June 2012

A Tuareg nomad stands near a 13th century mosque in Timbuktu in this file photo [Reuters]

There is an old saw in English: cutting your nose to spite your face. The sorry lot of vigilante Ansar extremists have already desecrated several Muslim saints’ tombs in southern Yemen, but now come reports of lawless fanatics destroying saint shrines in the famed city of Timbuktu in Mali. Al Jazeera is reporting that many, if not all, of the shrines there on the World Heritage List have been damaged or destroyed. These are ritual attractions considered sacred by local Muslims for several centuries, not replicas of the Buddha or foreign idols. So who exactly do these fanatics hate? If you think they are doing this because they hate America and its freedoms, think again.

Iconoclasm has a long history that is hardly unique to the Middle East. The modus vivendi is the idea that if you don’t like something, just get rid of it no matter what other people think. Tolerance and dialogue might as well be Satanic in this twisted worldview. It is important to observe that in both the Yemeni case and now in Timbuktu the destruction takes place because of an almost total breakdown of security. No government, responsible or not to world opinion, is behind this action to such a sacred Islamic site. It is very much a replay of the Wahhabi wave that swept across Arabia with the sword of the Sa’ud clan. The Wahhabis, considered fanatics at the time by most other Muslims, wanted to turn back the clock to a narrow understanding of what they thought life was like in the time of the Prophet. Were ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792 (just six years before Napoleon invaded Egypt and proclaimed himself a true Muslim come to rescue Egypt from its corrupt rulers) to come back from the dead and see the palaces, shopping malls and gentrification of the ka‘ba as these have evolved with the vast oil wealth of the Saudi elite, he would no doubt follow Balaam and curse the day he ever met Ibn Sa’ud.

Timbuktu, as a major African center of Islamic education, is also a rich treasury of Islamic manuscripts. Will these fanatics torch the handwritten copies of the Qu’ran, traditions and other religious books in the libraries? ‘Abd al-Wahhab is not about to be resurrected, but there is a need for a modern day Muslim Balaam to get off his ass and curse such sacrilege.

Review of D. M. Varisco, Islam obscured. The rhetoric of anthropological representation, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2005.

by Estella Carpi, letturearabe di Jolanda Guardi, June 29, 2012

Anche a distanza di ben sei anni, vale la pena recensire il testo dell’antropologo Americano Daniel Varisco, considerate l’urgenza attuale di de-cristallizzare i discorsi sull’Islam, particolarmente nel contesto accademico italiano.

Attraverso una rassegna concettuale di eminenti studiosi tra i quali Ernest Gellner e Clifford Geertz, e la de-mitizzazione della sociologa marocchina Fatima Mernissi che ancora pecca di una visione monolitica dell’Islam, Varisco riesce totalmente, a mio avviso, nell’intento di decostruire il solo Islam univoco, omogeneo, aspettatamente coerente e destoricizzato che ci viene rifilato.

L’Islam che definirei “monolitico” tuttora pervade i discorsi dei più esperti: Varisco, attraverso il suo background squisitamente antropologico, invoca invece all’osservazione degli individui che si auto-definiscono “musulmani”, piuttosto che alla catalogazione di ciò che l’Islam teologicamente prevede. L’Islam, come qualsiasi altra religione intesa sia come istituzione che pratica culturale, può soltanto essere rappresentato.

Per demolire le tuttora ancor troppo diffuse stagnazioni dogmatiche e una comprensione campanilistica dell’Islam, è quindi necessario, sostiene Varisco, tener conto del fatto che additiamo costantemente ai misfatti compiuti dai musulmani con maggior indignazione, in riflesso appunto alla nostra lettura dell’Islam, inteso come insieme di valori e pratiche rigorosamente coerenti, rispetto a qualsiasi altra religione.

I musulmani sono invece “conservatori o comunisti, maschi o femmine, giovani e vecchi, ricchi e poveri, di buon umore o mal intenzionati”, che poco hanno a che fare con una logica islamica del “prendere o lasciare”, quale invece ampiamente diffusa nella letteratura al riguardo. (more…)

Yemeni interim president Al-Hadi

Yemen’s transition: a model to be followed?

by Helen Lackner, Open Democracy, June 19, 2012

What is actually happening in Yemen? It is either presented as a ‘solution’ which could be a model for Syria, or as a ‘phoney’ change that only conceals continuation of the previous regime

In the current environment where the success of the ‘Arab revolutions’ to bring about genuine democracy to their countries is more than doubtful, there is value in examining in some detail the situation in Yemen. Where Egypt seems to be poised between a military or a fundamentalist regime, Libya is at risk of being divided between a multiplicity of various armed factions, Bahrain continues on its bloody confrontation between a minority regime and the demands of the majority of its people, early hopes for Tunisia are dwindling in the face of more aggressive fundamentalists and Syria is suffering civil war with a death toll of hundreds each weak, what is actually happening in Yemen? It is either presented as a ‘solution’ which could be a model for Syria, or as a merely cosmetic change which conceals a continuation of the previous regime.

After many months of procrastination, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to sign the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council Transitional agreement on 23 November 2011. While he attempted to continue ruling from behind the scenes, his power has been very dramatically reduced over the months. First, his former Vice President, Abdul Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected president through an overwhelming popular endorsement on 25 February 2012 when more people came out to vote for him than had participated in the previously ‘contested’ presidential elections of 1999 and 2006. While the outcome was in no doubt as he was the only candidate, the fact that over 6 million Yemenis bothered to come out and queue to vote showed their desire for change and to get rid of the old regime – even if many of them were voting more against AAS than for ARMH – gave him a popular legitimacy which helps him develop a genuine power base which he previously lacked. (more…)

What a modern day Saul might hope to see

About 2000 years ago a zealot named Saul witnessed a blinding light on the road to Damascus; it was both a name changing and life changing experience. The great epistle writer and first missionary went on to create early Christianity, at least in the canonical sense. There are more blinding, life-and-death lights now ablaze on the road to Damascus as well as in Damascus. This time no one would mistake them for signs of the divine. While the world watched as the Egyptian people elected a leader with religious convictions, the last entrenched dictator (sparing the kings and emirs who still live as though the 1001 Nights never ended) to the north is spilling the blood of his own people. Asad, the dentist turned family potentate, is more like a modern-day Nero than a latter-day hero. His siege mentality, propped up by Russian economic and political interests, is not viable in the long run, but how long can Syrians survive the short run?

The issue is not if Asad can survive, but how long the drama will continue. Obviously he continues to rule because he and his minority have the guns and few qualms about using them. In February of 1982 his father was pitiless in ordering a slaughter in the city of Hama in which perhaps as many as 20,000 were killed. Although in many ways the gaunt and lackluster Bashir is not the charismatic clone of his father, his modus vivendi for taking the life out of his enemies is the same. There may not yet have been a blinding flash of light strong enough to overthrow Asad, but there is plenty of handwriting on the wall. Shooting down a Turkish plane, when relations with Turkey are as low as they can be without conflict , is a no-brainer dumb move. As a member of NATO, Turkey could call on its security allies to pull another Libya. If Asad thinks that such a provocation would stop Turkish support for the defectors from his regime, he is either desperate or deluded. (more…)

[The following post is about a conference held five years ago, but the papers from the conference have been published in a new volume edited by the late Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat and Michael Ezekiel Gaspar entitled Is There a Middle East?. This is a book well worth reading and owing.]

Is there a Middle East? At first glance we either have a very silly question or an occasion for an academic conference. In this case it was the latter at Yale University this past weekend. The Council for Middle East Studies of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies hosted a dozen scholars from various disciplines. Papers were given on the history of the term “Middle East,” its geographical borders in maps and mental templates, how the region implied has been imagined, colonially appropriated and the continuing relevance of the region in a world hooked on oil and stymied by regional terrorism. (more…)

Al Jazeera just suggested, “I bet the world can hear the heartbeats of 80 million Egyptians.” With the heartbeat of Mubarak so close to closure, the irony in this statement does not escape me. Will it be Morsi, who virtually all the unofficial accounts indicate won the vote, or Shafiq, the epitome of the old guard that the revolution was supposedly ousting? I have no crystal ball and I have no doubt that votes can be manipulated (especially after having lived through the 1980 U.S. election in which our Supreme Court elected GWB (not the bridge) in full view). So as soon as I see the results across my screen, I will stop in my tracks and note the “winner.” I suspect that Morsi will be declared victor, as there have no doubt been negotiations behind the scenes to ensure that the military maintains its power. By recognizing Morsi, the military will be praised for not stealing the election, even though they have already stolen the power of the president. I also suspect that U.S. officials are pulling for Morsi as well, as that will lessen the chances for riots and will finally create a situation where the Brotherhood must put up or shut up.

Can the Brotherhood revitalize Egypt’s economy? This is the relevant question. An Islamic state in the image of Iran (which is not likely to happen unless the Fatimids regain power in Cairo) would not solve the problem of jobs. Egypt relies heavily on its greatest natural resource, apart from its people: an extraordinary history that the world adores and invites tourism. Tourists will only flock to Egypt if it is a safe environment with plenty of liquor flowing in the major hotels. Despite the number of veiled women in the streets, this is after all the country that Nasser built. Socialism may be passé, but the world that Umm Kulthum sang about lives on and this is not one that was around in the 7th century.

Much has been written about the Brotherhood, both pro and con. Apart from partisan Islamophobes, it is clear that Morsi is not Mullah Umar of the Taliban. If you were to poll Egyptians about the desire to see all statues of Ramses blown up, as happened to the Bamiyan Buddhas, I doubt you would find many who would applaud such an absurd idea. Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt, but the Pharaohs still reign in Egyptian hearts. To the extent that Egyptians view their cultural origins as Umm al-Dunya, they are not about to do in their mother. The Pyramids have survived for some five millennia, before Judaism, Christianity or Islam. They are more than likely to survive all three of these major monotheisms in their present form.

Time is twittering away, at least for me on a picture-perfect weather Sunday morning in New York. The hour of 3 pm in Cairo (9 am EST) has come and gone, but ma’a laysh. Inshallah the results will be out soon. Meanwhile, while browsing the Arabic edition of Al-Ahram, I see the picture (below) of Morsi.

Al-Ahram reports that Morsi will be making a speech after the announcement,no matter which way it goes. This picture is fascinating. Morsi does not look very Brotherhoodish here and stands securely in front of the national symbol of Egypt. He sure looks like a winner here and I will hedge my bets and say that I think he will be the announced winner. But we await the official results, or at least the right kind of twitter… I see via twitter that the announcement is about to be made. Listening to the live broadcast on Al Jazeera… Long winded and driving everyone crazy… and we hear that the election commission has been guided by Allah (now that’s a change)… Millions of people watching and this gets dragged out in a boring monotone and with self promotion that nobody cares about… this will make a great Adel Iman film… or maybe it is one …

And the winner is … Morsi!

This summer the “Arab Spring” seems to be getting hot as hell, even beyond the “war-is-hell” sense. Masses of Egyptians are rallying in Tahrir Square to protest the military’s latest moves; Syria downs a Turkish fighter jet; there are increasing riots in Sudan not related to the secession of the south; and the list goes on. But below the North African countries where the jasmine-tinted winds of change first blew away dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (with the anti-dictatorial aroma catching on in Yemen and reaching as far east as Bahrain) there is a crisis which is not being covered. The hot topic should be the Sahel, the region that cuts across Africa in a dry zone of perpetual dearth and periodic death.

In a special report on Al Jazeera, it is reported that 15 million people are affected by a severe drought combined with ineffective government assistance programs and decreasing food supply. The report provides a country-by-country breakdown of the problem. Consider the situation in Mali, for example:

Prices of millet and sorghum grain have risen significantly after harvests in 2012 were 25 per cent lower than in 2011. Political instability, following a coup in March 2012 and the breakup of Northern Mali into the self-proclaimed state of Azawad, has further hampered the ability of aid agencies to assess needs and deliver the necessary aid to this landlocked country.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that more than a million children face acute malnutrition, with as many as 146,000 people displaced into Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, under deteriorating circumstances.
People affected: 3-4million.


Once again AQAP/Ansar al-Shari’a shows its mean spirit, not only destroying the lives of the living but resorting to desecrating the dead. Before pulling out of Ja’ar in southern Yemen, several of the iconclasts destroyed the shrine of al Ja’dani in Al Tareyyah, among other shrines. Ibrahim Suleiman al Rubaish, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay and now a senior AQAP leader, issued a video taking credit for the demolition work. Here is what he is reported to have said:

“Here are the mujahideen by the grace of Allah the Great and Almighty carrying out what Allah commanded them to do and reviving their jihad in the Cause of Allah…. So, just as they fought democracy and representative councils which make laws alongside Allah, they are destroying the domes which are being worshipped other than Allah, along with the graves and mausoleums, which people try to get close to other than Allah the Great and Almighty.”

“We fight the idolatry of the palaces and the graves – both are the same.”

The idolatry he does not see is his own intolerance, as though Allah has made him a successor of the prophet. Yemen’s south is dotted with shrines, reflecting the generations of Sufis and other devout scholars who have lived in Yemen over the centuries. Rubaish, who is in fact a Saudi and not Yemeni, places himself above all these Yemenis of the past. Like the other AQAP leaders, he is not likely to last long, but the destruction he touts adds salt to the wounds of the current turmoil in Yemen. Yemen has a rich Islamic history of monuments and saints tombs. Unlike the Taliban blasting in 2001 of the Buddha images at Bamiyan, also a senseless act, Rubaish cannot even claim to be destroying an image from another religion. He thinks he is fighting “the palaces and the graves,” but he is really fighting against time and doing more to harm Islam than promote it.

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