Friday, December 30, 2011

the man French society loves to mock, Bernard-Henri Lévy, helped vanquish a dictator

    Friday, December 30, 2011   No comments

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

Celebrity doesn’t always travel well. The conditions it depends upon can be too local, too conditional. Try explaining Kim Kardashian to the Germans; try asking the Germans to explain David Hasselhoff to us. Still, the case of the famously self-regarding, righteous, impeccably coiffed French philosopher and media personality Bernard-Henri Lévy is singularly strange. The events of the past year—in which Lévy, operating freelance, seemed to prompt a broke and crumbling Europe into a humanitarian war in Libya—so obviously belong to a different era that Lévy has left in his wake a torrent of historical analogies: Perhaps he is Lawrence of Arabia, as a friendly French review recently suggested. Or perhaps he is Don Quixote.

One year ago, influence like this appeared far beyond Lévy’s reach. He has long been France’s most famous living philosopher, and was once an important one, but his media and social profile eclipsed his intellectual reputation. He was still suffering from the highly embarrassing Botul episode of 2010, in which Lévy had happened upon a philosophical spoof and, assuming it to be serious, cited its arguments as part of a critique of Immanuel Kant. (He had missed the crucial clue, which was that the fake philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, was elaborating a philosophy called Botulism.) His journalism was often called glib, and his big 2006 book on America had been panned on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday book review. When I called scholars of European ideas at Harvard and Columbia to talk about Lévy, they dismissed him as overhyped and irrelevant, respectively. At the beginning of 2011, Lévy was most frequently in the French press for his New York mistress, the heiress Daphne Guinness, who kept up a public theater of pining for him on Twitter.

But, as Lévy told me recently, “sometimes you are inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to you.” On February 23, the philosopher was in Cairo watching television images of Muammar Qaddafi’s retribution against the rebel towns around Benghazi, which the dictator and his sons had threatened to drown in “rivers of blood.” Lévy is most fully himself in stark humanitarian crises, when defending what he calls “the memory of the worst.” He is also the heir to a vast timber fortune, wealth that allows him a license to act on his instincts, and so he promptly found the name of rebel leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, arranged for a cameraman and for a private plane to fly him near the front, and within a few hours was in a hired car, driving off to war.

Lévy was a veteran of mass killing; he had seen it in a half-dozen conflicts, maybe, and driving through the desert towns east of Benghazi, he detected its early signs: blood-smeared walls, passersby wrapping themselves in hoods to keep their lungs free of contaminants. He foresaw a “crawling tragedy. Thirty, 40 dead a day. Maybe worse.” In Benghazi, Lévy spent the hour before their meeting frantically Googling Abdel-Jalil and leaping up to greet anyone walking past who might be the Libyan. When Abdel-Jalil did arrive (“short with a modest smile and the look of a stunned falcon”), Lévy had prepared his speech. “The world is watching,” he began. It was pompous, he realized, but “you have to say something.” He compared Benghazi to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Sarajevo. “Benghazi is the capital not only of Libya but of free men and women all over the world,” Lévy told the rebel leader

Questioning the Arab League's Syrian Monitors

    Friday, December 30, 2011   No comments

Violence continued in Syria on Thursday despite the arrival of the Arab League's monitors, and now the appointed leader of the monitors is being called into question over his own spotty human rights record. Sudan's General Mustafa al-Dabi is the leader of the 100 or so Arab League monitors in Syria right now. Al-Dabi has been accused of committing war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s. From this report in the Guardian, Amnesty International has spoken out against al-Dabi's participation, saying, "The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility." 

Most of the controversy came after comments al-Dabi reportedly made after a recent visit to the "restive" city of Homs. Al-Dabi was quoted as saying the situation there is "reassuring," when there have been reports of protests and violence coming from the city. "Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening," he said, according to the BBC. Some were discouraged by his comments, but Russia, Syria's most high-profile ally, came out in support of al-Dabi's statements. The Russian government gave a statement on their website, and quoted by Reuters, saying, "Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission (Sudanese general Mustafa) al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs ... the situation seems to be reassuring."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guess the name of the country

    Thursday, December 29, 2011   No comments

 Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The latest battleground in .            Israel’s struggle over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.

She is Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are observant modern Orthodox Jews. An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.
The country was outraged. Naama’s picture has appeared on the front pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,” there have been days of confrontation at focal points of friction here.
Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting “Nazis” at the security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like “shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and “whore.” Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.

For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.
The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly “kosher” buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back…

 Now, don't cheat (don't mind this if you had read the story already); and guess, about what country and which religion is this article reporting? You may record your answer in the comment line, then continue reading the original article here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science

    Wednesday, December 28, 2011   No comments

by Hillel Ofek

Contemporary Islam is not known for its engagement in the modern scientific project. But it is heir to a legendary “Golden Age” of Arabic science frequently invoked by commentators hoping to make Muslims and Westerners more respectful and understanding of each other. President Obama, for instance, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, praised Muslims for their historical scientific and intellectual contributions to civilization:

It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

Such tributes to the Arab world’s era of scientific achievement are generally made in service of a broader political point, as they usually precede discussion of the region’s contemporary problems. They serve as an implicit exhortation: the great age of Arab science demonstrates that there is no categorical or congenital barrier to tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and advancement in the Islamic Middle East.

To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. The recent push to establish new research and science institutions in the Arab world — described in these pages by Waleed Al-Shobakky (see “Petrodollar Science,” Fall 2008) — clearly still has a long way to go.

Given that Arabic science was the most advanced in the world up until about the thirteenth century, it is tempting to ask what went wrong — why it is that modern science did not arise from Baghdad or Cairo or Córdoba. We will turn to this question later, but it is important to keep in mind that the decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations. While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.

Nevertheless, while the decline of Arabic civilization is not exceptional, the reasons for it offer insights into the history and nature of Islam and its relationship with modernity. Islam’s decline as an intellectual and political force was gradual but pronounced: while the Golden Age was extraordinarily productive, with the contributions made by Arabic thinkers often original and groundbreaking, the past seven hundred years tell a very different story.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Aftermath Of 2011 Duma Elections: Moving To Russia 2.0

    Tuesday, December 27, 2011   No comments

By Philippe Conde

The parliamentary elections that took place in Russia on 4 December 2011 usher in a new era for the post-Soviet political system in the country. The poor results registered by the Kremlin’s party, United Russia – amid allegations of wide- spread vote-rigging – show that its decade-long domination is over. United Russia got only 49.3% of the votes, which is far behind the 64.1% the party obtained in 2007. This situation makes the next Duma more open for debate and the next March presidential elections more competitive. Despite the loss of the constitutional two-thirds majority (315 seats out of 450 in 2007), United Russia won 238 seats, meaning that it still holds the majority necessary to pass laws alone.

Three other parties made their way into the Lower House: the Communist party came in sec- ond with 19.2% (up from 11.6%) and 92 seats, A Just Russia gathered 13.25% (up from 7.7%) and 64 seats, and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR, got 12% (up from 8.1%) and 56 seats. These results reflect a better picture of the balance of political forces in the country than the former Duma, but the elections took place in a tense atmosphere.

In the run-up to the election, opposition activists were rounded up by police or detained in Moscow.1 During the elections a wide array of traditional manipulations were used such as ballot box stuffing or pressure on civil servants to vote. Similar to former elections, regional leaders were ordered to return high votes in favor of the incumbent ruling party.2 Thus, Soviet-like high figures were registered in the North Caucasus republics, with a special mention for Chechnya, where allegedly 99.48% of voters backed United Russia, with a turnout of 99.51%, while United Russia support in Dagestan, Ingushetia or Kabardino-Balkaria reached a record high of 90%-91%. These results can be explained – to a great extent – by a system based on authority. North Caucasian leaders rule these republics like their private fiefdoms, especially in Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled with an iron fist since 2007.


A Shared Fate: The Political Implications of the Eurozone Crisis

    Tuesday, December 27, 2011   No comments

Jan-Werner Müller

Paul Krugman recently wondered whether it was possible to be “both terrified and bored” by the Eurozone crisis. It is indeed terrifying: the EU—the most important political innovation since the invention of the democratic welfare state—might break apart, or worse. Some are predicting the return of large-scale political violence; protesters on the streets of Athens are already comparing Greece, 2011 to Dachau, 1933. But the crisis is also boring, in that a sad pattern has predictably been repeating itself: markets jitter; politicians declare a make-or-break moment; national leaders host an all-night summit; bleary-eyed, they declare the crisis’s final resolution; the market-confidence fairy makes a brief appearance; and then the cycle starts all over again.
By now most people have settled on one of two economic solutions: either let the European Central Bank act as lender of last resort and issue Eurobonds (everyone’s view, it seems, except the German government’s) or impose discipline so as to avoid inflation and a permanent Southern European Mezzogiorno (the official German view).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The faith (and doubts) of our fathers: What did the makers of America believe about God and religion? The subject is stirring the very rancour they wanted to avoid

    Sunday, December 18, 2011   No comments

IN THE year of our Lord 1816 two grand old men of the American Revolution corresponded eagerly about the work they had recently done, in their rural retirement, on the Bible. Ex-President Thomas Jefferson thanked his old friend Charles Thomson, a co-sponsor of the Declaration of Independence, for sending a copy of his newly completed synopsis of the Gospels.

At a time when many modern Americans are arguing feverishly over the real significance of the nation's religious and political beginnings, such letters can be dynamite. So let the contents of this exchange be noted carefully. Thomson, like most members of the first American Congress, which he had served as secretary, was a committed member of a church—in his case Presbyterian—but he still felt that there might be things in the Bible that organised Christianity hadn't grasped. So he spent years re-translating the scriptures; the ex-president approved.

But Jefferson, like most of the top figures in the American Revolution, was far more of a sceptic in religious matters. He was fascinated by metaphysics but he had no time for the mystical. In contrast with today's vituperative exchanges, these differences did not stop the two gentlemen maintaining a warm correspondence. But Jefferson's approach to redacting the Bible involved something more radical than translation. He literally snipped out everything supernatural: miracles, the Virgin birth, the resurrection. The result was his own, non-mystical account of the life of Jesus. He told his old comrade: "I too have made a wee little book from the same materials which I call the 'Philosophy of Jesus.' It is a paradigma [sic] of his doctrines, made by cutting the pages out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book…A more beautiful or precious morsel…I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists who call me infidel and themselves Christians."


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Revolution in the heavens OR evolution of Science

    Saturday, December 17, 2011   No comments

by David Wootton
On the night of February 19, 1604, Johannes Kepler was out measuring the position of Mars in the sky with a metal instrument called a quadrant. It was bitterly cold with a biting wind. Kepler found that if he removed his gloves, his hands were soon too numb to manage his instrument; if he kept them on, he could barely make the fine adjustments necessary. The wind was too strong to keep a candle alight, so he had to read his measurements and write them down by the light of a glowing coal. The results, he felt sure, were unsatisfactory – he was out, he thought, by ten minutes of a degree. On a modern school protractor you cannot distinguish ten minutes of a degree, and only one astronomer before Kepler would have thought such a measurement unsatisfactory. The greatest astronomer of the ancient world, Ptolemy, had regarded ten minutes as precisely his acceptable margin of error. But Kepler had worked with Tycho Brahe, who had devised new instruments capable of measuring with unbelievable accuracy, to a single minute.

Kepler was worried about such tiny numbers because he wanted to prove that Tycho’s theoretical tools could not provide an accurate account of Mars’s movement through the heavens – Kepler’s best predictions, using traditional methods, were out by up to eight minutes. By the time Kepler had found a satisfactory way of handling this aberrant eight minutes, he had abandoned the notion that all heavenly movements are circular and introduced the idea of an orbit – the regularly repeated trajectory of an astronomical object through space. This was the culmination of an astronomical revolution that had begun in 1572, with the appearance of a supernova as bright as Venus. According to Aristotle, there was never any change in the heavens, so the nova ought to have been in the upper atmosphere, like a shooting star – but Tycho proved, by measuring parallax (or rather its absence), that it could only be in the heavens. This startling result turned into a large-scale crisis for the old ways of thinking when Tycho’s measurements of the comet of 1577 showed that not only was it in the heavens, but its path cut through the transparent orbs that were supposed to carry the planets – it took Tycho a decade to accept the obvious conclusion that there were no orbs, and that the planets float through space. But not even Tycho could imagine that heavenly movements were anything other than circular.

Obama should apologize to Iran

    Saturday, December 17, 2011   No comments

By Kori Schake 

It seems odd that President Obama is willing to apologize for American actions in so many instances, but not for the actual violation of an internationally-recognized border by the United States in the conduct of an espionage operation. An American drone touched down 140 miles inside Iranian territory, and the White House is refusing to apologize for our aerial invasion.

The drone crash is an open and shut case: there is nothing the RQ-170 could have been doing other than collecting intelligence. We have lots of good reasons to be collecting intelligence inside Iran; but our government committed an act of espionage, intruding clandestinely into another country, something that is illegal although widely practiced.

The president looks foolish calling for Iran to return the drone while petulantly refusing to explain our actions that resulted in being caught en flagrante delicto committing espionage. Especially given our outrage a few months ago when the U.S. traced to Iran's Qu'uds force a bungled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

After China shot down an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001, the Bush Administration apologized, saying we were very sorry both for causing the death of a Chinese military pilot that had intercepted our plane, and for entering Chinese airspace. Technically, the letter was "an expression of regret," while claiming we did nothing wrong, but for all practical purposes, we apologized to China.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lebanon's intelligence war

    Thursday, December 15, 2011   No comments

by Nour Samaha

Beirut, Lebanon - The confirmation by officials in the United States of the exposure of their CIA informants in Lebanon has caused a flurry of excitement in both the local and international media in recent days, adding yet another chapter to intelligence activities on Lebanese soil. 

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah revealed in a press conference in June 2011 that the Lebanese Shia resistance movement had discovered and arrested at least two of its members, whom Nasrallah said were working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Although the US embassy denied the story at the time, unnamed US government officials recanted and confirmed the arrests last week. Media reports claim that the intelligence agency has gone so far as to shut down its Beirut bureau after it was compromised by Hezbollah's announcement.

The intelligence war playing out in Lebanon is nothing new, however. For decades now, intelligence agencies have been infiltrating the country, with up to 70 suspected spies arrested by the Lebanese authorities in 2009 and 2010 alone.

Cash payments for telecoms data

One of Lebanon's most vulnerable infiltration targets has been its telecommunications network. In 2010, Charbel Qazzi and Tarek Rabaa, both telecom engineers with Alfa (one of Lebanon's two mobile network operators), were arrested within weeks of each other and charged with spying for Israel.

Qazzi, a senior technician at the time, had access to all the passwords necessary to access the mobile network computer systems, both remotely and onsite, which he confessed to handing over to the Israelis. He said he was first contacted by Mossad in the 1990s, when he snuck across the border to consult with an Israeli doctor over a medical case concerning a relative of his.

He was charged with "entering enemy territory, collaborating with Israel, and providing it with information".

According to media reports quoting security officials, Rabaa, a transmission engineer for Alfa, was first contacted by the Israeli intelligence services when they posed as an international recruitment company in 2001. Following an "interview" in Cyprus, they asked him to complete a "case study" on the telecom network. A few months later in 2002, they contacted Rabaa again and asked him to perform a polygraph test, which he apparently failed. They re-established contact again in 2005, and conducted a series of meetings with him in countries all over the world, including Thailand, France, Denmark, Turkey and the Czech Republic, until Rabaa was arrested in 2010.

In these meetings he was given cash payments ranging from $2,000 to $20,000, depending on the information he gave them. This included a map of the Lebanese mobile network backbone, the names of every employee at the company, and a study of the network in the southern part of the country, which borders Israel.

"With knowledge of the network backbone, they know the geographical location of the nodes in the network and the type of equipment used. They would know where to orient their monitoring equipment, break the encryption codes, and eavesdrop on the network," Marwan Taher, a computer engineer, told Al Jazeera.

In one meeting held in Turkey in 2009, news agency reports claim Rabaa told his handlers that Alfa was in talks with a Chinese company to procure equipment to use in expanding the network in Lebanon's south. His handlers stressed upon him the need to maintain the current supplier of telecom equipment, a European company, as it would be more difficult to compromise the Chinese equipment than the European one. Rabaa was one of the major players who convinced Alfa to stay with the European company.

"He was gathering everything you could ever imagine about the Lebanese cellular network," Hassan Illeik, a journalist with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, who has been closely following the issue of Israeli infiltration, told Al Jazeera. "The location of all the antennas, all of the information on the base transceiver stations (BTS), all of the passwords he could access, all the information about the new technology being installed in the cell networks and the maps for the Lebanese mobile networks backbone."

Rabaa continues to maintain that while he knew he was working for an intelligence agency, he insisted he was working for NATO. His family claims that Rabaa was forced to confess under torture.

"The Lebanese intelligence services know the ways in which the Americans, NATO, the French, Danish, whichever intelligence agencies work in Lebanon, and when they want to meet their spies, they do so in Lebanon," said Illeik. "They don't go to Thailand to meet their spies. The Israelis always ask their spies to go abroad, like Cyprus, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, to hold meetings."

Charbel Nahhas, former minister of telecoms, said in a press conference at the time that "this was the most dangerous espionage act in Lebanese history".

"Qazzi and Rabaa are not the only guys working in telecoms and 'allegedly' working for Israelis," said Illeik. "These are only two of a much bigger pool."

Others include a retired general and his wife who worked for the Israelis between 1994 and 2009, and whose house was a treasure trove of spying devices and gadgets. He confessed to providing Israel with a number of newly-purchased Lebanese SIM cards (to then redistribute in Lebanon), among other sensitive information.

Then there was the software engineer who, up until his arrest four months ago worked in the private sector with a number of banks, and had helped set up the DSL network in Lebanon. Like Rabaa, he claims he was contacted by an "international recruitment company" and asked to complete a "case study" before partaking in numerous meetings between 2002 and 2006.

"The Israelis don't think the Lebanese are intelligent enough to discover their infiltration," said Illeik. "You can see this in their rhetoric. When they get caught they think it's because of their failure, not because of their enemy's sophistication."

The Arab Spring's Violent Turn

    Thursday, December 15, 2011   No comments

by Yoel Guzansky, Benedetta Berti

Many pundits and government officials have praised the “Arab Spring” as a prelude to the rise of a new and more democratic Middle East. But it is difficult to reconcile this notion with the images of growing intersectarian violence within the region, such as the recent anti-Shiite attacks perpetrated in the course of the celebration of the Shiite Ashura festival on December 5 and 6. The event, a traditional catalyst for intersectarian violence, served as a powerful reminder that identity politics continue to play a major role in the region.

Indeed, these Arab uprisings, while fueled by widespread desires for more freedom at the grassroots level, demonstrate that preexisting religious identities were never abandoned in favor of new national ones and that Middle Eastern politics are still very much based on group affiliation and identity politics.

As the region undergoes massive political and social unrest, these preexisting divisions seem to be heightened rather than lessened. Still, they have been taking different forms: from a growing religious-secular divide in Tunisia and Egypt to clan-based tensions in Libya and Yemen to a general worsening in the majority-minority relationship across the region. But one of the most important preexisting cleavages emerging to shape the Arab Spring is the Shiite-Sunni conflict.

In other words, the Arab Spring has deepened preexisting divisions in ethnically and religiously heterogeneous countries within the Middle East. These interethnic identities and loyalties have shaped the ongoing social and political struggle, notwithstanding that the initial protests centered on socio-economic grievances. In fact, the vaguely defined demands of the protests, the lack of cohesive civil societies and the obvious difficulties that the regimes face in responding to demands have all led to situations in which protest movements are increasingly resorting to sectarian identities as a means to promote cohesion and unity of purpose. This, in turn, carries a tremendously high potential to spur internal violence and threaten local and regional stability, especially in states with a delicate ethnic fabric.

The case of Syria offers an example. There the ruling Alawite minority (which rightly or wrongly as been identified with the Shiites) is facing growing protests, mainly from the Sunni. Meanwhile, other ethno-religious minorities within Syria, such as the Christians and the Kurds, have been mostly at the margins of the protests. Although they feared backlash against their communities, they now reportedly are starting to arm themselves. This ongoing sectarian strife in Syria also heightens the already high level of tensions between the region’s Sunni and Shiite communities, particularly in neighboring Lebanon. Thus, ethnic and religious cleavages have not been subdued by the Arab Spring. Rather, a mix of identity and geostrategic politics has contributed to deepening preexisting divisions.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Deaf Ears: U.S. Public Diplomacy and Iran

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011   No comments

Trevor Thrall

Last week, the United States announced the creation of Virtual Embassy Tehran [3], an informational web site aimed at the Iranian public. According to Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, the site’s central purpose is to provide a bridge between the United States and the Iranian people. As the web site explains, “the absence of an American presence in Iran (since the 1979 hostage crisis) means we have little opportunity to make our voice heard to a broader Iranian audience.” 

The site follows on the heels of Persian-language efforts by the State Department on YouTube [4], Facebook [5] and Twitter [6]. State gets points for making an effort to keep up with the times and putting the web and social media to work for the cause of public diplomacy. And though the site itself is quite bland and uninspiring, there is certainly nothing wrong with making it easier for world publics to learn about the United States.

Excitement over the Internet aside, however, the Virtual Embassy Tehran is a product of the same failed public diplomacy paradigm that the United States has pursued since 9/11. As such, it reflects the persistent inability of the U.S. government to recognize the basic tenets of the modern global communications landscape and the unwillingness of officials to acknowledge the limits of persuasion.

Campaigns like Virtual Embassy Tehran reflect on outmoded conception of the global public sphere. Officials appear to think that the virtual embassy (along with similar efforts in the region such as Radio Farda [7], Radio Sawa [8] and Al-Hurra [9]) will replicate the glory days of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The theory is straightforward: the Iranian public is suffering from oppression and censorship at the hands of a totalitarian government. Starved for information about the world, Iranians will seek information from alternative sources. When they realize that the alternative sources (i.e. Virtual Embassy Tehran) provide more accurate and useful information than that available from their own government, Iranians will begin to trust those sources and turn to them in ever greater numbers. Eventually this will give the United States the ability to shape the marketplace of ideas in Iran.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Islamists Are Better Democrats

    Monday, December 12, 2011   No comments

By Bobby Ghosh

If the Arab Spring was seeded by a liberal insurrection, the Arab Fall has brought a rich harvest for Political Islam. In election after election, parties that embrace various shades of Islamist ideology have spanked liberal rivals. In Tunisia, the first country to hold elections after toppling a long-standing dictator, the Ennahda party won a plurality in the Oct. 23 vote for an assembly that will write a new constitution. A month later, the Justice and Development Party and its allies won a majority in Morocco's general elections. Now, in perhaps the most important election the Middle East has ever witnessed, Egypt's Islamist parties are poised to dominate the country's first freely elected parliament.

In the first of three rounds of voting, two Islamist groups won a clear majority between them: a coalition led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) got 37% of the vote, while the al-Nour Party won 24.4%. The Egyptian Block, a coalition of mostly liberal parties, was a distant third, with 13.4%. The FJP is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a mostly moderate Islamist group; al-Nour represents more-hard-line Salafis. With momentum on their side, the Islamists are expected to do even better in the second and third rounds, scheduled for Dec. 14 and Jan. 3. (See pictures of Egyptians flocking to the polls.)

Why have the liberals, leaders of the Arab Spring revolution, fared so poorly in elections? In Cairo, as the votes were being counted, I heard a raft of explanations from disheartened liberals. They were almost identical to the ones I'd heard the previous week, in Tunis. The litany goes like this: The liberals only had eight months to prepare for elections, whereas the Brotherhood has 80 years' experience in political organization. The Islamists, thanks to their powerful financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, outspent the liberals. The generals currently ruling Egypt, resentful of the liberals for ousting their old boss Hosni Mubarak, fixed the vote in favor of the Islamists. The Brotherhood and the Salafists used religious propaganda — Vote for us or you're a bad Muslim — to mislead a largely poor, illiterate electorate.

Read Article.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Islamists, elections and the Arab spring

    Sunday, December 11, 2011   No comments

IS THE Arab spring turning into bleak midwinter? Earlier this year the revolutions sweeping through the region seemed encouragingly modern and secular. Indeed, the young Facebookers and Twitterers braving the bullets in Cairo and Tunis seemed to give the lie to the dictators’ claims that the only alternative to the thuggery of a strongman was mullah-led theocracy. But look across the Arab world today and political Islam has jumped to the fore (see article).

Egypt offers the most dramatic example. The relatively mild-mannered Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organised of the Arab movements espousing an ideology that bases its message on the texts of Islam, is winning the three-stage election to Egypt’s parliament by a wider margin than pundits predicted, with 46% of the seats so far. Far more frightening is the party coming second, with 21% of the seats. The Salafists, whose name denotes a desire to emulate the “predecessors” who were early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, decry alcohol, pop music and other aspects of Western lifestyle. They want to ban interest in banks, think women should cover themselves and stay at home, would segregate the sexes in public, might turn Christians, around a tenth of Egypt’s 85m people, into second-class citizens and denigrate Jews, not to mention the people of Israel. Assuming that the two Islamist parties do no worse in the next two rounds this month and next, generally in more conservative areas, they will control a clear majority of seats; the only question is whether the Brothers will keep their promise not to team up and rule together.

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Beyond Guantánamo, a Web of Prisons for Terrorism Inmates

    Sunday, December 11, 2011   No comments

WASHINGTON — It is the other Guantánamo, an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads. Today, it houses far more men convicted in terrorism cases than the shrunken population of the prison in Cuba that has generated so much debate.

An aggressive prosecution strategy, aimed at prevention as much as punishment, has sent away scores of people. They serve long sentences, often in restrictive, Muslim-majority units, under intensive monitoring by prison officers. Their world is spare.

Among them is Ismail Royer, serving 20 years for helping friends go to an extremist training camp in Pakistan. In a letter from the highest-security prison in the United States, Mr. Royer describes his remarkable neighbors at twice-a-week outdoor exercise sessions, each prisoner alone in his own wire cage under the Colorado sky. “That’s really the only interaction I have with other inmates,” he wrote from the federal Supermax, 100 miles south of Denver.

There is Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, Mr. Royer wrote. Terry Nichols, who conspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building. Ahmed Ressam, the would-be “millennium bomber,” who plotted to attack Los Angeles International Airport. And Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

In recent weeks, Congress has reignited an old debate, with some arguing that only military justice is appropriate for terrorist suspects. But military tribunals have proved excruciatingly slow and imprisonment at Guantánamo hugely costly — $800,000 per inmate a year, compared with $25,000 in federal prison.

The criminal justice system, meanwhile, has absorbed the surge of terrorism cases since 2001 without calamity, and without the international criticism that Guantánamo has attracted for holding prisoners without trial. A decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, an examination of how the prisons have handled the challenge of extremist violence reveals some striking facts:
Read Article.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prince Turki calls for a stronger Gulf bloc

    Saturday, December 10, 2011   No comments

Prince Turki Al-Faisal on Monday called on Gulf states to make the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) a powerful regional bloc with a unified armed force and a unified defense industry.

The chief of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, who has been intensively engaged in public diplomacy across the world, also urged GCC leaders and decision-makers at “The Gulf and the Globe” conference in Riyadh to transform the 30-year-old regional bloc into a strong “union of sovereign states.”

Prince Turki, who in his speech supported the idea of Gulf countries acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) if Israel and Iran do not roll back their nuclear programs, identified 11 major fields in which GCC countries can unify their efforts and positions to make the Gulf body a force to reckon with.

The concluding session, attended by a large number of Saudi and Gulf officials as well as foreign diplomats, was chaired by Abdulkarim Al-Dekhayel, director general of the Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

Baqer Salman Al-Najjar, former member of Bahrain's Shoura Council, Anwar M. Al-Rawas of the Oman-based Sultan Qaboos University and Ye Qing, director general of the Shanghai Institute for International Organization and International Law, also spoke during the session.

Referring to what the GCC can accomplish in the near future Prince Turki said: “We can create a unified Arabian Peninsula, an elected Shoura Council, a unified armed force with a unified defense industry. We can also achieve an economic system with a unified currency, set up a unified space agency, a unified IT industry, a unified aerospace industry, an automotive industry, an educational system with a unified curriculum, a unified energy and petrochemical industry and a unified justice system.”

Referring to the achievements of the GCC, he said that there was a need to reevaluate the position in the context of rapid changes taking place around the world, especially in the Middle East. “Why shouldn’t this Gulf grouping become a union of sovereign states to move forward with a unified unity of purpose?” he said.

“Why shouldn’t we commence the building of a unified military force, with a clear chain of command,” asked the prince, adding that Gulf states are committed to making the Middle East free from WMDs.

“But, if our efforts and the efforts of the world community fail to bring about the dismantling of the Israeli arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and preventing Iran from acquiring the same, then why shouldn’t we at least study seriously all available options, including acquiring WMDs, so that our future generations will not blame us for neglecting any courses of action that will keep looming dangers away from us,” he noted.

Referring to the rising powers on the world map today, Prince Turki said China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey as well as Japan, the European Union, and the Russian Federation are growing in power and stature. “A new and diverse distribution of power is taking the stage,” he added.

He said that change taking place in Arab countries was neither foretold by anyone nor can anyone predict where it is heading. He also cautioned that Gulf states “must not remain mortgaged to changing international policies and victims of diplomatic bargains.”

“We must be forceful actors in all global engagements that affect our region and not allow others to impose their choices on us because we are militarily weak and are, therefore, followers of others,” he added.

Prince Turki called on the Gulf governments to review policies that are not “innovative and inventive.”

“We are a market for imported labor, while our youngsters are unemployed,” said the prince, calling on decision makers to improve political and cultural institutions.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Rached Ghannouchi: the Muslim Brethren of Egypt should form a coalition government with liberals

    Wednesday, December 07, 2011   No comments

By Marc Lynch

"I think the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] should govern by coalition that includes the people from secular parties and the Copts." That was the advice which Rached Ghannouchi, President of Tunisia's el-Nahda Party, offered his Egyptian Islamist counterparts during an interview with the editors of the Middle East Channel last Thursday. He warned pointedly against repeating the mistakes of Algeria when, as he put it, "the Islamists won 80 percent of the vote but they completely ignored the influential minority of secularists, of the army, of the business community. So they did a coup d'etat against the democratic process and Algeria is still suffering from that." Avoiding a replay of that catastrophe weighs heavily on Ghannouchi and his party.

Ghannouchi was in Washington at the invitation of Foreign Policy, after being named one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers. He took full advantage of the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time in twenty years, appearing at a wide range of think tanks including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Washington  Institute for Near East Policy and meeting with a range of U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy analysts. He had warm praise for the Obama administration as "supportive of the Arab Spring," and described the new willingness in the United States to talk about a more positive relationship between democracy and Islam, and between Americans and the Islamic world, as a very important new development. His reception in Washington is a sign of the times, as the United States struggles to adapt to the reality of Islamist electoral success and Islamist parties struggle to reassure those who fear their ascent while delivering on their own programs.

I last saw Ghannouchi in June, when I was in Tunisia researching an article about al-Nahda. I had asked Ghannouchi at that time what al-Nahda might do with an electoral victory, and he had assured me that they would seek a national unity government. It did just that. After al-Nahda scored a major victory in Tunisia's first post-Ben Ali election, it quickly formed a national unity government while ceding the post of president to the secular human rights campaigner Moncef Marzouki. Ghannouchi explained that his party "would opt for a coalition government even if al-Nahda achieves an absolute majority, because we don't want the people to perceive that they have moved from a single party dominant in the political life to another single party dominating the political life."  Such reassurances have been meant to respond to the suspicions of Islamists and the political polarization endemic to post-Ben Ali Tunisia -- and seem thus far to have succeeded. 

When I asked Ghannouchi what al-Nahda's top priority would be in government, he answered not with talk of shari'a [Islamic law] but with a "guarantee that dictatorship will not return to Tunisia." He dismissed fears that al-Nahda employed a "double discourse" (i.e. saying one thing in English and something else at home) as a relic of the Ben Ali era's propaganda. He acknowledged that al-Nahda was a large movement, with many distinct points of view, but insisted that "there are no people in al-Nahda who are takfiri [i.e. declaring opponents to be non-Muslims]; there is no one in al-Nahda that believes that violence is a means of change or to keep power; there is no one in al-Nahda that does not believe in equality between men and women; no one in al-Nahda believes that jihad is a way to impose Islam on the world."

But Ghannouchi clearly understands both the difficulty and the urgency of convincing Tunisian secularists and outside observers of those convictions.  He told me that he expected the party to be judged by its performance. He insisted that al-Nahda's commitment to democracy had been strengthened by the Ben Ali experience, when thousands of its members were imprisoned or forced into exile. "The prosecution of al-Nahda movement could have led us to violence, and this is what Ben Ali wanted. But our experience in prison has deepened our belief in freedom and democracy, and Ben Ali failed to drag us into violence. And that's why he fell."

And what of the salafis with more extreme views? Ghannouchi laughed, "if Tunis becomes Salafi country, nothing can be guaranteed." Tunisians tended toward moderation in their Islamic beliefs, he emphasized, which shaped al-Nahda's approach. Turning serious, he went on to argue that salafis grew radical under torture and repression, and argued that in a more open environment al-Nahda would help convince them to adopt more moderate understandings of Islam. When I pushed him, he said bluntly that al-Nahda would actively resist any salafi efforts to push for a more Islamic constitution.  His party will be judged by whether it lives up to such commitments. 

An edited version of the interview follows:

Read Interview.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Syrian Opposition leader's statements widens the gap between factions

    Tuesday, December 06, 2011   No comments

Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the so-called Syrian National Council, spoke with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday at his home in south Paris. His remarks have angered many leaders of the opposition inside Syria and widened the gap between the competing factions within the opposition.

Read the transcript of the interview.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Why Turkey is for ‘regime change’ in Syria

    Monday, December 05, 2011   No comments


Changes in the Middle East that were triggered last year by the Tunisian revolution are continuing to shake the region. The Abant Platform this weekend organized a conference titled “The Future of the Middle East after the Arab Spring,” which has the aim of understanding what this means for the world at large as well as for the region. The roots of the revolutionary changes, its processes and its implications were thoroughly debated with the participation of a range of academics and journalists from the Middle East and the West.

Among the topics debated was the situation in Syria and Turkey’s policy towards it. I think there is confusion about Turkey’s Syria policy. The most expressed criticism raised against the Turkish government was its ever changing policy towards the Assad regime. Only last year the two countries were closely cooperating, building personal ties among its top leaders and holding joint cabinet meetings. Now, critics say, Turkey and Syria are on the verge of conflict.

I think we should be fair. What the Turkish government was trying to do was to help Syria materialize political and economic transformation gradually and in an orderly way. Well before the start of the Arab Spring the Turkish government had been engaging with the Syrian regime to integrate it in international economic and political structures, despite some opposition by its Western allies.

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Islamists and secularists in Tunisia stand-off

    Sunday, December 04, 2011   No comments

By Tarek Amara
TUNIS | Sat Dec 3, 2011 8:31am EST
(Reuters) - Thousands of Tunisian Islamists and secularists staged parallel protests outside the interim parliament on Saturday in a dispute over how big a role Islam should play in society after the country's "Arab Spring" revolution.

Tensions have been running high between the two camps since the revolt in January scrapped a ban on Islamists and paved the way for a moderate Islamist party to come to power at the head of a coalition government.

The latest round of protests was sparked when a group of hardline Islamists occupied a university campus near the capital to demand segregation of sexes in class and the right for women students to wear a full-face veil.

About 3,000 Islamists gathered outside the constitutional assembly in the Bardo district of the Tunis on Saturday, separated by a police cordon from a counter-protest by about 1,000 secularists.

Read Article.

Vermont Pols Push to End Corporate Personhood

    Sunday, December 04, 2011   No comments
[read Court's Opinion]

As support builds to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, organizer David Cobb returned to Vermont last week to discuss pending state legislation and Town Meeting votes aimed at amending the US constitution. From

Over the last decade more than a hundred cities and towns across the country have passed ordinances putting citizens' rights ahead of corporate interests. They have banned businesses from dumping toxic sludge, building factory farms, mining, and extracting water for bottling.

Some have also refused to recognize corporations as people.

On Jan. 21, 2010, however, the US Supreme Court firmly rejected that idea in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, ruling that corporations are “persons” with First Amendment rights and cannot be prevented from spending unlimited funds on political campaigns.

Read Article.

The “very scary” Iranian Terror plot

    Sunday, December 04, 2011   No comments

The most difficult challenge in writing about the Iranian Terror Plot unveiled yesterday is to take it seriously enough to analyze it. Iranian Muslims in the Quds Force sending marauding bands of Mexican drug cartel assassins onto sacred American soil to commit Terrorism — against Saudi Arabia and possibly Israel — is what Bill Kristol and John Bolton would feverishly dream up while dropping acid and madly cackling at the possibility that they could get someone to believe it. But since the U.S. Government rolled out its Most Serious Officials with Very Serious Faces to make these accusations, many people (therefore) do believe it; after all, U.S. government accusations = Truth. All Serious people know that. And in the ensuing reaction one finds virtually every dynamic typically shaping discussions of Terrorism and U.S. foreign policy.

To begin with, this episode continues the FBI’s record-setting undefeated streak of heroically saving us from the plots they enable. From all appearances, this is, at best, yet another spectacular “plot” hatched by some hapless loser with delusions of grandeur but without any means to put it into action except with the able assistance of the FBI, which yet again provided it through its own (paid, criminal) sources posing as Terrorist enablers. The Terrorist Mastermind at the center of the plot is a failed used car salesman in Texas with a history of pedestrian money problems. Dive under your bed. “For the entire operation, the government’s confidential sources were monitored and guided by federal law enforcement agents,” explained U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and “no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere and no one was actually ever in any danger.’”
... read Article

The last crusade

    Sunday, December 04, 2011   No comments

by Kenan Malik
In the warped mind of Anders Breivik, his murderous rampages in Oslo and Utoya earlier this year were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one, to defend what Breivik called Europe's "cultural, social, identity and moral platform". Few but the most psychopathic can have any sympathy for Breivik's homicidal frenzy. Yet the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of Western civilisation, and of its political ideals and ethical values, and that Christian Europe is under threat, from Islam on the one side and "cultural Marxists" on the other, finds a widespread hearing. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and to the end of modern, liberal democracy.
The claims about the "Muslim takeover" of Europe, while widely held, have also been robustly challenged. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident – and not just by believers. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of "Eurabia", described herself as a "Christian atheist", insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself "an incurable atheist" and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines "any religious resistance" to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that "Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilisation."
Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of Western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the "bedrock values of Western civilisation" and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values greatly simplifies both the history of Christianity and the roots of modern democratic values – not to mention underplays the tensions that often exist between "Christian" and "liberal" values.
Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was a fusion of Ancient Greek thought and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so.
Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The Golden Rule – "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to treat strangers as brothers, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were already important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition.
Conversely, perhaps the most profound contribution of Christianity to the Western tradition is also its most pernicious: the idea of Original Sin, the belief that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve's disobedience of God in eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was a doctrine that led to a bleak view of human nature; in the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower.
The story of Adam and Eve was, of course, originally a Jewish fable. But Jews read that story differently to Christians. In Judaism, as in Islam, Adam and Eve's transgression creates a sin against their own souls, but does not condemn humanity as a whole. Adam and Eve were as children in the Garden of Eden. Having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they had to take responsibility for themselves, their decisions and their behaviour. In Judaism, this is seen not as a "fall" but as a "gift" – the gift of free will.
... read Article


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