Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gaza Tunnels and Rockets

Time Magazine just released a great photo album about the Gaza Tunnels. To give a quick background, Gaza has been under a strict blockade by both Israel and Egypt since the militant Islamist Hamas took control. The effect on the everyday lives of Gazans has been devastating, with up to 80% of the population reliant on some type of assistance.

In response to the blockade, Gazans have constructed countless tunnels underneath the Egyptian-Gaza border. Originally intended for military goods, a veritable boom economy has sprouted around the tunnel system. All kinds of products now make the subterranean trip beneath the border, including animals for the Gaza zoo (though it was cheaper to paint stripes on a donkey than bring in a real zebra) . If you're interested in taking a trip yourself through the tunnels, check out this video by Current TV contributor and Gaza resident Zouheir Alnajjar.

However, we shouldn't forget why the blockade was originally instituted. Israel has been under intermittent but terrifying rocket attacks for years, both from Gaza and Lebanon. Besides his video on the tunnels, Alnajjar also provides an unsettling glimpse into the process of building and firing a Qassam rocket. But I'll embed this video by Jaron Gilinksy, also from Current, that shows a Katyusha rocket attack from Lebanon in 2006 that hits as he conducts an interview about that very topic.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm Not the Next Great Pundit

The Washington Post is hosting a contest to determine America's Next Great Pundit. Almost 5,000 people submitted op-eds to become one of ten finalists, who will now go on to duke it out in a Survivor-like competition. The ultimate winner gets a column in the paper for 13 weeks. Considering one of the finalists is a Nobel laureate, it's not much of a surprise I didn't get chosen. In any case, here's my failed submission:

I recently visited the Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem that memorializes the victims and honors the countless heroes who resisted the Nazi genocide. The museum cuts like a chasm on top of Mount Herzl, creating a near-overwhelming feeling of constriction as the walls close ever tighter around you. By the end, it’s hard to breathe.

I thought I had left the Holocaust behind me when I returned home to the United States. I was wrong.

Apparently now in Washington, issues are too cumbersome, earnest debate too burdensome. It’s much easier to claim you caught the other side practicing their best “Sieg Heil!” in front of the mirror. Like Yad Vashem, American politics has become suffocating.

When Jews discuss the Holocaust, we often invoke the mantra “Never Again.” We promise ourselves that never again will the Jewish people submit to subjugation and annihilation. We promise ourselves that never again will the Jewish people precariously cower behind the inconsistent protection of other nations. Most importantly, we promise ourselves that never again will the Jewish people allow a similar fate to befall another group.

Listening to the rhetoric, it appears some American politicians have adopted the same “Never Again” creed. In fact, it seems they see a looming Holocaust everywhere they look, exaggerating comparisons to inflame emotions. Thus, intellectual integrity is sacrificed for political points.

Take for example Congressman Grayson’s (D-Fla.) speech blaming Republicans for the “Holocaust” of allowing thousands of Americans to die from lack of healthcare. While letting so many Americans slip through the cracks is simply despicable, it hardly compares to a system designed to efficiently murder six million people. But at least Rep. Grayson seeks to address a real problem, unlike the ridiculous and harmful myth of Nazi-inspired death panels.

Every spurious claim of genocide not only cheapens the political debate, it also dishonors the memory of the victims of the real Holocaust. Worse yet, for every real genocide we allow on our watch – like Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan – we fail our moral obligation to humanity that underpins the “Never Again” creed. Clearly, some politicians have lost the right to ever again say “Never Again.”

When visitors of Yad Vashem funnel out of the museum, they suddenly find themselves atop Mount Herzl overlooking the lush Israeli countryside. Both figuratively and literally, they can finally take a breath of fresh air – a gift we desperately need now in Washington.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Draw the Match, Win the Day

The West Bank town of Al Ram is little different than the countless unimposing towns just like it scattered throughout the Palestinian territories. Israelis and Palestinians mostly know Al Ram for the series of High Court cases that deliberated over the construction of the separation barrier that looms ominously near the outskirts of the town. While fences and barbed wire makes up most of the barrier elsewhere, in Al Ram the barrier is a forbidding, concrete wall. Security is of the utmost concern here. After all, Jerusalem lies just on the other side of the barrier.

But after this week, there will now be a much better, uplifting reason to remember Al Ram. As The New York Times reports, a "cheering, flag-waving, anthem-singing crowd packed into the soccer stadium" this week to watch the first home match of the Palestinian women's soccer club. After a "feisty" match, the underdog Palestinian women - veiled and unveiled, Muslim and Christian - tied the Jordanians 2-2 to the ecstatic surprise of the raucous crowd.

The result, however, is not as important as the symbolism. One player explained, "We can't say oh we have to sit in our homes, in the kitchen like our moms, you know? We have to change it. We have to say the Palestinian women are free and they can do whatever men do." And in fact, they can do what men can do. The last time the men's team played Jordan, they tied as well with a score 1-1.

The Palestinians deserve this moral victory, after enduring a difficult year of stalled peace talks, failed reconciliation deals, political blunders and war. But the players weren't thinking about such things on the pitch. As one explained, "There are no politics involved. We play only for Palestine."

Yet nothing in Palestine can completely escape politics. For one, Gazans are not allowed to play. Israel bars them for security concerns while Hamas, who rules Gaza, shuns female participation in sports. Then there are the massive, gaudy billboards of Yasser Arafat that surround Al Ram's stadium (you can see them in a video at the NYTimes link). In one of them, a young, sunglasses-sporting Arafat looks dreamily into the distance with the caption: "Our promise is Jerusalem."

But for me, the promise lies not in Jerusalem, but with inspirational events like this one. Events that foster a sense of pride. Events that boost self-esteem. Events that improve daily life. Events that, while in the shadow of the security barrier, transcend the psychological and emotional barriers of conflict.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jewish Settlers Save Gay Palestinian

YNet reports on "such a remarkable story [that] could only happen in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." A young gay Palestinian named T, who has been living in Israel with his Israeli partner of ten years, recently returned to the West Bank to visit his ailing father. Because the local Palestinians do not approve of his sexual orientation, T met his father outside of their village for safety. When T tried to return home to Israel, security forces did not allow him to cross the border for purported security reasons.

T was stuck in no-man's land, trapped between overzealous border officials and homophobic neighbors. So he turned to the only other person he knew in the area: an orthodox Jewish settler. Thus, for the past ten days, the gay Palestinian T has found refuge within a Jewish West Bank settlement. A remarkable story indeed.

Writing at the Commentary blog, David Hazony argues this story teaches that "what makes them [Palestinians] different from us [Israelis/Jews] is not merely quaint or alien but reprehensible. That we are in effect extending a hand of tolerance to those who expressly renounce tolerance, and who make little effort to hide their murderous side."

There is no doubt Arab and Muslim homosexuals face tremendous difficulties. Sometimes their existence is denied, as Iranian President Ahmadinejad has ridiculously claimed. More often, they confront religious, social and political persecution. And too often, they face a fate far worse. In Iraq, for example, the marauding Mahdi army has tortured and murdered homosexuals using most gruesome, unspeakable methods.

But Hazony lets Israel somewhat off the hook here. While homosexuals in Israel enjoy far more freedom and acceptance than the Muslim world (and even the U.S.), there are still problems. Take, for instance, the recent shooting at a Tel Aviv gay youth center that left two dead and many more wounded. The incident sparked massive outrage and spurred Israeli politicians of all persuasions to take a firm stand in favor of homosexual rights. Thus, Israel isn't special because its homosexual population does not face persecution, but because there is a societal and political consensus to fight for their equal rights.

Hazony took a wrong turn by viewing the story of T through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thereby compelling him to try to score political points for Israel. In fact, besides T's inability to re-enter Israel, the story has very little to do with the conflict.

Instead, we should take the story for what it is: an uplifting story of how religious Jewish settlers likely saved the life of a gay Palestinian man because of the common humanity they share. Furthermore, we should draw inspiration to continue fighting for the human rights of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality and sexual preference, no matter where those rights may be threatened.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Less Borders, More Exchanges

The Beirut39 contest that honors 39 of the best Arab authors under 39 have announced their nominees. But as the Arabist points out, there's a problem. Two of the winners are Arab Israelis and therefore unable to travel to Beirut to participate in the event. The Arabist laments the predicament of "culturally cut-off Arab Israeli writers, whose publishers and audiences may reside in countries they can't visit."

Arab Israeli musicians face similar difficulties. The hip hop trio DAM, the self-proclaimed first Arabic rap group, are from the Israeli city of Lod. While they enjoy popularity throughout the Middle East, they're forced to only tour in Israel, Europe and the United States because of their Israeli passports. Given that the majority of their songs focus on Palestinian rights, it is especially ironic that most Arab countries treat them no differently than Israelis.

But the Arabist fails to point out the larger and obvious fact: it's not only Arab Israelis who cannot visit Beirut or other Arab countries. All Israelis are barred entry (e.g. tennis players). Nor can most Arabs visit Israel (even Arab Americans sometimes have difficulty). And everyone is worse off for it.

But even if laws were changed to allow for travel, there would still be political, cultural and religious barriers between Israel and the Arab countries. In one telling example, Egypt barred the Israeli film "The Band's Visit" from entering the Cairo International Film Festival last year. The Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni (the failed candidate for UNESCO chief) privately viewed the film, calling it "excellent," but objected to its public screening out of his purported fear of riots in the streets over Zionist infiltration. Eventually Egypt caved and allowed a screening of the film in Cairo.

Oh, and by the way, the film tells the heartwarming story of an Egyptian police band who lose their way while traveling through Israel, and in the process, discover the warm hospitality of an Israeli town.

Episodes such as these exemplify how Egypt, despite formal relations with Israel, still exercises a cultural boycott of all things Israeli - except, of course, for the lucrative business of ripping off Israeli tourists. But more importantly, it shows that if everyone stopped worrying so much about where people and things come from, and instead consider what benefit they may bring, the entire Middle East would be better off.

As I've argued before, so long as Arabs and Israelis only interact within the context of conflict, we will never see peace in the Middle East.

Note: The Time article about DAM confuses the meaning of their name. DAM is Arabic for "eternity" and Hebrew for "blood," not the other way around.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Burning Holy Books

I previously asked why we are losing the war in Afghanistan. This story sheds some light. On Sunday, a group of Afghans burnt an effigy of President Obama during angry protests in the capital city of Kabul. The inciting incident? Rampant rumors that American forces had desecrated the Qur'an.

Per Laura King of the Los Angeles Times:

"Muslims were disrespected!" said Zabiullah Khalil, an engineering student. "The foreigners shot the Koran, and then they burned it. They should be tried for this."

This was not the first time Afghans have gone to the streets over Qur'an desecration rumors. In 2005, Newsweek reported that American soldiers flushed a Qur'an down the toilet in Guantanamo. Shortly thereafter, the magazine recanted the story as false. The real story, in fact, derived from an incident when an inmate had dropped the holy book in the vicinity of a toilet. No matter. Furious protests in Afghanistan were only abruptly ended when police shot into the crowd, leaving four people dead and one burnt Bush effigy lying in the street.

Nor is this the first time holy book burning has caused a scandal inside Afghanistan. Earlier this year, al-Jazeera acquired exclusive footage of U.S. soldiers purportedly discussing how to proselytize Afghans and distribute native-language Bibles. In response to the ensuing scandal, the U.S. military confiscated the bibles and incinerated them. You can see the raw footage of the meeting here, but this clip below sums up the scandal pretty well.

I wonder what the protesters in Kabul think about American "crusaders" burning their own Bibles - or even if they know about the incident at all. In the end, it doesn't matter whether rumors about burning the Qur'an are true or not, or whether proselytizing Christianity is official U.S. policy. Extremists who want to hate the United States will find their reasons. There is nothing we can do about that.

The troubling thing is that the protesters in Kabul were not the Taliban ideologues. They were students. The question is how do we win their trust? How do we convince them to not so readily consume Taliban propaganda? We can begin by not giving the extremists any excuse to fan the flames. But ultimately, only by improving the facts on the ground, whether through legitimate government or economic opportunity, can we regain the Afghan trust we have squandered over eight years of failed policies and neglect.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Let Them Eat Hummus

Al Arabiya reports over 250 Lebanese chefs have wrested the Guinness World Record for largest plate of hummus, a chickpea-based dip, away from the previous record holder, Israel. The chefs mixed over two tons of hummus, using nearly 3,000 pounds of chickpeas and 400 liters of lemon juice.

This gargantuan culinary feat is the latest attempt by Lebanon to assert its unique proprietorship over hummus and other favorite dishes. Earlier this month, Lebanon announced it will fill a lawsuit in international court to prevent Israel from marketing hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes as "Israeli."

This being the Middle East, a simple food fight takes on overblown proportions. In the comments of the article, one Lebanese reader writes, "they want to win the war and take over our countries...LEAVE OUR FOOD ALONE for gods sake!" Another user named Waleed finishes a long rant about how "even our hummus didn't escape the Zionist" by admitting "tears just rolled down my face as I finished this post."

But thankfully, there are cooler heads as well. An Israeli admits Lebanese hummus is the best and hopes "to have a plate of hummus in Beirut one day." Better yet, a user named Omar suggests (excuse the typos) "a food festival between Arab and Isralis. Guess hwo will win? Everyone."

Hey Omar, count me in.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Taliban Wants Better Roads

The Taliban have called for a general boycott of the upcoming November 7 Afghan runoff vote between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Taliban called for a similar boycott during the first round, as well as threatened widespread violence.While the threats proved mostly empty (there were relatively few attacks at polling stations), only 30% of Afghans voted.

Given the massive fraud last round and the deterioriating weather, expect even lower turnout this time around. For that reason, I previously argued why a power-sharing arrangement would better serve both Afghan and American interests.

This past month has been a public relations bonanaza for the Taliban. In an article on the Taliban official English website (yes, they do use computers), they boast, "it is now clear as broad day light that the August 20 elections in Afghanistan was readily ludicrous and preposterous which caused more shame and disgrace to the surrogate regime in Kabul." They cite specifically "fraud, ballot stuffing and corruption," as well as how long it took the Afghan government to sort through the results.

Nothing too radical yet, except the usage of "surrogate" which implies they believe it's only a matter of time before the Taliban retakes control. But the Taliban being the Taliban, they can't resist themselves and go into crazy jihad mode. Claiming that the Americans don't want to help the Afghans, they contend, "The roads, which have been asphalted, is only for the facility of the invaders military logistic who want to reach their destinations on time and to prevent road side bombs. Still they have not asphalted the roads according to the international standard of road tarmac."

If only the Taliban followed the international conventions of warfare as closely as the all-important Global Tarmac Protocols! And who exactly is responsible for those roadside bombs again?

But they're not done yet. They continue, "as to other rehabilitation and reconstruction work, they raise only empty slogans, which have not been materialized." Thus do they reveal their strategy. Stop reconstruction efforts violently. Blame Americans for not reconstructing fast enough. Fool the Afghan population. Win the population over.

How are we losing this one again?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Daily Show in Iran

Voice for America interviews The Daily Show's Jason Jones and Tim Greenberg about their trip to Iran during this summer's elections (h/t niacINsight).

In the video, Jason describes visiting a park in Iran as the "most bucolic, beautiful scene you've ever seen." Watching the Iranians enjoy themselves with their families, he realized "they're just really about something that we're about...having a safe, happy, prosperous life."

I had a similar experience walking through a park in Hama, Syria. After prayers on Friday, everyone congregates in a park on top of a hill overlooking the city. It's a time for swings, barbecues, friends and family. I lingered until sunset, absorbing the scene around me. Lesson learned: people are people, no matter where they happen to push their children on the swing.

Here are two of my pictures from Syria. The first is in Hama, the second in Aleppo:

If you're interested, the Daily Show made four video segments in total their series called "Behind the Veil." While funny, they touch on some truly serious issues and confront stereotypes head on. In my favorite clip, which I remember watching during a recent trip to Israel, Jason interviews Iranians about American politics and, with much less success, Americans about Iran.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Second Shoe Intifada

One more day in Middle Eastern politics, one more shoe throwing incident. According to Tehran Bureau, a pro-Ahmadinejad politician, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, incurred the shoe-hurling wrath of a Tehran University audience after claiming 10 Basiji militia died during the post-election demonstrations. The former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance was forced to make a quick exit as the crowd shouted pro-opposition chants.

Somehow I doubt President Bush and Saffar-Harandi will be exchanging shoe-dodging tips anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the original shoe thrower, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, has made it into the news once more. After spending nine months in jail, al-Zeidi was released from Iraqi prison for good behavior in September. In an op-ed that week, he explained that he threw his shoe at the "criminal" President Bush "out of loyalty to every drop of innocent blood that has been shed through the occupation." He also claimed he was tortured in prison by Iraqi officials, saying he was beaten with cables and whips.

While he asserts he is no hero and was just acting out of love of country, that didn't stop reporters in Geneva from giving him a hero's welcome during a press conference on Monday. Al-Zeidi has claimed repeatedly the U.S. is responsible for 1 million Iraqi deaths. But his numbers, like his throwing aim, are considerably off. According to Iraq Body Count, there have been approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians deaths in violent incidents since the beginning of the war in 2003.

While in Lebanon, I spotted this backpack for sale depicting a "heroic" al-Zeidi throwing his shoe at a cowering President Bush. I ended up spending my money on earrings for my sister instead.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fixing Traffic in Cairo

The Egyptian government has finally decided to fix downtown Cairo traffic.

I have plenty of personal experience in the unique joy of sitting in unrelenting Egyptian gridlock as the hours (no exaggeration) tick slowly away. Everything is a battle. One lane against another. One honk against ten others. The pedestrian against the car. The bus against anything that's foolish enough to get in the way. The cigarette smoke against the car exhaust. The stereo blaring the Qur'an against the other car blasting pop music against the twenty other radios in earshot. Negotiating the taxi fare. Then negotiating it again. And once more.

I once was stuck next to an ambulance, siren screaming. We moved ten meters in as many minutes. Though knowing how bad Egyptians hospitals can be, that delay just might have saved that person's life. Okay, probably not.

So, it's about time the government did something. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has called for a comprehensive plan to redevelop downtown into large pedestrian squares, complete with open-air restaurants and cafes. Traffic will be banned or channeled into massive, underground parking garages.

I'm immediately skeptical. Remember Boston's Big Dig? Well try it in a poor underdeveloped country, where corruption, nepotism, and incompetence permeate every level of government. For nearly a decade, the Egyptian government has been promising the completion of the Grand Egyptian Museum, a highly ambitious project that will attract nearly 5 million visitors per year. Well, not only has the government failed to deliver the museum on time, but even the official website, as of today, is not up and running.

Putting the government aside, I'm not sure that building a few garages will substantively change the level of traffic. Admittedly, many streets are lined on either side by a row (sometimes two rows) of parked cars. These lanes could be used for moving traffic if the cars were parked in a garage. But I don't understand why such garages need to be underground and centered only in downtown.

If the government were really serious about traffic, it would:

1. Raise gas prices. The government currently subsidizes gasoline below market prices, largely to garner public favor. Quite simply, if people cannot afford to drive, there'll be less cars in the street. Notably, Cairo's ~100,000 taxi drivers would be disproportionately hurt by such a hike in prices. They could either receive a rebate, or as many cabs have already done, use natural gas instead.

2. Increase public transportation. Buses are inconsistent, overcrowded and often not even buses at all, but glorified Astro vans called microbuses. The money saved on decreasing the gasoline subsidy could be used to fund more public transportation options.

3. Establish the rule of law. Besides a seat belt law that is rarely enforced, Cairo's streets are a completely lawless, Hobbesian nightmare. But with order, comes efficiency. With efficiency, traffic flows. So install traffic lights, establish lanes of traffic, introduce speed limits, create pedestrian crosswalks and, no kidding, prohibit donkey carts on large streets.

Below, I've included my friend's picture of Cairo's streets (one of the less crowded areas) that depicts a car accident and the resulting melee between drivers. Just one chaotic intersection among countless thousands in the Egyptian capital.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Woman Divorces over Gitmo Nickname

According to Al Arabiya, a Saudi woman has filed for divorce after discovering her husband stored her name in his cell phone as "Guantanamo." The husband claimed he stored the name to protect her identity, in case prying eyes might learn her number when she called.

Such nicknaming is apparently common practice for Saudi husbands, but most men choose less offensive names for their wives. However, one man interviewed, Khaled Omar, said he stored his wife as "salary" because "she has no mercy when it comes to spending."

So what do we learn from this?

For one, men do stupid things no matter where they're from. And then they get caught. Two, women don't like it when they're compared to an infamous prison that denies basic due process to some of the world's most dangerous terrorists. But, if you trust Mr. Omar, they do like shopping (I would add that most Gulf Arabs love shopping, not just the women).

But on a more serious point, the article notes the woman, who is currently 30 years old, has been married for 17 years. In other words, she was married at the age of 13. Yet for Al Arabiya, this uncomfortable fact is not worth mentioning.

Child marriage is a persistent problem in Saudi Arabia, as well as some other countries in the region. Just last month, a 12 year old Yemeni girl died during childbirth. In Saudi Arabia specifically, several high profile cases of child marriage have sparked debate within the Kingdom. In one case earlier this year, a judge annulled a marriage between an 8 year old girl and a 50 year old man. A strengthening women's movement and increasingly assertive press have begun to highlight such egregious cases.

Now, the Saudi government is considering setting a minimum age for marriage at 18 years, but has faced opposition from powerful, conservative religious leaders. Importantly, Saudi Arabia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Child, a legally binding international treaty protecting the rights of minors. Yet, the country has been slow in meeting the convention's provisions.

While Islam is often used to justify child marriage by conservatives, it is not inherently an Islamic practice. There is currently an intense, internal debate about when marriage should be considered appropriate. For example, take a look at this article about child marriages in Malawi and the religious argument it sparks, with both sides citing religious sources.

One of the main points of contention is the Prophet Mohammed's marriage to one of his wives, Aisha, who was likely only nine years old when the marriage was consummated. Many Muslims argue that morality evolves with history. Therefore, what was acceptable in 7th century Arabia may no longer be acceptable in the 21st century. But some conservative Muslims, who believe the Prophet's life set an eternal exemplar of righteousness, argue that Islamic morality was perfected in the 7th century and will never change. Thus if Mohammed married a child, it is moral to do so now.

The debate over polygamy follows a similar structure. Over the course of his lifetime, Mohammed married eleven women. However, the Qur'an also clearly states that a man should never have more than four wives at one time and can only marry additional wives if he can manage to treat them all equally and fairly. Importantly, many men in the Old Testament also had multiple wives, but years ago Judaism and Christianity eliminated polygamy as modern morality evolved. Now, Islam is currently undergoing a similar process, but the answer is far from settled.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Israelis Boycott Turkish Coffee

Arabic news network Al Arabiya reports many Israeli restaurants have decided to boycott Turkish coffee. In addition, Israeli's national airline, El Al, will stop subsidizing vacations for their workers to popular Turkish destinations.

These developments are the latest indicators of the deteriorating relations between traditional allies Israel and Turkey. According to Michael Reynolds at the MESH blog, "The Turkey-Israeli strategic partnership is no longer in crisis, but has essentially ended."

In recent weeks, Turkey expressed its anger over the Gaza War by barring Israel from participating in a joint military exercise. Later, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman chastised Turkey for a new television drama that shows Israel soldiers murdering Palestinian children. Last week, Syria and Turkey signed several treaties that indicate a growing strategic partnership between the two countries - a trend none too comforting to Israelis. Finally this weekend, Prime Minister Netanyahu has questioned whether Turkey can act as an "honest broker" in mediating talks between Syria and Israel.

So what's the deal? At a recent event I attended at the United States Institute of Peace, Brookings expert Ömer Taşpınar cited two causes. One, the voice of the Turkish people has been amplified over the years, making the government more responsive to populist sentiment. The Turkish people, never fully convinced about their government's alliance with Israel, have voiced their anger forcefully over innocents killed during Israeli military operations. During a conversation this summer with a Turkish friend, I said in passing "Now that the Gaza War is over..." She immediately interjected angrily, "The war's not over! Palestinians are still suffering every day!"

Second, perhaps as a backlash over stalled E.U. ascension talks, the Turkey has witnessed a growing surge of nationalistic fervor. Turkey now seeks to become a regional power, solving the region's issues and developing ties with all of its neighbors. Towards this end, Turkey has sought to improve relations with its longtime rival Armenia. In addition, Turkish President Abdullah Gul boasted today that Turkey is among the "rare" countries that maintain good relations with both Israel and the Arab states.

That statement implies to me that, while relations are suffering right now, in the long run cooler heads will prevail in both Turkey and Israel. The countries share several essential strategic interests that require cooperation, especially in countering Iran's vision of establishing its own regional hegemony. The United States won't let them forget what's at stake. In fact, it appears President Obama may have already raised the issue of Israel to President Gul in a telephone call this weekend.

But for the near future, expect some grumpy, caffeine-starved Israelis in Tel Aviv's cafes.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Meaning of Music

In America, we don't read too deeply into our music. If it's catchy, it's good enough. Just look at the lyrics to the summer hit "I Gotta Feeling" (I happen to like this song) by Black Eyed Peas:

Fill up my cup. Mazel Tov!
Look at her dancing. Just take it off.
Let's paint the town. We'll shut it down.
Let's burn the roof. Then we'll do it again.

But in the kaleidoscopic political/cultural/religious/ethnic landscape of the Middle East, everything has a deeper meaning. Here are three music videos from across the region that convey a message that trascends their notes and lyrics.

Tehran Bureau highlights an Iranian rapper named Hich Kas (translation: "Nobody"). His first music video "Bunch of Soldiers" encourages unison in the face of oppression. Interestingly, it was made in 2008 before this summer's tumultuous events.

The LA Times blog Babylon and Beyond features a Kurdish singer from Iraq named Dashni Murad. Like many female singers in the Middle East, she's caught between trying to emulate the style of Western music while maintaining a connection with her traditional culture. Not surprisingly, she has simultaneously accumulated a fair amount of ogling fans and vehement, conservative detractors.

Third but not least, I've added a video by the Israeli group Flashblack. During my trip to Israel, I visited an educational kibbutz called Eshbal that takes in some of the country's most troubled kids and gives them a sense of direction and hope. Most amazingly, Esbhal was founded by a group of young Israelis, fresh out of their military service, who had the "chutzpah" to make a difference. In this case, a group of their students have formed a rap group to express themselves in a positive way. Here is a video of one of their performances.

I'm not saying there isn't meaningful music in the West. There is. But given the number of conflicts, divisions, inequalities and tensions that exist in the Middle East, it only makes sense that musicians reflect these issues in their music. Moreover, even the most trivial song in the Middle East can carry serious cultural, religious and even political implications, salient to anyone who cares to listen.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ledeen, Khamenei and Twitter Hysteria

The rumors about Khamenei's death continue to swirl (see previous post here). The Guardian sums it up pretty well:

Of course there is an easy way for the clerical regime in Tehran to put a stop to the current hysteria. But the ayatollah has yet to appear to declare that the reports of his death are exaggerated. Until he does, the chances are the rumours will spread.

In addition, the article takes a few shots at Michael Ledeen, the primary source for the rumors, saying he has a "track record in spreading misinformation" and has falsely reported Khamenei's death before. The Guardian also cites a Vanity Fair article that linked Ledeen to the yellowcake uranium intelligence fiasco.

The Guardian somewhat misleads on the latter point. While Vanity Fair provides plenty of circumstantial evidence, it also admits "there are no fingerprints connecting Ledeen to the Niger documents. Even his fiercest adversaries will concede this." And Ledeen does have many adversaries (for example, see here or here).

Furthermore, Ledeen himself admits he has misreported Khamenei's death before. He did so in the original post and reiterates that fact in a new post. In Ledeen's words, "I have never claimed to know anything about Khamenei's death, and I still don't know anything."

Of course, such details get lost in a 140 character Twitter message. Before you know it, conjecture is truth and rumor is news.

Maybe Ledeen should've known that before blogging. But then again, everyone spreading the rumor should've known that too before drinking the Kool-Aid.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Runoff in Afghanistan?

According to The New York Times, the Afghan ambassador to Washington, Said Tayeb Jawad, said that a runoff election between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah appears likely.

This is obviously big news. Until today, no one close to Karzai suggested any possibility of a second round of elections. So when Jawad says a runoff is likely, we should understand they are a near certainty.

But is it good news? That depends on what happens next.

On one hand, Abdullah has previously suggested he may not be able to control his followers if the fraud is not properly corrected, despite attempts to calm emotions. A runoff would prevent likely violent protests in the streets, as feared by Juan Cole. Besides, there is a strong moral argument that Afghans deserve a legitimate election to let their true voices be heard.

But the question is whether a runoff will turn out any better than the first round. There is good cause for doubt. To avoid the harsh Afghan winter, a runoff will have to take place within the next two weeks or so - hardly enough time to make necessary reforms that would prevent another fraud-ridden vote. In addition, it is unlikely Karzai was directly responsible for most of the fraudulent votes in his name. Even if he wants an honest vote, it would be hard for Karzai to effectively crack down on his warlord and drug dealer cronies. In short, the only thing worse than a fraudulent election would be a fraudulent runoff that costs extra money and lives while simultaneously decimating any remaining Afghan hope for justice.

In a second scenario, elections are put off until the spring, allowing time for necessary reforms. While I think getting the runoff right is more important than conducting it quickly, this path would place Afghanistan in constitutional limbo. To bridge the gap, some sort of transitional government would have to be put in place, as suggested by Abdullah. But actually doing so would prove tricky and, if done wrong, the risk of violence would be quite high.

The best outcome would be some sort of power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah, as suggested by Fareed Zakaria and others. While Abdullah has emphatically rejected that idea before, he may be more amenable if a runoff is declared. Per the Times article today, some experts believe Abdullah is waiting for the final verdict on fraud, hoping his bargaining position will strengthen after any announcement. If he feels he can gain the upper hand in negotiations with Karzai, then power-sharing might not sound so bad after all.

In sum, a Karzai-Abdullah deal would minimize the risk of violence, provide definitive, immediate closure and confer much needed legitimacy on the Afghan government. Only then will the U.S. have the partner it needs to conduct an effective campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Khamenei Dead?

What do you get when you mixed an overly repressive regime, people who love a good conspiracy, constrained traditional news media and overeager bloggers? One hell of a rumor.

According to Michael Ledeen, an "excellent" source has informed him that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has fallen into a coma. Suggesting Khamenei's health has deteriorated from the stress of the post-election protests and subsequent political jockeying, the source concludes: "Outlook is uncertain but speculation is [...] he may not come out of his coma and/or that he may die very soon."

And then the blogosphere erupted, with some even suggesting Khamenei has already passed away.

Maybe the rumor's true. Khamenei is 70 years old and has had health difficulties before. Then again, maybe it's not true. I don't know. In fact, the problem is nobody knows.

But there is reason to be skeptical. For one, most of the bloggers spreading this rumor clearly are rooting for it to be true. It's hard to imagine the blogger Anti-Mullah praying for a speedy recovery. Or consider the blogger Dinah Lord who warns at the top of the page "Muslims, Moonbats, Marxists and Misogynists - enter at your own risk." Yet Michael Ledeen is a legitimate scholar, working for a (right-leaning) think tank. That's why he promises to "Trust, but verify" before making any final conclusions.

But the real reason I'm skeptical is the silence of the traditional news media. Admittedly, they have faced extreme difficulty operating in Iran recently - as evidenced by their own reliance on Twitter, Facebook and the like. But given their desire to break news exclusively, it's odd none of them have even mentioned rumors of Khamenei's health. In the past, they have broadcast unconfirmed rumors out of Iran while warning their audience of their inability to confirm or deny. Why aren't they doing so now? Surely, they're reading the same blogs and tweets I am.

In fact, the only other authoritative source I've found so far comes from Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute, who doesn't seem so convinced.

So until CNN, Fox News, the NY Times or other think tanks start talking about these rumors, I'm going to treat them as just that: unreliable rumors.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, George Stephanopoulos was apparently doing the same. But he seems as in the dark as the rest of us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let Them Wear Veils

The Grand Imam of Egypt's al-Azhar University, Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, recently told a female student to remove her niqab (a veil that covers the face) during a lecture, ostensibly because he had trouble hearing her. After he faced outrage from conservative Muslims, Sheikh Tantawi went ahead and banned the niqab from the university. Now, a group of Egyptian MPs, lawyers and human rights group have sued the Sheikh to reverse the decision.

The New Republic's Marty Peretz took this development as an opportunity to blast President Obama for his speech in Cairo, where the President said, "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal." According to Peretz, "President Obama's indiscriminate endorsement of these curtaining contraptions is an intrusion into an active debate in the Muslim world, a reckless intrusion." Furthermore, Peretz suggests Sheikh Tantawi's decision is a "retort to Obama's intrusion."

I have to disagree on this one. President Obama sought to heal the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world in Cairo. For too long that relationship has been governed by mutual fear, instead of the "mutual interest and mutual respect" President Obama seeks to cultivate. Given Obama's purpose in Cairo and the millions of Muslim Americans the President represents, he has every right to speak about the veil. After all, why wouldn't the President speak about America's fundamental values of democracy, liberty and, yes, religious tolerance?

Part of the process of ameliorating our relationship must begin with the recognition that the veil is a legitimate symbol of Muslim piety. Many Muslim women choose to wear the veil, in the exact way many Orthodox Jews choose to wear kippot. There is no moral difference. However, there are certainly Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil against their will. Clearly, this is unacceptable and the U.S. must push for their right to dress as they please.

While Peretz brags about how many books he's read on the topic, he clearly hasn't spoken to many Muslim women. When I attended President Obama's speech at Cairo University (Peretz mistakenly says the speech took place at al-Azhar), it was obvious to me how excited the Muslim women were to hear the President's support for the veil. The comment drew some of the loudest applause of the entire speech. Nor were the women all conservative Muslims. Roughly half were students of the secular Cairo University, while many more women included Egypt's pop singers, movie stars and socialites (not exactly known for their religiosity).

Furthermore, it's outlandish to think Sheikh Tantawi would make such a fundamental decision only to retort the American president, as Peretz dubiously claims. After criticizing President Obama for inserting himself into an internal Muslim debate, Peretz oddly minimizes the validity of that debate with such an accusation. In addition, while al-Azhar University is considered one of the premier institutions of Sunni thought, it simultaneously carries a stigma of too closely following the Egyptian government line. It is impossible to understand the niqab ban without considering the long-lasting struggle between the Egyptian regime and Islamism. Just last week the Egyptian government detained 24 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading Islamist opposition group.

When Westerners like Peretz fixate on the veil while discussing women's rights, they do little to help real Muslim women. In fact, they only obfuscate the real problems Muslim women face every day, like economic inequality and insufficient education. That is the ultimate tragedy of arguments like the one Peretz lays out. Out of a desire to help, he only hurts the cause.

To see what real Muslim women are like, check out this photo album of Saudi women from Time Magazine and read this article by Sumbul Ali-Karamali about a recent Muslim women's rights conference in Malaysia. And if you're really interested, I wrote a comment to that article as well.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Guardian Anti-Israeli?

President Obama's Nobel Prize wasn't the only controversy over the award this weekend. National Review Online reports that the popular British newspaper, The Guardian, "wiped Israel off the Nobel Prize map, much as Iranian despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like to wipe Israel off the real map." Putting aside the melodramatics, the controversy is very real.

As part of their coverage, The Guardian published a list of all Nobel Peace Prize laureates to put Obama's prize in context. Unfortunately, they left out all three Israelis who have won the Peace Prize: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Anwar Sadat, who won the prize with Begin, and Yasser Arafat, who won the prize with Rabin and Peres, were not omitted. Oddly, The Guardian forgot to delete "Israel" when removing the names of the Israelis, leaving the country's name next to the listings for Sadat and Arafat.

The National Review does not seem surprised by the controversy, calling the move one of many "KGB-style" attempts to "mislead readers about Israel on a regular basis." On one hand, I can't imagine the paper thought they could so blatantly misrepresent history without getting caught. On the other hand, it does seem odd that they omitted all Israeli recipients from multiple years, as opposed to the innocent mistake of forgetting one. Whether it's accidental malpractice or deliberate malfeasance, it's disheartening either way.

Regardless, the Guardian cannot deny the stunning performance of Israelis in the fields of science. Dan Ben-David writes in Haaretz that, since 2000, Israel has won three times as many scientific Nobel Prizes per capita than any other country. The United Kingdom ranks fifth, behind Israel, New Zealand, Norway and the United States.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Puppet Dictators for Sale

Despite the weak economy, apparently people have enough money to buy an "Arab puppet dictator kit" for sale on Ebay (h/t Arabist). The kit includes "tools" that will help, among other things, to "give green light to any US agency for regional hegemony," steal natural resources, crush the people's "aspiration for true freedom" with "absolute brutality," and "respond very well to CNN and other tools of imperial propaganda." All for a current bid of $20.50!

Putting President Obama's Nobel prize aside, clearly the United States faces anti-Americanism throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Some of the problem stems from image issues. You and I know the United States isn't out to crush freedom, but unfortunately that's not so obvious to many Arabs and Muslims who often have access to either incomplete, biased and even invented information.

But perceptions are only half the problem. While many Arabs were delighted by Obama's election (it's no coincidence the Ebay site features a picture of President Bush wielding a scimitar laughing), they are also quick to point out that they are waiting for tangible action. Sadly, we don't exactly have the best record when it comes to supporting dictators in the Middle East. Take, for instance, our plot to overthrow a democratically elected leader to install the Shah of Iran.

We must find a way to convince the Arab and Muslim world that - fifty years after that mistake - we're no longer in the nefarious business of CIA coups. Words won't suffice. So what actions can we take? We can begin by consistently supporting democratic reform and human rights rhetorically, diplomatically, technically and financially.

Should democracy be our only concern in the region? No. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting extremism and securing our energy supply all require the cooperation of the region's autocratic leaders for the short-term. But for the long-term, only a democratic Middle East will lead to stability and prosperity. And only a stable, prosperous Middle East can keep America secure.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Common Interests

October 24th is an international Day of Action hosted by climate change group Their name stems from the scientific consensus that the environment can only sustain 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently, we're at at 386 ppm and increase by 2 ppm every year.

As part of the campaign, Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians will gather at the Dead Sea and form a human chain to write out the numbers 3, 5 and 0. They will then take aerial photographs to create an image of '350' to not only highlight global warming, but also its effects on an already water-strapped Middle East.

For me, the important message goes far beyond climate change. Here we have an important issue that requires the cooperation of both Israelis and Arabs. Global warming threatens everyone equally and doesn't pick political sides. As a result, we get joint actions like this demonstration at the Dead Sea that brings together the disparate sides.

Every time Israelis and Arabs come together to confront common problems, they build just a little more trust between them. Step by step, momentum builds. Institutional and personal exchanges broaden. And eventually, the prospects for peace brighten.

As long as the Israeli-Arab relations revolve solely around the conflict that divides them, nothing will change.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Picture of Me

For my job, I attended a meeting of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at the House of Representatives. The panel discussed religious tolerance in Pakistan (there is none). If you're feeling adventurous, you can read my notes about the hearing here.

But more importantly, you can see a picture of me at the meeting in this Voice of America article on the event. Look for the handsome guy in the background typing diligently.

(Un)Islamic Republic of Iran

The ideological fervor behind the Islamic Republic in Iran seems to be fading, especially since the June 12 elections. While we have always known Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad care more about staying in power than the people in Iran, we are now learning they also are willing to sacrifice the precepts of the Islamic revolution to maintain their rule. As Geneive Abdo argues, recent appointments of ultra hard-liners to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps reveal a growing reliance on the military to keep the Iranian people in check.

This past week, the regime hosted street demonstrations to display the prowess of the police forces. You can see some pictures here (h/t Tehran Bureau). Policewomen, garbed in veils to ensure modesty, break concrete slabs over their stomachs and ninja-chop stacks of wood. Most interestingly, the women are shown publicly touching men as they spar each other. Keep in mind, Iranian women can find themselves in trouble for letting a mere lock of hair fall carelessly from underneath their veil. So for the government to not only permit but to host demonstrations where women are in physical contact with men is truly amazing. It is one trivial but telling example of how militarism - and not revolutionary Islam - now upholds the Iranian regime.

As a side note, it is not uncommon for once ideologically driven regimes to forgo their founding principles in order to stay in power. Communist China is a good example (in some senses, they are now more capitalist than we are). And just last month, North Korea amended its constitution to formally expunge "Communism" from the text and declare Kim-Jong Il its official "Supreme Leader."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Harm Test

Last weekend, Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post comes to the realization that "none of the steps the West is considering to stop the Iranian nuclear program is likely to work." Instead, the U.S. should develop a strategy of containment, much like we used in the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. Diehl also contends our best hope "lies in a victory by the Iranian opposition over the current regime."

Here's my failed letter to the editor in response:

To the editor:

In his article “The Coming Failure on Iran,” Jackson Diehl cites Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack in support of a containment strategy that aims for an eventual “victory by the Iranian opposition.” During a recent event on Capitol Hill moderated by Diehl, Pollack also asserted the great challenge will be deciphering how the U.S. can help the Iranian opposition without splitting and discrediting the movement.

Considering the current hawkish political environment in Washington, I think the inverse formulation is far more pressing: what policies should the U.S. avoid or else risk damaging the opposition? Every action and policy under consideration, including political engagement, negotiations, sanctions, military strikes and containment, should first pass a Hippocratic “no-harm” test.

Given the low probability that the intransigent Iranian regime will budge from its nuclear position and the difficulty in providing useful assistance to the opposition movement, everyone in Washington should take a deep breath. Only then, let us carefully weigh all the options with the welfare of the Green Movement in mind. After all, they are our best and likely only hope.


Jason Stern

Out of interest, here is the letter that was actually published.

So It Begins

It is an odd feeling. Blogging, that is. On one hand, I know no one will read this post. On the other hand, anyone can read this post at any time. I have, effectively, a non-existent infinite audience.
So to my friends and family who I will likely guilt trip into reading this - as well as the occasional reader who may stumble into this site by happenstance or providence - thank you for reading.

So what will you be reading? To be honest, I'm not quite sure myself. Generally, I will focus on the Middle East, though I may occasionally branch out if I'm feeling adventurous. Originally, I intended to catalog my failed attempts at becoming published in a major newspaper. That idea proved short-lived when the editors at the global edition of the New York Times published my letter to the editor about the future UNESCO chief. Of course, a 130 word letter is just a modest beginning. I will be submitting more letters and op-eds to newspapers and magazines - 99.9% will be rejected and subsequently posted here.

Beyond failed submissions, I will also be including Middle East news stories that have not received sufficient attention in the Western Press. In addition, as time allows, I'll try to take the extra step and provide some analysis of major events.

So it begins.