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

Sunday, January 31, 2010


This past week during Professor Alahmad’s “Oil, Development and Power” seminar, I was afforded the opportunity to witness one of the more fun exchanges within our studies: that of the realization of a piece of profound trivial knowledge. In that particular instance, it was the acknowledgement that the oil imports for the United States come essentially from only Venezuela and Canada and not, contrary to popular belief, from the Middle East. While common knowledge to many within our discipline, facts like these do have a considerable impact on the understanding of those who are not students of Middle Eastern Studies, and thus are entertaining for us to throw into conversations outside the Kevorkian Center.
Having this in mind when reading through the news today, imagine my surprise when I came upon a review of a new edited work and a corresponding exhibition at the London Science Museum entitled 1001 Inventions that focuses on many of the forgotten technological achievements of the Middle East that have shaped the modern world. The book’s editor, Professor Salim al-Hassani (University of Manchester) was asked to give his top ten of the advancements discussed in the book and some were pretty surprising for me. They are listed in the article one by one as follows:
1. Surgery
Let’s start with the nod to Mr. Foucault. The book draws attention to the work of the doctor al-Zahrawi who published a massive illustrated medical encyclopedia that included a number of procedures he himself invented, such as a primitive caesarean operation. And this was in 1000 C.E. Also credited to the doctor was the first pair of forceps and dissolvable sutures. According to the review, his work became the reference for European medicine through 1500 C.E.
2. Coffee
Ah yes, the life blood of graduate education. This drink, a multibillion dollar per year industry today, owes its origins to 9th century Yemen (although I know at least one Classical historian and one African Studies historian who believe it was grown in Ethiopia even before then). Regardless, coffee seemed to become popular in the region long before it was a common product in Europe.
3. Flying Machine
I’m sure many of you have read about Leonardo da Vinci sketching plans for a flying machine long before the Wilbur and Orville Wright took their own machine to the sky in North Carolina. But apparently, the idea, and attempts to make it a reality are much older than that. Abbas ibn Firnas is believed to be the first to attempt the endeavor, testing a flying machine during the 9th century near Cordoba, Spain. While Professor al-Hassani concedes that he ended up falling and partially breaking his back, the effort was still bold and inventive.
4. The University
More commonly known is the fact that degree granting university’s had their origins in the Middle East. The book presents the story of the late 9th century princess Fatima al-Firhi who founded an institution in Fez, Morocco. The building operates still to this day and the Professor hopes that its existence serves as a reminder that learning occupies a major place in the Islamic tradition.
5. Algebra
Always what so many people cite as the major contribution to the world’s knowledge of quantitative reasoning and yet only understood in a limited way. 1001 Inventions describes the publication of the treatise "Kitab al-Jabr Wa l-Mugabala" (“The Book of Reasoning and Balancing”) by a 9th century Persian man. According to the review, the new algebraic order “was a unifying system for rational numbers, irrational numbers and geometrical magnitudes.”
6. Optics
In the book, a history is told of a man named Ibn al-Haitham who, in the year 1000, discovered that people are able to see objects by capturing the light reflected off of them with their eyes. Additionally, al-Hassani explains, he uncovered the camera obscura phenomenon, or how human vision corrects an image reflected upside-down so that it is processed right side-up.
7. Music
Instruments such as the lute and the rahab we introduced to Europe in the highest esteem, as the music of medieval Baghdad set the standard throughout the world. Also, so we’re told from the review, the modern musical scales are actually based on the Arabic alphabet.
8. The Toothbrush
Muslims will always note the emphasis Islam places on purity and cleanliness, both spiritually and physically. So then, is it any wonder that 1001 Inventions draws attention to the fact that the modern toothbrush may have actually been an invention of the Prophet himself? At the beginning of the 7th century, the Prophet is said to have cleaned his teeth with a small branch from the Meswak tree.
Others listed by Professor al-Hassani include the crank, a phenomenal mechanical feat in its own right, and the hospital (a nod to Foucault once more). From this short list one can see the wealth of knowledge and influence that emerged from the Middle East over the centuries and has shaped our world in the 21st century. But of course, none of us really doubt that, do we? As I said before, the fun part is dropping these neat little bombshells on those who are not students of the discipline in this country and therefore have no idea that their ideas of mathematics and medicine, or Starbucks and Colgate, actually have their origins in a place far outside the western world…in a place that is, unfortunately, not often regarded for its positive influence on humanity.

Link to article:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Keeping the Hand Extended

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has an article in the current Newsweek on how the Obama administration ought to approach Iran. It is a relatively novel take on an ongoing (and tired) debate, in which new ideas and fresh approaches are rare.

I liked the article for its framework, but disagreed with the conclusion. Although a bit over-simplistic, Haass divides foreign policy into two schools of thought: a realist one, which deals with states as unitary actors and engages with them on foreign policy only, and a neoconservative one, which sometimes circumvents state governments and tries to influence activities within borders. Put another way, realists accept that they have to deal with unpalatable regimes, whereas neocons try to oust them.

Haass endorses the latter approach to Iran. He admits to being a 'flip-flopper' on this issue, having supported Obama's efforts to reach out to Tehran and use direct negotiations to try to pry Iran away from its nuclear program. But with talks going nowhere and research toward a nuclear bomb probably moving ahead, Haass calls for a change of tactic. Rather than coaxing the regime away from nukes, Washington should try to topple it by supporting the efforts of the opposition 'Green Movement.'

This is wrong for several reasons. The first is that there is nothing meaningful that Western governments can do to help this movement. In the article Haass suggests: 'speaking out' on behalf of the opposition movement, singling out the Revolutionary Guard for sanctioning, funding a project at Yale that documents human rights abuses in Iran, helping activists gain access to the Internet, and allowing the Iranian diaspora community to send money to fund the movement. I have no idea how the latter two could be accomplished from Washington and it's laughable to think that the Iranian regime will topple under the weight of any number of Ivy League human rights reports.

Short of military-led regime change, the Iranian government will only change under pressure from below. Haass doesn't talk about the internal dynamics of the opposition. He doesn't discuss the fact that the opposition leaders are longstanding political figures in Iran, whose political faction has existed since Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi helped Khomeini topple the Shah. For eight years their reformist political wing held the presidency. And their statements, particularly recent ones that tacitly accept the legitimacy of the elections, are far from revolutionary.

Mehdi Karroubi recently discussed the opposition's strategy with the FT. The topic of regime change is noticeably absent from his speech. Rather, he explains that the opposition's current tactic is to peel away moderate members of the current regime in order cut short Ahmidenejad's tenure. The options range from "removing [him] from office to restricting him or reshuffling the cabinet." Moreover, the article points out that Khamenei will likely only capitulate to the demands of the opposition if the poor join their movement.

These facts all point to the unavoidable conclusion that if Iran is to change, it will be reformed not remade -- and that such reforms depend almost entirely on the political whims of Tehran elites and the actions of the Iranian poor. The US may want to help: but it simply cannot.

The tactic Haass outlines would have the reverse effect from what he hopes. When Ahmidenejad first entered office he gained legitimacy by a) making unreasonable populist promises to the poor (which were not kept) and b) creating the impression that Iran was under threat from the West. The latter tactic worked well. Haass argues that the regime is already painting the opposition as a puppet of the West. But the difference between calling the West hostile now, as opposed to five years ago, is that back then it was mostly true (at least in tone, if not in action). Claiming now that Western governments are providing aid to the opposition (Germany has now received the dubious honor of being included in this growing club) simply makes the regime seem pathetic and desperate, undermining its legitimacy rather than bolstering it.

So Obama should do...nothing. At least nothing more than he's already doing. He should be constant and persistent in extending and re-extending his 'open hand' to the regime, making it clear that the US is not belligerent and that it simply wants to talk. These negotiations may prove futile; in fact, there is a better than average chance that they will. But that doesn't matter at this point. Western diplomats should let the forces in Tehran play out as they will; they may soon find themselves pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A vocabulary list for MES

I sometimes wish that someone had given me a vocabulary list, similar to the ones that many of us were forced to memorize in high school, customized for the field of Middle Eastern Studies upon my matriculation at NYU. That way, I would have had some key words to draw on for my response papers and history essays rather than relying on my usual method of googling the words “Middle East Studies Sound Smart” in those crucial minutes before an in-class presentation. Perhaps if I had mastered these terms, I would not have sounded like such a Philistine in front of my distinguished colleagues in class and during department socials.

Below are a number of words that you may hear or read throughout the course of your Middle Eastern Studies career. Learning these terms and using them effectively in context is absolutely critical if you hope to advance in the increasingly competitive world of Middle Eastern Studies academia. Since I have provided my own definitions for some of the terms listed, you may notice there is some slippage (see entry for slippage) between the dictionary definition of the word and its use in the MES context.

1. problematize ( v.)

i) to insist on the complexity of a seemingly simple concept, category, or fact
ii) to reframe a category, statement of truth, or an objective reality as a problem

ex. “In this presentation, I seek to problematize Egyptian laborer’s Khalil Mahmood’s new haircut using a number of notable texts on discourses concerning hair styling in modern-day Egypt.”

The beauty of this word is that one can essentially problematize every concept, idea or historical narrative with which one is presented. That being said, the main objects of problematization in Middle East Studies are as follows: Gender, Egypt, Ottoman Identity, Arabness, Sexuality, Islam, Modernity, Jihad, Progress, Labneh.

2. deconstruct (v.)

i) to whittle away the constituent parts of a reasonable interpretation until it collapses under the weight of its own logical thrust

ii) to cry shamelessly in front of your advisor the week before your thesis on an obscure Turkish poet is due

ex. “Khalil really deconstructed in my office a few minutes ago- I guess we will have to let him pursue the joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and Badminton.”

2. slippage ( n.)

i) a logical gap or a point of discontinuity between two explanations or statements

ii) the area between a pious woman’s hijab and her ear

ex. Male MES student to other Male MES Student: “I saw Nazima’s slippage in Persian class yesterday. Mashallah!”

3. Israel (n.)

i) an omnipotent, demonic regional superpower responsible for the destruction and degradation of the Arab world

ii) the sole point of agreement between sharia-loving Islamist students and secular, wine-sipping Arabs

iii) primary source of Arab fatalism

ex. “Who do you think will win in the upcoming Palestianian elections?”
“It absolutely doesn’t matter- Israel will never let us have a state anyways.”

4. Islamicate (n. and v.)

i) ambiguous term used to refer to diverse cultures, empires and peoples of the Islamic faith

ii) national plan and highest wish of the region’s Islamist parties, usually involving the implementation of sharia

ex. “We are going to Islamicate this country until it can be Islamicated no more.”

5. hegemony (n.)

i) complete or partial domination of one country, idea, discourse over another

ii) the situation that arises when a graduate student unceremoniously destroys an undergraduate’s argument in a mixed class, usually in front of a thesis advisor

6. undergraduate (n)

i) human subject who serves as a barrier between a graduate student and campus destinations

ii) the Subaltern, a creature that lurks in the ambiguous timespace continuum between high school and Enlightenment

7. Foucault (n.)

i) God

8. Job

i) something more distant and unattainable than the two-state solution
ii) a choice of necessity for Philistines, Zionists, law graduates, and inferior MES graduate students

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Iraqi Political Crisis: Sectarianism or Despotism? Or both?

When the Iraqi Justice and Accountability Commission announced last week that they were barring 511 candidates from competing in the upcoming national elections due to their ties with Bathists, the decision immediately inflamed sectarian tensions. Since the controversy centered around the disqualification of Saleh al-Mutlak and his Hiwar al-Watani party (part of the biggest secular coalition, and considered the biggest challenger to Maliki and the main Shi'i coalition), the episode wreeked of sectarian-minded Shia trying to suppress Sunni representation in the upcoming vote. Upon further analysis of the disqualification list, however, it seems that the situation is a bit more complicated and nuanced. Boiling this whole thing down to sectarianism may be missing the larger point. And that point is that the Iraqi political apparatus is broken and has been from the beginning.

First of all, the 511 barred candidates are not exclusively Sunni. For what it's worth, the head of the Independent Election Committee says that the list is almost split evenly between Sunnis and Shia. Moreover, it's more accurate to say that secular coalitions have taken the hardest hit, as opposed to Sunni coalitions. The Hashimi-Allawi-Mutlak list has been hit hardest; 72 of its candidates have been banned. The Unity List, headed by Interior Ministry Jawad al-Bolani, also took a good amount of casualties; 67 of its candidates were disqualified. Bolani is a secular Shi'i who was a former ally of Nuri al-Maliki. Even al-Maliki's list - State of Law - suffered some disqualifications, most prominent among which was Defense Minister Jassim Obeidi.

It's also important to note that the individual in charge of the Justice and Accountability Commission, Ali al-Lami, is a candidate himself. He is part of the Iraqi National Alliance, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. Yes, quite a conflict of interest. How many INA candidates were disqualified, you ask? One - a low-profile candidate way down on its Basra list.

So after processing all this, one gets the feeling that this may be more a symptom of an entrenched despotism in the Iraqi political system rather than simply overt sectarianism. But rest assured, because help is on the way: smoothe-talking Joe Biden is heading to Baghdad to try and defuse the crisis (after the week the Obama administration has had, who wouldn't want to get away for a while?). Surprisingly, there are reasons to be a tad bit optimistic. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said yesterday that he has doubts about the legality of the very commission that has issued the disqualifications, while the Washington Post claims that Maliki and other top officials are looking for a solution to the crisis.

Biden has been suggesting that the JAC delay its disqualifications until after the election. I get the feeling that this just kicks the can down the road and misses the point. The point is that the problem lies in the structure of Iraq's political system, set up under Paul Bremer back in 2003-2004. As long as politics are rooted in an ethno-confessional basis, the underlying sectarian logic that basis perpetuates will continue. Thus, this whole crisis is simply a symptom of a larger problem.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading Lists

Two prominent historians provide their lists of must-read books on the Middle East:

Juan Cole: Middle East history professor at the University of Michigan and author of two recent books on the region.

And Eugene Rogan: Director of the Middle East Center at Oxford.

I guess it should come as no surprise that the one point of overlap between the two lists is Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples.

The interview in which Rogan presents his list was timed to coincide with the launch of his recent book, The Arabs: A History. Rogan actually wrote the book, in many ways, as an extension or revision of Hourani's work. In the interview he characterizes it as a sort of post-9/11 version of Arab history. Not only does it focus more on 19th and 20th century history than does Hourani's, but in describing the history of the Arab people it seeks to articulate a partial response to the shrill, but frequently-raised question: why do they hate us?

I have only read the first half of Rogan's book. But at first pass, I think that Rogan conveniently warps the last five-hundred years of Arab history to fit his thesis -- which also attempts to answer the blunt question above. He argues that "the Arabs have negotiated the modern age largely by the rules set by the dominant powers of the day. In this sense, modern Arab history begins with the Ottoman conquest of the Arab world in the sixteenth century, when the Arabs first came to be ruled by an external power." Thus, Arabs hate us because they have been dominated by foreign powers for half a millennium and are really ticked off about it.

The problem is not only that the argument is overly simplistic, but in the book Rogan sort of tries to warp time to conform to his thesis. In a 500 page book he spends the first 60 pages on the Ottoman Empire. This is arguably the place where his thesis finds itself on its weakest footing and demands a more serious argument than the one he provides. I felt like he breezed past 300 years of history in part so that he could make history conform to his story.

Still, he does present an excellent reading list and gives good reasons for his selections. Worth a look.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The MB Selects a New Leader

Two days ago the Muslim Brotherhood selected a new Supreme Leader, only the eighth time this has happened since the society was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. The individual selected is a relatively unknown professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Beni Suef named Mohamed Badie. He is one of the members of the 1965 Group, the collection of MB leaders who were imprisoned with former MB leader Sayid Qutb in August 1965 for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

What does his selection mean for the MB and for politics in Egypt? I think there are two big conclusions that can be drawn:

1. It seems clear now that the MB will not take a confrontational position in challenging the regime during the upcoming parliamentary elections (this October) and presidential elections (next year). In 2005, the Brotherhood's reformist faction managed to convince its leadership that the political environment was open enough to safely compete in parliamentary elections; they were rewarded with a quarter of the seats, the largest opposition bloc in Egypt's recent history.

But this year looks to be a different story. There is far less external pressure on Mubarak than there was in 2005 to run somewhat fair elections and that, combined with recent constitutional amendments prohibiting independents from competing for parliament seats (this is how MB candidates always run, since the MB itself is banned), were always going to make it a tough fight for the Brotherhood. Badie's selection as Supreme Leader and his relatively conciliatory remarks about the regime in his acceptance speech (he said that "the Brothers have never been antagonistic to the ruling regime") make it even more clear that the Brotherhood will likely retreat back into social work and away from political activity in the years to come. However, if a leadership crisis does ensue, as some predict will happen if and when Hosni Mubarak can no longer serve as president, it will be interesting to see if the MB rise to the occasion and enter political life again, even under this low-key, conservative leader.

2. Another implication of Badie's selection is that the MB may shift to the right, becoming more insular and more consolidated around a rural, hard-line base. There are a sizable number of young and middle-aged moderates in the MB and they may be disappointed and disillusioned with Badie's rise to the position of Supreme Leader. Moderate leaders who were once active in student movements in the 70s and who advocated more political engagement, like Essam el-Erian and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, have been systematically shut out from the Guidance Bureau, which has remained in the hands of the older, more conservative leaders. Many younger members of the movement, particularly recruits from Cairo and other urban areas, will feel less and less represented by these conservative members and frustrated by the lack of political action, particularly if they see political opportunities being missed. Moreover, as Ibrahim al-Hodeiby (the grandson of former Supreme Leader Ma’amoun al-Hodeiby) writes, there is a growing number of MB leaders from Egypt's rural areas whose ideas are drawn from Wahhabi Salafi ideology and Badie's selection may be a sign of their increasing influence on the movement. Hodeiby, by the way, is one of those young moderate members...

In the 1990s Abu el-Ela Madi and some other MB reformers left the movement to form the Wasat Party. The party hasn't really gotten off the ground; it has been denied a party license on four separate incidences and it doesn't have much of a membership base. But if Badie's selection is a sign of a deeper conservative entrenchment in the MB, then in the years ahead we may see moderates in the movement splintering off to join parties like the Wasat, where their views and beliefs might be better represented. This could portend a realignment of Islamist politics in Egypt, which has always been dominated by the Brotherhood.

Iraq's Deteriorating Political Fiasco

Confusion and opacity has continued to surround the bizarre yet unsurprising political turmoil currently unfolding in Iraq. Last Thursday, Iraq's De-Ba'thification Commission announced that it was banning 500 out of the 6,000 candidates running in Iraq's national election, due to take place on March 7, due to these candidates' ties to the outlawed Ba'th Party. These disqualifications have included several highly prominent figures: Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni leader of the "Iraqiya" list, Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, the Defense Minister since 2006, and several candidates from Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani's list. Even the government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, was believed to have been disqualified before the misunderstanding was cleared up.

The disqualifications were determined by the Accountability and Justice Commission, the inheritor of the De-Ba'thification Committee's duties. It is widely perceived to be acting out of sectarian and political motivations; its head, Ali al-Lami, is notable for his alleged ties with Shi'i sectarian militias and with Iranian intelligence.

Most of the controversey has centered around the disqualification of Saleh al-Mutlak, a prominent Sunni lawmaker who has allied with former PM Ayad Allawi and VP Tariq al-Hashimi to form the "Iraqiya" list. This list is widely seen as a fierce competitor of Maliki's list and the main Shi'i list. If Sunni turnout on March 7th is strong, it could do well and end up playing a key role in choosing the next PM and cabinet.

The question is whether Mutlak's disqualification will lead to a widespread Sunni boycott on March 7th. Given the affiliation of the figures leading these purges (many are associated with Chalabi, the Sadrists, and have close ties to Iran), many Sunnis perceive this episode as only more evidence that Sunnis are disenfranchised for good in the new Iraq, and that the democratic political process is little more than a charade. On the other hand, the barring of Mutlak opens the door for other amibitous Sunni and secular Shi'i leaders (like Allawi) who may be looking to capitalize on having Mutlak out of the picture. For example, reports indicate that Mutlak's disqualification has frayed relations between him and Allawi. Will Allawi call for a boycott just because his main coalition partner has been illegitimately disqualified?

The severity of the situation has even merited direct involvement on the part of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who according to the Arabic press has been pressuring the Iraqi government to cancel or postpone the disqualifications. The Obama administration has been tying its withdraw time-table to the elections, so these kinds of shenanigans are the last thing they need right now.

As I said before, these disqualifications are brazen and bizarre, but they are not necessarily surprising. Iraqi politics still haven't moved entirely beyond a sectarian dynamic, and the central government still hasn't done much to institutionalize Sunni integration into the political system. This episode merely highlights all of these problems that have been festering for so long. The Saudi-funded Arabic media has been playing this up as evidence of an Iranian takeover of Iraq that will end up further disenfrachising Sunni Arabs. Editor of the Saudi as-Sharq al-Awsat Tariq al-Homayed even compared democracy in Iraq to the charade of democracy in Iran.

The bottom line is that the current fiasco means that Iraq's March election will not produce the legitimacy and the resolution of that country's deep, unresolved conflicts necessary to stabilize its political and security environment. Joost Hiltermann, an analyst at ICG and friend of the Kevorkian Center, said that "this can only help to reignite sectarian war." The potential for violence may depend on the extent of a Sunni boycott in March. The Sunni political scene is highly fractured; it may not be easy to enforce one. Though this whole byzantine episode is clouded in confusion and ambiguity, one thing is certain: abysmally low Sunni turnout or an all-out boycott has the potential to unravel Iraq's political and social fabric and to return the country to a state of sectarian tension and violence not seen since 2007.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Will the banning of the largest Sunni-led coalition in Iraq stand?

Last week saw some potentially destabilizing political developments in Iraq that have gone largely un-noticed in the U.S. media. Last Thursday, the Iraqi de-Ba'thification Committee (which since January 2008 is officially known as the Justice and Accountability Commission) declared that 15 political parties are ineligible to participate in the national elections, which are to be held March 7th. Most significantly, the commission declared that the coalition of Saleh al-Mutlak, Iyad Allawi and Tariq al-Hashimi - largest Sunni-led bloc - will not be able to participate due to al-Mutlak's ties to Ba'thists.

First of all, it's worth looking at what this Justice and Accountability Commission is and who runs it. The de-Ba'thification Committee was created under the auspices of Paul Bremer back in May 2003, and was upheld in the Constitution crafted during the summer of 2005 (al-Mutlak was one of the main Sunni participants in the drafting of the Constitution). In January of 2008, the commission was formally changed to the "Justice and Accountability Commission" and was headed by Ali al-Lami, a Sadrist who had been arrested by U.S. forces in late 2008 for alleged connections to Iranian intelligence. He was released months later and retook his spot as head of the commission. Given al-Lami's credentials as a Sadrist and his alleged connections to Iran, his decision to ban the largest Sunni-led bloc has inflamed sectarian tensions. The prominent Saudi editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat and director of the satellite station al-Arabiyya, Tariq al-Homayed, has lambasted al-Lami's move as "a threat to the stability and unity of Iraq."

Though the Iraqi Electoral Commission has the final say over whether Mutlak's "National Dialogue" party is barred from participating in the elections, this episode nevertheless reflects the continuing struggle to find some sort of political equilibrium in Iraq. I had commented on a lengthy article by Nir Rosen back in November, in which Rosen emphasized how openly sectarian Shia with chips on their shoulder the size of Montana had influential positions in the federal and local governments. Al-Lami's decision further confirms this. It also thus confirms Rosen's assertion that it is still too early to begin talking about a post-sectarian future for Iraq.

If al-Lami's decision to ban al-Mutlak's party stands, Sunni leaders have promised to boycott the elections in March. And if that happens, it's back to square one. My guess is that the electoral commission overturns al-Lami's ruling; an election from which the largest Sunni-led coalition is barred would certainly be too sectarianly explosive. Cooler heads may prevail, as they did with the recent controversy over VP al-Hashimi's vetoing the electoral law. Regardless, it's never a positive sign when a figure like al-Lami - who still remains unconfirmed by Parliament as head of the newly renamed de-Ba'thification commission - can disqualify the largest Sunni-led coalition and ignite sectarian tensions at the drop of a hat.

***Update***: The Iraqi Eelections Commission (IHEC) just announced that it will uphold the ban on Saleh al-Mutlak's candidacy. Mutlak's only legal recourse now is to appeal to a board of seven judges that Parliament created three days ago. As noted above, disqualifying Mutlak from the elections could have enormous consequences for the stability of Iraq. I'll have more in the next few days.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Multilateralism in Yemen

There have been a lot of articles written by experts on Yemen or counter-terrorism articulating what they believe a smart US policy would be. Consider this recent Op-Ed in the WSJ arguing that President Obama should form a Joint Task Force on Yemen to "develop and implement a strategy to improve the effectiveness of the Yemeni government and security forces, re-establish civil order, and eliminate the al Qaeda safe haven." I had been hopeful when I started reading the article, because the authors began by calling for an alternative "smart power" approach to the "limited counterterrorist approaches" that had been adopted so far. When I called for the same that was not exactly what I had in mind...

Then there was this article in Newsweek, which basically makes no argument whatsoever, other than that President Saleh is an "SOB." The WSJ piece said the same in gentler terms (it called him an "unpalatable partner") and in general this sentiment has been expressed in many other articles on Yemen. We want to help these people but what are we supposed to do when their leader is a corrupt maniac who refuses our money??

This has been the principal dilemma for the experts offering policy advice. How do you help a country that scorns your offers? Clearly Saleh is no saint...but if he is a maniac, then he is probably only a megalomaniac who wants to hold onto power for as long as possible. And he has some pretty good reasons for not wanting to accept too much US aid. The Newsweek article criticizes him for often snapping at Americans that "we are not your employees." The last thing he wants is for his country to see him as an American lapdog.

So what can we do? The suggestions that these pieces put forward are pretty laughable -- they are vague, unlikely to have any real impact, or outright counterproductive. For example, both suggest that Saleh will only help the US fight Al Qaeda if the US recognizes his number one security priority and wades in to help him fight the Houthis. I can't think of a better idea than to have the US fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

The solutions proposed will not do, not only because they are narrowly focused on security rather than development, not only because they are unlikely to be acceptable to Yemenis or to achieve their desired ends, and not only because the US does not have the financial means to properly execute them. Their fundamental flaw is that they involve two players only: the United States and Yemen. The fact is that if the US wants to make sure that Yemen doesn't fail, then it needs to butt out.

American should rely on its allies to execute the proper array of security and development strategies in Yemen. The problem is that American policymakers hate ceding control; there is a prevailing attitude in Washington that no one can do the job better than the United States. This is pointedly wrong, especially when it comes to Yemen.

There are many countries that could potentially do a better job training Yemeni security forces, undertaking joint military missions, establishing aid programs, executing development projects, and helping to stabilize the country. This is not just because of the Yemeni stigma against US aid dollars. In fact, there are many countries and agencies out there that have a deeper understanding of the problems Yemen faces and are better equipped to tackle them. The WSJ article mentions that the US embassy in Sana'a is understaffed and under-resourced. I would also add that it is under-educated (at least when it comes to Yemen's problems).

Although European countries can also be mistruted, some states have much better and more longstanding relationships with Yemen. Germany is a good example, with a large Yemeni expat community and a fairly sizable diplomatic and development presence in the country. Then there are Middle Eastern neighbors like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Now that Saudi has come to Sana'a's rescue against the Houthi's, Saleh would likely welcome additional extensions of help from a neighbor that has always been something of a rival. Sana'a also has longstanding ties with Egypt, ever since Nasser helped the North win the civil war, and Egyptian aid might be welcomed. Finally, there are innumerable international aid organizations that are experienced in providing the kind of development insistence that Yemen needs.

America should back off. It should delegate some of its security activities to allies like Europe and Saudi Arabia. It should divert more funds (and a higher percentage of funds) to economic and social development, but should do so indirectly, through other countries' aid programs and through international organizations. It should recognize and accept that, for many reasons, it can only do so much by itself in Yemen.

Professors Elias Khoury and Sinan Antoon in The New Yorker: Two N.Y.U faculty members feature prominently in article about the modern Arabic novel

The latest issue of The New Yorker features a piece by Claudia Roth Pierpont on the modern Arabic novel. Among the novels reviewed by Claudia Pierpont are two works written by current M.E.S./affiliated faculty members: I’jaam by Sinan Antoon, Assistant Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. The article makes for an interesting read, especially since it is meant to serve as a survey for those unfamiliar with the Arabic literary landscape. In addition to providing summaries of and commentary on a number of recent Arabic novels, Claudia Roth Pierpont meditates on the serious political commitment of contemporary Arab writers which, she believes, reflects both the precarious position of intellectuals within the Arab world and tortured history of their countries of origin.

You may read The New Yorker article here:


For more on Gate of the Sun and I’jaam:

Gate of the Sun By Elias Khoury:


I’jaam by Sinan Antoon:


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

History Lesson

I wanted to talk briefly here about something I found today on CNN. It is a blog written by a man named John Blake on a discussion that has been taking place between modern military historians for a number of years now (http://afghanistan.blogs.cnn.com/2010/01/07/past-war-offers-afghanistan-lessons-and-its-not-vietnam/). You know how ever since the war in Afghanistan began, people have always tossed around the notion that the entire endeavor was reminiscent of Vietnam? Well apparently, while that may be true, the prevailing traits of that war (i.e. guerilla warfare, long-term presence and extensive casualties, etc.) are actually grounded in a war much older than Vietnam. The Philippine-American War (1899-1902) is what many historians have pointed to as the first conflict to which the contemporary action in Afghanistan can draw its parallels.
Here’s a little background for those of you unfamiliar with how this war came to be: The war in the Philippines was a direct result of the Spanish-American War, which the U.S. had won the year before. As part of the agreement reached between the two countries, Spain ceded the island nation to America. However, this came with one tiny problem: the Filipinos had previously begun fighting for their independence from Spain and were not willing to simply become a possession of the United States. And in the true imperialist fashion of the late nineteenth century, the American government illustrated how it felt about the Philippines’ independence ambitions by sending roughly 30,000 troops to their shores.
What ensued was a bloody conflict that spanned the next three years, officially, and ultimately led to a forty-six year occupation of the country. Here’s the curious thing about this whole argument: the United States is believed to have won the Philippine war, and to have done so inside of five years. Now this statement is debatable given that a troop presence was necessary far the following four and a half decades to maintain order, but nevertheless, it is cited as a victory. Why was it so? The historians quoted in Blake’s blog simply state that it came down to brutality. The Filipino rebels, like their Vietcong and Taliban counterparts, utilized guerilla tactics such as run-and-gun attacks and then blending in with the local populations to attempt to discourage the Americans. However, the U.S. military, fresh from a similar offensive against Native American Indians, simplified their troubles by merely killing everyone, civilians and combatants alike. Obviously, this could not occur, nor should it, in the modern day, but it’s interesting that the debate over “doing what is necessary” had reared its head in this war over a century ago as it has in the last decade in Afghanistan. Another interesting parallel was in the unpopularity of the Philippine war, as Blake cites that contemporary voices like those of Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie spoke out against the blatant imperialism of the conflict. Not that this chapter in American History offers much of value for finding a way to bring the War in Afghanistan to a positive conclusion, and I wouldn’t even begin to try to use this example for such an end. But I personally find it interesting when the past mirrors the present so clearly. At the very least, the comparison between the two wars wasn’t something I had considered before.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Too Many Movies and Too Much Free Time

I just finished reading an article in this week’s news regarding, of all things, conspiracy theories that have been generated about the world’s most infamous current boogeyman, Osama bin Laden. Now, in my humble opinion, bin Laden, while holding a high status in view of international media, government security forces, and other jihadists, is still just a single, dare I say marginal, figure in the realm of global jihad. But the man still holds the world’s attention, as he has for the last decade, among both the rational and paranoid alike. As the article I just read addresses the latter group, I felt like maybe I should put in my two cents on some of their absurd claims.
Apparently, many of the conspiracy theorists out there would have you believe that Osama bin Laden was killed early in the United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and any subsequent communiqués attributed to him have been a means to perpetuate the myth of Osama bin Laden in order to justify a seemingly endless “War on Terror”. Yeah, I cringed a little bit too. What kind of proof do these theorists present to back up their claims? Enter David Ray Griffin, theology professor and member of the “9/11 Truth Movement”, who points to the video released in December 2001 in which bin Laden both confesses to the 9/11 attacks and looks “fatter, with shorter fingers” and is “writing with the wrong hand” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8444069.stm). Mr. Griffin contends that al-Qaeda has rarely admitted to acts of terrorism and violence and that, given later recordings of bin Laden being of the audio variety only, it leads one to believe that the video is likely a forgery. He then goes on to cite the release of a later October 2004 video of bin Laden, which he claims lacks then religious rhetoric of previous messages from al-Qaeda and may have been utilized to secure a second term for President George W. Bush, as it was released just days prior to the election.
So let’s take a step back from fantasy and into the realm of rationality. While the theories offered above by Mr. Griffin have been largely dismissed by video and intelligence experts, there is a bit of debate over a video released in September 2007, that features a more youthful looking Osama bin Laden and has number of eyebrow-raising technical glitches, like points during which the video freezes but bin Laden’s audio continues to play. But go figure, none of these issues add up to a massive western government conspiracy. More likely, according to former CIA agent Robert Baer, al-Qaeda themselves faked the tape (if it was in fact a forgery) in order to rally their forces around the figure of bin Laden and to reinvest their followers devotions. Many who entertain these wild conspiracy ideas and simply ignoring an obvious truth: the U.S. is just fighting a difficult and capable enemy and, at the end of the day, this country, or any other, isn’t capable of maintaining such a massive conspiracy without any leaks or any evidence of its existence. I should say briefly here that I am American, I love my country, and I believe in its principles completely. But is it really so hard to believe that this country just simply cannot find this individual and that the message of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups is not a tool of our government but rather something in the world beyond our control? This country is not some infallible, invincible force in the world that is the master controller of all things; no, we’re just like all the rest. So put the wild theories to bed, people, because they hold no weight. They are merely the musings of those out there who have seen too many movies and who have too much free time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Career Choices for Middle Eastern Studies Students

Question: What can/should I do with myself after I graduate with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies?

Answer: For many of us, the painful but ultimately self-indulgent and pointless existential crisis triggered by this question is remarkably familiar- we experienced it shortly after graduating from undergrad. After earning a bachelor of arts degree (B.A.) in history or comparative literature with a focus on Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures from [insert liberal arts college/ research university here] we were convinced that others [read: employers] would respect our deep, unwavering commitment to attaining knowledge about this “fascinating” [read: economically stagnant and hopelessly violent] area of the world.

While the common but ultimately irksome response from our friends “Oh you study the Middle East- that’s so interesting. Everybody will want to hire you,” was comforting in the short-term, we soon realized that “everybody” really only included second-tier NGOs and the Central Intelligence Agency. The same existential crisis rears its head in a more potent, virulent form in graduate school when one cannot simply delay his entry into the real world by pursuing further studies (Except for the Phd candidates among us who will never enter the real world- unless you consider the real world to be a faculty conference room at Columbia). We have been told repeatedly that our skills and knowledge are “highly-valued”- but by whom?

Below are a few career suggestions for our master’s students, who have spent two years honing their language skills and area knowledge.

1) Study Abroad Advisor- Yemen

Your in-depth knowledge of the region and slippery command of fusa (Kef Fal Hal?) help you as you lead six groups of 20 wide-eyed twenty-year old American college students through the dangerous, almost-African-in-its -misery part of the Arabian Peninsula. Your position of authority will also afford you the opportunity to rail against American foreign policy while picking up the local habit(us)- chewing khat. Though some of your other friends/ colleagues also work in the region, you remind them that you live in the real Middle East, a place where hope gives way to despair in a titillating cycle of suffering. Besides, given America’s soon to be militarized concern for Yemen, the expat party scene in Sana’a is really unparalleled. Drinking martinis with General Petreaus one day and lambasting him as General Betray-Us the next is more than any other area studies graduate could ever ask for in a “real world” job.

2) Saving the World- Entry Level Project Assistant

Working for a New York-based NGO will give you a chance to network with other self-righteous, pro-Palestinian graduates of liberal arts colleges and perhaps more importantly, grant you the right, nay the obligation, to condescend to bankers, lawyers and other high-status New Yorkers. At private apartment parties, you can either talk about the latest press release you have written about the Israeli bombing in Gaza or mention the situation in Sudan to maximize the amount of rich world guilt you inflict upon your audience.

3) Teach for Lebanon- Founder

After you are rejected by Teach for America (you are sure that they blackballed you because of your pro-Palestinian activism) you decide to start a similar organization focused on educational crisis facing Lebanese schools. You appoint one Maronid, one Shiite, and one Druze as co-CEO’s and spend several months traveling through Saudi Arabia, France, Syria, Iran and the United States pitching your idea to Lebanon’s main patrons. You believe you can harness the productive potential of Lebanon’s human capital, young Lebanese males with gelled hair and a skewed view of their own physical attractiveness, to bring education to the less fortunate in the country. Your plan fails when the American government discovers that the seed money for your organization is going to Hezbollah co-sponsored soup kitchens near the border with Israel.

4) The Agency- Analyst

5) Mamoun’s - Falafel Maker/Maitre D

Though you have spent two years problematizing authenticity (isn’t it, ultimately, a discourse?), you still seek it. Your study abroad Arabic language program in Syria, spring break trip to the West Bank, and brief summer stopover in Istanbul were all unsatisfactory because you did not discover the real Islam(s) nor did you discover the real Middle East. You are disillusioned with the ummah, Palestine, and the godless Turks and decide that true authenciticy lies in the palate. Your elementary school level Spanish is adequate to land you a job as the front man at Mamouns where you spend hours ranting about your marginalized position vis-à-vis the Israeli owned cafes on MacDougal Street. Every once in a while, your customers discuss Middle Eastern politics and you inject yourself into the argument by quoting directly from your thesis titled "Subversion of a Metadiscourse: Ibn al-Khaldun’s poetry: A Revisionist Interpretation".

Regardless of which of these options you pick, there is a bright future waiting for you. You need only to seize the opportunity. Me? I will practicing intoning the following sentence with all due seriousness,

"One job with hot sauce, please."

Saturday, January 9, 2010

How to Help Yemen?

As this week wore on, the Western press continued to churn out articles on Yemen. With the security story largely beaten to death, towards the end of the week newspapers started to turn towards other angles on Yemen -- looking at the country's problems with poverty, its wrecked economy, its corrupt and overly-bureaucratic system of government, its war with the Houthi rebels, and the conflict with the South (in short, many of the topics that in my last post I lamented were being ignored).

One of these articles particularly caught my eye: a NYT piece on the paltry amount of non-military aid the US sends to Yemen and its limited ability to affect conditions in the country. Indeed, the article reaches the conclusion that Yemen is essentially a lost cause.

In fact, this has been the tone of many articles that have discussed Yemen's broader problems and how the West might help the country address them. What can possibly be done in a country with such multifarious and deep-rooted social, political, and economic travails?

This conclusion frustrates me. The problems Yemen faces are indeed deep and difficult to solve; but they are not new. When I visited the country in 2007 all of the same issues were present and had been for many years before. The Houthi war has been going on for 5 years. Secessionist tendencies have existed almost since the day Yemen became unified. The country's economic woes certainly are not fresh news; Yemen's economy has been in trouble ever since the early 90s when Saudi Arabia, enraged over Yemen's support of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, expelled the vast number of Yemeni laborers who had kept their home economy propped up through remittances. The oil reserves have always been known to be small. And the water table has been steadily decreasing, raising eyebrows throughout the development community, for years as well.

Of course, before now the United States and other Western governments had no reason to care about the problems of a small, backwater Arab country. So they left them to fester. And now they are grasping about in desperation looking for a silver bullet that will fix all Yemen's woes and throwing their hands up when one cannot be found.

I think this points to a fundamental flaw with the way the West conducts counter-terrorism and foreign policy strategies. Even despite all the talk over the last decade of preventing extremism from taking hold, US policies are still largely reactive.

Had the aid organizations and Western governments turned more attention to Yemen a decade ago or even earlier, the problems that are currently bemoaned might be much less severe. As the NYT article shows, US aid to Yemen has been paltry, especially when compared to other countries in the region (Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan). Moreover, up until recently, aid organization could operate in Yemen safely, without having to fear attacks or kidnappings. Yemen is no Somalia. When I visited the country, it felt safe and stable and there were a good number of Westerners visiting and working in Sana'a.

There has been a lot of debate among counter-terror experts about whether poverty breeds terrorism. Many members of Al Qaeda actually hail from middle class backgrounds, rather than deep impoverishment. I don't claim to be an expert, but it strikes me from what I have read that in a country like Yemen there is a connection between poverty and extremism. Yemenis who join Al Qaeda do so not only because of their beliefs, but also because of the lack of opportunities available to them.

A smart counter-terror policy would recognize that (in fact would have recognized that a decade ago). It would focus on long-term mitigation and prevention strategies. It would provide more non-military aid to build schools, hospitals, mosques, and roads. It would involve sending technical trainers who can help to develop local capabilities in areas like water conservation and oil exploration. It would involve working through diplomatic channels with US allies in the Gulf to ensure that Yemeni laborers can flow easily across borders to the places where there are jobs. Unfortunately it may be too late for all that now.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What's Yemen?

In the last few weeks, Yemen -- a mostly unnoticed and unheard-of country on the southern Arabian peninsula -- has been thrust into the international spotlight. Although the Al Qaeda network has been quietly gaining a foothold in the country for some time now, the recent attempt by one of its members to detonate a bomb on a US airline has propelled the country to the top of the news cycle and the Western foreign policy agenda. If most Americans know Yemen, it is probably from the Friends episode where Chandler boards a plane for Sana'a to escape a revolting girlfriend. Now they are wondering where this country came from and what to make of it.

A couple of years ago I spent five weeks in Yemen. I don't pretend that this gives me any sort of special insight into what's going on there or how to solve the myriad problems that the country faces. But my initial impression of the news coverage is that, with some exceptions, it has been far to narrowly focused on the question of Al Qaeda, ignoring the array of concomitant problems that make Yemen such a potentially explosive place.

Probably this is due to general ignorance on the part of most commentators, analysts, and journalists -- the American public are not the only ones who have ignored Yemen for years. But examining a country through the extremely narrow lens of anti-terrorism and security can create a host of problems. The US government turned a blind eye to the network of interrelated issues in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq before sending in troops. It chose to act now and ask questions later -- a mistake that hopefully will not be repeated in Yemen.

The most egregious shortcoming in the recent coverage is the utter inability of commentators to fathom how Al Qaeda becoming stronger can fail to be the number one priority for the Yemeni government. Al Qaeda is the West's number one security concern. How can it not be Yemen's?

The problem is that the Yemeni state is under attack from so many sides that it can hardly hold itself together. Analysts overlook the devastating civil war with Houthi rebels in the north, which the government has several times come close to losing. They forget that Yemen is actually the combination of two formerly autonomous (and hostile) countries and that many in the South yearn for re-independence. Recently they have grown increasingly active in seeking it. Moreover, politics in Sana'a are volatile at the moment, as President Saleh will likely end his tenure soon (after a mere three decades in office) leading to a great deal of uncertainty over who will succeed him. And then there are the myriad social and economic problems: a water table that is almost depleted, an almost spent oil supply, rapid population growth, a lack of employment options, and one of the highest gun-to-citizen ratios in the world.

Frankly, if I were Yemen I'm not sure that Al Qaeda would be top of my list either.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


For those of you that don’t know me, I am part of that minority within our study body that does not live within the boundaries of the five boroughs of New York City. No my friends, each day I come from the strange and far away land many know as “Jersey”. Needless to say, a large portion of my New York University experience is based on the proverbial commute and all of its fun little idiosyncrasies. As such, in taking part in the annual process of introspection at the beginning of each new year, I’ve decided to make my resolution for 2010 to become a better commuter. Better how? Well, better in the sense that I plan to both deal with the stress of getting into and out of one of the world’s largest cities on a daily basis better and be willing to find a little more joy and fun in the process as a whole.
All of this is based on the simple and obvious principle of patience. It is a virtue after all and it is a must if you are going to achieve what I am vying for. Have you ever found yourself in a crowded subway station trapped behind the guy who likes to just stroll along at his own leisurely pace while you are currently ten minutes late for your exam and still are twenty minutes and two transfers away from being even remotely close to the Kevorkian Center? Yeah, we all have. And if you’re anything like me, you spent an awfully long time hating that guy. But unfortunately, that guy is an inevitability of the public transportation system as we know it, and he’s not walking any faster anytime soon. So there’s really only one option if you don’t want to lose your mind every day, and that’s to just shrug it off and be patient. You will get to where you’re going when you get there, and no sooner. So for me that means leaving a bit sooner, expect to run into that guy sooner or later and then just have a little bit of patience because it’s just not worth getting worked up over.
That said, the other key step to the whole thing, like so many other aspects of life, is having a good sense of humor about everything. Laugh more; it’s that easy and simple. And commuting into the city is no exception. No matter what it is, the A train that likes to take its sweet time getting to West 4th St, the NJ Transit buses that constantly wait to break down until they’re in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel, or even the guy above who takes his Sunday stroll through the Union Square station at 9am on a Monday morning, you’ve got to be able to stop and realize how funny all of it really is. Yeah, I know, there will be days when you can’t afford to lose a second and you need to be where you are going absolutely as quickly as possible. But most days will not be a matter of life and death and it’s important, more important than many realize, to relax and try to enjoy yourself as much as you can. So why stress out over things that are out of our control, namely the ride to and from school each day? I’ve found that once you’re relaxed in the heat of a commute, looking around at how stressed everyone else seems is often pretty funny. Ok, so maybe my resolution is more about being a patient and upbeat person generally and the commute just provides a useful example. But regardless, I think they are good traits to pursue, and not just for myself, but all of us should strive for those characteristics in the new year that’s upon us. Just a little something to think about.

How Will the Blackwater Controversy End?

In skimming around the news today, I found several continued discussions of the controversial ruling favoring the infamous Blackwater military contractor in the case over the events of 16 September 2007. For those of you that haven’t followed this case that closely, a brief summary of it is as follows: In September, 2007, the private contractor, Blackwater, had been hired by the United States government to act as security personnel for a number of different institutions, areas and mobilizations in Iraq. On 16 September of that year, company personnel were acting under this mandate by overseeing security for a State Department convoy that was passing through Baghdad’s Nusour Square. However, during this movement, five of the guards on duty (Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, Donald Ball and Nicholas Slatten) claimed that the convoy came under attack by insurgents and they began to return fire. In the process, 17 Iraqi civilians were killed. In the aftermath, the events on that day were heavily disputed, and many, namely the Iraqi government, contend that the security guards acted in a manner outside of the rules of warfare, the attack they launched was unprovoked and that they fired indiscriminately at civilians, effectively committing murder.
That brings us to the trial that concluded this past week in the U.S. The prosecution, which based its case largely on the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation, was unsuccessful in its attempt to convict the five former Blackwater security guards on a variety of counts, including manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the case on the grounds that the evidence against the guards centered on testimonies which they gave under the pretense of a threat of job loss as well as the fact that these testimonies often provided inconsistent accounts of the day in question. Due to the questionable and limited evidence, the judge felt that he had no choice but to throw out the case.
Obviously, the Iraqi government displayed heavy disappointment over the ruling and has asked the Justice Department to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, a witch-hunt has been launched by the Iraqi government to pursue and expel any current and former employees of Blackwater, now known as Xe, still operating within their borders.
So that’s about where this story is at for the moment, but I couldn’t help but think of the potential consequences of it in the future. How, exactly, is this one going to end? Clearly, the appeal will be filed and the five guards will likely end up back on trial for what happened, whatever did happen, in Nusour Square. But if they are convicted the second time around, what will this mean for the newest trend in modern warfare, the employment of Private Military Contractors (PMCs)? Will someone question the use of companies who are arguably independent of the rules of conduct that control the state military machine? If they aren’t convicted, will the presence of PMCs become a permanent fixture in warfare in the years to come as a necessary supplement to armed forces of a nation, any nation, engaged in conflict? I don’t know, maybe those questions are a bit extreme and the realities of the situation are much more muted. But personally, I’ve always found PMCs, like any other mercenaries, to be inherently problematic as their independence tends to lead to issues of control. If the government wants to release thousands of guns-for-hire onto battlefields where the potential for civilian collateral damage is great, I would certainly hope that these are questions that are given their proper consideration before any deployment is initiated.

Predictions for what will not happen in 2010

Around this time of year, analysts, prominent think-tanks, and the Central Intelligence Agency attempt to predict what is going to occur in the Middle East in the upcoming twelve months. Recent events in Iran and Yemen have only added to speculation about the future of the region ( keep in mind that here “future” is narrowly interpreted to mean events and/or circumstances that will directly impact U.S. interests in the region such as wars, the growth of al-Qaeda, or the formation of small subversive, female-led reading groups in Tehran.) I will do no such thing.

Instead, I want to offer a set of anti-predictions: a list of completely implausible events which would only occur under the most unbelievable circumstances.

1. The formation of a Palestinian state

The anti-prospects for peace have already been belabored by those writing on all sides of the Arab- Israeli conflict and personally, I would be willing to bet my first-born child on the impossibility of this particular event. Not only has the Obama administration failed dismally in stopping Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank, administrations officials have shown a uncanny ability to avoid, deflect, and backtrack, especially when it comes to any issue of substance. However, if a Palestinian state were to materialize, Palestine’s chief negotiator Saeb Erakat would celebrate his dual appointment as Angry-aggrieved-Palestinian-in-Chief and Sultan of Self-Righteousness by throwing an all-night Camp David-themed dance party in Nablus (where all attendees must dress up as their favorite member of the Israeli or Palestinian team at Camp David) . In attendance: Jimmy Carter as Yasir Arafat and Bill Clinton as Ehud Barak.

2. Yemen overtakes Saudi Arabia as the region’s largest and most dynamic economy

Rather than sow discord within the ummah by attacking the federal government in Yemen, Al-Qaeda uses its popular support to form small microfinance lending cooperatives modeled on the Grameen Bank. Sanaaa replaces Dubai as the region’s newly ascendant financial center and the desert city soon becomes synonymous with new world decadence.

3. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu writes an open letter to the Palestinians titled “Our bad”

At the urging of Bono and the progressive organization AIPAC, Israel’s Prime Minister decides that apologizing to the Palestinians for the Gaza offensive would be “the right thing to do.” In the letter Netanyahu begrudgingly admits that, contrary to Ehud Olmert’s statement about the IDF, Israel does not have the most moral army in the world but rather, the third-most moral army in the world (after the United States and the People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). After discussing the existential threat that Omanian cashews pose to the state of Israel, Netanyahu acknowledges the possibility that vague, U.N.-promoted notions such as human rights may sometimes be just as important as Israel’s security.

4. Iran’s President hosts Pride Week

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the embattled President of Iran, realizes that he might be able court the young, Westernized supporters of the Green Movement by embracing the global gay rights movement. Opposition demonstrations are replaced by large, pro-gay rights marches throughout in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz with the immaculately-dressed Basij marching alongside Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. Since there is enormous political fall-out among religious and social conservatives, Ahmadinejad is forced to qualify his support for Pride Week by stating that despite their effeminate-sounding language, Iranians are by no means gayer than their Arab co-religionists.

5. The Kevorkian Center at N.Y.U. passes a resolution in support of Israel

After attending a lunchtime lecture by a prominent professor titled “Politics of Polygamy: Towards an Understanding of Agency”, master’s and doctoral students in M.E.S. meet in the library to discuss Israel’s latest offensive in the Palestinian territories. Though it takes them about an hour to hash out the language, forty-nine out of fifty students decide that they unequivocally support Israel’s right to defend itself. However, the students decide that simply passing a resolution is not enough- concrete action must be taken to support the troops. The Kevorkian sends bottles of red and white wine, Portobello sandwiches, and several plates of Hummus from Tanoreen to the IDF as care packages. Meanwhile, the Center announces that Problems and Methods in Middle Eastern Studies will now be taught by visiting professor Daniel Pipes who will use the class as a platform to address the strong bias against Israel in the field.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Introducing the “iQuran” (Yes, you read that right.)

So I recently came into possession of a new Apple iTouch mp3 player and have basically spent nearly every moment of the last week playing with its variety of features. Not gunna lie, it’s probably the best toy I’ve ever had. But in downloading a variety of applications for use on the device, I found something that made my jaw hit the floor as soon as I laid eyes on it. Boys and girls, there is, in fact, an iQur’an application for download from the Apple store. Let that sink in: there’s an app for that. The application is a digital representation of the Islamic holy book in original Arabic with an English translation right alongside.
I could not help myself and simply had to have it. The app, created by a website known as GuidedWays.com (http://www.guidedways.com/index.php) opens with a user-friendly breakdown of the Qur’an divided first by sura, then verse, then line to easily find any particular quotes you may be looking for. Additionally, an audio recitation is available from the popular Shiekh Husary. I was so thoroughly intrigued by the creation of this application that I looked up Guided Ways, and found that the iQur’an is merely one of an array of Islamic software apps for Apple products and PCs. Others include the iZakah, Prayer Times for PCs, and the iSubha for a digital representation of Islamic prayer beads.
Now I’m sure there are a number of purists out there that may object to the digitalization of sacred Islamic texts and religious symbols, but for me, I find this to be a laudable example of the potential and thorough reconciliation of tradition and modernity that is so often the subject of study for academics in our field. Take that and chew on it for a while, orientalists. The people at Guided Ways have found a great way for modern Muslims to interact with their faith in a fast-paced and ever increasingly technological world (not to mention, a handy reference for students of Near Eastern studies…). So if any of you out there happen to have an iTouch or an iPhone, search out some of these apps and give ‘em a try and see what you think for yourselves. If nothing else, whatever your faith is, it’s always interesting to see religion and technology feed off one another.

Where this “Next War” Really Is

Is anybody else annoyed by the recent contention on the part of many in the West that Yemen is somehow the future of the ongoing exercise to combat extremism commonly known as the “War on Terror”? Yemen’s place as a foundation for al-Qaeda’s activities throughout the world, or the activities of any extremist group for that matter, is by no means a sudden and new development. The movement of such groups in the region stretches back to an unknown period, but has at least been acknowledged several times throughout the last ten years. Yet time and again, people get distracted by the major foreign policy events, and lose sight of the minor ones. Unfortunately, as we are now beginning to see again, the minor ones have this nagging tendency to become gigantic problems later if they are neglected. Additionally, I’m not just talking about Yemen, but the countries of Eastern Africa as well, that are slowly but surely becoming the new center of global jihad.
First, Yemen’s issues are just not new. End of story. I’ve been watching the coverage of the attempted attack by Mr. Abdulmutallab since Christmas Day and I just can’t get around this feeling that many people discussing his rise to jihadism are incorporating Yemen into their arguments like it’s a part of the map they never noticed before but suddenly explains so much about an enemy they desperately try to understand. Yes, it appears true, thus far, that there are active groups in Yemen that have partnered with the great al-Qaeda network and are willing to launch attacks against western countries. And yes, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apparently working with such a group when he decided to pack an explosive in his underwear for the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last week. But other than a few scattered references to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, no one seems to be asking about the long-term strategic significance Yemen or any of the surrounding countries has held for jihadis.
Currently, the Yemeni government is caught in a struggle to maintain its power in the face of insurgent groups scattered throughout the country. These groups are battling the weak government for control of several areas of territory and are motivated by religious and social interests. According to a New York Times article, one of the main rebels groups, known as the Houthis, have been engaged in all-out war with the government since August (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/world/middleeast/25yemen.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=yemen&st=nyt). But this war, as most wars commonly do, has opened the door to instability and chaos in Yemen. The article cited concludes with the following quote:
“Many Yemenis fear that this war will continue until the army is really tired,” said Majid al-Fahed, the director of a private group called the Civic Democratic Foundation, who spent time in Saada (in northern Yemen) late last month. “Then who will defend the rest of the country?”
Good question. Who will? It’s no secret that jihadist groups flourish in countries without an effective and stable central government. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us when extremists have begun to use Yemen as a base of operations, as the government’s inability to stabilize their society has fostered a comfortable home for groups like the one responsible for the botched attack on Christmas Day.
Since the attempted bombing last week, it appears that the United States and the Yemenis have been building a partnership to combat both the extremist groups and the insurgency that threatens the government’s position. However, in my humble opinion, Yemen and its internal issues are neither the source of this “new” development in jihadism, nor is it it’s only base. I recalled a number of reports that have come out of Eastern Africa over the last decade and time and again, it seemed like extremist groups were surfacing in that region.
I did a bit of preliminary digging on this and came up with a few articles in the New York Times on specifically Somalia and Ethiopia. For example, this past July a pair of French men were taken hostage in Somalia. The Times article I found discusses two influential Islamic extremist groups, Shabab and Hizbul Islam, who had brokered a deal to “share the hostages” and any benefits that could be garnered from them (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/world/africa/17somalia.html?_r=1&scp=8&sq=somalia&st=nyt). If the early 1990s taught us anything, it’s that Somalia certain has its own issues with separatist groups targeting central government control. With a history of warlord rule, and now a weak Islamist government in power, extremist groups, like the two just mentioned, are able to successfully operate in the country. And, of course, Shabab, according to U.S. intelligence, is aligned with al-Qaeda.
Another example is seen in neighboring Ethiopia, where other jihadi groups were found to be prevalent back in 2007 and well before that. Another article I found, written more than two years ago, describes a trip taken by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who toured Eastern African nations to assess the threat posed by these groups. The contention of the article was such that in Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as Djibouti, Sudan and Yemen, extremists are able to “move through the region” in the “ungoverned parts” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/world/asia/04gates.html?scp=10&sq=ethiopia&st=nyt).
Common everybody, let’s open our eyes here. The fact that an attack attempted against American and other western citizens was launched from Yemen should not surprise anyone, nor should we be liberally tossing around terms like “new war”. And for that matter, Yemen is not the center of these groups, as their presence is felt across the Gulf of Aden in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries with difficulties controlling their territories have become comfortable bases of operations for jihadi groups and well continue to be. Therefore, this so-called “next war” is not a war in Yemen as the media portrays it, but rather an effort against groups that now occupy areas throughout the entirety of the southern Arabian Peninsula and the nearby African continent.