Syrian President Assad; photography by Benoit Tessier/ REUTERS

The Formation of Syria’s National Coalition: An Assessment and Analysis

By Amr al-Azm

Syria Comment, November 13, 2012

Following talks with a number of people who attended the Doha meeting of November 8-11, this is my assessment of the newly formed “National Coalition for Revolutionary Forces and the Syrian Opposition”. The coming together of the various Syrian opposition factions to finally strike a deal based on a 12 point agreement that would unify them under the umbrella of a newly created coalition body is remarkable considering the obstacles that had to be overcome. It faced intense opposition by some groups, particularly the SNC, which viewed this as a blatant effort to sideline them. Its members have fought for a leading role in the new group.

The original Riad Seif plan called for a council of 51 seats, a joint supreme military council, a judiciary commission and the formation of a provisional government selected from technocrats.

The new National Coalition that emerged in Doha on Monday ended up comprising of 65 seats. The SNC was earmarked 22 seats, the local administration councils were allocated 14 seats (one for each of the provinces in Syria), national figures were allocated initially 8 seats, eventually rising to 10 seats, with the balance (19 seats) to be distributed amongst the various remaining opposition groups and entities. The new coalition eventually managed late on Monday evening to eventually select Moaz Al-Khatib (a cleric and former imam of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus) and two deputies (with a third still to be named by the Kurds) who are Riad Seif (both prominent dissidents and activists). A third position, which is until now poorly, understood is that of Secretary General, to be occupied by Mustapha Sabagh (head of the Syrian Business men Group). It is rumoured (by Al-Jazira and others) that the position would carry sweeping powers to rival even those of the head of the coalition Moaz Al-Khatib and seen as a principle demand by the Qataris. (more…)

As Ramadan for the Hijri year 1433 draws to a close, the violence between Muslims on the ground is paralleled by the violence about Muslims on the screen. The daily slaughter of Syrians, continued terrorist bombings throughout the region and the uncivil rebellion in Mali dominate the news, as such atrocities should. But cinema does not lag far behind in showing blood spurting out of bodies and broken bones, all in the name of politicized religion. I am not talking about The Expendables, where aging Hollywood superheroes unite to make themselves even more money, but a Ramadan television serial that has captured the attention of Muslims across the Middle East: a retelling of the story of the second caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. Click here for the trailer and here to watch Episode #2.

Premiering 36 years after Moustafa Akkad’s acclaimed The Message recreated the life of Muhammad without actually showing Muhammad, the serial ‘Umar in 30 episodes is a millions-of-megabucks production worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. The earlier film had the blessing of the major Islamic organizations, since it avoided showing an image of the prophet Muhammad. It was a bit eerie to see Anthony Quinn as Hamza constantly speaking to the camera as though the camera-not-very-obscura was in fact the Prophet. But this new film has been railed against by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the sheikhs of al-Azhar because it dares to show an actor playing a companion of the Prophet, notably the caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. If it had been Saladin, that would be okay it seems. (more…)

Qatari women as depicted on the main website of the Qatar Chamber of Commerce

Qatar’s social divide: hindering a pathway to the future?

By Michael Stephens, Open Democracy, June 10, 2012

When considering what Qatar might have in common with Arab countries which experienced revolutions following December 2010, one might get easily confused. There was no Arab Spring here, people did not take to the streets in protest. Indeed, most Qataris hold a genuine affection for the Emir, something which cannot be said for many other Arab nations.

It follows then that Qatar must be unaffected by the macro social processes that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. For if Qatar did not experience any of the symptoms it surely did not suffer from the illness, right?

Wrong, Qatar, like every Arab country in the world is struggling to deal with a number of social issues,ranging from a youth demographic boom, to political Islam, to inherent tribalism which pervades the public sphere.

Of most importance is the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, between the values of a mostly Bedouin orientated society clashing against western ideas. The struggle that many of the country’s young population go through on a daily basis is painfully obvious, as they attempt to combine the expectations of their families with growing up in a globalised world which their parents fundamentally do not understand.

This social cleavage leads to a society which awkwardly steps into the future, leading the ruler Sheikh Hamad Al Thani to plot a course which combines a mix of modernising polices on one hand with concessions to conservative forces on the other.

In recent years, this process has begun to accelerate. (more…)

Qatar: Religion, Economy, and Sustainability

A course offered in Qatar for the Spring Term 2012 (Travel: March 24 — April 5, 2012)

Led by: Tugrul Keskin, PSU — International and Middle Eastern Studies Middle East Studies Coordinator (INTL)

Over the last twenty years, with the emergence of the global economy, Qatar has become a center of an economic boom in the Persian Gulf. This economic transformation has also shaped the social and political characteristics of Qatar. In the Gulf region, Qatar has one of the fastest growing education systems, increased levels of women’s participation in education and the workplace, and more open media and communications systems. Therefore, Qatar uniquely represents a new trend in the Middle East. In this study abroad course, we will explore and try to understand these changes based on our interactions with Qatari organizations, politicians, citizens, educators and etc.

Study abroad in Qatar offers students the unique opportunity to understand religion, economy and sustainability from the perspective of course materials in addition to discussion with community members and leaders, and visits to historical venues. This will help to contextualize the inter-relationships between contemporary Qatari society, and its historical, economic and geo-political underpinnings. It will enable students to interact with and directly explore issues that are core to the Muslim Societies. (more…)

The hunting trip is a time when falconers night spend up to six weeks away from their homes, families and business in the desert. These days the trip need no longer be frugal and it is possible to provide every comfort.

So writes the Qatari veterinarian Faris al-Timimi in his 1987 book Falcons & Falconry in Qatar (Doha: Ali bin Ali Press). I met Dr. al-Timimi in 1988, when I was conducting research in Qatar on the seasonal almanac knowledge of the Gulf. He showed me some of his prized falcons and explained the long established practice of hunting with falcons in Qatar. At that time a superb falcon might be worth $30,000, so I can only imagine what a prize falcon would sell for in today’s commercially enhanced Qatar. Unlike many other sports, where the animals are domesticated and, in Darwinian terms, bred for the task, the best hunting birds are said to be those captured young in the wild. Those that are captured and kept for a future hunting season are those who excel at catching the bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), known in Arabic as the houbara.

There is a rich literature on Arab falconry,known as bayzara in Arabic. In his 10th century bibliographic survey of Arabic books, Ibn al-Nadīm listed ten books on the subject, in addition to the numerous references that would have been found in other kinds of texts. Today both texts and videos are only a click away in cyberspace, including sites devoted specifically to falcon hunting in Qatar. Al-Jazeera recently posted a photographic montage on the most recent hunting expeditions in Qatar. In addition to the use of falcons, followed by high-speed cars rather than racing camels, there is the use of hunting dogs. While the trajectory of a falcon on its prey is purely natural, the sport of hunting dogs has reached a true dog-days syndrome, as an contraption-bound gazelle along a mechanical path substitutes for the open range, the host of SUVs spurting up dust. I do not doubt that Abbasid princes or Mamluk sultans would have adopted the same vehicular superiority, if they had known it, but there is something pitiful about an animal trapped in a mechanical game that does not give the prey a sporting chance.

For a set of extraordinary pictures by photographer Matthew Cassel on falcon hunting in Qatar al-Jazeera, click here.

Daniel Martin Varisco

Skyscrapers dominate the modern skyline of Doha

In 1988-1989 I received a Fulbright Islamic Civilization Research Grant to carry out research on the Arab almanac tradition. Most of this time I was sponsored in Doha, Qatar by the Gulf States Folklore Center. Tempus fugit, to be sure. The folklore center no longer exists and Doha is quite a different city these days. A week ago I arrived in Doha to give two lectures at Qatar University, one on the sailing seasons around the Gulf and one on traditional agriculture in Yemen. In the two decades plus since I last visited Doha it is obvious that the city has changed dramatically. I do not remember any skyscrapers on my first visit. Doha was a sleepy little haven with the grand Doha Sheraton the eye candy. And quite an eyeful it was and remains.

I arrived at an auspicious moment, the evening of Qatar’s National Day. The entire day was devoted to celebration. Thus the trip that would normally take less than 20 minutes to go from the airport to the Sheraton was accomplished in six hours. The roads were blocked with SUVs and Mercedes colorfully marked and many with young boys on top waving the Qatari flag and sporting scarves with the image of the emir and his heir apparent. I missed the fireworks, but the enthusiasm of the throng made the long journey well worth it.

The majestic Doha Sheraton Hotel

The Doha Sheraton is a grand old place. Having been erected in 1982, such a luxury hotel is an architectural shayba. But it still inspires, with a pyramid exterior and inside right out of an arabesque garden from the 1001 Nights. Back then it stood alone, a harbinger of change; today it is almost dwarfed by a series of skyscrapers jutting out of the ground in various original shapes. Here is an architect’s paradise with almost every building sporting a unique design.

The Museum of Islamic Art at night

My last day I visited the Museum of Islamic Art, which houses a magnificent spread of Quranic manuscript pages, pottery, metalwork and jewelry from all over the region, especially from Iran. Their website has a number of impressive e-cards available. The main Qatar Museum is being renovated, but the Arab Museum of Modern Art has opened and one on Orientalism is in the works. Qatar’s wealth is making Doha a museum Mecca, one that is sure to draw a large number of tourists in the years to come.

Dunkin’ Donuts invades Suq Waqif

When I first visited the Doha suq, it was hardly worthy of the title; to put it mildly, it was quite miskin. But now it has been recreated as a tourist attraction (with paid parking) and live music. It has many of the old kinds of shops, from textiles to spices, but then there are the foreign intrusions, such as a Dunkin’ Donuts located near the parking lot. Just what Doha needs: stale globalized donuts.

Flying to and from New York was on Qatar Airways, which has the most outstanding business class I have ever experienced. It is hard to imagine a better first class experience. Next time you are traveling to the Gulf, consider a stop in Doha. Midst the turmoil embroiling the region, Qatar remains a stable oasis of growth. Such a tiny nation, but one that is really making a mark culturally and politically in the region.

by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islamopedia, June 27, 2011

The Islamic state is a civil one, like other governments in the modern world and the only difference is that it makes Islamic Shari’a its reference. We would like to highlight, in this chapter, that the Islamic state is based on the Shura Council, allegiance, free choice of the nation to its ruler, advice to him, accountability of him, obedience to him, break of his allegiance if he commands sin, and the nation’s right to dismiss him if he insists on straying and deviation. This approach makes the essence of the Islamic state close to the democratic one.

By democracy we mean political democracy. As economic democracy is concerned, it means capitalism and it has its advantages and disadvantages, so we have been conservative about it while the social democracy means liberalism holding the absolute freedom, and we have been conservative about it too. Capitalism (of Qaron, a king of the past) is unacceptable to us since it is based on an idea of wealth refused by the Holy Quran. As Qaron said about his wealth, “I have been given it according to my knowledge”(stories: 78). Or as people said to Prophet Shoaib, “Does your prayer command us to leave what our fathers worshiped or that we do in our money what we want (Hud: 87).

According to Islamic thought, human being are heirs to the wealth of God. The Quran said: spend of that He made you heirs in it (Iron: 7). The true owner of the wealth is Allah while the rich man is trustee of this wealth and agent of the real owner. So ownership is bound with some duties and obligations as it is constrained in consumption, investment, distribution and circulation. Also, the giving of alms (Zakat) is imposed on the wealthy as one of the pillars of Islam. And usury, monopoly, fraud, injustice, extravagance, luxury, treasuring and other transactions are prohibited to the owners. With these admonitions and law, we could dull the dangerous nail of the capitalism, so as to achieve social justice, care for vulnerable groups in society such as orphans, the needy and the wayfarers, and work on a better distribution of the wealth “in order not to be the circulated among the rich of you” (al-Hashr: 7). (more…)

BY Karim Sadjapour, Foreign Policy, June 15, 2011

How a couple of cows explain a changing region: equal opportunity offender edition.

In the early years of the Cold War, in an effort to simplify — and parody — various political ideologies and philosophies, irreverent wits, in the spirit of George Orwell, went back to the farm. No one really knows how the two-cow joke known as “Parable of the Isms” came about, but most students of Political Science 101 have likely come across some variation of the following definitions:

Socialism: You have two cows. The government takes one of them and gives it to your neighbor.

Communism: You have two cows. The government takes them both and provides you with milk.

Nazism: You have two cows. The government shoots you and takes the cows.

Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.

Over the years, the parables gradually expanded, using the two-cow joke to explain everything from French unions (You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows.) to the Republican Party (You have two cows. Your neighbor has none. So what?). While in its original iteration the cows were a metaphor for currency, capital, and property, they later began to take on different meanings.

Today, the Middle East has replaced the Cold War as America’s primary foreign-policy preoccupation. As opposed to the seemingly ideologically homogenous communist bloc, however, the 22 diverse countries that compose the modern Middle East are still confusing to most Americans. Why can’t the Israeli and Palestinians stop fighting already? What’s the difference between Libya and Lebanon again?

Herewith then is a satirical effort to simplify the essence of Middle Eastern governments so that, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, “the boys in Lubbock” can read it. And, rather than symbolizing property, the cows here symbolize people, which — funny enough — is how most Middle Eastern regimes have traditionally viewed their populations.

Saudi Arabia
You have two cows with endless reserves of milk. Gorge them with grass, prevent them from interacting with bulls, and import South Asians to milk them.

You have two cows. You interrogate them until they concede they are Zionist agents. You send their milk to southern Lebanon and Gaza, or render it into highly enriched cream. International sanctions prevent your milk from being bought on the open market.

You have five cows, one of whom is an Alawite. Feed the Alawite cow well; beat the non-Alawite cows. Use the milk to finance your wife’s shopping sprees in London.

You have two cows. Syria claims ownership over them. You take them abroad and start successful cattle farms in Africa, Australia, and Latin America. You send the proceeds back home so your relatives can afford cosmetic surgery and Mercedes-Benzes.

You have no cows. During breaks from milking on the teat of the Iranian cow you call for Israel’s annihilation. (more…)

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