October 30, 2006

Syriana

Ali Eteraz started a discussion at Dean’s World about the film Syriana, which I finally recently saw.

The "creation" of the militant suicide bombers is so on point its obscene. It captures perfectly the way alienation is manipulation by the militant overlords and their Mephistophelian recruiters. If you haven't seen it, do. It’s not at all a 'liberal leftist' film. I really expected that given that Clooney was in it, the film was going to apologize for the reprehensible actions of Muslims. It doesn't do that. As a Muslim activist I thought it was kind of a slap in the face. It said to me: what are you "activists" doing to counter these smiling recruiters? What are you "activists" doing to suggest that these tyrants should be shorn of their power? What are you "activists" worth if the most likely killer of your reformists are Muslims themselves (I just gave away the ending).
Ali is right. Syriana is not “liberal” or “leftist” as much as I thought it would be, at least not in a bad way.

Part of the story revolves around powerful oil companies that dictate American foreign policy, which is cartoonish and conspiratorial. (Oil companies, in the real world, lobbied for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq rather than for regime-change in Iraq. They did not get their way.)

This is only one part of the story, however. If you can just let it go and run with it for the sake of the movie, the rest holds up reaonably well on a thematic level. Liberal and reformist Muslims are the good guys. The Islamists are not. The point of the story, as the plot unfolds, is obvious: the United States should support liberal and reformist Muslims in the Middle East for their sake as well as for ours. You could argue, if you wanted, that Syriana is a neoconservative film. The writer and the director don’t think of it that way. But that’s partly because liberalism and neoconservatism are not as far apart as they think.

Syriana Poster.JPG

The people who should be on the defensive about Syriana's politics are leftists like Berkeley professor Judith Butler who openly support Middle Eastern extremists, so-called "realists” like James Baker who think they are part of the solution, and the even more obnoxiously named "realists" like Henry Kissinger who think we can do business with them. Everyone else can relax. The film is not without its flaws, to be sure, but Fahrenheit 911 it ain’t.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Syriana's writer and director Stephen Gaghan was heavily influenced by Paul Berman's brilliant Terror and Liberalism.

SG: A couple of things happened for me. I read TERROR & LIBERALISM by Paul Berman. Well, first I read the excerpt in The New York Times, where he talked about the philosophy of [Sayyid Qutb]. Berman parsed the 26-volume book which is called IN THE SHADE OF THE QUR'AN. It was written by this guy Qutb, who spent time in America. He's Egyptian. Academic. And [Berman] very persuasively showed me that what was going on in the world right now is, there is a war of ideas. That these clerics in the Muslim world had a very serious idea. He says that idea had been cross-pollinated with facism, totalitarian ideology from the West. He shows where it could have happened in Egypt. I don't know if that's true or not. I wasn't 100% persuaded by that. But what I was persuaded by was how seductive the ideas were, and how powerful.
(Hat tip: Wagner James Au in the comments.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:41 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 29, 2006

No Foreign Press

Glenn Reynolds argues that there is no "foreign press" per se anymore. "It's all on the same Internet," he says.

Harold Ford (D-Tenn) made a gaffe about the "threat" of Australia developing nuclear weapons. American newspapers didn't cover it much. But Australia's did. And Americans can read Australian newspapers now.

This reminds me of something I learned last time I went to Iraqi Kurdistan, as a consultant not a journalist. A friend on the Council of Ministers told me one of my blog essays, Iraq Without a Gun, was translated into Kurdish and published in Erbil's daily newspaper. This was news to me. (The concept of intellectual copyright has not made its way to the Middle East yet.)

In that essay I mentioned the lying cheating bastard Mr. Araz who picked me up from the airport. His company wanted to charge me 350 dollars a day for a driver and translator, about twice the going rate. And to make sure I hired a driver every day he told me it was dangerous to go anywhere by myself.

It isn't dangerous in the Kurdish autonomous region. More people are killed from violence in Oregon, where the crime rate is low, than in Northern Iraq. But Mr. Araz played up it up for all it was worth, hoping I would pay extortionist rates to stay safe. (Needless to say, he did not get the job and I was not kidnapped or killed.)

I had no idea when I wrote that piece that it would be translated into Kurdish and published in Mr. Araz's hometown. I had no idea I would instrumental in ruining him, that I would publicly "shame" him in his conservative Muslim society that prides itself on hospitality and friendship with Americans. But that's exactly what I learned had happened.

It's all one Internet now. Even offline dead-tree newspapers in Iraq are plugged into it. I wrote Iraq Without a Gun as a foreign dispatch. Little did I know I was also, briefly, a local correspondent as well.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 28, 2006

Iraq the Movie — To Be Filmed in Beirut?

I don't know if there will be another civil war in Lebanon. Maybe there will be and maybe there won't be. Predicting Middle Eastern politics and events is a fool's game. I've learned that the hard way and will try not to forget it.

Lebanese people are a lot more pessimistic than I am. Maybe it's because I'm still naive, and maybe it's because they still suffer from collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder only made worse by the most recent round between Hezbollah and the IDF.

They do know how to take conflict in stride, though. Blogger Josey Wales (yes, he's Lebanese despite the name and the cowboy hat) draws parallels between Lebanon and Iraq. And it's funny. (They have one pitch-black sense of humor in that country.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 26, 2006

The Flip Side of “Islamophobia”

Bigotry against Muslims in general, rather than hostility to terrorists and fanatics in particular, is a bit of an issue in the rightosphere (to borrow Ali Eteraz's terminology), and occasionally even in my own comments section. It's a problem I should probably mention more than I do.

The inverse is easily as big a problem. Bogus claims of "Islamophobia" are trotted out just as often by the bigots' evil twins. Johann Hari sums up that crowd in four sentences:

Do you believe a religious leader who fights to save Section 28 and says gay people spread disease is a fulminating bigot? Do you believe a "leading cleric" who advocates stoning gay people to death should be denounced? Do you believe sharia law – which requires gay people to be lashed or stoned – is always and forever unacceptable? Then, according to an energetic and aggressive group of white straight boys who surreally consider themselves to be on the left, you are an "Islamophobe" and "objectively pro-Nazi."

Mary Madigan at Exit Zero has plenty more examples, and traces the roots of this sort of thinking, ironically, to both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph McCarthy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:06 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 25, 2006

Argentina (Finally) Charges Iran and Hezbollah

One of the most annoying arguments from Lebanon's Syrian and Iranian stooges is that the disarmament of Hezbollah is an "internal matter." In other words, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and everyone else in the universe needs to shut up and sod off.

That is not going to happen.

The international movement to turn the screws on the Party of God is only gaining momentum. It now includes a country all the way down in South America.

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Argentine prosecutors charged Iran and the Shiite militia Hezbollah with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish charities office in Argentina that killed 85 people and injured 300.

Prosecutors demanded an international arrest warrant for then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and six other top Iranian officials at the time of the attack, and a former Hezbollah foreign security service chief, Imad Fayez Moughnieh.

In a country with a murky record in pursuing the 12-year-old case, relatives and friends of the victims called on President Nestor Kirchner to take swift and strong action to bring it to trial.

In a statement, Argentine chief prosecutor Alberto Nisman declared: “We deem it proven that the decision to carry out an attack July 18, 1994 on the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, a Jewish charities association headquarters in Buenos Aires) was made by the highest authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran which directed Hezbollah to carry out the attack.”

There is not much Argentina can do by itself against the Islamic Republic of Iran or its toy in South Lebanon. But the idea that Hezbollah is an internal Lebanese matter has become just a tad more untenable than it already was.

Hezbollah has set up shop in Paraguay and Brazil, as well. There are Jews all over the world who must be "resisted," you see.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:40 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Islamophobia (for lack of a better word)

First of all, I want to publicly commend Dean Esmay for challenging right-wing bigotry (you heard me) against Muslims. It ought to go without saying that I am not referring to opponents, peaceful or otherwise, of Al Qaeda, Hamas, The Taliban, Hezbollah, Wahhabism, Algerian Salafism, etc., ad nauseum. I am referring here to those who demonize a billion people -- including my wonderful old West Beirut neighbors, as well as the Iraqi Kurds who love us more than anyone else in the world -- as mortal enemies.

Dean has been relentless on this question lately, and the only support I've seen him get is in his comments section. But perhaps I haven't been paying enough attention.

A while ago he invited Ali Eteraz, an American Muslim who eschews the "moderate" label, to blog with him.

I want to direct you to an essay Ali wrote about his experience in an Ann Coulter chat room. Yes yes, I know, there are plenty of jerks on the Internet and of course some of Ann Coulter's fans are going to be mean to a believing Muslim. So what, right?

Read it anyway. It's quite a story. And Ali is a real stand-up guy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:53 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 24, 2006

Berri Crosses Lebanon’s Red Line

A few days ago Lebanon's Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri floated the idea of opening peace talks with Israel. (Hat tip: Bad Vilbel.)

Now is the time to raise the issue to returning to peace negotiations...It is possible that now is a very appropriate time for peace talks.
He said this in France to a reporter from Al-Arabiya.

Before I say anything else, here's a caveat. Earlier this year I wrote the following in a dispatch from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its "brotherhood" with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

Lebanon is a hard country to read from afar. I can't tell you how many times a government official said some boilerplate nonsense in public that almost everyone knew wasn't sincere. You had to know the Lebanese "street," and you had to look at the target audience. Most statements on foreign relations are intended for foreign consumption, especially the bits about Syria.

The same goes for Israel. Lebanon has officially been at war with Israel longer than I've been alive. But the Lebanese state never acts like it's at war. Lebanon never fights Israel. People in Lebanon -- the PLO and Iran's private army -- were the ones who fought Israel.

A cynical observer may say the Lebanese government wants to have it both ways. The Lebanese state gets its war and it gets deniability.

I don't read it that way. When the PLO used Southern Lebanon as a base to fight Israel during the 1970s and early 1980s, Lebanon's Sunni population applauded. But the Christians and the Shia were apoplectic. Lebanon disintegrated into the worst war in its history over this question.

Most Lebanese hated Hezbollah and wanted Iran's and Syria's little plaything disarmed even before they dragged the country into yet another pointless war against the will of the majority.

Even so, advocating peace talks with Israel was a "red line" when I was in Beirut. Some Lebanese did it anyway, but they only did it in private. No newspaper wrote editorials in favor of Israel or of peace. No politician from any party dared say anything of the sort even though everyone knew some would if they could. The stupid parties (Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalists, etc.) still accuse the March 14 Movement (aka the "Cedar Revolution," aka the government) of being Zionist agents even when the red line isn't crossed.

So it's telling that Nabih Berri, the Speaker of Parliament, a Shia from South Lebanon, Hezbollah's "moderate" ally, one of Bashar Assad's point men in the country, said what he said even to foreigners. He did say it in Arabic to Al-Arabiya. He did not say it in French to Jacques Chirac.

It doesn't mean peace talks are imminent. Hezbollah, or anyone else for that matter, could sabotage peace talks in five minutes. (See Hamas.) But if Berri can say it even if he is not sincere, so can anyone else who has the guts.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:23 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 22, 2006

The Beirut of Europe, Revisited

Just under a year ago I wrote the following while Paris burned:

They say Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. Does that mean Paris is the Beirut of Europe? Or is that an insult to Beirut?
A week later my mother visited me in Lebanon after I finally convinced her it was safe. “Thank God we didn’t stop in Paris on the way to Beirut,” she said with an absolutely straight face. And I laughed out loud. Beirut, in her mind, was the epitome of urban disaster areas. Paris, as far as she was concerned, was the greatest city on earth. I loved the sudden inversion.

In hindsight I was naïve. I feel chagrined now after arguing long and hard that no one in Lebanon would hurt her, me, or anyone else. To be sure, even if she had visited during this summer’s war she would have been safe from Lebanese. Israeli warplanes were the hazard I hadn’t considered.

Lebanon was not as safe as I thought, and it’s less safe today. Last week someone fired rockets at the Buddha Bar across the street from UN headquarters. I took my mother to that bar. The attackers might be Syrian, but they also could be Lebanese. Nobody knows.

Perhaps I was dumb for suggesting that Beirut is safer than Paris even in jest. But sometimes I wonder.

Before next week’s anniversary of the Clichy riots, the violence and despair on the estates are again to the fore. Despite a promised renaissance, little has changed, and the lid could blow at any moment.

The figures are stark. An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France so far this year and there have been 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services. Nearly 3,000 police officers have been injured in clashes this year. Officers have been badly injured in four ambushes in the Paris outskirts since September. Some police talk of open war with youths who are bent on more than vandalism.

“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”

I doubt this is the work of radical Islamists. Violence in France looks a lot more like race war and class war than jihad. Either way, burning cars -- even at the insane rate of 112 every day -- certainly beats massacreing commuters on the way to work in the morning or blowing up tourist hotels.

Most of the violence is in the outskirts of Paris rather than in the city center. The Buddha Bar and the UN are in downtown Beirut. Parts of Paris may be safer than anywhere in Beirut if you forget, for the sake of discussion, that no one ever gets mugged in Lebanon. There is no chance at all that any country will drop bombs on Paris from warplanes.

Comparing Beirut and Paris is, I admit, a bit ridiculous.

Even so, 15 attacks every day against French police and emergency services is astounding. 3,000 injured police officers is an incredible number. How many cars can even be left if 115 are burned every day?

We’re not talking about jihad or a war against infidels here. But is it crazy to ask how many Israeli police and soldiers have been injured or killed by Hamas and Hezbollah at the same time?

The point is not that France resembles Israel in any meaningful way, or that the suburbs of Paris are a match for the dahiyeh south of Beirut which was controlled by a private Iranian army. I'm comparing these places because I want to draw attention to the enormous disconnect between perception and reality.

If 80 percent of the foreign correspondents in Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon moved to France and covered that conflict instead, France would look like a frightening place indeed. It would, in all liklihood, look more dangerous than it really is. (No cars are burned in the Latin Quarter as far as I know.) Instead the Middle East -- with the probable exception of Baghdad -- looks more dangerous than it really is.

I'm not saying the Middle East isn't dangerous. Some parts of it are. Other parts are safe, though. Even some of the dangerous places are reasonably safe most of the time. My friend Michael Dempsey described Beirut as a "safe dangerous" place, which nails it exactly I think.

My friends and family no longer give me a hard time when I travel to places they wouldn't go. Every time I come home unharmed and untraumatized they lighten up a little bit more. But people who don't know me well, who don't read my blog, and who don't follow the Middle East closely still have a hard time understanding what it's really like across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. My wife has decided that she will no longer tell people when I'm out of town.

"So," one of her clients said the other day. "What hell-hole is your husband in now?"

"Is your husband in Iraq?" our corner grocer asked her in August.

"No," she said. "He's in Israel."

"Oh no!" he said, genuinely alarmed.

She hears this sort of thing constantly. It stresses her out, and it annoys me.

The media make the Middle East look like one never-ending massacre and explosion. France, meanwhile, looks like a storybook land of gourmet cheeses, cafes, and castles. So perhaps I can be forgiven by responding to one cartoon with another, as long as I admit that's what I'm doing. It's fun telling people who think I need body armor in the Levant that Paris is the Beirut of Europe.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:44 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

October 20, 2006

Boring Partisans

From the Wall Street Journal:

Some producers say they are weary of the bickering between the left and right, each parroting talking points emailed from party headquarters. Most news-talk shows have pundits representing only "the four poles -- Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives," says CNN's Mr. Bohrman. He has an Internet reporter "scouring the blogs," partly to look for non-partisans who can articulate the middle ground in an engaging way. He says he'd love to find the great American "centrist pundit."
Producers aren't the only ones bored with the format. How about hiring lots of centrist pundits? In Oregon, where I live, registered Independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. Some of us who still haven't bothered to re-register as Independents are also basically centrists.

Scouring the blogs is a good call for producers who have finally figured out that Hannity and Colmes, the now defunct Crossfire, etc., bore the bejeezus out of people who aren't reactionaries or hacks. Here are a few places to start. Half of them have been on TV already. Put them on more often!

Ann Althouse

Andrew Sullivan

Jeff Jarvis

Matt Welch

Armed Liberal

Megan McArdle

Dean Esmay

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:23 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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