The Friday rant: Martin Amis

I have been reading and talking with (British) friends about this Observer piece by Martin Amis for almost a week now. Amis is one of the rather predictable enfant terrible of British letters. His books tend to be well-written, comedic send-ups of barely disguised celebrities and public intellectuals very much from his own London circles. In this three-page (long, web pages mind you) Amis makes rather impressive rhetorical acrobatics on why Prophet Muhammad was such a great, important historic figure yet Islam is such a terrible religion. While there are numerous problems with the piece -- some of which I'll be happy to give a pass considering the writer is, after all, a satirist -- one of the basic flaws with it is his rather broad definition of Islamism. Amis uses the term as a catch-all that includes Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, showing absolutely no concern for the fact that these groups not only have rather different ideologies and intellectual underpinnings, but also very different track records in terms of how conservative/reactionary they are and in how they have used violence. In an anniversary piece written for 9/11, this is perhaps the biggest disservice Amis does to his readers -- although perhaps the editor of the Observer should have showcased a more relevant writer, one actually knowledgeable about this region and its ideologies, rather than yet another literary celebrity for the River Café crowd to enjoy over a Tuscan brunch. I do actually find some of what Amis wrote funny -- his idea for a novel about an Al Qaeda planner who decides to converge 500 rapists to Greeley, Colorado (which famously hosted Sayyid Qutb), is mildly amusing. Qutb certainly deserves to be lampooned, and I have absolutely no problem with anyone poking fun at Islam. In fact, I positively long for the day that a Muslim Life of Brian is made with violent repercussions for its creators. But Amis' piece is infused with anti-religious sentiment:
Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses.
This kind of statement, which I personally sympathize with, is not really helpful in understanding a thoroughly religious society -- and, in case Amis hadn't noticed, there are still plenty of religious people in the West too. Where the essay really falls apart is at the third part, which is so full of bad arguments and mangled facts that it barely makes any sense. We learn, for instance, that:
Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma - the community of believers.
Because there is no concept of individuality in the Muslim world, nor many varied interpretations of what Islam is, how it is practiced, or the degree to which it informs everyday life. We also get the obligatory reference to the number of books the Islamic world publishes or translates and an approving reference to Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong. This is then followed by comparisons between Islamism (again, with no notion of nuance and what a broad label that term is) and Nazism and Bolshevism. The worst is kept for last:
First, the Middle East is clearly unable, for now, to sustain democratic rule - for the simple reason that its peoples will vote against it. Did no one whisper the words, in the Situation Room - did no one say what the scholars have been saying for years? The 'electoral policy' of the fundamentalists, writes Lewis, 'has been classically summarised as "One man (men only), one vote, once."'
Rather strange, considering that democratically elected Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey (among others) have reiterated many times their commitment to democratic processes. In Turkey, they are actually in power. The track record of Islamist governments that reached power by force may not be great, but thus far the ones who have come through a democratic process have not proved a threat to that process. Also:
Second, Iraq is not a real country. It was cobbled together, by Winston Churchill, in the early Twenties; it consists of three separate (Ottoman) provinces, Sunni, Shia, Kurd - a disposition which looks set to resume.
I'm not sure what country is "real." I suggest that Amis should prepare himself for the inevitable dissolution of his own England, which surely will return to its Anglo and Saxon components anytime now. I could go on -- just after this comes a great line about the fall of Baghdad being particularly painful for Muslims because it is the seat of the Caliphate (actually many Arab and non-Arab Muslims recognized the Caliphate in Istanbul until 1921) -- but it all gets rather tiresome. Yes, Martin Amis, some Islamists are repellent, reactionary people with a bankrupt philosophy. But we hardly needed an examination of Islamism that reads like a hastily-researched essay of an Oxford undergraduate (i.e. wittily written, smug with borrowed moral authority trying-to-please-his-tutor-a-little-too-hard but ultimately utterly mediocre) when, five years after 9/11, newspapers should be educating their audience about the many fascinating, occasionally worrying but also often positive, trends in contemporary Islamism.
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Mubarak impression

It looks very much as if Hosni Mubarak has started to prepare himself for his new life, after handing over presidency to whomever.

Out of his many options, he picked driving around DHL cars. No surprise actually, as he told the media in spring 2005 how much he has to sacrifice for serving his country, such as simply strolling Cairo's streets.

I think we should understand that he is still very much into his old job, as you can see on this video clip, that has now been youtubed.

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9/11 in New York

I missed the much-debated debut of the ABC mini-series "The Path to 9/11," but I did go down to Ground Zero this morning to see what was going on there today. It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny New York morning (unfortunately I didn't have my camera). There were a lot of people walking around the perimeter of the area, and a lot of flowers and pictures had been stuck in the wire fences around it. The area itself is still nothing but a construction site, and looks little different from two years ago, last time I saw it. (Today's New York Times has an article on the increasingly embarrassing saga of the reconstruction of the site). Loudspeakers were playing the voices of relatives reading the names and short message to those who died on 9/11. The majority of the voices were those of wives and girlfriends, often wavering and choking with emotion. The first thing I saw as I came out of the subway station was a big banner that said "The USA DID 9/11." Another banner said "PLEASE HELP US. The government has been hijacked by a group of ruthless criminals. 9/11 was just the beginning. Stop them now." At the other end of the spectrum was a banner that read: "When the Left Says Peace, They Mean Surrender." I had come in part out of professional curiosity with the "9/11 truth" groups--groups that believe that 9/11 was a government conspiracy, carried out to give the administration a free hand to increase its powers and go to war around the world. I was told about 500 people had come to New York. There were certainly a few hundred walking around today, mostly wearing black t-shirts that read "Investigate 9/11." I witnessed quite a few heated arguments between these people and others. Often the conversations would start out calmly, with people asking the demonstrators what they meant and trying to convince them that they were wrong. But gradually they would generally escalate into arguments. The 9/11 Truth people talked about things like Building 7 (which apparently collapsed on 9/11 without being hit by a plane), the fact that the steel in the WTC couldn't have melted, the fact that no photos of the plane that hit the Pentagon are supposedly available. People seemed both curious and troubled by what the demonstrators were saying. But they recoiled at the idea that 9/11 was a massive conspiracy. One man got upset when a 9/11 Truth organizer implied that there were actually no planes that day. "What about the people who died?" he wanted to know. "What about their relatives?" His interlocutor had no good answer, and could only repeat "I don't know. It's classified. They should unclassify it." Finally New York police broke the argument up and told people to keep moving. Other 9/11 Truth people were more confrontational, telling people that questioned them that they were "talking nonsense" and unspooling a whole series of rapid-fire, pretty non-sequitur statements: "Did you know Bob Graham wrote the Patriot Act? Have you heard of the Reichstag fire? Or Operation Northwoods?" While I was standing next to some very young 9/11 Truth demonstrators, a woman walked by and said: "Nazis! You don't go to someone's funeral and do this bullshit! Nazis!" "Please don't say that," said a young female demonstrator in a sad little voice. As I left, a man walked quickly past me on his cellphone and said "It's worse than a damn three-ring circus here."
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Rust and paint (17)

September 11, 2006

It was a graveyard. That was the only way to describe it. The place where old war machines came to die. Row upon row of massive sand-colored metal tanks, their huge guns each raised to a different height, sat there like a frozen image of a clumsy chorus line.

There weren't just tanks either, massive artillery pieces, trucks, strange amphibious vehicles that looked half boat – an automotive mating ritual gone horribly wrong, and all covered in the graffiti of their conquerors.

Beneath the layers of black spray paint could be seen the original unit designations of these shattered old Iraqi tanks left to rust in a field at the edge of Taji base, somewhere north of Baghdad.
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Software Arabization

Researcher Rashad Mahmood has written a well-researched article on the Arabization of software for the current issue of Business Monthly. It gives an informative overview on the history of attempts to bring software to the Middle East, and explains the main obstacles. Excerpts:
Despite the huge potential for Arabization, companies face several hurdles in adapting western software for Arabic users, says Maged Makram, localization project manager at Microsoft Egypt. “Arabization is much more challenging than converting to another western language. For example, if converting to French, a company simply has to replace the English text with French text, then do a quick check on the interfaces, and then they’re done. For Arabic, it is completely different. All screens need to be mirrored (switched to read right to left), icons and arrows need to be flipped, and menus need to be reversed.�
Another difficulty is the lack of agreement over PC-related terminology. “Some companies use one Arabic word, while others use another,� Makram says. For example, some software companies translate the word “disk drive� as “sawaq al-aqras,� literally “driver of the disk.� Microsoft, however, prefers “muharrik al-aqras,� literally “disk engine,� which is closer to the original English meaning. Such discrepancies can confuse users when switching between programs, especially those unfamiliar with computers.
....and on the English characters domain name system:
Perhaps the last major barrier to a fully Arabic Internet is the domain name system – traditionally the realm of English characters. As it stands, at least a basic familiarity with English characters is necessary to browse websites. However, the latest versions of web browsers such as Internet Explorer 7 beta and Firefox 1.5 make it possible to type in website addresses in non-English scripts including Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese. These browsers have a built-in conversion tool that changes the non-English characters of so-called internationalized domain names (IDNs) into Punycode, an encoding system that lets browsers visually represent domain names in multilingual script.
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The NDP’s electricity bill

Last week, Al Masry Al Youm summarized a report issued by the South Cairo Company for the distribution of electricity, that put the outstanding electricity bill’s by the NDP as well as ten government-owned newspapers at LE22 millions. The NDP economic reformers in cabinet can talk about attracting foreign investment forever, it will never take off as they desire if they don’t get these hidden subsidies and irregularities inside the state economy fixed. (The fact that this report gets public probably indicates that the Nazif cabinet is serious about putting the state press on a sounder economic basis and cut corruption and mismanagement there.) To pay the bills of their own party would be a good start, too. It's LE 59258.
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Muslim Brother's political songs album banned

Rather amusing story from Fustat:
The former member of parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood, Mukhtar Nouh was planning on releasing his first CD with political songs, when reaching a dead end, in form of the entertainment cencorship committee. The committee, refused to comment on why they decided not to give Nouh´s CD the license and the go ahead, but judging from this following quote, the critical lyrics is behind the decision. "One song in the album talks about a ruler who tours his country every year. In one province, one of the citizens stops the ruler to ask why food, medicines and jobs have become so scarce," recounts the bearded Nouh. "The next year, another citizen asks the ruler the same question, but adds where has the first citizen gone!"
As Fustat points Nour is a middle-generation Brother. A lawyer and former treasurer at the Bar Association, he was arrested in 1999 and put on military trial at Huckstep army base over a long period before being sentenced in 2001. In the early 1990s, Nouh was instrumental -- some say the key strategist -- in the Brotherhood's push in syndicate elections. He was released, I believe, in 2002. If anyone has Muslim Brotherhood political songs, or any other interesting political songs, do let me know. I'd love to create an archive of Egyptian political songs (I have a pretty big Sheikh Imam collection, but would like Islamist stuff too.)
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Good and bad media news from Sudan

The recent beheading of a newspaper editor in Sudan is horrible news -- but really what do you expect from a regime that has perpetuated one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil war and continues to engage in ethnic cleansing in Darfur?
Masked gunmen bundled Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Wifaq, into a car outside his home in east Khartoum late Tuesday. Police found his severed head next to his body today in the south of the capital. His hands and feet were bound, according to a CPJ source and news reports. Mohammed Taha had previously angered Islamists by running an article about the Prophet Muhammad. He had also written critically about the political opposition and armed groups in Sudan’s western Darfur region, according to press reports. No group has claimed responsibility for the killing, Reuters reported. Mohammed Taha, 50, was an Islamist and former member of the National Islamic Front. But in May last year, he was detained for several days, his paper was closed for three months, and fined 8 million Sudanese pounds (US$3,200), after he offended the country’s powerful Islamists by republishing an article from the Internet that questioned the ancestry of the Prophet Muhammad. Demonstrators outside the courthouse demanded he be sentenced to death for blasphemy. Sudan is religiously conservative and penalizes blasphemy and insulting Islam with the death penalty.
A crackdown on the press seems to have intensified over the past year, although Sudan had until then a lively and diverse press (even if it was mostly not free.) On the bright side, Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek, who had been charged with espionage, has been released thanks to the efforts of New Mexico's governor:
EL FASHER, Sudan, Sept. 8 -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek said from a Sudanese prison Friday night that the government would soon release him and two Chadian colleagues after a 34-day confinement on charges of espionage and producing "false news." President Omar Hassan al-Bashir agreed to release Salopek after meeting with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. The three men are expected to be freed Saturday, Richardson's office said in a statement. Salopek, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was arrested Aug. 6 while working on a story for National Geographic magazine about the Sahel region that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara.
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Baghdad's traffic cops

Weirdest story from Baghdad yet:
BAGHDAD — Death squads move with impunity after curfew. Abductions are rampant, but kidnappers are rarely caught. Corruption has poisoned every layer of government, yet few have faced criminal charges. Double-park a car on a Baghdad street, however, and you can be sure of this: The law will hunt you down. Abdel Nasser, a 32-year-old traffic officer, describes himself as a "mujahid," or holy warrior, battling evildoers in a city without signs, traffic lights or speed limits. In this pandemonium of sputtering wrecks and speeding U.S. military Humvees, directing the flow of traffic is a religious duty, he said. Nasser and his colleagues are beacons of civility in the choppy waters of Baghdad traffic, where the term "riding shotgun" is taken quite literally. Until recently, they valiantly defended deadly intersections with only a whistle. Now they have a handgun too.
The writer got a little carried away with that lead... (Thanks, E.H.)
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The first political assassination under Mubarak?

Mohammed Habib, the deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, has accused retired General Fouad Allam, formerly of State Security, of planning the first political assassination of the Mubarak regime. Allam is recurrent media figure in Egypt, but also often used as a pundit on security issues by foreign newspapers. He also has something of a legendary status among Egyptian leftists, who say he was an orchestrator of the Sadat-era campaign to encourage the rise of Islamist groups such as the Gamaa Islamiya in the 1970s to counter the communist and Nasserist left. Personally I think both his knowledge about the current security situation is exaggerated -- he is retired after all and I've rarely heard him say anything particularly interesting or new -- and his role in some grand plan to crush the Egyptian left may be more legend than reality. Quite aside from whether Habib's accusation are valid or not, this kind of statement makes you wonder about the settling of accounts that might take place should there be a radical change of regime in the next few years. A lot of people have been complicit in a lot of bad things over the years, things no one knows about officially but many have heard of through Chinese whispers or stories activists and political junkies like to tell. One of the bizarre aspects of Egyptian life at this moment is that while all kinds of extremely serious accusations regularly fly around, there are rarely if ever any consequences. Investigations are not launched, the accused rarely sue for libel, accusations aren't followed up. Much like the press itself, which shouts in outrage at the top of its lungs but never seems to have an actual impact on things, these allegations seem to exist in a media vacuum entirely disconnected from real life.
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Battle of the Egyptian journos

Wael Abbas has put up a fantastic clip from the Orbit TV show "Al Qahira Al Youm" with Kifaya leader and Nasserist Karama newspaper editor (formerly Al Arabi editor) Abdel Halim Qandil engaged in a shouting match with Rose Al Youssef (a pro-Gamal Mubarak newspaper) editor Karam Gabr. Qandil calls the latter a state security informant while the Gabr accuses him of taking money from the Libyans. Which shows of partisan the Egyptian media has become over the last few years, and how bitter ideological rivalries can be -- especially when one is an anti-Mubarak activist who was beaten up for his columns and the other is essentially a Gamal Mubarak stooge. Via Hossam at 3arabawy.
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Socialist events

The Center for Socialist Studies has announced its September schedule of events: Tuesday, 12 September, 8pm to 10pm How can we read the new constitutional amendments? Judge Hisham Bastaweessi Dr. Gamal Zahran, Member of Parliament Sameh Naguib, researcher with the Center for Socialist Studies Sunday, 17 September, 7pm to 9pm In the aftermath of resistance in Lebanon, where is the Middle East heading to? Dr. Mustafa el-Labbad, political analyst Dr. Diaa Rashwan, senior researcher with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Tamer Wageih, researcher with the Center for Socialist Studies Thursday, 14 September, 7pm to 9pm Short films based on Naguib Mahfouz's stories Hareb min el-'Edam (fleeing from execution), Directed by Ibrahim el-Sahn, Starring Abdallah Gheith and Samiha Ayoub. Essada (The Echo), Directed by Ashraf Fahmy, Starring Mahmoud Morsi and Zouzou NabilThe films will be followed by a discussion moderated by cinema critic Ahmad Abdel 'Al Thursday, 28 September, 9pm to 11pm Beirut el-Gharbeya (Western Beirut), a Lebanese movie, Directed by Ziyad el-Doweiri
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Digital Egypt

I'm currently uploading Gigabytes of miscellaneous photos (demos, funerals, conferences, street clashes, scenes from the aftermath of terror strikes in Sinai, etc...) I've been taking since 2004, so that they would be available for websurfers. It'll take me few days to get it all done hopefully. Meanwhile, keep your eye on my flickr account. Israeli soldiers in Taba (Up on insistence of the Israeli government, Mubarak's regime allowed Israeli soldiers into the Egyptian city of Taba, to contribute to the rescue efforts. Photo taken on 8 October, 2004)
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Prayer, like language, is dangerous

First they went after the holy language, now they're going for the chosen people:
Some fellow passengers are questioning why an Orthodox Jewish man was removed from an Air Canada Jazz flight in Montreal last week for praying. The man was a passenger on a Sept. 1 flight from Montreal to New York City when the incident happened. The airplane was heading toward the runway at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport when eyewitnesses said the Orthodox man began to pray. "He was clearly a Hasidic Jew," said Yves Faguy, a passenger seated nearby. "He had some sort of cover over his head. He was reading from a book. "He wasn't exactly praying out loud but he was lurching back and forth," Faguy added. The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous. "The attendant actually recognized out loud that he wasn't a Muslim and that she was sorry for the situation but they had to ask him to leave," Faguy said.
Can you believe that? They kicked him off the plane even though he wasn't a Muslim.
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