Monthly Archives: December 2011

Ibishblog interview: Mona Kareem, Part 2 – Kuwaiti politics, foreign policy, sectarianism, and tweeting

Below is the second part of the Ibishblog interview with Mona Kareem, the online activist, blogger, tweep and journalist who is a leading advocate for the stateless community of Kuwait. Part one of the interview focused mainly on the issue of the stateless. But I also asked Mona about the recent crisis and the ousting of the former prime minister, the next phase of Kuwaiti politics, sectarianism in the country and its foreign policy, and tweeting and blogging in and about Kuwait.
The replacement of the Prime Minister and the next phase in Kuwaiti politics
Ibishblog: The impression from the outside is that the recent crisis has been very focused on a couple of things. Number one, the former prime minister as an individual, the length of time he had been in office, the resistance of the Emir to replacing him, and ignoring protests by both the public and MPs. Number two is that there appears to be a very serious division within the royal family, although this is rarely seriously discussed or reported on, at least in English, that bubbles beneath a great deal of the unrest. Is there more to it than that? What's going on here? You say Kuwait may be entering a dark era. What exactly do you mean?
Mona Kareem: Many people, including liberals, conservatives, upper-class individuals, Shiites, all of these constituencies in general were essentially against the protests. Half of them wanted to get rid of the former prime minister, and the other half didn't, but they all didn't like the fact that people stormed the Parliament. The Parliament is considered by many the “symbol of democracy,” the Parliament is “public property,” and it was considered improper by very large numbers of people. I understand this, but nonetheless I like the fact that people stormed the Parliament because it was a strong message of people reclaiming their agency and their own house of representation.
However, I am completely dismayed that this protest came to be driven by Members of Parliament. It's totally ridiculous, because they are already there all day in the Parliament and they are the ones who could make changes, and yet they come in the evening, hijacking the protests, creating the wrong image, and using the whole thing for political purposes. Many people felt compelled to support the prime minister just because those Members of Parliament were siding with the opposition, so they just handed him a temporary victory. If it had been just the public against the prime minister, he would have fallen much earlier.
Ibishblog: And this is particularly true of Islamist and Salafist MPs, correct?
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. First of all, they have been bribed by certain parties. They defend Saudi Arabia. They want to change the constitution into a sharia document. For some of them, nothing is proven, and I'm fine with those. But even so, why would they come to the protests? This makes no sense and has never happened in the history of Kuwait, because they are the ones with power and influence, so how would you side with the people against power when you have power? It doesn't make any sense. And of course it just hurts the protests. Two years ago when people started campaigning against the former prime minister, although the movement was really small, it was good and the public was impressed. It raised serious questions in an honest way and developed public interest steadily over time. The reaction from the public was good. Now the country is divided. People like the Shiites are afraid. It's not because of Bahrain, or anything like that. It's because all the potential other candidates for prime minister would not have been good for the Shiites. It's not that they'll do anything particularly bad to them, but they will totally neglect them.
Do you remember when Shiite blogger Nasser Abdul was arrested? Well, in spite of the sectarian remarks that he made, and the question of freedom of speech, which I do respect, this was purely a game between two factions within the royal family. Ahmad Fahad, the man who allied with the Salafists, fueled this whole crisis, although of course the former prime minister was to blame too, and each of them sank lower than the other. The country was in a crisis escalated by both of them for the past five years. This guy was going to get questioned when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, and also the head of two other ministries, and that created a crisis. So this man has always been a source of crises, on and off, and a lightning rod. When the Parliament wanted to question him, he was in a position of not being able to answer these questions so rather than submitting to the grilling, he referred the matter to the Constitutional Court. Parliament was outraged, and said this was completely unconstitutional. Of course he was trying to buy time. And then he resigned even before the Court made any decision. He wanted revenge against the prime minister. He believes the former prime minister left him high and dry to battle alone and failed to protect him. But since they are rivals why would he?
Ibishblog: But these developments escalated the rivalry into a full-blown open confrontation?
Mona Kareem: Yes, because it brought the Parliament into it, and then of course the media, and so ultimately the whole of society was then dragged into it as well.
Ibishblog: And the corruption scandals, or the so-called corruption scandals, are another manifestation of this rivalry?
Mona Kareem: Yes, it's another manifestation, driven by both sides. When you saw the Salafists wanting to question the former prime minister it's because they were being driven by Ahmad Fahad and they allied with him for one reason: because they hate the Shiites, and the Shiites were aligned with the former prime minister. It's as simple as that. But when you saw the Action Block or the liberals wanting to question the former prime minister, they were not driven by Ahmad Fahad. They were being driven by their own agenda of being the opposition. They are more rational, but they had their own agenda.
Ibishblog: Do you believe that the former prime minister is a spent force politically, as it seems, but that Ahmad Fahad could make a comeback?
Mona Kareem: Ahmad Fahad, because he already has made several comebacks in the past, very intelligently, if he gets any opportunity to convince the Emir and the new prime minister to get a position again he has a good chance. He has a very strong base in certain tribes, those who are interested in sports, and because his father is considered a martyr. Some people really value that. So he might push for this in a year or two, and he could make a comeback.
Ibishblog: But right now there is no interest on the part of either the parliament or the government, particularly the Emir, in having another eruption of tensions for the next year or so, so there is likely to be a relatively stable situation politically in Kuwait for the next 12 months or thereabouts?
Mona Kareem: This is what the two powers want. The government doesn't want to have any more problems, and go through another cycle of upheaval, while the opposition doesn't want to be seen by the public as continuously creating crises, as they have often been accused of.
Ibishblog: You've argued that the Islamists were able to somehow spin the removal of the prime minister as their achievement and will benefit from it politically. How do you think it's all playing out?
Mona Kareem: Historically, the Islamists have never been part of the opposition, and only recently became combative in order to try to recoup their recent electoral losses. It was the only way for a political comeback from the setback they had in the last election. They took advantage of the opposition's victory to claim credit, and are well-positioned to come back strongly. But we're not witnessing anything like the scenario in Egypt, where they are a strong majority, or even in Tunisia where they became a major force. In Kuwait they've never exceeded six seats out of 50 in Parliament, and even if they do, they'll never become a majority or even reach a third. They were never able to form any alliances in Parliament in the past. It was only in this last Parliament, because of the tensions between the Parliament and the government, that they were able to form any kind of alliance with the Action Block, which is the most popular group, and this alliance I think will expand with the coming elections.
Now, these groups have two different agendas. The Action Block is conservative and is most interested in legislation on housing, and social services, but they really don't care about the Islamist interest in censorship and such things. However, when their political interests come into play they think about their bases, and they think about various communities potentially strengthening or undermining them. One of the biggest examples of this would be gender segregation in education. Ideologically, the Action Block doesn't support this, but when it came to voting on it, they decided to support it because they have a lot of constituents who are in favor of it. So the way the Action Block panders to their voters often ends up helping the Islamists. They have different agendas, but mutual interests, and the Islamists get a lot more benefit from this.
Ibishblog: Because being aligned with the strongest party benefits the Islamists more than it benefits the Action Block?
Mona Kareem: Also you have to remember that most of the Islamists come from tribal backgrounds, and the Action Block knows that if they align with them they are winning over all of the people in those tribes, and getting more "Islamic credentials."
Ibishblog: Where does that leave the bidoun issue? It seems to be escalating, but isn't there the possibility that a more stable political situation in Kuwait, within the Kuwaiti elite and between the government and the opposition, could actually open space for raising the issue of the stateless?
Mona Kareem: Well, this is really the first time in a long time that we as a community have become so active, and that's a very important factor. We need political stability in the country in order to have our issue seriously considered. As long as there is all of this tension between the government and the opposition, or within Parliament, most people will think, "who cares about them." When there is stability, this opens space to ask questions, the issue will get more attention, international organizations will become more concerned, there will be more media interest and a lot more possibilities. During the past year because of the political instability, the issue has been completely forgotten. Any laws redressing our situation will have to be passed by the Parliament. In recent years with this "Central Committee on the Stateless," they've been doing whatever they want because of the tensions, but when there is more space and ability to focus on other issues in Parliament, there are possibilities for us. I'm not suggesting most of the parliament is sympathetic to the bidoun, on the contrary most are against us. Even those who do raise the issue are doing so for ulterior motives or political interests, mostly reaching out to those Kuwaitis who have bidoun relatives and trying to get their support and votes. But if there is political stability, at least there will be more of that.
Ibishblog: Is there any chance of getting more friends in Parliament after the February elections?
Mona Kareem: We've seen something new recently. One of the most prominent figures in the Action Block and another very prominent figure from the Muslim Brotherhood (the Islamists, by the way, have always been against the bidoun or at least avoided talking about the issue) came to the most recent demonstrations to show support for the protesters who were being beaten. And this is quite a big step, to show this kind of support. Now they are only two people, but they are two very prominent individuals in these two groups, very powerful and influential in their own circles, and this might have an impact in the coming parliament with the expected victory for both of these groups and their alliance. If they have more seats, then they will have more power, and if they are more sympathetic, there's more chance they will push for some improvements. Of course, maybe they only showed up for media attention or something. We can't really know their intentions. But this is really new, especially coming from the Islamist party, and of course he's only one man, but he really is an important representative of the whole group.
Sectarianism in Kuwait and its foreign policy
Ibishblog: Let's talk about sectarianism in Kuwait. It looks like it's contained, angry but contained as far as I can tell. Is that right?
Mona Kareem: Discrimination in Kuwait is the norm. It has always existed, it will continue to exist for a really long time, and it has many layers. Sectarian discrimination is only one form. But there are many factors, such as your origin, your family, your status, who you know, how much money you have, where your mother is from, and so forth. The whole problem is very complex. And sectarianism is just one aspect. Sectarianism has always existed. I don't respect those people who say, “no, we never had it.” That's bullshit. My perspective might sound Western, but I measure discrimination on the basis of marriage. If you have a problem letting your son or daughter marry someone from another sect or group, then you are sectarian. I don't care if you have 10 Shiite friends. You're a sectarian.
Ibishblog: I don't see why that value should be considered “Western.” I don't see how toleration of differences should be regarded as a uniquely Western value at all and I think there are Middle Eastern traditions of that and Western traditions of not having that at all. So I don't understand that accusation.
Mona Kareem: But that's what people tell me all the time. They always say, “no, that's just in the West, that's only a Western perspective, and you don't need intermarriage to prove you are not sectarian” and I say, "no, that's not true. If you have a problem with it, you're a sectarian." I don't care if you eat food with a Shiite. That doesn't prove you're not sectarian. Agreeing to intermarriage does prove it.
I'm particularly interested in the case of the activist Khaled Al-Fadala, who I admire a lot even though he made many mistakes. For instance, he organized protests nobody came to, and a bad protest is worse than no protest at all. He was arrested last year for accusing the former Prime Minister of corruption, and even though I disagree with him on many things, I admire him a lot. He even participated in a Shiite-led protest against repression in Bahrain, and he gave a speech saying, “all of us, Sunnis and Shiites, are united, and I love the Bahraini people,” and described how during the Iraqi invasion his family went to Bahrain and was hosted there and protected. So this was very beautiful and sentimental and he emphasized the need to prevent tensions in Bahrain from spreading sectarianism in Kuwait. He insisted, rightly, that it's different in Kuwait than it is in Bahrain and we can't let such things happen here.
Ibishblog: What kind of relationship does Saudi Arabia have with Kuwait, and the broader GCC? From the outside it looks like with the intervention in Bahrain and some other moves over the past 12 months, the Saudis have been very carefully letting everybody know that they are the big brother in the Gulf and they are in charge ultimately. It's a collective security thing and domestic/foreign distinctions break down at a certain point, and if the Qataris want to try to do things in Libya or places like that it's okay, but not in the GCC states, and there is one dominant player there. Do you agree with that, and where does Kuwait fit within the six GCC states?
Mona Kareem: I believe our case is different. I really love the foreign policy of Kuwait. I think it's the best in the region. Kuwait refused to participate in the Peninsula Shield operation in Bahrain. When there was an attempt to include Jordan and Morocco in the GCC, Kuwait had a really smart reaction, which was that we welcome their applications. They didn't say we either approve or disapprove of it, and this is because the Emir worked for four decades in the field of diplomacy. Unlike all the other previous rulers of Kuwait, this is the only guy who has had such long experience in diplomacy and he knows how to deal with it. That's one. Number two, he completely refused any attempts to get Kuwait involved in the Iranian-Saudi clash.
So after the intervention in Bahrain, he met with the editors in chief of all the newspapers — and he always does that whenever there is a crisis because he wants them to reflect his opinion — and he told them, “we are a small country, between two giants, don't dare make any remarks against Iran, and certainly not against Saudi Arabia.” So the media is critical, but usually wise, and respectful of his foreign policy because they don't want to enrage people. But there is also the line in some parts of the media similar to the one used in Bahrain about "Iranian intervention." They don't say the word “Shiite” but it's very clear what they mean. So that definitely exists too.
Ibishblog: Has anyone ever suggested the existence of a "Hezbollah Kuwait?"
Mona Kareem: Yes, of course. It's true we do have a representative of Hezbollah in Kuwait. He's a Kuwaiti, but he represents Hezbollah of Lebanon. But there's no Kuwaiti Hezbollah organization. Of course some people do talk about a "Hezbollah Kuwait." But the good thing about Kuwait, and I mean especially the Emir himself, is that he refuses any attempts to make us follow this line or fall into this trap. And I just love it. I really love it. I think if we were still ruled by the former Emir and the situation in Bahrain was as it is now, our troops would actually be there. But this Emir is very smart when it comes to foreign policy and doesn't fall into such traps.
Ibishblog: So, it is respectful but relatively independent relations with Saudi Arabia, within the bounds of what is possible?
Mona Kareem: Yes. And especially over the past two years if you go through the Foreign Ministry statements, you can see how intelligently they have been conducting things, and emphasizing that we are independent, and not allowing ourselves to get dragged into any unnecessary entanglements. But of course there's no challenge to Saudi authority either. Kuwait is not interested in that.
Ibishblog: What's the relationship between Kuwait and Qatar?
Mona Kareem: It's very neutral. Just like it is with Poland [laughs]. Nothing special. That's the Emir's policy: we are not friends or enemies of anyone, except the US. Kuwait only has a clear stand towards the US, which is extremely friendly.
Ibishblog: What about the idea of moving more US troops into Kuwait? There's been some talk of that.
Mona Kareem: It's definitely going to happen, of course.
Tweeting about Kuwait 
Ibishblog: You tweet a lot and I'm completely amazed to find that I can't follow any basic news from Kuwait properly, in English at least, without following your Twitter feed, along with occasional analysis and some longer articles by two noted US professors who specialize in the country. And that's kind of about it. In Arabic there is all kinds of stuff, but it tends to get pretty crazy pretty quickly. So, how did you come to Twitter and how do you find it's affected your own online activities and your relationship with your readers, because you are a writer. Without doubt, you're young but still a fully-fledged writer, not only literary but political.
Mona Kareem: Well, all these things I tweet about specifically regarding Kuwait, of course, is because I am from the country. It's true that I moved to the United States three months ago, but I still have very strong ties to all those people, especially activists on the ground. You can understand the problem with tweeting about Kuwait if you look at what happened with blogging in Kuwait. The first generation of bloggers in Kuwait spoke fluent English, and actually were almost all US graduates, but they didn't write in English. They wrote in Arabic for two reasons. First, because the outside world doesn't really care about what's going on in Kuwait. Maybe now they do, but not then. So, they never saw an outside interest, only a domestic one. Second, Kuwaitis don't seek support or care about any international view about what's going on in their country. They think they can handle everything on their own. At least that was true until the recent crisis. In Egypt, for example, people would blog in English because the outside world certainly cared about Egyptian politics and the crimes of the state, and what have you. But in Kuwait there aren't such severe crimes, or at least there have not been, and there was no real motivation to write in English. And if your audience is only Kuwaiti, they like you if you write in Arabic, especially with the Kuwaiti style.
Bloggers in Kuwait in 2006 did something phenomenal, which I don't think has a parallel anywhere in the world. The bloggers said, "We don't like our electoral system. It really supports discrimination and supports getting members of Parliament that are only representative of their tribes or certain families. We want change." So they created a manifesto, they went to the Parliament, they laid down tents, they stayed there for about two weeks, and then the law was passed. This is something phenomenal.
But it created the momentum for the second generation of bloggers. And this group is really bad, I would say. Because the first generation of bloggers was highly praised in Kuwait, many people wanted to be like them. And the new generation came from a different background. They came out of public educational institutions in Kuwait. They came with a lot of prejudices and don't have any background in politics or human rights, etc. So, blogging became very bad, and as a consequence the first-generation bloggers quit blogging altogether. They basically said, "we can't take it anymore."
So now, we are experiencing almost the same thing on Twitter, especially regarding tweeting in English. It's fascinating that the really smart tweeps in Kuwait are exactly the same people who were the first-generation bloggers. But, when the storming of parliament happened, pretty much all of them were opposed to it and they found the entire thing barbaric, while at the same time they were almost all against the former prime minister. And now, it's becoming obvious that they are getting sick of it. Again they're confronting the same dilemma with Twitter that they did with blogging: the whole thing is being dominated and hijacked by the wrong people and they are going dormant and staying quiet because they can't take it anymore. It's not because they're afraid, but they just feel it's a hopeless case. Too many people are taking it too far, and there's too much reactionary nonsense being posted. And the quality is becoming too low and they don't want to be part of it.
My number one motive for tweeting is that I see a lot of misperceptions about Kuwait and the Gulf. Sometimes people call me defensive.
Ibishblog: Actually, I think you're brutally honest.
Mona Kareem: Thank you.
Ibishblog: Most importantly in terms of domestic Kuwaiti politics, when you've been writing about recent events you've been honest enough to acknowledge the extent to which so much of this is driven by rifts within the royal family, and that's something almost nobody writes about in English. They hint at it at times, maybe, and there are the two noted US professors who sometimes hint at it gingerly, but for whatever reason so-called analysts and journalists that write about Kuwait in English for the most part never mention it, even though it's so central.
Mona Kareem: Journalists and columnists in Kuwait write about it in Arabic all the time. But you're right, people who write about Kuwait in English, for whatever reason, continuously avoid the subject. I don't have any idea why. There's no reason they need to or should. But for some reason they do. Yeah.

Hamas on the move

Hamas is on the move, both literally and figuratively, but how far it
can and will go very much remains to be determined.

Hamas is in an impossible position, given the regional realignments
following from the Arab uprisings, and is frantically trying to adjust
without paying too high a price.

For more than a decade, Hamas’ strategy was based on being
simultaneously allied with both the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network
and the, essentially, Shiite, Iranian-led alliance. This incongruous
ideological contortion was made possible by a narrative embraced by
both of these broader anti-status quo alignments: that the Middle East
was the site of a trans-historic battle between a “culture of
resistance” and a “culture of accommodation.”

This narrative has collapsed completely, and is rapidly being replaced
by a new sectarian order pitting Sunni actors, including both Arab
governments and Islamists, as well as Turkey, against what is now
perceived as the non- or even anti-Sunni alliance led by Iran. This
realignment has been most starkly illustrated in Syria, whose
pro-Iranian government is now supported entirely by non-Sunni forces
in the Middle East and opposed by virtually all Sunni ones.

Hamas can no longer have a foot in each of these camps when they are
increasingly at odds, often in existential ways. The movement’s
political bureau cannot long remain based in Damascus since the Syrian
Muslim Brotherhood is a core part of the uprising trying to overthrow
the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The break with Assad also means a break
with Tehran.

Hamas needs not only a new home but also new sponsors and a new
regional profile, since the strategic landscape in which it operates
has shifted so dramatically.

Literally on the move, its de facto “prime minister” in Gaza, Ismail
Haniyyeh, is planning a tour of Arab states, beginning with Qatar and
possibly including Turkey. Khaled Meshaal, who heads Hamas’ political
bureau, meanwhile, has been trying to engineer a reconciliation with
Jordan, and has been planning a trip there that has yet to happen.
Both sides insist this has not been canceled.

Figuratively on the move, Meshaal, according to Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed that resistance to occupation must be
nonviolent and must seek to create a Palestinian state based on the
1967 borders. A spokesman for Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to
confirm these commitments, but reiterated that Hamas would not
recognize Israel.

This apparently difficult readjustment has exposed latent tensions
within Hamas. The organization is divided along multiple axes, but the
most obvious is the division between many in the leadership in Gaza,
which is entrenched in power and only stands to lose from any changes,
and the external leadership, which has no choice but to urgently find
new headquarters and patrons.

This squabble has been most publicly expressed in an ongoing feud
between Meshaal  and a Hamas hardliner in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar. In
May, Zahhar was harshly critical of Meshaal for recognizing the
authority of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization to
negotiate with Israel. Worse still, he questioned the authority of the
political bureau itself, claiming, “the leadership is here [in Gaza],
and the part that is abroad is just a part of that.”

However, Meshaal reportedly retains the support of key Hamas leaders,
including Ahmed Jabari, the head of its paramilitary Ezzedine
al-Qassam brigades. The group reportedly imposed “severe disciplinary
measures” against Zahhar in response to his challenge to the authority
of Meshaal and the political bureau.

The big question is whether Hamas’ need to adjust to the changing Arab
political order will compel the movement to moderate its positions.
Probably not if Hamas can help it, for it remains locked in a
long-term power struggle with Fatah over leadership of the Palestinian
national movement. Yet its ability to remain a viable contender for
such leadership cannot be based on Islamist social conservatism alone.
If it cannot outbid the PLO when it comes to the struggle with Israel,
it’s hard to see what its broad appeal will be.

Hamas is hoping that the Arab uprisings will strengthen its hand by
bringing its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in numerous Arab
states. It has reportedly recently formally joined an international
umbrella group of the Brotherhood movement. But as it has to abandon
the Iranian-Syrian alliance and explore deeper relations with Qatar,
Egypt and even Jordan, Hamas will be dealing with states that, at
least for now, will not be willing to take responsibility for the
movement’s traditional policies and actions.

The outcome of the Arab uprisings and realignment writ large will
probably determine the future of Hamas. Fatah, too, will have to
adjust to the emerging strategic and political environment. These new
regional realities will probably affect the future of both
organizations more than anything the Palestinian groups decide
independently or between themselves.

Ibishblog interview: Mona Kareem, Part 1 – The stateless issue and the bidoun of Kuwait

Social media is still mainly dominated by two vehicles: Facebook and Twitter. And they couldn't be more different. Facebook is heavy, cumbersome to use, intrusive, and an extremely poor way of exchanging information. It feels burdensome and almost as if it were designed to allow people to check up on each other in an often unhealthy manner. That said, it's probably indispensable for people involved in trying to disseminate their views; more's the pity. Twitter, on the other hand, is light, flexible, easy to use, easy to follow. Despite its 140 character limitations, it's an infinitely more powerful vehicle for exchanging information. Indeed, I think the character limits, although they can be gotten around in various ways, impose an interesting and useful discipline. Of course neither of them lends themselves to satire or irony, and both are open to serious misunderstandings.
But while Facebook is basically an unavoidable nuisance, Twitter has become an indispensable means of following the news and exchanging ideas. I've learned almost nothing on Facebook, but I've learned an incredible amount on Twitter. And I've gotten to know a number of very interesting minds and personalities on Twitter that I otherwise did not have access to before (again, this barely applies at all to Facebook, with perhaps one exception to an otherwise utterly barren ledger on that account).
One of the most interesting people I've come to know through Twitter is Mona Kareem, a poet, journalist, blogger and tweep who also happens to be bidoun jinsiya – “without citizenship” – from Kuwait. First, it's almost impossible to follow events in Kuwait quickly and efficiently in English — and in many cases at all — without consulting her Twitter feed (@monakareem), which does the work of 20 typical Middle East journalists. I'd go so far as to call it indispensable. More significantly, through her tweets and blogs she's introduced me, and I'm sure a lot of other people, to not only up-to-date information but background details on an issue we either didn't know about or, in my case, knew about only very vaguely: the plight of the stateless of Kuwait. It's all the more fascinating that she's only 23, has been in the United States for a few months as a graduate student studying comparative literature (my own PhD discipline, as it happens) and working on the beat generation (William S. Burroughs being a particular favorite of mine). To top it off, she seems to have a healthy taste for the blues and an even healthier distaste for the religious right of all stripes.
Given this extraordinary combination, I sought out the opportunity to interview Mona in person at the end of November, with a quick phone follow-up a couple of days ago, to talk about a variety of issues, particularly that of the bidoun in Kuwait, Kuwaiti politics, and the tweeting and blogging scene in her country. What follows is part one of this interview, one of the most interesting conversations I've had in quite a long time. It began in a most extraordinary manner: she showed me some documents, the like of which I've never seen before. First, there was her silver Kuwaiti travel document, as opposed to the normal blue Kuwaiti passports issued to citizens, which literally identified her as an “illegal resident” of the country. The visas in it were equally interesting, and in some cases almost as horrifying. And, what passed for a driver's permit that was issued to her was positively scandalous. It looked like the crudest forgery slapped up by some feckless teenagers hepped up on goofballs. I'm used to seeing the "travel documents," “permits,” “IDs,” and other inherently insulting documents issued by some Arab states to Palestinian refugees, particularly those in Lebanon. But I've never seen these, and in themselves they told quite a horrifying story.
And, as I write, today the bidoun in Kuwait are again protesting, and again facing not only severe repression which is not meted to out those deemed "citizens" by the Kuwaiti government, but also facing the added insult of continuously having to show their IDs since protesting is, as she points out, a "right" at best reserved for Kuwaiti “citizens.” It's all being barely covered by the media, particularly in English, but this ongoing outrage deserves serious consideration by all of those who care about human rights, particularly in the Arab world. In Mona, the stateless of Kuwait have, as you'll quickly note, a remarkable young advocate.
Part 1: The stateless issue and the bidoun of Kuwait
Ibishblog: Let's start with the most important issue, the stateless issue, since I've seen your passport, or rather your travel document, and it's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. I've seen a lot of Palestinian travel documents, but this is something completely different. Before we get into what it allows you to do and doesn't allow you to do, I'd like to talk about the bidoun and the status of stateless people in Kuwait. Were you born in Kuwait?
Mona Kareem: Yes. My dad was born in Kuwait, my grandfather was born in Kuwait. We all have documents that prove that. My father served in the government for three decades, and he himself has a Kuwaiti passport. Until the 1990s, there was no such thing as this grey stateless passport. After the Iraqi invasion, there was a real problem with people who needed to travel and had medical issues and so forth, and they needed a solution.
Ibishblog: So it's effectively a travel document? But it emphasizes that you're not a citizen of Kuwait. Can you explain to us in the simplest possible terms the categories of citizenship in Kuwait and Article 17?
Mona Kareem: The first category of citizenship applies to those who've been there supposedly since the 1920s, and although this is what the Constitution says there are people who have gotten it although they do not qualify in that way. Some have come in the 60s and 70s and have gotten it. Most of this is what we could call “political naturalization.” In the 1970s there was mass citizenship awarded to a tribe from Saudi Arabia for strategic and political reasons. It was because a major politician needed a constituency to support his fortunes, status and power.
Ibishblog: He needed a base?
Mona Kareem: Yes, exactly, he needed a base. And that's what he did, and people were amazed. The good thing about it is that when this happened, no one stopped it but even the royal family opposed it. In the beginning they didn't allow them to go into the military, the National Guard, and other sensitive positions. But eventually they gave up, and said, "well, we can't really keep excluding them," and now those people have been there for generations and they're just part of the first-class citizenry.
Ibishblog: So that's category one?
Mona Kareem: Yes, then there's category two, who can vote, but cannot run for electoral office. For example, I have a category two friend who got this citizenship because her relatives are article one citizens, so she's naturalized but not fully. Such people would normally fall under the first category, but their file is missing something, so they get the second category. And sometimes someone would be placed into the fifth category of naturalization, so the second generation would then get the second category. And then maybe the third generation might get the first.
Ibishblog: Possibly, or not?
Mona Kareem: Yes. The problem is the law is not detailed, and it's very bureaucratic and arbitrary.
Ibishblog: And it's subjective?
Mona Kareem: Yes, because the Kuwaiti constitution says after 20 years you should be a first-class citizen. And then there is also Article 8, which is mostly given to women who marry Kuwaiti men, who get a kind of citizenship. They cannot pass their citizenship to their children, but they get their citizenship from their fathers. Of course children cannot be Kuwaiti from their mothers. After women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, that was on their agenda: to allow citizenship to pass from mothers, but of course with this political crisis we're in now, no one is talking about that anymore. Honestly, I think it's a hopeless case.
Ibishblog: Well, that's standard in much of the Arab world, even in countries that are not protecting small groups of wealth and privilege.
Mona Kareem: I took part in campaigns that had to do with that, and also I worked with female political candidates, and what is shocking is not only that the society refuses it, but that even women are refusing it. Particularly women who belong to the upper classes, who get married within their own class, don't really care if you marry someone who's not Kuwaiti.
Ibishblog: So, they're protecting their own privilege?
Mona Kareem: Exactly. One of the most fundamental issues regarding statelessness in Kuwait and class differentiations has to do with ego. People always ask, "why should I be equal to this person?" This is said openly, and with no embarrassment. "I was here first, you were here later, so how can you be equal to me?" Or, "I am from this family, or from this class, so how can we be in the same group, that's just unacceptable."
Ibishblog: How many citizenship categories are there, roughly?
Mona Kareem: I think it's about five.
Ibishblog: Now Article 17 would be the most difficult, and this affects the stateless of bidoun origin, but that mainly covers people who've been in Kuwait for generations, and so we're talking about people who theoretically under the law should be first-class citizenship Kuwaitis?
Mona Kareem: No, according to law, if you are not traceable to 1922, you are not a first-class citizen. And because Kuwait wasn't a state before the 60s, many bidoun cannot prove they were in the remote areas at any given time. There is a gentleman who was the minister of information in Kuwait for a short time, and he now owns the number-one online newspaper, but he has no evidence that his family was there in the 1920s. There are bidoun Kuwaitis. But everyone knows that he and his family were there before the 1920s.
Ibishblog: So popular opinion and what's called “common knowledge” determines a great deal about what happens to any given family. So, under Article 17, As a stateless resident, what rights do you have, and what do you not have? Obviously that "passport" is a difficult thing to use internationally for travel, but I'm not really interested in travel. I'm more interested in what you can do and not do inside Kuwait.
Mona Kareem: The Kuwaiti citizenship law says if you have documents proving that you were present before 1965, and that's what most of the bidoun have, counted in the census, or that you have served the country in one way or another, for example the majority who were killed in the Iraqi occupation were stateless bidoun, and the majority of those imprisoned by the Iraqis were also stateless, but that doesn't earn anybody any extra status. The relatives of those who died during the occupation are still stateless. Those whose fathers died fighting for Kuwait in 1967 and 1973 and those who were also killed during the assassination attempt against the Emir in the 80s, all their families are still stateless. And this is the most unfair situation of all, because these are martyrs for the country. There are hundreds of such cases.
Ibishblog: Is it the case that they are recognized to be martyrs and praised but it just doesn't affect their legal and political status and that of their families?
Mona Kareem: They are recognized by the “Office of Martyrs,” which determines who qualifies as a martyr or not, and they're all recognized, but people are always assured there will be some kind of reward and there never is one. There is one additional article, which is very interesting, which says that if you are an Arab who has been in Kuwait for over 20 years, you can actually apply for citizenship. But in practice this is completely impossible. I think if someone tries, they will just laugh at them.
Ibishblog: That part is well known in the Arab world. You could be there, your children could be there, your grandchildren, it doesn't matter. If you're not a Kuwaiti, you're not going to become a Kuwaiti. This much is well-known in the rest of the Arab world, but not the stateless issue.
Mona Kareem: On the stateless inside Kuwait, there is a secret document from 1986 leaked later on, that was signed by prominent Kuwaiti figures that held that “we are spending too much money on these stateless, we need to stop it,” because they used to be treated exactly like Kuwaitis except for citizenship. Except for some social services and housing, they got exactly the same treatment. As far as education, scholarships to the outside, anything you can think of except for housing and some small privileges like marriage loans, but all the important things, like the documents and the IDs, and everything, was Kuwaiti.
Ibishblog: Is the existence of this document denied or confirmed, or people just don't talk about it?
Mona Kareem: They don't talk about it but they can't deny it because it definitely exists. And it has been recognized by international organizations. All the major refugee and human rights organizations recognize and refer to it. So the plan was to gradually cut off the rights of the stateless, and the first step was to not let them get into Kuwait University. Up until 2002, there were no private universities in Kuwait, and the new private universities in Kuwait are extremely expensive, so even most Kuwaitis can't afford it. Only Kuwaitis of high status can get in, and some others get sponsored by the government because Kuwait University is overloaded and they prefer to send some people to private universities. Especially after the invasion, and when a lot of the bidoun left to Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Jordan, in other words escaping, Kuwait did something really horrible. No one is acknowledging this, even the rights organizations, which is that Kuwait used the invasion and the liberation to not let bidoun back. There is a very well-known case of a family of one of the martyrs who served in the Army for three decades and was killed by the Iraqis and his family is locked out in Jordan with no documents and they will not let them back.
Ibishblog: So they're in Jordan, but they're not Jordanians.
Mona Kareem: No, they went there because they escaped the invasion and they can't come back, because Kuwait said, “anyone who went out is not coming back.” The only ones who came back were the ones from Saudi Arabia because the Saudis insisted on this. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein started trying to use them as cards, and he exploited the issue. It got worse, especially in the 90s, with the interior minister Muhammad Al-Khaled, who was the harshest.
Ibishblog: He has quite a reputation.
Mona Kareem: Yes, and he was completely against giving the stateless any form of documentation and not until he left the ministry did anyone start to get any documents.
Ibishblog: This was just after 2000?
Mona Kareem: Yes. So we started to be able to get drivers licenses, for instance here's mine. It's handwritten.
Ibishblog: I shouldn't laugh, but it's ridiculous. It looks like you made it in your kitchen.
Mona Kareem: I've personally been stopped several times by police officers and they question the legitimacy of this paper. I say, “ask your government, I didn't issue this." And they just let me go because, you know, it's so ridiculous and those guys have no clear orders on how to deal with us and they don't know what to do. Sometimes if they are bad people, they have complete authority to take you to the police station and start an investigation and God knows when you're going to get out. But most of the time it's too confusing even for them, and they just give up. As for the civil IDs, we don't get the regular ones. We get a huge one. And the size is meant to distinguish us from everybody else. It's green, not white like all the others, and it's embarrassing, and it says “illegal resident” in its status category. And it doesn't count as a civil ID, because you cannot use it in court and you cannot use it to get a work contract.
Ibishblog: So it's just an identification paper, nothing else, but designed to distinguish you very clearly from everybody else, almost like a stigma?
Mona Kareem: Yes, and the employment authorities, when employers suggested they would like to hire bidoun, because they are cheap labor, on a contract basis, and it would be stipulated that they don't get any benefits, the employment authorities said, "there is a clear law that no one can be hired without a civil ID, so you guys figure this out." They wouldn't cross that line. The problem is that in Kuwait everything goes through the Parliament, but the government did something extraordinary in this case that no one objected to by forming the “Central Committee for the Stateless.” This is about three years ago. This is headed by Salah Fadalah, one of the most aggressive enemies of the bidoun. He used to be an MP, and he is of high-status merchant family background.
Ibishblog: So it's more a class and chauvinistic thing?
Mona Kareem: Yes, and he made many insulting remarks against the bidoun.
Ibishblog: And so they put him in charge?
Mona Kareem: Kind of, yeah. When the bidoun protested, they carried his picture with Hitler's mustache on him, calling him a racist, and things like that. And although people protested and said, "if someone really hates us, why put them in charge of us, he can't solve our problems, he's just against us." But, whenever he gets interviewed, he always promises to work on things and claims lots of money is spent on our education, and so forth.
Ibishblog: Now, when this committee was created, no one in Parliament objected?
Mona Kareem: Only the bidoun supporters that we could call independent/conservatives objected because they have a lot of voters who have bidoun relatives, so they did it just as a statement. This Committee falls under the interior minister. Technically it should be under the Parliament, but it is functioning completely independently with no oversight.
Ibishblog: As is tradition.
Mona Kareem: On the passport issue, no bidoun has the right to have a passport. It is being done on an exceptional basis. Everyone who gets one is an exception.
Ibishblog: Now, does that apply to your travel document?
Mona Kareem: Yes, I'm the luckiest of my community. There is almost no one is lucky as me. There are many factors: my family, that we are in the 1965 census, my father served three decades in the government, I worked as a journalist for five years, I am a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton, which also helps, and sometimes showing proof that you are accepted in major foreign universities helps — not all the time but sometimes. But mostly, it's motivated because Kuwait wants people to leave.
Ibishblog: So go there, study, and stay there and become a professor in Binghamton?
Mona Kareem: Yes, don't come back. And also if you can prove that you have certain diseases you cannot cure in Kuwait you might be allowed to travel for medical reasons, if there is a foreign hospital that will take you.
Ibishblog: So everything is on an exceptional basis?
Mona Kareem: Yes, everything is exceptional. There are no clear numbers, but our perception is that about 20 percent of bidoun got passports. Pretty much everybody applied, but about 80 percent were rejected.
Ibishblog: We hear numbers of approximately 120,000 of Bidoun in Kuwait, but we don't know. What's your sense?
Mona Kareem: Minimum 100,000. Kuwait does know, of course. Kuwait has been keeping track for a very long time. But they do not say. The last time they said anything, they said it was 100,000. The community believes it is 120,000.
Ibishblog: That's the number I see usually cited. That would be the largest group in the Gulf, maybe more than in Saudi Arabia?
Mona Kareem: I don't know about Saudi Arabia because it's really complicated, but certainly compared to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, it's much the largest number. There is a problem everywhere, but no one is like our case where we can prove our residency for so many generations, given our numbers, and given the sacrifices I mentioned.
Ibishblog: The protests we saw emerging earlier in the year were only the latest of many previous protests.
Mona Kareem: In the past, there were very small numbers, you would only see 50 or 100 people coming out at a time.
Ibishblog: Okay, but this year they were pretty big, enough to garner the world's attention.
Mona Kareem: And especially with the Arab Spring, of course.
Ibishblog: As with the protests in Bahrain, this was maybe Arab Spring-inspired, but had much earlier roots. I mean the grievances are more specific than the general grievances of the Arabs that we've had enough of dictators. So have the protests increased, or have they ebbed and flowed, or what?
Mona Kareem: No, they began in February but at that point the entire society began making extremely discriminatory remarks about the bidoun, particularly on call-in talk shows, in which people would say, "throw them out, burn them, we don't want to see them, destroy their houses on their heads," and things like that. Either these people are chauvinistic or they are ignorant.
Ibishblog: What does the government say? What do they say about all of this? What does the average citizen of Kuwait think about all of this? What goes on in their imagination?
Mona Kareem: Well, it depends on your community but as far as the merchant class and the high class is concerned, we all came after the invasion. We "forged our documents," they don't know about the census, and we are just "greedy and want to take their money" away from them. And the general opinion is we came mainly from Iraq, because that invokes the hatred more than anything else. And of course the newspapers in Kuwait, because they're owned by merchants, when we protested, leaders of the bidoun community said they were meeting with leaders of Iraq to compare records of those in Iraq, and see who was from where and what happened. So then there were accusations of collusion with Iraq and all kinds of other accusations that the bidoun would be exposed as Iraqis or agents of Iraq. The bidoun community, of course, said “we didn't know about this meeting,” and this was all part of a generalized tendency to try to say of us that we are simply not Kuwaitis.
Ibishblog: Do you have supporters within mainstream Kuwaiti society?
Mona Kareem: Of course, yes, and they should be credited, especially the activists. There are lots. But also there are tendencies in the community to group together.
Ibishblog: I'm still curious about some aspects of support you get from some elements of mainstream, privileged Kuwaiti society, whatever it may be, maybe not royals, but whatever, tell me about that?
Mona Kareem: Some activists, some professors, people in different fields try to help. Like for example, you have the Kuwait Human Rights Society, three of them are sympathizers and try to help. And they make statements in support of us, and whatever. When after the protests, there were 100 men seized by the security forces, and they were tortured, members of the Society talk to them, took evidence, and that kind of thing, but they're not putting it out because the victims are afraid. But what is ironic is that the head of this group, Ali Al-Baghli, has made some of the worst racist remarks against the bidoun. He said something along the lines that we have no honor, a commonly-used term against the stateless, and also implied an Iraqi origin, which is a huge stigma in Kuwait. There are bidoun from Saudi Arabian or Iranian origin, but they tend to stick to themselves.
Ibishblog: The fact that they have ethnic or sectarian differences from the rest of Kuwaiti society makes them less dangerous than those who are Arab and Sunni, no?
Mona Kareem: Yes. Definitely. And also, they don't want to belong with the rest of the bidoun, so generally they marry each other, so these identities are, over time, disappearing. And more of these got citizenship than the rest during periods of nationalization over the past couple of decades.
Ibishblog: How long have you been writing about this?
Mona Kareem: I'd say five years.
Ibishblog: And what kind of reaction did you get when you were writing inside Kuwait?
Mona Kareem: I'll give you two examples. When I used to write as a blogger with a nickname, I got mixed comments, but mostly very respectful even if they didn't agree with me. This was because at the time the blogosphere was limited and had a certain audience.
Ibishblog: Which was literate, educated, online with access to the Internet, and all that at that time, so self-selected with a certain degree of civility? It was hard for a rabble to get involved?
Mona Kareem: A lot of them were opposed to my ideas because with the political naturalization in the 70s, people were afraid that the bidoun would be used for political purposes. But they wouldn't use any derogatory terms, which is good. But a speech I gave on the issue was published by several newspapers online and in print in Kuwait, and you have no idea what kind of comments I got. There were more than 200 comments, without even mentioning what was brought up on Twitter and so forth, people claiming, “you are Iraqi,” “our kids have to go to training colleges in Kuwait while this girl studies in New York,” and a lot of them emphasized the accusation that I am somehow Iraqi. It was a very abusive response. A lot of it was very personal, attacking my dad, because he is also a columnist and short story writer, and has a public profile. So they attacked my family as well.
Ibishblog: The bidoun movement, is it basically Kuwait-specific or is it hooked up with broader bidoun issues throughout the region?
Mona Kareem: No, it's very localized to Kuwait.
Ibishblog: So, each bidoun community in each state deals with its problems on a state-by-state basis?
Mona Kareem: There is no bidoun activism in the GCC states except in Kuwait. The rest are not active. I know some guys in the UAE who tell me that "if we even think about it, let alone do it, it's going to be so risky that it's out of the question." And, among the arrested online activists in the UAE, one of them was Bidoun. And he's the one getting the least international and regional attention, and no one has really acknowledged his case. I tried getting some information about him, but my contacts there said, we really don't know. It's such a murky case. The guy was just arrested, and now he's gone. And for sure if those guys from high status families were not getting out, this guy is definitely not going to.
Ibishblog: Is it the numbers of bidoun in Kuwait that make it possible, or is it relative political openness in Kuwait compared to other GCC states?
Mona Kareem: I'd say it's the relative openness. To be honest, the state security police has been doing a lot of harassment, checking up on activist very closely. They do not allow them to protest, especially after the more recent protests and now if they even hear of a rumor that there's going to be a bidoun protest, they just go into the area beforehand, shut down the place, completely besiege it, and if they see anyone moving around the streets they immediately order them to go home. They can easily do this because the country has, for a long time, been isolating the bidoun in certain areas, especially two or three areas, so it's very easy to shut these things down if they get any advance warning or even hear a rumor. They tried protesting at the parliament many times over the past few years, and the Interior Ministry says that not only can bidoun not protest anywhere, they specifically cannot protest next to the parliament. This is a kind of “sacred” area for Kuwaitis.
Ibishblog: Well, look at the reaction to the non-bidoun protests at the Parliament.
Mona Kareem: Yes, many people were arrested and went on hunger strikes. I think we are really entering a dark era in Kuwait.
Ibishblog: There's been another eruption of anger on December 12 and major protests by bidoun in Kuwait. This apparently is a consequence of the previous arrests and the trials and torture of some of the activists. Can you describe what led up to this new eruption of tensions, and is it particularly bad, as it looks, and if so why?
Mona Kareem: They were definitely triggered by the trials, and the refusal of the authorities to give any information about the status of the activists recently. Smaller demonstrations were dispersed, and this has led to bigger ones. It's noteworthy how ruthlessly the authorities are dealing with these protests compared to the ones at the parliament. With the bidoun, they break into houses, they use tear gas, water cannons, arrest minors and beat people, including children. At the parliament, they tried to stop the protesters, maybe they beat a few of them, but that's it, there was no tear gassing, no water cannons, no mass abuses. People were arrested, but they were not mistreated. In the case of the stateless, we are talking about people who've been tortured, and people who can't go to court to assert their rights.

And Lunch Turned Into Dinner …Being Hitchens’ friend meant talking, talking, talking.

Because Christopher Hitchens was so politically confrontational and
devastating to his opponents, the public is largely unaware of his
intense personal generosity and kindness. Time and again, he went far
beyond the normal duties of friendship. As our mutual friend Michael
Weiss aptly puts it, “Friendship was his ideology.”
I instantly bonded with Hitch in 1998 when I tagged along to an
interview he did with a friend of mine over lunch. The friend left
after an hour, but we stayed at the restaurant talking about politics,
literature, and history. Lunch turned into dinner, and finally his
wife, Carol, summoned him home on the grounds that 10 hours straight
of talking to anyone was more than enough for one sitting. This set
the stage for an abiding friendship based on such marathon
His loyalty never ceased to amaze me. In March 2002, David Horowitz
published an article outrageously suggesting that I had secretly
celebrated the 9/11 attacks before publicly condemning them on
television. Christopher immediately sent him a blistering email
insisting that this allegation was not only untrue but “something that
could not be true.” (Emphasis in the original.) Indeed, he put his
relationship with Horowitz on the line, writing, “I’m willing to be a
mutual friend if you will accept my pledged word that you have (and I
wish I could say inadvertently) grossly wronged a decent man.”
Horowitz immediately issued a full retraction and apology.
On a more recent occasion, when he was at the start of his last book
tour, just before falling ill, I had a personal crisis. He was in
Chicago when I phoned him. His instant response was “Right, I’m
canceling tomorrow’s events, and coming back to D.C. for a day. We
will sit together and talk this through man to man.” And he did.
So as the world eulogizes a great mind and fierce spirit, I’m left
with profoundly moving personal memories of one of the kindest,
sweetest, and most loyal of men.

No, Newt and JPost, there is no Santa Claus: how national identities are really formed

What's most interesting about the brouhaha regarding Newt Gingrich's outrageous comments about Palestinians being “an invented people” — which he then augmented by describing them in general as “terrorists" — isn't the rebuttals or defenses of these comments. Almost every responsible, sane and rational actor has dismissed Gingrich's remarks as preposterous, not because the Palestinians are not in some sense “invented” but because all modern national identities plainly are, in the same ways. This is not only obvious at first glance, it's also been thoroughly dissected and documented by a host of academics in multiple disciplines over the past 30 years. Over the summer, I wrote two lengthy essays (read them here and here) about how this process works in both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, both of which can draw in ancient sources, but both of which are of course entirely modern and essentially 20th-century phenomena. So the problem with what Gingrich had to say — apart from dismissing all Palestinians as "terrorists" which is simply a repulsive and racist remark — is that he was implying that there is something especially artificial or inauthentic about Palestinian nationalism or identity. The rebuttals to this have been overwhelming, crushing and virtually unanimous. There is no need really to recite them here.
The defenses of Gingrich's remarks aren't really very interesting either. They are mostly simply a recitation of very outmoded and anachronistic Israeli propaganda, last seen in Joan Peters' 1984 hoax “From Time Immemorial,” which was totally debunked at the time even by Israeli historians and was regarded as an embarrassment 25 years ago. A further quarter century of mold has made these notions even more putrid than ever. In a nutshell, this hoax claims that Palestine was virtually uninhabited when the Zionist colonization project began in earnest after the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 and that the Arabs who came to call themselves Palestinians almost all immigrated into mandatory Palestine during the 20th century and therefore have no deep history or roots in the land. Of course the historical record is quite clear and unimpeachable and this fraudulent argument is rejected by every single self-respecting academic, including very ardent Zionists, with any real knowledge of the history of the region.
What has been quite instructive, and in some senses (at least to me) new, in the fallout from Gingrich's remarks is the nature of some of the counterattacks against his critics which do not simply repeat bigoted and racist arguments denigrating Palestinian nationalism and identity but rather chauvinistic and fetishistic ones valorizing Jewish and Israeli nationalism, not only at the expense of Palestinians, but almost all other forms of nationalism as well. If there's anything new in this witches' brew that this ignorant, hateful and irresponsible political hack has stirred up it's the degree of neurotic fetishism that some supporters of Israel attach to their own nationalism at everyone's expense, not just that of the Palestinians. Just to be clear about what I mean, fetishism in practice means, "my car is better than your car because it is my car," and, "my nationalism is better than your nationalism because it is my nationalism," etc. In "The Sublime Object of Ideology” Slavoj ?i?ek convincingly argued that in describing the processes of commodity fetishism, Marx anticipated Freud by describing exactly how neurotic symptoms operate in practice, and nationalism is a perfect example of what all three have in different ways dissected as fetishes. In some quarters, this Jewish nationalist chauvinist fetishism runs absolutely amok.
The Jerusalem Post, no less, in an editorial betrayed some hint of an awareness of what scholarship has established about how contemporary nationalisms form hegemonic narratives that create modern nationalist identities and legitimate modern nation-states:
After all, scholars of nationalism such as Benedict Anderson have referred to modern nation states – particularly those created at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Arab states in the region, and even European states such as Italy – as 'imagined communities.' People socially construct the idea of a nation in order to bring together a diverse people and foster a feeling of common purpose. 
So far, so good, one would think. Think again. The Post continues:
The Jewish people, in contrast, can hardly be called an 'invented people.' Even before they settled in the Land of Israel nearly four millennia ago, they saw themselves as a nation. And even after they were exiled from their land nearly two thousand years ago, they continued to pray and occasionally make physical attempts, to return. Indeed, if there ever was a nation that was not invented, it was Israel.
So, almost all nations of the world, if not all, are “invented” with one exception: Israel. If this isn't neurotic fetishism and primal chauvinism at its purist, I don't know what is. It boils down to this argument: everyone else's nationalism is phony except ours or, at least, there's something uniquely authentic about ours that no one else really shares.
I'm used to reading Israeli and pro-Israel attacks on Palestinian nationalism, and even Arab nationalism, but this sense of unique authenticity and legitimacy for the State of Israel as opposed to virtually all, if not all, other modern nation-states is a new one to me. If it's standard fare in Zionist literature in Israel, I don't think it's been translated very much into English because I really haven't encountered it in any sustained way before Mr. Gingrich unleashed his disgusting tirades. But look at what the Post is doing. I described precisely in my blog posting on "Mr. Mileikowsky and the 'seal of Netanyahu'" the insidious process by which modern nationalisms, in this case the Israeli one, appropriate ancient myths, traditions, legends and history in the service of contemporary national needs and agendas. That doesn't make contemporary nationalism, including the Israeli or the Palestinian one (which often does the same kind of thing), illegitimate, but it makes their rhetoric intellectually treacherous and philosophically invalid. As I explained at length last summer, the only appropriate reaction is to respect national narratives that are reflective of the beliefs, wills, needs and desires of millions of people as legitimate political realities but not confuse them with historical facts or the inevitable outcomes of a linear trajectory of certain strands of human history.
My point here is that the Post's argument, which has been repeated or reiterated in many other places on the Internet and in print in recent days by passionate Jewish nationalists, assumes there is a kind of metaphysical quality to the Zionist project. It ascribes to it an unbroken chain of belief over thousands of years with the implication that its realization in the modern State of Israel, founded a mere 63 years ago in 1948, is both a logical and inevitable consequence of an ineluctable historical teleology. This is, of course, completely ridiculous. Obviously both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms base their claims on many ancient traditions, history, myths and legends, but in both cases, as with all other modern nationalisms and other contemporary political phenomena, they are actually the product of the combination of a series of historical contingencies and choices, causes and effects, that were anything but inevitable and are easily traceable and understood without any recourse to this kind of fairytale mythology or quasi-religious gobbledygook.
Modern Jewish nationalism, or the program to establish a Jewish nation-state in the Middle East, is quite obviously not 4,000 years old or 400 years old or even 200 years old. As a practical project it is slightly more than 100 years old, and it is really quite pointless as a matter of political and intellectual history to even try to trace its origins as a robust and really existing political movement to before the first Zionist Congress in 1897. So if it doesn't arise inevitably from the great sweep of Jewish history and religious yearnings, where did it come from? This is, of course, no mystery whatsoever. By the arguments, explanations and rationalizations for this political program articulated by its founders, led by Theodor Herzl, Zionism was a reaction to political Anti-Semitism that plagued Europe and beset European Jewry throughout the 19th century and culminated in the Holocaust during World War II. It was the Dreyfus Affair, by all accounts including his own, that convinced Herzl that assimilation in Western, Christian societies was not possible and that Jews needed to "normalize" themselves by having a modern, ethno-national state of their own, preferably in Palestine (more on that "preferably" later).
So Zionism was a direct reaction to political Anti-Semitism. It's also worth noting how that anti-Jewish racist political movement gained ground in 19th century Christian Europe. It too was the result of an immediate social cause that produced a malignant political effect. The emancipation of the Jews of Europe towards the end of the 18th and through the middle of the 19th centuries transformed the role and indeed the nature of Jewish communities in Christian-majority European societies. The ending or relaxing of all kinds of bigoted restrictions against Jews, confinement to ghettos, exclusion from professions, and any number of other outrageous forms of discrimination that had been practiced for centuries withered away or were dispensed with in most European societies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a consequence, there was, quite naturally, a flowering of Jewish cultural, economic, social and in some cases even political influence in many societies in which they had previously been systematically marginalized and abused. Political Anti-Semitism was an organized racist response and attempt to curtail this growing Jewish presence in the mainstream of European societies and to restore old forms of discrimination or enact new ones that would “protect” Christian European societies from some sort of imaginary “Jewish menace” of the anti-Semitic paranoid imagination.
Political Anti-Semites practiced Anti-Semitism of a systematic, programmatic variety, complete with racist racial theories and other pseudoscientific and quasi-modern ideas that reached their apex with the astonishing evil of Nazism. Of course they built on a tradition of folkloric and religious anti-Semitism (note the use of the lower case “a," by which I mean to denote a set of ideas that are no doubt poisonous but are not programmatic in the way that modern Anti-Semitism as a political project indeed was). Sadly, in mid-19th-century Europe, Anti-Semitism was an ideological orientation that requires an uppercase "A" in the same way that Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Fabianism, Conservatism and other programmatic political agendas also require for proper identification.
Here is where it becomes slightly complicated, insofar as political Zionism drew on traditional religious and folkloric Jewish yearnings about the lands of the Bible as the basis for a systematic political program, it was a direct and specific reaction to the way in which Anti-Semites had used traditional religious and folkloric anti-Jewish prejudices as the basis for their campaign of systematic and modern political persecution against newly emancipated and empowered European Jewish communities. So, both Anti-Semitism, which was a racist reaction to the emancipation of the Jews, and Zionism, which itself was a defensive reaction to the new political Anti-Semitism drew on traditional and folkloric bases — as indeed do Palestinian nationalism and most nationalist or other modern political projects.
But the crucial point is to understand the contingent chain of events that produced these modern political movements that responded to the needs, crises and requirements of communities and constituencies that were a direct product of, and  response to, immediate social and political developments in the societies that produced them and not an ineluctable chain of historical inevitabilities. It was not inevitable that some right-wing and paranoid Christian Europeans would react to the emancipation of European Jewry with a systematic campaign of persecution. It is also not inevitable that the Jewish reaction to this campaign of persecution would be a nationalist movement of their own, and not inevitable that it would focus on Palestine either. In its earliest iterations, the Zionist movement considered many options for the “normalization” of the Jewish people, which it held to be mainly centered around achieving statehood as such, rather than achieving a return to the holy land. There was serious consideration given to trying to develop a Jewish state in Argentina and Uganda among other places, although for numerous reasons these options were ultimately rejected. But it wasn't dismissed out of hand and had historical events proceeded differently Israel or a Jewish state of some other name might be presently in one of those places or indeed somewhere else. No doubt there was an overwhelming preference for a "return" to Palestine and it also corresponded to the European Christian imagination.
Here's another profound and important historical irony: there was a good deal of enthusiasm among Anti-Semitic Christian Europeans for Zionism as a way of getting rid of the Jews of Europe, and a great deal of resistance from many if not most Jewish Europeans to the Zionist project in its earliest stages based on both political and religious objections. The political objections held that Jewish Europeans had been working more or less successfully to assimilate in their European societies and that this new form of Jewish nationalism created a dangerous aura of “dual loyalty” and did not serve the interests of the communities, particularly the well established, and assimilated elites in Western Europe. The most powerful opposition to the Balfour Declaration, for example, came from much of the Jewish political elite of Britain who regarded the idea of British recognition of Jewish nationalism as a direct threat to their own status as loyal British subjects of the Jewish faith. It seemed to them to confirm the worst claims of the Anti-Semites. They were hardly alone in this opinion, and Zionism did not achieve a hegemonic status or consensus among Jewish Europeans until the rise of Nazism. Meanwhile, the most ardent proponents of the Balfour Declaration in the British cabinet at the time were notable "anti-Semites" (lower case), if not full-blown "Anti-Semites."
So, the idea that the Jews of the world for the past 4,000 years have always considered themselves “a nation” is historically incorrect both because modern conceptions of nationality and nationhood simply have no ancient historical corollary and, even more strikingly, that during the modern era there was a very sizable contingent of Jewish Europeans who considered themselves nationals of the countries in which they lived but of the Jewish religious faith. Indeed, there continue to be large numbers of Jewish Americans and other Jews who live outside of Israel who perceive themselves in that manner. There were also powerful religious objections, some of which continue to the present day. So the ideas that Jewish nationalism is ancient, unbroken, inevitable, uncontested or unanimous are all demonstrably false. Of course, with the rise of fascism and particularly Nazism in the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of world Jewry was won over to the Zionist cause in one sense or another and it became a hegemonic narrative. And now, in some eyes, it is such a hegemonic narrative that it is seen as metaphysical and transhistorical and rooted in 4,000 years of tradition rather than the series of historical contingencies I have just sketched out in their roughest form that all could have turned out extremely differently in many different ways.
It's of at least passing interest in a discussion of modern political inventions that the leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Palestine did not decide on the name "Israel" for their new Jewish state until very shortly before the Declaration of Independence of Israel on May 14, 1948. "Medinat Yisrael" was chosen over other possibilities including "Eretz Israel," "Zion," and "Judea." So, we now might just as easily be confronted with an argument that if there is one nation in the world that has not been invented it is Judea, or some such. It's also worth pointing out that by citing Anderson, the Post failed to note that he placed heavy emphasis in his analysis of "invented" modern nationalisms on the power of what he called "national print-languages," and that one of the most concerted efforts to create one was the Zionist project of resurrecting the all-but-dead and almost entirely liturgical Hebrew language, as initiated by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, based mainly on the need for a common language for the diverse Jews of the world to be "ingathered" and recreated as, it turns out, Israelis (though it might have been Judeans or Zionites or some other name, apparently). It's a perfect example of the process Anderson describes and more conscious and deliberate than most, to be frank. The Post editors have heard of his book, but not, it seems read it. Or if they did, they lack any ability to apply its lessons to their own history, which it fits so perfectly.
Obviously the same historical process applies to Palestinian nationalism, which has its earliest origins in the 1920s and was a reaction to British colonialism, the Zionist movement, and the collapse of the only really potentially viable pan-Arab nationalist project with the fall of Prince Faisal in Syria in 1920. When Faisal fell to the French, the Palestinians quickly realized they were on their own and began to develop their own nationalism based on this concatenation of circumstances that in at least one strand begins with the emancipation of the Jews of Europe in the late 18th century. There's nothing transhistorical or metaphysical about Palestinian nationalism, any more than there is about Zionism, or any other nationalism. This is so blindingly obvious even small children should have no difficulty grasping that whatever aspects of history, traditions, myths or legends a contemporary political movement wishes to privilege, foreground, highlight or deploy in order to legitimate it's agenda, what it is responding to is not anything ancient, transhistorical, metaphysical or inevitable, but rather the contemporary, immediate needs of constituencies that are themselves modern, and indeed "imagined," and the products of recent developments, not ancient history.
So the next time someone tries to justify their contemporary political agenda by telling you about the Palestinis of Herodotus, the biblical Hebrews, the Canaanites, the Philistines, King David, Rama, Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, the Buddha, Charlemagne, Alfred the great, Tamerlane the great, Cyrus the great, Alexander the great, Akbar the great (or any of the other "greats" for that matter), Ashoka, Cuauhtemoc, the battle of Karbala, the battle of Thermopoli, the battle of Poitiers, the battle of Kosovo, the Crusades, Qin Shi Huang, or any other such tomfoolery, tell them to put it back in their pocket and try it on the next guy because you're just not that stupid. If you have the patience, you can try walking them through the actual historical contingencies that produced present day political identities, constituencies, nationalisms and agendas that draw on these ancient histories, myths, legends and traditions for legitimation. But in most cases you're probably wasting your breath because, like the editors of the Jerusalem Post, most people never really grow out of believing in adult versions of Santa Claus.

The Beauty of Tunisia’s New Political Banality

I’ve been appearing on television talk shows for more than 12 years
and I’ve never found them to be an emotional experience, until last
Sunday, that is.

During a routine program on Al-Hurra reviewing recent events in
Tunisia, I was suddenly overwhelmed by an astonishing realization: For
the first time in my life, I was having a conversation about politics
in an Arab state that was entirely normal, modern and healthy.

For the first half-hour or so, I found myself in the middle of an
argument with Al-Nahda MP Abd al-Lateeh al-Makki and another
representative of his party on one side, and Democratic National
Movement MP Tawfic Ayashi on the other. Naturally, they were
quarreling about the new 26-clause temporary constitution passed by
the Constitutional Assembly that now serves as the parliament.

As expected, and as has already been thoroughly played out in the
Tunisian and other Arab media, Ayashi repeated the basic complaint of
the opposition: that the new legislation was cooked up behind the
scenes by the troika coalition of Nahda, the Congress for the
Republic, and Ettakatol, and that the parliamentary procedure had
essentially been a sham.

Al-Makki and his Nahda colleague predictably dismissed these
allegations, insisting that proper procedures had been followed, and
pointing out that 141 out of 217 assembly members had voted for the
new law and that, in any case, the whole thing was temporary.

As I navigated between these positions, both of which have some merit,
I was suddenly struck by the uniqueness of the conversation in terms
of contemporary Arab politics. The argument itself was not only
predictable, but also banal and mundane. But what was really shocking,
indeed overwhelming, to me was what was missing from this bickering
and its context. There was no monarch, no dictatorship, no junta or
oppressive military, no killings, no militias, no riots, and no hint
of civil conflict, foreign interference or invasion.

It was just plain old squabbling between MPs from different factions
about legislation, procedure, who does or does not have a mandate, and
whether backroom deals or open debate is propelling the new laws and
the formation of the new government.

It was ugly, as politics always is, but it was also stunningly
beautiful. It’s been many decades since any Arab society has found
itself in this position: building a real, genuine democracy. Indeed,
one could easily make the case that this is the first time an Arab
state has ever really done so.

I made this point with some passion, and I had to hold my emotions in
check with difficulty. On the substantive issues, I had to agree with
the opposition that what was happening was largely cooked up by the
coalition, but this is how parliaments tend to operate.

I thought the Nahda MPs were basically right that 141 votes were
sufficient for a temporary constitution, but that it must prove quite
temporary not only because it lacks a broad-based mandate but also
because it is insufficiently detailed and leaves much to be
determined. The permanent constitution cannot be based on 141 votes
out of 217 and will need a stronger mandate than that.

The biggest bone of contention was Article 8 of the new law, which
holds that the president must be, among other more reasonable
qualifications, a Muslim. Host Mohamed Ali Haidari and I both pressed
the Nahda MPs vigorously on the issue and their defenses were
virtually laughable.

At first they tried to say that since this same provision was also in
the constitution of deposed dictator Ben Ali, they hadn’t introduced
anything new. What, I asked, was the point of the revolution if the
dictator’s constitution was to be regarded as a source of legitimacy?

Al-Makki then tried to suggest that I simply didn’t know enough about
Arab or Muslim societies, that this is a universal and
noncontroversial provision in Arab states (which I pointed out is not
true), and that non-Muslim Tunisians don’t feel discriminated against,
so it’s no big deal.

My response was that “I need no instruction on Arab or Muslim culture
from this Islamist,” and that because indeed there’s no real
possibility of a Christian or Jew becoming the president of Tunisia,
“your law is not only ridiculous, it’s superfluous.” “And,” I
concluded, “It has got to go!” Appropriately enough, this proved the
last word of the hour-long conversation.

But I floated out of the studio with a feeling of real elation.
Tunisians have created a fledgling but genuine, working democracy, in
which the arguments are about backroom deals versus parliamentary
procedures, what kind of mandate is sufficient for core legislation,
and the legitimacy of discriminatory laws. Its very banality is its
The magnitude of Tunisia’s achievement must not be underestimated.
Assuming they can keep it, this should show what’s possible in the
rest of the Arab world in the long run.

One cheer for the Egyptian elections

The preliminary results of the first round of the elections in Egypt
for the new constituent assembly were both predictable and sobering.

The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood was virtually inevitable.
They’ve had at least 30 years’ head start on almost everybody else
since being in effect decriminalized by Anwar Sadat. Their Freedom and
Justice Party is by far the best organized in the country.

Anyone surprised by this result has been sleeping through recent
Egyptian history.

Naturally, the liberal parties fared badly. For the most part they
barely campaigned at all and are fragmented into a dizzying array of

Secularists and liberals have not had time to create effective party
organizations that can actually win elections. However, they have a
far more onerous task ahead of them. The challenge facing Arab
liberals is to define an entirely new political orientation: a
contemporary Arab liberalism free from the stigma of supposedly
“secular” oppressive regimes.

This is inevitably going to take a great deal of time, effort and
public education. At present, post-dictatorship Arab liberalism is
largely defined by what it is against—Islamism and the old
regimes—rather than what it is for.

In Tunisia, the secular groups mainly focused their campaign on what
is bad about the Islamists rather than articulating a clear vision for
the future. In Egypt, most of the liberals barely bothered campaigning
at all, and much of their efforts in the immediate run-up to the
campaign focused on protests in Tahrir Square.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood consolidate their competitive
advantage during these last weeks by continuing to focus on the
election, they handled the protest movement skillfully.

By refusing to openly join the protesters but at the same time
strongly condemning the crackdown by the military, they projected an
image of being above the fray and more responsible than either the
military or the demonstrators. Meanwhile, they hedged their bets
slightly by not preventing a good deal of their youth from
participating in the protests, though without any official permission.

It’s not that this won them many new friends. On the contrary, some
people felt betrayed by their ambivalent position. But, crucially, it
didn’t make them many new enemies either. Those inclined to be angry
with the protesters, or with the military, or both, were unlikely to
see the Brotherhood as the chief culprits.

What is most troubling is that Salafist parties performed better than
expected, and they represent a religious extremism of an entirely
different order than the Brotherhood. They too have long-standing
networks that have been quickly transformed into ad hoc electoral
machines, which, along with significant foreign funding, especially
from the Gulf, translated into a deeply troubling success.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the electoral system was fairly
straightforward and people knew they were voting for an assembly that
will be in charge of writing the constitution, in Egypt much remains
profoundly murky. It is distinctly possible that Islamists have, in
fact, peaked too early, given that they have attained dominance in an
assembly with extremely limited powers.

According to the rules promulgated by the military authorities, which
are very controversial but remain definitive for now, the constitution
will be drafted by a 100-member body, in which the assembly will only
receive 20 seats. The assembly can only choose between candidates from
an array of other organizations for the other 80 seats.

Moreover, while the Brotherhood now insists on the right to form a
government, nothing in Egypt’s presidential system permits them to do
so. Egypt still has a presidency, which is in effect being exercised
by the military, and the Brotherhood is in a logical and political
bind because, by placing such an emphasis on the elections, in effect
it has confirmed the role of the military as the de facto president.

They can hardly, at least in the meantime, dismiss its authority on
other matters having upheld it in this most crucial function.

But the potential seeds of a confrontation with the military over
power have obviously been sown. The Brotherhood and its allies are
likely to strongly push for a shift toward a parliamentary system on
the grounds that they have won a mandate. They have certainly acquired
powerful new leverage, but the military remains enormously potent as

In June, I described a potential power-sharing agreement in Egypt
leaving the military in de facto control of defense and national
security, with a foreign policy-oriented presidency and a parliament
with broad powers in domestic affairs.

Nothing that has transpired since has altered my view that this is the
most likely and, indeed, optimistic scenario for the country.

So, it can only be one cheer for the Egyptian elections. In many ways
they are an important step forward, but the results are deeply
troubling, the legal and constitutional framework highly contentious,
and the path forward still very fraught and murky.