Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama Engaging (and Embracing?) the Muslim World

President Obama looks like he's starting his term by keeping at least one of his campaign promises: reinventing engagement with the Muslim world.

In the first nine days of his presidency, Obama has moved to show evidence of the new attitude he hopes his new administration will take towards the Middle East and Muslims around the world. Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera English's senior Washington consultant, notes several examples of the U.S. president's new position on the Muslim world:

Just minutes after taking office, President Obama extended a hand to the Muslim world by asking to create a relationship based on mutual respect. Later, he made his first telephone call to an international leader: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, Obama has spoken about the humanitarian cost of the Gaza crisis "as a concern in and of itself, rather than a product of Hamas provocation." Finally, Obama is now calling on both Palestinians and Israelis to "return to the negotiating table" - emphasizing that both sides must be willing to make difficult compromises to achieve what has been an elusive peace.

But Reynold's analysis doesn't even cover it all. Obama recently gave his first interview as president, with none other than the Arabic news network Al Arabiya. In doing so, he sent a clear message to the citizens of the Arab and Muslim worlds - stating that the United States is ready to address them, not as pawns in some political game of Middle Eastern conquest, but as full human beings, as equals whose hopes, needs and dreams matter. He also sent Middle Eastern and Muslim governments messages of their own: their interests will be considered more fairly in the U.S.'s new foreign policy, and the time has come for a paradigm shift in American-Middle Eastern relations .

As Steve Clemons of the Washington Note said, Obama "has provided a new punctuation point in American foreign policy," and these acts of "humility" towards the Middle East can provide the basis for a completely new relationship with the region.

Not bad for the new President. But there is still a long way to go.

Israel's fresh assault on Gaza through its bombing of the Rafah tunnels - a lifeline for ordinary Gazans unable to access basic necessities like bread because of Israel's economic sanctions - will be the first practical test for Obama's policies towards the Middle East and Muslim world. How he handles this situation may indicate just how seriously the President will take the promises he has made to the people of those regions. That, in turn, will affect the extent to which the world's 1.5 or so billion Muslims will be willing to cooperate with the U.S. President on building an international community based on peace, trust and reconciliation.

Watch President Obama's Al Arabiya interview below, and read the full transcript here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Speaking of War Crimes...

Words, as well as the meanings and connotations attached to them, will be extremely important in the coming weeks as the international community attempts to try Israeli soldiers for war crimes in Gaza.

I was reading Saree Makdisi's book this morning, Palestine Inside Out, when I came across a quote that reminded me of just how powerful words are in conflicts like that of Palestine-Israel. Makdisi is a scholar of English literature, and in the course of his studies has become fascinated by the use of language in the realm of politics and propaganda.

My scholarly interests have served me well in reading and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the interplay of language and politics has a special, almost unique importance. Whether the barrier that Israel is constructing in the West Bank is conveyed as a "wall" or a "fence"; whether Israeli housing units in the occupied territories are described as "neighborhoods," "settlements," or "colonies"; whether various personalities or movements are represented as "moderate" or "extremist"; whether violence directed against civilians is thought of as "terrorism" or "collateral damage": all these distinctions are both linguistic and political. Simple word choices both express and - more importantly - generate political effects. Language and politics are inseparable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is virtually impossible to understand what is happening without paying particular attention to the ways in which language is used.

With this in mind, institutions like Amnesty International (or any other groups demanding justice for those devastated by the Gaza crisis) must be extremely careful with the language and definitions they use as they attempt to bring Israeli soldiers to court.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has long been a battle, not just of weapons, but of words. And in an international culture based on the instant spread of information, the wrong word, in the wrong place, at the wrong time can undermine the best of ideas and intents.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The First Steps Forward

President Barack Hussein Obama.

Just his name signals a transition in American history.

Like most other people, I'm excited. But, also like many others, I'm wary of all this excitement. After months of poetic rhetoric, the time has come to actually start getting some work done. And work takes time. That's something I'm afraid will upset some of us. People seem to think that once President Obama gets settled in office, he'll wave some sort of magic wand and solve all our problems. Well, that's not happening, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that. The President himself reminded us of it again and again in his inauguration speech.

President Obama's speech felt rather symbolic of his coming term. People had such high expectations for it, but it fell kind of flat. Not that it was a bad speech - it covered all the necessary points in clear, organized prose. It also had some poetic parts, as when President Obama described "why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

But rather than the expected pomp and splash, the President gave a restrained, almost somber speech. Whether this was by design or a failure on the speech writers' part, I think it was pretty appropriate. It signaled a sense of maturity. The time of waving banners and speaking in slogans is over. Reality must settle in: there's a lot of work for us to do, and it'll be hard work.

But it'll be worth it.

Already we're seeing, on an international level, how President Obama is starting to usher in change. As an Arab-American, I've been keeping up with the Arab news, seeing how Arabs are gauging this Presidential transition. And the Arab World, while still struggling to recover from the horrors of the Gaza crisis, is generally optimistic about America's new president.

Al Quds Al Arabi, a relatively independent, secular, and aggressively Arab nationalist newspaper, just published an editorial about how the election of President Obama is restoring faith in the democratic system in the Middle East.

Speaking of America's democracy in light of President Obama's inauguration, Al Quds Al Arabi's editors said:

صحيح ان هذه الديمقراطية تعرضت للخطف من قبل عصابة المحافظين الجدد، ومن ثم جرى توظيفها لخوض حروب وارتكاب جرائم في حق الانسانية، مثلما حدث في العراق وافغانستان، ومساندة مجازر اسرائيلية في حق العرب في لبنان وفلسطين ومصر... ولكن الصحيح ايضا انها نجحت في ان تحول بلادها المكونة من مهاجرين من مختلف الاعراق والاديان الى الدولة الاعظم في التاريخ.

"It is true that this democracy was abducted by a gang of neoconservatives, and then used to engage in wars and commit crimes against humanity, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to back Israeli massacres against Arabs in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt ... But it is also true that this democracy succeeded in transforming its country, made up of immigrants of different races and religions, into the most powerful nation in history."

This is just the beginning of what President Obama can do for America's foreign policy, as well as the country's image in the international community. Demonstrating the spirit and practical results of true democracy - not a paper maché democracy used to advance U.S. interests - is the first step towards building international relationships based on mutual trust and respect. And that is the only way towards any sort of peace and stability we hope to have in the future.

These next few days, weeks and months will show how President Obama will handle the challenges he now faces as the most powerful man in the world. They will also unveil the plans he has for the American people these next few years.

Until then, let us keep in mind the new President's words:
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Lead the way, Mr. President. The world is watching.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Introducing Karen Armstrong

Most of you who know me personally have some idea of my interest in philosophy and religion. Those of you who know me very well have probably experienced one of my endless questioning rants on God or mysticism or religious tradition. So it is probably no surprise to you that I'm very intrigued by Karen Armstrong, an ex-Catholic nun who left her order and went on to become one of the greatest scholars on world religions.

I'm currently reading Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, which is a very scholarly, balanced and insightful book. I've also read and listened to some interviews with her online, which have helped me see a new way to approach religion and myth.

At the moment, I can't find much to say about Armstrong's ideas. I'm still absorbing everything, seeing where they fit in relation to all of the other stuff I've been reading. So instead, I'll let Armstrong speak for herself.
Below, I leave you with some of Armstrong's own words.

Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.

* * *

Sacred texts have traditionally been a bridge to the divine. They're all difficult. They're not a simple manual -- a how-to book that will tell you how to gain enlightenment by next week, like how to lose weight on the Atkins diet. This is a slow process. I think the best image for reading scripture occurs in the story of Jacob, who wrestles with a stranger all night long. And in the morning, the stranger seems to have been his God. That's when Jacob is given the name Israel -- "one who fights with God." And he goes away limping as he walks into the sunrise. Scriptures are a struggle.

* * *

[O]ur theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur'an...
Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people's perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea, they feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.

We should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater because ritual — and theater, indeed, was originally a religious ritual designed to lead us to transcendence instead of just mechanically going through the motions of our various rites and ceremonies, trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

So What Exactly Do I Call You?

History has a funny way of changing names, labels, identities and realities as time goes by. A group once considered "terrorists" can morph into "freedom fighters" and "patriots" in legends and schoolbooks if the right side wins. The British, for example, considered those fighting in the American colonies upstart terrorists, but now we hail those same people as the righteous fathers (and mothers) of the United States of America.

I wonder how history will treat Hamas further down the road. Because already, almost all Arab television networks call Hamas "the resistance." Before the Gaza crisis, there was a degree of controversy about the group - but now, in the face of Israel's merciless onslaught against Gaza, there is a general consensus in the Arab World about Hamas's role as fighters for justice and liberators from oppression.

Also interesting to see will be how history treats Israelis who speak out against Israel's policies regarding Palestinians, including what some are calling the Israeli army's genocide in Gaza.

What got me thinking about all of this was Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise movie about life at the end of the German Reich. The film is about the German resistance against Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. It's fascinating to see how those trying to undermine Hitler were vilified at the time, whereas now they are honored.

There were fifteen German attempts on Hitler's life while he was in power. Fifteen. And we hardly know anything about them, or more importantly the people behind them, because of how thoroughly they were crushed by the Nazis. But it's at least somewhat heartening to know that history gave those resisters some recognition for their efforts a few decades down the road.

I wonder how history will treat the "terrorists" and/or "resistance fighters" we find in all parts of today's world, from China to Spain, later on.

Until we find out, I guess we can entertain ourselves by watching a bunch of Tom Cruise films. Here's the trailer for Valkyrie. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dubai DOES Care!

Living in Dubai can be a pretty strange experience. You share just over 4,000 sq km of space with over 2 million people of hundreds of different nationalities, for one thing. That's enough for a lifetime of continuous culture shocks, mixes and clashes.

But another thing you notice in Dubai is the extreme wealth that lots of people parade around. Most of the white-collar expats who come to the emirate are here to make a few quick bucks and head back home in a few years. They're here for money, so broadly speaking, making and spending money becomes almost all they do. BMWs and Mercedes Benzes are a common sight on Dubai's roads, as are Ed Hardy hats on guys' heads and Chanel bags on women's arms.

In this (in)famously materialistic city, you sometimes feel like your very soul is being sucked out of your body. There's almost no real sense of community, almost no form of civil society.


Today, I saw another side of Dubai. Dubai Cares, a UAE charity organization, set up what they called the "Gaza Aid Package Project". They need about 150 volunteers every day for the next week to help package school kits and hygiene kits to send to the children of Gaza. They put up the event on Facebook, asking people to help in any way they could, for any amount of time they could spare.

The response was overwhelming. Today was the first day, and at least 300 people showed up. The hall we were in was packed with people unloading boxes, sorting school supplies, and stuffing bags with pencils and notebooks. Walking from one area in the hall to another took some serious maneuvering if you didn't want to run into people or get plowed down by a cart of boxes.

The participants were truly representative of Dubai: they were from all over the world. We had Spaniards, Japanese, Americans, Egyptians; Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists; and the list goes on and on. We had kids in their school uniforms, businesspeople coming in straight from the office, and couples with their newborn babies.

Everyone was so excited to be there. The atmosphere was electric. People were yelling greetings across the hall, chatting brightly as they packed bags at different tables, hugging friends they would randomly bump into, and cheering after every announcement the organizers made. The experience was completely different from anything I've ever seen or done in Dubai.

And because of all that excitement, we worked at top speed. The volunteers did their job so efficiently, in fact, that the organizers ended today's session an hour early. I even heard that because we worked so hard, we packed almost all of the bags that we were originally supposed to pack over the course of the whole week. I don't know how true that is, but it must be at least somewhat representative of the work we did. Anyways, the organizers are ordering in a lot more supplies so that we don't run out of work to do over the next few days.

It is so encouraging to see people in one of the richest places in the world taking an personal interest in having a positive impact on those less fortunate than them. I don't know how much effect our efforts will really have on the kids in Gaza. But seeing all those people from across the globe together in that hall today, trying to do something, was wonderful. Even if it doesn't change the situation in Gaza, it's definitely changing something inside of us. Being exposed to that sort of atmosphere can plant seeds of greater efforts for change in the future.

Dubai, I must say - I am proud, impressed and inspired.

Thanks to all of those who were out there today. And for anyone who is interested in joining us, here is the location and the timings in which you can volunteer:
  • January 14 - 20, 2009
  • Venue: Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) – Emperor Hall
  • Location: On Sheikh Zayed Road, behind Emirates Towers
  • Weekdays: 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday January 16, 2009: 2:00 -6:00 p.m.
  • Saturday January 17, 2009: 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
See you there!

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Riding on Fire" - The Life of a Gaza Paramedic

An excerpt from Ewa Jasiewicz's account of life as a paramedic in Gaza over the last two weeks:
Yesterday around 1am we were called out to a strike in the Moaskar Jabaliya area. The area was pitch black, our feeble torches lighting up broken pipes streaming water, glass, chunks of concrete and twisted metal. ‘They’re down there, down there, take care’, people said. The smell of fresh severed flesh, a smell that can only come from the shedding of pints of blood and open insides, was in the air. I got called back by a medic who screamed at me to stay by his side. It turned out Id been following the Civil Defence, the front line responders who check to see if buildings are safe and put out fires, rather than the medics.

The deep ink dark makes it almost impossible to see clearly, shadows and faces lit up by swiveling red ambulance lights and arms pointing hurriedly are our guides for finding the injured. ‘Lets get out of here, lets get out’ say the guys, and we’re leaving to go, empty handed, but straining to seeing what’s ahead when a missile hits the ground in front of us. We see a lit up fountain of what could be nail darts explode in front of us. They fall in a spray like a thousand hissing critters, we cover our heads and run back to the ambulance. One of the volunteers inside, Mohammad, is shocked, ‘Did you see? Did you see? How close it was?’
Read the whole article here at Counterpunch.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rapping the Revolution

It's amazing how people can take the worst situations, and turn them into art.

Ramallah Underground is a band that does just that. Based in Ramallah, the male trio that makes up this bank are forging a new sound that they hope can give a voice to Arab youth in Palestine and the greater Arab World. Moving past the mostly mindless pop of mainstream Arabic music, they combine the despair often felt in this part of the world with messages of hope and raw energy that urges the youth in this part of the world to fight on for a better life.

All this, combined with good, good music - what more can you want? Here is one of their songs, "Nateejeh Bala Shughul," meaning "Result Without Work."


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reading While the Bombs Still Drop

Gaza's still happening. You can find it all over the news.

This post, though, I want to step back from the horrors of what's going on there (I'm lucky enough to be able to do that) and look at the more general issue of Palestine.

In between work and keeping an eye on the news in Gaza, I've been reading a book by Raja Shehadeh, called Palestinian Walks. The book documents seven walks that the author took in the hills of Palestine over the last few decades. Shehadeh describes the land he's spent his whole life living in, which serves as a bridge into his memory and his Palestinian identity.

It takes very little to trigger the shift in Shehadeh's thoughts. On one walk, he comes across a qasr, a traditional stone dwelling of Palestinian farmers. This takes him back to memories of his grandfather's cousin, Abu Ameen. On another, Shehadeh is looking for a tree under which he can read, and a whiff of pine tree odour gets him started on a mental conversation about the emergence of modern colonialism in Palestine.

I think what I like most about Shehadeh's book is how he tries to show us Palestine for what it is, not as some imagined place that he read or heard about. He describes this idea better than I could hope to. I leave you with excerpts of Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks (pp. xii-xiv) below:

Palestine has been one of the countries most visited by pilgrims and travellers over the ages. The accounts I have read do not describe a land familiar to me but rather a land of these travellers' imaginations. Palestine has been constantly re-invented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants. Whether it was the cartographers preparing maps or the travellers describing the landscape in the extensive travel literature, what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were but the confirmation of the viewer's or reader's religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition ...

I like to think of my relationship to the land, where I have always lived, as immediate and not experienced through the veil of words written about it, often replete with distortions.

And yet it is in the unavoidable context of such literature that I write my own account of the land and of the contemporary culture of 'fear and blood, crime and punishment' that blot its beauty. Perhaps many will also read this book against the background of the grim images on their television screens. They might experience a dissonant moment as they read about the beautiful countryside in which the seven walks in this book take place: could the land of such perpetual strife and bloodshed have such peaceful, precious hills? Still, I hope the reader of this book will put all this aside and approach it with an open mind. I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Two Views of Gaza

I was planning on putting up an interesting video I found online, but YouTube is down because of some cut cable somewhere out in the ocean. Funny how connected everything is in this world.

But yes, because of some cut cable miles and miles away, I can't give you YouTube links. So instead, I found articles on reactions to what's happening in Gaza from two very different online publications: Electronic Intifada and Haaretz.

Dive in.