Sunday, August 31, 2008

Colbert on Sarah Palin



Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Kufiyyah: Iconic Symbol of Palestine for Some, Grows in Popularity Outside the Middle East

Iconic Palestinian Headscarf Outgrows Mideast Conflict

By Joseph Krauss
Agence France-Presse [August 29, 2008]

Anti-war activists and fashionistas have carried the iconic Palestinian keffiyeh across the globe, but in the West Bank producers of the headscarf are struggling to compete with Chinese imports.

The black-and-white checkered scarf -- which became an international symbol of the Palestinian struggle when Yasser Arafat first sported it in the 1960s -- has since grown into a global phenomenon more and more disconnected from the land and the struggle in which it was born.

The keffiyeh has become standard garb for anti-war activists across the globe and a chic accessory for urban hipsters -- a vaguely subversive, vaguely exotic all-weather neck warmer.

But for Yasser al-Hirbawi, the owner of a keffiyeh factory in the southern West Bank town of Hebron, the growing demand has brought increased competition from Chinese manufacturers which are capturing local markets.

"Before they started importing from China we had 15 machines running 20 hours a day. Now we only use four, and we only work eight hours," Hirbawi says above the roar of the looms inside a dark, mostly unused warehouse.

When the 75-year-old started his factory in 1961 the keffiyeh was not yet a political symbol but a normal part of local dress.

"This is our national dress. You don't see them much now in the summer, but in the winter everyone wears them because it keeps the cold out," Hirbawi says, pulling the corner of his loose-hanging keffiyeh across his face.

He wears the scarf with an ankle-length grey robe, a tweed sportscoat, and brown sandals, the standard outfit of Palestinian men of his generation.

But since China's rise in the 1990s, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, like much of the rest of the world, has been flooded with mass-produced goods.

And in the global fervour that followed the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising foreign manufacturers were much better placed to benefit from the increased demand than merchants like Hirbawi, who does not export.

"Today the customers, especially the foreigners, prefer the imports. God only knows why," he says as he pinches tobacco from an old silver case and rolls a cigarette. "They should buy from us and support the local industry."

Hirbawi, who sells his scarves for less than five dollars (3.5 euros), was not aware that Urban Outfitters, a trendy clothing chain in the United States was, until January 2007, selling keffiyehs there for four times as much.

In a nod to the headscarf's growing popularity with activists the chain had marketed them as "anti-war woven scarves" until it was forced to pull the product and issue a public apology amid complaints from pro-Israel advocates.

In May of this year a similar controversy ensued when the US television chef Rachel Ray wore a checkered scarf that resembled a keffiyeh in a commercial for the Dunkin' Donuts food chain.

The right-wing American columnist [Harpy] Michelle Malkin slammed the ad, accusing it of promoting "jihadi chic" and "hate couture" by ignoring the keffiyeh's "violent symbolism and anti-Israel overtones." [Many pointed out that Ray's scarf was not a keffiyeh, but a paisley scarf which, at most, resembled a keffiyeh.]

Harbawi chuckles when asked if the keffiyeh is a symbol of terrorism or even the Palestinian armed struggle. "In Italy you see women wearing keffiyehs around their necks. Are those people terrorists?"

In Hebron's Old City merchants hawk multi-coloured keffiyehs, Palestinian flags, Armenian ceramics, and other souvenirs to tourists on their way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi mosque.

The mosque-synagogue complex houses the tombs of the biblical patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and has transformed the millennia-old town into a major flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Around 800 radical right-wing Jewish settlers guarded by hundreds of Israeli troops live in the heart of the town of 150,000 Palestinians in a bitter standoff that frequently turns violent.

The Old City has become a popular destination for pro-Palestinian activists and alternative tours aimed at raising awareness of the Israeli occupation, with the merchants of its narrow streets easily mixing commerce and advocacy.

"We sell only local products," Jamal Maraqa, 47, says as he gestures to a stack of pastel-coloured keffiyehs from Hirbawi's factory. "We buy from Hirbawi because he makes all these colours. The foreigners love them."

Maraqa doesn't deny that there are political associations behind the keffiyeh, but he too brushes off the idea they are a symbol of violence.

"It is a symbol of Palestine and of Chairman Arafat, but not of terrorism. (The Israelis) came here and made problems for us, and all we are doing is defending our rights," he says, gesturing at the settlements above his shop.

Wire fencing hangs over the ancient, narrow street like an awning, placed there to catch trash and rocks hurled down at the merchants by the settlers on the second floor. In many places the wire is weighed down with piles of refuse.

Even here most Palestinians, including the politically active, have cast off the traditional keffiyeh in favour of a more modern look.

"The young guys prefer to wear hair gel," Jihad Abu Rumilah, another merchant says.

Across the street Mohammed al-Muatasab crouches outside a shop, his worn, wide-eyed face framed by a black and white keffiyeh. It's a look he perfected before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever came into being.

"I am 90 years old and I have been wearing a keffiyeh my entire life," he says. "It's part of my head."

SEE ALSO, "Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics," The New York Times; 11 February 2007

Friday, August 29, 2008

Inside East Turkistan, China's Occupied Xinjiang Province

As with Tibet and other areas of modern-day China (the state), East Turkistan was occupied by the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong. The Chinese have moved Han settlers into the region (as in Tibet) and are busy constructing monuments to support a fictional history of Han domination (official Chinese historiography), in order to strengthen Han roots in the occupied regions. This documentary is an interesting look inside East Turkistan, home of several Turkic Muslim groups, including the Uyghurs. There is an error in it: the signs are not "in Arabic" as the reporter claims; they are in Uyghur, a Turkic language which uses Perso-Arabic script. The grammar is quite Turkic in form.

Al-Jazeera, 'Red' America, & the Democratic Convention

Live, From Golden, Colo., It's Al-Jazeera

By Dana Milbank
The Washington Post [August 28, 2008]

The Obama-Clinton feud at the Democratic National Convention? Well, yes, but that's happening 13 miles to the east of here, in Denver. The fight in Golden is between the townsfolk of this quaint Western hamlet and al-Jazeera English, which is trying to broadcast from here during the convention.

It started innocently enough: Qatar-based al-Jazeera decided it would film the locals in Golden, the home of Coors beer, as they watched the convention from a biker bar Wednesday night. This would allow al-Jazeera's viewers to see Bill Clinton and Joe Biden through the eyes of those in a small American town that could pass as a set for a Hollywood Western.

City leaders at first offered to host a pork-free barbecue for the Jazeera crew, then abandoned that plan when angry residents protested. But the Buffalo Rose, a 150-year-old saloon here catering to bikers, offered to let al-Jazeera broadcast from its bar.

The result: a sort of 21st-century shootout at the O.K. Corral on Wednesday night under the shadow of Lookout Mountain, where Buffalo Bill is buried.

Word spread that three rival biker gangs -- the Sons of Silence, the Banditos and the Hell's Angels -- declared a truce for the night so they could meet at the Buffalo Rose in a united protest against al-Jazeera. But the network stood its ground and set up its cameras.

Across the street from the bar, two dozen protesters under the watchful eye of a statue of Adolph Coors waved American flags, blew air horns and revved motorcycle engines. "Al Jazeera is terrorism," announced one sign. "Go home, Al Jazeera -- Voices for al Qaeda and bin Laden," proclaimed another. The protesters had shirts printed up for the occasion, saying "Buffalo Rose/Tokyo Rose" in English and Arabic, although they botched the Arabic translation.

One biker covered his T-shirt in thoughtful, handwritten messages, such as "Islam Sucks" and "Al-Jazeera: Anti-American Pond Scum."

"Al-Jazeera is the No. 1 propaganda machine for the enemies we fight," growled Mick Woodworth, a Navy veteran of the Iraq war. "They support terrorism," he said, and the mostly American al-Jazeera crew in Golden "are traitors to the United States of America."

Across the street, a smaller group of Golden residents lined up in a counterprotest. A bunch of right-wing fanatics, grumbled one. Buffalo Rose owner Murray Martinez, a biker himself with long hair and a chin beard, folded his arms across his chest. "They think I'm bringing in terrorists to launch a jihad in the little town of Golden," he scoffed.

The Golden police manned the rooftops around the bar. Inside the bar, the al-Jazeera crew sat idly while the overhead television flashed scenes of the Democratic convention, where Barack Obama was being nominated for president by acclamation. Nobody was watching.

The regulars at Buffalo Rose took the Qatari invasion, and the demonstration, in stride. "Al-Jazeera? Is he here? Where is he?" inquired Travis Henry, sipping a Bud Light.

Golden, a gold-rush town of 18,000, was a too-good-to-be-true locale for al-Jazeera. Across the main drag in town is an arch announcing: "Howdy Folks!" The smell of brewing beer is in the air, and a large sculpture of a buffalo stands outside the Buffalo Rose.

The leader of this would-be terrorist cell: al-Jazeera's Josh Rushing, a Texas-born Marine veteran who wears blue jeans and cowboy boots. "I guess you could call it a mild jihad for the truth," said Rushing, sipping a latte. Wearily, he added, "This isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened."

Al-Jazeera, like Fox News, bills itself as a straight-news outlet, but others, including the Bush administration, accuse it of an anti-American bias; it also seems to have first dibs on all of Osama bin Laden's videotapes when al-Qaeda chooses to release them.

City Manager Mike Bestor, before he rescinded his barbecue offer, called the al-Jazeera visit a way to "show Arab viewers what Americans are like." For better or worse, Golden seems to be doing just that.

Townsfolk raised such objections at last week's city council meeting that the city manager rescinded the barbecue offer, but others rushed to the network's defense, including Steve Stevens, who wrote to a local e-mail list offering to host the al-Jazeera barbecue: "My home is (1) a zero carbon home; (2) a Museum of Net Zero Carbon Transportation; (3) a Victorian Bicycle Museum . . . I will cook the Bar-B-Que in the 2 Solar Ovens."

"I'm welcoming to any international visitors coming to visit us in peace," explained Stevens, wearing Uncle Sam attire and riding one of his Victorian bicycles outside of Buffalo Rose.

But that wasn't the majority view Wednesday night in downtown Golden.

Inside the Buffalo Rose, the Al-Jazeera crew was filming the locals watching Bill Clinton's convention speech. Outside, Woodworth, the Navy veteran, circled the block in a pickup truck, honking the horn and trailing an American flag.

A man with dark skin drove by and looked curiously at the fracas. "Go back to your own country," a biker shouted at him.

Buffalo Rose owner Martinez, who said he received death threats for hosting Al-Jazeera, responded by tacking the First Amendment to a pillar outside the bar and directing his staff to wear the "Buffalo Rose/Tokyo Rose" T-shirts the protesters made.

"They're doing it strictly on emotion," he said as he watched the flag-wavers across the street. "They only support the First Amendment for people who see things their way." Martinez said something else, but a protester's air horn drowned out the words.

COMMENT: Apparently, it's true: Some people are just ignorant bigots who are satisfied with being both.

Some readers may recognize Josh Rushing as the likable U.S. Marine Corps captain in the excellent documentary
Control Room, which chronicles Al-Jazeera's initial reporting on the U.S. and British-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Rushing has since retired from the Marines and now works as a correspondent for Al-Jazeera English.

YouTube: The New Frontier of Politics & Political News

YouTube has fast become one of my primary resources for political news and commentary. Below are some of the best channels, in my view. Please note, most of the channels are centrist to left-of-center, as this is generally how I affiliate politically (except on some social issues, on which I affiliate slightly right-of-center.)

(1) CSPANJUNKIEdotORG (over 2500 videos uploaded; News & Political)

(2) (over 760 videos uploaded; News & Political)

(3) topnewsmakers (over 325 videos uploaded; News & Political)

(4) Veracifier* "TOP CHOICE" (over 1280 videos uploaded; News & Political and First-hand reporting)


(1) Al-Jazeera Television

(2) Al-Jazeera English Television

(3) journeymanpictures (Documentaries, global scope)

(4) pdxjustice (Progressive, liberal lectures by authors, politicians, academics, and activists)

(5) University of California TV (Variety of programs, interviews and discussions, including the excellent series "Conversations with History")

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Greening of Islamic Politics

A mosque stands alone amongst the ruins of the tsunami in a district of Banda Aceh, Aceh province, in western Indonesia.

The Greening of Islamic Politics

By Saleem H. Ali & Haris N. Hidayat
Policy Innovations, Carnegie Council [August 11, 2008]

As the host of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2007, Indonesia welcomed the world to the idyllic island of Bali as a venue to reach agreement on one of the most challenging environmental issues. Several years prior, the island had been the scene of the worst series of terrorist bombings in the region, killing more than two hundred people. These attacks, which were carried out by Muslim militants, further stigmatized and marginalized Islamic political parties in the international community.

In particular, Indonesia's pesantren (religious boarding schools) came under great scrutiny due to their perceived connections to some of the Bali bombers. Even U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama felt obliged to distance himself from his childhood days in Indonesia because of a rumor that he had attended a pesantren, since both his father and stepfather were Muslim. Yet a closer analysis of the political scene in this sprawling country of more than 17,500 islands shows that Islamist political institutions are making a remarkably green comeback that might appear progressive even to many Western politicians.

National Awakening?

Veteran Islamic politician Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) recently established the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) or National Awakening Party, which has a powerful environmental message and is calling itself the country's "Green Party." The slogan was officially launched just before the climate change meeting in Bali at a ceremony at which many Muslim activists joined forces with environmental campaigners. Specific nongovernmental organizations that have been most strident on environmental issues, such as Greenpeace, were invited by the PKB to attend the event. Beyond the branding and rhetoric, the PKB has a clear strategy to improve Indonesia's environmental performance.

The party has proposed to amend the Indonesian constitution to make the right to a clean environment a fundamental human right and to strengthen national laws on pollution, forestry, and land access.

Accordingly, the political agenda of the PKB includes encouraging the establishment of a moratorium on logging and forest restoration within a period of ten years, and pressuring the government and the House of Representatives to conduct eco-friendly budgeting in the state's policies. No doubt such stances will be politically controversial, but coming from the PKB they are considered more grassroots. The party also hopes to accelerate a slew of environmental legislation ranging from mining to maritime management. In addition, the PKB is establishing an environmentalist Islamic boarding school and a program of energy diversification in the schools through a "pesantren biogas management project."

The enunciation of environmentalism is thus quite explicit among Islamic politicians who recognize that their rural base relies on environmental resources. The onslaught of repeated natural disasters on the archipelago has also heightened this awareness, which blends with a religious sense of divine retribution for environmental harms.

"Environment-oriented political ethics are part of a collective effort to implement a new ecological philosophy that is knowledge-based while being predicated in spirituality," said prominent young party member Muhammad Lukman Edy in a public address in November 2007. "It is not difficult for PKB to achieve this, since the party also represents the politics of the Islamic scholars. The creation of a philosophical foundation and spiritual values for the party's environment-oriented political ethics is thus very realistic." (translated by coauthor Haris Hidayat).

Nuclear Nemesis

Another remarkable manifestation of the greening of political Islam in Indonesia has been the fatwa (religious edict) issued by some notable Islamic clerics in Java against nuclear power. Much to the surprise of Western political pundits, several clerics declared recently that nuclear weapons are inherently un-Islamic and that even nuclear energy must be avoided because of its potential for abuse. Several Islamist parties are thus opposing the development of the Muria nuclear power plant in the Jepara district of Central Java, and have called it haram (forbidden).

Declaring the power station haram did not solely emerge from the ulamas' (scholars) distrust of the government, nor was it simply a case of political expediency. Rather, it was based on the logic of Islamic law (fiqh). The benefits and harms of the project were the main concern of the scholars in issuing this fatwa, and they made an attempt to consolidate their normative doctrines and regulations with empirical social aspects so that the fatwa could provide an answer to public concerns about the project.

Clearly there is some disagreement on the matter within theological ranks, since Muslim leaders had previously supported nuclear energy as a mark of power and prestige. Ma'ruf Amin, the head of the Islamic Teaching Commission in the ultraconservative Indonesian Ulemas Council, responded to the fatwa by urging caution about hastily declaring external issues as forbidden.

The PKB stands firm in both its opposition to nuclear energy and its alliance with environmentalists, while making its priorities as a religious party clearer for its constituents. Muhaimin Iskandar, a former National Chairman of the PKB National Representative Council, stated in a recent interview that becoming an environmentalist party did not mean that the PKB would denounce its characteristics as a religious nationalist party. Rather, the declaration to be green, as manifest in actions such as nuclear opposition, marks a new focus for the party.

An Unfinished Agenda for Development

The greater political freedom that Indonesia has achieved in recent years does not necessarily equate to an improvement of the consciousness and commitment of all the political elite toward environmental conservation. For instance, only 9 out of 24 political parties in the 2004 general election had environmental visions in their platforms. These parties, some of them Islamic, were expected to follow through on their commitments by improving the poor organization of Indonesia's environmental conservation by tying it to development.

For example, PK-Sejahtera party representative S. H. Suripto has commented on the importance of balancing the material and spiritual aspects of the developmental paradigm, as a means of keeping mankind on a pure path as stewards here on earth. Despite such positive statements, observers of the development of environmentalism in Indonesia, such as Emil Salim, the first environment minister of the country and a Berkeley-educated economist, are still cautious in their optimism about the greening of political Islam. Now in his late seventies, Dr. Salim reminisced on how thirty years ago, upon his appointment as Minister of State for Development and Environment, he had first visited the notable Islamic scholar Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (known also as Buya Hamka) to seek guidance. The scholar told him clearly that "Islam is an environmental faith." The political parties have thus been a step behind some of the scholars on this matter. Perhaps they are finally catching up.

In his latest book, The Creation, eminent ecologist E. O. Wilson writes an open letter to world religious leaders in which he urges theologians to unite on environmental causes: "The defense of living Nature is a universal value. It doesn't rise from nor does it promote any religious or ideological dogma. Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity." It seems as though Wilson's plea is at least being heard in Indonesia—one of the world's highest biodiversity regions.

For centuries, Muslims considered Indonesia to be Islam's most distant outpost—the furthest east that the message from Arabia had traveled and endured. Yet this diffuse country with multiple identities is leading the way in the greening of Islamic politics. Perhaps the contentious clash of civilizations that is so often foretold by conservative politicians can be averted by some simple acts of collective conservation.

The New Israel and the Old: Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State

The recent book by American Christian apocalyptic fundamentalist preacher John Hagee, a backer of Senator John McCain for president, who called Hitler the "great hunter" sent by God to force the Jews to form the state of Israel in fulfillment of "Biblical" (Hagee's) prophecies. McCain backer Joseph Lieberman waved off Hagee's comments, which apparently aren't as anti-Semitic as say, a fairly balanced book by former president Jimmy Carter.

The New Israel and the Old: Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State

By Walter Russell Mead

Foreign Affairs [July/August 2008]

On May 12, 1948, Clark Clifford, the White House chief counsel, presented the case for U.S. recognition of the state of Israel to the divided cabinet of President Harry Truman. While a glowering George Marshall, the secretary of state, and a skeptical Robert Lovett, Marshall's undersecretary, looked on, Clifford argued that recognizing the Jewish state would be an act of humanity that comported with traditional American values. To substantiate the Jewish territorial claim, Clifford quoted the Book of Deuteronomy: "Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them."

Marshall was not convinced and told Truman that he would vote against him in the upcoming election if this was his policy. Eventually, Marshall agreed not to make his opposition public. Two days later, the United States granted the new Jewish state de facto recognition 11 minutes after Israel declared its existence as a state. Many observers, both foreign and domestic, attributed Truman's decision to the power of the Jewish community in the United States. They saw Jewish votes, media influence, and campaign contributions as crucial in the tight 1948 presidential contest.

Since then, this pattern has often been repeated. Respected U.S. foreign policy experts call for Washington to be cautious in the Middle East and warn presidents that too much support for Israel will carry serious international costs. When presidents overrule their expert advisers and take a pro-Israel position, observers attribute the move to the "Israel lobby" and credit (or blame) it for swaying the chief executive. But there is another factor to consider. As the Truman biographer David McCullough has written, Truman's support for the Jewish state was "wildly popular" throughout the United States. A Gallup poll in June 1948 showed that almost three times as many Americans "sympathized with the Jews" as "sympathized with the Arabs." That support was no flash in the pan. Widespread gentile support for Israel is one of the most potent political forces in U.S. foreign policy, and in the last 60 years, there has never been a Gallup poll showing more Americans sympathizing with the Arabs or the Palestinians than with the Israelis.

Over time, moreover, the pro-Israel sentiment in the United States has increased, especially among non-Jews. The years of the George W. Bush administration have seen support for Israel in U.S. public opinion reach the highest level ever, and it has remained there throughout Bush's two terms. The increase has occurred even as the demographic importance of Jews has diminished. In 1948, Jews constituted an estimated 3.8 percent of the U.S. population. Assuming that almost every American Jew favored a pro-Israel foreign policy that year, a little more than ten percent of U.S. supporters of Israel were of Jewish origin. By 2007, Jews were only 1.8 percent of the population of the United States, accounting at most for three percent of Israel's supporters in the United States.

These figures, dramatic as they are, also probably underestimate the true level of public support for Israel. When in a poll in 2006 the Pew Research Center asked whether U.S. policy in the Middle East was fair, favored Israel, or favored the Palestinians, 47 percent of the respondents said they thought the policy was fair, six percent said it favored the Palestinians, and only 27 percent thought it favored the Israelis. The poll was conducted during Israel's attacks against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, when U.S. support for Israel was even more controversial than usual around the world. One must therefore conclude that many of those who tell pollsters that the United States' policies are fair to both sides actually favor policies that most non-U.S. observers would consider strongly and even irresponsibly pro-Israel. The American public has few foreign policy preferences that are this marked, this deep, this enduring -- and this much at odds with public opinion in other countries.

In the United States, a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals. Like the war on drugs and the fence along the Mexican border, support for Israel is a U.S. foreign policy that makes some experts and specialists uneasy but commands broad public support. This does not mean that an "Israel lobby" does not exist or does not help shape U.S. policy in the Middle East. Nor does it mean that Americans ought to feel as they do. (It remains my view that everyone, Americans and Israelis included, would benefit if Americans developed a more sympathetic and comprehensive understanding of the wants and needs of the Palestinians.) But it does mean that the ultimate sources of the United States' Middle East policy lie outside the Beltway and outside the Jewish community. To understand why U.S. policy is pro-Israel rather than neutral or pro-Palestinian, one must study the sources of nonelite, non-Jewish support for the Jewish state.


WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jihadis in the Hood

Jihadis in the Hood: Race, Urban Islam and the War on Terror

By Hisham Aidi
Middle East Report, Issue 224 [Fall 2002]

In his classic novel Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed satirizes white America's age-old anxiety about the "infectiousness" of black culture with "Jus Grew," an indefinable, irresistible carrier of "soul" and "blackness" that spreads like a virus contaminating everyone in its wake from New Orleans to New York. Reed suggests that the source of the Jus Grew scourge is a sacred text, which is finally located and destroyed by Abdul Sufi Hamid, "the Brother on the Street." In a turn of events reminiscent of Reed's storyline, commentators are advancing theories warning of a dangerous epidemic spreading through our inner cities today, infecting misguided, disaffected minority youth and turning them into anti-American terrorists. This time, though, the pathogen is Islam, more specifically an insidious mix of radical Islam and black militancy.

Since the capture of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County "black nationalist"-turned-Taliban,(1) and the arrest of would-be terrorist José Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican ex-gang member who encountered Islam while in prison, terrorism experts and columnists have been warning of the "Islamic threat" in the American underclass, and alerting the public that the ghetto and the prison system could very well supply a fifth column to Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Writing in The Daily News, black social critic Stanley Crouch reminded us that in 1986, the powerful Chicago street gang al-Rukn -- known in the 1970s as the Blackstone Rangers -- was arrested en masse for receiving $2.5 million from Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi to commit terrorist acts in the US. "We have to realize there is another theater in this unprecedented war, one headquartered in our jails and prisons," Crouch cautioned.

Chuck Colson of the evangelical American Christian Mission, which ministers to inmates around the country, penned a widely circulated article in the Wall Street Journal charging that "al-Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be 'disenchanted with their country's policies'... As US citizens, they will combine a desire for 'payback' with an ability to blend easily into American culture." Moreover, he wrote, "Saudi money has been funneled into the American Muslim Foundation, which supports prison programs," reiterating that America's "alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad."(2)

Since September 11, more than a few American-born black and Latino jihadis have indeed been discovered behind enemy lines. Before Padilla (Abdallah al-Muhajir), there was Aqil, the troubled Mexican-American youth from San Diego found in an Afghan training camp fraternizing with one of the men accused of killing journalist Daniel Pearl. Aqil, now in custody, is writing a memoir called My Jihad. In February, the New York Times ran a story about Hiram Torres, a Puerto Rican whose name was found in a bombed-out house in Kabul, on a list of recruits to the Pakistani group Harkat al-Mujahedeen, which has ties to al-Qaeda. Torres, also known as Mohamed Salman, graduated first in his New Jersey high school class and briefly attended Yale, before dropping out and heading to Pakistan in 1998. He has not been heard from since. A June edition of US News and World Report mentions a group of African-Americans, their whereabouts currently unknown, who studied at a school closely linked to the Kashmiri militia, Lashkar-e Taiba. L'Houssaine Kerchtou, an Algerian government witness, claims to have seen "some black Americans" training at al-Qaeda bases in Sudan and Pakistan.

Earlier this year, the movie Kandahar caused an uproar in the American intelligence community because the African-American actor who played a doctor was American fugitive David Belfield. Belfield, who converted to Islam at Howard University in 1970, is wanted for the 1980 murder of Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai in Washington. Belfield has lived in Tehran since 1980 and goes by the name of Hassan Tantai.(3) The two most notorious accused terrorists now in US custody are black Europeans, French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui and the English-Jamaican shoe bomber Richard Reid, who were radicalized in the same mosque in the London ghetto of Brixton. Moussaoui's ubiquitous mug shot in orange prison garb, looking like any American inner-city youth with his shaved head and goatee, has intrigued many and unnerved some. "My first thought when I saw his photograph was that I wished he looked more Arabic and less black," wrote Sheryl McCarthy in Newsday. "All African-Americans need is for the first guy to be tried on terrorism charges stemming from this tragedy to look like one of our own."

But assessments of an "Islamic threat" in the American ghetto are sensational and ahistorical. As campaigns are introduced to stem the "Islamic tide," there has been little probing of why alienated black and Latino youth might gravitate towards Islamism. There has been no commentary comparable to what British race theorist Paul Gilroy wrote about Richard Reid and the group of Britons held at Guantanamo Bay: "The story of black European involvement in these geopolitical currents is disturbingly connected to the deeper history of immigration and race politics." Reid, in particular, "manifest[s] the uncomfortable truth that British multiculturalism has failed."(4)

For over a century, African-American thinkers -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- have attempted to harness the black struggle to global Islam, while leaders in the Islamic world have tried to yoke their political causes to African-American liberation. Islamism, in the US context, has come to refer to differing ideologies adopted by Muslim groups to galvanize social movements for "Islamic" political ends -- the Nation of Islam's "buy black" campaigns and election boycotts or Harlem's Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood lobbying for benefits and cultural and political rights from the state. Much more rarely, it has included the jihadi strain of Islamism, embraced by foreign-based or foreign-funded Islamist groups (such as al-Rukn) attempting to gain American recruits for armed struggles against "infidel" governments at home and abroad. The rise of Islam and Islamism in American inner cities can be explained as a product of immigration and racial politics, deindustrialization and state withdrawal, and the interwoven cultural forces of black nationalism, Islamism and hip-hop that appeal strongly to disenfanchised black, Latino, Arab and South Asian youth.


Hisham Aidi, research fellow at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, works on the university’s Islam in New York Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. A longer version of this article will appear in Hisham Aidi and Yusuf Nuruddin, eds., Islam and Urban Youth Culture.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Yamli: Revolutionizing the Arabic-language World Wide Web

American University of Beirut Alumnus and co-founder of Yamli, the Arabic search engine, Talks to Engineering Students

AUB alumnus Habib Haddad (CCE 2002) found inspiration in the 2006 July War even as it wreaked havoc in the country.

AUB Press Release [August 7, 2008]

Read a full interview with Yamli founders Habib Haddad and 'Imad Jureidini at, as the two discuss how the search engine was founded, how it works, and what lies ahead.

NOTE: Yamli is an Arabic search engine which allows users to type in Arabic using English letters and keys, each of which has an Arabic letter equivalent. Thus, typing in "H-I-Z-B A-L-L-A-H" will produce the Arabic words: حزب الله

Yamli is very useful for those without an installed Arabic language keyboard or for those less adept at typing in Arabic, due to the different placement of the letters compared to an English language keyboard. Yamli
is also an optional addition to Facebook. I have Yamli installed on my Facebook account.

Based in the United States and eager to devour every bit of news on Lebanon to keep track of events that might be affecting loved ones, Haddad turned to the world wide web for information. But he was disappointed to find very little on Lebanon in English, realizing that he needed to tap into the Arabic news world online.

But that left him with another problem: his American keyboard was not Arabic-enabled. [In any case, his Arabic typing skills were limited.]

So instead of throwing his arms up in desperation, Haddad decided to do something about it.

Thus came the idea for web-based transliteration tool that can convert Arabic words typed in Latin script into ones written in Arabic letters.

Haddad joined forces with his friend Imad Jureidini, also a computer engineer, and co-founded Language Analytics, a US-based internet start-up which launched in 2007.

Habib Haddad (left) and 'Imad Jureidini (right).

The new technology has already won the Best Web Technology, 2008 Pan Arab Web Awards in April 26, 2008.

"Our vision is to empower the Arabic web," said Haddad, during a talk he held at AUB recently. "The first step was to help facilitate typing in Arabic. The second step is to encourage creating Arabic content, because right now, the Arabic digital culture is endangered."

Entitled "From Idea to Reality," the talk was held on August 4 in the Engineering Board Room. It also addressed steps needed for creating a startup including forming the team, financing the project, using the right software engineering principles and getting the appropriate protection for your ideas. The talk drew on Haddad and Jureidini's key entrepreneurial experiences and the steps they took to convert from a concept into an active startup.

According to Haddad, less than one percent of all blogs are in Arabic, even though Arab internet users make up about 5 percent of all worldwide users. "In fact, studies at the American University in Cairo shows that 78% of Arabic internet users have never typed in Arabic! Imagine if 78% of French never typed in French," he said.

So Haddad and his partner are also partnering with Google to help improve Arabic search engines so that they could recognize different Arabic dialects and distinguish words phonetically even if typed in Latin script.

As a student, Haddad was inquisitive and full of ideas, he says. "If you have an idea, talk to professors, entrepreneurs, well-established people, but believe in yourself and do your research. Partner with someone who complements you, and brings something you don't have on the table."

Haddad also encouraged young graduates to think out of the box. "There is this misconception in Lebanon and the Middle East in general that you always need to work at the biggest and most famous company as soon as you graduate, but in fact you will learn more from small companies and start-ups, where you can build very strong relationships and connections with successful people," he said.

Haddad expressed his gratefulness for the education he received at AUB, saying: "What I really like about AUB is that they teach you to get down and dirty your hands in the actual engineering. They did us a big favor by walking us through the nitty-gritty basics before showing us the big picture."

In particular, he named Dr. Ayman Kaysi, the chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, as one of the professors who motivated him most and helped him develop his ideas.

Moreover, he said that the final-year-project, which all engineering students have to submit, is something every student should take advantage of.

"It's a chance to actually start building something, and it's a learning experience that is truly valuable."

Haddad told students not to give up in the face of failure. "In our culture, a failure is considered shameful, whereas in the start-up culture it is only a learning experience."

Haddad has other things on his plate, too. He has also co-founded Inlet-International Network of Lebanese Entrepreneurs and Technologists. Moreover, he also founded ReliefLebanon a grass root effort aimed at supporting the relief efforts in Lebanon during the July 06 war.

Haddad holds a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer graphics from the University of Southern California, in addition to his engineering degree from AUB.

Russian armored vehicles advance to Igoeti, approximately 25 miles from the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi.

What Israel Lost in the Georgia War

By Tony Karon
Time [August 21, 2008]

"It is important that the entire world understands that what is happening in Georgia now will affect the entire world order," Georgian Cabinet Minister Temur Yakobashvili said last weekend. "It's not just Georgia's business, but the entire world's business." Such sentiments would have been unremarkable but for the fact that Yakobashvili was expressing himself in fluent Hebrew, telling Israeli Army Radio that "Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers."

However, the impression that Israel had helped bolster the Georgian military was one the Israeli Foreign Ministry was anxious to avoid. Last Saturday it reportedly recommended a freeze on the further supply of equipment and expertise to Georgia by Israeli defense contractors. (Israel doesn't supply foreign militaries directly, but its private contractors must get Defense Ministry approval for such deals.) The Israelis decided to refrain from authorizing new defense contracts, although those currently in effect will be fulfilled. Israel stressed that the contracts are to provide equipment for defensive purposes. But if the Israelis were looking to downplay the significance of military ties, they weren't helped by comments like Yakobashvili's — or by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's enthusing at a press conference earlier this week that "the Israeli weapons have been very effective."

Nor did the Russians fail to notice. "Israel armed the Georgian army," grumbled General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of the Russian military, at a press conference in Moscow earlier this week. An Israeli paper had, last weekend, quoted an unnamed official warning that Israel needed "to be very careful and sensitive these days. The Russians are selling many arms to Iran and Syria, and there is no need to offer them an excuse to sell even more advanced weapons." As if on cue, on Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Moscow hoping to persuade Russia to sell him sophisticated air-defense systems — and reportedly offering the Russian navy the use of one of its Mediterranean ports. Late on Wednesday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had spoken on the phone to clear the air over the Georgia conflict and Russian arms sales to Syria.

The extent of involvement in Georgia by Israeli defense contractors may be overstated, and most of the equipment used by the Georgian military comes from the U.S. and other suppliers. Still, Israeli companies had been sufficiently involved in supplying specialized equipment and advanced tactical training to the Georgian military that the connection — and Russia's perception of it — created a ripple of anxiety in Israeli government circles. Israeli officials say that, in anticipation of a showdown between Georgia and Russia, Israel began to scale back the involvement of Israeli companies in Georgia as early as the end of 2007. Georgia's Yakobashvili charged this week that Israel, "at Russia's behest," had downgraded military ties with Georgia, a decision he branded a "disgrace."

Israel's weapons sales, just like Russia's, are driven by the commercial interests of domestic arms industries. Israeli military exports to Georgia are driven more by the logic of business than by a strategic choice to back Tbilisi against Moscow — indeed, the Israeli response since the outbreak of hostilities is a reminder that, on balance, even a relatively cool friendship with Russia may be more important to Israel than a close alliance with tiny Georgia. Despite Israel's pecuniary imperative, Georgia has used these commercial military ties to press closer ties on Israel.

President Saakashvili has noted that both his minister responsible for negotiations over South Ossetia (Yakobashvili) and his Defense Minister, Davit Kezerashvili, had lived in Israel before moving to post-Soviet Georgia. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the Georgian leader this week enthused that in Tbilisi, "both war and peace are in the hands of Israeli Jews." Working through the Georgian Defense Ministry (and with the approval of its Israeli counterpart), Israeli companies are reported to have supplied the Georgians with pilotless drones, night-vision equipment, anti-aircraft equipment, shells, rockets and various electronic systems. Even more important than equipment may have been the advanced tactical training and consultancy provided, as private contractors, by retired top Israeli generals such as Yisrael Ziv and Gal Hirsch, the man who commanded Israeli ground forces during their disastrous foray into Lebanon in 2006. (Never one to resist an opportunity to mock his enemies, Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah quipped in a speech this week, "Gal Hirsch, who was defeated in Lebanon, went to Georgia, and they too lost because of him.") Not necessarily: Russia applied overwhelming force against the tiny Georgian military, which, according to Israeli assessments, still managed to punch above its weight.

The Russians were piqued by Israel's military trade with Georgia even before the latest outbreak of hostilities — Moscow expressed its annoyance over the pilotless drones supplied by an Israeli company to the Georgians, three of which were downed by Russian aircraft over South Ossetia in recent months. Obviously mindful of the need to avoid provoking Russia, Israel declared off-limits certain weapons systems the Georgians had asked for, such as Merkava tanks and advanced anti-aircraft systems. "We have turned down many requests involving arms sales to Georgia, and the ones that have been approved have been duly scrutinized," a Defense Ministry official told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahoronot amid concerns raised over a possible fallout from the Israeli ties to the Georgian military. The extent of damage to the Israeli-Russia relationship — if indeed there is any — remains to be seen. Despite General Nogovitsyn's comments, Israeli officials say they have received no formal complaints from Russia over ties with Georgia.

Israel's strategic priority now is countering the threat it sees in Iran's nuclear program, and on that front, Russian cooperation is essential. If the Israelis are to achieve their objective of forcing Iran to end uranium enrichment through diplomatic coercion, they will need Russian support for escalating U.N. sanctions — a course of action for which Russia has thus far shown little enthusiasm. And if Israel were to opt for trying to destroy Tehran's nuclear facilities through a series of air strikes, then the presence of the sophisticated Russian S-300 missile system in Iran would considerably raise the risk to Israeli pilots. Unfortunately for Israel, however, there may be little it can do to shape Moscow's Iran policy for the simple reason that Israel is not a major factor in Russia's strategic outlook. Moscow's actions on Iran are less likely to be determined by Israel supplying a few drones to Georgia than they are to be shaped, for example, by the deployment over extreme Russian objections of U.S. interceptor missiles on Polish soil.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sayyid Nasrallah's Speech on the Second Anniversary of the 'Divine Victory' of 2006

Shaykh Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah's recent speech on the second anniversary of the end of the July 2006 War (Harb Tamuz) can be viewed here, for those readers interested in practicing their Arabic listening skills:

The official English translation of the speech may be viewed here.

"To recall Israel's defeat in Lebanon in 2000... need I remind [Ehud] Barak of the speeches he had made when he ran for Prime Minister of the enemy Government? Or during his term as PM in 2000 and his admitting failure and the failure of all methods of confrontation with the resistance in Lebanon?! And that "Israel" has no choice but to withdraw from Lebanon?

Do I also need to remind him of the date he set for withdrawal in July 2000, but was forced by the resistance to withdraw earlier in May 2000, when the resistance imposed a different timing and withdrawal scenario as well as a humiliating withdrawal he could not employ politically nor obtain political or security gains for it from Lebanon or Syria?"

-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Deconstructing the 'Arab-African' Description of the Darfur Conflict

Sudanese: 'What Arab-African Rift?'

By Heba Aly
The Christian Science Monitor [August 22, 2008]

Ask Abbas Adam Ibrahim whether he is Arab or African, and he does not quite know how to respond. "Both," the Sudanese man says, after slight hesitation.

Mr. Adam comes from the Fur tribe, of Darfur – commonly understood to be an African tribe, under persecution by Sudan's Arab-dominated government.

Last month, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, saying "evidence shows that al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity."

But for Sudanese Arabs and Africans coexisting peacefully outside Darfur, these racial distinctions are not so clear.

Adam, for example, believes he has some Arab blood.

During the drought of the early 1980s, Adam left Darfur for the mostly-Arab north of Sudan, in search of work and a better life. He settled in Dongola, a city more than 300 miles north of the capital, Khartoum, and has lived among Arabs ever since. He even married one and now has four "mixed" children.

"We live here peacefully and there are no problems," he says. "We live as if we are natives here. We feel that this is our country and this is our town."

Around the corner, at a small Darfurian social club, the atmosphere is loud and buoyant. Young men gather around tables playing cards, slamming down dominoes excitedly, and watching television. They are mostly economic migrants who left Darfur years ago. Among them are members of various tribes that are killing each other back in Darfur and in neighboring Kordofan State.

"There is no such thing as Arab or African. We are all Sudanese," says Mohammed El-Cheikh an Arab from Western Kordofan. "Him over there," he says, pointing across the yard to a young man standing shyly in the corner, "that's my friend Abubakr. He's from the [African] Tama tribe.

"There are problems in Darfur, but they are not between people. They are related to the government and to politics."

In scores of markets, clubs, and homes in the Arab north, Arabs and Africans are working side by side, sending their children to the same schools and intermarrying. The Arab-African distinction that has played out so broadly in media coverage of Darfur means little to people here.

In fact, historians say the distinction has no factual basis. There is a long tradition of intermarrying between the Arab and African tribes that settled in what is now Sudan.

"No single tribe in Sudan can claim it is purely African or Arab," says history teacher and mayor of the greater Dongola locality Bushra Mohamed Saleh. "They are all mixed."

And while some tribes may be more Arab or more African, coexistence between them is nothing new. Even in Darfur, different tribal groups lived together for centuries. So-called Arab nomadic tribes and African farming communities shared the same land – the nomads using it for their cattle to graze; the farmers using it to grow their crops. Conflicts arose routinely but were solved through traditional leaders.

Things changed early this millennium when traditional leaders lost their control, guns became more commonplace, and a group of non-Arab Darfurians took up arms against the government, arguing that their region had been neglected.

In responding to this rebellion, the government made a "big, big, big mistake," says Gen. Hassan Hamadain, who governed West Darfur State during the late 1990s.

It called upon popular defense forces from local communities to combat the Darfur rebels. But those who responded were mostly Arabs, many of whom joined the now infamous janjaweed militia that is accused of razing hundreds of African villages, looting, raping, and killing along the way.

"The government made use of the conflict in Darfur in a kind of non-thoughtful way," says General Hamadain, who has since retired from politics, acknowledging that he and others failed in Darfur. "It was not sensitive to the tribal relationships, the tribal history of the area, and the resources."

And so what began as normal, cyclical conflicts between mostly Arab herders and non-Arab farmers grew to what has been termed the world's largest humanitarian disaster. The United Nations says some 300,000 have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Among the dead were members of Hassan Ali Ibrahim's village, which was completely destroyed by Arabs. But he says he can't hold them all responsible.

"The disputes between the Arabs and people in Darfur originate from different reasons – grazing, pastures, natural things. They are not rooted in race," said the community elder, sitting under a tree at the Islamic school he manages in Dongola, where both Arab and African children sit side by side. "The Arabs that are here have nothing to do with this."

Still, for some Darfurians, it is not so easy to forget. Daoud (not his real name) watched with his own eyes as members of his family were killed by Arab militias in West Darfur. After the first attack on his village, he found his father dead. He says he does not blame the Arabs – "Who supported them? Who gave them the guns? Wasn't it the government?" – but he still has difficulty getting too close.

"I can interact with Arabs at work or in general ways, but when it comes to close relationships, I feel there is a wall between us."

British analyst Jago Salmon says this social polarization – a result he blames partly on simplistic descriptions by Western Darfur advocates – has been an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, but was never its root.

"We were still looking for dichotomy of some kind, something that would explain what was going on easily and simply. We latched onto the Arab-African dichotomy, which did vast damage…. Then as the conflict developed, it became a reality on the ground. It became something by which people explained the conflict themselves."

But as the conflict continues in Darfur – 180,000 have fled their homes this year alone, according to the UN – Adam will wake up next to his Arab wife every morning, Ali will teach his Arab students, and plenty of other African Darfurians will keep living alongside Arabs, wishing the politics would cease and their tribes could go back to life as usual.

Heba Aly traveled to Sudan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Lebanese Salafis 'Freeze' Memo of Understanding with Hizbu'llah as Sa'd "Junior" al-Hariri Reigns in His Clients

Would you buy a used car from this man? What about some oil?

Salafist Groups 'Freeze' Agreement with Hizbullah

The Daily Star, Beirut [August 20, 2008]

BEIRUT: Salafist groups announced on Tuesday their decision to "temporarily freeze" a memorandum of understanding they signed with Shiite group Hizbullah one day earlier." The agreement will be temporarily frozen pending appropriate circumstances that allow for its implementation," Sheikh Hassan al-Shahhal, who signed the memorandum with Hizbullah's Sheikh Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed told a news conference in Tripoli Tuesday evening.

He added that the Sunni community "needed more than ever to stand united and shun divisions." Shahhal said the memo "needs to be carefully studied."

Shahhal held a joint conference with his cousin, alleged founder of the Salafist movements in Lebanon Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, who said on Monday that the memorandum was "insignificant." The eight-item memorandum between Hizbullah and representatives of Sunni Salafist groups banned internal strife between Muslims as well as all forms of sectarian incitement.

"The memorandum is in favor of Hizbullah and the Shiite community," Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal said during the news conference. Hizbullah did not immediately comment on the freezing of the memorandum of understanding.Lebanese Jesus: Rafiq al-Hariri, held aloft in picture form by some of his son's Sunni supporters in the northern city of Tripoli. One day he took wine, drank it, and lo and behold! The national airport in southern Beirut can be reached without going through the slums of al-Dahiya! Praise Jesus! No, son, praise Al-Hariri.

However, on Tuesday, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah defended the memorandum, saying he was "surprised at hostility created following rapprochement between any two Lebanese groups." Speaking at a Hizbullah religious gathering, Nasrallah said all controversial issues should be tackled within constitutional institutions. "All efforts should concentrate on facilitating the launch of dialogue mechanism to tackle all pending issues," Nasrallah added.

He said safeguarding Lebanon against threats targeting it could only be achieved through a "calm atmosphere."

[This news suggests that, despite the claims of Hariri Inc. shills in various media outlets and U.S.-based pundits, the driving force behind the increasing violent sectarianism in Lebanon lies primarily within the Hariri Camp. Sa'd "Junior" Hariri has been pouring money into militant Sunni groups, including Salafi ones, in an attempt to buy them off. He hopes to counter Hizbu'llah and AMAL's power among the country's Shi'a, who make up as much as 45% of the country's total population. Junior al-Hariri, whose family is Saudi, has billions of dollars from his father's business investments, which benefited from Rafiq al-Hariri's position as Lebanese prime minister.]

Change the Iraqis Can Believe In? Why Obama–Biden Could Mean More of the Same (Or Maybe Something Worse)

By Reidar Visser (

23 August 2008

In many ways, Barack Obama’s approach to Iraq is strikingly similar to that of the Bush administration and John McCain. In theory, the addition of Joe Biden to Obama’s ticket could change this, but over the last weeks and months there have been interesting moves by Biden to remove most traces of his “Iraq plans” from the public domain.

With regard to Iraq, the real context of the upcoming Democratic convention is that “the surge” in Iraq is not working at all. Despite measurable successes in bringing the levels of violence down, the American-sponsored political system in Iraq is actually more dysfunctional than ever, and incapable of delivering the results that both Iraqis and Americans are looking for. Perhaps the best evidence is the fact that it is now Washington’s own darlings in Iraq and their pet projects that stand in the way of progress, as seen in the vice-presidential vetoes this year against the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. There is in fact a cross-sectarian majority in the Iraqi parliament that wants to have early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk, but Washington’s allies among the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) keep blocking progress towards national reconciliation and a more sustainable political system. The salient cleavages in Iraqi politics are increasingly of a non-sectarian nature – the alliance that challenged the Maliki government through its demand for early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk had an eminently cross-sectarian composition, and no matter how the media likes to spin it, the recent sacking of the police commander in Diyala did pit some powerful Shiite players against each other – but American policy fails to respond to this reality.

Thankfully, there is growing attention to these cross-sectarian trends at least among some US analysts. There has been some debate as to the usefulness or otherwise of a new nomenclature introduced by USIP’s Sam Parker that employs the terms “The Powers That Be” and “The Powers That Aren’t” to describe the real battlefronts in Iraqi politics, with some critics finding the dichotomy pretentious and nothing more than a new name for “government and opposition”. However, that overlooks the way in which Parker’s concepts clearly augment our understanding of Iraq: they define the glue that holds the government together, and provides a very good point of departure for discussing those ideological pressures that threaten to tear the current system apart and which should be taken into account in any serious discussion of future US policy.

Barack Obama, though, has yet to discover the usefulness of these concepts. During his recent trip to the Middle East, he revealed an extremely dated way of thinking about Iraq, more or less reiterating the Iraq cosmology of those Bush administration officials that have been in charge since 2003. During a press conference in Amman on 22 July following a visit to Anbar where meetings with “Sunni tribal leaders” were high on the agenda, this tendency could be seen very clearly, with Obama consistently portraying the principal dynamic of Iraqi politics as a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. For example, Obama opined: “I think resolving the big issues like the hydrocarbons law in a way that gives Sunnis the impression that their voice is heard, that’s going to be important.” In fact, the real problem with regard to the hydrocarbons law is that two Kurdish parties insist on the right of federal regions to sign contracts with foreign compaines, whereas almost all the other parties – in this case Sunnis and Shiites alike, and including some of those Shiites that normally are quite pro-Kurdish – favour a more centralised system. Most Iraqis are confident that a purely demographic distribution system based on governorates (not sects!) will be adopted, and see the American quest for a “Sunni quota” as out of touch with Iraqi traditions of centralised government. Again, Obama: “Now, the willingness of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned to now return, to have those cabinet seats filled, and a sense that the Sunnis are going to participate aggressively in the upcoming elections, that, again, is I think a sign of progress.” Once more, very few analysts that have done work on Iraq before 2003 think the return to the government of the tiny Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be of any consequence whatsoever. With or without the IIP in their ranks, Maliki and his team will still fail to bring significant change to Iraq and a less sectarian political system of the kind that a majority of parliamentarians are calling for.

Arguably, the addition of Joe Biden to the Obama ticket might aggravate these tendencies, because in the past Biden has been a leading American voice in promoting an interpretation of Iraq as a country of three mutually hostile and internally stable population blocks. His various “plans for Iraq”, while frequently misunderstood, in different ways reinforce the view that the main problem in Iraq has to do with a centralised state structure and coexistence issues. Like many others in American politics, Biden has failed to acknowledge the emerging non-sectarian trends in Iraq, seeking instead to push ideas about “Sunni federalism” during his visit to the Anbar governorate. Remarkably, however, it seems that Biden may have cleaned up his Iraq rhetoric as part of his VP bid. At least, it is quite conspicuous how every trace of his “plan for Iraq” now appears to have been erased from his website at, where he now instead supports Barrack Obama’s more general argument about shifting the focus to Afghanistan. Also, at some point between April 2008 and today, Biden’s website specifically devoted to his soft partition schemes,, was quietly shut down – at this site, Biden’s rhetoric had consistently focused on a tripartite Iraq to the very end. Only on his Senate website traces of his Iraq policy remain, but even there a more toned-down version appears, with the emphasis on a general push for federalisation. This is still in contravention of the Iraqi constitution (which specifically rejects any kind of elite-driven federalisation process) but it could perhaps mean that Biden increasingly realises that his plans were unsustainable and that trends in Iraq militate against them.

Still, for Iraq this seems to be a stark choice. On the one hand, there is McCain, who looks set to persevere with the Bush policy of handling Iraq primarily through military power instead of working for a more truly inclusive political system. With its systematic promotion to top positions in the new Iraq of some of the most sectarian, pro-Iranian and unprofessional cliques among Iraq’s 18 million (and mostly Iraqi nationalist) Shiites, this contradictive policy seems so obviously antithetical to long-term American interests that it is really hard to make perfect sense of (except if one does what should be the unthinkable and puts it in the frightening context of a grander plan to eventually force regime change in Iran as well). Democrats appear to be equally ignorant about the survival of Iraqi nationalist sentiment, but they express this in a different policy: acceptance of Iranian influence in Iraq as something natural. This was even written into Obama’s “New Strategy for a New World”, released in mid-July. Commenting on Iraq, Obama writes, “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place…we are not going to … eliminate every trace of Iranian influence”. He seems unaware that this particular statement may be seen as deeply offensive by many Iraqi Shiites who are proud of their Iraqi identity but fearful of Iran and the pro-Iranian elites that have been empowered by the Bush administration. Their fear is that a new Democratic administration will accord Iran exaggerated influence in Iraq as part of a grand, Dayton-style regional settlement designed as an antidote to the Bush administration’s unilateralist policies.

Of course, Obama’s stance flows from a multi-lateralist attitude which in itself is laudable. In general, it makes sense for the United States to rely more on national and regional equilibriums than to seek to micro-manage in the name of democracy. But in the specific case of Iraq, there is a responsibility for correcting past mistakes as part of a viable exit strategy. Democrats cannot simply close their eyes and imagine that the Iraq of 2008 in any way represents a natural state of affairs, and that a quick withdrawal automatically will prompt some kind of Hobbesian reset whereby the country will find back to its true self. Real change in Iraq would mean that Obama realised that for five years straight the United States has promoted and consolidated an artificial sectarian system in the country, and that disengagement from Iraq should also aim at reversing this trend. The real challenge is not to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds but to bring Powers That Aren’t into the system. The instrument to do this is not some kind of federalism magic or a complex oil distribution formula, but to move away from the sectarian quota system more generally and towards a traditional state model with autonomy for the Kurds and more modest decentralisation in the rest of the country. And Biden should remember that the only thing that is artificial about today’s Iraq is the particular selection of sectarian leaders that the Bush administration has anointed to lead the country, and the exaggerated Iranian influence that comes with some of them.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a noted expert on Iraqi politics and history. He completed an undergraduate degree in history and comparative politics at the University of Bergen and a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday Soundtrack

It's Friday, and because I like to mix things up a little, for today's post I have decided to create a "soundtrack" of sorts, showcasing the different types of music that I enjoy. Hopefully, this "soundtrack" will also serve as encouragement for you, the reader, to also be eclectic in your musical tastes. To encourage you to listen to at least some (45 seconds) of ALL the selections (when you have the time), I have purposefully left out identifying information under the videos. Diversity is good: especially in music.