Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?

3rd edition by John Esposito is quite interesting reading. The six chapters are
  • "Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution", in which he explains the nature of the reformist (tajdid=revival and islah=reform) movements in Islam (also see his Voices of Resurgent Islam)
  • "Islam and the West: Roots of Conflict, Cooperation, and Confrontation", in which he gives a quick (and often sanitized) history of the interactions of the cultures
  • "The West Triumphant: Muslim Responses"
  • "Islam and the State: Dynamics of the Resurgence"
  • "Islamic Organizations: Soldiers of God"
  • "Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations", in which he summarizes and explains that unless we can distinguish those organizations which try to Islamize their societies peacefully (and generally in opposition to corrupt governments) from those which are violent, we will feel unnecessarily threatened.

Esposito is quite knowledgeable about the distinctions among Muslim social and political groups and their goals, and the reasons they developed the way they did. This makes his oversights all the more dramatic and frustrating. He clearly explains the influences that European colonialism has had on Muslim attitudes, but fails to look back in history to discover if attitudes were ever substantially different. He insists on an equivalence of attitudes: "Each faith sees the other as militant, somewhat barbaric and fanatical in its religious zeal, determined to conquor, convert, or eradicate the other, and thus and obstacle and threat to the realization of God's will."

Esposito's view of the conflict between secularism and Islamism seems pretty even-handed: the secularism can be as "fundamentalist" as any Islamist. Indeed, the case could be made far stronger than he actually tries to make it that secularism is as much a matter of faith as any positive religion. (It is not his purpose to explain that secularism is not required for a secular government; and most Islamists I've read don't notice that either.) That the devout should find secularism offensive is perfectly natural, and that people should gravitate to religious groups opposed to a corrupt government is also natural--especially if the groups spend time and effort on social work. Some certainly do: the Muslim Brotherhood offers what is essentially a parallel government with much superior social services in Egypt (and to some extent in Turkey).

Esposito's ruling principle is that it is possible for Western governments and media to distinguish between terrorist and reformist (even if radical) groups in order to oppose the first and perhaps assist the second. This is certainly true in an academic sense. In practice there are serious problems. We have tried this in the past: for example with Saddam Hussain in the first Gulf War. But, as Esposito notes, even this secular leader who had just attacked a Muslim country was able to wrap himself in the mantle of anti-Western Islam and harvest massive support around the Muslim world.

We Western infidels are not allowed to distinguish between Muslims and attack our enemies among them without others banding together to their defence. That defence may be only verbal, but the response is quite dramatic.

He devotes several pages to bin Laden (this is post Kenya embassy bombings but pre 9-11). "Given Bin Laden's championing of popular causes, the need to provide hard evidence establishing the connection between Bin Laden and acts of terrorism became even more necessary. Although such evidence would not necessarily discredit him in the eyes of fellow extremists, it would destroy his credibility more broadly in the Muslim world as well as provide grounds for a more aggressive policy to capture him or destroy his network and training camps. Without it, the United States placed itself in the difficult position of engaging in a pre-emptive strike and violating international law and the borders of a sovereign nation." (about the Sudan pharmecutical plant owned by Bin Laden). It is perhaps unfair to expect prescience in pundits, but it is interesting to see that even with evidence that Bin Laden was a terrorist he was not broadly discredited. On the contrary, in a curious example of double-think, the evidence is simultaneously dismissed as Jewish lies and accepted as showing that Bin Laden is a glorious jihadist/shahid.

Yes, by all means read this book. But don't trust his political conclusions.

I've held for years that every woman is beautiful if you look at her the way she was meant to be looked at. I don't mean in terms of clothing or lighting, but looking at the way she acts and moves and rests. Don't bring preconceptions about Barbie or Reubenesque ladies, but look at this particular woman and her individual grace.

I haven't always succeeded in seeing the beauty in every woman. Some have been too marred for me to see clearly, many I've not had the time to study, and some have had spirits so warped and ugly that no physical beauty could compensate for the pain of being around them. Still, most of the time I can see a woman, and, letting her be herself, see her as beautiful.

Curiously enough, this has nothing to do with lust--the beauty is not in relation to me, but only in relation to her.

Yes, I do have a standard of beauty, and it has been changing as my wife has changed over the years. Every parent knows their baby is the most beautiful baby in the world--why shouldn't every husband know that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world?

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Thoughts for the day: Somehow I suspect Bush has been thinking about these...
Ecclesiastes 9:11
11 I have seen something else under the sun:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

1 Samuel 17:47
"All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands."

Pray that this ends quickly. The sooner over, the fewer die.

Friday, March 14, 2003

The Representations of Violence

Art of the Sierra Leonean Civil War exhibition is not good for your digestion. Or your temper. You want to be able to do something, but you can't.

The origins of the horrors depicted are clear enough: a country established by fiat over disparate tribes and refugees; corrupt governments that squandered all social capital and left a legacy of dishonesty and lack of control; easily mined and smuggled diamonds; and encouragement to anarchic warlordism from Liberia. Charles Taylor's specialty is using warrior corps drugged, armed, and encouraged to prey on civilians (apparently of all tribes) with little direct control. The small groups do their own recruiting, often of children, and force them to commit crimes so horrible that the children have to cling to their fellow-soldiers as the only people who would ever accept them. The RUF adopted that model and exceeded even cannibal-Taylor in brutality.

ECOMOG was pretty useless, and the UN peacekeepers were ill-equipped and often helpless. It took British paratroopers to put the fear of God into the factions. Sierra Leone didn't really have much you could call a government. Even now the RUF still holds slaves working diamond pits, even though they are supposedly "part of the political process." Sankoh is standing trial now, but most of the gangsters will never see a judge.

And picture after picture after fabric painting showed drugged children shooting, hacking off limbs, raping, burning alive--and dogs eating corpses in the street. I'd seen reporter's pictures, but its a rare reporter who can bring a sense of history or family to a picture.

I have to find some way of easing the grimness of these observations. So--compare this exhibit of the work of modestly trained but honest Leoneans with the nearby faculty art exhibit. I concluded that you have to train for many years to to obliterate the ability to create art with a recognizable subject, or which anyone will care about.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Our World-Historical Gamble

Everybody (if download times are any indication) has been reading Our World-Historical Gamble, so I suppose I should chime in with comments. The first thing that comes to mind is: couldn't this have been edited a bit? The rhetorical flourishes make it a bit longer than it needs to be. I'm a fine one to talk, of course--but I don't get paid for my writing.

He doesn't talk much about the "failed states" and what their status ought to be. Should they fall under the "get 'em while they're hot" banner, and let the neighbors divvy up the likely portions? If the failed state is surrounded by successful ones, that might make matters better, but consider the case of Liberia. It's a gangster-run basket case, but Sierra Leone is about as bad a shape, and Cote d'Ivoire is headed that way. Territory grabs are probably going to happen anyway, with or without sanction--the question is do we want to try to recognize these?

A lot of the political philosophy of his essay boils down to a very simple principle: "You do what you have to do." If you are threatened by a stronger nation-state, you organize yourself to become a strong nation-state yourself, and work out alliances for defense. If you are threatened by free-floating terrorists, you stomp on their hiding places wherever they may be--in Afganistan or in a Brooklyn mosque.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Iraq thoughts

We have a fellow in our collaboration who likes the sound of his own voice, wants all analyses done his way, and always tries to get his oar in. Most of the time his input is redundant, but he's a sharp guy and sometimes he sees things we overlooked. You can't just set the bogosity bit when he starts talking.

Likewise the Axis of Weasels... What does it mean to say we can win the war and lose the peace?

Our goals in the region are (or ought to be)

  1. Get Saddam out of power. This probably won't take too long.
  2. Find and dispose of his nuke and biowar factories and stockpiles, and offer lucrative employment to his engineers and techs. This I'd expect to take a couple of years at least, and people may find the occasional mustard gas stockpile for years to come the same way the French plow up the occasional WW-I artillery shell.
  3. Establish a fairly democratic, stable and friendly state to serve as a proof-of-principle that Arab democracy is possible. This one is very hard, since the Kurds and Shi'ites are likely to want to break loose, and the Saudis have an interest in trying to make it fail. The Iranians have a grudge too; and the Turks want dominance in the north. We need to maintain a military presence at the start, and slowly build up economic, social, and political infrastructure. I hope somebody has been giving some thought to how to develop social infrastructure--political institutions alone won't cut it.
  4. Establish a military presence with an eye to overthrowing the Saudi regime.
    • Control the border with Saudi Arabia. This doesn't take long to establish, but it will have to be maintained as long as necessary--ie, years.
    • Establish links with trustworthy Shi'ites. Developing relationships takes time, especially when you can't deal with them directly, but only through the intermediation of local Shi'ites who make the clandestine border crossings.
    • Supply the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia. We risk having a lot of war materiel go astray here.
  5. Separate the oil from the Holy Sites, so that the financial power is divorced from the religious status. Jordan is probably the best bet for governing Mecca/Medina. We cannot do this directly, of course, and victorious Arabian Shi'ites may want to grab the whole pot.
  6. Undercut Wahhabism and other Jihadist Islamic elements. This can only be done with information: radio/TV/print and word-of-mouth. It will take time: at least a generation and perhaps two. Luckily this doesn't require much more military support than is needed to guard the broadcasting towers--but it does require a long-term commitment of trained people.
  7. Encourage the overthrow of the mullahs in Iran. I really have no feel for how long this will take.

The first point is nearly the quickest. I think we can probably stay the course to finish that job. But the second will take into a second presidential administration. I haven't a clue who we'll elect, but I'd guess that whoever it is will retain enough sense of urgency to finish the job. It is, after all, pretty clearcut.

But the third point is fraught with complications. I don't really see any hope of developing a stable state in less than 3 or 4 years--if we pay attention and if the Shi'ites and Kurds are willing to give it a try. In the meantime we will be attacked again--will we be distracted? Will we be ready to sacrifice a bit more to keep several war fronts going?

The fourth point and sub-points worry me. It could take as much as a decade to finish the overthrow of the Wahhabi regime. You might argue that we don't have to overthrow them, just force them to reform. They won't reform (it would be too painful and dangerous) unless they had no choice because we were ready and able to carry out the threat to overthrow them. Some have said that Saudi Arabia is too unstable to last that long--but we can't move very fast because we have no allies in the country.

These points mean we need troops on the ground in Iraq for years. And this is where the criticisms from the Weasels start to bite. Troops on the ground hasn't been our strong suit. Wizard weapons from the air--those we've been good at, but peacekeeping troops are made of ordinary men with ordinary guns. In the Balkans we did a lot with air power, but when that was over the rest of the work had to be done with ordinary foot soldiers. As I recall, a number of those foot soldiers were supplied by the "Weasels." True, the French betrayed the operations as often as they could, but that was the actions of some hierarchs back home. Soldiering is as dull and dangerous as always, and needs dedication.

Do we have the dedication, the stomach for a long engagement? I don't see it. Of the two nearly equal sized parties that profess to represent views of America, one is governed by people who largely don't see any need for the long struggle--and they frequently win elections. I worry that we'll embark, get the tiger by the tail, and then a pacifist government will back off--but the tiger will remember, and our situation will be worse than before

There's another side to a lack of stomach. If we don't stick to the dull parts of the war, we're apt to become impatient; and when attacked again (and again) fly off the handle and start throwing nukes around. Whether our adversaries deserve such treatment or not, I won't judge now; but it would mean a degradation of our morals. I don't want us to be that kind of people.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

A large part of diplomacy seems to be finding ways to say things you can't say. I greatly admire the Japanese announcement about missing plutonium recently. On the surface, it is an honorable admission of fault in their disastrously careless nuclear energy program. But in the context of North Korean threats, it carefully hints that Japan might have some plutonium available for secret projects. It does nothing so blatant as say "We reserve the right to make our own nukes." That would cause some domestic uproar, and knot up the underwear of Pacific rim states. "Nuclear bomb" isn't a safe phrase to use in Japanese politics. But who could take issue with such an innocuous confession?

Sunday, March 09, 2003

"Cheese eating"

I keep hearing "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" (which I gather is a quote from the Simpsons TV show) describing the French, with comments about running from battle in WW-II. But the history I've read suggests that the average soldier wasn't a coward. This account of a tank battle during 1940 has no air of cowardice about it. Culpable stupidity by the planners, yes, but the captain was brave and resourceful.

French forces fought hard on both sides in Syria in June 1941. You can find plenty of similar examples without much effort.

I think it might be fairer to say that the higher levels of French government were and are incompetent and philosophically allergic to taking a strong stand against real danger.

Saturday, March 08, 2003

The Two Faces of Islam

My most recent bus fare was The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud from Tradition to Terror by Stephen Schwartz. The liner notes say he was the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Forward and an editorial writer for the VOA. Another source confirms an early conclusion of mine: he converted to Sufi Islam somewhere along the line. It is easy to tell. His "Two Faces" are Sufism (unrealistically angelic) and Wahhabis (diabolic--no argument from me). Shi'ites he treats as honorary Sufis. The book has a strong air of the Beltline. For example, he hasn't a clue about Christian denominations, his description of Marin County is a sloppy cartoon, and he doesn't mention the Nation of Islam anywhere in his analysis of Islam in America. Somebody spent too much time in Washington.

He gives the history of the Wahhabi cult, inadvertently showing that this is a recurrent problem in Islam, beginning with the Khawarij revolt during the reign of Ali. These revolutionaries treat other flavors of Moslem as even worse than unbelievers. This was valuable to Al Sa'ud in 1747, when he and Ibn al-Wahhab joined forces. Al Sa'ud's main source of income was banditry, and Wahhab gave him religious/ideological grounds to attack, loot, and destroy fellow Muslims. A victorious jihadist has always been entitled to loot and enslave those infidels whom he allows to live.

He asserts, and gives the historical background for asserting, that the Wahhabi cult has, thanks to Saudi financial backing, achieved a dominance in places that ordinarily would not welcome it. (That Wahhabis are detested in some places is verified by other references in my reading list.) One characteristic of the Wahhabi cult is their rejection of all the 4 main schools of Islamic law--so it isn't surprising that they'd be heartily disliked.

Unfortunately his Sufi vs Wahhabi dichotomy doesn't match history very well. He implies that the evils associated with Islam came either from Wahhabi (or other Khawarij-like revolts) or reaction to Christian encroachment. The dhimmis were all happily singing songs in the field on the old plantation. All was sweetness and Sufi light, inspiring the troubadours and giving advice to Aquinus. Cow pies. Bat Ye'or revealed the real problems of the dhimmis, and observers ranging from official ambassadors to Mark Twain show that the default ummah can be as vicious as the Wahhabis.

I think it more accurate to say that the Wahhabis represent one extreme of intolerance and focus on the letter of the law, and Sufis another extreme of modest tolerance and some focus on spirituality, but that there are other extremes as well and several spectrums connecting them. Those in the Sufi orders are estimated at 3%, with a larger number associated with them; and their influence (including in missionary work) has been large (says the Encylopaedia Britannica): but apparently not a majority.

Setting aside his implicit and explicit claims for the virtues of Sufism, he documents resistance to Wahhabism in places like Bengali (1831) and modern Bosnia, and shows how the demolished religious infrastructure in Kosovo makes the advance of Wahhabism easier there. The Kosovites need trained clerics, and guess who is willing to pay for training them, provided they train in Saudi Arabia under Wahhabis and using only Wahhabi materials.

Not unnaturally, a huge amount of effort has been spent in making sure that American Islamic groups are represented by the self-appointed Saudi-financed Wahhabi organizations. He lists

  • CAIR: Council on American-Islamic Relations
  • AMC: American Muslim Council
  • AMA: American Muslim Alliance
  • ISNA: Islamic Society of North America (according to New Trend, this group controls most mosques in North America, including who speaks at Friday prayer [p231] and what literature would be distributed).
  • ICNA: Islamic Circle of North America
  • IAP: Islamic Associaton for Palestine
  • HLF: Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development
  • AMJ: American Muslims for Jerusalem
  • MSA: Muslim Student Association
as groups controlled by Wahhabis. Being able to find out about these lobbying/etc groups is an advantage to being inside the Beltline, I suppose, but I'm very interested in details about how they are trying to control the Nation of Islam and about the prison indoctrination programs, which he omits.

Some of his political/religious analyses are interesting. He attempts to demonstrate that revolutionary Iran was never as dangerous as we thought, that the Chechens (being Sufi-influenced) are not so likely to become Wahhabi-type terrorists (?), and that Shi'ism may be a relatively friendly ally. He is also very dubious of Cheney, and notes that most US representatives to Saudi Arabia wind up as part of an effective Saudi lobby--presumably due to the corrupting influence of money allied with the region's devotion to hospitality.

He warns that we risk losing a great deal of goodwill if we ignore the native Muslim groups in places like Bosnia--which haven't forgotten what we did, even if the Arabs of the MidEast never heard of it.

I've griped quite a bit about the book, but there's a lot of solid research in it, and I recommend it--but with the caveat that you shouldn't take his claims for Sufism as gospel, and remember that although Wahhabism is our main enemy, it has allies among mainstream Islam.