Daily Archives: 12 February 2006

Ajami on the Global Ideological Supply Chain

Fouad Ajami recently spoke to a gathering of Toronto’s intellectual and business elite. The Toronto Star has just published an edited transcript. One theme that struck me is that the global grievance export/import business is not all that different from other global supply chains. You never know where all the parts were manufactured and assembled.

The real precursor to what is happening in Denmark today happened a generation ago, when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses. The issues are exactly what we are witnessing today.

With Satanic Verses, the troubles began in Bradford, England. The book burning began in England. The activists who got hold of this issue and wanted to stay with it were in England. Ayatollah Khomeini, when he wrote his famous fatwa, came in on this issue a good month or two after. He happened onto it. He sensed its importance. He understood that this is really what you need to do, that this is a meaningful issue, and that if you are trying to walk away from the wreckage of the Iran/Iraq war and the defeat of Iran in this long war, if you want to give your revolutionary children, as he called them, something to think about, and if you want to situate Iran as the centre of the Islamic world, then why not turn to The Satanic Verses?

You would have expected European Islam to be more tolerant, but it was the other way around. The troubles migrated from England and made their way through the Islamic world, and we saw what happened.

In the case of these cartoons, this is exactly what happened. The Muslim activists in Denmark took their cause to the Islamic world. As they worked their way through the Islamic world, there was this exquisite little irony: They went into regimes that oppress Islamists, which kill Islamists, but which were more than willing to lend a helping hand, because such is what you have to do….

The city I grew up in, Beirut, has played a part. We watched the attack on the Danish consulate in Beirut. The people who assaulted the consulate came into a Christian area of Beirut, a city that is divided in the old-fashioned Ottoman way. There are Christian neighbourhoods and Muslim neighbourhoods. And the Lebanese know better than to go into a neighbourhood that is not their own. They know the rules of the road. But nevertheless, they stormed this consulate and they attacked a Mennonite church in east Beirut. [Mennonite? Perhaps Star reporters–and editors–can’t tell Mennonites from Maronites.]

When the police rounded up some of these suspects, we learned something about them. The largest number of people who were rounded up were Syrians. The second largest were Palestinians. And the third, finally, bringing up the rear, were the Lebanese themselves.

via PeakTalk and Daniel Drezner

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Reason Magazine on Middle East Transparent

On 9 February, Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, published in reasononline a fascinating interview with Pierre Akel, who runs the popular website Middle East Transparent, a trilingual forum that seeks to give a wider voice to Arab liberalism. The interview, entitled No Red Lines, is also reprinted on Middle East Transparent. Here are few excerpts of what Akel had to say. Read the whole thing.

To understand Arab liberalism, one has to understand not only what it now represents but where it emerged from: In Syria, it mostly comes from the remnants of the communist or Marxist left—just like the Eastern European dissidents of 30 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, it comes from the very heart of Islamic fundamentalist culture, but also from the orthodox Sunnis originating in the Hijaz, where the cities of Jeddah, Medina and Mecca are located. Hussein Shobokshi is a good example. It also comes from the Shiite minority in the oil producing Eastern Province. In Tunisia, it comes from the reformed Islamic university Al-Zaitouna. In Egypt, liberals are inspired by the great liberal tradition that was crushed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser….

In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead. Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000 copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write, they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare….

When it comes to satellite television in the region, Al-Jazeera is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many of the rest are under Saudi control. Al-Arabiya, for example, is owned by the Al-Ibrahim, the brothers-in-law of the late King Fahd. Even the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation cannot cross certain Saudi red lines. Yes, you can hear a liberal point of view here and there. But, to take one example, both Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who turned against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and Riad Turk, the Syrian dissident, have been under a Saudi ban from Al-Arabiya for the last month, because the Saudi leadership does not now want to annoy the Assad regime. For once, Al-Jazeera has also banned them, but for Qatari political reasons. Qatar is lobbying on behalf of the Syrian regime in Europe.

On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes’ monopoly on information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site. The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.

Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help from these quarters.

via Belmont Club

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Khrushcheva on Putinism

In today’s Washington Post, Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter, New School professor Nina Khrushcheva, gives her take on Putinism.

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, it was President Leonid Brezhnev that I loathed. The dreaded Joseph Stalin seemed merely a name from a distant past. Back in 1956, he had been outed as a monster by my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, in the famous “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and deleted from history….

After the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a period when democracy came to represent confusion, crime, poverty, oligarchy, anger and disappointment, it turned out that Russians didn’t like their new, “free” selves. Having for centuries had no sense of self-esteem outside the state, we found ourselves wanting our old rulers back, the rulers who provided a sense of order, inspired patriotic fervor and the belief that we were a great nation. We yearned for monumental — if oppressive — leaders, like Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. Yes, they killed and imprisoned, but how great were our victories and parades! So what if Stalin ruled by fear? That was simply a fear for one’s life. However terrifying, it wasn’t as existentially threatening as the fear of freedom, of individual choice, with no one but oneself to blame if democracy turned into disarray and capitalism into corruption.

This is why the country rallies behind President Vladimir Putin. Putin promotes himself as a new Russian “democrat.” Indeed, Russians view him less like the godlike “father of all nations” that Stalin was, and more like a Russian everyman — a sign of at least partial democratization. Putin often notes that Russia is developing “its own brand of democracy.” Translation: His modern autocracy has discovered that it no longer needs mass purges like Stalin’s to protect itself from the people. Dislike of freedom makes us his eager backers. How readily we have come to admire his firm hand: Rather than holding him responsible for the horrors of Chechnya, we agree with his “democratic” appointment of leaders for that ill-fated land. We cheer his “unmasking of Western spies,” support his jailing of “dishonest” oligarchs and his promotion of a “dictatorship of order” rather than a government of transparent laws.

“Putinism,” an all-inclusive hybrid that embraces elements of Stalinism, communism, KGB-ism and market-ism, is our new national ideology. A man for all seasons and all fears, Russia’s president pretends that by selectively adopting and adapting some elements from his predecessors’ rule — the Russian Orthodox Church of the czars, the KGB of the Soviets, the market economy of the Boris Yeltsin era — he is eliminating the extremes of the past, creating a viable system of power that will last. But his closed and secretive system of governing — the “vertical power” so familiar from the pre-secret speech era, with information once again manipulated by the authorities — suggests that his proposed “unity” is yet another effort to rewrite the past.

And so the secret speech is no longer seen as a courageous act of political conscience, in which Khrushchev, in order to secure justice for Stalinism’s victims and liberate communist ideals from the gulag’s grotesque inhumanity, called for reform of the despotic system he had helped to build. In the Russian media today, the speech is dismissed as something far more ignoble: Khrushchev’s effort to avenge his oldest son, Leonid, whom Stalin had allegedly persecuted for betraying socialist ideals by serving the Nazis during World War II.

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