Saturday, March 27, 2010

Living in the future, Egyptian politics section


Steven A. Cook writing in Foreign Policy [thanks to Arabist.net]:

Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after a 12-year absence. ...Foreign news outlets estimated that as many as one thousand Egyptians turned out to welcome him home at Cairo’s airport -- and to implore him to run for president in Egypt’s 2011 elections (a significant number given the government’s record of intimidation and violence).

...
He coyly told the Egyptian and foreign press that he would consider running if the Egyptian government enacted electoral and party reforms to ensure truly free and fair elections. At the same time, he formed a new political organization called the National Front for Change, which encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s fractious but largely ineffective opposition movement.... The creation of the Front, along with his tantalizing public statements, only amplified the ElBaradei phenomenon. By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to [Egyptian President] Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.


Image:ElBaradei's Facebook fan page.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.


After extensive travels outside of Baghdad, Nir Rosen reports:

As worldwide attention has returned to Iraq in the run-up to the March 7 elections, a new chorus of worry has emerged, concerned that the corrupt political manoeuvring of some Shiite parties – who have succeeded in banning prominent nationalist and secularist candidates under the thin pretence of de-Baathification – would lead first to a Sunni boycott and then to renewed sectarian violence and war. But just as the dismantling of the Sunni Awakening groups last year failed to produce the disaster many analysts predicted, the results of the election seem unlikely to stoke the embers of a new insurgency.

The continued sectarian exhortations of Iraqi politicians have been met with cynicism by the public, whose support for religious parties has diminished considerably. Iraqis are still “sectarian” to a degree: most Shiites prefer the company of Shiites and Sunnis the company of Sunnis. The vitriol and hatred of the war have faded, but a legacy of bitterness and suspicion remains. What has gone is the fear of the other – and it is this fear that led to the rise of the militias and the sectarian religious parties.

During my travels in Iraq last month – in the capital and, more importantly, in the surrounding provinces of Diyala, Babil, and Salahuddin – I found Sunnis and Shiites alike talking of the civil war as if it were a painful memory from the distant past. Just as the residents of Northern Ireland refer obliquely to “the Troubles”, Iraqis speak of “the Events” or “the Sectarianism” – as in, “my brother was killed in the Sectarianism”. Uneducated Iraqis might even say “when the Sunni and Shiite happened.”
If you are really interested in Iraq, you owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.
On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighbourhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say “Long Live Barcelona”.
Image: Electioneering.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Messing with the flag?

Above is a representation of the Iranian flag. Note the green stripe.

Below is a picture of a recent official ceremony in Iran, with a depiction of the flag (in the shape of Iran) in which green is replaced with blue.

Why is this? Is it a technical error? Or has it been changed because the reform movement has adopted green (a favorite Islamic color) to represent itself?

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty this is not the only case of blue/green substitution.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Farmers on the move, 8000 BCE

This blog is called Muhlberger's Early History for a good reason: I'm often making a connection between things that happened centuries ago and things that our neighbors are doing somewhere in the world today. In the classroom I love talking about remote origins. If I were teaching ancient history now, you'd bet this would be included ( exceerpt from the UK's Daily Mail):

European farming began around 9,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent - a region extending from the eastern coast to the Persian Gulf and which includes modern day Iraq, Syria, and southeast .

The region was the cradle of civilisation and home to the Babylonia, Sumer and Assyrian empires.

The development of farming allowed people to settle down for the first time - and to produce more food than they needed, leading to trade and the freedom to develop new skills such as metal working, building and writing.

Some archaeologists have argued that some of these early farmers travelled around the world - settling new lands and bringing farming skills with them.

But others have insisted that the skills were passed on by word of mouth, and not by mass migration.

The new study suggests the farmers routinely upped sticks and moved west when their villages became too crowded, eventually reaching Britain and .

The waves of migrants brought their new skills with them. Some settled down with local tribes and taught them how to farm, the researchers believe.

'When the expansion happened these men had a reproductive advantage because they were able to grow more food so they were more attractive to women and had more offspring,' said Prof Jobling.

'In total more than 80 per cent of European men have Y chromosomes which descend from incoming farmers.

'It seems odd to think that the majority of men in Ireland have fore fathers from the near East and that British people have forefathers from the near East.'

The findings are published in the science journal PLoS Biology.

Dr Patricia Balaresque, a co-author of the study, said: 'This means that more than 80 per cent of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers.'

In contrast, other studies have shown that DNA passed down from mothers to daughters can be traced by to hunter-gatherers in Europe, she said.

'To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering, to farming - maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,' she said.

I don't think anyone had a clue about this 20 years ago when I first taught Ancient Civilizations. What fun!

(And let's hear it for SE Turkey getting proper credit.)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I believe the war is over...

If you are old enough, name that tune. And the singer.

Back to the present, sort of. Juan Cole argues in a post that the Iraq war is over, and that Obama's policy has worked, but we have not noticed it because media attention has been elsewhere. Bolding indicates my emphasis.

The Iraqi military and police, over which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had largely gained control, proved able to keep order about as well as had their American and British colleagues. In July, 2009, with the US no longer patrolling, attacks and deaths declined by a third, and went on down from there. Despite two dramatic bombing waves in the capital, in August and November, the situation has in most places calmed down on an everyday basis. Flashpoints such as Mosul and Kirkuk remain, but had been violent when the US military was there, too.

Most Americans do not realize that US troops seldom patrol or engage in combat in Iraq anymore, accounting for why none were killed in hostile action in December. The total number of US troops in Iraq has fallen from a maximum of 160,000 during the Bush administration's 'surge' to about 110,000. After the early March parliamentary elections, another big withdrawal will begin, bringing then number down to 50,000 or so non-combat troops by September 1.

Critics of Obama often charge him with failing to end the Iraq War. But there is no longer an Iraq War. There are US bases in a country where indigenous forces are still fighting a set of low-intensity struggles, with little US involvement. Obama is having his troops leave exactly as quickly as the Iraqi parliament asked him to. Most US troops in Iraq seem mainly to be in the moving business now, shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment.

The last 4,000 Marines will hand over responsibility for al-Anbar Province, once among the more violent places on earth, to the US Army on Saturday, and shortly thereafter the Marines will depart the country.

...

Contrary to the consensus at Washington think tanks, Obama is ahead of schedule in his Iraq withdrawal, to which he is committed, and which will probably unfold pretty much as he has outlined in his speeches. The attention of the US public has turned away from Iraq so decisively that Obama's achievement in facing down the Pentagon on this issue and supporting Iraq's desire for practical steps toward sovereignty has largely been missed in this country.

...

Obama was handed a series of catastrophes. He has done better in handling some than others. But his decision on Iraq was the right one, the one that allows the US to depart with dignity, and allows Iraqis to work out their own internal problems. It is in this sense that Obama won the Iraq War.


What really struck me about the post is the video clip from Al Jazeera on "Sovereignty Day;" I like to think that I read a bit deeper and wider than many people, but the situation depicted here mostly passed me by:



Or maybe it's the fact that video gives you a whole different feel than even good analytical prose.

This indicates to me that I've got to read more news from outside the USA.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Yemen and al-Qaeda


A discouraging report from an expert in the journal Foreign Policy. Desertification meets terrorism.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Israel's 10 worst errors of the decade

Can you name them? A columnist at Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, will give you a hand.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Professor Ali Ansari explains the religious backgroun of the Iranian situation


From the Times Online:

Ancient power struggle has relevance for today’s Iran
Professor Ali Ansari: Analysis


Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Moharram in the Muslim calendar, is a day replete with symbolism for much of the world’s Shia community. In Iran, in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it acquired enormous political significance as the message of Ashura was redefined for the modern age and the struggle against the Shah. Now it has been reinvigorated and turned against today’s Islamic leadership.

The story of Ashura revolves around the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Shia belief the succession should have devolved to the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, the first of the Shia Imams. Ali finally assumed the leadership and became the fourth Caliph but after his death the succession should have followed through his family. Unfortunately for them, the leadership was seized by a rival family, the Umayyads. In 680AD one of Ali’s sons, Hussein, with a small band of followers, challenged the Umayyads, who were led by the Caliph Yazid. Hussein was defeated and killed. Ever since Hussein has been hailed as the Lord of Martyrs, the champion of the oppressed. His sacrifice is lamented every year on Ashura.

The Government has tried to portray Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Ali, and there is a suspicion that he is seeking to make the title of Supreme Leader hereditary. This has outraged orthodox clergy and many devout Iranian Muslims.


Thus, instead of being the new Ali, Khamanei has been portrayed as the Yazid of the age. With news of fatalities as the clashes continue, it is an association he will find increasingly difficult to shake.


I am fascinated by the "suspicion" noted in the second-last paragraph above. It sounds like something out of a Left Behind novel.

Image: Pious Shia still weep over the martyrdom at the battle of Karbala. Ashura is the most emotional day on the Shia calendar.

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Big deal in Iran

From Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

The BBC is reporting that clashes are continuing into Monday morning between protesters and the regime security forces in Tehran and perhaps other cities, marking the first decisive failure of the basij paramilitary to control the streets by early morning of the day of a big demonstration. The number of protesters allegedly killed by security men rose to 9, with dozens wounded and 300 persons allegedly arrested.

...

The chanting on Sunday turned against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, not just against President Ahmadinejad. He was castigated as the Dictator and as worse than the old shah, and the very ideological basis of the regime, the doctrine of clerical rule, was chanted against in the streets. The legitimacy of the regime, profoundly shaken by the events since early June's presidential election, is now being shredded further.

Another remarkable dimension of Sunday's events was the sheer number of cities where significant rallies and clashes occurred. Some of those allegedly killed are said to have fallen in Tabriz, a northwestern metropolis near Turkey. Even conservative cities such as Isfahan and Mashhad joined in. Shiraz, Ardabil, the list goes on. The attempt of some analysts to paint the disturbances as a shi-shi North Tehran thing has clearly foundered.

The most ominous sign of all for the regime is the reports of security men refusing orders to fire into the crowd.

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran for the FT that on Sunday in the capital, crowds-- bigger than even some of those that assembled in June-- maintained their discipline and proved unassailable by the basij motorcycle and other crowd control techniques. She quotes people in the crowd urging demonstrators to stick together for this purpose. She must be suggesting that the crowds were several hundred thousand strong in the capital.

...

But values come into it, too. Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ points out that the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Muharram, has been considered a month for truces and non-violence. The very name of the month means 'sanctified.' Even the brutal troops of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah or king overthrown in 1979, had not fired on crowds during Muharram. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi openly said that even the shah's regime had not behaved on Muharram as clerical Leader Ali Khamenei's had. Hint: in revolutionary Iran, that is a slam.

The regime therefore violated crowd norms, helping account for the vehemence of the pushback.
...

The killing of Ali Mousavi, the 34-year-old nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Husain Mousavi, was also a violation of Shiite values. The Mousavis are putative descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, a sort of caste in Muslim societies called 'sayyid' or 'sharif.'

In fact, in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, one of the complaints of the crowd was that the Qajar monarchy had had sayyids beaten. So if beating a scion of the House of the Prophet can help spark a revolution, what about shooting one? And, oppositional film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf maintains that Mousavi was killed by a death squad that came for him in a van rather than just falling victim to random police fire.

Killing a sayyid is a blot on any Iranian government. Doing so on Ashura, the day of morning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, borders on insanity.

Cole also provides a link to Robin Wright's article at the Times Online: Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

Of course questions like this are hard to answer. However, it is clear that for millions of Iranians, the current regime has lost any claim to representing Islam (in other words, justice).

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The end of American exceptionalism

Mark LeVine says:
The awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama reads like a desperate attempt to resuscitate the discredited idea of a "Great Man" of history ushering in a new era. It is an understandable fantasy, given the magnitude of the problems the world confronts.

But it distracts from the reality that it will be movements from below, however imperfect and irrational they can be, that will create, in Obama's words, "the world that ought to be," not leaders from above, however audacious their rhetoric.

In that regard, perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Obama's speech is its irrelevance on the ground.

Around the world people who once looked to the US for inspiration or support are taking matters into their own hands. No one is waiting for the US to save or even support them anymore.

More here.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More on the war

Yes, there's a war on -- more than one!

Juan Cole at his most optimistic has an article in Salon,
Obama's foreign policy report card.

Matthew Hoh, an American official and ex-Marine with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigns. Why? The war in Afghanistan makes no sense. See
his letter of resignation and the Washington Post article describing his background.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Just doing our job, ma'am

If they fix things in your neighborhood, consider yourself lucky.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Then there is this...

Behind the Veil, a video report on women in Kandahar from the Globe and Mail.

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Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination?

This is one title of an article by Ann Jones in Tomdispatch.com and the Huffington Post that simply must be read. Will any Canadian MP have the guts to ask the Government where the Afghan Army is?


The killer excerpt (lots more, it's a long and detailed article):

The Invisible Men

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.

...

Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques -- "as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments." Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in "austere environments," probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn't you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn't you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?

Have a cheery day!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Afghans speak about the Afghan election

In an amazing good piece from the New York Times' blog At War, Afghans (men, no women) express their various opinions about the recent election and the country's situation in general. And various those opinions are. If your country has troops in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself and them to read this relatively short account.

One thing that really caught my eye were the differing evaluations that two interviewees expressed on elections themselves. Have a look at this:

Sardar Mohammad
Aged 31, from Helmand Province.

Did you vote? “No. There is no security. In fact the election is not being held there. There are Taliban, they don’t let the polling boxes reach there.”

Was it a free and fair election? “No, no, no. It is to benefit America’s private interests. They have captured the whole country. America came to capture Afghanistan to oppress Afghans.”

Would you have voted if you had the chance? “No, never. Islam doesn’t accept the infidel’s democracy, Islam has its own law, God’s book.”
And then at this:

Abdul Khalil
Teacher. Aged 60.

Was it a free and fair election? “It was not a good election. There was fraud in this election, and it was not a fair or good election because there was low turnout. A lot of people did not go to vote. Firstly, because of the Taliban, and secondly, because of our traditions many Afghan women could not go out to vote. Our tradition is that our women never go to vote, men go but not women.

“This is not a good tradition, in my opinion, but for us Afghans this tradition has been laid down for us by our fathers and grandfathers, so we have just continued living like this.

“In the last election there was fraud, and this time also. I heard it on the media, and everyone knows it is true. It is clear that there was fraud. The last time when [Yunous] Qanooni was a candidate, there was fraud. He couldn’t win the election, and this time as well.”

As he spoke his, pro-Karzai, fellow Pashtuns heckled him for being a dissenter, shouting “he’s crazy.”

Sardar Mohammed from war-torn, Taliban-influenced Helmand province appears to have bought into a fairly common Islamist meme; but Abdul Khalil (from Jalalabad? Kabul?) see things differently. He believes that there has been a tradition of elections in the country where men voted and women didn't (a bad tradition, he thinks). What elections does he mean? I can think of only three national elections in Afghanistan, two since the invasion and one in the 1960s. Does he also count some kind of local elections? Have there been a number of separate provincial elections? Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please chime in.

Image: Abdul Khalil.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tehran: the cats are happy

Juan Cole passes along this "final dispatch from Tehran," which I don't dare summarize. Don't miss it.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

An authoritative religious critique of the situation in Iran

Ayatollah Montazeri is one of the highest-ranking religious scholars in Iran, though he holds no political office. The following statement was posted on the Iranian-American blog, niacINsight. It takes only a little imagination to see how such an analysis might harm the religious legitimacy of the current Iranian government:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic as much as I can. I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then posed questions to authorities asking “was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword…Now, a group of people thinking that they can commit any crime because they see themselves as being close to the government; attack student dorms, beat them and throw them down the building, commit chain murders and terrorize intellectuals of this nation and be immune from punishment; this is not compatible with any religion and custom.”

Montazeri advised the people to “pursue their reasonable demands while maintaining their calm.” He also advised the authorities, asking them to stop using harsh and irrational measures which destroys people’s trust and exacerbates the separation between them and regime. “[The authorities] should not create divisions among the people, apologize for their past mistakes, and understand that worldly positions are not permanent.”

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Two book reviews from Phil Paine


The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

Critical:
(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
Appreciative:
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.



Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following events in Iran

I am following events in Iran, in so far as that is possible, but I don't think I have any special insight, except this: it is the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has existed for the last 20 years or so. It's likely that in 2029, middle-aged Iranians will all know where they were today, no matter how things turn out.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Rights of Man...and Woman

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting column in the Times Online by Danny Finkelstein. Why Finkelstein associates his values with Neoconservatism I don't know; I associate it with indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, I agree with much of what he says here:

For years we have been told, we neocons, that other cultures don't want our liberty, our American freedom. Yankee go home! But it isn't true. Because millions of Iranians do want it. Yes, they want their sovereignty, and demand respect for their nation and its great history. No, they don't want foreign interference and manipulation. But they still insist upon their rights and their freedom. They know that liberty isn't American or British. It is Iranian, it is human.

This idea that the critics of neocons advanced so vociferously, that liberal democracy can't be “transplanted” on alien soil - what does it mean to the people of Iran who have thronged the streets to express their will?

Does it mean that we think the morality police is just part of Iranian culture? Just their way of doing things? For the thousands of protesters it is not. It turns out that they don't think it's right for young girls to be arrested, snatched from the streets for wearing the wrong coat. And they don't think there is a cultural defence to beating these girls until their parents arrive with a “decent” garment.

They don't think that public hangings are Iranian, either. Nor arbitrary detentions of doctors who dared to organise conferences on Aids, nor keeping human rights activists in solitary confinement, nor sentencing trade union leaders to five years in jail for trying to organise fellow workers. They don't think there is anything culturally valuable in sentencing political activists to death after secret trials lasting less than five minutes, or returning lawyers to jail again and again for opposing the death penalty or “publishing insulting material with unacceptable interpretation of Islamic rules”.

It is not part of their precious heritage that someone be charged with a capital offence for circulating a petition on women's rights. Nor that nine-year-old girls should be eligible for the death penalty, and children hanged for their crimes. There is no special Iranian will, even given their religious conservatism, that students should be flogged in public for being flirtatious, and homosexuals hanged in the streets.

The protests for Mr Mousavi do not just expose the lie of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. They expose the lie that there is something Western in wanting democracy and human rights. [The best line!--SM]

And what of the other leg of the neocon argument? What of the idea that peace comes through the spread of liberalism and democracy? Can anyone really doubt that should the reformists succeed, even a little bit, the world would be a safer place? A democratic Iran would stop financing world terrorist movements, it would stop obsessing about external enemies and foreign conspiracies, it would stop threatening its neighbours. It would still oppose Israeli policy, it would still want to acquire nuclear material, but the threat of violence would recede.

The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.


Comments welcome.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran coverage, June 16

From Laura Secor at the New Yorker (excerpt):

What are Khamenei’s options? With protesters yelling “Down with the dictator” in the streets of nearly every city in Iran, his position could not be more precarious. He has staked his very legitimacy, and perhaps that of the edifice he sits atop, on forcing Iranians to accept Ahmadinejad’s supposed landslide victory. He can continue to try to force that down their throats with a show of raw power, or he can bend, which would show the opposition that he and the system are not really so powerful after all, that they are vulnerable to pressure from below. If he takes the latter road, it would be a radical departure from his style of governance up until now. This is the regime that violently quelled protest movements in 1999 and in 2002, crushed the hopes of reformers under Mohammad Khatami from 1997 through 2005, and apparently could not tolerate even the possibility of a Mousavi Presidency. But if he chooses the path of violence, he will transform his country into a crude and seething autocracy.

This is uncharted territory for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until now, the regime has survived through a combination of repression and flexibility. The dispersal of power throughout a complex system, among rival political factions, and with the limited but active participation of the voting public, has allowed a basically unpopular regime to control a large population with only limited and targeted violence. There have always been loopholes and pressure points that allow the opposition and the regime to be dance partners, even if one or both of them is secretly brandishing a knife behind the other’s back. That has been less true under Ahmadinejad than in the past. But the culture of the organized opposition under the Islamic Republic has tended to remain cautious and moderate. Many of the protesters of recent days are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. They are calling for their votes to be counted. More nights like last night, however, when some seven protesters were allegedly shot, could swiftly change that.

So is there any way Khamenei can dial the situation back even to the unhappy modus vivendi of June 11th?...
Iason Athanasiadis and Saeed Kamali Dehghan at the Guardian, article entitled At opposite ends of Tehran's great avenue, the two Irans gathered:

"What you're seeing is the result of 30 years of pressure and strangling," said Hossein Rahmati, a 68-year-old carpet seller wearing an old-fashioned 1980s suit to attend the march. "Iran is like a dam about to burst."

Standing in the cool of a Tehran ­afternoon, his rimmed glasses held on by a cord, Rahmati was surrounded by crowds, some dressed in the green of Mir Hossein Mousavi's street revolution, ­others in black with scarves over their faces and mobile phones in hand to capture the occasion.

Across the capital, a few miles to the south, it was a different rallying cry. Batol Mojahedi, 55, a housewife, stood with one hand holding her black hijab, the other a poster of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "My son was martyred in the Iran-Iraq war. I don't want to lose our Islam. We did not participate in 1979, in the revolution, to have this kind of freedom that Mousavi supporters claim they want.

"We don't want the freedom they want. Ahmadinejad is a courageous president. There was not any rigging in Friday's election. What's happening now is just [being influenced] by foreigners."

Tehran was a city literally divided yesterday as rival rallies for incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his defeated centrist challenger Mousavi took over either end of Vali Asr Avenue, the city's north-south spine. In a study in opposites, some districts appeared deserted while traffic was gridlocked elsewhere. The words from both camps were equally stark, each seeing the other as the cause of the greatest tension the Islamic republic has witnessed in 30 years.

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Meanwhile, next door

An Iraqi correspondent sadly contemplates an

Aborted attempt at protest

With what Iraq endured over the last four decades, sometime I feel we deserve what happens to us because we are a weak people we cannot even show our protests with our facial expressions.

Today on my way to work, an event occurred that happens every day in Iraq. The road was suddenly blocked, and no one knew why. As usual, the solders deployed in the roads aimed their weapons towards the crowd.

Today was different for me because I tried to take an unusual action. I tried to read the expressions on the faces waiting in cars around me. I mean, the anger or protest on the faces of those who were forced to wait inside their cars for 15 minutes without any known reasons. In general, the delays are caused by an Iraqi politician of 'the new Iraq' leaving his stronghold.

But the faces were glad as if they were happy with what was happening. Some of them were chatting with each other, and some were listening to music on radio stations--listening to love songs while the gangs of soldiers were aiming their weapons at their cheerful faces.

At this moment I tried to do something to wake them up. I wanted to honk the horn to show a sign of protest to those who were carrying their weapons towards us. But I hesitated. I couldn’t make this trivial sign of protest. I felt afraid of such action because I was waiting a volunteer hero who would lead my anger, my revolution.

But he didn’t show up.

Here in Iraq we always wait for this hero, but it is useless to wait because, according to a verse from the Koran, God doesn't change the condition of people if they don’t change themselves first.

And we are so weak to change ourselves and defeat our fears or make any sign of protest--even honking the horn of the car to show anger.

I think our wait will be long for the hero who will take our hands and walk us to the safe land

.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Big Picture on the streets of Tehran

See Iran's Disputed Election.

I've picked out three images:

Plainclothes revolutionary militia members or Basij -- all volunteers -- breaking into Tehran University to attack pro-opposition students.


An opposition rally supporting(!) presidential candidate Mousavi (he's centre in glasses and gray shirt).


A pro-Ahmadinejad rally.




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Another aspect of the turmoil in Iran

Shireen Hunter, a well-published expert on Iranian and modern Islamic politics, reminded me in an interview on CBC One's "The Current" that some of the prominent opposition leaders in Iran are former hardliners. It's not just the post-revolutionary generation against those who remember the revolution, nor the big city against the small towns and villages.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The election in Iran -- two sets of comments

Juan Cole: Class v. culture wars in Iranian elections.

Gary Sick: Iran's political coup.

Now there are beatings in the street.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

More on today's presidential election in Iran

Juan Cole directed me to this Al Jazeera/YouTube video on Iranian-Americans (and Iranian students in the USA) voting in the Iranian election:



What really struck me was the statement by the youngest man that the election was about "democracy and being a citizen of the world" as if they were the same thing. This strongly reminded me of the atmosphere that produced the democratic revolutions of the just pre-World War I period as described by Charles Kurzman in Democracy Denied 1905-1915. Iran, of course, had one of the revolutions in that transnational movement.

Update: photos of voters and leaders from the Big Picture. Clearly, sales of paint and posterboard have gone through the roof.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tomorrow's election in Iran

And what are people talking about? A clue: it isn't jihad. Read TIME on the "marriage crisis."

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Electoral excitement in Iran


Juan Cole has a long post today summarizing and linking to media reports on the pre-election excitement in Iran.

It is interesting that in many countries where effective elections do not exist, elections, public opinion polls on politics, and so forth are a real if subordinate part of the political system.

Of course in Iran there have been pro-democratic movements since 1905, a fact I imagine enters into the world view of very few non-Iranians.

Image: Yesterday's pro-Mousavi demonstration, from the Wall Street Journal.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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 23, 2009

One sentence that says so much about the Middle East


Concluding an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
Given current regional trends, the fight to reconstruct Gaza is a contest that Israel, Fatah and Washington cannot afford to lose.
In other words, on the issue of who controls reconstruction funds, these three are allies against Hamas.

Image: Gaza damage.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Iran's complexities


I owe it to Laura Rozen at War and Piece for directing my attention to this article.

A New York Times op-ed columnist named Roger Cohen wrote an article recently describing the situation of Iranian Jews. He immediately was criticized in a number of places for painting all too rosy a picture. His reply -- that he knows a number of things about Iran, some good some bad -- is here. It contains this important sentence:

I return to this subject because behind the Jewish issue in Iran lies a critical one — the U.S. propensity to fixate on and demonize a country through a one-dimensional lens, with a sometimes disastrous chain of results.
I hope that will tempt you to read the rest.

Image: view of Isfahan (click for a bigger view).

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Luca Marchio, intrepid traveller

There are plenty of TV shows about people doing incredibly dangerous things in exotic locales, but give a thought to Luca Marchio, an Italian "tourist" who went to Iraq, and visited Irbil, Falluja, and Baghdad just like they were normal destinations. So far, so good. See the New York Times article.

Image:
tourist shopping in Falluja. Also, below, the statue of Scheherazade in Baghdad from another New York Times article.

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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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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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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Bombs over Israel and Gaza...


...and the people they hit. The Big Picture shows us the weapons, the explosions, the blood and the terror.

To leaven this with some good news, see Juan Cole's New Year's article, Top Ten Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed).

Image: a firefighter tries to douse a medical warehouse (!).

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza: Like casino chips

An Arab-American analyst gives Laura Rozen at War and Piece an anonymous interpretation of what is behind the Gaza situation (my word, which shocks me with its bloodlessness):

There are two domestic agendas here. The Israeli one is very familiar... But what people are not asking and is at least as important: what are the f**** rocket firers hoping to do? ... If you look at what people are saying, there is a disconnect between what Haniyah and people in Gaza are saying, and what Nasrallah and Meshal and regional actors say. ... The Hamas leadership in Gaza is saying, we want a ceasefire on our terms. What Nasrallah and Meshal and Iran are saying: Egyptians, rise up ... What’s missing in every analysis I see is that Egypt is the prize, the low hanging fruit ...

Sketch out the regional scenario: two unsympathetic forces hinged by Hamas. You have the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi Islamist parties on the one hand, on one side of the hinge. ... And you’ve got the Muslim Brotherhood regional project for overthrowing [moderate Arab regime] governments on the other.

The hinge is Hamas. Because Hamas is a core member of Leninist-style collection of national Muslim Brotherhood parties. It is also the only Sunni member of the pro Iranian alliance because of the money it gets through Khaled Meshal. Hamas is a hinge, Syria is a hinge. You've got Meshal in Damascus who gets lots of money from Iran. Hamas is not neutral in the moderate Arab regimes vs. Iranian alliance rivalry.

Both stand to benefit here. One project advances [unrest] in Egypt to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while that is not something to be overjoyed for for Nasrallah, it's very helpful if it advances the Islamist agenda to destabilize your enemies.

It's limited ultimately. It's very unlikely to result in direct destabilization of Egypt. But they shoot for it, and hope that it contributes to the discreditation of all the [moderate, pro American] Arab regimes [egypt, jordan, saudi arabia] and in that sense, shows that there is an authentic movement in the region that has two manifestations, the Iranians and the Muslim Brotherhood, who are resistant to the regional order and the status quo. ...

What you end up with here are two groups of political actors with domestic and internal motivations that largely don’t have to do with Gaza. And they are using the lives of these people like casino chips...

More from the Globe and Mail.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Anti-extremist strategy in Lebanon


You may be interested in this end-of-the-year article, Beirut seems to have upper hand against extremists, from Lebanon's Daily Star. And more on Lebanese domestic politics from the Washington Post, here.

Image:
a prosperous street in downtown Beirut.

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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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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Canadian Oil's involvement in Kurdistan and Iraqi (dis)unity

Laura Rozen refers us to this article in Mother Jones.

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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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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The mess in the Middle East: it's our war, too

We Canadians can congratulate ourselves that our soldiers are not dying in Iraq, but they are dying in Afghanistan, and the whole region is really one big political and military mess. Want to know how big? See what Juan Cole had to say the other day. Highly recommended for students in my Islamic Civilization class. We will be getting there by the end of the school year.

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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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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to Toronto


Next year -- specifically from June 27, 2009 until Jan. 3, 2010 -- the Royal Ontario Museum will have a spectacular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For details see this CBC article.

Image: The Book of Isaiah on display in Jerusalem.

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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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Friday, September 26, 2008

I will give a fig for it


When it is appropriate to do so, I love talking about food and the origin of various crops in my history classes -- in the past, this has generally meant world history and ancient history courses. Ancient Middle Eastern crops came out in discussing the background to early Islamic history a couple of weeks ago, and I had a fair amount to say about dates, a very important crop in Iraq at any time in its history. Soon after, I ran across this National Public Radio piece on figs as one of the earliest crops, a possibility revealed by new explorations near ancient Jericho, which rated a mention in my discussions of early towns and agriculture. I promised a link to the Islamic history class, and here it is!

Image: from NPR, showing an ancient fig (L) next to modern Iranian and Turkish figs (R).

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