Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dubai's troubles

Dubai World’s recent announcement that it would be delaying debt payments to a number of institutional investors and banks for at least six months caused considerable volatility in global stock markets on Thursday and Friday. Analysts were quick to interpret the news as a sign that Dubai’s main financial patron, Abu Dhabi, is not ready to enact a wholesale bailout of its neighbor despite the somewhat symbiotic financial relationship between the two emirates. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/business/global/26dubai.html?scp=5&sq=dubai&st=nyt) This view seems to be supported by the recent announcement by Abu Dhabi that it would provide aid to Dubai on a “case by case basis.” As Andrew Hammond of Reuters notes in a recent analysis,

“Abu Dhabi has stepped in to help, but avoided a direct bail-out of its neighbor -- but it could be drawn into more direct backing if its own prestige is affected by Dubai's woes.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/ousivMolt/idUSTRE5AP2RZ20091127)

There are a number of competing interpretations about the short and long –term effects of the Dubai announcement on the financial health and future of Dubai. Some analysts think that this event effectively heralds the end of the city’s reign as a regional financial powerhouse since the foreign capital that has funded Dubai’s development will be harder to come by. Others take the view that oil revenues will continue to create opportunities for investment in Dubai, keeping the emirate relevant in the long-term. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125917636109164423.html) I tend to agree with the latter view which clashes violently with the prevailing wisdom that Dubai is and was always, a house of cards. One can talk ad nauseam about the sustainability of the Dubai model and the absurdity of attempting to diversify an oil economy by focusing only on tourism and financial services but the position of Dubai in the region as a business center is unlikely to change for a number of reasons. There is no doubt that Dubai will face some competition from other regional cities which aspire to attract foreign investment and position themselves as financial centers, but the inertia, social culture, and infrastructure are all on the side of the city where many multinationals are currently based. There is no other city which has the infrastructure needed to be a regional hub for business activity and a gateway to other emerging markets (mostly in Asia). No other regional city has seemed as willing to house rowdy expats and remove restrictions on alcohol consumption and lifestyle to make the living experience for the professional class more sustainable. The problem with the doom-and-gloom analysis is that it disregards many of the competitive advantages that Dubai maintains relative to its regional competitors as well as the emergence of increasingly interconnected markets in the Gulf. Until other cities such as Doha and Manama are able to build the infrastructure to support large-scale business activity or cities such as Abu Dhabi choose to liberalize their laws, Dubai will continue to serve an important function as a regional financial center and business hub.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eid Sayeed

كل عام ش نتم بخير

Eid al-Adha (Eid al-Kebir = "the big holiday") is a special time for all of us Muslims (although mysteriously the gift-giving only takes place on Eid al-Fitr, probably because we are just so excited to eat again after Ramadan.) When I was 5, I used to explain it to my friends as the "Muslim Christmas," and now that I'm 25 I feel more comfortable resurrecting the story of Prophet Abraham / Ibrahim willing to sacrifice his son because Allah told him to.This year I was unable to witness the actual slaughtering of the sheep, usually the juiciest part of the day, watching my older brother slaughter a living being in the name of God, blood splattering everywhere because he's not so skilled at it yet. As was recounted, some blood splattered into my father's beard, as he sat the inning out as an onlooker on the bench.
While Qurbani refers to an animal sacrifice on Eid al-Adha, falling on the 10th day of the month of Dhul Hijja (ذو الحجة), sacrifices of many kinds are widely adopted by many Muslims in the name of Sadaqa. Example: your new baby daughter has beautiful blue eyes. Solution: sacrifice a cow. Example 2: You recently renovated your house and it is beautiful: sacrifice a sheep. Example 3: You are worried about your son's academic progress in school: sacrifice a camel. I think it's a great system, those animals probably would have had miserable lives anyway, being harassed by cats and rabid dogs in the alleyway etc. Don't let the Aristocats fool you, these guys are NOT having that much fun. Plus, all dogs go to heaven, so I would assume the same goes for the sheep.

I tried to videotape the Qurbani once, when my mother decided it was necessary to slaughter an animal for the sake of getting me to eat more butter (a staple in the Kashmiri diet and apparently I was shaming the family by consistently refusing it) and it went smoothly until I almost fainted and the tape shows a sudden abandoning of the camera on my part and faint sounds of screaming and crying as I fled. I do have fond memories of befriending a small sheep I named "fluffie" as a child- we were allowed to bond and play with her in the backyard for a week before Zubair, the local butcher, came to slaughter her for Eid al-Adha.

Of course, the holiday is meant to celebrate Prophet Abraham / Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his own son in the name of God, an exemplary gesture of true faith. The son was spared, but we still commemorate his devotion with the Qurbani sacrifice of a goat / sheep / cow (or camel, apparently?) each year. In fact, a great documentary has been produced on this theme, A Son's Sacrifice.
It really is a special time for all of us- in my time in Morocco, I missed the actual holiday because I was traveling, but upon my return almost everyone I knew showed me the raw footage from their cell phones of 1. animal 2.killing of animal 3. dancing around 4. blood everywhere. It is a time of celebration, of remembrance for our Prophet, and even while celebrating alone in NYC, it's a time to eat cake.


Alexander Cockburn, in a recent article on Counterpunch.org, drew an analogy between Gibbon’s comment in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that integration of foreign people’s into the Roman army hastened its disintegration, and the comments of Gen. Casey, who approvingly observed—after the incident at Ft. Hood—that the diversity of the U.S. army was a mark of its strength; and that notwithstanding the events of late, it was a trait which the Army had no intention of discouraging. Not surprisingly, Cockburn’s analogy was condemned by letter-sending respondents as insult to the Muslim community, the principle of diversity and an affront to the notion of progress in general.

Cockburn’s somewhat surprising rejoinder was that these aforementioned defenses were indicative of a liberal sensibility that has become so wizened and conciliatory that it mustn’t offend the Right by opening itself to the attack of being unsupportive of the troops—that by some dubious exercise of logic, one ought to be able to admit—in the same breath—that one is “pro-troop” and “anti-war” (As a mark of how far the Right has penetrated the liberal thought, one needs only note the late-night comedy hosts who, between satiric jabs, pull a serious face and intone—quite solemnly—about the latest fundraiser for soldiers and their families).

No, it cannot be: one is asked to reconcile the fact that a soldier, in the service of the Empire, a honed instrument of death and destruction, is to be absolved of any wrongdoing—indeed, to be so quickly carved into the public mind in a heroic figure—so that their deaths should be attended by all the hokey affectations of a patriotic sentiment—and that to call into question their inherent goodness (proven beyond a doubt by their commitment to self-sacrifice for their country) is all one needs to be banned from the arena of debate. If Maj. Hasan’s destructive spree proves anything, it’s that loyalty to a flag whose fabric has been so besmirched and discredited is an increasingly tough proposition these days—especially when the Right has come to dominate and define the limits of public discourse so that honest reflection has become a synonym for weakness and that inadherence to the principle of American Exceptionalism is downright treasonous.

The Iranian Nuclear Debate Continues to Build Pressure

Last week, I was discussing the Iranian’s desire to maintain their own state run sites for enriching uranium for the purposes of producing nuclear fuel for power plants…or weapons, depending on your opinion. Well, it would seem that this week has offered up just a little bit more of the same and I felt it would be important to follow up on that last post with a short update.
This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution that condemned the Iranians for developing an enrichment center near the town of Qom. More than two-thirds of the countries who make up the IAEA voted in support of the resolution against the Islamic Republic. In a CNN News report, the White House said the "overwhelming vote" underscores "the resolve and unity of the international community with regard to Iran's nuclear program" and senior administration officials said the United States had warned Iran Friday that it is prepared to push for significantly stronger economic sanctions in wake of the resolution (http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/11/27/iran.nuclear/index.html).
In response, the Iranian government has decided to take a less than friendly stance on the level of cooperation they are prepared to give to the IAEA for the duration of this debate. This weekend, the Iranian Parliament signed a letter urging their government to reduce its cooperation with the international agency and to take an even harder stance against the opposition to their nuclear programs. Additionally, it was reported that there are plans to move forward with the creation of new facilities in Iran for the enrichment of uranium. Totaling ten new sites, the government has already begun preliminary construction of the first five. The Iranian government has announced that the site will be used to produce enough nuclear fuel to power the entire country, an estimated 250-300 tons of fuel (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8385275.stm).
Many on the other side of the debate will undoubtedly see the opening of new centers for enrichment a direct slap in the face of the international community seeking to limit the efforts of the Iranians’ nuclear program. How will the United Nations, the West and other respond? Only the week to come will bring the answer to that question. Although the debate over whether or not Iran even has the right to nuclear capability appears to be getting hotter long before its cooling off, and that does not bode well for future stability in both the Middle East and Central Asia. There will be much more to come on this topic, I can guarantee it.

The U.K.’s Iraq Inquisition

An interesting story that caught my eye this past week in several media outlets is the inquiry launched but the United Kingdom into the events surrounding the British’s involvement in the 2003 Iraqi War. While not a criminal tribunal, the inquiry has been set up to determine what brought the county to Iraq and, apparently, whether or not those motives and actions had legitimacy. Case in point, this week has brought under scrutiny the justification Tony Blair’s government sought from the United Nations to sign on to the conflict more than six years ago.
Enter Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Sir Jeremy was the permanent representative for the United Kingdom to the U.N. from 1997 through 2003. He was also the man who was trying to get the international organization to pass a resolution against Saddam Hussein’s regime in early 2003 condemning the leader’s failure to reveal his weapons stockpile, giving him a final ultimatum for allowing U.N. weapons inspectors to examine anything the country possessed and essentially justifying any subsequent military action against him. However, said U.N. Resolution never came to fruition. Why?
Obviously, the U.K. had sought the resolution in 2003 for the reason that it was concerned about the legality of an invasion of Iraq. The United States at the time was touting not only a condemnation of secret weapons stockpiles, but also an urge for regime change. The U.K. has begun to sign on to an effort against the Iraqi regime, but only under the pretense of the former, not the latter reasoning. And it was not prepared, at least at first, to move forward without the proper legal backing. According to BBC News, Sir Jeremy told the inquiry that previous resolutions, such as 1441 made in November of 2002, made by U.N. regarding Iraq had provided “sufficient legal cover” for any action, but only if it was determined that Iraq was in material breach of its disarmament obligations (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8382194.stm). Sir Jeremy was then asked about the overall legality of the war, to which he responded that there were differing opinions and that no single consensus on the legitimacy of the war was ever achieved.
There’s where that missing resolution would have helped, huh?
It would appear that the need for such a resolution was two-fold: either the weapons inspectors would have been allowed in and found the alleged weapons of mass destruction, squelching all international fears, or Saddam Hussein would have remained defiant and military action could then move forward. But the United Nations was not willing to back a resolution. Members of the U.N. Security Council understood that the resolution would be used to justify an invasion of Iraq had it been passed. But France and other council members weren’t willing to allow it to go through. This, many believe, is indicative of the illegality of the invasion and war.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock was additionally asked why, if there were other resolutions made, they needed a further resolution in 2003. Again, he cited the “safest legal grounds” rational. But the U.N. backing never came. So in short, the inquiry was about to determine that justification was sought from the U.N. but never achieved and the U.K. moved forward with a military action without any measurable consensus on whether or not it was even legal to do so. There is a long way to go in this inquiry, slated to wrap up by next December, and I am quite eager to see what their overall conclusions are.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The idiot's guide to traveling home for the holidays, or How this country bumpkin made it to New Hampshire

My thoughts here might have been more useful a week ago, before Thanksgiving. I still think they’re worth sharing and, hey, maybe helpful for the future (winter break is right around the corner).

NYU is odd in that it gives a surprisingly short Thanksgiving Break: Thursday and Friday only, leaving out the coveted Wednesday travel day. (I used to complain that my undergraduate university had short winter breaks, but now I’d give up some January time for the Wednesday off!) This, of course, makes traveling home difficult, especially if you’re going far. I was moments away from snagging a seat on the once-daily train to Vermont when I called my dad to make sure he’d pay for it. In those 5 minutes, the train sold out and I was relegated to the most dreadful form of travel: the bus.
For me, it’s a six-and-a-half-hour trip to southern New Hampshire on a Greyhound that hits every major city along Route 91 North. Traveling at any sort of convenient time would thus require me to arrive two hours early and still risk my seat. So, in a moment of brilliance, I booked a trip leaving Port Authority at 6 am.

I left my Brooklyn apartment shortly after 4, having perfectly timed the subway on the MTA website (http://tripplanner.mta.info/). My roommate walked me through the mean streets of Bushwick, trailed by a suitcase that weighed more than I do. Of course, stumbling down the stairs with that 150-pound suitcase made me miss my 4:23 am train, and I waited patiently for another 22 minutes. When I did board the train, I was the only woman in the car; the experience was significantly less creepy in that I was also the only person awake.

I arrived at 42nd street around 5am and was inevitably followed by the token crazy person muttering something about the world today; thank goodness for the big burly man next to me who placating-ly echoed his sentiments and provided a physical barrier between us. The subway entrances to Port Authority don’t open until 6am, so I had to drag my cadaver-sized bag up the stairs to the street, then back down to the bus terminal. Both will-call automated kiosks were broken, so at 5:15 I waited in line at the Greyhound booth behind a non-English speaker attempting to buy tickets upstate for his family of 4. I glanced at my ticket, noticing the one-hour deadline for ticket pick-up and crossing my fingers. At 5:27am, I made my way to the front of my line, cashed in my ticket, and was off to find gate 81. I was swooped up by an older gentleman who kindly pointed me in the right direction, where I found two 20-something guys asleep on the floor between the velvet ropes. Seeing the still-short line, I decided I had time to go to the bathroom. As I crossed the white-tile threshold into the ladies’ room, the older man who had directed me earlier yelled, “What are you doing? Don’t dawdle!”

I rejoined the line at 5:45, at least 6 different people asked if the bus made their stop In New Haven, Hartford, or Springfield. As the only one who seemed to know the answers, I felt like a true New Yorker. In a miraculous final leg of travel, a hearty Santa Claus-looking man took my ticket and welcomed me aboard. The rest was pie; or at least only rarely interrupted sleep.

In my first experience, I figured out some tips—the hard way.
• The train is always better than the bus.
• The problem with the bus is that even when you buy your ticket in advance, you don’t have a reservation. In general, Greyhound purposely overbooks the bus to make sure it’s as full as can be: great for their business strategy, bad for your timing.
• Take the bus at the most awkward time possible, so it’s less popular and more likely to have space for you. You can waste less time traveling by showing up a little later; time is like gold in graduate school.
• Take Dramamine (unless you’re one of those circus freaks who can read while riding). Even if you don’t get motion sickness regularly, taking Dramamine will allow you to get work done on the bus and free up some time for holiday celebrations.
• Get to the subway early. The trains regularly run a minute or two off the published schedule, and arriving on time assures you’ll miss it (Murphy’s Law, what can I say).
• When in doubt, avoid eye contact with anyone talking out loud before 6am; speed up, slow down, or tag yourself onto someone else nearby.

Football Politics

A set of recent articles in The New York Times about the national football teams of Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine caught my attention. The articles were printed in isolation, prompted by three separate events in the world of football (or 'soccer,' for those of us on this side of the Atlantic). But I thought they were interesting when placed in comparison, as they each revealed something distinctive about the national politics shaping the states from which the teams hailed.

It is always a bit reductive to talk about national sports teams in symbolic terms. For the most part I tend to think that sports are just sports and not particularly representative of much beyond that. But just like all national obsessions, football can sometimes shed light on the popular dynamics shaping the political or social direction of a given nation. In the case of these three articles, I thought that the particular football-politics that they described had some interesting things to say about the current political predicaments facing the three countries.

The first article was a Michael Slackman piece on the Egyptian rioting following the country's loss to Algeria in the final World Cup qualifying match. Egypt was the heavy favorite and the country, which is a perennial powerhouse in the world of African football, had been hoping to finally buck its trend of underperfomance and qualify for football's greatest tournament for the first time in two decades (instead, they lost 1-0).

It was not so much the performance of the team that I found to be indicative of Egypt's current political situation, but rather the response of the country's state leaders. As Slackman points out, Egypt's government officials tried to use the face-off with Algeria to stir up national solidarity and (more importantly) divert attention from the perpetual failings of the Mubarak regime. When Egypt lost the match, the government reacted with petulant accusations against Algerian fans and lashed out by withdrawing its ambassador from Algiers. Alaa Mubarak, the President's son, released statements stirring up feelings of collective resentment against alleged Algerian affronts; they were meant to sound defiant, but instead rang as pathetic. And yet, Egyptians reacted to the propaganda and took to the streets, protesting against the perceived injustices and marching on the Algerian embassy.

This all struck me as remarkably indicative of the political problems that Egypt faces. An authoritarian regime with little to no popular credibility is looking increasingly desperate for new ways to maintain its control on a restless and disillusioned population. It thought the competition with Algeria might help it to boost the nation's solidarity, but when the team lost, it had to resort to the perverted opposite of national pride -- collective resentment. And then, of course, the entire situation spun out of its control. Its public statements and petty reactions led to violence in the streets, forcing the regime to deploy riot police to quell the restlessness that it had unleashed. The whole affair simply leaves the government looking hapless and desperate -- no vision, no credibility, and no ability to control a justifiably restless population.

The second article discussed the current predicament facing Iraq's national football team, which was recently suspended by FIFA due to meddlesome government interference in the affairs of the Iraqi Football Association. The suspension is an embarrassment, particularly for a team that had been flagged as a rising football power in Asia and dubbed "The Lions of Mesopotamia" after they won the Asia Cup in 2007.

When Iraq won this tournament -- Asia's most prestigious -- the country momentarily came together in a great surge of national unity. For all its divisions and strife, Iraqis have united in the past around their football team, which remained under the ruthless supervision of Saddam Hussein's son before 2003. In 2007, the country's victory was heralded as a sign that Iraqis could overcome their differences and work towards a collective future together. Now, the suspension of the team seems to portend the opposite. It uncannily coincides with the current debacle going on in Iraq's parliament over the election law. Just as the various factions seemed prepared to sign an agreement, the loose-cannon VP Tareq al-Hashemi shot the whole agreement to pieces with his veto. Who knows whether the agreement can be put back together. But it does seem that every time Iraqis are given a bit of hope for national reconciliation -- be it in football or in voting laws -- the affair gets hamstrung by the fractious bickering of its perpetually divided political leaders.

The final article gave a more classic account of how football can unite and inspire populations. It described the Palestinian women's football team in their match-up against Jordan in the West Bank town of Al Ram. Although surrounded by blockades and in the shadow of Israeli checkpoints, the event had an uplifting and somewhat defiant tone to it, as though the participants were determined to express their national pride despite the innumerable obstacles currently preventing that nation from coming to full fruition. The players competed and the fans cheered almost as an alternative means of national resistance. It was an powerful sign that despite facing nothing but disappointment in the eternally-draw-out peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinians are still finding reasons to cheer. They are coming up with alternative ways to forward their national project through channels that do not involve uninspiring politicians, intractable negotiating positions, and stalled 'peace processes.'

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Update on the Iraqi Electoral Law and a Lesson in Undiplomatic Negotiating

Iraqi politics have officially reached a level of dangerous turmoil. As I noted in an earlier post, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi vetoed the long-awaited election law. The passing of the election law is necessary to hold national elections on January 18th.

The law was then sent back to the Iraqi parliament for revision. One would think that the Shia and Kurdish parties - in the interest of getting this law passed so elections can be held - would at least try to strike a compromise with the Sunnis regarding the percentage of seats allocated to Iraqi refugees abroad (about 2 million out of a population of 25 million, most of whom are Sunnis). However, the dominant Shia parties along with the Kurdish Alliance actually amended the law in a way that actually made the Sunni parties feel even more disenfranchised. I won't go into detail, but changes were made to increase Kurdish representation at the expense of Sunni representation. Al-Hashimi has indicated he will veto the latest version of the election law, throwing the entire electoral process in Iraq into limbo.

What does this mean? Unfortunately, it indicates the lingering presence of sectarianism in Iraqi politics since it's clear that the main Shia and Kurdish players don't feel the need to take Sunni demands seriously. After a year in which identity politics seemed to be on the wane, they have become ever more prominent during the last few months. I would like to emphasize that I am not a fan of using sectarian identity as a prism through which to view Iraqi politics. Far too often, sectarianism is over-emphasized at the expense of class identity, tribal/urban identity, regional identity and the actual substantive issues. Another error that people commit is projecting Iraq's current sectarian tension onto the past in order to explain the 'somehow inevitable' authoritarian nature of Iraqi politics. It's important to recognize that identities are always fluid; just because sectarian consciousness in Iraq has been particularly high these last few years doesn't mean it has been that way throughout the past. One must not essentialize sectarian identities but rather view them more as politico-economic constructs.

The Iraqi parliament can break the current deadlock in the election law process by overriding Hashimi's second veto with a 3/5 majority. If the Shia and Kurdish parties vote in line, they have the numbers. If this happens, the Sunnis have threatened to boycott the vote. And if thathappens, well, things might get ugly.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Orientalism is Fun

Many students and scholars of the region are fixated on the so-called corrupting influence of Orientalism on scholarship about the Middle East. It’s not uncommon to hear the accusation of Orientalism being leveled at a good, intellectually-confident academic since there is no quicker way to discredit a scholar’s work than to label him or her an Orientalist. Orientalism, like the word Truth, evokes an automatic negative response from most well-trained Middle Eastern Studies students. Like political science, Israel, and objectivity, it is an idea which one must be reject completely if he hopes to maintain his regional studies credibility.

Frankly, I am tired of hearing about the fundamental “flaws” and “misguided” aims of the Orientalists. There is, in fact, a very simple explanation is for the incredible staying power of Orientalism as a totalizing worldview and dominant explanatory framework among twelve-year old boys from rural Kansas and major newspaper columnists. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/thomaslfriedman/index.html)

It’s fun.

That’s right, post-colonial studies has completely corrupted what was once the largest selling-point of regional studies; the ability to live one’s life as a explorer of those primitive peoples of the Middle East and as an active participant, ney, a patriotic servant, in a grand civilizing project.

In order to tease out the truly enjoyable element in Orientalism, you must ask yourself a few questions: Is there any other school of thought that allows you to make vast generalizations about an entire region based on its perceived religious roots? No. Is there any other school of thought that has such powerful resonance with both Middle America and Washington D.C. policy-makers? No. Is there another school of thought that is both descriptive and prescriptive in the sense that simultaneously grasps the problem (What Went Wrong) and suggests a new way forward for errant Arab societies? (i.e. be more like Turkey.) Of course not, well, perhaps modernization theory qualifies. That’s right, though post-colonial studies gives us the opportunity to create new words such as Islamophobaheteronormativity , queergenderism, metateleodiscourse, and postSabaMahmoodian, Orientalism employs simple categories such as “the Arab mind” and “the native disposition” in order to understand that age-old practice of freedom-hating.

Orientalism is not a paradigm, rather; it is a way of life.

Wearing tweed coats, collecting stone artifacts and orphan children from Oman, traveling to the region on exciting, four-year long sabbaticals to understand the natives in their primitive environment is not part of the academic lifestyle anymore. Sure, we go abroad to places such as Constantinople, Ramallah in new Israel, and Le Souk (http://www.lesoukny.com/) in Morocco but we do so in order to “understand,” “problematize,” and “observe.” Where is the strong, paternalistic Oxbridge-daddy-knows-best language and the remarkably lucid explanations of Islamic decline?

Some of the obfuscation and intellectual opaqueness of the post-Orientalist scholars can only be attributed to the decline of philology as a tried and true method of ascertaining the essence of Islam and therefore, of the Islamicate peoples. Thankfully, the study of obscure languages such as Ottoman still persists but where are Syriac, Aramaic, and Hittite? (www.harvard.edu)

We can easily remedy this situation by hiring academics who have a commanding knowledge of Hittite, little to no knowledge of contemporary politics, and a strong affinity for the ummah (at least in its idealized form). If we are successful, three years from now, the award-winning dissertation at MESA will be titled “A History of the Mohammedian Peoples from the Prophet’s Birth to the Modern day: A Story of Freedom-Hating and Insurrection.”

Iraq as battleground

The latest issue of the The Economist features an interesting article about the rising influence of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi political process. The article cites sources who claim that a meeting took place between top American diplomatic and military officials and the head of Iran’s Quds Force in Iraq, General Qasem Suleimani. Analysts interpret this meeting as a sign that the United States is both coming to terms with the massive influence that Iran holds amongst Iraqi Shias and tacitly acknowledging the sheer dominance of the Iranian position relative to that of other regional players. (Although it is yet to be seen just how accommodating the United States will be towards Iranian aspirations for great influence in the region. There are many in the U.S. government who believe the United States must do everything in its power to counter Iranian influence, even if that means using Iraq as a battleground.) The article notes that Iraq has also become an important area of influence for Turkey and Saudi Arabia as demonstrated by the fact that both governments have established links with Iraqi political actors.

"Iraq’s three beefiest neighbors-Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey- have seen their influence in Baghdad wax as the Americans’ wanes. All three fear lest the vacuum left behind be filled by a regional rival…Simply put, the Iranians back the Shias and the Saudis back the Sunnis." (The Economist)

As Killian mentioned in his post, there is another conflict in which the broader Shia-Sunni rift is visible: the battle between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. The changing nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen point to an important trend: the emergence of regional proxy wars between the Middle East’s dominant powers in countries with a weak or emasculated central government. In the Middle East, the prime battlegrounds for regional hegemony are countries in which there is a significant power vacuum (Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon). In Iraq, Iran has employed a clever hedging strategy by supporting both the militias and the Shia-led parties based in Baghdad while the Saudis have advocated on behalf of Sunni interests. What is remarkable here is not Saudi Arabia and Iran’s willingness to use proxies to nakedly pursue their own interests, it is rather America’s inability to effectively project its power in these conflict zones. The economic power in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and the new regional player, Iran by virtue of their geography and historical ties to constituencies within Iraq, have much more influence over the trajectory of the Iraqi politics than the Americans could wish for. Therefore, America, it seems, will be forced to exercise its remaining influence through its allies in the region, a highly problematic strategy given the authoritarian nature of these regimes and their demonstrated willingness pursue their own regional ambitions through the strategic use of violence. As a number of Iran analysts have noted, the situation in Iraq also exposes the weakness of the American position vis-à-vis Iran: since America has not dealt extensively with Iran in the past thirty years, it maintains little to no soft influence with the Iranian leadership. That is precisely the dismal political reality that General Odierno and Ambassador Hill may have been attempting to rectify through their clandestine meeting with Suleimani, an effort which bears more similarity to the tactics of the C.I.A. than to the methods of a traditional diplomatic corps.

“I Was Distracted with School” Isn’t an Acceptable Excuse for Banks

It hasn’t been a fun week. Actually, it’s been a terrible week. I’m going to write this story as a warning to all of you graduate students out there who know the value of stretching every penny, and how much it can sting when you lose some of those funds. The lesson here should be stated before, during and after my little story that follows: watch your bank accounts. Check them everyday at least twice: once in the morning and once after the business day ends. I cannot stress this enough. Now I’m sure many of you are very careful with your money. I believe that I am (at least I did). But if you’re not the kind of person that watches the flow of every dollar through your account then I can say quite honestly that you need to be, because you never know when a mistake can occur or how hard you’ll have to pay for that mistake.
This past Monday, I looked up my checking account online as I typically do once or twice throughout the week and found that my available balance was in the negative. Actually, $120 in the negative to be exact. Concerned, I called my bank’s customer service hotline and asked them to look into it for me. It didn’t make sense to me, because I had just been paid the week before and made two large deposits on top of that. So when the customer service representative spoke to me, he told me that it was showing as negative because a couple of online bill payments I had made over the weekend were posting to the account and the deposits had not fully cleared. I then asked him if there was anything I should be concerned about, to which he replied no and the funds should all clear by Tuesday, bringing me back above zero. Relieved, I said thank you and hung up.
So after this conversation, I merely went about my week. Finishing up my reading from my Problems and Methods class on Tuesday, getting my Turkish work done, and making sure that I put in a decent amount of time at my job were all my concerns. My bank account was not. I didn’t take a single moment to check it all week.
So on Friday morning I decided to finally look into my account and see what the balance was. To my awful surprise, I found that I was not only still in the negative, but I was now hundreds of dollars below zero. I went immediately to my bank to find out what had happened. In a nutshell, that negative balance from Monday never went away. My charges from the weekend cleared before my deposits ever did, resulting in overdraft fees. Overdraft fees: for any of you that have had experience of ever receiving these little gems, you’ll know they’re roughly the monetary equivalent of your bank slapping you across the face. But that’s not all. Most of the time, at least in my experience, you may over draft your account with one or two charges and have to pay one or two typically $35.00 fees. But due to my negligence and my ignorance of what my exact account balance was all week, every single charge I made from Monday to Friday accrued its own $35.00 fee. How many charges did you make this week, Matt? I’ll tell you: fourteen. Fourteen separate charges and fourteen separate fees. That’s right: $490 in banking fees just because I wasn’t smart enough to check on my account all week.
It started with the first couple of overdraft fees from Monday when my account was in the negative which were able to keep my balance low enough when the deposits cleared to have subsequent charges bring the account back down below zero. And that resulted in further fees. And from then on, every time I bought a two dollar cup of coffee, it was actually $37. Every time a check I had written someone was deposited, that amount was compounded with another fee. And on and on it went for five days. I had taken the customer service rep I had spoken to on Monday at face value, and I believed on Tuesday that my account would be fine and I’d have nothing to worry about. That was not a good decision.
The first few bank people I appealed to were unsympathetic, stating that despite what I was told on the phone, watching my account was my responsibility and therefore any fees accrued were also my responsibility. Fortunately, the third person I spoke to was different and saw that my banking record prior to this event was flawless, having never overdrawn even once. As a courtesy for that record, I was forgiven for half of my over all charges, but that still left me out almost $250. The funny part is that none of my charges were in excess of my deposits. The total amounts matched up. I never actually over-drew of my own doing, but when the first few charges came in ahead of my deposits fully clearing, it started a chain reaction of fees that destroyed my balance.
Watch your bank accounts, boys and girls. Check on them every day when you have a couple of extra minutes. There are a dozen different ways to do this without even leaving your room, from text alerts to online banking and so on. Believe me, it’s critically important that you watch every dollar because inevitably there will be some error. If I had been watching, I could have caught this on Tuesday and saved myself literally hundreds of dollars in fees. But I was distracted. Look, I understand we each have a million things to finish and half of them should have been done yesterday, but we cannot get complacent when it comes to the important aspects of our lives outside of academia and/or work. I say watch your accounts, but what I really mean is take the time to watch everything in your life. If you become too consumed with your work, things will always be missed. How you will end up paying for those mistakes will vary, but you should never find yourself in that position to begin with. It’s very easy to get into trouble. Take it from me, because I’ll never let anything go overlooked again no matter how busy I am.

Iran, Uranium, and Frustrated Diplomats

Well, this week has certainly presented another interesting chapter in the ongoing saga of tense relations between the United States and Iran. On Wednesday, Iranian Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that his country had refused to send its partly enriched uranium abroad to be converted into lightly enriched uranium for the purposes of medical research. Instead, Mr. Mottaki said that Iran wishes to reprocess the material within its own borders. This is in conflict with the deal agreed upon during diplomatic talks in October that included the International Atomic Energy Agency. Needless to say, many who had helped in garnering the deal found themselves a bit frustrated at the end of this week.
But let’s have a little sidebar before going forward: what exactly is this enrichment process and what does it mean for Iran or any country’s nuclear ambitions? With the help of the BBC’s brief “Nuclear Fuel Cycle” chart (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/sci_nat/05/nuclear_fuel/html/mining.stm), one can see the important highlights of the process and why the talks between Iran and other countries have focused on the enrichment process. Essentially, uranium is first mined and then is transformed from a powder ore to a solid known as yellowcake. It is then heated and converted into a gas that is fed through centrifuges, separating its denser atoms (U-238) from its lighter atoms (U-235). It is the U-235 atoms that a country looking to produced nuclear power or nuclear weapons will want to harvest. But here is the important difference: once the atoms are separated in the centrifuge, one needs to obtain uranium enriched to contain only 2-3% u-235 to work in a reactor. Conversely, weapons-grade uranium needs to contain 90% u-235.
So, with all that in mind, where are the talks at this juncture? Iran possesses a large amount of raw uranium and has shown at least a fledgling capability for converting it into lightly enriched uranium. But it appears as though it is only a matter of time before the Iranians are capable of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium. Now as to whether or not those of you reading this believe Iran has a right to this power or doesn’t, I’ll leave it for you all to debate. I’m merely interested in discussing the state of the argument. And right now, other countries are not thrilled about the Iranians’ reluctance to maintain their end of the October deal. France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner said he was disappointed.
"There is a clear and negative response from the Iranians," he said (BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8366880.stm).
President Obama has also publicly condemned the rebuff. Announcing in South Korea this past week, he said, "Iran has taken weeks now and has not shown its willingness to say yes to this proposal ... and so as a consequence we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences…We weren't going to duplicate what has happened with North Korea, in which talks just continue forever without any actual resolution to the issue," (Al-Jazeera News, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/11/2009111962711262687.html).
In response to the strong statements, the Iranians have organized a massive military exercise throughout the western side of the country. The exercise began Sunday and is slated to continue for five days. Thus, the proverbial flexing-of-the-muscles has ensued on both sides. What will it mean in the long-run? Obviously, the true nature of any negotiation is difficult ascertain and predict from the outside, but what will be gained from this stand-off for the Iranians? And do the western nations pitted against the Islamic Republic have the resolve to back-up their strong words if Iran does not fulfill their end of the bargain? The notion of further sanctions on Iran has floated around as of late, but at least one Iranian official scoffs at the idea as being unnecessary and ineffective.
"Sanction was the literature of the 60s and 70s," Manouchehr Mottaki, who is currently visiting Philippines, said at a news conference (Al-Jazeera News , http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/11/2009111962711262687.html).
"I think they are wise enough not to repeat failed experiences," he said.
So can there be a diplomatic resolution in this tense climate? Honestly, I’m not sure. Hopefully it can, but it certainly won’t come easily.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Iraqi VP al-Hashemi Vetoes Electoral Law

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi vetoing the electoral law that was passed by the Iraqi parliament last week after months of delay has made news in even American media outlets, which means it must be important. According to the Iraqi Constitution, any one of Iraq's three-member Presidency Council can veto legislation. Hashemi has vetoed the electoral law because the law stipulates that Iraq's religious minorities and refugees abroad will be given 5% of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. Hashemi believes this percentage is far too low, since there are approximately 2 million Iraqi refugees - most of whom are Sunnis living in Jordan and Syria - out of a population of 25 million people.

When one does the math, Hashemi has a point. Allocating only 5% of parliamentary seats to the two million refugees abroad is an under-representation. Moreover, Hashemi's veto has engendered charges of sectarianism, since Hashemi is a Sunni and so are most of Iraq's two million refugees living in Syria and Jordan. He is seen by many to be acting out of concern for his constituents.

The stalling of the electoral law in the Iraqi parliament means that elections may be delayed. They are supposed to be held on January 18, 2010, but may be pushed back to February or even later if the electoral law isn't passed and approved quickly. This could create a constitutional crisis in Iraq, since the constitution mandates that national elections be held no later than January 30, 2010.

In addition to Hashemi's objection, the Kurdish Alliance had threatened to boycott the vote in Kurdistan unless they were granted a greater number of seats as well. President Talabani - a Kurd - did not veto the legislation, however.

This political turmoil may not end soon, which could seriously delay elections and precipitate a constitutional crisis if a vote isn't held by January 30th. It will be difficult for Hashemi to climb down from his demand to increase the allotment of seats to Iraqi refugees from 5% to 15% without losing vital political capital. The stakes are high, since high Sunni turnout may give the Hashemi-Mutlaq coalition significant leverage in forming the next government.

Rethinking the Peace Process

I generally try not to say anything too bold about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the oft-delayed 'peace process.' Partly this is because I don't consider myself to be enough of an expert on the convoluted array of issues that make the conflict so intractable. The rest of it is that I don't much like being yelled at.

But a recent article in the NY Review of Books struck me as worth putting out there because it undermines what seems to be a basic assumption among the international community that bilateral negotiations toward a final two-state solution are the only way to reach a durable peace. The article's authors are Hussein Agha (who wrote with Rashid Khalidi 'A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine') and Robert Malley (of the International Crisis Group). The two of them have published other articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both in the NY Review of Books and elsewhere.

I won't rehearse all the points made in the article but will just point out why I thought it was worth a read: they make a convincing argument that the peace process has been too fraught with missteps and failures to imagine that negotiations can start right up again where Bush, Olmert, and Abbas left off. While I was not entirely convinced by the alternatives they presented (and neither, it seemed, were they!) I think their point about a return to the drawing board is a good one. Clearly the current track isn't working. But can I think of a better alternative (and could they)? Not really.

(On an unrelated note, for those of you who attended the Joost Hiltermann talk a couple of weeks ago, here's a podcast on the NY Review's website of him discussing the new election law in Iraq).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A view from the other side: My internship with Iraq Veterans Against the War

One of my biggest regrets from my undergraduate career is not holding enough internships. As a result, I left college unsure of what I wanted to do with my life (which is why I went from Film School to the Kevorkian Center). It’s much harder to dabble and figure out what you want while depending on a paycheck. Which is why as soon as those student loan checks hit my bank account, I was on the hunt for an internship.

Non-profits offer some of the best internships out there because often you get real job experience; the intern isn’t the assistant to a position, the intern is the position. Idealist.org maintains a huge list of non-profit internships all over the country.

In fact, it’s where I found my Social Media & Marketing internship with Iraq Veterans Against the War. This national non-profit doesn’t employ a regular marketing director, which means I get a lot of responsibility (and experience). And for 8-10 hours a week, they provide me with an unlimited subway pass and a meal every time I work. As far as unpaid internships go, you can’t beat it.

Iraq Veterans Against the War is an organization that allies veterans of the current wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan in a call for immediate withdrawal from the region, adequate health care and benefits for returning vets, and reparations for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The title of this entry, “A View From the Other Side” takes on multiple meanings in this context. I have a reciprocal relationship with the organization: in return for my academic understanding of the region, I get the opportunity to interact with people who have actually been there and witnessed the events that trouble us as Middle East Studies students. What is remarkable is that IVAW members, who have showed their patriotism and served their country, share the opinion of the (mostly) liberal MEIS students who often fear being labeled unpatriotic or anti-American for their scholarship.

I had pictured a group of hardened, scruffy old men wearing black U.S. Army painter’s caps and carrying picket signs. What I got was something completely different. The group is surprisingly young, good-humored, and smart. Some, on occasion younger than me, walk with canes for injuries from mortar blasts while others sat listlessly on the base with nothing to do. All have one thing in common: they believe the current wars to be unjust.

It’s sometimes funny to me how much our views overlap, although they come from different “sides.” For example, media coverage of the recent shootings at Fort Hood had me up in arms over its racist overtones in suggesting the “Muslim Terrorist” connection before they even had a name for the shooter; IVAW was frustrated that the media let these racist implications overshadow the impact PTSD likely had on the shooter. (We both found solace in Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the event. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen in years: http://www.youtube.com/aljazeeraenglish#p/search/2/RRDMdq6BE-M .)

The organization does disseminate a good amount of information on the Middle East to clear up misunderstandings that war-mongering folks use to justify the wars (e.g., “the Taliban attacked America on September 11”). Check out their website (www.ivaw.org) for more information, or email me at sme296-at-nyu-dot-edu.

Nir Rosen's Latest on Iraq: An Ugly Peace

NYU's very own Nir Rosen - a prominent freelance journalist that has covered Iraq extensively since 2003 - has written a new piece on Iraq for Boston Review. In "An Ugly Peace," Rosen states that the new order in post-war Iraq is one of 'enshrined sectarianism' and that the horrific sectarian violence has only declined because of ethnic cleansing, which created a situation in which there were simply 'fewer Sunnis left to kill.'

Rosen's assertion that the violence that characterized Iraq's civil war has died down due to the fact that 'the Shia won' is not new. Yet the details from his personal accounts are nevertheless intriguing and shed new light on the relationship between the Mahdi Army (Muqtada al-Sadr's militia) and the Iraqi government/security forces. Rosen spent time in 2006 and 2007 in Washash, a mixed neighborhood in traditionally Sunni west Baghdad. The Mahdi Army established a base in Washash by 2006 and soon began to turn it into a Shia enclave by driving out Sunnis through assassinations and intimidation. The US army was more concerned with groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, while the nascent Iraqi security forces wouldn't dare step foot into Washash. According to Rosen, the Sadrists had two close contacts in the Prime Minister's office - Major General Adnan al-Maksusi, an intelligence officer, and Dr. Basima al-Jadhri, an advisor to Maliki on Interior and Defense issues. Because of the Mahdi Army's contacts with the Prime Minister and the presence of Mahdi Army supporters in the Iraqi security forces, the Sadrists acted as if they had a carte blanche during 2006 and into 2007. They killed or forced out thousands of Sunni families from mixed or Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. As more Sunnis fled and the area became more homogenous, violence subsided.

Yet, the situation began to change in mid-2007 and into 2008. The increase in the number of US troops in Iraq coincided with Muqtada al-Sadr freezing all Mahdi Army operations, yet many of his more brash adherents refused to obey his orders. Since there were increasingly less Sunnis to go after in Washash and its surrounding neighborhoods, these once-loved militia units started acting more and more like criminal gangs. According to Rosen, the Iraqi security forces along with US help used this to create a wedge between the Mahdi Army and the residents of these neighborhoods that had become tired of the Sadrists' extortionary ways. By 2008, the Iraqi security forces had arrested many of the rogue elements of the Mahdi Army in Washash and had restored Iraqi government control to the area.

The events in Washash in 2007 and 2008 can be seen as a microcosm of a larger development. As Iraqi security forces regained control of key Baghdad neighborhoods from Mahdi Army control, PM Maliki launched a massive campaign against Sadrist forces in Basra in March 2008 in order to reassert Baghdad's control in the south. Though the campaign faltered at first, it turned out to be mildly successful in weakening the hold of Shia militias over the south in general and Basra in particular.

Taking on Shia militias and asserting government control over the south created space for Maliki to flex his nationalist muscles and opened the possibility of creating cross-sectarian alliances. This is one of the reasons why the coalitions that have formed in preparation for the 2010 national elections are increasingly less sectarian than those from before. Still, it is premature to start talking about a post-sectarian future for Iraq. As Rosen emphasizes, the state now belongs to the Shia (as is immediately evident by the tv and music played in the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Oil). Nevertheless, Maliki's government faces an extremely fractured opposition, and the relative calm in the country has given it some sort of legitimacy - even among Sunnis. This is the 'ugly peace' of which Rosen writes. How long this ugly peace between Shia and Sunnis will hold is unknown. But as emphasized in previous posts, all eyes are currently fixed to the major ethnic cleavage in Iraq rather than to the major sectarian cleavage anyway.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saudi Arabia Flexes Its Muscles

The last week has seen a trickle of press on the escalating conflict in Yemen between the Houthi rebels, the Yemeni government, and now Saudi Arabia.

The news has been startling for its lack of detail and the conflicting nature of the reports. There are few journalists on the ground in North Yemen and so our news on the conflict has primarily been taken from the vague and often contradictory reports being issued by the Houthis, the Yemeni government, and the Saudi government.

What we do know is the following: the on-again, off-again conflict between the Zaidi rebels and the Yemeni army has plagued the country now for five years. The Zaidis are a sect of Shi'a, although far removed from the twelver sect that dominates countries like Iran and some say that they are actually closer in their beliefs to Sunnis. The conflict began in 2004 when the Yemeni government tried to arrest the leader of the Zaidis in the northern Yemeni province of Saada and the group, calling themselves Houthis after this same leader, launched an armed revolt against the Yemeni authorities.

In August, the Yemeni army decided to try to eradicate the rebels once and for all (they called this effort Operation Scorched Earth). They pressed into the region and have been engaging in heavy fighting with the Houthis since, with both sides claiming to be gaining advantage. Then ten days ago, the Houthis raided a valley directly across the border in Saudi Arabia, claiming that the Yemeni army had been using the location as a launching pad for strikes against the Houthis. Saudi responded to the raid with a blistering series of rocket attacks as well as limited ground operations. The most recent update is that the Saudi forces have pushed rebels back away from the border and are continuing to shell the border region of Jebel al-Dukhan in order to enforce a 10km buffer zone along the border.

So what does this all mean? Since we can't talk much about what's actually happening on the ground, most of the commentary out there is on how this conflict might play out and what its implications are for broader regional affairs.

The two most prevalent theses out there are: 1) this could be the beginning of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Saudi supporting the Yemenis and Iran supporting the Houthis. And 2) this could have extremely negative implications for Yemen's stability and security, escalating a domestic conflict into a regional one which will quickly spiral further out of its control.

On the first point, most analysts and experts are pointing out that despite Yemen's frequent accusations that Iran has been supporting the Houthis with weapons, there is little evidence to believe that this has been happening at a significant level -- until now. The danger is that Saudi Arabia's sudden entry into the conflict will propel Iran to make a similarly bold step.

From Saudi Arabia's perspective, most are arguing that Riyadh thinks it may have made a mistake and will make sure to limit its involvement as much as possible. The last thing Saudi wants is to get bogged down in a prolonged proxy way with Iran, fighting guerrilla rebels on their own turf and further destabilizing an already unstable neighbor. There is certainly merit to this argument.

But the sheer size and awesomeness of the Saudi response strikes me as significant. It may be that Saudi does not want to get caught up in a proxy war with Iran. But its response to the Houthi attack went far beyond what would have been necessary to simply repel the incursion and secure the border. On the first day of strikes there were reports of over 100 missiles raining down on a single location in one hour. It has employed Apache helicopters and long-range artillery (perhaps straight off the US assembly lines). The scale of this response suggests to me that Saudi may be trying to flex its muscles. The country has a lot of guns and missiles. It is by far the number one purchaser of foreign arms in the Middle East, but has rarely put these arms to use. The disproportionate response to the Houthi incursion may be an effort to show off some this potential might to its regional rivals. Riyadh probably does not want to get into a war with Iran. But the bombing may be a calculated way of showing Tehran that if a war does begin, Saudi has more than enough means to win it.


In light of the recent tragedy at Fort Hood in which Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 29, we are seeing a variety of responses from the media. Some criticize the US Army for its failure to recognize that Hasan was unstable and a potential threat, and others criticizing President Obama for his efforts to quell the fear that permeated the Bush Era, neglecting that the "war on terror" could still threaten us at home. Then there's the quite obvious backlash that we all anticipated, against American-Muslims in general. Reports emphasize that Hasan had recently become more religious, that he called up the name of God before beginning the brutal shooting and that he had anti-American sentiments related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are also sources from the US Army who emphasize that while they need to be more careful about the mental stability of their men and women, they are not using religion as the basis of who they must observe more carefully.

In a recent NY Times article, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army’s chief of staff asked that the Army be careful "not to jump to conclusions based on early tidbits of information... What happened at Fort Hood is a tragedy,” General Casey said, “and I believe it would be a greater tragedy if diversity became a casualty here.”

This type of reaction to the shootings seems to be what NYU Stern Professor Tunku Varadarajan was reacting to when he wrote his op-ed piece in Forbes magazine, "Going Muslim," causing a backlash from observant Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While Varadarajan's article includes a criticism and accusation of the US Army's emphasis on being "PC" as a contributing factor to the incident, he also begins the article by heavily criticizing the idea that we need to "not jump to conclusions," as General Casey recommended. Instead, he argues that perhaps "we are confronting a new phenomenon of violent rage" from Muslim-Americans. While other reports stress that we should not generalize this incident as proof that Muslim-Americans could be silent threats in our midst, Varadarajan seems to encourage it, mentioning the friendly local donut vendor in the same sentence in which he refers to Hasan.

He writes:
"The difference between "going postal," in the conventional sense, and "going Muslim," in the sense that I suggest, is that there would not necessarily be a psychological "snapping" point in the case of the imminently violent Muslim; instead, there could be a calculated discarding of camouflage--the camouflage of integration--in an act of revelatory catharsis."
He goes on to say:
"How to address the threat posed by the fact that, of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in our midst, there are a few (perhaps many more than a few) who are so radicalized that they would kill their fellow Americans? Must we continue to be neutral in handling all people from different groups even though we know that there are differential risks posed by people of one group?"

He is clearly suggesting that we need to reconsider the basic American principles of not judging people or discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion- if tragedies like what took place at Fort Hood can still happen, maybe we're being too nice to the Muslims. He writes that "the appearance of equality is not infinite in its appeal--especially if it flies in the face of common sense and self-preservation." Essentially, it sounds like a nice way of saying "fear for your lives!"

Whether or not we agree with the sentiments in Varadarajan's article, a new question came up in the midst of the backlash- to what extent is NYU Stern Dean Thomas Cooley responsible for apologizing for the article, and insisting that this is not the general stance of NYU faculty? After the condemnation from many Muslim and non-Muslim students, faculty and alumni, Cooley's response (as is circulated by email) was that :

"I think it is a very distorted reading to call this hate speech. Read it carefully. In any event I would not censor it or rebuke him for having written it. We are an institution that treasures free speech and open dialogue. You need to think more about what this means since you don't seem to understand it."

While this may sound harsh, and while we may disagree with some of Varadarajan's remarks, I wonder what difference it would make if Dean Cooley spoke out against an article written by one of our professors, and how that would both complicate things and change the way we feel about the incident. No matter where we are coming from, we all acknowledge that this is a tragedy and most of us believe Hasan must be mentally unstable to have committed it. For Dean Cooley to comment on the incident or the article is not going to change the way Muslims are treated on a daily basis as a result of the incident. Also, the fact that Varadarajan's article sparked so much debate only allows us a space to talk about it, rather than knowing that many Americans would agree with the statements made in the article, but would never say it out loud. Of course I don't condone generalizing the tendencies of any religious group or ethnicity, and find it ridiculous to try and instill fear of the local donut guy because he has a beard, but at the very least, those who take issue with this mentality have something concrete to respond to.


I feel like I would be remiss not to mention some of what I’ve been thinking about this past week in light of the recent events at Fort Hood. Obviously, all of what could be said on what transpired at the military compound two weeks ago and the massacre caused by Major Nidal Hasan has pretty much already been said. However, I feel there is one area of the discussion that is only beginning to get its proper acknowledgment. That is, the effect such a tragedy has on the image of Muslim-Americans in this country.
Yes I know: it’s a broken record. We all remember the anti-Muslim backlash in varying degrees following 9/11, the U.S.S. Cole attack, the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, the (insert violent extremist event here), etc., etc. But unfortunately, our own nature in this country is to fear and hate first and ask questions later. That’s the way it has always been (see “World War II Japanese internment camps”) and, at least for the foreseeable future, that’s the way it will be. But the way I see it, that is where we come in. As students of the area and as somewhat enlightened people to our own natures, I feel we have a duty to combat this prevailing image with our understanding. We know the difference between the peaceful doctrines of Islam and its own prohibitions against violence and the radical doctrines of a select few who choose to reinterpret it for, well, other reasons. It should be at least partially, if not fully, on us and scholars like us to deflect the inaccurate notions people harbor of Muslims and the Islamic faith within this country.
Case in point, I’m sure many of you read the email circulated this week on the comments made in Forbes magazine by, frighteningly enough, an academic from NYU. Professor Tunku Varadarajan, in an article discussing the events at Fort Hood, coins a colorful new term, “Going Muslim”, to “describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American--a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood--discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans.” (Pause for disapproving sigh). It was a graduate student here from the Steinhardt School of Nutrition, Food studies and Public Health, James A. Ferguson, who spoke out first in an email to President Sexton, among others, condemning the ideas in Professor Varadarajan’s article. In his email, he says,
“I dislike this sort of fear-mongering; it reminds me of the dark times of 9/11 where people were suspicious of their Muslim neighbors. I am a Muslim-American who was born in this country; the implication that I and other Muslims are actually something non-American deep down is highly offensive to me, and to the thousands of Muslim-Americans who currently serve in the armed forces and strongly condemned the murders at Fort Hood last week. “
First, I commend Mr. Ferguson on his valiant stance on such a grossly ignorant implication to be made of the entire Muslim-American community. Second, I feel that while most, if not all, of us here in the Kevorkian Center share Mr. Ferguson’s view, our voice should be much louder in preventing the spread of Islamophobic ideas. And I don’t mean that we all need to submit counter arguments to Forbes so much as I feel we need to use our training to promote understanding in the place of fear to those around us in our personal lives or classes throughout NYU. After all, it is we who have decided to devote ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge and truthful understanding. So what does it say about us if we are to idly ignore the dissemination of ignorant and fearful ideas? I can’t speak for all of us, but I certainly know what it would say about me.

Why We're Here: Part II

You know, this week I really wasn’t planning on writing another commentary on the ins and outs of our program and what were supposed to understand from it. But then I sat through my Tuesday lecture in the Problems and Methods class. Now for those of you who are reading this from outside the program, the Problems and Methods in Middle Eastern Studies class is one of the required courses for the program and deals largely in, as the title suggests, the various methodologies experts in the field utilize in their work. This particular class focused on biographical dictionaries, a genre within the primary source material that incorporates formulaic entries of personal data on practically anyone considered noteworthy in a given area of the region at a given point in history. Of course, who the dictionary entries focused on depended on who was writing them, but more often than not, it was a means of cataloguing members of the ‘ulama and where they came from.
It wasn’t the subject matter that caught my attention so much as it was the tangents the lecture led to toward the end of class, namely those dealing with open-minded approaches to research. But before I get to that, a brief summary may be in order. My problems and methods course is taught by Professor Khalid Fahmy, but this week Professor Tamer al-Leithy came in as a guest lecturer to discuss his use of biographical dictionaries in his dissertation on conversion in Mamluk Egypt. Professor al-Leithy focused on how Coptic bureaucrats were led to convert to Islam during this period of the latter religion’s ever increasing prominence as well as the particulars of what that conversion meant and how it was received by other Muslims. This was all achieved in large part by examining the biographical literature and thinking about not just what it literally said, but rather what it reflected about the society that produced it. For example, some of the biographers who wrote about prominent Coptic converts during the Mamluk era described them with the epithet “al-Qibti” which denoted their convert status. Essentially, it was meant to indicate that they were less of a Muslim because of their conversion being due to practical political reasons rather than genuinely spiritual ones. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, what was most interesting about this lecture and the point I’m trying to draw attention to, as Professor al-Leithy made abundantly clear, was that the ultimate form of his dissertation was not actually his original focus. Not at all.
Our guest lecturer discussed how, during his research in the archives, he began to pick up on this pattern of Coptic conversion within the biographical literature. From there, he couldn’t help but question what more there was to this story. And more and more, he became distracted from his original project and took on these new questions. It was at this point that Professor Fahmy impressed upon us the need to allow ourselves similar opportunities to become distracted within our research. In many other countries throughout the world, historians and other social scientists are trained to focus on only a singular topic of research and that’s it. It follows a simple pattern: come up with a dissertation topic, defend it, research it, and then produce the paper. Professors Fahmy and al-Leithy, however, said that this should not be the case. Allow yourself to be distracted and let your mind wander through the material you’re looking into. These are the principles that they believe should guide historians and other researchers through archives and source material, not some central static focus. By allowing yourself to become distracted, you can open your mind up to larger, and often, more important questions. In other words, let the material guide you to your conclusions, not the other way around. And be open to drastic shifts in thinking on your way there. This is what Professor al-Leithy did, as has Professor Fahmy and countless others. This is the measure of a creative and successful academic. And personally, I think it makes our craft all the more fun.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Middle Eastern Studies Student

Ever since I matriculated in the master’s program at N.Y.U. last fall, I have been plagued by a simple but terribly perplexing question: Why does one study the Middle East? (or as Princetonians , Britishers and old colonial hands (there is an incredible overlap between the three) like to call the region, the “Near East.” For me, the term Near East evokes nostalgia for colonialism, the Persian Empire, and the Moslem rule of Andalusia. Only the former name of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia, has that same evocative effect on my supple, post-postcolonial imagination. I know full well why I’m interested in the region, though my future employer (http://www.mamouns.com/) would not be thrilled if I disclosed my oh-so-practical motivations in a public forum.

Since I know my own motivations, I have begun to frame the question in terms of others desires and interests: What is it that motivates others to study the Middle East?

I believe one’s response to the question “So, why are you interested in the Middle East?” reveals a great deal about his/her assumptions, ideological persuasion, and thought patterns.

Below are a number of possible responses to that question:

Question: “So, why are you interested in the Middle East?”

Response: I want to combat the assumption/stereotype that there is a distinctly Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) impulse towards patriarchy by liberating Middle Eastern (again, Muslim) women through new exegesis of Qu’ranic texts and by writing a revisionist history of Medieval Syria. Specifically, I am focusing on the ways in which Medieval Syrian women subverted gender roles by using a flat iron pan instead of a round pan while preparing hummus.

Good luck. Perhaps you’d like to use Saba Mahmood for your theoretical framework. It’s not as if everybody else and their cousin Khadija are not reading her in an effort to “problematize” some construct or another. Another suggestion: use Foucault- talk about how the patriarchical Syrian state was able to project its power into the domicile through an official discourse regarding proper hummus preparation. But do yourself a favor: While you are busy problematizing gender, agency, Medieval Syria, patriarchy, Islam, Arabness and other “overgeneralized” categories, remember what Orientalism and neoconservatism have taught us: answers about the Middle East are always incredibly simple and intuitive. Question: Were Syrian women oppressed in Medieval times? Answer: Yes, they hated our freedom and our way of life back then.

Response: I believe the Middle East is a region of great strategic interest for the United States and will be important for the next decade to come.

We all know the national security students because of their incredibly myopic view of region and their insistence that the region’s history, politics, and conflicts must be seen through the prism of American foreign policy interests. For the national security students, terribly-accented Amerrabic, references to entire countries as the “theater of operation” and a CLI scholarship in Cairo are musts.

I have a suggestion for these students: study Urdu and focus on Pakistan. No country will give you more street credibility with the Agency than that delightful mix of chaos and South Asian Spice. (see: Salam Khalid’s seminal article: The Karachi Bazaar: Spice Market or Gendered Post-Colonial Space?) Unlike other countries in the region which may be stable in the next five to ten years (Iraq, the Palestinian territories (soon to be Greater Israel)), Pakistan is guaranteed to help you stay employed.

Response: I am interested in Middle Eastern literature and arts.

My answer: How quaint. Me? Before a dinner party, I prefer to read half of an Orhan Pamuk book so that during the event I can reference the former glory of Istanbul, mention Mahmoud Darwish and “the cause,” and then ask the question: “But the real question is: CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK” as loudly as possible. Literature students, the work you are doing on Safavid Poetry is just as important as the work being done to end poverty in Africa and the work done by Human Rights Watch on human rights abuses in Gaza. Therefore, you have every right to condescend to political scientists and to speak about your research with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

These are just a few common answers to the question we are all asked at family get-togethers, dinner parties, and job interviews. In general, a little more self-reflection, self-deprecation, and an awareness that we are not saving the world (literature students) is needed in the field. Let us take ourselves seriously but also be able to laugh at the institutionalized modes of thought and orthodoxies that pervade the field. Only then will we be able to approach an understanding of how those Syrian housewives were able to take a simple cooking implement and subvert the gendered hierarchy that defined Medieval Syria.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Prime Minister Maliki seeking a rapprochement with ISCI? Not likely - yet.

Some Iraqi media outlets have been a buzz these last few days with unconfirmed reports of Prime Minister Maliki apparently wanting to coalesce his electoral list - "Rule of Law" (dulat al-qanun) - with the other main Shia electoral list. Teaming up again would practically guarantee the new amalgam of winning a plurality of votes in the national elections on January 18, 2010, but would probably deprive Maliki of his desire to continue as prime minister and to allocate 50% of the total seats the list wins to his candidates. Thus, these reports seem a little unfounded. Maliki himself put the kibosh on these rumors today by saying they are false.

However, this story presents us with a good opportunity to reflect on the current state of Shia politics in Iraq. Though the two main Shia political parties - Da'wa and ISCI - have temporarily parted ways, they used to be partners in the largest alliance in Iraqi politics from 2005 to 2008. The United Iraqi Alliance consisted of Maliki's Da'wa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the two main Kurdish parties, every now and then the Sadrists, and many other smaller parties as well. The Iranians were instrumental in putting this alliance together back in 2005, since their top priority was to see a political coalition dominated by Iraqi Shia who have had historically close ties with the Iranians. Many major players in ISCI spent decades in exile in Tehran, and its militia (the Badr Brigades, which is sort of integrated into the Iraqi security forces) was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s. Da'wa and the Sadrists tend to be more home-grown and are generally perceived to be less close to the Iranians.

Throughout the last four years, both ISCI and the Sadrists have grown tired of Maliki and wish to replace him. Meanwhile, Maliki has seen his leverage and personal status rise after his party won a plurality of votes in the provincial elections of January 2009. Moreover, the fact that Maliki campaigned for those elections on a platform of nationalism and the rule of law, he thinks he can eschew his old Shia partners and do just as well in the upcoming national elections without them. There was talk back then of Maliki standing up to Tehran (who wanted to see a united Shia list), taking a stand on principle and eschewing a sectarian political dynamic for one based on nationalism and issues. However, Maliki's decision to temporarily bid farewell to his old Shia coalition partners probably had more to do with personal motives. Everyone else in that coalition wanted him gone as PM - if Maliki were to stay, his political career would have been over. Now Maliki has decided to roll the dice and see if his list can garner more support in January than the Iraqi National Alliance (the new name for the massive alliance of Shia and Kurdish parties - they added the word 'national' to convince you they're not sectarian anymore).

In short, I don't find these reports that Maliki wants to merge his list with the old alliance he just left credible. He'd only do it if ISCI agreed to nominate him as prime minister again, a demand ISCI has repeatedly refused. What happens in the aftermath of the national elections in January is a different story, however. If Maliki wins a plurality, he may have to seek the support of his old Shia buddies to form a government. Of course, that whole process of coalition forming come post-election time will be so byzantine, it makes no sense to try to predict the outcome now.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Saudi Land Grabbing...Then and Now

Although it has now been a week since the event, I wanted to respond to the workshop that was recently held at the Kevorkian Center on Toby Jones's book project. As noted in Matt's post Toby Jones is a professor at Rutgers who is just completing a project on the social and political implications of Saudi Arabia's oil development on its local populations. As Jones explained, the study is an effort to re-present the story of Saudi modernization in a way that captures the experiences of local populations as the country transformed itself into the 'techno-state.' Jones only presented one chapter of the book, which examined the impact of Saudi Aramco's oil excavations and the Saudi state's land cultivation policies on the Shi'a population of Al-Hasa. The observations he made in this chapter had, in my opinion, some very concrete present-day analogies to a number of overseas Saudi investments that have recently been made in farming, irrigation, and agriculture.

Because the draft is, as yet, unpublished I won't cite directly from his text. But to paraphrase, Jones makes the point that in the 1960s and 1970s the Saudi state was concerned with its ability to feed its population. The country's largely arid land made food scarcity a major social and security issue, and Saudi statesmen were reluctant to rely too heavily on imports of foreign foods. Self-sufficiency in agricultural production became a major development dilemma. The state cast about for ways to resolve this problem and settled on the oasis of Al-Hasa, which had, among other things, abundant water resources. Saudi central planners decided to irrigate the land surrounding Al-Hasa and expand its potential for food production. In 1971 it launched the Al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Project in an effort to put 20,000 hectares of land to agricultural use using an elaborate network of canals, equaling 2,000 miles in length. Jones's point was that in executing this project and seeking to impose technical and scientific control over the region's natural resources, the state simultaneously imposed political control over the people who lived there. In this case, the will to control water and land translated into a desire to control people, and the territory of Al-Hasa was transformed not just physically but socially and politically as well.

The connection I saw to the present day was to a recent drive on the part of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (as well as several East Asian countries) to acquire and develop land in poor developing countries for the purpose of food security and agricultural self-sufficiency. The motivations for these acquisitions are identical to those that propelled the development of Al-Hasa: fear of dependence on volatile foreign food markets, desire for self-sufficiency and independence, and a recognition of the limitations of local cultivation. In Saudi Arabia the decision to invest abroad was precipitated by the government's decision to scuttle a massively expensive and inefficient program of wheat cultivation, involving huge government subsidies and the use of desalinated water for irrigation. Instead the Saudis have turned to their poor neighbors -- Ethiopia and Sudan -- buying hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for bargain basement prices with the intention of sending all or most of the agricultural proceeds back home, free from anxiety-inducing local tariffs and volatile prices. The general manager of one of the Saudi firms pursuing a deal in Sudan remarked cheerfully about the deal: “The area is big, the people are friendly [and] they gave us the land almost free!”

Thankfully these initiatives have not gone without scrutiny from a number of development experts and INGO officials, who have raised all kinds of red flags about the problems inherent to these deals. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, justifiably raised the prospect of a "neo-colonial" system based on food production and resource exploitation. Even the relatively pro-FDI Economist outlined a number of potential issues that could arise with foreign countries or companies owning and cultivating land in poorer countries: corruption as the deals are often government-to-government, distortion in food prices, lack of transparency, an overall increase in food protectionism, and the erosion of security and property rights of existing landowners.

Although the last grievance alludes to the kinds of issues raised in Jones's paper, the question of long term impacts on local populations has rarely been raised in the discussion of these land deals. When local farmers or landowners are discussed it is often within the narrow context of property-rights and fair-price accounting in the terms of the acquisitions. This is potentially where the case of Al-Hasa may have something interesting to tell us. The scale of these investments is far greater than that of the proposed Al-Hasa irrigation project (the Saudi's goal of 20,000 hectares was never reached). Saudi has now bought 450,000 hectares of foreign land. The UAE has bought over 700,000 and Qatar just slightly less than Saudi. Just like Saudi used "private" companies to develop Al-Hasa it is stepping back and allowing ostensibly private-owned companies to conduct these deals. What will happen to the local populations living on the massive swaths of land when these companies come in and begin imposing new methods of production, irrigation, technical management, and control? Will the desire to control nature once again manifest itself as a will to control humans? Will modernization and the imposition of technocratic know-how manifest itself in irreversible social reconfigurations and political manipulations? And what are the implications (geopolitical, social, security etc.) of having foreign companies imposing control and technocratic power over the citizens of another state? These are the questions Jones asked in his paper and they are ones that development and foreign policy experts ought to be asking today about a set of investments whose implications we may not fully comprehend for many decades to come.

Electoral Law for 2010 Iraqi National Elections Passed

Asharq al-Awsat is reporting that the Iraqi Parliament has just passed the long-awaited electoral law paving the way for national elections on January 23rd - or some time in April, depending on what source you believe.

This is good news, and a big victory for the Kurdish Alliance. In fact, Kurdish MPs were so joyous when the law was officially passed, the chamber erupted into chaos and delirium reigned among the Kurdish factions.

The electoral law had been stalled in the Iraqi parliament for months due to disagreements between Kurdish and Arab MPs over how the elections would proceed in Kirkuk province. The Kurds have been wanting to use new, updated 2009 voter registries while the Arabs and Turkmen have been insisting on using the registries from 2004. The Kurds prefer the newer registries because their numbers have been growing stronger in Kirkuk since 2003. In order to reverse the Saddam-era policies of Arabization of Kirkuk (forced removal of Kurdish families from the mixed province), Kurds have been repopulating the province vigorously, at times even bringing non-Iraqi Kurds in to boost their numbers. Indeed, concerns are ripe on the Arab side that the Kurds have been stacking the province with non-natives in order to fix the demographics in their favor. The concession to use the 2009 registries represents a major coup for the Kurdish Alliance.

Apparently, the US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, played a key role in getting this legislation passed. I have had reservations about Hill's team in Iraq so far. Rumors abound that the team he brought with him is short on regional and local expertise. However, getting this law approved may just represent quite a significant feather in his cap. The US desperately needs elections to proceed on time so the Obama administration can proceed on schedule with troop withdrawals.

Keep in mind that this could spell trouble ahead. By using the 2009 voter registries in Kirkuk, the Kurds may be able to score big in national elections and further increase their leverage in negotiations over the status of Kirkuk. A strong Kurdish turnout in that province could significantly up the ante in terms of Arab-Kurdish tension in Iraq, and may make the restoration of some sort of sustainable political equilibrium that much harder to achieve after the national elections are over.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Welcome to Morocco! // Marhaba Ila AlMaghrib

I am writing from Tangier, Morocco at heart, but in more literal terms, from a mint green apartment in W. Harlem. I introduce myself in terms of space and place primarily because that is what I study (the "Middle Eastern" city) and also because much of my experience and perspective comes from having spent time in Tangier, Morocco for over two years and speaking Moroccan Arabic.
I think of Tangier as a sort of womb, breeding the most ridiculous characters and also nurturing a certain sense of nostalgia for times past. The city has a special relationship to America not only because Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the United states, but also for its historic American celebrities, flocking to the then-relatively quiet northernmost tip of Africa to be free of taxes and as advertised, free of any sort of governmental obligation or consequence- the International Zone = no man's land + everybody's land. The writers and the rich who filled the cafes and bars of that moment still haunt the city today through constant references and tourist landmarks based on where they used to travel, even to the point that maps of the city are drawn based on their daily routes. TANGIER%20TAPED%20MAP.jpg
Paul Bowles and William Burroughs seems to be the most prominent figures to have spent time there, and I am also guilty of unknowingly having spent a month in the hotel room at the Hotel Muneria where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch (I later learned it from a guidebook- room 9), but I question to what extent it is appropriate to use these foreign figures to "represent" the city, to the extent that they are the first thing most people think of or care about when they talk about Tangier.
On the other hand (the Moroccan hand) things are looking up for this long neglected port town. Literally a swim away from Spain (a much politically charged swim), Tangier has become a new focus for King Mohamed VI, particularly in the way of trade and economics. There has been a huge rise in the value of Mediterranean waterfront property, and the new Wali, brought in from Marrakesh, has decided on multiple cosmetic changes reminiscent of the kitchy tourist attractions in Djma al Fna. Tangier also boasts of Africa's largest container port, new commercial centers and apartment buildings and a recently constructed highway to Rabat on what used to be a beautiful virgin coastline.
Of course, my thoughts on the issue of modernization and commodification of the city are subjective and many locals think it is beneficial, but it is curious to consider who is actually financially benefiting from them.


Personally, I follow the mantra of avoiding two topics of conversation in public: religion and politics. I’m a quietist. However, when something blatantly wrong occurs within either of these two realms, even the quietists tend to get riled up. So it’s time to make my grievance known: Afghanistan, and more specifically the United States’ foreign policy in regards to it. For those of you who haven’t followed this story closely, here’s a brief summary: Recently, it was found that the late summer election for the presidency of Afghanistan was riddled with fraud. Incumbent Hamid Karzai claimed victory initially, but a U.N. commission investigating claims of fraud found these claims to be true and later threw out a third of his total votes. Ultimately, a run-off was scheduled for the end of October between Karzai and his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, but never came to fruition. Mr. Abdullah dropped out, claiming the wide=spread corruption made it impossibly unfair for him (foreign and domestic news agencies reported, however, that financial concerns among other reasons actually precipitated his forfeit). Hamid Karzai subsequently won re-election as Afghanistan’s president by default.
So here’s my problem: upon Mr. Abdullah’s forfeit, the Obama administration willing accepted the re-election of Karzai, congratulating him and beginning to move forward with policy issues of the war against the Taliban, etc. Now I know what you’re thinking: what other option was there for our president to take? I’ll admit it, there really wasn’t one. After all, other governments throughout the world, including the United Kingdom, took similar approaches. But in light of the overwhelming evidence of corruption, the United States has very publicly endorsed a government guilty of manipulating its own democratic process. Of course, all of this has also come while the military leaders in Afghanistan are pleading unsuccessfully for additional troops in their fight against extremists.
Once more, I know what you’re thinking: Matt, this isn’t the first time the U.S. has supported a less than favorable regime. Ok, I’ll concede that as well. But I should say that I was an absolute die-hard supporter of President Obama; I was out at dawn last November to cast my vote for him, I had an Obama poster in my window, I read his books, I eagerly listened to all of his speeches, and so on. And all of this had largely to do with his statement of commitment to make Afghanistan and the transformation of its painful modern history one of his primary concerns in office. And yet here we are one year later: the Afghan election has passed marred with corruption and the clock ticks away while the military screams for the support of additional troops in the fight to stabilize the country and no decision on a long-term comes. I just can’t help but feel utterly disappointed at how our country has responded to the recent events within Afghanistan. I heard a broadcast on the BBC just the other day in which residents of Kabul were briefly interviewed on their reactions to the election and the current state of their country. While some were pleased and some were angry, each indicated very simply that what they desired for their country was stability and peace. Right now they are looking at a failed democratic process and continued violence. They could use some help and I can only hope this disappointing trend in our Afghan policy does not continue.