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).

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