then at war with a Saddam Hussein backed by Saudi Arabia, to support an Islamist uprising in another Arab nationalist country and encourage it to attack Saudi interests. It's not clear why Iran today would have an interest in this, but some ideologically charged members of the IRGC or people elsewhere in the government might have formed ties in that time that continue. Iran may also be interested in flexing its muscles in the Arabian Peninsula to discourage Saudi Arabia from tacitly supporting American pressure on Iran.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Brainstorming an AKP Successor

Turkish media sources say that country's ruling AKP party is preparing for dissolution:
"On June 10, writing in the liberal daily Radikal, Murat Yetkin, who is one of the most reliable journalists in Turkey, quoted unnamed AKP officials as admitting that they had now begun making plans for the creation of a new political party to replace the AKP if, as expected, it is eventually closed. They said that they had yet to decide on a name for the new party but had already begun to draw up a list of possible candidates to oversee its regional organization (Radikal, June 10).

"There was no indication, however, as to whether there had been any discussions about the possible composition of the new party’s leadership. Yalcinkaya’s indictment calls for 71 current and former members of the AKP, including Erdogan, to be banned from membership in any political party for five years. As the result of a loophole in Turkish law, Erdogan would still be able to run for parliament as an independent and, if asked to form a government by President Abdullah Gul, could even once again become prime minister. But if he is banned from being a member of any political party, Erdogan would not able to lead the successor party to the AKP."

The AKP has been in power since 2002, and won a landslide in 2007, even taking seats in Kurdish southeast of the country. However, in Turkey, enforced irreligiosity trumps democracy.


Ahmadinejad's Base

I agree that the accusations being made by Ahmadinejad associate Abbas Palizdar are part of a larger battle between the president and mainline Iranian conservatives, but think WINEP's Mehid Khalaji is off base here:
"The widespread speculation that Palizdar's speeches were part of an effort by Ahmadinezhad to counter critics of his domestic -- especially economic -- and foreign policies seems to have merit. From this viewpoint, the president's current political goal is to position himself for reelection in May 2009. Since his economic program is exacerbating the problems (e.g., raging inflation) that are the source of so much popular discontent, he may be looking for a way to change the public discourse. Accordingly, he has drawn public attention away from the economic situation by emphasizing financial corruption, blaming "hidden hands" and "mafias" that prevent him from succeeding. He may also be trying to regain lost political ground by showing that he is doing something tangible to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption. On June 10, Ahmadinezhad posted a long article on his blog attacking the clerics who criticized him for his political demagoguery and religious pretensions, stating that the judicial system supposed to fight corruption denies that corruption even exists in the country.

"But this approach could carry a high cost because Ahmadinezhad lacks a social base to challenge the clerics. Since most Iranians who voted for Ahmadinezhad were motivated in no small part by conservative religious views, his apparent strategy of accusing respected clerics -- whom the people trust more than the president -- of corruption is a risky gamble to regain popularity. Although the clerics have lost a significant amount of popularity since the revolution, they have gained significant political power, and the regime's legitimacy is based on religious credentials. Moreover, ultimate power still resides with the head of the clerical establishment, Ayatollah Khamenei."

Does the average Iranian really trust members of the state clerical establishment more than they do Ahmadiinejad? I was under the impression that corruption was a national joke, and that the current president won against Rafsanjani in 2005 largely over that issue. Ahmadinejad is tied to the Abadgaran religious group, but that seems to have been an organizational edge rather than an electoral base. We also shouldn't rule out the possibility that Ayatollah Khamene'i is using Ahmadinejad to keep the clerical establishment in line.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Palizdar Imprisoned

This is just a quick update from the road:
"Iran arrested a mid-ranking civil servant on Wednesday for "spreading lies" after he reportedly made unprecedented corruption allegations against several of the country's most powerful clerics.

"Abbas Palizdar, presented as a supporter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also charged in the speech in the western city of Hamedan on May 27 that the authorities had assassinated two prominent officials, reports have said.

"He was summoned to the government employees tribunal on Wednesday and charged with financial irregularities, spreading lies and disturbing public opinion, the Fars news agency reported.

"'He was issued with a detention writ and sent to prison,' the news agency added, without giving further details.

"Neither Iranian newspapers nor official news agencies have carried the contents of the controversial speech but the conservative news site Tabnak has published excerpts."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Palizar's Bombshells

Discussions on a professional list-serve called my attention to significant allegations of corruption against much of the Iranian establishment made by a parliamentary ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
"A film and the speech of Abbas Palizar, a member of Iran’s Majlis Investigative ‎Committee are now available on the Internet for the public, whose contents expose the ‎country’s judiciary and senior clerics. Palizar made his speech at Hamedan University in ‎western Iran and named leading politicians and clerics from the conservative camp and ‎accused them of engaging in corrupt economic practices. He also revealed that the plane ‎crash that carried, and killed, Iran’s former minister of transportation during Khatami’s ‎presidency was the work of sabotage by insiders, and also that another air crash that ‎killed a former army commander at the Passdaran, Ahmad Kazemi, was at the least ‎‎'suspicious'.‎..

"The person whose revelations at Hamedan University have now attained sensational ‎quality was for some time the 'operational secretary' of the research unit of the seventh ‎Majlis where his key responsibility was to head the (Infrastructure Research Bureau) ‎Daftare Motaleat Zirbanai. He was the leading figure to draw up a plan to punish those ‎who committed economic disruption and prior to being the head the Majlis research unit, ‎he was the advisor to the Majlis Economic Committee and the Chairman and ‎spokesperson of the Board of Trustees of the House of Industrialists of Iran (Khane ‎Sanatgaran’e Iran). He had made an unsuccessful bid for Tehran’s provincial council ‎while running on the list that supported president Ahmadinejad.‎"

Global Voices Online also covers the matter. Although associated in the west with his hardline foreign policy, Ahmadinejad won the 2005 elections as a populist reformer. This frontal assault on the establishment may represent the opening salvo of his 2009 re-election bid. Where it will lead, however, depends on what's happening behind the scenes in Iranian politics. The conservative establishment began crushing President Khatami's liberal reformists when they began investigating financial corruption. Will the same now happen to Ahmadinejad and his allies, or has he in some fashion made himself secure enough to survive? I suspect he's playing a dangerous game, as his allies were decimated in the last elections for both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Bases in Iraq

The negotiations regarding a security pact between the United States and Iraq deserve more attention than they're getting in the American media. Juan Cole reports:
"Leila Fadel reports that Shiite lawmakers in Iraq told her that the US has requested 58 bases from the Iraqi government as part of the security agreement now being negotiated. The US also is said to want the authority to decide when Iraq has been attacked, and when and how to respond. The lawmakers are afraid that Washington will use that provision to drag them into the middle of a war between the US and Iran.

"On being informed by McClatchy of some of these details, the campaign of Senator Barack Obama demanded that any such stipulation of 58 bases be submitted to the US Congress for approval, and that the Iraqis be told that the US does not seek permanent bases in that country. The McCain campaign had no comment."

When the British pulled out of the Gulf in 1968, the United States decided to rely on a proxy to maintain influence in the region. The choice fell upon Iran until the revolution, after which our main military ally became Iraq. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush implemented the Carter Doctrine and used American forces to confront Iraq. The fact Saudi Arabia was considered an unstable place for such forces to be stationed was an important reason certain foreign policy hands looked to a new Iraqi regime to serve as the pillar of American influence, including at that stage a permanent military presence as part of a post-Cold War military posture.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Iran and the Houthis?

A leading Yemeni security official has accused a Muslim country of aiding the Houthi rebels. My first instinct is that such a country would probably be Iran, which is also indicated by the article, though it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that Iran is interested enough in Yemen's politics to support an insurrection there. It may be that Yemen is trying to tarnish the rebels with the brush of foreign support, but more likely they're getting money from smuggling or perhaps freelancing Saudi princes who aren't theologically particular.

(The Houthi group is Zaydi Shi'ite rather than from the Twelver branch which is dominant in Iran, but that's probably irrelevant.)

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Bread Crisis

The Christian Science Monitor has an update on Egypt's bread crisis:
"Egyptians are living through the worst food crisis in a generation, caught in a storm of stagnant wages, rising global food prices, rampant corruption, and a quickly advancing inflation rate that hit 16.4 percent in May. The price of basic commodities like bread, wheat, rice, and cooking oil has doubled since this time last year – prompting bread riots...

"Under a government order, bakers now start work at 4 a.m. to produce enough bread for everyone waiting in the city's bread lines, says Yasser Shalaby, who owns a bakery with his brother Said in another part of Imbaba.

"Once at work, they labor under the careful watch of government supervisors. The supervisors ensure they bake through the day, but there are allegations that they participate in theft and smuggling as often as they prevent it...

"Mr. Ali says people are economizing by cutting back on fruit purchases. So he's extended his hours by sleeping on the sidewalk under his cart, in case someone wants to buy something in the middle of the night. The price increases have turned bananas and oranges into luxuries...

"The government has announced a string of measures to put more money in people's pockets. In February, Mubarak ordered the military to begin baking and distributing bread in the country's major cities. On May 1 he promised public employees a 30 percent pay increase in his annual May Day address.

"In May, the government announced the expansion of its food ration program to cover 55 million people, more than 70 percent of the population. Under the program, families can purchase 2 kilos of rice and sugar, 1.5 kilos of cooking oil, and 50 grams of tea per person for 15 Egyptian pounds ($2.80)

"But public enthusiasm for these measures has been dampened by the realization that the government is paying for them by ending subsidies on gasoline and cigarettes. The prices for both gasoline and cigarettes jumped by 35 percent after parliament approved ending the subsidy, which the powerful Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement derided as 'a conspiracy against the poor.'"

The government is probably better off subsidizing food than gasoline and cigarettes, though the huge number of Egyptian nicotine addicts might disagree. The rising cost of living, of which food is a major component, has also led to rare protests in Syria.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Hugh Miles and Islam

I recently finished reading Hugh Miles's new book Playing Cards in Cairo, which I've been thinking about using in an interdisciplinary survey of the Middle East I'll be teaching at Colgate. The book brings out a lot of the texture of life in Cairo today, and sets up good discussions of gender issues while exploring the seams of "Islamic" and "Western" culture. The "plot" of what I'm fairly sure is a true story also has a Sex in the City style to it that would probably keep students reading and provide a nice break from denser texts.

The book's glaring flaw, however, is that even though he converts to Islam at the end to marry an Egyptian Muslim, Hugh Miles apparently knows next to nothing about Islam. Throughout the book, he tends to treat it as a static lifestyle and set of beliefs rather than a tradition lived and interpreted over centuries, though he does get at different manifestations such as the television preachers, local shaykhs, and ubiquitous Qur'an reading. However, even at the moment of his conversion he apparently thinks that its teachings amount to obscure points related to ritual cleanliness and that the Qur'an is mainly a series of specific rules interspersed with war-mongering. There's a funny episode where he's afraid having his conversion questioned because the call to prayer occurs when he's waiting at al-Azhar and he doesn't know anything about Muslim prayers.

This isn't a major reason not to use it, as we will have already covered religion by the time I would use this, and I suspect undergraduates at an institution like Colgate are capable of questioning even without prodding whether someone who doesn't know how to pray is the best authority for Islamic faith and practice. There's also probably a case to be made that the Egyptian state generally sucks, and it's not surprising that members of its official state-governed religious establishment also suck. In any case, however, I couldn't help but note the odd gap in perception from someone with a good reputation for understanding the region. (There's a funny paragraph when he comments that other Muslim institutions think al-Azhar allows people to convert too easily; if the rest of the book had anything like the style, I'd say he was trying to subtly illustrate a point about his own total ignorance.)

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Dubai Environmentalism

The title of this post isn't a contradition. Abu Dhabi's Shaykh Zayed, who served as leader of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004, was concerned for the environment as an important aspect of the region's heritage, and there is a lot of grassroots environmental awareness in the country today. Gulf News reports on initiatives leading up the Global Environment Day on Thursday:
"Magrudy's is launching the completely biodegradable jute bag to coincide with World Environment Day on June 5.

"This month the store is replacing its current range of paper bags with exclusive branded book bags made from jute, a biodegradable material that is strong, waterproof and reusable.

"Loyalty card members will gain an extra 10 points every time they bring their own book bag. The jute bag will cost Dh8, and paper bags will cost Dh1, which will go towards tree planting in sustainable forests...

"Ibn Battuta Mall is holding a Blue Fair on World Environment Day, a three-day exhibition to support environment-friendly initiatives under way in Dubai.

"The fair, from June 4, to be held between noon and 8pm, will open with a screening of the critically-acclaimed documentary The 11th Hour...

"Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc) has launched a plastic collection drive in association with its vendors across the UAE to collect as much non-biodegradable waste as possible for recycling...

"Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc) has launched a plastic collection drive in association with its vendors across the UAE to collect as much non-biodegradable waste as possible for recycling...

"Emirates National Oil Company (Enoc) has launched a plastic collection drive in association with its vendors across the UAE to collect as much non-biodegradable waste as possible for recycling."