Saturday, November 13, 2010

Christian Arabs In The Time Of Al-Qaida

By Mohammed Almezel
This comment was published in Gulf News on 14/11/2010

One of the most vivid songs of the legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz is about ‘Makkah'. Yes, Islam's holiest city, and the busiest place on earth today with millions of people performing the Haj. The song was written by another legendary Lebanese, the poet Saeed Aql.

It describes a spiritual journey in and around the city. Critics agree that what Aql wrote could be, by far, the finest words written about Makkah ever. And, of course, it was only fitting to have those glowing lyrics sung in the angelic voice of Fairouz. The song is a classic.

Meanwhile, on the big screen, the biggest Arab production to date remains Saladin, by the late Egyptian director Yousuf Chahine. It is obviously about the 12th century Muslim leader who fought off the Crusaders. So what is the point? Actually there is none. But few outside the Arab world know that these three artists are not Muslims. They are Christians, like millions of Arabs who have been living in this region for thousands of years. Nevertheless, they are remembered, among other things, for works on subjects that carry significant symbolism in Islam.

That is not an unusual thing in any way in the Middle East. Christian Arabs, especially the intellectual elites, have always spearheaded efforts to preserve the Arabic tradition and stood up to the various cultural onslaughts to which this region was subjected in different periods of its history.

They have always been at the forefront in defending Arab nationalism and the Arabs' core issue, the Palestinian question.

It was the Christian Arabs, particularly two Lebanese educationists — Boutrous Boustani and Nassif Yazeji — who led the campaign to defend the Arabic language at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Ottoman state's Committee of Union and Progress sought to impose Turkish language and culture on Arab societies.

Four decades later, when the Arab Nationalist Movement was formed in reaction to the defeat of Arab regimes in Palestine in the 1948 War, it was Christian Arabs, such as George Habash and Wadi'e Haddad, who led the movement.

All this is actually basic information, known to high school students in most Arab cities. But obviously unknown to the new breed of Islamist militants who last week threatened to turn churches in the Middle East into "mass graves" and called on the Christian "invaders" to leave the Arab region.

Part of the scenery

They basically don't know that Christian Arabs are an integral part of this part of the world. The presence of Christian Arabs in fact precedes Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.

Therefore, Christian Arabs have every reason to be worried, even scared, especially in Iraq. In one week, dozens of faithful were massacred in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church and a number of houses, belonging to Christians, were set ablaze, killing more than 10 people.

Coincidently, two weeks before the church massacre, the Vatican said it was worried violence was forcing Christian Arabs to flee their countries. Many would like to see that, including some Christian leaders, like the London-based Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, who called for all Christians in Iraq to leave the country. He asked the British government, and those in other European countries, "to grant asylum to Christians." This is exactly what Al Qaida wants, isn't it?

What about the others? Muslims who also are being attacked by terror groups? Should they leave too?

Christian Arabs are not temporary residents in this region. They are the sons and daughters of this land. Their safety is the responsibility of the governments and security agencies. But there is a greater responsibility on Muslim religious leaders. It was sad that some leading Muslim clerics waited for long, some for three days, to condemn the Baghdad massacre. In any case, statements of condemnation are not enough.

Clerics and opinion makers in the Arab world need to raise their voices in support of the Christian Arabs who have come under attack since the beginning of the rise of Islamism in the Middle East three decades ago — and not only in Iraq.

Addressing the current insecurity among the Christians is a pan-Arab responsibility, critical to our society's future health. It is not just a cultural or a social issue; it is an existential predicament, which has to be looked at from all aspects. It must be a comprehensive process that involves things like revisiting school curricula, reforming religious teachings, introducing personal status laws that are secular in pluralistic societies, and empowering Christian Arabs in politics and business.

Islam and Christianity have lived together in peace for centuries in many parts of the Arab world. They survived even the most turbulent times, even when the region was backward and underdeveloped. It would be a shame if we let down our Christian brothers and sisters now.

Fairouz is not just an Arab singer. She is a unifying force. Few know that almost all Arab radio stations, in the 22 states that make up the Arab League, start their morning broadcast with a Fairouz song. The coffee in the morning would not be the same without a Fairouz song in the background, a friend once said.

The Arab world will not be the same without its Christians, I say. It would be a bird with only one wing. It would never be able to fly.

Israel: Who Is Misguided?

By Matthew A. Taylor
This comment was published in Haaretz on 12/11/2010

When North American Jews gathered in New Orleans for their annual General Assembly earlier this week, the mainstream Jewish establishment unveiled a new initiative to counteract the growing international condemnation of Israel's policies of occupation and land theft. The big plan: delegitimize the delegitimizers.

The Jewish Federations of North America announced at the conference that over the next three years they will invest $6 million to launch an "Israel Action Network." Based on speakers' comments at the GA, the strategy seems to be to tar and feather virtually anyone who supports any form of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS ) as a "delegitimizer" who is participating in an alleged plot to "destroy the State of Israel." Instead of spending millions to persuade Israel to change its path, the JFNA prefers to shoot the messengers.

Meanwhile, a few days before the assembly, the U.S.-based advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP ) convened a gathering of young Jews from the U.S. and Israel to explore difficult questions that the mainstream leadership seems eager to avoid, such as: How does the occupation delegitimize Israel? When Israel bulldozes Palestinian homes, uproots olive trees, and builds roads designated for settlers only, is that consistent with the Jewish value of respecting your neighbor?

This young group of Jewish activists seems to be an embodiment of Peter Beinart's recent essay in The New York Review of Books, which explored why Israel's oppressive policies cause young American Jews to feel alienated. "[Many American Jews have] imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture ... a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights ... They did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel," Beinart wrote in his piece, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."

Disaffected with the mainstream American leadership's "Israel: Right or wrong" attitude, the participants at JVP's gathering, the Young Jewish Leadership Institute, outlined a vision for engagement with the Israel/Palestine problem. "We won't be won over by free vacations and scholarship money. We won't buy the logic that slaughter means safety," the group wrote in its declaration, which is posted at

At a GA forum entitled "Confronting Israel's Delegitimizers," Julie Bernstein, of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke about how to delegitimize the delegitimizers. "We need to make BDS the issue and not Israel," Bernstein said. "What's challenging is, we have [young Jews] on the front lines advocating for boycott, divestment and sanctions, who truly want peace, who want to help the Palestinians. They have good intentions, and they don't know that they are essentially pawns in this game of bringing Israel down."

On the contrary, the young Jewish progressives see BDS as a nonviolent strategy that can influence Israel to change its behavior, and bring about a just, equitable resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They see themselves not as well-meaning idiots, as Bernstein implies, but as highly educated Jews who've personally witnessed the brutality of the occupation and feel a moral obligation to take action.

During the question-and-answer segment of the GA forum, UCLA law student Rachel Roberts expressed her outrage at Bernstein's remarks. "What you said about the young, conscientious Jews who have joined with their Palestinian peers to work on divestment campaigns is so unfair and condescending," Roberts said. Before she could say another word, a chorus of panelists and audience members interrupted and began hurling insults at her.

This dynamic of the older establishment patronizing and being condescending to the young was also palpable in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to the GA on Monday. Before Netanyahu could even spit out the word "delegitimize," the first in a succession of five young Jews rose from her seat and unfurled a large white banner that read, "The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel."

Other protesters followed with "The siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel"  ...  "Silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel."

Netanyahu had sharp words for the protesters. "Attempts by our enemies and their misguided fellow travelers to delegitimize the Jewish state must be countered," he said to thunderous applause.

I'm one of the five who was dragged out, clutching a sign that said, "The occupation delegitimizes Israel." When I envision Israel ending settlement expansion and living in equality with the Palestinians - while Netanyahu's government confiscates more Palestinian land and builds more settlements every single day - I wonder who is misguided?

The fifth and final protester, Rae Abileah, a Jewish American activist of Israeli descent, stood up and proclaimed: "The settlements betray Jewish values." Members of the crowd tackled her, shoved a towel in her mouth, and then chanted "Bibi, Bibi, Bibi" in unison.

Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." In the case of Israel and the tone-deaf American Jewish establishment, one could revise this statement to: First they ignore you, then they call you a self-hating Jew, then they call you a delegitimizer and fight you with $6 million.

What's next? We young Jews won't back down, our numbers are growing, and we will win. Israel will change its cruel, self-destructive behavior. We won't rest until Israelis and Palestinians live together in true equality, safety and mutual respect.

The Right Game

By Walid M. Sadi
This comment was published in Jordan Times on 14/11/2010

On the surface of things, it appears that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been put on the back burner. There is hardly any whisper about where the on-again, off-again peace talks are now.

As a matter of fact, however, much is being negotiated behind the scenes, away from the limelight.

The US is said to have continued the negotiation process by pressing or introducing some ideas of its own on how to advance the seemingly stalled peace talks. Secret talks are actually much more beneficial and fruitful than open public negotiations that are conducted under the spotlight and the strain of publicity and openness.

The problem, however, is not related to whether the negotiations are indeed secret or not, but rather the basis on which they are conducted.

There are persistent reports that one of the emerging negotiating tactics being advanced by the US is “giving” the Palestinians ultimate sovereignty rights over East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, but making them lease it to Israel for about 40 years or so.

The notion of leasing in this framework is equivalent to “giving” the Palestinians what is rightly their but postponing delivery of this right for many decades.

At the end of the game the Palestinians would be getting a recognition of their rights at a time when it does not require recognition if international law is taken into consideration. Israel has been occupying Palestinian lands for decades but would get the “right” to occupy them for another four or five decades.

So what is in effect the end game in this negotiating tactic?

It must be pointed out that Palestinians’ sovereignty over their occupied lands is a right that already exits independent of any Israel recognition. Accordingly, the Palestinians would be getting nothing under the formula marketed by Washington and there is no value to this Israeli recognition of Palestinians sovereignty over their territories.

This new negotiating equation is a green light for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories for many more years.

Israel was able to occupy territories belonging to the Arab side for so long, in defiance of international law and several UN Security Council resolutions, so what is to prevent it from flouting international legitimacy once again to maintain its grip on the leased lands forever?

The Palestinians must be weary of this seemingly benign negotiating tactic because they will end up being the losers. What the two sides must aim for, instead, is a true and bona fide winning situation. This could be the ultimate secret of any successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Canberra, Ankara And Other 'Fake' Capitals

By Robert Fisk
This article was published in The Independent on 13/11/2010

Just up behind my Beirut home is a narrow, shady laneway called Makhoul Street. And in Makhoul Street, there is a small shop with a rusting door behind which an Armenian sells ancient postcards of Beirut.

There is a picture of the port, the rear of a steam loco protruding from a small station. There is a tree-lined street with horses pulling a covered cart, Lebanese men wearing the old Ottoman tarbush, the distant roof of the St George Maronite cathedral. But it's the postmark that catches my attention, dated 11 October 1906. "Beirut, Syria," it says.

For of course, in the dying days of the Ottomans, Beirut was in a land whose regional capital was Damascus. True, the French were there in force under the political ruins of what were called the "capitulations" – French authorities ran the "Levant" post office – but the "Lebanese" regarded Damascus as their principal city. So what makes a city? Does it, in the words of a friend, "have to have a river" (or so, by extension, a seaboard)? Or is it an invention? A city must have a cathedral – or, I suppose, a grand mosque – but how do you define a capital?

Well, there's Baghdad (the Tigris) and Cairo (the Nile) and the Arab seaboard capitals – Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, of course – and, I suppose, the little Gulf princelets (as I call them), but how can you call Riyadh a capital of Saudi Arabia? Drab, hauntingly lifeless, surly in a religious sort of way, Riyadh is awful. Surely it should be Dhahran-Dammam, the great Saudi oil city by the sea. And how can we really regard the Germanised city of Ankara as the capital of Turkey when in our hearts – Turkish hearts, too – it must be the abandoned capital of Istanbul-Constantinople-Byzantium with its Roman-Crusader-Caliphate past? Damascus. Yes, but how many readers know its river? Well it's a stinky old sewer called the Barada. Hmm...

But we "outsiders" are capable of moving our capitals around. Some of them are ridiculous. Toronto, the business heart of Canada (originally called York) should be its capital – as indeed it was once the capital of "Upper Canada". But the Canadians had to settle on Ottawa, halfway between Toronto and Montreal, so that the Francophones didn't get pissed off (Ottawa being right next to the province of Quebec). Karachi was the capital of Pakistan – it is the business capital – but the "real" capital is the dead "new" city of Islamabad, a kind of middle-class extension of Rawalpindi.

Travel far further. The capital of Australia should be Sydney (or Melbourne) but, instead, I had to drive into the hotlands not long ago to the old hill station which is now called Canberra, all smart streets, university campuses and tiresome government ministries. This is ridiculous. Even worse is Brazil. The business centre of Sao Paulo is "my" capital of Brazil. But no, the Brazilians had to invent their distant capital of "Brasilia" so that – in the words of a Sao Paulo woman on my last visit – "the politicians could escape from the people". I should add that when Napoleon occupied Portugal, Brazil furnished the European royal family with a capital – in Brazil! And if the Turkish Ottomans hadn't genocided the Armenians, maybe the Armenian capital would be further to the west than Yerevan.

Old Europe (as Rumsfeld infamously called it) is rather more orderly. London is on the Thames, Dublin on the Liffey, Paris on the Seine. But where is the great waterway through Madrid? Surely not the canalised Manzanares? Or Brussels – does the river Senne count? No problem with Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Tallinn, etc. But Berlin? The river Havel? Surely – if we are going to be on rivers – the German capital has to return to Bonn on the Rhine. Or at least take over the business centre of Hamburg.

Lisbon is OK (nice river, the Tagus); Budapest and Belgrade and other Balkan capitals are swamped in rivers and tributaries (thanks to the Danube and the Sava); Sarajevo has the Neretva. Prague (Vltava or Moldau) passes muster. Warsaw sits on the Vistula, but so does my "favourite" for Polish capital, Krakow. But you can see the problems. Edinburgh may one day be the capital of an independent "Scotland". But does the Forth really compare with Glasgow's mighty Clyde?

Let's go back to the Orient. Kabul qualifies with the Kabul River. But Tehran? Dushanbe (yes, it's the capital of Tajikistan)? Then we come to Jerusalem the Golden and – whoops – other problems. After Israel came into existence, Tel Aviv was its temporary capital but, in the late 1940s, West (or modern) Jerusalem became its capital and then – after the 1967 war – Israel declared (and illegally annexed) all of Jerusalem as its "unified and eternal capital", but forgot to move the Israeli ministry of defence from Tel Aviv. The poor old Arabs couldn't compete with this in the early years because "their" capital – after equally dodgy annexation by Jordan – was the utterly landlocked Jordanian "capital" of Amman (a truly dull village with Roman ruins and a king). It's the old UN plan for an "international" city in Jerusalem (and the memory of Jerusalem as the British mandate capital) that has allowed the Palestinians to demand East (old) Jerusalem as their capital. Under the Ottomans, Jerusalem wasn't the capital of anywhere.

Jerusalem, in one sense, is a "religious" capital – for Jews and for Muslim and Christian Palestinians. But Vatican City isn't the capital of Italy; the Saudi capital isn't Mecca and the British capital isn't Canterbury (although at least the "Christians" let Muslims visit their sacred cities; the Saudis do not). And if the Catholic capital is inside Rome, wasn't it once also at Avignon (bloody good river there, of course)? You can play this as a semi-political game. Shouldn't the "capital" of Northern Ireland really be the walled city of Derry (the Foyle being more beautiful than the Lagan) or Cork the capital of Ireland (the Lee being more romantic than the Liffey)? Hitler, of course, wanted his Germanic capital in Linz (Speer was already at work on the fake Roman-fascist pillars) in order to escape from dark, old lefty Berlin. Equally fascist Croatia extended to the Danube in Belgrade but preferred to keep its capital in gloomy, frightening Zagreb.

Whew. I guess waterways (for commercial transport and military defence) used to define capitals. "Business centres" (I mean where the crooks are all bankers bankrupting us) may move in. Who can doubt that the capital of Switzerland is really Zurich (rather than boring old Basle, with its greasy Rhine) or – again, Toronto the capital of Canada, etc, etc? I guess, in the end, the capital is where you think it is. Beirut is now the capital of the totally artificial country of Lebanon.

Politically, you might say its real capital is indeed still Damascus, in "sister" Syria. Some would say – after the recent presidential visit of the elected (?) leader of Iran – that Lebanon's "real" capital is Tehran. Tough one, that.

A Message To Those Who Want To Help Iraq

By Tariq Alhomayed
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 13/11/2010
Despite everything that is happening in Iraq with regards to the details surrounding the formation of the government, there is a more important and urgent issue and that is the need to work to protect Iraq from the forthcoming days, ensuring that Iraq does not become easy prey for Iran and its allies following the 2011 US withdrawal in 2011. We must also guarantee that there is no repetition of what happened following the most recent elections, with the country remaining without a government for a period of 8 months, not to mention the ballot box results being ignored.
There must be a clear strategy put in place by the Iraqis who are concerned by this issue, with coordination between the moderate Arab countries and the West, particularly the US, in order to ensure that the Iranian infiltration of Iraq is halted. This is something that will only be achieved by recognizing an important truth, and that is we should not be working to support sectarian interests, but rather to strengthen patriotism; supporting Iraqi figures including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and all other components of Iraq. There is also a need to strengthen national reconciliation and amend some constitutional articles to ensure that these act as a guarantee and assurance to all Iraqis, rather than for one party at the expense of another.
Washington says that it has not sacrificed the lives of its soldiers to allow the Iranians to form the Iraqi government, however this does not go far enough, for the fact is they should not leave Iran anything in Iraq, not just the formation of its government. As for the Arabs, and particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they must not allow Iraq to become a basket of concerns like Lebanon.
Therefore, there must be serious work to come up with a clear strategy with the international community under the umbrella of the United Nations in coordination with the Iraqis who are keen to build a sovereign and independent nation. This must begin today; we must not waste time until it is too late and the axe has fallen.
As a result of this we must not listlessly follow slogans, welcoming the US withdrawal [from Iraq]. This is a delusion and deception, for there are parties who is preparing to fill the void [vacated by the US withdrawal], such as Iran and its allies. Therefore we must work quickly to ensure that an international force until the umbrella of the UN remains in Iraq to guarantee that the country does not slide into violence, as well as to protect Iraq from covert occupation by Iran, in the same manner what is happening today in Lebanon by Hezbollah.
Therefore what is required is for an allied force to remain in Iraq along the line of what happened in Germany following World War II, and a package of proposals must be put forward in Iraq with the UN monitoring its implementation. These proposals would include political reform, ensuring media freedom to monitor corruption, educational reform, and abolishing all forms of sectarianism.
None of this can take place without strict control and phased international supervision. There must also be no leniency on Iraq with regards to its debts and lifting international sanctions unless these reforms are implemented.
In conclusion, Iraq is in need of direct and technical support, [international] monitoring of the situation there, the presence of an international force, and support for all of Iraq's patriotic figures from all groups, rather than relying upon sects which only strengthens the sectarian division or [relying upon] certain figures that could easily be killed or threatened.
This is the message to all those that want to help Iraq and return the country to a semblance of normalcy. This is also a message to the Americans who are concerned about the blood of their soldiers, and the money and time they spend, being sacrificed and wasted, and who want to ensure that their project in Baghdad has a positive impact on the region at large.

Lebanon: No Need For Shyness

By Husam Itani
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 12/11/2010
There is a prevailing opinion among some of the Lebanese, saying that the issue of false witnesses and the international tribunal for Lebanon are not the reason behind the growing tensions and the predicament reached by political life as Lebanon is getting closer to utter governmental paralysis.

Reading into the events ever since the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri reveals that a drastic change has affected Hezbollah’s positions since the July 2006 war. The aforementioned change pertains to Hezbollah’s behavior and opinion, whether in regard to the special tribunal looking into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, or the assessment of powers and parties based on what it describes as being an attempt to stab it in the back during the Israeli aggression.

However, these opinions and positions are growing increasingly stringent in parallel with the enhancement of the party’s military capabilities and the expansion of its popular base, noting that the two phenomenas' concurrence does not require any proof.

In the moment of truth represented by the July war, the party felt that many sides on the domestic arena were biased against it, while prominent Arab countries were condemning the “adventure” in which it had embarked through the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, thus granting Israel a pretext to launch war. The party exited the fight stronger than it was in its beginning, and on all levels.

Still, the ways to invest the steadfastness that was seen (regardless of the unproductive dispute over the victory or the defeat during this war) were obstructed by the balances of the Lebanese arena. Indeed, in light of the sectarian division of the authority and the allocation of its spoils and gains, which the Lebanese reapproved in the Taif agreement, there is no way for any party to increase its share except at the expense of the other sects altogether.

Therefore, we can say today that the feeling of being under threat, in addition to the inability to improve the domestic status, is the reason why Hezbollah has turned toward the Lebanese arena and why it has staged some of the largest demonstrations seen in Lebanon in protest against the government of former Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. Moreover, the tense regional climate between the rejectionist and moderate axes in the area was naturally part of the latter list of reasons. Nonetheless, what made the party and its allies stage a sit-in in downtown Beirut for around a year and a half had nothing to do with the false witnesses, considering that the party’s protests against the international tribunal were low-key and revolved around organizational matters and details. Actually, its requests focused on the protection of the arms of the resistance and the resignation of Al-Siniora, while carrying a list of livelihood and developmental demands, which seemed to be reaped out of their context.

The May 7, 2008 attack then occurred “in defense of the arms of the resistance.” Afterwards, journalistic information and political leaks started emerging in regard to the preparations to accuse the party and leaders in it of being implicated in the assassination of Al-Hariri, thus launching a new wave of tensions in the country.

Therefore, after the political crisis entered a new stage and caused the governmental paralysis, it was justified to believe that the false witnesses issue, the arms of the resistance and the defense strategy were mere symptoms for one illness: the Lebanese regime’s inability to contain a force of the size of Hezbollah and grant it the prerogatives that it believes to rightfully belong to it. The problem increased with the party’s use of pretexts – the majority of which were weak – to announce its wish to expand its influence base within the state.

Instead of putting things forward openly and clearly and trying to amend the system in a constitutional way, Hezbollah is resorting to pompous expressions. In the meantime, the handling of the crisis can be summarized with the party’s relinquishing of its shyness and its clear announcement of its need for additional power, so that this can seriously be discussed with the different sides. Any other handling of the situation will maintain Lebanon in a vicious circle of coded and encrypted accusations, saying things that are different than what is actually implied.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Post-US Election, Expect More Of The Same In The Middle East

By Rami G. Khouri
This comment was published in The Daily Star on 13/11/2010 

If you’ve always wondered what Barack Obama really wants to do in the Middle East, your moment of revelation may be near, now that the American mid-term congressional elections have handed Obama and his Democratic Party an expected setback. Many of the rhetorical flourishes, speech-based initiatives and limited practical policy moves related to the Middle East that Obama has launched in his first two years will now face a much more rigorous test, as both foreign and domestic political conditions seem to be more challenging than ever for him and he will have to show some results if he wishes to be re-elected in 2012.

Foreign policy played almost no role in the election campaigns, even though the US armed forces are deployed in two challenging situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem of terror attacks does not seem to be going away, and global trade issues loom large in the prospects of an improved American economy. The highly polarized condition of US politics largely reflects domestic economic and social factors and the role of the central government. First-term presidents also almost always suffer a mid-term election setback, especially when economic conditions are hard, so the Democrats’ losing their majority in the House of Representatives is a thoroughly routine development. Its impact on foreign policy is likely to be very thin, especially in the Middle East, where the patterns of the Obama presidency have been set, and the settling dust after his first two years suggests that very little of substance has changed in American-Middle Eastern relations.

The domestic shift to the right in the US Congress will likely mean an aggravation or acceleration of existing political trends in foreign policy, not the launching of new initiatives or major policy shifts. This is mostly bad news for the Middle East, where the people of the region and the US alike face a series of hard conflicts, long-running local tensions and stubborn stresses in some key Middle Eastern-American-Western relations. The most important ones are the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, the terror phenomenon, nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, and other less overt challenges like water, youth employment, quality of education, and chronic autocracy. The US under Obama has shown that it is aware of the need to address these challenges simultaneously, but it remains unable to craft a credible policy that is either consistent and effective (as in ties with Syria and Iran) or that goes much beyond rhetoric into the realm of actual changes on the ground (Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy or dealing with Islamist movements).

On the two main issues of Arab-Israeli diplomacy and Iran, the resurgent Republicans in Congress will simply heighten the already strong pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian postures of that body, making it more likely that Israeli militarism will activate local or regional wars in Lebanon and Iran in the coming years. The US will probably continue to gradually get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, while heightening its ideological and occasional proxy military confrontation with Islamist and nationalist forces in the region, i.e., continuity rather than change.

If the US economy improves and direct engagement in foreign wars decreases, Obama will find himself with an opportunity to conduct bold foreign policies, but it seems unlikely that this will happen in the Middle East. For many reasons, the US political system and many elements of society at large now seem deeply committed to providing Israel with carte blanche support, while more stridently confronting Iran on issues that are sometimes real and sometimes imagined in the American fantasy that often defines its Middle Eastern policies. Obama’s insistence on “reaching out to the Islamic world” continues to define much of his approach to our region and other Islamic-majority lands, but remains peripheral to the local and foreign policies that actually create the tensions in many US-Arab-Asian relations.

This leaves us in the situation where the most important question in my mind is: does the US really feel any need to change its Middle East policies? Are any consequences of current American policies in the Middle East serious or scary enough to cause Washington to change its approach to key issues? The answer to date – notwithstanding the remarks by Obama and his chief soldier General David Petraeus that the continued Arab-Israeli conflict poses a measurable threat to US strategic national interests – is that the US can live with current conditions in the Middle East, even though it may not by happy with all of them, such as Hizbullah’s armed status or Iran’s nuclear industry. The new congressional balance of power in the US and Obama’s track record both suggest that we should not expect anything significant to happen in US foreign policy in the Middle East in the coming two years.

How To Squeeze Iran On The Nuclear Issue

By Ray Takeyh
This comment was published in The Washington Post on 12/11/ 2010

In an all-too familiar ritual, the United States and Iran are once more contemplating their diplomatic dance. The question that has perennially bedeviled Washington and its allies is how to compel the theocratic regime in Tehran to alter its objectionable practices. As a rational and pragmatic democracy, the United States perceives that economic pressure will compel Iran's leaders to yield on strategic priorities in order to relieve financial distress. The Islamic Republic has its vulnerabilities; however, too narrow a focus on its economic deficiencies has obscured its manifest political weaknesses. An insistence on human rights and the empowerment of the Green Movement can pave the way for Iran's transition to a more tolerant society and provide the West an indispensable lever for tempering the mullahs' nuclear ambitions.

In one of Iran's great paradoxes, a nation in clutches of clerical despotism has given birth to the most intellectually vibrant democratic movement in the contemporary Middle East. The Green Movement, which traverses all of Iran's social classes, has reconceptualized the relationship between the public and the state, as well as religion and democracy. At its core, a movement that emphasizes the need for the public's consent, respect for global opinion and relaxation of onerous cultural restrictions is a denial of the politics of intolerance practiced by Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite repression, imprisonment and show trials, the Green Movement continues to thrive and is gradually pressing the society away from state control. The movement is better organized and commands a greater degree of popular support than comparable past political movements in Eastern Europe that - with the assistance of the West - eventually dislodged the intractable communist tyrannies from power. The scale of defections from the state and the disillusionment of many stalwarts of the revolution demonstrate how the Greens have succeeded in sapping the self-confidence and the legitimacy of the system.

As part of any negotiations with the West, the Islamic Republic should be asked to amend not just its nuclear infractions but also its human rights abuses. This entails releasing political prisoners, lifting the restrictions on civil society groups and allowing publication of banned newspapers. Unless Tehran accedes to such measures, it must continue to confront economic pressure and political isolation. Should the United States take such an unequivocal stand as part of its diplomatic outreach, it can further stimulate domestic dissent in Iran. In the meantime, an isolated, weakened regime faced with economic decline, political ferment and international ostracism maybe tempted to offer important concessions to escape its predicament. The path to disarmament and democracy lies in making common cause with the Green Movement and making Iran's behavior toward its citizens a precondition to its reintegration in the community of nations.

As Washington assesses how to deal with Iran's nuclear challenge, it must widen its canvass and consider its approach to the slow, simmering political change unfolding there. Given the alienation of the population and the fragmentation of the elite, the regime will not be able to manage a succession crisis. For all his faults, Khamenei is the glue that keeps the Islamic Republic together. Should the elderly supreme leader pass from the scene, the system is too divided and lacks a sufficient social base to easily choose another successor. In the process of consolidating his power and ensuring the fraudulent election of his protege, Khamenei has all but ensured that his republic will not survive him. All this suggests that a transactional relationship with Iran whereby carrots and sticks are traded for modest nuclear concessions is unwise.

History has shown that human rights do contribute to dramatic political transformations. The Helsinki Accord of 1975 invigorated the moribund opposition groups behind the Iron Curtain and ensured a smooth transition to a post-communist reality. More so than arms races and arms control treaties, those accords defied the skeptics and cynics by contributing to the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire. An emphasis on human rights today can not only buttress the viability of the Green Movement but also socialize an important segment of the security services, clerical estate and intelligentsia to the norms to which a state must adhere in order to become a member of global society. The successor generation of Iranian leaders would then be more sensitive to their obligations to citizens and the international community. By linking its diplomacy to human rights behavior, the United States could mitigate Iran's nuclear ambitions and pave the way for a peaceful transition from clerical autocracy to a more responsible and humane government.

Gaddafi Flies Italian Women To Libya For 'Cultural' Tours- And Romance

Libyan Leader aims to marry off young Italian hostesses to local men, begining with his nephew.

By Tom Kington in Rome
This article was published in The Guardian on 12/11/2010

Building on his friendship with Silvio Berlusconi, Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has begun flying groups of Italian women to Libya for "cultural" tours of the country, with the aim of marrying them off to local men – starting with his nephew.

"The leader wants young people from other countries to visit Libyan hospitals and universities as well as understand its history," said Alessandro Londero, the manager of the Italian hostess recruiting agency which supplies the women.

"But he is also interested in romances developing between youths from Libya and Italy." Gaddafi reportedly has high hopes that romance will spark between Clio Evans, 24, a half-English actor from Rome who has visited Libya four times, and his nephew, Ghazali.

"The colonel said: 'There is someone who would like your hand in marriage'," said Clio, whose father is from Beverley, east Yorkshire. "I was like, uh-oh, but Ghazali is cute, tall, and funny."

Gaddafi first got to know the women from Londero's agency when they were hired to hear him speak about Islamic culture during visits to Rome in 2009 and in August this year when he was criticised by the Vatican for advising his audience to convert to Islam.

Londero said he has now organised six trips to Libya for his hostesses, with Gaddafi on hand to greet them each time. "I used all my cards to impress Gaddafi, who is a real gentleman," said Evans. "He gave me one of the necklaces with his image on it which he usually gives to his female bodyguards. Then he introduced me to Ghazali."

At a dinner during the latest trip, Evans and Ghazali were placed alone at a candlelit table, with an interpreter. "We have tried to speak on the phone since my return but this is hardgoing since I don't speak Arabic. Plus he is Muslim and I am staying Christian," she said.

Evans also dismissed rumours that Berlusconi had picked up tips on hosting sex parties from Gaddafi.

How Lebanon Can't Escape The Shadow Of Hariri's Murder

Five Years After The former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed, rising sectarian tensions and a teetering government are threatening a new conflict. 

By Robert Fisk
This article was published in The Independent on 12/11/2010

I guess that you have to live here to feel the vibrations. Take last week, when I instinctively ducked on my balcony – so did the strollers on the Corniche – at the supersonic sound of an F-16 fighter aircraft flashing over the seafront and the streets of Beirut.

What message were the Israelis sending this time? That they do not fear the Hezbollah?
That they can humiliate Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri?
Heaven knows, they hardly need to do that, when Hariri has several times taken the desolate road to Damascus for a friendly chat with the man he believes murdered his father Rafiq, President Bashar al-Assad.

But who cares about the Israeli plane? Supposing a Syrian MiG had buzzed Tel Aviv during a busy shopping day last week? Hillary Clinton would be shrieking condemnation from the State Department, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would have solemnly warned Syria of the consequences and the Israelis would be pondering an air strike on Syria to teach President Assad a lesson. But no.

The Israeli overflight was a clear contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – Israel breaks 1701 every day with overflights, but not at this low level – and I could find not a single report of the incident in the American press. The Israelis are the good guys. The rest are bad.Then came the story of the priest who died at the Maronite archdiocese at Sarba last week, overcome by smoke. Poor Father Pierre Khoueiry had fallen two floors off a balcony after his building caught fire – two other priests had made it safely out of the house – and the church explained that the cause was an electrical fault. It was obviously true: I saw the junction box that had burned out.
But OTV brazenly led its nightly local news by suggesting that this could be the continuation of fundamentalist attacks on churches in Iraq and Egypt. Beirut's outraged information minister, Tarik Mitri, complained bitterly of the "irresponsible coverage" of the church tragedy.

In Lebanon these days, just a hint of sectarianism can set the political petrol alight. Of course, we can dismiss this nonsense. Didn't 20,000 young Beirutis run a marathon round the entire city on Sunday, beating drums and clashing symbols and dancing the "dabka" in the streets? Sure. But why has my landlord welded a new steel door over his French windows? And why has he installed a security light at the back which illuminates my kitchen all night?

Maybe it's the sulphurous language of Lebanon's hopeless politicians. Ever since Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Shia Muslim Hezbollah chairman who handed over an Israeli assault rifle to Iran's president in Beirut, urged Lebanese to reject the Hague Tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri's death – Nasrallah believes leading Hezbollah members will be accused – we've been waiting for the cabinet to fall.

The French ambassador believes Prime Minister Hariri will not last this week. I think he's wrong, but I worried about my predications when Hezbollah and the largely Shiite opposition refused to join President Michel Sleiman's reconciliation conference nine days ago. Under a crafty arrangement engineered by the Emir of Qatar, the Christian-Sunni majority in the Lebanese cabinet can make decisions. But the opposition and the Hezbollah have veto rights. Yet when the opposition won't come to the president for talks with the rest of the government, it seems they don't even care about their veto.

Christian politicians flocked up to their Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, thus once again turning the Maronite Church into a political party – though that's not surprising when the other Nasrallah (the Hezbollah one) has turned the Shiites into proxies for the Iranians.

Others (please read Hezbollah, the Shiites and Iran) were trying "to impose on the Lebanese an impossible and unjust formula – deny justice in order to preserve civil peace, or sacrifice civil peace for the sake of justice".

Michel Aoun, a cracked Christian ex-general whose own party supports the Hezbollah in the vain hope they will make him president – Nasrallah enjoys telling the world this alliance gives him cross-sectarian support – would also be happy to see the tribunal abandoned. Even Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, whose politics perform a windmill cycle every three or four years, now says that its existence is not as important as "the serenity of Lebanon". Needless to say, Madame Clinton has been on the phone to Hariri, nagging him to disarm Hezbollah and to stick to the tribunal. In Washington, this makes sense. In Lebanon, she sounds as if she is mad.

Why? Shiites are the largest community in Lebanon, yet their sons and brothers make up a majority of the Lebanese national army.

It's not that the Hezbollah have infiltrated the ranks. It's just that since the Christian and Sunni elites have maintained the Shiites in comparative poverty, the youngest sons need a job and are sent off to the army. Think Manchester or Glasgow between the wars.

Furthermore, the Lebanese army is top heavy with generals and colonels. As Carnegie scholar Nadim Hasbani pointed out, the minister of national defence tried vainly to open an account with the Central Bank, to which private citizens could donate money to support the army's weapons procurements. There is, in reality, no account because by law the cabinet must organise any such budgetary arrangement. Anyway, how can a national army organise its weapons purchases on the basis of charitable donations?

But back to the Shiite soldiers. If they were indeed ordered to march south Grand Old Duke of York-style, does anyone believe that these young men are going to bash their way into their own Shiite homes to shoot their Hezbollah brothers, fathers and cousins to a chorus of White House cheers?

No, they would refuse and the Christian-Sunni soldiers would be tasked to attack the armed Shiites. The army would split. That's how the civil war started in 1975.

Does Madame Clinton – and France's foppish foreign minister, the saintly Bernard Kouchner who has turned up in Beirut to support the tribunal – want another civil war in Lebanon?

There's another problem. Given their numbers, the Shiites are grossly under-represented in the Lebanese parliament and government. And there's been an unspoken – certainly unwritten – agreement in Beirut that to compensate for their lack of political power, the Shiites can have a militia.

If God was to tell Nasrallah to disarm the Hezbollah – he would surely obey, for no-one else in the region would dare to make such a request – then Nasrallah would immediately demand an increase in Shiite numbers in government, commensurate with his perhaps 42 per cent of the population.
There would, therefore, in effect, be a Shiite government in Lebanon.

Is that what Clinton and poor old Obama want? Another Shiite Arab state to add to the creation of the Shiite Iraqi state which they have bestowed upon the Saudis and the rest of the Arab Sunnis as a neighbour?

Hezbollah risk, of course, getting what the Lebanese call "big noses". In other words, if the Hezbollah's noses get too big, someone will cut them off.

It's one thing for Nasrallah and his armed militia – along with the gentleman from Tehran – to spit at the Americans. But the UN is a legitimate international body; the place of recourse – however hopelessly – of the oppressed and benighted of the world.

Indeed, there was a time when the Hezbollah hung religiously – or almost religiously – on every UN resolution remotely critical of Israel.

Yet does Mr Ban really want to take on the Hezbollah? For he knows all too well that if the Hezbollah have "big noses", the Hezbollah have the UN, so to speak, by the balls (always supposing the UN has any).

For down along the Lebanese border are 13,000 UN soldiers, including NATO armoured units from France, Germany and Belgium – and China, while we're at it – with a clutch of NATO generals in command. They are supposed to be keeping Hezbollah weapons out of the area between the Litani river and the border, but for the first time last week the UN commander admitted that without the power of entering civilian homes – he needs Lebanese military permission for that (no laughter) – he cannot be sure there are no arms in his operational area.

All this goes back to a massive explosion earlier this year when a vast store of weapons exploded east of Tyre. A slightly unhinged French UN colonel – mercifully now back in Paris – ordered French and German soldiers to go pushing through front doors of the locals to look for guns. He had been warned by Lebanese army intelligence officers not to insult civilians. He paid no attention.

Then French peacekeepers on patrol in southern Lebanon found themselves pelted with stones. The Hezbollah said that the explosion was of old Israeli munitions left over from the 2006 war. (Hollow laughter here).

The Israelis then cashed in on the whole affair, producing aerial photographs – taken from a pilot-less drone, the principal weapon in the next Hezbollah-Israel war – with a claim that they showed an unexploded missile being loaded onto the back of a truck in the same village, watched by three Hezbollah gunmen. Quick as a flash, the Hezbollah came up with a videotape showing the same truck. But the "missile" was a damaged roll-up garage door and – alas for Israel – the three "gunmen" were clearly identifiable as members of the UN's French battalion.

Then last week came further humiliation, when a gang of unarmed Hezbollah housewives grabbed a briefcase of secret documents from two hapless UN tribunal investigators as they tried to find telephone records in a south Beirut gynaecological clinic.

Even several anti-Nasrallah and pro-government supporters in Beirut could scarcely suppress their laughter when the Hezbollah duly paraded two donkeys through the streets, each bearing a perfect replica of the blue UN shield beneath their furry necks. But again, do not laugh too easily. In the Arab world, the donkey is regarded as the most humiliating of beasts, worthy of execution. So watch out the UN. And back to the Israelis, who roar as much about "world terror" as Nasrallah does about the inevitable doom of Israel. This time it was the head of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yaldin – never regarded in Lebanon as the brightest of men – who told the Knesset foreign affairs committee in Jerusalem that Hezbollah could take over the whole of Lebanon "in a few hours".

Israeli defences were being undermined by Hezbollah's missiles and increasing the likelihood of conflict, he said – he was right there – but then he went into the same apocalyptic mode as all the other Israeli generals who have come to grief in Lebanon.

The next war, he said, will be far more devastating than any other in Lebanon – this is difficult to imagine – and "it will not be similar to anything we have grown accustomed to during the Second Lebanon War or (the) Cast Lead (operation in Gaza)."

Now this is very odd stuff, because the third Lebanon war – which Yaldin was predicting – took place in 1993, a massive bombardment that emptied southern Lebanon of almost a million people.
The first Israel-Lebanon war was the invasion of 1978 – Operation Litani, which Yaldin obviously forgot – and then came the second Lebanon war in 1982 (Operation Peace for Galilee), which Yaldin weirdly thinks was the first conflagration.

Then came the 1993 conflict, and then the 1996 war (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and then the 2006 Hezbollah war. So the next war – after the past five failures – will be Israel's sixth.
So what does all this mean?

Well, what we are seeing is an horizon of foreign powers all longing to interfere in Lebanon as they did during the country's merciless 1975-90 civil war. Washington is ranting about the tribunal's importance, so is France – the Brits, whose diplomats talk to the Hezbollah, are quietly and wisely asking if there might be a postponement of the tribunal's accusation – while the Syrians and Iranians are crowing at the UN's crisis.The Israelis are, as usual, threatening semi-Armageddon.
The Saudis, who back the Sunnis – Hariri holds a Saudi passport – have been trying to mediate.
So, in a backward way, have the Syrians. A week ago, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, invited to lunch both the Saudi ambassador, Ali Awad al-Assiri, and his opposite number in the Iranian embassy, Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi, an old Beirut hand who was here during the 1996 war. All of which suggests the Muslim nations of the region don't particularly want a civil war.
And the Lebanese? My driver Abed, as good a weather vane as any, used to have a small black sticker attached to his car mirror. "Haqiqa", it said.

The Truth. He expected the tribunal would tell him the truth about who killed Rafiq Hariri.
While I was away this summer, with great sadness, he tore it down.

Lebanon: The Logic Of Oppression

By Walid Choucair
This comment was published in al-Hayat on 12/11/2010

Lebanon is in danger once again, unless it is saved by the Arab security umbrella that many Lebanese leaders rely on. This umbrella is represented by the Saudi-Syrian understandings that were launched at the tripartite summit between King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Michel Sleiman on July 30.

The danger awaiting Lebanon and sensed by common Lebanese and ordinary Arab visitors, even before political officials, results from a spontaneous and popular belief, which is sufficient to say that the political crisis brought about by the confrontation between the various sides in the country can be considered as a warning bell against this danger.

The political game - which aims at taking matters to the edge the abyss, through the pressure by the strongest side on the ground, thanks to its weapons, i.e. Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition - sometimes prompts members of March 14 to downplay these pressures, to signal that they will not change their stances, calling this pressure a case of intimidation. However, this does not mean that the dangers of a "strife" implied in the parties warnings can be ruled out.

The situation indicates that Lebanon is in the midst of political movement and a growing struggle that resembles what preceded May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah used its weapons in the street to get a response to its political demands, backed by Iran and Syria. Although the party leadership is reassuring some people that there will be no return to May 7, some of its leaders never cease to repeat, in word and deed, that “whoever has the power to make facts on the ground will decide things in politics.” No one, except Hezbollah, can “change facts on the ground,” which implies, in other words, changing political realities. In this sense, there is no reason for the party leadership to be modest; what Hezbollah leaders mean to say is that some people's hopes, namely the need to separate its deterrent force against Israel from the struggle underway for the internal balance of power, are seen as a type of naivety. It is another take on the belief by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, General Michel Aoun, that “our team has won and the others should recognize this victory.”

This is the formula that had existed since prior to May 7: the opposition believes itself victorious, and the March 14 coalition members do not consider themselves defeated, even if Hezbollah and its allies were able to defeat the Americans and the Israelis, and emerge in a superior position. This obliged the party to use force and the Doha Accord intervened to put a limit to it, by changing the political situation. Therefore, is it not the repetition of this situation today, which prompted the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who sponsored the Doha Accord, to remind us of the need to respect this agreement?

This leads us to talk about pressures, about those who are subject to them, those who is exercising them, and their reasons. While the facts on the ground impose themselves in the course of events related to pressures, the logic of oppression dictates a different successive order for these imposed pressures, and thus the facts. Prime Minister Saad Hariri began to be pressurized ever since Hezbollah's famous stance against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, asking Hariri to take a stance against it on July 18, or five months ago. The demands addressed to Hariri continued since then, asking him to repudiate the STL, until he evinced a readiness to conclude a settlement on this issue. On September 6, Hariri announced that he retracted his political accusation against Syria, with regards to assassinating his father, and condemned the “false witnesses.” This step has been met by repeated “slaps” every day since. Most notably, there was the challenge to the state’s authority at Beirut international airport and the Syrian arrest warrants against a wide number of people from Hariri’s camp, as well as the stalling of the passage of the budget, and the precondition set by the opposition to respond to their demands about the false witnesses, in order to set the Cabinet free. This all happened despite the fact that Hariri announced a new position last week in London, when he said that he did not think that Syrian President Bashar Assad had anything to do with his father’s assassination.

Dealing with Lebanese political matters by using force, and trying to change things by virtue of on-the-ground might is establishing a new reality, based on the persistence of oppression, which only generates forms of opposition, revolt, and finally explosion…

In Qom, The Mullahs Are Worried

By Amir Taheri
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 12/11/2010
Iran's 'Supreme Guide' Ali Khamenei is not a travelling man. He has not set foot out of Iran since 1988 partly for fears that an international arrest warrant issued against him by Interpol on behalf of a German court, which found him guilty of ordering the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, may cause him a spot of bother.
He is also reluctant to travel inside Iran, cocooning himself in his palace in the foothills of Alborz.
So, it is something of a surprise that the 'Supreme Guide' has found enough time this month to visit Qom, a provincial centre some 90 miles south of Tehran, on two occasions.
Mr. Khamenei, who has declared himself Leader of All Muslims and must therefore be extremely busy, was able to spend 12 days in a city that opens onto The Great Salt Desert. To be sure, The Great Salt Desert is not Qom's sole tourist attraction. The city is also home to the huge mausoleum, complete with a beautiful golden dome, that is supposed to contain the remains of one Fatimah al-Ma'asoumah, a sister of the eighth Imam of the duodeciman Shi'ites Ali Ibn Mousa. Fatimah was nine years old when she died of dysentery on her way to Mash'had, northeast Iran, where her brother is buried.
In the 18th century, the Qajar kings decided to turn Qom into as major centre of Shi'ite learning and pilgrimage. The reason was that Iran had lost Najaf and Karbala, the 'holiest' of Shi'ite cities in Mesopotamia to the Ottomans. Mash'had was also less attractive because it was too close to the frontier with Central Asia and thus exposed to possible raids by Tatar, Uzebk and Turcoman hordes.
By the 1920s, Qom had established respectable seminaries and attracted students from all over the world. And it was not much later that, for the first time, a mullah living in Qom, Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi, was acknowledged as Shi'ism's highest clerical authority. Since then, and despite many ups and downs, Qom has maintained its position as a major theological centre. Today, Qom boasts 52 seminaries, with almost 60,000 students, and 247 research centres that employ over 5000 people. The city and its suburb at Jamkaran, where the Hidden Imam is supposed to have a line of communication through a well with the faithful, attract almost 10 million visitors each year.
Today, however, there is a sense of unease in the city. This has two reasons:
The first is growing competition from Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. Since the way to Iraq's 'holy' cities was re-opened in 2003, an estimated 12 million pilgrims, many from Iran, have visited Iraq.
More interestingly, a growing number of teachers and students are moving from Qom to Najaf. According to one estimate, which we could not independently confirm, some 4000 teachers and students have re-located to Najaf and Karbala.
Something else may also be of concern to those Iranian mullahs associated with the government.
A growing number of Iranians are choosing Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani as their marj'aal-taqlid or Source of Emulation in theological matters. The problem for pro-government mullahs is that, although Iranian, Sistani lives in Najaf and has turned down invitations to visit Iran.
Today, Sistani may be the most poplar cleric in Iran while his presence in Najaf is a magnet diverting attention, and resources, from Qom. Sistani's representatives are active in over 30 Iranian cities, collecting the sahm-e-imam, the imam's share, of voluntary donations by the faithful.
Sistani is not the only senior cleric to give Najaf a special place. The Iraqi 'holy' city is also home to at least a dozen other grand ayatollahs, some of Iranian ancestry.
Today, Najaf is a booming site of building activity, much of it financed by Iranian investors. Liberated from state intervention, Najaf is on the way to reviving the Shi'ite dream of a clerical elite that is not in the pay of any government and thus could act as a counter power on behalf of society.
The second reason for unease in Qom is that a growing number of senior clerics who are adopting an openly critical stance vis-à-vis the government. Grand ayatollahs such as San'ei, Bayat and Dast-Gheib make no secret of their opposition to the system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
With the mood of opposition against the system spreading since the disputed presidential election of 2009, pro-government mullahs such as Mesbah Yazdi and Makarem Shirazi have seen their audiences shrink.
Worse still, days of haggling with the ayatollahs and theological students, did not help Khamenei secure recognition for his claim of being an ayatollah.
An autodidact, Khamenei did not secure a formal education because of his involvement in clandestine political activity that earned him bouts in prison and internal exile.
There is little doubt that Khamenei is better educated than Khomeini when he won the title of ayatollah in 1963.
Khomeini was unable to write a single paragraph in Persian without making half a dozen spelling and grammatical mistakes. Nor was he able to speak correctly. In contrast, Khamenei writes and, an excellent orator, also speaks correct Persian. Despite years in Najaf, Khomeini never learned Arabic. Khamenei however, is a master of that language which he taught himself. Khamenei has also learned English, mostly with the help of teach-yourself audiotapes.
Politically, Khamenei is Iran's highest authority.
When it comes to the religious hierarchy, however, he cannot pretend to be an ayatollah unless he fulfils several conditions. The first is to be publicly recognised by established ayatollahs as a peer. This cannot be done unless Khamenei publishes a thesis, called risalah, with the stamp of approval from at least one grand ayatollah.
During the past three years, Iran's media have occasionally reported that Khamenei has completed his thesis. However, by the time he visited Qom this month there was still no sign of it.
In Qom, some theological students greeted the ' Supreme Guide' with mocking cries of: Where is Your Risalah?
It is clear that the regime is slowly but surely losing the confidence and support of the' holy' city.
Moreover, the seminaries are unwilling to swallow the claim that, because of his position in a political system, Khamenei should be acknowledged as The Leader of All Muslims.
In Qom, many mullahs are worried about being associated with a political system that may have passed its sell-by date. Some are distancing themselves from the regime. Others are trying to hedge their bets. Still others are thinking of moving to Najaf.
Khamenei tried to cool the nerves. However, he may have made Qom more nervous. According to Irna, the official news agency, in one meeting he told the mullahs present: 'If we go, you will all go!'
Not very reassuring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Change We Can't Forsee

By Yossi Alpher
This comment was published in The Daily Star on 12/11/2010
The conventional wisdom in some circles now holds that Republican gains in last week’s US congressional polls will weaken President Barack Obama’s hand in trying to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is not necessarily so, and for several reasons.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was elected on a socio-economic ticket that has nothing to do with the Middle East. The more extremely conservative its members, Tea Party-affiliates and others, the less they know or care about the Israel-Arab conflict. Even American Jewish voters, two-thirds of whom stuck with the Democrats, ranked Israel-related issues eighth on their list of electoral priorities.

Then too, nowhere is it written in stone that Republicans don’t care about peace in the Middle East. Two aging former secretaries of state in Republican administrations, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, can testify to that. Kissinger’s efforts after the Yom Kippur War laid the groundwork for Israel-Egypt peace; Baker leveraged the first Gulf war into the Madrid process, which produced Oslo and Israel-Jordan peace. Both were by far more threatening and demanding of Israel than the Obama administration has dared to be.

We should also keep in mind that we are looking at scenarios for Republican influence on the peace process that could take months to emerge. Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s US visit this week, the Obama administration appears to be picking up where it left off with the process on the eve of US polls as if nothing has happened.

That said, the House Republican majority is welcomed by the Israeli hardline right wing for good reason. For one, Netanyahu is simply more comfortable with the Republicans: “I speak Republican,” he nervously stated a year and a half ago, in explaining his need for Israeli diplomats in the US capable of filtering his policies and explaining them to Democrats. At a more general level, a Republican House and a stronger Republican minority in the Senate might benefit the anti-peace process right wing in Israel in several ways.

One would be to pressure the administration to reduce its demands on the Netanyahu government regarding concessions to the Palestinians – whether the current settlement-freeze controversy or negotiating issues to come. Another could be to weaken pressures on Netanyahu to block right-wing initiatives to constrain civil liberties and judicial independence in Israel and impose loyalty tests on Arab citizens of Israel and their elected representatives in the Knesset. The latter issue may not be directly related to the peace process, but it could profoundly affect the Netanyahu government’s credibility in Arab and international eyes.

If the peace process fails and the PLO leadership makes good on its threat to seek confirmation of its statehood demands at the United Nations, a Republican-dominated Congress could conceivably retaliate by cutting America’s critical contribution to the UN budget and severing American financial support for West Bank institution-building programs like the Palestinian security forces that have been so successful under the recently-departed General Keith Dayton – a program initiated, incidentally, under former President George W. Bush. Such moves could be disastrous. An active US and Israeli role in framing a UN decision to recognize a Palestinian state on terms acceptable to Israel is probably the best chance for peace today.

Republican pressure on the administration could also be felt in Middle East issue-areas that indirectly affect Israel-Arab peace. For example, Obama may now be exhorted to get tougher with Iran’s nuclear program – a move Netanyahu would undoubtedly encourage, but with consequences for the region that are impossible to foresee. Congress could also get tougher with Turkey over its initiatives to move closer to problematic states like Iran and Syria, thereby reducing openings for US-Turkish coordination in dealing with Israeli-Syrian talks and other peace process-related issues.

Beyond these speculations, it is important to bear in mind that opposition gains in a new president’s first midterm elections are a fairly common phenomenon. Even if Obama faces a Republican-dominated Congress, he remains in charge of US foreign policy and is ostensibly free to pursue Israel-Arab accommodation according to his vision. He certainly seems as determined as ever. Indeed, if the Republicans now frustrate Obama’s domestic agenda, he may be moved to even greater activism in the foreign-policy sphere.

This might mean that the combination of stalemated final-status talks and an electoral setback to the administration could generate pressures within the administration to come up with a very different peace process in 2011. Special peace emissary George Mitchell might resign if his modus operandi is deemed to have failed. Things could change, though not necessarily the way Netanyahu hopes. Rather than having an easy ride with the Republicans in Washington and happily neglecting Israel’s real interest in ending the occupation, Netanyahu might face growing tensions in the Israeli-American relationship.

Obama Can Still Do It

By George S. Hishmeh
This comment was published in The Jordan Times on 12/11/2010

Though obnoxious, Benjamin Netanyahu is no dummy. After all, the Israeli prime minister knows that since he got away with something the first time, he might as well take another shot at it the second time. His victim on both occasions was Joe Biden, the ever-smiling American vice president.

When Biden visited Jerusalem last March in an attempt to help kick-start the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, stalled by Israeli expansionism into the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government, unbeknownst to the visiting vice president, simultaneously announced its intention to build 1,600 housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope will be their capital once their state is established.

That announcement touched off a seemingly serious crisis between the two countries and many thought the Netanyahu government would be paying a high price for its audacity. 

But contrary to all expectations, here and in Israel, President Barack Obama shockingly caved in and mended his relationship with Tel Aviv.

Last weekend, at a conference of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in New Orleans, Biden surprisingly repeated the same line he pronounced last March, reportedly drafted by AIPAC: “When it comes to Israel’s security there can be no daylight - no daylight - between Israel and the US.”

Hardly had Biden finished his remarks, which were followed the following day by an address by visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, than the Israeli government repeated its earlier manoeuvre, announcing that another 1,000 housing units will be built in Arab East Jerusalem. The US reaction was mute. All, here and elsewhere, are still wondering about Obama’s response once he returns from his official visit to several East Asian states.

This baffling Israeli step coincided with Biden’s new assurances that “the ties between our two countries are literally unbreakable”, pointing out that the Obama administration had done more for Israel’s security than any other previous US administration.

But the State Department, as a matter of course, declared that the Israeli action was “deeply disappoint[ing]” and the spokesman wondered whether the announcement was meant “to embarrass the prime minister and to undermine the [peace] process”.

Another somewhat uplifting comment came from Valerie Jarrett, described as Obama’s confidante and White House senior adviser for Public Outreach, in a conference call she initiated with “progressives around the country, who may have been disheartened” by last Tuesday’s mid-term election results in which Obama’s Democratic Party received, as he put it, a “shellacking”.

As reported by the American Jewish news agency, Jarrett told her callers that “the president has made it very clear that he is committed to doing whatever he can to foster talks in the Middle East - that’s unwavering”. She assured her audience, which included Jewish groups, according to blogger Steve Clemons, that “that’s not a partisan issue; his commitment to that is unwavering”.

At the same time, the standing of Israel’s ultra-rightist government among American Jewish groups has been noticeably diminishing. For example, when Netanyahu addressed the New Orleans conference of Jewish leaders, he was repeatedly heckled by the audience, led by Jewish Voice for Peace activists.

“I think we’ll be seeing more of this,” said M. J. Rosenberg, a former director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum.

There is a feeling nowadays in the US that “American Jews are divesting from Israel”, reported a Haaretz correspondent, Bradley Burston, who is on a US tour.

“This is what I was to see in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Marin County, Portland and Seattle,” he wrote.

“It’s that American Jews are divesting emotionally. They are quietly - but in terms of impact, dramatically - withdrawing altogether.”

He also quoted Thomas L. Friedman, a prominent columnist for The New York Times, as saying at a panel discussion that Israelis “are losing the American people”, explaining that when they see Obama “working hard to try to tee up an opportunity [and] all we’re asking is just test - go all the way to test whether you have a real partner. And you say ‘No, first pay me - let Pollard out of jail, have Abu Mazen sing Hatikva in perfect Yiddish, and then we’ll think about testing.’ It rubs a lot of people the wron? way.”

In a recent editorial, the Times said that “the Israelis cannot bet on the infinite patience of the Palestinian people - or the international community”.

In other words, it is high time that Obama stood up and confronted these Israeli shenanigans. After all, as he recognised, the Middle East peace is in America’s national security interests and he may only have two years to reach that goal.

Otherwise, the continued turmoil in the region, if unchecked, may mark the beginning of the end for many in the region, including abandoned Israel, a development that many in the Arab world would obviously favour.

The Good and Bad Of Iraq's Political Deal

By David Ignatius
This comment was published in The Washington Post on 11/11/2010

The news that Iraq has finally formed a new government after eight months of haggling brings to mind an Iraqi proverb that conveys the logic of compromise: "Sometimes you need to sacrifice your beard in order to save your head."

What's good about this deal is that it will produce an inclusive coalition government that will include all the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties. Everyone is now in the same tent, for once.

What's bad is that the government will continue to be headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose inadequacies as a leader have been well demonstrated over the past four years. The fact that he was Iran's candidate made many Iraqis nervous, as it should. Iraq deserves better.

The American role here was a strange mix of action and inaction: Wary of slipping back into occupying Iraq, the U.S. never declared its own candidate for prime minister -- which basically opened the way for Maliki. That had the weird consequence of putting Washington and Tehran on the same side.

The saving grace in the U.S. strategy was our "rope-a-dope" approach of delaying approval of Maliki unless he agreed to take into his government his main rival, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose party actually got more votes in last March's election. The Iranians flailed away for months, hoping to pummel Allawi into submission, but thanks to U.S. support (backed by our most solid ally in Iraq, Kurdish leader Masssoud Barzani) the Iranians had to settle for a coalition that included Allawi.

It was telling that the final meeting Wednesday in Maliki's office to sign off on the deal had four players: Malaki, Allawi, Barzani and U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffries.

"This government was made in Iraq, it wasn't made anywhere else," Anthony Blinken, the foreign policy aide to Vice President Biden and the White House's point person on Iraq, told me in a phone interview. Blinken has had the difficult task of stroking and prodding Iraq's politicians toward a deal over the past eight months. To the administration's credit, it encouraged U.S. allies such as Barzani to hold out for a coalition agreement that would bring everyone on board.

Like most political deals, this one has all sorts of complicated mini-bargains and codicils. Here's the basic trade-off: In exchange for accepting Maliki as prime minister, Allawi's Iraqiya party will get the post of parliament speaker (Osama al-Najafi was elected to that position today), the chairmanship of a new National Council on Strategic Policy (Allawi will take that post), and probably the foreign ministry (the Iraqiya candidate is Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq).

The Obama administration had explored various ways of bringing Allawi and his Sunni-backed party into the government. Last weekend, Obama called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and explored whether he might step aside and give the presidency to Allawi, but that didn't fly.

Maliki's critics (and that includes most of the Shiite and Sunni parties) will be reassured that the deal includes provisions to reduce the powers of the prime minister and strengthen those of the cabinet. It's an elaborate system of checks and balances -- not necessarily what's needed in a country that had so much trouble making decisions under the old, less-complicated system. But we'll see.

Given all the bad things that could have happened in Iraq this year (and may yet lie over the horizon), this week's political accord is cause for modest celebration.

Tunisia, Our Supposedly Stable 'Friend'

The West's search for Arab allies should not be at the expense of supporting political freedom within those countries.

By Rachel Linn
This article was published in The Guardian on 11/11/2010

I am standing in a cramped, three-room office in an unmarked building in central Tunis. I have been led here by Nejib Chebbi, the chairman of the Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP), the most credible opposition party in Tunisia. We have just finished lunch during which Chebbi discussed the week-long hunger strike he and Maya Jribi, the PDP secretary-general, had finished only the previous evening in protest at the government's attempt to block publication of the latest issue of the PDP's newspaper.

Chebbi is articulate, well-versed in international politics and thoroughly pragmatic. Indeed, he fits precisely the profile of the "Arab democrat" I've heard western political scientists pining after. Now standing in his party's modest headquarters – which Chebbi says the government tried to seize recently to leave them with no place to organise – he politely shrugs off that the US and European embassies only privately express their support for his party. Instead he gestures across the room and states, "if you want a picture of democracy in Tunisia, this is it."

Since independence in 1956, Tunisia has been ruled by one party and two presidents – Habib Bourguiba and, since 1987, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Though political rights have supposedly expanded in this time, Tunisians' ability to actually exercise them effectively has been eliminated.

Today, foreign or domestic journalists who publish material that is seen as critical of the government quickly find themselves unable to work in the country. Similarly, Tunisians who join unapproved movements of any political shading are liable to find themselves followed by police and quietly dismissed from their job, while their family is harassed and they are perhaps thrown into jail or, worse, tortured.

The government has accomplished pervasive control by constructing a fearsome security apparatus and an extensive system of patronage and bribes that is continually leveraged to maintain the support of those who might otherwise cause problems for the regime, such as judges and the country's economic elite.

The common view from outside is that Tunisia is stable. Because Ben Ali's government has provided economic growth and avoided the violence of neighbouring Algeria, most Tunisians supposedly have acquiesced to the exchange of political freedom for economic and personal security. This view also forms the basis of a rather meagre argument from Tunisia's allies as to why they are not more critical of the regime. Essentially, Tunisia is not creating any headaches for the west, and – in the post-9/11 international order – can be relied upon as a western-friendly Arab regime that will co-operate on security.

But that does not mean this surface-level "stability" runs very deep. Most Tunisians I spoke to expressed real apprehension about the future. Though Tunisia's GDP grew steadily between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s, growth has slowed in recent years and unemployment has risen sharply. Economists suggest the actual (unpublished) rate of unemployment is around 25%, and possibly as high as 40% in the critical 18-25 age group.

With ever-fewer outlets for discontented individuals to express their views, many fear the outcome could be a "national drama", in which the west would be seen as complicit for not pressuring the regime to limit itself.

It is not as if there are no democrats for the west to partner with in Tunisia. Widely respected individuals with a commitment to democracy do exist, and their support seems to be growing at the margins where the state has not yet learned how to effectively repress it. Chebbi, for instance, says public sympathy for the PDP has widened markedly since the mid-2000s when the party began using international satellite channels, Facebook and other new media sources to disseminate its messages.

The party's supporters also are becoming younger. During the September hunger strike, nearly 80% of the support calls received by PDP offices were from people in their late teens to early 30s, most of whom said they had heard about the protest on Facebook. The question, though, is whether Tunisia's western allies will continue to stand silent while such individuals are arrested outside their embassy doors.

Chebbi told me: "We are not asking international observers to act in our place. We are the actors, but we are asking for political courage from them, to issue statements, anything that shows a clear support for democracy ...

"I can understand that foreign states are not activists, they have to manage their political and economic interests ... But in the case of Tunisia, what are the risks? … We are not a big country, we do not have a radical culture of Islam. We are an educated people. I think the chances to have a modern democracy in a country like Tunisia are great."

Chebbi makes a strong point. Tunisia lacks the religious sectarianism of Iraq or Lebanon; it has a true middle class, there is no wide extremist religious current, and it has a largely positive attitude towards western institutions and culture. In social and economic terms, it is objectively one of the best cases for a democratic experiment in the Arab world.

However, I didn't have a satisfactory answer for Chebbi as to why his English-speaking friends in the US and European embassies could not be more forthcoming in supporting Tunisians' own democratic aims.

Nearly a decade after 9/11, the US and EU are still desperate to bring the Muslim world on side. Throughout this period, they have been courted by Arab autocrats who saw an opportunity to shore up support for their rule by promising to co-operate on security. Yet despite jumping into bed with these supposed friends, anti-western extremism has not demonstrably been lessened. Meanwhile, the Arab democrats eager to befriend us in places like Tunisia politely tell us they view our governments as hypocrites.

If we truly want to improve the brand image of the west in the Muslim world, we ought to consider seriously whether our engagement in such countries is genuinely supporting the best outcome for their populations. Supporting citizens' desire to pursue their own political aspirations – whatever those may be – by resolutely standing by political freedom would seem a basic start, and something I would argue is the only justifiable option in Tunisia.