A Rant in Exasperation

On 20 October Tyler Roylance took issue with a piece by Ross Douthat on the effects of ‘democracy’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ on Copts in Egypt in the wake of the Maspero events. Roylance’s rebuttal is worth reading as it tackles Mr. Douthat’s contradictions and errors very clearly. As readers may know, this blogger has taken issue with Mr. Douthat’s writing about Islam and Muslims and the Middle East before — especially his indulgence and promotion of Eurabian conspiracy theories. This blogger would like to write a diatribe against Mr. Douthat; and he intends to at some point in the near future, though this will likely prove a waste of time. This post is a rant on his column from last week, which demonstrates his inability to comprehend problems facing minorities in any nuanced or clear way, or his tendency to force-fit complex issues into a sectarian and partisan narrative built on a questionable understanding of the facts involved. Continue reading

Jumping to Conclusions RE: Norway

There was much consternation when many international media outlets assumed the Norway terrorist attacks this weekend were perpetrated by al-Qa’eda, lone wolf “Muslim” terrorists or the like. Most considered this a reasonable possibility give the structure of the attack in the city of Oslo. Of course it was soon clear: the Norway attacks were carried out by a conservative, anti-Muslim, self-described Knight of Templar who happened to be a native Norwegian pumped up on anabolic steroids. The Islamist angle then became: a horrible idea.

Continue reading

Comments and Observations on the “Arabization Crisis”

The non-Arab population of Mauritania traditionally has been discriminated against by the ruling Arab-Berber class, to a large degree being enslaved. Class division in Mauritania still mainly goes along ethnic lines. Many fear that an Arabisation of Mauritanian administration and education will deepen differences and segregation.

Mauritanian students protest Arabisation,” Afrol. 16 April, 2010.

Analysts believe that this is an essential fight for the Fulani, Wolof, Soninke and other black-skinned groups, who account for about a third of the country’s population, as the Arabic language consolidates the position of the Arab-Berber majority who wield more political and economic power, and who have often been accused of enslaving the minority Black populations. Slavery which is still practiced by the Arab-Berber populations was abolished three times in Mauritania in the last century alone.

Mauritania: Marginalised Black populations fight against Arabisation,” 8 April, 2010. Continue reading

Arabization debate

A short post on the struggle among Mauritanian students over Arabic and French language will appear here sometime next week. Mauritanians on the front lines are encouraged to send the blogger their thoughts and accounts either in the comments field here or by email (found on the “About TMND” page). Contact with some students already exists; the more the better.

Peretz: at it again

So, more on Mr. Hussain. In announcing his appointment, Obama again chose recherché speech. Or, to be more precise, a word he did not know. Hussain is a hafiz of the Koran—he’s memorized it all—and, as such, “he is a respected member of the Muslim community.” I can’t believe that Obama knew what hafiz meant. It may just be another one of his affectations. And as for a hafiz, I’d bet that many schoolboys who attended madrassas, which are mostly centers of ignorance like many ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, also have memorized the holy text and that says nothing about the respect in which the community holds them and certainly says nothing at all about their wisdom.

Assalamu Alaykum, Another Special Envoy And Obama’s Impoverished Grasp Of The Muslim World,” Marty Peretz, 17 February, 2010.

Here it is clear that Peretz has no idea of what a hafiz is or what his place is in Muslim communities and societies or has no idea of what madrasas are in Muslim communities and societies in the traditional sense or that he is being both disingenuous, disrespectful and contemptuous all at once.

As in practically all other instances where Peretz looks to pity President Obama’s lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslims he has ended up exposing his own lack of knowledge and bigotry toward Muslims (and Arabs, too).

On America’s Muslim problem: I

Not something you see today.

Following President Obama’s famed Cairo speech, there were those who were excited, those who were nettled and those who were simply unimpressed. Among the nettled were some American conservatives — of the Wingnut, moderate and innovative sorts — who objected to the the speech’s content and tone on a number of grounds. Most notable were those around it form a part of an “apology tour” or that it was too harsh on the Israelis. Another objection was that Obama took too conciliatory a tone with American Muslims, especially his remark that Islam has “always been a part of America’s story.” Those came from the right but they spoke to something much bigger. Continue reading

The Venture of Marty Peretz’s bigotry: Arabs, Muslims, Berbers and more

[Readers be warned, this post contains subject matter already discussed elsewhere and is of no particular relevance to this blog's usual content. ]

Matthew Yglesias and Johnathan Chait are in a tiff about comments made by the editor-in-chief of the New Republic, Marty Peretz. Peretz’s track record of making ill-informed, nonsensical and often bigoted commentary about Muslims, Arabs and other exotic peoples is long. He caught more heat earlier this year for making racist comments about Latinos and Hispanics, but usually gets less flack on his rather regular pronouncements on Arab and Muslim topics. Yglesias takes the following paragraph from a recent Peretz blog post as insinuating that Americans need “more anti-Muslim sentiment”: Continue reading

On Ross Douthat and Islam

This past week the New York Times published three pieces on the minaret issue on its opinion pages. There was one, quite Neanderthal, written by Ross Douthat, the Times‘s resident conservative who has opined on the dangers of Islam before; another — by Peter Stamm, a Swiss writer – bland and half-way apologetic, and a third more courageous and reasonable than much of what the Times has published on European Islam recently. Unsurprisingly the third piece was written by the senior director of Amnesty, Claudio Cordone. The second piece shows at once the inevitable truth that tolerant voices still exist in Europe and that too often such voices fail to grasp the gravity of the problem with their compatriots’ “Muslim problem”.*

Douthat’s is more pressing from the American standpoint than either Cordone’s or Peter Stamm’s. Ross Douthat’s writing on Islam to date is disappointing from the standpoint one concerned with the well-being of western Muslims, and it deserves examination and criticism, as it represents the provincialism and bad judgment that persists in even the “reformist” set among the new generation of conservatives and Republicans, so rooted in the Culture War and revenge politics. This is not surprising, though it is disappointing and worrisome nonetheless.

Douthat has been labeled by liberals and conservatives all over, magazine and newspapers, as one of American conservatism’s up-and-coming leaders. In 2008, with Reihan Salam (whose piece on the Fort Hood massacre is worth reading), Douthat authored Grand New Party: How Conservatives can win back the Middle Class and save the American Dream (Doubleday) a tract on how to make the Republican Party credible with its “base” once more. In Douthat’s writings on “Islam,” one finds a provincialism and illiteracy that reinforces the dogmatism that make so much of American conservatism inaccessible to minorities, American Muslims in particular. Pity his lack of creativity in the time of Obama. Continue reading

On the Minaret ban

One should register no surprise that the continent which produced the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, the Crusades and the Holocaust would give rise to a sentiment that would lead 57% of Swiss voters to ban the construction of minarets. It should be even less surprising that this would come round in a country where the largest party in parliament made itself so by posting up images of white sheep bucking black ones off of the national flag. Proponents of the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets say they fear the imposition of sharia law; that the towers rising off of mosques illustrate Muslim dominance over their society. They go on that Muslims, unlike Christians or Jews, make “political and legal demands.” To preserve Swiss culture and law, no more minarets ought to go up. Some feminists, representing the most assuredly misguided sect yet to speak, added that the minaret is a phallic symbol, representing male oppression of women. Cutting minarets from the skyline would, in their minds, take a stand against misogyny. “If we give them a minaret, they’ll have us all wearing burqas,” as one put it. The Muslims don’t believe women to have any worth and we ought to convince them otherwise by keeping them from building vertically, to paraphrase another. We should be eager to catch a flier compelling us to a rally urging a ban on the construction of bell towers and spires, of slender and high reaching sculptures. Such a hope would only yield disappointment, though. For even if we would like to assume the good and honest intentions of the ban — to accept the line of one parliamentarian that the trouble isn’t Muslims as people, but merely the legal implications of their religion — we would be stupid, foolish and criminally gullible to do so. It would be disingenuous to call the majority decision on the matter anything but an expression of popular and growing racism and bigotry in Swiss society. Worst of all is that we may not say that a wretched government is responsible for this violation of religious freedom. It was the Swiss people — though it is better to say the unenlightened among them. Continue reading

On Obama’s Ramadan message

President Obama’s Ramadan message was, as his remarks to the Muslim world often are, at best well choreographed and well composed and at worst thoroughly disingenuous and problematic. As a part of the White House’s outreach to the Muslim world, it not only cross referenced the Cairo speech, and the president’s commitment to “a new beginning between America and Muslims around the world”. While there is little to argue with in the core of that message, that relationships should be based on common interests and respect, the Obama administration has yet to put anything on display beyond respect for rulers in the Muslim world. After critical examination (and much of the reporting on it has been distinctly uncritical), the Ramadan message Mr. Obama delivers is hardly about Ramadan. Like other public diplomacy efforts by the Obama administration, the Ramadan message is one of studied and dutiful vagueness.

He begins by stating that he extends well wishes on “on behalf of the American people, including Muslims in all fifty states”. So far so good. From here, the president speaks essentially to foreign Muslims, not American Muslims. He speaks of philanthropic activities in the United States, highlighting those of American Muslim organizations as well, noting that all religions encourage charitable giving. He then informs viewers of America’s effort to “engage Muslims and Muslim-majority nations on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect,” recalling the thrust of his Ankara and Cairo speeches. Continue reading

A Man’s World? Mauritanian Islamists and female service

The Mauritanian government made history by appointing a woman, Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass, to the post of Foreign Minister. Ms. Bint Ould Mouknass is the first woman to hold the post in any Arabic-speaking country; she is joined by five other female appointees in General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s government.

Her background is straightforward enough. The eldest daughter a wealthy northern businessman-cum-Foreign Minister, from the Elguera’a tribe, she served as an MP from Nouadhibou on the Foreign Relations Commission. In the earlier part of the decade she was an advisor to Ould Taya. Circa 2000, she has been head of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (UDP), supporting Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi in 2007 but following with the exodus of ex-supporters in June 2008, helping to accelerate the downfall of his government. THe UDP supported Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz in the most recent polls and her appointment can be seen as at least partially the result of this track record.

Her appointment is at once clever and utilitarian: Bint Mouknass’s appointment, like that of her predecessor, is an attempt to appeal to outside audiences with a fresh and “soft” face. The General is also offering spoils to his supporters (more on this later, but be aware that she is strongly favored by Libya). It also puts a wedge between the new government and the Islamist movement, whose policy it co-opted prior to (and during, mind you) the presidential election (e.g., Israel), it is thought to be politically beneficial to act contra the movement’s ideology, thereby clearly distinguishing himself from it, especially in light of his efforts to “fight terrorism,” though this was surely thought up well before last week’s suicide bombing (and likely without their possibility in mind).

Some will have none of it. The imam of Nouakchott’s number two mosque denounced her appointment by means of scripture and hadith. Imam Ahmedou Ould Habiboullah Ould Lemrabott described a woman’s proper place is “in the house, in service of her husband and family”. He spent fifty minutes on this, according to al-Akhbar. Taqadoumy also writes that Lemrabott quoted verses stating that women should not travel without their spouses or close male relatives, an invocation which would make Ms. Ould Moukness’s job rather difficult at even a theoretical level: She is after all, not married. (Taqadoumy also has the editorial from La Tribune‘s sharp editorial on the matter.)

What should be said is that Mauritanian Salafists — and it is safe to call Imam Lemrabott a Salafist — are none too pleased with the high relatively high ratio of women in the new government and are making a point of it. There is nuance, though. Abdellahi Ould Boyé, a more seasoned sheikh, president of the World Muslim Congress and former minister under Mokhtar Ould Daddah now living in Saudi Arabia, told ech-Chaab (a government paper) that appointing women to high posts in order to “appeal to others” or for any other reason beyond their personal qualifications is “hypocrisy” and in violation of the shari’ah. (“تعيين المرأة في بعض المناصب محاباة للغير وليس على أساس الكفاءة قد يكون نوعاً من الرياء في الديمقراطية”). Here Lemrabott’s criticism is not so conditional; He is opposed to women in office as a matter of principle. Note, though, that Lemrabott supported Ould Abdel Aziz after the coup and during the recent elections, imploring “Muslims” to vote for him. Lemrabott’s support for Ould Abdel Aziz is not peculiar; Islamists in Mauritania historically supported whomever was in control; It was only until the waning days of the Ould Taya regime that they found themselves in the “opposition” having till then been eager court theologians.

This view is quite controversial in Mauritania, where women have seats reserved in parliament and women are traditionally strong figures in society, often carrying on with greater social freedoms than their northern and eastern Arab sisters. Tawassoul (the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood) has little to say, and one might assume their agreement as a result (despite the prominence of women in their campaign advertisements). It further represents a rejection of all six female ministers on the part of what might be called “movement Islamists” (as opposed to political or government Islamists (e.g. Tawassoul), to borrow framing from the American context), to set themselves apart from Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz’s government on less moveable theological grounds than was the case with their anti-Israel positioning.


Ould Abdel Aziz & the Jews

Mauritania’s campaign revolves around three candidates: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messaoud Boulkheir. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall is also in play, but from at a Plutonian level relative to the others. Jamil Mansour (of Tawwasoul, the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brothers) and several other minor candidates float as well. Between these personalities there is a distinct difference in style between Ould Abdel Aziz and the others: pure and utterly shameless populism of a variety befitting of other times and other places. Playing on his record of routing the Israeli Embassy staff last winter (a victory which will put him in the annals of Arab military history), as well as popular sentiments in the country contra things Israel, Ould Abdel Aziz has made his distaste for Zionism part of his campaign persona. Not only has he attacked the opposition — Ould Daddah, but especially Ely Vall — but he has gone out of his way to bring the campaign to a place far off from what anyone in the Mauritanian electorate would ever describe as relating to their daily struggle. To recount some memorable moments in this facet of the campaign: Continue reading

Trouble in Berriane

carte-berriane432Four hours after Bouteflika’s visit to Berriane, part of his tour of the M’zab valley where he inspected the efforts to repair the region after October’s heavy flooding and discussed the looming financial crisis, violence returned to the town, pitting M’zabites against Arabs and the both of them against the state security forces.

Berriane saw clashes in March, April and May of this year between the M’zabite Berber-speaking Ibadite community and Arab (Chaamba) Sunni residents, the result of tensions building on and off over the last twenty years. The violence was tied to several factors: an attack on a M’zabite woman, the announcement of corruption in the local government and general population and social pressures. This fall, Berriane, like the rest of the M’zab valley, saw heavy rains and subsequent flooding leading to massive damage and displacement. The situation there is certainly tense. Continue reading

Why Most Arabs don’t care if Zawahiri casts slurs on Obama

Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al Zawahri attacked Obama as a “house Negro,” a racially-charged term used by 1960s black American Muslim leader Malcolm X to describe black slaves loyal to white masters.

“You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like … Malcolm X,” Zawahri said in an 11-minute recording publicized on the Internet on Wednesday. It was al Qaeda’s first high-level commentary on Obama’s election on November 4. Bin Laden could also release a message on Obama within the next two weeks or so, one analyst said.

Zawahri criticized Obama’s support for Israel and plans to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, where he said they were destined to fail. He urged Islamist fighters to keep striking a “criminal” United States until it withdraws from Muslim lands.

The recording was distributed on a videotape that carried pictures of Obama at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and Malcom X, flanking Zawahri in the center.

Al-Qaeda scorns Obama with racial slur,” Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters, 20 November, 2008.

If you listen to the clip in question, al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri actually calls Obama abid al-beit, or “house slave.” Yet al Qaeda translates it as “house Negro,” which is the term that Malcolm X used. I guess they wanted to keep the parallel exact?

In any case, I wonder if this message might actually play better in some parts of the Arab world than we think. Yes, it’s a pretty crude racial epithet, and for a pan-Islamic movement that encompasses Sudanese, Uzbek, and Indonesian members along with the core group of Arabs, it’s probably going to ruffle some feathers. But there is a surprising amount of anti-black racism in Arab countries, and Zawahiri may be hoping to tap into that to drum up new recruits.

One oddity about the al Qaeda tape,” Blake Hounshell, FP Passport, 20 Novemeber, 2008.

250px-slaves_zadib_yemen_13th_century_bnf_parisHere is the problem with both of these extracts: Abid عبد does, in fact, literally mean “slave”. When used in everyday conversation to refer to persons with dark skin or of African lineage, it has much the same meaning as “nigger” does in English. While many Arabic-speakers use the term to refer to dark skinned peoples and blacks in everyday speech, rather casually, it is almost never a term of endearment and it never quite loses its hostile and ugly connotation[s]. It resembles the manner in which “nigger” was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries to refer to blacks in the United States. It was considered well and normal. So too with abid. I would translate abid al-bayt عبد البيت not as “House Negro,” but as House Nigger.

With this in mind, though, one has to consider that the use of abid al-bayt may well be deliberate. African-Americans deliberately use the term “House Nigger” to refer to “self-hating blacks” or “Uncle Toms”. Zahwahiri’s usage of the term may well be an appropriation of this usage. That is not all, though. It is likely also evidence of a deeply ingrained (and very common) racial prejudice among Arabic-speakers regarding people of black African ancestry, despite al-Qaeda’s diversity. This prejudice is found throughout the Arab region, from the Gulf to North Africa. Usage of the term is likely an appeal to the term’s double meaning.¹

Regarding the query as to how it might “play” in the Arab world: It has been my general observation that most Arabs have very little sympathy for African-Americans and even less for Arab of African descent. That is not to say that many Arabs do hold such sentiments: most Arab-Americans said that they would vote for Barack Obama and I know for a fact that there are Arabs who genuinely identify with the African-American struggle and harbor a great deal of sympathy for their historic plight.² I would say that those are in the minority, though. Arab (and Middle Eastern) societies regard blacks in a vastly different manner than do Americans, and not for the better (not that America has something to brag about in that regard). Servile background is callously frowned upon and darkness equated not only with evil, but stupidity, ugliness, and criminality as well.

I do not, therefore, believe that this kind of language would make Arabs more sympathetic to the president-elect. Indeed, since Obama’s appointment of Rahm Emmanuel, a fervent support of Israel, as chief of staff many Arabs have begun to weary of Barack Obama. This process was precipitated when he came out as the most ardent of Israel supporters at the AIPAC convention this summer. Qaddafi has for one said that Obama will be forced to “act more white than any of the whites” because of his blackness, something many Arabs might agree with. (I say this based on conversations and comments from friends who travel more widely in the Levant than I do. I’ve heard similar comments about Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice from many Palestinians and Algerians: I heard almost identical comments from Algerians about Rachida Dati after she became pregnant by an invisible man). It would be wishful thinking to believe that a great number of Arabs to pity a leader of African descent who has taken just about every policy line available that was contrary to what the “Arab Street” would desire (aside from Iraq, but even in that his position has been crafted such that it does not appear to please Arabs). I would take the initial part of Hounshell’s query and flip it around: Zawahiri’s comment will probably play better among Arabs sympathetic to his message (such tapes tend to preach to the choir) with the addition of racial overtones. It will probably not gain him any new Somali, Kenyan, Senegalese, or Nigerien recruits, but it will not decrease the number of Arabs seeking his company. Continue reading

1920 or 2008?

“When you have an immigration policy that allows for the importation of millions of radical Muslims, you are also importing their radical ideology – an ideology that is fundamentally hostile to the foundations of western democracy – such as gender equality, pluralism, and individual liberty,” said Tancredo. “The best way to safeguard America against the importation of the destructive effects of this poisonous ideology is to prevent its purveyors from coming here in the first place.”

Tancredo Proposes Anti-Sharia Measure in Wake of U.K. Certification of Islamic Courts,” 18 September, 2008. Continue reading

Muslim Melians

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.

“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’ ”

When Mr. Obama began his presidential campaign, Muslim Americans from California to Virginia responded with enthusiasm, seeing him as a long-awaited champion of civil liberties, religious tolerance and diplomacy in foreign affairs. But more than a year later, many say, he has not returned their embrace.

[. . .]

“A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way,” Mr. Ellison said.

Muslim Voters Detect a Snub From Obama,” 24 June, 2008, New York Times. Continue reading

Another day in Europe

One response has come from Danish-born Muslims. A poll by Politiken, a daily, of 315 young Muslim students, found that two-thirds of them were considering emigrating after graduation. Most gave as their reason “the tone of the Danish debate about Muslims”. Jakob Lange, head of studies at Copenhagen University, says that children of immigrants deliberately choose portable qualifications. “They want an education they can use abroad, where the tone of the debate is different. Which is why they often choose medicine, engineering or business-related disciplines.”

Covering up,” The Economist, 29 May, 2008. Continue reading

Turkey, anti-Americanism and Obama

Michael Rubin’s WSJ op-ed on why the US should support the removal of Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan is bothersome. Having followed Turkey for the last two years somewhat closely (I make a conscious effort to listen to Turks in Boston and to look at Turkish newspapers and websites in my daily rotation around the web and the library), I view the series of events he describes somewhat differently, and I view the role of the AK as less inherently pernicious than he seems to. I do not care to get into the nitty gritty, partially because it would not accomplish much (and trying to dignifying such a weak comparison between Erdogan and Putin would be as silly as drawing one), but even more so because there is one bit that I think is more relevant than the rest of the article. Continue reading