Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Marx's humanism & its challenge

To: Members of "Modern Political Thought" and "Social & Political Theory"
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Marx's humanism & its challenge

Hi Gang,

Something that might interest you ... and serve as possible food for thought..

As you will recall, you read the first few pages of Marx's early essay entitled, in Tucker's translation, "Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction" (written in 1843, when Marx was 25). Here, in a very concentrated discussion, Marx sums up his critique of religion and then argues that we need to move beyond the critique of religion. Although Marx sees religion as inescapably built on illusions and thus an obstacle to understanding and improving the human condition, he rejects the idea that it is simply a mistake. Rather, it is the world-consciousness of an oppressed, alienated, and unfulfilled humanity. For Marx, such a world consciousness actually has more depth, more insight, and even--in a certain sense--more grasp of reality than one which just complacently or unthinkingly accepts inhuman conditions. But the solution is to change the world so as to make it less inhuman--something that Marx believes is, in fact, possible.
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition that requires illusions.
The British political theorist Norman Geras, in a recent posting on his website (Normblog), calls attention to a passage near the end of the essay in which Marx once again sums up this position, in an even more striking and powerful way. (This passage is on p. 60 of the Tucker version; the translation from which Geras is quoting is slightly different.) I will take the liberty of bolding the most explosive formulations here.
The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man - hence, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable being...
Geras clearly thinks that the view Marx expresses here has some immediate relevance to current issues--and I would say he's right about that, whether or not you fully agree with the rest of Marx's argument. So it may be worth pondering further.

Yours for humanism,
Jeff Weintraub

Norm Geras (Normblog)
February 27, 2006
From the library of Marxism

Karl Marx, in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:
The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man - hence, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable being...
Enslaved by other human beings; abandoned in this world; debased by one or another belief system; despicable because of who he is and not because of what he has done.

Iranian expert unmasks "Tom and Jerry" as a Jewish plot

Chad Goldberg has alerted me to an unusually illuminating cultural-studies analysis from Iran translated by MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute). It's worth reading the whole item, but most of it is below.

Incidentally, for those who are not familiar with MEMRI, it performs the very useful service of translating articles, interviews, political statements, and other items from the Middle East into English, thus making them available to those of us who don't speak Arabic, Farsi, or other relevant languages. Some otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people criticize MEMRI for doing this, essentially because these items often make the sources look bad. The response to that is so obvious that I won't bother to spell it out.

There are also occasional insinuations that MEMRI's translations are inaccurate, misleading, or tendentious. But as far as I can tell, these insinuations are entirely bogus. It's possible to argue with some of MEMRI's interpretations or analyses, and some people might want to select other items for translation (in which case they should go ahead and do it). But as far as I know, the general accuracy of MEMRI's translations has not been seriously challenged.

It would be nice to think that this particular item is a parody, but the ingenious analysis reported here was apparently offered in all seriousness. Most of the material posted by MEMRI is not as transparently idiotic as this, but anti-semitic conspiracy theorizing is fairly pervasive even in more "serious" discussions. This item offers a bit of comic relief, as long as we bear in mind that the larger reality it expresses is not, in fact, very funny.

--Jeff Weintraub

Cultural Advisor to Iranian Education Ministry and Member of Interfaith Organization Lectures on Iranian TV: Tom and Jerry - A Jewish Conspiracy to Improve the Image of Mice, Because Jews Were Termed "Dirty Mice" in Europe

On February 19, 2006, Iran's Channel 4 covered a film seminar that included a lecture by Professor Hasan Bolkhari. [1] In addition to being a member of the Film Council of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Bolkhari is a cultural advisor to the Iranian Education Ministry, [2] and active on behalf of interfaith issues. [3]
The following are excerpts from Bokhari's lecture.

Hasan Bolkhari: "There is a cartoon that children like. They like it very much, and so do adults - Tom and Jerry." [...]
"Some say that this creation by Walt Disney [sic] will be remembered forever. The Jewish Walt Disney Company gained international fame with this cartoon. It is still shown throughout the world. This cartoon maintains its status because of the cute antics of the cat and mouse - especially the mouse.

[JW: Actually, "Tom and Jerry" was not a Disney cartoon. But that just shows how deviously the Jewish conspiracy works. And it so happens that Disney wasn't Jewish. But why quibble?]

"Some say that the main reason for making this very appealing cartoon was to erase a certain derogatory term that was prevalent in Europe." [...]
"If you study European history, you will see who was the main power in hoarding money and wealth, in the 19th century. In most cases, it is the Jews. Perhaps that was one of the reasons which caused Hitler to begin the antisemitic trend, and then the extensive propaganda about the crematoria began... Some of this is true. We do not deny all of it.
"Watch Schindler's List. Every Jew was forced to wear yellow star on his clothing. The Jews were degraded and termed 'dirty mice.' Tom and Jerry was made in order to change the Europeans' perception of mice. One of terms used was 'dirty mice.'
"I'd like to tell you that... It should be noted that mice are very cunning...and dirty." [...]
"No ethnic group or people operates in such a clandestine manner as the Jews." [...]
"Read the history of the Jews in Europe. This ultimately led to Hitler's hatred and resentment. As it turns out, Hitler had behind-the-scenes connections with the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion ].
"Tom and Jerry was made in order to display the exact opposite image. If you happen to watch this cartoon tomorrow, bear in mind the points I have just raised, and watch it from this perspective. The mouse is very clever and smart. Everything he does is so cute. He kicks the poor cat's ass. Yet this cruelty does not make you despise the mouse. He looks so nice, and he is so clever... This is exactly why some say it was meant to erase this image of mice from the minds of European children, and to show that the mouse is not dirty and has these traits. Unfortunately, we have many such cases in Hollywood shows."

Update - February 23, 2007 (Andrew Sullivan):


Of course, the Iranian fruitcake was unaware that Disney had nothing to do with Tom and Jerry. He was also unaware that Joseph Barbera, who did create them, was of Lebanese descent.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hamas's nuclear dreams?

Norman Geras (Normblog) calls attention to an interesting illustration on this Hamas website. (The Al Qassam Brigades are the so-called "military wing" of Hamas.) Wait for the panel at the top of the page to load. When it does, it repeatedly flashes a Jewish star ... followed by a mushroom cloud.
(A message in Arabic follows. Maybe it says "only kidding"?)
Oddly enough, this particular illustration doesn't appear on the English-language version of the website.
[Update 2/27/2006: This website now appears to be inaccessible.]
--Jeff Weintraub

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Founding Fathers & Blasphemy

It appears that in some respects Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are still ahead of the times. --Jeff Weintraub

The Founding Fathers and Blasphemy (pseudorandom)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Iraqis still think it was worth it

Although some people still try to pretend otherwise, it has long been clear that in 2002-2003 most Iraqis (unlike most non-Iraqi Arabs, most Europeans, and many others) favored the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime, however ambivalently. Non-Iraqi Arabs, in particular, wanted Iraqis to sacrifice themselves to the last Iraqi for Saddam, but Iraqis overwhelmingly felt otherwise.

Since then, Iraqis have suffered through almost three years of chaos, mismanagement, violence, large-scale unemployment, economic failures, and other problems. They have also been repeatedly polled, and with only one ambiguous possible exception I am aware of, Iraqis have continued to say by decisive margins that, on balance, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was still worth it.

They have now said this again. In a poll conducted in January for WorldPublicOpinion.org by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, Iraqis were asked, among other things:
“Thinking about any hardships you might have suffered since the US-Britain invasion, do you personally think that ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it or not?” 77% say it was worth it, while 22% say it was not. [my emphasis]
Polling results should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it is worth pointing out that just about all the relevant data available from the past four years points in the same direction. By itself, of course, the fact that most Iraqis favored the 2003 war and continue to do so is not necessarily a decisive consideration for the rest of us. However, these figures do offer one more reality check for those opponents of the war who have claimed to be acting on behalf of the wishes and well-being of Iraqis. They should find another excuse.

Furthermore, and perhaps more surprisingly:
Overall, 64% of Iraqis say that Iraq is heading in the right direction, while just 36% say it is heading in the wrong direction.
=> On the other hand, not all the results of this poll are encouraging or reassuring for those of us who supported the 2003 Iraq war. It is clear that the Americans long ago wore out their welcome, and most Iraqis would be happy to see US troops leave--though with significant variations in preferred timing. Also, all the opinions expressed in the poll are sharply polarized along ethnic lines. Essentially, the views of the formerly dominant Sunni Arab minority, who account for some 15-20% of the population, are diametrically opposed to those of the other 80-85% of Iraqis.
Ninety-eight percent of Shia and 91% of Kurds say the hardships were worth it, while 83% of Sunnis say they were not.
And in contrast to the expressed optimism of the non-Sunni-Arab majority:
Sunnis, though, are overwhelmingly pessimistic. A remarkable 93% say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
To some extent, reactions of this sort are unsurprising for a formerly dominant minority that has suddenly lost its ruling position and fears for its future security. But if this degree of polarization continues, it obviously holds the potential for catastrophic all-out civil war. That is a political challenge that will have to be solved--if it can indeed be solved--mostly by Iraqis themselves. Meanwhile, we should not abandon them.

--Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Let's be honest about cartoons (LA Times)

In the ongoing controversy over the cartoon wars, one of the silliest arguments I have encountered is the suggestion that there is a "double standard" at work because cartoons offensive to Christians or Jews could never be published in western Europe--and therefore Muslims are justified in responding hysterically to the Danish cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed. Surprisingly, this cliché has been repeated by a number of people who I'm sure are intelligent and well-informed enough to know better, including various alleged "experts" and pundits, but it's simply bogus. Let's get real: This claim is not just incorrect, but obviously and unequivocally absurd. Cartoons are published in Europe all the time that at least some Christians and Jews find very offensive, and even in those cases where they produce an outcry, they don't usually lead to death threats, calls for government censorship, and the burning of embassies.

=> Of course, such claims about a "double standard" in offensiveness are especially comical when they come from countries in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world in which large numbers of blatantly anti-semitic cartoons are published every day, state-controlled media peddle 1930s-style anti-semitic propaganda based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on. These complaints are certainly breathtaking in their hypocrisy (as this article, among others, has pointed out).
But something deeper and more fundamental than simple hypocrisy is involved here. Islamist groups in Europe and the Middle East, as well as the government of Iran, have decided to respond to the Danish cartoons by publishing offensive cartoons about the Holocaust. Even when people have criticized these actions, they have tended to pass over one element about them that should strike us as peculiar. When these Islamists are offended by Danish cartoons, they don't respond by publishing anti-Danish, anti-Christian, or anti-western cartoons. They respond by publishing anti-semitic cartoons. Why is that, I wonder?

=> Be that as it may .... another intriguing aspect of this affair is that so far newspapers and other news media in the US seem to be afraid to reprint the original Danish cartoons, even for informational purposes. The result is that people who read or hear about the controversy--which is, after all, a news story of world-wide significance--don't get a chance to see the actual cartoons that the controversy is about. This curious reticence stands in sharp contrast to the response of many newspapers across western Europe.

I suspect that the reasons for this difference are genuinely complex--and that they are linked to some larger cultural and political differences between the US and western Europe--but I also suspect that many of these reasons do not reflect very well on the honesty and journalistic integrity of the US news media. Tim Rutten concludes an article on this subject in the LA Times (see below) by suggesting that
those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency.
Sounds plausible to me.

--Jeff Weintraub
Los Angeles Times
February 11, 2006

Tim Rutten:
Let's be honest about cartoons

The editor of the Los Angeles Times does not think you need to see any of the cartoons that have triggered deadly riots across the Muslim world.

Earlier this week, I proposed illustrating this column with examples of the caricatures first published last fall in a Danish newspaper. If readers are to form rational opinions about both the ferocity of Islamic reaction and the American news media's response to it,

I thought, surely at least a glance at one or two of these mild cartoons is required. I suggested that the cartoons run inside the Calendar section with a notice in this space concerning their location. That way, those who wanted to see them could, while those who might be offended simply could avoid that page.

I fully expected the proposal to be rejected, and it was — quickly and in writing, though the note also expressed the hope that the column would be as forceful and candid as possible.

This paper has ample company. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today all have declined to run the cartoons because many Muslims find them offensive. The people who run Associated Press, NBC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio's website agree. So far, the only U.S. news organizations to provide a look at what this homicidal fuss is about are the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Fox cable network and ABC.

Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."

There is something wonderfully clarifying about honesty.

Meanwhile, ironies that would be laughable were the situation not so dire have mounted by the day. For one thing, reporting in this paper, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal has made it clear that what's at work here is not the Muslim street's spontaneous revulsion against sacrilege but a calculated campaign of manipulation by European Islamists and self-interested Middle Eastern governments. If the images first published in Jyllands-Posten last September are so inherently offensive that they cannot be viewed in any context, why did Danish Muslims distribute them across an Islamic world that seldom looks at Copenhagen newspapers? As Bernard-Henri Levy wrote this week, we have here a case of "self-inflicted blasphemy."

Then there's the question of why there was no reaction whatsoever when Al Fagr, one of Egypt's largest newspapers, published these cartoons on its front page Oct. 17 — that's right, four months ago — during Ramadan. Apparently its editor, Adel Hamouda, isn't as sensitive as his American colleagues.

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with —you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn't even blush.

If the Danish cartoons are, in fact, being withheld from most American newspaper readers and television viewers out of restraint born of a newfound respect for people's religious sensitivities, a great opportunity to prove the point is coming. A major American studio, Sony, shortly will release a film version of Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code." It's fair to say that you'd have to go back to the halcyon days of the Nativist publishing operations in the 19th century to find a popular book quite as blatantly and vulgarly anti-Catholic as this one.

Its plot is a vicious little stew of bad history, fanciful theology and various slanders directed at the Vatican and Opus Dei, an organization to which thousands of Catholic people around the world belong. In this vile fantasy, the Catholic hierarchy is corrupt and manipulative and Opus Dei is a violent, murderous cult. The late Pope John Paul II is accused of subverting the canonization process by pushing sainthood for Josemaría Escrivá, Opus' founder, as a payoff for the organization's purported "rescue" of the Vatican bank. The plot's principal villain is a masochistic albino Opus Dei "monk" for whom murder is just one of many sadistic crimes. (It probably won't do any good to point out that, while it's unclear whether Opus Dei has any albino members, there definitely are no monks.)

Now many Catholics, this one included, regard Opus Dei as a creepy outfit with an unwholesome affinity for authoritarianism gleaned from its formative years in Franco's Spain. But neither it nor its members are corrupt or murderous. It is a moral — though thankfully not legal — libel to suggest otherwise. Further, it is deeply offensive to allege — even fictionally — that the Roman Catholic Church would tolerate Opus, or any organization, if it were any of those things.

So how will the American news media respond to the release of this film?

Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn't that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?


It won't happen for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the ideas being expressed or anybody's sensitivities, religious or otherwise. It won't happen because Pope Benedict XVI isn't about to issue a fatwa against director Ron Howard or star Tom Hanks. It won't happen because Cardinal Roger M. Mahony isn't going to lead an angry mob to burn Sony Studios, and none of the priests of the archdiocese is going to climb into the pulpit Sunday and call for the producer's beheading.

On the other hand, perhaps the events of the last two weeks have shocked our editors and news executives into a communal change of heart when it comes to sensitivities of all religious believers.


That will happen when pigs soar through the skies on the wings of angels, when the lion reclines with the lamb on high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and no one bothers to beat the world's very last sword into a ploughshare because all the hungry have been fed.

Until that glorious day, those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency.

The latest news from Tehran (Nick Cohen)

The Observer (London)
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Why striking bus drivers in Tehran are the real defenders of Muslim rights
Nick Cohen

For three weeks, there have been demonstrations across the planet about a great injustice done to Muslims. After baton-wielding cops inflicted dozens of injuries, the fear of death is in the air. George W Bush's State Department has warned of 'systematic oppression', while secularists and fundamentalists have revealed their mutually incompatible values. Since you ask, I am not talking about the global menace of Scandinavian cartoonists that has so terrified our fearless free press, but mass arrests in Iran.
The media have barely mentioned the story, even though it cuts through the nonsense about a clash of civilisations between the 'West' and the 'Muslims'. The Muslims of Tehran are proving themselves to be anything but a monolithic bloc happy to follow the orders of the ayatollahs and their demented President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are huge class divisions to begin with, and close to the bottom of the heap are the city's bus drivers. The authorities refused to allow them an independent trade union and ruled that an 'Islamic council' in the offices of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company would represent their interests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pious have not proved the doughtiest fighters for better pay and conditions. The bus drivers claimed that managers were stealing money from their pay packets. They formed their own union and threatened to strike at the end of January.
Ahmadinejad won the rigged Iranian elections last year with a promise to stand up for the little man against the Islamic Republic's corrupt elite. Faced with a choice between sticking to his word and carrying on with despotism, he showed his true colours by allowing the most ferocious crackdown Tehran has seen since the religious authorities crushed dissident journalists and students in 1999.
The company's managers and Islamic council called in the paramilitary police who arrested the union's six officers and beat workers until they agreed to renounce the strike. Bravely, the majority refused. The state's thugs then targeted their wives and children.
Mahdiye Salimi, the 12-year-old daughter of one of the strike leaders, told a reporter that they had poured into her home in the early hours of the morning trying to find her father. When his wife said she didn't know where he was, the assault began. 'They kicked my mum's heart with their boots and my mum had an enormous ache in her heart. They even wanted to spray something in my [two-year old] sister's mouth.'
No one knows how many people the authorities arrested. The highest figure the British TUC has heard is 1,300. International trade union federations and the British embassy in Tehran estimate that somewhere between 400 and 600 people are still in prison.
Owen Tudor, the TUC's international officer, went to the Iranian embassy to protest and was knocked back by the hatred of unions he met. Probably without realising it, Iranian officials parroted the language of Margaret Thatcher and told him unions were 'the enemy within'. From their perspective, you can see why they would think so. Unions instil democratic habits and encourage solidarity with others regardless of colour and -more importantly in this case - creed. Neither of these admirable traits is likely to appeal to your average fanatic who believes he can read the mind of God.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the US State Department and British Foreign Office have all protested. Trade unions, Iranian exiles and gay groups have demonstrated. Yet the media have barely noticed. The failure is due in part to my trade's perennial inability to walk and chew gum at the same time: we consider stories one by one and today's story is Muslim anger with cartoonists.
I'm not saying it isn't newsworthy, but you shouldn't forget that it was manufactured by hard-line Danish imams who hawked the cartoons round the Muslim world for four months (and, somewhat blasphemously, added obscene drawings of their own). The religious right and Syrian Baathists welcomed them and proved yet again that they need to incite frenzies to legitimise arbitrary power.
Iran has seen all the stunts before because it has endured Islamism longer than any other country. Cheeringly, the old tricks no longer appear to be working. The Associated Press's reporter said that about 400 people demonstrated outside the Danish embassy in Tehran last week, most of them state employees obeying orders, according to the Iranian opposition.
Even if you take the lowest estimate, there are as many striking bus drivers in prison in Tehran as rioters prepared to play the worn-out game of throwing Molotov cocktails at Western embassies. No one ever made money by being optimistic about the Middle East, but after nearly 30 years of Islamist rule, Iranians seem sick of it.
It cannot be said often enough that this is not a clash of civilisations but a civil war within the Islamic world between theocratic reaction and the beleaguered forces of liberty and modernity. As I have tried to emphasise, the best service the rich world's liberal left can render is to get on the right side for once.

The latest news from (and for) Zimbabwe (Johann Hari)

Evening Standard
February 8, 2006
London - city of refugees
And they're doing more than yearning to breathe free
Johann Hari

In a poky, smoky office in a tower block in Borehamwood – the greyest outpost of North London suburbia – a group of seven refugees are keeping the last scrap of hope for Zimbabwe alive. From these tiny rooms, they broadcast Radio SW Africa – the first and only opposition radio station beamed into Robert Mugabe’s abattoir-state. As I watch them broadcast news about his smash-and-grab policies and taking calls from terrified, terrorised people living (and dying) at Mugabe’s whim, it is odd to realise that millions of people 6000 miles away are adjusting their radio transmitters, listening to this, the only voice of sanity they have left.
At first glance, this office could house a middle-ranking paper firm in Slough – but the longer you stay, the more the unmistakable air of torture and death pervades the chatter. Lance Guama, their 31 year-old lead reporter, tells me how he ended up in London, a city that has housed refugees dreaming of revolution from Marx to Mbeki. “Until 2003, I would file stories for Radio SW Africa in secret from locations around Zimbabwe. I believed somebody had to document what was happening. In a country that once had a better literacy rate than Britain, the schools are shut. Right now, Harare Hospital hasn’t performed any operations for two months. There’s no medicine. There’s no supplies. We are trying to find out what’s happening to all the sick people. Where are they going? There’s no caesareans. Are mothers just dying in their homes? There’s open sewage in Harare – so there’s cholera, there’s dyssentry. Are people dying of that? There’s no-one to see it, there’s no-one to report it. It’s death below the radar, and I believed that was wrong.”
But it was impossible to tell the truth under Mugabe. Many people now believe he is suffering from a paranoid form of dementia, making Zimbabwe the world’s first Alzheimocracy – and Lance paid for it. He looks out over Borehamwood’s dreary skyline and explains that he had been one of Mugabe’s children – the generation reared to see him as a quasi-God. Like a cult member who has only recently been reprogrammed, he explains the process of disillusionment in slow, halting bursts – how he witnessed racist massacres in Matabeleland as a teenager, and, flatly, finally, how three years ago he was approached by four of Mugabe’s henchmen just fifteen fifteen minutes after making a secret broadcast about vote-rigging. Before he could speak, his face was smashed with a brick, and he was stabbed repeatedly in the gut with a screwdriver. Lance left Zimbabwe that week, and now fears he will never return. “Will I ever see my mother or father again?” he asks himself, before quickly changing the subject.
Radio SW Africa was founded by Gerry Jackson, a smart-suited white woman who had been one of Harare’s most popular radio DJs – until she crossed Mugabe’s unspoken line. On the day of the first food riots in 1997 – when the starving population began to rebel – Gerry did something you just don’t do in Zimbabwe: she opened the phone-lines to ordinary people, so they could explain what was happening. Until that moment, the radio had been a means for the government to talk to the people, not the other way round. Panicked, pitiful people called in, appealing for help – and Gerry was kicked off air for “insubordination.” She tried to set up an independent radio station, only for it to be smashed up by goons on its sixth day on air. It must have been terrifying to open those phone-lines, I say to her. “Yes, but it was fabulous!” she says. “I knew I was doing the right thing. I refused to be afraid.” Even when the goons came? “I was not afraid. I was doing the right thing.”
Everybody at the station still has friends trapped in Zimbabwe. Gerry explains, “Everyone is just in survival mode. When you’ve got 1000 percent inflation, 80 percent unemployment and people dying quietly in their homes, you just knuckle down to survive. You don’t think about the bigger picture.” Lance fears that since the opposition Movement for Democratic Change collapsed into squabbling fragments, “There is even less hope now than there was five years ago. The picture is very bleak.” When they utter the exiles’ magic word – home – it is with melancholic longing. The Zimbabwean minister of information recently declared in parliament that all seven of Radio SW Africa’s staff are welcome back home – but only in the country’s prisons.
This city is scattered with Radio SW Africas. The main Saudi Arabian opposition station broadcasts from a semi in Fulham. The Falun Gong dissidents broadcast to China from Packham. The Statue of Liberty describes New York City as a haven for the “huddled masses yearning to breath free,” but London goes one better: it is where the world’s huddled masses try to make the world free, one radio station at a time. Yes still the British right savages asylum seekers, claiming people like Gerry and Lance come here for the lavish £40-a-week given to asylum seekers. Do the refugee-bashers of the right really want to pack these freedom fighters on the first boat back to their tyrants?

Government by liars ... abetted by hacks & toadies

I think that by now few sensible people could deny that the Bush administration, among its other achievements, has distinguished itself as one of the most systematically and blatantly dishonest Presidential administrations in American history. In fact, in collusion with the Republican Congress, it has set a whole new standard for routine mendacity, prevarication, and outright falsehood in public-policy discussions. In an excellent 2002 article in the New Republic, "Idiot Time," Alan Wolfe hit this particular nail squarely on the head:
During the 2000 election, Bush's advisers discovered something that no one before had ever quite known: there are simply no limits to how much you can lie in American politics and get away with it. And it is the transposition of that approach to politics into policy that constitutes the disgrace of the Bush method. A tax cut radically biased toward the rich is not nearly so damaging as a tax cut passed while one side to a much-needed debate responds to criticism by simply making up numbers.
It would be hard to capture better the almost surreal quality of the present situation. (I recommend reading the whole piece, which has a lot more to say about the current pathologies of our political culture, affecting both government and opposition.)

Over the past 5 years this situation has become so routine, and our political discourse has become so deeply corrupted, that there is a danger we may come to take it for granted and stop noticing how bizarre it actually is. So it is useful to be reminded occasionally of the fact that we are currently being ruled by liars (not just fibbers or "spinners" or exaggeraters, but liars). Paul Krugman has been especially cogent and illuminating in documenting and explaining this stream of deceptions, and his recent column explaining once again how the fraud is managed, "The Vanishing Future" (below), offers a good example of why he's indispensable.

All this raises an obvious question: How do they keep getting away with it? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the failure of the Democrats to act as an effective opposition. In addition to their general fecklessness, they have been paralyzed by the fact that they don't control any branch of the national government. We shouldn't let ordinary citizens (voters and non-voters) off the hook, either, since they have been too willing to let themselves be conned.

But a lot of blame also has to be laid at the door of the US news media, which have failed quite astoundingly to do their job properly. The admirable Brad DeLong, for example, posts a very useful ongoing series of critiques on this subject under the general rubric "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?". Often these failures are due to a combination of straightforward laziness & incompetence and a set of journalistic conventions that tend to trivialize political reporting and make it difficult to distinguish political disagreements from outright falsehoods. In other cases, it's a matter of shameless toadying, hackery, and propaganda peddled by people who presumably know enough about the subjects they're discussing to be held responsible for the distortions involved. One good example of the latter was recently nailed by Prof. DeLong, who cogently explained why it's "Time for the Washington Post to Retire Robert Samuelson".

But this is a never-ending, Sysiphean struggle ....

--Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
February 10, 2006
The Vanishing Future
by Paul Krugman

At this point we've had six years to grow accustomed to Bush budget chicanery. (Yes, six years: George W. Bush's special mix of blatant dishonesty and gross irresponsibility was fully visible during the 2000 presidential campaign.) What still amazes me, however, is the sheer childishness of the administration's denials and deceptions.
Consider the case of the vanishing future.
The story begins in 2001, when President Bush was pushing his first tax cut through Congress. At the time, the administration insisted that its tax-cut plans wouldn't endanger the budget surplus bequeathed to Mr. Bush by Bill Clinton. But even some Republican senators were skeptical. So the Senate demanded a cap on the tax cut: it should not reduce revenue over the period from 2001 to 2011 by more than $1.35 trillion.
The administration met this requirement, but not by scaling back its tax-cutting ambitions. Instead, it created fictitious savings by "sunsetting" the tax cut, making the whole thing expire at the end of 2010.
This was obviously silly. For example, under the law as written there will be no federal tax on the estates of wealthy people who die in 2010. But the estate tax will return in 2011 with a maximum rate of 55 percent, creating some interesting incentives.
I suggested, back in 2001, that the legislation be renamed the Throw Momma From the Train Act.
It was also obvious that the administration had no intention of abiding by its concession to fiscal prudence, that it would try to eliminate the sunset clause and make the tax cuts permanent.
But it quickly became clear that the budget forecasts the administration used to justify the 2001 tax cut were wildly overoptimistic. The federal government faced a future of deficits, not surpluses, as far as the eye could see. Making the tax cut permanent would greatly worsen those future deficits. What were budget officials to do?
You almost have to admire their brazenness: they made the future disappear.
Clinton-era budgets offered 10-year projections of spending and revenues. But the Bush administration slashed the budget horizon to five years. This artificial shortsightedness greatly aided the campaign to make the 2001 tax cut permanent because it hid the costs: since budget analyses no longer covered the years after 2010, the revenue losses from extending the tax cut became invisible.
But now it's 2006, and even a five-year projection covers the period from 2007 to 2011, which means including a year in which making the Bush tax cuts permanent will cost a lot of revenue — $119.7 billion, but who's counting? Has the administration finally run out of ways to avoid budget reality?
Not quite. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, until this year budget documents contained a standard table titled "Impact of Budget Policy," which summarized the effects of the administration's tax and spending proposals on future outlays and revenues. But this year, that table is missing. So you have to do some detective work to figure out what's really going on.
Now, the administration has proposed spending cuts that are both cruel and implausible. For example, administration computer printouts obtained by the center show that the budget calls for a 13 percent cut in spending on veterans' health care, adjusted for inflation, over the next five years.
Yet even these cuts would fall far short of making up for the revenue losses from making the tax cuts permanent. The administration's own estimate, which can be deduced from its budget tables, is that extending the tax cuts would cost an average of $235 billion in each year from 2012 through 2016.
In other words, the administration has no idea how to make its tax cuts feasible in the long run. Yet it has never, as far as I can tell, allowed unfavorable facts to affect its determination to make the tax cuts permanent. Instead, it has devoted all its efforts to hiding those awkward facts from public view. (Any resemblance to, say, its Iraq strategy is no coincidence.)
At this point the administration's budget strategy seems to be simply to ignore reality. The 2007 budget makes it clear, once and for all, that the tax cuts can't be offset with spending cuts. But Bush officials have decided to ignore that unpleasant fact, and let some future administration deal with the mess they have created.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Olivier Roy on the cartoon wars

Gershon Shafir drew my attention to this interview with the French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy. A number of points here are illuminating, and others are at least usefully thought-provoking. For example:
And secondly, the issue here in Europe at least is that the cartoons have been seen as discriminatory. Wrongly or rightly [wrongly, as a matter of fact], the idea is that the European newspapers could make fun of Muslims but they will not dare to make fun of Jews or Christians, at least as far as the respectable newspapers are concerned. To me, for the Muslims in the streets in Europe -- I am not speaking of the Middle East -- it has been experienced as discrimination more than blasphemy. [....]
If we leave Europe and if we look at riots in the Middle East, we can see that these riots are systematically linked with local political crises. So it is not the upheaval of the Muslim world against the West. It's the political exploitation of these cartoons by regimes or political organizations. [....]
So it's not the Muslim streets, the people. You have no big demonstration in Morocco, no big demonstration in Saudi Arabia. The Muslim people are not now in the street. In France, for example, there are no demonstrations. So what we have is a political exploitation of perennial crises. It's not new. We have the headscarf affair in France, the Rushdie affair in Britain. And it's the same issue. The Rushdie affair became a big problem because Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1989] took this opportunity to issue his fatwa [calling for Salman Rushdie's death after publication of "The Satanic Verses"]. The headscarf affair on the contrary has cooled down because there has been no political exploitation. [....]
Of course, none of this necessarily means that the storm will die down.
I think things will cool down in Europe. But I think in the short term, things might get worse in the Middle East because countries like Iran and Syria are playing on the crisis. There they have their back against the wall and they choose to play the crisis. Syria's regime has no choice. And in Iran they want to undermine the European position before the debate [over Iran's nuclear program] at the Security Council.
We'll have to see.

--Jeff Weintraub
The Wall Street Journal Online
February 7, 2006 6:03 p.m.
The Illustrated Flashpoint of Religion and Politics
By Jennifer Sterling

The 12 cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad sparked controversy from the moment they were printed in a Danish newspaper last September. But the explosion of Muslim anger around the world came only last week, when several European papers reprinted some of the images in the name of press freedom and as secular forces in the Arab world took up the cause as a means to burnish their image as defenders of Islam.
The scale of violent protests targeting Danish embassies and other European missions has grown daily, from Afghanistan to Indonesia, Beirut to Tehran, in turn provoking indignation and fear among many in Europe and elsewhere in the West. The furor among Muslims stems from a traditional taboo against images of Muhammad, exacerbated by some of the cartoons' placement of the prophet in a terrorist context.
Olivier Roy, French author of "Globalized Islam" and "La Laicite Face a L'Islam" ("Secularism in the Face of Islam"), and one of Europe's leading authorities on Islamic studies, discusses the origins of the fierce reactions that have played out over the past week.

* * *
The Wall Street Journal Online: Is there anything written in the Koran that calls for this type of reaction if the prophet Muhammad is desecrated in print?
Mr. Roy: No, to my knowledge, no. It's a tradition among others. It's a tradition which is supported by some authors and varies according to time and place. We have found, we can find presentations of the prophet in the Muslim history.
WSJ.com: Why are the cartoons so offensive to some Muslims?
Mr. Roy: The main issue to me is not the presentation of the prophet. If the prophet were shown doing good deeds nothing would have happened. What is offensive is the association of the prophet with terrorism. So I think the most offensive cartoon was probably the one with the bomb in the turban of the prophet.
WSJ.com: Is this more offensive to Sunnis than Shiites or to certain Muslims more than others?
Mr. Roy: In a sense, yes, because in Shiism such representation is more often found. And secondly, the issue here in Europe at least is that the cartoons have been seen as discriminatory. Wrongly or rightly, the idea is that the European newspapers could make fun of Muslims but they will not dare to make fun of Jews or Christians, at least as far as the respectable newspapers are concerned. To me, for the Muslims in the streets in Europe--I am not speaking of the Middle East -- it has been experienced as discrimination more than blasphemy.
WSJ.com: To what extent, if any, is the Muslim furor a buildup from other events that have contributed to higher Western-Muslim tension in the post-9/11 era, including the war in Iraq, the headscarf ban in France and the pent-up social stress in France that led to the riots last fall?
Mr. Roy: If we leave Europe and if we look at riots in the Middle East, we can see that these riots are systematically linked with local political crises. So it is not the upheaval of the Muslim world against the West. It's the political exploitation of these cartoons by regimes or political organizations.
WSJ.com: So you've seen this building up for quite some time?
Mr. Roy: Yes, we have two issues here. One is that it's simply a political [exploitation of the anger]. The Syrian regime is using this to counterattack against the pressure to leave Lebanon. We should not look beyond that to understand what is going on in Damascus. This Syrian regime is a secular dictatorship which killed tens of thousands of Muslim brothers. So Bashar al Assad is not doing that to support Islam. He is doing that to punish the Europeans for having contributed to expelling the Syrian troops from Lebanon. So it's in the wake of the assassination of [Rafik] Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, by the Syrians. So the stake is not Islam here. [Note: The United Nations is investigating the Syrian role in the assassination and has issued statements critical of Damascus, but the investigation hasn't yet been completed.]
WSJ.com: Is that the second issue?
Mr. Roy: Yes, the second issue is the fact that the Europeans for the last two years had a more active profile in the Middle East than they had at the time of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The U.S. military intervention in Iraq had totally sidelined the Europeans. But what do we see now? The Americans are slowly stepping down, while the Europeans on the contrary are taking a far more active attitude. Then we have four other issues at work right now. One is the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Europeans are far more involved now than the Americans. The second issue is Afghanistan. The U.S. troops are slowly being replaced by NATO troops, which means European troops. The third issue is, as I said, Syria and Lebanon. France, for instance, took a leading role in blaming the Syrians for the Lebanese problem. And the last issue is the victory of Hamas, where the response of Brussels, of the European Union, was tougher than expected by the Palestinians.
WSJ.com: And so all these protests are a combination of these issues and pent-up anger?
Mr. Roy: Yes. So it's not the Muslim streets, the people. You have no big demonstration in Morocco, no big demonstration in Saudi Arabia. The Muslim people are not now in the street. In France, for example, there are no demonstrations. So what we have is a political exploitation of perennial crises. It's not new. We have the headscarf affair in France, the Rushdie affair in Britain. And it's the same issue. The Rushdie affair became a big problem because Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1989] took this opportunity to issue his fatwa [calling for Salman Rushdie's death after publication of "The Satanic Verses"]. The headscarf affair on the contrary has cooled down because there has been no political exploitation.
WSJ.com: Do the protesters represent the views of a majority of Muslims or those of a more vocal minority that can get a lot more television and other media attention?
Mr. Roy: Yes, of course it's a vocal minority. The majority of Muslims in Europe, certainly they feel offended. The same way that many Catholics were offended when [Martin] Scorsese released "The Last Temptation of Christ." The issue is not of being offended. Many people are offended every day. The issue is of making violent protests. And here we have just a vocal minority. It's not because you're offended that you go to the streets. But it is clear that many conservative religious milieus think that there is too much freedom of expression. The Catholic Church--the Vatican--has issued a communique, I think yesterday, saying that they understand the offense, that there is a feeling of being offended by the Muslims. What is important is the political dimension. Being offended--our secular society is a permanent offense for every conservative believer, Christian, Jew or Muslim. The problem is when politics do interfere, and here we have a clear politicization of the matter by regimes who could be [as secular] as Syria is.
WSJ.com: Is there a U.S. role in any of this?
Mr. Roy: The Europeans are the only targets of the protests, for the moment. The protest is clearly against the Europeans.
WSJ.com: Where do you see this going from here?
Mr. Roy: I think things will cool down in Europe. But I think in the short term, things might get worse in the Middle East because countries like Iran and Syria are playing on the crisis. There they have their back against the wall and they choose to play the crisis. Syria's regime has no choice. And in Iran they want to undermine the European position before the debate [over Iran's nuclear program] at the Security Council.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Further commentaries on the cartoon wars

What's offensive? (Filibuster)
Central liberties (from Harry's Place), including links to Muriel Gray in the Sunday Herald, Ayaan Hirsi Ali interviewed by Der Spiegel, and the poet George Szirtes.
Christopher Hitchens, "The Case for Mocking Religion" (Slate)
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, "Tolerance Toward Intolerance" (from Die Zeit)
Two Editors in Jordan Arrested (BBC News)
Mr Momani's paper, Shihan, had printed three of the cartoons, alongside an editorial questioning whether the angry reaction to them in the Muslim world was justified.
"Muslims of the world be reasonable," wrote Mr Momani. "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?"
Trudy Rubin - Misplaced outrage (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Matthew Parris - Giving and taking offense (London Times)
Andrew Sullivan - Clueless, Self-censorship & freedom of speech, Le Monde responds
European Press Reaction (New York Times 2/2/2006)

The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has rejected demands by Arab governments for an official apology, saying: "I can't call a newspaper and tell them what to put in it. That's not how our society works." Mr. Rose called the decision not to apologize for printing the cartoons "a key issue of principle." [....]
In support of the Danish position, newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland reprinted some of the cartoons on Wednesday. A small Norwegian evangelical magazine, Magazinet, also published the cartoons last month.
Robert Ménard, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based body that monitors media developments, said in a telephone interview: "All countries in Europe should be behind the Danes and Danish authorities to defend the principle that a newspaper can write what it wishes to, even if it offends people. I understand that it may shock Muslims, but being shocked is part of the price of being informed."
In Germany, the conservative Die Welt printed one image on its front page and declared in an editorial: "The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical. When Syrian television showed drama documentaries in prime time depicting rabbis as cannibals, the imams were quiet."
In Italy, the Turin daily La Stampa published the cartoons on Wednesday. Milan's Corriere della Sera printed them on Monday. In Spain, they were printed in El Periódico on Wednesday.
Dominique von Burg, the editor in chief of Switzerland's Tribune de Genève, which planned to publish the cartoons on Thursday, told Agence France-Presse: "You can understand the feelings of Muslims, but we're in a pluralist state. We have a right to do that." The Swiss newspaper Blick published two of the cartoons on Tuesday.

Drawing a Line Under Hypocrisy (Jerusalem Post)
Some cartoons from the Arab world (Tom Gross)
More anti-semitic cartoons
Mohammed Image Archive

=> And a relevant e-mail message from a friend in London:
Thanks Jeff,
Let me just emphasise the rather non-academic aspect of this situation. There are lots of fellow bloggers in North London who are really scared! We are sitting by our computers trying to defend the freedom of speech and there are police helicopters circling over our heads looking for the suicide-bomber wannabes who were threatening us outside of the Danish embassy the other day! Most of us have taken down the links to those cartoons. We and our families and are too easily tracked down.
--Jeff Weintraub

The cartoon wars

I assume that by now everyone is aware of the storm surrounding the publication in a Danish newspaper, back in September 2005, of some satirical cartoons that included depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. An editorial in today's New York Times sums up the facts of the matter pretty well.

February 7, 2006
Those Danish Cartoons

Cartoons making fun of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper last September are suddenly one of the hottest issues in international politics. Muslims in Europe and across the Middle East have been holding protests with growing levels of violence and now loss of life.

The easy points to make about the continuing crisis are that (a) people are bound to be offended if their religion is publicly mocked, and (b) the proper response is not to go on a rampage and burn down buildings. If Muslim organizations want to stage peaceful marches or organize boycotts of Danish goods, they're certainly within their rights.

The pictures, one of which showed the prophet with a bomb on top of his head in place of a turban, violate a common belief among Muslims that any depiction of Muhammad is sacrilege. The paper that first published them did so as an experiment to see whether political satirists were capable of being as harsh to Islam as they are to other organized religions. If that sounds juvenile, Americans still recognize it as within the speech protected by our First Amendment.

The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.

The cartoons were largely unnoticed outside Denmark until a group of Muslim leaders there made a point of circulating them, along with drawings far more offensive than the relatively mild stuff actually printed by the paper, Jyllands-Posten. It's far from the first time that an almost-forgotten incident has been dredged up to score points with the public during politically sensitive times.

The governments of the countries in which the demonstrations are occurring are responsible for keeping them nonviolent. Lebanese officials have rightly apologized to Denmark for failing to control a protest that ended with the torching of the Danish Consulate in Beirut. That's in stark contrast with what happened in Syria, a nation where there is no such thing as a spontaneous demonstration, yet where large crowds managed to assemble and set fire to the Danish and Norwegian Embassies.

(For some further details, see here and here and here..)

Regarding the issues at stake, this cogent statement by Marc Cooper, "Freedom, Fanatics, and the Feckless," says most of what needs to be said. Some of my own thoughts, from an e-mail exchange with a friend about this affair, are below.
--Jeff Weintraub

Hi X [2/5/2006],
PS. I am sure that you have paid attention to the Danish cartoon affair. The whole story is quite surprising, not to say ridiculous, but it does illustrate the problems that Europe has with its minorities and with its refusal to understand the new globalized world. A most revealing affair where newspapers and governments of Europe have shown remarkable irresponsibility.

In this affair, I think the emphasis in our responses is different. I agree that the Danish newspaper that published the original satirical cartoons was a bit irresponsible. (The extent to which western Europe has been secularized and de-Christianized is perhaps part of the background to this. The impulse here was classically Voltairean.) And a certain amount of anti-immigrant backlash is no doubt involved.

But the main "problems" that the rest of the affair reveals are those of Muslims around the world (including Europe), whose response has been hysterical and hypocritical in the extreme and indicates (to use your terminology) a "refusal to understand" the difference between criticism and government censorship. Also, there is a real question of basic principle involved here. Either we believe in freedom of the press or we don't. In this respect, the principled solidarity that many European journalists have shown with their Danish colleagues is encouraging, and shows that they grasp what is at stake. On the other hand, I am not surprised that the Catholic Church, the Bush administration, and a lot of mush-headed PC commentators and pseudo-experts have sided, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Muslim hue-and-cry and not with the entirely, unequivocally proper position taken from the start by the Danish government. (That is, the Danish Prime Minister said from the start that whatever his personal opinion was about the cartoons, it wasn't his business to tell newspapers what to publish. The Danish government has stuck to this position quite admirably despite a lot of pressure and misguided advice to cave in on the issue. If so many Muslim governments don't understand this position--and I can easily believe that they don't--whose problem is that?)

As I said in a recent message to another friend ...

Mention of SCIRI reminds me of a brief commentary by Shibley Telhami that I heard on NPR, about the calls by outraged Muslims around the world for the Danish government to censor a newspaper that had published satirical cartoons about the Prophet. His message was actually quite foolish and pernicious, since he essentially avoided the basic issue of principle concerning freedom of the press, and he tried to make out that all this anger by Muslims abroad was actually quite reasonable and fair--the usual, "what if these were anti-Christian or anti-semitic cartoons?" dodge. This is in fact quite silly, since cartoons are published in western newspapers every day that offend the sensibilities of many Christians & Jews. And not only cartoons. For example, many Christians, though obviously not all, thought that Scorcese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" was blasphemous, and a theater in Paris showing it was even firebombed by some right-wing Catholic nut group. I have not seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," but a lot of thoughtful and well-informed analyses I've read suggest that it has significant anti-semitic overtones ... yet amidst the controversy over the film, I don't remember hearing any calls for the US government to ban it, and I don't recall any US embassies being burned down as a result.

Furthermore, the Muslim protests about these cartoons are actually quite hypocritical, since large numbers of blatantly anti-semitic cartoons are published in Muslim countries every day. [This cartoon commentary is on-target, I'm afraid.] In short, a typical bit of pseudo-reasonable PC bullshit.

However, Telhami did make a few illuminating points about some of the underlying themes in world-wide Muslim public opinion. Apparently, opinion polls and other sources indicate that the Iraq war trumps everything. France can get away with a lot of legislation regarded as anti-Muslim and not face threats of retaliation, because it opposed the Iraq war. Denmark, on the other hand, did not oppose the Iraq war. Apparently, polling shows that most Muslims (outside Iraq, of course) see the Iraq war as part of a US-led campaign to attack and weaken Islam. Of course, this belief is delusional, but even delusional beliefs, widely and strongly held, are social facts. What is ironic about this is that many critics of the Iraq war claim, on the contrary, that the main result has been to bring Islamic fundamentalists to power (and, in the process, strengthen the hard-line Islamists in Iran).

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hamas Victory - the Artificial Sweep (Stuart Elliott)

Stuart Elliott, writing in his New Appeal to Reason blog, usefully pointed out that the results of the recent Palestinian elections may convey a misleading impression about Hamas's support among the voters. Hamas apparently won 74 seats out of 132, versus 45 for Fatah and a total of 13 for smaller parties and independents. Hamas's 74 seats are about 56% of the total, which suggests that they won an absolute majority of the votes. In fact, it appears that they won a plurality of about 45% of the popular vote (which is bad enough, but not quite a decisive majority).
These were the preliminary results (as of Friday, January 27 ):
Hamas's stunning victory and the lopsided Parliament are in large part the result of an electoral system that clearly gives results even more disproportionate than the US or Canadian First-Past-The-Post system.
The Palestinian system featured two tiers (1) multi-member districts and (2) a national proportional list. The multi-member districts reward parties with greater discipline and punish ticket-splitting. More than 100 Fatah members ran as independents and there were several smaller lists which appealed to Fatah voters
Hamas has won apparently 76 seats, Fatah 43, and other parties and independents 13.
Here are the national proportional results which give a far different picture of public opinion in Palestine.

Hamas 434,817 (30 seats)
Fatah Movement 403,458 (27 seats)
Martyr Abu Ali Mustafa (PFLP) 41,671 (3 seats)
The Alternative 28,779 (coalition of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian People's Party, and the Palestinian Democratic Union Party) (2 seats)
Independent Palestine (Mustafa Barghouti) 26,554 (2 seats)
The Third Way 23,513 (2 seats)

(Doesn't include votes for lists that didn't make the threshold.)
The final results from the Palestinian Central Elections Commission convey essentially the same picture, though in the end Fatah picked up two seats, one for its national list (for a final total of 28 vs. Hamas's 29) and one for a district seat. The Hamas 'landslide' was produced by its disproportionate share of the seats from multi-member districts.
Stuart Elliott added in a follow-up e-mail message (2/4/06):
It is quite possible that Hamas received only a plurality of votes for the district seats as well. It's hard to tell because of the multi-member nature of the district voting and because some of the independents may have been de facto Hamas candidates.
During a conference call Thursday arranged by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, said that the official Fatah candidates lost 100,000 votes to Fatah members running as independents.
I don't know if its representative or not, but the results in the 6-member first district are interesting, the only one I've had the time to add up. Six Fatah candidates got a total of 45,475 votes. Four Hamas candidates got 58,054. And independents and others got 66,390 votes. All 4 candidates on Hamas' "Change and Reform" were elected, while Fatah got 2 seats which were set aside for the top Christian candidates.
There were 6 set aside seats for Christians. If I understand correctly, there were not separate voters lists by religion. Where a Christian seat was set aside, the Christian candidate with the most votes, which could have come form Muslims or Christians, was elected regardless of where they stood in the overall total.
It is clear that the structure of the election process exaggerated the decisiveness of the Hamas victory. This is something worth knowing, and it certainly affects how we should interpret the results.
On the other hand, we should not feel overly reassured, either. In many cases throughout the Arab world, the key point about the Islamist parties and movements is not that they command the support of a clear majority, but rather that they are the only ones with real political dynamism, enthusiastic popular support, and practical idealism. Their opponents, on the other hand, rely primarily on patronage, control of the repressive state apparatus, and political inertia. It would be logical for the Palestinian political situation to fit this pattern.
Furthermore, I notice that 3 seats (and 4% of the national-list vote) went to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which has always been a "secular" organization--in a quasi-Marxist way--but also a solidly rejectionist one with a long history of terrorism against civilians. So the PFLP's 3 seats (and 4%) should be added to the rejectionist/terrorist camp, though not the Islamist camp. The same is probably true for some of the other minor-party seats.
At all events, it is useful to realize that Hamas did not actually receive the support of a decisive majority of Palestinian voters in this election. But this fact may or may not be crucial in the long run if there are no credible political alternatives--and that remains be the most important question.
--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. A further update from Stuart Elliott (2/6/06):
I set up a spread sheet and added up the district votes.

Fatah Candidates 1,731,967 (36.2%)
Change and Reform (Hamas ) 1,930,203 (40.4%)
Independent and minor 1,117,307 (23.4%)

There were two districts where Hamas didn't field a full slate and four independents were elected with votes that seemed to closely mirror the votes for the Hamas slate.
If the vote for those candidates is attributed to Hamas, these are the totals

Fatah 1,731,967 (36.2%)
Hamas 2,125,241 (44.5%)
Independent 922,269 (19.3%)

There were other districts where Hamas fielded an incomplete slate; some of the independent candidates may have been "stealth" Hamas candidates. [....]
Examples of misreporting
New York Times
"And on Wednesday, Palestinians voted almost two to one to put Hamas in charge of running their government."
Don Wylcliff, Chicago Tribune Columnist
"Sixty percent of the Palestinian voters in last week's election voted for Hamas."
Charles Krauthammer
"By a landslide, the Palestinian people have chosen these known stances: rejectionism, Islamism, terrorism, rank anti-Semitism and the destruction of Israel in a romance of blood, death and revolution."
Stuart Elliott

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hamas - Drawing the Line

(Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog)

Hamas - Drawing the Line
by Jeff Weintraub

New York Times editorials do not always cut to the heart of the matter. But this recent editorial (January 27 2006) responding to the results of the Palestinian parliamentary election is an exception:
For 20 years Ariel Sharon and other Israeli hard-liners have claimed that they had no negotiating partner interested in or capable of securing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That always seemed a debatable point, until now.
As the editorial goes on to note, a wide range of mistakes, misdeeds, and failures by other actors over the decades helped to bring about this result, and these include some unwise and self-defeating policies pursued by Israel, among others. That's true, but it doesn't alter the reality of the existing situation and the need to face up to it.
But all of this is peripheral to two central facts. Hamas grew out of a terrorist organization that has undermined every small step toward peace with mass murder. And on Wednesday, Palestinians voted almost two to one to put Hamas in charge of running their government. For there to be any hope of getting out of the impasse in the Middle East, one of those two things must change.
A. This Palestinian election disaster is not an event without previous parallels. The closest is the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991, which I believe was the first time that a full-fledged Islamist party was on the way to winning a majority in a national election in an Arab country. For several decades before that, Algeria had been ruled by the one-party authoritarian regime of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had led the Algerian revolution of the 1960s; in practice, the ruling elite ('Le Pouvoir', as Algerians call it) had largely been dominated by the military. During most of that period, the FLN/military regime was impeccably Third Worldist, anti-American, hostile to Israel, officially 'socialist', and 'revolutionary' in its rhetoric and international sympathies - all of which made it popular among western leftists. Within Algeria, however, the combination of economic stagnation and political repression, along with the growing corruption and conspicuous incompetence of the elite, made it increasingly unpopular. (Sound familiar?) In response to growing discontent, the regime was moving cautiously toward political reform, including an acceptance of multi-party elections.

The 1990 local elections produced a majority vote for the newly-formed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). This was an unwelcome shock both to the FLN/military ruling elite and to more secular-democratic tendencies in the opposition. Then, in the 1991 parliamentary elections, the FIS came out ahead in the first round and seemed fairly certain to win an absolute majority. At that point the military decided it was unwilling to accept this outcome and stepped in to nullify the election, disband the National People's Assembly, and outlaw the FIS. It is worth noting that many middle-class Algerians and members of the Berber minority, who were terrified of an FIS victory, were not unhappy that the army had prevented it. However, this move touched off a horrifying decade-long civil war in which over 100,000 people were killed, whole villages were massacred, many artists, intellectuals, journalists, and other professionals were assassinated or forced into exile, massive atrocities were committed by both sides, and the FIS was outflanked within the Islamist camp by the more bloodthirsty and indiscriminate terrorism of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and others. In the end, the regime crushed the GIA, the violence diminished, and Algeria has begun trying to pull itself together. In retrospect, it might or might not have been a better idea to allow the FIS to come to power through democratic elections in 1991. But once the civil war had actually started, there is no question that a victory by the Islamists would have been an unmitigated catastrophe for Algeria, so their defeat by the regime was a better outcome than the alternative.

Thus, the Hamas victory last week was not an isolated event wholly produced by the unique conditions of Palestinian society. In many respects, it is simply the latest result of the long-term bankruptcy of the kind of (relatively) secular Arab-nationalist politics represented, in their different ways, by the FLN, the PLO/Fatah, Nasserism, and the Iraqi and Syrian Ba'athists. A number of these regimes remain in power, but only by authoritarian means, and in most cases their most serious and dynamic political opponents are Islamists of one sort or another (partly, of course, because these regimes have effectively suppressed other political alternatives). If fair and open multi-party elections were allowed in these societies, it seems quite plausible that Islamist parties would win most of them. The existing regimes use this spectre to help justify their own dictatorial and often brutally repressive practices, but that doesn't mean that it is unrealistic. In reality, this has been a central dilemma of politics in the Arab world since 1991, and the Palestinian election is merely the latest illustration.

However, there are at least two important differences between the 1991 Algerian election and the 2006 Palestinian election. First, this one will not be nullified by a military coup. (I suspect that the leaders of the Fatah-affiliated 'security' services would be happy to impose an Algerian solution if they could, but they can't.) Second, the FIS in 1991 was not as overtly dangerous, extremist, murderous, or ideologically demented as Hamas.

(If anyone thinks that this last comment is exaggerated, I suggest perusing the Hamas Charter. Aside from calling unequivocally for the destruction of Israel - ho hum, right? - it rejects in principle any notion that non-Muslims in the area have any rights to self-determination at all, since the whole territory now covered by Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine is the collective property of the world Muslim community; it derides the use of negotiations and is explicitly committed to achieving its aims exclusively through holy war, including the terrorist murder of civilians; it lays out an elaborate narrative of classical anti-Semitism reminiscent of the 1930s, blaming the Jews for the 'French and Communist revolutions' and both World Wars among other events, and including bizarre conspiracy theories that involve the Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs; and so on.)

And, of course, the special context of the Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that Hamas's election victory poses special and urgent problems. These have to be faced seriously and without illusions.

B. What does this imply in terms of dealing with Hamas and a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority after the election? I freely confess that I am still uncertain about the best practical responses to this latest development.

On the other hand, I think it is essential to draw a clear, sharp line between tactical issues and certain basic issues of principle. The lessons of the past half-century make it clear that if we want any constructive outcomes to be at all possible, then it is absolutely essential for all of the major actors - including the US, the Europeans, the UN and the 'international community', the Arab states, and as much of international public opinion as possible - to commit themselves firmly and unambiguously to two key points of principle:

(1) In the Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue in dispute is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which should be resolved by a negotiated two-state solution leading to a viable Palestinian state and a formal end to the conflict with Israel. The issue is not the existence of Israel, and this should be made explicitly clear at the beginning of any formal negotiations. (It took decades to bring the PLO and some Arab regimes to this point - and, frankly, much of Arab public opinion is not really there - and allowing a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority government to simply go back to the 1948 eliminationist position would be unwise in the extreme.)

(2) The terrorist murder of ordinary civilians is not a legitimate mode of conflict under any circumstances, and any movement or government formally committed to this tactic cannot be considered legitimate either.

It may be that various forms of tactical flexibility might be necessary and even useful in dealing with the problems ahead. But any compromise on these two basic principles would be politically foolish and counter-productive (quite aside from being morally indefensible... but let's just stick to political 'realism' for a moment here).

C. Incidentally, it appears that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) agrees with the points I have just made, according to this report in Al Jazeera.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Egypt have taken a tough line with Hamas, setting a renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel as conditions for the Islamist movement to form the next government.

After a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday between Abbas and President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman urged Hamas to take steps on three key issues.

"One, to stop the violence. Two, it should become a doctrine for them to be committed to all the agreements signed with Israel. Three, they have to recognise Israel," he told reporters.

"If they don't do it, Abu Mazen (Abbas) will not ask them to form the government. Abu Mazen will (instead) form the government with other parties," said Suleiman, who attended the meeting and also met Abbas on Tuesday.

"If they don't accept to commit themselves to these issues, nobody will deal with them," said Suleiman, who has frequently been the main mediator between Abbas's Fatah and the Islamist Hamas in recent years.
What is more surprising is that, according to opinion polls, even most of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas seem to agree that Hamas should renounce its core positions:
Nearly three-quarters of Palestinians want the newly elected Hamas movement to drop its call for the destruction of Israel.

This came in an opinion poll released by the Ramallah-based Near East Consulting Institute on Monday.

The survey also found that 84% of those surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip want a peace agreement with Israel while 86% want Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian Authority president, to remain in his post.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which has been behind most attacks against Israel during a five-year uprising, has come under growing pressure to drop its charter's call for the destruction of Israel in the wake of its landslide victory last week over the secular Fatah party.
If these polling results accurately reflect the views of Palestinians (one always has to take polling results with a grain of salt), then I wish them luck, but would advise them not to hold their breath.

Whether or not Abu Mazen's reported threat is merely a bluff (or perhaps, from a more Machiavellian perspective, dovetails with what Hamas might actually prefer at this point) remains to be seen. But in substantive terms, the principles enunciated there are obviously correct and fundamental.

(Jeff Weintraub) Posted by Norm at 09:34 PM