Monthly Archives: August 2009

The first negative feedback on my new book is delightful and hilarious

Almost all the feedback so far on my new book, " What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?" has been positive and encouraging and it has sold a lot better than I had expected, especially when free downloads are available. But the first negative evaluation has emerged, on Facebook of all places, by someone called Remi Kanazi (no, I’ve never heard of him either, sorry). And, it’s simply priceless.

He writes:
"Fatah’s Hussein Ibish has a new book out telling the world what Palestinians really think. While not Palestinian, he pretends to represent them, and judging by his new book title, he is ready to tell the world their national agenda. Grasping for the remnants of his once flimsy career, Hussein Ibish wins again!"

I absolutely love this!

First of all, it’s completely obvious that he hasn’t read the book, has no intention of reading the book, and doesn’t care what it says. He judges its arguments simply by the title, the fact that he doesn’t like or know anything at all about me, and the fact that…(drum roll)… I’m not a Palestinian! Of course, I never claimed to be a Palestinian, or to represent the Palestinians. I do, however, work for a Palestinian-American organization, with an all-Palestinian leadership and board of directors. More the point, I’ve been active on the issue of Palestine for decades, and until the one state agenda emerged to challenge the goal of ending the occupation and establishing Palestinian independence, not only was the fact that I was not a Palestinian never raised to invalidate my advocacy on behalf of Palestine, it was actually a feature of certain forms of praise. Neither praise nor condemnation are called for, of course. The question is, what is the substance of my ideas, and do people agree or disagree with them based on the merits of the argument, and why. I fully expect a sharp disagreement from numerous quarters based on an honest difference of opinion and the details of the arguments, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. I think my old friend Ali Abunimah was the first to pull this stunt, and suggest that my national origin and ethnicity simply invalidates me making any contribution to the discussion of Palestinian national strategy (but only when people don’t agree with me, needless to say). This reeks to high heaven of chauvinism and ethnocentric bias being invoked for the narrowest of ideological purposes, as you can be sure that if I were advocating the one state agenda, such people would be singing my praises.

It’s also absolutely hilarious to be described as a member of Fatah, when I’ve written so much that is critical of that organization and never had the least association with it. Finally, I simply have no idea what the last sentence even means. Did I used to have a flimsy career, but now have a robust one? Did I used to have a flimsy one, but now none at all? I’ll agree with what’s-his-name on one matter only: if his response is anything to judge by, I certainly do win on the merits, and devastatingly. I hope someone can do a little better than this. Reading the thing might be recommended as a starting point for any critique.

Optimism, pessimism and political judgment

Everyday categories like optimism and pessimism tend to color most people?s political thinking, especially about questions involving international relations in the Middle East, but since they are irrational affects that are extraneous to factual realities, such attitudes are entirely at odds with sound political judgment. What is required for serious political analysis, especially when there is a vital goal at stake, is to dispassionately evaluate what is happening, in so far as possible free from assumptions, prejudices, pre-judgments and emotions. This is asking a great deal of people who are profoundly invested emotionally in a conflict, but it is necessary if one is to seriously evaluate the risks, opportunities and possibilities for advancing a specific agenda. This may sound obvious, but I am completely convinced by extensive experience that most people who are engaged on the question of Palestine, on all sides, consistently fail to apply this standard to their thinking, and are largely driven by irrational affects, emotions, and generalized attitudes such as optimism, pessimism and cynicism.

On the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian side, pessimism about peace and ending the conflict and the occupation is almost universal. In fairness, people came by this attitude honestly, having endured decades of suffering, frustration and disappointment. This pessimism about the future informs a very common, and even typical, deep-seated cynicism about diplomacy, negotiations and the potential for any kind of workable agreement. It is understandable, but it is also dysfunctional as a basis for analyzing political developments. Everything is always too little too late, insufficient, worthless, fraudulent, meaningless or counterproductive. Some people have become so cynical and pessimistic that they never see anything of value in anything any actual political actors with any degree of leverage or authority, on any side, say or do. It would be easy to identify activists and commentators who literally oppose anything and everything that actually takes place in the political register that has an impact on fundamental realities. It?s a safe position, since everything that really exists always has myriad downsides, but it?s also an attitude that precludes any kind of serious engagement with the actually existing political realm. Gadflies are sometimes interesting, occasionally insightful and often annoying, but they are by definition ineffective.

The only approach that can actually help to achieve practical political results is to carefully and dispassionately examine every development, attempting to identify what it offers that can help move towards a clearly defined, overriding goal (in this case, ending the occupation). Every development, statement and action, no matter how seemingly minor, may offer something, however modest, that can be deployed in pursuit of the goal. Successful campaigns to create change in the real world, especially at the level of international relations and diplomacy, depend entirely on an accumulation of political leverage and capital based on the successful utilization of countless minor, and occasionally a few major, developments. Sneering at everything precludes this slow and steady accumulation of leverage and capital. It means relying on one major, massive breakthrough that changes everything suddenly and miraculously. This almost never happens. Relying on it is unrealistic and indeed foolish. Pessimism and cynicism, therefore, are mortal enemies of achieving a major goal, as they blind their adherents to the potential uses to which modest or insufficient developments can be put towards the painstaking accomplishment of an overriding objective.

When my colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine engage in the kind of analysis that looks at every development for opportunities to advance the goal of ending the occupation, we are frequently accused of being Pollyannas and engaging in irrational optimism. This is entirely incorrect. Optimism, being another irrational affect, is as much a threat to sound political judgment as pessimism and cynicism. Optimism in this context would involve a deep-seated belief that peace and an end to the occupation are overwhelmingly likely or, even worse, inevitable. To the contrary, all sensible observers, no matter how committed they are to peace and ending the occupation, understand that is going to be extremely difficult to achieve and that the obstacles are enormous and under no circumstances to be underestimated. Irrational optimism of this kind is actually more readily to be found in completely unjustifiable and indefensible pronouncements that a binational state is ?an inevitability? and that the intersection of Palestinian demography and Israeli settlement policies mean that nothing can stop it from developing over time. The further irrationally optimistic implication in most of these pronouncements is that this binational state will be democratic, equitable and bear no resemblance to the occupation or systematic legal discrimination.

In truth, of course, nothing is inevitable, and everything that happens in the political realm is the result of human agency and a genealogy of human choices and actions. We shape our own realities, and only the most foolhardy would claim some sort of inspired certitude about what the future will look like many decades hence. Whatever happens will be based on the art of the possible and the consequence of actions by those who take the necessary step to dispassionately and systematically look for every opportunity, however marginal, to advance their goals and interests. The typical reaction among Palestinians and their allies is to dismiss all developments as deeply flawed and unacceptable because they fall far short of achieving an end to the occupation or a viable peace agreement. There is almost no recognition in many of these quarters that one must, perforce, make lemonade out of lemons, and work with the realities that actually exist rather than spitting at the facts and denouncing anyone and everyone, and everything they do. The Arab Peace Initiative, the Obama administration?s focus on a settlement freeze and resumption of peace negotiations, Salam Fayyad?s plan to establish the institutional framework of a state on the ground by 2011 (as he puts it, de facto statehood), the fact that the United States now openly pursues Palestinian statehood as a major national security goal, the economic development underway in the West Bank, and so much more, like everything else, is dismissed with a tisk and a derisive wave of the hand.

Obviously indeed none of this is sufficient, satisfactory or decisive. And, there is no guarantee that a reasonable peace agreement that ends the occupation will be achieved, or that Israel and Palestine will live side-by-side in peace anytime in the foreseeable future. However, it is overwhelmingly obvious to any dispassionate observer that there is a great deal for Palestinians and their allies to work with in the present circumstances, the undeniable serious obstacles and difficulties notwithstanding. Just because something is difficult and may or may not be accomplished is no argument for giving up, walking away and preferring simply to sit by and denounce everything as insufficient, unsatisfactory and worthless. That kind of pessimism and cynicism isn?t realism at all. In fact, it is a very pernicious form of defeatism, and a practical surrender of agency and the abandonment of the idea that through systematic, concerted and painstaking effort we can, within the limits set by the art of the possible, seriously change existing realities.

It is almost entirely certain that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis will refuse to accept a single democratic state (or Hamas? Islamic state) between the river and the sea, and that sufficient political or military leverage to compel them to agree to such arrangements does not exist and, in reality, cannot be acquired. In the real world, this simply is not going to happen, unless one is counting on many extremely bloody decades of continued and massively escalated violence that exhausts and demoralizes both sides to the point that they abandon their national imperatives. Whether Palestinians and Israelis are capable, in practice, of agreeing to a mutually acceptable border and resolving the other issues that would allow the occupation to end and a Palestinian state to emerge to live alongside Israel in peace definitely remains to be seen. There is no guarantee that this will happen, and plenty of grounds for skepticism. However, it most certainly remains in the realm of the possible, and therefore subject to the art of the possible.

To achieve it, Palestinians, their allies, and those Israelis and Americans who understand that this is in Israel?s and the United States? interests as much as anyone else?s, will have to proceed not on the basis of irrational affects such as optimism, pessimism or cynicism, but on the basis of dispassionate political judgment that focuses on finding every opportunity, however modest and limited, to take one small step after another towards the goal. Irrational pessimism is, in effect, surrender. Irrational optimism means believing that something good is inevitably or almost certainly going to happen, which is also self-defeating in practice. Sound political judgment, by contrast, always keeps its eyes on the prize without illusions. It is, generally speaking, the only way to realize an elusive, difficult and major accomplishment such as ending the occupation. When something ? anything ? happens, you pocket whatever it is you can get from it towards the goal and move on. It is the only way forward.

The symptomatic madness of Mike Huckabee

So, Mike Huckabee has gone to occupied East Jerusalem, hosted by a group of Israeli extremists and religious fanatics, and declared that, as AP puts it, “the international community should consider establishing a Palestinian state some place else.” The former Governor of Arkansas and GOP presidential nomination candidate is quoted as saying, "The question is should the Palestinians have a place to call their own? Yes, I have no problem with that. Should it be in the middle of the Jewish homeland? That’s what I think has to be honestly assessed as virtually unrealistic."

He has uttered such wicked twaddle many times in the past. In 2007, Huckabee is reported to have “stated that he supports creating a Palestinian state, but believes that it should be formed outside of Israel. He named Egypt and Saudi Arabia as possible alternatives…” This of course suggests the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the occupied territories into other Arab areas, for the convenience of Israel and to fulfill Huckabee’s political and, I have no doubt, religious fantasies.

Just to clarify, then, Huckabee thinks that it is “unrealistic” to establish a Palestinian state in Palestine – the place where most Palestinians live, where the population of the occupied territories is overwhelmingly Palestinian, and where both international law and international, Arab and Palestinian consensus, and the majority of Israelis if one is to believe the polls, believe a Palestinian state should be established – and that it should be “somewhere else” because all of Palestine constitutes simply “the Jewish homeland.” Apparently he also thinks it is “realistic,” for more than 5 million Palestinians to simply pick up and leave their homes, or be forced out, and relocate “somewhere else.”

Unfortunately, we need not wonder where such ridiculous ideas come from, or what motivates them. Huckabee is a fundamentalist Christian preacher, a former staffer of TV huckster James Robison, an adherent of “Bible inerrancy,” an obscurantist creationist opposed to science, and, judging from his attitudes on the Middle East, quite possibly a pre-millennial dispensationalist to boot. His comments opposing Palestinian national rights and supporting not only the occupation but the annexation and ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories are usually couched in terms of Israel’s “security,” but his, shall we say, unrealistic or even surreal attitudes could well betray the weird dogma of what is often wrongly called “Christian Zionism.”

This is generally derived from pre-millennial dispensationalism, a bizarre strand of Christian theology which holds that all of history is divided up into a series of discrete teleological dispensations, and that we are currently living at the last stages of the final dispensation leading up to the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ. Many adherents of this prodigious delusion believe that the complete control by Jews of all of “the [biblical] land of Israel” (now completely and conveniently conflated with precise territory of mandatory Palestine between the two world wars) is required before Armageddon, Apocalypse and the return of Christ to rule over the kingdom of heaven on earth or some such gobbledygook. No prizes for guessing what then happens to the Jews and all others who do not instantly convert to the cause of Jesus (hence, this is anything but Zionism no matter what these fanatics and those Jewish Israelis and freinds of Israel who foolishly accept their tainted support may care to tell themselves or others).

Huckabee’s madness in this instance is particularly shameless and off the wall, but at its heart, it represents a very widespread symptom and shares several key features with all other efforts to think up some kind of alternative scenario to ending the occupation and having two states living side-by-side in peace. Huckabee’s solution – simply move the Palestinians out – joins the ranks of all of those “solutions” to the conflict that are completely unacceptable to one of the two parties. It’s certainly wackier, more ruthless and indeed evil than most, but insofar as it is completely unworkable, a nonstarter and utterly unimaginable given the complete resistance any such idea would meet, it ultimately belongs in the same category as other all the other unworkable notions that ignore the basic national interests of one of the two parties. The bottom line is this: any scenario that does not address the minimal requirements of both Israelis and Palestinians is not an idea for ending the conflict or a “solution” at all. They are placeholders, substitutes for having an idea, excuses for avoiding the most difficult choices facing Israelis and Palestinians, and their allies around the world.

Anything that falls short of full recognition of Israel in its internationally recognized borders won’t fly – and that includes Hamas’ hudna, the idea of an Islamic state, and the idea of a single democratic state. It’s obvious that Israelis won’t accept any of these, and will fight bitterly, vigorously and virtually unanimously against them. Anything that falls short of ending the occupation and the establishment of a fully sovereign, viable Palestinian state – and that includes any notion a provisional or limited statehood, a modified, pacified occupation, or the return of Gaza to Egypt and parts of the West Bank to Jordan – won’t be accepted by the Palestinians and the other Arabs, and they will fight bitterly, vigorously and virtually unanimously against them too.

Huckabee’s comments are particularly ridiculous, but they’re useful in reminding us of the clear distinction between workable and unworkable ideas. In formal logic, this is described as a “reductio ad absurdum,” a proposition that inevitably leads to a self-contradictory conclusion. It takes Israel’s security arguments to their logical extreme and envisages not only the permanent denial of Palestinian national rights, but the removal and relocation of the Palestinians themselves. There are plenty of other “ideas” for resolving the conflict that take reasonable propositions and spin them out to their logical conclusions, oblivious to fundamental realities. Not all unworkable ideas are equally silly, equally fatuous or equally immoral. However, if they are completely unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of people on one side or the other, they are equally unworkable and equally useless.

On the benefits and pitfalls of national unity

In my last posting I praised the Sixth Fatah General Congress for its unity on the two most important national issues facing the Palestinian people: the identity of the leadership and the national strategy for liberation and ending the occupation. Some Ibishblog readers complained that the retention by acclamation of President Mahmoud Abbas was not a good thing, and that unity in support of a ?corrupt and failed? leadership was not a plus for the organization or for the Palestinian people. A few more words on the benefits and pitfalls of national and organizational unity are therefore in order.

All other things being equal, national unity is an important collective and strategic goal under virtually any circumstance. However, unity is only of paramount importance when it is in the service of a functional policy or system. The question of unity is therefore subject to the condition of political functionality: if unity helps to achieve an indispensable national goal, then it is of paramount importance; if it is an insurmountable obstacle to an overriding national imperative, then it cannot be considered of the first importance. Sometimes, history teaches, functional national unity can only be achieved following a period of deep, sometimes even severe, disunity in order to achieve the primacy of a reasonable political approach over an unreasonable one. Lincoln?s famous dictum that ?a house divided against itself cannot stand,? was made in plain view of one of the most violent internecine civil conflicts in recent human history, and eventually came to constitute a rallying cry for the majority of Americans against a minority hell-bent on unworkable and unacceptable policies and practices. When political dysfunctionality becomes overwhelming, sometimes unity cannot, and even should not, be achieved or maintained.

In the present Palestinian context, national disunity is mainly expressed through the split between the PA and Hamas politically and between the ruling entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively. This disunity is the product of a failed experiment in political cohabitation and divided government following two contradictory election results, the 2005 presidential election won overwhelmingly by President Abbas and the 2006 parliamentary elections that returned a solid majority for Hamas MPs. As I?ve noted many times in the past, these results divided Palestinian government between two parties which are pursuing not only incompatible but flatly contradictory agendas on both the national strategy for liberation and the character of Palestinian society. It was completely impossible that they should be able to find a modus vivendi for sharing power, especially since the inclusion of Hamas in the government led directly and inevitably to international isolation for the entire Palestinian leadership and all the Palestinian territories.

Since the violent split in the Palestinian house in the summer of 2007, it has become commonplace among many Palestinians, especially in the Diaspora, and their allies around the world, to refuse to choose sides between these two irreconcilable and contradictory agendas and to simply call for national unity at all costs. It is extremely appealing to do so as it is, among other things, a copout on the essential choice Palestinians and their supporters face between the nationalist agenda that seeks a negotiated agreement with Israel to end the occupation and the Islamist agenda that seeks confrontation until ?victory? (whatever that means). Here in the United States in particular, the national unity imperative allows people to avoid all the most difficult questions in favor of a position that is hard to argue with and is ostensibly above reproach. This is also the position, more or less, of several key Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have been pressuring the Palestinians on all sides to reestablish national unity at all costs. This policy is driven by their own political discomfort, based largely on their internal domestic politics, with the Palestinian split and the profound political pressure resulting from the war in Gaza (which was a predictable consequence of the split).

The problem, of course, is that national unity between the PLO and Hamas is as impossible now as it was in 2006-2007. It is still the case that the internal and national liberation agendas of the two organizations are contradictory, and still the case that Hamas? behavior is largely driven by its ambition to marginalize and replace the PLO and all nationalist parties as the dominant Palestinian political formation and the international address for all things Palestine. The talks in Cairo have gone nowhere because agreement between these two positions is a practical impossibility. In addition, any arrangement that allowed Hamas to resume a role in government throughout the occupied territories would almost certainly result in the resumption of broad-based international isolation for all the Palestinian organizations and for the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. Until Hamas seriously amends its policies such that it can be seen as a legitimate interlocutor by the international community (and, for that matter, for the Arab states as a practical reality), and accepts the goal of achieving a two-state end of conflict agreement with Israel and the legitimacy of existing Palestinian agreements, the costs of national reunification and reconciliation outweigh the benefits.

In many if not most Palestinian and pro-Palestinian circles, this is a heretical opinion, but if thought about seriously, it is also readily understood. The practical consequences of such a reconciliation, in the absence of significant policy adjustments from Hamas, would certainly be disastrous, especially a return to the crippling period of international isolation the Palestinians endured in 2006-2007. National disunity is exceptionally unfortunate, but surely the international isolation of all the leading Palestinian national parties is worse than the isolation of some, and obviously it would be of no benefit to the Palestinian people if the West Bank were to be subjected to the same treatment Gaza has been suffering under since the summer of 2007.

Moreover, from a practical point of view, everything serious the Palestinians can accomplish to improve their lot both in terms of living conditions and with regard to diplomatic progress towards independence requires negotiations with Israel. The painful reality is that Israel is in a position to block almost anything the Palestinians try to do to develop their society or move significantly in the direction of statehood. A situation in which the Israelis refuse to discuss anything meaningful with the entire Palestinian government will mean, in effect, paralysis not only at the diplomatic level, but also in terms of institution building, economic development and most, if not all, registers of national and civic life. As I noted in my recent posting about economic development, significant steps can be taken under the current circumstances, but without an end to the occupation, most necessary economic, institutional and political development of Palestinian society will remain impossible. What needs to be done now, and urgently, is to lay the groundwork for independence diplomatically in terms of the political register, and on the ground in terms of institutional, infrastructural and economic development in so far as possible.

Nobody wants to hear or read such words, and I don?t blame them, yet every serious person knows that this is, in fact, the reality that the Palestinians must face and deal with if they are serious about advancing their national interests. Only those who indulge in extravagant fantasies about an Islamic state from the river to the sea or a single democratic state to replace Israel can fail to understand these ineluctable facts. The bottom line is this: as long as Hamas continues to cling to policies that are completely dysfunctional and can only damage rather than advance the Palestinian national interest in practice, and as long as their inclusion in government sentences all the Palestinian national leadership and the whole of the occupied territories to international isolation, then disunity is, in fact, preferable to reunification. Better that only some elements of a people or national patrimony go charging suicidally off a cliff than for the entirety to do so in the name of unity.

Which brings us back to the question of the Fatah General Congress, and the retention of President Abbas as party leader by acclamation and without any significant challenge. I counted it among ?the good? elements coming out of the Congress, and it would seem that I need to explain this in a little more detail. I don?t have any illusions about the failings of Abu Mazen as a political leader, which are numerous and which I spelled out in some detail elsewhere. However, political parties, and for good reason, rarely dispense with sitting presidents, and naturally this proved to be another example. In addition, the practical alternative would have been a long, drawn out, possibly catastrophic, and perhaps even indecisive leadership battle that might have either split the movement irrevocably or resulted in an even less appealing and capable figure emerging as the new leader. One need only look at some of the individuals who showed party clout at the Congress to understand that for all his failings, Abbas is far from the least attractive person in a position of considerable influence in Fatah. Moreover, while he was retained by acclimation, Fatah cadres immediately began to agitate for the removal of the non-Fatah Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad. In other words, the general thrust of the Congress was not to replace the Fatah leadership (although some long-standing figures did lose their positions), but rather to try to extend the grip of leadership on Palestinian government.

By backing, at a considerable political cost to himself, Fayyad?s position as Prime Minister, Abbas is allowing the PA to begin to move beyond the corruption and inefficiency of the Arafat era. By all serious accounts, Fayyad has begun the painful and complicated processes of both anticorruption and good governance on the one hand and serious institution building in preparation for independence on the other hand. Fatah?s leadership on its own did not prove capable of doing this, but it has proved capable of facilitating it, and providing the political basis for sound, or at least much sounder, administration. Failing to recognize this aspect of Abbas? presidency is to miss the biggest of big picture items. Under his leadership, Fatah is no longer synonymous with the PA, which is good for both the party and the government, and this has taken considerable political will to accomplish and to maintain. The practical and economic benefits of this policy are now on display in the West Bank, and although I don?t think the results are as dramatic as some people have maintained, they?re obviously very significant and should be built upon and not squandered. The new professional Palestinian security services, according to all serious disinterested observers, have provided a new quality of life in towns like Nablus and Jenin, and are an indispensable element for economic and institutional development and for the pullback and eventual permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian areas.

The unity, even unanimity, displayed at the Fatah Congress regarding Abbas? position and, even more importantly, the national strategy of independence through negotiations was therefore unity of the best possible kind, in service of policies and practices that not only advance the national interests of the Palestinians, but are indispensable for that advancement. This was unity in the service of functional, practical policies that have both immediate and long-term beneficial consequences. It?s not a pretty picture, I grant, as I laid out in my last posting, and contains plenty of bad and ugly elements as well as good ones, but under the circumstances, on the biggest issues at stake, and compared to the practical alternatives, it was unity and unanimity that was both useful and well advised. In an ideal world, everything would be completely different, including the personalities at the helm of Fatah, not to mention Hamas, Israel and the Arab states. In the real world, the choices are between actually existing alternatives. In this case, the unity demonstrated by Fatah on Abbas? leadership and on the national strategy was far preferable to any realistic alternatives. With regard to the broader Palestinian split between the PLO and Hamas, reconciliation without significant policy adjustments by Hamas would not only be disadvantageous to the Palestinian national interest, it could, and probably would, be catastrophic.

The value of unity depends on the purposes it serves. All other things being equal, it is an exceptionally important value to be pursued, but in some cases, a measure of disunity that allows partial functionality is better than a form of ?unity? that dictates a complete paralysis and failure by definition, as Lincoln acknowledged at Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858. His friends and allies were convinced that it was his ?house divided? speech that cost Lincoln the Senate seat for which he was standing when he delivered it. In 1866, Leonard Swett observed, “Nothing could have been more unfortunate or inappropriate; it was saying first the wrong thing, yet he saw it was an abstract truth, but standing by the speech would ultimately find him in the right place.” Lincoln?s speech concluded, ?Wise counsels may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come,? and so it proved. There are times when the imperative of national unity must give way to insistence on reasonable policies without which the most essential elements of the national interest cannot be advanced or maintained. Palestinian national unity must indeed be restored, and as soon as possible, but not at all costs; it must be accomplished in a manner that allows the national agenda of ending the occupation and establishing an independent state to proceed and not atrophy or collapse.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at The Fatah General Congress

Ibishblog postings today resume after slightly more than a week of well-earned downtime, and large quantities of Amontillado. During the past few days, most of my attention and TV appearances have been focused on the Sixth Fatah General Congress in Bethlehem. The Congress proved to be something of a Rorschach blot, with most observers seeing whatever it is they wish to see in the event. Die hard Fatah supporters declared the party reborn with a stunning display of political prowess and “democracy in action.” The Palestinian and Arab far-right and ultra-left viewed this Congress of “quislings and collaborators” as demonstrating that Fatah are nothing more than, well, quislings and collaborators. The Israeli right, led by Foreign Minister Lieberman, saw in the same Congress irrefutable evidence of the inherent “extremism” of Fatah, and declared the peace process (as always) “dead.” What remains of the Israeli peace camp, however, was largely impressed, seeing in it further proof that Israel has “a peace partner” in the PLO. Western observers were largely silent and, apparently, oblivious. All read their scripts most convincingly.

It’s not surprising, of course, that everybody finds what they’re looking for in such a large and overdetermined event. If you look hard enough, you can find whatever it is you need in any gathering this large and sustained. Nonetheless, we can certainly distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly coming out of the Congress, which has left almost everyone agreeing that Fatah in general and President Mahmoud Abbas in particular have been significantly strengthened by the Congress.

First, the good. Some observers doubted whether, after 20 years, Fatah was even capable of convening a conference at all, and indeed it was. Some questioned whether it could be held in Palestine, whether or not the Israelis would permit such a thing, and whether Fatah even needed an Arab government to organize the event for them in one of their capitals, as with all previous Fatah Congresses. In the end, the organization was able to pull it off, and in Palestine, which is a very significant development in Palestinian political history. Other than those two core facts, the biggest headlines coming out of the Congress were that the leadership at the most senior level, specifically President Abbas, was retained by acclamation with almost no significant opposition, and that the national strategy of seeking a negotiated agreement with Israel to end the occupation and the conflict was also virtually unchallenged. Therefore, while there was significant disunity on many issues, some dissension and squabbling, and definite and obvious divisions within the organization, on the two most crucial points — the identity of the leadership and the essence of the national strategy — there was virtually unanimous unity. All other divisions are relatively insignificant when there is virtual unanimity on the only things that really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Additional positive elements included the fact that the election of the most important committees in Fatah were actually contested with some significant figures failing to win important positions. Most notably Abu Alla’ did not get elected to the Central Committee in spite of his prominence and seniority. He immediately began to complain about irregularities and fraud, but it comes across very much as sour grapes in context, which is not to say that the process was perfectly clean, but rather that his objections appear to be based more on the outcome than on the process.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the process either transparent or democratic, but it was a very large step in that direction. The biggest question mark seems to relate to who was qualified to vote, which is an issue that tends to bedevil political parties and was a marked feature of the hotly contested Democratic Party presidential primary campaign last year. Fatah should not be smug about transparency, accountability or democratic processes, as it continues to be sorely lacking in all three when compared with any standards to which a popular party should always aspire. However, the Fatah Congress stood in marked contrast to what goes on in much of the Arab world, and specifically in dramatic contrast to the decision-making and leadership processes of Hamas, which are entirely secret, murky and subterranean. For all of its flaws, the Fatah Congress was held in the open, in public and on television.

Moreover, some elements of the disunity and dissension at the Congress were actually healthy, and should be considered part of the good that came out of it. Public squabbling is what political parties do, or at least should do. Debate and disagreement are essential elements of a healthy political party and polity. Again, the contrast at this Congress in terms of tolerating dissent within the ranks stands in contrast to much of political activity in the rest of the Arab world, anything that tends to happen in and around Hamas, and even the way Fatah used to treat internal criticism during the Arafat era.

Which brings us to the ugly. Two elements stand out to me as particularly ugly in the Congress. The first has to do with the collective insanity regarding the death of the late Yasser Arafat. In the lead up to the Congress, Farouk Qaddumi attempted to sabotage the entire event by making bizarre and entirely unsubstantiated charges that Pres. Abbas, Mohammed Dahlan and other senior Fatah leaders had conspired with Israel to assassinate Arafat. Obviously, very few people believe this preposterous conspiracy theory, and it did little to damage the Congress in the event (Pres. Abbas was wise to extend a rhetorical olive branch to the wild-eyed accuser towards the end of the Congress and seize the moral high ground). However, the Congress did appoint a committee to look into what it deemed “the assassination of President Arafat.” It’s really extraordinary how people need to convince themselves that Arafat was murdered in order to make of him a martyr who died for the cause. Fortunately, there is nothing whatsoever mysterious about Arafat’s death: a sick old man, living in squalor, having endured decades of hardship and numerous serious injuries, slowly wasting away before our eyes on television, finally dies. When a sick old man who deteriorates in public finally dies, only the most paranoid worldview can turn this into a mysterious and highly suspicious event. Fatah was right to wave aside Qaddumi’s hysterical accusations, but it is extremely unfortunate that, as an organization, it continues to buy into the notion that Arafat could not simply die the normal death of a sick, old man, but had to have been murdered. It would have been infinitely healthier and more honest to simply tell themselves and the Palestinian people that, as any sensible person readily understands, Pres. Arafat passed away due to natural circumstances after a long and difficult life and a lengthy illness. There appears to be a political and collective need to dramatize this decisive moment in Palestinian political history by turning it into an assassination and a mystery when it was neither.

The second ugly element is the lack of accountability vis-à-vis corruption and incompetence. President Abbas acknowledged “mistakes” and vowed to correct them, but no mechanism really has been put in place for that. Of course, Palestinians can always insist that as long as they are stateless and without proper governance mechanisms of an independent country, policing corruption is very difficult. However, no one can doubt that Fatah got itself into the mess it has been in significantly by not tackling the problem of corruption in any systematic manner. Indeed, serious anticorruption measures and good, clean governance has required the Palestinian Authority to look beyond Fatah to nonmembers like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has begun to put in place the building blocks of a tight ship. The fact that he’s not a party member and, perhaps also, his insistence on non-corrupt government has made him a very unpopular person in some Fatah circles, and it is disheartening that one of the first calls to come out of the organization after the Congress adjourned was for the replacement of the Prime Minister. It’s vital that a re-energized Fatah is not able to unseat the most competent, serious and effective administrator Palestinian society has yet had at the helm.

Which leaves us with the bad. In my view, the worst aspect of the Congress was the retention and even enhancement of influence and power by some individuals who have proven either incompetent or corrupt, or both. In particular, the prominence of Dahlan is troubling given his strong reputation for corrupt practices and his evident incompetence in his main area of responsibility, which was security in Gaza. At the Congress, he attempted to blame everyone else, especially Pres. Abbas, for the military loss of Gaza to Hamas. This is entirely unconvincing in my view. His fellow warlord, so to speak, Jibril Rajoub, also demonstrated political clout during the Congress. If Fatah is going to successfully reform itself, it can’t be led at the most senior levels by security chieftains, especially those with a reputation for brutality and/or corruption. Such individuals evidently have a significant constituency within the organization, and one could argue that therefore they have a right to prominence and influence. Be that as it may, it is entirely unfortunate that some dubious individuals emerged strengthened and rejuvenated by the Congress and were able to demonstrate more influence than they probably deserve.

One final note: several observers have noted that the Fatah General Congress can and should be seen as part of the run-up to the 2010 elections which thus far is the only thing that Fatah and Hamas have been able to agree on in their Cairo negotiations. I told an Arabic language TV station on Tuesday that while this is true, I don’t believe that Hamas will be willing to allow elections to go forward, given the freefall in their political fortunes in the aftermath of the Gaza war and, especially, the Obama re-engagement in the peace process. The Fatah Congress having been largely successful compounds the likelihood that Hamas will refuse to go forward with any elections unless there is a dramatic transformation of Palestinian public opinion. And, indeed, as the Congress drew to a close, on cue Hamas leaders announced that no elections could take place unless and until Palestinian reconciliation had first been achieved. This, of course, is simply a way of saying no, and I expect that position to continue for the foreseeable future as under the current circumstances defeat is virtually inevitable for Hamas.

On another Arabic language TV show yesterday, an old friend of mine asked me on the air whether or not, in that case, the PA might hold separate elections in the West Bank in 2010, even if Hamas refuses to allow them in Gaza. It’s an interesting idea, but I think it has at least as many pitfalls as positives. It would reify the division in Palestine and suggest that there are two legitimate governments and two legitimate authorities, “us over here and them over there,” so to speak. This is probably not in Fatah’s interests, and definitely not in the Palestinian national interest. What Palestinians need, and on schedule, in January 2010 as agreed, are elections that will clarify the Palestinian national direction following the 2005 presidential election that was decisively won by Pres. Abbas with 63% opercent of the vote and the 2006 parliamentary elections in which Hamas-backed candidates got 44% of the vote. Divided government and shared authority between two parties with not only incompatible but contradictory platforms on both the strategy for national liberation and on the nature of Palestinian society proved, inevitably, a practical impossibility. Since the divided government experiment collapsed in the summer of 2007 in violence, Palestinians have required another election to clarify legitimate political authority in their society. As it stands, the two parties have agreed to hold this election in 2010, and, in its own interests and the Palestinian national interest, Fatah should adamantly stick by that agenda. Hamas, as I say, is extremely unlikely to live up to its word and accept those elections. If they block the elections, Hamas should pay the full political price for that, as they are now paying the political price for other decisions that may have been useful to them as an ideological and power-oriented party, but were disastrous for the Palestinian people.

Arab-Americans, political organizing and litmus tests

A reader asks me, “why do you think the Arab American community has not enjoyed greater success at building and working within multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-issue coalitions, be they political, social, or cultural? And do you believe, as I would argue, that some of our community’s spokespersons and intellectuals have actually undermined effective coalition building by imposing political litmus tests on our potential allies and partners?”

The first and greatest problem is that the Arab-American community is, for the most part, itself not engaged and organized. It’s very hard to build coalitions with other communities when you don’t even want to work together most of the time on most issues. Arab-Americans are a small community, but disproportionately successful, enjoying higher average incomes, levels of education and success in almost all fields of life than most other Americans. We have thrived in this country. However, for very complicated reasons Arab-Americans resist coming together to work effectively in the political system in our own country. Lots of Arab-Americans have had individual success in the political world, but the conundrum is that those who have been successful in the mainstream of American political life have not wanted to be part, at least in a very central way, of an organized ethnic political constituency, while those who have wanted to organize along community lines have tended to be ineffective and often drawn to the fringes of American political life. The exceptions on both sides of the divide are much fewer than the general rule which tends to hold that Arab-Americans who are successful in American political life keep a distance from the community, whereas Arab-Americans who focus on the community tend to be, as one observer used to say, “addicted to failure.”

This is not terribly surprising, given that, on the one hand, Arab-American political figures, especially politicians and candidates, who wish to be successful need to rely on support largely not connected to the Arab-American community (because it is small and dispersed), while Arab-American community organizations are trying to represent a community that, for very complicated reasons, often doesn’t want to be represented (or will, in effect, reject any effort practically to represent it). The reasons for this resistance are far too complicated to explicate in a blog postings such as this, but they definitely include the fact that Arab Americans came to the United States from different parts of the Middle East at different times and for different reasons, and that political divisions in the Arab world continue to inform far too much Arab American political thinking, activity and rivalry. It’s also certainly true that many Arabs left the Middle East precisely to get away from the kind of political tensions and repression that have characterized the politics of the Arab world for at least 100 years if not much longer, in which political life has been a terrain of failure, betrayal, defeat, corruption, brutality and chronic nepotism. It?s fair to say that there is a distinctly paranoid streak to a good deal of Arab and Arab-American political thinking, but it would also in fairness have to be noted that they came by it honestly.

Because of this, people who put themselves forward as political actors are generally viewed with deep suspicion by both Arabs and Arab-Americans, with the assumption that there is always “someone behind” them or some extraneous agenda at work, which there often is. Coupled with this cynicism is a completely false but very widespread sense, which is even promoted by some academic “political scientists,” among the Arab-Americans that the American political system is somehow closed to us, that the obstacles are too great or the challenges too overwhelming for Arab-Americans to have any success in influencing politics and policy as a community. This nonsense is very deeply rooted even in the practical behavior and attitudes of people who believe that they have overcome the suspicion that we simply can’t be effective in our own country.

On top of all of this, there is the serious and additional complication that the Arab-American identity is rejected, or at least downplayed, by many of its potential constituents. In other words, many people we think we are talking about when we refer to the Arab-Americans do not accept this honor, so to speak, and consider themselves either entirely or primarily defined by another identity, which might be religious, sub-ethnic, national, or even in terms of area or village of origin. Others prefer to think of themselves as “unhyphenated Americans.” Many Arab-Americans come from minority communities that are to some extent or another alienated from Arab nationalist discourse that was in vogue at the time of the political and rhetorical formation of the Arab-American identity beginning in the late 1960s. It seems quite clear that large sections of the community, or perhaps one should say the potential community, never felt included or enfranchised by this identity and the rhetoric surrounding it. Every Middle Eastern conflict and dispute has exacerbated divisions among Arab-Americans. These and additional barriers have prevented Arab-Americans from building strong community organizations that could form effective, powerful coalitions with other ethnic and interest group communities.

However, I do think the questioner makes a strong point: Arab-Americans have restricted both their own ability to organize within the community and their ability to form effective coalitions more broadly by imposing a powerful litmus test on everything and everyone — Palestine. Since I spent the majority of my professional career, and my time presently, working on this issue, I really cannot be accused at all of downplaying or failing to see the significance of the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian issue and national movement have not always enjoyed a healthy relationship with the other Arabs, with both parties suffering as a consequence of some of the distortions that have been produced. I think the Arab-American tendency to use Palestine and positions on issues involving Israel, the right of return, and fidelity to an Arab nationalist narrative that focuses on the Palestinian nakba as a litmus test for everything has also had very serious negative consequences. This kind of litmus test is part of the alienation of some significant elements of what ought to be core constituencies of the Arab-American identity but which resist identification or engagement. It has also impeded Arab Americans from developing strong working relations with other constituencies. At the same time, it is certainly the case that one of the major obstacles Arab Americans have faced in engaging in mainstream American political life is opposition from pro-Israel constituencies that impose litmus tests of their own which virtually no Arab-American can possibly meet, and historically anyone supportive of the Palestinian national cause has been branded an extremist, a terrorist supporter or some such exclusionary label.

It strikes me that we are generally speaking moving beyond that era, since a majority of Jewish Americans and a majority of Arab Americans seem to strongly agree (though many have yet to recognize this) as does the rest of the country and the policy community in Washington that there is a strong American, Israeli and Palestinian interest in a negotiated peace based on two states. There are those, myself included, in both the Jewish and Arab American communities who essentially propose a new litmus test distinguishing those on all sides who are interested in a reasonable, achievable peace agreement and those who wish to fight on until the bitter end (whatever that might be). The only purpose of such a litmus test regarding peace is to recognize that Jewish and Arab Americans who want a peace agreement have more in common with each other than with their brethren who prefer conflict and occupation. It is specific to the issue of Palestine, and is consistent with not only majority opinions, but also US government policy and strong efforts on the part of the Obama administration. However it doesn?t and shouldn?t be applied to any of the other crucial issues on which Arab Americans have to be engaged including anti-discrimination work, civil rights, civil liberties, counterterrorism, combating defamation and promoting the national interest in general.

I don’t think the problem has always been simply having too few and too small national organizations, or conversation-stopping litmus tests, but also the bitter legacy of a disinterest in issues involving other communities. When questions of racial profiling and systematic discrimination against the Arab-American community were raised following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Arab American organizations (I was Communications Director of ADC at the time) found ourselves rushing to join a well-established civil rights coalition, largely led by African American and Latino groups, that had been prioritizing the issue of profiling for years. Arab-Americans and their organizations had been, in general and in point of fact, absent from this constituency until 9/11. We then immediately had to try to place our concerns alongside those of communities that had been building a case against domestic police profiling in inner cities and on highways — that was in many ways quite distinct from the counterterrorism profiling Arab-Americans were concerned with — essentially to our benefit and at their risk. I was involved in many early meetings following September 11, 2001 during which Arab-Americans tried to make the case to this well-established anti-profiling constituency that our issues out to be included in proposed legislation and other major policy interventions on the question. The civil rights community struggled with this issue, since including “counterterrorism” and “national security” issues along with domestic law enforcement abuses seriously threatened the prospects of success on an issue on which these organizations have been focusing for over a decade. Entirely to their credit, and I think essentially as a matter of principle, this African-American and Latino led civil rights coalition did agree to include Arab-American profiling concerns in both legislative language and policy interventions generally.

I don’t think Arab-Americans can be faulted or singled out for focusing on their own issues, but the fact that we didn’t realize that we had a vested interest in getting seriously involved with the civil rights community before our own civil rights and liberties were called into question can only be regarded as a serious and historical error and oversight. The challenge is finding the balance between the kind of total assimilation into an unhyphenated American identity that many successful Arab-American political candidates and others have relied upon for successful engagement with broader American society, and the obsessive, single-minded focus on a very narrow ethnic national narrative that alienates not only most other Americans but a great many Arab Americans as well.

In other words, the challenge is to give both sides of the hyphen their due. This require those who believe they can avoid the consequences of their ethnic identity because they downplay, ignore or deny it will have to realize ? as the conservative, Lebanese-American, Christian, wealthy, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa discovered when he was a victim of airport profiling in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks ? that there is nothing outside the whale. However we define ourselves, in practice our fellow Americans will view us primarily as Arab-Americans, and our fortunes are inherently linked to each other. However it will also require those who are enjoying the rights, but not recognizing the responsibilities, of American citizenship, who live as Arabs in America but not in reality as Arab Americans, and who remain angry at their own country and alienated from its political system and civic life to realize that there is no point in being angry at ?the Americans? because we are, in fact the Americans.

Muslims, Islamists, Islamophobes and the doctrine of “taqiyya”

It is becoming increasingly common in American political commentary as Islamophobic rhetoric has developed as a genre of the "paranoid style" of American politics, to hear or read that Islam encourages Muslims to lie to nonbelievers, and that therefore no one of Muslim heritage should be believed, particularly when they adopt moderate or constructive stances. This is, of course, immediately familiar to anyone with a familiarity with Western anti-Semitism, which has always held that Jews are religiously authorized to lie to, steal from or even kill Christians and other non-Jews. Like most forms of contemporary American Islamophobic rhetoric, this calumny about generalized and religiously sanctioned systematic dishonesty has been transferred wholesale from Jews to Muslims. The idea that the doctrine of "taqiyya" constitutes a carte blanche for all Muslims to lie to all non-Muslims is at the heart of this slander.

In discussing the overdetermined and relatively complex set of interpretations ascribed to taqiyya by various Muslim traditions and authorities over the centuries, I am certainly going out of my depth (but much less so than those who have been abusing the term for bigoted political purposes). I have maintained a healthy distance from the details of Islamic jurisprudence, and it must be to those with expertise in the area to offer a more definitive account. But some basic facts can be readily explained. First, taqiyya is a minor, and not a major, doctrine in Islam, and it is likely that most people who have been raised in the faith both at the present and historically never even hear about it. While understandings, interpretations and applications of the doctrine have, like almost all aspects of every major religion, been overdetermined and variegated over space and time, the essential concept underlying taqiyya is simple and has analogues in every single major religion. It essentially holds that it is permissible to lie about one’s religious affiliations in order to prevent immediate physical harm or death. If there is a major religion that does not contain a doctrine that might permit someone to recant at the stake or before the axe, I am not aware of it.

The doctrine has been of particular interest and relevancy to minority religious traditions, denominations and sects in the Islamic world, and can be said to have been mainly analyzed, defined and employed by Shiites, Sufi sects and other smaller Muslim denominations that have historically faced persecution by intolerant Sunni majorities or religious or political establishments. Indeed, in anti-Shiite rhetoric from Sunni bigots, historically taqiyya has been used to criticize Shiism and sometimes even to imply (as Islamophobes are now doing to Muslims in general) that they are simply, as a collectivity and for doctrinal reasons, systematically dishonest. Therefore, while a number of major Sunni Muslim commentators have agreed that taqiyya would allow a Muslim to disavow his or her religious beliefs in order to avoid immediate physical harm or death, it has more typically served in Sunni rhetoric over the years as a criticism or even calumny against Shiites, and therefore has had a generally negative connotation for the majority of Muslims historically.

There is no need for anyone raised in mainstream Muslim traditions anywhere to do any research to flatly and firmly refute the idea that Muslims generally perceive taqiyya as a doctrine that permits them to lie to nonbelievers (except possibly under the most extreme and unlikely circumstances, for which most people would require no theoretical rationalization, I might add). I was raised in a house steeped in Muslim traditions, including both traditional and Sufi forms of Sunni Islam, and I never once heard the term until it was dug up by Islamophobes post-9/11 and presented as evidence of the inherent duplicity of all Muslims throughout the world.

There are two competing versions of post-9/11 misinterpretations of taqiyya in American political discourse. The first — which holds that taqiyya simply authorizes Muslims to lie to all non-Muslims at will — is promoted by outright bigots and overt Islamophobes who know perfectly well that this isn’t true, but who are engaged in a campaign of spreading fear and hatred against a community which, for a variety of reasons, they fear and hate. It has been a very simple task to bat aside this crude and obviously preposterous calumny from the likes of Robert Spencer and his repulsive ilk. Exposing bigots of this level of crudeness is a fantastically simple proposition, and people like Spencer actually announce themselves as hateful, prejudiced and thoroughly dishonest propagandists to any fair-minded reader within a few sentences.

The second account of the way the doctrine of taqiyya supposedly functions in the post-9/11 environment holds that it is not mainstream Muslims, but "radical Islam," or Islamists generally, who are using it as a political weapon in a civilizational jihad against the West. The practical effect of this allegation is extremely similar to that of the more crude version, because it suggests that radical Muslims feel religiously authorized to lie about their beliefs to nonbelievers, not only to preserve life and limb, but, as is frequently alleged, "to advance the cause of Islam," and that in therefore no Muslim Americans can be regarded as sincere. Even though, in this account, taqiyya is only perceived in this way by "radical Islam," as opposed to mainstream Islam, when it is alleged that people are willing to use a religious doctrine that permits widespread and systematic deception, doubt is instantly raised about who among the Muslim Americans is genuinely mainstream or moderate, and who are actually radicals employing this version of taqiyya.

This misunderstanding (sometimes clearly deliberate, at other times apparently erroneous) of the ways in which taqiyya does and does not function in Muslim or even Islamist rhetoric was reflected in an exchange I had with in April with Doug Farah, who sometimes does some useful reporting but who is deeply over his head when he tries to delve into Islamism, as he has repeatedly demonstrated. Interestingly, I agreed with his overall point in the blog posting in question that negotiations with Islamists is a dangerous business. However, he alleged that taqiyya, "blesses the concept of disguising one’s beliefs, intentions, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions or strategies from the enemy and the infidel," and that it is "fully embraced by radical Islamists (including the Muslim Brotherhood)." He never discussed the extent to which he believes this concept is partly or not at all embraced by "non-radical Muslims." He originally justified this allegation by linking to "a paper" that was simply a pathetic and ignorant anti-Arab racist rant by a man whose main qualification is that he is “a resident of Sydney." Farah has now changed the link on his own site to refer to another "paper," this time more scholarly but not very much less embarrassing. The link to the original overtly racist and idiotic "paper," which really is a masterpiece of taqiyya-hysteria and Islamophobia generally, and which Farah found authoritative, is still on the posting on "the counterterrorism blog," which Farah helps run, although he did take it off his own site. The point is that while this accusation about taqiyya is frequently and casually made among both Islamophobes and some ill-informed and self-appointed campaigners against "radical Islam," I have yet to see any evidence that Sunni Islamists actually do endorse the use of taqiyya to justify systematic and blatant deception.

Obviously all political and religious fanatics are not to be trusted, since their fanaticism tends to allow them to justify any number of abhorrent means (lying among them) through an obsessive commitment to achieving their ends. The idea that political Islamists, Muslim radicals and the like are fully prepared to lie isn’t in the least surprising or even really debatable. Only the most naïve and childlike people would believe for a second that fanaticism of any variety promotes honesty — to the contrary, the greater the certainty about the rightness of the cause, the more likely anyone is to engage in practices that are obviously otherwise outrageous. Yet the question of taqiyya is relevant, since it is used to overtly or implicitly undermine the credibility of anyone with any degree of Muslim heritage. It has even been implied by some on the ultra-right that President Obama is "practicing taqiyya" when he "poses as a professed Christian." Agnostics and secularists such as myself may thereby also, as both Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes have claimed about me, be accused of being secretly or objectively a "jihadist cadre." Since this understanding of taqiyya began to develop in Islamophobic and "counterterrorism" circles post-9/11, it has increasingly served as little more than a code word for the idea that Muslims, and even anyone with any Muslim heritage, are all actual or potential liars. Therefore, the question of whether or not the contemporary Sunni Islamist movement in any or all of its present iterations accepts and promotes the version of taqiyya as defined by Farah above, and so many others is, in fact, significant.

As I already agreed, I am not a scholar of Islamic philosophy, theology, fiqh or anything of the kind, and that therefore a more definitive answer must come from someone else. However, evidence from the "taqiyya-peddlers" that Sunni Islamists promote the concept in the manner they describe is slim to none, and it seems to be simply an allegation and assertion. One scours the credible and sophisticated scholarly literature on the rise of the Sunni Islamist movements — ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Salafist groups; to the nationalistic armed Islamist militias (both Sunni and Shiite) such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias; to the Deobandi-derived Islamist organizations in South and Central Asia such as the Taliban; to the most extreme of all, the takfiri, self-described "salafist-jihadist" groups such as Al Qaeda — for evidence of their interest in and use of the concept of taqiyya in vain. In the definitive book, "The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism" (Columbia University, 2007), the concept is mentioned only once, in a passing reference to a Turkish Sufi order. In Gilles Kepel’s classic "Jihad" (Harvard University Press, 2002), the concept does not appear at all. Neither is it mentioned in Richard P. Mitchell’s pioneering study of the Muslim Brotherhood, "The Society of The Muslim Brothers," (Oxford University Press, 1969), or in the more recent account of MB history in Adnan Mussallam’s "From Secularism to Jihad" (Praeger Publishers, 2005). Nor in Brynjar Lia’s excellent "Architect of Global Jihad" (Columbia University Press, 2008). Nor in Ahmad Rashid’s fine piece of journalism, "Jihad: the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia," (Penguin Books, 2003). Nor in Olivier Roy’s "Globalized Islam" (Columbia University Press, 2004). Nor in Fawaz Gerges’ "The Far Enemy" (Cambridge University Press, 2005), or his excellent follow-up, "Journey of the Jihadist" (Harcourt Books, 2006). Nor does it appear in Rudolph Peters’ "Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam," (Princeton Series on the Middle East, Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996). While admittedly this is hardly an exhaustive review of the literature on contemporary Islamism and its sources, both classical and modern, it seems almost unimaginable that the distinguished scholars who wrote these definitive analyses would have all completely missed, and not even so much as mentioned, this alleged reliance on taqiyya as a political tool and religious justification by Islamists and "radical Muslims."

Nor have only the credible, serious scholars of Islam and the Islamist movements mysteriously failed to understand the supposed centrality of taqiyya in contemporary Islamism, so have many hostile and far less credible or qualified commentators with obvious political agendas. Daniel Pipes, for example, makes no mention of taqiyya in his paranoid rant "Militant Islam Reaches America" (W.W. Norton, 2003). Steven Emerson, unquestionably the most influential pioneer of the idea of a dangerous Islamist fifth column in the United States, similarly failed to mention it at all, either in "American Jihad" (Free Press, 2002), or his follow-up "Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US" (Prometheus Books, 2006).

While admitting that I am not a scholar of this subject, I do pay attention and I have seen no references to taqiyya in a positive manner from almost any Sunni Islamist sources. It might possibly be true, given the range of discourse among the world’s over 1 billion Muslims, that, as Raymond Ibrahim has claimed, "some ulema expanded the meaning of taqiyya to also permit general lying in order to advance any cause beneficial to Islam," but he does not provide any reference and I have been unable to locate any. More to the point, even the most extreme of the Islamists do not seem to understand taqiyya in this way at all, on those rare occasions that they do touch on the issue. Ibrahim’s own book, "The Al Qaeda Reader" (Broadway Books, 2007), contains a useful, predictably disturbing and often repulsive series of translations from the most extreme Islamists in the world. Among them are excerpts from a tract called "Loyalty and Enmity: An Inherited Doctrine and a Lost Reality," by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command and chief ideologue and propagandist for Al Qaeda. In it, Zawahiri touches on the question of taqiyya, approvingly quoting the classical commentator Al-Hassan as holding that, "taqiyya is permitted only should one fear being killed, scarred or severely harmed. But who ever is forced into apostasy, it is his right to resist and refuse to respond to any utterance of infidelity, if he can." Zawahiri concludes that regarding taqiyya, "Should a Muslim encounter circumstances that expose him to murder, scarring, or severe injury, he may utter some words to stay the infidels’ torments. But he must not undertake any initiative to support them, commit sin, or enable them through any deed or killing or fighting against Muslims. Nobler for him that he should endure the torments, even if they are the cause of his death."

Therefore, even the most extreme and fanatical of the Sunni Islamists, and Zawahiri is the exemplar of this fringe, regard taqiyya as an extremely limited dispensation to do with avoiding immediate physical injury or death, and strongly encourage enduring pain, injury and death as opposed to lying or deception. As far as less extreme Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some other Salafists, their interest in taqiyya seems limited to very occasionally using it as an element of anti-Shiite rhetoric. I wouldn’t put anything past fanatical extremists like Al Qaeda, but even an Islamist as extreme as Zawahiri does not, as a matter of fact, promote the idea that taqiyya can be used as a generalized system of lying and deception to advance the interests of Islam.

The entire purpose behind this whole campaign of misrepresentation regarding taqiyya was summed up by the Islamophobic fanatic Robert Spencer in his shameless screed, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)" (Regnery Publishing, 2005). At the end of his passage on taqiyya, Spencer concludes: "Remember that the next time you see a Muslim spokesman on television professing his friendship with non-Muslim Americans and his loyalty to the United States. Of course, he may be telling the truth — but he may not be telling the whole truth or he may be just lying." Spencer is also famous for repeatedly insisting that there is no reliable method of distinguishing moderate from extremist Muslims.

Of course I wholeheartedly embrace skepticism and I would urge anyone that the next time they see anyone on television professing anything to consider that they may be lying (and if it is Robert Spencer, one may be quite certain that he is). Especially when dealing at the political level, it’s best to assume that one is not necessarily receiving the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from anyone and everyone. However, individuals and institutions establish their credibility through consistency of word and deed, and by taking principled stances that are difficult and incur personal and professional costs. In other words, generalized skepticism is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean assuming that everyone is always lying, or surrendering the rational ability to readily discern who is more or less truthful and sincere, or who deserves and has earned the right to be taken seriously and who may be dismissed as a hack, flack or wacko. Successfully making these distinctions is at the very core of any kind of effective civic and political engagement, and everyone is properly always judging everyone else on these bases.

What Robert Spencer (ironically by lying) and his colleagues are trying to do is to foreclose any possibility for anyone in or from the Muslim American community from developing such credibility and to insist that we are all, no matter what we say and especially if our views are reasonable, moderate and constructive, quite possibly or even probably lying because Islam tells us to do so. This ghastly idea has built steam in certain quarters in the United States over the past few years and needs to be more thoroughly rebutted by scholars and experts in the field. Simply put the Islamophobes, by accusing Muslims, even the radicals, of having a doctrine that religiously encourages systematic deception, are themselves lying. It is a core element of a shameless campaign to prevent the Muslim American community from building a thriving, successful and fully-engaged life in our own country.