Monthly Archives: May 2010

Purity of arms: Israel’s predictable, historic and ghastly Gaza flotilla blunder

The whole point of the “Gaza flotilla” was to get a reaction out of Israel and call international attention to the problem of the blockade of Gaza. Israeli officials described it as “a provocation” and I’m not sure that was entirely incorrect: like all other acts of civil disobedience it was designed to provoke a response. I’m shocked but not surprised that the Israeli military, which was determined to prevent those ships from reaching the Gaza port, managed to mishandle the situation so badly that, as present report stand, at least 10 flotilla participants were killed and 60 injured. The Israelis claim that the ships had weapons on board and that their commandos were attacked with sticks and knives and had to defend themselves. I don’t think anyone in the world with the least degree of critical rationality is going to take this explanation at face value. It’s been rendered even more fatuous by the extraordinary hyperbole coming out of Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who claimed that flotilla members were connected not only to Hamas, but to Al Qaeda! Next they will be telling us these were members of the Nazi party. It won’t wash.

Flotilla organizers are no doubt shocked, horrified and appalled by the way this has turned out. But if they were engaged in classic civil disobedience, their action has actually produced some version of the intended result. If the point is to provoke a reaction, and indeed an overreaction, to make a point, they have succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. This bloodbath is likely to create sustained international attention to the way Israel has treated the Gaza Strip in a way that nothing else has since the Gaza war and possibly since the beginning of the blockade. Compare it to the “Mississippi Freedom Summer” in which young white Americans from around the country went to the bastion of Jim Crow in order to organize local African-Americans, register them to vote, educate them and confront segregation. They knew it was a dangerous situation, and they were shocked but not surprised when James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed by the KKK as the project just got going. There were many other acts of quasi-official violence meted out to the volunteers, and while the organizers obviously would have preferred to have avoided all of that, they expected it and it was part of their strategy. The largely but not entirely unstated reasoning was that the country would continue to ignore massive violence directed towards the African-American community in Mississippi, but could and would not remain oblivious to similar violence directed towards young, white, middle-class college students from New York City and other metropolitan centers. This, indeed, proved the case. The violence directed at the Mississippi Freedom Summer shocked the conscience of the country and was among the numerous decisive moments in the civil rights movement that ultimately succeeded in dismantling the apparatus of formalized racism in the United States.

I don’t think the analogy is terribly strained, though obviously it’s merely about strategy and not a political or moral comparison. The flotilla activists knew they were sailing towards a confrontation with the Israeli military. They also knew how the Israeli military deals with anyone, including civilians, who challenge its arrangements in Gaza. Let me venture that the idea was that if anything dreadful should happen to the activists on the ships, it would focus attention and international coverage and concern on the violence that underlies the Gaza blockade in a way that could not be generated by Israel’s violence towards the local population in Gaza. I think that’s clearly going to prove the case. Tohar HaNeshek, the “purity of arms” that the Israeli military boasts of, has many times over proven itself to be a hollow, meaningless doctrine, and today it is in greater disrepute than ever.

I doubt the incredible, historic, blunder of the way in which the Israeli military has mishandled the Gaza flotilla will end the siege or fundamentally change the realities regarding the Gaza Strip. However, I do think it will have a lasting impact on Israel’s international reputation. Israelis are concerned about “delegitimization,” and so they should be. Their own army just made the biggest contribution to the process of delegitimization we’ve seen in a very long time. Even if they are able to produce plausible evidence that some of the flotilla passengers were holding sticks, or even knives, where they were being boarded, it’s not going to convince anyone that so many people had to be killed and injured to seize a few ships. Somali piracy has usually even avoided this kind of death toll. I’m not sure how Israel is going to be able to live this down. It will have significant and serious long-term implications, and if the organizers of the flotilla were hoping to engineer a major public relations event, they certainly got their way.

Remain in awe: Talking Heads and the birth of “world music”

While we are on the subject of anniversaries, it occurs to me that 2010 marks 30 years since the release of Talking Heads’ fourth studio album, the seminal Remain in Light. At the very end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, there was a burst of interest in polyrhythms, African and other international musical styles, sampling, looping and other techniques that suddenly breathed new life into what had been a completely moribund field in what can best be described as post-prog-rock that had been devastated by its own ludicrous excesses, the punk counterattack and, of course, disco. Rhythmic complexity suddenly presented itself as the new path to sophistication in rock music, as was illustrated by albums such as Peter Gabriel III, King Crimson’s gamelan-influenced Discipline and, above all, Remain in Light. The trend culminated with Gabriel’s 1982 release of the groundbreaking Music and Rhythm double LP, designed to raise money for the first Womad Festival, which alternated between contemporary Western rock music tracks and both traditional and pop music from the Third World. Music and Rhythm was, for example, the first time many of us heard the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. With Music and Rhythm, the die was cast and a number of rapid developments, especially Gabriel’s establishing of the Real World label for releasing album after album of international music for the Western market, in effect produced a new genre, or at least a new record store section, “world music.”

It’s not that rock musicians hadn’t flirted with non-Western musical forms or instruments before 1980, for instance the Beatles’ infatuation with Indian music or least instruments, or the Rolling Stones’ encounter with the Jajouka musicians of Morocco. But the focus on complex polyrhythms inspired by African music and Indonesian percussion required and invited an intensity of engagement that was genuinely new. Remain in Light was particularly influenced by the work of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian superstar whose music still represents the apotheosis of African pop or, as he plausibly called it, African classical music. His influence is everywhere on Remain in Light, and it’s only been confirmed by the inclusion in the 2006 re-release CD of four outtake tracks, the best of them called simply “Fela’s Riff” (and what a riff it is). The Fela-inspired polyrhythms and complex layering of rhythmic patterns combined with producer Brian Eno’s sampling and looping experiments to produce an entirely original and still awe-inspiring soundscape. The LP has held up exceptionally well over the past 30 years and still sounds in many ways original and certainly unique.

It opens inauspiciously with its least impressive track, although its weaknesses have become much more evident over time than they were when it’s sheer originality was more striking, and even shocking. Born under Punches ultimately doesn’t hang that well together as a song and, alone on the album, sounds somewhat forced. However, by the second track, Crosseyed and Painless, it becomes immediately obvious that we’re in the terrain of greatness. David Byrne had spent his career up to that point largely concentrating on extremely paranoid songs expressing serious fear about small furry animals, the government and even the air. The attempt to marry rhythmic frenzy with the barely contained hysteria of Byrne’s paranoid voice isn’t, as I say, entirely successful in Born under Punches. But in Crosseyed and Painless, a powerful and insistent rhythm drives forward as he starts reporting with deep alarm that he has “lost my shape” and is generally undergoing some kind of profound physical calamity. The perfection of the pairing is immediately obvious. The third track on side A of the LP, The Great Curve, I think ranks at the very highest order of rock music. The barely controlled frenzy of its rhythmic introduction, the suggestion of Fela-like horn-ish sounds, and vocals that weave in and out of triple and quadruple layering are a remarkable achievement. And, unlike Byrne’s usually paranoid lyrics, The Great Curve is an unexpectedly buoyant affirmation of some goddess, women generally, or perhaps the sheer power of sexuality. The whole track feels like an excess of abundance, a celebration, an exuberant shout, not from the heart, but from the pelvis.

Side B of the LP begins in a slightly different vein, with the legendary Once in a Lifetime, an irresistible blend of shimmering, base-heavy funk with Byrne declaiming from some imaginary pulpit about the kind of dissociative state of lost personal narrative in which individuals may suddenly realize they have no idea how, precisely, they came to be in the situations they have crafted for themselves. The fifth track is another of the LP’s greatest achievements, the hypnotic, shuffling Houses in Motion that features an extraordinary and very early performance from the Canadian electro-trumpet player Jon Hassell, justly celebrated for his collaborations with Brian Eno. As with so much else that was recorded between 1980-82, this was the first taste of something that would become very familiar shortly but which was, at the time, absolutely flabbergasting. The next track, Seen and Not Seen, seems almost like an addendum to Once in a Lifetime, with a similar shimmering, base-heavy funk track providing the background for Byrne’s ruminations on identity crisis, though spoken softly this time rather than declaimed. More than any other track, Seen and Not Seen set the stage for the equally groundbreaking 1981 Byrne-Eno collaboration LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which had an almost incalculable influence on the music scene, setting the stage for so much found-sound, sampling, and East-West funky fusion, and its traces can still be seen in numerous styles including the popular “Buddha Bar” CDs.

Special attention is warranted for the seventh track on the LP, The Listening Wind, which qualified at the time and even more now as one of the edgiest rock songs ever written in terms of subject matter. It tells the story of a young terrorist called Mojique who is involved in bombing attacks on American targets. Where, precisely, this is supposed to be set is unclear, but the song has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel and some Arabic instruments are plainly being deployed. The lyrics play on the themes of wind and dust as the inspirations and allies of Mojique, which is also certainly evocative of Middle Eastern landscapes. This was a dangerous subject matter at the time, and post-9/11, obviously, it can acquire a whole new significance. If Talking Heads ever performed it live, or otherwise tried to promote it other than including and leaving it on Remain in Light, I’m not aware of it. But, leave it to Peter Gabriel to have resurrected the song on his recently released CD, entirely of covers of other bands’ material, called Scratch My Back. His performance of The Listening Wind is soft, sensitive and heartfelt, as is the entire CD. There isn’t much in common between the two existing versions (excluding Phish’s forgettable re-recording of the entirety of Remain in Light), except an unexpected tenderness towards Mojique and his emotions that doesn’t necessarily convey any approval of his conduct but rather a willingness to refuse to dismiss his motives or his sentiments. The LP is wound down with the final track, The Overload, a ponderous, again bass-heavy dirge that almost might serve as a requiem for Mojique and/or his victims. Yet this track retains an incongruous, almost buoyant, and indeed almost euphoric quality that makes a careful engagement with Remain in Light an experience that is for want of a better word… trippy. It has a positively intoxicating quality from beginning to end.

Remain in Light is also noteworthy for having set the stage for what I think was undoubtedly one of the greatest live tours in rock history, the 1980-81 concerts performed around the world by Talking Heads as a 10-member expanded band, including a second, one might say lead, base by Busta “Cherry” Jones, percussion from the outstanding Steve Scales, additional keyboards by Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, backing vocals by Dolette McDonald and Nona Hendrix (of all people), and absolutely superb lead guitar from Adrian Belew who was about to join the reborn King Crimson. In other words, even more than on Remain in Light, for the tour Talking Heads called on an astonishing array of talent to perform the intense, complex polyrhythms from the album and compatible earlier songs. The results, most extensively released on the live LP The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, are simply astonishing. If I ever had to be pressed on my favorite live album of all, this would have to be it. If anything, the live performances take the achievements in the studio and double down on them, increasing the complexity, the wildness, and the exuberance. To a very large extent, the tour was so artistically successful because it spun wildly out of the control of Talking Heads in general and even its canny leader David Byrne because the amount of talent on that stage was simply uncontainable.

For example, Houses in Motion, while it loses the subtlety of Jon Hassell’s delicate electronic trumpet, comes to life with an almost terrifying intensity. It never ceases to astonish. The Great Curve and Crosseyed and Painless similarly erupt with energy, as if the studio productions had been oddly contained. It’s like a jailbreak. A number of earlier songs from LPs antecedent to Remain in Light are similarly given extraordinary treatment including revelatory versions of Animals, I Zimbra, Drugs, and Life during Wartime.

A few weeks after acquiring the newly released live LP in the late spring of 1982, I returned to Beirut for a visit, with my prize in hand. It became the soundtrack of my life, especially songs like I Zimbra, Drugs, and Life during Wartime. In the manner of any good 19-year-old, I took them to be describing almost everything I’d ever experienced. At one point during the Israeli siege I was given five minutes to collect a small plastic grocery bag of belongings to take with me as I fled the country. I included a couple of changes of socks and underwear, large quantities of illicit and extremely Lebanese material, and one cassette, one side of which was exactly this. Even under those circumstances, I couldn’t leave home without it. The original LP was no doubt swept away with the rest of the rubble of the Jurdak Building. My experience of looking at the rest of the war from Nicosia didn’t lessen the intensity of the effect the songs on that cassette had on me. One day, I’m sure, I’ll write more about that in another context.

When I first moved to DC to work for ADC at the end of 1998, I packed light and brought no music with me at all. I distinctly remember lots of stuff turning around in my head, but what forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness walking back and forth to work day after day were these live performances, mainly the songs from Remain in Light, but also some of the others. The extremely complex, dense rhythmic patterns have stuck in a way very little else has, and have aged better than most. Remain in Light has to be seen as the single most important achievement for Talking Heads, but the live album ultimately is more memorable and more satisfying in my view.

It’s instructive to compare The Name of This Band is Talking Heads with the brilliant Jonathan Demme film and the CD of Talking Heads’ subsequent 1983 tour, Stop Making Sense. Many of the songs are the same, but the sound is radically different. The glorious mess of 1980-1981 was contained in 1983, and the original band members reasserted their control. The elements that had most strongly overshadowed the original members — Busta Jones’ lead base, Adrian Belew’s lead guitar and the soaring vocals of McDonald and Hendrix — were all gone, and the entire sound streamlined in good 80s style rather than wild and uncontrolled as it had been two years earlier. These concerts, which I saw several times in person, were much more visual affairs, and we know this because, along with the 1984 Demme film, there are at least two high quality videos extant of the 1980-81 tour, one from Germany and one from Italy. Do yourself a favor and watch some of this. It’s all on YouTube, as are many clips from Stop Making Sense. The contrast is extremely instructive. The Stop Making Sense tour was extremely impressive, and it was extremely theatrical, in a clever way, but also in a way that was antithetical to the original ethos of Talking Heads who wanted to present themselves as a band made up of totally ordinary people dressed in a totally ordinary way doing things to which the audience would say, “I can do that.” No one can possibly look at Stop Making Sense and have that reaction. But it lacks the shear, awesome power of the out-of-control 1980-81 performances, and deliberately so.

I don’t think it’s unfair at all to say that the changes were an effort by the original band members to regain control over their own show and their own sound. All four expressed extreme preference for Stop Making Sense over the 1980-81 tour and The Name of This Band. I can certainly see why. If one wanted to maintain the extraordinary feel and tone of the 1980-81 sound and yet cull the herd, the first to go would be two if not three of the actual Talking Heads, Byrne excluded, but even his role was being often overshadowed, particularly by Belew’s pyrotechnics. Don’t get me wrong — there is much to be said for Stop Making Sense, and certain songs from the older era really benefit from the streamlined arrangements and contained performances. Once in a Lifetime is a real highlight from 1983 and didn’t really work at all during the 1980-81 tour, because it requires a more disciplined sound to convey its scolding, pressure-cooker effects.

Found a Job from Stop Making Sense, even though it was recorded in late 1983 and released in 1984, is probably the apotheosis of the angular, rhythmic, slightly hysterical pop of the late 1970s of which Talking Heads were the most important practitioners. The performance of the song in the film is flawless and its conclusion never ceases to move. It’s significant that the high point of the film,which begins with Byrne alone and adds to the band bit by bit, is this moment when all four of the original Talking Heads are on stage together for the first time, and right before the addition of any newer, and indeed blacker, band members. That would never have happened in 1980 when Talking Heads were at the forefront of experiments that soon resulted in the new genre of “world music.”

Readers’ interview III: Berman, Ramadan, settlements, Hamas, Lebanon, Arab-Americans and AIPAC

Once again I have grouped a series of questions into an extended post I’m calling an Ibishblog readers’ interview. So far, no one’s objected to this structure, and while it makes for longer reading, I still think the questions, although completely independently submitted, sometimes work very well together to move from A to B. By all means, please keep the questions and comments coming.

Q: It seems to me that Mr. [Paul] Berman [author of The Flight of the Intellectuals] as well as the vast majority of our intelligentsia should have abandoned any pretense of possessing any integrity regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by, for over sixty-three years, ignoring Israel’s state sponsored terrorism against the Palestinians. What’s your opinion in that regard?

A: I can’t comment about “the vast majority of our intelligentsia,” but I would say that Paul Berman does in fact strike me overall as being a fair-minded, serious intellectual. My differences with him are differences of opinion, not conclusions about his integrity. Berman is essentially a literary critic, which is probably the best single starting point for the kind of work he does, which is largely rooted in textual analysis. I think where he falls short at times, in my reading of his last book for example, is that on occasion he has less of a grasp of the subject (the evolution of 20th century Islamist political theory, for example) than he thinks he does. His focus on Amin al-Husseini, however, was not arbitrary in any sense. He couldn’t get to Buruma and Garton Ash without going through Ramadan and a critique of Ramadan requires a critique of Hassan al-Banna, which itself does not require but certainly invites a critique of Amin al-Husseini. His choice in this regard was entirely defensible and legitimate. And, he wasn’t unfair to al-Husseini, either. The only, albeit rather serious, problem was his according al-Husseini far more important a role in both the Palestinian national movement and in the Sunni Islamist movement in the Arab world than he reasonably warrants. As I wrote, he would have been better off acknowledging the much more significant influence of Rashid Rida, whose role he gets wrong. But this is not a matter of integrity, it’s a matter of opinion, and I think Berman has plenty of both. Having said that, I do think the overwhelming majority of people in the West, intellectuals and otherwise, would benefit greatly from more knowledge and sensitivity regarding Israel’s history of brutality towards the Palestinian people.

Q: Since you too seem bothered on the matter of pedigree, I would ask you, since Ramadan is to be made accountable for al Banna and the Grand Mufti, may we
hold Norman Schwarzkopf accountable for his father, who assisted in the coup in Iran in 1952? Should we demand that Norman issue a denunciation of that action? Are repudiations and denunciations the requirement here, using the Ramadan standard? And should we force Tzipi Livni to repudiate her father, for killing innocent Palestinians when he was a fighter for the Israelis? I could go on. Are only Muslims to be held to this standard?

A: I’m sorry, but I think you have misunderstood my arguments entirely. Neither Berman nor I are particularly bothered about pedigree. It doesn’t matter who Ramadan’s grandfather or father are, particularly, if his arguments don’t highlight and foreground the question. In fact, Ramadan spends a great deal of his writing embracing, tweaking, massaging and variously dealing with the legacies of his famous forebears. If he has seriously criticized any major position of either of them, I’m not aware of it. Berman is unfortunately right that Ramadan has seen as one of his major roles the custodian and promoter, and I’m afraid hence distorter, of his grandfather’s legacy. Under such circumstances, the substance of his grandfather’s opinions and agenda are relevant. It’s not a matter of DNA, it’s a matter of ideology and agenda. Obviously, Ramadan’s agenda is not the same as Hassan al-Banna’s, but in so far as it’s influenced by, and sees itself as an extension of, it that’s very relevant.

It would be extremely stupid for any of us to ignore Ramadan’s heritage when he makes such a big deal out of it. If he were, for example, a Trotskyite, converted Catholic, or radical Libertarian, implicitly or explicitly rejecting or at least moving past his grandfather’s legacy, his heritage wouldn’t matter at all, and any effort to bring it up would be superfluous and unworthy. But, in fact he has foregrounded the issue at all stages of his career and has built much of it on his position as a kind of Muslim Brotherhood prince. This is not to say that he hews to all of his father’s and grandfather’s positions. Obviously he does not. But also obviously his relationship to them is complex and exceptionally important, and to ask either Berman or me, or anybody else for that matter, to ignore this question when Ramadan himself goes on about it at extreme length is unfair. Finally, it’s preposterous to suggest that I would hold people of Muslim background to any kind of double standard when that would also apply to me. In other words, don’t be silly.

Q: A recent article in the New York Review of Books and supposedly Ha’aretz have both reported that the so-called “freeze” is being systematically violated by Israeli settlers. Is this true and why doesn’t anyone address the terrible impediments, particularly the permit system, which prevents Palestinians from building on their own land?

A: Definitive information about this is hard to come by but all the evidence suggests that several things are going on. First, the moratorium doesn’t apply to certain kinds of building, or many important areas, especially municipal Jerusalem as Israel has defined it. So in that sense, there’s been settlement activity going on all the time. That said, as the confrontation over settlements in Jerusalem between US and Israel demonstrates, the political cost for Israel building in Jerusalem, especially in the Arab neighborhoods, has gone up considerably. Nobody really knows the substance of the US-Israel understanding that resolved the confrontation, but it seems to me that at a minimum the “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement means that in effect Israel will not be building in the coming months in Arab neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem and will be building lightly, if at all, in Jewish neighborhoods and try to keep that quiet. For now, in effect, I think it amounts to the implementation of the “Clinton parameters” in occupied East Jerusalem, although how long it will last is very much open to doubt. The complication in all of this is that Israeli politicians love to boast about settlement activity. There’s hardly a settlement that hasn’t been announced time and again, with great fanfare at every stage of the planning and construction process. This is in spite of the fact that so much of it has gone on in violation of Israel’s own regulations or permit system. So it’s not easy to keep track of things, and one has to rely on the various Israeli human rights organizations that keep close tabs on the subject in order to make sense of it.

Second, there is the question of the unauthorized (in Israeli parlance, “illegal,” although, of course, from a perspective of international legality, all settlements are illegal) outposts. Not only have they continued to crop up around the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government is retroactively recognizing them and ignoring court orders to dismantle them. One of the most cynical arguments we’ve seen deployed during the temporary, partial moratorium is the notion that, and Israeli officials really have made this case both publicly and in court, enforcing the settlement moratorium is so time-consuming and onerous that the Israeli government simply can’t find the time or resources to go ahead with court-ordered or otherwise mandatory dismantling of “illegal” outposts. Probably there isn’t any single greater question mark over the whole moratorium business than the issue of outposts. I think it demonstrates how insincere the entire, I think by now we can say with confidence fraudulent, gesture really has been. In the end, I’m sure that in a two-year period beginning with the first day of the settlement “freeze” there will have been as much settlement activity with as there would have been without it, if not more.

Third, as a matter of fact one has to acknowledge that in some parts of the occupied West Bank, settlement activity genuinely has been constrained by the order. As I say, I’m pretty sure that in the long run as much settlement activity as anyone seriously would, as a practical matter, have anticipated is actually going to take place during a 18-24 month period starting with the settlement “moratorium,” but it’s also true that some building has been prevented in certain areas and even dismantled, or at least scheduled to be dismantled. As with so much that goes on in the occupied Palestinian territories, it’s very hard to distinguish between Israeli announcements and the reality on the ground, both negative and positive. Really, we have to rely on Israeli and Palestinian organizations that actually monitor the situation to come up with accounts that are based on reality rather than on pronouncements. This cuts in both directions. There are plenty of instances in which the Israeli government claims not to be doing things that it is actually doing, but also plenty of times in which they claim to be doing things that, as a matter of fact, are either not going to be done or will be done sometime in the distant future, or which are intended to be done but in the end cannot be done because of American or other pressure. One of the things one learns in following the occupation is not to base one’s opinion on Israeli official statements of any kind. The Foundation for Middle East Peace, B’tselem, Ir Amim, Americans for Peace Now and many others are much better guides to what is happening or not happening than the newspapers are.

Finally, I think a lot of people make quite a big deal over the fact that Palestinians can’t get proper planning permission for building, especially in occupied East Jerusalem. The groups cited above all do, as does the American Task Force on Palestine, and many others. There has also been considerable coverage of this in the media, at least internationally. As long as there is occupation, this is going to continue to be a major problem. The solution to this, as with most other dire circumstances afflicting the Palestinian people, is an end to the occupation. Israeli rule in the occupied territories is almost certainly not going to allow Palestinian society the space it requires. That, after all, is the whole point of the occupation.

Q: When can we expect you to call for Lebanon to grant citizenship to Palestinians and to take down those refugee camps they’ve been cramming 300,000 Palestinians into, denying them healthcare and employment? Or, are you not interested in the plight of “those” Palestinians because Israel is not involved?

A: Right now, and for the umpteenth time. I’ve called for that many times, although the subject hasn’t come up in the 12 months of the Ibishblog. I think Palestinians in Lebanon should immediately be granted the option of citizenship and, whether or not they take citizenship, full and equal rights within Lebanon. The same applies to Syria, although the situation of the Palestinians in Syria is much less dire than that of the Palestinians in Lebanon. I’d go so far as to compare the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon to apartheid, and describe it as one of the world’s more shameful cases of callous abuses of civil rights. As a Lebanese citizen, I’m extremely embarrassed by this, and I have been ever since I was a politically conscious human being. It’s an outrage! I’ve said all of this many, many times in the past, in many public forums in the United States, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world. I’d merely point to my very widely viewed appearance on the Doha Debates, in which I excoriated Lebanon’s treatment (and that of the whole Arab world, for that matter) of the Palestinian refugees and contrasted it negatively with the treatment of Palestinians in the United States. You can easily find that on the web and view it, if you’re really interested in my opinion rather than just trying to find some random stick to charge at me with. In other words, try this line on the next guy. It doesn’t work with me.

Having said all of that, the sad and miserable fact is that the only thing that all of the Lebanese factions can agree on is not granting citizenship or equal rights to the Palestinians in Lebanon. Syria, Jordan and other Arab states can and should accommodate the Palestinian residents as equal citizens if they wish to be, but as a practical political matter, there is almost no chance of this in the Lebanese context. This is, unfortunately, a reality. I don’t think there’s any constituent group in either the March 8 or March 14 groupings (not that they really exist since the aftermath of the last election) that sincerely would support the granting of citizenship or genuinely equal rights to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This unites virtually all the Lebanese from the far left to the ultra-right, and from Maronite chauvinists to Shiite Khomeinists. So in truth, there is almost no chance that this will, as a reality, take place. I think the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is an important secondary argument for the creation of a Palestinian state and a major example of the benefits to refugees, short of the universal application of the right of return, from the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state would serve as a representative of the Palestinians, including refugees, on the international stage, and a haven for those refugees who cannot safely and reasonably continue under their present circumstances. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are exhibit A in that regard and need to be, literally, rescued. Their precarious situation has been in the past, and may well again become, a matter of life and death.

The reality is they are surrounded by Lebanese sectarian forces none of which have anything but a generalized ill will towards them, and it’s possible that whenever civil conflict erupts in that country they will be drawn into it in a very dangerous way. Among other things, the long-standing understanding that the Lebanese army and authorities will not enter Palestinian refugee camps makes them almost irresistible targets of anyone who wants to operate outside of the, already limited, remit of the Beirut government. I think the sad fate of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, which was hijacked by Salafist-Jihadist gangsters on a crime spree and slowly reduced to rubble by the Lebanese army that was confronting them was an excellent case in point of such dangers. Those who blamed the Lebanese army were wrong — they had no choice but to respond vigorously to the criminals. But in reality the refugees in the camp were blameless victims of the entire set to, and it was a tragedy of significant dimensions. So, obviously the best thing for the 200,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is to be relocated to a Palestinian state in which they will not be regarded as an unassimilable alien presence.

Q: I’d like to ask you, in light of the apparently meaningless “reconciliation talks,” if, when and how do you see a change in leadership in the Gaza strip? How far do you think the so-called “proximity talks” (if they even start moving) can go without such a change?

A: This is, of course, the question I always get first in my public lectures: what about Hamas? First, I completely agree with you that Palestinian national reunification negotiations are, at this stage, unfortunately pointless. There is a zero sum contest for power between the PLO and Hamas for national leadership of the Palestinian movement and the two parties cannot cohabitate as equals, as demonstrated in 2006-2007, because they disagree about everything. They have incompatible visions on all national questions, the future of Palestine and the nature of Palestinian society. The reality is one position is going to win and the other is going to lose. Obviously neither Islamists nor secularists will vanish and disappear from Palestinian society. However, I have no doubt that over the next 10-15 years a consensus will be established in one direction or the other among a decisive majority of Palestinians and one vision — either that of a negotiated peace agreement with Israel leading to the establishment of an essentially secular state or that of armed struggle leading to the rule of political Islam in whatever territory it can establish itself — will define the lone effective and consequential part of the Palestinian national movement. In my view, it is absolutely essential that a secular nationalist vision prevails and I don’t think the Palestinian cause, as such, can survive its transformation into an Islamist cause. The struggle against Israel would go on, but it would increasingly be about religious ideas like holy places and the will of God and not about Palestinian national rights or aspirations.

The obvious way of resolving this impasse would, of course, be new national elections that would resolve the conundrum created by the split decisions in the 2005 presidential election won by Fatah and the 2006 parliamentary elections won by Hamas. At present, Hamas is completely opposed to any elections, having rejected the PA’s efforts to hold elections in January according to Palestinian law and the Egyptian national reconciliation agreement, signed by Fatah, which would have permitted elections this July. I think the PA is right not to try to hold national elections in the West Bank only, as this would reify and consolidate the political division between the West Bank and Gaza that is absolutely antithetical to the Palestinian national interest. However, they were also right in scheduling municipal elections, that do not have national implications, for the West Bank at least, this July. Hamas is so opposed to elections of any kind at this stage because of their profound current unpopularity and likely trouncing in any election that they have not only opposed the municipal elections, they have ordered everyone not to participate. So, Palestinians will not have national reconciliation through an agreement and will also not have their present political division resolved, as it should be, at the ballot box either. Pres. Abbas recently compared Palestinian society in this regard to an airplane that has been hijacked by Iran, and honestly I don’t think that was a ridiculous comment. One can’t discount the role of regional actors in the Palestinian national division, and while much has been made of the American role supporting the PLO and the PA, there’s no doubt that the Iranian and Syrian roles in supporting Hamas are even more decisive, especially when it comes to blocking national reunification through the Egyptian agreement or through elections, both of which Hamas has rejected.

I think the outcome of all of this will be decided in the West Bank, and not in Gaza. It seems to me that everything depends on the fortunes of the PLO’s national strategy of diplomacy rather than armed struggle and the PA’s state and institution building program. If those are, over the next decade or so, largely seen as successful and moving in the right direction I don’t think preventing Hamas rule in Gaza or anywhere else will prove sustainable even though it is presently enforced at gunpoint. If, over a sustained period of time, it becomes widely perceived to be unsuccessful, I don’t think there’s anything preventing the gradual, or possibly even sudden, takeover of Hamas in the West Bank as well as Gaza and the transformation of the Palestinian movement into an Islamist one. Obviously, this will be a lot more difficult as long as the Arab regimes remained opposed to Muslim Brotherhood power, but it could happen anyway. If the Arab world started to fall to the Brotherhood, Palestine would certainly follow, and it’s possible this could operate the other way around, with Palestine being the bellwether for many other Arab societies to go Islamist. The whole thing is a nightmare of pretty colossal proportions either way, and against the interests of all rational or constructive actors. Therefore, it is essential for all parties to make sure that the PA’s domestic and PLO’s international policies succeed. And, I would add, this means that Israel and the United States will play a crucial role in determining precisely which Palestinians they will be dealing with over the long run.

As for negotiations with Israel, they can proceed very far without the involvement of Hamas. There is no question that legally and politically the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and every Palestinian, Arab and international document affirms this. So do the Letters of Mutual Recognition that are the basis of all Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Even Hamas recognizes this, although they call for the PLO to be restructured, by which they mean they should take it over. What this means, of course, is that talks not only can proceed far, they can be concluded without Hamas participation. Of course, for negotiations to be successful it would be preferable, and possibly even necessary, for outreach to the constituency Hamas represents, the Palestinian religious right, as well as outreach to the Israeli religious right and the settlers, among others. But the framework and substance of a negotiated agreement can be concluded without any direct Hamas input, and in fact the process of arriving at such an agreement will almost certainly relegate Hamas to its rightful position as the main representative of that 15-25% minority of Palestinians who have always been inclined towards religious politics. That constituency needs a voice, and Hamas is going to be that for the foreseeable future, but given that it is naturally and historically a relatively small minority, it certainly shouldn’t have a decisive national role. The same, of course, applies to the Israeli religious right as well.

The implementation of an agreement is another matter. It’s readily imaginable that this might have to start with the West Bank and extend itself by one means or another to Gaza. But my view is that if the train of a negotiated agreement that will end the occupation is leaving the station, Hamas will have to decide whether to get on board or stay behind, and I can’t imagine the people of Gaza tolerating a situation in which the rest of the Palestinians are moving rapidly towards independence and they continue to languish in a giant, rubble-strewn prison because of the irrational, or at least indefensible, policies of their rulers. In other words, I don’t see a change of leadership in Gaza as essential for progress in talks, I see progress in talks is essential for a change in leadership in Gaza.

Q: With $12trillion in petro dollars in US banks, which economists put it around 7-8% of US GDP- how can we Arab Americans take advantage of this Arab power and use it to compete with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee?

A: Ah, the age-old question. I think the proven answer is, we can’t. The Arab states have demonstrated conclusively over the past 30 years and more than they’re not in the least bit interested in influencing domestic public opinion in the United States or intervening in American politics with the very limited exceptions of securing their aid packages or weapons deals and defense arrangements. I no longer subscribe to the view that they don’t know how to engage the American political system. I am absolutely certain that they simply have no interest in doing so except on very limited, parochial matters of concern. So there’s no chance of doing that.

Moreover, the Arab-Americans are a disproportionately successful, educated, prosperous community with plenty of money of its own. We don’t need petrodollars. But, the Arab-Americans to have also proven disinterested in affecting American politics. We complain, shout and scream, and play the victim well enough, but very few of us actually do anything to make the least bit of difference. In fact, I see the cynicism about Arab-American organizations and politics that prevails in the Arab-American community as essentially a smokescreen for not being involved and, especially, for not contributing financially to collective causes. I think people are always looking for excuses to withhold their time, and especially, money, and I think Arab-Americans are among the greatest masters of this art in the history of humanity. At an ADC convention several years ago, the great historian Walid Khalidi asked a simple question: why do the pro-Israel organizations have so much more influence than the pro-Palestinian ones? He went right down the line. Do they really have so much more money, numbers, education, etc.? The answer obviously in all cases is, no. It might be observed that they’ve had much more time to adjust to the American political system, but that hardly explains the extraordinary disparity. Instead, Khalidi offered the simple, obvious and unavoidable conclusion: they simply care more than we do. They, by and large, contribute their time and money to their cause, and we, by and large, do not. I think this is simply a fact. It doesn’t help that we have professional cynics, naysayers and choric, communal idiots so prominent in our discourse, falsely telling people there is either no need or no point in engaging in the American political system. But the only reason, in the end, there is a market for such grotesque nonsense is that people want an excuse for withholding their time and their money from anything constructive and instead nurturing their supposed victimhood like a hot house orchid and enjoying their symptoms.

One more point: I think that given all the circumstances it is a more rational approach to seek to build bridges, rather than compete, with mainstream Jewish American organizations. They and we, and our friends in Palestine and their friends and Israel, need the same thing: a negotiated two state agreement that ends the conflict. No doubt we’ve had a very long history of rivalry, opposition and unpleasantness between the communities, including JDL terrorism aimed at ADC that took the life of Alex Odeh, among other violent incidents. But it would be irrational not to recognize that when two parties need the same outcome, they should be willing to forge an alliance to achieve it. Of course, our ability to do this, or anything else politically, would be greatly enhanced by a transformation in the community’s willingness to support its organizations (I hold out very little hope for Arab governments getting involved in a serious way, unless people come to them waving the banner of Islam, of course). But I think the reality is that the best of our organizations are either small and starved or forced to seek financing that compromises their independence. The worst are fronts and shills for bad actors in the Middle East. There is only one solution: the community needs to wake up, immediately, and start supporting and funding the small group of genuinely independent, serious organizations that understand American politics and want to engage as sincere, patriotic American citizens with an Arab-American agenda. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.

One year of Ibishblogging

On May 28, 2009, one year ago today, I launched the Ibishblog. Like any good one-year-old, the Ibishblog is starting to find its own voice and even walks around the net a little bit, somewhat unsteadily, although it mostly still crawls. A year ago I promised my main subjects would be ?political extremism of the left and the right, bigotry including both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, opposition to peace in the Middle East, and religious fanaticism of all stripes.? I think I’ve stuck to that agenda pretty solidly, and attempted to tack always to a centrist position that tries to avoid clichés and judges everything, in so far as possible, not ideologically but fairly and on its own merits. A recent example of that was my take on Paul Berman’s new book, largely agreeing with him on Tariq Ramadan, Hassan al-Banna, Amin al-Husseini, and, to some extent, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, and disagreeing with him on the history of 20th century Islamist political thought and, of course, on Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose new book, sadly, proves my point all too powerfully). So, something for everyone to hate!

I’m very grateful for all the questions and feedback, including a lot of helpful and constructive criticism, from my various readers. I’d like to invite anybody out there with any suggestions, comments or questions to feel free to engage me. Tell me what I’m doing wrong, and I will carefully consider it. Obviously I already know that the Ibishblog breaks all the rules of the blogosphere, and that’s likely to only get increasingly worse over time, unless I’m restrained by well-meaning readers. Also please tell me what’s missing, what you’d like more of and, of course, what you could do without (but if you hate Shakespeare, don’t even bother trying).

It’s my view that, in general, postings on the Ibishblog have gradually become more sophisticated over the past 12 months, and, unfortunately, somewhat longer as well. It’s my intention not to take the length much further than it has gotten at this stage, but I think the quality of the analysis can continue to develop almost without limit, depending on the amount of work I’m willing to put into it. I’d like to do more to bring in art and culture, that was slow to be included on the Ibishblog but I think has added an interesting dimension to the site. It can’t, or at least it shouldn’t, be all Palestine, Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, anti-Semitism and so forth all the time. There are some very well-known monomaniacs among the Arab American commentators (you know, the kind of people who looked at a mountain of dead Haitians and immediately thought about the evils of the Israeli settlements), and they show exactly how mentally and emotionally unhealthy it is to fixate on one issue to the exclusion of everything else. I’d also like to start to introduce occasional interviews with people I find extremely interesting, especially those that usually don’t get a public hearing, and I’m pretty sure I know who the first victim is likely to be. Look forward to that shortly.

My main aims for the coming year are to do whatever it takes to increase the distinctiveness of what is already, I am sure, an unusual if not a unique voice on the Internet and to be more responsive to what my readership is interested in and responds to. I know some of my postings are demanding in terms of subject matter, style and, to be sure, length. But surely the Arab-Americans, and those interested in their issues, deserved something better than what has been traditionally on offer. I strongly believed when launching the Ibishblog that there was an audience for a more serious, sober and substantive conversation than one dominated by idiots who have become even more angry and more idiotic, extremists even more extreme, and overgrown delinquents even more juvenile than they were at the time. At bottom, one year ago it was my hope that I’d be able to provide something that was not only better, but infinitely better. On that score, although admittedly it’s an extremely low bar, I feel the Ibishblog has already succeeded. With your help, in the next 12 months we can take the Ibishblog to the next level. I look forward to hearing from you all.

The Arabs, the Muslims and the Holocaust

In my recent Ibishblog posting on Paul Berman’s new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House, 2010), there was one crucial topic I deliberately did not directly address and that is important enough to warrant an altogether separate commentary: the vexed question of the relationship between Amin al-Husseini and the Nazis, and more generally and by extension, the Arabs and the Holocaust. On this subject Berman’s book benefits greatly by being read alongside another important recently released volume, Gilbert Achcar’s “The Arabs and the Holocaust” (Henry Holt, 2009). Berman’s case against Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash is almost entirely based on the case against Tariq Ramadan, which is largely based on the case against Hassan al-Banna, which is partly based on the case against Amin al-Husseini. This isn’t a critique so much as it is a rough sketch of the architecture of Berman’s somewhat complicated argument. And, because of this, a book that purports to be about Western liberal intellectuals, but perforce has in practice to be even more about Tariq Ramadan, actually ends up spending so much of its time on Amin al-Husseini, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Berman struggles a bit with this subject because I think his grasp of the trajectory of 20th century Arab political thought is somewhat skewed. He accords al-Husseini far more significance in Arab political thinking than I think can be justified, and presents al-Husseini’s enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis after he fled from the British authorities in Palestine as a cause and crucial starting point for what he describes as a “Nazified Islam.” Berman doesn’t exaggerate al-Husseini’s outrageous conduct during World War II, or the foulness and character of his rhetoric, because it’s very difficult to exaggerate them (although some have, by making him a key figure in the Holocaust when he was, at most, a marginal player). There is no doubt that having fled Palestine, he didn’t take up an alliance with the Nazis merely out of necessity as some other anticolonial figures from the British Empire did, but rather showed a level of enthusiasm for Nazi anti-Semitism that is not only appalling but probably crossed the line into outright criminality. And I would certainly agree that the broadcasts that he engaged in for Germany directed towards the Arab world did indeed preach a version of fundamentalist Islam infused with a Nazi version of anti-Semitism.

But these broadcasts hardly introduced such ideas into the Islamist discourse. Had he paid attention to Achcar, Berman wouldn’t have gotten so badly wrong the central role of Rashid Rida, one of the key founders of the Salafist revival movement and publisher of the hugely influential journal al-Manar, who Burman cites as “express[ing ] sympathy for the Zionist settlers” in the 1920s. This is correct, but it misses, rather badly, Rida’s subsequent introduction of the very Nazi-like anti-Semitic ideas that Berman associates most strongly with al-Husseini, and probably in a much more lasting and influential manner. And, Rida was not the only such influential voice. Indeed, Achcar provides a far better, more sophisticated, and much better informed, roadmap to the development of Nazi-like anti-Semitism among Islamists and sympathy among them for the Nazism generally, than Berman’s somewhat ham-handed attempt at this.

Berman lavishes a great deal of attention in the service of his case against Ramadan on al-Husseini’s ghastly broadcasts for the Nazis, but admits “the broadcasts reached a relatively small audience in the Arab world.” Indeed, there is really no reason to think that they had any significant audience or lasting impact at all, although Berman tries, quite unconvincingly, to maintain they did. His weakest argument, repeated more than once, is in trying to link a typically appalling recent statement by Yusuf Qaradawi describing Hitler as, essentially, a scourge of the Jews sent by God (a statement similar in tone to comments about 9/11 and natural disasters frequently made by our own American televangelists) with implicit claims in some of al-Husseini’s broadcasts that Hitler had some sort of divine mission. Apart from the deep anti-Semitism and Islamist context of the two comments, which are separated by over 50 years, the idea that the only way to get to the latter was to either have overheard as a youth, or at least be indirectly influenced by the ideas expressed in, the former is pretty indefensible. The sad fact is that people like Qaradawi have imbibed enough Western-style anti-Semitism, combined with some anti-Jewish Islamic traditions, to come, in our own day and age, to that kind of callous and immoral remark, and no doubt would have even if al-Husseini had never been born.

Al-Husseini’s main role in Germany was to whip up Arab support for the Germans and the Italians, especially in the form of recruits. As Achcar notes, “the meager results say a great deal about both the Arab’s support for Nazism and the mufti’s influence. In May 1942, when a German victory still seemed very possible, the Wehrmacht’s Arab unit counted a mere 130 men.” Achcar says that in total during the war “6,300 soldiers from Arab countries served in various German military organizations.” Contrast this to the many hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims who served on the Allied side during the same war, not to mention the Arab concentration camp victims and others (I’ll return to this theme at the end of this post). As Achcar points out, al-Husseini’s “appeals to the Arabs of the Middle East or North Africa produced no tangible effects” during the war itself. At the same time, Achcar has no difficulty identifying al-Husseini as an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism and, in his letter addressed to the Nazi-dominated Hungarian government in 1943 suggesting that Jews be sent to Poland instead of Palestine, as probably criminally complicit in the Holocaust. Achcar notes that while al-Husseini may or may not have known at the time about the systematic genocide against the Jews, he certainly knew about the concentration camps in Poland, and “it is probable that he would have made the same request even if he had known that the Nazis were carrying out their Final Solution.” So, Achcar’s book can hardly be seen as any kind of whitewash of the “Mufti,” and he has already been criticized by some Arab ultra-leftists known for their sympathy with Islamist movements as having “really overstated his case” against al-Husseini. Needless to say, he hasn’t.

The bottom line is that, in my view, Berman is misreading the influence that al-Husseini had on the Arab politics of his day, and, above all, on Arab politics subsequent to 1948, and therefore misreading his role in promoting anti-Semitism among Islamists. Al-Husseini was certainly the most prominent Palestinian leader of his generation, largely because, for complex reasons, he was promoted far beyond his qualifications or abilities by the British, who saw him as a useful ally until the Palestinian uprising in 1936. But he was hardly unchallenged, and throughout the 1930s significant rival factions vied with him and his allies for power and influence. And, it’s significant to note that until he fled the prospect of British arrest in 1937, al-Husseini and the mandatory authorities relied on each other more than they clashed. During the Second World War he remained a popular figure among some Palestinians, in spite of the fact that his flight was also regarded by many as an act of cowardice. But it’s clearly an exaggeration to say, as Berman does, that he returned to the region after the war “in glory.” Received with a combination of respect and skepticism would probably be a more accurate way of putting it. Tellingly, when it came time to make decisions, he was unceremoniously shoved aside by the Arab League in all the diplomacy on the question of partition and in the build up to the 1948 war, and his various demands repeatedly rejected. In a last-minute maneuver led by Egypt, the Arab League tried to restore his authority in order to offset the influence of Jordan, but the entire project failed completely. And there is no question that following the defeat in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba, al-Husseini was an utterly discredited figure with not only virtually no political influence remaining but also generally bearing a large part of the blame for the catastrophe.

Achcar quotes one of al-Husseini’s biographers, the former Israeli military governor of the occupied territories, Zvi Elpeleg, as pointing out “the memory of Haj Amin disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without a trace. [Upon his death] No days of mourning were set aside in his memory. His name was not commemorated in the refugee camps, and no streets were named after him. No memorials were built in his memory, and no books written solely his deeds…” Achcar points out that even Hamas maintains an “embarrassed silence” about Amin al-Husseini, while glorifying Abdul Qadir al-Husseini and Izzedin Al-Qassam. He also notes that “at a time of writing, there is only one article about Amin al-Husseini on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s website — a short biography,” and that “he does not feature any more prominently in the publications of the Palestinian Hamas.” Even more interestingly, Achcar says that “a Google search conducted in October 2008 turned up 10 times more results for ‘Amin al-Husseini’ on English sites than on Arabic pages.” Personally, I never even heard of this man until I permanently relocated to the United States at age 17, in spite of being raised in Beirut in the 1960s and 70s in an atmosphere saturated with the Palestinian national narrative.

Berman describes the initial Arab reaction to the Holocaust as “the belief that, whatever may have happened in Europe, the Arab world had no reason to give the matter any thought.” And, he says, “It was not so much a question of Holocaust denial, nor of Holocaust justification, nor of Holocaust belittlement, but Holocaust avoidance.” These passages suggest a serious lack of understanding on Berman’s part about the way cultures function. The Holocaust, for all its horror, was an entirely Western phenomenon, and, in effect, the byproduct of a massive internecine Western civil conflict that spilled over into, and drew in, parts of the colonized world. The phenomenon Berman is describing is not only not unique to the Arab world, it is, frankly, the virtually universal nonwestern reaction to the Holocaust. The same could be said of India, China, Indochina, or much of Africa for that matter, all societies in which there wasn’t and continues not to be any great amount of thought given to the matter. And, given the experiences of much of the colonial world at the hands of the European empires, which on multiple occasions involved the infliction of genocide and mass killings to be counted in the hundreds of thousands at least, there is an additional reason for the lack of great interest in the Holocaust. Right or wrong, from a colonial perspective German behavior didn’t necessarily look all that different from what Europeans had generally been perceived as doing, except that it was being done in Europe and to other Europeans. It might be argued that the Arab world was different, because of the conflict with Israel, and in fact interest in the Holocaust has grown in the Arab world in both healthy and, unfortunately more commonly, unhealthy ways, much more than it has in other postcolonial societies. The power of the Holocaust to shock, uniquely, in the West, derives greatly from the fact that it was so thoroughly Western in all its aspects, including its victims, and so modern, including its reliance on an industrial machinery and hyper-bureaucratized administration of death, not to mention the cultural and scientific sophistication of the society which produced it.

But, given Achcar’s book, and many others, it’s clear that Arabs have not always simply avoided, or merely denied, the Holocaust, but have had a very complex relationship to it as a narrative and is a historical fact. I don’t usually indulge in personal reminiscences on the Ibishblog, but I think it’s worth noting that when I was growing up in Beirut I heard the Holocaust deployed politically in three ways in order to bolster Palestinian and pro-Palestinian arguments. First, of course, was that whatever the Jews had suffered in Europe, it was not the fault of the Arabs and the Palestinians and that they therefore should not have to pay the price for the sins of others. The second argument, a corollary to the first, was that the Palestinians were the final victims of Hitler, since, so the argument went, if not for the Holocaust, the creation of Israel and the Nakba would not have taken place. Finally, and this was less common but nonetheless to be encountered on a regular basis, that “the Jews were doing to us what the Nazis had done to them,” or something to communicate the idea that Nazi-style cruelty, which had been inflicted on Jews, was now being inflicted by Jews. None of these are edifying or historically accurate claims, but neither are they anything remotely resembling Holocaust denial or reflective of traditional or modern European anti-Semitic paranoia. I did hear about the so called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” I think first when I was 11 or 12, but only as a fatuous and ugly forgery, not as anything to be taken seriously except as an example of Europeans behaving badly. Suffice it to say that the Islamist and Nazi-influenced rhetoric Berman is describing was alien to anything I heard in Beirut in the 60s and 70s. If it was out there with any degree of cultural force, I was sheltered from it, and that’s a minor miracle because of the amount of political discourse I was subjected to on an hourly basis given the environment in both my city and my home.

As I noted in my earlier commentary on his book, Berman writes as if the Palestinian national movement, and sometimes even Arab political culture generally, were and have been historically entirely defined by Islamism: “al-Banna’s alliance with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem played a major role in the rise of Islamist movement in Egypt and other places, including Palestine, and the ideas al-Banna shared with the Mufti played an even larger role in condemning the Islamist movement to its endless and hugely self-destructive war against the Jewish state — the war that has brought so much devastation upon, most of all, the Palestinian Arabs.” The only part of this sentence that could possibly be defended comes before the first comma, since it’s clear that al-Banna did use Amin al-Husseini and the Palestinian cause to gin up popular support for his movement in Egypt during the 30s and 40s. It probably wasn’t decisive, but I’m sure it wasn’t irrelevant either, to the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. However, attributing the rise of the Islamist movement generally to anything seriously connected to this alliance seems completely ahistorical and totally wrong to me. To take one of the two examples Berman cites directly, the Islamist movement in Palestine was very marginal and not explicitly political until the founding of Hamas in 1987, and this was a direct outgrowth of the first intifada and, let us not forget, the enthusiasm of the Israelis for encouraging the development of an Islamist rival to the secular nationalist PLO. This early Israeli enthusiasm for Hamas was prompted, of course, by the fact that the “endless and hugely self-destructive war against the Jewish state” historically was not waged by “the Islamist movement” at all, but by Arab states, none of which were Islamist in any sense whatsoever, and by the PLO and the mainstream Palestinian national movement which also has not been an Islamist one.

Berman asks, “Will someone argue that in my presentation of these developments in the Middle East, I am making too much of the Nazi contribution?” Yes, indeed I will, and I think the passage cited above is a good example of that. There is no doubt whatsoever that much of the present Islamist movement is infected with a very virulent form of anti-Semitic paranoia, largely imported from the West and that was promoted by many forces, including the Nazis, but which has a complex and overdetermined political and cultural history. It is at very best a reductive caricature to imagine that at the center of this wretched turn of events were laughable and totally ineffective Nazi propaganda efforts, particularly radio broadcasts that very few people listened to and no one appears to have heeded, and that certainly produced none of their intended effects, made by a man who was partly discredited at the time and completely discredited within three years after the end of the war, and has been almost entirely forgotten by Arab political culture except as an embarrassment and the author of a gigantic defeat. There have been plenty of other very significant, and indeed much more powerful, sources of these terrible ideas, not least of them anti-Semitic Western Christian missionaries in late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might observe, very plausibly, that it really doesn’t matter what the trajectory of the growth of the Islamist movement and the development of its anti-Semitic strain that combines certain Muslim traditions and anti-Israel fanaticism with modern European anti-Semitic political paranoia might be, but the fact remains that it exists and it is a huge problem. But I do think it’s important to understand what phenomena really combined produced this effect and not to get sucked into false leads and incorrect analyses that will only complicate the process of developing the necessary correctives. History matters.

I think Berman basically falls into the trap described by Achcar as “a historical grand narrative that lead straight from the mufti to Osama bin Laden” (or at least to Qaradawi and, by extension, to Ramadan), a grand narrative that in the past “came to a halt with Arafat as in a 1993 book by Benjamin Netanyahu.” Berman cites and sometimes quotes approvingly from a number of books that reflect some version or other of this narrative, mostly German, that Achcar savages as insufficiently informed, “fantasy-based narratives pasted together out of secondary sources” reflecting “flagrantly anti-Arab prejudice.” In some cases this is hyperbole, in others not.

That said, Achcar’s book also suffers from some extremely significant flaws, and his own dubious grand narratives. While he is appropriately tough on the Islamist movement, he soft-pedals the angry anti-Semitic views of some Arab nationalists. Achcar’s most significant intervention in contemporary politics is his book’s uncompromising anti-Zionism. The whole point of his book is to draw a connection between them, but I don’t think the two themes — a serious and largely fair-minded historical account of Arab reactions to the Holocaust on the one hand and a fairly strong political polemic against Zionism on the other hand — sit very well together. It raises suspicions that the first is deployed in order to strengthen the hand of the second, and that this may have been the main point all along. Or perhaps the second is being deployed to defend the credibility, at least for Arab audiences, of the first. Either way, the main point of the book about the complex history of the cultural and political reception of the Holocaust in the Arab world is undermined by the anti-Zionist polemic. I don’t think either Berman or Achcar set out to write anti-Palestinian or anti-Israeli books intentionally, and if read with sensitivity both books are capable of avoiding giving that impression. However, both of them also contain enough material for a biased reader to get very much of the wrong impression.

One final point: the ongoing and endless debate about Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, as well as some widespread and crude propaganda, has given many people in the West the impression that during the Second World War, the Arabs and the Muslims in general sided with the Nazis and that this was based largely on anti-Semitism. Berman says as much: “Everyone understood during the war that, if a good many Arabs and Muslims condemned the Axis and even fought on the side of the Allies, an even larger number, in some regions an overwhelming number, cheered the Axis on, actively or passively.” Personally, I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that can be mobilized to seriously suggest that during the war the larger number of Arabs or Muslims cheered the Axis on, and the main evidence, the number of Arabs and Muslims that fought in the war, and on which side, militates most powerfully against such a claim (as does much of the public discourse in the Arab press at the time, in spite of British and French colonialism in the region). Berman acknowledges the reality, although it doesn’t seem to have really sunk into his analysis, that “vastly more Arab soldiers fought on the Allied side, in the British and Free French armies.” And, he notes, “some forty thousand African and North African soldiers in the Free French armed forces are said to have died in the liberation of Europe in 1944 and ’45 alone — a huge statistic if you give it any thought.”

I noted above that the best estimate I’ve seen holds about 6,000 Arabs to have been involved in the German war effort during the entire conflict. Achcar points out that 9,000 Palestinians alone enlisted in the British army during the war, which already dwarfs the first figure. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. The majority of the French army in North Africa in 1939 and ’40 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940 approximately 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and an estimated 90,000 Muslims, 60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans and 12,000 Tunisians were captured by the Germans. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944. It has also been estimated that something like 52% of all soldiers of the Free French Army killed during the last year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. So, as a matter of fact, the Arabs and the Muslims were heavily involved in the Second World War, but on the Allied and not on the Nazi side. Someone desperately needs to do a thorough but accessible book on this totally unappreciated fact aimed at Western societies that are being systematically given the opposite impression. There is one further noteworthy fact: in all the territories of the “Third Reich,” it was in Albania alone, which just so happens to have been the only Muslim-majority country in Europe to come under direct German occupation, that not one Jew was handed over (the same, it must be said, doesn’t apply to Muslim-majority enclaves in parts of Yugoslavia such as Bosnia or Kosovo, sadly, not to mention Catholic Croatia). As a consequence, Albania was the only country in continental Europe to emerge from the war with a larger Jewish population than it had had at its start. This, at least, has been documented in the excellent book “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” by Norman H. Gershman (Syracuse University Press, 2008).

The US may have no Plan B, but the Palestinians do

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/May/20/The-US-may-have-no-Plan-B-but-the-Palestinians-do.ashx#axzz0oTbuh0Gs

The Obama administration was successful in arranging for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations through “proximity talks,” which began recently. However, expectations in all quarters are understandably low for any near-term breakthrough. Consequently, Palestinians have been systematically developing a new set of peaceful strategies to achieve independence and advance a resolution to the conflict.

 

Since the United Nations General Assembly meeting in the fall, the whole thrust of American policy has been to try to get the parties back into negotiations, with the apparent hope that this would generate its own dynamics and open spaces up for significant progress.

 

The idea of “proximity talks” in which Americans would speak alternately to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who would not meet directly, came out of the administration’s efforts to find a way for the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel without a complete settlement freeze. This is, of course, an unfortunate throwback to the pre-Madrid era. An even worse throwback is the renewed Palestinian reliance on “approval” from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.

 

With expectations for the talks being what they are, all parties are wondering whether or not the Americans have a Plan B. Washington is currently embroiled in significant debates about the alternatives. One camp is urging the possible development of a broad-ranging and specific US peace plan. Another is cautioning against raising expectations and counseling that no significant progress is possible under the present circumstances. A third possibility is for the United States to internationalize the process by calling a peace summit at the end of the year in the event of a continued stalemate.

 

The Palestinian leadership is committed to negotiations, but has no confidence it can achieve anything significant immediately given the present political climate and makeup of the Israeli Cabinet. At the same time, Palestinian officials are resolutely opposed to armed struggle or a return to another violent intifada. Because of this conundrum, they have been developing a series of creative alternative strategies designed to complement diplomacy and provide additional sources of momentum toward peace.

 

The most important of these is the state and institution building program adopted in August 2009 by the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, which includes creating a fully functioning bureaucracy and the institutional, economic and infrastructural basis for a successful, independent Palestinian state.

 

The idea is that as negotiations proceed slowly for the meanwhile, Palestinians can build the framework of their state, making independence not just a theoretical possibility but a potentially practical reality. It calls the bluff of all parties, challenging them to assess if they were ever serious about their stated commitment to a peace based on a Palestinian state.

 

In addition, the Palestinian Authority has been increasingly promoting nonviolent protests and civil disobedience in the West Bank targeted at the occupation. These protests, such as those at villages affected by the West Bank separation barrier, highlight abusive Israeli policies, and confront the occupation in a proactive but peaceful manner.

 

A third tactic in this emergent peaceful strategy to confront the occupation is to develop various economic measures aimed at ridding the Palestinian economy of settlement goods, encouraging European and other states to boycott settlement products, and preventing Palestinians from working in settlements. The aim here is to replace the settlement elements of the Palestinian economy with indigenous ones. This would provide alternatives to the Palestinians subsidizing the settlements themselves while simultaneously expanding the Palestinian economy.

 

All these measures are designed to emphasize the distinction between Israel itself and the occupation, and focus attention on the contradictory nature of the interests of most Israelis on the one hand and extremist settlers on the other. Palestinians are saying to ordinary Israelis, “Our policy is not aimed at you or your country but at the extremist settlers whose activities, because they are antithetical to peace, are in the end are as damaging to you as they are to us.”

 

All this means that, while the Palestinian leadership is committed to a negotiated agreement, it is not relying solely on American leadership or Israeli sincerity; instead, it is developing parallel, complementary tracks that Palestinians can control and that bolster diplomacy.

 

All the parties seriously committed to a two-state agreement, especially the international community, should welcome and support these new Palestinian initiatives, especially the state and institution building program.

Ibishblog readers’ interview II: Muhammad cartoons and more Israel-Palestine issues

For the second time, I’m compiling a group of questions submitted to the Ibishblog that I think can be dealt with relatively quickly under the rubric of a conceit in which readers interview me on a range of topics. It worked well enough last time. If anybody thinks these questions should be answered in a shorter individual postings, please let me know. I kind of like this format, even though it’s long, because many of the questions do seem to work together in an interesting way, even though they are completely independently submitted. Full disclosure: one of the reasons I like this format is that, like so much else on the Ibishblog, it flouts every rule of the blogosphere. Blogs are supposed be frequent, brief, accessible and full of links and graphics. The Ibishblog, on the other hand, is relatively infrequent (at least not daily), extremely lengthy, often inaccessible, almost entirely free of graphics and rarely includes links! So obviously, why would I ever consider creating eight or nine reasonably long posts when I can combine them into one unbearably long one? That said, please keep the questions coming.

Q: I was wondering what is your opinion on westerners feeling entitled to portray the prophet Mohammad under the banner of free speech. Obviously, there is a limit to free speech. Someone coming up to me and insulting my mother falls outside that limit (I’d probably punch him), so does saying the N word if you’re not black and denying the Holocaust. So why does insulting the prophet Mohammad not fall outside that limit?

A: There are really two issues here: first the question of drawing the prophet Mohammed in general and second the question of what level of provocative speech oversteps protected status and enters into the realm of unwarranted and potentially unlawful provocation (or least provocation serious enough to serve as major mitigation for a violent response). Let’s deal with the first: there is no basis whatsoever for any Muslim, anywhere, under any circumstances, to have a violent reaction to anyone who draws the prophet or anything or anybody else. As I pointed out in an Ibishblog posting some while back in which I went into the whole matter in great detail, figurative representations of the prophet are not, in fact, alien to Islamic tradition, although they are a minority phenomenon. There is a great deal of it in Muslim history and cultures, but it’s also true that the more typical and majority phenomenon has been a disavowal of figurative representations of Mohammed, ostensibly in order to prevent any idolatry of the human personage (as I noted, this, ironically, has led to a very different and indeed heightened form of idolatry, or at least fetishism, in the form of hysterical enforcement of the presumed ban). Rounding off the range of broad camps on this issue across time and space in Muslim cultures, there is another minority that opposes any form of figurative representation of any kind, whatsoever. In other words, in the history of Muslim cultures and civilizations, you find representations of Mohammed, prohibitions of figurative representations of Mohammed, and prohibitions of all figurative representations. Therefore, nobody is violating a universal and core belief of Muslims if they commit representation of Mohammed.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that they did. So what? Religious tolerance, religious accommodation and religious freedom in any pluralistic society do not and should not require everyone to respect the sensitivities of all religious groups. Satire is legitimate free speech. Blasphemy is legitimate free speech. A society that does not permit satire and blasphemy is, by definition, an unfree, non-pluralistic society, not fit to live in. It is, by definition, a society that prevents thought, prevents ideas from being challenged, that wishes to wall off certain notions through the intervention of a repressive state apparatus. Now, this is not to say that there is no such thing as offensive speech or that all forms of satire, blasphemy or anything else for that matter are legitimate or equally legitimate. It is simply to say that state prohibitions, extending to recognizing such expression as provocations that mitigate criminal acts such as violence or threats, are inimical to the concept of a free and pluralistic society. In the posting cited above, I gave a detailed account of how I think one can distinguish between what is genuinely Islamophobic speech on the one hand and what is respectable, albeit challenging or offensive, on the other hand. Not everything that is challenging, obnoxious, offensive or infuriating to others is illegitimate.

However, there obviously is such a thing as speech that goes over the line, as the reader points out. The legal threshold ought to be extremely limited so as to provide for maximal free speech, pluralism and freedom of thought. However, when speech does cross a line of social respectability, the appropriate response usually is not a civil, or even less criminal, legal response, let alone vigilante violence, but rather should be the response of a self-respecting society that draws the line at bigotry, intolerance and anything that seeks to stigmatize large groups of people based on their identity. The appropriate response, then, is to identify such speech as not respectable and apply the appropriate informal social sanctions accorded to extremists, racists, supporters of terrorism, neo-Nazis or other individuals with ideas deemed repugnant or dangerous by most rational people.

Here I think is a legal distinction that the United States has more correct than any other society of which I’m aware: speech ought not to be regulated by the government unless absolutely necessary, and even civil remedies ought to have an exceptionally high standard of proof (it is notorious that libel is the most difficult torte to successfully litigate in the American system, and rightly so). The reader’s e-mail address suggests that he’s writing from the UK. It is by no means clear that if someone insults your mother and you punch them in the United States you will not be arrested, tried and convicted for assault and battery. In most cases, I think you would be. Perhaps if the provocation is extreme, your lawyer clever and the jury fortuitously sympathetic, one might get off at trial. But I wouldn’t bet on it. As for the N-word, it’s plainly protected in the United States under almost all circumstances, as are other racial epithets. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in some European countries, and the crackpot although talented historical writer David Irving spent no less than 10 months in an Austrian jail for this thought-crime. I consider this scandalous in the extreme (many European states also have blasphemy laws, official secrets acts and other affronts to, at least American, bottom-line standards for free speech). Irving’s views are ridiculous and his position on the Holocaust is pernicious and unacceptable. But freedom is, and can only be, the freedom to be wrong.

The freedom to be right means nothing at all, since everyone will happily give everybody else the freedom to agree with them, which they think is correct. Anyone who frames freedom in terms of the freedom to do or say only what they think one ought to do or say doesn’t understand the concept (i.e., the claim that Islam gives women the “freedom” to wear a compulsory hijab, or that French “secularism” gives schoolgirls the “freedom” to be forced to remove one). Obviously there are going to be limits, and I think the American ones are pretty sound. Speech that involves a clear and present danger of provoking imminent and specific criminal activity is unlawful. Such speech would involve inciting a specific act of violence against a specific person that is likely to be directly acted upon, or reckless acts such as the cliché of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” While there is no official secrets act restraining journalists from publishing what they know and, crucially, no power of prior restraint against publications, government officials are constrained by their oaths from revealing information such as the identity of covert operatives and other sensitive matters (although journalists who discover such facts and publish them are not liable because they have no such oath or contract). As a civil matter, there is always the question of libel, which is very difficult to prove, but which is a recoverable action. And, of course, there’s the matter of obscenity, which is presently left up to “community standards,” but in which there is a generalized tendency to exempt anything that has any demonstrable redeeming social importance. In other words, there is very little speech in the United States that is criminal, and somewhat more, but as a practical matter also very little, that is subject to civil action. This is, I think, as it should be.

The bottom line is any respectable individual should avoid being racist or bigoted, and there’s no point in deliberately provoking other people’s religious sensitivities, but if it’s really important to you, it is absolutely essential that we have a society in which people can feel free to draw the prophet Mohammed or anything or anyone they like, and publish it to the widest possible audience, without any threat of violence or fear of intimidation from the government or anybody else. Freedom of speech and conscience protects minority groups and individuals much more than majority groups or perspectives. Muslim Americans and their friends ought to always bear in mind that as soon as speech begins to be restricted in a systematic way, the likelihood that it will simply protect their sensitivities and not impinge on their freedoms is extremely remote. I think all of this is, thus far, pretty well understood, which is why we didn’t see any major outcry in the United States over the Danish cartoons, which as I said in my earlier post, were a mixed bag, or for that matter over South Park which figuratively represented the prophet Mohammed many years ago in a somewhat substandard episode called “Super Best Friends” which has been repeatedly aired in syndication without complaint or incident. The two subsequent episodes in which Comedy Central seem to have pressured South Park not to figuratively depict Mohammed was a pointless capitulation to a nonexistent threat. The United States has been and must remain free of the kind of intimidation that extreme Islamists have brought to bare in much of the Middle East and parts of Western Europe against those who provoke them with blasphemy and/or satire, or perceived instances of those perfectly legitimate forms of free speech.

Q: One of the things you caution of when arguing against adopting the one-state agenda is that the Palestinians would then have to explain why they’re breaking with the world’s position on ending the conflict, starting with the Arab world. On the other hand, when the PA sought “approval” from the Arab League about whether to engage in proximity talks, you expressed disappointment in “renewed Palestinian reliance on ‘approval’ from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.” The latter to me merely looks like an attempt from the PA to get political cover for engaging in proximity talks despite the absence of a settlement freeze (trying to immunize themselves from the “surrendering/selling-out” charges (as happened with Sadat when he broke with the Arab world & engaged in negotiations to secure the return of the Sinai). Are you disagreeing with the PA’s position of seeking Arab League approval? Or are you merely expressing disappointment that things have to come to a stage where seeking the approval of the League has become a necessity?

A: Probably a little of both. I can understand why the PLO (it’s not the PA, of course) felt it necessary to seek two forms of cover before the Biden fiasco when they were under very heavy pressure to return to negotiations not only from the Americans, but also from the Europeans and even some of the Arabs. Their problem was mainly derived from the settlement freeze issue. In the summer, the US administration pushed the Israelis very hard for total settlement freeze, and obviously it wasn’t possible for the Palestinians be less opposed to settlements than the Americans were. I suppose they could have left themselves some kind of a back door (and I certainly would have), but they didn’t. The problem was that it was a simple political matter for the American president to pivot, as he did at the October UN meeting, and say “we’re not satisfied with Israel’s answer and we continue to feel that all continued settlement activity is illegitimate, but we’re going to put the issue to one side and concentrate on talks for now, given the temporary moratorium on settlements.” This was cost-free for Pres. Obama. However, it wasn’t politically possible for Pres. Abbas to do the same thing. There were additional problems such as the PLO mishandling of the Goldstone Report, some badly phrased and hence misunderstood comments by Sec. Clinton, and some other matters that added to the woes the PLO was feeling, being trapped between an angry, dissatisfied public with real complaints on the one hand and major diplomatic pressure to go back into negotiations on the other hand.

I do think it was clearly in the Palestinian national interest to return to negotiations for a variety of reasons, most of which I think are not very mysterious. I’m not going to spell them out here (I’ve been over this in earlier blog postings). So the problem was really a political one and they spent most of the fall and early winter asking the other parties for something, anything, politically useful to bolster their position in terms of domestic politics and allow them to return to the negotiations without a prohibitive cost. The first answer was proximity talks, which are by their very nature attenuated and don’t allow for photo ops (with the bitter memory of the extremely damaging footage of PM Barak manhandling Pres. Arafat into the room at Camp David, which was so symbolically resonant in 2000). The second answer was Arab League approval.

The first time the PLO went to the Arab League, shortly before the Biden fiasco and the subsequent confrontation between the US and Israeli governments over settlements in Jerusalem, the unfortunate nature of the development was more heavily weighted in terms of its necessity than any miscalculation. The Palestinian leadership was absolutely convinced they needed this kind of cover, and under those circumstances they may well have been right. Like the proximity talks, which take us back to the pre-Madrid era during which Palestinians and Israelis didn’t meet directly, the gesture of going to the Arab League is a throwback to the “even worse old days.” So, it’s to be regretted that the Arab states are asked to sign off on what ought to be purely Palestinian decisions made on the basis of their own national interests.

The second time the PLO went to the Arab League, after the US-Israel standoff was resolved to the satisfaction of Washington — which included some very significant gains for the Palestinians regarding the talks, especially the agreement that all permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, would be on the table — might put me closer to the category of disagreement with the gesture in the first place. I have to say that if, for whatever reason, the Arab League had declined to sign off on the negotiations after the standoff was resolved, even though that meant significantly more advantageous conditions for negotiations for the Palestinians than when they had first approved the negotiations before the standoff, I think it would have been appropriate and necessary for the Palestinians to go ahead with proximity talks anyway. There is too much to lose from staying away from them and too much to gain, although probably not any kind of major diplomatic breakthrough on final status issues in the immediate term, from entering into them. So, I guess it’s a little of both.

Q: You write: “An even worse throwback is the renewed Palestinian reliance on “approval” from the Arab League for what ought to be strictly Palestinian decisions regarding negotiations with Israel.” This is the clue: It is Israel vs. the Muslim world, is it not so? Hopeless, is it not so?

A: I don’t think so. First of all, please don’t confuse the Arab and the Muslim worlds. I’ve explained my position on this matter in more detail above, and I don’t think that indicates a degree of hopelessness. Palestinians have generally not looked for Arab approval for their national decisions in the past couple of decades, and I don’t think they should start doing so again. This could be, and should be, seen as an anomaly, although I can imagine the potential for some very difficult but needed decisions that would require further political cover of this kind in order to fly. On the broader picture, it’s certainly not hopeless, because an agreement is, in fact, in the interest of both parties and most of the international community. Many people on both sides think it is hopeless, and as I’ve argued many times before, an agreement is not the most likely scenario, but it is not hopeless and concluding so is irresponsible when the alternative is so grim. It’s no good saying, “this can’t work.” Our task, historically, is to make it work, since it still plausibly could.

Q: A recent publication from the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy issued a publication called “rethinking the two state solution”. Specifically, it posited the idea that, as part of a regional peace initiative, Egypt cedes a very small piece of territory in the Sinai adjacent to Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. The idea then being that this can provide room for expansion for the Gazan population, and to allow the development of a new, planned city with sea and airport gateways. On your recent Q&A blog, your statement about Egypt’s desire to avoid any responsibility for Gaza in the future made me consider this. Given Egypt’s wishes to distance itself politically from the fate of Gaza, would such a prospect be impossible to obtain? Do you consider it reasonable and/or realistic?

A: I doubt it. I suppose it’s possible, if an agreement absolutely hinged on this and the Egyptians found themselves completely counting on an agreement for their national security. But I think the Egyptians are pretty sensitive about the question of their territory in the Sinai being lost to them in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I don’t think it’s likely. It is a reasonable idea, but I doubt it’s a realistic idea politically. Nonetheless, there’s no point in not considering the matter.

Q: Do you think that the Palestinian side should drop the demand of ‘right of return’?

A: No, I don’t. I think all the refugee issues, including the right of return need to be negotiated, and that rather than being dropped, the question of return in all likelihood will be a matter of major and reciprocal compromises between the parties. As ATFP has been maintaining for years, we have to face the fact that no Israeli government is going to accept the return of millions of refugees but no Palestinian leadership is going to formally renounce the right of return. Therefore we have to separate the right from the return, upholding the principle but not making its realization a sine qua non for an end of conflict agreement that includes the resolution of all outstanding claims. I’ve written in my book on the one-state agenda about the very real benefits, short of return to Israel, for the refugees that would be provided by the establishment of a Palestinian state. There are considerable, and much better than nothing, which is exactly what the lack of an agreement will deliver to the same refugees. Without belaboring the point, I think that in spite of the rhetoric around the issue, a two state solution is the only practically achievable agenda that will deliver anything of major value to the refugees, and that therefore to oppose it in the guise of defending the interests of the refugees is either irresponsibly unrealistic or downright hypocritical.

Obviously, this is going to be the most painful and politically difficult compromise the Palestinians will have to make, but every serious person has realized by now there is no potential for a negotiated agreement with Israel without a major compromise on the question of return. There is a reciprocal issue for Israel, since every serious person has also realized there is no potential for a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians without a major compromise on the question of Jerusalem. If we are ever to see a realized peace agreement, I think it’s inevitable that a major Palestinian compromise on the implementation of the right of return will be in effect reciprocal for a major Israeli compromise on sharing Jerusalem and allowing the Palestinian capital to be in East Jerusalem. I don’t think there’s any other way to get to where we need to go.

Q: Why is it in anyone’s interest to set up a Palestinian state where most of its inhabitants desire application of Shari’a (79.9% according to Palestinian Center for Research and Cultural Dialogue)? Is it really worthwhile setting up a state at this time if it doesn’t respect gay rights, freedom of religion etc.?

A: First of all, as anyone who reads my writings will be well aware, I have been very clear that Palestine needs to be a secular state and I’d certainly agree that it’s not worthwhile setting up a state that doesn’t respect basic human rights, although this is also not an argument for continuing the occupation. And, I’d note, that the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement is essentially secular, and remains so in spite of the rise of Islamism in Palestine and in the region. If that number people were really driven by a domestic agenda that focused on Muslim Brotherhood-style Shari’a law, Hamas would have a solid, unbreakable majority and not be floundering at around 15% overall and 11% in the West Bank according to the last opinion poll I’ve seen.

The explanation for the apparent dichotomy is, of course, that when you ask people vaguely about the application of Shari’a in the contemporary Arab world they are more likely to have in mind the way it operates in most Arab states, and to a very large extent the way religious laws function for Jews, Muslims and Christians in Israel as well for that matter, as a system of “family law” rather than civil or criminal justice. In other words, in much of the Middle East matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are often adjudicated by religious courts based on religious law. In a sense, this is a throwback to the old millet system of the Ottoman Empire in which different religious communities adjudicated their own “domestic” matters in religious forums independent of mutual interference and undo meddling from the Sublime Porte. Indeed, this is why so many mixed-religion couples from Arab states, and from Israel (where there is also no civil marriage, only religious unions), elope to Cyprus where civil marriage is readily available and must be acknowledged by Middle Eastern authorities upon the couple’s return. A very significant percentage of the majority in the poll cited above I am quite sure has this system in mind when they answer that question, not Shari’a as a substitute for civil and criminal jurisprudence on other matters. Personally, I’m not crazy about these family law religious systems, but they are tolerable within the general rubric of a secular society, especially with the consent of all adult parties. Indeed, the United States allows them, on a voluntary basis of course, as a form of arbitration, and the Jewish Bettei Din religious courts are a major venue, especially among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, for resolving such “family matters” disputes.

Again, I’ve been very clear in my view that Palestine should be secular, and also democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized and neutral in armed conflicts. This is my personal opinion, and the Palestinians will have to do as they see fit. However, that poll result doesn’t in any way diminish the great likelihood that, as things stand now at any rate, Palestine would be a largely secular state with Shari’a almost certainly reserved for “family law” disputes and only among Muslims, as the present PA policies suggest (see the program of the 13th Palestinian government adopted in August 2009 for an outline of this). I’d love to be able to insist that in addition this is strictly voluntary and that there should always be an independent and decisive civil legal system, but we really don’t have that in most of the Middle East, Israel in many respects (it kind of depends who files first and in which court system), included. And, I certainly don’t think any of this is an argument for continuing occupation or dissolving any of the states that currently exist in the Middle East that allow for this limited application of various religious legal codes in “family law,” or any existing states for that matter.

Q: Why are the PLO so evasive on the issue of recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state?

A: They are not evasive. Rather, they decline to do it. It is, everyone must agree, an extremely unusual if not an utterly unprecedented demand, in international relations for a state to demand of another, in this case potential, state a recognition of its own character. Indeed, it’s odd that any state would cede this kind of authority to another state, when in fact every member state of the United Nations is free to define itself as it likes. It’s clear the Israeli state defines itself as Jewish, even though there is no consensus in Israel as to what, precisely, that means, but of course there are other Middle Eastern states that define themselves in both ethnic and religious terms, to whit: the Syrian Arab Republic or the Islamic Republic of Iran. For a more detailed account of the reasons why the PLO doesn’t want to subscribe to PM Netanyahu’s unworkable formula of describing Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” please see my speech on the topic at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy on their website, on ATFP’s website, or here on the Ibishblog.

Briefly, they see this, very plausibly, as constituting, at this stage in the process, an attempt to make an end run around the refugee issue we were discussing above. The Bush administration saw it that way too, which is why at Annapolis President Bush, although he had been specifically asked to use similar language by the Israelis, in his speech referred to Israel as “the national homeland of the Jewish people,” language ripped directly from the Balfour declaration and which doesn’t have anything remotely like the legal and political implications of language suggested by the Israelis at the time, let alone PM Netanyahu now. In addition, the Palestinian leadership is obviously and rightly concerned that they might be seen as compromising the rights and full citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel. On this score, the precise phraseology of the language the central question.

I think it’s important for both Israelis and Palestinians to acknowledge each other’s deep history and attachment to the land, and to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s national projects. I think the Palestinians have plainly gone further in that regard than the Israelis, at least formally, by recognizing Israel’s right to exist in the Letters of Mutual Recognition that were the first key Oslo process documents, while Israel merely recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but not Palestinian statehood or Palestine’s right to exist. And, I think mutual language reflecting recognition of each other’s right of self-determination, each other’s statehood, and the legitimacy of each other’s national project could well be an important concluding note to a final status negotiating procedure. But for many important reasons I think it clearly has to come at the very end of the process, and the precise phrasing of the language will be extremely important, especially because of a natural and legitimate Palestinian desire not to compromise in any way the rights or perceived legitimacy of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. I’m sure that in the context of a final status agreement in which other, more palpable issues, have been largely or completely agreed upon, appropriate language can be found.

Q: One argument I constantly hear and read is the “who are these ‘Palestinians,’” when it is said that there is no such thing, and secondly that “Israel was created 3500 yrs ago, in 1922 over 70% of it was given to Arabs and created Jordan’ argument.” Have you ever written anything on either or both of these two arguments?

A: Not exactly. But I will give my views now.

The argument that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people is only made by total ignoramuses, and people being deliberately obscurantist. Obviously the Palestinian identity is a modern, indeed contemporary one, as is the Israeli identity, and they both spring from the same time and history, that is to say what happened during and after the Palestine Mandate that began in the early 1920s. So if one were to observe that there is no such thing historically as a Palestinian, and that’s technically true because as a primary political identity category it is 20th century phenomenon, it is equally true that there is no such thing historically as an Israeli, a term that would have meant absolutely nothing before 1948. Arabs and Jews have been identity categories for a long time, although of course the conceptualization and political significance of these terms has also shifted dramatically in the modern context, especially over the past two hundred years. This whole argument is simply inane, and based on a childish way of looking at history and human realities that no informed or serious minded person would bother with. For a pro-Israel person to argue that while there are Arabs there is no such thing as Palestinians is a bit like Arabs arguing that Jews are legitimately a religious group, but not a nation or an ethnicity. It’s ridiculous, because peoples define themselves, and if they consider themselves to be a coherent, united people, then they are, by definition. That’s how peoples come into being in the first place, by self-definition, as an act of collective will and imagination, and nobody else has the right or the ability to usurp this self-definition process. This is obvious and anyone who doesn’t get that is simply a fool.

As for Israel being created 3,500 years ago, that’s also ridiculous, although everyone should acknowledge the deep Jewish, as well as Palestinian, attachment to the land. There were Hebrew kingdoms in the ancient Levant, and many others, and while Zionist mythology holds that the modern Israeli state is the re-creation, or at least the only natural heir, of those Hebrew kingdoms, that’s patently absurd. It’s a little bit like the Palestinians basing their present political claims on ancient Canaanite history, or, for that matter, biblical Hebrew history since it is very likely that many Palestinians are partly descended from biblical Hebrews. And, for that matter, it’s like Saddam Hussein trying, as he indeed did, to justify his rule as some kind of reincarnation of ancient Babylon and so forth. How many Arabs and other Muslims claim to be descendents of the prophet or some such malarkey? How many Lebanese burble on about being “Phoenicians” or Copts invoke the heritage of the pharaohs? Don’t get me started on the Serbs and Kosovo or the alleged birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya. Contemporary political movements, where there is any potential, generally can’t resist reaching back very cynically into the distant past, and really mostly to myths and legends, to rationalize and justify their own political activities that are very much about power in the here and now and are actually informed by contemporary realities. It’s a pretty universal process of legitimation, and it’s not intellectually or politically respectable.

In fact the state of Israel was established in 1948, and has no political history prior to that, although of course the Zionist movement that intended to establish it had an earlier 50 years or so of very real, non-mythological history. Of course, the Zionist movement like many national projects has made use of mythology, history and archaeology to bolster its contemporary political claims. It is intended for and can only be bought into by gullible people, and one doesn’t have to accept all of the arguments of Shlomo Sand to maintain that. What people need to understand is that both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms are contemporary phenomena, neither of which date back much more than 100 years. Indeed, I think everyone needs to be constantly reminded that as a matter of fact as recently as 70 years ago the terms “Israeli” and “Palestinian” essentially had no meaning, at least nothing remotely like the meanings they have today. People can dress up their contemporary nationalisms in all kind of assumed ancient and traditional garb, but it’s almost always fatuous and in both of these cases obviously so. But I hasten to add this doesn’t make either national narrative or project any less important, real or legitimate.

As for this business of 70% of Palestine being “given away to the Arabs,” it’s true that the original Palestine mandate included both mandatory Palestine and Transjordan, which became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But from the outset of the mandate, the British split the two territories and governed them separately, on a collective League of Nations understanding that Transjordan would be excluded from any mandatory provisions regarding Jewish settlement. This was strongly agreed to by all parties to the Mandate at the League of Nations. The League of Nations approved the Palestine Mandate in June of 1922 on this understanding, and the expected clause formally dividing Palestine and Transjordan was adopted a few weeks later in August 1922. So really, we’re talking about no more than eight weeks of theoretical unification, during which everyone agreed the area east of the Jordan River was not subject to the Jewish settlement provisions of the Palestine mandate. So, this is all nonsense.

The quarrel over land and power between Palestinians and Israelis, whose modern national and political identities were produced precisely during the British mandate subsequent to the creation of Transjordan, never had anything to do with Jordanian territory or identity. This is a fatuous sleight-of-hand by pro-occupation types to argue that Jordan is Palestine or some such nonsense. It’s completely ahistorical and totally disregards Palestinian and Jordanian history and identity, although of course it’s very convenient for Israelis, and reflects the old maximalist ambitions of the Zionist movement at its most extreme. The other basis for it is the assumption that the British and the League of Nations had the “right” to assign Arab territories for eventual Jewish control, and that the original Palestine mandate, even though everyone agreed the eastern part did not involve Jewish settlement and even though it was only politically unified for a few weeks, constitutes some kind of definitive grant to the Jews in perpetuity. In this context, the early division between Palestine and Transjordan is weirdly interpreted as some kind of “loss” for Jewish rights and a “giving away” of 70% or some such of “Palestine” to “the Arabs.” It’s just a bizarre way of looking at things and a completely cynical twisting of history in order to justify the occupation and delegitimize the Palestinian national narrative and rights, not to mention Jordanian identity, nationalism and history. Nor does such rhetoric consider the implications for the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. I think anyone pushing this argument needs to be asked about that little wrinkle as well.

Paul Berman, Tariq Ramadan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Western liberals

Paul Berman’s important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed, new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” (Melville House, 2010) is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets. Berman’s main subject, judging from the title and certainly the conclusion of the book, are his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, who he accuses of a witches’ brew of offenses involving white liberal guilt and displaced racism, abandoning Enlightenment values and craven cowardice in the face of Islamist bullying, and who he sees as emblematic of a widespread rot in the Western liberal intelligentsia. But to get to them, he has to go through Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim academic and activist who also happens to be the grandson of the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna, and the son of his second in command, Said Ramadan. So actually, the bulk of the book dwells on not only Ramadan but also al-Banna and, in great detail, his ally Amin al-Husseini, the one-time “grand mufti” of Jerusalem.

The book makes a series of loosely connected cases, some much stronger than others, and hits some very important points with extreme precision, but in other cases runs wildly off the mark and occasionally goes running down a rabbit hole of pointlessness. Even within each case, there are moments when Berman seems to lose the plot completely and inexplicably. In my first response to this very significant book I want to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the two main cases one by one.

Case one: Tariq Ramadan

Berman does a very good job of explicating Ramadan’s highly problematic family background and his troubling, albeit perfectly natural, fealty to the frankly baneful legacies of his grandfather and, to a lesser extent, his father. I don’t think Berman is exaggerating at all in his no holds barred description of al-Banna’s extremism and the highly negative impact his thinking has had on contemporary Muslim political discourse. Describing him as the godfather of all practical applications of contemporary Islamism, especially in the Arab world, is exactly right. I also don’t think he’s exaggerating how problematic Ramadan’s championing and soft-pedaling of his grandfather’s ideas and legacy really is. But, he concedes, the son is not the father or the grandfather, and ultimately needs to be considered on his own terms. And, Berman is to be congratulated for, it is sad to say unusually, actually reading his Arab subjects’ writings carefully, taking them seriously and taking them at their word. In this sense, Berman has contributed a significant degree of clarity to several important debates, and one of the most important effects his book could have over the long run is to prompt more Western intellectuals who write about Arab and Muslim issues to read more thoroughly what people from the Middle East, both reactionary and liberal, are saying, and subjecting it to serious and critical analysis rather than assuming they already know.

I think Berman does a largely admirable and sometimes excellent job of critiquing Ramadan’s ambiguities, lacunae, and evasions. These actually do define his public persona, and while we didn’t really need Berman to call attention to them, he makes the case better than it’s been made before. I think any critically minded person has to have already been aware of the slippery nature of Ramadan’s discourse, the difficulty of pinning him down to any clear position. Obviously, and Berman is the umpteenth person to make this observation, the combination of his questionable heritage and the slippery, ambiguous quality of his thinking invites suspicions that he harbors more extreme views that he professes, and this probably informed the Bush administration’s decision to deny him entry into the United States. I strongly agree with Berman that this was a mistake, both because it’s not justified and there is no reason to cower before his rather flimsy and frequently vapid ideas, and also because it made him a cause célèbre more than he already was and certainly more than he deserves. On the other hand, I also agree with Berman that Ramadan basically seems to mean what he says, insofar as it can be clearly identified, and that his agenda to create what amounts to a right-wing Muslim counterculture in Western societies is basically what it appears to be. I, too, don’t think that, for all of his extraordinary evasions, he’s hiding his big-picture intentions and really I think all he has to offer in the end thus far seems to be only his own personality and persona, not a real agenda that can have ultimately either a major positive or negative impact. In my view, as a public intellectual he amounts to an empty shell that may appeal to some and repel others, both pointlessly.

Probably the most telling line in Berman’s insightful portrait of Ramadan is his observation, which I also picked up on many years ago, that “he wants to issue reassurances in every direction.” As with many Ramadan-skeptics, I was initially hopeful that he might prove a useful figure, and this gesture of continuously offering “reassurances in every direction” was part of what made me think he could be a positive influence. The hope raised by an initial reading of “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” (Oxford, 2004) was that this effort to combine innovation with reassurance was largely designed to assuage the fears of conservatives, traditionalists and even radicals in the Muslim community while engaging in some serious, substantive reform and modernization of thinking in Western, and possibly even international, Muslim religious circles.

Let me describe in a simple but important example how Ramadan tries to deploy this process of universal reassurances, and what I initially hoped was an elaborate dance of steps forward and backward in order to, eventually, leave one in an advanced position. First, Ramadan observes that all texts require interpretation (two steps forward), but that “if there is an explicit Qur’anic verse whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation, no ijtihad [independent interpretation] is possible” (two steps back and, of course, there is no such thing as a text whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation), and then finally that “the great majority of verses in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature” (one step forward, but only if the subsequent interpretations are genuinely reflective of universal human values and the enlightened interests of Western and other Muslims, and not reactionary).

I think this is a perfect microcosmic example of Berman’s observation that Ramadan is always issuing reassurances in every direction, even in his methodology. Modern minds are reassured that even religious texts require interpretation, traditionalists reassured that explicit texts do not allow for interpretation, and everybody reassured that there are, in fact, very few genuinely explicit texts, and that lots of interpretation will be necessary. The problem is that having described the process, Ramadan has almost always failed to play a positive role in shaping the interpretation in the right direction, which renders his contribution, at this point anyway, largely pointless if not negative. My hope, frankly, on first encountering his work was that what he was engaging in was a very canny and cagey effort to make modernization, reform and especially healthy assimilation into Western societies and cultures palatable to Muslim traditionalists and conservatives. Unfortunately, these processes can just as easily work in other, and indeed opposite, ways, and I haven’t seen any reason to conclude that this is how Ramadan is actually deploying this edifice of ambiguity. There are just as many reasons for thinking the contrary, unfortunately, since when all is said and done Ramadan is a self-proclaimed Salafist on at least the center-right of the Muslim political spectrum if not, indeed, the far right. In other words, whenever he finally does commit, he does so in a Salafist manner, which may be a kind of “reform” and revivalism, but it’s certainly not liberal, humanist or progressive in any conceivable senses of the terms. Unfortunately, both Salafist and liberal Muslim reformers would both have to rely on this kind of textual and doctrinal flexibility in order to overturn traditionally dominant interpretations that are, respectively, too permissive or too restrictive for their liking. So promising processes can just as easily turn out to be be alarming ones.

Another reason this tendency to issue reassurances in all directions prompted so much hopefulness from so many people on first glance at Ramadan is that, looking beyond the community itself, conciliation and mediation is ultimately extremely important in with navigating a minefield like the emergence of large, fixed Muslim populations in Western societies that have to assimilate, retain their own identity and create a new understanding of Islam in a new social context all at the same time. But ultimately Ramadan’s tendency to try to reassure everyone all the time that their bottom-line concerns are being addressed renders him incapable of taking strong, principled positions against what are perceived as traditions rooted in theology, except from a strongly Salafist perspective. Berman doesn’t seem to fully understand Ramadan’s argument justifying his call for a moratorium but not, for now, a ban on hudud practices such as stoning for adultery, but I do: his argument is that for a ban to be effective it has to in fact be a religious consensus among scholars based on fiqh and sharia and anything less will have little or no impact. The problem is, he’s wrong. Everything is connected to everything else, and even the supposedly and apparently closed circle of fiqh scholarship is in fact not only influenced but ultimately determined by its social context, just as the judicial branch of the American government, including the Supreme Court, is not above politics, but more typically reflects a refracted and attenuated version of the political process and evolving social consensus. Ramadan understands the virtue of a strong stance when there is no doctrinal barrier: he is dead set against any form of female genital mutilation, because there is no basis for it in any legitimate Islamic doctrine. What he’s missing, or possibly avoiding, is that perceptions of doctrine are strongly influenced by a social context of which he has become an important part.

In other words, it’s not true that a strong civil society stance against traditional understandings of hudud would have little or no impact on religious discourse. To the contrary they would have a major impact, and, if widespread, such worldly critiques could have a decisive impact, even on what is, mercifully, largely a theoretical religious conversation because such practices are in fact quite rare in the Islamic world. It seems to me this is a crucial argument that Berman missed due to his non-instrumental moral outrage on the subject, but which ultimately challenges Ramadan’s position much more effectively than a simple moralizing bottom line adopted by Berman, Sarkozy and others (although I’m very sympathetic to that as well). Berman thinks Ramadan is basically playing to the Muslim immigrant street, trying to preserve his credibility with ordinary, working-class European Muslim immigrants. That’s a complete misreading of what is driving him to take this stance, since it’s not about what these immigrants think (there’s no real reason to think they’re particularly enthusiastic about hudud, which isn’t practiced in most of their countries and societies anyway), but rather about how the ulemma and fiqh scholars will be dealing with this question which will have a long-term impact on religious doctrine, not public opinion or even public policy. My point is that Ramadan would be better off recognizing the power of public opinion, and I think Berman is totally wrong to think that this is what is driving him. He is either appealing to traditional and very conservative doctrinal positions or he is protecting them, and thanks to his carefully crafted ambiguity it’s impossible to know for certain which it is. But either way his intervention seems trapped in existing discourses, and is therefore less than helpful.

Berman has a good explanation for why this is the case. The very best part of the entire book is Berman’s dissection of Ramadan’s updating of medieval thought derived mainly from al-Ghazali, and on this I think he really has his number. Casting human reality as operating simultaneously between the twin and binary registers of the sacred and the profane does indeed seem to be the way Ramadan approaches philosophy and the whole question of knowledge, and Berman is right in casting this as a huge throwback to a pre-scientific, pre-modern mentality. The most powerful of his digs at Ramadan is Berman’s observation that, “In Ramadan’s version, the old ideas have reemerged as crackpot ideas. They are a medieval contraption, presented as a modern gadget.” In philosophical terms, the idea that true knowledge, even about worldly matters, is essentially textual and spiritual, and is best understood in gradations of mystical insight, has indeed been overturned in the West and elsewhere by an understanding that testable ideas subject to scientific inquiry and method, while they cannot answer the great existential questions of mankind, nonetheless are, in fact, a far superior mode of knowing than any form of mystical or symbolic divination. And, really, it’s impossible to regard a public intellectual who champions esoterica and mysticism in social, public and political policy conversations, when such an intervention is clearly understood for what it is, as anything other than an absurdity.

I do think that Berman makes the case quite powerfully, as even a casual reader of Ramadan’s writings can at least begin to glimpse, that he does, in fact, offer what amounts to a throwback to “the notion of viewing the world as a text,” as opposed to a testable, measurable reality that can be comprehended as knowable fact rather than interpreted symbol. Ramadan’s work cuts in both directions, as I described above, with two steps forward and two steps back in every direction, but, as I also already noted, in the end he is a committed Salafist. I’m afraid Berman is absolutely right when he concludes that Ramadan “is imprisoned in a cage made of his own doctrine about his grandfather and his grandfather’s ideology” and that he “wants to make his cage look like anything but a cage,” but “cannot figure out how to unlock the cage.” And, sadly, Ramadan has yet to provide us with any evidence to refute Berman’s damning conclusion that, “He cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself.”

Berman’s efforts to paint Ramadan as an anti-Semite and an apologist for terrorism are somewhat weaker, and although there is no fire exactly, there certainly is some smoke. On anti-Semitism, the direct case against Ramadan is based on a fairly shoddy article he wrote about French supporters of Israel that casually and in some cases wrongly leveled the accusation of ethnic preference and tribalism. It was a bad article, and a bad argument, but hardly prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. If it is, the number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigots in the United States is infinitely greater than anything I’ve ever imagined or claimed, and the standard for such an accusation really ought to be a lot higher than that. Berman has a solid case to make regarding the views of people Ramadan plainly respects and defers to in what is undoubtedly a troubling fashion, most notably his grandfather and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, but this is a case based on what amounts to guilt by association. It’s not meaningless by any means, and certainly anyone, even if it is his grandson, who holds al-Banna, not to mention Qaradawi, in political and intellectual awe and deference needs to be regarded with a good deal of healthy skepticism and maybe even suspicion. But it doesn’t go directly to his own beliefs.

Berman overstates the case when he cites Ramadan’s judgment that for Palestinians “armed resistance was incumbent” and concludes that this amounts to a justification for terrorism, as if the two were necessarily synonymous. They might, but need not, be. And it’s a bit of a stretch, although not a wild one, to observe that Ramadan “understands terrorism so tenderly that he ends up justifying it” and that he “justifies [terrorism] so thoroughly that he ends up defending it.” Defending terrorism is a charge that ought to be reserved for a case that can be made a little less indirectly, a little less based on reading between the lines, a little bit less subjectively. Berman, and for that matter I, may have our suspicions about where exactly Ramadan would draw the moral line regarding political violence, but if he’s ever actually and explicitly endorsed any form of terrorism, I’m not aware of it, and unless and until he does, I don’t think it’s fair to describe Ramadan as having done so or impute it to him by implication. It would obviously be helpful if we had a clearer moral or political statement from Ramadan on this regard, but ambiguity is not the same as endorsement. However, Berman asks, “why, if Ramadan were sincere in his condemnations of terrorist violence, he doesn’t make his own positions more consistent,” and it’s really a damn good question, that only he can answer.

The additional problem is that Berman isn’t a very good judge of the relationship between terrorism and the Palestinian national movement, which is the only context in which he thinks Ramadan really does support or defend, or at least “understand tenderly,” terrorism. I’ve complained a lot in the past, and I will continue to complain, about people, especially Muslim clerics and others, who will condemn terrorism but make an exception for the Palestinians on the grounds that they supposedly don’t have any other options in fighting occupation. But I don’t really see Ramadan making that argument, or at least not explicitly enough to warrant Berman’s charges. More importantly, Berman seems to think, quite wrongly, that from its outset the Palestinian national movement was largely guided by Islamism and the legacy of al-Banna’s ideas. Particularly a series of passages on page 185 would lead any unversed reader to conclude that the Palestinian movement has been an Islamist one for most of its history. On the contrary, after the reformation in the late 1960s of Palestinian national institutions following the Nakba of 1948, most Palestinian discourse, political parties and collective thinking was anything but Islamist. It was revolutionary, Third Worldist, socialist, nationalist and even chauvinist, but filled with Marxist rhetoric and leftist ideas. Most Palestinian nationalists from the 60s until the late 1980s at the very earliest, would have regarded Islamists as retrograde, reactionary, ridiculous and probably agents of the West; in short, as contemptible and absurd figures. Obviously, political culture has changed not only among the Palestinians, but in the entire Muslim world, and as the mantle of nationalism in the eyes of many has passed from left-nationalists to Islamists, a disturbing amount of political discourse has reversed the order of things with Islamists now all too often seen as the nationalist vanguard and secularist nationalists consigned to the retrograde, reactionary and probably agents of the West category. Even so, the Palestinian movement is not yet dominated by the Islamist tendency, although if all efforts to negotiate an end to the occupation fail, it eventually may well be.

Berman complains that Palestinian “leaders might have noticed after several decades that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were advancing the struggle not one whit, and counterproductive tactics ought to be jettisoned in favor of actions better calculated to succeed at building a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, if need be — as could probably have been achieved at various moments over the years, again in 1947.” Apparently he’s never heard of Pres. Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 with a 63% majority running on a strictly anti-violence platform, or Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who is busy building the basic institutional, infrastructural, economic and administrative framework of the Palestinian state in spite of the occupation and significant obstacles and objections erected by Israel, as well as some forms of cooperation. In other words, Berman’s indictment centers on an assertion that the Palestinians supposedly haven’t realized something they quite plainly and palpably have. Nonetheless, Berman argues that “the Palestinian struggle… has not, in fact,… surrendered” the idea that “violence is obligatory,” a circumstance he blames on “the alliance of Amin al-Husseini and Hassan al-Banna.”

In other words, Berman writes as if the Palestinian national movement has historically and largely been defined by Hamas and other Islamist parties, when in fact they were virtually nonexistent until the late 80s, and still, in spite of everything, do not dominate the mainstream of the national movement. He doesn’t seem to be aware of, or at least doesn’t acknowledge, the paradigm shift that has taken place in the secular nationalist, which is to say mainstream, Palestinian leadership at the very least since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004 regarding violence and how to achieve statehood and independence. So, if it’s possible to say that Ramadan has an irrational and emotional degree of sympathy with the Palestinian movement that allows him to distort and oversimplify the issues to the point that he seems to be denying facts, tenderly understanding terrorism, or defending the indefensible, Berman certainly demonstrates a mirror-image antipathy to it that has rendered him blind to or incapable of acknowledging both the historical and the contemporary political and intellectual trends defining the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. He is left instead suggesting that it was Islamist during most of its history, when it has never been defined by Islamism (at least not yet), and also suggesting that it has been and remains generally informed by a sense of “obligatory violence,” when that is most decidedly not the case at present and arguably never has been.

Were one to subject Berman to the same standards and processes he applies to Ramadan, one could immediately pivot back to the opening of his book and his dedication of it to the publisher of The New Republic, Marty Peretz (along with its literary editor Leon Weiseltier). One could then suggest that it is possible to read between the lines based on Berman’s “reverence” for Peretz and implicit endorsement of his attitudes, and explain his own distortions of the Palestinian national movement and political history as possibly the symptom of an embrace of Peretz’s shameless anti-Palestinian racism and support for all manner of Israeli atrocities. But I’ll spare him that, just as I will spare the readers needlessly making the case against Marty Peretz, which makes itself in a 15 minute scroll through his blog at The New Republic website. I’m not trying to compare Marty Peretz to Hassan al-Banna or even Yusuf Qaradawi (though how far he really is, in moral terms, from the attitudes of the latter, I’m not entirely sure), but simply to point out that if affiliation and association inform and condition our reception of Ramadan, and I think that’s entirely fair, Berman’s unfortunate dedication ironically renders him also quite vulnerable on this score, especially when it comes to his attitudes towards the Palestinian national movement that he has egregiously misunderstood and/or mischaracterized.

There are some other serious weaknesses with Berman’s largely very solid case against Ramadan, especially his effort to implicitly blame the murder of Theo van Gogh on Ramadan’s writings. It’s slightly elliptical, but the accusation is pretty clearly there at the top of page 204, and it’s exaggerated to say the least. Another instance in which Berman aims and misses badly is in citing Ramadan’s contributions to what at the time was a lawful and seemingly respectable charity later found to be associated with Hamas-related organizations in the occupied territories. He acknowledges that neither were such contributions illegal anywhere nor details about the organization’s associations publicly known at the time he made them. Indeed, many thousands of people donated in good faith over the years to Muslim and Palestinian-oriented charities that, in the post-9/11 aftermath, were discovered or alleged to have operational and political associations with Hamas-related charities and have been shut down. It’s one thing to hold the operators of those charities, who, assuming the allegations are correct in any specific case, knew exactly what they were doing, to account, and quite another to hold contributions to what at the time seemed to be respectable humanitarian organizations against people who simply wrote the checks, for all we can tell, in good faith.

Two thirds of the way through his argument, Berman, having acknowledged all of this either explicitly or implicitly, very unfairly refers to Ramadan’s “contributions to Hamas and the other little incongruities in his stand on violence and terrorism.” Gestures such as trying to implicate Ramadan in the van Gogh murder or accusing him of contributing funds to Hamas because he gave money to charities that seemed respectable to most observers at the time are deeply unfortunate, because, in grasping too far and appearing too eager to indict without proper evidence, they tarnish Berman’s otherwise powerful critique. Most of it stands up extremely well, but these moments in which he plainly goes too far for any informed and skeptical reader seriously weaken his argument by making it look like he’s not evaluating the evidence on a case-by-case basis, but is rushing to judgments, both sound and wild, simultaneously.

Case two: Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash

The second case that Berman is making, and judging from the title it’s his main subject of attack although you wouldn’t necessarily get that impression from the bulk of the text itself, is aimed at his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, and by implication an entire class of others. It mainly centers around a critique of their treatment of former Dutch-Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the one hand and Tariq Ramadan on the other hand. His point is that here are two examples, presumably among many, of liberal Western intellectuals who fail to defend the values of the West and the Enlightenment by implicitly or explicitly endorsing the likes of Ramadan who Berman persuasively argues does not uphold these traditions, and implicitly or explicitly critiquing Hirsi Ali, who Berman argues does uphold them.

He makes two, I think essentially contradictory, arguments explaining why such Western liberal intellectuals, who he says he used to think were “the best of the best,” would perform such a craven betrayal. The first is that this is internalized Western guilt and white racism masquerading as compassion for the non-Western world and therefore fetishizing the “authenticity” they imagine Ramadan possesses. I find this a perfectly plausible argument. It can be debated as to whether this is really what has been going on in this case, but it’s obviously a phenomenon that does exist and has many analogues. His second explanation, however, is infinitely weaker, and it’s slipped in the right at the end of the book in order to explain this supposed “flight of the intellectuals.”

Berman argues that since the Rushdie affair, the threat of potential and in some cases real violence against strong critics of Islam and Islamists has become so widespread that “Rushdie has metastasized into an entire social class.” The second argument is that these Western intellectuals are driven by “fear — mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology.” I find this almost entirely unconvincing. That such fear legitimately exists in many quarters especially in the Middle East but also Europe, there is no doubt. But why it would infect the work of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, who could just as easily start writing about something else, rather than seriously trying to engage with Ramadan and Hirsi Ali and coming to strikingly different conclusions about both of them than Berman does, does not follow in the least. Mortal fear would seem to dictate writing about another subject, something both of these liberal Western intellectuals are more than capable of doing, and neither has spent most of their carrier on this subject. So I find the idea that Western liberals are simply fleeing from a confrontation with soft Salafists like Ramadan because of “mortal fear” simply silly.

No doubt mortal fear is a rational affect for some people who want to challenge Islamists in many Middle Eastern societies, and also some in Europe who wish to approach the question using, for instance, certain forms of satire that are particularly goading to extremists. But I’m not aware of any reason for this kind of “mortal fear” in the United States, which has so far been free of this kind of repressive violence by Muslim extremists designed to inhibit speech (the insane handful of, apparently largely Jewish, self-proclaimed converts at Revolutionmuslim.com do not count because their threats are plainly fatuous). More to the point, Berman posits his own work as the antithesis of such fear and intimidation, and can anyone possibly imagine him coming under any kind of threat for this book? I certainly can’t. So it would have been perfectly possible for Buruma and Garton Ash to reach the same conclusions about Ramadan that Berman did, and indeed publish them in the same way Berman has, without any rational “mortal fear” or any other fear for that matter. Given the way Theo van Gogh approached his anti-Islam agitation and the brutal murder to which he was so foully subjected, moral fear in the present Western European climate under certain circumstances is, unfortunately, reasonable, and no one can be begrudge Hirsi Ali her bodyguards given the threats to her life, even though they were made on another continent and she’s now living in a society which has yet to be infected with this kind of brutality. But I don’t think these experiences are particularly relevant to the work and experiences of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, or Berman for that matter. The fear explanation for the alleged, and I think real, codling of Ramadan by these two writers just doesn’t hold up.

The other problem with the second case Berman is making is that it is predicated on his championing of Hirsi Ali, which I think is very difficult to justify. He makes the case against Ramadan quite well, and his critique of Buruma’s and Garton Ash’s illusions about him, or at least unwarranted positivity, is also quite powerful. Where it all starts to break down is in his contrast of their attenuated enthusiasm for Ramadan with their grave skepticism about Hirsi Ali, and Berman’s own profound enthusiasm for her views. He sees their negative evaluation of Hirsi Ali as symptomatic of a kind of Western liberal self-hatred, because he sees her as a champion of humanist and Western values, and, more importantly, of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. That’s certainly how she presents herself. But I think Berman is profoundly blind to very serious problems with her positions and their implications, and why, therefore, any skeptical, intelligent person should be at least ambivalent about her contribution. Berman castigates Buruma for characterizing her as “a fanatic with silly and cartoonish views” because Buruma observed that what he called her “absolutist view of a perfectly enlightened West at war with the demonic world of Islam [might not] offer the best perspective.” Berman is appalled Buruma would suggest that “she lent respectability to bigotry of a different kind: the native resentment of foreigners, and Muslims in particular.” “What terrible thing has Hirsi Ali done,” Berman asks indignantly, “sufficient to merit this series of sneers in one magazine after another?” as if there were no good answer. Unfortunately for him, there is.

Hirsi Ali is, unfortunately, an anti-Muslim bigot, and this is hardly the hallmark of a “persecuted dissident intellectual” champing Enlightenment values. She insists that the worst actions of any Muslims (i.e., the 9/11 terrorist attacks) represent ?true Islam,” and that all believing Muslims must support the actions of the most brutal extremists. Hirsi Ali is a proponent of political secularism, as am I, but inexplicably she seems to feel the need to define Islam, but interestingly not any other religion, only in the terms of its most extreme adherents. In her otherwise unremarkable and inoffensive book Infidel (Free Press, 2007), which is essentially a rather boring memoir almost entirely free of analysis and uncluttered with reflection, the most revealing passage is her description of her reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Her Dutch colleagues were insisting, rightly, that even if this was the work of Muslim extremists, it was not a reflection on Islam as a faith or Muslims in general. Hirsi Ali was having none of it, as she thought to herself, ?But it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam.? Then, she reports, she did some “research” to check this preexisting conclusion (hardly a skeptical or properly secular, let alone intellectually respectable attitude) and not surprisingly found her assumption was vindicated by this alleged research (though we never learn what that might have consisted of). She concluded that, ?Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam? must have at least approved of [the 9/11 attacks].? ?True Islam,? she adds, is, by definition and in apparent contrast to all other religions, ?totalitarianism? and ?leads to cruelty.?

It?s a perfect example of one of the most damaging and pernicious genres in the present Islamophobic playbook, and has obvious and devastating implications for Muslim communities in Western societies. Logically, it can only lead to fear, hatred and discrimination against Western Muslims and Western Muslim communities. Any other reaction to these assertions, if accepted at all, would be completely irrational, since the most brutal, violent behavior by any Muslims anywhere, and the most extreme forms of doctrine and practice, are ?true Islam.? Anything else is false, diluted, or inauthentic. Obviously this stance leaves religious traditionalists, moderates, reformers, modernizers, liberals, mystics and anyone else not in the Salafist-Jihadist camp disempowered, dismissed and fresh out of luck. Hirsi Ali and many other anti-Muslim ideologues say that all of these traditional, moderate or liberal Muslims are simply wrong and their ideas invalid, and the worst extremists are right in their interpretation of the faith. More benign interpretations are foreclosed, and moderation and reform invalidated. Why, one wishes to ask, must these people insist on so passionately championing the views of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri? In terms of Islamic discourse, that is precisely what she is doing, whether she, or for that matter Berman, understand it or not.

Following her move to the United States after a scandal involving alleged fabrications she used to obtain asylum in the Netherlands and her subsequent resignation from the Dutch parliament (none of which Berman acknowledges), Hirsi Ali became even more strident about presenting Islam as such, in all its forms and as a faith, as an enemy of the West that need to be ?crushed.? In a November, 2007 interview with Reason magazine, she said that the faith could be socially and politically useful, ?Only if Islam is defeated.? Reason asked her, ?Don?t you mean defeating radical Islam?? She replied, ?No. Islam, period.? She explained, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there?s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they?re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, ‘This is a warning. We won?t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes, ?There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don?t all follow the rules of Islam, but there?s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There?s nothing moderate about it.? And, just to put the cherry on top of an interview that conclusively demonstrates that Hirsi Ali understands nothing at all about civil liberties, tolerance and the other values she purports to defend, she proclaims, echoing so many other Islamophobes, ?Islam is a political movement.?

Based on her books, her analysis, such as it is, seems entirely solipsistic and based on her own experiences in Somalia, Saudi Arabia or Holland. From these experiences she extrapolates “the truth” about Islam generally and the Muslims globally, in spite of the fact that she is thereby talking about approximately 1.2 billion people, 1/5 of humanity, not to mention countless schools of thought, philosophical traditions and denominations, based on a couple of decades of personal experiences by a single individual in three or four countries. Even if we allow that this can produce many interesting insights, the narcissism of it is pretty extraordinary. And it’s simply a fact that she doesn’t bring to bear a strong body of scholarship to back up these experiences, although she certainly has very strong opinions, many if not most of which I share (which is entirely beside the point), but some of which are not only bizarre but extremely dangerous. Berman seems to feel that these experiences entitle her to say things like “Islam must be crushed”, but in fact how can they? Isn’t this the first refuge of every peddler of intolerance? “Let me tell you about my experiences with fill in the blanks (Blacks, Jews, Arabs, Japanese, Americans, Christians, Muslims, Hutus, Tutsi, etc.).” As an argument, it’s particularly debased and unconvincing. Moreover, Berman doesn’t seem to reflect on the implications of Hirsi Ali’s comments, their probable effect, should they become influential, upon millions of Muslim immigrants to the West and their ability to construct healthy, well functioning lives in their new societies.

I can only imagine what Berman’s reaction would be to any Palestinian, or any Israeli Jew for that matter, who would say, to any audience, that because of their experiences in Israel that “we are at war with Judaism” or “we must crush Judaism.” Indeed, he spends much of his book rightly upbraiding Palestinians, Arabs and other Muslims who said exactly that. But why he is attracted to someone who says the same thing about Islam, albeit in the name of “liberal values,” or a misconstrued version of the Enlightenment, he never really explains. He soft-peddles Ali’s aggressive, intransigent and intolerant attitude towards Islam, and implicitly the Muslims (she’s never made any serious effort to draw the distinction and anyway one can’t, in practice, be drawn because Islam doesn’t exist except as a set of social texts embodied by the Muslims in all their diversity), in the same way that he accuses, with plausible justification, Buruma and Garton Ash of doing with Ramadan. Berman asks, “what if it were true [that Hirsi Ali has been] hurling a few high-spirited insults at her old religion?” suggesting such comments are reasonable, understandable or harmless. The comparison he makes between her and Salman Rushdie, who has never made any comments remotely resembling these, is utterly spurious. Hirsi Ali isn’t a radical internal, or external for that matter, critic pushing for severe reforms with powerful and learned critiques in order to save Islam or the Muslims from themselves. Instead, she’s someone who simply condemns both, tout court, hurls down totalizing, essentializing, reductive and collective excoriations, and calls for them to be violently “crushed” by others. In other words, she’s less Israel Shahak and more Israel Shamir.

Forgive me, but this desire to “crush,” whatever that might really mean in practice, the entirety of the world’s second-largest religion, which is also to be defined only by the most extreme fringe of its followers, does not reflect any Enlightenment values I am aware of, or at least not any that are worth preserving. Of course it’s true that, along with its more positive aspects, the Enlightenment gave rise to modern colonialism, racism and anti-Semitism, but I don’t think this is what anybody has in mind when we talk about preserving and defending the legacy of the Enlightenment. So in my view, it’s no surprise at all that Buruma and Garton Ash, along with a very great number of other people, myself included, have the gravest doubts about the value of Hirsi Ali’s contribution or the idea that she can be seen as a standardbearer for humanist or Enlightenment values or as a worthy proponent of liberalism and/or secularism. Indeed, this attitude of wanting to “crush” Islam generally (but not other faiths) and seeing it defined only by its most extreme adherents is distressingly reminiscent of comparable intolerant, paranoid and chauvinistic attitudes held by al-Banna, al-Husseini and Qaradawi, the disturbing and deeply bad influences on Ramadan that both Berman and I find extremely troubling.

So while Berman has seen through Ramadan with crystal clarity in most ways, and especially on the most important issues, he reveals a debilitating blindness when it comes to other crucial subjects, such as the nature and evolution of the Palestinian national movement, which he misrecognizes as an Islamist one even though it has never yet been dominated by Islamist thought and is currently undergoing a paradigm shift towards nonviolence, and, perhaps even more strongly, the substance of Hirsi Ali’s interventions which he indefensibly misreads as championing universal, humanist Enlightenment values. Berman is almost entirely right on Ramadan, and if he isn’t Ramadan has every opportunity and the bulliest pulpits around to prove both him and me foolish and wrong. But I’m not holding my breath. And, of course, Berman is right to take Buruma and Garton Ash to task for not seeing through these ambiguities and evasions. Most importantly, he may well have a good point about a certain type of Western liberal intellectual who fails to defend humanist and Enlightenment values in the face of presumed non-Western “authenticity.” However, when Berman takes up Hirsi Ali as his example of how to get it right, just like his antagonists he’s lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. He may have gotten the diagnosis right, but Berman’s prescription is no improvement on the disease.

Readers of the Ibishblog who have stuck with me until the bitter end of this posting have, I hope, not been unduly put off by the length of this response to Berman’s new book, and I hope it proved justified by its content. However, I will have more to say (I know, I know) about Berman’s discussion, and the broader issue, of Amin al-Husseini, the Arabs and the Muslims, and the Holocaust in the very near future. It’s a whole other argument. Stay tuned for that.

David Frum doesn?t get it: the Palestinian struggle is for citizenship, not prosperity

David Frum recently suggested that Israel and the Palestinians can have “peace without the process,” based on the separation barrier becoming a de facto international border without the creation of an independent Palestinian state:
The Israelis keep what they have, the West Bank Palestinians commit to keep order on their side of the fence, Hamas remains an international pariah, foreign aid continues to flow to the West Bank so long as good behaviour continues. No process, no treaty, just quiet and development.

“It’s not a great deal for the Palestinians, obviously,” Frum allows, “But the alternative to a signed peace does not have to be fighting.” But, of course, it’s a fantastic deal for the Israelis. Indeed, it’s an Israeli wet dream. I think obviously Frum is completely wrong that the alternative to a signed agreement doesn’t have to be fighting, and history demonstrates that in the absence of not only an agreement, but even the hope of an agreement, fighting is exactly what you’re going to get. If he can’t figure that out by now, he’s got no business commenting on Israeli-Palestinian matters.

Presumably Frum’s delusion arises from the present relative order that has been created by the Palestinian Authority in the areas under its control in the West Bank. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that this is not based on “quiet and development,” as he puts it, alone but rather quiet and development in the context of state and institution building and other measures designed to peacefully but steadily and purposively advance towards independence and an end to the occupation. None of it can be sustainable in the context of any lack of real prospects for an end to the occupation. What Frum is hoping for is that Palestinians will calmly and quietly accept unilaterally dictated new de facto borders designed to Israel’s liking (the West Bank security barrier), without independence or an end to the occupation. It’s an informal way of achieving the “nuclear option” I was describing in a recent posting, and while it might not create a full-blown crisis with Egypt and Jordan the way de jure annexation would, it’s certainly not a situation that PA can sustain.

The Palestinian leadership has bet everything on a negotiated peace agreement with Israel, and doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on that. They have nothing left, ultimately, other than that and in spite of all the accusations they’re not in the business of attempting to establish a quasi-autonomous bantustan within the context of an ongoing Israeli occupation or a de facto greater Israeli state. If this dream dies in the way Frum is describing, they will never survive and it will be extremely difficult to prevent an Islamist takeover of the Palestinian political scene in the West Bank as well as Gaza. Frum’s indefensibly sanguine attitude about the local and regional, and possibly even global, impact of this development only further demonstrates his profound lack of understanding of the entire problem and its implications.

But putting the practical concerns aside, let’s look at what Frum is really suggesting. And, let’s bear in mind, he is a neocon who prides himself on being interested in “democracy” and “human rights.” What’s missing from his argument, beside the fact that it couldn’t possibly be sustained politically, is the fact that his proposal will still leave millions of Palestinians as noncitizens in a world of citizens of states. This is the anomaly that both Frum and most other supporters of Israel simply refuse to get through their heads. It is not sustainable or in any way acceptable to have millions of people, most of whom are not refugees but who are living in their own homes on their own land and in their own country, to be stateless noncitizens, outside the global whale. He’s asking Palestinians to be satisfied with being the only group of millions of non-citizen, non-refugee persons in the entire world, without self-determination, without effective recourse to the government that really controls their territory in the end (it would still for all intents and purposes and as a legal matter be Israel in his formulation) and without any form of meaningful representation in it. It is one thing to be an ethnic minority facing discrimination. It is something quite different to be a noncitizen of any state.

None of this applies to the other examples he cites such as the Falkland Islands, the India-China border area, Korea, or even the Western Sahara. He compares the West Bank to Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh, noting, “The international community does not invest much energy worrying about the precise status of either of these autonomous self-governing regions.” “Why not allow the Palestinian Authority to stumble along in the same way?” he asks. Well obviously because it’s a surefire recipe for another explosion of violence with major regional and international consequences, but more to the point both of them are functionally independent while nominally claimed by a larger state. Neither are under direct occupation, as is true in the West Bank, and as will be true even if Frum gets his way (his passage about foreign aid continuing to flow to the West Bank based on good behavior strongly suggests who is going to be judging that “good behavior” and controlling that flow). Nagorno-Karabakh is an area contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan, much like Kashmir is being fought over by India and Pakistan, or numerous other regions around the world disputed between states. The analogy to the West Bank and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories is extremely weak at best. Moreover, Kosovo’s independence is recognized by the United States, Britain, France and Germany, among many others, in spite of Serbia’s ongoing claims. There are a great many other examples he might have, but did not bother to, cite. In almost all of these cases there is a surfeit rather than a lack of citizenship, states fighting over whose citizenship people should have rather than a state fighting to deny people the right to any citizenship at all. Even more ridiculous is Frum’s analogy between his idea and Israel’s no-peace, no-war arrangement with Syria.

Obviously, there are lots of ethnic and other oppressed minorities, but almost all of them are citizens of the states that oppress them, which affords them some means, even if it’s theoretical at any given time, of pursuing their rights through the political system in which they live. Palestinian citizens of Israel are quite a good example of this. Oppressive governments and dictatorships of any variety can wither away and die over time, they can implode, they can be brought down by revolt or velvet revolution, they come and go. Oppressed citizens, including ethnic or religious minorities, are positioned to take advantage of sudden explosions or gradual accretions of greater rights. Minority groups can and have advanced their communal interests through political and social processes, and this has happened all over the world. The basis for all of this is extremely simple: citizenship. To be the citizen of the Palestinian Authority, or any nonmember state of the United Nations, that is to say any sub-national authority which doesn’t really enjoy sovereignty in its own territory, is meaningless. I can only assume that Frum hasn’t taken this reality into consideration, or he wouldn’t be so glib about it or so blind as to think it’s a sustainable arrangement.

“Obviously,” as he says “it’s not a great deal for the Palestinians” to remain not citizens of the state that truly rules them, and in his vision will continue to rule them, and not citizens of any other state for that matter. Millions of people will therefore be without the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for the foreseeable future because it’s inconvenient for Israel to either give them citizenship or allow them their own independence. The question David Frum needs to ask himself is, were he in this position, would he accept it? Would he allow it in any other context? And if not, what would he do about it? What on earth makes him think this is okay?

Phyllis Chesler’s stupid hatred

I don’t usually use the Ibishblog for this kind of thing, but sometimes variations on a theme are absolutely necessary. As my regular readers will know, I was alarmed enough by the failed Times Square car bomb to agree to a couple of TV interview requests I would’ve normally turned down in recent years, and made, among others, two appearances on Fox News. The first, on the O’Reilly Factor, was largely without incident and was probably as reasonable a discussion as one could expect under the circumstances, although the fundamental premise was predictably off-base. The second was an interview with me by a Fox News journalist called Lauren Green, and I wasn’t aware that once they were done with me, some panel or other discussed my remarks in my absence. I learned this last night when I ran across a blog posting from the anti-Muslim hatemonger Phyllis Chesler, who was apparently part of the conversation about my remarks from which I was excluded. She writes the following instructive rubbish:

Fox News had convened a panel to discuss the relationship between “faith and terrorism.” We began by discussing the interview with Hussein Ibish, formerly the director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, now the Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab American Leadership, a non-member organization. Ibish made a series of false claims, all of which sounded reasonable, “fair,” and logical, and he did so in excellent American English. For example, he said that Muslims were persecuted by pagans when Mohammed was alive and that’s why there are some Qu’ranic verses that encourage or permit violence.
Poppycock! Muslims under Mohammed were busy raping, pillaging, plundering, and enslaving the so-called pagans, trying to convert them; Mohammed and his soldiers genocidally slaughtered the Jewish tribes of Arabia. So, what Ibish is really saying is that when Muslims cannot convert another faith group to Islam, that Muslims feel “persecuted” and therefore resort to violence.
Nothing’s changed.

The only thing Ms. Chesler is right about is that my English is much better than hers. Other than that, her comments are not only hate-filled, they completely misrepresent the substance of my discussion with Ms. Green. Green was asking me about faith and violence in the context of Islamist extremists, and I said I didn’t care for the phrase "religion of peace" which she mentioned, because all religions are social texts determined by the interpretations of their followers and all major religions had historically proven amenable to legitimating both peaceful and aggressive intentions. Green disputed this, saying that the Bible contains a narrative in which the relatively more violent, militaristic Old Testament texts can be reinterpreted in light of the New Testament texts in order to create a peaceful ethos, but that no such narrative existed in the Koran. "Or does it?" she asked me.

I noted first of all that while Green is absolutely right about the way many Christians have interpreted the chronology of scripture composition to allow more peaceful texts to condition the interpretation of more violent ones in the Bible, historically that hasn’t stopped many Christians and Christian societies from behaving in an extremely violent manner, frequently in the name of God. However, I also pointed out that Muslims too have a narrative, which Green was clearly unaware of, that allows for the same kind of interpretation of more violent passages of the Koran in the context of more peaceful ones. I pointed out that the Koran was revealed over a period of historical time and that Muslims are well aware of and have discussed in detail throughout their history the understanding that most of the aggressive and militant passages had to do with the period in which the early Muslims are said to have been persecuted by pagan tribes. It is therefore possible, and indeed common, to find Muslim scholars interpreting the more militant texts in the context of more peace-oriented ones, in a manner that is indeed analogous to the way many Christians interpret the more militant Old Testament texts in the context of the more peace-oriented New Testament ones. Indeed, this process of contrapuntal interpretation is supported by the several passages of the Koran itself, including Surah 2:106. This is an absolutely accurate explanation of an important element of Muslim religious thinking that Green was unaware of and was suggesting doesn’t exist, and it was important to correct her misapprehension. What I was "really saying" was, of course, that there is a strong basis in Islamic theology and doctrine for interpreting more violent texts in the context of more peaceful ones just as there is in Christianity. It’s as simple as that. And it’s true.

From all this, Chesler got the impression, probably willfully but possibly out of ignorance and/or a simple lack of brainpower, that I was justifying Muslim violence by stating as a fact that Muslims were persecuted by pagans when Mohammed was alive. Of course what I was actually doing was defending and explaining peaceful interpretations of Islam. What I understand perfectly well, but she doesn’t, is that in all of these ancient religious narratives we are dealing in the realm of myths and legends, not facts. Green was asking about the supposed lack of any Muslim narrative analogous to the Christian rereading of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and because there is in fact such a narrative I tried to explain it. Chesler leapt to the indefensible conclusion that I was presenting this narrative as a historical fact, when there was nothing whatsoever in my remarks to indicate this, any more than agreeing that Christians have the narrative Green was referring to indicated an acceptance of the literal truth of any aspect of the Bible. Chesler baselessly misrepresents me as endorsing rather than describing this narrative, and accuses me of making "a series of false claims," which is itself a completely false claim.

What’s most amazing about her is that while I’m capable of discussing religious narratives while retaining a healthy understanding that all of this is firmly in the category of myth and legend and not historical fact, she’s certain she knows the historical truth, and of course it’s the most negative possible interpretation of the early history of Islam. Frankly, there isn’t much in the historical record to independently support the Muslim version of events, but that version is the majority of what we have, so while it’s right to view it with skepticism, her complete dismissal of every aspect of the Muslim narrative is even more silly than a complete acceptance of it. Moreover, she is 100% certain, without any historical basis, in describing the early Muslims as pretty much the worst group of people who ever lived in a transparent effort to malign present-day Muslims across the board since "nothing’s changed."

Which brings me to her extremely telling comment that I spoke in "excellent American English" as if this is an extraordinary, eyebrow raising phenomenon. The implication, of course, is that I am some kind of slick, fast-talking Muslim spin merchant serving up to the innocent American viewers a dish of "reasonable, fair and logical sounding" falsehoods all sauced in duplicitously "excellent American English." The point of her intervention is transparently to promote fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam, and to cast me — a skeptical, rational agnostic — preposterously in the role of someone who is surreptitiously justifying Muslim violence in a very crafty manner and in duplicitously good English. Her clear-cut and unavoidable message is: nothing has changed, all the Muslims were always evil and bad or at least extremely dangerous, and they’re all the same, so fear and hate them. She would have made a fantastic Christian or Muslim anti-Semite.