When war buffs attack

I recently mentioned Victor David Hanson as one of the founders and board members of the new Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a wannabe scholarly association that aims to challenge the MESA. The counter-insurgency blog Abu Muqawama points to a recent post at Small Wars Journal (an influential specialist blog on warfare and counter-insurgency) by the former US Ranger and military historian Robert Bateman that rips Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, a book in which he argues that European military supremacy, especially in antiquity and after the Renaissance, is rooted in culture and values.

I know all of these things, and because I am a military historian and believe that your personal technique of torturing the facts until they conform to your thesis is hurting America, and that your personal signal work, Carnage and Culture, is a pile of poorly constructed, deliberately misleading, intellectually dishonest feces. I believe it is my personal obligation to try and correct the record and demonstrate for as many people as possible, why they should not believe you when you try to cite history in support of any of your personal shiny little pet rocks.

He will be writing a multi-part critique of Hanson’s work, and a heated debate has already started with Hanson’s reply.

Total Falafel Awareness

FBI Mined Grocery Store Records to Find Iranian Terrorists:

Bay Area FBI agents wanting to find Iranian secret agents data-mined grocery store records in 2005 and 2006, hoping that tahini purchases would lead them to domestic terrorists, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein. The head of the FBI’s criminal investigations unit – Michael Mason – shut down the Total Falafel Awareness program, arguing it would be illegal to put someone on a terrorist watch list for simply sticking skewers into lamb, Stein reports.

Really this is getting ridiculous. Is that the best lead they can come up with? I also like the idea that would-be terrorist hiding in America are somehow exclusively eating their national foods. I bet Muhammad Atta and company ate tons of Twinkies, mexican food and loved the spicy chicken wings at Hooters.

Lewis, Ajami launch anti-MESA

The inevitable has happened: obviously frustrated that they are still a minority in the field of Middle Eastern Studies, a group of well-connected academics has set up an alternative to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the respected multi-disciplinary group that gathers the brightest minds in the field. Who better to do this than the usual suspects of Bush-friendly academia, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis? Thus was created the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. I’ll quote extensively from the Chronice of Higher Education piece about this:

Seeking to change the direction of Middle Eastern and African studies, a new scholarly organization was announced Thursday — with some big name scholars on board and some tough criticism for the discipline. The biggest scholarly names in the new group, Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, are associated with support for the Bush administration’s view of the Middle East, a decidedly minority opinion within Middle Eastern studies.

The Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa aims to have a full range of services — conferences, a journal, newsletters, and so forth. Its council, in addition to Lewis and Ajami, includes Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the Johnson and Carter administrations, and George P. Shultz, who was secretary of state under President Reagan.

Materials sent to reporters said that the new group was founded because of “the increasing politicization of these fields, and the certainty that a corrupt understanding of them is a danger to the academy as well as the future of the young people it purports to educate.”

A statement from Lewis said: “Because of various political and financial pressures and inducements, the study of the Middle East and of Africa has been politicized to a degree without precedent. This has affected not only the basic studies of language, literature and history, but also has affected other disciplines, notably economics, politics and social science. Given the importance of these regions, there is an acute need for objective and accurate scholarship and debate, unhampered by entrenched interests and allegiances. Through its annual conference, journal, newsletter, and Web site, ASMEA will provide this.”

While the announcement didn’t mention it by name, the Middle East Studies Association has to date been the scholarly organization for that region. The kinds of criticisms made by Lewis in his statement are similar to those others have made about MESA — charges that scholars in the group feel are an unfair slur on their group and on their work. The new group arrives at a time that Middle Eastern studies has been the subject of intense debate on many campuses, with dueling charges that academic freedom is at risk.

Mark T. Clark, president of the new association, is a professor of political science and director of the National Security Studies Program at California State University at San Bernardino. In a brief interview Thursday, he said that the new group was started “by mutual interest by a bunch of us” who wanted an association “that would be more independent and reflect the academic community more than interest groups.”

He said that his interest in the Middle East is strategic, rather than just historic or cultural, and that he thinks it is good for American scholars to have a strategic view of the region in addition to more traditional approaches.

Asked about MESA, he described it as “kind of a closed circle” of people with similar views. Asked if he had ever participated in that association’s activities, he said he had not. Asked why he didn’t try to add his perspective to the existing group, he said that would be, “for lack of a better word, apartheid,” in which his views would be separated off from the rest. “We’re going to have a greater mix of perspectives than MESA ever had,” he said.

While some of the scholars involved in the new group are known for similar political views, Clark said that “it’s not neoconservative at all” and that scholars of a range of views are welcome to join.

The goal of the association is to be supported entirely by members’ dues, to preserve its independence. To get off the ground, the association also has received some “private donations.” Clark declined to say who had given the funds.

It’s somewhat appropriate that ASMEA’s new president is someone from the field of security studies, a field whose very purpose is to provide consulting services to governments and tends to be of the same mindset as policymakers (not always of course). This has been one of the key arguments by the people behind Campus Watch, who are unhappy about the fact that the top experts on the region tend to be rather negative about current US policies or about the extraordinary (and misguided) amount of support for Israel that America provides. That is naturally a rubbish argument, because policymakers should be listening to experts who tell them what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

One of the great ironies behind ASMEA is, of course, that it claims to want to fight the “politicization” of the field. Ironic, then, that its entire board appears to be composed of people who focus on politics, whereas MESA has plenty of academics who do nothing even remotely political.

Ironic, then, that its founders are people with a reputation for fierce partisanship (Victor David Hanson is up there) — in fact they appear almost exclusively to be conservatives who wear their politics on their sleeve. Also all supporters of Israel, including the non-Americans on the board like Cevik Bir, a former Turkish general who played a key role in building the Turkish-Israel alliance and was decorated by Israel. Others include Kenneth Stein, the former Carter advisor who made a big hullabaloo about rejecting his book on Israeli apartheid.

Ironic, then, that its vice-chairman Fouad Ajami is a well-known public defender of the Bush administration who told Dick Cheney that “the streets will erupt in joy” if the US invades Iraq. (See Adam Shatz’s classic profile of Ajami.)

Ironic, then, that its chairman Bernard Lewis is increasingly seen a kook because of his predictions last summer that eschatological concerns drive Iranian policy. I would say merely leaving it at that is not enough — Bernard Lewis, perhaps once a serious scholar (his work on Ottomans is appreciated by experts in the field), has turned into a racist apologist for imperialist policies. I don’t use the word “racist” lightly, but I think it’s warranted. Take for instance a recent column he penned for the Atlantic Monthly — I don’t have a link and am copying from the November 2007 magazine’s page 23, where Lewis was asked to write about the “American idea”:

The better part of my life was dominated by two great struggles– the first against Nazism, the second against Bolshevism. In both of these, after long and bitter conflict, we were victorious. Both were a curse to their own peoples, as well as a threat to the world, and for those peoples, defeat was a liberation.

Today we confront a third totalitarian perversion, this time of Islam — a challenge in some ways similar, i
n some different.

Note that he doesn’t say “Islamism” or “political Islam” or “Islamic extremism” — just Islam. This is hardly a constructive, nuanced approach to take, although perhaps not a surprising one from a cheerleader for the Crusades. There are more examples of his strange politics here.

In other words, while there would be nothing wrong with starting another (or many others) alternatives to MESA, or more specialized scholarly associations, ASMEA appears from the get-go to have been founded with a very political purpose: to denounced as “politicized” academics who do not agree with their views. The involvement of people who are no doubt embittered by their estrangement from mainstream academia (i.e. the general consensus of a majority of experts in their field) speaks volumes about their intentions. In other words, this is the next step up from Campus Watch.

Creative destruction in Libya

Oil Wealth Fuels Gaddafi’s Drive For Reinvention:

TRIPOLI, Libya — Brother Leader Moammar Gaddafi still exhorts his people to greatness from billboards, banners and murals. But these days a different kind of command is driving Libya’s transformation as the newly opened country taps into oil wealth: “izala,” Arabic for “raze it to the ground.”

Surveyors are spraying the word in red paint up and down Libya’s Mediterranean coast. The orange-vested road crews are tagging for demolition the old Libya — low-rise, stucco Libya, sleepy under decades of Gaddafi’s socialist economy and international sanctions.

To rise in its place, Gaddafi’s officials say: the increasingly capitalist Libya, with new buildings for the country’s new stock exchange. Airports to ferry in and out a dreamed-of annual flow of 30 million oil workers, tourists and other travelers. The world’s second-largest port after Singapore. Railways. Highways. Hospitals. Schools. Luxury beachfront hotels.

Libyans and Westerners here cite a statement attributed to Gaddafi: Libya must destroy in order to rebuild.

This Muammar al-Gaddafi: every few years he gets some grand idea, forces it onto everyone for a while and then his ministers finally convince him maybe it’s not the best way to do things. In this case, though, I’m sure a lot of foreign contractors will be very happy about his grandiose visions.

Links for 11/5/07

What I’ve been reading while not blogging:

On Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Reda Hilal

About two weeks ago, Saad Eddin Ibrahim gave a remarkable interview to Democracy Now, the liberal American radio show. I say remarkable because in this interview not only goes further in opposing the Egyptian regime than he ever has, not only making the case for conditionality in US aid to Egypt (something he now faces several lawsuits over, of the same kind that have recently been used to target journalists) but also some serious accusations. In this interview he basically says the presidency is running a death squad that is responsible for the disappearance of the prominent liberal writer Reda Hilal — something Ibrahim had mentioned before although not quite with this language:

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, I have been critical of President Mubarak and his regime, and it was a peaceful criticism, presenting a different point of view on public policy and on some of his actions to install his — or to groom his son to succeed him after twenty-six years of being a ruler of Egypt, the third-longest ruler in our history, in 6,000-year history. And yet, he wants to groom his son to succeed him. And I blew the whistle simply on that.

I also blew the whistle on his attempt to eliminate any potential contenders or competitors with his son, including, you know, some journalists who are disappeared, including the nephews of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, who are about the same age as his son and who also are politically active, and they are potential contenders. And he stripped them of their parliamentary immunity. They were members of Parliament, elected for the second time. So he is trying to eliminate everybody. And in the process, he tried to eliminate me, as well. And we have heard rumors, rampant rumors in the country, that there is a death squad attached to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: A death squad?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: A death squad. That explains cases of disappearances, unresolved case of disappearances, despite time lapses. And it is said that it is a death squad that resorted to these extralegal methods to eliminate opposition. And when I mentioned that in a newspaper article just to ask the government to speak on the subject, to tell us whether there is one or not, and if there isn’t, to deny it, and if there isn’t, why these cases of disappearance caused? The disappearances have not been resolved, despite the years that have passed by. So, because they could not answer these questions, they decided just to eliminate me, as well. And it showed all kind of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Your recent piece, “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression” –


AMY GOODMAN: — begins, “This month marks the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of the Egyptian journalist Reda Hilal.” Who was Reda Hilal?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: He was, again, a journalist. He was actually the deputy chief editor of our daily newspaper called Al-Ahram. And he, again, spoke critically of the presidential family and especially of Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed. So, this was in a cocktail party, but I think the criticism was a little bit off-color about his sexual preferences, and the following day he disappeared.

This interview brakes so many taboos — about Hosni and Gamal Mubarak — it’s hard to imagine Ibrahim will be able to return to Cairo anytime soon, although his lawyers are preparing to fight the lawsuits against him (which are, the rumor mill says, financed by NDP bigwig Ahmed Ezz). But beyond these eye-catching tidbits it’s also a very sustained campaign in favor of greater US action towards Egypt (in the form of political and economic pressure) that comes at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future, most notably the question of presidential succession. With a Gamal scenario ever more plausible (more about that later), and considering the respect with which Ibrahim is held by members of the US Congress and the Washington press corps, can we say that we’ve entered the first step of a serious Egyptian personality (it’s too early to say group, even if there are sympathizers) actively lobbying against the Mubarak regime in Washington?

Another bizarre aspect of the current campaign against Ibrahim was the recent news that a group of 62 young Salafists were planning an attack on the Ibn Khaldoun Center. Several things seem strange about this story: first, the group’s name is Takfir wal Hijra, the name of one of the first Jihadist groups to be created in Egypt in the late 1970s and one that Ibrahim did groundbreaking work on at the time, documenting its ideology while its members were in jail — that research was republished in the 2005 collection of Ibrahim’s academic work, Egypt Islam and Democracy: Critical Essays. To my albeit very incomplete knowledge there is no contemporary group called Takfir al Hijra operating in Egypt, unless the young men who were recently arrested were planning a revival. The original takfir wal hijra was a very specific ideological perversion of Islamism of the kind you don’t see frequently anywhere today.

Secondly, the Ibn Khaldoun Center is an odd target for an attack — certainly not what you might think would be a priority for today’s al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist or in keeping with the recent focus of attacks on touristic establishments. The whole affair raises more questions than it answers.

Finally, should you want to dig deeper into the Reda Hilal mystery you could do no better than read this long investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which attempts to draw a picture of Hilal’s disappearance and the subsequent rumors, investigations and theories as to his fate.

Israeli activists call on Mubarak to break Gaza siege

Just got wind of this:

Fifty Israeli peace and human rights activists have approached Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, via the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, calling upon him to immediately open the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to free movement of persons and goods, and thus break the siege imposed at the order of Defence Minister Barak, and which is pushing the population of the strip over the edge of humanitarian disaster.

“We saw no choice but to take this step and approach the Egyptians directly. This after the Defence Minister, to whom the option of cutting Gaza’s electricity supplies was for the time being denied, found the horrible substitute of drastically cutting the supply of vital foodstuffs. Those who don’t raise their voices are accomplices. The government of Israel is completely uncaring about the terrible suffering it is causing to a million and half inhabitants of the Strip for whom it is responsible. It also does want to understand what is said by its own military experts: that causing this suffering does not in any way help the people of Sderot – on the contrary, it increases and exacerbates the shooting of Quassam missiles.

We do not accept that the only choices left are to starve the inhabitants of Gaza or to conquer the Strip at the cost of terrible bloodshed. There is another way, the way of mutual ceasefire and negotiations which should include all parts of the Palestinian people” say the initiators of the letter of the fifty.

The full letter is after the jump, I think the activists are involved with Gush Shalom / Peace Now, although this does not appear to be an official move on the organization’s part . I would say this is one occasion for Egyptian and other pro-Palestinian activists to back the Israeli activists’ calls, no matter what their stance on normalization might be. I may be wrong about this having been out of the country most of the summer, but I have heard of little Egyptian activism to get the border open (legitimate security concerns of Egypt notwithstanding).
Continue reading Israeli activists call on Mubarak to break Gaza siege

Three years in prison for Emad al-Kabir torturers

I have just received this press release from the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP — yes, that’s a mouthful) saying that the police officers who beat and molested Emad al-Kabir last year. It’s good news in an otherwise pretty awful case — remember that al-Kabir, a bus driver, was sentenced last January to three months of prison for “resisting arrest.” We’ve covered the case a lot as part of the “al-Adly videogate” scandal, when bloggers published several videos of torture in Egyptian police stations.

Historic verdict: defendants jailed for torture of el-Kebeer

The Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP) commends the verdict issued today by the Giza Criminal Court against assistant investigating officer Islam Nabih and policeman Reda Fathy, both based at the Boulaq Dakrour police station. The two men were convicted of the torture and sexual assault of Emmad Mohamed Ali, popularly known as Emmad el-Kebeer, and sentenced to three-years imprisonment.

The case was brought by lawyer and ACIJLP director Nasser Amin after a clip circulated on the Internet showing the torture and sexual assault of el-Kebeer. Police investigations were initiated, and culminated in the judgement handed down today.

ACIJLP praises the verdict issued against the two men which reaffirms the integrity of the Egyptian judiciary and its effectiveness in the protection of human rights. The judgement represents a new stage during which the Egyptian judiciary will fight torture.

ACIJLP thus celebrates this verdict and urges the Egyptian legislator and government to take widespread measures in accordance with Egypt’s commitments under the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.