Archives for August 2010

A ruined country

Anthony Shadid reports on Iraq’s dead who still have no names.

In a pastel-colored room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing, where faces of the thousands of unidentified dead of this war are projected onto four screens, Hamid Jassem came on a Sunday searching for answers.

In a blue plastic chair, he sat under harsh fluorescent lights and a clock that read 8:58 and 44 seconds, no longer keeping time. With deference and patience, he stared at the screen, each corpse bearing four digits and the word “majhoul,” or unknown:

No. 5060 passed, with a bullet to the right temple; 5061, with a bruised and bloated face; 5062 bore a tattoo that read, “Mother, where is happiness?” The eyes of 5071 were open, as if remembering what had happened to him.

“Go back,” Hamid asked the projectionist. No. 5061 returned to the screen. “That’s him,” he said, nodding grimly.

His mother followed him into the room, her weathered face framed in a black veil. “Show me my son!” she cried.

Behind her, Hamid pleaded silently. He waved his hands at the projectionist, begging him to spare her. In vain, he shook his head and mouthed the word “no.”

“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” she shouted at the room. “It’s not him! It’s not him!”

No. 5061 returned to the screen.

She lurched forward, shaking her head in denial. Her eyes stared hard. And in seconds, her son’s 33 years of life seemed to pass before her eyes.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she finally sobbed, falling back in her chair.

Reflexively, her hands slapped her face. They clawed, until her nails drew blood. “If I had only known from the first day!” she cried.

The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant’s eyes sealed shut and a woman’s hair combed in blood and ash. “Files tossed on the shelves,” a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war’s name here — al-ahdath, or the events.

On the charts that the American military provides, those numbers are seen as success, from nearly 4,000 dead in one month in 2006 to the few hundred today. The Interior Ministry offers its own toll of war — 72,124 since 2003, a number too precise to be true. At the morgue, more than 20,000 of the dead, which even sober estimates suggest total 100,000 or more, are still unidentified.

The Los Angeles Times says:

U.S. military and civilian officials have hailed Iraq’s step back from the abyss since 2008 and the tentative return of normality, with a capable army and police force and a major drop in violence.

But as the U.S. ends combat operations in the country and politicians seem unable to break a deadlock over forming a new government nearly six months after national elections, every attack rattles the general population and fans the panic that the “bad men,” the “terrorists,” are back.

Dozens of security officers, ministry officials, judges and clerics have been killed or wounded this year. From March through the end of June, at least 354 people across Iraq died from explosives planted on their cars.

“2010 is worse than 2008 and 2009. We hope and pray to God that security will improve,” said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad’s main power plant.

He bristles at the notion that he and others in his ministry aren’t in danger. “Of course there is a threat,” he said, adding he has again taken to switching cars to throw off would-be hit men.

Some Iraqis whisper that anyone can be killed now because no one is in charge, no questions will be asked, the evidence will be long gone by the time a government is finally in place. People can use the cover of political deadlock to make power plays and settle personal scores.

“Of course this situation is because the government has not been formed,” said Kamil Kanjar, head of the local council in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. “Probably the security forces are not obeying instructions and orders in a proper way because they feel there is no government.”

Time magazine reports:

… the rosy “rebranding” of the conflict, as some have called it, is hardly playing well in the bazaars of Baghdad and other embattled cities and towns where Iraqis of all stripes are scratching their heads over how charting their own course can possibly be a good thing. After all, a snapshot of today’s Iraq is grim, and perceptions of an American retreat have the Iraqi streets rippling with anger and incredulity.

“What have the Americans accomplished for this country that they can now decide to just leave?” asks Hasnaa Ali, 42, a Baghdad schoolteacher who is heading home with a bag of groceries to prepare her family’s iftar meal — the daily breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. “We don’t have clean water or electricity. Prices for everything are very high. There is no security, no jobs, no housing.” She adds, “If their goal in coming here was to grant us freedom and democracy, how can they leave us when we are sunk in blood and trash?”


The Israeli consensus: Palestinians are inferior

Update below

Israelis might argue about whether the settlements are going to destroy Zionism or help it survive; they differ much less when it comes to their views about Palestinians.

Gadi Taub is ringing the now familiar alarm bell that without a swift end to the occupation, Zionism itself will be in jeopardy. Salvation depends on partition.

The most pressing problem with the settlements is not that they are obstacles to a final peace accord, which is how settlement critics have often framed the issue. The danger is that they will doom Zionism itself.

If the road to partition is blocked, Israel will be forced to choose between two terrible options: Jewish-dominated apartheid or non-Jewish democracy. If Israel opts for apartheid, as the settlers wish, Israel will betray the beliefs it was founded on, become a pariah state and provoke the Arab population to an understandable rebellion. If a non-Jewish democracy is formally established, it is sure to be dysfunctional. Fatah and Hamas haven’t been able to reconcile their differences peacefully and rule the territories — throwing a large Jewish population into the mix is surely not going to produce a healthy liberal democracy. Think Lebanon, not Switzerland.

In truth, both options — and indeed all “one-state solutions” — lead to the same end: civil war. That is why the settlement problem should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, beginning with Israel’s. The religious settlement movement is not just secular Zionism’s ideological adversary, it is a danger to its very existence. Terrorism is a hazard, but it cannot destroy Herzl’s Zionist vision. More settlements and continued occupation can.

On the other side of the debate are Israelis such as Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and the recently named director-general of the settler advocacy group the Yesha Council.

When it comes to assessing the prospects for anything to be accomplished in the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Bennett succinctly describes the power equation and thus the reason the talks will go nowhere: “It’s in their interest more than ours. We’re doing just fine.”

Bennett challenges much of the conventional wisdom about settlements and settlers — not surprising perhaps because he lives inside Israel and was a high-tech millionaire before entering politics.

He says: “My vision is 1 million Jews living in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], putting an end to the notion that we can have a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel.”

With over half a million Jews already planted inside the occupied territories, that vision is more than half way towards being realized. “Anyone considering the notion of expelling 80,000 or 150,000 Jews (from the West Bank) today should know that it’s simply impossible,” Bennett declares.

“We view Judea and Samaria as the bulwark of Israel, and Israel as the bulwark for the West against Islamic terrorism. We are the security shield of Israel. That’s fundamentally how people in Judea and Samaria see it. People see it as a mission to maintain and protect this area for the Jewish people.”

Since he rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, the Los Angeles Times asks Bennett what alternative he envisions:

The alternative is peaceful coexistence on the ground and simply strengthening the current, very positive trends with the economy and security. Removing the roadblocks. Giving Palestinians political rights to vote for themselves. If they want to reach an agreement with Jordan to give them citizenship, so be it. If we need to make adjustments to make life better, we can.

Many Palestinians say the status quo is unfair and not acceptable.

There wouldn’t be apartheid. They’d rule themselves and we’d rule ourselves. We’d drive on the same roads. Arabs have fairly good lives. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people want peaceful coexistence. It’s just their leaders who are not OK with it.

It’s not perfect. They want a full-blown state. But it’s a zero-sum game. If they have a state, we’ll cease to exist. That’s the best we can do.

What’s interesting in looking at these contrasting Israeli views of the settlements is that beneath the divergence in analysis, there is an Israeli consensus: they see no real basis for Palestinian self determination. Palestinians would undermine the effective functioning of any democracy other than a Jewish-controlled “democracy,” but they can rule themselves so long as they don’t imagine they can have their own fully sovereign state.

Whether viewed from the left or the right, the one thing most Jewish Israelis seem to agree on (even if they differ in how bluntly they will state this) is that they regard Palestinians as their inferiors.

Update: Following a shooting attack in which Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis outside the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron on Tuesday, settlement leaders were quick to call for talks due to start in Washington on Wednesday, to be cancelled.

The Jerusalem Post reported:

The head of the Mount Hebron Regional Council, Tzvika Bar-Hai, called on Netanyahu to cancel the Washington talks.

“There is no place for negotiations with those who respond with deadly fire to our hand outstretched for peace,” he said.

“It is time for the leaders of Israel to wake up from the illusion of false peace,” Bar-Hai added.

“We’re talking about one of the worst terrorist attacks in the past few years,” said Naftali Bennet, director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

“We’re asking that the prime minister immediately turn the plane around and come back to Israel. It’s not possible, while we’re holding funerals, that he can stay there. And we’re calling on him, tomorrow morning, to renew the building in Judea and Samaria,” he said.

The council announced Tuesday night that it would respond to the attack by unilaterally ending the construction freeze and starting to build on Wednesday.

A Yesha Council statement said: “The Zionist answer is to build and support. They shoot and we build. Each does as he believes.”

Although a spokesman for Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attack, Ynet reported:

Earlier on Tuesday, Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhum addressed the attack but did not claim responsibility for it.

“The attack was not meant to impede direct negotiations which failed prior to even starting. This is a natural response by the Palestinian resistance to the enemy’s crimes, and is proof that despite the resistance’s persecution by the security services and despite Israel’s crimes, the Palestinians are capable of responding to these crimes,” he said.

Barhum stressed that the attack was the type of response “which the enemy and occupation should expect. The Palestinian resistance is alive, well and kicking.”


Treatment for PTSD may be killing veterans

Associated Press reports:

Andrew White returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq beset with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, nightmares, constant restlessness. Doctors tried to ease his symptoms using three psychiatric drugs, including a potent anti-psychotic called Seroquel.

Thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD have received the same medication over the last nine years, helping to make Seroquel one of the Veteran Affairs Department’s top drug expenditures and the No. 5 best-selling drug in the nation.

Several soldiers and veterans have died while taking the pills, raising concerns among some military families that the government is not being up front about the drug’s risks. They want Congress to investigate.

In White’s case, the nightmares persisted. So doctors recommended progressively larger doses of Seroquel. At one point, the 23-year-old Marine corporal was prescribed more than 1,600 milligrams per day — more than double the maximum dose recommended for schizophrenia patients.

A short time later, White died in his sleep.

“He was told if he had trouble sleeping he could take another (Seroquel) pill,” said his father, Stan White, a retired high school principal.

Activist, Vince Boehm, communicated with the Whites and told Beyond Meds:

Stan and Shirley White lost two sons to war. Robert White, a staff sergeant, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005, when his Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. But the death of Robert’s younger brother Andrew, who survived Iraq only to succumb to a different battle, is in some ways “harder to accept” says his father.

Struggling with PTSD compounded by grief over the death of his brother, Andrew sought help from VA doctors. Their first line of defense was to prescribe him 20 mg of Paxil, 4 mg of Klonopin and 50 mg of Seroquel. These medications helped at first, but later proved ineffective. Instead of changing the course of treatment, the doctors responded by continually increasing his dosage until the Seroquel alone reached a whopping 1600 mg per day. Within weeks of Andrew’s death, three more young West Virginia veterans died while being treated for PTSD with the same drugs, prompting Stan and Shirley White to begin a mission to find out what the deaths have in common.

Earlier this year, Martha Rosenberg reported on the same deadly cocktail being used to treat PTSD:

Sgt. Eric Layne’s death was not pretty.

A few months after starting a drug regimen combining the antidepressant Paxil, the mood stabilizer Klonopin and a controversial anti-psychotic drug manufactured by pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, Seroquel, the Iraq war veteran was “suffering from incontinence, severe depression [and] continuous headaches,” according to his widow, Janette Layne.

Soon he had tremors. ” … [H]is breathing was labored [and] he had developed sleep apnea,” Layne said.

Janette Layne, who served in the National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom along with her husband, told the story of his decline last year, at official FDA hearings on new approvals for Seroquel. On the last day of his life, she testified, Eric stayed in the bathroom nearly all night battling acute urinary retention (an inability to urinate). He died while his family slept.

Sgt. Layne had just returned from a seven-week inpatient program at the VA Medical Center in Cincinnati where he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A video shot during that time, played by his wife at the FDA hearings, shows a dangerously sedated figure barely able to talk.

Sgt. Layne was not the first veteran to die after being prescribed medical cocktails including Seroquel for PTSD.

In the last two years, Pfc. Derek Johnson, 22, of Hurricane, West Virginia; Cpl. Andrew White, 23, of Cross Lanes, West Virginia; Cpl. Chad Oligschlaeger, 21, of Roundrock, Texas; Cpl. Nicholas Endicott, 24, of Pecks Mill, West Virginia; and Spc. Ken Jacobs, 21, of Walworth, New York have all died suddenly while taking Seroquel cocktails.


Mosque opponents help the Taliban

Newsweek reports:

Taliban officials know it’s sacrilegious to hope a mosque will not be built, but that’s exactly what they’re wishing for: the success of the fiery campaign to block the proposed Islamic cultural center and prayer room near the site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor,” Taliban operative Zabihullah tells Newsweek. (Like many Afghans, he uses a single name.) “It’s providing us with more recruits, donations, and popular support.”

America’s enemies in Afghanistan are delighted by the vehement public opposition to the proposed “Ground Zero mosque.” The backlash against the project has drawn the heaviest e-mail response ever on jihadi Web sites, Zabihullah claims — far bigger even than France’s ban on burqas earlier this year. (That was big, he recalls: “We received many e-mails asking for advice on how Muslims should react to the hijab ban, and how they can punish France.”) This time the target is America itself. “We are getting even more messages of support and solidarity on the mosque issue and questions about how to fight back against this outrage.”

Zabihullah also claims that the issue is such a propaganda windfall — so tailor-made to show how “anti-Islamic” America is — that it now heads the list of talking points in Taliban meetings with fighters, villagers, and potential recruits. “We talk about how America tortures with waterboarding, about the cruel confinement of Muslims in wire cages in Guantánamo, about the killing of innocent women and children in air attacks — and now America gives us another gift with its street protests to prevent a mosque from being built in New York,” Zabihullah says. “Showing reality always makes the best propaganda.”

Meanwhile, at Salon, Justin Elliot reports:

A bigoted pastor who has assailed gays and Muslims is launching the “9-11 Christian Center at Ground Zero” a mere two blocks from the World Trade Center site this Sunday, but so far the project hasn’t drawn a peep of protest from those who are outraged by the “ground zero mosque.”

Pastor Bill Keller of Florida said today he will begin preaching Sunday at the Marriott at 85 West Street (see proximity to ground zero here). A weekly service is planned at the hotel until the $8 million 9/11 Christian Center finds a permanent space. (Fundraising is going well, Keller told Salon today.)

To get a sense of where Keller is coming from, consider his project’s website, which calls Islam a religion of “hate and death” whose adherents will go to hell.


How to kill gentiles and influence people: Israeli rabbis defend book’s shocking religious defense of killing non-Jews

Max Blumenthal reports:

When I went into the Jewish religious book emporium, Pomeranz, in central Jerusalem to inquire about the availability of a book called Torat Ha’Melech, or the King’s Torah, a commotion immediately ensued. “Are you sure you want it?” the owner, M. Pomeranz, asked me half-jokingly. “The Shabak [Israel’s internal security service] is going to want a word with you if you do.” As customers stopped browsing and began to stare in my direction, Pomeranz pointed to a security camera affixed to a wall. “See that?” he told me. “It goes straight to the Shabak!”

As soon as it was published late last year, Torat Ha’Melech sparked a national uproar. The controversy began when an Israeli tabloid panned the book’s contents as “230 pages on the laws concerning the killing of non-Jews, a kind of guidebook for anyone who ponders the question of if and when it is permissible to take the life of a non-Jew.” According to the book’s author, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and should be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” “If we kill a gentile who has has violated one of the seven commandments… there is nothing wrong with the murder,” Shapira insisted. Citing Jewish law as his source (or at least a very selective interpretation of it) he declared: “There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.”

Meanwhile, Associated Press reports:

An influential Israeli rabbi known for his vitriolic pronouncements against Arabs says Palestinians and their leader should “perish from this world.”

Israel Army Radio quoted Ovadia Yosef Sunday as saying the Palestinians were “evil, bitter enemies of Israel” and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should be struck with a plague. He made the remarks in a Saturday night sermon.

Haaretz adds:

The United States on Sunday condemned remarks by the spiritual leader of Israel’s leading ultra-Orthodox party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said the Palestinians should “perish”.

“We regret and condemn the inflammatory statements by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. “These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace.”


Gideon Levy in conversation with Jon Snow

Gideon Levy in conversation with Jon Snow from Palestine Campaign UK on Vimeo.

Amnesty International UK’s Human Rights Action Center, London, Tuesday August 24, 2010.
(H/t Ann El Khoury.)


Al-Qaida in Yemen: Poverty, corruption and an army of jihadis willing to fight

In a two-part series, The Guardian‘s intrepid Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from Yemen:

With its conservative Islam, ragged mountains, unruly tribes and problems of illiteracy, unemployment and extreme poverty, Yemen has been dubbed the new Afghanistan by security experts.

The Guardian spent two months in the country, travelling to the tribal regions of Abyan and Shabwa, where al-Qaida has set up shop and where suspected US drone attacks have killed scores of civilians and few insurgents. Speaking to jihadis, security officials and tribesmen, it became clear how a combination of government alliances, bribes, broken promises and bungled crackdowns has allowed Islamists to flourish and led to the emergence of the country as a regional hub for al-Qaida.

You don’t have to go deep into the mountains to hear the jihadi message. One Friday, sitting on the roof of a hotel in Sana’a, I hear the amplified prayers of a preacher ring out at the end of his sermon: “God condemn the Jews and the Christians … God make their wives and children our slaves … God defeat them and make the believers victorious.”

Ahmad al-Daghasha, a Yemeni writer who specialises in Islamic and jihadi issues, says two factors are responsible for the growing influence of al-Qaida. “First there is the local situation, which is miserable, politically and economically,” he says. “That situation is translated into many forms of resistance – the jihadis and al-Qaida are only one. Then there is the foreign oppression that we all see on television – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine – that gives al-Qaida’s rhetoric legitimacy.”

In the second-part of this report, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes:

Ferocious blood feuds have been raging for years in Shabwa. Almost every tribesman in the region finds himself entangled in the cycle of revenge.

The barren desert and mountain are divided into patches of small tribal war zones. As we travelled in Shabwa we often had to leave the main track and drive deep into the desert to avoid passing through the land of a tribe with which someone in our car had a blood feud.

“We would like to go to school,” says Ibrahim, a hazel-eyed 16-year-old tribesman who was sitting in the back of the car with a wrapped head shawl. “But we had to stop, because someone might track us there and kill us.”

I asked him if he had seen much fighting. “Yes,” he answered. “Many times.”

The tribesmen exist in perpetual poverty in this harsh landscape. When ‑ if ‑ water comes, it moves fast down thin rocky valleys, leaving the desert as thirsty as before. Apart from a few patches of farmed land, the rest is desert.

Being so poor, the people have little to fight over except their honour.

The only way for an insult to be avenged was by killing the enemy, calling his name so he would turn – it’s a shame to kill a man in his back – and shoot him while looking into his eyes. The culture of hospitality is taken so seriously that one tribal feud that has been going for two years was over a guest who was insulted.

Ali tells how the inter-tribal battles sometimes included heavier armaments. “Last year we besieged a neighbouring tribe. We took anti-aircraft guns and mortars. We shelled them for three days and we besieged them for weeks, until they had nothing to eat but biscuits.”

Against this backdrop of armed, perpetually fighting tribes, where it sometimes seems every other man is wanted by the authorities for a murder or two, al-Qaida can easily blend in. Their gunmen are little different from any other gunman wanted by authority and seeking shelter among his tribe.

“There are few believers [jihadis] who live in the mountains,” an old man in Hateem told me, “but we haven’t seen them do anything wrong here. We don’t care if they have killed someone in America; here in Shabwa they haven’t committed a crime and they should be respected like any other man.”


Saudi Arabia: the end of progress without change

A reader alerted me to a speech Chas Freeman gave earlier this year in a noble effort to educate fellow Americans on the little understood nation of Saudi Arabia (where Freeman served as US ambassador from 1989 to 1992).

I have been asked to speak to you about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is a topic I have never before addressed to an American audience. Why bother?

We Americans reserve the right to have strong opinions on the basis of little or no knowledge. There are few countries that better exemplify our assertive ignorance of foreign geography, history, and culture than Saudi Arabia. Most of us are convinced that Saudis are Muslim zealots, control the world’s oil prices, and are absurdly rich, anti-feminist, and undemocratic. They hate our values and want to destroy us. Talk radio confirms this. What more needs to be said?

On reflection, a lot does. Neither caricature nor a priori reasoning is a sound basis for policy. A distorted view of foreign realities precludes success at dealing with them. There is much at stake in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. We can ill afford to get it wrong.

That country is, of course, the heartland of Islam and the custodian of the world’s largest oil reserves. It lies athwart transport routes between Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is at the center of a growing concentration of global capital. Under any circumstances, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be important. It is all the more so in an era when we Americans are at war with ever more peoples in the Islamic world, depend on ever greater amounts of imported energy, and need ever larger foreign loans to run our government and sustain our life style.

Yet Saudi Arabia is little known. It is the only society on the planet not to have been penetrated by Western colonialism. No European armies breached its borders; no missionaries; no merchants. Its capital, Riyadh, was long off limits to infidels; the holy cities of Mecca and Medina remain so today. When Westerners finally came to Saudi Arabia, we came not as the vindicators of our presumed cultural superiority, but as hired help. As a result, some say that Saudis secretly see the world’s peoples as divided into two basic categories: (1) fellow Saudis; and (2) potential employees. Be that as it may, foreigners, Western, Asian, or Arab, who have lived in Saudi Arabia all see it as a very strange place — one that is not easy to understand and that remains at odds with many of the values non-Saudis profess.

The Kingdom has long stood apart from global norms. Its system of government draws on tribal and Islamic traditions rather than Western models. Its king presides rather than rules over the royal family and Saudi society. His responsibility is less to make decisions than to shape and proclaim consensus, while assuring a share of the national wealth to all, especially the least privileged. Saudi Arabia levies no taxes on its citizens, other than the religious tithe known as “zakat” — a two-and-a-half percent annual donation of private capital to charity and other public purposes. All Saudis enjoy free education and medical care from birth to death and can pursue these services at home or abroad, as they wish. The Kingdom has no parliament, though it does have elaborate informal mechanisms for consultation with its citizens on policy matters. Saudi Arabia reverses and thereby affirms a basic principle of American political philosophy. “No representation without taxation.”


How Arabs view the anti-mosque movement

Marc Lynch writes:

Two recent arguments about the impact of the rising anti-Islam trend in the U.S. — from the Stupid!Storm around the Manhattan mosque to the lunacy of “national burn a Quran day” — on the Arab world strike me as not quite right. Last week, Bill Kristol cited the translation of a column by Saudi TV station al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed downplaying the relevance of the mosque as evidence that the argument should be over. Meanwhile, several recent articles claim that the mosque had become the #1 topic of discussion on jihadist forums. Both are wrong, in different ways. Most Arab columnists agree with the argument that the anti-mosque movement will badly harm Arab and Muslim views of the United States, contra Rashed, but there isn’t as much active discussion of it in the forums as you’d expect. That isn’t a reason to relax, though. The impact is likely to be felt not so much on extremists, whose views about America are rather fixed, but on the vast middle ground, the Arab and Muslim mainstream which both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized as crucial both for defeating al-Qaeda and for achieving broad American national interests. And that mainstream, not the extremists themselves, is where our attention needs to be focused.

A closer look at Arab mainstream media and jihadist forum debates shows what I mean. A scan of the major op-ed pages quickly reveals that Rashed is very much a minority voice in the unfolding Arab debate. Rashed’s column caught the attention of anti-mosque activists such as Kristol, because it suited their needs. But if Kristol really wants Americans to take their cues from Arab columnists, here’s a more representative sample of commentary over the last few days:

In “Jihadi forums silent on Cordoba controversy,” Max Fisher finds “the fact that they discuss the issue so little among themselves suggests the extent to which the jihadis consider the fight over the Cordoba Center as having nothing to do with them.”


Pastor’s plan to burn Koran fuels tensions

The New York Times reports:

If building an Islamic center near ground zero amounts to the epitome of Muslim insensitivity, as critics of the project have claimed, what should the world make of Terry Jones, the evangelical pastor here who plans to memorialize the Sept. 11 attacks with a bonfire of Korans?

Mr. Jones, 58, a former hotel manager with a red face and a white handlebar mustache, argues that as an American Christian he has a right to burn Islam’s sacred book because “it’s full of lies.” And in another era, he might have been easily ignored, as he was last year when he posted a sign at his church declaring “Islam is of the devil.”

But now the global spotlight has shifted. With the debate in New York putting religious tensions front and center, Mr. Jones has suddenly attracted thousands of fans and critics on Facebook, while around the world he is being presented as a symbol of American anti-Islamic sentiment.

Muslim leaders in several countries, including Egypt and Indonesia, have formally condemned him and his church, the Dove World Outreach Center.

An Islamic group in England has also incorporated his efforts into a YouTube video that encourages Muslims to “rise up and act,” widening a concern that Mr. Jones — though clearly a fringe figure with only 50 members in his church — could spark riots or terrorism.

“Can you imagine what this will do to our image around the world?” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “And the additional danger it will add whenever there is an American presence in Iraq or Afghanistan?”


How 30 million DVDs sent in 2008 election fuel the anti-mosque debate today

At TPMMuckraker, Rachel Slajda reports:

In the last weeks before the 2008 elections, an organization called the Clarion Fund spent some $16 million to reprint and distribute 28 million copies of their 2005 film about radical Islam and terrorist groups. “Obsession” was inserted into newspapers — and packaged with scary photos of scarf-clad men — in swing states.

That move, funded by a single anonymous donor, may still be echoing in 2010’s protests about the Cordoba House and other mosques around the country.

“The single most powerful piece of media over the past five years that has been effective in persuading average Americans to the Islamist threat has been ‘Obsession,'” Tom Trento, the director of the Florida Security Council, told TPMmuckraker today. Trento said he participated in the multimillion-dollar distribution of the film by giving out tens of thousands of copies at both parties’ 2008 conventions.


For critics of Islam,’sharia’ becomes shorthand for extremism

The Washington Post reports:

Protesters of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero waved signs there Sunday with a single word: sharia.

Their reference to Islam’s guiding principles has become a rallying cry for those critical of Islam, who use the word to conjure images of public stonings and other extreme forms of punishment in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan and argue that those tenets are somehow gaining a foothold in the United States.

Blogs with names such as Creeping Sharia and Stop Shariah Now are proliferating. A pamphlet for a “tea party” rally last weekend in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., asked: “Why do Muslims want to take over the world and place us under Shariah law?” Former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich amplified that point in a much-publicized speech a few weeks ago, exploring what he calls “the problem of creeping sharia.”

The fact that the word has become akin to a slur in some camps is an alarming development to many religious and political leaders. “We are deeply saddened by those who denigrate a religion which in so many ways is a religion of compassion,” Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches, said in a statement this month signed by 40 national religious leaders.

Sharia in Arabic means “way” or “path.” Muslims agree that sharia is God’s law, but there is little consensus on the particulars. To some, sharia is a set of rules that are codified and unchanging. To others, it’s a collection of religious principles that shift over time.


Pakistan’s misery shows no sign of abating

At The Atlantic, Max Fisher looks at five long-term effects of the Pakistan floods:

After weeks of flooding in Pakistan displaced two million people and left more than 10 million at risk of disease outbreak because they lack access to clean water, renewed flooding in Pakistan has displaced an additional one million people over the past 48 hours alone, setting back a relief effort that has struggled due to paltry donations. The displaced, often physically inaccessible to relief workers due to Pakistan’s badly damaged infrastructure, face threats of disease, starvation, and dehydration. But even once the immediate humanitarian crises of the flood pass, experts say the floods will leave their impact on Pakistan and the region for years or decades.

Rebecca Barber, from Oxfam, recounts some of the personal losses incurred by individuals:

In a camp in Khairpur, in Sindh, a man told me that he had paid 20,000 rupees ($A260) to evacuate himself and his family from his village when the flood warning came. To cover the costs, he sold the household’s entire crop of wheat. Between himself, his father and his uncle, the family had owned 13 buffalo. But they couldn’t afford to bring them with them when they evacuated, and all drowned when the floodwaters washed through the village. Three of his brothers have stayed behind, camping out on some nearby high land to keep an eye on what’s left of their homes. The village is under more than 1.5 metres of water, and he says he thinks it will be two years before they’ll be able to cultivate again.

In another camp, a man told me that his family had left behind eight goats, two cows and two buffalo when the army evacuated them. He and his family were “tenant farmers” – living on and cultivating the landlord’s land. In addition to the goats, cows and buffalo, they’d owned a small vegetable plot. They’d subsisted day to day on the small profits from the livestock, the vegetables they grew themselves, and a small potion of the landlord’s crops. But the work won’t start again until January next year, when the time for harvesting sugarcane comes around. Until then, he says he’ll go to one of the cities and look for casual labouring work. He won’t get more than 100 rupees (a bit over $1) a day though, nothing like enough to feed a family of 10. And there’s no savings to see them through. His daughter said she’d lost the dowry she’d kept in a trunk for six years: clothes, gold, cooking utensils, and cash.


CIA making secret payments to members of Karzai administration

The Washington Post reports:

The CIA is making secret payments to multiple members of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, in part to maintain sources of information in a government in which the Afghan leader is often seen as having a limited grasp of developments, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The payments are long-standing in many cases and designed to help the agency maintain a deep roster of allies within the presidential palace. Some aides function as CIA informants, but others collect stipends under more informal arrangements meant to ensure their accessibility, a U.S. official said.

The CIA has continued the payments despite concerns that it is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a significant number of officials in Karzai’s administration are on the payroll. Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, disputed that characterization, saying, “This anonymous source appears driven by ignorance, malice or both.”

A former agency official said the payments were necessary because “the head of state is not going to tell you everything” and because Karzai often seems unaware of moves that members of his own government make.

The disclosure comes as a corruption investigation into one of Karzai’s senior national security advisers – and an alleged agency informant – puts new strain on the already fraying relationship between Washington and Kabul.


Beirut in Baghdad: Is the ‘Lebanonization’ of Iraq complete?

At Foreign Policy, Lara Setrakian writes:

Four years after a flurry of predictions about the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, they may be coming true. “Lebanonization” was a derogatory term, a hint at imminent civil war, political deadlock, Iran’s hand in local militias and on many domestic levers. The columns and commentary on Iraq’s “Lebanonization” issued a collective “uh oh,” warning the state would fall apart like Lebanon did from 1975-1991.

What moved the term through officialdom was a perception that Iran and Syria were playing Iraq the way they played Lebanon in 1980s: perpetuating a status quo of chaos, then profiting from the melee. The Sadrists were like Hezbollah-in-waiting, tied to Tehran and using force to stymie Iraq’s government, if they couldn’t control it outright.

“What prompted me to use the term was the external dynamic … and it has still has some validity,” said Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has served as the top U.S. diplomat in both Iraq and Lebanon. He concedes that at present, in Iraq as in Lebanon, Iran has a virtual veto – influence enough to block any major decision that crosses its interests.

“Iran can’t call the shots in Iraq. They can’t make things happen, but they can screw things up. And they play a long game … they’re waiting for us to be gone to make life harder for Iraqis.”

Today the “Lebanonization” of Iraq is a different story, in which the parallels are mostly political. In Iraq’s March election and its tussled aftermath — there’s still no government in place and likely won’t be one until after Ramadan — analysts see a repeat of Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary poll. In both cases a “pro-U.S.” leader edges out the Iran-backed alliance, but it’s a watered-down win. The country triangulates the interests of its three main blocs (Iraq: Shiite, Sunni, Kurd; Lebanon: Sunni, Shiite, Christian) through a long negotiation (this week talks in Baghdad broke down). Then a government theoretically comes together, balancing power among its political actors, whose voters cluster around their ethnic or religious base.

“The comparison holds. Today, Iraq has a Lebanon-style government: tribes with guns and a state that’s not able to provide what a state should provide, like basic security,” said Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment’s Beirut office. In the vacuum, violent groups from al Qaeda in Iraq to Salafist movements in Northern Lebanon undo law and order.


Turkey’s search for regional power

At Middle East Report, Yüksel Taşkın from Marmara University in Istanbul writes:

Under the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is carving out a greater role for itself in Middle Eastern affairs. Since 2008, Turkey has sought the role of Middle East intermediary in trying to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Syria and to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. This more independent and assertive foreign policy has put Turkey increasingly at odds with two of its long-standing allies, Israel and the United States. A crucial ally for the US in its war on Iraq, Turkey now refuses to comply with US policy on Iran. The Turkish government also has become more outspoken against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza, placing it on a diplomatic collision course with Israel. Three months after the Israeli assault on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid vessel, the Obama administration is reportedly warning Turkey that if its relations with Israel do not improve, and if Turkey does not temper its opposition to US policy on Iran, Congress may halt arms sales to Turkey.[1]

The deterioration in relations between Turkey and its Western allies has led many commentators to conclude that there has been a decidedly eastward shift in Turkish foreign policy. In fact, Turkey’s positions have inspired many journalists and policy analysts to postulate that Turkey is pursuing an “Islamic” agenda that entails a deliberate distancing from the West. This hypothesis has seemed plausible to some because the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its Turkish acronym) is rooted in the banned Islamist parties of the 1980s and 1990s. The historian Bernard Lewis, for instance, speculated that in a decade Turkey might resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran.[2] New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined that “Turkey’s Islamist government [is] seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.”[3] Similar interpretations emanate from the secular establishment in Turkey. Oktay Ekşi, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper, argues that the AKP’s concerted efforts to attain Turkish accession to the EU were a ploy to gain “support in the West to overcome the secularists.”[4] Some analysts have even suggested that the AKP is pursuing a “neo-Ottomanist” agenda, seeking to claim the mantle of the last great Islamic empire. Johns Hopkins University professor (and former Bush administration official) Eliot Cohen wrote, “A combination of Islamist rule, resentment at exclusion from Europe and a neo-Ottomanist ideology that envisions Turkey as a great power in the Middle East have made Turkey a state that is often plainly hostile not only to Israel but to American aims and interests.”[5]

Such analyses misinterpret the AKP government’s objective, which is not to break with Turkey’s traditional cooperation with the US and EU but to increase Turkey’s relative autonomy vis-à-vis those powers. Rather than a rupture with the past, Turkey’s new approach marks a change in tactics in pursuit of the same goal.


The 9/11 hijackers now defending Ground Zero

The opponents of Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” have decided that the litmus test for identifying “good Muslims” is to ask them whether they regard Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Andy McCarthy, one of the lead knights in the crusade to stop “the Islamization of America,” strikes the latest blow — this time against a rather guileless Imam Dawoud Kringle. This is how McCarthy recounts the crucial part of his “debate” on the fair-and-balanced Fox News:

Then came the moment of truth: the very simple question, “Is Hamas a terrorist organization?” Have a look at the YouTube clip below. Like his friend Imam Feisal Rauf, Imam Kringle won’t answer the question. I pressed him, pointing out that it is a very simple question. And it is: Quite apart from the fact that Hamas is formally designated as a terrorist organization under U.S. law, Hamas’s own charter makes abundantly clear — indeed, wears like a badge of honor — that Hamas exists solely for the purpose of driving Israel out of Palestine by violent jihad. Yet the imam cannot bring himself to say Hamas is a terrorist organization.

Perhaps Kringle would have held surer footing if he had first addressed the reliability of the US government in identifying terrorists.

It was only two years ago that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were removed from the US terrorism watch list — that was 15 years after Mandela had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The terrorism watch list — like the Nobel Peace Prize — is not in and of itself a reliable indicator of someone’s current willingness to use violence in pursuit of a political cause.

Likewise, the fact that in the 1980s the Reagan administration regarded Afghanistan’s mujahideen as “freedom fighters” — not terrorists — had everything to do with who they were fighting (the Soviets) and nothing to do with the methods they employed or the causes those particular jihadists might subsequently espouse.

Terrorism and terrorist — as everyone knew until they suddenly forgot on 9/11 — are mutable designations that more clearly specify the relationship between the designator and the designee than they say much else.

Is Hamas a terrorist organization? As far as the US government is concerned, the answer it yes. It’s on the list. Yet not all organizations listed terrorist are the same — and like most objective foreign policy analysts, the US government like every other government knows this: these organizations are as diverse in their political aims as they are in their geographical distribution.

Hamas has been presented with a set of conditions which, if fulfilled, would allow it to participate in the peace process. In other words, even from the perspective of those governments who currently describe it as a terrorist organization there is an exit ramp for Hamas to shed its “terrorist” label. In contrast, there are no conditions under which any government will enter talks with al Qaeda.

Contrary to what McCarthy and others insinuate, Hamas and al Qaeda are not two peas in the same pod. They are in fact sworn enemies.

But given that so far no one has pointed to any direct connection between Park51 and Hamas, one has to wonder why those affiliated with the proposed Islamic center are being asked their views on the Palestinian movement?

The answer has much less to do with Park51 than it does with the myth that America’s interests are indistinguishable from those of Israel.

Whether McCarthy describes himself as a Zionist, he is certainly pushing a Zionist agenda when he claims: “Hamas exists solely for the purpose of driving Israel out of Palestine by violent jihad.”

In fact, Hamas’ leadership has explicitly supported the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders if Israel ends the occupation. But this politically pragmatic position is one that McCarthy and his ilk refuse to acknowledge because it conflicts with a narrative that pits Israel and its allies against an ideologically unyielding and anti-Semitic foe. Characterize the conflict that way and there is no compromise a peace-loving Israel could make which would satisfy its enemies.

Indeed, elsewhere McCarthy has made it clear that he subscribes to the right-wing Zionist school of thought which sees a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as contingent solely on the ability of Israel to crush its opponent.

As he wrote during the war on Gaza: “What Israel needs is to be allowed to win: to finish the grisly work of ‘breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel,’ as Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit so aptly put it.”

As for Palestinian national aspirations in general, McCarthy says: “On the political front, it is high time to acknowledge the failure of the fantasy that the Palestinians are legitimate actors worthy of statehood and its privileges.” He says: “we must halt the mindless ‘two state solution’ rhetoric.” Scorning those who he calls “democracy devotees,” McCarthy says: “Let’s be blunt: we are looking at a generation or more before the Palestinians might be prepared to assume the obligations of sovereignty. So we should stop talking about it.”

Daniel Luban in an article in which he describes Islamophobia as the “new anti-Semitism,” notes the central role that McCarthy has assumed as an ideologue now marshaling opposition to Islam in America.

The mosque furor is only the most recent and revealing demonstration of the anti-jihadists’ political influence; from the beginning of the controversy, McCarthy and his allies have dictated the terms of debate on the right. In his July 28 statement attacking the Islamic center, Newt Gingrich cited [McCarthy’s book] The Grand Jihad and framed the controversy in McCarthy’s terms of Western civilization under siege from creeping sharia. More recently, the American Family Association — a leading fundamentalist Christian group — cited the book to argue that no more mosques should be built anywhere in the United States because “each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.” A campaign spearheaded by Pamela Geller, the right-wing blogger who was previously most notorious for publishing a lengthy piece alleging that Obama is the illegitimate child of Malcolm X, will place ads on New York City buses opposing the Islamic center. On September 11, she and Gingrich will lead a major rally against the center that will also feature [Geert] Wilders, the Islamophobic Dutch politician. What was once a lunatic fringe now appears to be running the show, aided and abetted by mainstream figures like Gingrich.

It is quite possible that the next Republican president will also be a party to what can justly be called the new McCarthyism; for that reason alone, McCarthy and his allies deserve our attention. But even more important is the impact of this steady stream of anti-Muslim vitriol on the popular consciousness. Cynical politicians like Gingrich may know that all the talk of the Islamic center as a “9/11 victory monument” and of ordinary Muslims as stealth sharia operatives is mere agitprop designed to win votes in an election year, but ordinary citizens may take them at their word and act accordingly.

Given that McCarthy and his cohorts want to associate Park51 with Hamas, it’s worth considering what Hamas has to say about the plans for the Islamic center.

In an interview on New York’s WABC radio (audio can be heard here), Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas who is in the Gaza political leadership, was asked by Aaron Klein to comment on the construction of the center.

Without addressing the question directly, Zahar chose to respond by pointing out that Muslims in America are like Muslims elsewhere, living in accordance with Islam, fasting (during Ramadan), praying and so forth. He then went on to say that Hamas is being misrepresented by those who would liken it to the Taliban and that it is recognized across the Islamic world as a moderate organization.

Klein, however, wanted to focus on the mosque controversy and returned to that question:

Klein: What do you think about the new initiative to build a mosque near the World Trade Center in New York, which is a major point of controversy on all sides?

Zahar: We have to build the mosque as you are allowed to build the church and the Israeli are building their holy places. We have to build everywhere — in every area we have muslims, we have to pray, and this mosque is the only site of prayer especially for the people when they are looking to be in the group — not individual.

Muslims should be allowed to worship in mosques, just like Christians going to church and Jews going to the synagogue.

Not much controversy there, right?

Well, the New York Post seemed eager to pour fuel on the fire by inserting a few words implying that Hamas (and Muslims in general) are engaged in territorial expansion.

A leader of the Hamas terror group yesterday jumped into the emotional debate on the plan to construct a mosque near Ground Zero — insisting Muslims “have to build” it there.

“We have to build everywhere,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and the organization’s chief on the Gaza Strip.

“In every area we have, [as] Muslim[s], we have to pray, and this mosque is the only site of prayer,” he said on “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio” on WABC.

Zahar actually said, “In every area we have Muslims, we have to pray,” which is to say, wherever Muslims live they have a religious obligation to gather for prayer and they do this in mosques.

The New York Post twisted this into: “In every area we have, [as] Muslims[s], we have to pray,” which conjures up a completely different picture. Lower Manhattan is now an area that Muslims claim as their own — at least the New York Post appears to want to promote this lie.

Those who now man the barricades in response to what they call the Islamization of America, reveal in the shadow of their fears the scope of their ambitions.

On 9/11, four groups of hijackers took control of four aircraft resulting in the horrific deaths of 3,000 people. The same day, another group of hijackers took control of the aftermath of the attacks and began a war in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions been displaced. The campaign of those hijackers continues and Park51 is merely its latest target.


Wikileaks — short on intelligence

Maybe Wikileaks has come to the cynical conclusion that in the contemporary media environment the headline is more important than the story.

CIA Red Cell Memorandum on United States “exporting terrorism”

That sounds like damning material. Plans to insert US-trained terrorists into Iran or Venezuela perhaps? Is Wikileaks exposing yet more dirty secrets from the CIA’s ugly history?


Indeed, if we are to define a leak as the revelation of confidential information in which the public has a compelling interest — information that must be published as a matter of conscience — then the latest offering from Wikileaks hardly qualifies being described as a leak. Indeed, the US intelligence community may actually regard the release of such a report as something that overall enhances their public image.

This Red Cell report has a couple of interesting details — confirmation that there are those in the US government who understand that Jewish terrorism has played a significant role in triggering Palestinian terrorism, and (reading between the lines) that CIA officers engaged in kidnapping can be perceived as American terrorists — but the overarching topic here is not a secret acknowledgment that the US government has been involved in promoting and exporting terrorism.

If Wikileaks wants to provide the best public service it is capable of, it needs to focus attention on improving its image. It has made the medium more important than the message as though we should be more interested in Wikileaks than the leaks. Instead of the brand “Wikileaks” signalling the release of important information, it now signals a theatrical drama in which Julian Assange demands a spotlight while he is supposedly jousting with the dark forces of government. Is that what he and his cohorts want to be known as? A band of attention seekers?

Whistleblowing is a noble exercise in which individuals follow the dictates of their conscience and place public interest above personal interest. I assume that Wikileaks was created as a way of honoring such a spirit.