Sunday, September 30, 2007

Coward of the Week: Lee Bollinger

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger
Bollinger showed himself to be a spineless coward who cowed under pressure from critics he launched a rude and counterproductive "introduction" of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and undermined the "free speech" that he has said he supported. For someone who is a First Amendment lawyer Bollinger did little to push forward open discussion and instead made Ahmadinejad look gracious because of his reasoned reply.
Disagree with Ahmadinejad? So do I. However, instead of allowing for a dialogue Bollinger front loaded the lecture with invective. Bollinger also publicly agreed with unsubstantiated claims made by the Bush administration about alleged Iranian support of insurgents in Iraq. Although it is feasible that Iran is supporting its key ally, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, it is unlikely that they would simultaneously support the SIIC's rivals, namely Muqtada al-Sadr's rival Shi'i party and militia and the Sunni nationalist and Sunni Salafi insurgents.
Bollinger is also a hypocrite since he is more than happy to welcome other "petty dictators" to his university, such as Pakistan's Generalismo Pervez Musharraf and the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, the latter this past week.
The press comparisons of Ahmadinejad to Hitler are also inaccurate. Did Ahmadinejad murder 5.8 million Jews and 10 million others? No. Has he made outlandish statements about Israel and Zionism? Yes. Is Zionism the same as Judaism and vice verse. NO.
As much as Alan Dershowitz, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League want to convince us that anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Judaism, a rational examination of the facts quickly disprove this. One can be critical of Zionism or expressions of Zionism without having any problem with Judaism as a religion or a set of cultures. Case in point, many American Zionists are actually Evangelical Christians who want to help Jesus come back and many of Israel's most vocal critics are Jewish and/or Israeli and have done much work to burst the myths that were propagated early on in their country's history (see Avi Schlaim, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev, Baruch Kimmerling, and to a lesser extent Benny Morris and for American scholars see Norman G. Finkelstein, Joel Beinin, and Mark LeVine.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book Review: Reliving Karbala

RELIVING KARBALA: MARTYRDOM IN SOUTH ASIAN MEMORY. By Syed Akbar Hyder. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xi+261; illustrations. Cloth, $55.00, ISBN 978-0-19-518930-8.

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the majority of his companions on the barren desert plain of Karbala in 680 C.E. is the seminal historical event for tens of millions of Shi‘ī Muslims worldwide. However, Syed Akbar Hyder shows that the importance of the Karbala narrative and the symbolism of Imam Hussein’s death in a struggle for justice has also profoundly influenced non-Shi‘ī intellectuals throughout South Asia from Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Iqbal to a Sufi poets and Marxists. The first half of the book combines in-depth discussions of the role of the ‘Ashura communal gatherings commemorating Karbala (majālis) with an overview of the specific segments common to these gatherings with an historical primer of how the battle has been portrayed in South Asian Islamic religious literature. The adaptation of the Karbala mourning rituals by South Asian immigrants to the United States, particularly those from the Indian city of Hyderabad. The second half of the book provides both incisive literary analysis South Asian Sufī literature, particularly lyrical poetry, and written interpretations of the Karbala events by Sunni, secular, and non-Muslim South Asian writers and intellectuals including Muhammad Iqbal and Mahatma Gandhi. The book, which makes meticulous use of Urdu primary sources, is a valuable addition to the slim collection of works in English concerning the Karbala events. Geared toward an academic audience it is well suited to being used in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses on Islamic religious literature, South Asian literature, and Shi‘ism.

Christopher Anzalone
Indiana University, Bloomington

[Critical Review Note to be published in a future issue of Religious Studies Review]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

100,000 Protest in Burma Despite Threats from the Military Junta

Tens of thousands of Burmese defied warnings by the military junta, and staged another day of marches in cities across the country. In Rangoon, monks led the way from the revered Shwedagon Pagoda, which has become a focal point of the growing protests.

They have been joined by large numbers of students and supporters who until Monday had stood on the sidelines cheering the monks.

Along with Buddhist flags, some marchers carried flags bearing the image of a fighting peacock, which was used by students in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The protesters took to the streets again today even though the junta warned it would "take action" after some 100,000 people marched on Monday. The international community fear a repeat of 1988, when government troops brutally suppressed a popular uprising, killing some 3,000 people.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Reviews: New Books on/by Sayyid Qutb

The Power of Sovereignty: The Political and Ideological Philosophy of Sayyid Qutb. By Sayed Khatab. New York: Routledge 2006. Pp. 298. ISBN 041537250 (HB).

Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview. By Sayyid Qutb. Translated by Rami David. North Haledon, NJ: Islamic Publications International 2006. Pp. 230.
ISBN 1889999342 (PB).

Egyptian Muslim intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) has had a profound impact on the development of a myriad of different Islamic movements which represent a wide array of ideological views. His argument for a political and social revival of Islam in order to reform a corrupt society has influenced the ideological platforms of groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt came to eschew violence, to militant jihadī groups. Qutb was imprisoned numerous times and finally executed in 1966 because he was deemed to be a significant threat to the government of pan-Arabist champion Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, the head of the revolutionary Free Officers movement which overthrew Egypt’s King Faruq in 1952. Although his life was cut short prematurely Qutb left behind reams of writings which continue to play an influential role throughout the Muslim world.

Sayed Khatab, a researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, has produced a substantial analysis of Qutb’s theory of hakimiyyah (sovereignty) suitable for graduate students and how it interacted with other aspects of his religious and political thought. At its heart, the concept of hakimiyyah in Qutb’s thought revolves around the ultimate sovereignty of God which Qutb believed should be implemented through a constitutional government that would implement Shari‘ah. It is the duty of all humankind to submit (‘ubudiyyah) to God’s sovereignty. According to Qutb, Islam is both a religious and political system. The religion is also comprehensive in scope and is not limited to a specific historical period, region, or society.

Qutb believed that a true Islamic governmental system is the only such system which would be free from the influences of “human desires, weaknesses, and self-interests” (p. 171.). In an Islamic system, God would be the ultimate sovereign and lawgiver through the revelations in the Qur’an. An Islamic government would derive its legitimacy from the implementation of Shari‘ah, God’s law. Qutb believed that the inherent problem with democracy was that unlike an Islamic system it was manmade and thusly inferior.

In recent years Qutb has become a favorite and frequent target for policy wonk think-tank analysts and even some academics, such as Natana J. Delong-Bas in her book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford University Press, 2004) seeking to discover the “roots” of modern Islamic militancy. The reduction of the rise of Muslim revivalist movements, including some which are militant, is overly simplistic and Khatab provides incisive critiques of such approaches. Both Qutb and Egypt’s Islamist movements agree upon hakimiyyah, the necessity of the implementation of Shari‘ah, and the importance of religious education. However, their religious outlooks were drawn from the writings of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, and al-Shawkanī rather than Qutb’s.

Many of Qutb’s most influential publications have been translated into English including his Qur’anic exegesis In the Shade of the Qur’an, Milestones, and Social Justice in Islam. University of California, Berkeley professor of Persian and Islamic studies Hamid Algar, who substantially edited a translation of the latter, has also supervised latest translation of Qutb’s work, Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview, which is a welcome addition to the translated corpus. His introduction to the text frames Qutb’s religious worldview and briefly addresses the targeting of him by journalists and scholars alike as the “godfather” of terrorism.

Basic Principles, which is based on the ninth official Arabic edition of Qutb’s Khasa’is al-Tasawwur al-Islamī wa Muqawwimatuhu, provides a useful and comprehensive overview of Qutb’s religious thought. Framing the essentials of Islam as he saw them, such as the comprehensive, stabilizing authority of the one undivided God and the problems inherent with other religious traditions such as Christianity and Judaism Basic Principles provides readers with an essential primer of Qutb’s theological arguments. This in turn illuminates concepts and themes which appear frequently in Qutb’s better-known publications including Milestones and Social Justice in Islam and is thus a useful companion to these works.

[Originally published in The Muslim World Book Review, Volume 27, Issue 4; Summer 2007]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Buddhist Monks March to Protest Myanmar/Burma's Authoritarian Military Government

Buddhist monks in Myanmar have staged a series of protests against the country's military government. The protests were sparked by a sudden hike in the price of fuel on August 19. but after scores of pro-democracy activists were arrested, monks have taken up the civil-disobedience campaign.
The monks' protests have not chanted anti-government slogans or carried anti-government banners, but the symbolism of their marches has gained widespread support. Monks are universally revered by Myanmar's majority Buddhist population, and their involvement in anti-government protests poses a major challenge to the military rulers.
Witnesses say crowds of onlookers have formed human chains to prevent authorities from disrupting the monks' marches. Many monks have said they will refuse to accept alms from members of the military of their families – a move considered a major snub in [Burmese] Buddhist culture.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Federal Prosecutors Investigating Blackwater for Weapons Smuggling into Iraq

The News and Observer newspaper in North Carolina reports that U.S. federal prosecutors are investigating whether private U.S. security "contractor" firm Blackwater, which currently has thousands of armed mercenaries in Iraq under contract by the U.S. government and private companies, smuggled automatic weapons illegally into Iraq which have been sold on the black market. Two former Blackwater employees who pled guilty to stealing company property in Iraq are reportedly cooperating with federal investigators.
In July the Turkish government made a formal complaint to the U.S. government that it had captured American weapons from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the major separatist group involved in terrorist attacks in eastern Turkey.
After initially denying knowledge of any federal investigation Blackwater today denied allegations that its employees were involved in weapons smuggling into Iraq.
News and Observer article on Federal Investigation of Blackwater
Reuters (U.K.) article on Blackwater Denial

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Greenspan Writes in His New Book that the Iraq War was 'Largely About Oil'

"The Iraq war is largely about oil. I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows." writes former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, 81, in his new book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. "Whatever their publicized angst over Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction,' American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in an area that harbors a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy."

Greenspan clarified his remarks in an interview with The Washington Post: "I was not saying that that's the administration's motive. I'm just saying that if somebody asked me, 'Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?,' I would say it was essential....I have never heard them basically say, 'We've got to protect the oil supplies of the world,' but that would have been my motive."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ramadan in Southern Iraq

Iraqi Shia men attend prayers of the holy month of Ramadan at the shrine of Imam al-Hussein in Karbala [EPA]

Monday, September 17, 2007

Iraqi Government Bans Blackwater

The Iraqi Ministry of Interior has cancelled the license of the North Carolina-based security/paramilitary-mercenary firm Blackwater after several of its employees allegedly opened fire randomly after coming under attack by Iraqi guerillas on Sunday in Baghdad left 8 civilians dead. All Blackwater employees have been told to leave the country except for those involved in Sunday's attack who will stand trial in Iraq, according to an Iraqi government spokesman.
A U.S. military census report released in December 2006 noted that there were then over 25,000 military "contractors"/mercenaries operating in Iraq. Blackwater is responsible for security of U.S. Department of State officials (pictured here with former U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer) and even guards convoys and U.S. military installations. Critics of military contractors say that they are under-trained, are not governed by rules of engagement, and do not have to answer to anyone, even the U.S. military, except their employer. Security contractors are often misleadingly referred to as "civilian contractors" when they are engaged in fighting or killed in Iraq. In reality they are serving as mercenaries.

The Washington Post U.S. Military Census Report article:
Blackwater Banned (BBC Interactive article)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Key Sunni Tribal Shaykh and U.S. Ally Assassinated in Iraq

'Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, 37, a prominent Sunni Arab tribal leader in al-Anbar Province in western Iraq, was assassinated with his three bodyguards by a powerful roadside bomb placed near his home in the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq) had sought to kill Abu Risha since the formation of a tribal coalition, the Iraq Council of the Awakening, in al-Anbar which sought to resist attempts by al-Qa'ida to establish bases of control in the province.
Thousands of mourners at Abu Risha's funeral chanted angrily, "Revenge, revenge on al-Qa'ida! There is no deity/god but God and al-Qa'ida is the enemy of God! 'Abd al-Sattar is the pride of Ramadi!"
"We blame Al-Qaeda and we are going to continue our fight and avenge his death," said Shaykh Ahmad Abu Risha, 'Abd al-Sattar's brother and successor.
Abu Risha's father and two of his other brothers were killed by al-Qa'ida in Iraq before the formation of the tribal coalition in September 2006. Abu Risha met with American military commanders and U.S. President George W. Bush seeking to form an operational alliance against al-Qa'ida. The shaykh however defined the tribal coalition's goals as the salvation of Iraq and retaliation for brutal attempts by al-Qa'ida in towns across al-Anbar and not U.S. interests. The al-Anbari tribal militias significantly reduced violence and inflicted severe defeats on al-Qa'ida throughout the province.
"We did not support the US forces or anyone else. We fought on behalf of our people and defeated al-Qa'ida," said Abu Risha. "We came to save Iraq from deaths, terrorism, and ruin. We will continue to defend Iraq and we will continue to raise the flag of Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest), and we will enter Baghdad. We are not interested in the post of minister, prime minister, or president of the republic."
BBC Profile of 'Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha
Al-Jazeera English News Sketch of 'Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha

Friday, September 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Edward W. Said (1935-2003)

Edward W. Said
University Professor of English & Comparative Literature,
Columbia University
(November 1935-September 2003)

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Cairo the late Palestinian-Christian Professor Edward W. Said was one of the most influential public intellectuals of the 20th century. A tireless advocate for the Palestinian people he was critical of U.S., Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian National Authority policies. Considered a founder of the new field of post-colonial theory and studies Said remains a seminal figure within the academe and Middle Eastern studies.

He died at age 67 of cancer. He will be sorely missed.

"...One could commence by saying quite simply that if Edward's personality had been the human and moral pattern or example, there would be no "Middle East" problem to begin with...

"His feeling for the injustice done to Palestine was, in the best sense of this overused term, a visceral one. He simply could not reconcile himself to the dispossession of a people or to the lies and evasions that were used to cover up this offense. He was by no means simple-minded or one-sided about this: In a public dialogue with Salman Rushdie 15 years ago, he described the Palestinians as 'victims of the victims,' an ironic formulation that hasn't been improved upon."

-Christopher Hitchens in Slate (September 26, 2003)


"Memory, Inequality, and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights" (February 19, 2003 @ Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California-Berkeley)

Essential Said:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jesus Street

"Jesus Street," Thula, Yemen


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Zabid, Yemen: Visions of the Past

Calligraphy inside the Iskandariyya Mosque in Zabid, Yemen, which dates back to the 14th and 16th centuries in its present construction.
Cityscape of Bayt al-Faqih, once a center of Medieval Islamic religious and scientific scholarship.

Mosque in Zabid.
Inside the fortress in Bayt al-Faqih near Zabid.

A remnant of Zabid's Arab Jewish history.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Grand Exalted Leader: "Na'am (Yes) to al-Ra'is (President) Saleh"

The Grand Exalted Leader: 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh, President of the Arab Republic of Yemen & Patronage Friend of Tribal Shaykhs.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

No End in Sight

Old City, Sana'a, Yemen

Bab al-Yemen, the main gateway into the Old City of Sana'a, Yemen which leads to Souq al-Mileh, a large market district in the Old City.

Souq al-Milleh

Yemeni straw hats

Friday, September 07, 2007

The 'Martyr' Saddam Hussein

Two posters of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on a wall in the Old City of Sana'a, capital of the Republic of Yemen. Saddam is incredibly popular largely because of the controversial (and poorly carried out) way in which he was executed by the Shi'i and Kurdish-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the large Shi'i Arab political party Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyya (Party of Islamic Call); da'wa refers to the "call" to Islam or missionary activities. This party is amply covered in the work of Faleh Jabar.

Rightly or wrongly Saddam has become a symbol of resistance to U.S. government policies in the Middle East and against the Iraqi government which is seem by many Yemenis and Arabs to be a puppet of the U.S. government. The ineptness of the Iraqi government has not helped matters.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

'Amiriyya Madrasah in Rada, Yemen (16th Century)

The 'Amiriya Madrasa in Rada, one of the largest monuments in Yemen, was commissioned by Sultan 'Amir bin abd al-Wahab of the Tahirid Dynasty. All in all, the 'Amiriya is the most flamboyantly ornate monument in the Yemen, a profusion of domes, arches, and niches on the outside, and a decorated delight on the inside, with superb carved stucco patterns and inscriptions and extraordinary painted frescoes whose colors were still vibrant, even after 500 years of neglect.

The physical restoration of the building has now been completed, its infrastructure services have been upgraded, a site museum has been installed on the ground floor, the carved stucco decoration in the prayer hall has been cleaned, and the mural paintings inside the prayer hall's six domes have been conserved by the Italian firm CCA.....During the restoration work it was decided that the Amiriya was probably founded as a palace, be it one with a very large and ornate prayer hall. Subsequently used, after a period of abandonment, as madrasa, the restored Amiriya now takes its place in Yemen's cultural patrimony as a palace-museum.

Funding for the restoration stage of the project came from the the Dutch and Yemeni governments, the latter through the General Organization for Antiquities and Museums.