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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some Background on Iraq's Outstanding Issues

In light of tonight's visit by esteemed historian of modern Iraq, Professor Charles Tripp, I thought it would be a good idea to kick off the week by briefly touching on some of the salient issues in Iraq today.

Sectarian versus issue-based politics. A logic of sectarianism as political ideology has largely governed power relations in Iraq since the first elections there in January 2005. Governing institutions were created based on ethnosectarian quotas. As a result, substantive issues have time and again fallen prey to identity politics. In early 2009, there were signs that a more issue-based political dynamic was beginning to emerge. PM Minister Maliki's party had fared exceptionally well in the provincial elections running on a platform based on issues like the rule of law and a strong central government. Building off that success, Maliki broke from the dominant coalition of Shia parties to run separately in the national elections in March 2010. Though he tried to reach out across the sectarian divide and form a transectarian alliance, he ultimately failed in that regard.

Politics are still mired in the logic of identity politics. The current government formation process (now over seven months old) has seen the desire to form an "inclusive" and "representative" government at the expense of one that is ideologically coherent.

The Insurgency. The state of the insurgency has attracted some attention as of late due to the recent New York Times article reporting that substantial numbers of Awakening group members have been deserting their posts and returning to their original role as insurgents. The original deal was that the in exchange for policing their neighborhoods and rooting out elements of the insurgency, the federal government would incorporate these unofficial policemen into its own security forces. Those that weren't given jobs in the security forces would be given jobs in the public sector. On the one hand, it was always going to be difficult to find 91,000 jobs for these individuals - especially given the 2009 budget cuts that the fall in oil prices necessitated. As a result, only a small portion of the 91,000 Awakening group members have been given official positions.

This recent controversy aside, the insurgency is not - and likely will not - be capable of controlling whole neighborhoods and cities like it used to prior to 2008. The government's security forces have grown and improved substantially. As a result, the insurgency is limited to the occasional high-profile car bomb.

Tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad. Because the Iraqi constitution is vague on federal and regional powers, Baghdad and Irbil have locked horns on a number of issues. The most prominent of these are those dealing with territory and hydrocarbons. The two are intertwined, as the struggle for Kirkuk demonstrates. The KRG is pushing for the implementation of article 140, which calls for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk to determine if that province joins the KRG or remains governed by the federal center. The federal government has consistently dragged its feet on this issue, since a referendum would be highly polarizing and could risk the outbreak of violent conflict.

The dispute between Irbil and Baghdad over who has the right to sign oil contracts is also a high-stakes game. The KRG claims it has constitutional authority to sign oil contracts independently of Baghdad. For its part, the central government is adamant that it is the only body legally authorized to sign such deals. It fears that the KRG seeks to rapidly exploit its hydrocarbon resources in order to build an economic infrastructure that will pave for the way for its eventual secession from Iraq. This is the sticking point, not disagreements over "revenue distribution between sects" as is often reported.

So there you have it. Hopefully this will add some context and background to a talk tonight that is sure to be enlightening and insightful.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The (In)validity of Labels

Whenever I tell people that I am getting a master's degree in a discipline called "Near Eastern studies" I am often met with confused stares. I then clarify that Near Eastern studies at NYU is more or less the same discipline as Middle Eastern studies; the differences are semantic. We call the masters program "Near Eastern studies" and the PhD program "Middle Eastern studies". Every now and then I'll be asked by friends or acquaintances what the difference is between the "Near East" and the "Middle East", but instead of getting roped into a discussion of the Eurocentrism inherent in the coding of geographical regions and the history of Orientalism, I try to change the subject and enjoy the rest of my day.

But for us students of Near Eastern studies - or Middle East and Islamic studies - the problematic nature of these labels sometimes gets under our skin. I know at least a few students at the Kevorkian who visibly cringe whenever they hear the acronym "MENA". MENA, which stands for Middle East North Africa, takes the arbitrary nature of labels to new levels. After all, what are the countries comprising North Africa? If you were to look on a map, you could say: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet for some reason, Egypt is rarely acknowledged to be in the "North Africa" category. Instead, Egypt seems to be universally accepted as part and parcel of the "Middle East". Meanwhile, the term "al-Maghrib" is usually used to refer to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. So what happens to Libya? Why isn't it included in the Maghrib?

This reminds me of an argument I got into with a colleague this past summer at the CASA program in Cairo. While talking about Algeria's performance in the World Cup, he noted that Algeria was the only team in the tournament from "the Middle East". I rudely cut him off and said that I wasn't sure if Algeria was in the Middle East. This colleague was a graduate of a particular university in the South known for its pretension, so I wanted to give him a hard time anyway. I simply recommended that he replace "fii as-Sharq al-Awsat" with "fii al-3alam al-a3rabi". The professor sided with my suggestion, and the issue was settled.

But it wasn't. Perhaps it never will be. Until it is, we graduate students of Near Eastern studies can continue debating the (in)validity of these labels.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ahmadinejad in Lebanon: Entertainment as Usual

Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005. Prior to the trip, the international press kept itself busy with speculations on what sorts of antics to expect from the controversial media darling.

Yes, I said "media darling". More on that later.

The speculations ranged from paranoid to downright delusional. Some emphasized Iran and Hizbullah's "evil plans". On the other end of the spectrum, Iran's state-run Press TV claimed that the trip would "unite [the] Lebanese."

One of the primary hang-ups were reports that Ahmadinejad's visit would include a trip to Fatima's Gate to hurl stones at the Israeli border. Fears that this would spark an international incident, perhaps armed confrontation, ran rampant. One writer even conveyed a sense of admiration at the thought of Ahmadinejad venturing to the southern-most point of the country, "where he will be standing in the cross-hairs of Israeli rifles." And this was all in spite of the fact that even Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah flatly denied that any such rock-slanging was on the agenda.

Which brings me back to my labeling Ahmadinejad as a "media darling". What struck me the most as I read these reports was that it seemed that the media wanted this to happen. They wanted to see Ahmadinejad, clad in his signature khaki members-only jacket, toss a few stones at that fence, all in the name of showmanship. Recounting Ahmadinejad's antics has become a national pastime of sorts, as evidenced by the annual spectacle of his trips to the UN. We're all sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for him to say or do something outlandish or inflammatory so we can head to our computers and deconstruct his statements and actions. He's that guy you invite to the party not because you particularly like him, but you know that he'll do something ridiculous and you'll have a great story to tell your friends and coworkers on Monday.

As amusing as Ahmadinejad-bashing may be, this preoccupation often draws attention away from more pertinent issues, and it seems to be part of a wider attempt to discredit Iranian regional influence and legitimacy. While it is true that he isn't too popular back home, "Lebanon one of the very few places in the world where Ahmadinejad is welcome." Even my friend Omar, a Palestinian refugee who generally prefaces political discussions with an assertion that all politicians are terrible, has a favorable impression of the Iranian President. According to Omar, in the next few months they'll be able to have electricity 24/7 because of Iranian funding. These sorts of details - and an examination of their wider implications - are often missed when we're too busy making fun of or demonizing or debunking superficial public displays.

Which is, of course , exactly what is happening. Though Mahmoud didn't throw rocks, Nasrallah gave him an assault rifle which was purportedly seized from the IDF during the 2006 war. It didn't take long for the IDF to assert that the rifle model was too old and outdated to have been seized in 2006, thus implying that Nasrallah is a liar and that Mahmoud was given a counterfeit souvenir. But I guess I'm forgetting that, in spite of its pretensions, news is in many ways a form entertainment. And I think it's pretty obvious that the average reader is more interested in hearing about souvenir assault rifles than complicated regional politics.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Identity Politics in Egypt

Tensions between Muslims and Copts have been on the rise lately in Egypt. Two incidents in particular have led to a marked deterioration in inter-sectarian relations since May 2010: a legal battle between the Coptic community and the state over whether divorced Coptic men can legally remarry; and the issue of Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who Muslims claim has converted to Islam and is being held by her family against her will.

The history of Muslim-Copt relations is a long one, as the two have been coexisting in Egypt since the 7th century. The Coptic community welcomed the Arabs, who gave them more religious freedom than they had enjoyed under Byzantine rule. The trope that Copts were forced to convert upon the Arab invasion is an utter falsehood; mass conversions did not occur until much later on (circa the 14th century). Regarding more recent relations, many Egyptian Copts - rightly or wrongly - attribute the rise in sectarian tensions to the growing religious conservatism of the Muslim majority since the 1970s, and the role of the state in fostering that growth.

The two aforementioned incidents have sharpened sectarian tensions. Furthermore, they have exposed the problems underlying the effort to secure rights for religious minorities in the modern secular nation-state.

First, the legal battle between the state and the Coptic community. In May 2010, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Coptic church could not prevent two divorced Coptic men from legally remarrying. The Coptic church considered this an infringement by the state on their religious rights, since Egyptian law grants the church primacy over personal status affairs. In response to the ruling, Pope Shenoudah III - head of the Coptic church - appealed to President Mubarak. Though the ruling was subsequently overturned, the Coptic community was once again vulnerable to the accusation that they constitute a state within a state.

The second controversy has generated more sectarian tension. After Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, disappeared, rumors spread that she had converted to Islam and was being held against her will by her husband and father as punishment. Mosques became the sites of rallies and demonstrations calling for the liberation of "sister Camillia". Despite the fact that a You-Tube video was posted in which Camillia appeared and explained that she had left her husband due to a marital dispute, and not because she had converted, the demonstrators insisted that the video was a fraud and that she was being held against her will. To add fuel to the fire, the number two in the Coptic church, Bishop Beshoy, gave an interview to al-Masri al-Youm in which he called the Coptic community the original inhabitors of Egypt, and that the Muslims were simply "guests". So much for tactful PR.

The Mubarak regime itself has attracted attention for its inaction in the midst of these tensions. The security forces have not lifted a finger to crack down on any of the public demonstrations, which some say reflects a strategic calculation on the part of the Mubarak regime. For example, Ibrahim Eissa, the prominent regime critic and recently sacked editor of one of Egypt's largest independent newspapers, has underscored the notion that with the prices of vegetables, fruits, and meat having risen by 300%, fomenting identity politics is a great way to distract attention from more substantive issues that transcend sectarian divisions. The title of his editorial says it all: "Muslims, Copts, and Meat."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these recent episodes of sectarian tension is that many of the demonstrators who oppose the stance of the Coptic church in these issues couch their arguments in the language of civil rights. Though the state sees itself as enforcing religious freedom by permitting the Coptic church to manage personal status issues, these demonstrators charge that by doing so, the state is enabling the church to act in ways that are perceived as "illiberal". Many of them support a unitary civil code, regardless of religious affiliation. Indeed, the concept of a unitary civil code constitutes an integral part of the normative Western conception of the modern, secular nation-state.

But what these advocates often fail to recognize is that unitary civil codes can be illiberal in their own ways. The implementation of them involves drastic transformations in the way adherents of a particular religious tradition relate to that very tradition. In this way, the secularizing project inevitably involves power, coercion, and work on the self. In short, if the Egyptian state's policy of allowing the Coptic church to manage their personal status issues enables "illiberal" traditions, so does the project of enforcing a unitary civil code.

Not surprisingly, advocates for an individual rights-based framework don't get very far when they appeal to the Egyptian government. After all, as far as the NDP is concerned, there's nothing like good old sectarian controversy to take the public's attention off of high food and gas prices, unpopular foreign policies, and an increasingly harsh media crackdown in an election year.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Iraq's Continuing Refugee Crisis

Last week I noticed that the prominent Arabic periodical, al-Hayat, had published an interesting investigative piece on Iraqi refugees in the United States. Not surprisingly, the lack of media coverage allocated to Iraq these days has alarmed Iraqi refugees, many of whom fear that the Obama administration's desire to focus on more pressing issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan will result in ignoring the residual humanitarian issues still lingering in Iraq.

The conflict in Iraq has generated over two million refugees, or one out of every 15 Iraqis. The vast majority have sought refuge in Syria and Jordan; the more affluent have been able to escape to western Europe, Australia, and the United States.

Who are they? Many are Iraqis who worked with the US-led occupation as interpreters, translators, drivers, and cooks. But most are just normal Iraqi citizens who became caught up the sectarian violence and forced to abandon their homes. One of the rarely mentioned reasons for the decline in sectarian violence post-2008 is that neighborhoods in Baghdad became almost entirely segregated, as these maps demonstrate. By 2008, almost every neighborhood east of the Tigris river was exclusively Shia. Small pockets of Sunni neighborhoods dot the western side of the city. This ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was carried out largely by sectarian Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Corps, and was often facilitated by Iraqi security forces (who themselves were infiltrated by the afore-mentioned sectarian militias).

So what's the status of the thousands of Iraqi refugees now living in the United States? Prior to 2008, the US had absorbed an embarrassingly small amount of refugees. However, the situation changed significantly after the late Senator Ted Kennedy co-sponsored legislation enabling the repatriation of a greater number of refugees in late 2008. The number repatriated in the US grew to 12,000 in 2008, followed by 18,000 in 2009 - a marked increase in comparison to the several hundred repatriated between 2003 and 2008.

Yet, challenges remain for those granted residency in the US. Few jobs are available given the severe economic downturn. As a consequence, educated refugees with university degrees are forced to settle for jobs quite different from those they left behind in Iraq. Apparently Ali al-Shamri, a former health minister and prominent member of the Sadr trend, is now working at a Wickman's supermarket somewhere in the United States.

So how will the Obama administration deal with the lingering refugee crisis plaguing Iraq? Will they strive to repatriate larger numbers of refugees in the US, or stall and hope that the security situation in Iraq improves to the extent that these refugees are able to return to their original homes? (Small caveat here: different families have moved in to many of the houses that these refugees were forced to abandon.) Another thing to keep in mind: to administration officials in charge of managing this issue, this is a strategic as well as a moral concern. Last time I checked, large refugee populations whose grievances are continuously ignored make for some rather unstable regional dynamics.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Colbert's "Muslim Threatdown"

Between school, working full time, and my quest to find the perfect man, I seldom have the time to sit down and read the paper or watch the news. Plus, every time I take a few moments to indulge in popular journalism, I am bombarded by cranky old men and “mama bear” women pressing me into ultra-conservatism or ultra-liberalism.

So, I’ve turned exclusively to one hour of cable television to get all of my news: Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report.’ Don’t be too quick to judge me: during my research for a term paper on Jon Stewart’s show, I found that in 2004 some absurd percentage of 18-34 year olds cited ‘The Daily Show’ as their main source of news. (I’d give you the actual statistic and citation here, but hey, this is a blog. And I’ve already read all of my source materials once; I don’t want to do it again. Sorry.)

Last night it was Colbert, however, who made my night with his segment “Muslim Threatdown.” Colbert examines how Islam is “permeating our society” through public schools’ recognition of Muslim holidays, and Kellogg’s and Campbell’s release of Halal cereals and soups, as reported by right-wing blogs. I figured Colbert and his writers at Comedy Central must stalk the right-wing bloggers (who even reads blogs, anyway?) to find this stuff, but it’s surprisingly easily available. Google “blog Halal Campbell’s” and you’ll find such titles as “Creeping Sharia” and “Campbell’s goes Halal to appease terrorist-funded group.” Seriously? How do these people get enough credence to end up on cable TV?

I figure the right-wingers who express these crazy views about the jihadists secretly taking over America are just afraid. And while the fear might stem from experiences, it’s still irrational. Like all phobias. And just because you’re afraid of something doesn’t mean you should be allowed to, and certainly not encouraged to, make public, definitive, and influential statements about it.

For example, I am afraid of frogs. I hate those slimy, bug-eyed, long-legged creatures. Sure, there are some tiny yellow ones off in the rainforest somewhere that could kill me with the toxic oils seeping from their pores, but I know that the frogs I see, that I actually deal with on a day-to-day basis (I’m from New Hampshire, we have frogs) could never hurt me. But that doesn’t mean I’m not terrified of them. It’s a phobia, it’s irrational.

So no one would ever let me write a blog post (at least not on a widely read influential blog) about frogs. Steven Colbert would never put my frog blog on his show. Because I would say utterly absurd things, like, “that frog I found smushed under the bathmat at summer camp? That was just the beginning of the frogs’ takeover of every place I find sacred.” (It’s true, though.)

Certainly no would take my frog blog seriously. In fact, people would ridicule me. My friends do ridicule me. So much so that, quivering and with a sour smile, I force myself to take 12 little frog-loving girls out to catch some. (Little girls always love frogs.) I even carry the bucket in my shaking hand, and smile and nod when they catch one and put it in. “Greeeeeee-eat,” I say, and if you know me you can picture my pursed lips, squinted eyes, and brows raised so high my forehead wrinkles as I say it.

So sure, there are some yellow, rainforest, toxic-oil Muslims out there. We’ve seen it. And some people are afraid of Muslims, and they can’t help it because fear is a feeling, and it’s irrational. But that certainly does not give them the right to suggest that Campbell’s is making Halal soups as a means for the Muslim brotherhood “to eliminate and destroy Western civilization from within.” (I refuse to link to it, but that’s from Pam Geller’s blog).

Is the greater world solution really the same one that my friends use on me? Do we really have to ridicule—I mean personally make fun of—people that fear Muslims? Should I befriend some Islamaphobe bloggers and force them to eat Campbell’s soup or other delicious Halal foods? Will that convince the right-wing bloggers that most Muslims they interact with on a day-to-day basis are not only harmless, but good and kind people who deserve, at the very least, that you try to understand and get to know them? You don’t have to love Islam, but you can’t hate (or slander) its people.

And yes, I did, in fact, just compare Islamophobia to my own ranidaphobia. But that can't possibly be as offensive as Geller.

Check out the segment on Colbert: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/361759/october-11-2010/threatdown---muslim-edition?xrs=share_copy

Monday, October 11, 2010

On Being a Woman… Alone Part 3

From the now somewhat long series, “A Failed Adventure”

My experience in the market put me on edge, and made me suspicious of all the attention I had received from Syrian men. It became difficult to discriminate between kindly displays of Syrian hospitality and creepy sexual innuendo and misguided expectations of an American girl. Do I accept tea because it is polite? Or refuse it because it is only a vehicle to keep me inside longer?

I thought I got my answer later that evening as I was walking home from a little late-night semolina ice cream topped with crushed pistachios. After a productive afternoon shopping and buying enough to merit the purchase of another suitcase to get it all home, I had purposely left my wallet at home to avoid the temptation to buy anymore. But as I walked home though the handicrafts section of the market, I was caught by a young man speaking unaccented English. “Miss!” he cried out. “Miss, please, come inside. See my jewelry.” He smiled widely and brightly in that way that just exudes kindness and hospitality. I stepped to the side and admired his craftsmanship.

The handicrafts portion of Souq Al-Hamidiyya

“They are beautiful,” I said, “But I don’t have any money with me tonight. I left my purse at home, so I can’t buy anything.”

“That is ok,” he said. “I like to show my art work. Please, I have my own workshop and gallery around the corner, next to Al-Azzam Palace. Will you come see my work?”

I weighed the balance in my head: was this safe? Would it be rude to say no? So I took the plunge and walked with the young shopkeeper a few blocks around the corner to a big, well-lit multi-artist workshop. Inside, the walls were lined with beautifully hand embroidered scarves and tapestries, woven blankets, and intricate gold and silver jewelry. The young shopkeeper/artist, whose name I had learned was ‘Omr, offered me a cup of tea and a seat on a red velvet upholstered bench. After showing me much of his jewelry and giving me a brief tour of the other artists’ work, he asked about me and my trip.

After hearing my story, ‘Omr demonstrated the famous Syrian hospitality in full force. “Please, why don’t you come out with my friends and me tomorrow night, and we will teach you to play backgammon?” he offered, and I accepted graciously. “Come by my shop tomorrow, at around 2:30, and we will choose a time and go out and have fun.” I agreed, and went home to bed having made a new friend.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea with Dr. G

Last spring during breaks from my internship with an organization in Haifa I would spend time in Jerusalem. I wrote this during one of such trips.

The last few days I've been in Jerusalem, staying with "the doctors" as I call them - Dr. G, a family physician, and his wife, Dr. F, a professor, writer and activist. They live in the Old City in the Armenian quarter, and they both have no shortage of stories to tell.

Dr. G in particular is quite the character - he is always bursting to tell stories and share his random thoughts on life, and I am more than happy to listen. For example, here is a sampling of some of the things he said just while I was writing this post:

"I always thought I was 64; Today I realized I am 63."
"What are you doing? Are you writing an article? Are you chatting with your friends? I cannot use laptops!"
"Do you eat as a duty or because you enjoy it?"
"In India, I lived like a KING!"

An Armenian, he studied medicine in the former Soviet Union, and as a young resident in the 1970s he was based in Amman, Jordan. In Jordan, most doctors study in Britain or the States, and therefore use English medical terms, even when speaking in Arabic with patients. One doctor was delivering a baby that was in breech presentation. In Arabic he told the woman that the baby was delivered breech, but used the English medical term. The woman practically freaked - "WHAT?!  BREECH?!" The doctor failed to recall that in Arabic the word "breesh" means feathers - so he told he woman that her baby was being delivered with feathers.

Some of his other stories from Jordan aren't so light-hearted. In 1975, when he was just starting out as a young med school graduate, a woman brought her granddaughter to the emergency room claiming that she had eaten a tomato that had been sprayed with pesticide. The ER physician had stepped out for a bit, and Dr. G was left to treat the patient on his own.

Dr. G knew that if she had only eaten a tomato, the amount of poison she would have ingested would have been small, and therefore easy to treat. So, he began administering the antidote, not thinking that much would be needed. You could tell if it was working if the patient's pupils dilated. Well, Dr. G had administered several doses and nothing was happening - no dilated pupils. The ER physician returned and right away knew what was going on - "This girl's grandmother wasn't telling the truth - this is a suicide attempt."

Dr. G began administering dose after dose after dose of the antidote - the medication's packaging falling to the floor "like bullet casings," as he described it. The physician called the grandmother and got the truth out of her - the girl had intentionally drank a glass of pesticide. She had ingested too much, it didn't matter how much medicine they gave her - she died.

Her body was transported to the morgue at King Hussein hospital, and the final autopsy and police reports revealed the rest of the story. The girl was to be married the following day, but she was not a virgin - so, the story goes, she poisoned herself. This case had a profound impact on young Dr. G, and I can't help but wonder more about the conditions surrounding the young woman's death. Many studies have been done analyzing cases such as this on a broader scale, but I'm fixated on this specific girl. I guess all I can do is wonder.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Egypt's Upcoming Electoral Season

It's that time again: the Egyptian election cycle is heating up. Parliamentary elections are due to be held on 29 November 2010, while presidential elections are due to be held in September 2011. A lot of the buzz surrounding these elections has focused on the possible presidential candidacy of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed el-Baradei. These elections are taking place in a significantly different context than the 2005-06 cycle, so what has changed? What hasn't?

First off, Egypt's standing in the Arab world has not been immune to the series of crises that have shaken up the regional power dynamics since the last presidential election in 2006. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, President Mubarak denounced the Israeli killing of civilians but ended up laying the blame squarely on Hezbollah. In June 2007, Egypt's security forces shipped arms and trained Fatah fighters who were preparing to oust Hamas from Gaza, only to watch those fighters pre-emptively overrun by their Hamas counterparts. Though Egypt has been attempting to bring Hamas and Fatah together since then, it has repeatedly failed to do so, and has been charged with not being an honest broker in the matter. Finally, the Israeli assault on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 was orchestrated with apparent Egyptian approval. Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni visited Cairo two days before the assault began in order to inform Mubarak. Needless to say, this pattern of cooperation with unpopular Israeli policies has not and will not win the regime any friends at home. Perhaps this regional insecurity explains why al-Ahram felt compelled to doctor this now infamous photo of Mubarak leading the group at the White House.

Another change worth noting is the modest increase in media freedom since 2006. A variety of independent newspapers have been allowed to thrive since then, particularly al-Masri al-Youm, al-Dustor, and al-Sharouq. It is also noteworthy that several of Egypt's most prominent commentators (Fahmy Huweidi, Jalal Amin, Salameh Ahmad Salameh) have recently bolted from the government-affiliated daily al-Ahram to write in the independent dailies.

Though this has been tolerated by the regime, there are signs that a government crackdown on media freedoms is underway in light of the upcoming election year. Earlier this week, Ibrahim Eissa was fired from his post as editor of al-Dustor. Eissa is arguably the single most influential critic of the regime, so his sacking has raised some eyebrows. The rumor is that he was going to publish this critical article by Mohammed el-Baradei on the 6 October war. Issandr El Amrani has more on this at The Arabist for those of you who are interested.

So will unpopular policies towards Israel coupled with a modest increase in media freedom (though this is doubtful to last) be able to significantly shake up the power dynamics underlying Egyptian politics? Probably not. It is practically guaranteed that the ruling party - the NDP - will use whatever means necessary to secure victory at the polls this November. However, as Mona El-Ghobashy pursuasively argues in MERIP, Egyptian elections are not about winning for the regime. Winning is guaranteed. Rather, parliamentary elections are about re-establishing networks of patronage by renewing political alliances, redistributing economic resources to the regime's vast pyramid of partners.

This point is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about Egyptian politics, because far too often, this entrenched, complex, shadowy system of patronage politics is overlooked. There is a tendency to simplify Egyptian politics by focusing on the role of Mubarak himself. If only Baradei could find a way to compete next year and win, goes the thinking, Egypt would be different. But what about the system of entrenched patronage that includes partners stretching from the highest corridors of power in Cairo to the lowest-level clients in the Delta? As Ghobashy's piece shows, micro-level politics in Egypt matter. We can't deny these people agency by assuming that the power dynamics underlying the regime are confined to a handful of elites in Cairo. After all, US officials made a similar assumption after invading Iraq, and they made it at their own peril.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Historical Production of Sectarianism in Iraq

While mulling over the discussion surrounding Lisa Wedeen's presentation at the Kevorkian last week, I've been thinking about the elective affinity between science and liberalism, and the particular type of discourse that emerges from that affinity. Specifically, I have been thinking about how this can be applied to one of my own research interests: the production of knowledge regarding modern Iraq.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, it's become fashionable to view Iraq through ethnosectarian lenses. This tendency is not limited to policymakers and commentators in the public discourse; intellectuals and academics have also been culpable of reinforcing the notion that Iraq is an artificial state, or a state that has never integrated as a nation because of its so-called ethnosectarian heterogeneity. Iraq was carved out by the British in 1920, goes the notion, and the individuals incorporated into the new state have never been able to get past their primary identity of the ethnic group, the sectarian group, the tribe, the clan, etc. In short, Iraq has never fully made the transition from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft, a fundamental precondition for the development of the nation-state. Iraqis identify themselves as Shia, Sunnis and Kurds before they identify themselves as Iraqis.

Significantly, I think, many Western academics and intellectuals also subscribe to the "non-integration of Iraq" thesis (as esteemed Iraq scholar Isam al-Khafaji calls it). For instance, Noah Feldman writes in the Wall Street Journal on September 1, 2010, that Iraq will require a long-term US presence because "Iraq's primary identities are still of religious denomination or ethnicity, not of Iraqi nationhood." Thus, due to its "fissiparous character", Iraq is capable of sliding back into civil war at any moment. Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School, and has written extensively on Islam and the Middle East. He also was one of the authors of Iraq's interim constitution in 2004.

This connection between viewing Iraq as a state without a national identity and the necessity for intervention is interesting. It is interesting, because in a lot of ways, it is not new. British views of Iraq and of India during their colonial administrations were characterized by essentialist understandings of sectarian identity. Sectarian cleavages - between Sunnis and Shia in the case of Iraq, and between Hindus and Muslims in the case of India - were seen as impediments to state and nation building. Since the modern liberal understanding of the nation-state was seen as the normative ideal (in which civic citizenship defined identity), sectarian and ethnic identities became problematic. In this light, notice that Feldman states that the ideal scenario would be for a new Iraqi identity to emerge on the basis of democratic institutions, or civic citizenship. Iraqis must move past their sectarian identities in order to forge a strong national identity. Yet, doesn't Feldman see the contradiction between adovcating for identities based on civic citizenship and the محصصة (ethnosectarian quota system) enshrined into the Iraqi constitution that he helped draft?

Nevertheless, despite the fact that this understanding of Iraq does not resonate with Iraqi history, it is quite resilient. Perhaps it is so resilient because it is part and parcel of a larger discourse involving issues of power and intervention. Britain used these essentialist understandings of Iraq and India in order to legitimize their colonial presence in both. Similarly, Feldman's discourse is aimed at legitimizing a long-term US presence in Iraq.

I think the more interesting questions that we need to ask have to deal with how sectarian identities become politicized. To a large extent, sectarian identities still govern power relations in Iraq. Of course, it has not always been this way, as even the most superficial study of Iraqi history will demonstrate. So how did Sunni and Shia go from being religious identities to being politicized and contending forces? This is the question that Feldman should be addressing.