Monthly Archives: October 2009

How to identify Islamophobia: Larry David, Danish cartoons, Rushdie, Hitchens and South Park

I hate to mention them twice in a row, and I really have no intention of picking on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), but I noted their recent statement expressing outrage at a new episode of Larry David’s occasionally brilliant HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which David is apparently depicted as inadvertently urinating on a painting of Jesus. The Christian American right is up in arms, as always (remember the whole Andres Serrano "Piss Christ" flap from the late 80s?), but why would the Muslim American right want to join them in this?

Well, for one thing, it gives them an opportunity to reinforce the little understood veneration for Jesus, although not as God or the "son of God," Muslims share with Christians but not with Jews, atheists or agnostics. So it’s an opportunity to show solidarity with the majority community over an issue of apparent sensitivity, and an understandable act of political opportunism that probably also reflects genuine Muslim religious sensitivities.

But there might be something somewhat more troubling at work here: that is a sense shared by both Catholic and other Christian extremists and the Muslim right that there ought to be a special zone of protection for religion and religious ideas in the public discourse in which satire, blasphemy and harsh criticism, even if it is in good faith, of religious ideas cherished by millions is simply out of bounds even in societies that cherish free speech and are constitutionally secular. The Organization of Islamic Conference is even trying to push this horrible idea, under the guise of a ban against religious "defamation," at the international level, presenting a vote at the UN General Assembly for November.

On his blog at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that had Larry David inadvertently urinated on the Quran In his program rather than a painting of Jesus, he would be facing threats of violence rather than expressions of outrage. Internationally, there’s some evidence for that, but thankfully here in the United States no one has ever reacted violently (as far as I can tell) to satire or blasphemy aimed at Islam. But there have been plenty of misguided efforts to equate such perfectly legitimate if provocative and even outrageous speech, satire and blasphemy with genuine Islamophobia, which I believe is a very serious intellectual and political error.

Opposing efforts to stigmatize and spread fear and hatred of entire communities and promote bigotry and even violence is essential, and has been a major part of my own life’s work. Adopting, on the other hand, a puritanical, humorless, oversensitive and anti-intellectual attitude serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever, and can only stigmatize and undermine efforts to combat real hate speech. Moreover, the censorious position is almost always the losing one in the American context: one can demand and battle for fairness and against stigmatization, defamation and hate speech; but one cannot legitimately or successfully demand and battle for the right not to be offended, provoked or angered. This is a very important distinction that I think has eluded much of the Muslim and Arab-American communities to date, in which I think needs to be the centerpiece of any successful campaign to combat the Islamophobic and anti-Arab racist discourses that have become the biggest single problem our communities face in the United States.

There is an all-important consideration for those who would oppose Islamophobia with honor and with effect: it is vital to accept and put into practice a distinction between combating Islamophobia as a form of anti-Muslim hate-speech designed to promote intolerance and bigotry (which is a threat that must be answered in the strongest possible terms) and responding, for those who care do so, to serious if critical engagements with Islamic texts, doctrines and practices (which constitute perfectly legitimate interventions in public discourse).

To take an obvious case in point, Rushdie’s brilliant novel The Satanic Verses (Viking Press, 1988), which does engage in a kind of satire (although not a blasphemous one) of early Islamic history re-created in the mind of a degenerating mental patient, is not in any sense Islamophobic, nor would it have been even if it had been a blasphemous satire. Expecting all representations to be respectful is both unrealistic and inconsistent with free speech and free inquiry. Moreover, Ayatollah Khomeini’s outrageous and criminal “fatwa” against Rushdie and all connected with the novel was much more a source of, than a response to, Islamophobia. It was a cynical and opportunistic effort by a politician who had been mercilessly lampooned by a satirical novelist to both take advantage of a misguided firestorm of criticism against the novel to establish and extend his authority as a political and religious leader amongst those resentful of the West — particularly beyond his more typically Shiite constituency — and to take personal revenge for the marvelous and biting caricature of his own personality in Rushdie’s novel.

It still stands as perhaps the most repulsive, unjustifiable and inadmissible abuse of the natural impulse on the part of many devout Muslims to assertively respond to perceived Western denigration of Islam. Similar cynical efforts by political forces in the Islamic world to use the Danish cartoon scandal for political purposes are another important example of the abuse of these sentiments. Protests coordinated, if not manufactured, by the Syrian and Iranian governments against the cartoons were clearly intended to promote their “Islamic credentials” while antigovernment forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India similarly manipulated crowds and mobs in an effort to channel outrage to their own political purposes. It is imperative that those who would critique and resist Islamophobic discourse categorically oppose the misapplication of this term to respectable speech like The Satanic Verses and the cynical political manipulation of defensive populist sentiment among Muslims in both that case and the Danish cartoon issue.

A television cartoon satire such as South Park, which has mercilessly lampooned all major American religions on a routine basis, cannot be described in any meaningful sense as Islamophobic since it does not single out Islam or Muslims for any particular vilification, and therefore will not complicate or compromise the ability of Muslim Americans or the Muslim-American community to build a healthy, productive and fully-realized life in the United States. The same can be said of generalized critiques of religion such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: how religion poisons everything (Twelve Books, 2007), which subjects Islam to the same rationalist and skeptical interrogation as other major religions such as Christianity and Judaism. (Bill Maher’s terrible film Religiulous could be argued to have crossed the line, however, by being insufficiently fair, or rather quite detectably biased, in its framing of the relative problems facing various faith traditions and, as a fellow agnostic, I couldn’t imagine a worse advertisement for my own persuasion — so even in the world of satire and rationalism it is entirely possible to cross the line).

However, one cannot object to The Satanic Verses, South Park or God is Not Great without essentially holding that satire or rationalist critique of religions are impermissible. Opponents of Islamophobia, if they seek to be socially or politically effective and intellectually defensible, cannot allow themselves to adopt such an oppressive, censorious and ultimately inadmissible position. On principle they should not be inclined to try to suppress, or even denounce as repugnant, perfectly legitimate, albeit challenging or disrespectful, speech. These distinctions are more manageable in practice than they might first appear in theory.

To return to the Danish cartoons scandal, which originated outside the United States but had a major cultural impact regarding the discourse about Islamophobia in this country, the Jyllands-Posten images were essentially a mixed bag. Some of them were deeply offensive, portraying profoundly racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners and reflecting a very crude form of bigotry against Arabs and Muslims that can only serve to stigmatize the vulnerable Muslim communities now growing in countries like Denmark. Others are merely stupid. A few were actually interesting. In other words, some qualify as genuinely Islamophobic and others do not, and one ought to be willing to judge them each on their own merit and qualities.

To demonstrate how such distinctions might be made in practice, it’s worth considering a number of these cartoons individually. First, however, it is necessary to reassert that simply representing the image of the Prophet Mohammed is neither Islamophobic nor inimical to all forms of Islam. While Islam in the Arab world has generally considered representations of Mohammed to be unacceptable, lest it lead to heretical idolatry, this has not been the case in many other parts of the Muslim world. (And, one can argue that this prohibition of graphic representations of the image of the Prophet has actually resulted in more rather than less idolatry and fetishism of this mortal personage in practice, and therefore has had the opposite of its supposed intended effect).

As Wijdan Ali has pointed out, “There were many illustrations of the Prophet in early Mongol manuscripts from the Ilkhanid Dynasty down to the Ottoman period.” (see: Ali, Wijdan, “From the Literal to be Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammed’s Portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid Miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman Art,” EJOS, IV (2001).) Ali notes that while a majority of Muslims consider figurative images of the Prophet to be “a taboo,” and a minority even rejects figurative representation of all kinds, nonetheless there are important traditions in the Islamic world of representations of Mohammed. Therefore, the mere act of representation itself, while it is considered by many Muslims to be a taboo, is not even outside of the scope of the range of Muslim traditions, let alone conceivably by definition a form of Islamophobia.

As to the the Jyllands-Posten images (for those who can bear to look at them, and I strongly encourage you to do so, so that we all know exactly what we’re talking about, click here [I don't endorse anything at all about that page, its just a readily available archive of the 12 images in question]).

Some are plainly Islamophobic or anti-Arab by any reasonable standards. One features Mohammed with a halo that forms a pair of diabolical horns, clearly suggesting a link between Islam and demonic forces. Another is an image of Mohammed wearing a turban that that is also a bomb with a lit fuse, creating a generalized connection between Islam as a religion and terrorism that is a hallmark of almost all forms of contemporary Islamophobic discourse.

Most patently offensive of all, one cartoon depicts Mohammed as a stereotypical Arab male holding a gigantic dagger with two fully veiled women standing behind him peering out from their eye holes. A black strip of similar size covers his own eyes, creating an ironic symmetry between three figures. This cartoon combines many of the most damaging stereotypes in the Islamophobic canon. First, the caricature is less of Mohammed himself then it is a generalized racist portrayal of a generic “Arab male” with his requisite angry expression, violent countenance, beard, turban and dagger. Moreover, he is blinded by his own innate sexism and rage. It is an image that stigmatizes entire ethnic and religious groupings, and not a historical figure as such. Second, it reproduces the most negative stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women, featuring them as fully veiled, silent, in the background, and implicitly subject to polygamy. This image, taken overall, says virtually nothing about Mohammed as a figure, but rather is a fairly standard reproduction of the crudest forms of anti-Arab and Islamophobic caricature that can only have the effect of reflecting negatively upon large groups of living people.

Other images in the group are borderline, in which a case could be made that they have crossed some line, but are also plausibly defensible. The best example of this among the cartoons is an image in which an idealized, and rather benign, version of “the Prophet” is greeting a long line of suicide bombers arriving at the clouds of heaven with the disappointing news that, “stop, stop, we ran out of virgins.” The case could be made that this image links Islam and terrorism in an unfair manner, and many people have taken it that way.

However, the case could also be made that this is not in fact a satire against Mohammed or Islam in general (that is to say, mainstream Islam) – which in itself would not necessarily be Islamophobic – but rather a satire of the belief by some extremists that this kind of heavenly reward awaits those who would sacrifice themselves in some kind of misguided holy war. This obviously would not be about mainstream Islam, which makes no such claim, but rather the perceptions of extremists. The “joke,” such as it is, seems to be mostly about the large number of individuals, at the time of its publication fully on display during the Iraq conflict, who were willing to become suicide bombers (for the most part killing other Arabs and Muslims) for the most misguided reasons. In other words, it is entirely possible to read the message of this cartoon as, “suicide bombers, whatever they think they are pursuing, are certainly going to be disappointed."

Reader response is particularly crucial in the effect that this cartoon is likely to have on its audience: some may take it as reinforcing unfair negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in general, while some may understand it as lampooning an extremist fringe that is by all means fair game on these grounds. In the case of borderline speech, the default certainly ought to be sympathetic, and the burden of proof has to be on claims of Islamophobia. In order to be truly damaging, and hence truly objectionable, phobic speech cannot be multivalent, ambiguous or subtle, and objections ought to be reserved for what is obviously outrageous.

Some other images printed in the newspaper do not seem to be offensive in any meaningful sense. One of these simply shows a bearded man, presumably Mohammed, in what is presumably meant to be 7th-century Arabian garb, leading a donkey bearing goods through a desert landscape. Other than the observations that Mohammed was a man, and a man of his time, (neither of which any Muslims would disagree with) or the simple act of representing him, there does not seem to be any other clear message in this cartoon. Another shows an image of a bearded man with a turban with a crescent moon forming one side of his jaw and a star forming one of his eyes; a conflation of an image of Mohammed with the traditional “crescent and star” image often adopted by Muslim institutions. It is difficult to see any serious problem with that, silly and pointless though it plainly is.

Perhaps the most interesting image of them all shows a young, vaguely Middle Eastern looking man (without beard or turban) wearing jeans and a soccer jersey pointing at a blackboard, with the Danish words “Mohammed the Schoolboy, 7A” written next to the figure. The cartoonist, Lars Refn, appears to have played a double-joke on the newspaper, as the words written on the blackboard in Farsi have been widely translated to read “Jyllands-Posten journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” In other words, Refn seems to have been using the opportunity to mock the intentions of the newspaper while at the same time participating in its page caricaturing Mohammed. The joke in his cartoon, if any, is plainly at the expense of Jyllands-Posten, and not anyone else.

As this brief review of some of the different elements in the usually casually lumped-together “Danish Mohammed cartoons” demonstrates, it is not only possible, but necessary to carefully consider the specific elements of any instance of speech to determine whether or not it has Islamophobic characteristics – even if some of its elements, or, in the case of representations of Mohammed, its very existence – makes some Muslims uncomfortable. Moreover, perhaps the most Islamophobic, or at least prejudiced and deeply damaging, aspect of the whole “Danish cartoons” controversy was the assumption, common on both or many sides of the issue, that the rioters who violently objected to the publication of the cartoons somehow spoke for “the Muslims” of the world or were expressing some kind of majority sentiment.

Another important example of what might make some Muslims uncomfortable but which cannot be considered in any way Islamophobic is scholarship that examines early Islamic texts with a critical eye towards developing secular knowledge about the codification of the Quran, Hadith, etc., even when proven to be erroneous. Books and articles critiquing some doctrines that really are believed in by many Muslims regarding, for example, the status of women in society, or various indefensible practices in some Muslim societies, are not, in most cases, Islamophobic. All of these are legitimate, respectable commentary, and the best way to engage them is to subject them to serious scrutiny and nuanced debate.

It ought to be entirely possible, even though the task is subjective and value-laden, to generally distinguish between expressions designed to investigate, study and challenge, or even lampoon, Islam and the attitudes and behavior of Muslims one the one hand, and those that egregiously seek to denigrate them in order to promote fear and hatred on the other. Similar judgments are made all the time about commentary and public interventions regarding other racial, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities. Of course there will always be differences of opinion, but more often than not agreement and a consensus position among those of good will who are committed to both tolerance and free speech can be found. It is not that difficult, once the distinction is accepted on all sides, to distinguish between speech that is intended or inevitably will have the effect of being hateful and malevolent versus speech that is within the bounds of respectable discourse, even if it is offensive to some.

In holding people to account for Islamophobia, one cannot imply that others must always be nice or speak well of to Islam and the Muslims. It cannot mean that some or even many people should never be disturbed or offended by speech, or that speech cannot be provocative and challenging. Those who would challenge Islamophobia, cannot come across as calling for the de facto censorship of speech some find disturbing or offensive. In the United States, a censorious position is, and should be, the losing position. In addition, recent experiences with speech codes and other forms of censorship suggest that any restrictions on free speech will be enforced first on the powerless and marginal and not on dominant forms of discourse emerging from the mainstream even if they are reckless, irresponsible and indefensible. Efforts by some feminists to restrict certain forms of pornography in recent decades in the United States and Canada illustrate both points decisively.

Obviously, in a free society and in light of the first amendment, there will be forms of speech that many Muslim-Americans don’t like that will have to be tolerated and cannot automatically or accurately be called “Islamophobic” if the term is to have any effective political meaning in our society. There will be blasphemy, satire, apostasy, challenges to the tenets of the faith or aspects of collective or individual Muslim behavior from commentators, politicians, scholars, adherents of other religions, secularists and others. Unless these cross some narrowly defined red lines, such speech should be challenged and rebutted by those who disagree with or disapprove of it, but not be denounced as bigoted or stigmatized as incompatible with basic standards of decency in public discourse.

The new book “Muslim Mafia” is a bigoted, ridiculous waste of time

The recent death of Irving Kristol prompted me to go back and read a probably inordinate pile of of material produced by the so-called New York intellectuals, including several of them who later became the original neoconservatives. Tracking the transformation over four or five decades of extremely intelligent people from the far left to the center and then, in some cases, to the extreme right, is extremely interesting, and I have to say engaging and entertaining, although not, it should be quickly added, in the least bit convincing. Most of these people seem to have confused being cutting edge with being extreme, meaning that they lurched from one madcap position to another like an 18-wheeler with four flats going at 85 down a lonely highway. I was just finishing Norman Podhoretz’s hilariously self-serving and disingenuous memoir "Breaking Ranks," which is a chronicle of his abandonment of all his previous principles for both ideological and pecuniary reasons, when what should arrive in the mail but the new book attacking the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), "Muslim Mafia." I was dragged therefore from one end of the right-wing spectrum — the insufferable but unquestionably brilliant New York intellectuals who became neoconservatives — to the militantly stupid and breathless hysterics of the Glenn Beck-paranoid right.

Holding the book gingerly between thumb and forefinger with one hand, and my nose with the other (turning the pages proved slightly awkward under the circumstances, and elbows aren’t well designed for this process — trust me) I made my way wearily but quickly (there is no other way to read this thing) through its turgid, overwrought and wretched prose. The bottom line is that for all of its self-congratulatory hyperbole, after months of ad hoc spying on CAIR, taking every piece of information it could gather in the worst possible light and apparently stealing a small mountain of documents (none of this probably illegal, mind you) the authors have come up with absolutely nothing new or interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a more prodigious waste of time, not so much for the reader who can traverse its pages in an hour or two without missing an all too predictable beat, but more for the people who actually put it together. Their ballyhooed "infiltration" of what they, with typical subtlety, call "the belly of the beast" resulted in absolutely nothing new for a well-informed reader to learn.

It’s not that CAIR doesn’t have problems. Anyone who follows the Washington scene will know that the government has been in fact refusing to deal with it long before the formal break in contacts that was announced to a congressional group about a year ago, and that it has been many years since most NGOs (the ACLU and some other Muslim groups being notable exceptions) would have much to do with it either. The authors of "Muslim Mafia" are entirely wrong, of course, when they suggest that the emergence of the Obama administration is heralding a reversal of this relationship; in fact, since the administration is trying to retool their relationship with the entire Muslim world and secure peace in the Middle East, the stakes for all Arab and Muslim Americans are actually higher than they were under the Bush administration, and subsequently the scrutiny even greater and existing problems intensified rather than ameliorated.

There is no need for me here to regurgitate what issues plague that organization. They know what they are, and so does anyone else who follows these issues even casually. And, of course, every single one of them is given enormous shrift in "Muslim Mafia," as if the authors had somehow discovered any of this themselves or were telling any of us who pay attention anything we haven’t heard before.

But really, it is extraordinary that six months of "infiltration and undercover work" in the "belly of the beast" involving the theft of a small mountain of documents would have uncovered precisely… nothing! Or at least nothing that wasn’t already common knowledge among those who follow these things to any extent whatsoever. It’s extremely interesting in that what this really suggests, in fact, is that there isn’t anything left to be discovered. If all of this effort produced nothing but a regurgitation of well-known complaints and issues regarding CAIR, whether any of them are well-founded or not, what this strongly implies that there isn’t anything more to be learned. Not only did these people waste their time, apparently they have demonstrated that the long-standing concerns about the organization, and especially its prehistory, that have been circulating in Washington for many, many years is about all there is to it.

This doesn’t exactly help CAIR resolve those issues, and until they do they really won’t be able to serve the Muslim American community in the manner the community desperately requires, but it does suggest that there isn’t anything deeper at work, which in a roundabout and counterintuitive manner may actually help them in the long run. As I have said many times in the past, if one must have enemies, is best that they be as unhinged as possible. In this case, CAIR has been blessed with the wackiest, most unhinged accusers imaginable with unimpeachably bigoted and overtly malicious motivations. In the end, CAIR is going to have to deal with the real problems and the genuine historical and political baggage that is, as a practical matter, presently crippling the organization’s efforts to represent the Muslim American community. But as long as those limited, specific and serious issues remain buried under a mountain of breathless, feverish nonsense, outlandish hyperbole and outrageous exaggeration and even fabrications from dyed in the wool bigots and Islamomophobes, the more they can brush all concerns aside as nothing but a shameless attack on an entire community.

This book purports to be dealing in facts, and the real, verifiable facts in it are either well-established long ago or completely banal and almost entirely without interest. The recent flap by a tiny group of brain-dead Republican members of Congress about CAIR’s "nefarious plot" to secure congressional internships for young Muslims is a perfect case in point. If the authors of this book and their friends wanted to make themselves look completely ridiculous, they succeeded admirably. They variously complain about American Muslims voting, lobbying, serving in government, volunteering to assist law enforcement, and lots of other all-American activities which are not only the right but also the responsibility of all Americans. Again, whatever its intentions, in certain aspects, and largely because of the obvious paranoia and hysteria behind it, it discredits itself so thoroughly that it actually does CAIR a favor. I’m not saying the organization wouldn’t have been better off if this ridiculous book hadn’t been written, but I am saying that the whole thing is so idiotic that I’m not sure which of the two parties — the authors or the targets — is more badly damaged by it.

And what of the authors? Well, CAIR and many others have gone into some detail on the extreme Islamophobia of the co-author of the book and father of the "infiltrator," the hitherto unheard of David Gaubatz and his affiliated group SANE which wants to actually outlaw Islam in the United States and is about as openly racist and prejudiced as any collection of yahoos one is likely to come across in any part of our fruited plains. So, no need to retrace those accusations here.

They and others have also delved into the unsavory mindset of the book’s publisher, WorldNetDaily.com, run by the Arab-American evangelical charlatan Joe Farah, whose repulsive website and other publications are chockablock with "end-times" balderdash and is, among so many other outlandish things, the headquarters of the "birther" movement which bizarrely insists that Pres. Obama was not born in Hawaii but somewhere else, and is therefore not qualified to be president! Obviously, the pedigree of this tome couldn’t be less edifying or reassuring. It is what it at first glance appears to be: the product of a gang of bigots and hysterics, which isn’t to say that nothing in the book is true, but rather is to say that you can’t take their word for anything in it because they are wackos and fruitcakes. And they didn’t actually discover anything new, so the whole thing was a colossal waste of time.

One is, unfortunately, much better acquainted with the other co-author, Paul Sperry, a former staffer at one of the most shamelessly racist publications in the United States, the unrelentingly bigoted, mean-spirited and oddball rag, Investors Business Daily. He is best known for his earlier work, "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives have Penetrated Washington" (Nelson Current, 2005). Of all of the Islamophobes outside of the blogosphere, I don’t think there’s any question that Sperry is the most reckless, mean-spirited and McCarthyite of the bunch. "Infiltration" accuses every single Arab and Muslim American who had any prominence in Washington at the time, including stalwart Republican Bush supporters in the administration, of being Islamists, "Islamofascists," and, as the title says, infiltrators. The man’s work is nothing less than a regurgitation of the most hysterical anti-Semitism, redirected towards Arabs and Muslim, seeing disloyalty and treason as an inherent characteristic of anyone from the Arab or Muslim communities.

Sperry claimed at the time to be writing a book that is not hostile to Islam and that he likes and respects many Muslims, however his unbridled hostility to the faith is fully evident from his reply to the question he poses, “is Islam really one of the fastest-growing religions in America?” his answer being: “afraid so.” In "Muslim Mafia," he seems to reverse this position in a strange and incoherent manner (consistent with his entire approach to reality). Early on in his first book, he warns against "those trying to mainstream Islam" in the United States. Sperry even objects to a efforts to protect basic religious accommodation for Muslims in workplaces and the like as provided by the Constitution, a position that makes him stand out even among the most virulent Islamophobes in his hostility to Muslim Americans as such, an opposition continued in "Muslim Mafia." He describes all requests for constitutionally-mandated religious accommodation as unreasonable “demands” from a “cultural fifth column.” Drawing largely upon inference, guilt by association and suggestive implications typically free of evidence, Sperry sought to indict virtually every Muslim American individual and organization active in Washington as “Muslim subversives and fellow travelers.”

Essentially Sperry offers a conspiracy theory that holds that:
Islamists with covert agendas have permeated every layer of American society — from classrooms and military bases to city councils and Congress and… they are slowly and assiduously manipulating an open an ever-tolerant society to try to transform the U.S. into an Islamic state.

Sperry relies not only on insinuation and guilt by association, but on classic Islamophobia of such as “the Muslim art of telling ‘white lies’ to defend the faith and further the cause of Allah, as instructed in the hadiths.” Sperry accuses “orthodox Muslims” of not considering Jewish and Christian civilians to be “necessarily innocent,” a calumny very similar to the notion that Muslims believe non-Muslims can be killed at random. He claims that “many Muslim-American leaders” hide the fact that in their Friday sermons “more often than not [they] advocate violence against Jews, Christians and the West.” To be sure there are some extremist mosques, but the idea that there are “many Muslim-American leaders” preaching violence against the United States in their sermons is absurd. Sperry is also one of those who feels the need to interpret Islam in the most radical manner possible, accusing the mainstream of “sugarcoating” concepts such as jihad by emphasizing a nonviolent interpretation of the doctrine. He argues that the Quran “not only condones violence, but commands it.” There is some truth in this, of course, but it’s not any more applicable to the Quran than the Bible (thus far I have resisted the temptation to get into the details of violence, some of the genocidal, mandated in the Bible, but suffice it to say the Quran simply cannot compete on that score), or to the main holy books of any of the world’s major religions for that matter, all of which include passages that can and have been used to justify both the very best and the absolute worst in human behavior.

His list of the “top 10 myths of Islam” reads like a primer of Islamophobic defamation:
• Islam is a religion of peace
• Jihad means inner struggle against sin
• Terrorism does not come from Islam 
• Allah is the same God of the Bible
• The Quran teaches tolerance of other religions
• Osama bin Ladin has hijacked Islam and distorts its teachings
• Islam is compatible with Western-style democracy 
• Those virgins? They are really raisins 
• Poverty and oppression motivate the terrorists
• The Quran does not encourage self-immolation

Obviously, since he believes that Islam is not and cannot in any legitimate form be peaceful, promotes terrorism, is intolerant and incompatible with democracy, that bin Laden is, as he puts it, “a model Muslim,” and that Muslims are authorized by their religion to systematically lie to all nonbelievers, Sperry is terrified at the spectacle of any Muslim American whomsoever attaining any position of trust or influence in Washington. Even professions of unqualified support for Israel, which might mollify most pro-Israel and even some evangelical Islamophobes, would apparently not be sufficient for Paul Sperry. Given the model he constructs, there can be no such thing as a loyal or trustworthy Muslim American of any stripe, and his shamelessly bigoted arguments all proceed on the basis of that assumption.

Sperry frets in his 2005 book about the prospect of any Muslim-American being elected to Congress, anticipating perhaps the election of Keith Ellison and Andre Carson:
Muslim members would have unfettered access to top secret US intelligence without undergoing any FBI background checks. Unlike their staffs and other federal employees, members of Congress are elected and therefore exempt from such investigations (although they must file financial disclosure papers). And unlike the president, they would not have to be US-born. Hypothetically, a young Jihadist from Saudi Arabia who has been a citizen of the US to seven years could get elected to the house, get appointed to a committee responsible for homeland security, and feed critical counterterrorism intelligence back to Al Qaida. It is not far-fetched.

Not only is it far-fetched, it’s downright preposterous, and indeed laughable. But this attitude is inevitable given Sperry’s uncompromising suspicion of anyone and everyone with any sort of Muslim connection whatsoever. In fact, Sperry is not only suspicious but condemnatory of every Muslim in America, and approvingly quotes a former FBI agent as saying that “virtually every Muslim in America supports terrorism in one way or another."

Sperry not only denounced all prominent Washington Muslims, but also all non-Muslim Republicans and Democrats who have maintained a decent working relationship with the Muslim community. For example, along with upbraiding numerous members of Congress, Sperry viciously attacked famed conservative activist Grover Norquist for supposedly engaging in a “political jihad for Muslim rights.” In a particularly revolting and underhanded passage, observes that Norquist’s marriage to a Palestinian American woman, “gives literal meaning to the notion that Norquist is in bed with Islamists.” How clever. Typically, Sperry provides not a shred of evidence about her beliefs or activities (I can vouch for the fact that she is both a fine woman and a loyal American), but in Islamophobic discourse anyone from the Muslim American community can be simply labeled an “Islamist” no matter what they actually think or do (as I too have been, on countless occasions). Sperry’s agenda is all-too-obvious, and it embodies the fundamental essence of contemporary American Islamophobia: to keep any and all Muslim-Americans as far away from political empowerment, engagement, and serious contribution to the American political scene as possible.

I was delighted to see my friend Suhail Khan, a conservative Republican and former Bush administration official, who was the subject of vicious Islamophobic attacks while in office, including in Sperry’s first revolting book and again in his new hate speech manifesto, appearing on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC the other day calmly and with typical dignity explaining that these people are nothing but a bunch of racists and religious bigots and determined to attack the Muslim American community without restraint or the least regard for the truth.

"Muslim Mafia" is an embarrassment to its authors, its publishers and all who have praised it. It will be one of the many examples of contemporary Islamophobia that will be remembered with shame and national discomfort when our latest fad of prejudice and bigotry (this time aimed at Muslim Americans) becomes, as previous eruptions of irrational hatred against minority communities have, seen as simply another chapter in the story of our country overcoming the irrational fear and prejudice against a new immigrant community striving to find its place in the mainstream of American society and culture.

The “flying imams” and the free-floating paranoid style in contemporary American Islamophobia

It is extremely good news that there has been an out-of-court settlement essentially vindicating the claims of discrimination by the six imams who, in a particularly notorious incident, were removed from a US Airways flight in Minneapolis on Nov. 20, 2006 following overwrought complaints by fellow passengers. Even more egregiously, after being detained, interrogated and cleared by the authorities, the next morning they were denied passage on another US Airways flight and had to go to another airline entirely to complete their travel. According to the terms of the settlement, the Minneapolis Metro Airport Commission, US Airways, and perhaps also the FBI, will be paying the clerics an undisclosed sum in compensation for this notorious incident of discrimination.

This result was almost inevitable once federal Judge Ann Montgomery in July dismissed a summary judgment motion from the Airport Commission and allowed the suit to go forward. As soon as the defendants couldn’t argue that their discriminatory acts were immune from legal challenge, a settlement was virtually assured.

This case is noteworthy beyond its specific details because it’s an excellent example of a particularly neurotic form of post-9/11 Islamophobia, which can be described as is the affect of free-floating paranoia attaching itself randomly to people perceived to be Arabs and/or Muslims in various different situations, prompting suspicions that remain active even when the situation is entirely resolved by the authorities. This paranoia then translates into demands for profiling. But, precisely because it is so amorphous, subjective and based upon almost Rashomon-like discrepancies in perception, it is a particularly slippery social and cultural manifestation of Islamophobia to define, track, analyze and, except in the form of specific individual lawsuits and complaints, combat in a more generalized manner that exposes the underlying patterns and cultural attitudes that inform such cases.

In the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, precisely this kind of free-floating paranoia led to the removal of over 80 people – many of them with no connection to the Middle East or the Arab world but all of them with dark complexions – from airline flights based on the suspicions of fellow passengers or crew members until the FAA itself cracked down on  the practice by suing airlines that engaged in it. Yet comparable incidents continue to persist to this day, although at a much lesser rate than they did in the immediate post-9/11 period.

The Minneapolis "flying imams" case is probably the most notorious instance of this kind of free-floating paranoia resulting in discriminatory abuses. The facts of the case were hotly disputed. The imams claim they were merely praying in the waiting lounge before boarding the flight. Their accusers, mainly unnamed fellow passengers, accused them of praising Saddam Hussein, criticizing the United States, chanting Allah loudly in Arabic, exchanging seats for no reason, requesting seatbelt extenders (supposedly for no reason and without using them, the implication being that they were potential weapons) and, most implausibly, of mimicking the “9/11 hijackers’ seating patterns" (whatever that means).

Certainly, it is possible that a mix-up and misunderstanding occurred in that boarding area, and that passengers, airline personnel and the authorities misunderstood or overreacted to the men’s behavior, some of which could possibly have been unintentionally unnerving to skittish non-Muslim-Americans in the post-9/11 environment. It is further conceivable that all or at least most of the parties involved were acting in good faith and were caught up in a concatenation of circumstances in which events took on a life of their own and spiraled out of anyone’s control. This view is consistent with the government’s assertion that, while the airline and ground crews acted properly in removing the men from the aircraft and alerting the authorities, the subsequent investigation revealed no evidence to sustain any suspicions against the imams.

However, Judge Montgomery, following a thorough examination of the evidence, found all of these allegations to be baseless and ruled that that:
Unquestionably the events of 9/11 changed the calculus in the balance American society chooses to make, especially in airport settings, between liberty and security. Ultimately, the proper balance will be achieved, in large part, because we have the most capable and diligent law enforcement and intelligence communities in the world. But when a law enforcement officer exercises the power of the Sovereign over its citizens, she or he has a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the Constitution and cannot raise the specter of 9/11 as an absolute exception to that responsibility. On the record before the Court, no reasonable officer could have believed they could arrest Plaintiffs without probable cause. The right that was violated is clearly established, and, thus, the MAC Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on the unreasonable seizure claim.

In other words, in hindsight it’s obvious that not only the passengers but also the authorities plainly overreacted, and as a consequence the imams were unreasonably and unlawfully discriminated against (hence the settlement following almost immediately upon this ruling).

The broader significance of this case comes from the passionate insistence of Islamophobic and pro-profiling commentators that, although there is no evidence for this whatsoever, there was nonetheless something sinister about the imams’ behavior, expressing precisely this trope of free-floating paranoia in contemporary American Islamophobia.

Author and blogger Richard Miniter, after speaking with one of the spooked passengers, concluded, “So what are the imams really up to? Something more than praying it seems.” What exactly that might have been, he was unable to say.

Profiling queen and ardent proponent of systematic discrimination Michelle Malkin described the event as an example of laudable “reality-based preemptive and precautionary measures to prevent the next 9/11,” as opposed to what it plainly was: an unfortunate mix-up in which some passengers were unnecessarily detained and interrogated, and ultimately discriminated against, by the cops and the airline, and other passengers frightened and unnerved for what proved to be no good reason.

Radio talk show host Mark Williams produced what may have been the most extreme reaction to the imbroglio, saying on Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes program that the imams “are one of two things. … They are either terrorists or they’re trying to cash in on the politically correct lottery,” and that “these people want us dead. … I don’t want this guy as my neighbor.” When asked if an Arabic speaking passenger should be thrown off the plane in midair, Williams’ response was: “Wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

Those who continued to condemn the imams as “a threat” in spite of their clearance by a thorough and even somewhat abusive investigation in which they were handcuffed and interrogated for hours, as well as denied service on subsequent flights, latched onto the fact that their discrimination lawsuit initially included as defendants certain unnamed “John Does” accused of filing false reports. This was interpreted by many uncharitable, if not simply Islamophobic, observers as a threat to security at airports because it would supposedly discourage people from reporting their concerns to the authorities at airports. This perspective does not stop to consider how falsely accused individuals can protect themselves without availing themselves of the usual protections against false accusation in civil court.

This criticism reached well beyond the usual sources of overt Islamophobia. USA Today, for example, editorialized:
Now the reward for being vigilant apparently includes being dragged into a lawsuit and accused of bigotry. The wry adage about how no good deed goes unpunished seems apt, though not so funny… the imams want to know the names of an elderly couple who turned around “to watch” and then made cellphone calls, presumably to authorities, as the men prayed.

The newspaper argued that, “Suing passengers who merely report such behavior threatens everyone’s ability to travel securely,” without ever stopping to ask whether Muslims praying at a terminal constitutes legitimate grounds for reporting “suspicious behavior.” The fact that all the suspicions proved to be unfounded does not seem to enter into USA Today‘s calculations. I fear that we will wait in vain for the newspaper to issue any kind of correction to its earlier unfounded accusations.

James Zumwalt opined in the New York Times that,
Some security experts suggest the imams’ conduct may have been intended to identify aviation security weaknesses. Their John Doe lawsuit tends to support this theory, as such a complaint can also serve to manipulate our legal system to silence those who might otherwise report suspicious activity.

Again, Zumwalt does not consider how innocent travelers could or should protect themselves otherwise from abuses by those who have filed false reports with the authorities. The strong presumption here is the guilt and not innocence of the imams, even in the face of no evidence against them at all, and an unwillingness to allow them to pursue the defense of their rights in a court of law. If their claims had no merit, presumably they could not expect to prevail, although in the event, of course, they now have. Again, I very much doubt that Zumwalt will be honorable enough to issue a correction or retraction given the Court’s ruling and the subsequent vindicating settlement.

These arguments joined those of the notorious Paul Sperry (more about him in an upcoming posting on the Ibishblog very soon), who in 2005 was already complaining about lawsuits filed by people who had been unlawfully removed from airplanes, as noted above. In 2005, Sperry denounced the government’s refusal to engage in crude forms of racial and religious profiling, writing
[this] means that terrorists may ultimately win. And they are getting a lot of help from Muslim activists, who are encouraging Muslim passengers to file discrimination complaints against the government and airlines.

Sadly, the outcome of the lawsuit will almost certainly prove largely irrelevant to its cultural and political impact, and the rhetoric with which it was greeted by numerous commentators. The "John Doe" aspects of the case were dropped following federal legislation protecting those who complain about "suspicious behavior" in public places such as airports, but the case against the authorities and the airline remained valid and ultimately has triumphed. if they had any sense of honor whatsoever, those who had persisted in raising suspicions against the clerics would have the decency to now acknowledge their mistakes, but I’m not holding my breath and neither should you.

Most commentary on the incident, thus far at any rate and there is little reason to believe that the vindication of the imams claims of unlawful discrimination are likely to change this, held that there was either a certainty or at least a reasonable possibility that they were "up to something" nefarious.

The queen of the genre of free-floating air travel paranoia, Annie Jacobsen (whose prodigious paranoia I will explain in more detail in a future Ibishblog posting for those not familiar with this relatively obscure and yet viciously insidious hysteric) insisted that in spite of the lack of evidence of any threat or malevolent intent from the imams: “The imams’ lawsuit is a decoy. Its aim is to locate security holes in the castle walls,” she confidently asserts. In this version of Islamophobia, these imams to must be, if not fully-fledged terrorists, as she writes, then at least “spies” for terrorist organizations seeking to uncover the weak spots in the American transportation security system.

The saddest part of the tale is that now that court proceedings have proven that all suspicions were unfounded and that the clerics were subject to an egregious case of unlawful discrimination and unbridled paranoid overreaction, it is extremely unlikely that the overall record will be corrected or that the public will be informed by the same sources that urged them to be suspicious that these suspicions have been demonstrated to have been entirely unfounded

In the world of free-floating Islamophobic paranoia, every Muslim ever suspected of being a threat, no matter how arbitrary the suspicion was and how thorough the exculpation proves, nonetheless always was and must forever remain a potential “terrorist threat.”

Can 100 flowers bloom among the Arab Americans?

The other day I was talking with Jim Zogby (a fairly unusual occurrence in and of itself), and he said of differing views, “let 1,000 flowers bloom.” “And 100 schools of thought contend,” I immediately replied (the actual phrase being, “bai hua qífàng, bai jia zhengmíng,” generally translated, “let 100 flowers bloom, and 100 schools of thought contend”). I then reminded him that this invitation in 1956 by Chairman Mao to the Chinese intelligentsia to criticize government policy and propose their own alternatives was, in effect, a trap designed to flush out any potential internal dissidents and that when the program was abruptly canceled in 1957, probably about half a million newly identified “rightists” were fired, imprisoned, tortured or killed. He dryly thanked me for “making his day” and ruining his favorite quotation. I suppose I could have ruined it even further by pointing out that among some Maoists, the image of 100 blooming flowers has served as a grim “black humor” metaphor of the crimson glory of mass executions as the government’s steel axe unceremoniously collides with the tender necks of hundreds of supposed potential dissidents. I decided I had already done enough damage to his mood and didn’t rub it in, but the whole exchange did get me thinking about the state of debate in both the Arab world and, more especially, the Arab-American community.

Grand generalizations are always a dangerous thing, and it’s almost unavoidable to be both reductive and simplistic in talking about attitudes towards a subject as vast as the concept of debate and engagement with ideas among a group as huge and diverse as the Arab-Americans, let alone the Arabs. But I do think there is a very clear pattern in our community here in the United States and in the Middle East as well that suggests that, at this point in our political and cultural history at least, and for whatever reason, the Arabs generally really do have a problem with debate. By debate I mean recognizing that there are multiple respectable, reasonable perspectives that intelligent, well-meaning people can adhere to that should be seriously considered and which should engage with each other in a public exercise designed to elucidate what these varying perspectives have to offer to illuminate our very challenging circumstances on multiple fronts. I mean taking ideas seriously and dealing with them as ideas. I do not know how this complex phenomenon plays out in other societies and among other peoples, and I’m not trying to stigmatize the Arabs or the Arab-Americans as somehow particularly resistant to critical thinking and the interplay of contending ideas, but it seems to me that this is a pronounced feature of our political culture and a debilitating liability of the first order of importance.

This process of debate is not, let me hasten to add, the same thing as factional disputes. Of those, we have plenty. What passes for debate, generally speaking, in the Arab world — for example on Al Jazeera and other Arabic language news channels — are mostly contradictory assertions, competing accusations, and more often than not shouting matches between people who refuse to consider the arguments of the other side on their own merits and instead either denounce the character and motivation of their opponents or appeal strictly to some kind of totally irrational and emotional response in the listeners based on religious or nationalist sentiment. In other words, we may think we have debates, but generally speaking we simply don’t. We have disputes and arguments and shouting matches. In few of these cases are large, meaningful ideas at the heart of the questions or is there really a mutually respectful exchange of views based on ideas. Instead, these televised disputes, not to glorify them with the lofty title of debate, generally simply oppose contending political positions, and not really ideas as such.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a paucity of critical thinking at work here, and a palpable discomfort with the idea that sincere, reasonable and intelligent people can come to very differing conclusions, many if not all of which have some merit, on the same problem and that the best way to deal with this diversity of perspective is to have a discussion in which people actually listen to each other and engage with those ideas. I don’t think it’s particularly unfair to suggest that there is a real absence of this approach to political and cultural ideas among the Arabs at the present moment. The tendency is not to listen critically and to engage but rather to judge ideas based on their supposed provenance, which immediately leads to the pigeonholing of people based on supposed political factions, orientations and whatnot (very frequently erroneous assumptions).

On many subjects, such as Palestine, Iraq, and other issues that are assumed to have national importance to the Arabs as a whole, there is also a hegemonic Narrative which includes not only concepts but also rhetorical formulae, the deviation from which tends to mark both the speaker and the idea as highly suspect if not automatically condemned. The hegemony of The Narrative, and the automatic and emotional resistance to deviations from it, is probably the strongest single factor in the relative absence of meaningful public debate and critical dialogue among the Arabs today, but I think the process extends to almost the entire spectrum of political, cultural, social and religious issues.

The box we are all living and thinking in is unbearably small, and yet the general tendency in our community here in the United States and in much of Middle Eastern societies is to feel more uncomfortable outside of the box than to remain trapped in the narrow but reassuringly familiar confines of this self-imposed dungeon of little ease. It’s even come to the point where people are happy to assert that in the United States, at least, the community is in fact, “not divided” in any meaningful sense on the most pressing issues it faces. Many on the Arab-American far-right and ultra-left deny that there is any split in the community at all. They claim, as radicals invariably will, to speak on behalf of virtually everyone and to suggest that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is simply a bad person motivated by greed, malice or perhaps even mental illness. Others who acknowledge that differences do exist bemoan the fact that there are such deep divisions in our community, and seem to think that any hegemonic orthodoxy, no matter how dysfunctional or removed from fundamental realities it may be, is preferable to division and debate.

Arab-American organizations and political orientations tend to construct and enforce echo chambers in which only approved ideas are given space and attention. During my time at ADC, it was only with the greatest difficulty and overcoming considerable opposition that I was able to occasionally introduce dissenting viewpoints into the panels that occasionally fell under my control at our conventions. This gesture wasn’t generally welcomed (in fact it was almost always heavily criticized), and it certainly hasn’t been continued since I left. I don’t mean to single that organization out, since I think this attitude is absolutely typical and ADC not in the least unusual or egregious in this regard. It’s not that real debates never, ever happen among Arab-Americans, it’s just extremely rare, and thus far at any rate generally unwelcome.

The echo chambers have become even more deafening with the technological innovations in communication in last 20 years, as first e-mail lists and now the new social media, above all Facebook, have created self-selecting, mutually re-enforcing communities of like-minded individuals who bombard each other with “information” that reinforces the conventional wisdom at play and excludes or excoriates any alternative perspective. Thus small factions can even more readily convince themselves that they are representatives of not only vast groupings that in most cases probably don’t exist, but also even to be speaking for the Arab-Americans or the Arabs as a whole (I can hardly describe the relief I felt at joining an organization, ATFP, which purports to speak for no one but its Board of Directors and those who voluntarily choose to affiliate with it — I don’t know what getting out of jail feels like, but there might be some vague similarity). The number of people who purport to speak on behalf of the entirety or at least the overwhelming majority of the Arabs, generally without exhibiting the slightest indication of how preposterous they sound to everyone else, is simply extraordinary. And, of course, everyone who disagrees with them is instantly accused of having bad intentions or ulterior motives.

Governments and other political factions in the Middle East do pretty much the same thing, suggesting that any major deviation from their own point of view is confined to a perverse and tiny minority with highly suspect motivations and no significant public support. It seems to me divisions among the Arabs and the Arab-Americans are pretty clear-cut, and thinking about the problem of a rather glaring lack of real debate and engagement at the level of ideas (as opposed to dispute and mutual recrimination) requires examining the broadest outlines of those divisions.

The Arabs and Arab-Americans are actually split into at least four major factions. First are those who support the governments, or at least one government, out of personal or professional loyalties or convictions, with or without acknowledging in public or in private that these governments are all illiberal and oppressive to one degree or another (not to mention, in many cases, downright incompetent). Second are those on the far religious right who support the large, organized opposition groups, which in all Arab countries now essentially consist of Islamist factions of varying stripes, mainly Muslim Brotherhood and similar Sunni salafist organizations or Shiite Khomeinite factions.

The last two groups are those caught in the middle: the liberals, leftists and reformers. Those Arabs and Arab-Americans who are unabashed in seeing the deficiencies of the current governments and leaderships are themselves split into two opposing camps. First are those that Marwan Muasher has correctly called “the Arab Center,” who seek and promote reform, secularism, liberalism and democratization, but with a keen eye to the even greater dangers posed to these values by Islamist opposition groups than by the illiberal governments themselves. The second are those, mainly on the left and ultra-left who are making what I strongly consider to be the dreadful mistake of imagining that championing, to one extent or another, the Islamist opposition, usually under the rubric of “the resistance,” is the most useful path to a better future in the Middle East.

While the actual struggle for power in the Arab world is taking place between the first two groups — the governments and the Islamist oppositions — the political and intellectual debate that matters in my view, or at least that should matter because it is the arena in which real ideas are actually on the table, is between the second two groups: those reformers who recognize that the religious ultra-right is even more dangerous than the illiberal governments versus those who imagine that charging wildly to the extreme right is somehow going to shift the cultural and political climate in the Middle East towards the center. History, I would note again in passing as I have many times before, is replete with examples of what happens to liberals and centrists, and their agendas, who make the mistake of siding with extreme left-wing or right-wing revolutionaries, most recently illustrated by events surrounding the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s.

In the Arab world, Islamists and their left-wing supporters are promoting a reading of the political situation that characterizes the present Middle East as the scene of a contest between “the martyrs,” i.e. the Islamist revolutionaries, versus “the traitors,” i.e. the existing governments. This discourse has the great danger of channeling understandable and often justified Arab popular anger at certain events, especially wars, into a programmatic corollary of action holding that the necessary corrective for the present unacceptable state of affairs is for “the martyrs” to defeat “the traitors,” seize power and begin to improve the situation (presumably by implementing radical-right wing Islamic policies domestically and, somewhat less plausibly, aggressive confrontationalist policies internationally).

In the United States, among the Arab-Americans this division in perspective is mirrored by a similar dispute between those who believe that our collective interests and agenda can be best pursued through a sincere and dedicated engagement with the government and the political system versus those who hold that the American system is irredeemably corrupt and corrupting, and/or completely closed to the Arab-American perspective. Of course, much of this dispute takes place on emotional rather than intellectual terms, and is often reduced to expressions of outrage on one side or the other. The tendency, especially on the ultra-left to deride centrists as “sellouts,” “collaborators,” or “traitors,” is particularly outrageous as it goes to motivations rather than ideas.

It might be argued that I have done the same thing myself, but in fact I haven’t, even though I have been very critical of some of the people I disagree with. When for example I recently, and I agree rather harshly, described Joseph Massad as a “crackpot” I was not talking about his personality, his motivations or his lifestyle. I was talking about the quality of his ideas, which I consider, with a great deal of evidence on my side, to be frankly bizarre. I think that crackpot is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the preposterous notion he shares with Glenn Beck that President Obama is a racist. I am extremely happy to harshly critique what I consider to be dangerous and even ridiculous ideas, which is in fact the essence of an open, honest debate, but I do not question other people’s motivations or character, which is the antithesis of that same exchange of ideas. It is extremely dangerous to equate or confuse a harsh attack on what one considers bad ideas with an attack on motivations or character. The former is what a real, serious debate looks like (even though it’s not always pretty), while the latter forecloses it entirely.

In a recent interview with me, a radio host began to talk about proponents of the one-state agenda for Israel and the Palestinians, of which I am a leading critic, as participating in some sort of “industry,” designed to advance their careers or accumulate wealth or status. I immediately interrupted him to insist that there is, in fact, no such “industry,” and that getting involved in these arguments on either side is no way to become rich or acquire any really valuable status (although I suppose demagoguery must have its satisfactions). However, it is commonplace for one-state proponents and others to make accusatory statements about a “peace process industry,” in which proponents of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state (which, as it happens, all polls and surveys demonstrate most Palestinians unquestionably want) are supposedly pursuing this agenda out of some kind of self-aggrandizing and avaricious pecuniary interest. Precisely this accusation was leveled by Arab-American ultra-leftists at no less than Mahmoud Darwish.

As a community, we desperately need to get over this phobia about divisions when there is, in fact, a great deal to be divided about, and many important issues that must be thrashed out, and about which no one has a monopoly of wisdom or a simple, self-evident answer. Ever since I started this blog I have been the recipient of a great deal of positive feedback, but I’ve also been bombarded with a smaller amount of extremely vitriolic criticism that almost never challenges the ideas I am discussing (although I do have a few very careful and penetrating readers who disagree with me thoroughly and have engaged respectfully, honestly and in the most helpful manner, and I value them enormously) and almost always engage in the most absurd ad hominem attacks questioning my motivations, my identity and my supposedly pecuniary interests in writing and arguing the positions that I have come to espouse. It must be very comforting to believe that one’s opponents take their positions simply in order to make money or for some other debased reason, but it’s obviously not true. No one has ever gotten rich off of engagement in the Arab American political scene, especially not by writing articles and maintaining blogs.

The fact that I published my last book in-house and provided it for free download on several websites I think plainly demonstrates the complete lack of interest in making a brass farthing out of the project, which I certainly won’t. I don’t believe for a second that any of the Arab-Americans on the extreme religious right or ultra-left with whom I disagree most frequently and vociferously are motivated by personal ambition or private greed either. I know many of them personally, in some cases exceptionally well, and I know them to be fundamentally honorable people who honestly believe what they’re saying and have come by their opinions honestly as well. We can’t have a debate if we don’t take each other’s ideas seriously and engage them no matter how harshly, instead simply assuming that people on the other side are all saying what they do because there is something wrong with their motivations or deeply deficient about their personalities.

The purpose of this blog from its outset was to engage in a critical conversation with my fellow Arab-Americans in order to broaden what has so far generally been, and unfortunately largely remains, an incredibly narrow discourse on the most important issues facing us as a community. We desperately need to have this debate in order to correct what have been manifestly ineffective approaches to politics and culture both in the Middle East and here in the United States. Obviously I don’t claim to have the answers, although I do have quite a bit of professional experience and some knowledge on which to base my views, but I do claim to have some new, or at least unorthodox, opinions and approaches on a number of crucial questions that are worth considering. The angry reaction from some quarters bespeaks a certain horror of debate, this feeling that there is an established Narrative that not only is, but must be, hegemonic and that deviation from this is a form of intolerable disloyalty bordering on the treasonous.

We have got to get over this widespread Arab and Arab American aversion to honestly held, sincere disagreements even about the most fundamental issues. The conventional wisdom among the Arab-Americans is that our biggest liability and the greatest obstacle to our political effectiveness both in the Middle East and in the United States is our supposed “disunity” (ironically, this disunity is often complained about by the people who, in the same breath, will assert that there are no fundamental divisions in the community on the most pressing issues, and that disunity is simply a function of personalities, parochial fiefdoms, and petty rivalries). When applied to the positions of the Arab states, which are certainly disunited, parochial and beset by rivalries, this has been and to some extent remains a perfectly valid criticism. But when it’s applied to civil society, especially among Arab-Americans in the United States, I think it is completely wrong. We suffer from the contrary debilitating symptom, which is the informal enforcement of a very rigid orthodoxy of attitudes and opinions, especially on the subject of Palestine, but also on a whole host of other issues, that essentially shuts down debate and stigmatizes critical thinking. Obviously, we’re just not used to this. But in our own interests, we’re going to have to learn.

Traditionally in our community, solidarity has been a one-way street flowing only from the political center towards the two extremes of the far-right and the ultra-left. Those days are over, and not a moment too soon. There are those who would argue that our community is “under siege” — which I consider to be a gross exaggeration, the serious ongoing post-9/11 problems notwithstanding (and I quite literally wrote the books on these problems) — and that we are therefore simply too vulnerable not to band together with as much solidarity as possible and to ignore our differences and disagreements or keep them discreetly reserved to very private occasions and forums. I think this is a dreadful mistake. It is a formula for paralysis, for groupthink, for cliché and for a lowest common denominator taqlid to always dominate our discourse, and for foreclosing the political ijtihad that will be required if we are to develop a richer, more sophisticated and ultimately more effective political culture.

I’d go so far as to call this aversion to freewheeling debate a phobic symptom, and I’d be the first to agree that the Arabs have come by this honestly given their political history and experiences over at least the past hundred years. But this is one instance in which enjoying our symptom is simply too costly, too debilitating, too disempowering. We are an exceptionally intelligent, well-educated and politically engaged community. We need to start acting like it. Welcoming and participating in a broad-ranging, critical, unabashed and robust internal set of debates on multiple issues must begin to become a regular feature of Arab-American civic and political life. If we continue to shun each other because of disagreements about fundamental ideas, or pretend that there aren’t any serious divisions in our community and in the Arab world, we are likely to continue to languish in the present unenviable situation in which we find ourselves both in the Middle East and here at home.

Abbas is absolutely right to call for long-overdue Palestinian elections

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was absolutely right to call for elections in January, and it is essential that these elections take place in both the West Bank and Gaza. These elections were agreed to by both the Fatah and Hamas in the Cairo negotiations that produced agreement on virtually nothing else. However, in the intervening months both parties have suffered great losses in public opinion for various reasons. This is no reason for refusing to go ahead with the elections, which are the only way to resolve the current impasse and crisis of leadership and legitimacy in the Palestinian society.

Hamas is opposed to elections no doubt because it fears it will lose them, or at least not do as well as it did in 2006. They should not be permitted to exercise any such veto. Hamas’ reluctance to submit to elections is a rather good example of the tendency among Islamists and other political extremists to be enthusiastic about “one man, one vote, one time,” especially once they have succeeded in winning an election, and, like all fundamentally undemocractic forces, are now tempted to simply sit on that victory forever.

Those who are obsessed with the idea of Palestinian national unity should be the first to welcome these elections. Functional cohabitation in government between two parties who disagree on absolutely everything from the national strategy on liberation to the character of Palestinian society proved impossible between 2006-2007 and led to a violent sundering.

A national reconciliation agreement that tries once again to smash the square peg of Hamas into the round hole of the PA is not likely to produce better results. Indeed, it could prove disastrous not only insofar as this kind of power-sharing can hardly work under conditions of such disagreement and when almost everything Hamas does is determined by its campaign to replace the PLO as the main Palestinian political organization, but also because it would probably lead once again to violence. Moreover, it would probably mean the sacrificing of both Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his program of building the Palestinian governing, infrastructural and administrative framework for an independent state, the importance of which simply cannot be overstated. National reconciliation has to be based on a minimal consensus in order to be functional, and right now, that simply doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, the Palestinians can or should accept the present situation of divided authority, divided legitimacy and political-geographical division between the West Bank and Gaza. There is an obvious solution to all of this: elections to determine the will of the majority of Palestinians and clarify the confused situation created by the election of Fatah’s candidate for president Mahmoud Abbas in 2005 and a parliamentary majority of candidates backed by Hamas in 2006. By calling presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time, Abbas also is giving the Palestinians a chance to speak their mind across the board, decisively and in one fell swoop. It is long overdue.

There’s no question that this is a politically bold and risky move for the Palestinian president. Apparently he intends to run again, and after the Goldstone fiasco, from which he and his organization only partly recovered, he cannot be assured of victory either in presidential or parliamentary elections. The Palestinian electoral commission that ran the 2005 and 2006 elections did so with a transparency, openness and credibility completely unmatched anywhere else in the Arab world in living memory, and I think can be relied upon to do so again. There’s no reason whatsoever to doubt the credibility of another Palestinian election, unless, like Hamas, you are dead set against it for cynical political reasons. Not that I can’t understand their concerns: if my political program was based largely on campaigns against smoking, girls expelled for wearing trousers at school, hijab enforcement, and preventing women from immodestly riding on the backs of motorcycles, I’d be pretty nervous about my chances too.

Alea iacta est: Abbas has done the right thing and called for elections in January. The Egyptian reconciliation proposals accepted by Fatah and not (or at least not yet) by Hamas would put them off until June. The only possible virtue of that reconciliation proposal would precisely be to allow for an election to clarify authority and legitimacy among Palestinians by the free vote and free will of the Palestinian people themselves. If Hamas does agree to the Egyptian proposals, it is probably reasonable for Fatah and the PA to implement this six-month delay. If it does not, the PA should go right ahead and push the election project as far as it can possibly go with or without the cooperation of Hamas. If Hamas blocks elections because it fears defeat, or tries to hold jerry-rigged elections on its own in Gaza, thereby solidifying the political divisions in Palestine, it should pay a heavy political price for what would be truly unforgivable actions.

Our leading crackpot Joseph Massad calls Obama a racist, and so much more

Although I strongly supported Columbia University’s granting of tenure for him on the grounds that he had, by their standards, clearly earned it, Joseph Massad has written a new article in the Al-Ahram weekly that demonstrates that not only is he not calming down as a result of his victory, he is more determined than ever to prove that he is not only a complete crackpot, but probably the leading crackpot in the entire Arab-American community (which is unquestionably a very tall order indeed). His target this time: Pres. Obama, and his complaint essentially boils down to the ideas that Obama isn’t black enough, isn’t Muslim enough (or, rather, is too Christian), and, in effect, is a racist. Who needs Glenn Beck on Fox when we have Arab American academics of this "caliber" at Ivy League universities?

Massad kicks off his rant with the following set of absurdities:
For his continued wars against Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Iraqis, his support for the overthrow of democracy in Honduras, his abetting dictatorships across the Arab and Muslim worlds (which his government finances, arms, and trains in torture methods), his planning for a possible invasion of Iran, and his enthusiastic support for the racist Israeli settler colony (and its colonial wars and occupations against Palestinians), President Barak Obama received the Nobel "Peace" Prize.

Now, of course, the Nobel committee specified what they were awarding the President for, and absolutely none of this irrationally hyperbolic and also frequently fictional bill of particulars had anything to do with their logic. Perhaps Massad thinks he’s making a joke here, but his righteous anger suggests that perhaps he actually believes that the Nobel Prize was some kind of reward for all of this alleged bad behavior. I’m not going to waste anybody’s time by parsing how inaccurate, exaggerated or downright false many of these allegations are. I think its unhinged venom speaks for itself.

Massad continues: "Indeed, the first Black American President has just enjoined the Palestinians and Arab and Muslim countries from the pulpit of the United Nations to recognize Israel’s right to be a racist ‘Jewish State." Again, this is a grotesque distortion of what President Obama actually said at the UN:
The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security – a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.

You’ll note if, unlike Joseph, you are willing to read dispassionately and carefully, that in this formulation the President makes no demands whatsoever on the Arab world to recognize Israel as "a Jewish state," whatever that means, let alone Israel’s "right to be racist." What Obama is saying is that a two-state agreement will involve what is, in fact and by self-definition, already a Jewish state of Israel, as well as a newly created Arab state of Palestine. There is nothing in any of this to suggest that either state will be by definition or in practice racist, although I think the state of Israel has a long way to go before it can claim to be equitable and nondiscriminatory. And, Obama made no demands on the Arabs to recognize any of this, but simply pointed out that this would be the outcome of any peace agreement… which obviously, it would be!

Like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the various Arab states that define themselves as ethnically Arab and religiously Islamic, the "Peoples Democratic Republic of China," and dozens of other examples around the world, member states of the United Nations define themselves on their own terms, and Israel, no matter what anyone including Pres. Obama has to say about it, will define itself. And, of course, there are a multitude of ways, both racist and nonracist, in which an Israeli self-definition of being in some sense or another a "Jewish state" could play out over time – for example a "homeland for the Jewish people" and a homeland to others as well. Suffice it to say, Obama never said what Massad angrily and quite dishonestly claims he did.

Joseph’s article works itself up into quite a froth about all of Obama’s otherwise heavily praised efforts to reach out to the Arab and the Muslim worlds, denouncing what he calls the "infamous speech in Cairo" in which, Massad claims, he "enjoined them to appreciate the holocaust committed by European Christians against European Jews and not the ongoing Nakba committed by European Jewish colonial settlers against Arabs." Again, this really is a grotesque distortion of what the President actually said, and strongly mirrors claims on the Israeli right that Obama’s speech was an outrage because it equated the Nakba with the Holocaust. In fact, Obama gave both tragedies their due, and noted their political significance. This is an extremely significant rhetorical advance from an American president, but obviously any suggestion that both parties have tragic histories that need to be acknowledged and taken into consideration politically is offensive to extremists whether on the Israeli right or the Palestinian utra-left.

But by far the most extraordinary elements of Massad’s tantrum are his accusations that Obama is, in effect, "not black enough," pursues racist policies informed by his white, Christian background, and is simply a surrogate for racist, imperialist white America. While the overwhelming majority of African-Americans are delighted that Obama has broken through the race barrier in the most dramatic manner in the history of the United States, for Joseph, "Obama in my estimation is the worst thing that happened in recent years to African Americans." This is because "white liberal Americans… can be assuaged by pretending that they are not racist at all." Therefore, all white Americans who voted for Obama (or at least the majority of them) are deep-seated racists who only voted for Obama in order to "pretend" that they are not racist.

Obama is no improvement for the black community because his "ongoing policies on education and racialized crime… continue the policies of his white predecessors," an extremely debatable claim to say the least. Take, affirmative action, for example, which Massad asserts is simply "a cover for a system by which racism continues to be institutionalized," which means that all the African-American supporters of the policy are also aiders and abettors of racism, if not actually racist themselves. And, thanks to the genius of Massad, we now know that when the President refers to "hard-working Americans" in his speeches, this is "a racist code that refers to white people." It is extremely reassuring to have Joseph inform us that Black people can never be part of a group described as "hard-working Americans."

Massad is enraged that when he was being falsely described as a Muslim, Obama had the gall to say, "during his electoral campaign that not only was he a Christian, but that he prays to Jesus every night and that the blood of Jesus Christ will redeem him." Massad does not seem to realize that when Obama is called a secret Muslim, he is also being called a liar and a hypocrite on issues that, for most people and presumably for him as well, reflect both their deepest held beliefs and commitments and are a foundation of identity. Obama is not only "not black enough," he’s simply too Christian for Joseph.

Massad is not only annoyed that the President is a Christian who professes his religion and objects to being mischaracterized as the follower of a faith that is not his own, he is extremely unhappy about Obama’s bi-racial heritage:
Obama was of course not only raised by his white Christian mother and her family (something he –and Joe Biden –never tired of reminding us during his electoral campaign to fend off his paternal Muslim contamination), but even his black father was African and not African American.

This is some sort of scandal, apparently. How dare Obama have a white Christian mother (Joseph of course having been raised by a Hindu mother or something like that — any suggestion that Massad comes from a Christian family would be absurd)! How dare Obama talk about his family background during the campaign! How outrageous it is that his father was African but not African-American! What a scoundrel, imposter and poseur. Am I the only one to hear echoes in this of Rush Limbaugh’s infamous "Halfrican-American" slur?

In this anger at Obama being "not black enough," Massad is joined by Ali Abunimah, who complained, "I want a much blacker president than this." And for the third stooge, Assad AbuKhalil, Obama is not simply "not black enough," he is actually "the visiting White Man," because "as soon as you run for the American presidency you assume the role of the White Man regardless of the color of your skin." After all, as Joseph puts it, Obama is now in charge of the "thoroughly racist system dubbed ‘American democracy’ which continues to victimize most African Americans and much of the Third World." Therefore by definition and ex officio, he is both a "white man" (as if any of these three of my fellow Arab-Americans were from Burkina Faso, Papua New Guinea or the Highlands of Peru), and also a de facto and practical racist, indeed the leader of the world’s white racist vanguard.

Well honestly now: is there anything morally or intellectually separating this hysterical nonsense, this arrogant, racist, repulsive Obama-bashing, from the birthers, truthers, teabaggers and death panelists of the extreme right? Is it any less overwrought, irresponsible, irrational or preposterous? I think Joseph Massad should be a regular guest on the Glenn Beck show. Crackpot to crackpot, they would get along famously, since they have so much in common. They can begin with the fact that they are among the tiny handful of people to have publicly suggested that President Barack Hussein Obama is a racist!

Shakespeare Theatre Company dumbs-down Jonson’s ?The Alchemist?

The Shakespeare Theatre Company?s new production of Ben Jonson?s 1610 comic masterpiece ?The Alchemist? really doesn?t give its audience enough credit. No doubt the Company revived this play about greed and the nefarious activities of confidence tricksters in light of the subprime mortgage, Bernard Madoff, and other financial scandals that have rocked the US and global economies back on their heels. In other words the play was absolutely topical enough, dealing with the efforts of conmen to gull a variety of Londoners out of money through various alchemical frauds. It therefore really didn?t require the extreme updating of the terms of reference it received. Turning the character of Able Drugger, a stupid tobacconist, into a pot-dealing hippie; recasting the avaricious Sir Epicure Mammon as Donald Trump; adapting the religious fanatics of The Brethren as Jimmy Swaggart-style evangelical holy rollers and so forth are amusing gestures, but they have quickly diminishing returns when taken too far.

This may be Michael Kahn?s 150th directorial effort, a remarkable record no doubt, but it?s also too heavy-handed. The thematic material of Jonson?s play is sufficient to make it relevant to a contemporary audience without the relentless tweaking of all kinds of minutia. As it wears on past the intermission, ?The Alchemist? begins to feel like a too-clever-by-half university production that is an exercise in showing how much smarter the production team is than the audience (and really, how little respect the people in the seats are being given). That said, the cast performs very ably, especially David Sabin as Mammon (Kahn used him as Sir Toby Belch almost 20 years ago, and I’m sure he was delightful). The errors here are in the conceptualization of the performance rather than its staging or enactment.

Perhaps most frustrating from the point of view of anyone who really enjoys Jonson?s poetry was the excessive and unjustified cutting, trimming and amending of his text. Obviously, all plays of this kind require some manicuring, and I?ve never been annoyed the way some other people get by the liberties that are taken with, for example, Shakespeare?s texts. Obviously, there?s a big difference between the plays as long pieces of poetry on paper and as scripts for an actual production. However, I do think the way this delicate job was handled in this case meant that a great deal of richness was lost from some key sections of ?The Alchemist,? and that this was completely avoidable both from the point of view of length and pacing, and in terms of accessibility for a contemporary audience.

Take for example one of the satirical highlights of the play, Mammon?s crazed rant about the luxuries, excesses and sensual pleasures he intends to acquire with the ?philosopher?s stone? that can transform base metals into gold, and which he thinks he is about to purchase from the grifters:

MAM. For I do mean
To have a list of wives and concubines,
Equal with Solomon, who had the stone
Alike with me; and I will make me a back
With the elixir, that shall be as tough
As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night. ?
Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?

FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.

MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;
Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room
Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took
From Elephantis, and dull Aretine
But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses
Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse
And multiply the figures, as I walk
Naked between my succubae. My mists
I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,
To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits
To fall into; from whence we will come forth,
And roll us dry in gossamer and roses. ?
Is it arrived at ruby? ? Where I spy
A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,
Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow
I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.

FACE. And I shall carry it?

MAM. No. I’ll have no bawds,
But fathers and mothers: they will do it best,
Best of all others. And my flatterers
Shall be the pure and gravest of divines,
That I can get for money. My mere fools,
Eloquent burgesses, and then my poets
The same that writ so subtly of the fart,
Whom I will entertain still for that subject.
The few that would give out themselves to be
Court and town-stallions, and, each-where, bely
Ladies who are known most innocent for them;
Those will I beg, to make me eunuchs of:
And they shall fan me with ten estrich tails
A-piece, made in a plume to gather wind.
We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

FACE. Sir, I’ll go look
A little, how it heightens.

MAM. Do. ? My shirts
I’ll have of taffeta-sarsnet, soft and light
As cobwebs; and for all my other raiment,
It shall be such as might provoke the Persian,
Were he to teach the world riot anew.
My gloves of fishes’ and birds’ skins, perfumed
With gums of paradise, and eastern air ?

SUR. And do you think to have the stone with this?

MAM. No, I do think t’ have all this with the stone.

This passage is one of the funniest, most pointed and finely wrought not only in ?The Alchemist,? but is among the more memorable and cutting Jonson ever produced. At least 30-40% of it was dropped or changed in the new production, severely reducing the impact it could and should have had. I doubt I was the only person in the audience shaking their heads and muttering, “what a pity,” at this half-wasted moment of what should have been soaring hilarity and in the event was just mildly amusing. This error blunted the impact of this scene and passage, just as the heavy-handed topical references blunted, I think, the impact of the entire play. Perhaps we will have to wait for next year?s anticipated production of Richard Byrne?s ?Burn Your Bookes? for a more fully satisfying contemporary take on alchemy and the interplay between knowledge, fraud, self-deception and greed.

And now for something completely different: watching “La Grande Bouffe”

I never intended the Ibishblog to be strictly about politics, but since I started it a few months ago the diplomatic and political action, especially regarding Palestine, has been so fast and furious, and important, that I have had the opportunity to write about little else. I should add that this has been to the considerable dismay of some of my increasingly agitated readers from the stridency school, but also to very warm approval from many, many more. But this evening I watched a film I had never seen before and that merits some commentary.

“La Grande Bouffe” (1973) directed by Marco Ferreri is, by any standards, a pretty extraordinary movie. It is most certainly not for the faint of heart, or the faint of stomach, and most definitely is not for everyone. It is, however, one of the more notable investigations of immoderation, excess and self-destruction ever committed to celluloid. The film is a chronicle of a weekend escapade in which four middle-aged French gentleman barricade themselves into a villa stocked with supplies with the expressed intention of eating themselves to death. The result is so unsparingly repulsive that I think this film would be a really useful diet-aid, and very quickly induces the desire never to touch another bite.

If this scenario sounds faintly familiar, that’s because it’s pretty obviously directly inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s demented masterpiece “120 Days of Sodom,” in which four crazed libertines seclude themselves, a team of servants and a small army of victims in a remote castle for the purposes of unremitting sexual excess, brutality and, ultimately, most gruesome murders. Its own author quite rightly described the book as “the most impure tale ever told,” and it is remarkable that more than 200 years since no one, including de Sade himself in any of his later works, has been able to come close to its extravagant darkness and horror. The result, it should be added, because of its remorseless black humor and incongruously lighthearted and foppish narration, often – but certainly not always – bears more similarity to Tom and Jerry (or, perhaps, Itchy and Scratchy) than to anything genuinely frightening.

Although it remains unequaled in both excessiveness and foulness, “120 Days” has, nonetheless, inspired a very large number of artistic homages and derivative works. “La Grande Bouffe” is most certainly high on that list. While Sade mixed large amounts of sex and violence with a small amount of excessive eating in his text, “La Grande Bouffe” reverses this formula, with a little bit of (very strange and unsatisfying for its protagonists) sex and almost no violence combined with endless and increasingly stomach-churning binge eating. Where other hungers demand to be satisfied, in certain narratives sex must be rendered fundamentally empty, unsatisfying or strangely negative. In David Cronenberg’s brilliant “Crash,” about a plausible but nonexistent car crash fetish, almost every scene is sexually explicit, but none of it in the least erotic; or, for example, in HBO’s popular and occasionally softcore series “True Blood,” genital sexuality, as opposed to vampiric “feeding,” is either unsatisfying, disappointing or has some kind of manifestly negative consequences for its protagonists.

“La Grande Bouffe” is certainly a satire, and a rather vicious one at that, but it is also at heart a surrealist film (of course all surrealism is satirical, but not vice versa). Other than the thematically direct but culturally remote influence of de Sade, the film’s most obvious pedigree unmistakably comes from the greatest surrealist filmmaker of all time, and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Luis Buñuel. “La Grande Bouffe” was made one year after Buñuel’s late masterpiece (one of many), “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and is filled with echoes and references to that classic. In a sense, it is an inversion of the logic of “The Discreet Charm,” given that in Buñuel’s film, the group of bourgeois in question begin the narrative by sitting down to a meal which they are never, even until the last frame, allowed to finish no matter how many times they sit down to dine. In “La Grande Bouffe” the bourgeoisie, once they start stuffing themselves, never stop until they’re all dead from the over-indulgence.

“La Grande Bouffe” is also strongly linked to an earlier Buñuel classic, “The Exterminating Angel,” in which a large group of bourgeois find themselves unable to leave a house following a lavish after-opera dinner party, and whose social mores and basic morals slowly disintegrate as the days pass with them entirely cut off from the outside world. When they finally realize the reason they can’t leave, and no one else can enter, the house, is that they forgot to formally say goodnight in the approved bourgeois manner, they reenact the final moments of the original dinner party, intone the magic spell, and are released from bondage, but only having reached the brink of cannibalism. Buñuel later said that he regretted pulling back from that final degeneration. “La Grande Bouffe” doesn’t cross that line either, but the implications are there throughout: these maniacs are consuming themselves, and each other, and the theme is unmistakable early on and only intensifies until the final macabre and extremely surrealistic scene of meat delivery men dancing around the garden with carcasses. And, one of the four suicidal over-eaters tries to leave but dies in the effort: once you go down this road, there is no exit.

Both of these Buñuel films also contain strong implications of coprophilia and coprophagia, the latter of which is very strongly implied throughout the latter stages of “La Grande Bouffe,” which obviously makes it increasingly difficult to watch with any degree of comfort. This is obviously a not-so-subtle commentary on the true nature of the “haute cuisine” with which the protagonists are inordinately and pathologically obsessed. This theme of coprophagia not only strongly links “La Grande Bouffe” with these and other Buñuel films, but also with that other great film adaptation of “120 Days” (with all due respect to the ending of Dali and Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or”), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma.” Without going into unnecessarily disturbing details, part three of Pasolini’s great and terrible accomplishment (which can only really be understood when read contrapuntally to the large number of idealistic works that proceeded “Salò”) goes over that line with appalling gusto and almost unforgivable abandon. If these two films weren’t obviously thematically linked in the broadest sense, this bizarre coprophagic motif, and the fact that both are European satires from the mid-70s, would be enough to suggest a significant artistic connection between the two.

However, while the Buñuel films mentioned above and “Salò” are all heavily, unambiguously and unmistakably political in their satirical content, “La Grande Bouffe” is a lot less pointed and, therefore, fundamentally less rich and engaging. There is, to be sure, a strong sense of alienation and the whole plot is driven by the dissatisfaction of its bourgeois characters with their ostensibly luxurious and successful lives. But the political register is, at best, subtly implicit in “La Grande Bouffe.” It shares with its four self-destructive protagonists an infantile quality, and a certain affiliation with the utmost forms of regression. While this is hardly a Farley brothers dumbass extravaganza or a “Family Guy” exercise in simplistic potty humor, I doubt there has ever been a film with more, and more extravagantly loud and sustained, farting. One of the characters literally farts himself to death. Another ends up gurgling on his back on the kitchen table and dies while being simultaneously fed by one character and manually gratified by another, probably the most thorough-going psychological regression possible for a weaned and sexually mature adult. “La Grande Bouffe” may not be overtly Marxist in the manner of Pasolini or Buñuel, but it certainly is shamelessly Freudian.

The irony, of course, is that the Freudian text that most informs all of these works is “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which Freud acknowledged that beyond the pleasure-seeking libido lies a very different impulse and imperative driving the subject towards repetition, aggression, compulsion, and self-destruction. The point here is not whether or not one agrees with Freud’s analysis in part or in whole, but rather to recognize that for many decades of the last century surrealist, Marxian, satirical and other fundamentally subversive works of art, including all the films mentioned in this posting, were profoundly influenced by psychoanalytic theory, particularly ideas deriving from “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” This is especially true of works like “La Grande Bouffe” that investigate the self destructiveness of libidinal obsessions, and throughout its narrative the dead — from dead parents to dead animals to dead friends — drive forward the living… towards death.

“Traitors and collaborators” in the prevailing logic of the moment

In recent days we have been witnessing many individuals and commentators calling the Palestinian Authority leadership names like “traitors” and “collaborators” because they agreed to the delay of the consideration of the Goldstone report by the UN Human Rights Council. Almost none of these individuals have had anything negative to say about Hamas in the context of the same report. No one seems to recall that while the PA embraced and endorsed the report when it was first issued, Hamas angrily denounced and rejected it. Moreover, the report accuses Hamas of committing serious war crimes during the Gaza war, about which no one seems to care.

So just to summarize the prevailing logic of the moment: the Palestinian organization that endorsed and embraced, but also withheld a certain degree of support for, the report are traitors and collaborators, but the Palestinian organization that denounced and rejected the report are not. This is not even to get into the whole question of degrees of culpability regarding the war in Gaza, or the issue of war crimes. I normally don’t do short postings on the Ibishblog, but some things demand to be pointed out and don’t require a great deal of explanation.

What is at stake in Palestine: a third intifada and the parade of horribles

As the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially East Jerusalem, is balanced on a knife edge and could erupt at any moment into a new explosion of violence or even a third intifada, it is crucial to review what is at stake for all parties should such a catastrophic turn of events occur. Far too many actors and commentators are casually viewing the present extremely dangerous situation, and even welcoming the prospect of a third intifada or the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, or are calling for less dramatic but also extraordinarily dangerous scenarios. So, before this goes any further, let us be clear exactly what is at stake.

A third intifada would undoubtedly follow the pattern established by the relationship of the end of the first intifada to its beginning, and of the second intifada to the first; which is to say, that this process has meant ever-increasing levels of violence, death and religious fanaticism on both sides. There are fantasists who dream of a return to the long gone era of “people power” which characterized much of the first intifada. There is absolutely no question that the first intifada, especially in its early stages, was a particularly effective and praiseworthy instance of Palestinian resistance to occupation, probably the most successful mass Palestinian political action in modern history. However, it occurred in a circumstance in which heavily organized political parties, let alone with armed militias, were really not present in the occupied Palestinian territories. The PLO was in exile in Tunis, and Hamas did not exist at all when the first intifada erupted spontaneously. By the end of it, the PLO was back in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood had formed its political and paramilitary wings in Palestine, i.e. Hamas, in an Israeli-encouraged effort to split the Palestinian movement between nationalists and Islamists (a plot that has worked only too well).

The situation now is entirely different: even if a third intifada were to emerge spontaneously as a consequence of popular outrage about one thing or another, it would inevitably and almost immediately be commandeered by existing, well organized and funded political parties with large armed militias. This is what distinguished the second intifada from the first, and as a consequence the second intifada was militarized and much more ideological, especially in terms of religious fanaticism. The consequences of the first intifada were almost entirely positive across the board. The consequences of the second were disastrous for the Palestinian people and national movement.

I think there can be no serious, honest doubt that no matter how much people might wish for a return to the grassroots spontaneity and largely nonviolent character of the first intifada, in reality there is no going back because any such momentum will inevitably be successfully hijacked by a variety of political and armed groups who simply weren’t present in the occupied territories in 1987. Therefore, the only reasonable expectation is that any third intifada will be more militarized, bloody, brutal and disastrous than the second, just as the second was than the first. I simply cannot see any basis for engineering a reversal of this pattern.

For the Palestinians, this strongly suggests that any third intifada would be even more disastrous than the second. Anyone calling for a third intifada without realizing this is a dangerous fool playing with fire, and anyone calling for it who does realize its actual consequences is a dangerous extremist. One of the most probable outcomes of any third intifada would be the ascendancy for the foreseeable future of Islamist organizations and the recasting of the Palestinian national movement as an Islamist cause, which would almost certainly spell the death of the dreams of Palestine and peace. I doubt that the Palestinian national cause could, as a practical political agenda, survive such a grotesque mutation.

It is clear that many on the Israeli right wing, and also quite probably in the present Israeli cabinet, might also welcome the emergence of a third intifada, hoping that it would allow them to crush the Palestinian Authority, cancel any prospect for peace negotiations, and reinforce both the occupation and the settlement agenda with a renewed vigor and brutality. This explains the extraordinary and calculated provocations in recent days centered around East Jerusalem that have added so much fuel to the fire.

Such an attitude is at least as dangerous for the future of Israel as it is for the Palestinians. A third intifada would not only be a security calamity for Israel, and undoubtedly be more dangerous than the second, it would probably constitute an end to any prospects of not only peace with the Palestinians, but of reconciliation with the Arab world and ensure that Israel remains in a state of war for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it could well mean that Israel has squandered the last opportunity to divest itself of the occupation in a rational, workable manner, rendering what has become the de facto Israeli state neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense and developing and entrenching an apartheid character especially in the occupied territories. In the long run it could prove a blow from which both the Zionist and the Palestinian dreams and projects can never recover.

There are some Israelis and Palestinians, and their supporters, who stop short of yearning for a third intifada, but who urge the dismantling of the PA. In both cases, such an idea is the height of political irresponsibility.

For Palestinians, the dismantling of the PA would mean a return to the most direct kinds of occupation, the loss of any prospect of building state institutions and the squandering of Prime Minister Fayyad’s extraordinary plan to actually build Palestine on the ground, the loss of any serious ability to conduct diplomacy, and probably the loss of any real prospect of statehood. Were the PA to be dissolved or collapse, obviously the door would be open for Hamas (which is currently focused on preventing women from immodestly riding on the back of motorcycles) to export its rule in Gaza to the West Bank, which is no doubt what most of the people who call for this really desire. We can then look forward to the political, economic and social conditions in Gaza spreading to the entire Palestinian territories, except where direct Israeli military occupation precludes this.

For Israel, it would mean a return to full and direct rule over millions of Palestinians, and ensuring that not only a third, but an endless and increasingly ghastly series of intifadas are inevitable, with all the consequences outlined above and probably far worse. If Israel deliberately precipitates this, it will be setting itself up to be dealing with forces far beyond its control or its comprehension for generations to come. It will be inviting and making virtually inevitable a broad-based religious war for which it is clearly unprepared and whose outcome will certainly be catastrophic for most if not all parties. I doubt that either the Israeli or the Palestinian national projects can survive such an appalling but all too realistic scenario.

Finally, there are those Palestinians and their supporters who stop short of calling for either an intifada or the dismantling of the PA, but who are currently wasting their time by calling for the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas. This is a ridiculous idea on several grounds.

First of all, the political future of Abbas and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as well as the Hamas leadership in Gaza should, and really as a practical matter can only, be decided by the Palestinian people through elections. Fortunately, these elections have been agreed to for January of next year, which, in effect, is only a few weeks away. The PA continues to insist that the January elections, to which Hamas agreed in Cairo but which it now wishes to delay or perhaps cancel, should take place as scheduled. Any delay that does occur will be a consequence of pressure from Hamas and some Arab states, and it would be silly to blame the PA leadership for not holding elections when it is the only party that wants to hold them on schedule as agreed. Calling for a sitting president to resign in October when elections are scheduled for January doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It particularly doesn’t make sense given the predictable consequences of any such action, even if it were otherwise justified. I would note that none of the parties and commentators calling for Abbas to go are giving any thought to what would happen then. There is no working or effective mechanism under Palestinian law for the replacement of a president other than an election (unlike, for example, Lebanon, which went without a president for several months a few years ago as you will recall), which is why Abbas has remained in power even though his elected term of office expired some months back. Without a president, which is what Palestinians would almost certainly be left with if he were to resign, diplomacy would either cease or simply revert back entirely to the PLO, whose chairman is… Mahmoud Abbas.

Moreover, administration and self-government in the West Bank would cease since there would no longer be a president for the prime minister and his cabinet to report to. This is, as one immediately suspects, a roundabout way of calling for the dismantling of the PA altogether. Otherwise, Abbas’ critics would be focused on ensuring a result they want in the January election, and that the election takes place as scheduled, rather than calling for some kind of unworkable resignation. As usual, some people are emoting, but they are not thinking, and others are engaging in cynical demagoguery.

The role of the Prime Minister cannot be over-emphasized. Ever since his reappointment for a second term, many different forces have been agitating for Fayyad’s removal, including in the aftermath of the Fatah Party Congress in Bethlehem. It was, therefore, no surprise to see some efforts to preposterously blame him for the mishandling of the Goldstone report even though his office would not be directly or centrally involved in any such decisions. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s position is more vulnerable than the President’s, and it is essential that he not be forced out of office in one way or another.

A third intifada is the least likely and most dangerous eventuality in the present circumstances, but is a frightening possibility. The dismantling of the PA or the forced resignation of Pres. Abbas (which probably amounts to the same thing) is only slightly less unlikely and slightly less dangerous. However, the third potential eventuality in this parade of horribles, which is the eventual removal of the Prime Minister, is both readily imaginable and would be devastating to the ability of the Palestinian Authority to lay the groundwork for independence and the practical as well as the political and diplomatic end of the occupation. Fayyad has recognized that ending the occupation doesn’t simply mean engineering Israeli withdrawal, but also must mean effective Palestinian self-government, which requires a major state and institution building project such as the one he laid out in his government program released a few weeks ago.

Everyone — Palestinian, Arab, American, European and Israeli — who is interested in a real peace agreement being developed and realized in the coming years has a major stake in seeing Fayyad’s program thrive. It is therefore imperative that his role is not sacrificed in order to extract other parties from their political difficulties. Any sensible person can readily see that a third intifada should be avoided by all means, but there are less dramatic scenarios at stake that can also have exceptionally negative, and possibly fatal, consequences. Anyone — Israeli, Arab or Palestinian — who is calling or working for the realization of any of these three exceptionally dangerous potentialities — a third intifada, the dissolving of the PA/ resignation of Abbas, or the removal of Fayyad — must bear the full responsibility for their consequences.