Saturday, December 19, 2009

Outbreak of the rule of law in Pakistan?

So argues Juan Cole:

The US punditocracy has never understood that the central political narrative of Pakistan in the past 2 and a half years has been the restoration of the rule of law (in the form of the Supreme Court chief justice and then the rest of the SC) and the ending of the Musharraf military dictatorship in favor of a return of the major political parties.

That twin project was riddled with a contradiction, though, since the political parties capable of supplanting the military were themselves often corrupt, while Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was determined to clean house. So what has happened is that the contradictions have just come to the fore.

How flat-footed the US commentariat is in this regard was obvious in the reaction of CNN's Wolf Blitzer to Malik's detention. He asked Pakistani ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani if it was the sign of a military coup. Haqqani was taken aback, and the Urdu press headlined the interchange.

No, Wolf, it is the opposite. It is an outbreak of the civil rule of law. It was a military dictator who had amnestied Malik. It is the Supreme Court calling him to account. The US media think the Pakistan Story is 'violent fundamentalism, military rule, and nuclear threat.' The reality-- that most of the Pakistani public wants a civil rule of law, is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp.

The hysteria in Washington about Pakistani political instability (read: civilian politicians elected to office and an independent judiciary instead of a military dictatorship) will be heightened by this development. And it does potentially weaken president Asaf Ali Zardari, against whom there are outstanding cases. But most judicial authorities hold that Zardari cannot be tried while in office, and there is no obvious way to unseat him, since his party is the largest in parliament.

The rule of law is more important for the structural integrity of Pakistani society and politics than the back door deals of the Musharrafs, Bushes, Rices and Cheneys. Pakistan has a parliamentary system. It will go to new elections in a couple of years. If the government falls before then, it will just have early elections and someone will form a government based on their electoral performance. It might be Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League. So what? Sharif once agreed with Clinton to send in a Pakistani SWAT team against Bin Laden, and it was Musharraf who nixed that plan. And whereas Zardari has never shown an ability to run anything, Sharif is a steel magnate-- though his last term as PM was marked by an overly authoritarian style and a cozying up to Muslim fundamentalists substantially to his right.

And who knows, maybe some of the new non-corrupt PPP voices such as Aitzaz Ahsan will emerge if Zardari falters.


Then there is this development, also drawn to my attention by Juan Cole (originating in the International edition of the News, a Pakistani newspaper:
ISLAMABAD: Ulema and Mashaikh, belonging to different schools of thought, unanimously declared suicide attacks in the country un-Islamic and forbidden in Islam.

A large number of Ulema and Mashaikh, who attended the Ulema Mashaikh Conference arranged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs at the National Library here, denounced on Thursday the killing of innocent people in the name of religion. They spoke against suicide attacks in particular.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Ulema Mashaikh from across the country participated in the conference. The interior minister also briefed the Ulema and Mashaikh about the security situation and the measures taken by the government for curbing the menace of terrorism.

The Ulema said it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that killing of innocent people is un-Islamic and it could not be justified in any way. They said the Shariah introduced by Hazrat Muhammad (SAW) is complete and adequate for us and we do not need anything more.

Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Religious Affairs Allama Hamid Saeed Kazmi said the conference was arranged with an aim to devise a strategy against terrorism.He said those who launched attacks upon mosques and educational institutions could never be called Muslims. He said Islam does not allow anyone to kill innocent people or attack mosques.

Those laying down their lives in the fight against terrorism are martyrs as they are fighting to save the motherland, he said.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Xinhua, China's official news agency, speaks

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Big trouble in China

Students in last year's Islamic Civilization course may remember a short discussion of the Uighurs in China. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs are not culturally Chinese, and in recent decades they have felt overwhelmed by Han Chinese inmigration. It's not much of a contest numbers-wise, since there are a few million Tibetans and Uighurs and about a billion Han.The tensions nonetheless are severe in the Uighur home province of Xinjiang (formerly called East Turkestan) and as in Tibet last year, there has now been serious streetfighting.

If you want to know how serious this trouble is, see the picture below, showing paramilitary police assembled in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. It's one thing to hear "20,000 police" on CBC Radio and another to see this:

More at the Big Picture.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Polling on Israeli attitudes about war and peace

Bernard Avishai analyzes a recent poll at TPMCafe. Veterans of my Islamic Civilization course may yet be struck by the contradictions and difficulties revealed here.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

An end-of-term note for my students in HIST 3805


I have just about finished reading the essay based on Edwards' book Before Taliban and will be returning them at the exam. It occurred to me however that I should probably explain to symbols that I used in grading.

The backward P is the paragraph mark or, interestingly, the pilcrow. It has standard meaning: start a new paragraph here.

The tick or checkmark is as common as dirt, but I use it for specific purpose. It means, "you caught my attention; well said; an interesting idea." If your paper is extraordinarily good, you might get it returned without any ticks. That probably means that your presentation was consistently good right from the beginning.

The first student has already asked how much choice there will be on the final exam. It's my policy to say that you will always have some choice, but I'm not going to tell you how much. You can always dodge the short ID question or essay question that you hate the most, but no guarantees that you won't have to tackle the second most hateful one.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

How long do these fads last?


In my last lecture for the Islamic civilization course, I tried to balance negative and positive aspects of the current situation (current being since September 2000). One thing I felt compelled to point out to my young students, who might be under the impression that suicide bombing was a long-standing phenomenon in the Islamic world or the Middle East, was that this is not the case. The very first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was on September 10, 2001. Now it is a standard part of the operations of the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban to praise suicide bombing as an Islamic act and to indoctrinate children in preparation for using them later; but before 2001, that was never done.

I thought about this for quite a bit after the lecture was over. I thought back to the end of the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a common figure. One day, even though they were still violent dissenters and explosive materials, the symbolism of throwing bombs to express dissent lost its charm, and people who in another time would have been bomb-throwing anarchists started doing something else. One can hope that a few of them found something constructive to do. But in any case, there were no longer recognizable bomb-throwing anarchists except in cartoons.

I wonder why? How do these violent fads get started, and why do they end? Is anyone investigating the life and death of such trends? It strikes me as a crucial topic in both mass psychology and history as a whole.

One phenomenon worth investigating and comparing to so-called Islamic terrorism would be terrorism in Ireland, which seems to be winding down. Of course, even in Belfast and Londonderry in Northern Ireland, most people of whatever religious identity took no part in terrorism, but there were enough looking for freedom or revenge or religious liberty or whatever who believed their cause justified killing. Now just about everyone is sick of it, and they have leaned on the rest in an effort to discourage the hardest of hardliners continuing the cycle. It took, however, decades to reach this point, and as we've recently seen there is no guarantee that the old grievances can't be brought back to life in the short or long term. If it is over, why now? If it is not over, how come? If everyone lives peacefully for half a century and then the old hatreds are revived and bombs start going off, why will it have happened?

Think of this as a problem in public health.

If you're interested in the recent history of suicide bombing, I found a well researched article on in the Washington Post from from 2005. Here are a few excerpts:
Unheard of only a few decades ago, suicide bombings have rapidly evolved into perhaps the most common method of terrorism in the world, moving west from the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s to the Palestinian intifada of recent years to Iraq today. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks in the United States, suicide bombers have struck from Indonesia to India, from Russia to Morocco.

Now governments throughout the West -- including the United States -- are bracing to cope with similar challenges in the wake of the deadly July 7 subway bombings in London, which marked the first time that suicide bombers had successfully mounted an attack in Western Europe.

The pace of such attacks is quickening. According to data compiled by the Rand Corp., about three-quarters of all suicide bombings have occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The numbers in Iraq alone are breathtaking: About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country -- nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to his body inside a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad, triggering a huge fuel-tanker explosion that killed at least 54 people, according to police.

The bombings in London, which killed 55 people, illustrate the profound difficulty of preventing such attacks, experts say. Intelligence officials believe the bombers, in a common pattern, were foot soldiers recruited for the occasion, young men of Pakistani and Jamaican backgrounds reared in Britain who had recently converted to radical Islam. The four bombings required no exit strategy and were pulled off with devices that apparently were made in a bathtub and were small enough to fit in backpacks.

"With the exception of weapons of mass destruction, there is no other type of attack that is more effective than suicide terrorism," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand, a California think tank. "The perception is that it's impossible to guard against."

The motives behind suicide bombings are often mixed. Terrorism experts and intelligence officials disagree on the extent to which political strategy and religious fervor have led to the rising frequency of such attacks. But in addition to the death toll, a key objective of such bombings is clearly to sow terror by violating deeply held cultural and religious taboos against suicide, experts say.

...

History of Suicide Attacks

The use of suicide attacks is not new. Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II tried to cause maximum damage by crashing their fighter planes into U.S. ships. Walter Laqueur, an expert in the history of terrorism, also says that, for centuries, any attack on military or political leaders was a form of suicide because the act usually occurred at close quarters and brought swift and certain death for the killer.

One watershed came in 1983, when a Hezbollah operative drove his truck into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. service members in an attack that remains the deadliest terrorist strike on Americans overseas. Hezbollah would later carry out several dozen more suicide attacks.

Most experts agree that the modern style of suicide bombings first gained its greatest prominence outside the Middle East, in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, is an avowedly secular rebel movement of the country's Tamil ethnic minority. It carried out scores of suicide bombings from the late 1980s until a cease-fire in 2002. The conflict between the Tigers and the government, which is dominated by members of the Sinhalese majority, began in 1983 and claimed an estimated 65,000 lives.

Though dominated by Hindus, the Tigers are predominantly ethnic and nationalist in outlook, with religion not playing a significant role in their actions. The Tigers' early and aggressive use of suicide attacks, analysts say, reflected a pragmatic calculation of the need to level the military playing field against a larger and better-equipped foe.

The group created an elite force to carry out such attacks, the Black Tigers, whose members underwent rigorous training and were reportedly treated to dinner with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before being sent on their missions.

The rebels carried out their first suicide bombing in 1987, when a captain blew himself up along with 40 government troops at an army camp in the northern part of the country...
As you might guess from my remarks above I am not so sure that continued suicide bombing is really simply a pragmatic choice of the weaker side. As the article says somewhere else, in reference to the West Bank,
The boys all know the way to Ahmed Abu Khalil's house, tucked along an alley in a neighborhood of the West Bank town of Atil known as Two Martyrs. Abu Khalil, 18, became its third after he blew himself up Tuesday near a shopping mall in the Israeli city of Netanya.

It is safe to say Abu Khalil knew how he would be remembered here for his twilight attack outside the HaSharon Mall, which killed five Israelis, including two 16-year-old girls who were lifelong best friends. Scores more were injured in Israel's third suicide bombing this year.

The neighborhood is named for two local members of Islamic Jihad, the radical Palestinian group, who died fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2003. The stylized posters of young men, posing with assault rifles and draped with ammunition belts, wallpaper the city. Graffiti urges uprising.

"This has given us a lot of pride, what he has done in Netanya," said Ibrahim Shoukri, 14, who used to follow Abu Khalil to prayer at the mosque. "We hope all of us will be like him."

The cult of glorification -- a mix of nationalist, personal and religious fervor -- that surrounds suicide bombers has long been one of the most difficult challenges facing Israeli security officials. Religious justification taught in the more radical West Bank mosques and intense familial pride -- at least in the days immediately after the attacks -- often outweigh the Israeli deterrent measures designed to make would-be suicide bombers think twice.
Just at a guess, as long as the neighborhood is named after the two martyrs, and their story is known there and the underlying conflict still exists, that neighborhood has a chance of producing more of the same, as in the case of Abu Khalil. And as long as there is a big deal sectarian marching season in Northern Ireland, there is a chance that those who take part or do not take part in those marches may remember the old causes and act on those memories.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Top Ten Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed).

I cited the above-named article by Juan Cole in class yesterday; here's a link.

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News from Kaffiristan


The Big Picture
has a portfolio of pictures from Afghanistan, including a number from Nuristan (formerly Kaffiristan). Lots of poppy fields, Canadian troops, and debris from explosions.

Image: Doesn't this have an uncanny resemblance to Catal Huyuk?

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And then last night on CBC TV...

...Newsworld's Passionate Eye documentary program to be specific, I saw a show called
Pakistan's Taliban Generation. It was about how the Taliban are spreading their influence in Pakistan, and not just in the tribal areas. It was scary, in part because it was a no BS presentation. Unfortunately you cannot see this on the CBC Internet site, but you can read about it here, and perhaps hunt up another broadcast where you can see it.

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CBC One at its best

I spent a lot of time in the car this past weekend, much of it listening to the CBC. I am quite the CBC fan, it is one of the things that made me a Canadian, but it doesn't always suit my mood. Those of you who listen too know what I mean. This time however, I won the radio lottery.

On Saturday morning's edition of Go!, Brent Bambury conducted "The Hunt for Canada's Alt Anthem." As the website puts it:

In tough uncertain times, it always pays to have a contingency plan... for EVERYthing. This morning, GO! is on the hunt for Canada's alt anthem.

We love O Canada, but we wonder what its hip 2009 B-side would sound like.
Of course, this idea had great potential for lameness, even lameness on a cosmic scale. But although one of the three candidate songs was only true and apt, the other two were BRILLIANT! One of them had me sitting in the car with my mouth agape, amazed (not for the first time) at how, sometimes, people can rise to the occasion. With so much mean-minded insanity out there in the world, it was great to hear some fun, sane stuff coming from my compatriots.

Was this what Marconi was aiming for?

Here is a page where you can listen to them yourself. They are the three excerpts listed under 03/28/2009, from Amanda Martinez, Tiny Bill Cody and the Word Burglar.

Go ahead, take a chance on the mothership.

On Sunday, on the way home, the show Tapestry was equally good in a completely different way. Usually Tapestry drives me a bit nuts, it being a show that specializes in earnest interviews with people about their unremarkable spiritual experiences. I only listen to it in the car, and not always then. Sunday's show, however, was fascinating. Mary Hynes talked to Michael Muhammad Knight, a formerly Catholic convert to Islam from upper New York State (the Burned Over District lives!). Discouraged by his inability to be a good Muslim by his own standards, Knight wrote a novel about a fictional punk rock house full of young punk rock Muslims, all of them searching for the true way. Knight started photocopying the book for would-be readers, and now The Taqwacores is a hit. You can hear the whole interview here.

I found it interesting that Knight shares an idea I've had-- that any reasonably successful religious tradition expands to include many disparate elements; as he said, "Islam is what Muslims do," and quite evidently they do many different things. I came to this as a historian, he as a believer. It was not surprising to me to hear such a thought from an American from the Burned Over District (a region known for new, even anarchic movements since the early 19th century). I would be happy if I heard people from Pakistan same the same thing occasionally. But then, maybe they do and I'm just too far away to hear it.

By the way, the current government wants to cut back on all this wonderful stuff from the CBC -- the Conservatives have always hated it. If you value the CBC and its potential, do something. Call or write your MP.

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Fragmentary: the Palestinian Territories of the "West Bank," imagined as an archipelago



From Strange Maps, which quotes the creator, Julien Bousac:

The map is not about ‘drowning’ or ‘flooding’ the Israeli population, nor dividing territories along ethnic lines, even less a suggestion of how to resolve the conflict.


And SM says further:

Mr Boussac took advantage of the resulting archipelago effect “to use typical tourist maps codes (mainly icons) to sharpen the contrast between the fantasies raised by seemingly paradise-like islands and the Palestinian Territories grim reality.” The map does have a strong vacationy vibe to it – but whether that is because of the archipelago-shaped subject matter, or due to the cheerful colour scheme is a matter for debate.

Those colours, incidentally, denote urban areas (orange), nature reserves (shaded), zones of partial autonomy (dark green) and of total autonomy (light green). Totally fanciful are of course the dotted lines symbolising shipping links, the palm trees signifying protected beachland, and the purple symbols representing various aspects of seaside pleasure. The blue icon, labelled Zone sous surveillance (‘Zone under surveillance’) has some bearing on reality, as the locations of the warships match those of permanent Israeli checkpoints.

Some of the paradisiacally named islands include Ile au Miel (Honey Island), Ile aux Oliviers (Isle of the Olive Trees), Ile Sainte (Holy Island) and Ile aux Moutons (Sheep Island), although the naming of Ile sous le Mur (Island beneath the Wall) constitutes a relapse into the grimness of the area’s reality.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Extension granted till Friday noon on Before Taliban paper

Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan policy -- nuts?

Dan Froomkin, one of the few sensible voices at the Washington Post, had a good column today on Obama's Afghanistan pronouncement. Froomkin often counterposes critical voices in the media to the news of the day, and today he did so with good effect, showing that Obama's so-to-speak policy in Afghanistan can't stand up to the critique that Sen. Obama made of George W. Bush's Iraq policy a few years ago: what if it doesn't work? What's the exit strategy?

Just as worthwhile as the Froomkin column are the comments by readers that follow. They are very instructive, mixing the usual fantasyland hawkish overconfidence with some reality-based criticism.

I wonder if any of my students who are now reading David Edwards' Before Taliban think that Obama's plan has any chance at all?

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

HIST 3805 -- study sheet for the final exam

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A new blog on Before Taliban

My students in HIST 3805, History of Islamic Civilization, may be interested to know that I have started a new blog in which I will discuss the book Before Taliban with the purpose of helping members of the class choose a fruitful and interesting approach to writing on it. Since this is likely to be a very challenging assignment, I think it only fair to throw out ideas and questions that may help you with your initial planning. The blog is called Before Taliban, and is already running. here is a direct link to the introduction.

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Religion in Iraq today

From McClatchy's Inside Iraq, a cheering account of an Iraqi correspondent's participation in the important Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala:

On last Saturday, I started a long journey to Karbala city to commemorate the anniversary of Imam Hussein. The distance to the holy shrine in the holy city of Karbala is 67 miles. I haven't been practicing much sport for the last twelve years because of the type of life I live. So, walking such a distance was a big challenge to my will and abilities as I always show off being a very good athlete for years and years. My colleague came to the office where I spent the night around 5:50 a.m. and the journey started at 6. We reached Mussayib city around 6 p.m. I was completely exhausted but all the pain became a source of joy and happiness when I was received by people from the city begging me to spend the night in the big tents they set everywhere in the city. Young boys were working with their parents to serve us. The people were shouting "Dear the visitors of Imam Hussein, please come and spend the night here, we have everything for you, food and bed. Please give us the honor of taking care of you" Others wrote on big pieces of black fabric "serving the visitors of Imam Hussein is our honor." I chose one of the tents randomly. A tent set by a Sunni tribe who decided to serve the Shiite pilgrims.

More here.

Image: Pilgrims at the shrine in 2008.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan


Laura Rozen's War and Piece put me on to this article in Foreign Policy: Panic in Kabul, is Islamabad next? and it led me to a recent publication by the same author, Shuja Nawaz, on the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Image: Kabul.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Preparing for Before Taliban: some online reading

Students in my History of Islamic Civilization course are finishing their second major essay, based on Daughter of Persia, an autobiography of an Iranian woman of great interest. The next assignment will be an essay on a quite different book, David B. Edwards' Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan jihad. The title is accurate: it concerns how a variety of the Afghan people experienced the complex politics of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. It's going to take some work to come to grips with this material and so here I suggest some reading from online sources.

Just last Sunday, Juan Cole published along piece at his blog Informed Comment on the challenges of the situation. He has quite pessimistic view of the possibilities for the success of Western intervention. But he just doesn't assert an opinion, he supplies some interesting material through his links and I strongly suggest you take advantage of them.

After that, maybe you would like to meet the new generation of Taliban, the current batch of fighters, a generation or more removed from the people you'll be reading about Edwards' book. The Globe and Mail back in March had a feature called Talking to the Taliban, in which an Afghan correspondent spoke to various insurgents about what was important to them. It might be worth your while to see this, since it is your taxes and neighbors who are being devoted to defeating these people.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

30th anniversary


February marks the 30th anniversary of the climax of Iran's Islamic revolution. RFE/RL has an article asking whether this durable revolution can also be seen as a successful one. Well, the question remains unanswered, but there is some good material in the article nonetheless. Also at the same location you can find a collection of famous pictures of the Iranian revolution, or at least the huge crowds that turned out against the Shah. And don't miss the launching of an Iranian satellite, the first such launch without foreign help.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Remember that "obscure country (per capita)?"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, by Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian

Manucher Farmanfarmaian is a brother of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, author of Daughter of Persia, an autobiography that my students in the History of Islamic civilization are reading is the basis for a paper. Blood and Oil is also an autobiography, and it is at least as well-written as Sattareh's book. Manucher, as a boy, had quite a different experience of their mutual father, and of course quite a different career. Can he ever tell a story! (Roxane, his co-author, is his daughter.)

This book is recommended to anyone who read enjoyed Daughter of Persia, or is interested in Iran, or in global oil politics and the formation of OPEC. Unfortunately, the Nipissing University library does not have a copy. I got mine through interlibrary loan.

Manucher has an eye for telling detail. Here he remarks about the extraordinary generosity of friends in England who, though hardly rich, helped him with a loan when his father's death cut off his fund transfers from Iran temporarily:

Their generosity was all the more poignant because in England at the time racism was rampant. At university foreign students were shunned. We were not allowed to hold student office, and the college deans, at a meeting held at the beginning of each year, went so far as to warn girls away from us, insinuating that we were from base cultures.... it was not just the university but British society in general that held such views, from the foreman of the garage where I worked one summer to the rich lady with the Daimler who had her butler repeat everything I said because it was below her dignity to converse with me directly. All the more extraordinary, then, were the Philipses' confidence and goodwill.


And on his return trip via India during wartime:

Though in England Persians were looked upon as darkies from an inferior race and religion, here [in Bombay] we were regarded as esteemed guests -- of England of course, not India. We were invited to stay in the toniest hotels, and the doors of every chic restaurant were open as long as we wore dinner jackets or tails (which we invariably did)-- though an Indian would be thrashed were he to venture even a glance inside.

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The Modern Middle East: A History, by James L. Gelvin

This is the textbook I am using for the second half of my course on the History of Islamic Civilization. Today I read a long passage in preparation for tomorrow's lecture, when a student will comment on it. As always, my reaction to this direct, clearly-written and sensible book is:

"Boy, this is good."

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lecture notes for HIST 3805 -- Islamic Civilization

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gaza as a domestic Iranian issue


From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iran Report:
One man who telephoned RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Isfahan said that authorities "are really killing us" with their efforts to drive home the Gaza crisis and express solidarity with Hamas. "All the programs on Iran's television channels, from channel one to channel seven, it's all about the people of Gaza and support for Hamas," the man said. "Why is it like this in Iran? Why are we caring so much about Gaza? Why we don't care about ourselves?"

A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke anonymously due to what he described as the "sensitivity" of the issue, told RFE/RL that people in Iran are far from indifferent to the deaths of civilians in conflicts. Many people think the international response in the Gaza crisis has been insufficient, he noted.

But, he said, some also believe the government is exploiting the crisis to divert domestic attention from Iran's worsening economic situation, including spiraling inflation and growing unemployment.

Another recent caller to Radio Farda claimed "the mullahs" use Palestine and other Middle East flashpoints for their own political ends.

"They've created a stick out of Palestine to give a response to all of the people's questions and demands -- whoever says something will be [silenced]," the caller said. "Otherwise we're a country like other countries, we should mind our own business and solve our own problems. Has there ever been a president who has asked, 'How's our country doing regarding issues like health, electricity, unemployment, poverty?'.... All they speak about is Palestine and Lebanon."

See also the comments to the story.

Image: Anti-Israel demo in Tehran.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

HIST 3805 -- assignment sheet for second essay

Those of you who feel the need for more guidance on the second essay -- here it is.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

The Gaza War in a wider context

In our last Islamic Civilization class we talked about French colonialism in Algeria. Today Juan Cole refers to that history in connection with events in Gaza. This is a long quote, but I urge you to go to Informed Comment and read the whole thing (especially the remarks of an American veteran of the Iraq war that precede this section):

The difference between Israeli military action in Gaza and most US operations in Iraq is not a matter of national character or some other essentialist attribute. It is the difference between imperial occupation for specific purposes and settler colonialism. The Israelis are both an army and a settler movement. The US never considered flooding Iraq with colonists from Alabama and Mississippi.

When threatened by an indigenous population trying to expel it, settler colonialism is vicious. It is after all facing an existential threat. The US can withdraw from Iraq with no dire consequences to the US. In 1954-1962, the French killed at least half a million, and maybe as much as 800,000 Algerians, out of a population of 11 million. That is between nearly 5 percent and nearly 10 percent! The French military had been enlisted to fight for the interests of the colonists, who were in danger of losing everything. (In the end they did lose almost everything, being forced to return to Europe, or choosing to do so rather than face the prospect of living under independent Algerian rule).

The brutality with which the British put down the Mau-Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s is another example of massive human rights violations on behalf of a settler population.

This latest sanguinary episode is a further manifestation of Israel's insecure brand of settler colonialism, in which the lives of the indigenous population are viewed as worthless before the interests of the colonists. The Israelis have not killed on the French scale, but I would argue that they kill, and disregard civilian life, for much the same reasons as the French did in Algeria.

Settler colonialism is unstable in the contemporary world because of the facilities subject populations have for mobilization and resistance. Conflict between colonizer and colonized has only ended in one of three ways: 1) The expulsion of the colonists, as in Algeria; 2) the integration of the colonists into a nation that includes the indigenous population, as happened in South Africa; or 3) the expulsion of the indigenous population, as with the Trail of Tears in the nineteenth-century United States.

Bob Simon told Charlie Rose that the 'two-state solution' in Israel-Palestine is dead, which is likely correct. He suggested that the most likely outcome is Apartheid. However, I would argue that Apartheid is a phase and its itself an unstable situation, and that only one of the above three outcomes is actually permanent. Given that the Arabs are becoming more technologically sophisticated and wealthier over time, and given their demographic advantage, I do not expect a transferist or trail of tears policy to be implemented or succeed. In the long term, over several decades, I think either there will be a gradual outflow of Israeli emigrants that leaves Jews a plurality in Israel. Or there will eventually be a single state. The other possibilities, of either a century-long Apartheid or another expulsion of Palestinians a la 1948 seem to me less likely. The Gaza operation is intended to extend the life of an incipient Apartheid. But that is sort of like giving a heart transplant to a man diagnosed with terminal cancer.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Reply to a student in HIST 3805

The second essay for HIST 3805 will be based on the book by Sattareh Farman Farmaian, Daughter of Persia.

Back in December, one student wrote and asked what exactly the assignment was. Here is what I replied. We can discuss this further in class.
When I put together an assignment description for the second paper, it will be pretty general. What I am hoping for is that students will read the book and find something interesting about this woman worth discussing at essay length.

If you recall the they say/I say formula (and tell me if you don't), I strongly suggest you use it. Find something that the author or another writer on 20th century Iran says that you can either agree or disagree with. Subjects that occurred to me after I read the book include: how a woman of the traditional aristocracy found new opportunities; why she went to the United States and how that affected her outlook on Iran; why she ended up on the losing side of the revolution of 1979. There are probably lots more possibilities.

If you need more help, I suggest you read the book and identify two or three of the most interesting things you find in it and try to formulate an argument, or more than one, on the they say/I say format.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sufism in South Asia

Friday, December 19, 2008

Kindergarten graduation in Baghdad

Those exotic Iraqis. So different from us. So incomprehensible.

From the last installment of the Big Picture's "best of 2008" collection.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Russian Muslims pray in downtown Moscow!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Meanwhile in that other war

In Afghanistan, a scenario somewhat familiar to readers of Napoleon's Egypt.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

House of Saddam


Since my Crusade and Jihad course is all over (except for the final exam and a lot of grading), next term posts inspired by the Islamic Civilization class will likely be more common. Since we will be talking about the last two centuries, a lot of posts may not qualify as "early history."

Here is one. HBO (at least in the USA and presumably Canada) will be showing a miniseries called House of Saddam. It focuses not on Iraq under Saddam, but on the tensions and conflicts of the ruling dynasty. Saddam Hussein as Tony Soprano. You can now go to the HBO site and see a trailer, and if you do you'll notice that Saddam and his associates all wear "international-Western" clothing and are surrounded by furnishing and buildings that could be anywhere in the modern world. At least visually there is nothing "Middle Eastern" about this gang. I don't doubt that this is accurate. Even Saddam Hussein as Tony Soprano is not a bad take.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

An analysis of the Indian situation


Students in the Islamic Civilization course may be interested in this analysis by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail.

Image: From the Big Picture.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Will the Maldives disappear?

Yesterday in the Islamic Civilization course I mentioned the Maldive Islands in connection with the travels of Ibn Battuta. Today I discover that there is an AFP video report at the Globe and Mail website, on the effects of climate change and rising sea level on a country that is not much more than a meter above the waves now.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Correction to readings for HIST 3805 for Wednesday, November 12

The sufi poetry page is here.

A sufi-inspired Bollywood video is here.

For Quranic verses about "hijab" see this site.

You can search Hadith for "hijab" at this site (MSA-USC Hadith Database) using the window halfway down the page.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sense

Sense on the "existential threat of Islamic extremist from IOZ, one of the few people I read to even mention US attacks on Syria and Pakistan:

One of our great, egomaniacal national myths is that the central motivation of Islamic radicals is Death to America. More accurately, their principle motivations are things like: Death to the corrupt, apostate, America-backed government in Islamabad. The September 11, 2001 attacks were an aberration. Insurgent and rebel groups from North Africa through the Middle East, subcontinent, and Pacific archipelagos engage American troops and assets where proximity dictates.

Paradoxically, while some fighters are rootless, semi-religious mercenaries, bopping across borders to get to where the action is, the goals of the various movements and insurgencies tend to be on the local-to-national scale. The Taliban aren't interested in Kansas. Rebels in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas don't care about moral degeneracy in Las Vegas. These people are not seeking to establish some vast caliphate and gobble up the world. The United States, in the principle symptom of our special brand of flailing imperialism, has gotten itself embroiled in a gaggle of civil wars. Most of the nations in question have been modern nation-states for somewhere between fifty and one hundred years. We might recall what happened in America when it was around that age.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timothy I Catholikos of Baghdad and Caliph Al-Mahdi

Interested in what Christian and Muslim religious leaders debated in the early Abbasid era?

Public benefactor Roger Pearse has just made that a whole lot easier. He writes:

In 781 AD the East Syriac Catholicos, Timothy I, was invited by the
Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi to answer a series of questions about
Christianity over two days. The questions and his replies are extant in
Syriac. I've placed the English translation by Alphonse Mingana online
here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_01_text.htm

Introduction here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_00_intro.htm

Timothy I was an interesting man, heavily involved in the Nestorian
evangelism which ultimately reached China. He also was involved in
biblical textual criticism, and his letters record the discovery of some
old manuscripts of the Psalms in the region of the Dead Sea; a possible
precursor of the modern Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.

The text above is public domain: please copy freely. It now forms part
of my collection of public domain patristic texts available here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/

For those who would like to support the work of the site, you can buy a
CDROM of the translations from here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/all_the_fathers_on_cd.htm

Thanks, Roger!

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hardly worth mentioning

From the New York Times from Reuters:

U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday that they had reached a final agreement after months of talks on a pact that would require U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

Iraq said it had secured the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers for serious crimes under certain circumstances, an issue both sides had long said was holding up the pact.

There seem to be conflicting stories on the NYT site: see also Iraq inches closer to security pact with U.S.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

The last lecture in this year's Islamic Civilization class -- April 2009

I'm referring to Andrew J. Bacevich's column in the Washington Post, He Told Us to Go Shopping. Now the Bill Is Due, and I'm exaggerating, because the focus is firmly on the United States. But some of this will undoubtedly be reflected in what I do say in April:

It's widely thought that the biggest gamble President Bush ever took was deciding to invade Iraq in 2003. It wasn't. His riskiest move was actually one made right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he chose not to mobilize the country or summon his fellow citizens to any wartime economic sacrifice. Bush tried to remake the world on the cheap, and as the bill grew larger, he still refused to ask Americans to pay up. During this past week, that gamble collapsed, leaving the rest of us to sort through the wreckage. ...

The "go to Disney World" approach to waging war has produced large, unanticipated consequences. When the American people, as instructed, turned their attention back to enjoying life, their hankering for prosperity without pain deprived the administration of the wherewithal needed over the long haul to achieve some truly ambitious ends.

Even today, the scope of those ambitions is not widely understood, in part due to the administration's own obfuscations. After September 2001, senior officials described U.S. objectives as merely defensive, designed to prevent further terrorist attacks. Or they wrapped America's purposes in the gauze of ideology, saying that our aim was to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. But in reality, the Bush strategy conceived after 9/11 was expansionist, shaped above all by geopolitical considerations. The central purpose was to secure U.S. preeminence across the strategically critical and unstable greater Middle East. Securing preeminence didn't necessarily imply conquering and occupying this vast region, but it did require changing it -- comprehensively and irrevocably. This was not some fantasy nursed by neoconservatives at the Weekly Standard or the American Enterprise Institute. Rather, it was the central pillar of the misnamed enterprise that we persist in calling the "global war on terror."

At a Pentagon press conference on Sept. 18, 2001, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld let the cat out of the bag: "We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter." This was not some slip of the tongue. The United States was now out to change the way "they" -- i.e., hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the Middle East -- live. Senior officials did not shrink from -- perhaps even relished -- the magnitude of the challenges that lay ahead. The idea, wrote chief Pentagon strategist Douglas J. Feith in a May 2004 memo, was to "transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally."

But if the administration's goals were grandiose, its means were modest. The administration's governing assumption was that the U.S. military, as constituted in late 2001, ought to suffice to transform the Middle East. Bush could afford to tell the American people to go on holiday and head back to the mall because the indomitable American soldier could be counted on to liberate (and thereby pacify) the Muslim world....

...the primary lesson of the Iraq war remains this one: To imagine that the United States can easily and cheaply invade, occupy and redeem any country in the Muslim world is sheer folly.

This WP column has some good thoughts, too: 9/11 Was Big. This Is Bigger.

Of course, anyone with an Internet connection, some time on their hands, and an ounce of mental flexibility could have found such analyses on the Web any time in the last five years or so, written by private citizens with no special qualifications; my colleagues who run our pension investments were doing their best to protect them some months ago.

What's worth noting is that a certain degree of reality has finally penetrated to Official Washington, of which the Washington Post is a branch.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Rejects


The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article about the most popular Iranian movie ever, The Rejects, which concerns the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Even more interesting is the video feature which shows clips from both Iranian and Iraqi war films. Most of the students in my course on the history of Islamic civilization, I bet, are probably not even aware of this war, but the article and film clips give you an idea of how huge this to people in the region.

Image: Iranian troops in the "big war."

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HIST 3805 students -- Index to lecture notes

Lecture notes from an earlier version of History of Islamic Civilization -- back when it was HIST 2805 -- can be found here.

Please remember that it is an out-of-date list which I hope to replace soon. And that the dates for lectures are not this years'.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Al Qaeda: defeated?

I was not going to post on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, since I had nothing unique or new to say.

I still don't, but I just got around to reading Juan Cole's post for today at his blog Informed Comment. Cole is an expert on Shiism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is a strong critic of the destructive Bush-Cheney policies, so when he says that the original Al Qaeda has been defeated, and surveys the state of terrorist organizations in the Middle East to prove his point, he's worth listening to.

Canadians will be interested in what he has to say about Afghanistan.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Preliminary course outlines online

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

An attack on Iran?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Historians: write like this

I guess it would be boring if everyone wrote alike; but the world could certainly use more scholars like Patricia Crone, author of God's Rule, and many other works on Islamic history. The clarity and grace with which she explains complicated phenomena are a joy to see. for instance, this passage from page 340 of God's Rule:

To a greater or lesser degree, all Sufis stepped out of the social rules for a realm of freedom, permanently, temporarily, or just momentarily, to escape the endless demands of family and friends and the rigid rules of social etiquette, seeking to find a deeper meaning to life. Originally, they did not form a hierarchy themselves. But all places of escape fill up as news of their attractions spreads, and all develop organization in the process. By the end of our period, the Sufis were no longer back-packing tourists in an untouched and exotic world. The great Sufi orders were under formation and there were now Sufi hierarchies in this world reflecting angelic hierarchies in the next. The leaders of such hierarchies, though wealthy and influential, still did not have actual political or military power, but that too was to come, especially in tribal areas, if only after our period.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Al Qaeda Goes Viral

Since I'm now preparing a course called Crusade and Jihad for the fall term at Nipissing University, I think about jihad every day. Jihad is a complicated phenomenon and the word has many meanings. One meaning or set of meanings that many people have a natural interest in is, "what does jihad mean to Al Qaeda, or its remnants, or its sympathizers?" Here's part of the answer. At the moment, the front page of the Washington Independent, a worthwhile news site, features an article by Spencer Ackerman, a book review of Architect of Global Jihad by Brynjar Lia, of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. Lia makes available to a wider audience, English-speaking audience an influential Al Qaeda text: Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's The Global Islamic Resistance Call. It's a critique of Osama bin Laden's strategy of directly attacking the United States and other non-Islamic states, instead of the "apostate" regimes of the Middle East. Perhaps more important, it has been an influential support for the idea of decentralized or viral attacks instead of a strategy of centrally directed initiatives. Well worth a look.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Those people seem to be especially pious

In a couple of American op-ed articles the claim has been made that Barack Obama should not be viewed as a potential American leader who can reach out to the Muslim world, just because his father was a Muslim. In fact, say these pundits (no compliment here), Obama as president would be a complicating factor in American foreign policy: he would be regarded as an apostate and therefore subject to prosecution and the death penalty for apostasy. Edward Luttwack, a longtime purveyor of specious generalizations on very complex subjects (Roman military policy for instance), says for instance:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

This is nonsense, as Juan Cole, a real expert in Shiite Islam, points out on his website Informed Comment. His commentary is well worth looking at.

Cole's discussion raised another point which has often occurred to me but which seldom seems to enter into intellectual discourse, whether it's about current events or historical phenomena. Cole says:
Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don't pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae.
That line reminded me of a conversation with a friend a long time ago. I had grown up in an area where Protestants were the majority but there was a large minority of Catholics. Catholics were regarded as being unusually pious. After all, they went to Mass every Sunday, had their own version of the Lord's Prayer which they insisted upon, and sent their kids to Catholic schools -- except of course when it was too expensive or inconvenient. My friend had grown up in a Catholic-majority area, where being a Catholic was pretty important to local identity, but it was the minority Protestants who were thought to be pious, since they seemed to be the ones going to church on regular basis, not the Catholics, who were just baptized and married in church.

Reading a short general description of what North American Catholics and Protestants were supposed to believe would do nothing to reveal the realities we had grown up with.

Educated people who want to be well informed often fall into a trap simply because they are open-minded and when studying religion that is not familiar to them, go to the library and pick up a book by a member of that religion, usually a member of the clergy or an academic theologian. Those people, however honest and outreaching they are, will probably give their readers what they consider the right slant, but a narrow one, on a very varied tradition, mostly followed -- or not -- by people who have never been to theological school and never considered entering the clergy for a second.

About 15 years ago I read a book on the history of Buddhism -- unfortunately I can't remember its name -- which tried to give the basic facts in about 200 pages. I came away from it very impressed by the variety of that tradition. In fact, I realized a general truth. Any big-time religion must contain a tremendous variety within it or it would never have become a big-time religion in the first place.

This insight, if accepted, should be especially useful for my students in the Crusade and Jihad class. Just because someone is labeled a Muslim or Christian, don't leap to assume that you know what that means for their social and political attitudes and priorities. Look and see what they really were, if the sources allow. Maybe some of the people you are studying weren't unusually pious after all.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

More on Saladin and the Arab view of the Crusades

About a year and a half ago, I reproduced an interesting short discussion by Andrew Larsen of Saladin's modern reputation as a hero of anti-crusade resistance. What Andrew said, and he accurately reproduced the scholarly consensus, is that Saladin became an Islamic hero only in recent times. Insofar as there was a popular hero of the Crusades in the Middle East before the 19th or 20th century, it was Baibars, a Mamluk Sultan.

That post has become one of the most popular attractions on this blog, in large part because of the nifty picture I pasted into it. How many read the post, I don't know. At least one person did -- he/she was incensed by the idea that Saladin could ever have been forgotten by the Arabs. Even if he was a Kurd.

Just recently a friend of mine sent me his masters thesis for his degree in Middle Eastern studies. John Chamberlain, a skilled Arab linguist, wrote on the evolution of Arab historiography of the Crusades, with emphasis on printed books written since 1800 (or rather, since about 1850). (In other words, he didn't investigate newspapers or journal articles.) Even with my recent reading on the Islamic views of the Crusades, past and present, I was amazed at how recent most of the Arabic writing on the Crusades has been. The real upswing began in 1947, when Palestine was first slated for partition.

If you want to look for yourself, Chamberlain's conclusions are available in two different forms on the Web. A short version appears in the journal Strategic Insights here.
If you want the whole thing, that's here.

Update: Links now work.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Preparing for HIST 3805 -- "History of Islamic Civilization" (Fall-winter 2008-9)


I have this fantasy that some of my students are interested -- or will be, once final exams are over -- in some gentle preparation for fall courses. Bear with me here -- it's a harmless fantasy. It originates in my own work habits. If I don't prepare well in advance for my part in the courses, I know that books won't be ordered in time, handouts won't be finished, and my brain won't be on track. So I've actually been thinking about fall courses, especially my new Crusade and Jihad course (HIST 3116) and a possible restructuring of Islamic Civilization (HIST 3805) for quite a while.

I repeatedly think about the Quran. It certainly would be an advantage to any student in either of those two classes to read the holy book of Islam before they walked into the classroom. But I've only read it straight through myself once because it's long enough and difficult enough that I just can't seem to fit it in.

I have thought yesterday, however. Why not look on the web for a site that leads you through a reading of the Quran day by day? I looked, but found no sites that I liked. However, I did find one that provides a recitation of an English translation of the Quran on a daily basis. There is something very appealing about this approach; after all, the Quran was originally revealed through recitation and was only written down after the Prophet's death.

So, students and other readers, I invite you to join me in listening to the Quran for six minutes every day. Surely, you often find yourself sitting in front of a computer with six extra minutes to waste?

Warning: Don't expect the Quran to be like the Gospels or the historical books of the Old Testament. It's not a story, it's a series of divine revelations, which when they were written down were not arranged in chronological order. if you want a straightforward history of the Prophet and his mission, you need to go elsewhere. What you are getting here is the message of the Messenger. And what you may gain is a feeling for the religion that goes beyond a historical account.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Canada is at war


Canada is at war, and has been for a long time. Like a lot of people, perhaps, I have had a hard time coming to grips with this. In my case, I've been distracted by the rolling catastrophe in Iraq, and in the United States.

Today I came to grips with my "Afghanistan War avoidance syndrome" and started looking at something that's been staring me in the face for days, every time I've gone to the Globe and Mail site. There you and I can find the results of an astonishing journalistic project, especially astonishing in this era where a mostly corrupt and stupid US press sets the tone.

The project is called Talking to the Taliban, and that title describes it well. Reporter Graeme Smith commissioned an unnamed interviewer to put a list of 20 standardized questions to 42 Taliban fighters. As Smith says, not all of the individual answers are very enlightening, but the procedure had the advantage of being an effort to create a systematic picture. People who call themselves "oral historians" do things like this, but journalists?

I'm impressed. My reactions to the content later.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Muhlberger's courses, 2008-9

For those who missed my first post, the information is here. HIST 3116, which appears on Web Advisor as Topics in European or World History, is going to be a Fall Term offering and the topic will be Crusade and Jihad. Probable focus: Palestine and the Middle East, 1000-1300.

Those interested in the fourth-year chivalry seminar can consult the chivalry seminar posts from last year; see the tags at the end of the post.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Courses I'm teaching, 2008-9


Are we really up to 2008-9?

Soon enough, I guess.

My schedule for next year is not absolutely guaranteed, but it seems very likely that I will be teaching the following 3 courses:

HIST 3805 (formerly 2805), History of Islamic Civilization: A year-long course that discusses the interaction of Islam and world history. Not primarily a course on religion, and not entirely devoted to the Middle East.

HIST 3116 (a special topics designation), Crusade and Jihad: a semester course focusing on the crusade to Jerusalem and the Muslim response. I'm still figuring out the parameters of this course.

HIST 4505, Topics in Medieval History: a year-long seminar for 4th year students on chivalry. Click on the labels for "chivalry" and "Chivalry seminar 2006-7" below, or the chivalry links to the right, for material I posted the last time around.

Image: The Accolade, Edmund Blair Leighton. Knighthood as it should have been?

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Background to today's politics in Pakistan


Juan Cole rightly calls this long entry on Pakistan by expert observer Barnett Rubin at Informed Comment: Global Affairs "a college education all on its own." I can speak with a little authority on this because I teach one of the few undergraduate courses offered by an Ontario university on Islamic history, and I can tell you that you won't get anything this substantial from me on Pakistan, post-independence (1947, more than 60 years ago!). Nor on India, either, and India contains very important Muslim communities. And Bangladesh, once part of Pakistan, hardly gets mentioned.

I have my excuses, of course, even valid ones. I've used the time I've allocated to post-WW II history to discuss mainly Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and to some degree Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. That may not be good enough any more. I may have to reallocate time, putting the conquests of Egypt and Bengal in the late 18th century at the end of term one instead of the beginning of term two.

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