Saturday, July 30, 2011

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen

Jared Cohen is a Stanford Univ. graduate and Rhodes Scholar, hails from Weston, CT, and has toured in the most dangerous regions of Africa and the Mideast. At 24, he was the youngest-ever member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and a close advisor to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He is now Director of Google Ideas.

His book Children of Jihad (2007) reads a bit like a 007 thriller, starting in Iran in 2004, passing through Lebanon and Syria, culminating in a potentially deadly wayward visit in 2005 to Iraq. Cohen developed a never-say-die attitude in war-torn Africa, including hanging out with AK-47-toting teenagers in Sierra Leone.

He seems fearless in the Mideast, often revealing his Jewish identity when his life was on the line, say, at a club in Beirut with young Hezbollah operatives. Yet his experience with indigenous youth was almost always a positive one, despite their attitudes toward Israel and for that matter, the U.S. More than anything, this is a book of startling contrasts, from Ferraris (Beirut Ferrari showroom in photo) and Lamborghinis (p. 109) plying the streets of Beirut to Syrian nomads enjoying 200 channels on satellite TV in the desert. Let me relate a few random observations from this fascinating book.

Iran. Cohen makes a beeline for the universities in an effort to engage students in conversation. The young women in Tehran seem to live in a bipolar state of western wear concealed under the veil. In public, the black hejab (head scarf) and the black chador (long robe) have defined womanhood since the Islamic Revolution. Once entering a club, the veils all end up in a pile in the corner. Youth gather for outdoor partying on Fereshteh St., showing off their cars and listening to hip-hop music. They are nearly unanimous in their disdain of the authoritarian Government and of the hard line leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Inconsistencies stretch the imagination - Tehran is home to 11 fully functional synagogues (Synagogue Haim in photo), each one catering to an active congregation (p. 105). There are even two Kosher restaurants ! On a ride back from Esfahan, the taxi driver pointed out the Natanz nuclear facility, a uranium enrichment plant capable of making nuclear weapons. Cohen is surprised to learn that most young people are supportive of the nuclear effort and take pride in it, never considering the ultimate danger in weaponization.

Cohen notes that "the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can operate freely, express themselves, and obtain information on their own terms...users of the Internet in Iran can be anyone and say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus...It is true that the Government tries to monitor their online discussions and interactions, but this is a virtually impossible enterprise" (pp. 56-57). Not so ! says Morozov in his book Net Delusion. He says "Cohen is given to dangerously excessive cyber-utopianism" (p. 157).

Lebanon. There is more political and social freedom in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Mideast (p. 135). Cohen is overwhelmed by the vibrancy of Beirut nightlife. Clubbing in Monot, he met Muslims, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, and Syrians. He observed that Beirut had become home to women from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states, who wanted to escape the veil. He also learned that young Lebanese have discovered that members of rival religious groups make perfect anonymous romantic partners (p. 112). Sleeping with the enemy is the best way for Lebanese youth to guarantee that their nighttime indiscretions never see the light of day.

In March of 2005, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came to Martyrs' Square to make their demands heard. They celebrated unity between Christians and Muslims. The Cedar Revolution was the first time Lebanese had come together to do something other than party. Syria withdrew its troops and Lebanon was sovereign.

Cohen would hang out at T.G.I. Friday's on Marrad Street (photo), the city's best place to people watch. It was here that he would meet members of Hezbollah and reveal that he was a Jewish American. The members claimed they were against terrorism, against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hezbollah arranged for Cohen to visit the Palestinian refugee camp Ayn al-Hilwah, a very dicey endeavor. Cohen was entering a danger zone with al Qaeda sympathizers like Asbat al-Ansar, a Sunni terrorist group. Under the Cairo Agreement, Palestinian camps were away from civilian centers and the Palestinians would be responsible for their own security. In the camp, Cohen met with General Mounir Maqdah, chief military authority over 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, wanted by both the Lebanese and Israelis.

Syria. Syria has long been one if the most nationalistic societies in the Mideast, it is the birthplace of Arab nationalism. The concept of Greater Syria involved taking sovereignty over Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. A shift toward totalitarian autocracy began in 1963 with the secular Ba'ath Party. Ba'athism was a contradiction of Islamist extremist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Shi'as in Iraq. Hafez al-Assad reigned a police state from 1970 - 2000. His son, Bashar, an ophthalmologist in London, was groomed for the presidency starting in 1994. Unlike Iraq, the more fundamentalist Sunni are the majority of the country, but it is the Shi'a that rule. Unlike much of the Mideast, Syrians believe in country first, clan second. Cohen heads east across the Palmyra desert, seeing the ruins, as he contemplates a daredevil visit to Iraq. He visits the ruins of Dura Europa, home of Syria's oldest synagogue. Ultimately he has a taxi drop him off at the Ibrahim Khalil gates to enter into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Iraq. Despite counsel from everyone he met on his trip, he entered the Iraqi Region of Kurdistan, expecting the worst, but found a welcome reception everywhere he went. Though they are Muslims like most people in the Mideast, the Kurds are not Arabs. The waterfalls at Geli Eli Beg (photo) were a highlight of his visit. he visited Salahaddin Univ. in Arbil, one of the best in Iraq. Young Kurdish students showed him images of Halabjah (photo), where Saddam Hussein gassed the city in 1988, killing 5,000 people. Cohen saw images of skin melting off people's faces.

The final chapter reads like a Hollywood movie script. Cohen's taxi driver heads south to the nearest border crossing back to Syria. Cohen wakes up from a nap in 130 degrees heat to discover hat the driver had taken him into Mosul, but the driver was gone !! Had the driver been an entrepreneur and informed the locals that he had an American Jew in the car ? At this point, Cohen truly believed his life was in danger at the heart of the Iraqi insurgency war zone. Fortunately, the driver returned, having gone to buy black market gas at 9 cents/gallon. Happily, it had been the driver's intention to exit Iraq at Rabea'a.

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