paleo Ideofact

Saturday, May 04, 2002
The fifth column
Jeans, T-shirts, and MTV. This piece in Arab News laments the influence of the West on Saudi youth:
I was talking to an American journalist who recently visited the Kingdom. We discussed developments here as well as the opinion of Saudis on US policy toward the Middle East in general and the Kingdom in particular.

I told him that the people of Saudi Arabia have never considered the United States an enemy. Now, however, in the light of Washington’s flagrant pro-Israeli policy, the situation has begun to change and many people have begun to look again at Saudi-US relations. When he heard this, he laughed and said he had been in supermarkets in Riyadh and Jeddah and found Saudi young people, male and female, imitating Americans, wearing the same fashions and striving for the same appearance.

This, according to him, shows that the young people are not influenced by the wave of extremism that dominates the general talk. This makes him confident that in the long-run, peaceful people who love Americans and their values will prevail and things will return to normal.

I was unable to give him a reply because in the same week the Zogby Foundation in the US published a poll taken in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. The poll showed that opposition to American policies had dwindled considerably among people aged from 18 to 29 compared to older people.
I'll check on the Zogby poll. Hard to tell if this is accurate or not. The writer goes on to complain,
It seems, sadly enough, that the destruction suffered by the values and concepts of our youths was greater than we imagined and the effect of MTV was more damaging than we suspected. And now we face a real challenge: To save ourselves from our children who have become our enemies.
Ah, kids today. Somehow though, I doubt that, in the long run, the fifth column will be much more of a threat to Saudi values than records by Prince and Twisted Sister were to American values in the 1980s, but there's always hope.

Friday, May 03, 2002
A footnote
There's nothing I love so much as a good footnote. Or more precisely, an annotated footnote. In the midst of a scholarly work, the author takes a moment to address something which is not entirely germane to his argument, but that he thinks is related, or illuminates some minor point. I must confess that I don't excel at the genre, even though I once wrote a paper in college whose text was 25 typed, double-spaced pages but whose endnotes ran to 45, single-spaced pages. But the annotated endnote doesn't quite have the same charm for me as the annotated footnote.

Lynn White Jr., the historian of Medieval European technology, is a master of the form. Here's a footnote from an essay called "Cultural Climates and Technological Advance," in which he elaborates on the plea of a Byzantine clergyman in 1444 to have the empire send students to the West in order to learn Western technology to arrest the decline of Byzantium:
A symptom of European initiative is not only the fact that in this period Western glass was being widely exported to the Near East, but also that the Venetians, and probably the glass-masters of Barcelona likewise, were manufacturing mosque lamps for that market decorated with Western floral designs and with pious Koranic inscriptions, sometimes garbled...
Occasionally, I find that what's in the footnotes to be of more interest than what's in the text. Such regrettably is the case with Hamid Algar's Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, which I just read. It's a slim book, 70 pages of text and 16 pages of appendices. I did learn a few things, but not too much. Algar seems to be a partisan of the Shi'ites; he was born in London in 1940, studied at Cambridge University, and now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. The book was published this year. I shouldn't criticize it too much; it's a useful introduction to Wahhabism, and I did learn some new things, though much of the information in it I'd previously read on the Internet. It's also marred by statements like this one, about the current war on terrorism:
Worse still, [the war] comes at a time of intensified genocidal rampaging in Palestine by the Zionists with the full backing of the United States.
Much of the writing on Wahhabism is, by contrast, dispassionate and restrained. It's clear, though, that Algar is not overfond of the movement, and he notes that Wahhabis have argued that Shi'ites should be expelled from Saudi Arabia, a kind of denominational cleansing that he compares to the extreme Zionist position (it does exist, though it does not seem to be a view that has much support) that Palestinians should be expelled from Israel and from the West Bank.

But there is one footnote...well, read it for yourself:
It may be as well to address here the conspiracy theory that the very origin of Wahhabism itself, not simply the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to British devilry. The theory is enshrined in the so-called Mudhakkirat Mister Hempher, the purported memoirs of a British agent in the Middle East in the early eighteenth century subtitled al-Jasus al-Britani fi 'l-Bilad al-Islamiyya. The alleged memoirs exist, remarkably enough, only in Arabic, into which language they have supposedly been translated by an otherwise unidentified Dr. J. Kh. The only English version in existence, published by a group of anti-Wahhabi enthusiasts in Istanbul, has obviously been translated from the Arabic, and clumsily at that. "Mr. Hempher", it seems, so thoroughly assimilated his role as undercover agent that he used the Hiri calendar in preference to the Christian. Among other clues to the inauthenticity of the work are references to the desirability of encouraging nationalism as a means of sundering Islamic unity--this, at a time when nationalism had barely appeared even in Europe--the advisability of promoting birth control in order to block demographic growth in the Muslim world, and the need to displace Arabic by promoting "local languages such as Sanskrit." Given the frequency of positive references to Shi'ism in the book, it seems likely that the author was Shi'i. He would have done better to leave the task of refuting Wahhabism to scholars such as Shaykh Ja'far Kashif al-Ghita', from whose treatise an extract is included at the end of this [Algar's] essay. The copy of "Hempher's Memoirs" in the possession of the present writer, acquired in Tehran, is dated at the end 1.2.1973, the significance of which is unclear; no place of publication is indicated.
Reading this, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps the Wahhabis had their very own Protocols. Not sure I'd find anything, I plugged "Mister Hempher" into Google, and lo and behold, you can read the book here or download it here. I haven't read it yet, but it does appear to bear some resemblance to the Protocols, right down to the scapegoat:
Allahu ta'ala declared in the eighty-second ayat of Maida sura of Qur'an al-karim, "The biggest enemies of Islam are the Jews and mushriks." The first mischief contrived to demolish Islam
from within was instigated by a Jew, namely Abdullah bin Sebe' of Yaman. He established the Shiite sect against the Ahl as-sunnat, the true Muslim group. From then on, Jews disguised as Shiite scholars in every century consolidated this sect. After the Ascension of Isa alaihissalam a number of corrupt Bibles were written. Most of the Christians became mushriks (those who believe more than one god). Others became kafirs (disbelievers) since they did not believe Muhammad alaihissalam. These and the Jews were called Ahl-i kitab (people with a heavenly book). When Islam was established, hegemony of the priests as in the Dark Ages, was abolished. They founded missionary organizations to abolish Islam. The British were the forerunner in this regard. A Ministry of the Commonwealth was established in London with a view of fighting against Islam. People who worked in this Ministry were taught the Jewish tricks. Contriving inconceivably vicious plans, they attacked Islam using all available military and political forces toward this end. Hempher, only one of the thousands of male and female agents employed and sent forth to all countries by this ministry, entrapped a person named Muhammad of Najd in Basra, misled him for many years, and caused him to establish the sect called Wahhabi in 1125 [1713 A.D.]. They announced this sect in 1150.

Hempher is a British missioner who was assigned the task of carrying on espionage activities in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Hijaz and in Istanbul, the center of the (Islamic) caliphate, misleading Muslims and serving Christianity, by the Ministry of British Commonwealth of Nations.
That, at least, is how the preface describes the work. I haven't read it yet; I'm not sure if I will bother to, so I can't quite understand how Hempher's plan to destroy Islam would be furthered by sponsoring Wahhabism. Here's a few of the items on his agenda:
12- Provoke the womenfolk to get rid of their traditional covers. Fabricate such falsifications as "Covering is not a genuine Islamic commandment. It is a tradition established in the time of the Abbasids. Formerly, other people would see the Prophet's wives and women would join all sorts of social activities." After stripping the woman of her traditional cover, tempt the youth towards her and cause indecencies between them! This is a very effective method for annihilating Islam. First use non-Muslim women for this purpose. In the course of time the Muslim woman will automatically degenerate and will begin to follow their example. (70)


17- Under the pretext of love of freedom, convince all Muslims that "Everyone is free to do whatever he likes. It is not fard to perform Amr-i-bi-l-maruf and Nahy-i-anil- munkar or to teach the Islamic principles." [On the contrary, it is fard to learn and teach Islam. It is a Muslim's first duty]. In addition, imbue them with this conviction: "Christians are to remain in their own faith (Christianity) and Jews are to abide by theirs (Judaism). No one will enter another person's heart. Amr-i-maruf and Nahy-i-anil-munkar are the Khalifa's duties."
Even skimming it, one runs into all sorts of bizarre tales. After a lengthy dispute between Hempher and Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab (called Muhammad of Najd in the piece) over whether it's halal or haram to drink alcohol, Hempher goes to the Christian woman he's using to corrupt al-Wahhab:
I told Safiyya about this dispute we had on drinks and instructed her to make him drink a very strong spirit. Afterwards, she said, "I did as you said and made him drink. He danced and united with me several times that night." From them on Safiyya and I completely took control of Muhammad of Najd. In our farewell talk the Minister of Colonies had said to me, "We captured Spain from the disbelievers [he means Muslims] by means of alcohol and fornication. Let us take all our lands back by using these two great forces again." Now I know how true a statement it was.
I probably won't bother to read the rest of it.

Thursday, May 02, 2002
Technical clarification
One of the sad aspects of our intellectual heritage is the short shrift we give the history of technology. Even recent events are distorted, as John Weidner of Random Jottings points out here. Just below that post, he quotes some wonderful verse from G.K. Chesterton.

Flight 93
Joe Katzman at Winds of Change has an amazing post on the heroes of Flight 93:
Every American kid should be reminded of these heroes, and remember. Their story speaks to the heart. More, it speaks to the heart of ideas like responsibility, and the virtue of a free people, and what it means for all of us to stand tall together. Flight 93 was virtue, civic duty and "E Pluribus Unum" kicked up about five notches. Flight 93 was 'the militia' as the Founders intended and envisaged it. Flight 93 was the best summation of what America really is, and what Bin Laden unleashed. Over eight months later, it's still the best.
I couldn't agree more. I remember reading an account of the battles of Concord and Lexington of 1775. At the time, Americans were considered by the British to be indifferent fighters at best. The first engagement was a route for the Americans; the disciplined British soldiers scattered the colonists. As they began their march back to Boston, the Americans, who weren't soldiers, weren't well-trained or drilled, went on the offensive. Grimly, methodically, they kept up a sustained attack on the British regulars that was far more deadly than anything they had suffered in the prior skirmish. What was supposed to be a spanking of the Americans set off a Revolution.

Joe says much more than this in his post, which is well worth reading.

Wahhabi update
Now that Ideofact is the top Google site for information on the Wahhabi sect (see the last few lines of this post to see what I mean), I guess I should share the one interesting tidbit I picked up today. I'm reading Hamid Algar's Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, which relates this tale of the sect's founder. Al Wahhab disliked the tomb of al Khattab, the second Caliph mentioned two posts down, so one of the local rulers gave him an armed escort of 600 men while he and his small band of followers attacked the building. But destroying a building isn't what made his fame:
It was, however, his personal lapidation of an adultress who had allegedly confessed her guilt, freely and repeatedly, that truly put Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Wahhab on the map. "Thereafter," writes 'Uthman b. 'Abdullah b. Bishr, "his cause flourished, his power increased, and the true tauhid was everywhere disseminated, together with the enjoining of virtue and the prohibition of vice."
That last phrase sounds vaguely familiar. Incidentally, I'm not 100 percent sure, but I believe lapidation means "to stone."

Wednesday, May 01, 2002
Abaya crackdown
Another story in Arab News says that the Commerce Ministry is cracking down on factories producing indecent abayas, the head-to-toe black cloaks that women must wear in public in Saudi Arabia. The article doesn't say what was indecent about the cloaks in question; you have to read down to the thirteenth graph to find out the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells at Saudi Commerce:
Last October, the Commerce Ministry ordered a similar crackdown on a style of abaya which had the phrase "dare you touch me?" printed on its back in Arabic.
Women's shops were raided, but that didn't prevent the first shipment from selling out.

I'm not sure how to interpret "Dare you touch me?" -- an invitation? a rebuff? -- but anything of the sort is forbidden:
Dr. Abdul Aali ibn Ibrahim Abdul Aali, director of the department for combating trade fraud, said a religious ruling, or fatwa, requires that decent women’s cloaks should be thick and not revealing; loose so they do not show the form of the body; and open from the front only.

The black dress should cover all the body, be devoid of decorations, drawings, writing and other marks that would attract public attention.

The official added that the ministry was coordinating with the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice to crack down on factories which produce non-regulation cloaks, which have increasingly been seen in recent months being worn by women in the Kingdom’s bigger cities.
Yesterday, I noted a piece which suggested that ululating Zionist pens and tongues were behind Wahhabism. There's a throw away line in it which suggests that, thanks to those Zionist tongues, all sorts of distortions about the true nature of Saudi society are rampant in the American press:
The American press and media have discovered another Saudi Arabia which no one before ever knew or heard of. Now Saudi Arabia (which has been the same Saudi Arabia all along) has no human rights. It discriminates against women, minorities, and foreigners.
Yeah, I can't imagine what would give us the idea that women are discriminated against in Saudi Arabia.

American student killed
Well, that's a slightly misleading headline, but for all I know, no less misleading than what's to follow. This article from Arab News notes that the will of "Arab fighter Khattab," who was killed last week in Chechnya by Russian agents, was read yesterday. Khattab had been planning to leave Chechnya and head for Israel, presumably to carry on Arab fighting. The brief bio says,
Khattab, whose real name is Samer ibn Saleh Al-Suwailem, was born in northern Saudi Arabia in 1970. He had planned to move his jihad operations from Chechnya to target Israelis in the Palestinian territories, Mansour said Monday. Khattab worked for Saudi Aramco before obtaining a scholarship to study in the United States.
I'm generally sympathetic to the Chechens, but one of the unfortunate consequences of their struggle, and that of the Bosnians and the Kosovar Albanians, is that the aggression against them opened the door wide to the Islamists and the Arab extremists.

Still, it's interesting that he won a scholarship to study in the U.S. after working for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. It doesn't sound like Khattab was living a life of poverty and despair that drove him to violence.

This Sept. 1999 profile of him on an Israeli counter-terrorism site suggests his real name is Habib Abd al-Rahman (of course, it's also possible that it's referring to an entirely different Khattab; al Khattab was the second of the four rightly guided Caliphs, and it's not unreasonable to assume that more than one terrorist would adopt it as a nom de guerre). Other details also differ:
Said to be currently 34 years of age, Khattab was born to a Saudi tribe residing in the border area between Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Jordan. Thus he is sometimes referred to as of Saudi origin and sometimes as a Jordanian citizen. That he once had plans to study in the United States implies that he comes from a wealthy family. He currently makes his home in Chechnya, where he is married to two Chechen women.

At the age of 19 Khattab was sent by his family to study in the USA, but it is unknown whether he ever arrived there. Fifteen years ago he appeared among the Arab volunteers in Afghanistan, and it seems that he moved there directly from his residence without beginning a course of study in the U.S.
There is also some question of whether Khattab had links to Osama bin Laden:
Khattab is regarded as one of the main proponents of the Wahhabi movement, which in Central-Asia has championed one of the most extreme interpretations of Islamic Jihad, an interpretation developed in Afghanistan by the late Palestinian militant Dr. Abdallah Azzam. Azzam was the spiritual guide of Osama bin Ladin. However, Khattab—unlike some of the Arab Islamists who have led such groups in the past—is neither a religious figure nor a writer of ideology or religio-political commentary.

The Russian media in the days following the Moscow explosions, has made frequent mention of the connection between Khattab and Osama bin Ladin, who is said to have provided both financial aid and manpower to the Islamic rebels in Chechnya and in Afghanistan. Russian officials also claim that financial aid is flowing to the rebels from many sources in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and radical organizations in Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan. Some officials have accused Georgia and Azerbaijan of supplying weapons to the Islamic rebels.

There are a number of mysteries surrounding Khattab, not the least of which is his relationship with the other Chechen rebels and with Osama bin Ladin. The source of his finances is obscure. There is also undoubtedly a good deal of disinformation concerning him.
As I said, I can't verify any of this information, including the cause of his death, as reported by Arab News:
Khattab died five minutes after reading a poisoned letter, said his family, which is still receiving condolences from a large number of people in the eastern Saudi town of Dana.

Tuesday, April 30, 2002
Quick thoughts
I had a ridiculously long and busy day at work, so I'll just hit a few highlights. Adil Farooq has announced that he's starting a new series of posts:
Through some dicussions with other bloggers, it has become increasingly clear in which direction Islam, as it currently stands, is heading. This is a big topic, and I think this should serve as a post in its own right. So in these next few days, I shall blog these thoughts under a new heading: The Question Of Islam. Islamists who read it will certainly not like what they see, but then being brutally honest was not really their territory anyway.
I eagerly await his thoughts on the subject.

One of the most interesting pieces I've come across in a while is this review by Stanley Kurtz of Bernard Lewis' book, What Went Wrong? Kurtz discusses Arab social structure and kinship systems. If I'm not mistaken, kinship systems are far more durable and resistant to change than the ideologies that justify them (at least that's what I recall from my long ago days sitting in anthropology lectures). Kurtz writes,
Middle Eastern tribes are organized into what anthropologists call “segmentary lineage systems.” Simply put, segmentary lineages allow a society to operate strictly on the basis of kinship ties, without the need for a central government. If a man is attacked, for example, he’ll be defended not by police, but by members of his lineage, who will be pitted against the lineage-mates of his foe. And what if a man is attacked by one of his own lineage mates? In that case, his lineage will simply break apart (segment), and those most closely related to him will be opposed to those most closely related to his attacker. The system works through an almost infinite capacity for either segmentation or unity. Tribes can easily be split by internal disputes, yet can just as easily combine in the face of an alien enemy.
Such arrangements are not unique to Arab cultures; indeed, as Kurtz points out, they could be found in the feudal West:
Europe saw a long period of development in which local feudal interdependencies and traditional family and kinship networks were gradually eroded while their functions were taken over by the modern bureaucratic state and the growing capitalist economy. This process, which helped to precipitate modern individuals out of ancient communal structures, has never occurred in the Middle East, where extended tribal and kinship networks continue to do the fundamental work of society, even in large modern cities like Cairo.

This persistence of traditional kinship ties, and the consequent absence of “spiritually modern” individuals, helps explain not only the failure of Middle Eastern democracy, but the region’s economic problems as well. Young people and their families in modern Muslim cities still spend years accumulating the massive amounts of money needed to finance the wedding ceremonies and gift exchanges at the heart of the kinship system. These funds are managed by the kin networks themselves, and so are kept out of banks and freed from taxation. Not only do kinship obligations draw money out of the modern economy, but they inhibit entrepreneurship and feed the endemic corruption that undermines the bureaucracy — even as they simultaneously provide the surest security against poverty and the helplessness of aging.
Kurtz developed this theme in much greater detail elsewhere, writing about Cairo, but I can't seem to find the article. I'll keep looking, but in the meantime, the review is well worth reading.

Finally, I suppose a day wouldn't be complete without some gem from Arab News. Today's installment: Wahhabism is a Zionist Conspiracy!
How do you (as a Zionist) spoil this Israeli-Saudi competition for the heart and soul of America’s executive and legislative governance? Enter Wahhabism. The Zionist pens and tongues have been ululating recently against Wahhabism, which they discovered to be the fire in the belly of the Saudi beast. They finally found something on which they can hang all the Islamic dirty laundry from the jungles of the Philippines to the desert of Somalia.

When Israel wants to tap American military capabilities to serve Tel Aviv’s foreign-policy objectives, American commentators, media talk-show analysts, and all types of “authorities” on Islam suddenly discover Wahhabism and its spewing of hatred around the world and around the United States in Saudi-financed schools and Saudi-financed mosques! Saudi Arabia, with tens of thousands of Americans in it all along, was not a Wahhabi specter. But now, due to Israeli priorities, the American media has at long last discovered “human rights” and attacked Wahhabi extremism as the key to untying the Saudi-American knot!
I think there hasn't been nearly enough reporting on Wahhabi extremism. I'd like to know more about the sect's origins, its theology and its practices. I'd say there's really only been a trickle of information about the sect, but maybe I don't follow the writings of enough Zionist pens. Maybe if I stick "Zionist pens" into Google, I'll get all the Wahhabi stories I can manage...

Update:I did the Google search. Regrettably, Ideofact is the top listing.

Well, they seem to be back for the next 15 minutes or so. I'm considering doing away with them -- I think I spent more time screwing around with them than I did on the 1919 post.

Monday, April 29, 2002
The year of the Great War that wasn't
I've added a few links to the left: Joe Katzman's engaging Winds of Change blog and one I just enjoy reading, John Weidner's Random Jottings. I particularly enjoy Weidner's off-the-beaten path musings, including a series of posts he's done on the American involvement in World War I. The most recent can be read here. I was struck by the last line, which read:
Hunter Liggett did better than most, though he could seldom escape from the requirement that he fling his men against machine guns and barbed wire, armed with rifles and courage, but rarely with what they really needed, which was tanks.
It seems that the Great War has been bobbing up of late; on, a new column by Brendan Miniter debuted today called "The Western Front."
Today, we launch a new Monday column on OpinionJournal, "The Western Front." Many readers will recognize the reference to the Erich Maria Remarque novel about the Western world tearing itself to pieces in World War I. It was that war that accelerated Western civilization down into a dangerous pit from which it may now be emerging. The main purpose of this column will be to argue for rebuilding confidence in the West's ideal of human freedom--spiritual, political and economic liberty.

Before considering how the West might lead the world forward by example, it will be helpful to consider how we find ourselves combating terrorism while also repairing self inflicted damage to our own society.

Somewhere amid the horrific battles of World War I, the world forgot why it was fighting, but kept gnashing anyway. That conflict destroyed Europe and left the young men who survived the battles, bombs and poison gas to become the "Lost Generation." The desperate struggle left a rift between them and civil society. Into that rift, it seems, fell the West's confidence. Across Europe and even America, leaders seemed to look at the carnage and say collectively: "We are barbarians. Who are we to think we should lead the world?"
The reference to tanks, horrific battles, and a world that forgot why it was fighting reminded me of something Churchill wrote. It's in the first volume of his Second World War, a quote from his earlier history of World War I which he wrote in 1928:
But all that happened in the four years of the Great War was only a prelude to what was preparing for the fifth year. The campaign of the year 1919 would have witnessed an immense accession to the powers of destruction. Had the Germans maintained the morale to make good their retreat to the Rhine, they would have been assaulted in the summer of 1919 with forces and by methods incomparably more prodigious than any yet employed. Thousands of aeroplanes would have shattered their cities. Scores of thousands of cannon would have blasted their front. Arrangements were being made to carry simultaneously a quarter of a million men, together with all their requirements, continually forward across the country in mechanical vehicles moving ten or fifteen miles each day. Poison gases of incredible malignity, against which only a secret mask (which the Germans could not obtain in time) was proof, would have stifled all resistance and paralysed all life on the hostile front subjected to attack. No doubt the Germans too had their plans. But the hour of wrath had passed. The signal of relief was given, and the horrors of 1919 remained buried in the archives of the great antagonists.
Of course, as Churchill notes, those plans didn't just disappear. They remained available for the great antagonists to employ a scant twenty years later.

Sunday, April 28, 2002
More on Taheri
For those interested, I plugged Amir Taheri's name into the the search engine provided by Arab News' site, and scrolled through his articles. Regrettably, the search results don't indicate when pieces were published.

There are some columns of interest, particularly this one, titled Understanding of Islam in the West, in which Taheri does a fine job of pointing out that Islam is hardly monolithic in nature. A few excerpts:
The history of Islam is full of theological and political upheaval, doctrinal schisms, violent acts, and even civil wars. Political opponents assassinated three of the four Well-Guided Caliphs, starting a tradition of political murders that has continued to this day. According to the best scholarly estimates available, Islam has witnessed the emergence, and often the demise, of hundreds of different schools, paths, persuasions and denominations.

The problem is that most Western commentators see Islam as the counterpart of Christianity. However, Islam must be seen as the counterpart of Christendom, not of Christianity. When we speak of Christianity we speak only of that faith. But when we speak of Islam we speak of everything: religion, politics, government, culture, art, science etc.


Today, there are 53 Muslim states with a variety of social and political systems. Any sweeping generalization about them will necessarily create more problems than it solves. A robust debate is taking place at many levels in most of those states. In some, it amounts to what one may call "a civil war of ideas." In some, Algeria or Afghanistan for example, there are those who cut the throats of people rather than debate with them. But this is not always the case.

At the center of the debate is the same questions that was first raised in the 19th century. Why did Islam, once a builder of civilizations, become so weak as to be reduced to the level of a mere observer in the world, and, more importantly perhaps, what is to be done to make Islam a subject rather than an object of history again?

The answer provided by the mullas and Al-Qaeda, that Muslims should go and blow themselves and everyone else up, is just one of many answers. If the West is interested in other answers, it needs to ask its intellectual and media to work harder and search deeper.
Taheri doesn't go to any lengths to explain what the alternatives to "cutting throats" or suicide bombers are. Obviously in some of the countries he includes under the Islamic label -- Turkey, for instance -- there are elections. I don't think the West -- well, at least America (it seems like Europe still has quite a few problems with Turkey) -- is worried about such societies; it's those that incorporate "cutting throats" as part of their political culture that are of concern. But the important point here is that we are talking about 53 separate societies, each with their own internal dynamic, and if one is to apply the label "Islamic" to all of them -- well, it's not especially useful.

Taheri wrote another piece on the prospects of democracy in the Arab world, tied to a wave of elections in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar which I believe occurred in 2001 (although he may have written the piece much earlier). He was supportive, but skeptical:
Students of politics know that while there is no democracy without elections, there can be elections without democracy. The now defunct USSR held regular elections at all levels for almost 80 years. Even North Korea holds elections in which the “Dear Leader” Kim Junior regularly gets 100 percent of the votes.

Holding elections is nothing new in the Muslim world. Elections have been held in Iran for almost 100 years under two different dynasties and the current Islamic Republic. Egypt also held a number of elections from the 1920s until the 1952 coup d’état, as did Iraq before 1958. But none of those elections led to change of government or of major policies, let alone of the regime in place. Those elections were, for the most part, nothing but plebiscites designed to show support for the status quo. Each time an election appeared to be upsetting the status quo, the armed forces intervened to interrupt the process or cancel the results. (In the broader context of the Muslim world, that has happened three times in Turkey since 1960, five times in Pakistan since 1947, and once in Algeria in 1991.

The principal mechanism for major change in the politics of most Muslim, especially Arab, countries remained either coup d’état or, in the case of Iran, a full-blown revolution.***

There is no guarantee that any of the governments in the “emerging democratic bloc” would be prepared to alter any of its basic policies, let alone surrender power, as a result of any of the general elections planned. In any case, that is ruled out from the start because there are no organized forces to offer the would-be voters a choice of alternatives.


Here is a sincere plea. Please, please do not organize elections if you don’t really mean to play the game according to the rules. Please do not discredit yet another Western idea which one day may help Muslims in general and Arabs in particular to use as a means of achieving consensus in support of a genuine modernization program. There is no shame in not holding elections in societies that, for whatever reason, are not ready for such exercises. But there is shame in holding fake elections.
Here's the conclusion to a column he wrote after visiting Ground Zero, no doubt some time after the Taliban fell. In the piece, he notes that al Qaeda completely misread the American character, and now suggests what the end result may be:
Ground Zero is the symbol of a long process of reshaping a sensitive part of the world that, with the exception of Black Africa, is the only part to have remained largely outside the new global system of market economy and pluralist politics. Is the US prepared for the task it has set itself?

Contemplating Ground Zero, a visitor is reminded of how much of history is made by the law of unintended results: people do something to achieve one goal and end by provoking another, sometimes even the opposite.
Despite the favorable impression that some of these pieces made on me, there were still some oddities in his work that gave me pause. In one column, he says that the British opposed maintaining an air force in the 1920s and 1930s, the disastrous consequences of which were seen in the Battle of Britain. Actually, at least according to Churchill's History of the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain's government continually assured Parliament that Britain had air superiority, even after they lost it; nevertheless, the superior Hurricanes and Spitfires, the crash course in manufacturing them, and the development of radar allowed the Brits to win the Battle of Britain. And in this column, Taheri asserts something quite odd:
Although the American capital has been bedecked with Christmas decorations for weeks, a visitor is quickly persuaded that people here are in no mood for festivities. The shopping malls that should have been teeming with end-of-the-year shoppers are all but deserted with many shutters down. The only shops that seem to be doing well are those selling memorabilia related to the American War of Independence in the 18th century. Also doing well are a few designer boutiques selling 18th-century outfits, long and elaborate dresses for ladies and tight-fit demisaison jackets for gentlemen.

But it is not only in trinkets and dress that the 18th century has suddenly become fashionable in the United States.
I live in the D.C. area, and I can unequivocally state that shopping last Christmas was about as hectic as any pre-9/11 Christmas; the crowds were pretty thick, and the lines at the registers were long. I don't recall seeing any shops with shutters down, either. Most troubling for me is that nobody bought me an 18th Century costume, especially since I have the kind of ankles that are set off by silk stockings.

And I found this column to be a little troubling. It's about the easy victory in Afghanistan. Taheri found that victory troubling, as he did the quick victory in the Gulf War, for two reasons:
The first is that both wars were, one way or another, caused by doubts about America’s resolve to fight back when attacked. For almost 30 years, anti-Americans of all descriptions, from unreformed leftist to religious fundamentalist, have been convinced that American fear of sustaining casualties in a war, the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome", will prevent Washington from using force against its enemies.

This is why anytime someone challenges America, be it Saddam Hussein or Mulla Muhammad Omar, we hear a chorus of warnings about "another Vietnam." Iraq was supposed to be another Vietnam" in 1990, as was Afghanistan a few weeks ago.

When Iraq caved in without a fight, the same chorus switched to a new tune about how the US won thanks to technological superiority. The "another Vietnam" theory did not die and experts continued to point to the so-called " body-bag syndrome" as America’s strategic weakness.

The same has happened with Afghanistan. The daily Independent in London says that America’s victory was not convincing because US troops did not fight on the ground, which means they won without dying. What is important to note here is that no matter how many military victories the US has won in the past three decades, doubts about its resolve to fight still persist.
I suppose the point is fair enough, although I'd hate to see U.S. military casualties for the sole purpose of proving a point. I should also say that I think that the overwhelming application of U.S. military force leaves little doubt as to U.S. commitment to winning a conflict. It's far better for the Saddams and bin Ladens and Milosevics of the world to know that not only will we kill you, we'll do so with such overwhelming force that you won't even have the opportunity to fight back. Which leads to Taheri's second reason for preferring that U.S. forces sustain more casualties:
The second reason why I did not wish to see easy American victories in either Iraq or Afghanistan is that winning with almost no real cost strengthens the jingoist warmongers in the United States. This happened after Iraq caved in. And it is happening again in the wake of the Taleban collapse.

After Iraq, the warmongers demanded a new phase of direct confrontation with the Soviet Union that could have led to war. Fortunately, the USSR collapsed, as a result of its own internal weaknesses, before the US could exert any additional pressure.
Now, maybe my calendar is off, but my recollection is that the Soviet Union collapsed before the Gulf War (didn't the Berlin Wall fall in 1989? Or was I dreaming?). And I don't recall U.S. war mongers declaring we should march straight from Kuwait to Moscow. In any case, back to Taheri:
At the start of this debate after the Sept. 11 tragedies in New York and Washington, I wrote two articles arguing against any new American attack on Iraq. That was not because I have any special affection for Saddam Hussein and his gang. Far from it. I hold them responsible for many of the tragedies that have befallen Iraq and our region as a whole in the past 30 years. The point of my objection was that the United States, the standard-bearer of Western democracies, should be a model of the rule of law and not take military action, even against such obnoxious fellows as the Baghdad gang, without concrete evidence.
There may not be concrete evidence that the Baghdad gang conspired in the Sept. 11 attacks, but it seems to me that Taheri's own formulation, that he holds "them responsible for many of the tragedies that have befallen Iraq and our region as a whole in the past 30 years," should be sufficient to consider a regime change. Taheri opposes this, or at least the U.S. imposing it, and ticks off, with a bit of a lament, the reasons that people like him who would prefer to see the Baghdad gang remain in power while the U.S. observes the niceties of international law are facing the likelihood that such will not be the case:
The reason we lost is that the Afghan war proved to be so painless for the US.

The mythical "Arab street" did not explode.

Nor was there "a political earthquake" in Pakistan.

The legendary Afghan fighter who had supposedly defeated everyone since Alexander the Great did not materialize.

The mass of the Afghan people preferred to dance with joy at their liberation rather than embark on "endless jihad" as The Independent had predicted.

Mulla Omar and his buddy Osama did not prove to be "volunteers for martyrdom", ready to sacrifice their lives in combat. Rather than face their enemies on the battlefield, they ran to their caves, like frightened mice into the first hole available.

The "war of civilizations" proved to be a figment of some academic imagination.
I may be wrong, but it strikes me that what Taheri laments is that the radical elements he criticized in Does Islam promote suicide bombing? and the aforementioned Understanding Islam in the West were not ascendant in the Islamic world. He would, on the one hand, like America to play by Marquis of Queensbury rules and get its nose bloodied, and it does not seem that he's too terribly concerned about the worst case scenarios developing for the United States.

Taheri writes in his conclusion to After the easy victory in Afghanistan,
The main theme of the next decade could thus be the brutal exercise of American power against all real or imagined American enemies.
Of course, it could also be that the main theme of the next decade is the brutal exercise of American power against the real enemies of the Arab people, who, like the Afghans, will prefer to "dance with joy at their liberation rather than embark on 'endless jihad.'" I still question whether Taheri would dance with them.

Madness and courage
I spent most of this weekend doing yard work. Last night I was too tired to write, tonight I feel too dull-witted, so I'll share something I re-read the other day that continues to make an impression on me.

There is no shortage of cruelty in history, of that we can be quite certain; that much of this cruelty has been in the service of abstractions aimed at improving the lot of mankind somehow makes it more monstrous. The Islamists want to usher in an age of piety and purity; their more virulent members have chosen mass murder as the means to their end. In this, they hardly exceptional, as depressing as that is to say.

It's no so long ago that another new age was supposed to dawn. Thanks to the scientific understanding of history and its irrestible momentum, soon we would all be living in the proletarian paradise. In 1948, in the People's Poland of recent vintage, a poet, classicist, and man of the West, a Pole with the unlikely name of Zbigniew Herbert, turned his back on the proletarian revolution. He gave up his membership in the Polish Writers Union, which promised him a life of ease provided that the didn't go against the dictates of the party. In a 1981 interview, reprinted in The Poetry of Survival, Herbert explained why he did so:
Because of a lie. Social realism had sounded. I had no chance to publish what I was writing then, and by my withdrawal I think I anticipated a dismissal from the Union. It was like this: I was taken to observe an action to destroy kulaks. Armed bands of 'workers,' who were not workers at all, would come and loot the property of the foes of the proletariat. They took away everything. Grain was loaded on horse carts; and the carts would stand outside in the rain and the snow, the grain going to waste. It was the economic price of a historical experiment. I was a writer and could join a band to see for myself, in practice, not in the papers. I wanted to find out who was right, the spirit of the day or common sense. And conscience.

They took grain away from a woman, Malcowa, who worked for a kulak. She went wild with despair. What could one do? Give the woman a hundredweight of grain lest she and her son should die of starvation in the coming winter. I went to see the organizer of the action so that I could write a report and get them to give her a sack of grain. They explained that I did not understand the dialectic of history. Some time later I learned that Malcowa had hanged herself.

I unstuck my photo. I sent my membership card back to the Union. I went down to the bottom.
And to that, I have nothing to add.