Across the Bay

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Sacrilicious

After I wrote my criticism of Cole's post on the UCI graduation ceremony, I realized that I left out something important. It also came up in discussions I had with friends and colleagues about the post and about religion in general. What I'm referring to is Cole's statement that by wearing specific religious paraphernalia with Islamic inscriptions, the students at UCI were "sacralizing their secular learning."

In my "Cole Nidre" post I simply made a brief mention about religion in the public space without going in depth about the significance of the necessity and implications of "sacralizing secular learning." However, Cole's statement really stuck with me and a discussion on Alain Besançon with a colleague led me to this piece by Peter Leithart, commenting on Besançon's essay in Commentary (May 2004). At the end of his short review, Leithart takes issue with Besançon's adoption of French laïcité, and takes it up a couple of notches:

Besancon actually betrays one of these corruptions in his comments about the "domain" of religious life according to the Bible. According to his account, Christianity teaches that "man is responsible for conducting his affairs within the framework of a universe - natural, social, political - that operates by internally consistent rules. The performance of one's religious and moral duties is thus confined to a rationally definable area." That is not, I believe, what Christianity teaches at all, for Besancon has made the existence of a "secular" space an essential feature of Christian faith. On the contrary, here is something that we can learn from Islam - that in fact there is no secular space, and that religious duties must be "pushed beyond" the "rationally definable area" provided by modernity. (Emphasis added)

This of course rang several familiar bells. Despite the fact that the statement about Islam's attitude toward secular space comes from Leithart, it is backed by several Islamic attitudes, most famous of which is the statement that Islam is "dīnun wa duniyā" (lit. religion and world. I.e., encompasses -- and governs -- religious as well as secular affairs.) For an example of how this works, simply take a look at Ayatollah Sistani's webpage. You'll find questions by Iraqi Shiites ranging from proper ways to have sex to whether it is permissible to eat food prepared by non-Muslims (who are dubbed najis "unclean".) Of course this is not restricted to Iraq. Egypt has been increasingly censured ever since the orthodox Islamic establishment gained more control over civil society (again, I refer you to Geneive Abdo's book, No God but God). Saudi Arabia needs no introducion. Even the historically liberal Lebanon has pockets where this type of invasion of the secular space is occuring more and more. For Syria, I refer you to Joshua Landis' excellent paper on Syrian religious education, as well as some of the pieces by Nabil Fayad in An-Naqed.

Remember Cole's comments about medieval Christianity? Well, his comment on "sacralizing secular learning" is suspiciously medieval (both Christian and Muslim). Everyone knows of the clash between "science" and the Church in medieval Europe. The point is that in those times knowledge needed to be "sacralized" in order to be acceptable. Cole's contrast with the Taliban is not persuasive. Even if the Taliban would scorn a secular institution, the idea that the secular institution and the learning it imparts need to be sacralized is still problematic! (Why should civil engineering or biochemistry be "sacralized"?) How different is this from creationism? Most readers are probably unfamiliar with the Islamic counterpart to that. It goes even farther! It's not confined to creationism, it also claims that the Quran includes several answers to modern scientific issues, and that there is no contradiction between what the Quran says and science! Take this statement for instance:

Modern scientific theory today finds itself quite close to the Qur'an. There are at least two reasons behind this observation. The first is the lack of inconsistencies between the Qur'an and observable natural phenomena. Science has not been able to produce theories or experiments that fundamentally contradict the Qur'an. Had our science done so, either our understanding of the Qur'an or of the world would have been to blame: the Qur'an itself is true for all times. The second reason for the remarkable harmony between the Qur'an and science is the presence in the Qur'an itself of very clear and positive encouragement to contemplate and investigate the world around us. As the verses quoted above indicate, Allah has not forbidden man to question, and in fact, it seems He wants us to do so.

This quote by the way is from a USC website! Another college where Muslims are sacralizing their learning! Of course this is all nonsense based on a bad reading of the texts, and a fundamentally erroneous view of their nature. Unfortunately, the premise is widespread because it views the Quran as eternal, thus ahistorical, and ever-contemporary and all-encompassing. That's why I, like Irshad Manji and others, have been raising the necessity of historical-critical scholarship in Quranic studies.

So in the end, it seems to me that the difference between the Taliban and this attitude is quite relative! If in the end the result is a coalescence of the secular and the religious spaces, what indeed is the difference!? Let me take the debate away from the modern era and the more controversial groups to middle ages, with which Cole had a problem. The debate back then was between two approaches to causation: Ibn Rushd's and al-Ghazzali's and the "Incoherence" debate. Al-Ghazzali's Asharite influences, which still dominate modern Salafism -- itself pretty much mainstream Islam these days -- won in the end, as evident from the state of modern Islam. (Although I am against viewing Ibn Rushd with modern secular eyes, as he was operating under religious premises himself.)

The only difference is hypocrisy. Cole has no problem attacking evangelicals and their "influence" in the Bush administration, and how they're running foreign policy based on apocalyptic visions. His criticism would naturally include people like Leithart, who also wants to collapse the barrier between the secular and the religious. The basis of his argument would be that this not only violates the American constitution, but that it destroys American multiculturalism. Yet, ironically, his islamic apologetics are based precisely on American multiculturalism! Why is Islam the exception?

If Cole has a problem with medieval attitudes, he should take a closer look at what he's proclaiming in the name of pluralism. The next step by Cole would be to defend this idiotic piece by one Iftikhar Ahmad (the reference is from Martin Kramer's Sandbox):

Through out the modern history, Muslims have contributed for the Renaissance of Western culture and society. Islamic values are not only compatible with the western values they are almost identical. Islamic ideas helped shape the European West that produced the values cherished by the constitution’s framers. Western culture is infact based on Muslim culture. The aim of education is to give the highest possible standard in order to advance spiritually, emotionally, technologically and economically. The early Muslim knew this and they were instrumental in giving the west much of the scientific knowledge that has once helped it to thrive.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Cole Nidre

Juan Cole has made what can easily be his worst post this month. Here is a prime example of an Arabist uncritically using Arabic (false) folk etymologies, and uncritically adopting the worldview of his object of study. This uncritical attitude is further extended to an apologetic on behalf of the Muslim students at UCI (against "bigoted jews"). In both cases Cole doesn't at all entertain any alternative view. Instead he gives his the seal of approval. Then, after explaining the meaning of the Shahada, he "dragoman" Cole turns his aggressive side on us as well. It's very funny to read this after reading a piece on Orientalists by Robert Irwin which had the following interesting comment in its introduction:

"I would like to suggest ways in which orientalists may have been influenced by the oriental materials which they read, in three related areas: the study of poetry and belles-lettres, philology and the writing of history."

This post by Cole is a case of philology that's influenced by Arabic tradition, and then uncritically adopted as truth simply because it comes from the "native" sources. I.e., Cole shows how his ideology tampers with his trade as a critical scholar. It becomes quite ugly when he deals with philology.

But before we go into that, let's stay on the level of journalism. Cole expresses his disgust at Jewish groups who objected to the display of green stoles with Islamic writings on them. Nowhere does he provide evidence for his assertion that the Jewish Congress is attempting to associate Islamic confession of faith with terrorism! He simply assumes it based on one quote by the president of the UCI chapter of a Jewish fraternity! Cole doesn't entertain for one second the ritualistic (appearances) aspect of the stoles. He never addresses the legitimate question of "who else in the Islamic world wears green stoles save for the jihadists and suicide bombers"? A possible exception might be the Ashoura ceremonies where some wear head bands with Islamic inscriptions, but that leads to several other questions:

1- Why on earth should paraphernalia associated with specific Islamic rituals (at best, or Jihadist rituals at worst) be part of a secular university's graduation ceremony!? Free speech? Fine.

2- Why are people not supposed to associate those green stoles with the many parades and marches seen on TV, or with militants and suicide bombers who are photographed or videoed wearing them before they go out and bomb a bus or slit the throat of an innocent person (for which Cole then goes fishing for fake Arab apologies).

3- Are there any other students who decided to make such statements so intimately linked to religion on a graduation day at a secular school? Do you see anyone else doing this? If an evangelical Christian did this, would we hear the end of it from the ACLU? (And please, don't read this statement with FOX News eyes. Spare me.) After all, this is not a Muslim girl wearing a veil we're talking about here. It's not like stoles are part and parcel of every day required Islamic wardrobe.

But it gets worse. When Professor Cole decides to morph into Reverend Cole is where the hilarity begins.

"The shahadah or confession of faith is a universalist statement. It begins by saying "La ilaha illa Allah." "La" means "no" in Arabic. "Ilah" is god with a small "g", a deity of the sort that is worshipped in polytheistic religions like those of ancient Greece and Babylon. It is a cognate of the ancient Hebrew "eloh," which also means "god." One of the names for God in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, which literally means "the Gods." Some scholars believe that the use of this plural is an echo of the process whereby a council of gods in ancient Near Eastern religion gradually become merged into a single figure, the one God.
...
So "La ilaha" means that there are no gods or small deities of the polytheistic sort. The ancient Arabs worshipped star-goddesses such as al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. These are the equivalents of Venus, Hera and Diana in classical mythology. The Muslim witness to faith denies that such deities exist.
...
This point is why it is wrong to insist on using the word Allah in English rather than God. Allah is not a proper name. It is simply the Arabic word for "the God." A god is ilahun. The God is al-Ilahu. The close proximity of two "L's" in al-Ilah caused them to be elided together so that the word became Allah. But it just means "the God," i.e., "God." Christian Arabic-speakers also use Allah to refer to the God of the Bible."


This is all very interesting but unfortunately, the flip-side to this argument is that "the Muslim witness to faith" denies the existence of other deities that other people believe in today, not just classical or ancient times. Cole forgets that there are other faiths and religions besides Christianity and Judaism in the world!

The final statement is almost a standard formula in apologetic circles, like the "unity of path and destiny" in Syrian-Lebanese official circles. But it's simply bad philology. Cole's explanation of the unusual phonology of "Allah" as an elision is ridiculous. What other examples are there in Arabic that would support this? For example, why doesn't it occur in a word like al-alīm (the painful) where the exact same elements exist, i.e. al (definite article)+hamza (glottal stop)+L+long vowel? Furthermore, how does Cole explain the existence of a regular form al-'ilāh which he himself refers to? Why did elision not occur there? Also, Cole has no explanation for the irregular pronunciation of the L's in Allah. For instance, that's not how the L's are pronounced in words like al-lāHiq (the following), or al-lā'ib (the player) where you have two L's followed by a long A. (Cole leaves all other explanations out. For instance, the possible role of Aramaic phonology is not explored, in all likelihood because Cole knows nothing about Aramaic or Semitic philology. The Aramaic alāhā' and its phonology are possibly what's behind Allah. That's one theory at least. I.e. it could be a loan, an almost frozen form, with the loss of the final ā' from the Aramaic. Finding an Aramaic word (or Persian for instance) in the Quran is not miraculous. Siegmund Fraenkel pursued it in the late 19th c. in his classic work on foreign and loan words in Arabic. More recently, and less successfully, Christoph Luxenberg attempted to seek an underlying Aramaic matrix to the Quran. His work is very rough and methodologically flawed, but still has some interesting possibilities. It is certain that more work is needed in that particular area of Arabic-Aramaic contact and interaction, and that much of the Quranic world lies in that contact. See also this more sound (but technical) article by François de Blois. See also his review of Luxenberg, which could have been kinder.)

The etymology that Cole provides is the traditional Arabic folk etymology which explains the form as "al" (the definite article) + "ilāh" ("god"), i.e., The God, which is then given a theological explanation linking it to monotheism. Cole continues with his remarks about Arabic-speaking Christians. Readers are reminded that Arabic has been forced on the people of the Levant since the Islamic invasions of the region.

The basic problem in Cole's explanation is that he's going back and forth between two points: 1- That Allah is not a proper name, but rather is the generic word for "deity", and 2- specific narratives and definitions. The paradox is exemplified by the following quote:

"And, the Koran also identifies Allah or "God" as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as of Muhammad. So, "there is no God but God." There is no difference in sentiment between this statement and the phrase, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." (Dt. 6:4)."

Cole couldn't have picked a worse biblical verse to back his statement (see below)! The earlier claim was that Allah was not a proper name, but a generic term like the Hebrew elohim (although Cole qualified the term elohim as one of the names of God!!). But then he introduces the Quran's definition of who "Allah" is, which is by linking him to individuals (and of course the narratives behind them. Also, by extension, in a few cases, it links them to their movements). So, the Quranic Allah is the god of Abraham down to Muhammad. The Christian god is the god of Abraham down to Jesus. Needless to say, the Jewish god includes neither Muhammad nor Jesus. I.e. God's "narrative" is very different in all three cases. To tell a Christian that his God includes acknowledgment of Muhammad (I'll explain in a second) is blasphemy. You're no longer a Christian if you believe that. So Cole is merely stating the obvious when he says that Christian Arabic speakers would use the Arabic word! But Cole confuses lexicon and theology. Just because Christians use the word Allah, it doesn't mean that they imply an identity of concepts or divinities in their theology (again, the clash between a nameless universal and a defined local). In fact, Christians use phrases like "allah taba'on" (their god) in reference to Muslims. If Allah is the universal monad that Cole is preaching to us, why then would a Christian emphasize difference? That is because the universal is based on a local definition which itself is then universalized. Let me add another example provided by Cole himself. When he decided to bring in Hebrew Elohim he neglected to mention that the same word was used by all the neighboring Canaanites! Does that mean that the Canaanites and the Israelites all worshipped the same god? (There is no solid proof of Yahweh outside Israel. He was their national god like Qôs for the Edomites, Chemosh for the Moabites, Haddad for the Arameans, etc.) So when an Israelite used elohim it was clearly and narrowly defined and it wasn't interchangeable with his neighbors' elohim. But that is exactly Cole's argument with regards to Allah. That's because Cole confuses or simplifies several things here. The "early" material he's talking about would be a reference to El, the famous Canaanite god who was probably also an Israelite god early on before the domination of Yahwism. But El is a specific name (even if the name itself simply means "deity") and thus a specific figure. See F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cole grossly simplifies a very complex phenomenon of convergence and religious history displayed in the Bible, where several words and concepts get reinterpreted. See the reference to Mark Smith's works below. Finally, just like El is both a generic and proper name -- meaning deity -- why can't we say that Allah is also a generic as well as a proper noun? The traditional Arabic etymology of al (definite article) + ilāh ("deity") doesn't matter here since in Canaanite, El by itself can be definite or indefinite because early on definiteness was not marked morphologically.

The logical problem is the confusion between a philosophical deity that Cole is describing and its specific embodiment in a particular narrative. The former deity is not linked to a narrative, for once it is, it becomes more narrowly defined.

Let's go back to Cole's biblical quotation and you'll see what I mean. He quotes the Shema' (Deut 6:4), but doesn't go on using Hebrew, which obscures the fundamental error in his assumption. The verse in Hebrew reads Yahweh for "Lord" (Yahweh Elohenu, Yahweh eHad). So it is Yahweh who's the "elohim" of the Israelites. It is Yahweh who is "one". It's a proper name bound within a specific narrative. That narrative is then turned into a universalist worldview, but the twist is that the universal deity isn't an amorphous "eloah" but it's specifically Yahweh, the god of Israel. So Cole's assertion that there is no difference between the Shahada and the Shema' is right on one level, but so decisively wrong on another, more crucial level! You can't say that Allah is not a proper name and compare it with a biblical verse that explicitly pledges allegiance to a god with a proper name!

After this long explanation, one can see that the Shahada that Cole is defending as universalistic actually isn't. The Shahada does not stop at "there is no god but god" (assuming a generic function for Allah). The confession continues with an essential (logical) conjunction "and Muhammad is his prophet" (wa MuHammadun rasūlu Allah. This is not reflected in the translation given in the OCR piece). The conjunction and its essential combination of Allah and his apostle (see the parenthesis slightly below) clearly takes away the universalist aspect and links it to a specific narrative in time and space. (The proper translation of rasūl is "apostle." To use Cole's method, whenever you'd find the Greek apostolos [apostle] it usually corresponds to Aramaic šlīHā' which is used for the 12 apostles. Cole used the example of nabī which would correspond to Greek prophētes. "Messenger" is usually the translation of the Aramaic malakā' which corresponds to Greek angelos. But Cole's point on the interchangeability of "prophet" and "apostle" [rasūl] in the Quran is basically correct.)

Cole of course enlightens us that the Jewish and Christian prophets are respected in Islam (thank you very much, that really matters to me, a dhimmi) but for some reason fails to see how all other religious expressions are deemed kufr (apostasy) or ishrāk (polytheism) in the Quran, and the latter includes Christianity. So before attacking "bigots" in the Jewish congress, Cole should take a deep look at the attitude towards other religions in Islam (outside Christianity and Judaism), and then take a look in the mirror. And then maybe, consult with the French about religious paraphernalia.

Cole tries to wiggle out of this one by saying:

"The Koran does not represent Muhammad as the only prophet or recipient of divine revelation. Even the bees receive a form of wahy or revelation from God. God has sent a prophet "to every city," it maintains. Not only are all the biblical figures prophets, but so are John the Baptist and Jesus, and even ancient Arabian prophets are accepted. In India, many Sufi Muslims were perfectly comfortable accepting Krishna and Ram as prophets. Of course, committed Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most recent messenger and the most appropriate one in which to believe, but they don't deny the validity of others such as Moses. And, in traditional Islamic law, it is perfectly all right for human beings to follow other prophets of the one God, whether they be Christians, Jews or members of some other monotheistic religion. This tolerance was implemented for the most part, though there were lapses, and some serious ones. It can be contrasted with medieval Christianity, which often expelled Jews and Muslims or forcibly converted them."

Let me pick one flaw in this long list of errors. (Where do I start?)
Whereas Cole started the paragraph discussing the Shahada, he moves to discuss the Quranic view of prophets. But the Shahada includes only Muhammad, not Moses or Jesus or anyone else. It is Muhammad who is the final and also the most beloved of god's prophets. His words are correctives (not just additions) and the perfection of god's message. The Quran certainly doesn't give you the choice of picking your favorite prophet and that God will be "cool with it"! Do you know of any religion that writes a book and hails a prophet only to tell you that you can easily ignore him and adopt whomever you want!? Christianity doesn't have that, neither does Islam.

But there's another thing. Cole thinks that tolerance should only include Jews and Christians (and I'm not going to debate the dhimmi issue here, which by itself would put a stick in Cole's wheels. "serious lapses" is right!) Cole basically is outraged at Jews (and Christians) for allegedly "attacking" Islam (he assumes that of course and doesn't bother to prove it!) His response is that Islam is "tolerant" (again, use of a word with very different meaning) of Jews and Christians (as if there are only Jews and Christians in the world, or indeed the US!). But, what that also means by extension is "to hell with the rest!" Cole gets even funnier when referring to Sufis. I.e., by referring to a sect (severely influenced by Christianity and eastern mysticism) deemed heretical by orthodox Islam! It's like a Catholic bishop referring to Mormonism as a good source for Catholic dogma! What dishonest nonsense! Of course Cole has to turn it on those goddamned medieval Christians! Mea Culpa...

So based on what I've established above, Cole's conclusion is not only logically flawed, it's also a bunch of fantasies:

"So both elements of the confession of faith in Islam are universalistic. The one God is the God of all being, and Muhammad as prophet exists within a moral universe of many prophets, and comes in a long line of true prophets, with much the same message as they had, concerning the compassion and love of the one God for his creation."

No! Both elements are not universalistic. They're only universalistic in Cole's fanciful and erroneous interpretation. Furthermore, all this is of course assuming a benign understanding of "universalistic". It could very easily be taken as "imperialistic" (a word that's reserved to America in Cole's dictionary). In fact, the roots of Israelite universal monotheism are most likely found in Assyrian imperialism and its encroachment on the Israelites' world, and the reverberations thereof. See Mark Smith's The Early History of God and The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. The local deity is faced with the imperial Ashur and requires a reinterpretation. (Also, Cole doesn't discuss the unifying role of Islamic monotheism among the tribes in the Peninsula, where all the older religions were decimated and converted to Islam. So in a sense, the unity "in heaven" had a reflection in the unity "on the ground." But Cole is too busy preaching to actually go into any of that.)

Thus Muhammad doesn't exist in a moral universe of "many prophets". He is a final corrective addendum to (and re-edition of) a preexisting Jewish and Christian narrative. The prophets therefore are almost exclusively Jewish and Christian. Not much else (definitely no atheists) exists in that universe. So it's hardly tolerant in the full sense, especially considering the time elapsed since the 7th c.! God's creation is very much layered in the Islamic view. The kuffār don't fall under God's "love and compassion", not by a long shot!

"For these Muslim graduates of the University of California to implicitly sacralize the secular learning they received there by associating it with the prayer that God should increase them in "knowledge" is another universalist sentiment. Many Taliban would have denied that there was any `ilm/knowledge to be had at the University of California.

So, the bigots should back off and stop demonizing the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. In multicultural America, moreover, an atmosphere of religious tolerance is the only safeguard against pathologies like antisemitism."


This is an arrogant joke. I would like to see Cole's reaction if a born-again evangelical decides to turn a graduation ceremony to a testimony about God's love through Jesus. Both are universalistic. God is one, and Jesus is a prophet among many! This is simply absurd. This is apologetics gone too far. Are we graduatin' or are we proselytizin'? Or are we, as the piece in the OCR suggests, making political statements? In Cole's case, we're simply preachin'.

Also, why did Cole jump to the other 1.3 billion Muslims!!! What does this have to do with anything!? But it makes sense if you adopt Cole's faulty premise. It's a premise that Edward Said perfected.

To top it all off, he places his sermon under the skirt of "multiculturalist America"... You could see that coming a mile away! First of all, multiculturalist America still has rules about religion in the public sphere, freedom of expression notwithstanding. Second, this is not a mere celebration of pluralism. This, especially if every religious person decides to parade a religious message at every public event, amounts to nothing more than a religious show down. We (non-believers) then have to naturally "tolerate" not only that, but sermons by your favorite post-colonial ME expert about how bigoted we are and how crappy medieval Christianity was!

But notice that nowhere in this long homily did Cole entertain the possibility that the students might be parading a particular political, or politico-religious agenda, and how to view that if it were the case. Why are we to completely throw out any possibility of their sympathy with Hamas? Who are the students? What did they say about why they were wearing those stoles?

Contrast that attitude with the following statement:

"Rumors also swirled that the inscriptions involved support for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization, the paramilitary wing of which sponsors suicide bombings against Israeli targets as a way of fighting Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land."

The students' possible political motives are only "rumors." But even if they were just rumors, Cole takes the time to describe what Hamas is: an Islamist organization, the "paramilitary wing of which" "sponsors" suicide bombings against Israeli "targets"as a way of fighting "Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land." Any more nuance and I'll puke. Israeli women and children are "targets". Nowhere in there is the Hamas charter mentioned where there is no Palestinian and Israeli land. You know what I mean of course. In Hamas' utopia, there is no Israel.

In the end, if people want to flaunt religious symbols I think they have the right to do so (and here it's obvious that it would stand out as a statement. Of what? It depends... For instance, the OCR quotes a certain student who said: "We are being called terrorists when all we are doing is speaking out." How is wearing very specific religious paraphernalia "speaking out"? What is it speaking out against?). Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that no one needs Cole's emetic overkill apologetics.

Cole has made several poor posts on his blog, but this one is definitely up there. But before he starts yelling and preaching at the whole world (i.e. "them bigoted Jews," but of course not the French who banned any such behavior), he should carefully ponder this statement in the piece he linked to, and contrast it with the Islamic world:

"UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone issued a letter to the campus on the controversy, reiterating that UCI will not ban the students from wearing the stoles."

Before he goes off, he should always remember the status of non-Muslims and of religious liberties in the Muslim world (since he immediately jumped to the 1.3 bil. Muslims). This would give the "serious lapses" he barely mentioned a whole new, contemporary meaning, not unlike the medieval Christianity he attacked.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Thanks, but No Thanks!

More good news is coming out of Iraq. President al-Yawer made my day today with the following story and comments published in az-Zamān:

"We need multi-national forces from Arab and foreign nations except from the neighboring states." (Emphasis added)

Al-Yawer also stressed that the troops have to respect human rights (which excludes pretty much all the Arab armies!).

I refer readers to an early post of mine on this issue, where I brought up the disastrous role of the Arab Deterrent Forces (Rade') in Lebanon. The Iraqis are wisely staying away from these pitfalls.

Al-Yawer is not alone either. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also criticized "the neighboring Gulf states" accusing them of encouraging and even financing violence in Iraq:

"[These (unspecified) states] interfere in Iraq through their satellite channels by influencing the news media and through financial support for violence."

All this comes in the aftermath of the revelation of Kuwaiti intelligence involvement in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at several coalition prisons in Iraq, which partially explains al-Yawer's remarks. (See this scathing piece by Jassem Mourad of az-Zamān. Note in there how he contrasts the US' apology for the prison abuse with the Kuwaiti attitude. It just goes to show how deep the Iraqi disappointment in, if not resentment of, their Arab neighbors really is. Many Iraqis have called Hizbullah a terrorist group, and weren't at all impressed with the latter's pro-Sadr, anti-US, parades and rallies. In fact, they expressed annoyance at the liberties Hizbullah took in assuming that it speaks for Iraqis. Just read "Iraq the Model.")

(NB: As far as I can tell, Juan Cole still hasn't commented on these stories. However, he's made reference to, and featured guest editorials that hinted at, alleged Israeli involvement at Abu Ghraib. Also, to my knowledge, the NYT hasn't reported the story either. If I'm mistaken, please let me know and I'll gladly stand corrected.)

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Politics of Compromise

In a great turnaround, it seems that Muqtada as-Sadr is being gradually sucked in to playing the game of compromise politics, which is so essential to Iraq and to pluralist societies (as was the case in Lebanon).

A spokesman for Muqtada said that he was planning on forming a political party that will enter the new political scene and try to get its demands peacefully, like any normal party around the world.

I was surprised to see that Muqtada reached this conclusion this quickly. I thought that he would try to ride the bankrupt horse of "armed resistance" and continue to be Iraq's most famous brat. But the young firebrand might have learned a valuable lesson from the big boys like Sistani and Allawi, which is excellent news for Iraq and Iraqi democracy.

Juan Cole commented on the story reminding readers that he had predicted this turn of events:

"It comes as no surprise to my readers; I have been predicting the morphing of the Sadrists into a political party for some time. I also have compared them to AMAL and Hizbullah, the two Shiite parties in Lebanon. For the moment they are more like Hizbullah, but that could change if the right circumstances arise."

It's true that Cole did say that, and I give him credit for it. He said it first in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which is perhaps the best thing he's written on post-Saddam Iraq):

"The Sadrists in East Baghdad, Kufa and elsewhere must be convinced that they can best exercise their influence by becoming ward bosses and electing their delegates to parliament. Attempting to exclude the Sadrists will only ensure that they remain violent. They should be encouraged to do what the Shiite Amal Party did in Lebanon, trading in its militias for a prominent role in the Lebanese parliament. The Sunni Arabs of Anbar province must likewise be convinced that they can form alliances in parliament that protect them and achieve their goals.

And he recently wrote the following:

"[I]t is just possible that Allawi's remarks were intended to signal to Muqtada that if he disbands his militia, he can hope to stand for parliament and perhaps even attain high office. If so, Allawi is already distancing himself from Bremer's decree on Monday making Muqtada ineligible to run for office.

A reader challenged me on the comparison to Lebanon and the idea that the Sadrists would trade horses in parliament. I replied:

The Baghdad government will have an oil income. In the past, East Baghdad has been stiffed and not given its fair share. Everything from sewerage to schools are substandard. Sadrist representatives from East Baghdad
will want to prove they can bring home that patronage. To get it, they will have to persuade Kurds and Sunnis to support them.

Hizbullah trades horses with the Phalangists all the time. Lebanon is a fair comparison to Iraq.
"

I was particularly intrigued by the statements about Hizbullah and here's why. You see Cole didn't just predict that Muqtada would be lured into party politics, he also fantasized about a transcendent and historic Shiite-Sunni union in Iraq, based on Muqtada's actions during the insurgency (not to mention his comments on the millenarian Mahdi Army going underground)! (I refer you to his piece in Le Monde Diplomatique.) Here's where the Hizbullah comment factors in. At the time, when I read the aforementioned piece, I wrote (here and privately to Cole) that he was mistaking the trees for the forest, and I gave Lebanon as an example where ideologically and historically feuding parties would strike temporary deals to reach shared goals. I said that it was an extension of the politics of compromise which is the backbone of Lebanese politics. So to hear Cole now give the analogy to Hizbullah and Lebanon in a calmer and proper context is refreshing. But it's also hypocritical because Cole has accused the US of creating (not inheriting) a "failed state" in Iraq. Well considering that the main source of disturbance in the Shiite community has decided to play politics and join the emerging dynamic scene of post-Saddam Iraq, I would say that's a vital sign of a successful nascent state! The miserable entity under Saddam, which crushed any semblance of party or parliamentary politics, was the failed state.

By calling the new Iraq a "failed state," he not only refused to give the US and the coalition credit (opting instead to indulge fantasies of a historic Shiite-Sunni union focused against the US), he also displayed a condescending attitude towards the ability of the Iraqis to take the space and liberty that's been given to them by the coalition, and make good on it, by playing the politics of compromise. Indeed, Lebanon is a good analogy.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Dictating to Dictators

I mentioned yesterday that there was a panel discussion in Beirut with Michael Young, Farid el-Khazen and Chibli Mallat that discussed Arab reforms.

The Daily Star published a report on it today. I quoted Chibli Mallat as having said that "there can be no change out here until there is regime change." The Star quotes him differently:

""unless you have a regular transfer of executive power in a peaceful manner - you routinely change the kings and presidents through political means - nothing will happen that is serious.""

It could be that my source paraphrased him, or that he made two statements, one more qualified than the other. It's just as well, since I was going to qualify it myself. I was going to say effectively what Mallat has already said, and that is that "regime change" doesn't have to necessarily be through war or coups d'état. It could be through peaceful means and elections, which, after all, are common things in democracies. This however doesn't alleviate the danger of Islamists, who, as I have argued here before, have no problem using those democratic means in order to undermine them after reaching power.

The Star's report has revealed yet another pleasant surprise. It turns out that Michael Young and I have agreed, almost verbatim, on the issue of economic reform:

"Criticizing the vagueness of the revised plan, he said, "My problem is not that it wants to impose the Western version (of democracy) on the Arab world, but that it is not doing that at all." He expressed concern that since the "(US) State Department has always been a preserver of the status quo," in the end no democratic reform will take place, and the plan adds up to little more than an effort to increase the economic efficiency of Arab societies. He also noted that many Arab countries are virtual experts in liberalizing their economies and political sectors under pressure, without achieving any fundamental change in power." (Emphasis added)

That's almost exactly what I said about Bashar (seeking prosperity rather than reform) in Saturday's post.

Furthermore, Farid el-Khazen (who wrote a spectacular book on Lebanon entitled The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon) had this to say on the issue of the need for reform to be "from within":

"Khazen tried to diffuse the common objections to the plan with reference to historical examples of reform, pointing out that the Tanzimat reforms implemented by the Ottoman Empire in the 1840s came as a reaction to the modernization process in Europe. "The incentive (to reform) always came from the outside," he said, adding that some eras of Arab reform coincided with liberalization and modernization in other pats of the world, whether the Western world or the developing South."

And on the Palestinian excuse, he said:

""It can't be that the Arab World should be frozen forever just because there is a problem with Israel. ... Even if the conflict has been settled, there would still be resistance to change from the Arab regimes.""

As for the EU tampering with the US initiative, all three panelists expressed disdain over it. Young reportedly said the following:

"In the new version all critical analysis is eliminated, he said, reducing it to a mere wish list, and options to achieve reform include a new array of institutions and forums in economic, political and social fields. Most importantly, the main reason for promoting Arab reform is no longer explicitly mentioned as the desire to prevent terror and enhance the US' security."

Young had previously written a piece discussing the leaking of the initial US plan by Germany who wanted to undermine it, and apparently succeeded. Mallat called the new EU-contaminated initiative "not particularly useful."

Enough said.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Addendum to Part II

Joshua Landis has turned our attention to "The Critic" (An-Naqed), an online magazine that publishes liberal Syrian authors. One of the more interesting authors is Nabil Fayad, a Sunni pharmacologist who has also studied Maronite Christian theology in Lebanon.

Reading through some of his pieces, I found that a lot of his views parallel those of Landis (esp. on reform in Syria. Fayad is also against regime change, for pretty much the same reasons as Landis.) But this one piece on what Fayad dubs "cultural Maronitism" is particularly interesting. It could be argued that his praise of Maronite ingenuity and liberalism is due to his own personal experience, but there is obviously more to it than that. Fayad's piece(s) serve as an important accompaniment to Landis' pieces. I did however notice one other similarity in their approach. Both are operating on a local level. What I mean by that is that Landis' occupation is Syria alone, as I have argued in Part II, with little expansion beyond that. Fayad treads that same path but with a twist. He calls on "cultural Maronitism" to be the pioneering force and agent of liberalization in Syria and Lebanon:

"At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th c., the Maronites carried the banners of modernization for the region through the Arab nationalism project, to face the Turkish occupation; Now that nationalist project has expired and outlived its usefulness, however the dangers of dragging the region to the abyss still stand. Despite the overwhelming presence of fundamentalist currents, the liberal current is in its best shape today. Hence, thanks to unorthodox communications media, it seems that the Maronites are once more required before anyone to carry the banner of a project of enlightenment, only not a Pan-Arab one this time for that is sure to fail. Rather, a project that is limited to Lebanon and Syria first and foremost. After that? Well, we can discuss that later." (My translation)

It is arguable that the Iraq war in fact falls within that specialized framework. It is a particular case like no other, where a war provided the space needed for reform, where that space under Saddam was far worse than that under Bashar. So, perhaps we should qualify talk of a domino effect as a case by case assessment of the best way to move forward. If Iraq necessitated war, perhaps other elements can be used elsewhere to achieve the sought-after reform and change. The question remains however, how far can we go without regime change, and to what end?

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Dream On (Part II)

This second part of the post deals with two positions against regime change in the ME. The two positions are markedly different however. The first, held by Joshua Landis, calls for a US engagement with "liberal minded" dictators in an effort to push them in the right direction. On the other hand, the second, exemplified by Ghassan Salameh of Lebanon, calls for a fully sui generis reform based on a "new social contract" between ME states and civil societies. The two positions are however unified on one point: both are exclusively interested in economic reforms alone (although Joshua Landis has also analyzed the Syrian education system in this terrific paper).

I have directed readers to the discussion I had with Professor Landis on his weblog ("Syria Comment") where I presented much of my argument. In brief, I pointed out some of the inconsistencies in his position. Landis basically subscribes to Fareed Zakaria's model laid out in his The Future of Freedom. In fact, Landis quoted Zakaria in his response to me:

"the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is -- instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections -- to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war."

The basic problem with Landis is that while he quotes Zakaria on constitutional liberalism, his own piece on reform is purely concerned with economic reforms. I suppose Landis holds that this is the way in for further reforms that touch on cultural and educational matters, but that's not elaborated. In fact, a quick look at his Syrian education paper will reveal the dangerous dynamics of ideology and education and how they're inextricably linked to minority/majority complexes, identity issues, and political and religious legitimacy. Bottom line, it shows that Bashar has as much sway as the US has when it comes to liberalizing Syrian culture! In fact, it shows that essentially, Islamic education in Syria differs little from its much maligned counterpart in Wahhabist Saudi Arabia (and Buthaina Shaaban still wants to bullshit us on the Arabic semantics of Madrassa!).

The paper contains statements like:

"For Syria’s Alawite leaders to back away from this orthodoxy is politically dangerous. To dismantle Nasser’s curriculum and to attack Sunni orthodoxy in the school system would cast doubt on their nationalist and Islamic credentials."

Landis concludes on this very discouraging note:

"The irony in Syria is that so long as minorities have the upper hand in politics, reform of the religious curriculum is unlikely. The political arrangement in Syria, as it now stands, is for the Alawi president to mollify the Sunni population and the ulema by allowing them a free hand in public instruction while curtailing their political influence. The insecurity of the Alawi community’s own Islamic identity severely limits the President’s ability to tinker with Islamic instruction. In fact, it creates a dynamic in which the ulema who cooperate with the government feel compelled to conservatism in order to preserve their dignity in front of a public which questions the Islamic status of the Alawis. In keeping with the “Nixon-going-to-China” principle, Syria may have to wait for a Sunni president before greater liberalization of its religion curriculum is possible. This, of course, is the rosy prediction.


Due to the rise of political Islam in the Islamic World, liberalization seems a distant possibility. Other “secular” states in the region, such as Egypt, have ceded greater influence to conservative Muslims in education despite having Sunni rulers. The future likelihood in Syria is that non-Muslims will continue to immigrate to countries that offer them citizenship with equality as they are doing throughout the region.
"

One immediately sees the inherent paradox. Landis is opposed to regime change because Bashar is allegedly Syria's only liberal president. At the same time, we are not to hope that Bashar will be able to liberalize anything due to the Sunni (majority) - Alawite (ruling minority) dynamics.

This paralysis is not restricted to the education sector. In the initial paper under discussion (on economic reform), Landis makes the following perplexing assertion:

"Of course, corruption and clientelism have not disappeared; they are the backbone of the regime. No Asad can eliminate them without hastening his own demise. All the same, much reform can be achieved by the Asad regime if it is pushed in the right direction. By encouraging reform without threatening regime change, there is a good chance that, in the long run, the very process of reform will transform the system. This is the logic being pursued with great success by the U.S. in its relations with undemocratic China. It can also work in Syria." (Emphasis added)

The problem is rather clear. Furthermore, Landis seems to be hitting a wall when he says that reform can still be achieved if the US does not push for regime change. Yet, his initial point was that internally such reforms are far too limited because of the corruption of the ruling elite! The "hail Mary" strategy is that perhaps in the long run the process of reform might transform the system. The ambiguity and vagueness of such a statement is confounding at best, scoffable at worst. But I think that there is a basic confusion involved in what exactly is being discussed and sought.

Landis continues his attempt at convincing readers of his position:

"Bashar must deliver on his early promises to bring economic growth and political liberalization to Syria. His legitimacy depends on it. Why else does he appoint reform-minded ministers and skilled technocrats? He needs change."

I think that what Landis is really talking about is not "reform" but "prosperity." It seems that if Bashar can deliver prosperity, his regime can survive. The point on "skilled technocrats" I think supports this argument. As for political liberalization, the piece itself shows the shallowness of that process, and this recent post by Landis seals the deal. In fact, how can Landis talk about the regime seeking to avoid its own demise by maintaining corruption, yet at the same time talk of political liberalization which would ostensibly lead to that very demise? To add to the problem, how does that then fare for Syria's chances of further reform if Bashar is its best hope to achieve that elusive reform?

To be fair, Landis (like Zakaria) raises an important question, even if it is one that ME dictators have manipulated to maintain power and US aid: what if what comes after Bashar is far worse, like the Islamists, who would kill any prospect of liberalization and reform? But the problem is that Landis' position does not rid us of the existing lack of reform of liberalism! It merely promises us a possible partial reform in the rather distant future, that might be slightly accelerated with US encouragement! I in fact argued that it really wouldn't be reform, but an attempt at more prosperity. Landis also doesn't address the possibility that in his process of political liberalization Bashar might end up bringing to power those same Islamists that a regime change supposedly would bring, keeping in mind what he wrote in the education paper about the need for the Alawite president to cater to the conservative currents of Sunnism! It can be argued that Bashar's recent flirtations with the Muslim Brotherhood might hint at that. The best parallel to that situation is what Geneive Abdo described in her book on Egypt, No God but God, where Mubarak essentially "sold" (or "made a new social contract"!) with the Islamists giving them control over much of social life. This means that the liberalization of Egypt is now even farther away than it was in the 20s and 30s! (On a related note, Landis never deals with the problem of "president-kings" and the dilemma of dictators, even if "reformist", clinging to power.)

These are all things that Landis needs to address, and I give it to him, he's no dreamer or "dragoman" consciously misinterpreting his area specialty (as might be argued in the case of "Saidian" ME scholars). He has no illusions about the state of liberalism in Syria, and he's sincere in his desire to see Syria move in the right direction. He also raises several important cautionary points that need to be seriously considered. But, his position advances very little otherwise, as it is stuck in the web of paralysis that the deadly mixture of Arab nationalist ideology, Sunni conservatism, and corruption create. Furthermore, his entire premise smells of historical materialism, where the economy is the primary engine of change. (See this somewhat relevant critique of that premise by Cliff Kincaid).

Lastly, it should be noted that Landis' recipe seems only applicable to Syria, and perhaps Jordan (Landis' emphasis on the need for a "za'im" strongman fits Jordan too). Landis has to argue that this approach works elsewhere. The above-mentioned Egypt (backed by millions of US dollars) is an indication that it doesn't! See also this over-optimistic and excessively laudatory piece on Abdullah of Jordan by Lee Smith, calling Abdullah "a model" for the ME.

Salameh's piece is even less imaginative than Landis, even when it's more verbose! Salameh basically rehashes old Arab nationalist wet dreams in a new mold that I call the "EU on acid" mold. Once again, the entire argument is economic. Salameh makes a list of points needed for reform. The first is the tired mantra of "reform must come from within" which is another way of saying "it'll never happen!" This nice piece in The Daily Star (which in many ways counters the piece on Jordan by Lee Smith) summarized it well:

"We are often told that lack of economic progress and the persistent dearth of democracy and freedom in the Arab world are the leading causes of extremism. Barely had the UNDP's Arab Human Development Report started to scratch the surface of Arab social problems than Arab political elites began to defensively insist that reform had to come from within. These elites went into self-defense mode, operating on the assumption that the silent majority in whose name they pretend to speak backs them and supports their regimes. It is about time they look more closely and notice the extent of their isolation."

The next Pan-Arab fantasy revisited by Salameh is the "Arab EU." Again, the parallel stops at the economic level. Salameh makes a lame attempt at introducing identity issues in there, but stops short of usefulness or relevance!

Salameh's fifth and tenth (final) points are cases in point:

"The fifth point entails creating a new balance between the rights of individuals and those of groups and communities in the Arab world.

Western democracy was based first on liberating the individual from the control of the church, then from restrictive family bonds to fully direct one's loyalty toward the nation as a whole. Nothing comparable to that took place in the Arab world.

Individuals in our countries continue to refer to their families, tribes and sects for support and help in different aspects of life. We should thus work in our Arab world to bringing about a balance between the need for the individual's loyalty to the nation as a whole on one hand, and his right to continue to enjoy being part of a family, tribe or sect on the other.
...
The final point concerns creating a balance between protecting national identities and integration in the larger world.

Neither hiding behind our national identity nor surrendering to foreign influence is a solution to our problems. That is why we need to reform our societies before opening up to others, not as a response to international pressures, but to the needs of our societies.

As for our national identity, it can't be protected through isolating ourselves, especially in light of historical experiences where civilizations have gone extinct the moment they decided on isolation.
"

You can see the terrible circle he's running around in! The fifth point stops short of bringing up the proper analogy which is a complete restructuring of the relationship between Islam and government. Also, it fails to discuss the process of secularization and critical Biblical scholarship and their role, and their (non-existent) counterparts with Islam. Secondly, when Salameh speaks of "loyalty to the nation" does he mean the individual country, or the supposed Arab nation? One of the problems in the ME was not only the sub-national referent, but also the supra-national one, exemplified either in the Islamic umma or its twin sister the Arab umma (the technical term umma is used in both cases). While the former (the sub-national referent) was always held as the greatest danger for ME progress, it was in fact the latter (the supra-national) that proved to be the deadliest virus to ever plague the region and its peoples in the last century plus (and running)!

The tenth point is simply confused and delirious! It's so paradoxical that it's tied up in knots! We are told that reforms must come completely from within before Arabs open up, but then we're told that civilizations go extinct when they decide on isolation! And then to top it all off, we get this spectacular conclusion:

"In conclusion, reform has to come from within the Arab world and not form outside. Foreign-introduced reform often hides agendas aiming to harm our societies, especially if it comes in the context of war. Arabs don't need reform if it is just a response to mounting pressure from powerful countries in order to evade their wrath.

A new social contract between the Arab regimes and their societies would make us stronger before our enemies.
"

Here Salameh doesn't even attempt to mask the Arab nationalist (Occidentalist) pathologies! He simply lays them out there for all to marvel at! And then you wonder why the Arabs are at the bottom of the scale! Hazem Saghieh said it best:

"And from Arab circles feeding on anti-Western attitudes, the answer has also come swiftly: "Reform is rejected because it comes from the United States." This gives meaning to a statement ascribed to the late Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, who criticized Arab behavior by likening it to a man amputating his penis to spite his wife."

To counter that, one only needs to hear the title of this piece by Kamal Labidi which reads: "The dismal prospects for indigenous Arab reform," as well as this remark by Chibli Mallat at a recent panel discussion in Beirut:
"there can be no change out here until there is regime change." (Dictating to Dictators: US plans for the Middle-East, and Europeans and Arab reactions. Friday June 4th. Centre Interculturel EuroLibanais - CIEL. With Michael Young and Farid el-Khazen.)

Finally, my premise in these posts has been that the aggressive policy pursued in Iraq (and to a lesser degree with SALSA) was necessary. Landis has inadvertently supported my view somewhat. In his paper he said that the US action (SALSA) has given the EU leverage to pressure Syria to include clauses in their future trade agreement (currently being negotiated) on WMDs and other sensitive points that Syria would have never otherwise agreed to. Landis used the analogy of good cop - bad cop and his only objection was that this way the EU would benefit rather than the US. This ignores the initial point that it wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the US' tough action, which is what I'm suggesting. After all, soft power has to have teeth.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

UN Smackdown

Chibli Mallat wrote a nice piece on Iraq and the UN. I particularly enjoyed this rather candid section:

"The international community, represented by the UN, appears no less steadfast in minimizing the participation of Iraqis in decisions affecting the future of their country.

For the past year, the UN bureaucracy has maneuvered to forge "a leading role" for itself in Iraq - to quote from the draft UN resolution. Yet why should it play such a role when it has had such a controversial record in Iraq? It failed to address the dismal human rights situation there during the Baath dictatorship. Even the oil-for-food program, which the UN Secretariat allowed Saddam's regime to undermine, is now tainted with a scandal that might have involved senior UN officials and, according to some reports, their family members.

The UN representative in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, is a person whom I have appreciated over the years, particularly for his role in Afghanistan. I have also expressed this publicly (though I privately told him of my misgivings about his actions on Lebanon's Taif Accord when he was an Arab League envoy in 1988-90). The man has undeniable qualities. However, he is mistaken in his handling of Iraq. By telling the Governing Council members to go home despite the sacrifices they have made and their record of nonviolence, he is unnecessarily sowing the seeds of resentment, while ensuring that whoever follows them will have even less legitimacy.

By placing the UN at central stage in Iraq, Brahimi is missing the point that it is now time for the Iraqis to represent themselves and be responsible for a future that will demand sacrifices from them long after he and the UN have left the scene.
"

Meanwhile, that's not the only stinking pile of manure -- that not surprisingly involves Arabs -- over which the UN is, yet again, toothless. By that I mean the systematic Jihadic holocaust in Darfur. Where are those demonstrations about killing innocent people now (with Palestinian flags all over)?! Are the Palestinians the only victims? The Arabs would sure love to convince the world of that. Here's one voice of outrage. But this quote from an unrelated Ralph Peters op-ed nails this hypocrisy, even when Peters is very seldom in the strike zone:

"Of course, our domestic left has long since abandoned the cause of universal human rights, highlighting oppression only when it can be blamed on Washington."

Same can be said of the Arabs and Muslims more generally.

Syria-Lebanon Discussion

Readers might want to take a look at this discussion between Joshua Landis and myself on his weblog, "Syria Comment" (now in my Links). Professor Landis has been gracious enough to indulge me and engage my comments and criticisms.

I remind you that I will be discussing some of Professor Landis' ideas in the second part of my "Dream On" post, as advertised!