The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Roundup of some notable links

A collection of interesting tidbits I've picked up over the last week.

Middle East history uncovered - An exhibition opens in Prague on the covert Czech aid to Israel in 1948 that was instrumental to its founding:

The communist government in Prague had no reason to highlight the military assistance it provided the state that would later become what it saw as the undisputed agent of American imperialism in the Middle East. The pro-Western government established after the fall of Communism also had no reason to highlight this episode: Anyone looking into it will immediately discover that Czechoslovakia provided the assistance to Israel in the name of the Soviet Union and under its instruction. In Israel too, the episode caused political discomfort: Israeli administrations were uncomfortable recalling the fact that the weapons that saved the IDF in 1948 actually came from the Communist bloc and it was even more uncomfortable to acknowledge that the appeal to the Communist bloc came as a result of the arms embargo the United States imposed on Israel. "Even though I grew up in an air force family, until a few years ago I hardly knew anything about this chapter," says Shosh Dagan, the Israeli curator of the exhibit at the Czech Army Museum. "I remember only that people talked a little, vaguely, about some assistance that came from Czechoslovakia and about some flight training course that took place there once. It was not among the subjects that the air force was in the habit of highlighting."
Chomsky in Beirut - The MIT professor talks to ZNet's Khatchig Mouradian:

K.M. - When speaking about regimes in the Middle East, you often quote the expressions “Arab façade” and “local cop on the beat.” What is the role of Lebanon in the area?

N.C. - The phrase “Arab façade” comes from the British Foreign secretary Lord Curzon after WWI. At the time, when the British were planning the organization of the Middle East, their idea was that there should be Arab façades which are apparent governments, behind which they would rule[2]. The expression “local cop on the beat” comes from the Nixon administration. It was their conception of how the Middle East should be run. There should be a peripheral region of gendarme states (Turkey, Iran under the Shah, Israel joined after the ‘67 war, Pakistan was there for a while). These states were to be the local cops on the beat while the US would be the police headquarters.

The place of Lebanon was critical. It was primarily of concern because of the transition of oil and also because it was a financial center. The US was concerned in keeping it under control to ensure that the entire Middle East energy system remains controlled. Incidentally, for the same reasons, the US has regarded Greece as part of the Near East. Greece was actually in the Near East section of the State Department until 1974, because its main role in US planning was to be part of the system by which the Middle East oil gets transported to the west. The same is true with Italy. However, Lebanon had a much more crucial role in this respect, because it is right in the center of the Middle East. The aforementioned, as well as the support for Israel’s action- Israel being a local cop on the beat- were the motivating factors behind Eisenhower’s dispatch of military forces to Lebanon in 1958.

K.M. - And what does the US administration expect from Lebanon today?

N.C. - The role of Lebanon is to be an obedient, passive state which regains its status as a financial center but accommodates to the major US policies, which do include control of the energy resources.
Remember Somalia? - Islamists now control 80% of Mogadishu:

Machine gun, artillery and rocket fire echoed through the city's streets after a ceasefire called by Islamic courts collapsed, bringing the death toll from the violence since Sunday to at least 53, witnesses said.

The UN report said the warlords alliance had been "severely degraded" by a series of bloody fights with the Islamic militants, who managed to strengthen their hold over large areas formerly held by the warlords.

It said the fundamentalists now control "roughly 80 percent of Mogadishu" and have emerged as a third "ideologically motivated and now independent" force.

The recent Mogadishu fighting pits the fundamentalists against the US-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).

The newly-formed alliance has vowed to curb the growing influence of the Islamic courts that have gained backing by restoring a semblance of stability to areas in Mogadishu by enforcing Sharia (Islamic) law.

The alliance accuses the Islamic courts of harboring terrorists and training foreign fighters on Somali soil, charges that Islamic leaders deny but which have been echoed by the United States and other Western nations.

Washington has declined to explicitly confirm its support for the alliance although US officials have said the group is one of several it is working with to contain the threat of radical Islam in Somalia.
Egypt already has an Islamist government - Egyptian charged with blasphemy after divine vision:

Egypt's prosecutor general, Maher Abdul Wahid, has ordered two men to stand trial on charges of blaspheming Islam.

Abdul Sabur al-Kashef, 62, an employee with an institute affiliated with the prestigious Al-Azhar, and Mohammed Radwan, a graduate of Azhar University, will be tried by a low-level criminal court, said an Egyptian court official on Wednesday.

According to the charge sheet, Kashef is being prosecuted for claiming to have seen God, a sacrilegious act in Islam.

He and Radwan are also being prosecuted for denying widely-held beliefs about judgment day.

The pair denied the existence of heaven and hell, said the Egyptian official.

They said people lived in heaven or hell depending on their circumstances on earth, and they apparently showed reverence for Satan.
Security urges Bedouins to collaborate - After two years of harassment, hundreds of unnecessary arrests, and who knows how much torture security forces in charge of investigating the Sinai bombings decide to ask the locals for help in a nicer way:

Sheik Zuwayed - Egyptian authorities on Wednesday asked citizens and Bedouin leaders in the Sinai to urge fugitives wanted in recent terrorist bombings there to surrender, saying they would be treated well.

Major General Ali Mekheimar, the director of North Sinai's criminal investigations unit, made the appeal in a meeting with issued the plea a day after the leader of a group wanted for last month's bombings at a Red Sea resort was killed in a gun battle in the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.

"We urge the sheiks and the citizens to persuade the fugitives... to turn themselves in and to renounce extremist religious ideas," Mekheimar said, reading from a statement "They will be treated well. They will be interrogated for a short period of time and will be freed soon afterwards."

In the audience during the gather in Sheik Zuwayed - a village near el-Arish, the main town in the northern Sinai - were members of the Sawarka tribe whose members are among suspects and fugitives in the bombings.
Smell that Cedar Revolution - The unlikely spectacle of a 350,000-man march in Beirut, led by Hizbullah and General Michael Aoun and joined by communists and big trade unions. Their motto: "no to reform." They are specifically against the increase of taxes and changes in the way civil servants are employed, but there was also a message to get the government, in the words of a man quoted in this Figaro story, "that the people want to eat rather than hear speeches against Syria." The Daily Star says:

Participants chanted refrains against taxes, corruption, and the "sabotage" plan, in reference to the economic blueprint proposed by Siniora and his team.

Siniora hopes to present the reform package to international lenders at an aid conference he plans to hold in Beirut this year designed to help lower the cost of debt servicing.

Many of the protesters screamed insults at March 14 leaders; others chanted their support for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun, the heads of Hizbullah, Amal and the FPM, respectively. Others expressed admiration for Syria and pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

Several groups of youths were seen running through the demonstration shouting: "Syria, Syria, Syria ..."

Some marchers waved loaves of bread as a symbol of poor living conditions
Jordan's QIZ misery: The Middle East has long resisted globalization, but it's now getting its first taste of Philippines-style sweatshops for Western apparel makers. Incredible that the NYT should cover this.

An advocacy group for workers contends that some apparel makers in Jordan, and some contractors that supply foreign workers to them, have engaged in human trafficking. Workers from Bangladesh said they paid $1,000 to $3,000 to work in Jordan, but when they arrived, their passports were confiscated, restricting their ability to leave and tying them to jobs that often pay far less than promised and far less than the country's minimum wage.

"We used to start at 8 in the morning, and we'd work until midnight, 1 or 2 a.m., seven days a week," said Nargis Akhter, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who, in a phone interview from Bangladesh, said she worked last year for the Paramount Garment factory outside Amman. "When we were in Bangladesh they promised us we would receive $120 a month, but in the five months I was there I only got one month's salary — and that was just $50."

The advocacy group, the National Labor Committee, which is based in New York, found substandard conditions in more than 25 of Jordan's roughly 100 garment factories and is set to release a report on its findings today. Its findings were supported in interviews with current and former workers.
Self-imposed apartheid in Iraq - Shiites and Sunnis are moving to get away from each other:

The escalation of sectarian bloodshed that followed the bombing has driven 6,600 families from their homes, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent and the Iraqi government. The houses mushrooming around this neighborhood are an indication that the separation of Iraq's Arab Shiites and Sunnis is accelerating, threatening the country's long-term unity.

Around Baghdad, Shiites coming in from outlying villages are living in tents provided by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. IRCS President Said Hakki says the agency is preparing to aid some 50,000 families, and has requested aid from the US military to build sanitation facilities for camps and provide rations. Other Shiites are going south to predominantly Shiite cities such as Basra, Najaf, and Karbala.
Walt and Mearsheimer reply - The letters section of the London Review of Books has a long reply by the authors of the "Israel Lobby" against the multitudes of attacks against them and their work:

One of the most prominent charges against us is that we see the lobby as a well-organised Jewish conspiracy. Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits, for example, begin by noting that ‘accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-semitism’ (Letters, 6 April). It is a tradition we deplore and that we explicitly rejected in our article. Instead, we described the lobby as a loose coalition of individuals and organisations without a central headquarters. It includes gentiles as well as Jews, and many Jewish-Americans do not endorse its positions on some or all issues. Most important, the Israel lobby is not a secret, clandestine cabal; on the contrary, it is openly engaged in interest-group politics and there is nothing conspiratorial or illicit about its behaviour. Thus, we can easily believe that Daniel Pipes has never ‘taken orders’ from the lobby, because the Leninist caricature of the lobby depicted in his letter is one that we clearly dismissed. Readers will also note that Pipes does not deny that his organisation, Campus Watch, was created in order to monitor what academics say, write and teach, so as to discourage them from engaging in open discourse about the Middle East.
Sufis in Saudi: Unusually nice sociological piece in the Washington Post. Read it:

When Adnan moved to Saudi Arabia from his native Yemen four years ago, Sufi gatherings were often clandestine, sometimes held in orchards outside the city, or in basements and without microphones, for fear of drawing attention. "I couldn't wear this," he said, pointing to his turban. "Or this," he said, pulling at his white cotton overcoat. "Or I would be branded a Sufi. You couldn't even say the word 'Sufi.' It was something underground, dangerous, like talking about drugs."

Sufis here say they are not a separate sect or followers of a separate religion, but adherents to a way of life based on the Muslim concept of ihsan . Muhammad explained ihsan to the angel Gabriel as "worshiping God as if you see Him. Because if you don't see Him, He sees you." Another Sufi characteristic is a strong belief in the power of blessings from the prophet, his close relatives and his companions.

Sufism had previously been predominant in Hejaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia, which includes Muhammad's birthplace, Mecca; Medina, where he is buried; and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah. Muslims prayed often at shrines where the prophet's daughter Fatima, his wife Khadija and his companions were buried. Mawlids were public affairs with entire cities decked out in lights, and parades and festivities commemorating the prophet's birthday and his ascension to Jerusalem.

When the al-Saud family that would later come to rule Saudi Arabia took over Hejaz in the 1920s, the Wahhabis banned mawlids as a form of heresy and destroyed the historic shrines of Khadija, Fatima and the prophet's companions, fearing they would lead to idolatry and polytheism.

That's enough for today.