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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Has Bashar Assad Learned From Mubarak?

I don't know if the recent events in Syria will lead to regime change on the scale of what happened in Tunisia or Egypt. But judging from the way in which Mr. Assad has handled the protests, and the speech he delivered on Wednesday, it appears that he has not taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from Ben Ali's and Mubarak's mistakes.

Especially given the clumsy way in which Mubarak addressed the Egyptian protesters demands, one would think Assad could be a bit more tactful. Mubarak would repeatedly invoke foreign conspiracies and the vendettas of certain satellite television channels to belittle the demands of the protesters. He also thought that the excessive use of force would be able to squash the uprising before it reached its tipping point (remember those camels racing through Tahrir square?). He also frequently cited the 'progress' that Egypt had been making over the years in terms of economic and political reform, although always careful to throw in the caveat that it needed to happen quicker. Needless to say, that strategy did not fare well for him.

So how bizarre, then, to see Assad apparently following the same strategy. So far, the excessive use of force on the Syrian protesters in Dara'a have ended up generating more protests throughout the country. The hinting of vague, modest reforms sometime in the future will surely not satisfy the protester's demands. Rather, it will likely ensure that the protesters increase their demands. After all, that's been the pattern we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

So how will Assad deal with these protests that are increasingly gathering strength throughout Syria? What lessons has he drawn from Ben Ali and Mubarak? Judging from yesterday's speech, one wonders if he has squandered the opportunity of having almost three whole months to prepare for this moment.

Nawal El-Saadawi and Lipstick Idiocy

Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El-Saadawi has been making the rounds in NYC the spring, including a lecture and book signing last week here at NYU.  Now, here in Dork World she is more than kind of a big deal, so let's just say a few of my friends/colleagues were riled up like, well, me at a beer garden.

But my favorite encounter was between El-Saadawi and a friend from my undergrad days back in Madison, Paul (who is currently a PhD student at Rutgers).  I'll just let the picture and summary of their dialogue speak for themselves:

Paul: I'm from Wisconsin, and it was really great hearing you talk about the interplay between the protests in Wisconsin and Egypt.
Nawal El-Saadawi: You live in New York, though, right? Why haven't you started a revolution here?
Paul: ummmm....

That's right folks. Nawal El-Saadawi shamed my friend for not having started a revolution in NYC.  Bottom line: Nawal comes correct.

I also credit El-Saadawi for my fairly recent decision to start wearing obnoxiously red lipstick on weekends. Last semester in one of my classes we read The Hidden Face of Eve, in which she scrutinizes the demands placed upon women to look a certain way - including the demand that lips "have to be painted an appropriate hue" (111).  Me, being the moron that I am, as I contemplated her criticisms of superficiality and notions of beauty, I ended up thinking to myself, "Hey, maybe I've been leaning too heavily on eyeliner...lipstick has its strengths, right?" Cut to Friday night, and I'm rocking some paint in the hue of "Eternal Flame." 

Problematize that, my friends.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Names in Headlines: Tik Root & others

A few weeks ago I realized that an Egyptian Youtube tribute to the international media mentioned Ahmed Abdallah, who I met in a strange and therefore memorable way when I was eighteen. I've had the idea of becoming a journalist on and off over the years – that was an on year. He gave the usual offers of help, left his card. For various reasons I won't mention here, I never used those contacts. It turns out he was among those who disappeared into the bowels of Egypt's state security system during the protests to emerge later, bruised and beaten. It would be a stretch to call Ahmed Abdallah a friend. Even so, it's unsettling, the first time a name in a headline corresponds with a name from your personal memories.

Later, friends and entirely unrelated people started posting a disturbing video of Abdallah Dawesteshy, an Alexandrian photographer who works with one of my friends. I interviewed him back in 2009 about music, change, history and social commentary. It is hard to reconcile my videos, filmed at his office in the Alexandrian library, with the dark and grainy one where he lies bleeding outside the city's state security center, a live bullet lodged somewhere in his chest. The injury kept him in the hospital for several days.

And then this headline appeared: "Middlebury student missing in Syria"

Last year, I was an Arabic teaching assistant at Middlebury College, which is also where I graduated in 2009. The group of students who were evacuated from Alexandria earlier this year were my students last year. The favorite topic of conversation, whether during our “conversation hours” or at other events, was study abroad. What was the program like? What was Alexandria like? What advice did I have for them?

The Middlebury program has changed a lot since I was there in its first year, so I didn't like to talk too much about my own experiences. But there was one piece of advice I was willing to repeat to anyone who would hear it: make your own connections with the city. Get out, escape the program if you have to. Follow your own interests; whatever clubs or activities or hobbies occupy your time at home should occupy you there as well.

I usually added that political activism is trickier, and they should be careful. But having watched many students go abroad, befriend the same dorm-mates who were hand-picked by our program administrators, and return complaining that they had missed having intellectual conversations (not due to limited vocabularies, but the limits of their conversational partners), I was concerned that too many students – even some of the brightest, most active and adventurous students – were allowing the parameters of the program to define their experiences in and impressions of Alexandria, or even Egypt as a whole.

I don't imagine my ranting had a large impact on anyone, but I was pleased when I saw that Tik and a few others, after being evacuated from Alexandria, only increased their connections with Alexandrians and (presumably) other Egyptians. I was actually hoping we could link this blog to the Mideastreports site Tik started with other returning students. For the moment, and for Tik's safety, friends have now made the site private and emptied the public Google documents that formed the basis of those reports.

I was never anyone's teacher, but I did watch Tik and other students grow over the course of a year, and I was especially proud of what I saw when they came back from Alexandria. Being a weepy sort, I even got a little teary when I saw Tik's photos and video footage from the demonstrations. I certainly applauded his decision to finish the year abroad, this time at a program in Damascus. I didn't expect him to become the first person-I-knew to go missing. No one did.

The latest news on Tik is that he is 'safe and well,' and that the Syrian authorities have located him. High-level authorities are working on Tik's case, and the story reached national media last Friday. But his parents have not been told where he is, or anything more specific about his condition. As his stepmother Andi Loyd said in a recent update, diplomacy is a slow-moving process.

Time moves especially slowly when you have unanswered questions: What was Tik doing when he was arrested? Why was he arrested? What did Syrian authorities make of this American student, likely speaking a a semester's worth of Egyptian colloquial Arabic, piled on a couple of years of Modern Standard Arabic? Why is the standard 'pressure from the State Department' not the magic key to an instantaneous release? Is his case at all influenced by or connected to that of Mohamed Radwan, the Egyptian-American also being detained in Syria?

Just one question is enough to slow time to a painful crawl. It's the one most likely playing over and over in his parents' minds: when will Tik come home?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Response to Comment: Peter T. King and Radicalization

Lila - You're right to point out that terrorism is a loaded term that has been used manipulatively in the US. I think a more precise definition should begin by looking at Robert Pape's work.

I am not convinced that terrorism should be equated exclusively with Islam. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a wide variety of hate groups operate in the U.S., and many of them are responsible for violent acts.

Maybe it would be better to abandon the categories of "radical" and "terrorist" altogether in favor of something more precise...I will try to work on a better definition of these terms in my next postings.

You correctly argue that Islamophobia is a serious issue in the US. Certainly there is no shortage of shockingly ignorant, hateful propaganda available which seeks to demonize Muslims. Furthermore, the relationship between the government (the Intelligence Community, law enforcement agencies, etc) and American Muslims is problematic. Government surveillance policies tend to alienate Muslim communities, rather than engaging with them and respecting their constitutional rights.

At the same time, I think it's a little disingenuous and too apologetic to focus exclusively on discrimination. I would argue that (domestic) terrorism remains a real security threat in the US. (examples: the failed Times Square bombing attempt, the shoe bomber, hate groups in the US, etc).

The real issue in my mind, which still remains unanswered, is how to address this appropriately. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school published a useful report on discrimination and radicalization in advance of the hearing. Peter T. King would have benefitted immensely from reading it!

Overall, I would argue that the Peter T. King hearing was counterproductive and ineffective in addressing these issues. The hearing was theatrical, emotional, and probably alienated and offended a good number of Muslim Americans. In other words, it did more harm than good, in addressing what I believe is a real security threat -- and again, one that is not exclusively related to Muslims. (That's basically what I meant by, "However, it is unclear whether the hearing was sufficiently productive in addressing the (very real) threat of terrorism.")

I know I still haven't fully responded to your comment, but I hope this helps.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No-Fly Zone in Libya: Full Text of Latest UN Security Council Resolution

The UN Security council has authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, which permits airstrikes but prohibits "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." Meanwhile, al-Qadaffi's forces gained ground against the rebels on Thursday.

The full resolution is not yet available at the UN website, however The Guardian has published the full text.

As a story published in The New York Times suggested, the implications of the resolution are far from clear. Is it too late for the rebels? How significant and forceful will the foreign intervention be? What will the consequences of the airstrikes be? Will they be sufficient to push al-Qadaffi from power? If not, then what will foreign intervention accomplish in the long term?

The vote, which came after rising calls for help from the Arab world and anguished debate in Washington, left unanswered many critical questions about who would take charge, what role the United States would play and whether there was still enough time to stop Colonel Qaddafi from recapturing Benghazi and crushing a rebellion that had once seemed likely to drive him from power. After the vote, President Obama met with the National Security Council to discuss the possible options, European officials said. He also spoke by telephone on Thursday evening with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the White House said.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reactions to the Peter T. King Hearing on Radicalization in the American Muslim Community

On Thursday, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) oversaw a hearing on radicalization among Muslims in the US. Those that testified included the father of the man who opened fire at a military recruiting center in Arkansas in 2009.

Overall, King expressed his satisfaction in a press conference after the hearing, and his supporters agreed that homegrown radicalization is a serious threat ('an elephant in the room') that needs to be addressed.

However, it is unclear whether the hearing was sufficiently productive in addressing the (very real) threat of terrorism.

David A. Fahrenthold and Michelle Boorstein of the Washington post commented that the hearing was dramatic, but lacked substance.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D - Minn.), a Muslim, broke down during the hearing.

Commenting on the theatrics, Fahrenthold and Boorstein wrote:

But, this being Capitol Hill, there also were moments of pure theater and genuine acrimony. A
freshman Republican asked the Los Angeles County sheriff if he had been hoodwinked into
trusting a Muslim advocacy group that some regard with suspicion. And Democrats used much
of the hearing to angrily bash the idea of holding a hearing at all.

Opponents of the hearing, like Professor Liaquat Ali Khan of Washburn University cried Islamophobia/McCarthyism.

Rep.Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), worried about the adverse effects of the hearing:

“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing’s focus on the American-Muslim community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers.”

Michelle Boorstein published a piece today in the Washington Post blog about different American Muslim groups, and their reactions to the hearing:

She elaborated:
If King's hearing was about anything, it was about trying to empower a different group of Muslim leaders, people King and other conservatives view as more patriotic, more cooperative and more focused on rooting out terrorists, rather than on Islamophobia.

The difference can be summed up by contrasting part of the mission statement of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - an advocacy group King and other GOP lawmakers bashed repeatedly Thursday - and that of a coalition of groups of which Jasser's is a part.

CAIR says it seeks to "monitor local, national and international media in part, to challenge negative stereotypes, but also to applaud and encourage positive representations of Islam and Muslims." The mission statement of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition is to "come together to defend the U.S. Constitution" and to "protect American security.

On Friday, Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times went to King's home district in Long Island and interviewed the locals.

Commentators have also questioned King's views on the IRA. Researching that subject, I was interested to find that King is a published author; his most recent novel, Vale of Tears (2003) is a work of historical fiction featuring "Sean Cross," a congressman from Long Island. King expressed his concern with domestic terrorism in this novel.

In an interview in 2004, King elaborated:

Future terrorist attacks against New York are a very real possibility. Indeed, the scenario I lay out in Vale of Tears — Al Qaeda joining with local terrorists to attack trains — is exactly what appears to have happened in Madrid. No one can say with certainty why there hasn't been an attack since 9/11 but the likely reasons are (1) Al Qaeda attacks require great coordination and the president's aggressive foreign policy has disrupted al Qaeda; (2) the combination of the Patriot Act, interrogating prisoners at Guantanamo, and more aggressive law enforcement is paying off; and (3) NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has done a truly phenomenal job to protect New York.

What are the protests in Iraq really about?

Most of the protests that have been sweeping the region have been directed against aging autocrats that have monopolized power for decades. How interesting, then, to see an increasingly active protest movement being organized in Iraq. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, reasonably free and fair elections were held in Iraq just last March. So what are these protests about?

On the most basic level, these protests have been driven by corruption and the lack of services the Iraqi government provides for its constituents. Eight years after the US-led invasion, many areas in Iraq still don't have sufficient electricity. Corruption is rampant, with Iraq ranking 175th out of 178 countries worldwide by Transparency International.

But as Mashriq Abbas notes in al-Hayat, these protests are about something even more fundamental: the very structure of the post-2003 political order. During the last eight years, Iraqi politics have been governed by a sectarian logic. The various ministries have at times been run as sectarian fiefdoms. One's relationship to vast networks of patronage often determine one's status, rather than one's merit or level of expertise.

Furthermore, although Iraq is governed by a parliamentary democracy, there really is no "government / opposition" dynamic in parliament. After elections, the various competing parliamentary blocs work out deals so that almost every bloc is somehow represented in the cabinet. This is done in the name of "national unity". Even Ayad Allawi, whose 'Iraqiyya' bloc won the most amount of seats in the elections last year, chose to take a made-up position in the new government rather than play the role of the opposition. The result has been a government with an ideologically incoherent political program. As a consequence, the government has not worked towards solving substantive issues like providing essential services to the people.

So since there is no "opposition" in Iraqi politics, but just a handful of parties struggling to get a piece of the pie in order to reinforce their patronage networks, there is often no voice to keep the government honest. This is the void that the protesters are filling. So the protest movement is not simply about corruption and lack of services. Although those are certainly the core issues, the more fundamental concern is the presence of an opposition party willing to speak up for those who don't have a seat at the table.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i> vs. <i>Fiqh</i>: an Essential Distinction

In my last post, I mentioned Vogel's discussion of codification of the sharīʿa in Saudi Arabia. This made me think of a separate methodological issue, which I have failed to mention until now.

One thing I explicitly want to avoid slipping into, is (implicitly) defining what is "genuinely" Islamic and what is un-Islamic. This is clearly irrelevant to my study of sharīʿa.

In studying the sharīʿa, one must endeavor, as Mahmoud Ayyub put it, to "remove his shoes before entering the mosque."*

I think this can be reasonably accomplished by distinguishing between sharīʿa and fiqh. Samuel L. Hayes III and Frank E. Vogel elaborate on this crucial distinction in Islamic Law and Finance: Religion, Risk and Return (1998):

A distinction is possible between the perfect, immutable Divine Law itself as revealed in the Qur'an and the Sunna, called sharīʿa (literally "the Way"), and the sum of human efforts to apprehend that law, some of which may be in error or at least in dispute, called fiqh (literally "understanding."

For example, while God knows His perfect Law in its last detail, human beings often differ about that Law, particularly in details. Many schools of thought see little point in differentiating between sharīʿa and fiqh, since they believe that fiqh is the only valid means to know the sharīʿa and that any apparent flaws in fiqh are divinely intended. Yet the distinction remains useful and valid.

The outsider who wishes to comment on Islamic legal phenomena in history without questioning either the perfection of the Divine Law or the truth of Muslim beliefs may find it indispensable.**

Overall, while remaining respectful, at the same time, (as I already mentioned), I do not see myself as an apologist for the sharīʿa.
*cited by Edmund Burke III, 1979 original phrase does not relate directly.
**Hayes and Vogel, 23. This distinction is a little simplistic, but enough to give the reader a general picture.

Should the <i>Sharīʿa</i> Be Codified in Saudi Arabia?

As I mentioned in my previous post, proponents of the Saudi codification project argue that the project will bring significant benefits.

Codification could help make the sharīʿa more relevant to 'modern' issues, such as adapting to the growth of the global Islamic finance industry; the Saudi legal system has recently come under fire numerous times for alleged human rights violations.

Overhauling the justice system could help relieve the strain on currently overburdened courts, in part by establishing new criminal, family, traffic, etc. courts. New, better-trained judges would help make trials more fair, consistent, transparent and help establish consensus in rulings on important issues.

Of course, there is significant resistance to change within the Kingdom. Codification risks interfering with the independence of judges, for example.

Frank Vogel's Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (2000) is a substantive study on the legal system in Saudi Arabia; Vogel spent five years there conducting research (1982-1987). (he retired from Harvard Law School in 2007.)

As Vogel makes clear, the debate on codification is nothing new and has long been perceived as threatening.

He elaborates:

As we have amply seen, codification not only runs afoul of a long-standing allocation of constitutional powers that makes the ʿūlamāʾ the legislators in private law and criminal law matters. It also offers offense to the deeply related notion that Islamic law is microcosmic in substance and application, a notion cherished by Saudi ʿūlamāʾ and by other Saudis, ruler and ruled.

However, as Vogel points out, there are historical examples which suggest that the sharīʿa could be codified in Saudi Arabia without losing its "ultimate ethical, textual roots:"

In the past Islamic legal systems existed that were much more macrocosmic in their practice, and [...] nowadays theories exist that attempt to legitimate modern democratic or liberal constitutional models as fully Islamic. Such findings as these make clear that Islamic law itself is not unalterably opposed to codification, and that there are many possible ways by which the Saudi system could evolve to include codification or a close substitute for it.*

*Vogel, 361-2.

Friday, March 4, 2011

<i>Sharīʿa</i>, <i>The Awl</i> and <i>Halakha</i>

Maria Bustillos recently published a piece in The Awl on the Tennessee sharīʿa bill. She points out how absurd sections of the bill are. She distinguishes between fiqh and sharīʿa (more on that in future posts), alludes to juridical pluralism, the effect of colonialism on the sharīʿa, etc.

For those unfamiliar with The Awl check out this article.

Bustillos' main source appears to be Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (2005). Overall, Bustillos makes comparisons to Christianity, but doesn't do enough to relate the sharīʿa to other religious traditions, namely Judaism. This brings me to a more general point.

While the anti-sharīʿa cases I have written about consist of polemic and discrimination against Muslims, a further problem is that the sharīʿa is all too often discussed as a monolithic, isolated entity. This is highly misleading, because it suggests strict boundaries which separate Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Historically, the reality was far more complex. Therefore, I call for more discussions in the news media to place the sharīʿa in relation to and in dialogue with other religious traditions.

To be fair, the similarities between religious traditions, say, Judaism and Islam, might seem painfully obvious and perhaps trivial to point out; however, my point is that these similarities merit further exploration because they tend to be severely underemphasized.

Rabbi Seth Adelson made a point about the Oklahoma sharīʿa case in November:

On Tuesday there was a ballot question in Oklahoma regarding shari’a law. Did you all hear about this? 70% of voters in Oklahoma voted to “ban” the use of Muslim law, known as Shari’a, by judges in Oklahoma. Now, there are obvious legal problems with this measure, and they will surely be worked through in court.

Shari’a, like halakhah, is an internal Muslim religious matter. It is not binding on non-Muslims, just like halakhah is not binding on non-Jews. The subjects that shari’a law addresses are similar to those addressed by halakhah - religious observances such as diet and prayer, areas of criminal law, torts, family law, and so forth. The Muslim courts that deal with shari’a are similar to what we call in Judaism a “beit din.” The very word shari’a means “the way” or “path,” which is exactly what halakhah means in Hebrew.

Now, how would we feel as Jews if New York State were to “ban” the use of halakhah? I know, it sounds ridiculous, right? But that is, more or less, what the state of Oklahoma has done. Until now, no judge in an Oklahoma court has used shari’a in a court decision, and this law would prevent them from doing so in the future.

Who's Watching Al-Arabiya?

Since 2003, the politics of Arabic language satellite television have been defined by the rivalry between the Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based/Saudi-funded al-Arabiya. Indeed, al-Arabiya's sole raison d'etre since its founding in 2003 is to counter al-Jazeera. Needless to say, the last eight years have seen some rather interesting media wars between the two.

A poll released last week will be sure to up the ante. The poll was conducted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and focused on ascertaining which news sources Egyptians tuned into during the protests. The BBG is a Washington based group that apparently used regional subcontracting to carry out the actual polling of 502 Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria. The results indicate that 65% of Egyptians turned to al-Arabiya to get the majority of their news during the uprising, while only 22% turned to al-Jazeera. I'm sorry, but these results are just not credible.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in an Arabic-speaking country where al-Jazeera is available realizes that it is by far the most popular satellite news channel in the Arab world. During my time in Cairo this past summer, al-Jazeera was simply ubiquitous. Even the World Cup (which I watched religiously) was broadcast on al-Jazeera Sport. I can't remember ever seeing anyone watch al-Arabiya.

Another reason why I have a hard time accepting the credibility of this poll is because its results indicate that Egyptians deemed Nile TV - Egypt's state channel - to be more credible than al-Jazeera. Now, it goes without saying that al-Jazeera certainly has its biases and limitations (doesn't everyone?). But to say that Egyptians put more trust in their state television channel than al-Jazeera is simply laughable. Until Mubarak was practically out the door, Nile TV was continuously downplaying the scale of the uprising in order to discourage popular support. Furthermore, the poll indicates that al-Hurra was more popular and more credible than al-Jazeera during the protests. I find this extremely hard to believe, to say the least.

So what's going on here? My guess is that a significant part has to do with al-Jazeera being blocked by the Egyptian authorities for a week during the uprising. The polling took place between February 4 and February 10. al-Jazeera was blocked during a good part of that period. I wish I could come up with a more sophisticated critique that focuses on the poll's methodological flaws, but it's been a while since I took statistics and econometrics as an undergraduate. Therefore, I'll just stick to my instinctual critique that this poll surely cannot be credible.