Praying On Qasr al-Nil
February 2, 2011, 7:51 pm
Filed under: Middle East | Tags: , , , ,

One of the more memorable scenes of the Egyptian revolution will surely be that of ordinary Egyptian’s praying on Cairo’s Qasr al-Nil Bridge as members of Egyptian state police direct their water cannons at them. Truly a remarkable sight.

via Al Jazeera


“I Support Democratization, But…”
January 28, 2011, 5:46 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg – one of the key proponents of the disastrous invasion of Iraq – has some serious misgivings about the fledgling pro-democracy movement that’s taken over the streets of Egypt. “I support democratization, but,” he cautions, “the democratization we saw in Gaza (courtesy of, among others, Condi Rice) doesn’t seem particularly worth it.” Why was it not worth it? Well, because it didn’t result in conditions favorable to Jeffrey Goldberg. Democracy is preferable to all others forms of government if, and only if, the party that comes out on top shares the same views as Jeffrey Goldberg. What a champion of liberty.

All That Happens In The Middle East Can’t Be Explained By Religion
January 16, 2011, 8:56 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Muslim World | Tags: , , , , ,

Uncertainly rules the day in Tunisia. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s strong-armed and authoritarian ruler since 1987, is in Saudi Arabia while the interim government struggles to restore some semblance of order.  “Confusion, fear and horror in Tunisia as old regime’s militia carries on the fight,” reads on headline in the Guardian. To be sure, the days, weeks and months ahead are likely to be just as tumultuous.

But the New York Times, which has otherwise done a decent job of covering the story, can’t seem to report the facts on the ground without breaking into the quite-familiar and largely-contrived secular/religious divide that seems to always explain events in the Middle East. For instance, in its description of transpiring events, Times reporter David Kirkpatrick includes this bit of insight:

Tunisia is far different from most neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor there, it has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that are well beyond those in most countries in the region.

Tunisia, of course, is one of the most unfree societies on the face of the planet. Ben Ali was an autocrat in every sense of the word. But as the Times seems to suggest, the fact that contraception is readily available and that women aren’t forced to cover (they aren’t mandated to do so in most of the Muslim world), is supposed to make up for, soften, or perhaps, rationalize the repression. It’s an entirely bankrupt approach that fails to explain the complex nature of Tunisian affairs.

Writing in Religion Dispatches, Haroon Moghul illustrates why the secular/religious explanation is not only lazy and hackneyed, but often, useless in understanding people’s grievances. He writes:

There must be an explanation for why a journalist would make such a broad, unsubstantiated statement, and it returns us to the simple need to define Arabs as either secular (like us) or religious (unlike us), an effect of which is a confused causation. Namely, because many Arab states aren’t democracies, they must be Islamist states, where of course women must have to cover their heads.

This assumption lazily equates the public practice of Islam with all things undemocratic, whereas we are inclined to view secularism–even when enforced by a dictator–as explicitly preferable, even though in the experience of many Arabs (and Muslims), secularism is the ideology which justifies control of their lives, religion, and politics.

Moghul’s piece is excellent. Read it all here.

Lingering Racism Against African-Iraqis
December 3, 2009, 5:55 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Racism | Tags: , ,

Today, the New York Times posted a rather disturbing article about the level racism in Iraq.  There are an estimated 1.2 million African-Iraqis. By and large, nearly all are treated like second-class citizens.  In fact, the discrimination is so engrained “that they are commonly referred to as “abd” — slave in Arabic.”  NPR, which also covered the issue today, notes: “Although they have lived in Iraq for more than 1,000 years, the black Basrawis say they are still discriminated against because of the color of their skin.”

It is a disturbing topic, which many Iraqis are not willing to admit in public.  The Times piece quotes Ahmed al-Sulati, deputy chairman of Basra’s provincial council who says “there is no such thing in Iraq as black and white.” While he himself may see it that way, for the people who experience such discrimination, the color blind society many Iraqis describe is a mirage.

It should be noted that this sort of racism goes against the very core of Islam.

O ye who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is a sin: And spy not on each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, ye would abhor it…But fear Allah: For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. [49:13]

The Flower of Paradise: The Role of Qat in Yemeni Society and Beyond
August 28, 2008, 2:19 pm
Filed under: Economics, Middle East | Tags: , ,


“No one in the world would desire to introduce the khat habit into civilized communities, where there are too many similar habits already”
American Consul in Aden Charles Moser
(Varisco, 2004: 115)

Yemen is endowed with energy, but unlike its regional neighbors blessed/cursed by ‘Black Gold,’ two major cash crops stimulate Yemen and its people. The first is coffee, a vital export commodity for an underdeveloped nation of nearly 18 million people ranked 153 out of 177 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The second is qat, which has the same ecological demands as coffee (Wenner, 1967), but dominates agriculture in Yemen to the point where the country is becoming ‘less and less able to feed itself’ (Held, 2007: 434). A mild stimulant, ‘closer to coffee than to opium’ (Varisco: 102) qat, is seen by some as an iniquitous drug that places tourniquet-like pressure on vital resources and causes chronic morbidity while for others qat is ‘a flower of paradise’ (Anderson, 1987).

A common joke in Yemen goes like this-when the government had had enough of qat and its deleterious effect on Yemeni society, it decided to ban its use. Because of the vital role qat serves in Yemen, a creative plan was essential for success. The government decided that such an innovative idea could only come about during a qat chewing session.

So ubiquitous is qat in any discussion of Yemeni culture yet so little is qat understood beyond Sana’a or Aden and within the growing Diaspora in the United States. Qat (Catha edulis) is both the taproot of Yemeni society and a contributing factor to the social and economic decadence that has made Yemen the poorest nation in the Arab world. Once serving a medicinal role in the Islamic world and China, the tender leaves and stem of the small tree/scrub are widely chewed as a mild narcotic, chiefly because its principal active components cathinone and cathine induce physiological effects similar to the stimulation of the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (Cox & Hagen, 2003). In an increasingly transnational world, more and more Yemeni call the Puget Sound home and like other immigrant groups, holds on to their traditions and customs. Yemenis (and Somalis, Ethiopians and Kenyans) surreptitiously consume qat and are unfazed by attempts by the federal government to reign in on the market.

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Economist on Lebanon Impasse

To be sure, the Economist’s reporting is of the highest quality, but I am a bit turned off by the free-market bend. However, this does not mean that I do not occasionally come across very good articles that are as objective and clear as anything else. The Economist’s recent article on the crisis plaguing Lebanon is one of the few things I have read that does not take a partisan perspective and looks at the conflict for what it is. Other articles either hail the Lebanese government for their struggle against Iran’s proxy Hizbullah or glorify Hizbullah, which many see as fighting against an American puppet regime. The Economist takes both perspectives and appropriately diagnosis the crisis as one in which Iran’s tool is fighting America’s stooge.

IT LOOKED disturbingly like a sequel to Lebanon’s bloody civil war of 1975-90: gun battles in city streets, kidnappings, execution-style slayings and tearful vows of vengeance. With at least 81 people killed so far, the violence of past days represents the most serious internal strife since those years. And it is unclear who can stop it.

The most striking scene was the invasion of the capital, Beirut, mounted by opponents of the government. This was not exactly a conquest of the city, but rather the takeover of one part, Sunni-dominated West Beirut, by another, the dense, gritty and largely Shia-populated southern suburbs. This act quickly rippled across the mountainous country’s sectarian patchwork, setting off clashes to the north and south. Because of Lebanon’s position as a cockpit for regional power struggles, it also reverberated further afield, from Washington to the Iranian capital, Tehran.

It was natural that this latest turmoil should carry echoes of the civil war. That contest was only fudgingly resolved, and the country has struggled to recover. Small triumphs have been notched up here and there. One was the physical revival of Beirut from a bomb-scarred wreck to a gleaming magnet for tourism; another the brave popular uprising of 2005, which forced neighbouring Syria to pull out its long-overstayed “peacekeeping” troops. For many Lebanese, too, the hounding of Israel by the guerrillas of Hizbullah, the Shia party-cum-militia, leading to the Israeli army’s withdrawal in 2000 after 22 years occupying the southern borderlands, and its humiliation in the 33-day war of 2006, were epic victories.
Syria’s role

Yet none of those achievements was solidly shared by all. Reconstruction generated corruption and a giant pile of debt. Syria’s removal alienated its many allies inside Lebanon and prompted it to sponsor what looks like a campaign of sabotage, including assassinations. The Sunni-led, anti-Syrian factions that gained power through the 2005 uprising failed to accommodate dangerous rivals, and suffered by close association with America.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah’s lock-step allegiance to Shia Iran frightened not just Lebanese nationalists, but also the predominantly Sunni Arab world and Western powers. The UN Security Council resolved in 2004 that all Lebanon’s militias must be disarmed, but Hizbullah insisted its noble cause was resistance to Israel, despite the Jewish state’s abandonment of all but a tiny corner of Lebanon. The party continued to receive a supply of heavy weapons from Syria and Iran. In the end, the fight with Israel that Hizbullah provoked in 2006 brought massive and needless ruin.

Such strains would have tested any country, let alone a small one with a violent history, a population made up of 18 jealous religious minorities and a weak central state built on power-sharing between them. The wonder may be that Lebanon has held together at all, and even maintained a veneer of democracy. But this veneer has grown steadily thinner since the end of the 2006 war, which, aside from leaving 1,200 Lebanese dead and 100,000 homeless, also widened the central fissure in Lebanese politics.

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Carter and Legitimacy
April 18, 2008, 7:30 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Peace, Politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press

Under tight security, and perhaps greater scrutiny, former United States President Jimmy Carter today met with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Carter is on a nine-day tour of the Middle East, and has thus far visited Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. On Thursday, the former president met with Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam but the meeting took place in Egypt because Israel prohibited Carter from visiting the Gaza Strip.

According to Al-Jazeera’s Clayton Swisher

“Al Jazeera has learned, based on exclusive sources inside the Carter-Hamas talks, that a delegation of Hamas officials from the Gaza Strip, led by the Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar, is going to arrive in Damascus on Saturday to join the talks with President Carter and Hamas leadership”

The talks, which have drawn criticism from both the Israeli government and the Bush Administration, are aimed at brokering peace between Israel and its neighbors. Both governments argue that Carter’s trip will serve to legitimize a group that they are trying to isolate on the international arena. What really is the fear? Most Israeli’s support dialogue with Hamas and so it seems that Carter is doing exactly what is expected of him, mediating and brokering peace.

Craig Chamberlain writes in The Conservative Voice:

Jimmy Carter could have retired into quiet obscurity, and been forgotten, but the former President can’t stand the idea of being forgotten. Like a small child he must have attention even if it’s for doing bad things. And if he can’t get the adulation of the American people then he has determined that he will get it from America’s enemies. Instead he has waged his war of Propaganda against the United States, doing great harm to our nation and giving strength, aid and comfort to our enemies. I think I read somewhere that is the definition of treason.

How ridiculous. After the ‘war on terrorism’, the most parroted cliché in right wing American discourse is ‘aid and comfort to our enemies’. Every protest against the war in Iraq helps ‘our enemies’. Every court martial of a U.S. serviceman charged with committing a crime in Iraq helps ‘our enemies’. Indeed, it seems that anything not in line with right wing ideology aids and more importantly brings comfort to ‘our enemies’.

Specious to say the least.

On Friday, Israel’s housing ministry announced that it plans to build 100 more homes in two West Bank settlements. While settlements contravene international law, upwards of 400,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Seen from this perspective, the idea that Israel is committed to peace and to creating a Palestinian state is not only laughable, its dangerously naïve. Why the Bush Administration is adamant that Carter not have dialogue with Hamas, Israel extends the settlements, an action that makes the dream of a Palestinian statehood a more distant reality. Does Israel and the United States believe they will isolate Hamas by building more homes on Palestinian land?

Carter is not legitimizing Hamas. Israel is. By building more illegal settlements and proving Hamas’ position that Israel is not interested in a contiguous Palestinian state, they bring more and more popularity to Hamas. Consider that while Hamas has openly embraced Carter, the Israeli government boycotted Carter’s trip altogether.

Per usual, Al-Jazeera covers Carter’s meeting with al-Assad and Hamas with accuracy, brevity and clarity.