Thursday, January 18, 2007

On Anti-Shi'a Prejudices

Anti-Shi'a sentiment in many parts of the Islamic world has been around since...well, Ali. I've seen some of it amongst my own relatives. But it would be a mistake in my view to pretend the current upswell was something waiting to happen. There's plenty of subtle and not so subtle prejudices in the US, but its when people stoke them up that problems develop. Same thing in this case. The generic "those Shi'a aren't real Muslims" that somebody might mutter under their breath (especially in a place like Saudi Arabia where the real problem is widespread - though certainly not total - distrust of anything other than one narrow puritan-like worldview) having never met a Shi'ite, is the sort of minor annoyance that general political, social, and economic development alleviates with time and a few civil rights type struggles.

What we are seeing here instead is a set of regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Saudis, Siniora gov in Lebanon, Abbas in Palestine - what I call the Middle Eastern "paleocons") who sense threats to the prevailing order. Their order. The threat is not Shi'a, the threat is genuinely popular movements who are achieving popular legitimacy from the ground up, rather than by doling out cash (and power) received from some source to which they are not accountable (oil rents) or else a source they feel they can manage and placate (the US primarily). Hizbullah for standing up to Israel, Hamas for standing up to Israel and winning a popular election rather than being annointed in some backroom deal, and to a lesser extent the popular forces in Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood, the independent judiciary, Kefaya, Ayman Nour, etc.). Those are the real targets here: any movement that shows an independent streak with street credibility.

Where do Iran, Syria, and the new Iraqi pseudo-state fit here? The Iranian and Syrian governments are certainly not populist movements with the democratic and populist legitimacy of Hamas and Hizbullah (though Iran's rulers can claim some democratic legitimacy, albeit modest given the nature of the elections that brought Ahmadinejad to the presidency), but as their strong allies and patrons, they have lined themselves up against the Middle East's paleocons. They may not represent an upswelling of populist movement in their own countries, but they are aiding it in Lebanon and Palestine and as such are the paleocons' enemies even though in some ways they are cut from the same cloth. They have broken ranks though and are seen as dangerous by the paleocons for supporting populist forces in the region rather than the old archaic order (at least outside their own borders). One might wonder why entrenched conservative forces like Bashar's Syria and Ahmadinejad's Iran would be breaking with the detente that had prevailed in the region since at least the late 90s: that's a big topic which involves getting deep into the domestic politics of Iran and Syria. In a nutshell I'd just say that Bashar and the neoconservative movement in Iran that Ahmadinejad represents, each for their own reasons (Syria's related more to domestic politics, Lebanon and Iraq; Iran's related more to domestic politics and the US's encircling of the country) saw the benefits of cooperation with the paleocon governments withering and the potential advantages of aligning with populist issues (resistance to Israel, nuclear program, etc.) more to their liking.

The Iraqi government stands somewhere in the middle. As it has gone through various incarnations, it's very newness has made it a curiousity. One which at first the region's paleocons likely thought/hoped they could bring into their club. As time has gone by and Islamist Shi'a parties with strong ties to Iran and its anti-paleocon tendencies have arisen, I think that possibility is severely weakening. If they can co-opt the current government to at least tow a middle line, they'll probably deal with it. If Iraq breaks down completely (and it's 3/4 of the way there already), then Nawaf Obaid's analysis of the Saudis taking sides in an Iraqi civil war will hold - his firing for writing the article notwithstanding.

Anyhow, my point again is that this is fundamentally about the region's paleocon rulers defending their order and system and not about anti-Shi'a prejudice. A corrupt, non-responsive, and generally economically undynamic system. A system that can offer people bribes (sometimes enough bribes to keep most people happy) when the cash is available, but not much else. Certainly not much in the way of human development. I'm not saying a wave of revolutions or outside interventions is the answer - in fact I think that's the worst possible outcome, something that the Iranian electorate for example I think is painfully aware of having been through a painful revolution - but that a genuine opening and transformation of the existing systems into something better is the way and that this requires opening up to voices outside the regimes and a restructuring of the politico-economic system so that the governments are primarily dependent on the people and not the other way around.

However, in order for the paleocons to defend their system, they need to distract people. And they've hit upon anti-Shi'a prejudice as the tool. It lies there, mostly dormant and under the surface, something which in a well-developing society would gradually fade away or face its Waterloo. But now it is being stoked. The paleocons realize that the composition of the forces opposed to their order now can all fall under the umbrella of either being Shi'a or being allied to majority Shi'a Iran. It's not that they are Shi'a that is the issue to the two Abdullahs, Mubarak, Siniora, and Abbas - it's that they can be painted as such and that the image of Shi'ites and Iran can then be denigrated in the crudest racist and xenophobic fashions to stir people up. Make people think that "the Shi'a" and "Iran" are the real enemies instead of the real bums at home.

And there's an added bonus for the paleocons! All of these ruling cliques are dependent upon the United States as a pillar of their rule. Mubarak gets guns, money, Israel kept at arms' length, diplomatic cover, etc. from the Americans. Abdullah Playstation (of Jordan that is) gets cash, guns, military training, diplomatic cover, etc. from the Americans and the Saudis. Don't-cry-for-me-Siniora the same. And of course Abdullah of Saudi Arabia much the same. In return, these rulers give the Americans what they want: military bases, intelligence, oil policy that doesn't cross the US too much (and sometimes has been downright generous to the detriment of their own countries), and the latest: torture-by-proxy for prisoners the Americans kidnap around the world and "rendition" to them. Everybody (over 400 lbs wearing rolexes and Armani suits or robes anyways) is happy!

This though makes them vulnerable against a populace that despises the Americans for the way they manipulate their countries and the region and who oppress the Palestinians via Israel and occupy Iraq. But...if "the Shi'a" and "Iran" can be labelled the "real" bigger threat, then voila! Doing a deal with the devil (the Bush Administration and the Israelis) suddenly seems a lesser evil. And of course to make such an unsavory prospect as working with the Americans to whack other Muslims appeal to their populaces, the paleocons have to stir up the crudest, ugliest, most racist, and most xenophobic rhetoric they can. They got particularly scared when they saw the incredible popularity of Hizbullah throughout the region and the entire Islamic world for standing up to the Israelis this summer. Indeed, that in and of itself is exhibit A showing this is not about people fundamentally having blind hatred throughout the region towards Shi'a -- a fact Hizbullah has worked hard over the years to do, i.e., creating an image of what one might call "patriotic" Arab nationalist Shi'a in Lebanon.

Where do the Americans stand in this? Well, there's the basic longstanding deal I outlined two paragraphs above. In the more immediate context though, I believe this is also about prepping for military strikes on Iran. I'm more worried about this than I know some others are, but I'm increasingly convinced it's a matter of how and when, and less and less about if. With Iraq it was always clear: there was no if, only when. With Iran it started out as if, but now I sense the if fading and the when growing. The Bush Administration has to first figure out how though, and that's where their role comes in here. As usual the Americans don't know jack about the region, so when they hear people talking about "thousands of years" of Sunni-Shi'a strife, they buy it. Then they consider how much they hate Iran (Republicans and Democrats agree on that if nothing else), how now it is supposedly Iran and it's "meddling" that is messing up Iraq (now that takes chutzpah!), and they listen to Arab rulers saying all this terrible stuff about Shi'a, and they listen to American neocons (and Arab-American neocons) talking about Shi'a minorities around the Gulf and now a supposed (though really non-existent) "Shi'a Crescent" ready to explode and threaten world peace and hold all the fuzzy pink bunnies in the world hostage. And they buy it all.

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Americans hear this stuff and they buy it because it seems to be getting fulfilled right in front of their eyes (and it sadly is). Why? Because first the bloodshed that has been unleashed in Iraq has turned sectarian due primarily to America's bloody and clownish behavior there. So there are mutilated bodies and pictures of bodies for everyone in the region to see to use as exhibits to convince Sunnis that Shi'a are evil and Shi'a that Sunnis are evil. And then right alongside it you have the Middle Eastern paleocons, fearful for their own survival in the face of populist movements elsewhere (don't worry, Iraq is not a genuine "democratic experiment" they fear), stirring up their own populations to hate Shi'a and having plenty of fodder to do it with because of the bright neon pro-sectarianism sign that America has created in Iraq. And the hate builds, and the hate grows, and ignorant American officials blame it on Iraqis and Arabs and "thousands of years" of BS while totally ignoring their role in prepping, igniting, and fanning the flames of the fire. Then when the time comes that the Americans want to bomb Iran, they hope that most of the Arab world will smile with them when the bombs rain down and thus lessen the blowback. There may be more people satisfied to see Iran hit, but you better believe the blowback will be severe.

This is sad, very sad and very, very dangerous. The Arab world is in a precarious state and the US, Israeli, Saudi, Jordanian, Lebanese, PA, and Ethiopian governments among others are all complicit in seeking the destruction of genuine democracy in their pursuit of selfish interests. Neither history nor God will judge them kindly if they keep marching down this path. The Bush Administration is destroying the possibility for positive evolution and making another round of painful revolutions on the scale of the 1950s and 1960s inevitable again. Only this time, I fear they will be more painful, more bloody, and take more time for any long-term gains to be achieved therefrom.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Rashid Husain on first loyalties

Palestinian poet Rashid Husain (b. 1936) was from a village near Haifa and died in poverty in a fire in his New York City apartment in 1977. His writings reflected his concerns and experience of Palestinian life under siege both within Israel and in the diaspora. He was also a translator, translating selections from Hayyim Bialik from Hebrew to Arabic, and Palestinian folks songs from Arabic to Hebrew. Translation below by May Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye, from their "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature".


From the play "The Interrogation"

Interrogator: In this poem you are clearly saying that my wife loves you.

The Poet: I am speaking of my land, I say I was there
before you, and she will always think of me first.
Be her husband-so what!
I loved her before you did
and have first place in her heart.
Even if you buy her perfume,
purchase her the finest clothes...
it's for me she will wear them.
I smoked on her lap long ago,
startling her with my earliest cigarettes.
I'll even enter your bed
on your wedding night, and come between you...
though you are her bridgroom
she will embrace me, desiring me most.
I will always be between you-
I'm sorry-but I was first.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Blast from the not-so-distant past

A letter written to elected officials on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Not a perfect prophecy, but who was more accurate - humble American citizen X, or Bush Cheney & co with their billions of dollars of spy equipment and thousands of men and women working for them?


March 17, 2003

Dear *****,

My name is ***** and I am one of your constituents in *****. I am writing to voice my opinion about the coming war in Iraq. While at this point there is no stopping the President’s decision to initiate an unprovoked war, I feel constrained by my conscience to at least state my position as a citizen. I do this in many ways with a heavy heart, having a ***** who is likely to serve on the front lines in this war. I feel his idealism and beliefs in American values are being abused by our President to further immoral geo-strategic and political goals.

I believe that the coming war on and military occupation of Iraq is a disaster in the making which is being planned by a group of Bush administration officials who know virtually nothing about the Middle East. I say that with some knowledge because (1) *****, (2) *****, and (3) ***** I ***** know ***** Paul Wolfowitz who, despite being a pleasant individual, clearly knew very little about the Middle East (as exemplified by his recent non-sensical statement that there is no history of ethnic strife in Iraq). Added to the administration’s lack of knowledge has come a right-wing agenda that is exemplified in the recently release National Security Strategy’s statement that the US will engage in pre-emptive wars not when the US is threatened, but merely to prevent anyone from even having the possibility of challenging our superiority. There is a simple term for this – “hegemony” – and it is an un-American principle. Beyond this big-picture issue, I am opposed to the war for several reasons:

· The attack on Iraq will increase terrorism against the United States. President Bush claims the attack on Iraq is part of the war on terrorism when the reality is that the war will radicalize thousands of people into terrorist groups that otherwise never would have. Considering that Osama Bin Laden managed to recruit large numbers of people to his twisted cause with a false claim that America is occupying Saudi Arabia, how many more will he and others gain when there is a very real occupation of Iraq?
· Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are no threat to the United States. It is now clear that Iraq’s nuclear program has been entirely dismantled. While Saddam Hussein is undoubtedly lying about not possessing any chemical or biological weapons, the fact remains that he would never attack the United States with them or allow them into the hands of terrorist groups to use against the United States. With the eyes of the world now permanently fixed on Saddam, the instant such an attack occurred he would be immediately blamed and would then justifiably be taken down by US military action as the Taliban were for supporting Al-Qaeda. Saddam knows this, and as a survivor would never do it. The proof is in the last decade: he has had these weapons and had every motivation according to the right-wing hawks to use them, but has not. However, if attacked, then as CIA director George Tenet has said, only then does it seem realistic he might feel forced into using them. We should not be provoking such action.
· Occupation of Iraq undermines American principles of freedom and democracy. The people of Iraq remember well the last foreign occupation they were under by the British in the first half of the 20th century. Like the United States today, the British came in claiming to liberate the people and proclaiming a desire to involve Iraqis in their own affairs. The Iraqis didn’t buy it then, and they will not buy it now. While we may see scenes of people dancing in the streets and thanking America for killing Saddam, a few months later when the US troops haven’t left and an American military governor is running things, the welcome mat will wear out very quickly and our troops lives will be in danger. Democracy cannot be spread by gunpoint, and forcing a pro-American administration on Iraq will be no more successful than the attempts to force a pro-Israel administration on Lebanon were in the 1980s. To even attempt to do so is un-American and un-democratic.
· The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a much more serious problem. This administration more than any other in history has tilted to the extreme right of Israeli politics in supporting Ariel Sharon. The Arab world sees this and is incredibly (and justifiably) angry at the US position. We make a mockery of our claims to standing on principle when we refuse to enforce 50+ year-old resolutions requiring Israel to allow back or compensate refugees and unconditionally end the occupation of Palestinian lands, while simultaneously saying that Iraq must meet UN demands immediately. The fact remains that most in the Arab world feel Saddam is a contained threat, while the belligerency of Ariel Sharon’s government and its rampant human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are a living and constant threat being fed by the Bush administration. Attacking Iraq under these circumstances will inflame Arab public opinion further against the United States and fuel desires to harm Israel rather than make peace. Furthermore, Ariel Sharon’s government will be further emboldened to engage in settlement building and violence against Palestinian civilians knowing that there are no external checks on his power.
· There is a very real possibility of provoking a bloody Iraqi civil or even regional war that will kill far more people than even Saddam has done. An invasion of Iraq has a strong possibility of setting off a series of blood reprisals against former supporters of the Ba’ath regime. This in turn could lead to a never-ending series of Hatfield and McCoy-style blood feuds that could quickly take on a dangerous sectarian slant with Shi’a, Sunni, Kurd, Turkmen, Assyrian, and an endless array of tribal actors killing each other wantonly. The only way to try to stop this would be for US troops to take sides, an action that would place us in the dangerous position of being on one side or the other in a civil war. That got is into terrible trouble in Lebanon in the early 1980s and in Somalia in the early 1990s, and it remains a no-win situation in Iraq. Also as in Lebanon, we risk inviting regional actors with a stake in Iraq to worsen the situation. Already we see the Turks and Kurds threatening to engage in armed conflict, and we could soon see Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or even others playing off and supporting different parties in a civil war. Having foolishly failed to warn Israel to stay completely out of this conflict as we wisely did in 1991, we also risk provoking a regional war involving Israel if Saddam is provoked into lashing out at Israel in a last-ditch attempt to bring the house crashing down on everyone.

I could actually list many more reasons, but I have said enough to make the point. This war will undermine our values and our position in the world. Saddam Hussein can be easily contained and muscular pinpoint pressure can be applied in ways that never were in the 1990s to force him to give up his chemical and biological weapons and even to loosen his tyrannical grip on the country. The Atlantic alliances of the past half century and more are being destroyed by this war and the Bush administration’s reckless dedication to a non-sensical ideology driven primarily by fear and ignorance.

I urge you to stand up against this war so that even if it cannot be avoided, its negative consequences can be mitigated and ultimately reversed through our nation’s democratic process in 2004 and beyond. As my elected representative and as a leader, I hold you responsible to live up to this charge and pray you will act with wisdom for the future of our nation and the world.




"My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision, in my judgment," he said. "We didn't find the weapons we thought we would find, or the weapons everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of instability." [And the Middle East is more stable now?!]

"Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude," he said. [This from a man whose war has filled Iraqi mass graves at a pace faster -literally - than Saddam himself? Now that takes chutzpah to say.],0,1743313.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Tunisian Humor

Via Salamander (with my translation). Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Bush speaking.
Bush: Congratulations to you on the execution of your former colleague the illegal dictator Saddam Hussein.
Zine El Abidine: God Bless you...I'm a dictator as you know, but a legal one for which I have you to thank.

It works just as well replacing Mr. Tunis with wish-this-eid-were-said-and-not-Mubarak, Abdullah Playstation, Don't-cry-for-me-Siniora, Anything-you-say-Mr-Olmert Abbas, etc.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dedicated to a new generation of refugees...

900 years ago a king was sent into exile. His might and his lust for the pleasures of the world were crushed. His children were reduced to poverty and he was broken in body and spirit. He was also a poet, the great Poet-King al-Mu'atamid of Seville and he died an exiled prisoner of the Almoravids in Morocco. While I am only rehashing ancient words, I dedicate them to a generation of Iraqis and generations of Palestinians who (like al-Mu'atamid) were powerless to stop their adversaries - domestic and foreign - and now can only look back to their struggling homeland and weep. May their endings be happier than those of the Poet-King and of Al-Andalus, and may their memories of happier days live on as bright and beautiful as those of the Andalusians to this day.

The Prisoner in Aghmat Speaks to His Chains

I say to my chains,
don't you understand?
I have surrendered to you.
Why, then, have you no pity,
no tenderness?

You drank my blood.
You ate my flesh.
Don't crush my bones.

My son Abu Hasim sees me
fettered by you and turns away
his heart made sore.

Have pity on an innocent boy
who never knew fear
and must now come begging to you.

Have pity on his sisters
innocent like him
who have had to swallow poison
and eat bitter fruit.

Some of them are old enough
to understand and I fear
they will go blind from weeping.

The others are now too young
to take it in and open their mouths
only to nurse.

[Translation of Cola Franzen in "Poems of Arab Andalusia"]

Monday, January 01, 2007

Early Arab Nationalism

From a 1915 Manifesto of the Arab Revolutionary Committee: "Arabs of the Christian and Jewish faith, join ranks with your Moslem brethren. Do not listen to those who say that they prefer the Turks without religion to Arabs of different beliefs; they are ignorant people who have no understanding of the vital interests of the [Arab] race."

Successes and failures of such cooperation occurred subsequently in the 20th century. Today's fight in Iraq and the Arab world more generally really is a question of whether broader visions of identity (as the early example above) will succeed, be followed on by models of political and economic power-sharing, and allow genuinely positive development to occur. Or if the rentier-state model married with the abuse of ethnic, religious and other prejudices (encouraged by the current rulers of the Americans, Israelis, Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, etc.) will be allowed to win out and ensure continued division and stagnation.

Democratic Devolution

Short, admittedly grossly-oversimplified sketch of my view of the theoretical underpinnings of what it takes to reach the level of a healthy democracy, and then where Iraq has stood in that process from its founding to the present. Short version: the American occupation did not start Iraq on the path to democracy, it actually set the country back to zero. Iraq was not a place with "no hope of ever changing". Yes, it was a fine mess, but underneath that mess it had a few things going for it which a deft international community and Iraqis could have slowly worked to their advantage to emerge from the darkness of Saddam's years. Wouldn't have been easy or quick, but possible over time. Instead the siren song of rapid change from outside came along for Iraqi exiles and Bush and what little had been achieved fell apart leaving the very existence of Iraq in question and democracy further off than ever. You don't know what you've got until its gone I suppose.

I'm happy to hear critiques and discussion, I can stare at my sketches and already see ambiguities in my very simple attempted model that could raise fierce objections that I'd have to (and feel I can) address if raised, but hopefully this can provide a decent theoretical starting point. You can click on the pictures to see larger/clearer versions.