December 2012

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Mark Twain did not say that, but consider his greeting from the 19th to the 20th century, published in the New York Herald on December 30, 1900:

I bring you the stately nation named Christendom, returning, bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored, from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass.

I wonder what Twain would say about American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, drones over Pakistan and Yemen and old ladies taking off their shoes to board an airplane…

[Click here to download the recent publication of the Muslim Public Affairs Council exposing the lack of credentials of the [mis]leading Islam[ophobic] experts.]

For the benefit of national security and the American public at large, we must ensure that those people speaking about terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam are qualified. At a minimum, individuals who speak about Islam and its co-opting by violent extremists need to be properly informed and qualified.

To date, groundbreaking research into the anti-Muslim hate industry has been conducted by the Center for American Progress and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their research focuses primarily on anti-Muslim hate activists’ sources of funding and their possible connections to other forms of hate. No study that we know of has focused on the qualifications of the so-called experts on Islam and Muslim violent extremists.

This study seeks to fill in this research gap by focusing the academic qualifications of 25 individuals who comprise some of the most vocal voices and activists in the anti-Muslim circuit. We specifically focus on highly visible personalities who engage in anti-Islam rhetoric and who frequently and inaccurately speak not only about extremist Muslims, or even Muslims at large, but who also claim to be knowledgeable about the fundamental beliefs and tenets of the Islamic faith.

The study asks the question: Do these individuals have the formal academic credentials to back their explicit and implicit claims of expertise on Islam?

[The following online video interview with retired diplomat Marjorie Ransom was made by Sama’a al-Hamdani and can be seen here. The description of the interview provided by Ms. al-Hamdani is reproduced below. For a website about Ransom’s work, click here. For an article about her work in Aramco World, click here.]

Many Yemenis feel that their country has been reduced to terrorism. However, many of those who have visited Yemen know that the country has a lot more to offer. At the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is one of the few countries that had a culture prior to Islam. Although it is not as prevalent as it used to be, one of the traditions that have survived is the production of unique silver jewelry.

Today’s guest, Ms. Marjorie Ransom, lived the life of a diplomat, traveling for years throughout the Middle East; settling twice in Yemen. Ms. Ransom and her late husband began collecting Yemeni Jewelry and in turn started displaying some pieces in American Museums, like the Bead Museum (DC), Jefferson County Historical Society (NY), Gibson Gallery of the State University (NY), and the Arab American National Museum (MI) (to view the latest exhibit, click here). Jewelry is not just a product of a decorative tradition but it is a historic art that captures the essence of Yemen.

In 2003, Ms. Marjorie Ransom decided to apply for a grant travel throughout Yemen to document this tradition. In October of 2013, the first comprehensive book on Yemen’s tradition of silver-smithing will be available through the American University of Cairo Press. This effort is the first of its kind.

In this interview, Ms. Ransom identifies some types and symbols of Yemeni jewelry. Ms. Ransom also brought several silver-smiths to the US whenever she hosted a Jewelry exhibit. She understands that this trade is becoming less common in Yemen and is one of the few people supporting its revival.

Tribesmen from Yemen´s Bakil tribal confederation waiting for a decision at a tribal law-based conflict resolution session (Mikael Strandberg)

by Khaled Fattah,, October 18, 2012

With the recent stepping up of controversial U.S. drone attacks in tribal areas of Yemen, and post-Arab Spring confrontations with militant jihadist groups in tribal areas of Egypt, Libya, and North Africa, a number of misconceptions surrounding the links between tribes and terrorism in the Arab Middle East continue to plague press coverage and policy reports. The first of these misconceptions is that tribal areas are lawless, ungoverned spaces – a modern-day Wild West. Another misconception is that the ultra-conservative culture of Arab tribes is fertile ground in which to root the violent ideology of transnational terror cells. The truth is that much of the current commentary about tribes and tribalism in the Arab Middle East reflects the Pentagon’s experiences so far in the American-led “War on Terror.” This war has now shifted from boot-heavy invasions to ghost wars in which drones hover over countries with significant tribal populations: Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Mali. The War on Terror is now primarily carried out via “open secret” predator drone missions that increasingly target exclusively tribal areas.

Tribal Areas Today Are Not the Wild West

Over the last 10 years, many comparisons have been drawn between the fabled “Wild West” of America toward the end of the 19th century, and present-day tribal areas of the Middle East. The “Wild West” conjures up images of adventurous cowboys facing off in a dusty street in front of a gambling den or brothel, pistols drawn. The image suggests a lawless era in U.S. history, where violence prevailed in American frontier towns, might made right, and the weak were punished for crimes they did not commit. The Wild West was an anarchic social world shaped by outlawed individuals and their henchmen. This period in American history bares little resemblance to life in the tribal areas of the Arab world today, which are highly socialized, with clear normative controls. The association of tribal areas in the Middle East with the Wild West is simply an attractive analogy to intermittent foreign observers and army generals. (more…)

A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard during a patrol in the western border town of Zabadani; photograph from The Daily Star

by Amr Al-Azm, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, December 18, 2012

There are two possible trajectories for the current Syrian crisis. The first is a purely military scenario in which the opposition forces engage the regime in a bitter war of attrition until its annihilation. The success of such a course of action, however, is difficult to guarantee, and the cost to the country, its infrastructure and its civilian population is likely to be catastrophic. In fact the more probable outcome is a protracted bloody stalemate, leading to the collapse of the state, sectarian genocide and the fragmentation of the country with significant blowback into neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

The second trajectory would feature a political resolution. Negotiations would bring about the departure of the Bashar Assad’s regime along with a peaceful transition to democracy. Such a political outcome is the one clearly favored by the international community and was strongly endorsed at the latest friends of Syria meeting held in Marrakesh on December 12 both in statement and in action (by not publicly agreeing to the provision of any military assistance to the Syrian opposition). It is also the option that should be favored by the Syrian people since they too have no interest in seeing their country succumb to the fate described above.

There are certain conditions that must prevail in order for the preferred political outcome to have any chance of success. The first and foremost of these is that both sides must be prepared to engage in a political process with the ultimate outcome of a peaceful transition of power to a newly elected government. Currently, however, the situation in Syria is one of stalemate on political and military fronts; progress on both is needed simultaneously in order to break this stalemate. (more…)

In sorting through the books owned by my maternal grandmother, I recently came across a gift she received in 1901, when she was 10 years old. The book is entitled The Good Shepherd and consists of the life of Jesus in language for a young child. There are several lithographs and line drawings. I include here one of “The Infant Jesus” in a more realistic setting than most Christmas card scenarios. I love the cow in the immediate background. clearly one of good European stock, as the face of Mary also suggests. It must have been warm enough this Christmas season in Bethlehem, as the infant child is naked, apart from the halo.


A Christmas message from Charles Darwin

In a New York Times commentary two days ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tackles the consumerist “war on Christmas/Hanukkah” but with a neuro-evolutionary twist traced back to none other than Charles Darwin. He argues that despite the rightwing clamor about the impending destruction of Christmas and all things deemed proper religion, religion is doing quite well “in an age of science” and after “a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.” The proof? Well, “still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith.” He might have added that an even higher percentage would work for Islam, and probably Hinduism and Buddhism as well.

For Sacks this adherence to a religious faith “is truly surprising.” Really? It seems that the best explanation for him comes from Darwin, once considered the Great Satan of Scientific Doubt. Here is the dubious (and I believe ultimately “missing”) link between what people say in opinion polls about religion and the scientist whose 200th birthday was celebrated only three years ago:

Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums.

So “survival of the fittest” must mean that since something as vague as “religious faith” survives in opinion polls, it must be very, very fit. In this case the evidence does not fit very well. Sacks notes that Darwin was “puzzled” by the fact that the ruthless do not always win in the battle for survival. How could altruism possibly result from natural selection? Darwin was puzzled because he had no idea of genetics or DNA, despite his correct notion that inheritance is always unique; thus, his model provided a mechanism that explained why so-called “fixed” species could actually transform and did not in itself explain why. But Sacks misses the point on what allows humans (and no doubt several of our ancestral cousins) to be moral at all: the ability to think morally rather than simply act according to a programmatic code. The seeming altruism of an insect or bird is not the same as altruism among humans, because it is not thought out as humans do. Nor is it the case that altruism demands self-sacrifice; caring for one’s offspring can be as altruistic an act as sacrificing one’s life for a comrade. If a mother or father sacrifices herself or himself to save a child, this is indeed reproductive success as Darwin would define it.

But Darwin is not really the issue here, unless Sacks wishes to analyze Darwin’s own views on religion. In his Autobiography (a great read at any time of year), Darwin clearly rejected the formal Anglican Christianity of his day, but he did not consider himself an atheist. The term “agnostic,” created by his friend and public relations bulldog Thomas Huxley, is a closer fit to what Darwin is suggesting about the transformation of his own faith. He did not reject the idea of some intellectual force setting the whole universe in motion or keeping it together, but he did not see any viable explanation in the religions he knew. (more…)

New Syrian Schools in Lebanon: between refugees’ empowerment and unwillingly fueled Social Alienation

by Estella Carpi

Last October 1, the school “Madrasat al-Iman al-Islamiyya” in Abu Samra in the city of Tripoli (North Lebanon) opened to “fresh off the boat” Syrian refugee kids and youth, in order to cope with the need of providing proper education in their everyday existential limbo.

The doors of this originally Lebanese Islamic school open daily to Syrian pupils from 4pm to 6pm in the afternoon, with the exception of Friday and Sunday, as established in the Tripoli district school calendar. When I visited the school on a Friday morning, the space was being used for playing volleyball and other entertainment activities were organized in class. The Back-to-School campaign has been quite large this year in Lebanon. To date, 4,942 children have been enrolled in schools, 1,650 of who are also supported by UNICEF, of a total refugee population of 162,050 individuals according to the most updated statistics provided by UNHCR.

“Soon we’re going to open new classes for high school students as well”, tells me A., administrative staff member of the school. The school director specifies that there will not be any coordination between the Syrian and the Lebanese school programme: “We made certain that, once the kids are done with their studies here and they will be able to get back to Syria in safe conditions, their certificate will be considered valid whatever the political system will be back home, with or without nizam al-Assad” (the current Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad). The school policies, hence, purvey the underlying intention of the whole Syrian refugeehood system to get back to Syria as soon as it is feasible. “We are going to translate all books from French and English – used in the Lebanese school system – into Arabic, and it’s going to be a big job”, explains to me the director of the school, who has been in Lebanon for 31 years, unlike the newly arrived Syrian teachers and the school’s administrative staff, who make up the vast majority. (more…)

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