Thursday, April 28, 2005

Iraq's New Government: A Few Brain Teasers

The government lineup that Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, head of the Daawa Party, presented to the presidency council, was approved today by the Iraqi National Assembly. The government will include members of the main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions, although it appears that most of the positions went to Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq's population.

PM Jaafari will also serve as the acting Defense Minister, a post that was coveted by Sunnis and the political coalition of the outgoing prime minister Iyad Allawi. The latter was left out of this new cabinet because he demanded several key posts including deputy premiership and several key minesterial positions (Interior and Defense) and clashed with Jaafari's Shiite coalition on "de-Baathification".

Now that an Iraqi government has been formed, I would like to point out a few interesting things that may or may not have made the news coverage. The news media has already emphasized the democratic process that is a work in progress in Iraq.

  • The current PM, Ibrahim Al Jaafari, is the head of the Daawa Party, an Islamist organization founded in 1957 by Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr . The Daawa party was accused of terrorist activity including a series of bombings in Kuwait targeting the US and French embassies in the early 1980s.

  • Muqtada al-Sadr is the nephew of the founder of Daawa party, the party of the new Iraqi PM. For those of you who do not know Muqtada Al-Sadr, he is the Shiite cleric who opposes U.S. presence in Iraq and who led a bloody uprising against US troops in southern Iraq last year. He commands an army of Shiite militiamen who call themselves: the Mahdi Army. You can also read a Previous Post I wrote on Muqtada Sadr.

  • Muqtada al-Sadr has declared after the Iraqi election that the only way any Iraqi government would be legitimate is if it asks for the immediate withdrawal of US troops. His supporters marched in the thousands last month calling for US troops to leave Iraq.

  • Ahmad Chalabi will have the Oil Ministry and a Deputy Premiership in this new government - two very powerful posts. If you do not know who Ahmed Chalabi is, then you should read this Post I wrote a couple of months ago. This man is as cunning a politician as they get and his political journey so far is an ivy league case study.

  • Even a visit by Secretary Rumsfeld (and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick) to Iraq could not buy outgoing PM Allawi his place in the new government. Rumsfeld traveled to Iraq to basically side with Allawi's position regarding former Baatists in Iraq's security and defense establishements. But, Rumsfeld's good friend Chalabi is now the Iraqi Minister of Oil and Deputy PM.

  • Iran wins again. First, the outcome in Afghanistan was favorable to Tehran because Iran supported the northern alliance and the Pashtun factions allied with Hamid Karzai against the Taliban. They win again in Iraq, because they have long supported the shiite factions of southern Iraq (the winning coalition in government today) against Saddam Hussein.

  • The Kurds have the presidency and several key posts in the government. They also command a very well-armed and well-trained militia, the Pesh Merga. It will be interesting to see how this issue is dealt with as the Iraqi assembly debates a new constitution. In addition, the new Kurdish influence in Iraq does not sit well with Turkey, Syria, and Iran, each of which have their own Kurdish populations.

  • ...and last but not least, the US may have just learned a valuable lesson in how to integrate organizations, like Daawa, once viewed as "Islamist/extremist/terrorist" into the political process. Ibrahim Al Jaafari says: "We have a very strong, warm and close relationship with the US...It's not a sign of weakeness to change our world view." Will that lesson play a role in how the US deals with Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine??

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Giant Bird Takes Off

The Airbus super-jumbo aircraft, which is the largest passenger airliner ever built, took off on its maiden flight today in Toulouse, France. The A380 is designed to carry 555 passengers in three classes and can be expanded to accomodate 800 seats. It features a double-deck cabin and is about one-third larger than the Boeing 747, its next-largest competitor.

So far, Airbus has 154 firm orders for the A380, 43 of which from Dubai's Emirates Airlines. The plane is scheduled to enter service for Singapore Airlines in the second half of 2006. No American airlines have ordered the A380 to date nor are they expected to do so in the near future.

Airbus stresses the plane's fuel efficiency and low noise emissions in comparison to the Boeing 747 but recognizes that new terminal and airport redesign are needed to accomodate the new Jumbo jet. Airbus executives say that in the next 20 years the number of airports that could support A380 flights will grow substantially.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Today at the National Press Club

Today, I attended an event at the National Press Club organized by the Middle East Institute. The topic of discussion was: "Lessons of Arab-Israeli Peacemaking: Four Negotiators Look Back and Ahead". The speakers at this event were:

Martin Indyk, former US Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs

Dennis Ross, former US Ambassador and Special Middle East Coordinator

Robert Malley, former NSC Advisor for Arab-Israeli Affairs to President Clinton

Aaron David Miller, former Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator

I will write about the perspectives presented by each of the speakers when I get them all straight in my head later on in the evening. But, first, I would like to share a short essay written by the moderator of this event, Edward S. Walker, who is a former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. You decide whether he and I agree or disagree (see my previous post, "It's the Policy Stupid", which I just posted yesterday).

Ambassador Walker writes:

"Our Arab friends said, 'It's the policy, stupid.' There is no doubt that our way was complicated by our active policy in Iraq and our passive policy on the Palestinian issue. But while policies play a part in the estrangement, they are only a part of the problem and not really the most important part." Read more

Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's The Policy Stupid

...and Better Communication Too

What we have consistently heard from high levels of the US government regarding the Middle East is that the biggest problem facing America in the region is overcoming a rampant disinformation and propaganda campaign led by unfriendly governments, non-state actors, and Arab media. We have heard several US officials and members of Congress insist on how “bad” and “irresponsible” Al Jazeera is to the point of accusing it of being a “mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda”. The US conservative media machine became the firing pad for this message. Recently, they went so far as to call the satellite TV station a “terrorist network”. The argument goes: “If only the people of the Middle East were able to hear our side of the story and understand our policy away from the incitement and hate speech practiced by the likes of Al Jazeera, everything will be just fine.”

In response, the US Congress authorized funding for a radio station, Radio Sawa, and a satellite TV station, Al Hurra, in order to carry an alternative message to the Middle East and act as a medium for ‘objective reporting’ on US policy. Several news websites such as Magharebia were also started by the US Department of Defense, and the US state Department is sponsoring a lifestyle magazine for young men and women across the Middle East called Hi Magazine. At the executive level, a new position of Undersecretary of State was created to carry out US public diplomacy efforts and formulate strategies for improving the image of the US abroad.

Three years after those specific media and public diplomacy initiatives were taken, it is time to evaluate the American strategy to reach out to the people of the Middle East and even revisit the overall assumption that America’s problems in the Middle East can be mainly settled with public diplomacy and media outreach.

On the media front, Radio Sawa did fairly well in terms of attracting an audience especially among young Arabs because it put forth a nice format alternating Arabic and Western music hits. Once, I caught a ride in a taxi in Casablanca and noticed that the driver was listening to Radio Sawa. However, as soon as the news report came on, he quickly switched to the local station.

I asked: Why?

He said: “They [the US] think we are stupid”.

I probed further by asking: But why listen to it at all if that’s how you feel?

He quickly replied: "I like the music they have on".

In October 2004, a report by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that, although Radio Sawa was able "to attract a large audience in key Middle East countries, the station has been so preoccupied with building an audience through its music that it has failed to adequately measure whether it is influencing minds." My exchange with the Taxi driver in Casablanca hints that the challenge Radio Sawa faces is one of legitimacy and credibility as long as it is viewed as an instrument of the US government. I think objectivity dictates that we at least consider the fact that the station is presented with a hard task in abnormal circumstances with the shroud of US government propaganda hanging over its head.

While Radio Sawa can at least be credited with attracting a large audience, we could not say the same for satellite TV station Al Hurra. The station, for which Congress did not authorize funding until summer of 2003, is far behind the sophistication and programming of any Arab satellite TV station including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi. Unlike my taxi experience in Casablanca, I have yet to meet anyone who watches any of Al Hurra’s programs. If and when Al Hurra overcomes technical and programming hurdles to at least be in the same league as the Gulf satellite TV stations, then it will also have to overcome the fact that it is seen in the Middle East as a US propaganda instrument.

On the other hand and in the area of news publishing, Hi Magazine faces obstacles similar to those faced by Radio Sawa and Al Hurra (legitimacy, credibility, market penetration, etc.), but it also faces obstacles that are unique to published media. There is no additional cost (other than opportunity cost) for a resident of the Middle East to listen to or watch the US-sponsored stations if he/she so chooses. But with Hi Magazine, the Arab reader is asked to pay a per-unit price for a publication that he knows is sponsored by the US state Department. This is a huge socio-economic obstacle for the publication to gain market penetration even if it manages to overcome the other perception problems it faces. The magazine, however, has a website on which the contents of the Magazine are freely available. But that does not get rid of the economic disincentive entirely because TV and radio penetration far exceeds that of the internet in the Middle East (the region has been missing the train of globalization for years). This latter statement also points to problems faced by US news websites such as Magharebia.

On the policy front, the newly-created position of Undersecretary of State in Charge of Public Diplomacy has already seen two unsuccessful and short-lived appointments. Last month, President Bush nominated his close adviser Karen Hughes to the post. He also nominated an Egyptian-American, Dina Powell, to the number two spot in that office. In response to that appointment, I wrote that Karen Hughes must know that a propaganda campaign will not do the job. In regards to the Middle East, she should not make the mistake of following Arab regimes into the habit of insulting the intelligence of their people with blatant propaganda. What will cut it here is a concrete change in policy for which she will have to lobby relentlessly in the White House. I also believe that Mrs. Hughes should move to get the Arab Muslim community in the US to be more involved in U.S. public diplomacy efforts, because the American administration will not find better messengers to carry its goodwill to the Middle East than its own Arab and Muslim community.

The good news is that Karen Hughes enjoys direct access to the president, something her predecessors lacked. It is also a positive development that an Egyptian-American will be the number two official in charge of US public diplomacy. But, there is still a major lack of Muslim Staff in the administration’s main programs directed at the Middle East - and there in lies one of the problems of the current US strategy for public diplomacy. Administration officials admit that there is confusion about what public diplomacy means in the first place. Is it a communication job or is it an active policy-making job? I think both if you ask me, but the confusion looms and with it comes stalled progress and poor results. Furthermore, when you do not have the right people to help explain the problems you face, then you can not possibly come up with effective solutions – That is because you do not fully understand the problem. The US administration must stop to consider at least partly that the real problem it faces in the Middle East has to do with America’s own policy failures in the region and that America seems too distracted to realize that the fish it is trying to put back in the water is already dead.

How, you may ask. Well, let us consider a few realities:

1. US criticism has now become a blessing in the Middle East. The more US officials demonize an Arab media outlet, the more popular and credible the latter becomes among Arabs. Al-Jazeera, for instance, can effectively ignore US criticism as long as the Qatari government does not pull its funding. All it has to do is continue its programs and count its blessings. Actually, what they should probably do at this time is write the US administration a nice ‘Thank you’ note and encourage it to continue on its current track. By the way, calling on Arab governments to censor Al Jazeera all while defending the first amendment right of the conservative US media to desecrate the image of Muslims sends the message that America is only interested in the kind of freedom that serves its interests. It does not help either when US officials try to explain this contradiction by suggesting that Arabs are not sophisticated enough to make ‘intelligent use’ of freedom of the press.

I also think that it is incredibly flattering for a single media network to be credited with influencing the minds of 200 million Arabs. It is also unbelievably insulting for Arabs to be indirectly accused of not being sophisticated or intelligent enough so as to be enslaved by the ‘hypnotic force’ of a single TV station.

2. The images broadcast by Arab Satellite TV are not made up in a basement studio. They are real images of suffering brought on by war in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The question becomes one of spin, context, and focus. The tilt and bias is introduced when there is a deliberate disregard for other information that is important for the objective and complete presentation of a news story. There is no doubt that Arab media is guilty of this conduct. The reason for this is actually simple to explain: Bad news sell - good news, not so much. You can show Arabs as many pictures of American goodwill in Iraq as you can, but they will still see Abu Ghraib. The American media is just as guilty of such bias. When was the last time you heard the words “Arab” or “Muslim” attached to anything positive on this side of the Atlantic. You can show Americans as many pictures of Muslim goodwill as you can, but they will still see 9/11.

3. American officials continue to equate talking to Arab leaders to having a “constructive” dialogue with the Arab World. Someone needs to remind them that there is a huge canyon between Arab ruling regimes and the Arab people. In addition, American policy regarding the Middle East is full of contradictions because American values have seldom been aligned with American interests in the region – contradictions the US has never corrected nor explained to the satisfaction of the people of the Middle East. US officials must simply understand that having “an understanding with Arab governments” is not enough. They need to forge an understanding with the people.

By the way, it is worth mentioning that it is not particularly heart-warming for Iraqis in particular and Arabs in general to hear President Bush say: “We are facing terrorists in Iraq so that we don’t face them here at home.” - Nice thing to say at a pep rally in America but someone needs to remind US officials that there is a thing now called satellite TV and internet media that beams those messages to the Middle East in mere seconds, reinforcing the perception that America considers the lives of Iraqis to be inferior to that of Americans.

Although I believe that an active public diplomacy effort must be undertaken by the US in order to promote understanding of US policy, I also believe that this can not just be about advocacy but also about inquiry and a great deal of listening . Although I believe that a big part of the problem in US-Middle East relations has to do with poor communication on both sides, I also believe that the crux of the problem remains one related to poor policy planning.

In other words, better communication and media outreach are very important although many more steps need to be taken in that regard as I described earlier. But as the former president would say: It's also the policy stupid.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A First Step for the Women of Kuwait

Congratulations to the women and men of Kuwait who marched into the Kuwaiti Parliament building last month demanding political rights for women in this tiny Gulf nation (see picture). Yesterday, the Kuwaiti National Assembly voted to grant its provisional approval for women to vote and contest municipal council elections. Twenty six MPs, including 12 ministers present in the session, voted for the law while 20 voted against and three MPs abstained. Eight MPs did not take part in the voting because they did not attend the session. The vote was divided along partisan lines in that liberal lawmakers voted for the law while almost all tribal and Islamist MPs opposed it.

The second and final round of voting on the law is scheduled to take place on May 2nd. MPs also approved a second bill to delay municipal council elections until October to allow women to register as voters and participate for the first time in the upcoming election. The Municipal Council consists of 16 members, 10 of them are elected the same way Assembly elections are done while the remaining six are appointed by HH the Amir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah. Its main powers are to organize and regulate civic affairs like construction, land distribution for different uses and issuing decisions regarding urban development.

The Kuwaiti Prime Minister, Sheikh Sabah, told reporters after the session: "Thank God, because the first step towards women's rights has been taken" he added : "I would like to congratulate my sisters for obtaining their rights in the municipality and they will get their other rights in voting and contesting National Assembly elections too" .

Women activists gave a cautious welcome to yesterday's decision, saying more was needed. Head of Kuwait Economic Society, Rula Dashti, who was present during the vote, thanked all ministers and MPs who voted for the law and urged a number of MPs who opposed it to change their mind. "We were worried that women may not be able to participate in municipality elections. What happened today is a major gain for Kuwait and democracy. I hope some women will contest the elections," she said. "I hope the major step of women reaching parliament will happen. Our aim is to broaden democracy in Kuwait," she added. But rights activist Naima Al-Shayeji was afraid yesterday's win would cause supporters to lose momentum and women will have to wait for years to get full rights. "Why do Kuwaiti women have to get their rights in doses?" she exclaimed.

Nonetheless, Faisal Al-Muslim, a fundamentalist lawmaker, who voted against the measure warned: "This is just a first reading, most of those who were absent today oppose women's political rights." He added: "People still reject women's participation in politics."

Friday, April 15, 2005

US Global Competitiveness: In Search of a Strategy

Worsening US budget and trade deficits along with the declining interest in U.S. equities by private investors have raised a lot of eyebrows recently. When some thought that a depreciated dollar would improve the competitiveness of U.S. exports, the trade balance continued to move into the negative.

The problem that concerns me is not so much the trade deficit itself but rather the increasing reliance of the US economy on foreign central banks (official capital inflows) to finance it. I believe the bigger problem that needs focused attention has to do with the current and future state of US global competitiveness. The U.S. lawmakers need to lend serious thought to this long-term and strategic issue and pass forward-looking legislation in the areas of innovation, job creation & training, education, and immigration.

Recently, the US Council on Competitiveness whose members include corporate chief executives, university presidents and labor leaders, released a bipartisan Report on the need for a coherent strategy to promote future US global competitiveness. This report presents an opportunity for further debate and can serve as a starting point for a comprehensive strategy that aims to secure a competitive US economy. The recommendations of this study known as the National Innovation Initiative are organized into three broad categories: Talent; Investment; Infrastructure.


The human dimension of innovation, including knowledge creation, education, training and workforce support. Recommendations support a culture of collaboration, a symbiotic relationship between research and commercialization, and lifelong skill development.


1. Build a National Innovation Education Strategy for a diverse, innovative and technically trained workforce

  • Establish tax-deductible private sector 'Invest in the Future' scholarships for American S&E undergraduates
  • Empower young American innovators by creating 5,000 new portable graduate fellowships funded by federal R&D agencies
  • Expand university-based professional science Masters and traineeships to all state university systems
  • Reform immigration to attract the best and brightest S&E students from around the world and provide work permits to foreign S&E graduates of US institutions.

2. Catalyze the next generation of American Innovators

  • Stimulate creative thinking and innovation skills through problem-based learning in K-12 community colleges and universities
  • Create innovation learning opportunities for students to bridge the gap between research and application
  • Establish innovation curricula for entrepreneurs and small business managers

3. Empower Workers to succeed in the global economy

  • Stimulate workforce flexibility and skills through lifelong learning opportunities
  • Accelerate portability of healthcare and pension benefits
  • Align federal and state skill needs more tightly to training resources
  • Expand assistance to those dislocated by technology and trade


The financial dimension of innovation, including R&D investment; support for risk-taking and entrepreneurship; and encouragement of long-term innovation strategies. Recommendations seek to give innovators the resources and incentives to succeed.


1. Revitalize frontier and multidisciplinary research

  • Stimulate high-risk research through 'Innovation Acceleration' grants that relocate 3 percent of agency R&D budgets
  • Restore DoD's historic commitment to basic research by directing 20 percent of the S&T budget to long-term research
  • Intensify support for physical sciences and engineering to achieve a robust national R&D portfolio
  • Enact a permanent, restructured R&E tax credit and extend the credit to research conducted in university-industry consortia

2. Energize the entrepreneurial economy

  • Build 10 innovation Hot Spots over the next 5 years to capitalize on regional assets and leverage public-private investments
  • Designate a lead agency and an inter-agency council to coordinate federal economic development policies and programs to accelerate innovation-based growth
  • Increase the availability of early-stage risk capital with tax incentives, expand angle networks, and state and private seed capital funds

3. Reinforce risk-taking and long-term investment

  • Align private-sector incentives and compensation structures to reward long-term value creation
  • Create safe-harbor provisions to promote voluntary disclosure of intangible assets
  • Reduce the cost of tort litigation from 2 percent to 1 percent of GDP
  • Convene a Financial Markets Intermediary Committee to evaluate the impact of new regulations on risk-taking


The physical and policy structures that support innovators, including networks for information, transportation, healthcare and energy; intellectual property protection; business regulation; and structures for collaboration among innovation stakeholders.


1. Create national consensus for innovation growth strategies

  • Enact a federal innovation strategy through the executive office of the President
  • Catalyze national and regional alliances to implement innovation policies and innovation-led growth
  • Develop new metrics to understand and manage innovation more effectively
  • Establish national innovation prizes to recognize excellence in innovation performance

2. Create a 21st century intellectual property regime

  • Build quality in all phases of the patent process
  • Leverage patent databases into innovation tools
  • Create best practices for collaborative standards setting

3. Strengthen America's manufacturing capacity

  • Create centers for production excellence including shared facilities and consortia
  • Foster development of industry-led standards for interoperable manufacturing and logistics
  • Create Innovation Extension Centers to enable SMEs to become first-tier manufacturing partners
  • Expand industry-led roadmaps for R&D priorities

4. Build 21st Century innovation infrastructures - the health care test bed

  • Expand electronic health reporting
  • Establish and promote standards for an integrated health data system
  • Establish pilot programs for international electronic exchanges on healthcare research and delivery
  • Expand use of performance-based purchasing agreements

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Deadly Perceptions: Mankind's Failure to Coexist

"If our contemporaries are not encouraged to accept their multiple affiliations and allegiances... then we shall be bringing into being legions of the lost and hordes of bloodthirsty madmen." - Amin Maalouf.

First, allow me to pose these questions to you as a prelude to this discussion: What is your identity? Is your identity what makes you similar to people around you or is it what makes you different from everybody else?...and by the way, where are you from?

The concept of ‘identity’ has been debated by great philosophers and thinkers throughout human history and it is in that tradition that we must continue to actively pursue a deeper understanding of what leads humanity into a path of conflict and mutual destruction.

Identity is not a predefined state that is either innate or permanent, unless we limit our definition of it to elements such as race, ethnicity, and/or gender, and even then it is not so much those fixed elements that shape our identity but rather their significance within our living environment.

Let’s take me for example. If you were to have asked me 15 years ago what my identity is, I would have thought that my nationality, ethnicity, and religion (Moroccan; Amazigh; Muslim) are the only elements comprising my identity. Ask me again today and my answer would be a tad more complicated. Since my seventeenth birthday, I have lived in Europe and spent all of my adulthood to date in the United States. I am a Washingtonian insofar that I consider this nation’s capital to be my home, not to forget that I am an avid Redskins fan. Yes I said it, I love American football. I also love the constitution of this nation and I never tire of reading ‘The Federalist Papers’.

So, am I American and no longer Moroccan? Wait a second…

I also love my Moroccan heritage. I love my Middle Eastern culture and Arabic music is my favorite. Identity, I gather, is three-dimensional. There is the vertical plane that carries our heritage from our ancestors and there is the horizontal plane that carries elements transmitted to us through our living environment. It appears that it is the horizontal plane that makes our identity so dynamic. It is also supposed to be the dominant one, although many still scourge the vertical plane for elements that focus their ‘need to belong’.

I found out that what I have is a ‘Composite Identity’. I thought it must be because of the particular experiences I have had in my life, until I realized that every human being lives through a unique set of circumstances. Even two identical twins would grow up to have two different identities because not all of the elements contained in the horizontal plane of their identity would be similar. Therefore, we all have composite identities. The problem is that we often look within ourselves for specific allegiances in which we can recognize ourselves as opposed to looking for all the ingredients comprising our identity.

Ok, I have a composite identity, but where am I from?

To a fellow Moroccan, I would say that ‘I am Soussi (Amazigh from Southern Morocco)’. Yet, to an American, when ‘from Washington’ draws a skeptical look, I hastily add: ‘Originally from Morocco’. See, in my native land, it matters that I am Amazigh for it is an integral part of the vertical plane of my identity. But in America, I am only ‘Middle Eastern’ (despite the fact that Morocco is in Northwest Africa) or ‘Muslim’. Both of these labels are used interchangeably and they both trigger a consistent set of perceptions and responses. It matters not that my last trip to a place of worship was to a Synagogue nor does it matter that the two most influential people in my life are his holiness the Dalai Lama (a Buddhist) and Dr. Martin Luther King (a Christian). Finally, it matters not that my political heroes are the founders of these very United States of America.

Once, I met a nice woman who tried to 'console' me after I had told her that I am originally from Morocco by saying: "Well, there is nothing wrong with that!" suggesting that there was, in fact, something wrong with it. She was a well-intentioned lady. She was just exercising her memory and produced a response that reflected her built-in perception of my place of origin all while trying to be courteous and nice at the same time.

After 9/11, America’s negative perception of the Muslim World went into overdrive. The words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ have, in the collective memory of Americans, become attached to words such as ‘terrorism’, ‘insurgency’, ‘suicide bombings’, ‘Bin Laden’, and ‘Al-Qaeda’. The US media and the Movie Industry have streamlined those stereotypes into mainstream America. They do so for the sake of public consumerism and market economics. This is the theory of the ‘Boogy Man’. The media loves the ‘Boogy Man’ because it sells. Apparently, people consume more media when they feel anger, fear, and hatred of the other.

The Pew Research Center found in a 2003 Survey that a third of Americans say media coverage of the Middle East has had the biggest influence on their thinking about the issue, followed by education (21%) and religious beliefs (20%). The same survey found that American views about Islam have worsened since the previous year (2002). A majority of Americans now believe that Islam encourages violence, a 20-point jump from a year earlier, and that nearly half of Americans now think that half or more Muslims worldwide are 'anti-American'. The survey points out that this opinion is as prevalent among better educated Americans as among the less educated and that there are few differences among other religious groups in the US regarding this opinion (Evangelicals and mainline Protestants have the same opinion while the negative opinion of white Catholics, black Protestants, and seculars has grown).

On the other side of the divide, a 2004 Survey also conducted by the Pew Research Center found that in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, anger toward the US remains pervasive. People in Muslim nations strongly doubt the sincerity of American anti-terror efforts and see the motives behind US actions to be Mideast oil, support for Israel, and targeting unfriendly Muslim countries. Majorities in Middle Eastern countries considered to be US allies (Jordan, Morocco) viewed Americans unfavorably in 2004 when majorities expressed the opposite opinion only two years earlier. The decision to go to war in Iraq has clearly worsened Middle Eastern perceptions of the US. Furthermore, Arab media, especially satellite-based television, plays a prominent role in shaping opinions in the Middle East similar to the role played by the media in the US. The US and Arab media perspectives may be diametrically opposed, but it is the same old market theory that governs both.

As I witness these hardened perceptions on both sides of the information divide, I can not help but be reminded by Amin Maalouf, who writes: “If our contemporaries are not encouraged to accept their multiple affiliations and allegiances; if they can not reconcile their need for identity with an open and unprejudiced tolerance of other cultures; if they feel they have to choose between denial of the self and denial of the other – then we shall be bringing into being legions of the lost and hordes of bloodthirsty madmen.”

Report From Bishkek

Melissa reports:

Update as of April 11th - President Askar Akaev submitted a formal resignation a week ago from Moscow, where he has political asylum. The current Kyrgy Parliament is comprised of the deputies with seats won in the recent elections over which there was only limited controversy -- the most contested seats remain unrecognized pending a new round of voting which hasn't been scheduled yet. Akaev's daughter, Bermet, must wait for a new election but I believe his son, Aidar, could attend Parliament if he chose because his seat isn't being contested. I'm not sure, but I believe both children are still in hiding. If Aidar is here, he has been very quiet.

The sitting Parliament debated for a week over whether or not to accept the resignation. The problem was that the resignation included provisions for immunity from prosecution for Akaev and his family, as well as guarantees for a financial package and access to media outlets whenever he wanted them. Many of the deputies in Parliament rejected these provisions. The public rejected them harshly, of course, and deputies who are thinking of their future political positioning want to be able to portray themselves as hard on Akaev. So, there was a serious discussion of moving forward with impeachment instead of accepting the resignation. However, on April 11th, Parliament finally accepted the resignation but trimmed the conditions so that Akaev has immunity (but his family doesn't) and he has a "modest" retirement package. I'm not sure what that means and we should reserve judgement of this settlement until we see the facts. Also, access to media outlets was curtailed so that Akaev can't meddle in public affairs.

Meanwhile, the most well-known oppositionist, long-time Akaev foe Felix Kulov (former vice-pres, head of state security, governor of Chui Oblast, and mayor of Bishkek) was freed from prison on March 24th as part of the uprising. He immediately took control of security in Bishkek and did a good job of bringing some sort of order to the streets after the looting. By virtue of his popularity, he is a serious contender for the presidency, which is why Akaev tried to keep him in prison, beginning with the 2000 elections. However, his criminal convictions make him ineligible to run, according to the Kyrgyz Constitution. So, the Supreme Court has recently overturned his politically-motivated convictions, and he is now free to run. Sources here in Bishkek say that he is quite authoritarian and is not a true friend of democracy, despite his insistence on following the rule of law in recent events. Apparently, he and the current acting President, Bakiev, have agreed that which ever one of them wins the Presidency next, will make the other guy the Prime Minister. Nice little arrangement, if it holds up to the pressure of the political battle. Due to the delay in deciding what to do about Akaev, the presidential elections have been rescheduled from June 26th to July 10th (as of today, anyway).

In other news, as khalij-khazar [see comments to 'More from Central Asia'] said, things in the south of the country are a little less stable. There are reports that several different people claim to be the legitimate governor of Jalal Abad Oblast -- I've heard both 3 and 5 as the number of claimants. Of khalij-khazar's other concerns about religious fundamentalism, that currently seems to be less of a threat than the opening that political instability will give to the narco-barons, at least one of whom is serving in Parliament right now as a deputy. We all know that the tonnage of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan is the highest in years. Much of that comes directly through southern Kyrgyzstan, with a significant impact on the economy and society of Osh. With peoples' attention diverted to protests in front of the government buildings, or to events in Bishkek, drug traffickers can operate with much more freedom. This is one of the things that concerns the world powers the most about the current instability. This also bears watching.

One of the things that has given people a sense of relief in the south is that the anti-government protests in Osh and Jalal Abad were supported by all ethnicities -- Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians -- rather than polarizing them in different camps. As khalij-khazar says, there is the potential for Kyrgyz-Uzbek strife there, so unity in the recent mobilization was an encouraging sign.

Overall, people here in Bishkek are watching and waiting. The optimists are encouraged, the skeptics are doubtful that anything has really changed. Maybe this was just a shuffling of existing elites and none of them really cares about authentic democratic reform. On the other hand, any improvement in transparency (and there has been some recently) has to be beneficial. The test now is to see if the new leaders follow through on their promises.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Iraq: What Now?

Following the Iraqi election and statements by the US administration that no timetable would be set for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, I wrote that as soon as the new Iraqi government is put in place, the Shiite militia of Moqtada Sadr will be mobilized to demand a full US withdrawal.

The new government has now been agreed upon after grueling debates among the various Iraqi factions represented in the elected national assembly. The Kurds get the presidency while the Shiite coalition of Ayatollah Sistani gets the premiership. The Arab Sunni factions are still severely fractured although the Assembly selected an Arab Sunni as speaker and another Arab Sunni as Vice president. There is also talk that some key ministerial posts (i.e., Defense) would be headed by Arab Sunnis. Recall that most influential Arab Sunni factions had boycotted the election and have long called for a U.S. withdrawal. Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army in the Shiite south are about to add more gun to that call.

Read my previous post on Moqtada Sadr

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Arab Human Development Report

"Freedom in its comprehensive sense, incorporates not only civil and political freedoms (in other words, liberation from oppression), but also the liberation from all factors that are inconsistent with human dignity"

After a six-month delay, the Arab division of the UN Development Program (UNDP) released its annual Arab Human Development Report. This followed a series of squabbles with the Bush administration who objected to some of the language included in the report. The administration particularly objected to references made in the report about the deteriorating human development situation in Iraq caused by the US invasion and subsequent occupation. The US administration even threatened to withdraw funding for the program if the language it objects to were not removed. This fits the pattern of an administration that can not and will not admit its mistakes nor will take responsibility for its actions. The administration is happy to fund critical appraisals of other governments and support unambiguous calls for reform as long as it is portrayed as the perfect messenger of God who is always right and hardly ever at fault.

Ironically, the attitude of the US administration, which played into the overwhelming perception in the world that this administration is trying to manipulate and control international institutions and programs to its advantage, strengthened the credibility of the report within the region. The authors of the report explained that the controversy may have actually given them a degree of legitimacy among Arabs, who might have otherwise dismissed them as apologists for American views. I also would like to add that this report was researched and written by some of the most forward-thinking and progressive intellectuals in the Arab world. If the US administration is at odds with their views, then one can safely say that no amount of public diplomacy by this administration can reverse its negative image in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the UNDP finally released the report under its own name, after threatening to publish it through a private company. It did so with a disclaimer stating that the original language was essentially intact, although some terms may have been softened.

The Report concludes that:

"The situation of freedom and good governance in the Arab world ranges from deficient to seriously deficient. Despite sporadic improvements in the human rights situation in some Arab countries, the overall human rights picture in the Arab world is grave and deteriorating. The freedom and human rights of Arabs under occupation, particularly in Palestine, are being seriously violated. Even in independent Arab countries, there is a serious gap in freedom and good governance.

Authoritarian regimes severely restrict freedoms and the right to political participation and civil activity to ensure that no opposition arises to challenge their unrepresentative form of government. Constitutional rights are also violated as authoritarian regimes take control of the law and manipulate it to reinforce their grip on power and serve their own interests.

At the regional level, the Arab populations under occupation, particularly in Palestine, are deprived of many of their basic freedoms and their human rights. This has a direct impact on the situation in other Arab countries, and provides authoritarian Arab regimes with the excuse of an external threat to postpone reform and movement towards more representative forms of government. Also at the regional level, authoritarian regimes form a mutually reinforcing network that helps each of them to maintain its political control.

At the international level, the privileges enjoyed by some of the major powers allow them to preclude the adoption of international resolutions that would uphold provisions of international law, thus contributing to the violation of human rights in the Arab region. Moreover, some of those powers have helped authoritarian regimes consolidate their positions by striking alliances with them if the regimes are perceived as useful in ‘war on terror’.”

The Report recommends:

"Arab countries must sign declarations, covenants and treaties that together make up international law, and incorporate these provisions into their constitutions and reflect them in their legal systems.

A gradual and negotiated transition of power to representative forms of government. The first step in the process would be to unleash civil society forces and allow the three key freedoms of opinion, expression and association—a move that would generate a dynamic debate on how to achieve the transition.

Arab intellectual, political and civil society vanguards must shake off their apathy and contribute towards creating an intellectual framework and atmosphere conducive to freedom and good governance. This should lead to the emergence of an elite representing all sectors of society to spearhead the movement towards an Arab renaissance.

Reforming the political system to allow full participation through free and fair elections, the results of which must be fully respected.

Separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, with the independence of the latter institutionally guaranteed.

Basic freedoms should be enshrined in constitutions and legally safeguarded so that they cannot be diminished or even abolished by legislatures, which may reflect a “tyrannical majority” seeking to oppress a minority."

The Report's most pressing priorities:

The Report suggests immediate action to be taken to reform governance practices, addressing three key priorities: (1) abolishing the state of emergency; (2) ending all forms of discrimination against any minority group; and (3) guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary.

Click HERE for a PDF version of the Executive Summary of the 2004 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR2004).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Jordan's King Sacks Cabinet

The BBC has just reported that King Abdullah of Jordan dismissed the current government and asked former minister Adnan Badran to form a new government. The King is apparently unhappy with the performance of the outgoing cabinet regarding its "mishandling" of a series of matters including:

* The failure of a Jordanian peace initiative at the Arab summit
* A diplomatic row with Iraq after the Hilla bombing in February
* The resignation of Planning Minister Bassem Awadallah

It appears that the last straw, however, was the government's last performance at the Arab Summit. Last month's Arab summit in Algiers rejected a proposal put forward by Jordan whereby peace negotiations with Israel would resume before final status issues are resolved with the Palestinians.

In Jordan, as is the case in other Arab monarchies, most powers lie with the king, who appoints governments, approves new laws and is able to dissolve parliament.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Every once in a while, a great human being comes along

Every once in a while, a great human being comes along to remind humanity that despite our perceived differences, we are but one. Pope John Paul II was such a man. He was a great man and the world will miss him. I can not mourn his death, though painful is his departure. I celebrate his life because he came; he enlightened many souls; he did his duty towards humanity; and he left in the grace of the Lord. – Jawad.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Kais & Layla: Understanding Sufism Through a Love Story

One upon a time, there was an Arab boy, named Kais, of both great intelligence and stunning beauty. He lived in a village far into the desert dunes of Arabia and was a source of great pride for his family, which hails from the tradition of tribal nobility. In his village, he was like the sun rising upon a dark alley. He possessed impressive wit and articulate speech. He was pride; he was inspiration; he was hope.

One day he came upon a beautiful girl named Layla, meaning ‘night’ in Arabic. She was also from a noble family but belonging to a competing tribe. The first time they looked upon each other, it was like the miracle of a shining sun in the middle of a moonless night. They fell in love immediately and vowed to keep their love secret. However, their love for each other was so intense that very soon murmurs filled the air revealing their secret to the world.

Layla’s family who held Kais’ tribe in contempt were furious upon hearing the news. They forbade her from leaving her tent and threatened to kill Kais if he ever were to approach Layla or come near her tent. Separated from his beloved, Kais felt as though he was deprived of the food, water, and air that nourish his soul. He walked helplessly through the village reciting poetry about Layla’s beauty. ‘Kais is mad (Majnun in Arabic)’, the villagers said. He was now cast out of his family and tribe for he no longer represented the hope and pride he once inspired.

Soon after, Kais drifted into the desert dunes looking for answers from the compassionate and merciful force up above. He searched for love where answers are true and final beyond the cruelty of this physical world. He traversed the desert and leaned upon the Ka’aba (in Mecca) shouting amid dismayed pilgrims: “O Lord, let my love grow. Let it blossom to perfection and endure. Let me drink from the wellspring of love until my thirst is quenched. Love is all I have, all I am, and all I ever want to be.”

Although many believed him to be Majnun (mad), a few still believed in his wisdom and sought him out in the desert for inspiration. They admired his love for Layla. One night, as he recited poetry to a few captive onlookers, a piece of paper born by the wind landed on his lap. It read: ‘Kais and Layla’. To the surprise of his audience, he tore the paper in half, throwing out the part bearing Layla’s name and neatly folding the part carrying his name for safe-keeping.

Shocked, a man shouted: “Kais, you are indeed a madman. What is the meaning of what you have just done?” To which Kais replied: “If only you knew the reality of love, you would see that when you scratch a lover, you find his beloved”

The man persisted: “But why throw away Layla’s name and not your own?”

Kais answered: “The name is a shell and nothing more. It is what the shell hides that counts. I am the shell and Layla is the pearl; I am the veil and she is the face beneath it.”

Some time later, Layla was forced by her family to marry another man while Kais continued to live among wild beasts in the desert. She too longed for the desert for it is there that her love was stranded. She too suffered greatly, but she suffered in silence.

Once, a merchant told Layla that he could take her to see her beloved if only for a brief moment. He told her that without her, the soul of her beloved was like the ocean in a winter’s night, whipped up by a thousand storms. She cried that it was she who has set his heart on fire and reduced his being to ashes. She, then, urged the merchant to find Kais and arrange for her to look upon his face even if it were for a brief moment.

The Merchant raced to find Kais in the desert where he found him several weeks later. He told him that he should now break his vow of separation from the physical world if only for a moment so at to see his beloved. Kais could only shake his head and say: “Do they not see that while it may be possible for them to have their wishes granted in this life, my longing is something else entirely, something that can not be fulfilled while I remain in this transient world.”

Even as these words came streaming from his very core, he could not resist the opportunity to catch a brief sight of his beloved Layla. He accepted to accompany the merchant to a palm grove where he would be reunited with Layla. But when they were but a short distance from each other, neither could contain themselves. Layla pleaded with the merchant that she could not get any closer for she was like a burning candle that would be consumed completely if it were to get any closer to the fire. Kais, unable to contain the violent shaking of his inner soul, ran back into the desert vanishing like a shadow in a moonless night.

A few years later, Layla’s light dimmed amid her silent suffering and she finally took her last breath as she murmured the name of her beloved. When Kais learned of her death, he raced back to his native village and threw his body over her grave. He lay there motionless while the wild beasts of the desert watched over him and his beloved. No one dared approach them until Kais’ body decayed into dust and bones. It was only then that the animals guarding the grave returned into the empty desert.

On the grave was inscribed:

Two lovers lie in this tomb
United forever in death’s dark womb.
Faithful in separation; true in love:
May one tent house them in heaven above.

This story, which was written 1,000 years before William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and is also known as the ‘Story of Layla and Majnun’ is one of the greatest stories told in the Sufi tradition. The narrative above is my own adaptation of selected readings (including Reza Aslan's recent adaptation) as well as an exercise in memory for I was told this story many years ago as a child.

Sufism is to Islam what Layla was to Kais: the pearl beneath the shell; the face underneath the veil. The Sufi tradition considers Islam to be a prelude to the attainment of spiritual unity with the creator beyond a physical and material world. In that, it bears striking similarities to eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, which use meditation and inner struggle to search for spiritual divinity.

I am also reminded by one of my favorite authors, Paolo Coelho, who in The Alchemist, recounts the story of a boy who comes upon a Sufi wise man in the desert. As they conversed about the meaning of life, the Sufi scholar offered the boy some wine. The boy then asked if wine were not prohibited by Islam, to which the Sufi man replied: It is not what enters a man’s mouth that is evil, but rather what comes out of it.

So is the underlying philosophy of the Sufi thought.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Togo: Seeking Ligitimacy Overseas

This week, Mr. Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, the son of the late President of Togo and president of the 'Rally of the Togolese People Party (RPT)' visited the Kingdom of Morocco, where he was received by the highest levels of the Moroccan government. The official Moroccan media made a brief mention of the visit and published Mr. Gnassingbé’s picture in the company of His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Prior to his travel to Morocco, Mr. Gnassingbé’s previous stops have included Libya and Gabon. If this sounds like a routine visit by an African leader to another, then let us review some background.

Togo's ruler for the past 38 years died earlier this year to a heart attack. Hours after his death, Togo's military high command installed his son, Mr. Gnassingbé, in power and nullified the country's constitutional order. Immediately after, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) denounced such fait accompli by the Togolese military junta and demanded that the country be set on the course of electoral democracy. After much arm wrestling, the son of the deceased ruler accepted to step aside while "elections" are being organized by a parliament that is dominated by his father's political allies. In the meanwhile, Mr. Gnassingbé has been using government assets including official Togolese aircraft to hop on about the continent. The purpose of his travel, I suspect, is to garner official support from foreign leaders for the upcoming election. He is, in other words, in search of legitimacy, only not at home among the Togolese people for, I suspect, he already has his own designs for their vote come election time.

Now, let us forget that Mr. Gnassingbé tried to take power in a coup following his father's death. Let us even assume that he is only a presidential candidate in what would be a fair election in Togo. Furthermore, let us ignore the fact that he is using Togolese state assets to promote himself abroad - an advantage denied to his opponents. To add to that, let us forget that the military junta in power that supports him and his RPT party are imposing their will on the Togolese in a repressive manner. Ok, one more: Let us assume that Mr. Gnassingbé’s ruling party represents the majority ethnic group in Togo (it does not). Assuming all of that, what in the world are other countries doing by receiving him in the middle of an electoral campaign. Is that not interfering in the internal politics of Togo when a foreign government endorses a candidate by granting him an official reception and photo op?

The only explanation I find for this is the decision by some countries in Africa to play hanky-panky with the African Union and/or other strategic alliances within the continent. It is either that or some obscure economic interest that is at play beyond the comprehension of unsuspecting minds. Morocco has no visible or rational interest in endorsing Mr. Gnassingbé by granting him an audience with the King. Morocco needs to play a leadership role in Africa in regards to democratic reform and good governance. This visit by Togo's self-appointed leader does not serve that purpose, nor does it serve Morocco's image within the international community.

Mr. Gnassingbé is free to visit any country he likes, including Morocco. But, he may not use state resources (both those of Togo and those of his host countries) to tour the continent ahead of the elections in Togo, even though it is almost certain that he will be vote-manipulated into power. Mr. Gnassingbé is free to play tourist as much as he wishes, but he ought to consider seeking legitimacy from his own people, not foreign leaders, and to work on erasing the bloody stains left behind by his father's rule. They may choose to fool us, but we choose not to be fooled any longer.