Saturday, December 30, 2006

Killing Saddam

I thought I would write in depth about this, but having poked around in Arabic and English, there is really nothing I can add to what's out there. The man got what he deserved, the way it was done was 100% botched. Those who don't care at all that it was done wrong are dangerous partisans, those who think he should never have been executed are also dangerous partisans. To the honest Iraqis of all sects who understand and are living the existing mess that just keeps getting worse, God grant you a better future than the hellishness Saddam, Bush, Hakim, Zarqawi, Sadr, Chalabi, Wolfowitz, Netanyahu and so many other selfish animals have delivered you.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Modern Convivencia?

The Great Mosque of Cordoba / Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin

We were just in Cordoba a few weeks ago and went to see the "Mezquita-Cathedral" as they call it and were of course duly impressed. What a gem. It was the center of the Golden Age of the Islamic Caliphate of Spain and as a good friend and expert on the era pointed out to me was a symbol of a unique strain and period of Islam. "Umayyad Islam [in Spain] was much stronger than most people realize" he said, speaking of the era before the break up of the Caliphate and the division and eventual destruction of Islamic Spain. Muslims in the western Islamic world in the era up to the 11th century who couldn't make it to Mecca would actually come on pilgrimages to Cordoba where they would make Tawaf (i.e., circumbabulate) the Qur'an at the Great Mosque. It was at the Great Mosque (today's Cathedral) that Abdul Rahman III actually had himself proclaimed Caliph, directly breaking from and challenging the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. In this Mosque the masses of the Muslim community of gathered in fact to hear all the important news and events of the day proclaimed and the Mosque grew as the population, wealth, and prestige of Al-Andalus itself grew (or on occasion, as the megalomania of its rulers grew).

All that is in the past today of course, but Cordobans even after the Christian Reconquista recognized they had gained control of a truly unique gem. The city declares itself on signs leading into it the "Patrimony of Humanity". The Christian city leaders (the Muslims all having been expelled) in the centuries following the reconquista actually banned anybody from changing the structure of the Mosque which they only allowed minor alterations to (such as the raising of a few crosses and what not). At one point, the Christian city fathers even banned such changes on pain of death! However, the Christian King Carlos V who had not been there thought he should do more to christianize the place and hearing of the plans of another non-Cordoban to construct a large gothic Cathedral in the midst of the Mosque, gave his approval. A few years later when he showed up to inspect the work, he is said to have remorsefully remarked words to the effect of "You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something unique in the world". Having been there, I agree. The Cathedral, while on its own might have been a decent enough building, generally ruins the ascetic of the original building (though I do think the external dome and shape of the Cathedral actually works reasonably well if it were taken in isolation -- however the internal damage of the edifice is severe).

Spaniards are unsurprisingly mixed on the issue. The great revival of interest in Al-Andalus of the past few decades has certainly fueled greater sympathy for and interest in things Islamic. But like most European countries, anti-Muslim-immigrant feelings also run strong. When one goes to the Cathedral-Mosque today, that dichotomy of viewpoints is plainly evident. The beauty of the mosque including the gorgeous (heavily-Byzantine-influenced) Mihrab are on full display along with the sea of Moorish horseshoe arches in the alternating red and white patterns so typical of Islamic and particularly Caliphal Spain. But the Cathedral stands out in the middle of it all, and the official literature the Cathedral fathers hand out is unapologetic in its historical view that the Muslims were outside invaders, that they had 'corrected' the errors that the Mosque represents, and that this must above all be a Catholic/Christian place...even as the Arab architecture, language, and even the Arab tourists abound.

That said, I paused outside in the courtyard (the original Mosque courtyard filled with orange trees and gorgeous Islamic brickwork) and remarked to my wife that this is a new era, and wouldn't it be wonderful if - now that the historical tensions that tore Spain apart in those centuries past is ancient history - there could be a revived Islamic community who prayed alongside the Christians in this shared building. And a revived Jewish community as well filling the streets of the Juderia which Maimonides once frequented. The modern tensions stare one in the face unfortunately: the knee-jerk opposition to such ideas on the wave of anti-immigrant fervor, the swastika some dirty brute had spray-painted on the statue of the great Maimonides, and from the other end even the language of this Jazeera article that (though more balanced further on) says that Muslims have written to the Vatican to "demand" the right to pray at the Mosque-Cathedral. These are essentially modern grievances and problems being aired even if plenty of links to the past exist. I would be the first to cheer if they could be overcome such as the manner in which the modern Mezquita Mayor De Granada where public opposition was quelled by an open door policy to the public and the construction of an edifice (the first new purpose-built mosque in Granada in over 500 years) which is truly a gem all Granadans of all faiths can be proud of. Unlike a location such as say Hebron in the West Bank where deep ongoing military and political conflict is an ugly present reality which makes genuine religious co-existence virtually impossible, Spain really can be a standout example of how time has healed wounds and reconciliation and a thoroughly modern "Convivencia" can be brought to pass. But these things don't just happen, it takes work and faith in our common humanity.

Muslims ask to worship at Cordoba

Spanish Muslims have written to the Vatican to demand the right to worship at Cordoba Cathedral.

Spain's Islamic Board wrote to Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, calling on him to grant them permission to worship in the cathedral, parts of which were built as a mosque during Spain's period of Islamic rule.

The group said in their letter: "What we wanted was not to take over that holy place, but to create in it, together with you and other faiths, an ecumenical space unique in the world which would have been of great significance in bringing peace to humanity."

They said that senior Spanish Catholic clergy had earlier rejected requests for Muslims to be allowed to prostrate themselves inside the Cathedral.

Mansur Escudero, the board's secretary general, said security guards often stop Muslim worshipers from praying at the old mosque.

He said: "There are reactionary elements within the Catholic Church, and when they hear about the construction of a mosque, or Muslim teachings in state schools, or about veils, they see it as a sign we are growing and they oppose it."

Mansur said Muslims came from around the world to see Cordoba's Cathedral, which is still commonly known as the Cathedral-Mosque.

Complex history

The Roman Catholic cathedral had originally been a mosque but was converted into a cathedral in the 13th century.

The mosque itself was built on the site of the earlier cathedral of St Vincent which was demolished by Cordoba's Muslim rulers following the Islamic invasion and occupation of parts of southern Spain in the eight century.

In December, Spain's Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement, quoted by newspaper ABC, saying it "did not recommend" Muslims prayed at the Cathedral and was not prepared to negotiate the building's shared use with other faiths.

Spain's last Muslim territory fell with the conquest of Granada in 1492 after almost eight centuries of Muslim rule.

Today, more than a million of Spain's 44 million people are Muslims, many of them recently arrived immigrants from North Africa.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sowing Somali Seeds Of Bitterness

A post on a topic that is admittedly a bit beyond my realm of regional expertise but definitely tied in to broader events throughout the Arab world: Somalia.

I wouldn't pretend to have all the details right on Somalia and freely invite more informed voices to speak up if I have anything wrong here. What follows is my attempt to describe what is going on, and then (where I feel a bit more comfortable) tie it in to what it means for the Arab and Islamic worlds and their relationship with the US more generally.

The current Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is receiving big attention in the Arab press as has the tension leading up to it. The big two media giants (Jazeera and Arabiya) on their websites are taking predictable angles: Jazeera (Arabic at least) is playing up the fact that the US government is supporting Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia (i.e., "the westerners are ganging up on the Muslims again"), while Arabiya is leading with the Transitional Somali Government's revelations of the dark "secret world" of the Islamic Courts Union (i.e., "yes, we at Arabiya are America's proud propaganda voice in the Middle East yet again since the failure of al-Hurra"). Don't have a lot of time to troll the Arabic websites right now, I presume everyone is taking their stereotypical positions. But the point is, this is receiving big coverage in the Middle East, most folks in the Arab world are convinced the west is out to get Muslims, and the actions of the US and Ethiopia mean this is yet another story that will play right into that belief regardless of any attempts by US-allied media in the region to say otherwise (i.e., actions still matter more than words).
  • Somalia has of course been in more or less a state of warlord-dominated anarchy for over a decade and a half. Most famous to Americans for the 1993 mission creep that led to the "Blackhawk Down" incident, but an ongoing open wound in East Africa much more critical than just that one incident.
  • Over the past few years, a set of localized attempts to bring some order and recreate a modicum of justice took the shape of Sharia (Islamic law) courts forming to adjudicate disputes, crimes, etc. and attached to those came enforcement officers, or if one wants to be more pejorative I suppose one could say these courts got their own local militias in order to enforce those judgements.
  • Those courts (which seem to represent a fairly diverse and non-homogenous set of interests in Somali society) did manage to coalesce into a new, unified force in Somalia. In those areas where they gained enough strength, they steadily began to take over from the warlords and create a semblance of order and rule of law in the south of Somalia for the first time in many years.
  • The perception I have following the Arab and English press on the courts (sorry, don't speak any Somali, my only experience being speaking to Arabic and English speaking Somalis over the years, overhearing Somali conversations which sound a lot like Arabic except that other than a few bits of vocabulary its totally incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker, oh and a cute Hijabed Somali girl on the bus speaking Arabic about myself and a friend many years ago (before I was married of course) thinking we couldn't understand and then blushing when we got off the bus and shot her a wink to show we heard and understood her) is that the reaction to the courts by the populace was as always with such things mixed, but tentatively willing to give them a chance since they seemed to be bringing order and justice so that people could live their lives (opening some ports and controlling piracy for the first time in many years for example).
  • The application of Shariah law by the courts appears to have been mixed as well. Stories of going to cultural extremes (banning world cup soccer match viewing), but also stories of top courts leaders denying this was their style and punishing those who did such things. The impression I got from this was that the Courts Union was again a non-homogenous group, that paleo-conservatives and modernists mix, and that this could be both a weakness and a strength. In any case, when not under external pressure and expanding their zones of control, the areas that fell under their control appeared to be generally seeing a revival of economic fortunes.
  • But those are big caveats: early on local, regional, and US actors have been part of the mix and the Islamic Courts Union does not appear to have had any time to enjoy genuinely unfettered control. There are multiple levels of rivalries going on here: [1] A few years ago the UN made yet another attempt to bring local actors together to create a transitional Somali government that could hopefully re-establish order. It had to meet outside Somalia for a long time and as of a few weeks ago was based in and only controlled the town of Baidoa. Weak, but internationally recognized. As it watched the rise of the Courts, of course its legitimacy was being undermined. The Courts, sensing their popular strength, actually called for democratic elections, knowing their people stood a strong chance of beating out the characters fromt the UN recognized government and in fact the leaders of the Courts could plug into that power structure now through legitimate democratic means. The leaders of the transitional government were having none of that and instead began labelling the Courts Al-Qaeda harborers and the like, aimed at manipulating and strengthening their support from the US, western countries, and the UN. They appear to have succeeded. [2] A proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two have a long-running set of grievances and have gone to war more than once, and now the Courts and Transitional Government are providing the proxies necessary to go to war again, this time in Somalia. Traditionally Christian Ethiopia (although today it's population is about half Muslim) is backing the Transitional Government and sees in the Courts a potential revival of Somali threats to their territory in the ethnic Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia which past Somali states have sought to claim sovereignty over. Ethiopia is also going all out accusing the Courts of harboring Al-Qaeda, foreign fighters, etc, etc. (somebody even started circulating a ridiculous report in intelligence circles a while back that Somali Courts fighters aided Lebanon's Hizbullah in their summer war against Israel, though that could have been westerners creating boogeymen and not necessarily Ethiopia). Eritrea is supporting the courts, though I don't have a good sense other than a few troops of what that support actually consists of. [3] The Bush Administration once again lining up against Islamists as the great boogeymen. Falling right in line with Dick Cheney's "One percent doctrine" of blowing any bit of paranoia massively out of proportion (i.e., trying to kill that mosquito on your forehead with a shotgun blast), they've willingly bought into every story of potential Al-Qaeda harboring or sympathy amongst the courts. Now, I'm not going to go overboard and say there couldn't be some kernels of truth in there - as I said, the Courts seem to be a pretty motley crew - but the top leaders seem to have taken a lesson from the Taliban and recognized they can't try to become Taliban Afghanistan or else they're finished and stated about as much in not-too-subtle public language. Words are one thing, the point from the US is that for some time now, labelling the Courts as Qaeda-proxies, the CIA has been arming Somali warlords to fight the Courts. Didn't do much good, the Courts have been getting weapons and have more motivated fighters and have managed to take town after town under their control. In any case, the reports I've read seem to suggest that folks inside the USG recognized that what they were doing in Somalia was a pretty ad hoc and potentially dangerous affair, but they've been marching down the path regardless. [4] A melding of 2 and 3 now appears to be going on. The Courts were winning the battle, the US' allies lost over and over and appeared headed towards inexorable defeat on the battlefield (since the ballot box option was not allowed despite the Courts' suggestion) absent some outside intervention. Enter Ethiopian troops defending the Transitional Government's one base at Baidoa. These outsiders are not folks most Somalis would take kindly too, but there they were, at first only called "advisers". Now in the past week it's come to direct war as the Ethiopians decided they weren't going to allow the Courts to win and betting that they had such overwhelming firepower they could bring the Transitional Government victory. So far the main war appears to be going just that way.

Now is where things get more dangerous and start to blow into bigger proportions. As Abu Aardvark likes to frequently say, Bin Laden and co these days are less about being an organization out to carry out direct attacks (though that still persists) as they are about changing the world view of as many Muslims as possible into believing the "Christian Crusaders" are out to destroy Islam. That, I believe, is a far more important battle than any bullets, smart bombs, suicide bombs, or phantom- or real-WMDs. It is also the essence of why the Bush Administration is such a set of royal screw-ups, why things keep getting worse everywhere Bush and co stick their noses in the Islamic and Arab worlds, and why Somalia is poised to become yet another disaster for US foreign policy (and yet again putting the focus on what it means to the US while the rest of the world more or less ignores the humanitarian, economic, political, and social disasters it will create locally and regionally for Somalia and the Horn of Africa). Uh...what was my point after that run-on sentence...oh yes, this is going to be yet another Bushie disaster because the important thing in the long run for creating peace, stability, freedom fries (something for American lefties, righties, and realists in there) is to not allow Salafi Jihadists (who have zero chance of ever winning power militarily or at the ballot box) to "win" by letting their "clash of civilizations" worldview become the guiding worldview of the majority of Muslims and Arabs. The actions of the US and its allies in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. all are massive examples of which give credence to this worldview. US support for secular dictators throughout the Islamic world is another. Now it looks like Somalia will be added to the list (and once again, the US public will be sleeping as it happens and left ignorantly pondering "why do they hate us" the next time something nasty happens as a result).

Look at it from the point of view of your average dude on the streets of Cairo, Casablanca, Damascus, Karachi, Jakarta, or wherever else. You don't have to agree with this view (I for one don't), but this is how it looks to them today:

  • Shariah is considered a positive ideal for how law and order should be administered.
  • Somalia was in anarchy until recently some religious Somalis banded together to implement Shariah. In so doing they brought back peace, stability, and justice where they had power.
  • The US saw the rise of "true Muslims" and wouldn't tolerate it.
  • The US first tried to stop these Muslims from doing their good by re-arming thugs and warlords, but that failed.
  • When that failed, the US turned to Christian foreigners (Ethiopia) and aided them in a war to wipe out the good Muslims who were just trying to bring back peace and justice to their country.
  • Bin Laden had been saying for years that the "Crusaders" were out to harm Islam in Somalia, and suddenly it looks like his warning was right all along and coming to open fruition.

Even though this version of events is frought with error and over-simplicity, it has enough truth, and the Bush Administration's policies are so genuinely dangerous and aggressive, that one has to ask, what in the world could they possibly say to turn the tide of public opinion in the Islamic world to their side of things? Answer: nothing. Once again, actions matter more than words, and US actions here are just plain wrong. That's not to say the other actors are pure and right (they're not), but it means that the sheer stubborn-headed automatic resort to the ugliest uses of force (direct or proxy) by the US and its allies instead of recognizing that there are genuine non-Qaeda interests and issues at play that need to be worked with in a complex manner -- that therein lies the real problem. Bush's "gut" and Cheney's "one percent" self-induced-fear-mongering are the real sources of the problem here.

In Somalia, I would presume (again, welcoming input from those who know more) that events are likely to take a course something akin to the US in Afghanistan but with Ethiopia playing the role of the US and the Courts Union the role of the Taliban. Ethiopia may win hands down at first, but then the real action starts to build up in a guerilla war that has implications beyond just the borders of Somalia. A Christians-attacking-Muslims dynamic will be an easy propaganda drive for the Courts and attract foreign fighters with fresh and nasty skills acquired from Iraq and Afghanistan though local Somali fighters will undoubtedly be the bulk of the troops. An Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Government "support us because we're fighting the terrorists here so you don't have to in Iowa" call should ensure easy continued US support, while the Transitional Government's de jure recognition by the UN should ensure broader international support, regardless of any lack of on-the-ground legitimacy they have in Somalia, especially now that they've openly shown they can't survive without Ethiopian assistance.

Folks, the point is simple: the Bush doctrine creates conflict and war everywhere it goes that convinces people in the Muslim world that Americans are out to get them. That in turn fuels conflict (for you Americans: that means it makes you less safe, not more safe) and makes the world a worse place. Somalia is about to become the next totally unnecessary-but-tragic example of this. And Americans are barely even watching. Get ready for another bit of blowback, as if we didn't have enough on our hands already.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Little help for Palestine at the Mall

Those of you who frequent US malls may have noticed in the past few years in December there have been carts selling Bethlehem Olive Wood, usually presided over by an owner actually from the Bethlehem (Palestine, not Pennsylvania) area. They have multiplied in recent years, and it's not been a random occurrence. Bethlehem has been and remains under an inhumane Israeli semi-starvation siege for over half a decade now. The town is heavily dependent upon tourists for its economic livelihood. Because the Israelis have deliberately choked the tourist flow off almost entirely, the many olive wood vendors from Beit Lahem (Bethlehem), Beit Jala (half of whose land or more was stolen to build the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo), and Beit Sahour (traditional site of the "Shepherd's Field" where the abiders-in-the-field were visited by the angel who told them to visit the new baby Jesus) have turned to both internet sales and annual trips to the US at Christmas to sell their wares in malls. The Christians of the Bethlehem area frequently have relatives living abroad (Israeli wars and sieges over the past 60 years have led many to emmigrate in larger numbers than Muslims because their connections to Christian churches and diaspora communities abroad - especially in Latin America and the US - along with their generally higher levels of wealth gave them greater opportunity to escape Israeli oppression than many Muslims had) including in the US, so they have been able to get visas to go spend some time trying to get at least one month of decent sales every year. They generally show up after Thanksgiving (frequently relatives will rotate coming to the US from year to year) and work at the malls long days from open to close trying to sell a bundle of inventory they've brought.

Those sales are very important to their livelihood, they put food on the plates of entire extended families. If you see one of those carts or kiosks in a mall in the US and think the prices are a bit high, I would just say (1) the level of craftsmanship is high, (2) almost as if you were in the Middle East, you definitely can bargain, (3) the wood is almost always from some of the tens of thousands of olive trees the Israeli militarily has wantonly ripped up in childish but devastating punitive acts [the trees themselves are key sources of family income that take many years to mature and yield fruit - anytime somebody tries to sell you the lie of Israel acting "defensively" or for "security" purposes, ask them why they have deliberately destroyed tens of thousands of olive trees, were they "terrorist olives"?] and so this is at least one final good use a resource that otherwise would have been wasted can go to, (4) in purchasing from them you are helping to support entire extended families, hundreds of poorer workers and craftsman, and (5) you are helping a last dwindling Christian community in the very birthplace of Christ to stay economically alive in the face of Israeli assault.

The last point is I believe vital -- the Middle East just a century, even a half century ago was a much more diverse and vibrant place with a much broader mix of ethnicities and religions. The Jewish, Christian, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Druze, Sabean, and other minority communities were much stronger, vibrant and involved in the everyday political, social, and economic life of society. While I have no desire to exonerate the corrupt Arab and other Middle Eastern rulers whose responsibility for their decline is huge, Colonialism and Israel's actions have been the key triggers and underlying causes (in Israel's case, generally also a direct cause) of the destruction of many of these communities. The result has been a region that is far more ethnically monolithic and hence far less tolerant of diversity and varied opinions and outlooks on life. There are a few remaining but still reasonably sizeable Christian minorities (other minorities too, but just speaking of Christians here) whose preservation I believe is important for the whole region, including and especially for the vast majority of the populations who are Muslim. As human beings, we need to be reminded that we're not all the same, that we need to respect those who are different. This is a value that Israel's founding ideology has no respect for and which many other Middle Eastern countries have come to have insufficient respect for (and yes, true enough, we are suffering from an increasingly similar malaise in the US). Buy an Olive Wood Nativity set from the Bethlehemite at the mall, help support a poor family suffering under the Israeli occupation, help support the struggling Christian community of Palestine and the religious diversity Palestinians of all faiths have traditionally valued, and you'll be contributing to more good than you know.

Oh, and take a moment to chat with these folks as well. Everyone I've met is very nice and loves to tell you about life for them back home.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Connecting The Dots: Whacking Sadr, Round 3

There are three events going on right now which I am quite surprised that few people are connecting the dots on:
  • The Bush Administration's backing of an attempt to form a new Iraqi governing political coalition consisting primarily of the Shi'ite Islamist SCIRI, the Sunni Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Kurdish parties. This is being presented as a supposedly multi-ethnic "moderate" coalition aimed at isolating "extremists" and being the political part of a new path forward.
  • The debate over a temporary boost of 15,000-30,000 additional US troops primarily into Baghdad. The public debate currently is between those who say a small number like this can't make any real difference and those who say "we've got to try something".
  • Muqtada as-Sadr's supporters rejoining the Iraqi government after a boycott of several weeks. On the surface this looks like Sadr's boys just threw a temper tantrum when Maliki met Bush in Jordan a few weeks back and now they're returning to work as they always planned.

I believe these interpretations are wrong and these aren't isolated events. This is a concerted and yet-again quixotic effort by the Bush Administration to try to destroy Muqtada as-Sadr's power in the political and military arenas in the next few months. Even if they boot Sadr from the political arena (heck, even if they kill him and badly bloody his foot soldiers), it is going to fail as both the 2004 attempts to crush his movement failed, and it is going to result in yet more major blowback. In a nutshell, this is what I believe is really going on:

  • The supposedly "new" political coalition is really an old coalition of exile parties. More to the point, these are blatantly sectarian parties who thrive on feeding ethnic divisions in the country and from manipulating US politicians into believing the false "3 Iraqs - Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish" framework and then grabbing for power and resources as the US tries to distribute them. They're at it again as the Bush Administration desperately flails around looking for a political way out of the ma2zaq they're in. Their goal is to press for the further decentralization of power (i.e., weakening of the central government in Baghdad) so that they can each try to grab power and resources in the regions of Iraq where their political power is relatively stronger. Obviously the Kurds have solid control of their region, but they are always seeking further loosening of ties from Baghdad. SCIRI as always is seeking means to grab power in the south, in particular away from the Sadrists. And while I haven't followed Hashimi and the Iraqi Islamic Party as closely, I can only presume given their history pre-war and their overt sectarian bent today they are hoping to pick up the "Sunni" spoils of this divisive policy (anyone with deeper knowledge of Hashimi and the IIP, please comment).
  • Sadr is once again being presented by Washington as the extremist who is causing the real problems and that "solving" the Sadr problem will help things move forward. From Washington's perspective it seems obvious: his Jaysh al-Mahdi death squads are a big part of the sectarian killings going on, and politically he makes an easy scapegoat as the guy whose parliamentary supporters supposedly are blocking PM Maliki from Da'wa from doing the job he supposedly wants to but can't because of political dependence on Sadr. The raids on Sadr City a few months ago which Maliki demanded be called off (eventually successfully, though it took a little while) were emblematic -- Washington couldn't go after the sectarian killers because they had the political power to get the raids called off. So now the thinking from Washington is: form an alternative political coalition where Sadr doesn't have a say, then send the US army into Sadr City (boosted by the temporary surge of 15,000 to 30,000 troops) to clean out the Mahdi Army death squads and cut Sadr down to size militarily and hence politically.
  • As usual, a bad misreading of what's really going on, resulting in a terrible idea that is going to cause a lot more damage than any short-term gains (if they even get those). For starters, even if the US, SCIRI, IIP, and KDP/PUK can put together a working coalition, what will really have been formed? The Bush Administration is touting it as a "moderate" (watch out, if Washington calls anyone around the world "moderate" these days, odds are they are ugly thugs who simply accept a US paycheck instead of somebody else's) multi-ethnic group which will supposedly allow the various ethnicities to then sit down at the table and find a way to share power. Not true. What you will get is a coalition of the same forces who rode the US into power almost 4 years ago and who are seeking a division of spoils to their benefit first and foremost, not a central state able to secure and govern the country. So even if Sadr is weakened momentarily, the powerful undercurrents feeding the sectarian and political violence will be strengthened.
  • Militarily, the two Sadrist uprisings in 2004 show clearly the limits of attempts to crush Sadr -- they can be bloodied, but as a mass populist movement in a country the US does not have the ability to control militarily or even provide rudimentary personal security in, they cannot be destroyed. Any attempt to do so will only produce increased bitterness and anger. More Jaysh al-Mahdi fighters will go deeper underground and engage in more attacks similar in style to the Sunni insurgents.
  • Politically, Sadr will receive a huge boost as well as the guy standing up to two very unpopular forces among most Iraqis: (1) US troops, and (2) decentralization forces. The unpopularity of US occupation forces - especially when they engage in major operations where they kill even more innocent civilians - I don't think needs any further explanation. But by the forces of decentralization, I refer in particular to SCIRI's regionalization push which I believe is highly unpopular except among Kurds and a small minority of SCIRI patrons who would personally benefit. I believe the vast majority of Arab Iraqis - Sadr's core supporters very much among them, but a huge cross section cutting across sectarian lines - believe the decentralization SCIRI is pushing is essentially the destruction of Iraq.
  • Another immediate bit of blowback: the southern feeder lines to the Basrah Oil Terminal which carry roughly 80% of Iraq's oil exports remain highly vulnerable to attack. Despite the relatively short distance that the main trunklines are exposed (particularly on the Fao Peninsula), they were easily struck multiple times back in 2004. The fact that they have not been struck again since is not a reflection of significantly improved security, merely of the fact that the political forces in the region are aligned such that it is not in the interest of the key power brokers to see the lines shut. You cut Sadr's (huge) powerbase out of the official power structure and make it clear that the billions of revenue are going to flow instead to SCIRI who is trying to take over power at the local level where Sadr is strong and more broadly is trying to devolve power in a way many consider the destruction of Iraq -- well, there will suddenly be a huge group of powerful people who have an interest in stopping the flow of oil revenue to SCIRI. Sadrists in Basrah have made threats (how "official" they were is unclear to me) in the past to shut down the oil, I believe if there is a full scale political and military assault on them, they will renew and make good on those threats.
  • For the global oil market this would have two important effects: (1) if the outages last for a significant period of time (worries start after a week, by 2-3 weeks its getting serious, a month or longer and its a major problem) then expect the flat price of crude to start spiking again and new highs to return to the gasoline pump before long, and (2) more importantly for the longer term, an actual major supply outage like this will drive up the front end of the futures price curve, possibly back into backwardation after the past few years of contango. This in turn will disincentive the holding of inventories by commercial oil companies and drive down oil stocks. That could help return the market to the sort of tightness that helped fuel the 2002-2006 price runup. Now, I don't want to be too alarmist, it would take a significant, long outage for Iraq to be able to structurally shift the market after the structural weakness in the curve and levelling off of the flat price in the last year. My point is just that if the US goes for broke on this trying to seriously crush Sadr, this now becomes a very real possibility.
  • Finally, and it seems a bit of a minor point now, this I think explains the Sadrists rejoining the government. They're not eager for a knock down fight like this and would prefer to simply try to maintain their position. So rejoining the government and trying to keep the current political coalition in place will be their priority for the moment. The Bush Administration is pretty desperate though and SCIRI is always looking for a way to get the upper hand in the civil war. The political pressure is a full court press, and if we see the troop levels actually surge (as I expect) in the next couple months, I think this is going to happen.

So keep an eye out next few weeks and months, we'll see if I got this one right, but it seems clear enough to me.

UPDATE: One commenter points out that today Sistani is said to have rejected supporting the proposed SCIRI-IIP-PUK/KDP coalition. If so, it certainly puts a serious roadblock in the attempt, though we'll have to wait and see if it is a fatal blow to the political or military plans.

UPDATE 2: Seems I wasn't the first to point out the surge was to take on Sadr.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sadrists and Sunni Insurgents United for Peace and Love?

Badger over at Arablinks asks me the following:


Non-arab, I guess what that comes down to is that this would be a not-implausible combination: Islamist-tinged Sunni nationalism with Sadrist nationalism ?


I did tangentially address this in my previous post "On SCIRI vs Sadrists". No deep insights, but to briefly lay out my views on this:
  • The Sadrists (and the plural is important, there are numerous splinter groups and even the "official" Sadrist movement under Moqtada is pretty loosely controlled) broadly speaking represent rural southerners including the masses who have moved to urban areas (think Sadr City / Madinat ath-Thawra in particular) but kept strong tribal links to the countryside. Unlike the shrine city clerical and commercial classes (Najaf and Karbala primarily) who have strong direct ties to Iran through business (in particular catering to pilgrims and the burial trade at Wadi al-Salam) and theological dealings, these "Easterners" as they are traditionally called in Iraq feel less close to Iran. They are Arab in not just their primary language and outlook on life, but (while not without academic dispute) are also said to largely have converted to Shi'ism relatively recently, perhaps in the past two centuries. Don't want take that point too far since it is a matter of some dispute, but the point is that these folks outlook is both Arab, distrusting of foreigners, and hence very Iraqi nationalist (in the middle ages Iraq generally referred roughly speaking to today's predominantly Shi'a areas of Iraq Baghdad and south).
  • It should be said too that in the early days of the Ba'ath, the party itself was more diverse. While always a smaller party compared to some of its bigger rivals (primarily the Iraqi Communist Party - ICP) in the turbulent era of the post-monarchy revolutions in the 50s and 60s, it was by no means seen as an ethnic party. Indeed, none of the great ideological parties of that era were (some tried to paint the ICP as a Shi'a resistance movement, but Hanna Batatu's research into the party's membership and leadership showed it to be a much bigger tent).
  • Following the 50s and 60s and the eventual victory of the Ba'ath (or really "last man standing" victory after an exhausting series of coups, counter-coups, and bloody purges -- the Ba'athi purges/executions of Communists having been aided by CIA-provided lists of enemies to liquidate), one could still see a sense of Iraqi nationhood emerging. King Faisal and his successors and stooge-ministers like Nouri Said, for all their faults, did through successes and mistakes help begin to forge a sense of nationhood (mistakes and popular revolt against them often helping to forge unity as well or better than successes). The shared experience under British Colonialism, the joint 1920 Sunni-Shi'a uprising, the founding of ideological parties that cut across traditional fault lines, the toppling of the monarchy, the rule of Abdul Karim Qassim, the turbulent 50s and 60s, the discovery and beginnings of exploitation of oil and the development it brought (Iraq in the 50s had a very enlightened oil revenue distribution system that put the money largely into physical capital investment), and the broader connection to Arab Nationalism (both for and against) all brought people into new forms of identity.
  • Under the Ba'ath party and then specifically under Saddam, there was added at first two other common elements: (1) the well-known in the west fear of living under what did come to be one of the most totalitarian of the Arab dictatorships, but also (2) genuine economic development in the 70s in particular and again briefly in the late 80s after the 1st Gulf War [Arabs refer to the Iran-Iraq War as the 1st Gulf War, 1990-91 as the 2nd, and 2003 onwards as the 3rd]. By the late 70s Iraq had one of the best educational, medical, and transportation systems in the entire Arab world and people came from far away to participate in these systems despite the Ba'ath dictatorship.
  • With the 1st and 2nd Gulf Wars and the period of sanctions, a third element of common suffering was added: besides for suffering under Saddam's rule, people felt a commonality of suffering through the wars and sanctions together. The wars may have been known quietly to most folks as severe folly even if they couldn't state so openly, but they got through the hardships together. And even if Saddam was seen as foolish, it didn't change the fact that most Iraqis (southern Shi'a included) had an intense distrust of Iran, believed that Kuwait was historically a piece of Iraq, and that the Americans were out to get them. The notion of Iraq's Shi'a siding with Iran never gained any foothold, and when the regime really got on the ropes they knew it was key to provide some sort of tangible benefit to people to keep them going as an entire society and not just stitched-together bits and pieces.
  • So much for the unity. Those were important building blocks and very real, but of course the Fitna ("troubles" loosely translated I guess one could say in a Northern Island sort of usage for the word) we see today had its roots too. When the great ideological era of Middle Eastern politics wound down by the 70s and the Ba'ath were the only ones left standing, people in the entire Middle East and Iraq stood disillusioned and unsure. Saddam (as with other Middle Eastern dictators) started grabbing piecemeal bits of ideology here and there to justify his rule. Sometimes he was a socialist, other times an Arab nationalist, other times an Islamist, etc, etc, etc. This could win brownie points for sure - oil nationalization and putting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) on the flag were respectively wildly popular and something nobody could really object to. But people could see there was no driving ideological force any more. It was about the party staying in power.
  • With time it wasn't even just about the party staying in power, it was about Saddam staying in power. Pure carrot and stick patronage politics and political persecution were the name of the game. Enemies were punished through the state's security services, and friends were rewarded through the state's income. This was of course overwhelmingly oil income as the state became yet another rentier oil state (i.e., dependent fiscally on oil "rents" that required no consent of the people to collect and could then be distributed as those at the top of the system saw fit to buy political support). The enlightened capital investment program of the 50s having long since given way to oil income in the service of regime survival. Sometimes regime survival brought enlightened purposes -- with no ideology and a thin political support base in the 70s, the Ba'ath were smart enough then to realize that developing the country while keeping a tight rein on folks could work in a way which in some ways is pretty similar to what the Chinese have done far more successfully since.
  • The wars and sanctions eras though meant that Saddam had to rely on a smaller and smaller power base. With a few notable meager exceptions (subsidized oil, occasionally brief fits of peace and economic growth), he could no longer buy the entire populace prosperity. Social services deteriorated across the board and people grew restless. However, there were no great ideological movements left to articulate a new or different vision for protest, and in any case the political space was sealed shut on pain of death. The Arab Nationalists were discredited after the death of Nasser and despondent after Sadat's betrayal, the ICP Communists were broken as a mass movement. Into this space, Islamist movements began moving in. Over time the Sadrists under Moqtada's father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq as-Sadr for example became a major albeit necessarily quiet force in establishing a Shi'a Islamist ideology and (more practically) set of social services in the Shi'a community where the state had broken down. Groups such as SCIRI who actually did run off to Iran's side in the war (note this was not a mass defection of Shi'a to Iran, but one group well-connected to the more unique shrine city interest groups) also formed.
  • Note a few key elements here: (1) secular ideologies were discredited or broken and only Islamists emerged - cautiously - to fill the gap. (2) With Shi'a the largest religious grouping in Iraq, Shi'a Islamist movements emerged the biggest and strongest. This meant that Saddam, intolerable of *any* regime opponents had his biggest targets among the Shi'a. There were no movements of size that would have him equally attacking the south and center of the country. Since his core supporters tended to come from his immediate tribe/clan/family and thence dispensed their patronage to the areas they came from (the upper euphrates and tigris valleys or "Sunni Triangle" as western journalists have since dubbed it), this in essence is really where today's major Sunni-Shi'a split came from. Secular opposition cutting across sectarian boundaries had been eliminated, leaving only sectarian opposition parties. Sectarian opposition was overwhelmingly from the Shi'a side where clerics had more organization in any case (look to the revolution in Iran as an example of the power of a more organized clerical class) and where Saddam did not have as many relatives in his increasingly narrow patronage network. Boom - the "Shi'a" become the targets, not so much as design against the Shi'a, as by the fact that the regime's narrow power base brought it down on them through the process outlined above.
  • The unity outlined earlier worked against necessarily seeing things in pure Sunni-Shi'a terms, people believed in the notion of Iraq. But as time went on, and especially after the 1991 uprisings (where again, the Shi'a resistance had stronger organization to call upon and hence got more brutally crushed), it was also easier as an Iraqi Shi'a to see this as a purely anti-Shi'a drive, especially for those who went to the Islamist organizations for an ideological framework for life and resistance.
  • Without going into the entire dynamic of massive US flubs that blew wide open these schisms in Iraqi society (they didn't have to, but the US bears the primary blame for it having happened both because of the invasion and the post-invasion emphasis on sectarian identity), it will suffice to say that the Shi'a Islamist parties emerged the strongest following the US occupation. A huge secular underlying force still existed in Iraq on day 1 of the occupation, people didn't want to break up into sectarian squabbling, but the seeds of it were there.
  • So now to come back to the Sadrists. As stated early on, they represent a group that is very Arabist in its outlook, but also very much a strong Shi'a Islamist party. While the differences to Lebanon's Hizbullah are huge (they are not as disciplined, they do not have as experienced a leadership, they are nowhere near as adept at wooing inter-sectarian alliances, and - oh yeah - they have out of control death squads unlike Hizbullah's quite professional and disciplined military apparatus), the similarities are also big at least on the surface: a Shi'a Islamist grouping with a social services network participating in the political system as a strong non-majority force and carrying a banner of anti-occupation (anti-Israeli, anti-American, etc.) resistance.
  • In Lebanon, Hizbullah has been able to win allies outside of its own Shi'a community (the Aounist Christians primarily) by emphasizing the resistance angle which others can agree on, by not seeking a state ruled on their interpretation of religious law, and by *not* terrorizing those of other sects but seeking to allay such fears where possible (not always possible granted, Lebanon remains a tinderbox, but they've certainly convinced a sizeable number).
  • The Sadrists have a wee bit of a problem though: their militia (the Mahdi Army) is wildly out of control and is slaughtering members of other sects. Big problem for inter-sect cooperation. Yes, the Arab or Iraqi nationalist and resistance angles give space for cooperation, but Iraq is just entering it's civil war and the Sadrists and Mahdi Army are young and undisciplined whereas Lebanon already went through a civil war (hopefully there's not another coming) and Hizbullah is a well-established and disciplined force. Even if Moqtada says the right things, it's hard to win friends on the basis of nice anti-occupation words when he can't control his foot soldiers and those foot soldiers are staging mass kidnappings of folks from other sects and dumping their drill-hole ridden bodies on rubbish tips.
  • Of course it's not just a matter of "well then why don't they just stop it?" Fact is emotions for the constituency Sadr represents are incredibly raw. They suffered immensely for the past century (they were always the poorest of the poor and being targeted under Saddam for supporting Islamists made it that much worse), and now from their perspective they're being targetted again. The Sunni resistance to the occupation has several strikes against it for winning Sadrist trust: (1) lots of ex- or current-Baathists who the Sadrists in many instances rightly know were the guys who used to torture and kill their people, (2) the Al-Qaeda type minority in the Sunni resistance is blatantly sectarian anti-Shi'a with all the infamous beheadings and car bombs in marketplaces and what not, and (3) the presence of those forces makes it really hard to trust anybody who works with them including what one might term "honest" nationalist resistance fighters. Think about it, if you're some guy who's grown up in Madinat ath-Thawra / Sadr City your whole life, walking through sewage, your dad and uncle disappearing or getting tortured for years for being a member of Da'wa, and then suddenly the Ba'ath falls and the guys who you tried to make nice with at first from over in Aadhamiya (Sunni part of Baghdad) to fight the Americans together are now seen as allies of the folks who are sending car bombs to the fruit market -- well, it's not hard to see why there's a lack of trust.
  • The flip side also holds true: if you're a Sunni opposition fighter or sympathizer whose primary goal is to rid the country of US occupiers and at first you saw great hope in all those joint Sunni-Shi'a prayers and Sadrist aid convoys to Fallujah in April 2004, but now you see the Mahdi Army mortaring your living room and torturing and killing people in the streets and in secret for having the wrong name...well, kinda hard to trust them too eh?
  • 2nd Fallujah (November 2004 flattening of the city by the marines) was a real watershed in this regard. The Sadrists sent aid to Fallujah in April, but when it turned into Al-Qaeda central for beheadings of Shi'a and assembling carbombs meant for Sadr City, most of the south of Iraq sat back with some satisfaction seeing the city flattened. They felt betrayed and thought Fallujah got what it deserved. On the Sunni side what was viewed as yet another American ugly crime seemed to have now had a Shi'a blessing. The sectarianism of it all was growing and a rift clearly exposed.
  • So, even though Sunni nationalists (minus Al Qaeda) tend to say the right things about national unity and common opposition to the US occupation, and even though Sadrist leaders tend to say much the same stuff, the reality is that dead fathers and raped sisters tend to have a bigger impact on people's feelings. And those feelings are raw. I'm afraid at this point that the scab has been ripped off and every day more salt is being poured into the wound.

Perhaps something could happen eventually to heal the rift, but its tough to see now in my eyes for a very, very long time. Not impossible eventually, Hizbullah once was a much cruder, angrier, less-disciplined lot in Lebanon. But Lebanon and the Lebanese Shi'a had to go through a lot before it got to where it is today. Iraq is a much bigger and more explosive place with bigger stakes. The raw material for cooperation between these major consituencies in Iraq exists, but how you get past this bad blood of the past few years is beyond me at the moment.

What Are You Going to Do Now, Israel?

When There's No One Left to Blame
What Are You Going to Do Now, Israel?
Johannesburg, South Africa
What are you going to do now, Israel?
Now that three small boys have been killed by assassins' bullets, and a Hamas judge dragged from his car and murdered, perhaps you are pleased. The Palestinians are finally succumbing to your plots, you think. The long-planned bottle has finally been sealed, in which the "drunken cockroaches" can only crawl around, shooting each other.
Maybe you are sitting back in your national chair, rubbing your hands together in triumph, watching the Palestinians finally turn on each other, slowly becoming what you always claimed they were. Maybe you are repelled, secure in your sense of superiority.
But have you thought about what you are you going to do, if Palestinian leadership you despise finally disintegrates?

You have brought them to this pass, of course. You worked for decades to achieve exactly this. You bribed, terrorized, expelled, maimed or killed their leadership, banned or killed their visionaries and philosophers, fanned and funded Hamas against Fatah or Fatah against Hamas, trashed their democracy, stole their money, walled them in, put them on a "diet", derided their claims, and lied about their history to the world and to yourself.

But what are you going to do, Israel, if five million Palestinians are finally living leaderless under your sovereignty? What will you do, when they lose their capacity to negotiate with you? Have you thought that, within the territory you control, they are as many as you? And that now you are destroying their unified voice? Have you thought about what will happen to you if they truly lose that voice?
Maybe you really believe that, if you only feed Fatah money and guns, Fatah will reclaim power from the Hamas and restore the craven puppet Palestinian government of your dreams. Maybe you actually believe that Fatah can revive the wreck of Oslo, step out of the rubble of PA offices, and reclaim the driver's seat of the Palestinian nation as before. Maybe you are telling yourself that, with just a few more inter-factional scuffles and assassinations and little more starvation, the entire Palestinian people will turn on Hamas and eject it from power in favor of grinning Mr. Abbas.

But why would you believe all this, when the only other test-case, Iraq, is in ruins and the US and UK are desperately trying to flee?

Do you really still live so deeply in your own fantasies that you believe Palestinian resistance is just the product of bad or obdurate leadership? That no collective memory of expulsion and dispossession sustains the spirit of collective resistance that will always and inevitably transcend that leadership? Do you really believe that, if only you can crush or co-opt Hamas and Fatah, five million people will simply disappear forever from your world--trail off across the Jordanian or Egyptian borders into the endless desert, clutching clothes, kids, and tarnished mementos, in some great reprise of 1948?
Do you actually think that, if the international community finally lets you off the hook of negotiating with the people you have dispossessed and discredited, you will somehow walk free at last, your crimes against them forgotten?
We know you are still pursuing the old, fatal, futile fantasy: finally to redeem the Zionist dream by demolishing Palestinian nationalism. To break Palestinian national unity on the rocks of occupation. To reduce the Palestinians to Indians on reservations who decline into despair, alcoholism and emigration. To make them irrelevant to you.
But here is news for you, Israel. The Native Americans haven't given up to this day. Damaged and reduced as they are, they know their history and remember their grievances. They are marginal only because they are one percent of the US population. The Palestinians are five-million strong, equal to you in numbers. And they live within your borders. When their leadership ruins itself, bashing each other like rams fighting to the death, they will finally turn their five million pairs of burning eyes on you, for you will be the only power left over them. And you will be defenseless, because your paper shelter - your Fatah or PA quislings - will be damaged goods, cracked vessels, discredited, gone. And it will then be you and those you have disenfranchised - you and the Palestinians, in one state, with no Oslo or Road Map myth to protect you. And by then, they will truly hate you.
Then perhaps it will dawn on you what you have done, when the disintegration of Palestinian national unity spreads out like a tsunami through the Middle East, meeting up with the tsunami spreading out from Iraq, to lay the region waste and rebound on you.
Watching you create this catastrophe for yourself, we think you are simply suicidal. We could just watch, but your road to ruin promises too much suffering to too many people. Still, to avert your unilateral suicide pact with the Palestinians, to whom can we turn?
We could appeal to Hamas at last to mobilize the rank and file, who alone have the capacity to launch civil disobedience on the mass scale necessary to paralyse Israel's iron fist, but Hamas has no experience with this method, and now its statesmen are cornered by the guns you gave to Fatah thugs.
We could appeal to the leader of the Fatah thugs, Mr. Abbas, shuffling at the feet of Israeli power, to find some spine. Or to the ubiquitous Mr. Erekat, who never had a political vision in his life, to develop one overnight.
We could appeal to the Fatah thugs to reject Mr. Abbas and Mr. Erekat and the fat cement contracts you gave them to build the Wall that imprisons them, and seek a high road they have never glimpsed.
We could appeal to the microscopic PFLP and DFLP, clutching their old programs too stale to chew and consumed by their acrid, decades-old bitterness and rivalry with Fatah, to lift their heads at long last beyond the old and new grievances.
We could appeal to the US, but no one bothers to do that.
We could appeal to the EU, but no one bothers to do that, either.
We could appeal to the world, but it only stands aghast.
We could appeal to the world media, but it is frozen with its a** in the air.
We can only appeal to you, Israel. To think what you are doing, if not to care.
For you are crafting your own destruction.
You have been so effective in this great national project because you work from experience. Even the most courageous, principled, and sensible people, as you learned, cannot withstand a concentration camp indefinitely. At some point, as the Holocaust historians have tracked with such pathos, humanity breaks down. Individual heroism may survive as memoirs, but order, humanity, and finally human feeling decays into factional squabbles and man's inhumanity to man. You learned all too well and bitterly how this cauldron can melt down the very fabric of a society and shatter people. The lesson is burned, literally, into your national memory. And you are bringing those lessons to bear, attempting to purge Zionism's tragedy by bringing Gaza to ruin.
But if you actually reap the chaos you are crafting for the Palestinians, you will find that no one else is responsible for these five million civilians except you.
So what will you do, Israel, with five million people living under your rule, when you can no longer pretend to the world that you intend to negotiate with them? What will you do with people you detest, and who finally utterly detest you, when visions of coexistence have finally failed? You will be the only sovereign power over them. You will be able neither to digest them nor to vomit them out. And they will stare at you.
And we will stare at you, too.

Because there will be no one left to blame, and no one to take care of them, except you.
Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, a US citizen working in South Africa, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at

Friday, December 15, 2006

Iraqi Refugees

Good piece in LA Times Thursday on the generation of Iraqi refugees created by the US occupation and descent into fitna / civil war. (Apologize for the poor formatting, click on the link to get a more readable version).

In 1948 the Israelis created the Palestinian refugee nightmare supported by the United States (not just diplomatically, US authorities deliberately turned a blind eye to US partisans of the early Israeli ethnic cleansing effort who were running illegal weapons and terrorist-guerilla smuggling operations from US shores -- check our the Inner Harbor Memorial in Baltimore someday for one example of a much bally-hooed example of Israeli human trafficking). From 2003 onwards the US created the Iraqi refugee nightmare supported by Israel (though once again Palestinians got another short end of the stick as US forcess and Iraqi militiamen of various stripes have persecuted Palestinian refugees in Iraq). Iraqi refugees are already feeling much of the hostility that Palestinian refugees have. No doubt US and Israeli propagandists will use this to claim that "Arabs don't really care about Iraq".


Iraqis flee war, run into hostility
As their numbers grow, refugees find that prejudice is growing and compassion is fading.By Jeffrey Fleishman and Qaisar AhmedSpecial to The TimesDecember 14, 2006CAIRO — Strolling the alleys and boulevards of this city, Raaid Lafta sometimes thinks he glimpses his old country: in the barber's face, in the baker's oven, in the way the restaurant chef serves the spiced dishes he's known since boyhood.Like him, the barber, baker and chef are Iraqis adrift in war. Escaping their battered homeland in crowded cars and lopsided buses, boarding planes and walking stretches of desert, Iraqi refugees are a growing diaspora in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and other Arab cities. With children in tow and life savings hidden in pots and suitcases, they are another precarious burden for the Middle East."I see everyone speaking in an Iraq accent," Lafta said. "Iraqi men singing Iraqi songs in the streets, Iraqi cafes, Iraqi shops…. I was opening a bank account here, so when the banker asked for my address, I replied that I live in Cairo's 6th of October neighborhood. He smiled and said, 'You Iraqis have invaded October.' "An estimated 100,000 Iraqis leave their country each month, including many of Iraq's best educated professionals, part of the more than 1.6 million who have fled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Syrian government said Wednesday that it had taken in more than 800,000 Iraqis so far. Jordan has about 700,000, with tens of thousands more scattered across the Arab world. They have carried Iraq's civil strife into the incendiary politics of a region that is also navigating Iran's nuclear aspirations and turmoil in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.Iraqi refugees are accumulating much like the millions of displaced Palestinians who have flowed across the region for decades. Iraqis began trickling out during Saddam Hussein's regime, but their numbers steadily increased as their nation tumbled into civil war. The newest refugees are finding that compassion is fraying, prejudice growing and host countries, such as Jordan, are less welcoming.A recent report by Human Rights Watch criticized Jordan for being slow in renewing visas for Iraqis who live "in the shadows, fearful and subject to exploitation." The report credited Jordan's past tolerance but it also said the country was now ignoring "the existence of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, does not address their needs for protection, and has not asked for international assistance on their behalf. It is a policy that can best be characterized as 'the silent treatment.' "The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees put it more starkly in a recent assessment: "Iraq is hemorrhaging. The humanitarian crisis which the international community had feared is now unfolding." Including those who have fled their homes but remained in the country, more than 10% of Iraq's prewar population of 26 million has been displaced.*'I'm … ashamed'The violence has been escalating for so long that it's difficult for refugees, most of whom are Sunni Arab Muslims, to pinpoint the exact horror that sent them rushing across borders. For many, like Khadem Salih, a 70-year-old retired lawyer, it was a numbing diary of suicide bombings, sectarian militia attacks and dusk-to-dawn bloodshed. Salih appeared at a Jordanian checkpoint two months ago. Interviewed at length by officials, he was granted only a one-month visa."I'm very much ashamed I left," said Salih, who lives in Amman, Jordan's capital. "Now, I'm struggling to get residency here, which will cost me at least $150,000. I am miserable to be forced to finally leave my country at the end stage of my life."That misery reverberates like a relentless echo out of Iraq. Consider the fate of Laith Youssef, a shopkeeper who also ended up in Amman. An Iraqi gang threatened to kidnap his three children if he did not pay $40,000. Weeks later, a grenade exploded outside his shop, speckling his leg with shrapnel. Then he was jailed for 15 days for offending the Al Mahdi army, a Shiite militia. While he was imprisoned, his wife was attacked for not wearing strict Islamic dress in public.Youssef and his family fled to Jordan, but even there, without the bombs and the beheadings, life is tough. Nearly half of Jordan's population consists of displaced Palestinians. The added influx of Iraqis, many of whom are educated and affluent, is straining a weak job market and raising the possibility of terrorist strikes in the kingdom."We're not stable," Youssef said. "I have no job because the law doesn't allow me to work, and if the police catch me working, they'll send me back to the Iraqi border. My wife takes care of elderly people, and sometimes we get aid from churches."He added: "I don't deal with people here because I know if any problem happens I will be blamed. This is not my country. Jordan was kind enough to allow us in, but the number of Iraqis has increased more than this country can endure. Some Jordanians deal with us normally, but some, when they hear our Iraqi accent, look at us in a weird way."Alliah Talib also has been stung by the eyes of her hosts. The director of an Iraqi organization for a free press, Talib, a Shiite, arrived in Cairo four months ago after militants accused her of working with foreign intelligence services.This city is crowded, and sometimes she feels guilty about taking a seat on a bus, knowing that an Egyptian will have to stand. Such are the subconscious calculations of a nomad: a woman who prays that her money won't run out before her nation's cycle of killing has finished."I only watch Iraqi satellite TV channels here, so I can cry some more," she said. "I know that my friends and relatives are suffering in Iraq. I watch the news here to suffer with them…. When I go out and see Iraqis in [Cairo's] streets, I feel more secure. There is a common reason that made us all escape Iraq. Seeing that many others are participating or sharing the same lifestyle as you reduces the feeling of loneliness."*'Just give me security'May Abassi knew it was time to leave Iraq when she began to think wistfully of the days of Hussein's rule. She and her husband and two young children fled through the smoke and funerals to Cairo. She has found that Egyptians are not like Iraqis. She said she planned to send her son to an English-language school so he would not pick up an Egyptian accent or play with boys she deemed too rough."I don't have anything against Egyptians," Abassi said. "They are good and welcoming, but we just can't mix with them…. If I feel the security in Baghdad improves, I will go back immediately. I don't want anything except security — even electricity and water are not important — just give me security, and I will go back. I feel a pain inside my heart when I see Baghdad burning."Some of the refugees have begun new enterprises in new lands. Amid the camaraderie of the dispossessed, Raaid Lafta opened Studio Happy Time. A photographer who graduated with a fine arts degree from Baghdad University, Lafta left Iraq 14 months ago and landed in a Cairo neighborhood teeming with fellow Iraqis. Business is not so good, he said, but we "are out of harm's way.""We formed an Iraqi company as investors, and we own this shop," he said. "Only a few Egyptians come in here. But … Iraqis visit us a lot."He will not stay here forever; a man belongs in the country where he drew his first breath, he said. But for now, the accent he hears in these alleys is the lilt of home; the faces are the people he knows. An Iraqi barber cuts his hair, an Iraqi baker bakes his bread. There are Iraqi Internet cafes; there are stories only Iraqis would know, or believe."To be honest with you," he said, "as I walk down the street of this city, I see all the Iraqi families spending time with their children. It really disappoints and annoys me because I wonder what made us and all these respectful families flee our homeland to live here as strangers."Others, including Youssef, the shopkeeper in Amman, are preparing to be strangers for the rest of their lives. Youssef doesn't expect he'll see his old shop back on Nidhal Street or drive past the date palms in the now murderous Dora neighborhood in Baghdad. He recently applied for a visa to Australia."I doubt Iraq will ever be safe again," he said.*
jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.comTimes staff writer Fleishman reported from Berlin and special correspondent Ahmed from Cairo. Special correspondent Nadia Fallas in Amman contributed to this report.*(INFOBOX BELOW)Iraqis seeking refugeA recent U.N. report estimates more than 1.6 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The November report says 100,000 are leaving every month.Estimated displaced IraqisIraq* : 1.6 millionSyria: 800,000Jordan: 700,000Egypt: 100,000Iran: 54,000Lebanon: 20,000 to 40,000*Internal refugees--Sources: Associated Press, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Times reporting

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What isn't being reported on in the US

There are a number of extremely momentous events occurring in the Middle East receiving little coverage in the western media for various reasons:
  • The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are announcing quite loudly that they want nuclear energy. This is the direct result of Iran wanting nukes which is the direct result of Israel actually having nukes. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert came out yesterday with an apparent slip of the tongue admitting Israel has nukes ( -- as if it were a big secret, Mordechai Vanunu's actual pictures of the nukes were published two decades ago for the world to see). Congrats US politicians left and right, your blind support of Israeli abuse of power is now getting you an entire Middle East - friends and foes alike - who want to be armed to the teeth with nukes, brilliant.
  • The opposition protests in Beirut are absolutely massive, far bigger than the vaunted "Cedar Revolution" protests of not so long ago which the Bush Administration hailed. Suddenly now though, the exact same peaceful tactics when employed by political parties the Bush Administration and the West doesn't like, are "an attempted coup" or some other hogwash. Bald-faced open hypocrisy which proves that Arabs are right when they say Bush is a liar when he claims to want democracy. He wants only pro-US stooges, if they can get there via democratic means then great for the propaganda, but if they need to be kept in power via undemocratic means then the propaganda needs to be flipped in their service.
  • Dual Civil War watch: However, the Lebanese protests, despite the efforts to avoid it, are taking on a major sectarian overtone, thanks in heavy part to the government of Fouad Siniora who - lacking all other legitimacy - is turning more and more overtly racist in its rhetoric. Hizbullah and Michel Aoun's al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr are trying to take the high road, but their supporters are pretty narrowly sectarian too. Tension is rising, and egged on by the US, this could go to civil war though everyone hopes not and is trying to avoid. Meanwhile in Gaza the murder yesterday of three innocent children who were the children of a major anti-Hamas Fatah militant has aroused intense passions. Al-Jazeera which is normally more than happy to give Hamas a fair hearing was just as willing to show the sorrow of children from the Fatah side who broke down in tears when talking of their schoolmates being killed. Tension was already high with US-stooge Abbas and Dahlan looking for ways to topple the Hamas government with Israeli and US assistance, but the street tensions are high and only rising. Hamas condemned the killings and say it wasn't their men who carried them out (apparently a botched assassination attempt on the boys' father), and to be honest it could be any number of perpetrators. But the reality is that tensions are high and just as government supporters in Lebanon automatically blame Syria, so too Fatah supporters will automatically blame Hamas. Could be true, could be someone else, but that's pretty much irrelevant in the current atmosphere.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Musings on Al-Andalus

I have just come back from a remarkable vacation in southern Spain and Morocco. Sometimes for vacation I just want to relax, get away from it all on a beach or in the countryside. But other times, I want to indulge my mind, experience another piece of the world. That's what I decided to do this time, so I spent the last few months more or less giving myself a mini-phd in the history of Al-Andalus (medieval Islamic Spain). I read a half a dozen or more wonderful books so that I would know what I was going to see and try to really understand the historical background of it all. I was not disappointed and will try to post some pictures. But I thought I would post just a few random thoughts on some of the surprising things I learned as I studied and visited places. In no particular order:
  • I've never really understood much about the Maghreb (Islamic North Africa west of Egypt or west of Libya depending on where you want to draw the line). I always assumed Morocco was the heart from which Islamic culture and arts spread into Al-Andalus. What I found was quite the opposite. While the armies and some of the rulers did pass from Morocco (or points further east) into Spain, Morocco for the first few centuries was not as developed a civilization or culture. It took a couple centuries after the initial conquest of Spain in 711 for high culture to really start developing in Al-Andalus, but once it did, the civilization of Spain far outstripped that of the relatively rough-and-tumble life of Morocco. As Al-Andalus steadily fell to the Castilians and the Portugese in the Reconquista, that Andalusian culture then fed back into Morocco. The wonderful culture and arts of Morocco are thus heavily in the debt of the Andalusians. I don't want to take the point too far, the Moroccan dynasties and cities certainly built much of their own high culture, but the contribution of Al-Andalus did in many instances precede that of Morocco and greatly enriched it.
  • One of the great romantic notions of medieval Spain is that of the Convivencia or supposed peaceful coexistence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. There is a great degree of truth to this, but the more I read and the more I saw, the less I am convinced of the truthfulness of the idealized myth. One cannot of course ignore the many beautiful fruits of the mixing of cultures and the many examples of coexistence and cross-polination in the arts and other forms of high culture. Mudajar and Mozarabic architecture and art, the theological and scientific achievements of men like Maimonides and Averroes, the poetic achievements in Hebrew and Arabic, and on and on all bear witness. But at the same time, deep undercurrents of intolerance were always present and perhaps made the ethnic cleansing first of the Jews and then of the Muslims eventually inevitable. When Jews were seen as having become too powerful (such as following the years of the poet-warrior Samuel Ha-Nagid in Granada), they became easy scapegoats when things went wrong and anti-Jewish riots, executions, and crucifixions did occur (though it should be noted that crucifixion remained a not uncommon form of execution for folks of all religions). The great Maimonides himself eventually had to flee to Egypt because of persecution (where he fared quite well as the personal physician of Saladin it should be added). Christian priests and Muslim Fuqaha alike encouraged emmigration from lands where they did not rule (though they were not entirely obeyed, they were certainly seen by most as at least correct in principle). The Alcazar of Peter the Cruel in Seville/Ishbiliya is certainly one of the finest examples of Islamic-style art in the world right alongside the Alhambra, but it also provided easy propaganda fodder to his rivals for power who accused him of being a Moor-lover and thus played a part in his eventual downfall and murder by his half brother (who stabbed him in the face). On the whole, Christians did fare better under Muslim rule than Muslims eventually did under Christian rule, but in both cases examples and periods of discrimination were common through various forms of taxation or limitations on religious practice. Certainly something remarkable and beatiful was created, but problems between religions and cultures were also prevalent and eventually culminated in the Christians ethnically cleansing all the Jews and Muslims from Spain. The Muslims would not likely have ever done such a thing to the Christians or Jews, but they certainly were not sinless in those times and places they ruled either. The idealized myth is useful and not totally false in order to present a vision of what might be, but we shouldn't pretend it represented the full reality. Mutual respect and tolerance existed on one level, but it was also fragile and not always upheld.
  • Al-Andalus (by which I mean Muslim-ruled Spain) strikes me as a place whose existence was always more fragile than it was likely perceived to be at the time by it's inhabitants. The initial conquest of roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of the Iberian Peninsula was largely the result of Visigothic weakness. The Arab and Berber armies were surprised in many ways at their success, but rapidly consolidated their gains and took posession of the lands, setting about creating an Arab and Berber country in the process which was to be quite unique. But in failing to conquer the entire peninsula, they created the seeds of their own eventual defeat. They were at the fringes of the Islamic world and had failed to fully take over their land and as such to become the sole inheritors of the prior Roman/Visigothic legacy of Spain. In Egypt, Iran and other countries the Islamic ruling classes became the new possessors of the old order and set about constructing their new cultural and political edifice on the foundation of the old. In Spain they started to do the same, but a competing narrative survived in the northwest and the foothills of the Pyrenees -- a narrative which was deeply aggrieved and felt as if it were the true original inhabitants who had been unjustly pushed into a cold, dark corner of the land by foreign usurpers who were of an infidel faith in their eyes. If the Amirs, Caliphs, and Kings had gone on to complete the conquest of the peninsula, then those original inhabitants would as in Egypt and elsewhere steadily have become part of the new culture -- unique in some ways as a minority, but ultimately a part of a shared social fabric. Instead two opposing forces were set up. Demography clearly was big here: Islamic settlement of the lands of the Center, North, and West ceased to expand while Christian populations grew and settlement expanded. There are too many reasons for that to get into here, but needless to say, a static or shrinking population country is at a disadvantage versus a country with an expanding population. Societal organization also played a role: The Castilians and other Christian kingdoms as time went by were able to field large armies made up of a large segment of their adult male population. But in Al-Andalus the rulers came to rely heavily on professional militaries of foreign Berbers. Native Andalusis (who originally may have come from Arab, Iberian convert, or Berber stock but then settled down to become "locals") certainly played a military role, but again, they were professionals who were a relatively small piece of the population. When the survival of cities, kingdoms, and ultimately Al-Andalus itself was on the line, the natives may have been full of zeal to defend their lives, families, homes, and freedom of worship, but they had virtually no weapons or military skills to do it with. Those things had been delegated to professional armies who were extremely divided internally and then divided further by an increasingly unstable and incapable political ruling class. At times when the political class was strong and capable (such as the golden eras between the Caliph Abdal Rahman III and Al-Mansur or the Granadan kings Yusuf I and Muhammad V), the professional militaries were generally up to the job, but when (as inevitably happened) the politics broke down or the divided military elements became unmanageable, defeat at the hands of the Christians could be sudden and disastrous. Of course the Christian kingdoms had plenty of their own internal schisms, but as time went on, they solved them better and had greater unity and greater ability to call on effective outside resources, while Muslim unity steadily disintegrated along with the availability of reliable Muslim allies from North Africa or further afield. Finally, agriculture and the economic base. Al-Andalus had an enviable and effective agricultural system and a diverse economic base with good irrigated land for a variety of crops which produced surplus wealth which in turn allowed the development of other industries. Exporting goods to the wider Islamic world (and later to Europe) brought wealth and prosperity, as did the gold trade from Sub-Saharan Africa. But as political divisions and military disasters grew over time, and as demographic stasis and eventually drains took hold, agriculture and economic activity suffered and went into terminal decline. Crops and farmland were destroyed, the population dwindled and couldn't get it back running again in many cases (The rich farmlands around Cordoba may well have been more intensively and effectively utilized in the 10th century than they are even today). Then the Christian kings extortion of wealth, while it greatly enriched them and even other parts of Western Europe to which the gold flowed, drained away more and more of the economic surplus. At the end of the day, all of these pressures - demographic, military, political, economic, and others - combined to mean that perhaps Al-Andalus was always meant to be a flower that would bloom in great glory, but eventually wilt away. It didn't necessarily have to be that way, but the choices and mistakes made meant that is what happened.
  • The sadness of the fall of Al-Andalus in stages and then in a final tragic episode with the fall of Gharnata/Granada is hard to over-estimate. It was a sobering (though magical) moment to read the story of the fall of Granada from the top tower of the Alcazaba in the Alhambra, the very place the cross and flags of Castille were raised in January 1492. But perhaps even more sobering was to read of the fall of Malaga a few years before. The last viable major port city of the kingdom of Granada which could have served as a lifeline for the city of Granada fell in an epic battle which truly could have been something out of the Lord of the Rings or any great medieval epic which I had always thought of as trumped up modern fantasies. In Malaga the Andalusis and their Berber allies from North Africa who had come to defend the faith fought valiantly in a massive fortress for their lives, families, homes, and religion. Siege towers, cavalry, knights, early cannons, crossbows, sapping tunnels, holy men, warriors, foot soldiers, ordinary citizens, kings, clerics and other elements all participated. Starvation ran rampant in the city, assasinations were attempted, bodies were hacked to pieces, city walls crumbled, a valiant last defense was made. But in the end the sad tale was that the Christian attackers not only defeated the natives of Malaga, and not only did they dispossess them of their homes, but they sold them into slavery for resisting. And from that moment on, it was clear, Granada was doomed, and with it the last jewel in the crown of Al-Andalus. For the Christians, the sacred mission to retake that which they felt had been usurped in 711 was nearly at hand almost 800 years later. A zero sum game.
  • In reality, it was not entirely zero sum. The Christians defeated the Muslims, the Jews and then the Muslims were forcibly expelled from all of Spain, but despite the best efforts to bury it, something survived and is bearing fruits again today. After the Reconquista and the ethnic cleansing was completed, a cultural legacy remained. It was buried and ignored for centuries, but piece by piece, it has begun to come to light again. The art and architecture never fully disappeared, nor did the tales of the past. The poetry has begun to come to light again to Spaniards, and even the religion of Islam has begun to gain a new foothold, aided by the modern Spanish Constiution which establishes freedom of religion in a way which neither Catholics or Muslims of medieval Spain or Al-Andalus would have dreamed of. Immigrants from North Africa are again coming (where the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus greatly enriched the local cultures which now feed back in some measure to Spain), but also significantly, some Spaniards are themselves converting to Islam. Even those who do not increasingly recognize the rich Islamic past and have internalized a part of it, such as the poets of the generation of 27 who were inspired in part by a collection of re-discovered great Islamic poets of Al-Andalus who had been translated into Spanish in the early part of the 20th century.

My musings for tonight. I have many other thoughts on these topics, in particular the linkages and what-ifs between Islamic Spain and the European discovery of the Americas (it is not so inconceivable with a slight twist of history that there could have been Arabic or Turkish speaking Muslim countries in the Americas), on the experience of Muslims under Christian rule in medieval Spain and the theological and legal implications for today's world, and general lessons to be learned for the modern world's politics and cultures. But no more time tonight, maybe another time.