Archive for the ‘as the world turns’ Category

On Charlie Hebdo

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

My essay on the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks appears in the February 2nd issue of The Nation magazine. Here is an excerpt:

Two men in balaclavas burst into Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris and opened fire on the editorial staff, killing five cartoonists, a columnist, a maintenance worker, an economist, a visitor, a copy-editor and two police officers.

To make sense of the senseless, we tell ourselves stories. The story is that this is the latest salvo in an ongoing clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The story is that the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the last bastion of free thought in a cowed press, a press that has bowed to political correctness and is now too afraid to criticize Islam. The story is that Muslim leaders remain silent about this atrocity. The story is that France has failed to integrate its Muslim citizens, descendants of immigrants from its former colonies. The story is that France has sent troops to fight in Muslim countries. The story is that there are double standards.

None of these stories will do, at least not for me. I find myself reading them in different guises in the national press, hoping they will enlighten or satisfy me, but something is always missing.

You can read the rest of the essay here. Thank you to all who shared it on Facebook and Twitter, emailed me about it, or commented on it.


‘Among the Republicans’

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

The Republican National Convention is getting a lot of attention in the press this week, but for me the best essay about it so far comes from… 1984. That was the year V.S. Naipaul traveled to Dallas, Texas, to write about the RNC for the New York Review of Books. He captures not the just the absurdities of political theater, but also the kind of detail that might seem at first insignificant but resonates deeply afterward.

That year, the benediction that followed Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech was given by the famous pastor W.A. Criswell. Here is Naipaul:

Dr. Criswell, working up to his Judgment theme, spoke of homosexuality. His language was direct. No euphemisms; no irony; no humor. He was earnest from beginning to end. He moved about on the platform and sometimes for a second or so he turned (in his white suit) to face his red-gowned choir.

“In our lifetime we are scoffing at the word of God…and opening up society and culture to the lesbian and sodomite and homosexual…and now we have this disastrous judgment…the disease and sin of AIDS….”

AIDS, on the first Sunday after the Republican Convention, and in that voice of thunder! But if you thought about it the topic wasn’t so unsuitable. There was something oddly Biblical (though Dr. Criswell didn’t make this particular point) about AIDS, which struck down buggers and a special kind of black and spared everybody else.

“God is like his LAWS!” Dr. Criswell thundered. “There are laws everywhere. Laws of fire, laws of gravity.”

From this idea of Judgment and the laws (two distinct senses of “laws” run together) Dr. Criswell moved on to Karl Marx. A bugger? Only metaphorically. Karl Marx had his place in this sermon as a nineteenth-century atheist. Dr. Criswell gave Marx’s dates but said little about the heresies: in this auditorium Karl Marx was just his demonic name, and it was enough. Karl Marx wasn’t dead, Dr. Criswell said (or so I understood him to say: the theology was a little difficult for me). Karl Marx was still alive; Karl Marx would die only on the great Judgment Day.

You can update the language a bit, remove certain turns of phrase that now seem offensive, replace Marx with a certain Kenyan Socialist Crypto-Muslim, but otherwise it’s all there: fiery sermons, accusations of being “soft,” and even endorsements by former leftists. You can read the essay in full here.

Photo credit: Nobel Prize website.


On Islamophobia

Friday, June 15th, 2012

The Nation

Samar Ali is a lawyer, an activist, a White House fellow, and a public servant who was recently appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to serve on his Economic and Community Development office. However, because Ms. Ali is Muslim, Tea Partiers are pressuring the governor to drop the hire, accusing her of being a “financial jihadist.” (The same group staged protests against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro.) Though this kind of story may seem odd and even ridiculous, it’s becoming more common, which is why The Nation‘s special issue on Islamophobia is so timely. I contributed a piece about how anti-Muslim sentiment is often denied or dismissed. Here’s how the piece starts:

Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.

You can read my essay in full here.


Refund UC

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

The last few weeks have been difficult but also instructive for me, both as an educator and as a citizen. I’m a professor at the University of California—the best public university system in the nation— and have of course been following news of its funding crisis. I’ve written about it here and here, and for The Nation here. Throughout all this, I’ve wanted to believe that, though we had different ideas and opinions, the administration, the faculty, the staff, and the students essentially had a common goal: refunding the university, so that it can fulfill its mission of public education.

But when the chancellor of UC Berkeley sends campus police and Alameda county sheriffs to beat and then chase students, faculty, and staff from a space in which they had peacefully gathered—a space, it must be noted, which was built for these very people—I have to question that belief. And when a police officer nonchalantly pepper sprays seated protesters, and the chancellor of UC Davis claims, in spite of visual evidence to the contrary, that such police action was justified, I have to reject that belief.

President Yudof says that he’s “appalled” by images of violence against students and that he’s committed to protecting “the rights of our students, faculty & staff to engage in non-violent protest.” But he has taken no decisive action. Instead, he’s put former LAPD chief William Bratton in charge of a “fact-finding” mission.

Here are a few facts. Right now, I have students who are forced to drop out because they can’t afford their tuition. I have students who borrow money at rates they cannot possibly afford in order to finish their degrees, setting themselves up for a lifetime of debt. My department shares staff with three other departments, which means that our staff have three times the workload for the same pay. The phones on our floor were removed last year as a “cost-cutting measure.” I could go on and on. And the UC Regents’ answer? They are looking at a plan that would raise tuition by as much as 16% annually, for a cumulative total of 81% (yes, 81%) over 4 years.

And it would appear that our administration doesn’t mind replacing state funds with student tuition, because state funds come with restrictions (e.g. they have to be used for instructional purposes only) whereas student tuition can be used for anything (e.g servicing debt.) So students will be paying much more money, but they won’t necessarily see a proportional improvement in their classroom experiences. What the current Regents’ plan shows is that, in fact, we—administration, faculty, staff, students—may not all share a common goal; we may not all believe in the virtues of higher public education.

The students make up the majority of the university community. They are what gives the university its raison d’être. What a shame that they are the ones being made to carry the full cost of disinvestment.


Greg Mortenson and the Business of Redemption

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Is there a nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education? Greg Mortenson’s memoir Three Cups of Tea has given an unequivocal answer to this question, though this week it has also shown just how unquestioningly people want to believe stories of redemption. Three Cups of Tea tells the story of how Mortenson was nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain. As a way to repay the villagers’ kindness, Mortenson promises to return to and build a school for the children. The book recounts how the charity he founded, the Central Asia Institute, went on to build dozens of schools in the region.

Three Cups of Tea became an international bestseller, as well as required reading in many schools and colleges in the United States. Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, received millions of dollars in donations, including $100,000 from President Obama. But last week, a 60 Minutes investigation revealed that the central anecdote in the book—the author being nursed back to health by Pakistani villagers after being separated from his party—wasn’t exactly true. Though he climbed K2, Mortenson didn’t come across the Pakistani village of Korphe until a year later. And he was not, as the book asserts, kidnapped by the Taliban. More troublingly, some of the schools he claims to have built were never built at all.

The revelations immediately ignited a firestorm of reactions. Readers took to to vent their rage. “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” read one review. “Another huckster, another charlatan. This makes me sick,” read another. They were, understandably, feeling cheated because they were lied to. But perhaps they need to ask themselves why they were so willing to believe this unlikely story in the first place: because Three Cups of Tea offered them a thoroughly familiar paradigm—Eastern women are in need of Western saviors.

Readers who may not know much about the political situation in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, still know, based on images they see on television, that the situation of women is disastrous. Three Cups of Tea reaffirmed that message, and provided a savior in the form of Mortenson. But what about women’s organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Why are they not part of this picture of empowerment of women? These questions are not directly addressed in these kinds of discussions, because, by definition it seems, Afghan and Pakistani women are victims, and not actors in their own lives; they are in need of help from the outside.

The other reason for the popularity of the book is its inspirational message. To a certain extent, it gives American readers a chance to redeem themselves for their government’s disastrous involvement in the region. After all, the drone attacks that the US government has been conducting in the region since 2004 have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths—which set back the cause not just of women’s rights, but of human rights in general. By donating money to the Central Asia Institute, people feel that, in spite of the fraught nature of this involvement, at least some good is being done.

The reality, of course, is different. The Central Asian Institute claims to have built 141 schools, but reporters for 60 Minutes found that nearly 15 schools were empty, or used to store hay and spinach, and that 6 of them did not even exist. People who have donated money to this charity have been cheated, and the children who were supposed to have been helped have been forgotten. Perhaps this could have been averted if aid distribution were transparent—but after 14 years of operation the CAI issued only one audited financial statement.

General Petraeus is said to be a fan of the book; he has even inaugurated some of the schools with Mortenson. But why would a charity so shrouded in mystery receive so much support from a military official? Again, the answer lies in the redemptive story the book tells: that the American military is part of the solution to Pakistan and Afghanistan’s problems, rather than one of its causes.

There is no nobler goal than that of helping young girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan get an education. Building schools is great, but they still need to be staffed by trained, local teachers and supplied with materials, which can’t be accomplished without the direct involvement of Pakistanis and Afghans themselves. And at the moment, they seem to be the ones missing from the story of redemption.


On the War in Libya

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

I am not sure what to think about the war in Libya—or the intervention, as the preferred term goes these days. The very use of the euphemism gives me pause; the reasons for distorting language (e.g. “enhanced interrogation techniques” in cases of torture) are rarely innocent. The intervention, we are told, was necessary to prevent a massacre. To do nothing would have “stained the conscience of the world,” the President said.

In Tunisia and in Egypt, we have seen successful popular uprisings against dictators, but we have also seen Western governments support Ben Ali and Mubarak to the bitter end. The French government, for example, was still trying to ship tear gas canisters to Ben Ali two days before he fled Tunis. As for the U.S. administration, Joe Biden was insisting, as late as January 27, that Mubarak was “not a dictator.” There was nary a word of protest from the evangelists of democracy when a foreign police force, sent in by the GCC countries and led by Saudi Arabia, crushed the uprising in Bahrain. In all three countries, dictators committed atrocities against demonstrators, but no one seemed to think humanitarian intervention was necessary or urgent. The world’s conscience suffered the stain of 219 deaths in Tunisia, 384 in Egypt, and 30-odd in Bahrain, without comment from the President. It suffered the stain of brutal police repression in Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Syria, and Yemen.

But in Libya, it seemed, things were different. Here the tyrant needed to be stopped and demonstrators needed our urgent help in the form of a No Fly Zone. And so, with hardly any national debate or the approval of our elected representatives, the President committed the country to this new front. Never mind that Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading this “intervention,” was perfectly happy with Gaddafi a year ago, letting him pitch his tent in the garden of the Hotel Marigny. Now we are supposed to trust Sarkozy to rescue Gaddafi’s victims. Never mind that Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the man who is often heard speaking for the rebels, was part of the Gaddafi government for the last three years. Now we are supposed to believe that Abdul Jalil speaks for the oppressed Libyan people.

You see why I am skeptical. None of these guys inspire confidence: not Sarkozy, not Abdul Jalil, not Obama. And Western military involvement doesn’t seem to have worked out so well in North Africa and the Middle East. But I am still rooting for the Libyan people. In fact, the only pro-“intervention” argument that seems to me to have any merit is this: some Libyans are themselves asking for foreign involvement. (I have Libyan friends who support it.) And ultimately it is their country. They should decide its future.


Japan, Remembered

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I had the great fortune of visiting Japan with my husband in August 2001, and still have very fond memories of the time we spent there. The people we encountered during our three-week stay were unfailingly kind, hard-working, and endowed with a sense of personal responsibility I have seen nowhere else. We got lost on our way to Ginkakuji Temple and, though we could not speak a word of Japanese, found so many people willing to help. I remember, too, that when we tried to tip the bellboy at the hotel, he returned our money. “No tips in Japan, Madam.” Still, we continued to try. At a restaurant in Kyoto, we left the tip on the table and walked out, only to be pursued for half a block by the waiter, who proceeded to return our money. At the Tokyo National Museum, I was struck by the fact that the locals far outnumbered tourists in the galleries and by how much interest they showed in their art, culture, and history (as opposed to, I don’t know, the country I’m from, for example.)

I’ve been thinking about these experiences since last week, when news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan first broke. Watching the television footage from my hotel room in Dubai, where I was attending a literary festival, I was struck both by how powerful the quake seemed to be and by the general calm of the people. But then the tsunami warning was issued, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station shut down, and everything felt different, somehow. The scale of the devastation, and its long-term consequences, still seem hard to fathom. I am in awe of the unnamed 50 workers who stayed behind at the power station to try to prevent further leakage. But, aside from donating relief money, reading up on nuclear power, or worrying about its effect, I don’t know what to do. In this context, the idiocy of people like Glenn Beck—who says that the earthquake was a “message” from God—almost comes as a sign that life goes on; that, along with heroic workers, polemicist fools remain with us, even in the middle of catastrophes.

(Photo credit: EPA)


Once In A Fortnight…

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been writing guest posts for The Notion, which is The Nation magazine’s group blog. I’ve written on the recent Frankfurt shootings, Arab uprisings and American intervention, the blame game that Arab dictators have been playing, and I’ve followed up my posts on the February 20 movement with a short piece on the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui. In short, it was a busy fortnight! But now I am back to my regular pace, working on my novel, teaching at UC—and yes, of course, pondering what else to write about.


Morocco’s Moderate Revolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

In a new piece for Foreign Policy, I write about why the February 20 movement’s demands in Morocco have so far been restricted to constitutional reforms. Here is an excerpt:

When I was living in Morocco in 2007, I often noticed that foreign journalists were completely confounded by the country. And understandably so, because, depending on whom they talked to, the country was either on the verge of full democratization or about to have a Russian-style revolution. Elections were going to bring about an Islamist tsunami or the leftist coalition would surprise everyone by its strong showing. The recent family law reforms had brought in real change for women or it did not matter because the judges were not applying the new law anyway. The Equity and Reconciliation commission was proof that the infamous Years of Lead — a period during the 1960s to 1980s characterized by widespread extralegal detentions and torture — were being reckoned with or that the victims of abuse had been unwittingly co-opted by a wily government. The francophone elite was fleecing the country or it was the country’s only chance of moving forward in an era of globalization. The king’s right-hand man had quit his post and run for a parliamentary seat because he had fallen out of favor in the palace or he had quit because he was going to be appointed prime minister.

The truth was, nobody knew.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images)


Morocco’s Day of Dignity

Monday, February 21st, 2011

In a follow-up post for The Nation, I write about the protests that have taken place throughout Morocco on February 20.

In spite of the Moroccan government’s campaign—through its official media, its ministers and its allies—to discredit the February 20 movement, peaceful protests took place today throughout the country. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada.

As I explained in an earlier post, the campaign against the movement included accusations that it was led by agents of the Polisario Front; by atheists and other assorted non-Muslims; by republican revolutionaries; by Moroccans living comfortably abroad; or by people who are disorganized, unclear about their demands and leaderless. But even before the democracy protests got underway today, it was clear that the tide was turning and that the virulent government campaign had only served to bring about support from a wide cross-section of Moroccan society.

You can read the rest here.

(Photo credit: AP)


On Morocco’s February 20 Protests: The Status Quo Cannot Go On

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In a new post for The Nation, I write about the protests that are planned for February 20 in Morocco.

With the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests in favor of democracy and dignity. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, is not immune to this regional trend. Inspired by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young activists are using social media to spread the word about a protest in Casablanca on February 20. A video they have made to promote the protests has already gone viral. It features thirteen young Moroccan men and women, speaking in their native Arabic or Berber. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20,” they all say, and then go on to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, equality, better living standards, education, labor rights, minority rights, and so on. (You can view the video, with English subtitles, here.)

The February 20 movement was started by a group calling itself Democracy and Freedom Now. Their demands include constitutional reforms, the dissolution of the present parliament, the creation of a temporary transitional government, an independent judiciary, accountability for elected officials, language rights for Berber speakers, and the release of all political prisoners. Democracy and Freedom Now was soon joined by a loose coalition of cyber-activists, traditional lefties, Islamists, and 20 human rights organizations, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Amnesty Morocco.

You can read the rest of the piece here.


On Lara Logan’s Attack

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

For the next two weeks, I will be writing guest posts for the Notion, the Nation magazine‘s blog. My first post is about the recently reported attack on the reporter Lara Logan:

A woman has been sexually assaulted—what should the reaction to such a heinous crime be? Blaming its victim? Disparaging the country she’s in? Looking for a scapegoat?

Stunningly enough, all of these reactions have been voiced since yesterday, when it was revealed that Lara Logan, the Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS, had survived sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The network has released few details about the attack, except to say that, when Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced and crowds filled the square, a mob surrounded Logan and her crew. She was separated from them in the ensuing frenzy and suffered “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” Logan flew back to the United States the following day and is now recovering in a hospital.

Read the rest here.


On Tunisia, Egypt and the Clash of Civilizations

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Last Friday, about fifteen minutes after it was announced that Mubarak had resigned, a close friend called me from Morocco, cheering for the Egyptian people. And then another friend called, emails arrived—all expressing the same joy at the fall of the tyrant. Over at the Daily Beast, I have an opinion piece about the effect of the ongoing revolutions on how people think about Arab world.

It was nearly 20 years ago that Samuel Huntington put forth the idea that major sources of world conflict in the aftermath of the Cold War would be cultural. Certain civilizations could coexist peacefully with one another, he argued, but others were bound to come into conflict because their inherent values and belief systems were polar opposites. The contrast between “the West” and “Islam” provided the clearest illustration of his argument and, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it gained an even wider following. Huntington’s theory has so pervaded public discourse that when people speak of his “Clash of Civilizations,” they usually mean the inevitable clash between the West and Islam.

People in Western countries were told by their elected leaders that the Arabs were fundamentally incapable of governing themselves in a democratic way, that they needed strongmen to keep them in line or else they might lash back in another major terrorist attack. Meanwhile, citizens of Arab countries were told by their local dictators that, well, this was the best they could do. Their nations were stable, they had a functioning government, and there was some sort of law and order on the streets. That was enough. And it was either that or the local Islamist party, which, if it were ever allowed to come to power or have a say in government, would endeavor to take away whatever rights the Arabs were lucky enough to have.

And you can read the piece in full here.

(Photo credit: AP)


Winter of Discontent

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

At a dinner with friends the other day, all any of us wanted to talk about was the uprising against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. I think we all know that we’re witnessing something unique here, something that will have far-reaching effects for the region. My latest piece for The Nation magazine is a commentary about this winter of discontent in the Arab world. Here is how it opens:

For those of us who have grown up in a dictatorship, the protests that have ignited throughout the Arab world feel like the fulfillment of a great promise. This promise was made to our parents and grandparents, to all those who fought for independence: that we would have the right to decide our future. Instead, our leaders delivered us into a world of silence and fear and told us that we must watch what we say and watch what we do. Our institutions were undermined or dismantled, our political parties were stifled or co-opted, their members disappeared or neutralized. And whenever we looked to the West for help, its presidents and prime ministers spoke with forked tongues, one moment lecturing us on democracy and another offering support to our dictators.

You can read the piece in full here.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)


After Tunisia

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Yesterday, in between writing and grading, I kept thinking about this line from Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians: “All creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.” Over the last few weeks, people throughout the Arab world have been reconnecting with this memory and demanding change. The people of Egypt have taken to the streets today to pursue this goal; the Mubarak regime’s response has been, as always, violent repression.

The Guardian asked a group of writers, including me, what we make of the protests that are now rocking the region. Here is my contribution:

In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, published in 1966, an unnamed university graduate returns to his home country, Sudan, full of hope about the new era of independence in his country. But an old man from his ancestral village warns him: “Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

As Salih predicted, the regimes that have followed European occupation of the Arab world have consolidated power in the hands of a small elite, which was often beholden to foreign countries and bent on repressing the civil and human rights of its people. Over the last two generations, the majority of young Arabs have known only two or three heads of state, each brought to office thanks to heredity, coup d’état, or sham elections. This is why, reading about the events in Tunisia earlier this month, it seemed to me I was witnessing the first national uprising in the Arab world since independence.

You can read it all here.

(Photo credit: AP/NYT)


On the Tunisian Revolution

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Over the last few weeks, I have been following the unraveling of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, my emotions changing from surprise, to awe, and then to elation. As you probably know by now, the protests began on December 17 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable vendor who had suffered from police harassment for some time, had his unlicensed cart confiscated. He set himself on fire in the main square in the town of Sidi Bouzid, an act of desperation that inspired the country’s thousands of unemployed graduates to take to the streets in protest. It was perhaps understandable for some observers to initially dismiss the protests as another one of the region’s “bread riots.” But this was Tunisia, a country so tightly controlled that the protests themselves were highly unusual.

The police did what police do in dictatorships: they used tear gas, beat up protestors with clubs, and fired live ammunition, killing dozens of people. But the protests continued. Two weeks into the unrest, Ben Ali gave a television address, where he tried to show sympathy for the unemployed, while also blaming the country’s troubles on foreign hands and agent provocateurs. His speech was interrupted by a ringing cell phone, which turned a solemn affair into a comic one, as a flustered Ben Ali leaned forward and back in his chair without answering it. His patina of stern dictator seemed to crack. For the first time, his portraits were ripped from street corners. Trade union members and professionals joined students in the protests, which reached a fever pitch on January 4th, when it was reported that Bouazizi had died of his wounds.

Ben Ali dismissed a few members of his cabinet, but the protests grew even more popular, spreading from Sidi Bouzid to Kasserine, Sfax, Hammamet, and the capital. Then, on January 13th, he delivered a long litany of promises: he would create jobs, he would allow more personal freedoms, he would appoint an investigative commission, and, most significantly, he would leave office in 2014. Here was the dictator on television again, a man of seventy-four years with unnaturally dark hair and a chubby face, but the expression behind his eyeglasses was one of astonishment and fear. I had seen that expression before, a long, long time ago—on the face of Ceauşescu.

In the February 7 issue of The Nation magazine, I comment on the Tunisian events, and offer some context for them. Here is the opening paragraph:

In conventional thinking about the Middle East, perhaps the most persistent cliché is “moderate Arab country.” The label seems to apply indiscriminately to monarchies and republics, ancient dictatorships and newly installed ones, from the Atlantic Coast to the Persian Gulf, so long as the country in question is of some use to the United States. And, almost always, it crops up in articles and policy papers vaunting the need for America to support these countries, bulwarks against growing Islamic extremism in the Arab world.

A perfect example is Tunisia. Just three summers ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered a 2,000-word ode to the North African nation in Vanity Fair, describing it as an “enclave of development” menaced by “the harsh extremists of a desert religion.” This is a country with good economic growth, a country where polygamy was outlawed in 1956, a country with high levels of education, a country with perfect sandy beaches. And, Hitchens wrote, it “makes delicious wine and even exports it to France.

You can read the piece in its entirety here. And you can subscribe to the magazine here.

(Photo Credit: AP)


The Pakistan Floods

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I feel I have yet to fully apprehend the devastation in Pakistan. The papers say there are 1,600 dead, 2 million homeless, and as many as 14 million affected by the floods. But the numbers, as always, don’t tell the whole story. The monsoon season is not over yet, it’s exceedingly difficult to get help to all those who need it, and the country has received little foreign relief. (The British charity Oxfam, for instance, says that donations to flood relief represent about $3 a person, compared to $495 per person after the Haiti earthquake.)

If you have not already done so, please donate to the relief effort in Pakistan. Here is a list of charities that work there.

(Photo credit: Reuters)


Park51 and the Silenced Majority

Monday, August 9th, 2010

I want to know: what would the GOP do if it didn’t have Muslims to gripe about ahead of the November elections?

In the last three weeks, Glenn Beck mounted a campaign against “Muslim Family Day” at a Three Flags theme park in New Jersey, because that day fell on September 12th, which, of course, can only mean that Muslim evil-doers are plotting to offend the American people. (Never mind that Muslim Family Day started in 2000, that its chief organizer died in the World Trade Center attacks, and that the only reason it fell on September 12 this year is because it is the date of Eid.) In Temecula, California, a group of Tea Partiers called for a rally against a planned mosque and suggested to its participants that they bring dogs, because dogs are considered by some Orthodox Muslims to be unclean. And in Florida, a pastor wants to set up an International Burn a Quran Day on September 11, because he believes, and I quote, that “Islam is of the devil.”

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article that recaps the recent spate of anti-Muslim demonstrations and focuses more specifically on the opposition to the Park51 project, which, in case you have been hiding under a rock, is otherwise (and incorrectly) known as the “Ground Zero mosque.” The article quotes both proponents and opponents of the project, which gives the reader the appearance of balance. But in fact it silences the vast majority of Muslims. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.

But they have not gone unanswered. In each community, interfaith groups led by Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, rabbis and clergy members of other faiths have defended the mosques. Often, they have been slower to organize than the mosque opponents, but their numbers have usually been larger.

Notice that, in setting up the two groups of proponents and opponents of Park51, the Muslims who get mentioned are “former Muslims”, while the people who bravely stand up for religious freedom include ministers of every faith, except Islam. Are we to believe that no Muslims, whether ministers or not, are taking part in these interfaith groups, even though the matter at hand is an Islamic community center?

I see this kind of silencing everywhere in our media. Politicians constantly talk about the need for “moderate Muslims” to step up, and when they do, as Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf did when he tried to set up this community center, it is the extremists among Muslims—both the religious and the secular—who are given ample room to voice their opinions. Enough.

Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters/New York Times


R.I.P. Howard Zinn

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

As you may have heard, the historian and activist Howard Zinn passed away last night in Santa Monica. You can read the AP obituary on the NPR website, which of course mentions his A People’s History of the United States.

Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000, A People’s History was — fittingly — a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003. Although Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and numerous companion editions were published, including Voices of a People’s History, a volume for young people and a graphic novel

At a time when few politicians dared even call themselves liberal, A People’s History told an openly left-wing story. Zinn charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

I believe his last published piece is this contribution to a Nation forum on Obama’s first year. He did not sound optimistic in the least.


Saviano on Italy’s New Heroes

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Recently when I read about the rioting by African immigrants in the southern Italian town of Rosarno, I assumed it had something to do with their precarious situation under the law. But in an opinion piece Roberto Saviano (the author of Gomorrah) says he thinks the riots were a revolt against the rule of the Calabrian mafia, which controls all sorts of economic activity.

An immigrant who lands in France or Britain knows he’ll have to abide by the law, but he also knows he’ll have real and tangible rights. That’s not how it is in Italy, where bureaucracy and corruption make it seem as if the only guarantees are prohibitions and mafia rule, under which rights are nonexistent. The mafias let the African immigrants live and work in their territories because they make a profit off them. The mafias exploit them, but also grant them living space in abandoned areas outside of town, and they keep the police from running too many checks or repatriating them.

The immigrants are temporarily willing to accept peanut wages, slave hours and poor living conditions. They’ve already handed over all they owned, risked all they had, just to get to Italy. But they came to make a better life for themselves — and they’re not about to let anyone take the possibility of that life away.

The last line of the piece, especially, is very moving.

Photo: Marco di Lauro/NYT


Hope, But Little Change

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

I am well aware of the fact that I am the kind of voter no elected politician wants to hear from, particularly not after an election. I’m in favor of bank regulation, gun control, and the public option; I’m against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the use of torture; I support the right to marriage for all and I also don’t want anybody telling women what to wear or what to do with their bodies. In this country, such views are liable to get you labeled a godless socialist. But I will still say what I think.

I was excited about Barack Obama’s election and I really wanted him to succeed. I still do. But after one year in office, I don’t think he has delivered any significant change on the major issues facing the United States. He allowed major banks to receive taxpayer money, but did not demand accountability in return. His work on the public option was so anemic from the start that it was no surprise at all when the option wasn’t included in the Senate version of the health care bill. He expanded the war in Afghanistan, which he’d pledged he would do, but he hasn’t imposed a definite timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, despite his promise. It is now possible that some of the Guantánamo Bay prisoners will stay in detention forever, without trial. He hasn’t categorically outlawed torture. He has completely ignored the rights of gay citizens and he hasn’t stood up for women’s reproductive rights during the health care debate.

Many people still think that Americans are better off with Obama. Usually this means “better off than with George W. Bush, or John McCain, or Sarah Palin.” This is true, of course, but are we supposed to be happy that the country is not run by an idiot, a megalomaniac, and another idiot? They point out that Obama banned water-boarding, or that America’s image abroad has improved, or that he helped nullify Ledbetter v. Goodyear. Those are all good things, but they don’t weigh enough in the balance after one year. And this voter, at least, feels she has the right to expect more.


On Haiti

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I’ve been busy over the last week with all manner of academic work (preparing for classes, committee meetings, applications to our graduate program, etc.) and haven’t had a chance to update the blog, but I did want to pop in here after I heard the news about the horrific earthquake in Haiti. I am sure many of you want to donate money, so I wanted to post a link to this very interesting article on how to choose a charity.

What do you need to know? First and foremost, is your favorite charity already working in Haiti? Have they had personnel there for years, with contacts in affected areas? Do the really know the country and the local leaders who will help deliver aid quickly and equitably to those who need it most?

If an organization isn’t already set up and ready to go in Haiti, your donations are going to go to help them build an infrastructure, set up offices, and hire staff. It makes more sense to donate to an organization that already has these elements in place. This might seem obvious, but in the aftermath of the destruction caused by the tsunami of 2004, organizations who had never worked on the ground in affected areas raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which never reached its intended recipients and succeeded only in bolstering the stature of the organizations.

As for me, I donated to Doctors without Borders, who seem to have a decent record in Haiti. Please give, if you can.


Bullshit By Any Other Name

Friday, December 4th, 2009

A propos of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the always incisive Mr. Fish had this cartoon.

Cartoon Credit: Mr. Fish at Truthdig


Blind Spot

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

It has been disappointing to see so many of our leading artists and writers line up in defense of Roman Polanski. Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher who once said that the Muslim veil was “an invitation to rape,” has now been confronted with an actual case of rape, but appears to think there should be an exception for genius filmmakers. Levy has drafted a petition in defense of Polanski. It is true that Levy has fought against rape—but in regions like Darfur and Bosnia. Now that the perpetrator is in his own backyard, he talks of his outrage as seeing Polanski “apprehended like a common terrorist.”


New Entanglements

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

The October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books includes this short piece by Gary Wills, a damning account of how little Barack Obama has done to restore the system of checks and balances:

George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease—torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of laws by signing statements. Powers attributed to the president by the theory of the unitary executive should not be exercised. Judges who are willing to give the president any power he asks for should not be confirmed.

But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that “extraordinary rendition”—the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries—was a tool he meant to retain. Obama’s nominee for solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told Congress that she agreed with John Yoo’s claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to “battlefield law.” On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking “state secrets”—the policy based on the faulty Reynolds case—Obama’s attorney gen- eral, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of “enhanced interrogation.” The CIA had earlier (illegally) destroyed ninety-two videotapes of such interrogations—and Obama refused to release documents describing the tapes.

You can read it all here.


A Herculean Task

Monday, September 14th, 2009

At one of those dinners that can happen only in Los Angeles, I found myself seated at a table with an American community organizer, an Australian banker, an Israeli model/actress, an Iraqi human rights activist, a French businessman, and an Indian TV producer. Against all better judgment, the topic of Israel/Palestine was brought up. The banker turned to me and said, “I know you and [the Iraqi human rights activist] would disagree with me, but I support AIPAC. So does [the Israeli actress]. I think they’re doing a great job.”

The Iraqi activist and I exchanged a glance, wondering which one of us would open that particular can of worms. I cleared my throat. “Have you heard of J Street?” I began. “It’s a …”

The banker interrupted me. “Yeah, I’ve heard of those guys. They’re a bunch of well-meaning American Jews who don’t know what it’s like on the ground.”

As I said, this gentleman was neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian, so I imagine that whatever he knew about “what it was like on the ground” must have been at second hand. Still, the whole conversation made me realize how entrenched AIPAC was, and how much work an upstart like J Street has to do.

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a rather long article by James Traub about J-Street. The lobbying group’s positions are summarized about halfway through the piece:

According to its “statement of principles,” [J Street] favors “creation of a viable Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps” — the formula envisioned by the Clinton administration in its 2000 negotiations with Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak. Ben-Ami says he also favors Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states. On the question of talks with Hamas, classed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, J Street takes the cautious view that while we should not speak directly with officials, we should engage through intermediaries with the goal of finding interlocutors willing to live in peace with Israel.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering. In fact, from where I stand, this doesn’t go nearly far enough. So to think that this group (which, let’s remember, is probably closer to representing the views of American citizens than those of a foreign nation) is having such a hard time being heard is really kind of depressing. In the end, as with so much else, it all has to do with passion:

J Street specializes in mounting campaigns that may appeal to the 92 percent [of American Jews] who care about other causes more than they do about Israel. Last September, the organization asked supporters to sign a petition demanding that sponsors revoke an invitation to Sarah Palin to speak at an otherwise nonpartisan rally on Iran. J Street says that more than 25,000 people signed it in 24 hours. […]

This in turn raises a question about J Street’s prospects. As a lobbying group, would you rather represent the passionate few or the dispassionate many? The National Rifle Association knows the answer to that question. One administration official involved with the Middle East points out that Aipac cultivates single-issue partisans. Wielding the other 92 percent into a potent political force, he notes, will be “a major, long-term and uphill task.” He adds, “I’m not sure it can be done.”

You can read the entire article here.


Healthcare Reform Hysteria

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Last night, when President Obama was delivering his speech on health care reform to Congress, I thought that there was something wrong with my ears. (Something that, as my friend A. pointed out, my health care provider would not be pleased about; they’re liable to re-classify it as a pre-existing condition.) I thought perhaps I had imagined the guy who heckled the President from the floor. But no, I hadn’t. There really is a Congressman Joe Wilson, he’s a Republican from South Carolina, and he really did scream “You lie!” while the President was describing his plan. Why is it so impossible to have an adult, reasonable conversation about health care reform in this country?

Gary Younge lays out a few possible reasons in a short piece that appeared in The Nation this morning. Here is how it begins:

Spare a thought, and maybe even a dime, for Kenneth Gladney. In August he and other members of the right-wing St. Louis Tea Party arrived at a town-hall meeting organized by Missouri Democrat Russ Carnahan to lobby against universal healthcare. In the spirit of this fraught summer, a fight broke out, ending in six arrests.

Who threw the first punch depends on whom you ask. But who got the worst of it was fairly clear. Gladney was taken to the emergency room with injuries to his knee, back, elbow, shoulder and face and ended up in a wheelchair. His troubles were just beginning. Recently laid off, this particular anti-health reform protester, it turned out, had no health insurance. Last heard, he was still accepting donations for his medical expenses.

It’s not difficult to ridicule the American right. Its peculiar blend of paranoia, mania, fantasy and misanthropy has been given full rein these past few months. Those who demanded in July to see Obama’s birth certificate (which does exist) ended August invoking the British healthcare system’s “death panels” (which do not). That most of their claims were verifiably false was of little consequence–to them at least. At one point they insisted that if scientist Stephen Hawking were British and subject to the National Health Service, he would be dead, even though Hawking is British, alive and grateful to the NHS for his care.

You can read the rest here. As for Obama’s plan, I really urge you to watch what Dennis Kucinich has to say about it. We need the public option. Now.


Not Forgotten

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

On this day forty years ago, a twenty-seven year old colonel named Muammar al-Gaddafi overthrew King Idris of Libya in a bloodless coup. It seems to me that coverage of Gaddafi is broadly limited to two topics: his social antics (e.g. the tent he set up in the garden of the Hotel Marigny, his all-female bodyguard corps, his ridiculous outfits, and so on) and the Lockerbie bombing. One rarely hears about all the political prisoners who have been rotting in his jails for several decades.

A couple of years ago, the novelist Hisham Matar wrote a very moving piece about his father, Jaballa Matar, who was allegedly kidnapped by Egyptian security forces in March 1990 and then rendered to Libya. He has not been seen in nineteen years, and has not been heard from in ten.

How does one remain free from becoming a symbol or a victim? How do we remain whole and free from hate, yet truthful to our memory?

Life attempts to teach us about loss: that one can still find peace in the finality of death. And yet, my loss gives no peace. My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete.

I was always told to expect to lose my father. Many Libyan political dissidents have been assassinated or kidnapped. But now I know that I had no comprehension of the danger he was in. If I had, I would have held on to him with all I could, or tried harder to persuade him not to engage in political dissent, perhaps. Regret is the cruellest companion for those of us who are left behind.

I did try to persuade him to leave his political work, because I loved my father more than I loved my country; or, to put it another way, I had learned by then to live without my country, but not without my father.

When Father was taken, the world did feel empty. For the first couple of years, our ship was lost, then we recovered our bearings and learnt that the speed by which one resumes living is no indication of the depth of one’s grief.

You can read the full essay here. More recently, the Guardian asked Matar about the release of the terminally-ill Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. “I think of [my father] listening to the celebrations of the prison guards at the news of al-Megrahi’s return,” he wrote. “The prisoners might have been given presents to mark the occasion. Then I think of al-Megrahi’s children welcoming him home.”


Iran’s Revolutionary Road: Beware the Echo Chamber

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

What a strange week this has been. The Mexican navy seized more than a ton of cocaine that had been stuffed inside frozen sharks, the Venezuelan government banned Coke Zero because of unspecified health concerns, and American neo-conservatives suddenly developed a pious concern for the Iranian people. Bill Kristol, for instance, wrote passionately in the Washington Post about “the brave Iranians demonstrating for freedom and democracy” and urged President Obama to “speak for liberty. Speak for America.” In the Weekly Standard, Michael Goldfarb expressed the fervent hope that the administration would “stand up and support the Iranian kids who are pleading for help as they’re beaten in the streets.” In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg begged the president to “look to the real Iranian street at the moment of its greatest need, when its heart may be open to loving America.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that these same people wanted to bomb the country. When he was on the campaign trail in 2008, John McCain responded to a South Carolina voter’s question about Iran by singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb / bomb, bomb Iran.” The neo-cons have consistently argued that Iran was a hostile theocracy ruled by a genocidal madman, and that, were it to acquire nuclear weapons, it would undoubtedly use them against Israel. Using diplomacy with Iran, they said, was utterly futile. A small contingent on the left, meanwhile, pointed out a rather inconvenient fact: it was George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that emboldened Iran and turned it into a regional power. Using force would only further destabilize an already volatile part of the world. And in any case, given the costly wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, the U.S. could ill afford to open yet another front. Engagement with Iran, they said, was necessary.

Going into the presidential elections, the neo-cons didn’t expect much because the candidates in Iran have to be vetted by the twelve-member Council of Guardians, half of whom are appointed by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and half elected by the Majlis. This essentially means that no true reformist would ever be allowed to run. A few liberals, however, were hoping that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister who now chairs the Iranian Academy of Arts, would defeat the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi is not a reformist (he served under Ayatollah Khomeini, for God’s sake), but he seems to many people to be more of a pragmatist, someone who would be more open to dialogue.

What happened on June 12 took both camps by surprise. The state-run news agency called the election for Ahmadinejad just two hours after polls closed, even though there were nearly 40 million ballots cast. Despite his lackluster performance as president, Ahmadinejad had seven million more votes in 2009 than in 2005. Furthermore, he won in Tehran (where he is reportedly unpopular) as well as in places like Khameneh (Mousavi’s hometown in East Azerbaijan) or Aligoodarz (Mehdi Karroubi’s hometown in Lorestan). Soon after, images of demonstrators brutally repressed by riot police began to filter in from the country. Free and fair elections do not usually result in popular uprisings of the magnitude we saw on our computer and television screens. It was clear that the elections were a fraud.

While the neo-cons’ calls for a muscular reaction are hardly surprising, several people from across the political spectrum seem to have joined them in demanding a louder response from the White House. Andrew Sullivan posted a steady stream of eyewitness accounts, videos, and tweets (much of which unconfirmed) over the weekend following the election. He switched the color of his blog banner to green, in solidarity with Mousavi supporters. He urged Western governments not to recognize Ahmadinejad as the victor in this election. In the Nation, John Nichols found Obama’s response to be “tepid” and “disappointing” and wished that the president would take a clue from Nicolas Sarkozy, who boldly declared that the events in Iran are “a tragedy.” (By the way, one little detail that seems to have escaped the attention of those who loved Sarkozy’s comment: he was speaking from Libreville, where he was attending the funeral of his good friend Omar Bongo, the dictator who has ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 41 years.) In the New York Times, Roger Cohen wrote that, although he had in the past argued for engagement with Iran, he felt that “in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval. ”

This echo chamber worries me, because it seems to me it could easily pave the way for further escalation and eventual military action. Which is why Obama’s cautious stance so far on Iran is the right move. At the moment, all we know for certain is that the will of Iranian voters has been obstructed and that they are letting their voices heard. The breathtaking protests we are seeing may be pro-Mousavi, but they are also just as likely to be anti-regime (in fact, I rather suspect that Mousavi is now thrust into a role he did not foresee). I hope that the will of the people prevails.

One thing is clear, however. Polls have shown that Iranians feel that nuclear weapons are a proper deterrent in a neighborhood that already includes nuclear-armed powers (Pakistan, Israel) and multiple American bases (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey.) Regardless of who will lead Iran for the next four years, the country’s nuclear ambitions will not go away.


Style vs. Substance

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Despite the unusually gloomy weather here in Santa Monica, I feel like summer is already here. I’m done with my book tour, I met two pressing deadlines, and my last class of the quarter at UC Riverside was yesterday. So I’ve had some time to catch up on the news and especially on the coverage of Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, most of which seemed to me to be encomiums. (And I say this as someone who likes Obama. But liking Obama and agreeing with him on Middle East policy are two different things.)

It simply isn’t true, as I’ve heard some commentators say, that this was the first time that a sitting U.S. president quoted from the Qur’an, invoked Palestine and the plight of the Palestinians, or promised to stop Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The main difference, it seems to me, was one of style, not substance. Obama brings his considerable charisma and his compelling life story to this speech. He was exceedingly careful in his choice of words and avoided any direct confrontation. Another advantage for him is the fact that people everywhere, both here in the United States and in the Middle East, are so relieved not to have to listen to the bellicose and idiotic words of George W. Bush anymore. This is why so many people paid so much attention to this speech.

One important test of this new approach, to my mind, is the settlements. Obama has already told Netanyahu that he wants a complete stop to Israeli settlements and that he won’t accept “natural growth” exceptions. If he can do that, then this speech will be remembered as a turning point; if he can’t, then it will go the way of all the speeches by the previous five administrations: nowhere.

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives