Archive for the ‘Middle East Democracy’ category

A Pen Dipped in Blood

February 2, 2007

Over at the SignandSight Web site (an invaluable resource for translated essays from the world of European magazines) there is a damning essay by Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer now living in Berlin. Using as a peg the annual gathering of the Arab Writers Union in Cairo last month, Wali unleashes a measured but scorching indictment of the Union’s rank moral bankruptcy.

At the meeting last month there were representatives from all Arab countries in attendance. Correction: all nations except Iraq, which was not invited (as it had not been invited to Damascus in 2004 and Algiers in 2005). The reason for this snub was that the Iraqis are suspected of maintaining relations “with the Zionist enemy.” That formulation, mind you, is a quote from the head of the Egyptian Writers Union. Egypt, nominally an ally of Israel (or, at least, nominally not an enemy).

Of course, when Iraq was firmly under the jackboot of Tikriti terror the Union was more than happy to welcome Iraqi representatives. Wali describes the Iraqi Union of the these days as follows:

For 35 years, during the rule of the Baath party, the union of Iraqi writers was formally and organisationally bound to the so-called “Special office,” which was directly responsible to the ruling party. This meant that the entire union had to follow the ideological and political line of Saddam Hussein’s so-called “National information office.” At the time, it was under the directorship of Tariq Aziz, who was directly and personally subject to Saddam Hussein. The election procedure in the writer’s union was strictly regulated. To qualify for the office of the president, one had to fulfil very specific requirements: the candidate had to demonstrate “intellectual immaculateness” and “pure Arabic origin.” And he had to conduct his work together with the “People’s militia” and “Saddam’s Fedayeen.”

Ahh…but these dealings are just a piece of a far more appalling whole. One could make a long list of intellectuals who have been incarcerated in various Arab countries – and Wali does: the poet Ali al-Damini and several colleagues languishing in a Saudi Arabian jail. In Syria, countless intellectuals are vegetating in the jails of the Baath dictatorship. The poet Faradsch Birqadar was put away fifteen years ago (a book about his time in jail appeared recently in Beirut). The Syrian thinkers Michel Kilo and Arif Dalila have spent the last year in jail. “In none of these cases did the Arab writers union publish a single statement demanding the release of these men,” Wali writes.

It turns out that there may be another reason for the anger directed at the post-Saddam Iraq: financial. Saddam was a great patron of their sycophantic prose. In return, no other Arab land received such high praise as Baathist Iraq.

Hundreds of intellectuals and artists were guests of Saddam Hussein’s men and travelled from one festival to the next. The Marbad Poetry Festival and the Abu Tamam Poetry festival were annual events. The state-run Babel Festival took place on the occasion of Saddam Hussein’s birthday; Arab ensembles performed side to side with famous European theatre troupes (the Ruhr ensemble among others).

The Iraqi government bribed so generously that dozens of novels and poems sang praises of the heroism of the Iraqi warriors and swore the fall of the “Zionist” and “Persian” enemies. The Egyptian “avant guard” director Tawfiq Saleh directed the film “Long Days,” which tells the story of the “combative” life of Saddam (the hero of the film was Saddam’s son-in-law, who was later killed by Uday). His Egyptian colleague Salah Abu Saif published “Al-Qadissijja,” which propagated racist ideology and praised the war against the “Persian spy.” Mahmoud Darwish (pictured above), the famous Palestinian poet, called the Iraqi Minister of Information (Propaganda) the “Minister of Poets.” More: he praised “feminine Baghdad” because he only saw beautiful women in its streets – their husbands were on the front lines of the war against Iran, fighting for the “lime moon.” Commissioned by the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani wrote the book “The Guards of the East Front,” in praise of the murder of the Kurds in northern Iraq.

In the forthcoming issue of The Nation you will find an essay on Palestinian poetry titled “Lines of Resistance.” It is very much the sort of Third Worldist fare we have come to expect from the House of Shatz. Naturally, Mahmoud Darwish figures prominently in the piece. He is celebrated as a figure of resistance. There is truth to this characterization, but there is also much cowardice in his legacy.

(Hat Tip: Norm Geras)


Liberal Anguish

September 26, 2006

The disheartening news out of Afghanistan yesterday that Safia Ama Jan, the southern provincial head of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, was assassinated reminded me of a study released a few months back that has lingered in my mind ever since.

In June, the London-based Network for Education and Academic Rights issued a written statement saying that scientists, doctors, and university professors in Iraq were the targets of “a coordinated liquidation process.” Obviously, Iraq is not Afghanistan, but the targeting of Safia Ama Jan points to a larger issue: the systematic slaughter of liberal intellectuals in the two theatres of conflict where the United States is most aggressively engaged.

It must be said that the greatest threat to liberals in the Islamic world is the autocratic, thuggish, sometimes genocidal regimes who govern their societies. So, it is necessary to lament the “coordinated liquidation process” underway in Iraq, but it is equally important to remember that Saddam was the most fearsome enemy an Iraqi liberal could ever face. Simply put, he smothered, tortured, slaughtered, and damn-near completely extinguished any pulse of liberalism in Iraq.

The great hope was that with his toppling, liberalism would blosson in a far more hospitable, post-Saddam climate. The reality has been at best ghastly. One need look no further than the plight of Kenan Makiya, once thought of as the war’s great liberal hope, he now embodies the postwar debacle and the world’s abandonment of the promise of a liberal-democratic Iraq.

“It’s simply a nightmare,” an engineering professor at a Baghdad-area university told The Chronicle of Higher Education about the situation intellectuals face. “We are living in a jungle. You don’t know who is your enemy as you walk down the street. The idea is to exhaust Iraq of all its intellectuals. I’m planning to leave the country. I don’t want to leave this country; I love my people. But the situation is forcing me to do so.”

Stop Making Sense

August 30, 2006

I count myself as a fan and admirer of Salman Rushdie‘s novelistic work. And in recent years I have been deeply impressed with some of his polemical efforts. He has been a steady voice of reason on the left, a voice which has exhibited – pardon the overused and much-abused phrase – moral clarity. And so I eagerly sat down to read a wide-ranging interview he recently gave to the terrific German magazine Der Spiegel. In which I came across the following exchange:

So are Bush and Blair going too far?

Rushdie: This is the problem with politicians who by nature tend towards being authoritarian: When they are given the chance, they go too far. We have to watch out there. I find it deeply depressing that the Anglo-American politics and Arab politics are currently corroborating each other — that is: their worst prejudices. Take a look at Iraq, at Lebanon. There is no just side in either conflict. But at the same time we need moral clarity, something I have often missed recently in many liberally minded people — and I myself am liberal. We need clarity about what is right and wrong, the willingness to defend our values with clear words and to actually call the guilty persons guilty.

Leaving aside whether Bush or Blair have authoritarian personalities, I am left scratching my head wondering what in the hell Rushdie is struggling to say. Obviously, he is trying to balance his criticism of Bush and Blair with his detestation of those who accord themselves divine sanction to slaughter and terrorize. But instead, he uttered an inane and flatulent sentence, and from what I know of Rushdie, I do not think it intentional. For it is almost comical to read him saying that in Iraq and Lebanon there is “no just side in either conflict.” Excuse me?

As I have previously written, when it comes to the unfortunate war in Lebanon and northern Israel, decent minds cannot be neutral in a battle between irredentist religious fanatics who fight as a proxy force for an expansionist theocratic regime in Tehran and a liberal democracy defending itself. To write this is not to support every specific action Israel (or the United States) takes in an effort to defend herself, but it is to take a stand. Thoughtful people can differ on the best strategy Israel (and the United States) should undertake in her own defense. But let us at least be clear about who is struggling for a tyrannical future and who is struggling for something far more honorable.

What is most irksome about the Rushdie statement is that he jumps directly from making an equivalency between warring parties in Iraq and Lebanon directly to a call for “moral clarity” – (“We need clarity about what is right and wrong, the willingness to defend our values with clear words and to actually call the guilty persons guilty.”) The juxtaposition here is jarring and unfortunate. Rushdie is better than that.

Only Half-Joking Department

August 24, 2006

It seems fairly clear at this point that the world’s, and particularly the West’s (guess to whom ‘particularly’ applies in that sub-category) reliance on massive oil consumption for energy and economic growth is politically dangerous and environmentally unsustainable. This is especially true of the enormous market share in oil supply controlled by Middle Eastern tyrants both friendly (House of Saud in the house) and otherwise (that fellow my brother brilliantly refers to as “Mahmoud I’m-A-Dinner-Jacket”).

With the enormous wealth that flows from their oil reserves, these despotic scum are free to buy lots of nasty weapons and to repress and neglect their people. Certainly some oil states use their revenues to provide a relatively cushy lifestyle for their citizens, but this itself is part of the problem. Oil-rich regimes do not feel the need to invest in people, or their people’s future, stunting political, cultural and economic development. Talent, intellectual capital, dignity and respect – these are of no interest when light sweet crude will buy you shiny cars and warheads.

With their black gold providing them serious geopolitical leverage, psychopaths and tyrants literally have America and the West over a barrel. Saudi oil money funds terrorism through Islamic “charities” and propagates vile anti-Western Wahabbist fundamentalism throughout the Middle East, indoctrinating Muslims with bigotry and jihad. Carbon emissions from petrochemical energy are contributing to climate change and the tiniest pinch in the oil supply can bring us to our knees. And all the while the global demand for energy becomes ever more ravenous.

Faced with this epic political and economic challenge, the Bush administration’s policy is, apparently, to shift America’s oil supply away from politically ‘unreliable’ regions such as the Middle East to new oil supplying markets such as Africa. For one example of how well that’s going, follow the locusts. This, one supposes, is what happens when you let your energy company buddies devise your energy policy. A better idea has been articulated by honey-tongued rogue and sometime cigar moistener Bill Clinton: what we need more than anything is a source of clean, renewable energy.

So, what to do? (more…)

Hizb ut-Tahrir

August 21, 2006

The picture above accompanied an article on page A4 of The New York Times yesterday. The article dealt with efforts by the British police to crackdown on homegrown extremist threats without resorting to profiling. The caption to this photo read: “A Hizb ut-Tahrir rally in London Saturday expressed anger over the war in Lebanon and the investigation of a terrorist plot by Islamic radicals.”

Perhaps the photo was cropped in such a way that we simply do not see the signs that express anger over the war in Lebanon, or the police tactics used to investigate the recently uncovered terrorist plot. In any event, the caption seems incredibly misguided. Of the two signs that are clearly legible, one expresses explicit support not for innocent Lebanese victims of the recent (and for all intents and purposes ongoing) war, but for Hezbollah. In addition, a rather paradoxical sign in the rear of the photo calls for the end of US imperialism while simultaneously calling for the restoration of Islamic imperialism.

The article itself did a better job explaining the march, which was organized by the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group which describes itself as a nonviolent organization seeking pan-Islamic rule. In a paragraph tacked on to the end of the piece, it reports that 1,200 Muslim demonstrators filed past the US Embassy in London “feting Hezbollah as the ‘victor’.”


June 23, 2006

Amidst great expectations – and an ongoing genocide – the freshly revamped, reformed, rejiggered, United Nations Human Rights Council convened for its inaugural meeting in Geneva this week. Iran, which lost its bid for a seat on the new council, was kind enough to send a representative to the gathering who enjoyed observer status. Befitting a regime that beats women peacefully protesting, Iran sent Saeed Mortazavi who, according to The Washington Post, “has been the most public instrument of political repression in Iran since 2000, when he began a crackdown on the press while serving as a judge. As prosecutor general in Tehran, he has been accused of torture, illegal detention and other offenses…”

“It’s really . . . hard to interpret his place in the delegation as anything but an indication of contempt for human rights,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Indeed. An inauspicious dawn for a new era of human rights advocacy at the UN.

Anwar al-Bunni

June 1, 2006

Lost in the flood of ink spilled these past few weeks over Iran is an increasingly brazen crackdown of dissent by the Assad regime in Syria. The most egregious example is the detention of Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent lawyer and advocate of political reform. A few months ago he opened an EU-sponsored human rights center in Damascus that was quickly shut down by the authorities.

The precipitating event that seems to have fueled that recent crackdown is the release of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration on May 12. The document takes several position at odds to the Assad government. For instance, the declaration insists on "the need for Syria to recognize Lebanese independence once and for all [and] the removal of any reservation and equivocation on this issue." Anwar al-Bunni signed the Declaration.

According to Syria Monitor, a vigilant source for news about the Syrian opposition movement, Anwar al-Bunni's health is deteriorating because of a hunger strike he began at the time of his arrest on May 16.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a very thorough rundown of the political currents running through Damascus. The picture is rather grim. Various experts are quoted in this report, but shared assumption is that the difficulties in Iraq and the sense of immediacy regarding the threat from Iran has freed Assad's hand to crackdown aggressively on all threats to Baathist rule. "The Syrian government made a fairly astute calculation that with Iran on top of the international agenda and the United States mired in Iraq, the chances of coordinated international action against Syria are quite small," says Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace.