Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar

Little did I know when I started reading this book how it dovetailed so nicely with Friedman's book below. In fact, Neil MacFarquhar was also a journalist for The New York Times as Cairo bureau chief (2001-2005). From the age of 3, he grew up in Marsa Brega, a Mediterranean coastal Libyan oil town run by Esso. As a 7-year old he scribbled in large wobbly letters into a spiral-bound notebook on June 5, 1967 "The war started with boming in Kiro" (p. 1), spelling not yet his forte. He has fond memories of his childhood in the compound, including crusty loaves of bread, a legacy of the Italian occupation. We learn a lot about the quirky Qadhafi, including his female bodyguards (see photo). As a Deerfield Academy student, he would return home to Libya on vacations. Later, during the time he wrote this book he was hit by a bus in 1997 in Manhattan, an ironic twist of fate after dodging bullets in Iraq, Kabul, Sarajevo, and Gaza. He emerged from a coma at Bellevue (p. 67).

The existence of an impenetrable police state is the ultimate frustration in generating change to the region. The absence of civil rights: "the stifling control of the secret police; the absence of any rule of law even if the constitution guarantees it; … the inherent difficulty in working alone because organizing is mostly banned" (p. 180). In Syria, it is against the law for more than 5 people to gather without a permit (p. 328). The author had little to clue him of the coming Facebook Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Moreover, the West has to learn how to speak to Islam on its own terms - to laud justice rather than "democracy," which has little respect in the Muslim world because "it elevates man's laws over those of God" (p. 271).

MacFarquhar belabors U.S. shortcomings in its dealings with the Mideast. The "cow vs. cow competition was a telling example of how the political rivalry between competing visions of the future played out on the ground removed from the standard rhetorical jousting between Tehran and Washington" (p. 60). The U.S. supplied $1,900 dairy cows to wean Lebanese farmers off of growing hashish. Feed was too expensive and had to be imported. Iran stepped in with cheaper cows ($1,000) and $50 million farm aid. So much for the U.S. helping domestic farmers sell surplus cows to Lebanon.

The author praises the mission of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV coverage of the Arab world. "al-Jazeera" is Arabic for "the peninsula." "The range of criticism against repressive governments, the sheer number of opposition voices never heard before, and the wide focus on socially taboo subjects such as police torture or spousal abuse started with Al-Jazeera" (p. 73). The unfiltered CSPAN-like station horrified and angered Arab dictators used to exercising complete control over the news, scrambling to silence it. Egypt, Bahrain, and others "accused it of being underwritten by Zionist bogeymen" (p. 76). MacFarquhar remarks that "If American officials were a little more savvy, they would have realized from the beginning that Al-Jazeera offered them a highly effective platform to address a massive swath of the Arabic public directly" (p. 82).

Westerners equate the term "fatwa" with a death sentence, as was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses. But fatwas can be devoted to any topic and are the "grease that smooths all manner of daily decisions" (p. 123). Tehran vasectomy clinic founder, Freidoun Forouhari, had the same Khomeini issue a fatwa condoning the procedure as acceptable male contraception. Ironically, Forouhari was murdered by rogue elements to eliminate reformists, which underscored how easy it was for ideologues to ignore any fatwa that contradicted their own version of Islam. Saudi Arabia served as the font of all manner of hostile fatwas. "Innovation, or "bidaa" in Arabic, is a dirty word in the Kingdom" (p. 139).

MacFarquahar also does a clear exposition on Jihad, the justification of violence against oppression. Attitudes toward Jihad changed 180 degrees after a 2004 bombing of the traffic police headquarters in Riyadh. Attitudes change when the killing arrives on the doorstep. There has been much talk about overhauling the religion. Arab cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, and Cairo were once famous for their cosmopolitan mix of citizens. "Unfortunately, with oil, Bedouin Islam has prevailed" (p. 169). The Koran cannot be parsed the same way as the Bible. If Jews or Christians decide certain passages in the Bible are obsolete, they are reinterpreted or abandoned. Since the Koran is taken as "the word of God to be applied to all places and all times," this option is not available (p. 170).

MacFarquhar does a good job examining the U.S. efforts to democratize the region, often from a naive standpoint. Tribalism and minority rule are sticking points. Iraq became the messiest experiment in changing the practice of minority rule. Bahrain is close to Iraq in the Sunni minority rule. Since the 1970s, oil rich Gulf states have survived by creating comfortable welfare states. In the 1980s, Bahrain turned itself into a regional financial hub, filling the vacuum left by Beirut. Bahrain;s head of economic development devised a simple metric for establishing reform in terms of barrels of oil per citizen. Countries with less than one would be forced to reform (Kuwait was at 5, Qatar at 9, Bahrain at 3)(p. 237). Separation between church and state is problematic. America benefited from doing so in an era that was conducive (1776), not so easily replicated now. The parliamentary system contradicts Sharia (p. 299). Nevertheless, there is a famous Koranic verse "Wa amruhum shura binahum" or "the affairs of men are a matter for consultation among them (p. 327).

Careful what you wish for is on target when pushing for democracy. Hamas' election in the Gaza strip backfired for the U.S. Support of Mubarak, despite his dictatorship, was seen as a way to stem the tide of radical Islam. MacFarquhar sees 2005 as the high point of American support for reform, it has been downhill ever since (p. 352).

The book is prescient in terms of current events regarding the Arab Spring. Ali Abdulemam, Bahrain's notorious webmaster is mentioned (p. 221) in his efforts to bring revolutionaries together at By 2008, 1/4 of the population was visiting his site (p. 227). The author mentions Facebook as a means to rally support for reform (p. 304). In the closing paragraph, the author notes that "Facebook is spawning political groups in Egypt, groups that succeed at overcoming government laws that ban organizing and the right of assembly" (p. 359).

Friday, June 10, 2011

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas Friedman graduated from Brandeis in 1975 with a degree in Mediterranean Studies followed by an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies at St. Antony's College at Oxford Univ. He then joined the London Bureau of UPI and went to Beirut in 1979 - 1981. The New York Times subsequently hired him as Beirut correspondent at the start of the 1982 Israeli Invasion of Lebanon. His coverage of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre won him his 1st of 3 Pulitzer Prizes. He was assigned to Jerusalem from 1984-1988 as the Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief. This book was published in 1989 and would earn him his 3rd Pulitzer. Much of the worst struggles between Palestinians and Israelis would come at the 2nd intifada (2000-2005), well after the book's publication. I cannot imagine a book that lays a better foundation for understanding the conflict.

I met Friedman September, 2007 in Dalian, China, at the World Economic Forum and I can tell you from seeing him in action that he is not afraid to state his opinion. Reading this book will help explain why he is a very tough journalist. His Beirut internment imbued him with nerves of steel. Critics have either attacked him for being too anti-Israel or too pro-Israel. I was amazed at how a Jewish reporter could take issue with how the Israelis invaded Lebanon. My comments are not intended to be comprehensive but rather random observations.

Lebanon became a republic in 1943 comprised mainly of Maronite Christians and Druse Muslims. One cannot hope to understand Lebanon without appreciating the fundamental schism (p. 12) between Sunnis (Sunna is Arabic for tradition) and Shiites (Shia means partisans" of Ali). Lebanese traditionally derive their social identity from tribal origins, rather than the nation as a whole. Beirut historically thrived on the peaceful coexistence of Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druse (p. 214). The spirit of Beirut is what was known as the Levantine spirit. Levantine is derived from the Old French levant, meaning rising (where the sun rose).

Friedman compares 1980s Beirut to a perfect Hobbesian "state of nature" that Hobbes described in the Leviathan that would exist if government and society completely broke down, where every man is enemy to every man. Hobbes argued that man is only moral in a social context, Hobbes was originally defending the Monarchy.

When Friedman arrives in Beirut in 1982, he immediately witnesses the Hama Massacre across the Syrian border. Hama was a Sunni Muslim town of 180,000. Syria (like Iraq) is a secular country in which the ruler, Hafez al-Assad (like Saddam Hussein), under the Ba'ath party, has been staving off retrogressive Islamic fundamentalists. In February, 1982, Assad (Alawite tribe) invoked a scorched earth policy against Sunnis in Hama to quell a revolt against his regime. Estimates claim up to 40,000 were killed, many civilians. Friedman refers to this tragic event as the Hama Rules (chap. 4), as it will appear again in relation to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded at the Arab League Summit in Cairo in 1964. The PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1970 and was henceforth exiled in Beirut, until 1982 when the Lebanese Shiites expelled them as well. Friedman calls (p. 107) Arafat the Ronald Reagan of Palestinian politics, nothing sticks to him. Without accepting Israel's right to exist, the PLO was just biding time in Beirut. Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin took advantage of the PLO isolation in Lebanon as a chance to vanquish them, especially since the Israelis believed they could buddy up with the Maronite Christians, a kindred spirit who had settled in Lebanon as their own homeland. Unfortunately, Israel underestimated the importance of the Sunnis in balancing the governance of the nation (think forward to the U.S. invasion of Iraq). Friedman is comical when he regales stories of Israeli soldiers going on shopping sprees in Beirut, getting all the luxury items they could not get in Israel (p. 131). Thinking Lebanon to be such a friendly place, Israelis had visions of going skiing in Lebanon in the winter.

Historically, Lebanon made its living being the entrepĂ´t between the West and the Arab world. Economically, the Lebanese were in no position to make peace with Israel at the risk of jeopardising their trade relations with other Arab states (p. 136). Further, Israel mistakenly believed eliminating the PLO would solve the Palestine problem, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would stop demanding independence. AS soon as the Israelis invaded Lebanon, Arafat's world began to crumble. The PLO was no longer the vanguard of the Arab nationalist revival. Khomeini's revolutionary takeover of Iran in 1979 posed a radical Islamic threat to the Arab oil states that was far more frightening than anything coming out of Israel. Ultimately, the cost of carrying the PLO became too great for the Lebanese Muslims to bear.

In September, 1982, Maronite Phalangists attacked PLO captives in Sabra and Satila camps. The Israelis "discovered" that the Phalangists had been massacring Palestinians in the camps for 3 days. Friedman claims that the Israelis knew of the mass killings. They had so dehumanized the Palestinians in their own minds and equated Palestinian with PLO with terrorist. Sabra and Shatila was a personal crisis for Friedman (p. 164). It was not the heroic Israel that he had been taught to identify with, but a real world nation that played by the Hama Rules. Friedman wrote a 4-page report in the September 26 New York Times which eventually won him the Pulitzer Prize.

By June of 1984, Friedman had been emotionally exhausted by his Beirut experience and took a taxi to the Israeli border on his way to Jerusalem. Friedman found many parallels between Lebanon and Israel, especially as regards political gridlock, calling it "anarchy" in Lebanon and "national unity" in Israel (p. 253). To understand Israel's paralysis, one must go back to the Six-Day War in June 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza Strip, extending Jewish control over virtually all the historical land of Israel originally sought by Zionism. Paradoxically, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 put Palestine back together as a geographical entity and put the Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel back together as a single community. Since 1948, Palestine had been broken into 3 entities: the Jews sharing the spoils with Jordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza).

So on the 7th day of the Six-Day War, a momentous decision lay before Israel with 3 choices. A nation of Jews living in all the land of Israel, but not democratic ? A democratic nation in all the land of Israel, but not Jewish ? Or a Jewish and democratic nation, but not in all the land of Israel ? The looming population growth of the Palestinians was the linchpin. Israel's two major parties, Likud and Labor, spent the years 1967-1987 avoiding a choice, not in theory, but in practice (p. 254). In fact this existential choice would drive a wedge among Israel's citizens and lead to internal violence (Grunzweig). To complicate matters, the Old City of Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus and other West Bank towns were the real heartland of historical Jewish consciousness and the stage where the drama of the Bible was actually played out. Simply, after Lebanon and Grunzweig, Israelis wanted unity, not truth (p. 270).

Friedman provides a nice analysis (pp. 285-290) of the internal makeup of Israel’s Jews. Secular Israelis make up 50% of the population. Secular Zionists came to Israel as a rebellion against their grandfathers and the orthodox synagogue-oriented ghetto Judaism practiced in Eastern Europe. Science, technology, and turning the desert green were their new Torah. The secular Zionists built a nationalism without reclaiming Judaism. This is how many Israelis really relate to Judaism (p. 315): I will go into the Army. I will serve. I will make heroic sacrifices in battle. But that's it. The 2nd school consists of religious Zionists (30%) who are traditional or modern Orthodox Jews, who support the secular Zionist state but insist it is not a substitute for the synagogue. The 3rd school is made of messianic religious Zionists (5%) and form the backbone of the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank. For them the rebirth of the Jewish state is not simply a religious event it will culminate with the coming of the Messiah. Finally, there are the ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist Jews (15%), known as Haredim, “those filled with the awe of God.” They do not see in the reborn state of Israel an event of major religious experience. They are content to live in Israel no matter who is in charge. Each of the four main schools of the Israel identity debate were so convinced the others would wither away, that as a group they were never willing to hammer out a consensus about the meaning of Israel.

In December, 1987, the pot boiled over and the Palestinians revolted countrywide in the 1st intifada. It was an expression of rage at the Israelis who never allowed them to feel at home and the Arabs who were ready to sell them out. The intifada was made in Israel, the PLO was caught by surprise. Intifada is translated as a shudder, a tremor. They did not see themselves as overthrowing Israel as much as purifying themselves of "Israeliness." (p. 375). The strike was not meant to put pressure on Israel it was meant to disconnect the Palestinians from Israel. Living in exile, now Arafat had a golden opportunity to reclaim his influence with the PLO, but accommodated the Palestinian's desire to recognize Israel's right to exist, which Arafat did in December, 1988. This was a major positive result of the intifada.

Historically, the Soviet Union was the first to recognize the Jewish state, yet the good will terminated with Stalin's anti-Semitic rampage. France became the most favored ally in the 1960s and 1970s. Friedman examines the special relation between America and Israel and points to the irony that America was disproving the thesis of Israel's founding fathers. America was attracting more Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina, and South Africa than Israel, and also attracting thousands of Israelis themselves. Israelis lived under a sustained misconception that American Jews would leave their comfortable lives and emigrate. In America, Jewish life is organized around a synagogue, mainly for communal solidarity rather than religious reasons. In Israel, the vast majority are nonobservant Jews and don't need to join a synagogue to avoid assimilation. The raging debate about amending the Israeli Law of Return revealed how little American Jews and Israeli Jews understood about each other's relationship to Judaism and Israel (p. 476).

A final thought - the French philosopher Montesquieu once said "Happy the people whose annals are blank in history books" (p. 449).