Tuesday, August 12, 2008

on the Baath Party archives

Jon Weiner has an op-ed in the LA Times calling for the return of the Baath Party archives to Baghdad. (They were taken/saved by Kanan Makiya in 2003 - Weiner details their different homes) and are now at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. (Makiya teaches at Brandeis). Weiner is upset that the archives are being held in the United States, because they belong to Iraq ... and, in response to Makiya's contention that the archives are not safe there, he says that it is the responsibility of the occupying power to keep them safe. (Which, he doesn't have to point out, although he does, was one thing that the United States failed to do in 2003).

I think Weiner oversimplifies the dilemma in his discussion. He says the archives belong in Iraq because Iraqis need to know their own history in order to reconstruct their society as something better. True. But Makiya clearly feels that way as well. His foundation, the Iraqi Memory Foundation, was established to do just that - record the events of Saddam Hussein's reign. Where Weiner and Makiya differ is on who they believe should take responsibility for the archives. Weiner sides with the government of Iraq and its ministry of culture, who want the archives back. Makiya, I imagine, believes that the archives aren't yet safe in those hands. What he's doing - keeping the archives in a foreign country at a private institution - isn't necessarily selfishly motivated. It's more like vigilante justice - the GOI isn't equipped to be responsible for the archives, so he is taking on the task of keeping them intact for a time when Baghdad can handle the responsibility.

Weiner's whole argument is predicated on the notion that the archives will be dealt with in a manner he thinks appropriate once they return to Iraq. Maybe they will be. But if they are not, if they are returned and then destroyed, then his assertion that Makiya's managing them was wrong might take on a different color.

Monday, August 4, 2008

dinosaurs and development in Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, a government agency established in 2005 "to harness the pride of the people of the UAE through the development of its cultural heritage, and to be the leading cultural development organisation in the region," has done some amazing things in the recent past. To those of you who were preschool geeks, as I was, this one will have particular resonance: ADACH obtained a dinosaur skeleton (pictured above) for the Abu Dhabi airport. It is the first dinosaur skeleton assembled in the Middle East. (n.b. the skeleton's name is Einstein). ADACH also sponsored a dig that unearthed 6,000 year old camel bones. In a more contemporary vein, ADACH is currently forming a commission to attract filmmakers to the Emirate by offering tax breaks and other financial incentives to film in Abu Dhabi.

These initiatives are part of Abu Dhabi's campaign to extend its relevance as an international city outside of simply being a desert oasis buoyed by oil wealth, and I'm sure in part it is demand-driven. Of course people often do business in London, but when move there to live, they take advantage of the many opportunities for 'cultural enrichment' and simultaneously enrich the British economy. Abu Dhabi wisely is cultivating a similar sort of market. But on another level, and perhaps I have been thinking in a national security vein for too long, but fostering this sort of national pride seems a very asset-based response to the indignities that Arabs and Muslims encounter in the world at present. It isn't a secret that the most common stereotypes of Arabs broadcast in the Western media are those of either terrorists or backward tribal people - those messages certainly have reached Abu Dhabi. Arabs are feeling increasingly less welcome in the United States as a result of our immigration procedures; even Tariq Ramadan is not welcome here. Cultivating a national consciousness, a historical narrative that belongs to citizens, is certainly a component to the modern nation-state and probably helpful for democracy (if it isn't, then I have to wonder why I took U.S. history in 3rd, 5th, 8th and 11th grades).

These initiatives at the very least raise opportunities for discussion on Abu Dhabi's self-definition. ADACH's acquisition of historical and 'heritage' (less than 400 years old) sites has prompted some murmurings, at least in the National, on what really should be considered relevant Abu Dhabi history. Mishaal al Gergawi posed the question, "Are we so bewildered by the pace of development that as individuals –and institutions – we fail to see that not too long ago our past used to be our present? So we seem to have resigned ourselves to the fact that our only history is in the mud homes built before the age of oil. To me it seems that if it’s not made of mud and palm thatch, it had better be made of shiny glass." And for me, as an observer, it's certainly an interesting conversation to watch unfold; for those with a stake in it, I can imagine it's compelling.

AIDS in Afghanistan

According to the Chicago Tribune, the fall of the Taliban coincided with a rise in AIDS. There was an increase in the use of needle drugs as Afghanistan started producing its own heroin, and the refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran sometimes brought it with them. On AIDS under the Taliban:

Although there were cases of HIV before in Afghanistan—the first was registered in 1989, from a blood transfusion outside the country—only a handful were identified. The Taliban health minister insisted in 1998 there was no AIDS in Afghanistan, because it was against Islam.

I am skeptical of this - while the conditions for an increase in infections seem to have arisen after the fall of the Taliban, that doesn't mean that there wasn't a problem with it before. In the words of the wise Donald Rumsfeld, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because the Taliban regime was not reporting cases of AIDS and treating it does not mean it didn't exist. From what I know of the Taliban they were not known for their stellar public health initiatives.

When I was in Yemen I had the opportunity to hear the staff of a women's health organization talk about the work that they were doing in Yemen. They discussed the work they were doing to curb AIDS infection using all the right language about education and changing habits and clean needles (of course without saying anything about sex), and then said, the people who are getting AIDS are not pure Yemenis. They are from elsewhere. The foreign members of the audience immediately got upset, thinking that the women were lying to them. The moderator stepped in and said, listen, in a conservative culture you cannot just talk about people having AIDS. There are certain things we cannot discuss. An article like this reminds me of that discussion. There is a rise in AIDS now that the Taliban fell, but part of that 'rise' is just the fact that people know what it is now and can diagnose it instead of just dying from whichever disease takes hold of their weak immune system.

Sunday Times soundoff

The New York Times' Magazine's cover story this weekend looked at what they call "The Last Battle" in Iraq, which offers an account of the challenges the military faces in choosing which group of Shiites in the country's south they want to sponsor. If we leave aside the questionable choice of a title (did we not learn our lesson about calling the end in Iraq with "Mission Accomplished" in 2003?) then the article is an interesting up-close narrative of the initial enthusiasm for and subsequent abandonment of the Shiite Awakening movement in Qadisiya province. It helpfully follows the accounts of three Marines, Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy, and one Iraqi, Maj. Gen. Othman Farhood, the commander of Iraq's Eighth Army division. Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy are the on-the-ground champions of the agrarian Shias in Iraq (Diwaniya), and their work in 2007 was to assist in the mobilization of that group using a model similar to the fashion in which the Sahwa in Anbar province mobilized.

Long story short, Moulton, Lemons and Gildroy worked very hard in concert with Farhood to accomplish this mobilization, and it was ultimately disbanded because the Maliki government did not want the United States "creating political movements to challenge him". The article frames this conflict of interest on the part of the U.S. in the following terms:

“The most prominent dividing line in Iraqi politics now is between the ‘powers that be’ and the ‘powers that aren’t,’ ” Sam Parker, an Arabic speaker who works for the United States Institute of Peace, a policy center in Washington, told me recently. “The ‘powers that be’ spent much of the 1980s and 1990s in open opposition to Saddam. Nearly all of these leaders spent substantial time outside of Iraq. They have well-organized parties but lack a strong social base and have an outsize degree of influence in the national and provincial governments. Because of their disproportionate dominance of the political process, they only stand to lose by any movement toward political openness.

“The ‘powers that aren’t,’ ” Parker added, “are fragmented and weak. What they want is in.”

Where does the U.S. stand? “They seem to be working hard for provincial elections,” Parker said, “which would make the system more inclusive and give the ‘powers that aren’t’ and the popular forces they represent an opportunity for a share of the power. But at the same time, the United States’ main priority appears to be buttressing the state security apparatus that belongs to the ‘powers that be.’ ”

In an ideal world the two policy imperatives would be balanced. The politics of inclusiveness would lay the foundation for the long-term stability of the country, while improvements in Maliki’s capacity to govern would lead to a state that could supplant the Hobbesian state of nature that has typified Iraq — and make it easier for the United States to reduce forces. Iraq, however, is far from an ideal world, and Maliki’s growing confidence in his own power leaves the U.S. steadily less able to shape events.

Based on the almost word-for-word reproduction of language from this anonymous guest post at Abu Aardvark, I am going to venture a guess that "Back from Baghdad" is Sam Parker - the guest post offers a lengthier explanation of who the Powers that Be (PTB) and the Powers that Aren't (PTA), are. The post includes a Sunni group - the Iraqi Islamic Party, or IIP - in the PTB, a complexity that the article doesn't explore. It isn't really relevant to the story of the Qadasiya awakening, but it does throw something of a wrench in the Shiite-on-Shiite framing of the title.

Of course, anything about the war in Iraq always raises more questions than answers. But the most pressing ones, for me, are the following:

How did the PTB became the PTB given their characteristics? Back from Baghdad/Sam Parker says:

"ISCI/Da'wa and the IIP lack a real social base and enjoy a level of control at the central government level far out of proportion to their level of support. The Kurds, though they do have local support in their region (or deeply rooted authoritarian control over the populace, take your pick), are dramatically over-represented at the national level, as well as in the provinces not part of the KRG--Mosul (where they hold 30 out of 41 seats!), Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Diyala."

I am fairly certain that the PTB became the PTB because of U.S. support, at least in part if not exclusively.

So, second, why does neither Parker nor Gordon confront the fact that the United States created this conundrum themselves? Gordon alludes to it when he quotes Gildroy here:

“The system in Qadisiya was not an inclusive democracy,” Gildroy told me. “The Supreme Council controlled the governorship. The tribal movement was a way to break the incumbent parties’ monopoly on power. If our end goal is democracy, this is a pretty big deal. The southern provincial governors that I dealt with would not shake my hand. They do not believe in secular government. They do not believe in a government that is not controlled by religion. The fact that every other man will shake my hand except for the power brokers says that we are backing a very extremist regime.”

Including this quote certainly raises that question, but beyond that Gordon doesn't explore that fact explicitly. (It's possible that he thinks it's too obvious to point out).

And finally, what is the United States going to do now that they have chosen to anoint a political coalition that is characterized by its absence of popular support? They (we) seem to be charting a middle course by lobbying for the provincial elections while at the same time shoring up Maliki's legitimacy, ultimately making their support for the current coalition government a self-fulfilling prophecy. The provincial elections have been the source of much debate in the Iraqi parliament of late, and the resolution of the debate is elusive.

on Amal Legal Group

Amal Law Group, of Palos Heights, IL (southwest of Chicago) was founded by six Muslim women that targets its services to the Muslim community. The Chicago Tribune has a lovely profile of the firm; here is an excerpt:

The women's differing opinions on the practice of Islam rarely are expressed in office discussions, they say. Islam might come up only when drafting a will according to a family's wishes to follow Islamic guidelines.

"We never talk about it," Hashim said. "We are all open-minded and respect each other's beliefs. It just doesn't matter to us."

Instead, Hashim, who said she has an ancestor on her mother's side who signed the Declaration of Independence, hopes that when people see the lawyers at her firm they will realize that not all Muslim-Americans are foreigners. They are not the "other."

"We're part of the American fabric," she said.

Khan pipes up: "You may not be used to seeing it, but this is what Muslim women in America look like. We're educated and we're professionals, and we're not an anomaly."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Islam Awareness Week in Wellington, NZ

This rundown of Islam(ic) Awareness Week's fashion show is a little curious. It hits the obvious Islamic-fashion notes, such as burkinis and hooded tae kwon doe uniforms, which enable women to dress in a way that makes them comfortable while doing sports. Very feel-good. Then they print this dress code:

Dress codes for Muslim women:

* Clothing must cover the whole body apart from the face, hands and feet.

* Clothing should be modest and not close- fitting or so eye-catching as to attract undue attention.

* The hijab (hee-jab) or headscarf is compulsory, though some choose not to wear it.

* A burqa covers the entire head and face and is specific to certain cultures, for example, the blue burqa worn by women in Afghanistan.

The source listed is a spokeswoman for Islamic Awareness Week; this is their website, where they self-identify as the first and most accurate source for information on Islam and Muslim New Zealanders. So, I think it's pretty bold for them to come out and say that the hijab is compulsory. I don't think it's unreasonable to think that some of NZ's (very small - this site says 30,000) population of Muslims choose not to wear a veil - why would this group want to alienate those women?

law firms moving to Abu Dhabi

... the "latest emirate to become fashionable." (Wasn't it only Dubai that preceded Abu Dhabi in terms of 'fashionable emirates?' I would be curious to know how much this reporter knows of Umm al Quwain, for example.) The Times (of London) reports that many reputable London law firms are opening offices in Abu Dhabi, including Clifford Chance, the world's biggest (by revenue). It's certainly not front page news that oil prices are rising and OPEC countries are enjoying considerable economic growth, and law firms are following the money; also, the contemporaneous slowdown in business that London offices are experiencing makes it logical for these firms to send some of their junior members to the Gulf so that those individuals have some work. (Illustrative anecdote: a friend of mine works at a law firm in New York City as a first-year associate, and during one week in May he read two novels in his office).

However, there is some prejudice against working in these offices, apparently:

Matthew Rhodes, editor of RollonFriday, a popular website for young City lawyers, said that it made commercial sense for law firms to move unoccupied staff to busier offices and that such a policy was preferable to slashing jobs.

(jobs like my friend's, I would think).

However, he said that some would be reluctant to make the move: “Not everyone's happy to leave family behind. But there are professional issues, too, particularly for more junior lawyers.

Firms may deny it, but many of the deals being done in the Middle East are on the back of an envelope. They are not of the same quality as deals being put together in London.”

Once New Yorkers move on from the shock of hearing another place referred to as 'the City' they can join the rest of us in considering the 'back of an envelope' bit. The cultural relativist will probably roll her eyes (which is to say, I am rolling my eyes) at the Orientalist undertones of the quote - Rhodes makes a pretty clear judgment on which deals he thinks are of a higher 'quality'. Of course, I am sure that he isn't wrong - the Middle East isn't known for its reliable legal systems and entrenched respect for the rule of law, or its litigiousness. The reason why deals are of such a high 'quality' in the US and London has no small amount to do with the fact that legal agreements, and most importantly legal agreements in a standardized form that has not changed, have been a necessary component of those deals for decades. Abu Dhabi is rapidly growing and changing, and the lawyers working there will necessarily have to adapt to the less predictable conditions in that [legal and elsewhere] environment in their practices.

I, for one, am interested to see how this trend progresses. More to come on this blog.

And, for your edification (and mine), a map of the UAE is at the top. Click to enlarge. (Thanks to wikipedia).