Tuesday, 31 August 2010

US Debt as a Security Threat

If you are viewing this by email please visit TheGeopolitico.com to see the embedded YouTube clip. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen said today: "The most significant threat to our country is our debt." As the U.S. struggles to sustain a $13.4 trillion debt, what will be the implications on American foreign policy, and beyond that, on the existing global order? In this clip I explore the implications of the financial quandary the world's leading superpower faces. This is part of the weekly video series, LocoWorld TV here on TheGeopolitico.com

Monday, 30 August 2010

Ignore the Tea Party at Your Peril

"Victories of “extreme right” Tea Party-backed congressional candidates in Republican primaries will help the Democratic Party retain control of the House by alienating independent voters who will determine the November election outcome, the House Democrats’ campaign chief said."
This was the leading paragraph in yet another article on the so-called Tea Party movement in the United States, casting it as a 'fringe group.' Yet this 'fringe group' seems to be having a lasting influence beyond the expectations of its detractors.

If you missed it, on Saturday, August 28, a mass-rally was held in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to "restore America's honor." It was organized by Glenn Beck, the host of his own one hour show on Fox News. Beck has been at the forefront of a rage against what he sees as an emasculated America that is losing itself. While he was already an emerging star on radio and Headline News, it was his move to Rupert Murdoch's (and Waleed bin Talal's for that matter) Fox News that has really blasted him into the stratosphere.

The rally organized on Saturday in fact mysteriously coincided with Martin Luther King's famed "I have a Dream Speech" made 47 years earlier in the same location. There was an uncomfortable racial subtext to this choice, as the talk show host had just several months earlier accused Barack Obama of hating white people. While he feigned ignorance in the choice of the date for this week's rally, Beck himself said on his radio show, African Americans do not have a monopoly on the legacy of King. The featured speaker at the gathering was none other than former Alaskan Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, but it is Beck who has been at the forefront of orchestrating a mass movement in the United States. With his radio, tv, and web presence, he has been inspiring many of the activists that fit into the proverbial Tea Party camp. It was his 9-12 project that spawned this idea of taking back America; 9-12 representing the day after 9-11 when Americans, in Beck's view, were finally all united. In truth, he is seeking to restore America to Palin's "Real America". His show collects a lot of confused anger and frustration from many sources and channels them into a simple philosophy: things used to be good, they can be again, and only the government is in our way.

The Tea Party movement, which Beck influences but is certainly not under his control, is a loose set of parallel groups that mobilize across the United States against different types of government encroachment. They invoke the symbolism that the current government, like the British in the mid-18th century, are subjecting Americans to a form of tyrannical rule. Many Democrats would like to chalk the Tea Party up to a fringe movement that has no influence. The victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts of all places, for the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy, was a rude awakening. The Tea Party was shown to be beyond a fad or a minor player in Republican primaries. Even if disorganized, chaotic, and without a central leader, it was a new force in American politics.

What is increasingly clear is that there is a growing divide of perceptions in the United States. President Obama may have been a clear and popular winner in the elections in 2008, and enjoyed a brief honeymoon after his inauguration, but now he suffers from a far higher disapproval than approval rating. Many Democrats consider him a liability on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections this Fall. Obama for the Tea Partiers represents the change that they don't want to see. Yet, while racism lurks in the shadows, the fundamental aversion to Obama is influenced by policy. For many in the Tea Party movement, the Obama Administration represents a dilution of American power, identity, and individuality. With unemployment reaching ten percent, there is a feeling of helplessness around the country. In such times it becomes quite common that many would try to cling to what they know and be averse to what is different.

With such massive flows of immigration (legal and illegal) and rapid cultural shifts (i.e. on perceptions of homosexuality) underway in the 1990s and 2000s, it should have been expected that there would be a reaction rooted in insular mentalities in the United States. What is truly monumental, however, (and I do not use the word lightly) about the Tea Party movement, is its ability to dovetail cultural insularity with libertarian philosophy and hawkish defense policy. This wide base allows for the participation of religious groups fearing shifts on issues on abortion and homosexuality, alongside people simply concerned with illegal immigration, and others who want to ensure that 9/11 is not repeated.  It is the genetic evolution of Karl Rove's tent of Bush supporters in 2004 but that 'creation' has in fact evolved in its own right, so that it is not Republicans or others influencing the Tea Partiers, but the other way around. Many establishment candidates in Republican primaries are being routinely defeated by Tea Party-supported candidacies. Sure today, Palin is popular amongst this group, but she is not the director, but just another player on the stage. The same goes for Beck, and while he may be orchestrating parts of the movement, he is just one larger player.

That's why people like the New York Times Frank Rich, miss the point entirely, that this is some type of limited movement with undue influence. Yes, there are high-profile bankrollers. However, this movement is unique in its diffuseness. When 64% of Americans oppose the misnamed "ground zero mosque" it shows how some views that may be unpalatable to the New York Times or Washington Post, are embedded in American society. As the economy worsens, more and more people, including traditional Democrats, will be attracted to a philosophy that asks, why are we letting more people into the country? Why should we allow mosques to be built unfettered and be future homes of potential terrorists? How can we continue to fund entitlements like healthcare when we have declining tax revenues?

The fear is that the Obama Administration and others have not fully internalized the weight of this movement, and the concerns of its followers. It is easy to dismiss others as fringe. Yet, real concerns underlie whatever rallies are emerging on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The current national debt is $14 trillion in the United States. There is a yet-an-unsolved issue of illegal immigration within America's borders. And yes, Islam is a faith not understood or even familiar to many Americans. Is the answer an inward philosophy that resists change and is hostile to difference? Likely not - but what is the alternative being offered? Unless there is a significant realization of this fact within the Democratic Party and specific counter-philosophy presented in the next two years, we can be assured that Obama will be voted out of office in 2012. Ignore the Tea Party at your peril.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Jewslim - Jon Stewart as the New Fourth Estate

If you are reading this by email please go to the post on TheGeopolitico.com to view the video clips. 

In 2008 the New York Times ran a piece asking the question, "Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?" In the article, like he did when he appeared on the O'Reilly Factor in a memorable episode, insisted that his role is to "entertain rather than inform." Yet, time and time again, Stewart has been able to distill the nefarious and idiosyncratic world of American politics and hammer home grains of truth. His coverage is of course colored by eccentric humor, but behind the curtain of laughs is often a message that the proverbial 'mainstream' media has missed or simply ignored.

It was in my college years when Jon Stewart broke into the political arena, particularly during what the Daily Show termed "InDecision 2000" when Gore and Bush were locked into a recount marathon to determine the Presidency. If there was one 'newscast' that all of us would turn on at night, it was Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. After 9/11 and during the Iraq War and through the rest of the Bush years, the show's coverage was in sharp contrast to the meek and too often weak coverage by major television stations in the US. It is no wonder that all presidential candidates (as did Obama and McCain) consider a stop on his program a must. When I met him in 2004 (he was our Class Day speaker at Princeton) I saw him as a comedian, political critic, and part-time journalist. Today, however, if I met him again, I would thank him for being much more then that. He is now - and it is no overstatement - the most incisive person on American television, and no one is even close.

The Daily Show's ongoing and biting coverage of the so-called Ground Zero Islamic Center (for more information see: Mosque Wars in America and Don't Build it and They Won't Come) has raised the program to another level. Stewart has held nothing back in not only defending the right of Muslims under the first amendment to build a place of religious worship, but also in dissecting the duplicity of critics. One prominent example is how Fox News has lambasted Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf for possibly having links with Al-Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi Prince who also has a huge financial and media empire; Stewart retorted that Fox News itself is in fact part owned by Prince Al-Waleed.

In a land of misguided populists and fleeting journalism, Stewart takes the patience to analyze the debate and expose the hypocrisies and contradictions of the political players. Moreover, Jon Stewart has been especially poignant in his coverage of the 'Ground Zero' Islamic Center. If the controversy is about the location of the Center, why is another mosque facing opposition in Murfreesboro, Tennessee? When Glenn Beck criticized the Imam for expressing critical views of American policy, Stewart showed a clip of Glenn Beck saying nearly the exactly same thing.

On this issue, Stewart is leading the story, and setting the bar for the Fourth Estate. In the American media, where falsehoods too frequently are presented as facts, Jon Stewart is keeping everyone honest, and we're all better for it.

(I've pasted below his clips starting with the latest on the 'mosque' issue). 

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Tennessee No Evil
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Parent Company Trap
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Extremist Makeover - Homeland Edition
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Extremist Makeover - Team Mohammed vs. Team Jesus
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Pork or Parents
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Municipal Land-Use Hearing Update
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Municipal Land-Use Update - Ground Zero Mosque
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Wish You Weren't Here
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Senseless Census Debate in Canada

I wanted to share with you a piece I have written for The Mark on the debate around the census in Canada. In case you didn't know, the current government has announced that it will make the census a largely voluntary exercise; this has aroused predictable opposition from the opposition. This article is part of a wider series on The Mark and you should go to the site to get the full view. Here's my take.

A Conservative Experiment in Faux Populism

PeopleDo Canadians really care about the fate of the long-form census?

Embattled Industry Minister Tony Clement has previously dismissed opposition to his government as coming solely from the country’s elites. “It may not be what the chattering classes want, but we’re not here to govern on behalf of the chattering classes,” he once said. For whatever reason Clement believes Canada to be some sort of banana republic.
The scrapping of the long-form census is another example of the misguided foray into the faux populism that the Conservative party appears to be enamoured with. Yet this does not justify the apocalyptic anaphylaxis experienced by the opposition in response to the census changes. Ultimately, both sides should realize that this senseless census debate overshadows much more important conversations on other policy issues, particularly health care and the economy.
The scrapping of the long-form census was one more policy change that was neither urgent nor convincing. Was there really a clamouring for this change at this time? Did the government really need to strong-arm the head of Statistics Canada so much so that he felt he needed to resign?
The Conservatives have a history of similar decisions. There was the debate over abortions during the G8 summit for example, or the decision to shut down a key access to information database.
It also fits into a pattern where the Tories want less information and less oversight in an apparent“dumbing down” of Canada, as suggested by former prime minister Paul Martin.
Yet, while the Conservatives may have unnecessarily opened a debate, they have hardly opened Pandora’s box. The mandatory shorter census will now consist of eight primary questions about the basic composition of the household in addition to a couple queries about language. The longer-form census will now be a voluntary survey. What exactly is asked in the longer survey? Where were you born? What were the ethnic or cultural origins of your ancestors? Where did you live one year ago? Where were each of your parents born? How many hours do you spend doing unpaid work? Did you look for paid work in the last four weeks? How do you get to work every day?
It’s not unreasonable that some Canadians have privacy concerns about these questions. At the same time, the absence of answers will hinder informed policy-making. Instead of further bickering and grandstanding, the opposition and the government should both get their act together, address the varying concerns that exist, and find a compromise.
Simply put, most Canadians are not waking up in the morning and thinking about the fate of the census. It’s time to move on.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

In conflict with the spirit of Ramadan?

I wrote an article about Ramadan but it was not fit for print by a leading UAE newspaper. This is the note they sent to me. 

"Dear Mr Taufiq Rahim,
In reference to your article, sections of it are in conflict with the spirit of Ramadan and especially the policy of UAE. I regret to inform you that we won't be able to use it."

I disagree. What do you think? 

Ramadan in Excess
Taufiq Rahim

I was 13 years old when I first started fasting for the entire month of Ramadan.  There were only 3 or 4 other students in my school (in Vancouver, Canada) who were also fasting and due to school regulations we had to go to the cafeteria everyday during lunchtime. We would sit there with our fellow classmates as they gorged down their lunch with the smell of food wafting through the air. During those years, I often had tennis and soccer practice in the afternoons as well. I can’t even recount the number of exams I sat for during the holy month.

Ramadan taught me resilience and perseverance. Most of all it instilled within me an ethic of empathy towards the plight of those less fortunate than myself. These days in Dubai, however, I am overwhelmed with the commercialization and excesses of the month. Lavish tents. Exorbitant iftars. Wasted food. At times, it seems, that part of the spirit of Ramadan is fading in large parts of the Muslim world as charity and spiritual enrichment become perfunctory by-products of an otherwise ostentatious celebration.

The month of Ramadan is enshrined within the tradition of Islam. It is the time when the Prophet (peace be upon him) is said to have received the initial revelation of the Qur’an from God. The Qur’an itself expounds on the importance of the month:

“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.” (2:184)

Ensuing verses emphasize that those who are physically unable or travelling are exempt from fasting but not exempt from charity and feeding the indigent.  During Ramadan, Muslims from across the umma are expected to take additional care to help the least fortunate among them. Ramadan serves as a personal time for each Muslim when he or she seeks purity – physical, spiritual, and mental. The element of physical fasting is in fact only one facet of the month, as the greater and more difficult fast is the one from malicious actions, back-biting, and other bad habits. Many Muslims also seek to give additional prayers (tarawih) and read the Qur’an daily to develop further closeness to God.

These days, however, it seems that much of the original spirit is lost amidst the commercialization of the holy month, akin to what has happened to Christmas in the West. Many retailers and restaurants will confirm that Ramadan is one of the most profitable times of the year. I received an email the other day describing the Ramadan experience at the Diwan al-Khayal tent at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which “elevates the five-start experience to new levels.” At the “purpose built marquee” I would be privy to a “lavish iftar buffet…priced at just AED 165 per person.” These tents have become ubiquitous and it is expected that upwards of AED 150 is necessary to break one’s fast; we are expected to ignore the excess of food that is left on the table after our meal. Is the spirit of Ramadan to sleep during the day in order to commemorate materialistic excess at night?

Of course, there are a number of great exceptions in Dubai. The Government of Dubai has sponsored once again a wonderful forum (Al Multaqa) bringing together Islamic scholars from around the world to facilitate religious reflection and contemplation. I have also been pleasantly inundated with requests to volunteer, particularly form the Volunteer in Dubai organizing team. In addition, the Ramadan spirit is alive amongst countless families who gather humbly together each evening to share a simple meal.

Yet, still, I can’t help but think that living in the relative luxury of the UAE (or other countries for that matter), it is easy to forget about the self-restraint and empathy for the downtrodden that Ramadan encourages us to embrace. Is the holy month really the opportune time to increase vigilance against begging?  Should restaurants have minimum spends during Ramadan of 150 AED so that we order items we don’t even want to eat?

In our regional neighborhood, just a couple hours away is one of the most impoverished and distraught countries in the world in Afghanistan.  Next door in Pakistan, one of the world’s most horrific human tragedies is unfolding due to unprecedented floods. Much closer to home, the people who labor in the hot sun to facilitate the luxurious life that many of us enjoy, have no reprieve from hardship. The opportunities to put into practice the spirit of Ramadan are plentiful and all around us. Unfortunately, I have neglected to do so to the extent I should. I hope to change that this year, and I hope you will join me.  

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

No Mandela, No de Klerk, No Deal

If you are viewing this by email, you will have to go to TheGeopolitico.com to view the YouTube clip embedded in the post. 

The Obama Administration has laid out the red carpet for peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Yet what will this new round of negotiations accomplish? Stephen Walt, the noted IR theorist, commented on ForeignPolicy.com that it will "go nowhere." In this short clip, I explain why both sides are not ready, willing or able to reach a legitimate compromise unless they get their own houses in order first.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The top 10 things you might have known but probably forgot

Every month I will write a post about "The top 10 things you might have known but probably forgot." The world is always moving at a fast pace and we are bombarded with information. Deeply ensconced in our sub-conscious and in the vast place we call the "Internet" are facts or observations that we neglect but shouldn't, and that may change the way we look at things. Here are some of those:

10. The world's longest serving (republican) head of state is Leader and Guide of the Revolution, Muammar al-Gaddafi who has been in power for nearly 41 years.

9. Ten years earlier, in 1959, Fidel Castro rose to power, and the Castro brothers have retained their hold on Cuba for over 50 years while the U.S. has maintained economic sanctions on the island for most of that time.

8. Six years earlier, in 1953, marked the end of the Korean war but in a stalemate that partitioned the peninsula, and led to the birth of modern North Korea, now ruled by the then leader, Kim il-Sung's son, Kim il-Jong.

7. In the same year, the democratically elected President of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was overthrown in a CIA-orchestrated coup, leaving deep-seated anti-Americanism that resonated for decades.

6. Five years earlier, in 1948, Israel was born as a nation, which also led to the creation of a Palestinian refugee population that has not subsided.

5.  The year before that in 1947, Pakistan and India declared their independence from the British, and from one another, without resolving the issue of Kashmir.

4. Four years before that, in 1943, the leadership in Lebanon agreed on the National Pact, cementing a sectarian power-sharing framework for the country, with a Christian President, Sunni Prime Minister and Shiite Speaker of the Parliament.

3. In 1912, the Qing Dynasty fell and this marked the end of 2,000 years of imperial rule in China, which gave way to a century-long search for a new basis for power.

2. In 1893, a demarcation between Afghanistan and what is modern-day Pakistan was established called the Durand line, which cut directly across the Pashtul tribal area, living the same people on both sides of the border.

1. In 1744, Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab a puritanical religious scholar, and Muhammad Ibn Saud, a tribal political leader, formed an alliance in what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Good Palestinian, Bad Palestinian

"We will take care to remind our children of the Gaza slaughter. We will save the pictures of the children of Gaza with their wounds and blood, and we will teach our children that the strong believer is better than the weak. We will teach them: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and he who started it is the more unjust. What is taken by force will not be returned but by force."
These were the aggressive words voiced in support of the Palestinians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during Israel's Gaza assault in January of last year.  There is no more emotive issue then the so-called question of Palestine in the Arab world. A recent survey of six Arab countries by Brookings researcher Shibley Telhami revealed that support for Obama had dropped, with the primary reason of disappointment (61% indicating it as such) being his policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The Arab position is reflexive support for the Palestinians in Palestine. Yet, what about the Palestinians closer to home? Those refugees who have settled (or at least tried to) in countries ranging from Lebanon to Kuwait? They, unfortunately, are not the good Palestinians.

The 'Good Palestinian' is the one far away, serving as a whipping boy for Israel as the rest of the Arab world cheers and jeers on. There are contrasting narratives about the extent of Arab sacrifice for the Palestinian cause. From a 'financial' perspective, in recent years, countries such as the United Arab Emirates have pumped in $100m annually, a testament to ongoing support over sixty years after the proverbial Nakba. Often, however, the pledges from governments for the Palestinian Authority fall short as they did in 2008 and again this year. Yet, whatever the views and actions of different governments over time, the 'Arab street' is viewed decisively as rabidly pro-Palestinian. When Israel carried out its brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, there were lines in every Arab capital to donate blood, derived from an honest spirit of empathy. Charitable aid is supported without question for the Palestinians as witnessed currently by the ongoing flotilla parade launched week after week from country after country, whether it be Libya or Lebanon or elsewhere. The 'Good Palestinian' is in the West Bank living under occupation. He is persevering under the threat of an Israeli attack at all times in Gaza.

There also exists the 'Bad Palestinian.' He doesn't live far away, but rather down the street and perhaps in the same neighborhood - he's right next door. In Damascus. Beirut. Baghdad. Cairo. Kuwait. And the list goes on. Today, the South in Lebanon supports the 'resistance' but in the late 1970s, the enemy was not Israel but the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the first militant mobilization by the AMAL party was to defend Shiite villages against the Palestinian presence. The PLO did not do any favors for the Palestinian reputation in Lebanon. Neither did the sectarian system, however, that stoked fears of an influx or integration of a large Sunni Arab population. A prominent Amnesty International report three years ago captured the plight of the Palestinians:
"Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have had little choice but to live in overcrowded and deteriorating camps and informal gatherings that lack basic infrastructure. The amount of land allocated to official refugee camps has barely changed since 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the registered refugee population. The residents have been forbidden by law from bringing building materials into some camps, preventing the repair, expansion or improvement of homes. Those who have defied the law have faced fines and imprisonment as well as demolition of the new structures. In camps where additional rooms or floors have been added to existing buildings, the alleyways have become even narrower and darker, the majority of homes receive no direct sunlight and, despite the best efforts of the inhabitants, the pervasive smells of rubbish and sewage are at times overwhelming."
To varying degrees, however, some Palestinians have been afforded a respectable place in a number of countries, where many are in fact flourishing. Nevertheless, behind closed doors, the disdain sometimes is hard to contain. In Damascus, most of the Palestinian refugees (the vast majority of whom have ID cards but not citizenship) live in a part of town called al-mukhayim or the camp. Yet, this 'camp' is actually now an urban ghetto. The downtrodden from all over Syria settle there. I remember I was having a conversation with one of my friends about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As he praised Hezbollah and proclaimed the rights of Palestinians, he cautioned me about going to mukhayim: "Be careful over there, you cannot trust them." I asked him, "Who can't I trust?" He replied coldy, "The Palestinians, they're all thieves."

It is an attitude repeated - and driven by different factors - across the Arab world. In Kuwait, after the PLO expressed support for Saddam's invasion, it was the 400,000 rank-and-file Palestinians who had been living in the country for years who suffered, expelled en masse. In Iraq, twelve years later, the Palestinians who had been there for decades were forced to relocate to desert camps after the US invasion and subsequent attacks by Iraqi groups. Until now, Palestinian populations in Arab countries have been viewed - somehow still after 60 years - as transitory and otherworldly. The blood brother is not so sanguine when he's next door.

Then, this past week, there was a surprise to confound the paradigm that had been in place for so long. Lebanon agreed to expand Palestinian social and civil rights in an unprecedented move after 60 years of stagnation. The 'Bad Palestinian' was acknowledged as part of the society he actually lived in. Time will tell if Lebanon expands these reforms to include wider property rights or even a path to permanent residency or citizenship; certainly, any final status agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis will have an element of local integration of Palestinian refugees in their countries of residence, and Arab governments would do well to prepare for that reality.

This dichotomy of views toward the Palestinian population has simmered under the surface, emerging in destructive ways and rarely in healthy and constructive dialogue. Lebanon this week has offered the first salvo in a new conversation about the Palestinian in Arab society. Hopefully it will not be the last.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Mourning a Witness to History

Noor Ali Rashid was a witness to history who in fact became part of it. He passed away two days ago in Dubai and his funeral was held today at the Al Quoz Cemetery, a humble burial ground for many of the city's residents. Local Emiratis and expatriates walked together in the funeral procession to pay their final respects to a legendary photographer and give their condolences to the Rashid family. As would only be appropriate, there were several photographers mulling about trying to get the perfect shot of the rituals and prayers.

Rashid was a humble man from the Subcontinent (Gwadar province in what is today Pakistan) who came to the United Arab Emirates before it even existed, in 1958. His dispatch to Dubai was meant to dissuade him from his love of photography that his own father saw as a hobby rather than a profession. Yet it had precisely the opposite effect and it was indeed for the better. His unbridled passion and persistence for the perfect shot led him to become the official and family photographer of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai; he very quickly became the official Royal Photographer as designated by the founding President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. Noor Ali Rashid continued to take photographs to the very end of his days, such was the extent of his passion.

His personal profession, however, was in fact in the service of his adopted homeland (he was given UAE citizenship some time back) and the region at large, as he captured through the decades the transformational change that came to the Gulf. In an interview with Al Jazeera presenter Riz Khan, Rashid professed to have taken over 2.5 million photos throughout his career. Many of the most salient snapshots were displayed at a special exhibition last year and hopefully will be on display once again in tribute to him. Some can be found on the Gulf News website by clicking here. They range from images of icons including Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Queen Elizabeth, Gemal Abdel Nasser, Bill Clinton and the list goes on in an endless fashion. Even more amazingly are the pictures taken of the locations of where Sheikh Zayed Road and the now bountiful buildings of Dubai are, but when the land was just desert. Rashid himself had a personal and close relationship with many individuals from the royal family (as seen from the picture here) that gave him tremendous access.

In his humble portraits and snapshots of the UAE landscape, Rashid managed to document a history that will ultimately prove invaluable. Through the photographs we see the radical change that Dubai and the UAE have experienced in just decades. They also remind of us of the simple beginnings of what is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Ultimately, however, Rashid - like other great photographers - pushes us to reflect and ponder. He did this not with just one penetrating shot but with a totality of work that may remain unmatched in this region for years to come.

Twice Victims of 9/11 Attacks

In an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC, former Rudy Giuliani questioned the intentions of the builders of Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero:
If you're going to so horribly offend the people who were most directly affected by this, the families of the September 11 victims...then how are you healing? 
Among the roughly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks, were there not Muslims? If there is a Roman Catholic Church, a Methodist Church, another Chapel and other places of worship within the vicinity of Ground Zero (see the map below), do not Muslims also have the right to worship? What about the sensitivities of Muslim victims of that horrible day on September 11, 2001?

To bring home the point, I have listed below a partial representation of the Muslim victims, to acknowledge their existence. As you read, I want you to remember the story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a police cadet who raced to the scene of the attacks and lost his life in trying to save the lives of others.

There should be dialogue so that sensitivities are heard and addressed. Yet, the spirit of openness cannot be predicated on the demeaning of an entire faith, its adherents, and their inherent rights.

View Larger Map

This list is available in its original form @ http://islam.about.com/blvictims.htm; it is compiled from several sources and is only a partial representation of the Muslim Victims of 9/11 (or victims from Muslim families)

Samad Afridi
Ashraf Ahmad
Shabbir Ahmad (45 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and 3 children)
Umar Ahmad
Azam Ahsan
Ahmed Ali
Tariq Amanullah (40 years old; Fiduciary Trust Co.; ICNA website team member; leaves wife and 2 children)
Touri Bolourchi (69 years old; United Airlines #175; a retired nurse from Tehran)
Salauddin Ahmad Chaudhury
Abdul K. Chowdhury (30 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Mohammad S. Chowdhury (39 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and child born 2 days after the attack)
Jamal Legesse Desantis
Ramzi Attallah Douani (35 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
SaleemUllah Farooqi
Syed Fatha (54 years old; Pitney Bowes)
Osman Gani
Mohammad Hamdani (50 years old)
Salman Hamdani (NYPD Cadet)
Aisha Harris (21 years old; General Telecom)
Shakila Hoque (Marsh & McLennan)
Nabid Hossain
Shahzad Hussain
Talat Hussain
Mohammad Shah Jahan (Marsh & McLennan)
Yasmeen Jamal
Mohammed Jawarta (MAS security)
Arslan Khan Khakwani
Asim Khan
Ataullah Khan
Ayub Khan
Qasim Ali Khan
Sarah Khan (32 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Taimour Khan (29 years old; Karr Futures)
Yasmeen Khan
Zahida Khan
Badruddin Lakhani
Omar Malick
Nurul Hoque Miah (36 years old)
Mubarak Mohammad (23 years old)Boyie Mohammed (Carr Futures)
Raza Mujtaba
Omar Namoos
Mujeb Qazi
Tarranum Rahim
Ehtesham U. Raja (28 years old)
Ameenia Rasool (33 years old)
Naveed Rehman
Yusuf Saad
Rahma Salie & unborn child (28 years old; American Airlines #11; wife of Michael Theodoridis; 7 months pregnant)
Shoman Samad
Asad Samir
Khalid Shahid (25 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald; engaged to be married in November)
Mohammed Shajahan (44 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
Naseema Simjee (Franklin Resources Inc.'s Fiduciary Trust)
Jamil Swaati
Sanober Syed
Robert Elias Talhami (40 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Michael Theodoridis (32 years old; American Airlines #11; husband of Rahma Salie)
W. Wahid

Thursday, 19 August 2010

How to precipitate a clash of civilizations

Our civilization is not indestructible: It needs to be actively defended. This was perhaps Huntington's most important insight. The first step towards winning this clash of civilizations is to understand how the other side is waging it—and to rid ourselves of the One World illusion.
This is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's contention today in the Wall Street Journal in her article "How to Win the Clash of Civilizations." She argues that the recent controversy over the so-called ground zero Islamic center is a symptom of the clash of civilizations that 'we' are already in and losing. Turkey and any so-called 'Islamic' country that opposes 'our' policies are on the other side of the civilizational divide, which for Ali is only natural. In her article she posits that every Muslim country will be overrun by rabid Islamist extremists and the West should be ready to entrench itself in civilizational warfare.

Not only is this sophistic framework pessimistic and overly cynical but it is also foolishly self-indulgent. For Ali, her myopic worldview is divided into black and white, where civilization is clearly defined and is found solely in the narrow confines of a neo-conservative philosophy shared by her and her thought-partners. Everything outside that is anathema to something called Western civilization. Turkey is palatable only insofar that it follows robotically American policy at any given moment; let me rephrase that - American policy that fits with a right-wing agenda. When Turkey opposed the Iraq War despite tremendous American pressure, it was on the outs of Ali's civilization. Yet were the millions of Americans and Europeans who opposed it ejected from the stratosphere of Western civilization? Is a policy clash, a clash of civilizations?

It is a naive notion to project each conflict on policy as an inherent civilizational clash. Furthermore, it is intellectually dishonest to consider large swaths of territory (so-called Muslim countries) within Europe, Asia and Africa as having a monolithic identity. For example, even within Iran there are movements that disagree on the direction of the country. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement and activist for change, assuredly emerges from the proverbial Islamic civilization that Ali contends is in conflict with the West. Is Mousavi then a natural opponent of each American? Can he be a democrat even though he emerges from Persia? The entire argument made by Ali (and Huntington for that matter) negates any possibility of divergence and debate or multiple viewpoints within any territory. In the same article the point is made that Turkey supported the "aid flotilla designed to break Israel's blockade of Gaza" and that this is evidence of a clash of civilizations. Each humanitarian who protests is now against Western civilization? Is this juvenile ridiculousness a substitute for considered policy?

Every now and then, rather than treat nuance and understand that our world will always have fissures, both within and outside our borders, commentators will search for a greater framework to define why we fight. For many millenarian zealots it is because the apocalypse is around the corner, and that any person who is not like me is a co-conspirator of the devil. After 9/11, American preacher Jerry Falwell blamed gays and feminists for precipitating the attacks. In a strange way, Ali and others align themselves with a fixed worldview that envisions endless conflict across real or envisioned divides. Let's be clear, this is also a worldview shared by Osama bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki.

These prophets of an endless war cannot compute that Jews during Russian pogroms escaped to Ottoman Turkey. They cannot fathom that America has greater religious tolerance for Islam than most Muslim societies. They cannot imagine that one of the pillars of rational Western thought is Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and of modern medicine is Ibn Sina (Avicenna). They cannot accept that there are Jews who support Palestinian freedom and Arabs who befriend Jews. They cannot understand that reasonable dissent is part of Western civilization and not in opposition to it.

Most of all they find comfort in false simplicity as it does not confuse the mind as much as the true complexity of the world around us.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Rethinking the World 101

When you read or watch the news daily it is easy to get mired in the mundane and accustomed to the way things are. We get comfortable with notions of the expected and often are unprepared for what may in fact be around the corner. Thus every now and then the academic chattering classes offer up a vision of the future. There are many 'prognosticators' among us describing what is in store for the world. We've had the End of History from Francis Fukuyama and the Clash of Civilizations from Samuel Huntington in decades past. These days, there are those like thinker Parag Khanna who offers us the Second World and columnist Tom Friedman who proffers a flat one.

Instead of giving a catchy title to a new world order, I instead want to give you reason to pause by asking you to rethink the world around you. Each month, I will list here on TheGeopolitico.com, ten new 'micro-analyses' for the next decade (i.e. by 2020). I will explore these statements in different pieces throughout the month, but for now you will have to be content with the conjecture! Feel free to digest, discuss and digress.

Rethinking the World 101:

1. China will overtake the US economy and become the world's most powerful country financially.

2. Al Qaeda will become a sideshow and distraction as the Muslim world, in large part, begins to have a positive view of America.

3. Israel will become a rogue state in Western eyes and increasingly face isolation and sanction from traditional allies, especially in Europe.

4. Iran and Saudi Arabia will be allies.

5. Russia and the US will not.

6. Sub-Sarahan Africa will be the world's high growth region.

7. Pakistan and India will sign a historic friendship agreement, but will still not have resolved the Kashmir issue.

8. Afghanistan will be abandoned.

9. Egypt will go through massive secularization socially especially in Cairo and the hijab will become passe amongst the youth.

10. The Pope will be Black.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Mosque Wars in America

If you are viewing this by email, you have to go to the site (TheGeopolitico.com) to view the YouTube clip embedded in the post. 

President Obama recently entered the fire by lending his tacit support to the builders of a proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. This has further emboldened critics of the plan, and even stalwart allies of the President such as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have voiced opposition to the so-called ground zero mosque.

Amidst the hysteria, in this clip, I break down the debate, what the Islamic center is about, and what the opposition to it means.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

An innocuous Muslim

Lenin Statue in Yalta
When I travelled with three of my Muslim friends to Ukraine from Dubai, right before the start of Ramadan, we got some interesting reactions and probing questions. What is there to see in Ukraine? What do you plan to do at night? Why? At the outset, let me be clear, the trip on the whole was halal (generally).

Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, straddles the divide between Russia and political Europe. There are certain stereotypical things that come to mind when thinking of the country: Kiev (or the chicken related to it); Chernobyl; the Orange Revolution; and "the most beautiful women in the world" according to Vice President Joe Biden. However, amidst the night life, the Borscht, and the pebbled beaches of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine, live the Tatars, observing their Islam out of the view of the rest of the world (unrelated to tartar sauce fame). When a so-called ground zero mosque causes a stir, and the extremist Taliban cut off noses, it is caricatures of Muslims that rise to the public imagination. We tend to forget the wider world of a religion that is just a simple part of the day-to-day life of 1.5 billion people spread across almost every country of the world. And it is a natural part of Western civilization that has been around for centuries, including in the proverbial 'whitest' of places such as Ukraine.

Church near Lavra
After my first day out in Ukraine, with my neck strained from observing the 'scenery' in downtown Kiev, I would not have been able to imagine what was in store for us on our last day. On our first night, we checked out the Arena Entertainment complex, which was an abrupt welcome to the interesting world of Eastern Europe. Through the days, we saw many interesting sights and sounds, from the Lavra caves and home of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity, to other spectacular churches, to the beach scene in Crimea. On our last day, tired of the crowded tourist scene in Yalta, we made our way to spend some time and the night in the town of Bakchisaray, a relatively nondescript place in Crimea.

Amidst the anonymity, however, lies the Hansaray or Khan's palace, as Bakchisaray was in fact the capital of Crimean Khanate for several centuries. Although most of the history of the Khanate and the Tatars was wiped out in a series of Russian occupations, particularly by Catherine the Great in 1783, this place remained intact. Why? Well, it was romance that prevented Catherine the Great from destroying this palace complex, including its mosque. The famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem entitled "The Fountain of Bakchisaray" dedicated to the love story between the Khan and a mistress who died very soon after he met her (a fountain to mark his tears of sorrow was built by his court). This poem moved the Russian empress who could not bring herself to destroy the palace.

Mosque in Bakchisaray
It was, however, Stalin who deported the Tatars en masse in 1944 that caused true devastation to the community. Although most have returned from exile in Uzbekistan, they are still recapturing their history and place in their own communities. The Tatars, a Turkic community in origin, are spread across Russia, Central Asia, Europe, and the Caucuses. An estimated quarter million live in Ukraine. On the first day of Ramadan, my friends and I prayed in the mosque that Catherine the Great refused to destroy. We met a couple of the Tatars who prayed with us.  Abdullah and another named Abdulmajeeb were ecstatic to meet us, curious about our journey that brought us to their world.

This community - which is part and parcel of the fabric of Crimea - continues to persevere despite tremendous historical hardship. And they are part of the 1.5 billion worldwide Muslim community. Yet, when I met them I didn't think of Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009. I didn't think about how the U.S. needed to reach out to them. I didn't think how they needed to convince me that they weren't extremists. I didn't think that we needed to resolve their poverty because they may join a militant group. I simply was touched by their kindness and thought they were a humble people who happen to be Muslims.

The Tatars are but one example of the many communities that make up the pluralistic fabric of the proverbial Muslim world. They remind us that away from the politics, the proposed clashes of civilizations, the diplomatic maneuvers and so on, are people simply concerned with their daily lives, who happen to be Muslims. Simple as that.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Hezbollah way for Lebanon

The latest in my series of analyses on Lebanon covers Hezbollah leader Nasrallah's recent speech on Monday, in which he accused Israel of complicity in the Hariri assassination. You can read the full article on Huffington Post. In many ways I am critical of Hezbollah, which should not mean that I am cheerleading Saad Hariri or the Tribunal or others. Yet, whether or not you support Hezbollah, it must be acknowledged that the group needs to continue to evolve if wants if it desires to maintain its legitimacy in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's Way or the Highway on Hariri

"This is the answer for the people asking why March 14 members were the ones who were assassinated. The answer is that Israel wants the blame to fall on Syria and Hezbollah."
On a hot summer night, without losing a beat, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, offered his own case against Israel for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Monday's blistering speech had been highly anticipated since Nasrallah had indicated last week he would reveal "new evidence" of the truth in Hariri's killing. In many ways, however, it is irrelevant whether or not the accusation against Israel is true or not. In laying down the only acceptable version of the truth to Hezbollah, Nasrallah has essentially painted all those who would question it as treasonous. As a consequence, he has paved the way for more civil unrest in the country, when ultimately the international community or other Lebanese parties oppose Hezbollah's official line.
Rafik al-Hariri's assassination on February 14, 2005, shook Lebanon. For over a decade Hariri had stood as Syria's man inside the country; yet, after Syria extended by coercion the term of the then President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, Hariri decided to resign as Prime Minister and go into vociferous opposition. It was a dangerous period in the region, with Iraq in full-blown conflict, and Syria under constant censure from the United Nations (particularly resulting from UN Resolution 1559). Syria itself, had seen its rule relatively unchallenged in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. Hariri's death mobilized the Lebanese, and the subsequent Cedar Revolution brought about the withdrawal of Syrian forces and a redrawing of the political map (albeit, expectedly with the same players).
His death was followed by the assassination of a number of other figures in the March 14 movement(which includes the Future Movement, Progressive Socialist Party, Kataeb Party, Lebanese Forces, and several others). At the time when the Tribunal was created in 2006 (UNSC Resolution 1664), it was Syria which was considered to be the number one suspect in the series of murders. Hezbollah, however, since the beginning opposed the Tribunal, as did Syria, considering its creation as part of a political trap. Since its creation, the STL, as it's known, has not indicted a single suspect (although it released four), and there have only been rumblings about what conclusions it will draw (gleaned from unattributable leaks). This summer, however, there has been a rising belief that an indictment is forthcoming perhaps as early as the fall. More surprisingly (or not), it is expected that members of Hezbollah will be indicted, a view expressed by Nasrallah himself.
Since the Doha Agreement in 2008, Lebanon's political forces came back from the brink of another civil war to restore stability in the country. Moreover, the formation of a unity government in November restored a fragile Hariri-Hezbollah detente (with Saad Hariri, the current PM and son of Rafik.) In the last year,Hezbollah has been cooperating increasingly with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and this has led to anumber of counter-espionage operations and arrests. In many ways, it was a victory for Hezbollah when the recent border conflict with Israel flared up, and the movement was nowhere to be found; instead, it was the army and government singing the words of resistance. Nasrallah knows that an indictment by the STL threatens the current situation benefitting Hezbollah. An accusation by the Tribunal would be catastrophic. As a result, Hezbollah's leader went on the offensive, first by accusing PM Saad Hariri of already knowing in advance the results of the Tribunal's investigation (in a speech in late July), and then by providing "evidence" of Israel's complicity in Rafik al-Hariri's death on Monday.
In a complicated region full of intrigue, it is not inconceivable that Israel, Hezbollah, or Syria could each be responsible for the death of a political figure. I remember when I met a leading Sunni politician (and current minister) three years back, he told me: "The Tribunal is a political body. It will not lead us to the truth. We will probably never know who killed Hariri, Israel, Syria or someone else." In fact, the truth, as Nasrallah knows, is not so important. In Lebanon, everybody moves forward, sometimes acknowledging but often ignoring (but never forgetting) the blood-soaked ground they walk on. Earlier this year, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt restored his relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he had previously vowed never to do; of course, he had maintained a warm relationship with Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad for nearly twenty years, this despite the fact that it is widely accepted that Hafez al-Assad killed Walid's own father, Kamal Jumblatt.
For Nasrallah, he simply needed to create an environment where doubt of the Tribunal would be pervasive. The actual truth is simply a luxury. Of course, he did offer a compelling case against Israel, to create an alternative theory of the crime so to speak. He cited the case of an Israeli spy, Ahmad Nasrallah (no relation) who was apprehended in 1996 in Lebanon (but has since escaped to Israel), and showed video of an alleged confession, commenting:
After interrogating Ahmad Nasrallah and his confession of photographing houses of Hezbollah leaders, he also admitted that he had been blackmailing Hariri. He admitted that he had been trying to control the course of Hariri's motorcade through deluding him into believing that Hezbollah wants to murder him.
Nasrallah (the Hezbollah leader) also showed footage showing that Israel had allegedly monitored Hariri's movements, and promised more from the actual day of the assassination. A detailed account of thespeech can be found on Al-Manar's website. What was daunting about the speech, however, was not the litany of evidence offered by Nasrallah, but rather the stark choice he implicitly presented to the Lebanese people: accept our version on Hariri's death or else. It takes little imagination to go back to May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen stormed various Beirut neighborhoods such as Hamra to understand who holds power in the country. Yet, is that the legitimacy that Hezbollah seeks? That to convince others of its claims it must play on their fears? Is it wise to create an environment where it is tantamount to treason to resist the resistance, even at an intellectual level?
Hezbollah may be able to cast aside today figures such as the Kateab's Amin Gemayyal when he insists any evidence must be judged by the STL and not in the media, but for how much longer? Ultimately, Nasrallah is playing a very dangerous game. He is seeking to be part of the Lebanese state, but only if he is the only judge, jury, and executioner. It is a game Hezbollah has perhaps quietly learned from its southern neighbor after all these years.