December 31, 2009

Profile Me if You Must

I don’t want to be profiled at the airport. It has happened before, and I hate it. Volunteering for more isn’t what I feel like doing right now, but our airport security system is so half-baked and dysfunctional it may as well not even exist, and flying is about to become more miserable anyway. So rather than doubling down on grandma and micromanaging everyone on the plane, we might want to pay as much attention to people as to their luggage, especially military-aged males who make unusual and suspicious-looking travel arrangements. That’s what the Israelis do, and that’s why security agents take me into a room and interrogate me every time I pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Israeli airport security is the most thorough and strict in the world, as one might expect in one of the most terrorized countries. No plane leaving Ben-Gurion has ever been hijacked or otherwise attacked by a terrorist. The system works, yet you don’t have to take off your shoes in the security line, no one cares if you pack perfume from the duty-free in your carry-on, you can listen to your iPod 55 minutes before landing, and you don’t have to stand in front of invasive and expensive body-scanning machines.

The Israelis look for weapons, of course. You aren’t at all likely to sneak one on board. Just as important, though, the Israelis are on the look-out for terrorists. Who would you rather sit next to? A woman carrying shampoo and tweezers, or 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, even if he’s not carrying anything?

Israeli security agents interview everyone, and they subject travelers who fit certain profiles to additional scrutiny. I don’t know exactly what their criteria are, but I do know they aren’t just taking Arabs and Muslims aside. They take me aside, too, partly because of my gender and age but mostly because a huge percentage of my passport stamps are from countries with serious terrorist problems.

“Does anyone in Lebanon know you’re here?” they usually ask me. They’ve also asked if I’ve ever met with anyone in Hezbollah. I am not going to lie during an airport security interview, especially not when the answer can be easily found using Google. They know I’ve met with Hezbollah. That’s why my luggage gets hand-searched one sock at a time while elderly tourists from Florida skate through. I can’t say I enjoy this procedure, but I don’t take it personally, and it makes a lot more sense than letting me skate through while grandma’s luggage is hand-searched instead.

The United States need not and should not import the Israeli system. It’s labor intensive, slow, and at times incredibly aggravating. Americans wouldn’t put up with it, and it wouldn’t scale well. The one thing we can and should learn from the Israelis, though, is that we need to pay as much attention to who gets on airplanes as to what they’re bringing on board.

I don’t like being profiled, but the Israelis aren’t wrong for looking more closely at me than at, say, an 80-year-old black woman from Kansas or a 12-year-old kid from Japan. When I get on a plane in the United States, though, I often breeze past women decades older than me while they’re being frisked. Almost every single person in line knows it’s ridiculous. We don’t say anything, partly because we don’t want to get in trouble, and partly because it feels vaguely “fair.”

Maybe it is, but it’s no way to catch terrorists. And it’s not as if the only alternative is a separate policy for Arabs and Muslims. Racial and religious profiling won’t even work. Shoe bomber Richard Reid wouldn’t have been caught that way, and it’s probably safe to let a 90 year-old woman from Dubai through with minimal hassle.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:31 PM | Permalink | 23 Comments »

December 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

Why has the Arab world found it so hard to challenge and revise its own disproven assumptions and failed policies? The key to this apparent mystery is hidden in the issue of who is to be blamed for this unhappy history and pessimistic outlook. The overwhelmingly dominant answer in the Arab world and Iran has been to attribute responsibility to the United States, Israel, and traitorous—because they are insufficiently radical—rulers at home. The outpouring of anti-Americanism, both before and after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on America, reflected this overall assessment that the United States was to blame for everything that had gone wrong in the Middle East.

But if America is responsible, of course, that means Pan-Arab nationalism, Islamist radicalism, dictatorship, badly run and rigidly statist economies, strategies rejoicing in violence and terror, and a media system dominated by propaganda have nothing to do with the Arab failure to prosper and progress. If these internal factors are irrelevant—or lacking only a more courageous and consistent application of the correct principles—then nothing needs to be altered. Yet if these things remain unchanged, the Arab world will continue to lurch from one embarrassment or defeat to another.

Those in the West who agree with the assessment that outside oppression is the true roadblock for Arabs and Muslims think that they are nobly helping the Middle East's people against their enemies. Echoing their views and explaining their grievances is expected to persuade the West to understand the Middle East and then to change its ways, thus solving the problem. Anyone who disagrees is said to be merely an apologist for imperialism and Zionism whose work does not deserve to be read and whose analysis need not be considered.

In fact, though, these "pro-Arab" forces are reinforcing the Arabs' and Muslims' worse possible enemy: the unwillingness to confront the real issues and problems that have caused so many disasters and kept them from achieving more progress. At any rate, such arguments will never convince Western leaders or citizens, because they clearly do not conform to reality. The principle problem is not that the West misunderstands the Middle East, but rather that the Middle East misunderstands both the West and itself.

From The Tragedy of the Middle East by Barry Rubin.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:34 AM | Permalink | 12 Comments »

December 29, 2009

The Iranian Regime’s Battle of Karbala

The Iranian citizens’ uprising against their government has been sustained for six months now, and it took an interesting turn over the weekend. Security forces reportedly opened fire against demonstrators and even killed the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi--and they did it during Ashura. There are few things “supreme guide” Ali Khamenei could have done to enrage religious conservatives and harden them against his regime more than this. As one demonstrator put it, “killing Muslims on Ashura is like crucifying Christians on Christmas.”

“The clock began to tick for Ayatollah Khamenei’s fall from today,” said one of Iran’s few former female members of parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjou. “Killing people on Ashura shows how far Mr. Khamenei is willing to go to suppress the protests. People are comparing him more with Yazid because they consider him responsible for the order to use violence against people.”

Ashura is a Shia religious holiday, and it is not joyous. It is a day of lamentation that marks the date when the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid killed Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, during the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. It’s one of the most infamous episodes in the struggle for power that permanently ruptured the house of Islam into its warring Sunni and Shia halves. The Shia--the partisans of Ali and his lineage--have been at war with the Sunnis--those who took the side of Yazid--for thirteen centuries. That Khamenei’s security people would murder unarmed demonstrators on this day of all days, and that his opponents now denounce him as the Yazid of Iran, may very well set most of the religious conservatives against him for as long as he and his government live.

Haghighatjou isn’t the only one using this kind of language. You’ll find regular citizens comparing Khamenei to Yazid and Tehran to Karbala with even a cursory scan of Iranian Internet commentary during the last couple of days.

The Iranian government knows very well what a devastating accusation this is. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini compared the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi to Yazid during the revolution he led in 1979, and his successor Khamenei tries to pass himself off as a modern Ali even now. More recently, the regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders used this charge against Israel in 1982 to ignite a decades-long insurgency in South Lebanon.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:46 AM | Permalink | 12 Comments »

December 28, 2009

Ashura Demonstrations

This is what Tehran looked like over the weekend during Ashura.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei have had to endure this now for six months. How much resistance can a government withstand? This can't continue. One side or another is going to lose.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:34 AM | Permalink | 28 Comments »

December 27, 2009

Over Detroit Skies

Check out Roey Rosenblith's well-written first-person account of what happened on that Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit two days ago when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab turned himself into a human bomb and nearly killed three hundred people.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:41 PM | Permalink | 6 Comments »

December 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

In a constitutional democracy, those elected to office are obviously as prone as everyone else to follow misconceived policies, to make miscalculations and self-serving errors; but over a period of time this will become evident and even scandalous, and representative institutions will oblige them to pay the price of losing an election and therefore office. No such correction is possible for the Arab power holder or challenger, whose miscalculations and self-serving errors must be worked through to the bitter end, which more often than not is his death.

From The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:42 PM | Permalink | 17 Comments »

December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Thanks for checking in here, but don't spend too much time on the Internet today.

Merry Christmas!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:00 PM | Permalink | 5 Comments »

December 22, 2009

Assad Returns as the Strong Horse

Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis.

Hariri and his allies in parliament resisted an extraordinary amount of pressure on these points for months before caving in, but cave in they did. They didn’t have much choice. The national army isn’t strong enough to disarm Hezbollah, and unlike Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei, Hariri doesn’t have his own private army. Hezbollah militiamen surrounded his house last year and firebombed his TV station when the government shut down its illegal surveillance system at the airport. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hezbollah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back when push comes to shove.

No one has Hariri’s or Lebanon’s back, not anymore. He and his allies in the "March 14" coalition have sensed this for some time, which is why Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has grudgingly softened his opposition to Assad and Hezbollah lately. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country, aside from useless newswire reporters, understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt is another member of what David Schenker calls the Murdered Fathers Club. Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, put Jumblatt through a similarly gruesome experience back in the 70s during the civil war. First Assad murdered Walid’s father, Kamal, then summoned the surviving Jumblatt to Damascus and forced him to shake hands and pledge his allegiance. Who can even imagine what that must have felt like? Hariri knows now, and Jumblatt still tells everyone he meets all about it.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:33 PM | Permalink | 10 Comments »

December 21, 2009

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The site has now been ported over to Wordpress, and all the problems we've been having with the comments section should be resolved.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:03 PM | Permalink | 4 Comments »
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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