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Khamene’i on the Bomb » American Footprints

Posted by on Nov 7, 2015 in Back catalogue

“A week and a half ago, Khamenei gave a major foreign policy speech in which he said:
“‘The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.’
“Now, you could maintain that Khamenei is lying when he says he holds that possessing nuclear weapons is a grave sin. (You could also maintain that the Popes are lying when they say using birth control is a grave matter, but you’d have to explain why they put their papal authority on the line for a lie they weren’t forced to utter). But even if you think it is a lie, you have at least to report what he says. I guarantee you that Khamenei’s speech opposing nukes was not so much as mentioned on any of the major American news broadcasts.”
Khamene’i’s consistent views on this matter may or may not be truthful, but Cole is right that they should be reported. They are credible given Iran’s victimization by weapons of mass destruction deployed by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and the nuclear program is consistent with the desire of many nations to have nuclear power as a sign of national status.
Cole is also right that Khamene’i’s views matter a lot more than those of President Ahmadinejad. From 1997-2005, when the reformist Muhammad Reza Khatami was president, conservatives compared the Iranian presidency to the head of a high school student council with the Supreme Leader as principal. That was an exaggeration, but the fact it was suddenly dropped when convenient villain Ahmadinejad came into office shows the duplicity of the rhetoric.

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Social Media and Tunisia » American Footprints

Posted by on May 24, 2015 in Back catalogue

I haven’t kept the social science-speak out of this post, though hopefully I did explain it. My apologies.
There’s been a lot of discussion of the role of social media in Tunisia’s revolutionary uprising, with Jillian York posting one of the more comprehensive round-ups. I find myself thinking of a framing I used in this article I published a couple of years ago:
“Arab blogs have caught the attention of Middle East watchers. Much of the attention dedicated to them, however, has dealt with their political importance, whether as a mobilizing tool for activists or as an alternative source of news reporting. Blogging is also interesting, however, as a new and perhaps significant departure in the history of media in the Middle East. By this I do not mean ‘media’ in the common late 20th century usage in which it applies primarily to those who work within unidirectional mass media, but rather as a medium of communication. In particular, I am interested in the way media enables and structures relationships between and among senders and receivers of ideas and information, as well as in the mechanisms of reception of messages and the perceptions of media forms and transmitters which circumscribe their authority.”
That last sentence deals with the social aspects of the transmission of ideas. What is your relation to the sources of information and ideas with whom you communicate, and in what ways do different media forms affect how you perceive information just because of the media through which it is transmitted? In my conclusion, I highlighted the ways in which blogs, a form of social media, create a new sort of space. Being a finicky academic for a moment, I’m no longer entirely happy with the coffeehouse analogy, since I suspect much of what is attributed to Ottoman coffeehouses could previously have been found in bazaars. Beyond that, however, I also wonder how, then, the spaces created by social media lie embedded within the physical world.
“I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition (‘Twitter vs. al-Jazeera’), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space. Without the new social media, the amazing images of Tunisian protestors might never have escaped the blanket repression of the Ben Ali regime — but it was the airing of these videos on al-Jazeera, even after its office had been shuttered, which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realized what was happening around their country.”
I would go beyond that and ask how Tunisians actually used all these media forms, and what role they played together and separately within society. I’ve heard a lot about Twitter, but Luke Allnut’s information that 18% of Tunisians are on Facebook suggests we need a lot more information about the role that played. Does this, however, include a critical mass of trade unionists and rural workers who mobilized their own constituencies, or were they relying solely on al-Jazeera? If, as I suspect, the social media presence is primarily one of the upper middle classes, then what relationship did they have to other elements of the uprising? I suspect the key lies where Lynch puts it, in the use of social media to generate content for integrated media platforms than then spread it in other ways, but until we start to get more fine-grained knowledge of the mechanics of mobilization and information transmission, we can’t say for sure.

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Fadlallah Dies » American Footprints

Posted by on Oct 7, 2014 in Back catalogue

“His career as an interpreter of Islamic jurisprudence and Shiite intellectual culture spanned more than half a century and touched on every aspect of public and private life for the millions of Shiite Muslims who considered him their ‘marja’, or ‘object of emulation’, a title bestowed upon only those clerics who have attained the highest level of scholarship and influence.
“But despite these varied religious and intellectual accomplishments, he is best remembered for his fierce resistance to the 1978-2000 Israeli occupation of Lebanon, as well as his role as the first major Muslim cleric of any sect to use religious justification for suicide bombing operations…
“Willingness to discard prior religious precedent…often endeared him to his community of followers far more than his support for military action against Israel, and turned him into one of the most liberal intellectuals in the Muslim world.
“In an interview four years ago, Fadlallah described much of what is considered Sharia as ‘nothing more than outdated Arabic tribal traditions that both pre-date and contradict the teachings of the prophets but are continued by falsely linking them to Islamic tradition’.
“It was this mentality that led him to challenge many tenets commonly associated with Islam that involve family law, divorce, women’s rights and even sex outside of marriage.
“He often granted divorces to women who could prove abuse or neglect by their husbands and would do so without consulting or even informing the husband or his family, as in his view their opinion was irrelevant once the tenets of marriage were broken by abuse or infidelity…
“This liberalism towards women led him to argue that not only would it be permissible for women to lead prayers in mosques for mixed audiences but that God had actually commanded that women should be allowed into the highest ranks of Shiite Islam as ayatollahs.”

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Yesterday’s Assault

Posted by on Jul 3, 2014 in Back catalogue

In the wake of yesterday’s assault on the Gaza aid flotilla, the most important tactic of Israel’s defenders, such as including the American government, has been to focus on the details of the events which transpired aboard the Mavi Marmara in the early stages of the confrontation. The Israelis argue that their military was pursuing something like peaceful crowd control until they were attacked by activists aboard the ship, and pointing to the two seriously and eight lightly injured soldiers, insist they fired in self-defense.
The Israeli preference, in other words, is to have a discussion about rules of engagement. In attempting to focus the international discussion there, they are also implicitly asking their critics to somewhat carelessly accept the premise that the flotilla represented a force which required a military assault in international waters. If the Mavi Marmara was something like a transport vessel carrying an enemy guerrilla force, then what took place aboard her decks loses its power.
No one, however, really contends that the activists attacked the soldiers first. That bears emphasizing, because the Israeli position also requires acceptance of the fact that scrambling the communications of and forcibly boarding a ship in international waters is not a form of attack against which the activists with their makeshift weapons sought in vain to defend themselves, only to be smashed by the superior Israeli firepower. I’m sure Israeli commanders did hope to achieve their objectives without bloodshed, but the logic and arc of the events they set in motion carried that possibility from their conception.
Despite half-baked claims to the contrary, this was not, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed today, “a violent force”, and the Israelis have apparently found no weapons to trumpet before the cameras. Instead, they have found a bunch of humanitarian aid which they are allegedly transferring to Gaza themselves. I would love for someone to examine that situation, and determine how much of it was in violation of Israel’s draconian blockade of the territory, and consequently how dangerous it can really be if Israel’s now just passing it on.
For the real story here is not about a military confrontation at sea, but about an ongoing siege the consequences of which for the Gaza Strip have been well documented elsewhere. If Israel were just checking ships and convoys for weapons and then waving them on, this flotilla would not have existed. The violence yesterday was but an extension of the ongoing violence of siege which does not protect Israel, but makes Gaza into a giant internment camp in which conditions are becoming increasingly desperate. In this context, who did what to whom once the Israeli assault was in progress simply doesn’t matter.
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Have you not watched the videos? The huge number of people wielding bats and clubs doesn’t count as “weapons” or “violence”? It was a lynch mob.
But five of the six ships were boarded without incident–why no attacks there? Apparently nobody on those other ships saw a need to “defend themselves” from what was happening. I don’t see any way to argue that the mass lynching unleashed on the soldiers on that one ship was inevitable in any way. This is “self-defense”?
Look, the videos released (and being shown on Israeli TV, although I’m sure not in the Arab world) show the commandos being violently assaulted by dozens of club-wielding people from the instant they started landing on the boat. The people who flew at the soldiers were in no way “peaceful” or “unarmed,” directly contrary to all the claims of the flotilla organizers.
Do you really not see the Israeli perspective here? They see clear-cut video of their soldiers getting attacked by a would-be lynch mob before any of the Israelis have drawn any of their weapons, which was something they didn’t intend to do unless necessary (and, apparently, something they didn’t need to do on any of the other ships).
The argument about whether the soldiers should have been there in the first place is a fair one, but the argument that this somehow shifts or absolves responsibility for the murderous assault on them is not.

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Qadhafi Falls » American Footprints

Posted by on Jun 28, 2014 in Back catalogue

As I write, it is crystal clear that Moammar Qadhafi’s 42-year rule of Libya has come to an end, and he himself will likely be captured, killed or fled before the evening is out. Yesterday I commented that the best case scenario was for an uprising against him in Tripoli itself to go with the advance of the Free Libya forces. Juan Cole recounts how just that occurred:
“The underground network of revolutionaries in the capital, who had been violently repressed by Qaddafi’s security forces last March, appear to have planned the uprising on hearing of the fall of Zawiya and Zlitan. It is Ramadan, so people in Tripoli are fasting during the day, breaking their fast at sunset. Immediately after they ate their meal, the callers to prayer or muezzins mounted the minarets of the mosques and began calling out, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ (God is most Great), as a signal to begin the uprising. (Intrestingly, this tactic is similar to that used by the Green movement for democracy in Iran in 2009).
“Working class districts in the east were the first to rise up. Apparently revolutionaries have been smuggling in weapons to the capital and finding a way to practice with them. Tajoura, a few kilometers from Tripoli to the east, mounted a successful attack on the Qaddafi forces in the working class suburb, driving them off. At one point the government troops fired rockets at the protesting crowds, killing 122 persons. But it was a futile piece of barbarity, followed by complete defeat of Qaddafi forces. Eyewitness Asil al-Tajuri told Aljazeera Arabic by telephone that the revolutionaries in Tajoura captured 6 government troops, and that they freed 500 prisoners from the Hamidiya penitentiary. The Tajoura popular forces also captured the Muitiqa military base in the suburb and stormed the residence of Mansur Daw, the head of security forces in Tripoli…
“At one point an Aljazeera Arabic correspondent was able to get the frequency of the security forces and we overheard them fretting that they were running low on ammunition and fuel for their riposte to the revolutionaries’ advance.”
That last paragraph calls attention to the critical role of international support for the rebels, seen most dramatically in the NATO bombardment which destroyed much of Qadhafi’s military might. The NATO intervention was still a risk, in that there seemed to be no plan for what would happen if a stalemate developed, but in this case it is a risk that has paid off.
The history of the 2011 Arab revolutions now runs something like this: In December 2010, an uprising began in Tunisia, developing out of worker protests in the southern part of that country that may have been inspired by the culture of protest in neighboring Algeria. After a month, Ben Ali fled, and a massive uprising began in Egypt, which succeeded in ousting Mubarak just a few weeks. Tunisia’s revolution had inspired protest movements elsewhere in the Arab world, and after Mubarak fell, these became much larger, as such a development in 1.) a second country and 2.) a larger, more culturally central country led people to see themselves as living in a possible age of revolution. However, other governments succeeded is using loyal security forces to crack down on their protest movements, and there have been no major developments since.
Until now. Does the success of the Libyan Revolution presage similar developments elsewhere, especially in Syria and Yemen? Not necessarily. Libya had a well-armed insurrection which succeeded with the aid of a significant foreign military operation. It is not clear that those conditions will exist elsewhere, and so the “Libya model,” which as Robert Farley notes is really the Afghanistan model, does not seem a likely prototype for other countries. On the other hand, the fall of Qadhafi could inspire people elsewhere to resist their regimes to a greater extent than they otherwise might, against especially in Syria, and this in turn could ultimately lead to fractures in national security forces or between regimes and their security forces, and this could enable those revolts to succeed.

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The Spoils – American Footprints

Posted by on Jun 26, 2014 in Back catalogue

When Bernard Madoff was defrauding investors, do you imagine he gave a thought to the refugees he was going to harm? Human Rights First, formerly Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, has a refugee protection program that advocates on behalf of, among others, Iraqi refugees (HRF also gives free and very able legal representation to Iraqis and others, including a few people I know, in asylum cases). The refugee protection program was funded by the late Picower Foundation, at $250,000 a year. All of that money is gone. Between Picower and another now-defunct foundation, JEHT, which was also conned by Madoff, HRF is looking at a shortfall of over a million dollars this year. If you want to help this excellent organization, you can.
Ahmed, an Iraqi in his early 30s, crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border in late November. With him were his wife and his two young sons. They chose Damascus as their destination, a city so flooded with refugees that entire neighborhoods, if it weren’t for the numerous statues and photographs of Syria’s ruling family, would feel more like districts in Baghdad than neighborhoods of the Syrian capitol.
The change in Damascus’s demographic landscape is starting to look permanent. As rates of violence have decreased in areas of Iraq in recent months, many here had hoped that Syria’s massive Iraqi community would move back home. But most Iraqis have stayed put. Many Syrians resent the continued presence of these refugees, and dozens of informal interviews I have conducted with average Syrian citizens over the past three months have revealed strong currents of xenophobia and distrust toward Syria’s Iraqi refugee population. In recent years, the Syrian government has welcomed Iraqi refugees with open arms. But despite this official hospitality, ordinary Syrians are feeling increasingly less welcoming.
When Ahmed and his family crossed the border recently, they were not met with open arms. Their taxi driver, on the road towards Damascus, tricked them into getting out of the car on an abandoned stretch of highway. He then drove off, leaving them without belongings, identification, or money. A Syrian professor (and a friend of mine), out on a late-night drive, happened across them coincidentally, wandering alongside the side of the road. It was a stretch of highway that, as the Syrian professor later described it, was “so abandoned that they may as well have been left to die.”
Ahmed fled the country for similar reasons as many other Sunnis; his relatives had been harassed by American forces in the years since the invasion. His family eventually scattered and lost track of one another. Ahmed’s house in Baghdad, where he lived with his young kids and wife, was repeatedly raided by government troops. His plan was vague — find an apartment in Damascus and look for any type of job to support his family. Being left penniless along the side of the road was an inauspicious beginning, and the weeks since have brought him little relief. […]
Ahmed’s situation is shared by many Iraqis in Syria, and it suggests that social prejudices and xenophobia, in addition to legal barriers, are proving increasingly problematic for refugees. Some Syrians have begun to use the term “dirty” to describe their Iraqi neighbors. I noticed the term used on multiple occasions, often coupled with descriptions of the refugees as being cheaters, thieves, and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, some Iraqis (though not all) describe feeling unwelcome as well; many lie about their country of origin, explaining away their unusual accent as a product of a village upbringing. It’s a falsehood that allows them to get a job or rent an apartment or, at the very least, escape various degrees of social ostracization.
This changing attitude toward refugees appears to be based, in part, on economic conditions. Gas and food prices have shot up in recent years, and many Syrians citizens are unable to find a decent job. Tens of thousands, many of them with advanced educational degrees, take to the roads every morning to drive taxis for around ten dollars a day, or sell vegetables on street corners.

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