January 2010

Not since Tammy Faye Baker embroidered Bible verses on her underwear has there been as eye-opening a scriptural scandal as the recent revelation that an American manufacturer routinely engraves Bible verses on U.S. military gun sights. As reported earlier this week, the Michigan-based corporation Trijicon has supplied the gun sights used by American marines to aim at and shoot the Taliban and their sympathizers in Afghanistan. The company may now be in quite a few critics’ sights given the new publicity. The Wikipedia entry already details the controversy. But the main company website has nothing to say. In the detailed descriptions of the gun sights on the website the biblical abbreviations are nowhere in sight. But it does say that “Trijicon self-luminous night sights are proven to give shooters five times greater night fire accuracy- with the same speed as instinctive shooting.” Five times, got it? Try MARK 6:38 (do look this up) and don’t forget the fishes. It may very well be that the procurement officers never noticed the addition of gospel acronyms after the serial numbers, but the company is not shy about its Christian views: “We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals.”

The actual verses are not inscribed, only the chapter and verse in code. It appears that all of the verses are from the New Testament, so at least it cannot be claimed to be a Zionist plot (or perhaps it could be said to be a very clever Zionist plot…). I have no idea how many verses have appeared on the 800,000 units contracted for $660 million by the U.S. Marine Corps. I suspect that MATT 5:44 (do look it up) is not one of them. Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount is not part of what the company defines as “biblical standards.” (more…)

Welcome to Qaedastan
by Gregory D. Johnsen, , Foreign Policy, January/February, 2010

In 2010, Yemen will celebrate the 20th anniversary of national unification. But it won’t be much of a party: This could well be the year Yemen comes apart.

Even the brutal 1994 civil war failed to threaten the structural integrity of this country chronically teetering on the verge of disintegration as much as the current crises, all of which may be coming to a head in 2010.

Yemen has so many dire problems that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Al Qaeda is growing in prominence, a Shiite rebellion is expanding in the north, and the threat of secession is renewed in the south. There’s a brewing fight over what comes after President Ali Abdullah Saleh, age 67, who has ruled Yemen for 31 years; the country’s elites are locked in a closed-door struggle to take power once he departs. Finally, and perhaps most intractably, Yemen is an environmental and resource catastrophe in the making. The country’s water table is nearly depleted from years of agricultural malpractice, and its oil reserves are rapidly dwindling. This comes just when unemployment is soaring and an explosive birthrate promises only more young, jobless citizens in the coming years. (more…)

Splashes of paint near a statue of the Virgin Mary in Kota Tinggi; Source: Times Online

Recently Malaysia has been at the centre of another controversy. After the fatwa against Yoga (in which it was suggested that Muslims were better to abstain from it), the sentence against Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno (who was condemned to strokes of an “Islamic” cane), and the severed cow heads left on an area awaiting the construction of a Hindu temple, today churches, and other non-Muslim places of worship, have been torched over the issue of whether non-Malay Muslims, and in particular Christians, can use the word ‘Allah’. The Malay government, controlled by UMNO, clearly supports the opinion that “Allah” is, at least linguistically, a Malay Muslim theo-semiotic possession, despite the word being Arabic. Yet to understand the present situation we need to look at how Muslim Malaysians make sense of their social political identity within the country. (more…)

Varisco interviewed about Yemen on MSNBC, January 16

For the past week or so, just before the terrible human tragedy in Haiti, Yemen was once again a front page news story in the Western media. This time it was not about qât, nor about the rhino horn used in Yemeni dagger hilts, but the issue was exotic nevertheless. Yemen is newsworthy because of the recent attempted suicide mission of a Nigerian who met with members of the relatively recently reframed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At first, the political talking heads were eager to brand Yemen as a lawless tribal haven for the next stop of our continuing war on terror. Joe Lieberman added Yemen to his own version of the axis of evil, which I have previously commented upon. But then late last week Yemeni officials announced that six al-Qaeda figures had been killed in an airstrike, and on Saturday three more had been arrested near the Saudi border.

On Saturday, on my return from delivering two lectures in Toronto, I went straight from the airport to MSNBC, where I was interviewed (if that term works for about two minutes of air time) about the recent strikes on al-Qaeda in Yemen. Earlier in the week, I sat down for an extended interview on the current situation in Yemen with Karla Schuster of Hofstra University, an interview which can be seen on Youtube. (more…)

Meeting of King Faysal with Ibn Sa’ud on H.M.S. Lupin

[Webshaykh’s Note: In his fascinating book Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq (2005), historian Magnus Bernhardsson provides an overview of the intersection of politics and archaeology in Iraq during the British mandate. The following is an excerpt about the installation of Faysal as the new Iraqi king.]

When Faysal ascended to the throne in 1921, many details were yet to be hammered out, and laws and regulations had to be written. As [Gertrude] Bell stated, “It’s an immense business setting up a court and power.” Yet in establishing Faysal as the king of Iraq, the British engineered one of the more bizarre episodes in modern Middle Eastern history. A native of the Hijaz, a Sunni who had been educated in Istanbul and spoke with a distinct Hijazi accent, was brought to a predominantly shi’i country that he had never visited. He was unfamiliar with its dialects, geography, and history and had few immediate visions and plans for this new nation, which was as unfamiliar to him as his subjects were to him. The irony and perhaps artificiality were not lost on Bell, who remarked in her now famous words, “I’ll never engage in creating kings again, it’s too great a strain.” These words also reflect her sense of empowerment and authority in the Iraqi context, indicative of her later actions in archaeology. (more…)

Illustration of Cairo from Seward’s Travels (1873)

William H. Seward, the American Secretary of State who is forever linked with the “folly” of acquiring Alaska from the Russians, spent a year traveling around the world near the end of his life. In two previous posts I posted the comments he and his daughter made about India and Aden, but their trip continued up the Red Sea to Egypt. While in Cairo, Mr. Seward received the esteemed protocol of a traveling diplomat, but in Cairo there came a most civil surprise:

The Americans in Egypt are a mixed though interesting family. The Khédive is reorganizing his army on the Western system of evolution and tactics. (more…)

left, 1967 cover of Life Magazine; right, Dr. Alan Singer in the classroom

How I Almost Became a Terrorist
Not Everyone Who Opposes U.S. Policy is a Fanatic

By ALAN J. SINGER, CounterPunch via Maiz Centeotl Chicomecoatl, January 7, 2010

In May 1967 I was a seventeen-year old high school senior and a not particularly religious Jew. I was born in New York City, as were my parents, although my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. My family strongly identified with the state of Israel and at the time my stepmother was visiting her brother who had emigrated there to fight for independence after serving in the U.S. army during World War II.

The survival of Israel as a Jewish state was important to my identity and the identity of my friends and family members. My friends, siblings, cousins, and I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and we had family members who were murdered. Jews had been victims for two thousand years but the survival of Israel meant we would be victims no more.

As the crisis in the Middle East intensified Americans were evacuated. My father and I spent a night at Kennedy Airport waiting for my stepmother to return home. The next morning two friends and I went to the Jewish Agency to sign up to go to Israel as volunteers in the event of war. We hoped to fight but said we would do anything that was needed.

On June 5, 1967 Israel launched a preemptive strike. The Third Arab-Israeli War lasted six days and ended with a resounding Israeli victory. American volunteers were not needed so we never went. But we would have gone and we would have fought for the survival of Israel and of Jews, whether the United States government gave permission, looked the other way, or even if it tried to stop us.

I am no longer a Zionist and I have not supported Israeli policy, especially the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. I now see Israel as the aggressor in the region, but that is not the point. (more…)

What the Danish Cartoon Controversy Tells Us About Religion, the Secular, and the Limits of the Law
By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Religion Dispatches, January 7, 2010

Review of: Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood (University of California Press, 2009)

This very rich little book seems to me a very good place to begin the new decade. It is smart, informed, thoughtful, urgent—and properly unsettling. It is also very difficult to read quickly or to summarize in short order. It is well worth the effort.

The principal essays, by anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, take the Danish cartoon controversy as a starting point. They review the contexts of the publication of the satirical cartoons of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, and the angry responses that ensued; they ask us to take seriously the fundamental incoherence of the assumptions about religion that underlie the dominant narratives of those events (dominant narratives that were repeated again this week in the stories about a recent attack on one of the cartoonists.) The book also includes an introduction by political scientist Wendy Brown and a response to the essays by philosopher Judith Butler. (more…)

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