Barghouti decides to back Abbas after all

Oh well, that didn’t last very long:

“After a meeting of four hours, during which we debated this issue, Marwan Barghouti sends this message to the Palestinian people and its fighters … He calls on the members of the movement to support the movement’s candidate, Mahmoud Abbas,” Fares said.

After the announcement, Barghouti’s daughter Ruba, 15, began weeping. “He is putting his confidence in the sellouts,” she cried.

So I guess the question is, what exactly they promise him in exchange for his support?

Barghouti running for presidency

Now things get interesting:

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Firebrand uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi has decided to run for Palestinian president from his Israeli jail cell, an official of his Fatah faction said on Thursday.

The candidacy could throw the Jan. 9 election wide open and pose a dramatic challenge to current front-runner Mahmoud Abbas, a former prime minister now caught in the glare of the charismatic Barghouthi’s popular appeal with Palestinians.

Barghouthi’s behind-bars bid to succeed the Yasser Arafat (news – web sites) as president also raised the specter of a split in the late leader’s historic Fatah movement, which went ahead and endorsed Abbas as its candidate despite Barghouti’s challenge.

“He has decided to run for president,” the Fatah official, who said he had spoken with Barghouthi’s lawyer, told Reuters. “An official announcement will be made within 24 hours.”

But Fatah ruled out running Barghouthi on its ticket by approving the candidacy of Abbas, 69, three days after a Fatah panel nominated him in a race that has also drawn several lesser-known figures.

It’s truly unfortunate that Barghouti can’t do this from outside of jail. It’d be nice to have a new generation of Palestinian leaders rather than Arafat’s old Tunisian crowd. But I also wonder if this will divide the Fatah vote to the benefit of other factions, unless it’s just a ploy for Barghouti’s group to gain more influence among PLO elders.

Here is the New York Times’ take on it, too:

Palestinian officials said Thursday night that Mr. Barghouti, upset with the vague role Mr. Abbas has offered him in a future Palestinian government, apparently wanted to run. But some Palestinians close to Mr. Barghouti say the Palestinians do not need an incarcerated president, that Fatah must remain united and that his time will come if he makes peace with Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Barghouti could run as an independent, but his candidacy would probably split Fatah. Until his name appears on the ballot, some Palestinians suggest, Mr. Barghouti may simply be reminding Fatah that his supporters, especially young militants, need to be heard and that the intifada should not be halted without Israeli concessions.

One Palestinian official said that Fatah had secured Israeli permission to send Qadura Fares, a minister without portfolio, to Mr. Barghouti to learn his intentions.

They also report that Moshe Katsav, Israel’s president, has said he would consider a pardon for Barghouti. Note that Katsav also recently said that Israel should stop building its “security fence” if Palestinians stop terrorist attacks.

Bush meets Sharansky

I hate to imagine what kind of case this guy makes for democracy:

Those looking for clues about President Bush’s second-term policy for the Middle East might be interested to know that, nine days after his reelection victory, the president summoned to the White House an Israeli politician so hawkish that he has accused Ariel Sharon of being soft on the Palestinians.

Bush met for more than an hour on Nov. 11 with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident now known as a far-right member of the Israeli cabinet. Joined by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., incoming national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and administration Mideast specialist Elliot Abrams, Bush told Sharansky that he was reading the Israeli’s new book, “The Case for Democracy,” and wanted to know more. Sharansky, with co-author Ron Dermer, had a separate meeting with Condoleezza Rice, later chosen by Bush to be the next secretary of state.

So as well as surrounding himself with people like Danielle Pletka, Condoleeza Rice, Elliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley, Bush also want to meet Israeli politicians that are on the right of Ariel Sharon. Considering who was around, I don’t think this was about convincing him to become more moderate. Mind you, Sharansky may have been the most moderate person there.

American Jews for Peace

This group of people have apparently placed a full-page ad in today’s New York Times. They been doing that for nearly three years now in several major American papers, and should be commended for their public stance. It would be great if a similar organization would enable all Americans, no matter their ethnic backgrounds, to place ads in key media calling for peace in Israel and Palestine.

MEMRI vs. Cole

Juan Cole, of the foremost Middle East blog has been threatened with a lawsuit by MEMRI, the infamous “media research” think tank that seems to find most of its time misrepresenting the Arabic press by picking out the worst articles and calling them representative. Read the original post and Cole’s follow up — they reveal more about what kind of organization MEMRI is than anything he’s written in the past. This whole incident is going to backfire on MEMRI and help expose it as the fraud that it is, especially as other major blogs are likely to be on his side. (And yes, you can sue me too, MEMRI, if you care to.)

Update: As I thought, this is backfiring on MEMRI: look at all the attention that it’s getting, as well as the calls for investigations into exactly how MEMRI operates in these posts [1, 2] on Of particular interest would be investigating MEMRI’s Jerusalem offices, for which Cole prints the address. Jerusalamite bloggers might want to look into it.

Sharm wrap-up

The conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is over. Yesterday was a flurry of press conferences, with everybody finally wanting to talk, and with several interesting things being said. For some of the offiicial highlights, you can check out my story for VOA.

Basically, the final statement was identical to the draft, with the countries at the conference expressing their support for Iraq and for the electoral process there (the date for the election has now been set as January 30). There was a call for neighboring countries to control borders and to prevent terrorists and weapons and funding from passing. There was a call for a conference in Iraq to include all Iraqi groups, even ones that oppose the US presence and the interim government, as long as they don’t engage in violent action. And there the statement that the US-led forces’ mandate is “not open-endedâ€�–not quite the wtihdrawal date that France and many Arab countries wanted, but a step in that direction. Various forms of economic and logistical support were promised, although there was a notable absence of commitment to send troops to be part of the so-called UN Protection Force (to protect UN election advisors and monitors). All in all, although it’s unclear whether violence will really be under control in time for the elections, I think the conference was a real boost for the Iraqi interim government. As the French Foreign Minister said, the elections in January are “difficult, and possible.â€�

One thing I noticed was that the Arab media at the conference was focused on entirely different issues from the Western media. They asked again and again about Fallujah, and were quite confrontational with the Iraqi officials. While the Iraqi officials insist on the (ridiculous) claim that “no� civilians have been killed, the Arab media has leaped to the conclusions that thousands have, and Falluja has become shorthand for “atrocity.� It would be good to actually get to the bottom of this. One thing I don’t understand is why humanitarian agencies weren’t allowed into the city when they wanted to go there.

What I find disturbing is the way both the Western and the Arab media approaches Iraq not as a real place lived in by a real people but as a symbolic battlefield in which to inscribe different ideas of terrorism, colonialism, democratization, Western interference, Islamic extremism, good and evil. Everything that happens there gets reconfigured on each side to match its own ideological grid. The Arab media, with its anti-Americanism and pan-Arabism, has painted itself into a corner where it is almost rooting for more chaos and instability in Iraq rather than peaceful elections and transition. However much you may be dissatisfied or suspicous of the interim governments, this is a bankrupt position. (Western media that doesn’t make the distinction between armed resistance against an occupying army and terrorism against civilians–in the Occupied Territories and in Iraq–is just as blinkered).

I also caught the press conference of the very dour Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi. The Iranians were super organized. They took everyone’s name and employer down and called on them in order (it was funny to hear the names of major US news institutions slowly pronounced as if for the first time). They staid for exactly half an hour. Kharrazi said Iran would continue its suspension of uranium enrichment as long at felt it was getting somewhere with the negotiations. He also said Iran would not deal directly with the US being there was no “mutual respect� between the two countries. He called the claims that Iran has been making nuclear warheads “nonsense.� And he said he and Colin Powell, who sat at the same table at a dinner the night before, talked about “nothing.�

Takfir in Morocco

There is an interesting if rather confused piece about takfir movements in Morocco in this month’s English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. It’s interesting because these movements have drawn little attention in Morocco, since they were born in Egypt in the 1970s and for the most part have not had a very public role elsewhere. They also show the multi-faceted nature of Islamic fundamentalism, with so many factions and different offshoots that it reminds me of the “People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front/Popular Front of Judea” skit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

However, I found the article rather confused because while the headline, “Morocco: slums breed jihad” would lead one to suspect that the argument is that poverty breeds terrorism, most of the article is devoted to explaining the beliefs of the takfiris and the networks they’ve created. This is an old dispute when we talk about Islamist terrorism: is the idea in itself violent or is it conditions of living that inspire violence? While the answer is probably a mixture of both, I tend towards the first option. It may be popular to point to the Arab world as have failed its development and try to explain violence as the result of “arrested development”, but in many cases the key advocates of violence were not particularly poor: think of Muhammad Atta, son of a comfortably middle class engineer, Ayman Zawahri, scion of a prominent family of doctors and theologians, or even Osama Bin Laden, heir to a vast fortune and playboy millionaire until he found his calling. (At the same time, think of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and his origins in Jordanian slums.)

In other words, poverty breeds conditions when idle young men who see limited horizons in front of them may be tempted by a radical ideology. But the ideology has to be there in the first place. And here it’s important to distinguish between the many different types of Islamism, some reformist, some conservative, some democratic, some autocratic, some progressive, others backwards.

For those who don’t know what takfir is, here is a long explanation from the article:

The bomb blast at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba last month confirmed that the cause of global jihad is no longer confined to peripheral areas such as Afghanistan, Chechnya or former Yugoslavia. It is now striking at the heart of the Arab Muslim world, with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco directly in the firing line.

The bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 revealed the existence of a new form of fundamentalism – takfir. Takfirists are no longer content to fight the United States or the “Zionist entity”; they brand Muslim leaders, and all their direct or indirect supporters, as infidels (kafir) and condemn them as apostates. They preach political violence as a means of forcing states to return “to the laws of God and the society of the Prophet of original Islam”. Their aim is not only to overturn unpopular and corrupt regimes but to cleanse the existing political order.

The movement Takfir wal-Hijra emerged in the 1970s after a split in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; it has inspired one of the main ideologies of violence in the Muslim world, especially since the early 1990s. It is sometimes referred to as “Takfiri Salafism” and it constitutes a clear break with other Islamist movements that are prepared to engage if necessary in legal political activity aimed at establishing an Islamic state through the ballot box.

The importance that Takfirist doctrine has assumed for armed groups reflects a deep gulf between this extreme fringe of Islamism and countries that are themselves rooted in traditional Islam. In Morocco, where the king is regarded as a descendant of the Prophet, we are witnessing a shift in the boundary between jihadists and their targets within Muslim society. A few weeks before the attacks of May 2003 fundamentalist groups issued a declaration of apostasy against the Moroccan state and Moroccan society and distributed it in mosques in slum districts of Casablanca.

A Salafist activist spoke of Mohamed Fizazi, 57, a primary school teacher, the Moroccan Takfirists’ “theoretician”, who was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in August 2003. He said: “Fizazi was found guilty of pronouncing the Muslim profession of faith [There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet] differently from others.” This comment demonstrates how the Takfirists’ relationship with Islam has changed and how other Muslims are now considered heretics.

An inquiry conducted after the Casablanca attacks (like the investigation into the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 in Spain) revealed that most Takfirist groups originate in the shanty towns and disintegrating districts of Casablanca, Meknes, Fez and Tangiers. It also showed that extremist groups have a solid, active local base and are not just dormant cells waiting to respond to commands from al-Qaida, even if Osama bin Laden’s network has played a major role in providing logistic support and formulating strategy.

Figures for 2002, when more than 166 civilians were assassinated, suggest the extent of Takfirist violence in Morocco. But mass media have taken care not to publicise them and do not much cover the violence, which usually happens in the poor districts. The autonomous activities of local gangleaders – self-proclaimed “emirs” such as Fikri in Douar Sekouila on the outskirts of Casablanca and Rebaa, a militia leader in the Meknes suburbs, and some dozen others heading local groups – show they act on their own initiative and not always on instructions from somewhere in Afghanistan.

The Takfirists are part of a new generation of Islamic fundamentalists from Morocco’s urban slums. Their strongholds are what locals call al-karyan, the disused quarries in industrial zones left to decay after independence in 1956. The shanty towns that have mushroomed there in the past 20-30 years are home to uprooted landless peasants, victims of a rural exodus. Most Takfirists, like the suicide bombers of 16 May, are karyanis, from a class of social outcasts living in the shanty towns.

All of which reminds me of a good friend of mine who was walking down the street of a poor quarter of Cairo with a Muslim Brotherhood activist. A man with a long black beard dressed in traditional robes — the marks of the ultra-pious — walks by them and throws a dirty look at the Muslim Brotherhood activist. “He’s a member of takfir wa al hijra,” the Brother says. Then he added, with an air of contempt, “extremist!”

The point is that there is a real effort that can be done to curb extremism by closing down the sources of funding for the real extremists (mostly Saudi Arabia) while engaging other Islamists in a political dialogue even if some of their ideas are distasteful (as they are to me). In most Arab countries, this is not being done.

P.S. At the risk of contradicting what I said above, I’m also pasting an article I wrote a few months after the 16 May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that looks at the slums from which most of the bombers came on the day of a local election. Click “more” below to see the story.

Continue reading Takfir in Morocco

Islam and the internet

Islam Online, the Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi-backed website that often has a surprisingly good content, ran an article on a recent talk on Islam and the internet. One interesting tidbit:

Amongst the top 150 most popular Arab Web sites, there are 50 religious ones. Arabs seem to have a vivid interest in religion. This number is not matched by any other country or region in the world, including the US, where religion plays an important role in many aspects of society.

The article’s author, Tarek Ghanem, concludes:

The Internet seems to prove itself as another ground for the individualistic and modernist “My Islam” to stand against the authentic “traditional Islam”.

There was also a similar article a few months ago.