Monday, November 24, 2008

Labels, Influences, and Religious Identities

Two MESA panels I've been to are linked together in my mind, one on "Islamic Revival and Reform in the 18th and 19th Centuries" and the other on "The Global Spread of Saudi Islamism: Wahhabi Masterplan or Accident of Globalisation?" This semester I've read a lot about modern Islamic movements for my modern Middle East history course, and I was interested in picking up more about the interesting things that are happening in that field of study, which I think is often misunderstood even within academic debates. (I've posted on this issue previously here and here.)

The first panel was chaired by Georgetown's Ahmad Dallal, and consisted of four Georgetown graduate students, Nassima Neggaz, Kifayat Ullah, Younus Mirza, and Sara Nimis. This was a broad look at reformist movements from West Africa to South Asia, and completely shot up the notion that they were influenced by the example of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. To pick the two strongest examples, Mirza pointed out that on the matter of graves and cemeteries, which was a critical issue for the Wahhabis, Shah Waliullah, who was the forerunner of Islamic revivalism in South Asia, had an attitude that was precisely the opposite of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's. Whereas Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab saw in cemeteries an inevitable spiritual danger that respect for the dead and their burial sites would lead to veneration of something other than God (shirk), Shah Waliullah was more positive, believing respect for the dead was healthy and a means to benefit the soul, even if he did worry that it could, under certain circumstances, become shirk. The other, in Neggaz's paper, concerned the case of Uthman dan Fodio, whose writings show no awareness of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab's at all.

In the background of this panel the issue of networks of influence among 19th-century Islamic communities. The textbook I use, James Gelvin's The Modern Middle East: A History, talked about turuq through which these ideas spread. I never went into this in class, because while I did notice occasional references to turuq in the secondary literature, I couldn't find any concrete examples of the phenomenon. Based on the papers and discussion, it sounds like the reason is that they never existed, and were merely a figment of scholars' imagination as a channel for influence which was assumed to have taken place. Insofar as Islamic reform of revivalist movements arose in multiple places during that time, it probably has more to do with similar challenges in different places. Kemal Karpat made a similar point in the chapter on pan-Islamism in his The Politicization of Islam, which as he notes makes the Wahhabis appear to actually be the odd movement out in the early 19th century.

Incidentally, as an aside, it's always been striking to me that the Kadizadelis never enter this discussion. Could the reason be a scholarly gulf between those who work on Arabic and Turkish sources?

The other panel was chaired by Marc Lynch, and included Harvard's Thomas Hegghammer, Norman Cigar of Marine Corps University, Stephane Lacroix of Sci-Po Paris, IREMAM's Laurent Bonnefoy, and Naveed Sheikh of Keele University. This panel seemed at times to be a contemporary echo of the other, with Hegghammer in particular arguing for a decoupling of Wahhabism from the radical militancy seen in al-Qaeda and the Afghan Arabs along lines similar to those of David Commins in his recent book on Wahhabi history. Another perspective came from Lacroix, who argued for multiple legacies of the original Wahhabi teaching in ways that remind me of discussions of the multiple legacies of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iranian politics.

The first panel was a straightforward discussion of intellectual history, involving texts, contexts, thinkers, and their connections. The second panel, however, was trying to get a something more challenging: an understanding of the relationship among different movements in a religious tradition which does not have organized faith traditions in the Christian sense. Although the Roman Catholic Church contains a range of opinions, you can still find an official Catholic interpretation of doctrine, as well as lists of members in good standing. You cannot do the same with a group like "Salafis." In addition, while an individual can, in formal terms, be either a Catholic or a Lutheran but not both, the same individual can belong to multiple overlapping trends within Islam.

My memory by now is a little sketchy on detail, but at times I felt like the discussion was even more confused by people's tendency to use problematic terms without explicitly defining what they meant by them, and that there were many different implicit definitions floating around. "Wahhabi" and "Salafi" are good examples. "Salafi" simply means one is seeking to imitate either the first generation or the first three generations of Muslims. Over time, it has come to be claimed by those advocating for strict interpretations of Islamic law, but it was also a self-description used by more liberal thinkers. "Wahhabi" is actually a term used by outsiders. The followers of Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab, to whom it was originally applied, call themselves al-Muwahidun, because their central tenet is God's unity, or, confusingly enough, Salafis. It has also come to be used as a general label for Sunnis who are more conservative than those doing the labelling, much like "Fascist" in the United States.

This is getting away a bit from the unifying theme of the panel within the broad rubric of "Wahhabi Studies," which had to do specifically with the intentions and effects of Saudi religious institutions today. It seemed, however, that the discussion at times faltered on attempts to extract essences from concepts which are contested by the communities which take them as identities and ill-formed by scholars applying them to others.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Kuwait Crisis Update

Kuwait's royal family believes it can avoid having the prime minister appear for questioning in front of parliament by getting the Cabinet and MP supports to keep voting to postpone the questioning. The Salafi bloc, which apparently was the group upset over the visiting Shi'ite leader, isn't happy, though I can no longer find the reporting on their displeasure.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gulf Political Blogs

Early this evening I went to a panel on "Negotiating Community in the Arab Persian Gulf" which featured Fahad Bishara from Duke, Farah al-Nakib of London's School for Oriental and African Studies, UCLA'a Laith Ulaby, Leila De Vriese of Hamline University, and a chair/discussant whose name I did not catch and who is not listed on the program. It provided a lot of food for thought, such as a comment from the chair that the contemporary kalaf system for guest workers might owe something to the organization of the pearling labor force in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a response to Bishara's solid and informative paper.

What I'm actually posting about, though, is De Vries's work on political activist blogging in Gulf countries, particularly Bahrain and Kuwait. She attributed the most efficacy to Bahrain's blogosphere, mentioning in particular the "Brain Farts" feature on the late, great Mahmood's Den. Overall, she credited the Bahraini blogosphere with generating a reconceptualization of Bahraini citizenship as part of an upsurge in grassroots political activism, particularly by Shi'ites. She also credited Kuwaiti blogs with playing a significant role in that country's 2006 Orange Revolution.

It may just be that as a historian I'm sensitized to different elements of phrasing than the political scientists who tend to discuss this issue, but I've been skeptical about attributions of current social and political transformations to the introduction of specific technologies. One way I've tentatively started thinking about these issues is to ask whether and how new technologies create new kinds of opportunities, such as radio providing the chance to reach out to the illiterate without a physical presence, or significant multiply existing ones, such as the replacement of parchment with paper in the 8th or 9th century Middle East making texts far more readily available. When I think of technology impacting the Middle East today, I'm more convinced of social and economic change than I am political, for reasons I mentioned way back here.

In this light, my questions about a transformative effect of blogging technology, as opposed to specific blogs, on Middle Eastern politics should be easy to understand. Wasn't there political activism among Bahraini Shi'ites during the uprising of the 1990's? Hasn't Kuwait generally had a strong democratic tradition, and don't its diwaniyahs also create something like a public sphere?

After a certain point, untangling the degree to which a new technology has actually been critical to a social change can be more trouble than it's worth. When you think of radio in the Middle East, you think of Nasser's "Voice of the Arabs" rallying support for his chosen causes. Yes, this reached the illiterate Saudi oil worker, allowing him to see the conditions in which he worked as part of a broader pan-Arab struggle. At the same time, 75 years earlier, The Indissoluble Bond, a newspaper published by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh, was read by the literate to the illiterate in coffeehouses, much like in rural Morocco, people who know only Moroccan colloquial Arabic would have to have someone educated in Modern Standard Arabic translate the radio news for them. Technology is not determinative, and the types of change to which it can lead are never something that can be described in absolutes.

After this panel, however, I have moved on a key point based the observation, by whom I don't recall, that blogs have allowed women to participate openly in the same political sphere as men, even in highly segregated societies such as Saudi Arabia. That is certainly true. In societies with high internet penetration, blogs can have a democratizing, community-building function. Although we've seen this in the United States, its occurrence in politically closed societies such as Bahrain is significant because of the nexus of people it can bring together in certain types of interactions. I don't know all the ramifications that the term "public sphere" has in political science, but it sounds like a local one may have emerged in certain Gulf states of a type that would have been unlikely prior to the internet.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Ya'alon's Stupid Ideas

I won't mince words. New Likud politician and former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has some stupid ideas. One of them is assassinating Mahmood Ahmadinejad:
"Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe 'Boogie' Ya'alon told an Australian newspaper this week that the West must consider all options necessary to stop Tehran's nuclear program, including assassinating Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"'We have to confront the Iranian revolution immediately,' Ya'alon said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, published Monday morning Australia-time. 'There is no way to stabilize the Middle East today without defeating the Iranian regime. The Iranian nuclear program must be stopped.'

"When asked whether 'all options' included a military deposition of Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran's current leadership, Ya'alon told The Herald: 'We have to consider killing him. All options must be considered.'"

This takes the personalization of foreign policy problems to a ridiculous extent, since a nuclear program for Iran isn't exactly one of Ahmadinejad's pet projects that no one else supports. In addition, Ahmadinejad is the unpopular occupant of an office with no control over the Iranian military. Immediately following a prospective assassination, however, his popularity would soar, and many both in Iran and around the region would assume he was on to something that actually threatened Israel.

Ya'alon also said this:
"It is a misconception to think that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most important in the Middle-East. The Shiite-Sunni schism is much bigger, the Persian-Arab divide is bigger, the struggle between national regimes and jihadism is much bigger."

In what sense is the Sunni-Shi'ite schism bigger than the Arab-Israeli conflict? What about the Persian-Arab divide? The national regime/jihadi divide is plausibly bigger in some ways, but the rest of this is utter rubbish.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Iceland Travel Warning

This is a different warning than I'm used to:
"Extreme care should be exercised when touring Iceland's numerous nature attractions, which include glaciers, volcanic craters, lava fields, ice caves, hot springs, boiling mud pots, geysers, waterfalls, and glacial rivers. There are few warning signs or barriers to alert travelers to potential hazards. Several tourists are scalded each year because they get too close to an erupting geyser, or because they fall or step into a hot spring or boiling mud pot. High winds and icy conditions can exacerbate the dangers of visiting these nature areas. Hikers and backpackers are well advised to stay on marked trails, travel with someone, notify a third party about their travel plans and check weather reports, as there are often no means of communication from remote locations. This is especially important as weather conditions in Iceland are subject to frequent and unexpected changes. Those planning visits to dangerous or remote locations in Iceland are strongly encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy before beginning their journey and to leave a travel itinerary with local guides/officials if planning to trek through remote parts of the country."


Iraqi Tribes at MESA

This evening I attended the MESA session "Tribes and States in the Early Modern and Modern Middle East: Social Reality, Cultural Identity and Popular Perceptions," which was organized by the University of Chicago's Orit Bashkin. One of the panelists was Reidar Visser, who talked about the tribes in contemporary Iraqi politics. He used the case of the Bani Malik, and particular their influential Al Bu Salih lineage, to demonstrate that tribe had no predictive value for political allegiance.

This isn't terribly shocking to those who have studied Arab tribalism, though I gather it is to policymakers. I did wonder, however, where it leaves us, particularly given Visser's call for the United States and other actors to pay more nuanced attention to the potentially constructive role of the tribe as one element in a number of cross-cutting identities and interests for Iraqi individuals. (Note: That's my perception of what he said, not an exact quote.) In the Q&A session, I asked whether, even if the formal genealogical alignments did not correlate with political allegiance, the broader tribal identities might if correlated with other factor such as geography or location amidst networks of patronage ties so that one could conceivably make an empirical observation like, "The Bani Malik in Nasiriyya tended to cooperate with the Italians." Visser said this wasn't the case. This raises in my mind the question of what role, exactly the tribal identity would play if people were to begin using it in a more nuanced manner.

My entry point into Arab tribalism was my dissertation research, which involved a study of the primary sources on Arab tribes in the early Islamic period and readings in anthropology to get rid of some current understandings drawn from that discipline which I found problematic as they were being applied to my topic. In their place, I wound up borrowing a different anthropological language which explains tribes from the perspective of the individual as a source of assets and options which are, in certain settings, the only ones they have, but in others are supplemented by assets and options provided by, for example, state structures. I apply this understanding freely to contemporary Iraq because the observations on which it was based were all made in the 20th century, and I invoked it in writing about the 7th and 8th only because it clicked with the sources. When we talk about affecting tribal behavior, are we talking about somehow accentuating these assets and options?

Because I'm at an academic conference, I was just distracted by academic pondering by a social call, and I don't remember exactly where I was going with this. It had something to do with tribe as an idea, and pondering whether it was possible to make a tribal policy of any kind without reformulating that idea, much like in subtle ways implementing new kinds of state policies reformulates ideas about the state. That said, consider this a report from the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, day one.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Another Kuwait Crisis

Kuwait's parliament may be facing dissolution for the second time this year:
"Members of Kuwait's parliament have asked to meet with the country's Ruler to avert a political crisis that may prompt him to dissolve the assembly, a deputy said on Thursday.

"The standoff was provoked by three parliamentarians who on Tuesday asked to question the prime minister after he allowed a controversial Iranian Shiite cleric to visit.

"The three say the cleric offended Kuwait's predominantly Sunni population by insulting some religious figures."

First, were those three among the Salafis whom the tribal constituencies elected in the spring?

Also, would Kuwait actually have new elections of parliament were dissolved? A lot of the coverage of the last round indicated Kuwaitis were losing faith in the democratic process, and the ruling family could use the moment to do away with parliament altogether, at least for a time.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Interior Minister Confirmed

Iran's parliament has confirmed a new Interior Minister:
"Iran's parliament narrowly approved President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's choice for interior minister on November 18, after the previous minister was sacked in a vote by lawmakers over a fake university degree.

"Sadeq Mahsouli, a former Revolutionary Guards comrade of the president, takes charge of the ministry responsible for overseeing elections seven months before a presidential poll. Ahmadinejad is expected to run but has yet to declare.

"The November 18 vote in favor of Mahsouli -- 138 of the 273 lawmakers present, only just more than half -- will be a relief to Ahmadinejad, who has faced mounting criticism from parliament particularly over his economic policies and surging inflation."

Does the confirmation of a close Ahmadinejad ally, by however narrow a margin, mean that the turmoil which forced out Ali Kordan has been rendered meaningless? Here's an interesting tidbit:
"Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has said that, based on Iranian law, Ahmadinejad will need a vote of confidence for his whole cabinet if another cabinet post is changed."

The whole affair could also be interpreted as putting the Ahmadinejad administration on notice regarding its organization of the elections.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Monday, November 17, 2008

Qur'an Dancing

Another high-profile ally of Mahmood Ahmadinejad is in trouble:
"A deputy to Mahmud Ahmadinejad has come under fire for attending a ceremony that involved actions deemed insulting to the Koran, a row that has given fuel to the Iranian president's opponents before next year's election...

"In comments published on November 16, opponents targeted his vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who is in charge of a culture and tourism body, for hosting a ceremony where women in traditional dress carried in the Koran, Islam's holy book, to music. Media described the ceremony as a 'dance.'

"'Violation of the sanctity [of the Koran] in the presence of Your Excellency's deputy and under his management...causes deep regret for every Muslim,' the head of the Islamic Coalition Front, Mohammad-Nabbi Habibi, said in a letter to the president."

The Reuters reporter who filed the story seems a bit confused about the structure of Iran's executive branch, which, much like a corporation, includes multiple people with the title "Vice President."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Saturday, November 15, 2008

2006 Hamas Overture

It doesn't represent a break with previously stated positions, but the OT-based Hamas leadership tried to negotiate with the Bush administration in 2006:
"Haaretz has obtained a written message from Haniyeh sent to Bush via an American professor who met with Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip. Haniyeh asked Bush to lift the boycott of the Hamas government and pressure Israel to maintain stability in the region.

"On June 6, 2006, Haniyeh met Dr. Jerome Segal of the University of Maryland in the Gaza Strip. Segal had been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for many years and was one of the first Americans to meet Palestine Liberation Organization leaders in the late 1980s, even passing messages from senior PLO figures to then U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz. Segal's academic work brought him in contact with senior State Department and National Security Council officials throughout the Clinton administration. However, the relationship was severed during the Bush administration...

"In the second paragraph, Haniyeh laid out the political platform he maintains to this day. 'We are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don't mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years,' he wrote."

This differs from the Quartet demands in that Haniyeh did not express a willingness to abide by existing agreements.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Friday, November 14, 2008


I thought my junk mail folder was strangely empty this morning.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Stupidity of Flickr

Arabist explains how Flickr is screwing over Hossam el-Hamalawy:
"For several years now, Hossam has been using his Flickr account (and introducing other Egyptian photojournalists to the service) to spread the use of photography for political advocacy...

"It’s therefore really sad that Flickr fails to see the point he has been trying to make in posting pictures by photographer friends who have given him permission to use their pics on his Flickr account. Flickr says that the account should only have his own pics. That’s silly: he may not be using Flickr only to showcase his own stuff, as most Flickr users do, but as a tool to collect information (in the form of pictures) about certain events and causes. As long as he has permission to use that information (and he does), Flickr should not be reducing the usefulness of a service he paid for."

Hossam's most recent update is here.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hijabs in Tajikistan

Tajik religious leaders are joining government efforts to ban the hijab:
"In an official meeting with clerics and imams last week, the country’s Council of Islamic Clerics suggested that "foreign-made" hijabs are unsuitable for women in Tajikistan.

"Instead, the clerics have encouraged Tajik women to switch to the national costume, which consists of a dress reaching below the knee, worn with trousers. The color and length of the national costume vary depending on women’s individual tastes. A head scarf is considered optional...

"Cleric Qobiljon Boev, the head of the fatwa department at the council, says the clerics believe the imported hijabs 'do not meet Islamic standards.' He said the hijabs 'seem to be too tight.'"


Monday, November 10, 2008

Netanyahu on Diplomacy

It's allegedly big news that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu says he would negotiate with the Palestinians:
"Earlier in the day, Likud Party head Binyamin Netanyahu made headlines when he told Quartet envoy Tony Blair in a morning meeting that he would be willing to negotiate with the Palestinians.

"A number of reports jumped on his statement as a positive sign of change. But his spokesman Yossi Levy clarified to The Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu did not intend to indicate he would continue where Kadima left off, should he become prime minister."
When he was Prime Minister during the late 1990's, Netanyahu did negotiate with the Palestinians under pressure, and managed to successfully sink the Oslo process. It remains to be seen whether the demographic trends that gave birth to Kadima would affect him as well if he comes out on top in the forthcoming elections.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Saudi Arabian Hunger Strike

Because of a post-election lull, I didn't comment on the rare hunger strike in Saudi Arabia against the detention of opposition political activists. Christian Science Monitor, however, comments on its reception:
" The government studiously ignored a two-day hunger strike staged last week by Saudi human rights activists, but organizers said they were pleased with the participation and media attention that their protest drew.

"'They ignored us,' hunger striker Fowzan Mohsin Al Harbi said of the authorities. 'But we achieved our goal, the hunger strike was all over the world in the media.'

"The 48-hour fast on Nov. 6-7, reported in the Monitor last Wednesday, is believed to be the first of its kind in the kingdom. It was organized by 13 individuals to protest the extended detention of 11 men who had called for political reforms.

"The most prominent detainee is Matrouq Al Faleh, a human rights activist and political science professor seized at King Saud University last May after criticizing prison conditions.

"About 70 hunger strikers fasted in their own homes in order not to run afoul of a ban on unauthorized gatherings, said another organizer, professor of economics, Mohammad Fahd Al Qahtani.

"The group publicized its plans on, where almost 60 people added their names to the initial 13 protesters, publicly committing to join the hunger strike."

The article carried the headline "Facebook boosts participation in rare Saudi hunger strike," but I'm not sure this should really count as a case of internet triumphalism. Couldn't these individuals have also joined if they'd seen it on al-Jazeera?


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama Wins!

An African-American has been elected President of the United States carrying, as part of his decisive victory margin, the state which included the capital of the Confederacy.


Election Night

Here's hoping for a smooth election night. My prediction is a decisive Obama win, including a couple of unexpected states. The country could definitely use it after 2000 and 2004.

UPDATE: This and this are probably designed to counteract complacency. We'll know soon enough. I'm off to Subway to obtain a footlong turkey on Italian bread with American cheese, lettuce, onions, pepper, and Southwest sauce.


Kordan Sacked

Iran's Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to remove from office Interior Minister Ali Kordan:
"Iran's parliament has sacked the interior minister in a blow to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad ahead of next year's presidential election.

"MPs voted overwhelmingly to remove Ali Kordan, whose job is crucial in organizing the 2009 race, accusing him of forging his degree from Britain's Oxford University.

"His impeachment was part of a power struggle between hard-line backers of Ahmadinejad and his opponents, including reformers and moderate conservatives who blame the government for the failing economy, political analysts said.

"Kordan last month admitted holding a fake degree from Oxford, although he said he had been duped."


Monday, November 03, 2008

Ahmadinejad and Larijani

Check out the action in Iran's Parliament:
"The parliament is to vote Tuesday on impeaching Interior Minister Ali Kordan for having presented the lawmakers with a faked honorary doctorate from Oxford University.

"'The parliament has every right to impeach ministers but in this case I do not agree with the impeachment and will therefore no go to the session (Tuesday), either, because they (MPs) would just raise repetitious claims again,' Fars quoted (Ahmadinejad) as saying...

"While the pro-Ahmadinejad wing considers an impeachment as weakening the government, signatories of the impeachment motion say irrespective of whether he had been deceived or was dishonest, Kordan could no longer hold the post of interior minister - a post directly in charge of next year's presidential elections.

"Last Wednesday the differences led to a scandal after the government's representative at the parliament, Mohammad Abbasi, was caught while he was trying to use a governmental financial aid as a mean to push deputies to drop the impeachment motion.

"After Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani declared Abbasi as persona non grata in the parliament, Ahmadinejad was forced to dismiss his legislative representative.

"The power conflict between government and parliament is regarded by observers to be also a conflict between Ahmadinejad and Larijani."


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Karabakh Declaration

The Karabakh summit hosted by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has resulted in a joint declaration by the Armenian and Azeri presidents that they will work to resolve the dispute peacefully. RFE-RL sees this as a type of breakthrough, as the two countries have not issued such a statement in the 15 years since the war which tore Karabakh from Azerbaijan came to an end. While Russia does have pull that the Minsk Group as such does not, however, one should not overlook that both countries' presidential elections, which were seen as an impediment to progress, are now over.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Kurdish Polygamy Law