Tag Archives: USA

Quote of the day: Obama’s kumbaya doctrine

“Obama wants ‘no victor/no vanquished‘ in Iraq, in Syria, in Gaza.  He likes inclusive, power-sharing, unity governments like Fatah-Hamas and Sunni-Shia-Kurd.

Why not start on Capitol Hill?  Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi can invite some Republicans to join the DSCC and DCCC, help raise funds for Tea Party candidates, and find an inclusive, power-sharing compromise on healthcare, immigration, etc.

Maybe when Democrats and Republicans master the no victor/no vanquished strategy, they can help spread inclusiveness and tolerance in parts of the world where disputes are typically resolved by other means.”

A friend commenting on President Obama’s recent New York Times interview, where he said that “he is only going to involve America more deeply in places like the Middle East to the extent that the different communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished.”

To be fair, Obama himself suggested in this interview that Democrats and Republicans had to “adopt the same outlook that we’re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together.” But then he immediately blamed “the rise of the Republican far right for extinguishing so many potential compromises” – which leaves the question: does Obama think the Republican far right is worse than Hamas or the savage Islamic State?

But Obama’s kumbaya-doctrine is particularly worrisome given his already dismal record in the Middle East. As the indispensable Walter Russell Mead points out in an essay at The American Interest,

“It’s not clear that the President’s goal of a grand bargain with Iran is within reach, or that it will deliver the kind of stability he hopes for. For one thing, it’s possible that the Iranians are less interested in reaching a pragmatic and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington than in using Obama’s hunger for a transformative and redeeming diplomatic success to lure him onto a risky and ultimately disastrous course.”

 

Visualizing Palestine [updated]

*First published at The Algemeiner on March 6*

Last Sunday, Al Arabiya reported with much anticipation that an “advertising drive is expected to take Washington D.C by storm on Monday as the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Visualizing Palestine call on the United States to halt $30 billion of military aid to the Jewish state.”

The advertisements targeted the annual policy meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Al Arabiya featured one poster that suggests US taxpayer-funded weapons are used by Israel to kill innocent Palestinian civilians.

The text on the poster claims that between 2000 and 2009, Israel’s military “killed at least 2960 unarmed Palestinians.” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that presenting Palestinians as the innocent victims of Israeli brutality and evil is the basic formula of the work put out by the “Visualizing Palestine” project.

This is probably a promising strategy, since many people who see a poster claiming that Israel killed almost 3000 innocent Palestinians between 2000 and 2009 will not necessarily recall what else happened in these years: In response to being offered a state of their own in the summer of 2000, the Palestinians launched a brutal war of terror against Israel;  and in response to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Palestinians elected the terror group Hamas  and subjected Israel to relentless attacks with thousands of rockets. In 2008, the Palestinians were once again offered a state including the West Bank, Gaza and parts of Jerusalem, but once again they chose not to respond positively.

When I checked out the work of “Visualizing Palestine,” I couldn’t help imagining how different their output would look if – instead of presenting Palestinians as hapless and helpless victims of Israel – mainstream views and attitudes of Palestinians were “visualized.”

So let’s give it a try and visualize Palestinian reactions to the aid they receive from the US.

For many years, the US has provided millions of dollars in bilateral annual aid to the Palestinians; in addition, the US is the largest single-state donor to UNRWA – the UN agency that works exclusively for the roughly 5 million Palestinians who claim (inherited) refugee status.

Yet, as documented by Pew surveys, Palestinians were always the most ardent admirers of Osama bin Laden. In 2003, 72 percent of Palestinians had “a lot” or “some confidence” that bin Laden would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Visualizing this fact could get us an image like this:

Pal visuals2

There is plenty of additional material. While the US pushed for the negotiations that resulted in the 2008 offer for a Palestinian state that I just mentioned, Palestinian “confidence” in bin Laden eroded only slowly: by 2009, 52 percent of Palestinians still trusted the Al-Qaeda leader to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” and by 2011, when he was killed by US Special Forces in his hide-out in Pakistan, fully a third of Palestinians still held bin Laden in high regard. Indeed, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh condemned bin Laden’s assassination and deplored “the killing of an Arab holy warrior.”

Visualizing similar support for terrorism, extremism and Jew-hatred among Palestinians and the broader Arab and Muslim publics would perhaps be very useful for helping people understand why the Jewish state remains a small threatened island in a dysfunctional and volatile neighborhood.

Update:

BBC Watch recently had a post on Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. Atwan was born in Egypt-controlled Gaza, studied at Cairo University and has lived since the late 1970s in London. On his own website, Atwan (rightly) boasts that his “often controversial opinions are frequently sought by print and broadcast journalists the world over.”

There is no doubt that Atwan is a highly influential opinion-shaper, and as BBC Watch notes, his “controversial opinions” include “endorsements of terror attacks against Israelis” and the declaration “that he would ‘dance with delight’ in Trafalgar Square were Iranian missiles to hit Tel Aviv.”

Unsurprisingly, Atwan also considers Osama bin Laden a “great man,” because – as he explained on BBC Arabic – the “fact is that no one has caused more damage to the US than Al-Qaeda.”

Just a thought: Cheering Al Jazeera America

In an excellent commentary on “Al Gore’s Al Jazeera sellout” in Ha’aretz, James Kirchick highlights some of the issues that have caused considerable concern about the profitable sale of Current TV that was acquired by the Qatari network in order to build up “Al Jazeera America.” Krichick begins by recalling that in July 2008, Al Jazeera celebrated the release of the notorious Lebanese terrorist and murderer Samir Kuntar – whom Israel exchanged for the remains of two abducted soldiers – by hosting a televised birthday party for him. During the program, the head of Al Jazeera’s Beirut office praised Kuntar as a “pan-Arab hero.”

While Al Jazeera later acknowledged that its enthusiastic coverage of Kuntar’s release had been inappropriate, Kirchick argues that “[such] coverage is all too typical of Al Jazeera, and it is important to keep the above scene in mind as American liberals, so-called ‘media studies’ experts, and other denizens of the global cosmopolitan class trip over themselves in praising the Arab Satellite network’s acquisition of Current TV.”

Kirchick goes on to argue:

“Indeed, vital to understanding Al Jazeera is acknowledging that it does have an ideology. This is something that many of its Western fan boys choose to ignore. Calling the network’s ethos an ‘ideology’, however, gives its modus operandi a little too much credit; the network, despite its protestations, is ultimately a tool of Qatari foreign policy. The network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is invariably influenced by the fact that the Emir of Qatar has heaped hundreds of millions of dollars on Hamas. See, for instance, its highly manipulative and irresponsible presentation of the ‘Palestine Papers’ two years ago, which emboldened the implacable terrorist organization while portraying the Palestinian Authority as feckless, Zionist collaborators.”

Kirchick then focuses on the New York Times editorial board that praised Al Jazeera as “an important news source” that “could bring an important international perspective to American audiences” because it “often brings a nuance to international stories that can be lacking on American networks.”

Somewhat sarcastically, Kirchick adds:

“One wonders what specific ‘nuance’ the Times commends. Is it the musings of Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who shares his thoughts on permissible spousal abuse to 60 million viewers via his program ‘Shariah and Life?’ It was on Al Jazeera Arabic that Qaradawi, the most popular Sunni cleric in the world, declared that Adolf Hitler ‘managed to put [the Jews] in their place.’ The Holocaust, he declared, ‘was divine punishment for them,’ even though, of course, they ‘exaggerated’ it.”

Western praise for Al Jazeera is also remarkable given the restrictions upheld in Qatar. Here are some of the relevant passages of the 2011 Freedom House report on Qatar:

“While Qatar permits its flagship satellite television channel Al-Jazeera to air critical coverage of foreign countries and leaders, journalists are forbidden from criticizing the Qatari government, the ruling family, or Islam, and are subject to prosecution for such violations. […]

As a government-subsidized channel, Al-Jazeera refrains from criticizing the Qatari authorities, providing only sparse and uncritical local news. […]

The concentration of media ownership within the ruling family as well as the high financial costs and citizenship requirements to obtain media ownership licenses continue to hinder the expansion and freedom of the press.

Approximately 69 percent of the Qatari population used the internet in 2010, a major increase from 32 percent in 2007. Sixty-three percent of households have access to the internet. The government censors political, religious, and pornographic content through the sole, state-owned internet-service provider. Both high-speed and dial-up internet users are directed to a proxy server that maintains a list of banned websites and blocks material deemed inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the country.”

That Qatari authorities are very serious about enforcing these restrictions is illustrated by the case of a renowned Qatari poet who has been given a life sentence for “a poem considered offensive to the nation’s symbols.”

Presumably, this kind of story is not one of the “nuances” that the New York Times hopes to get from Al Jazeera America.

Update:

Clifford D. May has another excellent article on this matter in National Review Online. May cites two journalists who worked for Al Jazeera but left due to a pro-Islamist and anti-American bias; he also quotes an interesting commentary from 2001 by Fouad Ajami, who noted that

“[Al Jazeera] may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel, but he is clearly its star . . . The channel’s graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden’s silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. […] Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”

May also highlights Qaradawi’s star role at Al Jazeera:

“One more reason to be less than optimistic: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the host of Al Jazeera Arabic’s most popular program, Sharia and Life. Qaradawi endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to execute novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, called what Hitler did to Europe’s Jews ‘divine punishment’ (adding that ‘Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers’). In 1991, one of his acolytes, Mohamed Akram, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, wrote a memorandum, later obtained by the FBI, asserting that Brothers ‘must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and by the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.’”

How to stoke Islamophobia [updated]

Addressing Congress just a few days after the devastating terrorist attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly emphasized the need to distinguish between the peaceful teachings of Islam and the fanaticism of those “who commit evil in the name of Allah.” The terrorists who had struck on 9/11, were, Bush asserted, “traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

Even Bush’s most vitriolic critics would echo this view for years. Writing in the Washington Post in July 2007, John L. Esposito, Founding Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding – which in 2005 was renamed The HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding – insisted: “In our post-9/11 world, the ability to distinguish between Islam itself and Muslim extremism will be critical.”

But soon enough, this was no longer good enough. With a new administration in Washington trying to distance itself from Bush’s “war on terror” at least rhetorically, there were determined efforts to avoid any reference to Islam.

By now, however, it seems clear that this avoidance strategy hasn’t been helpful in any way.

In a scathing essay peppered with lots of sarcasm, Walter Russell Mead recently commented on the “War That Nobody Wants,” arguing:

“But roads paved with good intentions don’t always take you where you want to go, and denial does not look like an effective or sustainable strategy in the current state of what is and remains a multi-theater war against a set of armed religious fanatics and bigoted zealots with a crazed world view and the capacity to make a lot of trouble in a lot of places at the same time. […]

If you want to stoke Islamophobia, don’t level with the people about the nature of the problems we face. […] sometimes truth needs to be told. […] We are fighting a battle first to contain and then to defeat a vicious ideology of murder and hate that masks itself as religious zeal. We are fighting this war both at home and abroad, and there is not an inhabited continent anywhere on Planet Earth where this threat is not a serious concern. All Muslims are not our enemies — far from it, and many of our most important allies and associates are decent, pious, enlightened Muslims who loathe the hate-spewing murderers as much as anybody else — but all of our enemies claim to be fighting in the name of Islam.”

Unfortunately it seems that Mead’s common sense arguments won’t be welcomed by those who prefer to complain loudly about “Islamophobia” while they themselves dismiss the distinction between Muslims and violent extremists who justify savage acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.

As the recent controversy about ads in several US cities that denounce violent jihad as “savage” illustrates, we apparently live in a time when it is “anti-Muslim” to feel it is “savage” that self-described jihadists would consider videos of beheadings “very, very important” tools for recruiting volunteers to their ranks. And apparently, it’s also beyond the pale to recoil at the savagery of Muslim fanatics who proudly announce that they will keep trying to kill a fourteen-year old girl that they already injured grievously to silence her demands for education, respect and dignity.

The prominent Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy, who is widely considered a liberal activist, has done much to publicize the controversy about the ads denouncing violent jihad as “savage.” As I have documented, she responded to the ads by declaring herself a “proud savage;” she then proceeded to deface one of the ads and, in the aftermath of being arrested and charged with misdemeanor and criminal mischief, she started a very successful publicity campaign to style herself as a latter-day heroine of the Civil Rights movement – while boasting at the same time that she and her supporters succeeded in getting the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to announce revised advertising guidelines.

After all this agitation, Eltahawy has now decided that it was finally time to do what one could have expected from a prominent writer long ago, and she has taken to the pages of the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) website to make her case in writing.

It is quite obviously a weak case. The headline of her post announces “If anti-Muslim ads are protected, so must be my free speech right to protest” – but the text reveals that even Eltahawy is aware that her act of vandalism wasn’t really an exercise of free speech, because she admits: “I broke the law, yes.”

But Eltahawy adds defiantly: “So what? I broke it to make a point of principle. Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks, American Muslims are still being bullied and vilified.”

Indeed, Eltahawy tries hard to make the case that there is at least some “coincidental correlation” between the ads that denounce violent jihad as savage and various incidents of anti-Muslim violence and bigotry. Her article opens with a reference to a recent arson attack on the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo:

“Five days after I spraypainted over a racist and bigoted advertisement in the New York subway, a man set fire to my brother’s local mosque. He struck just a few hours after the mosque’s kindergarten had been filled with children at Sunday school, including my four nieces and nephews.

It was a coincidental correlation but there was nothing casual about either the hate speech on the walls of the subway […] or the arson in Ohio, which was described as an ‘act of terrorism’ by officials who announced federal hate crime charges against the suspect.”

Leaving aside the fact that Eltahawy of course knows full well that the accused arsonist was reportedly motivated by his anger about recent anti-American violence in the Middle East, it is noteworthy that it apparently wouldn’t occur to her that, due to the fanaticism of violent jihadists, hundreds of thousands of Israeli children live daily under the threat that her nieces and nephews might have faced attending Sunday school in a mosque in Ohio.

One could also recall in this context the terrorist attack on a religious seminary in Jerusalem in spring 2008 that resulted in the killing of eight students and the wounding of 11 others – a result that was cheered and celebrated by Hamas supporters in Gaza.

In the world of Mona Eltahawy, it is “anti-Muslim” to denounce any of this as savage. And in Mona Eltahawy’s world it is also “anti-Muslim” to point out that there is not just a “coincidental” but a very direct “correlation” between the thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians as well as the many brutal terrorist attacks and the ringing endorsements of a divinely ordained genocidal battle against the Jews by leading clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who – according to Eltahawy herself – is “mainstream” and “commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels.”

While Eltahawy would not hesitate to express her loathing of Qaradawi’s views on women in the strongest terms, she apparently takes no offense when Qaradawi tells his “huge audience” of followers that the extermination of Jews by Muslims is divinely ordained – so much so that even the “stones and trees” will do their part by betraying any Jew who might hide behind them.

Whether Eltahawy and her supporters like it or not, the kind of Jew-hating jihad preached by Qaradawi and recently threatened by the Supreme Guide of Egypt’s  Muslim Brotherhood is indeed savage in the context of 21st century civilization.

The claim that it is “anti-Muslim” to say so unfortunately makes sense only if one accepts that Qaradawi’s Jew-hatred is and should be part of mainstream Muslim beliefs. Mona Eltahawy seems to accept that when she rails against the condemnation of jihad as savage and adopts the hashtag #ProudSavage, but fails to even acknowledge the appalling ideology and acts of the violent jihadists of our time.

Rather bizarrely, she concludes her CiF-article by emphasizing that her nieces – who apparently live in the US – “will not grow up to be scared or apologetic for being Muslim, or Egyptian, or brown.” She also praises the “refusal to be intimidated by bullies” shown by many young Muslims who “were just 10 or 11 when 9/11 happened, and […who] refuse to apologise for something they had nothing to do with.”

Very different from what Eltahawy suggests, nobody who wants to be taken serious will demand that young Muslims apologize for “something they had nothing to do with.” But it is entirely reasonable and justified to expect Muslims – whether younger or older – to understand that demands to ignore the horrors advocated and perpetrated by violent jihadists won’t do much to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.

Mona Eltahawy clearly doesn’t understand that and concludes her article declaring: “The only hashtag I will consider is #ProudSavage.”

* * *

This post was first published at my JPost blog and, under a slightly different title, cross-posted on CiFWatch.

Update:

Only after I published this post, I saw that the Wall Street Journal had an article on this issue on October 1. The brilliant title says it all: “Call a Terrorist a ‘Savage’? How Uncivilized.”

Here is one of the examples highlighted in the WSJ to illustrate that the description “savage” is justified:

“This is a Reuters photo that ran on the New York Times front page for Sept. 1, 2004. It shows an Israeli bus after it had been blown up by a suicide bomber. Neither bloody nor gory, the photo is nonetheless deeply disturbing, because it shows the lifeless body of a young woman hanging out a window.

The Times news story added this detail about the reaction to that attack. “In Gaza,” ran the report, “thousands of supporters of Hamas celebrated in the streets, and the Associated Press reported that one of the bombers’ widows hailed the attack as ‘heroic’ and said her husband’s soul was ‘happy in heaven.’” What part of any of this is not savage?”

Some three weeks have passed since the controversy about the ads denouncing violent jihad as savage erupted, and neither Mona Eltahawy nor her fans and supporters have bothered to explain why they object to this. I have asked this question a few times on Twitter, but either I didn’t get any answer – which actually was sort of the best-case scenario – or I got blocked (this was Mona Eltahawy’s response) or I had some abuse hurled at me. Sad times for self-described progressives: it seems they can function only in a well-insulated echo-chamber.

In any case, I’ve in the meantime also come across a report on reason.com about Mona Eltahawy’s defacing of one of the ads, which notes:

“Eltahawy is not a raving lunatic. In the past she has made some fairly intelligent criticisms of extremists. But even allowing that few people keep cool heads while getting handcuffed by burly cops, she has obviously gone off the deep end here.”

Following the links provided here leads to two articles by Mona Eltahawy. The first was written in July 2005, shortly after the 7/7 London bombings; the second one is from January 2006 and comments on the riots staged by Muslims in response to some cartoons published in an obscure Danish newspaper. In both articles Eltahawy expresses views she apparently no longer holds – because if she did, it’s hard to see why she would have been so incensed by the denunciation of violent jihad as savage.

Consider these statements from Eltahawy’s commentary on the cartoon riots:

“the cartoon incident belongs at the very center of the kind of debate that Muslims must have in the European countries where they live – particularly after the Madrid train bombings of 2003 and the London subway bombings of 2005. While right-wing anti-immigration groups whip up Islamophobia in Denmark, Muslim communities wallow in denial over the increasing role of their own extremists.

As just one example, last August Fadi Abdullatif, the spokesman for the Danish branch of the militant Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization, was charged with calling for the killing of members of the Danish government. He distributed leaflets calling on Muslims in Denmark to go to Fallujah in Iraq and fight the Americans, and to kill their own leaders if they obstructed them. […]

Not only does Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in many Muslim countries, have a branch in Denmark, but Abdullatif has a history of calling for violence that he then justifies by referring to freedom of speech – the very notion the Danish newspaper made use of to publish the cartoons. In October 2002, Abdullatif was found guilty of distributing racist propaganda after Hizb-ut-Tahrir handed out leaflets that made threats against Jews by citing verses from the Koran. He was given a 60-day suspended sentence.

Abdullatif used the Koran to justify incitement to violence! And we still wonder why people associate Islam with violence?

Muslims must honestly examine why there is such a huge gap between the way we imagine Islam and our prophet, and the way both are seen by others. Our offended sensibilities must not be limited to the Danish newspaper or the cartoonist, but [must extend] to those like Fadi Abdullatif whose actions should be regarded as just as offensive to Islam and to our reverence for the prophet.”

I sure couldn’t agree more – indeed, about a year ago, I argued in a post asking “Who’s defaming Islam?”:

“efforts to shield Islam from defamation by non-Muslims will inevitably look like an attempt to proscribe free speech as long as authorities that claim a leading role in the Muslim world as well as mainstream Muslim groups and widely revered Muslim scholars come out with statements that sound quite ‘Islamophobic’ when quoted as representative of mainstream Muslim views.”

However, in the meantime, Mona Eltahawy seems to have changed her views. She apparently no longer thinks it is worthwhile to make demands on her fellow Muslims and prefers instead to add her voice to the chorus of complaints about western “Islamophobia” and styling herself as a potential victim by declaring herself a “proud savage.”

But while Muslim extremism and militancy remain as much of a problem today as they were on 9/11, we know that the charges about “Islamophobia” have been greatly exaggerated. As Jonathan S. Tobin pointed out in a post entitled “FBI Statistics Belie Islamophobia Hysteria:”

“It has become an accepted trope of contemporary journalism that American Muslims are under siege and beset by hatred and prejudice. But the evidence for this conventional wisdom is lacking. The story line of Muslim persecution in the United States has always been a matter of anecdotes and perception, not facts. That truth was confirmed this week when the FBI released their annual crime statistics report which showed once again that hate crimes against Muslims remain rare and are far outnumbered by attacks on Jews. […]

Because the far greater number of attacks on Jews is not viewed […] as proof the country is boiling with hatred for Jews, how can anyone rationally argue that the far fewer number of assaults on Muslims can justify the conclusion that Islamophobia is rampant?”

Tobin, however, is making the same mistake that I made: he wrongly assumes this is a rational debate. But it isn’t a rational debate – and as far as Mona Eltahawy is concerned, it shouldn’t be a rational debate. Indeed, it seems she feels that as long as she has some 165 000 followers on Twitter, rational argument is just a waste of time.

Imagine how bad the news would be without Obama [Updated]

In a devastating commentary on the end of the US troop surge in Afghanistan, Walter Russell Mead noted sarcastically:

“We should all be very glad that we have a Democratic president right now; otherwise the news would be terrible. We would be seeing a rash of horrible and depressing stories in the newspapers about strategic failure […]

There would be continuous coverage of the disarray in Afghanistan: the soldier’s we’re training are shooting us, the corruption is intensifying, and the opium trade spreading. There would be story after story about how Afghanistan seems little changed after the surge, and how peace is still not at hand. These stories wouldn’t be on the back pages; they’d be perceived as major news with profound implications for America’s global position […]

There would be bitter, wounding comparisons between the president and LBJ in Vietnam. If we had a conservative Republican president right now, we’d be hearing him compared to the noble Duke of York, who marched 10,000 men to the top of the hill only to march them down again.

And we’d be hearing all kinds of damning stories about the failure of the U.S. government to deal with the chaos in Pakistan.

We’d also be reading stories linking the apparent U.S. failure in Afghanistan to the empowerment of anti-American movements throughout the Middle East. The recent riots would be used as a stick to beat the president with—his weakness, indecision and strategic inconsequentialism in Afghanistan would be endangering our interests all over the region. Instead of concentrating on the real terror threat, the press would tell us, this hypothetical clueless Republican president wasted time, treasure and attention on a failed strategy in Afghanistan. The press would try to hang the corpse of the U.S. ambassador in Libya around the neck of a Republican president, if we had one right now.

But thankfully we have a Democratic president, and in an election year the normally feisty American media—the same media that worked night and day to expose every flaw and contradiction in the Bush policies in the region (and they had plenty to expose)—is too busy reporting the flaws in the Romney campaign […] to pay attention to anything as insignificant as a comprehensively failed presidential strategy in a foreign war.”

This is not the first time that Mead has criticized the media, and I’ve quoted him repeatedly (see e.g. here) because in my view, his voice is particularly important in the fiercely partisan debate about media bias. As Mead himself notes in a new essay on the public’s growing distrust of the mainstream media (MSM), complaints about media bias are usually associated with the political right – and therefore shrugged off by the liberal media elites. Since Mead has a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant analyst whose focus on substance largely ignores partisan politics, his criticism of the media is all the more noteworthy.

In his most recent essay on this subject, Mead suggests that we might begin to see the “MSM Tipping Point On Obama in the Middle East.” He argues that the recent “anti-American riots that have been rocking the Muslim world since 9/11 [2012] have shaken the [media] establishment out of its complacency” and that there is now a growing realization that “[the] turbulence in the region is impossible to miss, the problems for American interests and even security are disturbing to contemplate, and the failures of the Obama administration can no longer be ignored.”

However, the fact that the failures of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies have been ignored by the MSM for so long has some important implications.

Perhaps most obviously, there are a number of analysts who can rightfully say “told you so.” If I could name just one of those analysts, it would be Barry Rubin – and I think everyone who has followed his prolific and knowledgeable commentary over the past few years would agree that his readers knew long ago what the MSM seem to discover only now.

But of course, for the past few years of the Obama administration, it was “right-wing” or “neo-con” to find fault with US Middle East policies.  This kind of labeling – practiced enthusiastically both by the left and the right – is of course an easy way to dismiss an argument by saying essentially: you have your world view and I have mine, and yours is wrong.

What is completely ignored is the question if the rejected view is based on facts and logical reasoning. This is perhaps hardly surprising since we live in a time when almost all certainties have been shattered and postmodernism has made it fashionable to assert that there is no such thing as “facts,” let alone “truth”.

I have to admit that I was delighted to find out that it is apparently not as old-fashioned as I had feared to ponder what all this means for the politics of our times: just last fall, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College organized a conference devoted to exploring the challenges of “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts.” While I feel quite ambivalent about Arendt and have some reservations about the introductory lecture for this conference, I think there is one observation that deserves to be cherry-picked:

“We face today a crisis of fact. Facts […] are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.”

But it’s actually not just about facts, but also facts in their relevant context. One excellent example is the attempt of Justin Martin, a journalism professor blogging at the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review, to use published data about the number of journalists jailed in various countries to calculate the completely meaningless ratio of how many journalists per capita are jailed in any given country. You can easily see where this gets us: Naturally, tiny Israel swarming with journalists needs to arrest only one journalist to get a bad ranking, while a big and populous country like China with relatively few journalists can round up quite a few and still look pretty good.

As Sohrab Ahmari rightly noted in a critical commentary:

“The ultimate impact of pieces like Mr. Martin’s is a softening of the reading public’s moral intuitions and sensitivities. By placing Israel on the same plane as the likes of Iran and Syria, Mr. Martin minimized the threats faced by journalists working under genuine authoritarianisms—not to mention the broader human rights catastrophes underway in these societies.”

Tellingly, in his response, Justin Martin notes right at the outset:

“Some issues in journalism fire up audiences more than others […] Globally, it is reporting on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine matters, that draws ire, fulsome praise, or ad hominem molotovs.”

Of course, this obsession with “Israel/Palestine matters” has to a considerable degree been created by the media, not least because in the wake of 9/11, it has become particularly popular to view Israel as the root cause for the Middle East’s problems: after all, agreeing with long-held Arab and Muslim “narratives” that depict the tiny Jewish state as the region’s biggest problem is a fabulously convenient way to follow the “politically correct” imperative to avoid a “clash of civilizations.”

But as Walter Russell Mead observes in a just published must-read essay entitled “Dispatches From The War That Nobody Wants:”

“We may be tired of the war on terror, but the terrorists aren’t tired of waging war on us. Far from it. They are just warming up.”

This is bad news for everyone – but for Israelis, it’s not really news. However, thanks to the MSM, this will be really bad news for a lot of people.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

 

UPDATE:

Walter Russell Mead has done it again: In yet another new must-read essay under the title “Thank God W Isn’t President Anymore,” Mead pokes more fun at the media, but also offers some very serious and important observations.

As a teaser, here’s one highlight from the fun part, fantasizing what we would get to read if Bush was still president:

“There would be no end to the woes and the recriminations. There would be the most moving and eloquent examples of hand wringing in the New York Review of Books, elegantly demonstrating that the cretinous assumptions and moral failings that led Bush into his failed Afghan policy weren’t his alone, but reflected broader, deeper failings in America itself. One is almost sorry for the sake of the authors of these diatribes that Bush is gone; the failure of our Afghan strategy is so sweeping, so unavoidable, that it would be the best possible backdrop against which to paint a stirring portrait of a failed president misleading a flawed people. What works of polemical literature have been lost, what inspired jeremiads will never be penned, what scalding portraits of America’s inherent flaws will never see the light of day because W left the White House too soon.”

In the serious parts of the essay, Mead points out that there “may not be any real answers to America’s conundrums in Afghanistan;” as another example of a problem that might not have a solution, Mead mentions the “Israel-Palestine problem.”

Taking the media to task once again, he argues:

“The implicit assumptions in the press that anything less than a flawless performance in war is prima facie evidence of bumbling incompetence merely reflects the cluelessness and arrogance of a pseudo-educated elite that thinks textbooks on theory and lessons in political correctness plus good SAT scores amount to a grounding in the real business of life.”

But Mead emphasizes that he is of course not advocating that the media should treat Obama as it treated Bush:

“There is a happy medium between clueless cheer leading and attempts to destroy: it is called responsible analysis [and] we could use a lot more of it. A press that neither waves pom-poms nor throws stink bombs non-stop is an important component of healthy democratic society; there are plenty of excellent reporters out there who want to do exactly that. May their tribe prosper and their numbers increase.”

 

Moments of truth: Osama vs. Obama

In a first reaction to the violent assaults on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya on this year’s anniversary of 9/11, Marc Lynch prefaced his commentary in Foreign Policy with a warning that has become almost obligatory:

“It would be a tragic mistake to allow the images from Cairo and Benghazi to undermine American support for the changes in the Arab world. The protestors in Cairo and Benghazi are no more the true face of the Arab uprisings than al-Qaeda was the face of Islam after 9/11. We should not allow the actions of a radical fringe to define our views of an entire group.”

Unfortunately for Lynch, it is debatable if al-Qaeda was “the true face … of Islam after 9/11.”

As Lynch knows full well, beginning in 2003, the respected Pew Research Center surveyed Muslim views on Osama bin Laden, and the results don’t necessarily justify his rosy view.  While Pew researchers usually worked hard to highlight the silver lining when they presented the results of their surveys, some of their findings were rather shocking.

This is particularly true for the support bin Laden once enjoyed in supposedly moderate Indonesia: in 2003, it was 59 percent, and by 2011, a bit more than a quarter of Indonesians still expressed positive views of bin Laden. The numbers for Jordan were similarly alarming: in 2003, 56 percent of Jordanian respondents expressed “confidence” in bin Laden “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” and by 2005, this number had even grown to 61 percent. A year later, Pew recorded a “most striking decline” to just 24 percent, which was attributed to “al Qaeda suicide attacks in the nation’s capital, Amman.”

While bin Laden’s most loyal admirers were always found among the Palestinians –  72 percent in 2003, declining to “only” 34 percent by 2011 — there were several other countries where the al Qaeda leader enjoyed at times the “confidence” of some 40 percent of the Muslim population.

When it comes to Egypt, the numbers also don’t quite support the comforting view that the mob that attacked the US embassy represents a “radical fringe.” In 2011, 22 percent of Egyptians viewed bin Laden positively, and results published earlier this year show that both al Qaeda and the Taliban were viewed favorably by 19 percent of Egyptians.

Anyone who wants to see this as a “radical fringe” should note that exactly the same percentage of Egyptians were willing to express a favorable view of the US in the most recent Pew survey. So if the attackers of the US embassy in Cairo represent just a “fringe,” favorable views of the US among Egyptians are likewise just a “fringe” phenomenon.

The same holds true for the Muslim countries surveyed by Pew: results published last June show that on average, some 24 percent of Muslims have “confidence” in President Obama in general, though only 15 percent approve of his international policies; likewise, only 15 percent of Muslims have a “favorable” view of the US.

Compare these numbers with the 2011 numbers for bin Laden: in the eight Muslim populations that were surveyed, the al Qaeda leader achieved similar or better ratings in six – including, sadly enough, among Israel’s Muslim Arabs.

Given the surge of popular support for Islamist groups all over the Middle East in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” it should also not be forgotten that in reaction to the news of bin Laden’s demise last year, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement that referred to the al Qaeda leader with the honorific term “sheikh.”

So perhaps it’s time to realize that we should not only worry about the “tragic mistake” of exaggerating Muslim extremism, but also about downplaying it?

* * *

First published in The Algemeiner.

Quote of the day

“The person who comes out of all this looking smartest is Samuel Huntington. His book on the ‘clash of civilizations’ was widely and unfairly trashed as predicting an inevitable conflict between Islam and the west, and he was also accused of ‘demonizing’ Islam. That’s not what I get from his book. As I understand it, Huntington’s core thesis was that while good relations between countries and people with roots in different civilizations are possible and ought to be promoted, civilizational fault lines often lead to misunderstandings and tensions that can (not must, but can) lead to violence and when conflicts do occur, civilizational differences can make those conflicts worse.

The last few days are a textbook example of the forces he warned about.”

Walter Russell Mead, The Middle East Mess Part One: Over There. I’m really glad that Professor Mead has seized this opportunity to remind us of Huntington’s important book and to highlight his view – with which I fully agree – that the “Clash of Civilizations” has been unfairly maligned. I think there can be little doubt that many of the negative reactions to Huntington’s book were motivated by a “political correctness” which took it for granted that it was the West’s responsibility to prevent a “clash of civilizations” — and part of this prevention was to decry Huntington’s analysis.

As I have pointed out previously, one of the best illustrations of this mindset was provided just a few days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine reportedly declared: “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs.” According to Vedrine, such a clash was a “huge […] monstrous trap” that had been “conceived by the instigators of the assault.”

In a way, the notion of the “monstrous trap” also seems reflected in Mead’s observations – but importantly, he makes clear that this is first and foremost an inner-Islamic issue:

“Unfortunately, Islamic radicals are deliberately hoping to promote a clash of civilizations in the belief that a climate of polarization will strengthen their political power in the world of Islam. Attacking the embassy in Cairo is an effort to push Egyptian opinion in a more radical direction, but the radicals hope that this is part of a larger push that will bring them to power across the Islamic world. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which hopes to provoke a religious war with the Christians partly in order to achieve power in the Muslim North, radicals use the prospect of a clash of civilizations to further their own cause throughout the troubled Islamic world.

The US and more generally the west (including Russia, so perhaps I should say the ‘Christian world’ instead) has tried several approaches to this situation and so far we haven’t been happy with the results. Confrontation, reconciliation, cooperation: there are good arguments to be made for them all, but in practice none of them seem to make the problem go away.”

There is a simple explanation why it is so hard to make this “problem” go away: Islamic radicals have more popular support among Muslims than western commentators and analysts like to acknowledge, and hostility to America and the West is enormously popular throughout the Arab and Muslim world. As Husain Haqqani recently emphasized in his excellent commentary on “Manipulated Outrage and Misplaced Fury:”

“At the heart of Muslim street violence is the frustration of the world’s Muslims over their steady decline for three centuries, a decline that has coincided with the rise and spread of the West’s military, economic and intellectual prowess.”

Haqqani goes on to argue:

“Once the Muslim world embraces freedom of expression, it will be able to recognize the value of that freedom even for those who offend Muslim sensibilities. More important: Only in a free democratic environment will the world’s Muslims be able to debate the causes of their powerlessness, which stirs in them greater anger than any specific action on the part of Islam’s Western detractors.

Until then, the U.S. would do well to remember Osama bin Laden’s comment not long after the Sept. 11 attacks: ‘When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.’ America should do nothing that enables Islamists to portray the nation as the weak horse.”

 

The fall of Assad and the end of the Cold War

Guest post by AKUS*

 In a quiet office overlooking the Potomac River we can imagine that an old man lifts a glass to his lips and toasts himself.

As he no doubt  grimly watches the carnage in Syria on Al Jazeera, Henry Kissinger is witnessing the culmination of the strategy he put in place 40 years ago to end Soviet and then Russian influence in the Middle East. Starting with his shuttle diplomacy in 1973 at the end of the Yom Kippur War, the Soviets have gradually lost every foothold they had in this geopolitically critical region. Now the Russians are about to be expelled from Syria with the imminent fall of Bashar al Assad.

Although the Soviet military had in large part left Egypt in 1972, possibly to mislead Israel regarding Sadat’s intention to start a war in 1973, a substantial number of Soviet advisors remained until the Yom Kippur War[1]. As part of the peace agreement with Israel engineered by Kissinger, the US agreed to provide Egypt with billions in aid and military equipment. While Egypt viewed US aid as a win gained by its partial success in the war, Kissinger saw it as leverage to successfully wean Anwar Sadat and the Egyptian military from remaining Soviet influence through the supply of superior Western weaponry and military training to replace the outdated Soviet equipment the Egyptians lost in the war. Responding to the combination of peace agreement and aid, Sadat is reported to have said: “Soviets can give you arms but only the United States can give you a solution.”

Egypt has been a key state in the Middle East since at least the end of WW II. Under Nasser, who came to power in a coup in 1952, Egypt steered away from “colonial influence”. After a variety of Western misadventures such as the 1956 Suez Campaign led by Britain and France, Egypt came ever deeper within the Soviet ambit in a “non-aligned” strategy intended to play off the USA and the USSR against each other to Egypt’s benefit.

Nasser’s apparent success led to uprisings against colonial powers in other Arab countries. Egypt became a political and ideological leader for Arab countries and Nasser’s pro-Soviet bias was viewed with concern by the USA. As his influence grew, Nasser attempted to create a vast Pan-Arab federation with the abortive United Arab Republic (UAR), combining Egypt and Syria into the UAR for the brief period between 1958 and 1961.

But even though the UAR proved short-lived, it was clear that the Arab world swung between Cairo and Damascus when it came to political leadership, and in both countries the Communist party made strong inroads until crushed by Nasser in Egypt and the Ba’ath in Syria (which led to a split among the Ba’athists and the rise of the Ba’ath in Iraq). Nevertheless, in Cairo and Damascus Soviet influence greatly exceeded that of the USA, and aid and weapons flowed from the USSR in unprecedented quantities to both countries. Leveraging Egypt away from Soviet influence would be an enormous setback to Soviet aspirations in the Middle East.

Looking around the region in the early ‘70s, Kissinger would have noted that another significant area of Soviet influence was Iraq. The Soviets had established close relations with Iraq after the murder of Faisal II, essentially a British puppet ruler, in 1958. The Iraqis saw the Soviets as an effective counter to their former colonial rulers. Increasing ties with the USSR demonstrated that they were shedding their colonial past and dependence on their former rulers. In a similar manner, Gaddafi’s Libya welcomed the Soviets who were expelled from Egypt in 1972. Soviet influence extended from Baghdad to Tripoli. Western countries stopped arms sales to Libya, which only increased Soviet influence following a large arms deal in 1975. This influence continued to a greater or lesser degree until Gaddafi was finally toppled last year.

From the point of view of an American strategist desiring more influence in the Middle East, the geopolitical situation was made worse after the decisive defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. With the USA clearly supporting Israel, the Soviets were able to expand their influence even further by replenishing the destroyed weapons of Egypt and Syria. The British continued to supply Jordan, the third major opponent of Israel in the war and the remnant of Churchill’s Palestinian strategy, but the Iraqis, too, swung deeper into the Soviet camp. The USA was able to retain influence only through the Saudis and the Gulf petro-states (and for a time in Iran until the Shah was toppled in 1979).

Things began to swing in the USA’s favor when Kissinger and Nixon managed to move beyond containment of the USSR in the West through NATO to encirclement in the East via the opening to China. Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 while pretending to be ill during a visit to Pakistan. This could be viewed as the first real step to reducing the influence of the Soviet Union by providing China with a second super-power with which to do business, economically and politically.

Still, the Soviets continued pressing in the Middle East. Their ultimately disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to support a Marxist government against the mujahedeen indicated that they, in turn, were establishing an Islamic bulwark from Syria, through Iraq, and into Afghanistan against the USA that could also exert pressure on the Saudis and Gulf states. The role of the USA in equipping and supporting the Afghan fighters in order to oppose the Soviets is well known, and may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the invasion. The last Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan by Gorbachev on February 15, 1989. The withdrawal of the Soviet Union had begun. The first step to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and the retreat from Eastern Europe, long a goal of US policy, had been taken. The Middle East beckoned.

Kissinger was always at hand as various additional dominoes began falling in his favor. His shuttle diplomacy in 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War wrested Egypt from Soviet influence, for example. Still, not everything went his way or could be planned for – Syria and Iraq remained in the Soviet and then Russian sphere. Libya was a setback, and he could not have anticipated the role of Afghanistan in curbing Soviet and Russian ambitions. Nevertheless, the enormous influence of Egypt in the Arab world was sufficient to reduce the Soviet role in the area significantly and expand the arc of US influence from the Saudis to the border with Libya. The French kept Libya’s western border controlled through their influence in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

If his goal was to push the Soviets back into Russia, Kissinger was able to influence US policy in the Middle East even after he left office as unexpected opportunities presented themselves.

Iraq, despite all its complexities, had the advantage, from Kissinger’s point of view, of offering a new opportunity to push the post-Soviet Russians further out of the Middle East. The development of a strong group of senior advisors in Washington who envisaged the fall of Iraq post 9/11 as leading to a more democratic Middle East – that is, a more Western-leaning Middle East – added leverage to Kissinger’s attempts to complete the Middle East puzzle. Out of office, but wielding considerable influence as an advisor, Kissinger met regularly with G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as Bob Woodward later reported [2]. It is not difficult to imagine that neocons leading the charge on Iraq such as Richard Perle, Doug Stief, and Rumsfeld were influenced by this grandmaster of the global game in developing their ideas about the centrality of Iraq in the Middle East.

Kissinger continues to argue for the centrality of Iraq. As the debate over withdrawal raged in Washington, Kissinger argued for maintaining US influence in Iraq, highlighting its geopolitical importance in an article in the Washington Post on February 3, 2010 [3]:

“Yet while Iraq is being exorcised from our debate, its reality is bound to obtrude on our consciousness. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will not alter the geostrategic importance of the country even as it alters that context.

Mesopotamia has been the strategic focal point of the region for millennia. Its resources affect countries far away. The dividing line between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds runs through its center — indeed, through its capital. Iraq’s Kurdish provinces rest uneasily between Turkey and Iran and indigenous adversaries within Iraq. It cannot be in the American interest to leave the region as a vacuum.”

Moreover, Kissinger identified radical Islam as a new and dangerous player that must be dealt with, and raised the question to what degree US success in Iraq will affect the war against radical Islam:

“Nor is it possible to separate Iraq from the conflict with revolutionary jihad. The outcome in Iraq will influence the psychological balance in the war against radical Islam, specifically whether the ongoing withdrawal from Iraq comes to be perceived as a retreat from the region or a more effective way to sustain it.”

Although the overall outcome of the war in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan may not be all that Kissinger would have liked to see, from one perspective the USA achieved a greater aim – the USSR and then Russia was eliminated almost entirely from the Middle East. Except in one country – Syria.

With the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the last domino owned by the Russian inheritors of Soviet influence in the Middle East is being pushed over. It is clear that the Western powers are supporting the rebels directly or through proxies such as the Saudis, while Russia and China refuse to allow direct intervention.

The Russians are also past masters of the great game, and realize that they have nothing to lose by continuing their support for the Assad regime. If, through massive force of arms, Assad remains in power, they will retain their foothold in the only country in the Middle East where they still have influence. If, as appears increasingly likely, he falls, they will have lost nothing by supporting him since it is clear that they will be sent packing by the rebels whom they refused to support in the early going. (The Chinese expect to be able to come in as neutrals and reap their share of the gains whoever wins, simply by supporting neither side until a resolution is reached.  They after all, care nothing for either side and possibly score points with undesirable but powerful leaders around the world for demonstrating reluctance to engage in regime change).

If the Russians are pushed out of Syria, the old man in Washington will see the fulfillment of the grand design he set in motion 40 years ago. From Cairo to Beijing, Kabul to Baghdad, he has helped move the pieces on the board with one major goal in mind – the removal of the Soviets, and then Russia, from influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When Syria, the last domino, falls, his strategy will have been fulfilled.

His time is almost over, and it will need a new Kissinger to devise the strategy to win the emerging multi-player global game – the USA versus the Chinese thrust for Asian hegemony, and the world against radical Islam’s global ambitions.  We have already seen Leon Panetta touring South East Asia, and the increasing awareness of the threat of what Charles Krauthammer has termed the “Islamic Ascendency”, as opposed to the increasingly meaningless “Arab Awakening”.

Perhaps while Panetta was encouraging Kissinger’s old enemy, the Vietnamese, to join an American alliance, Kissinger also smiled grimly at the strange way in which his actions in the Vietnamese conflict and its resolution almost 40 years ago have played out. But that game, and dealing with Islamic radicals, is for others to take care of.

He can toast himself while thinking that his work has been done. With the fall of Syria and the eviction of the Russians, the Cold War will truly be over.

 * * *

* AKUS is an Israeli-American who gained so much notoriety as a critic of the Guardian’s Israel coverage that he was banned from the site and is now free to channel his energies into occasional contributions for CifWatch. This is his first post for The Warped Mirror – with many more to come, hopefully!


[1] http://russiapedia.rt.com/on-this-day/july-18/ In July 1972, a large number of the Soviet troops left Egypt. They, however, belonged to the regular forces who, by 1972, had already fulfilled their mission and were dismissed, while the Soviet military advisors resumed their service in Egypt and the flow of military supplies to Egypt not only did not cease, but was increased.

[2] In 2006, it was reported in the book State of Denial by Bob Woodward that Kissinger was meeting regularly with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to offer advice on the Iraq War. Kissinger confirmed in recorded interviews with Woodward that the advice was the same as he had given in an August 12, 2005 column in The Washington Post: “Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.”

Valuation of values, Koran burning and murder

Guest post by Nathan West*

Not everyone values every value quite the same way.  Europeans, before WWI, typically ranked war as a noble endeavor.  Women were, until recently, thought in most of the Western world to be fit for the kitchen, or, as Kinky Friedman sang, “Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.” Now, we have some information regarding the way that a great many Afghans valuate their values regarding life.

Recently, there were two incidents in Afghanistan, widely reported.

First, members of the US military burned some Korans that had been used by prisoners to send messages.  The incident, had it involved the burning of bibles by non-Christians, might not have made many headlines.  However, it has been widely reported that the burning of Korans led to widespread rioting in Afghanistan, with many deaths.

Now, a US soldier has evidently committed a massacre, killing sixteen Afghan villagers, many of whom were children.  Thus far, there have been no riots (although there was at least one protest by Afghan students).  While, no doubt there will be a response from the Taliban – whether or not used as an excuse being beside the point here – the absence of riots thus far is itself a story.

The New York Times has sought answers to these disparate results.  The Times article, In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect, is well worth reading because it is one of the franker reports to appear in the paper about the Islamic world.  One way to understand people is to ask them what they think. This, unlike much that is written about Afghanistan, was tried in this report; hence, its value to someone interested in actually understanding what makes people tick.

According to the Times, we learn that Afghans view religion as more important than the life of an individual.  Here is how the Times tells it:

“The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.

‘How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?’ said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. ‘The whole goal of our life is religion.’”

Of course, that is not the be all and end all to how these events are understood by Afghans but, if we go by this report, it is not a small part either.  And, quite a bit of what is revealed in the NYT report appears to follow from the set of values set forth by Mullah Dad.

“That many Americans are just as surprised that what appears to be the massacre of 16 people at the hands of an American soldier has not led to mass protests or revenge killings speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans’ basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.” [Emphasis added].

“To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties,” said Hafez Abdul Qayoom, a member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, the Ulema Council. “When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.”

 Moreover,

“The Ulema Council, which is heavily influenced by the presidential palace, had immediately issued a passionate denunciation, saying of the Americans, ‘The human rights violators of the 21st century once more committed a wild, inhuman and shameful act and relentlessly martyred innocent children, women and men.’ But Mullah Qayoom said the quick reaction and prompt apology helped tamp down fury.

Afghan officials helped, too, by quickly paying compensation to the victims’ relatives, who are very poor and are part of a culture where ‘blood money’ is regularly paid for even accidental deaths. A high-level delegation brought the money on Tuesday to the village in Panjwai where the massacre happened, drawing an attack by Taliban insurgents.”

One has to ask whether this interpretation is unique to Afghan society or one that is common to most, if not all, of the Muslim regions. Given the rioting that has occurred all over the Islamic regions in response to perceived insults to Islam, I think that the Times may have stumbled upon a truth here, and one not limited to Afghanistan. It may be time for policy makers to read their Nietzsche (e.g. Twilight of the Idols, timeline “Turin, September 30, 1888, on the day when the first book of the Revaluation of All Values was completed”).

Of course, riots could still break out at any moment. But if they do, given the time involved since the event, we know that it will have been a deliberately instigated, not a spontaneous, incident. And, if tempers lead to violence, those tempers will have been pumped up, not based on outrage for committing a massacre – which, in the West, we would expect to be paramount to the Afghans –, but far more likely for attacking Islam.

***

*Nathan West is the pen name of an attorney who wishes to keep his identity private.

Quote of the day

“The country’s military rulers would have Egyptians believe that ongoing protests are the work of “foreign agents”, “hidden hands”, and other mysterious third parties bent on driving a wedge between the Egyptian people and their beloved army and/or destroying the institutions of the state — even suggesting that activists are paid 200 Egyptian pounds (about $33) a day to protest in Tahrir. The SCAF’s recent crackdown on several pro-democracy NGOs, including the criminal indictments of 19 Americans on charges related to illegal funding and fomenting public unrest, is the direct if unspoken ancillary to this fanciful conspiracy.

Such conspiracy theories may strike a populist chord, but there is no shortage of actual reasons for Egyptians to feel unhappy — even angry — at their current condition. With foreign investment and tourism in sharp decline and youth unemployment hovering around 25 percent, the country’s economic crisis is edging toward disaster. This is on top of the SCAF’s gross mishandling of the transition at virtually every stage and in nearly every respect — from its erratic decision-making to its brutal repression of all forms of dissent to its blatant manipulation of the political process.

Khaled Elgindy, Egypt must look back before it can move forward. Elgindy’s observations reminded me of an article by Bret Stephens, published in the Wall Street Journal in early January 2011 under the title “Egypt’s Prison of Hate” (subscription required; but some of the relevant passages are quoted here). Stephens wrote about the popularity of conspiracy theories in Egypt, arguing:

“The ultimate source of Arab backwardness lies in the debasement of the Arab mind. When the only diagnosis Egyptians can offer for their various predicaments is that it’s all a Zionist plot, you know that the country is in very deep trouble.”

While it seems that by now, Egyptians have broadened their list of scapegoats far beyond the “Zionists,” conspiracy theories have apparently remained as popular as ever. Indeed, following a tweet by Omri Ceren, I chanced today on this short blog post aptly entitled “conspiracy cab” that offers a glimpse of the amazing conspiracy theories of a Cairo cab driver – who still seems very focused on blaming Israel. As blogger doctorzamalek notes in conclusion:

The common element in all of his theories, I was disappointed to note, was the assumption that no Arab person is capable of doing anything wrong at any time. At least conspiracy theories in America usually blame Americans.