January 31, 2006

Slow Blogging

Blogging will be slow this week. Sorry for being lame. I'll make it up to you with plenty of Iraq material, including photos.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:30 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 26, 2006

Fisking Flint Leverett

Sorry for the light blogging. It has been one of those weeks - but in a good way. I'll elaborate more shortly when I have a minute. If my comments were still active I would suggest discussing amongst yourselves in an open thread. But I don't have a subscription system installed yet.

In the meantime, the Lebanese Political Journal fisks a silly op-ed about Iran's nuclear weapons in the New York Times by Flint Leverett. Leverett gets everything wrong. It's hard to get everything wrong, but some people manage to find a way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:35 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 24, 2006

Change of Plans

The bad news is I’m delaying my trip to Iraq for two weeks. The good news is that by doing so I’ll be able to get much better interviews than if I were to go this week. (Thank God I didn’t actually pay for the plane ticket yet.)

I don’t want to jinx this by saying who one of my interviewees is. But let’s just say that I would be crazy not to rearrange my schedule right now.

So the trip will have to wait a while yet. But it will be worth it, both for me and for those who intend to read what I’ll have to say.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:05 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 23, 2006

Leaving for Iraq on Friday, February 10

It looks like I’m going to (Northern) Iraq on Friday, February 10. Supposedly my visa is ready and I can pick it up tomorrow morning. My travel logistics are arranged. All that’s left for me to do at this point is schedule more interviews and wait for the date.

Once again I want to thank everyone who hit the Pay Pal button on the right side bar. Safe travel to and in Iraq is expensive. If it weren’t for donations I don’t think I could do this.

I’ll sell some stories for money, too, of course. But you, my readers, are now one of my “employers,” so to speak. I owe you lots of original content and I’ll be sure to keep you updated if anything changes.

What I won’t do is write anything too specific about where I am and what I am doing on the blog while I’m there. Lord only knows what kind of nutcases monitor this Web site. I already know of a few as it is. The gritty ground-level details will have to wait until I get back to Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:12 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 19, 2006

Calling the Muslim Brotherhood

CAIRO -- I called senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian on his cell phone and asked for an interview.

He is the Brotherhood’s smooth media man, the go-to guy journalists like to talk to when they need a fresh quote or want to know what the Brotherhood stands for and thinks. He spent time in Egypt’s dungeons, not because he’s a terrorist (he isn’t) but because, like Egypt’s liberals, he is an enemy of Mubarak’s authoritarian state.

I felt some sympathy for him even though his politics are radically different from mine. Though I can’t say I ever want to see him in power, that doesn’t mean I want to see him in prison.

After the long Middle Eastern greeting formalities, he said he didn’t have time to meet me in person but would be happy to answer some questions over the phone. So we got right down to it.

“Your campaign slogan during the elections was Islam is the Solution. If Islam is the solution, why did millions of Iranians move to the United States after the 1979 revolution? Why do so many people in Afghanistan hate the Taliban?”

He laughed. Not a belly laugh, but a knowing laugh, as though he is asked this kind of question all the time and he has given it a lot of thought.

“Listen, Mr. Michael,” he said. “Iran is not Egypt. Egypt is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not Sudan. Sudan is not Algeria. There are different models of Islamic life. We have a very long civilization here, it is ancient. We have common values here between Muslims and Christians and even Jews.”

Was he acknowledging in his own way that the Islamists in Iran and Afghanistan are whacked? Perhaps. On the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web site (www.islamonline.org) they advertise themselves as moderate Islamists. I wouldn’t say they are moderate in the way that, say, the Iraqi Kurds are moderate. Still, there are plenty of more extreme Islamist groups than these guys. The Brothers say they want to ban music videos, not massacre Shias or stone rape victims to death.

While there is an ideological overlap between them and Al Qaeda, the Brothers don’t have guns, they don’t hijack planes, and they don’t blow up hotels. They are moderate, I suppose, depending on who they’re compared with. Next to Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they’re terrific. Compared with the student revolutionaries in Iran, the Brothers are nuts.

“Okay,” I said. “What kind of model for Islamic life does the Muslim Brotherhood have in mind for Egypt?”

“I cannot answer specifically now,” he said. “We are not in power. We are struggling for democracy. All people must be respected in a democratic system. It is very important to be tolerant.”

Nice sounding boilerplate. But I needed something much more specific. I decided to get back to this later rather than beat him over the head right at the start.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt,” I said, “would you cooperate with the West against Al Qaeda?”

“From the first moment we are against Al Qaeda,” he said. “We condemn all violent activities. We condemned it then. But he have doubts about the way the West fights terrorism. This way of fighting is the wrong way. We need a concrete definition of terrorism before we can cooperate.”

“What’s your definition of terrorism?” I said.

“We need an international meeting and conference to decide on a definition.”

“Good idea,” I said. “So if you attended an international conference, what definition of terrorism would you suggest?”

“I am not going to give you a definition,” he said. “We need dialogue and consensus. It is not only for the Muslim Brotherhood to decide.”

“But what would you say to Western governments if they agreed to a dialogue with you? What is your definition of terrorism? Never mind what anyone else thinks.”

“I cannot give you an answer now,” he said.

Sigh.

Okay, then. I decided to go back to the first question he dodged from another angle.

“Would the Muslim Brotherhood ban alcohol in Egypt? Would you ban books?” I said.

“We are not going to do anything without discussion. We are not in power.”

“Should women be forced to wear a veil or a hijab?” I said.

“You must understand,” he said. “We are outlawed. We can clarify these points after we are free.”

“Why don’t you clarify now?” I said.

“We need fresh air,” he said. “We need fresh air before we can clarify this.”

“People want to know what you stand for,” I said. “My job is to help you explain yourselves to them.”

“The government likes to confuse people about what we really believe,” he said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “You clarify your vision of an Egyptian Islamic state now and I promise to get the word out.”

“We need fresh air before we can clarify anything,” he said.

He went round and round with me like this, refusing to even hint at what their Islamist program might look like. It seems plain enough to me that their deliberate obfuscation is a ploy to feign moderation rather than extremism. Hard-line Islamists for whom the Muslim Brotherhood is too soft and lenient have nowhere else they can go. Moderate Muslims, though, could swell the ranks of the liberal parties if the Brotherhood admits that what they really stand for a micromanaging Daddy State.

“Mr. Michael,” he said. “It is late and I am tired. Just two more questions please.”

We had only been talking for a few minutes.

“Okay,” I said. I had plenty more questions I wanted to ask, but if I was only allowed two I needed to ask something he couldn’t dodge quite as easily. “If you could change three things about American foreign policy, what would they be?”

“Respect human rights and international law,” he said.

We could have argued about that one for hours, except that of course he wouldn’t let me. Instead of dwelling on it I moved straight to the last question, one that tends to be a lightning rod for Islamists.

“What do you think about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?” I said. Since he wouldn’t answer my question about whether or not he wanted to ban books in Egypt, perhaps he would give it away when discussing the world-famous “blasphemer.”

“It was the wrong way to treat,” he said. “Ignoring would have been better.”

What could I say? It was a good answer, the best answer there is. He did know how to put on a moderate face when he wasn’t blatantly dodging my questions.

I can only assume he had a definition of terrorism that Westerners would think is extreme. Otherwise he would have told me what it was.

I can also only assume he would like to ban booze and veil women. Otherwise he would have said that he didn’t. He had nothing to lose from his moderate answers, but he had plenty to lose if he shared extremist opinions with me. So he answered some questions and evaded others.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s fault. If they don’t want people to think they’re extremists, they need to prove (or at least pretend) that they aren’t extremists.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:00 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Comments are Closed

Due to a troll infestation, comments are closed until a subscription system is in place. I need to plan a trip to Iraq and have neither the time nor the inclination to babysit foul-mouthed psychotics. Thank you for understanding.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:28 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 18, 2006

Watching the Bad Guys Turn on Each Other

Watching Syria's former Vice President Adbul Halim Khaddam declare war on his old boss Bashar Assad from his cushy hideout in Paris is great in a watch-the-bad-guys-turn-on-each-other sort of way. But as I say in my new TCS piece: The Enemy of Your Enemy is Sometimes Your Enemy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:15 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 17, 2006

Iran is Now Open

Getting a visa to enter Iraq is more of a bureaucratic hassle than I thought it would be. It’s the kind of pain in the ass paperwork nightmare that makes me want to break things. Just figuring out the procedure has become my new full time job. (If I lived in Washington DC it would be easier.)

If you think bureaucracy is bad in the US and the EU, come hang out here for a couple of months. Gack!

Meanwhile, Iran has decided to issue tourist visas on arrival for people from every country in the world except Israel.

So: It is now easier for an American to visit the "Axis of Evil" than a country that supposedly belongs to the “American Empire.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:07 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 16, 2006

Back Shortly

I'll be back with more posts shortly. It takes some time to deal with Iraqi travel logistics. In the meantime, discuss amongst yourselves in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:43 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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