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Israeli Warplanes Say Hello to Assad

Syria’s Bashar Assad was home when Israel sonic boomed his house in Latakiyya. He only continues to breathe because Israel feels like letting him continue to breathe. It must be nice to have morally superior enemies.

UPDATE: Speaking of morally superior enemies, Israel has arrested 60 Hamas members, including ministers in the Palestinian government. The French foreign minister condemned the arrests, but he’s just posturing. When you murder civilians this is what happens to you if you’re lucky. France wouldn’t treat an anti-French terrorist organization so lightly, and neither would any other country. France deports imams for far lesser offenses. Russia is gearing up for a “hunt and destroy” mission in Iraq.

The al-Aksa Martyr’s Brigades says they fired a chemical weapon at Israel, which Israel denies. Israelis could, if they felt like it, use that as a pretext for a brutal response. But they aren’t.

51 Facts About Me

(And now for something completely different. I need to mix it up every once in a while. We will return to our regular programming shortly.)

When I was ten years old my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said “English teacher.”

When I was a kid I never went through a “girls have germs” phase. I always liked girls and had simultaneous crushes on two of them in kindergarten.

I have been a news junkie since I was 12 years old and had a paper route.

I had another paper route in college so I could buy beer and cds.

I lived with two girlfriends before I got married.

My wife and I bought a house a year and a half before we were married and six months after we met.

I got terrible grades in high school, including in English class, and “they” put me into the advanced English class anyway. I thought “they” were crazy. I no longer do.

I got excellent grades in college.

I have contempt for stupid people.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with smoking marijuana (in moderation) and I think it should be legalized immediately. Although I almost never smoke it myself and I don’t intend to smoke it if it does become legal. (And no, I am not lying about the last part.)

My wife and I saw a live sex show in Amsterdam, but we have never watched pornography together.

I love spicy food. The only food too spicy for me is a habanero pepper all by itself.

I love to argue for sport and don’t take arguments personally as long as my opponent isn’t an asshole.

I almost always vote Democrat, but I am not a “liberal” and I am not afraid to vote for Republicans or members of the weird parties. (Nader yes, Perot no.)

I was baptized Catholic and raised Protestant.

My father is a life-long atheist.

I am not religious.

My mother is a squishy liberal.

My father is a Republican In Name Only.

My brother has been to all seven continents, including Antarctica – the bastard. I made it to South America and the Middle East first, though.

I would like to be a libertarian, but too many of them are crazy and the party itself is an even bigger joke than our two major parties.

My favorite move is Blade Runner.

My favorite author is William Shakespeare.

My favorite American cities are New York and Chicago.

I hate onions. I mean, I really hate them and I can’t understand why on earth anyone eats them.

I can’t stand it when people pretend to like bad art just to be nice. If it’s bad and the artist is talentless you look like a bufoon if you say you think otherwise.

I am not, and will never become, a vegetarian.

I think the NRA is kooky, but I have no problem with firearms.

I hate sharing the road with SUVs. I can’t see around, over, or through them.

I like loud music and my wife and I constantly struggle over control of the car stereo volume.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the best TV show ever.

I generally do not like TV.

I prefer beer and (red) wine to hard alcohol. I can’t tell you what is in any mixed drink.

Contrary to most Americans, I would rather visit Latin America or the Middle East than Europe. The people – especially Arabs and Kurds – are more pleasant to be around.

I am morbidly fascinated by totalitarian regimes.

I want to visit North Korea. My wife wants to visit North Korea even more badly than I do.

I never intend to visit Cancun unless somebody else pays my way.

I have been to every state in the West except New Mexico. New Mexico has not been skipped for any particular reason.

I have never visited a single southern state, again for no particular reason.

My favorite country to visit is Lebanon. My second favorite country is Chile.

I speak Spanish badly.

I can kinda sorta slightly read French, but I have no idea how to pronounce it and I don’t understand it when it is spoken.

I can say some things in Arabic, and I can understand some spoken Arabic, but I cannot construct sentences from scratch.

I like goth music, but I was never even close to being a “goth” when I was young.

My favorite musician is Lisa Gerrard. She has no peer.

If your computer is broken and anyone can fix it, I can fix it.

I can fall asleep instantly except one night every couple of months when I can’t sleep at all.

It takes me 45 minutes to wake up in the morning. Waking up is a process, not an event.

I love road trips, but I don’t think I can ever top my spontaneous road trip to Iraq with Sean. So now it’s all downhill from here.

I can play the piano.

When I was 17 years old I faced a decision: I will become a writer or I will become a musician. You know which one I chose.

Interview with Islamists on the Way

I’m still busy, sorry. Soon, though, I’ll publish an interview from Northern Iraq with one of the leaders of an Islamist political party called the Kurdistan Islamic Union. This is another story that fell through the cracks and still needs to get out into the world. The interview will, I think, surprise a lot of people. It sure surprised me, so watch for it here.

Yes, It’s Fun, Really

Lots of people I know have a hard time believing me when I say Beirut is a good time, that it’s a terrific destination for tourists, that I haven’t turned myself into one of those morbid “war tourism” types who goes to disaster zones for cheap thrills.

I’m far from the only one. Here’s an excerpt from a Daily Star article on Beirut’s rave scene:

John Askew – who is returning to Lebanon for a gig with Van Dyk on July 8 – started it all when he headlined the Monot Music Festival in June 2002. It remains one of his favorite nights.

“Beirut was nuts,” he says. “There were all these really dressed-up, sexy, affluent-looking clubbers going crazy and yet in every direction you looked there were buildings riddled with bullet holes. [I was] a little apprehensive, but it’s an amazing place. Mental. Wicked party scene.”

Beirut has been fun longer than I’ve been alive. It’s even fun when it’s (almost) at it’s worst.

Lebanon.Profile recently filed this on a visit to the U.S.

The driver picked me up from the airport.

He asked, “Where you coming from?”

I said, “Lebanon.”

He said, “Tell me. Is the St. George Hotel still there?”

Stunned, I said, “Yes, but it’s not been repaired or renovated since the war. Are you Lebanese?”

He said, “No, no. I served in the US Navy and was sent to Lebanon in 1958. The whole 6th fleet was there. From the beach, it was battleships, boats, and aircraft carriers as far as the eye could see. We boarded the beach and there were all these women in bikinis all over and guys selling stuff. We didn’t see any war going on. All we saw were people enjoying themselves. We couldn’t tell who the enemy was. From our view, it didn’t seem like there were any.

“I got one of those checkered things in a shopping district near the St. George.”

Busy Again, Alas

I’m swamped all of a sudden with unexpected non-writing related work I need to stay on top of. Blogging may be slow. I’ll be back with more as soon as possible.

Feel free to sound off about whatever in the comments. Just remember to be nice to your fellow humans.

Lebanon Hurts Those Who Love Her

My wife and I honeymooned in Spain. It is our favorite country in Europe. We stayed in the Hotel Murillo in old Sevilla and I read to her passages from Jan Morris’s breathtakingly beautiful book Spain. Morris wrote of an España that no longer is, when it was an enchanting yet troubled country desperately clawing its way out of the Franoist hole dug by the Falange.

I’ll never forget one of the Spaniards she quoted. “Spain hurts me,” he said. “It hurts me.”

I knew what this Spaniard meant, though I couldn’t feel it. Shelly and I fell in love with Spain almost on contact. But it never hurt us. It’s a modern prosperous European democracy now. The Spain of Jan Morris was the same place, but it was also a different place. Just as beautiful, just as romantic, and even more still exotic. But also dark and despondent with a tortured past and a precarious future. I almost wished I could have seen the old Spain and knew what it felt like to fall for such a place.

Now I know what it feels like.

When I first arrived in Beirut more than a year ago I thought, amazed, how dramatically different the city is from the one depicted in Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem:

Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea – an idea that meant something not only to the Lebanese but to the entire Arab world. While today just the word “Beirut” evokes images of hell on earth, for years Beirut represented – maybe dishonestly – something quite different, something almost gentle; the idea of coexistence and the spirit of tolerance, the idea that diverse religious communities – Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze – could live together, and even thrive, in one city and one country without having to abandon altogether their individual identities.

[...]

Many Lebanese were either too young to remember or too poor to have ever tasted the cosmopolitan life of the Beirut city center, so they never mourned its passing. But for those members of the Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie who really exploited the beautiful side of Beirut, life will never be quite the same again without it. True, they had never paid much attention to the Shiite, Palestinian, and even Christian underclasses upon whose backs Beirut’s joie de vivre rested, and they believed in the fantasy of Lebanese democracy much more than they ever should have, but they were my friends and I happened to be a witness when their world was murdered.

Long after the civil war began, many of these true Beirutis kept the addresses of their offices in the ravaged city center on their stationary as symbols of solidarity with the past and hope for the future. As the years went by, some of them emigrated, unable to tolerate a Beirut in which Christians and Muslims were being forced to live in separate, isolated ghettos. But many of them stayed, and today they form a whole new class of Beirut refugees. They are existential refugees, homeless souls, internal exiles. They are still sitting in their old apartments with bucolic paintings of the Lebanese countryside decorating the walls, in their favorite chairs with their favorite slippers – but they are no longer at home and never will be again.

The longer I stayed, the more I realized the city in some ways has hardly changed at all. Friedman is often accused of trafficking in cliches. And it’s true, he often does. That’s partly because he managed to distil the place down to its basics.

There’s no war in Beirut any more. But Beirut is what it is, and refugees are its biggest export.

If you read the Lebanese bloggers in the diaspora you’ll come across the same painful cry of the Spaniard who told Jan Morris that his country hurts him. You might have noticed the same sort of sentiment expressed in my own writing, although never so anguished or pointed, where – at least while I lived there – my dispatches were sometimes swooning, other times frustrated, and still other times filled with despair. Lebanon is like that. I have never been anywhere in the world as fun and exciting and as endlessly, bottomlessly, fascinating as Beirut. And yet it’s a damaged place that could, if the locals are to be believed, fly into pieces at any moment. I have more faith in their country than they do, but they know it better than I. Is my own judgement more objective or more naive? I ask myself that question a lot, and I don’t know the answer. Perhaps I am a bit of both.

One of the best Lebanese bloggers is Abu Kais. He left his country and now lives in Washington. I nearly choked up when I read one of the recent posts on his blog From Beirut to the Beltway. He captures the dysfunctional relationship perfectly:

It used to be I saw an article in a Lebanese newspaper, or watched something on television that got my juices flowing, prompting a post or two. Alas, last Tuesday, after hearing [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah’s red lines speech, in which he declared himself and his followers an independent island within the sectarian archipelago that is Lebanon, what flowed were not my words, but my tears. I am ashamed to say that Hassan Nasrallah’s red lines, and Michel Aoun’s burning solutions made me cry.

[...]

Am I living a false promise by believing that Lebanon will one day succeed? When I decided that I could no longer live in my country, it was out of fear of self-destruction, much like Amal did in the video. I was too old to keep battling the thorns of Lebanese society, and not live my life to the fullest where I can. But look at me now. I may have left Lebanon physically, but I am still there in spirit. On Tuesday, the thorns managed to hurt again and caused my heart to bleed, despite the distance. For there was a person on television speaking on my behalf, setting limits I did not believe in, and reinforcing a reality that I chose to leave to him to shape. Do I even have the right to complain, let alone cry over a country I left behind? It makes no difference, for my actions then and now are the same, and the feeling cannot be helped, whether I am here or there. Lebanon is etched in my heart and my mind. My dreams are still set in my old Beirut apartment, where I grew up amid a bloody war. Every night, I go back to my old school that overlooked a Syrian missile launcher. And I sit in class listening to my favorite teachers as the explosions rock my classroom, and then I wait outside for my father to take me to shelter. And then I forget myself in my comic books, amid superheroes and infallible beings. And when reality beckons, I dive into biographies of great ones.

In 34 years, I have turned myself into an idealist from an evil, self-destructive world that haunts him no matter how much he tries to get away.

That is my predicament, and this is my blog.

Nineteen Eighty Four

Yafawi in the comments section linked to a photo gallery of North Korea. Many of the pictures are illegal.

Here are two of them.

North Korea Streets.jpg

Crossing the street is illegal because you just might get hit by a car.

North Korea Beach.jpg

That’s an electrified barbed wire fence on the beach to prevent North Koreans from swimming away in the ocean.

Here are the rest.

“The Israelis Live Over There, So I Don’t Have to Forgive Them!”

Mount Lebanon Region.JPG

I intended to publish this essay last year, but it got bumped and put into cold storage. Here it is after a too-long delay. — MJT

MOUNT LEBANON – Photojournalist Dan and I hitchhiked from the broiling and humid Mediterranean shore to the cool heights of the Mount Lebanon region where we could walk, breathe, and hang out in the sun without feeling like we had been dipped in a hot tub with our clothes on.

Dan wanted to go sight-seeing in comfort. I had other reasons for going. It would have been extraordinarily irresponsible to spend six months in Lebanon and get all my information from more or less like-minded people in the cosmopolitan core of Beirut. So I talked to random individuals on the street, in bars, and in cafes. I met with Hezbollah and attended one of their events. I spoke to people in the mountains and villages to get a read on the provinces.

It only takes one or two minutes to flag down a ride in Lebanon’s mountains, even if you’re an obvious foreigner. So Dan and I stuck out our thumbs (our open hands, actually) and hailed down two young mountain men in their convertible Jeep.

Roman Bridge Lebanon.jpg

Roman bridge over the Dog River

“Get in the back, guys,” the driver said.

Dan and I hopped in the back and sat on a pile of guns.

“I’m Firas,” said the driver with the Che Guevara style beard.

“I’m Joe,” said his buddy in the passenger seat. (Joe? His name was Joe?) Both spoke English with Arabic accents.

Firas hit the gas and spun around hair-raising mountain turns as though he were playing bumper cars at an amusement park. I tried in vain to get comfortable while sitting on five or six rifles, and tried in vain to pretend Firas knew how to drive like an adult.

“No Taliban here,” Firas said. “Only Hezbollah, ha ha. Too bad for you…we’re going to kill you now.”

Dan and I laughed out loud and introduced ourselves.

“Okay,” Firas said. “We promise not to kill you.”

“We can’t, man,” Joe said. “They’re sitting on the guns.”

“Oh shit,” Firas said.

I pulled the notebook out of my pocket and did my best to write down the dialogue while Firas damn near careened us over cliffs and into the river.

Lebanese River.jpg

His driving was ferociously bad even for Lebanon. I suspected he was trying to impress me and Dan. Like most Lebanese, he had ripped the seatbelts out of his car.

“Where are you from?” Firas said.

“We’re Americans,” Dan said.

“I’ve met lots of Americans,” Firas said. “I recently got back from Iraq.”

“You were in Iraq?” I said. “Doing what? Killing the infidel?”

“Ha ha, no,” he said. “Working in the Green Zone. I made a lot of money. A lot of money. But I’m glad to be back in Lebanon. It is beautiful here, yes? This is the Valley of Pain. Adonis was killed here and his blood made the river.”

I foolishly had forgotten my camera. Dan had his professional camera with him, but he rarely takes pictures of scenery. The pictures shown here were taken on similar roads on other trips.

“Show them the picture of the fish, dude,” Firas said.

Joe fished the digital camera out of his pocket and browsed through the photos. “Here it is,” he said and passed the camera to me and Dan in the back. Firas was shown holding a fish in his mouth by its head.

“You took this picture today?” I said.

“Yesterday,” Firas said. “We went camping. We’re on our way home now.”

Lebanon Forest.jpg

“Man, I haven’t had a cigarette for two days!” Joe said.

“Do you go camping a lot?” Dan said.

“We do,” Joe said. “I want to meet an Americans woman who wants to go with me into the mountains to hunt. But American women never want to come with me. They think it is silly.”

“Nature is my religion,” Firas said. “I make love with the wolf and the sky.”

*

One of the real pleasures of traveling in the Middle East is the almost embarrassingly generous offers of friendship and hospitality from total strangers, especially in the small towns and villages.

Dan and I had spent most of the afternoon lolling around with a random family in the town of Yachouch. We had been trying to make our way to Aqfa, but we ended up on the wrong road and went far astray. A nice man dropped us off in Yachouch on his way home, and the instant we stepped out of the car a family having lunch in their front yard invited us to join them. We accepted, of course.

Christian Village Mount Lebanon.JPG

A Christian village, Metn region, Mount Lebanon

The oldest daughter, a Christian, had a Muslim boyfriend. She told us that every boyfriend she ever had was a Muslim and that her parents didn’t mind as long as she found a Christian to marry.

Her mother was addicted to politics, as most people in Lebanon are. She had her very own conspiracy theory revolving around American neoconservatives that would make an International ANSWER activist blush. As Dan and I left to head back to Beirut, she told me in no uncertain terms that I must bring my wife back to their house to celebrate Christmas.

So by the time Firas and Joe pulled the jeep into their village, the sun was going down and the air was getting cold.

“Time for beer!” Firas said and screeched the jeep to a halt in front of a grocery shack set back from the road. He opened the doors and gestured at a plastic table and four plastic chairs under a grand tree that was older than the republic. “Have a seat.”

Dan and I settled in two plastic chairs. What a relief to get off the guns.

Firas and Joe went into the store and rummaged through the refrigerator. They came back with four green bottles of locally brewed Almaza beer with the caps already popped.

“Cheers!” Firas said and we clinked our bottles and began to drink.

“Tell me something, guys,” Joe said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate Hezbollah!”

I tried to explain that most Americans don’t know much about Lebanon, just as most Lebanese don’t know much about the U.S. Some Americans who do go to Lebanon can’t quite believe that Sunni Muslims and Druze have as hard a time with Hezbollah as the Christians. It just doesn’t compute.

“Do you guys want peace with Israel then?” I said.

“So the embassy sent you!” Joe only half-jokingly said.

“Making peace between states is not the same as making peace between people,” Firas said. “We may be sitting here as friends at this moment, but I am thinking of the time in the future when I will kill you.” Then he checked himself. “I am not talking about us, this is just a general example of what sometimes happens.”

“Why do we have to be at war with Israel all the time?” Joe said to Firas.

“Don’t say it, dude,” Firas said.

“I know people from the south who did very well under the Israeli occupation,” Joe said. “They made money, they were safe, and they were happy. Under Hezbollah it is hell.”

“Those are just personal stories,” Firas said.

“Don’t believe everything you read, dude,” Joe said.

Firas took off his shirt, walked over to the jeep, and pulled out a rifle.

“Shoot this gun,” he said and tried to hand it over to Dan.

“I don’t want to,” Dan said. “It’s dark and I can’t see.”

It was pretty dark now. And we were inside a village. It really wasn’t the best time and place to fire a rifle.

“He is afraid,” Joe said.

“Just shoot at the mountain, dude,” Firas said to Dan. “You won’t hit anybody.”

Dan is a nice liberal from the American Midwest with a low opinion of weapons. I’m from ideologically ambiguous Oregon, where Republicans smoke pot and liberals shoot guns.

“I’ll shoot it,” I said to Firas, “if you shoot it first.”

“I want Dan to shoot it,” Firas said.

They went round and round for several minutes.

“Come on!” Firas said. “Just point the rifle up and shoot at the mountain!”

“It’s night,” Dan said, getting annoyed. “And we’re in a town.”

Urban Village Mount Lebanon.jpg

Most Lebanese “villages” are actually small semi-vertical towns

Firas finally just pointed the thing at the night sky and BANG fired a round into the dark side the mountain.

“Hey!” someone yelled from a house down the street.

Firas wordlessly put his gun back in the jeep. Dan was off the hook, and I did not get to shoot it.

“There sure are a lot of guns in this country,” I said.

Firas, still shirtless, returned to his plastic chair. “We all have guns,” he said. “Lebanese women are tough, too. My mother can shoot any weapon at all with one hand.”

Joe and Firas invited me and Dan to go camping with them next weekend.

“If you come with us I’ll bring my M-16,” Joe said.

“You have an M-16?” I said.

“Yes,” Joe said. “It is normal.”

I asked him now normal it is for Christians and Muslims to date and to marry. I was slightly surprised a young Christian woman from higher up on the mountain had only dated young Muslim men.

“My girlfriend is Muslim,” Joe said. “We have no future. I don’t care about her religion. She doesn’t care about my religion. Only our parents care.”

“Have you met her parents?” I said.

Joe laughed. “What am I supposed to say? Hi I’m Joe and wait for her dad to get his gun?”

Inter-religious marriages are becoming slightly more common, mostly among the urban elite and middle class. But civil marriage doesn’t exist in Lebanon yet. If a Muslim wants to marry a Christian they have to go to Cyprus where secular marriage is legal — a real irony considering Muslim-Christian relations (actually Turkish-Greek relations) are far worse on Cyprus right now than they are in Lebanon.

“Why doesn’t Lebanon have civil marriage yet?” I said.

“It’s Lebanon, man,” Firas said. “We will have another war soon. Every 15 or 20 years we have to have a war.”

“Do you want a war?” I said.

“Lebanese people are always ready for anything,” Firas said. “If you lead us to peace, we are ready for peace. If you lead us to war, we are ready for war.”

Joe was more certain that he wanted peace. Many of his family members had been brutally massacred by Palestinian gunmen in Damour south of Beirut. Every Christian house in that town was destroyed on January 20, 1976. The inhabitants were murdered, mutilated, and raped.

Damour Massacre.JPG

Damour at the time of the massacre

Both Joe and Firas forgive their old Palestinian enemies as well as their old enemies the Druze in the Chouf mountains. Some of the worst rounds of fighting during the entire war were between Christians and Druze for control of the mountains.

“Why did you forgive the Druze but not the Israelis?” I said to Firas.

Chouf War Damage.jpg

Leftover destruction from the war of the Chouf.

The Druze were the fiercest fighters of any nationality or sect during the war. They believe in reincarnation, and they believe they will be reborn as Druze. Druze don’t even think of surrender. No group of warriors terrified other Lebanese militias quite like the Druze. “Eat with the Druze, but sleep with the Christians,” is a Lebanese saying that persists to this day, based on the (not reasonable) fear that a Druze might cut your throat in your sleep.

Beirut 1982.JPG

West Beirut during the Israeli invasion in 1982

“I forgive the Druze because I don’t have any choice,” Firas said as he hardened the muscles in his jaw line. “Because…they live here.” His voice sounded anguished now as though he were remembering horrors I can only imagine, horrors that he tried not to think about but could never ever forget. “The Israelis don’t live here. The Israelis live over there so I don’t have to forgive them!

Post-script: I’m trying to put together enough money for trips to Iran (if the mullahs let me in), Afghanistan, and Algeria — the most under-reported post-Islamist place in the world. Please hit the tip jar and make this all possible. And thanks so much for your help so far.

Weekend Reading

I’ll have more original material from Lebanon on Monday, material that got put into deep freeze for too long. In the meantime, Alan Johnson interviewed Paul Berman for Democratiya. It’s loooooong, but it’s the weekend, so read the whole thing.

People with views like mine tried to say, ‘OK, Bush is screwing things up, and we must warn against what might be the results. But, meanwhile, we want to propose actions of our own. We don’t want to just say “no.”‘ In Terror and Liberalism I tried to revive the idea of Leon Blum, the French socialist, from the 1940s. He proposed what in the US would be called cold-war liberalism, but was in his case cold war socialism – my grandfather’s position, by the way. Blum wanted to resist the Communists but he wanted to do it from the left not the right, in the belief that a leftwing opposition was bound to be more effective. Therefore he supported the socialists, and the social democrats, and the trade unionists, and he opposed Communism by being in favour of democratic reforms. My effort in Terror and Liberalism was to revive that sort of idea, in regard to the Ba’athism and Islamism of our own time. People who criticised this idea described it as a ‘liberalism for Bush,’ but that was never the idea.

In our version of the Third Force we recognised that the Bush administration was not going about things correctly, and so we called for an alternative. Totalitarian movements are fundamentally ideological movements — they are driven by ideas. The ideas they are driven by are modern ideas, even if they are presented as exotic and are clothed in seventh century Muslim robes. If the ideas are modern we can argue against them, just as we could argue against fascists and communists. Winning the argument is actually the only victory that can be obtained. We are facing a mass movement with a huge number of adherents. There is no way we can defeat such a movement with Police or Military force. The only way to defeat such a movement is to convince its adherents and sympathisers, and potential sympathisers, that the ideas of that movement are wrong and ought to be abandoned in favour of better ideas. Now this sounds preposterous to some people who can’t imagine that anything can be won by force of persuasion. But what finally caused Communism to collapse was that the Communists themselves recognised that they were wrong and that their own ideas were not worth defending.

In the present case it’s more difficult still because these movements are not dependent on states, and the ideas can be held by people in civil society. The possibility of crushing these movements by force does not exist. We have to win by persuasion. That means the central thing that should be going on is a war of ideas – even if, at times, there is also a need for a war of weapons.

The left and the intellectuals in the Western countries ought to throw themselves into these debates and criticisms. But look what has happened. The left, in its great majority, has remained unengaged. It conducts itself as if the only struggle is between Bush and his enemies. You can see this in the last couple of months in the rise of tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme. The more Ahmadinejad threatened to obliterate Israel and build nuclear weapons the more people around the world wrote about…Bush! ‘Oh, no! What is Bush going to do?’ As if the problem here was Bush! Bush may well be a problem, but the first problem has surely got to be Ahmadinejad. A great campaign should arise to persuade the Iranians and their supporters not to think along these lines. And this is what should have been done with the Islamists and the Ba’athists. But it has not been done.

The crucial place for this war of ideas, by the way, is Europe. In so much of the Arab world, and Iran, it is very difficult to have a serious debate because the conditions don’t exist. In Europe they do. And in Europe there is a vast Arab and Muslim population. In fact many of the deep underlying ideas of radical Islamism, Ba’athism, and radical Pan-Arabism were European ideas to begin with. Not all of the ideas, but some of the crucial ones. So the debate should be taking place in London and Paris and Berlin and Madrid. It should be a very forceful debate. We see a right-wing version of it in which there is prejudice and racism against Muslims and against an ancient and noble religion, Islam – which only bolsters the Ba’athist and Islamist arguments. But the left-wing antitotalitarian contribution to this debate we hardly see. It’s like a unilateral disarmament on the part of the liberal left and the intellectuals has taken place.

Bush isn’t going to do it. He does not want to do it and even if he did, he does not have the talent. It should be done on the left. It should be done by us engaging our fellow thinkers in the Arab and Muslim world (who are becoming ever more visible) and by arguing against the various champions of what I call the Muslim totalitarian idea in its different forms. A Third Force should put its greatest emphasis on that. Military actions and police actions may well be necessary. But they should be put in their place. They are ultimately less important than this battle of ideas.

Totalitarian movements have regularly been greeted by the blindness to which liberalism is prone, and even by apologetics. Hitler, and not just Stalin, had his apologists. Without these apologists neither one of those dictators would have been able to get as far as he did. And what we are seeing now is something exactly parallel. There are only a few screwballs defending Al Qaeda, or Zarqawi in Iraq, or applauding Saddam. But the people who really matter are those (many more numerous) who find some way to say either that these totalitarian movements are normal, natural, rational, or, in any case, that they should be ignored because we should focus our attention on defeating Bush. In these ways, the adherents of the totalitarian movements are not given much opposition and sometimes are even given a back-handed support. So, naturally, the movements prosper.

Alan Johnson : In the meantime, the Muslin democrats who desperately need our support are often ignored. There are very few solidarity movements with the beleaguered Muslim democrats.

Paul Berman: Exactly. And you and I both know that there is nothing more fashionable than to look at some Iraqi liberal democrat and sneer.

UPDATE: Nouri, the Moor Next Door, adds in the comments:

That bottom exchange is so true. I have observed this many times. For instance, I live about 5 minutes away form Yale University by foot, and most book stores in town are frequented by Yalis. I was at the Yale Barnes and Noble one day and overheard a discussion about Islam and democracy and women between several students, one was wearing a keffiyeh the others were average looking college students. The keffiyeh wearing one went and on about how Arabs are mad because they’re not united (ha!) and the other nodded noting that Muslim women are not oppressed at all and how culture is relative. I approached them and asked where they got this drivel (more like “Who told you this?”) and they said it was obvious from how Arabs have flocked to Iraq, and that pan Arabism is alive and well, blah, and how they heard it (gasp!) from their professor. I said that I, as an “Arab” did not agree and they basically began to yell at me, “no” “no” “no”. The one in the keffiyeh called me a “fake Arab” because I was not some semi-totalitarian Baathist. I challenged the idea that Arabs “don’t want democracy” using classic liberal arguments, to which they responded were “right wing junk”. I told them that Saddam was a prick, that he was a thug, a creton, and that he disrespected minority and majority rights. They wouldn’t have it, because you know, Saddam’s regime handed out PhDs like there was no tomorrow. I have an aunt (in law) that works at the State Department who tells me that this attitude is really prevelent among diplomats and analists because they deal mainly with elites that are hostile to any sort of democratization. It’s a real bougie type of attitude, that I still don’t fully understand.

Hang On

I’m coming back soon, I promise. When I get here I’ll have a story from the Lebanese mountains. I intended to publish it months ago but it got bumped and put into cold storage. You will, I hope, find it entertaining as well as revealing of a certain mindset.

In the meantime, here is something from the AP worth noting:

BAGHDAD, Iraq – American and Iraqi forces have carried out 452 raids since last week’s killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and 104 insurgents were killed during those actions, the U.S. military said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the raids were carried out nationwide and led to the discovery of 28 significant arms caches.

He said 255 of the raids were joint operations, while 143 were carried out by Iraqi forces alone. The raids also resulted in the captures of 759 “anti-Iraqi elements.”

Filler

I have been dealing with non-stop Middle East related bureaucracy for two days (even at four in the morning, for God’s sake) and I’m mentally exhausted. It has just been one of those weeks so far. Can’t blog properly. Sorry.

This partly explains my lazy post yesterday, written in haste as filler. Now you get this thrilling post as filler part two. (Is filler better than nothing? I don’t know. Maybe!)

I do have more Middle East material from my notebooks that never got turned into proper articles. As soon as I am able to recharge myself I’ll see what I can do with it.

If you feel like hanging out in the comments section lounge, consider this an open thread. Just be nice to your fellow humans. I don’t need any blog world screaming today. And neither does anyone else, really. It’s bad for you.

Okay, So I Guess He Existed

A few days ago I was invited on to a radio show to discuss the hit on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I tentatively agreed to be interviewed with the caveat that I had visited parts of Iraq where Zarqawi used to live and, um, work, but that I have never been to the places Zarqawi had terrorized lately. I didn’t want to be asked any questions from an interviewer who thought I knew more than anyone else who followed the Zarqawi story from far away.

Some people are experts, but I’m not. Thing is, neither are some of the experts. Some “experts” have a real command of the factoids but have a hard time with the basics.

Take Juan Cole, for example. He’s supposed to know everything, at least compared with those of us who can’t read Farsi (etc.). But he recently said he doubted Zarqawi even existed. (See also here.)

IraqPundit, an Iraqi living in exile, sends him up:

In the wake of the news that Zarqawi had been killed, something that everybody on all sides agreed was accurate, Cole seem to have decided that previous to his death, Zarqawi must have existed after all.

I did not have to visit red zone Iraq to know that Zarqawi existed. Some things you can just trust. I never trusted the existence of Zarqawi quite the same way I trusted the existence of, say, Nebraska. But it never occured to me that Zarqawi might be the Loch Ness Monster or the Bigfoot of the Terror War.

Lebanese-Israeli Dialogue

Quite a few Lebanese and Israelis have been arguing amongst themselves in my comments section. I’m happy to host this discussion, and I want to encourage more of it. It doesn’t take place nearly often enough (thanks to reactionary laws against such “fraternizing” behavior), and I think many mainstream Lebanese and Israelis would discover they are natural allies if this could somehow continue on a mass scale and it certain outstanding issues could be resolved.

Considering that the two peoples are still formally at war with each other I’m impressed with the quality of dialogue – especially considering how hyserical and extreme so many people are about the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. (I know of no subject in this world more likely to make an otherwise reasonable and intelligent person plunge head-first into a fever swamp than this one.) The arguments here are considerably more civil and worth reading than, say, the vast majority of arguments in the blogosphere between liberal and conservative Americans. Whether this speaks well of the Lebanese and Israelis here, or whether it reflects badly on the abysmal quality of American political discourse, I’ll leave for you to decide.

Anyway, I’d like to republish a letter to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah (it first appeared in Beirut’s Daily Star) that Lebanese blogger Lira posted in my comments section for Israelis to read. I find that Lebanese public opinion too often gets unfairly lumped in with the unhinged points of view found far more often in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, and Syria. Americans (and Israelis?) left and right still have a hard time believing that Hezbollah has been marginalized by the majority. Hopefully this will help. If you don’t believe me, listen to them.

Dear Mr. Nasrallah,

I am a Lebanese citizen with no affiliation to any political party.

What have I done for Lebanon: I have served for 18 months on two World Bank & IMF development projects aimed at restructuring the Lebanese State Administration.

I have no relations with any embassies or ambassadors.I have no relations with Israel nor with any Western country.

I hope that my credentials fit the profile of whom you deem acceptable to criticize the Hezbollah.

Mr. Nasrallah, I would like to tell you that myself and thousands of other Lebanese do not believe that in 2005 with all that has happened in Lebanon from 1975, we do not believe that violence is the best solution with an entity like Israel.

We would like to ask you to refrain from trying to capture any individual, be it a civilian or a military, be it an Israeli, a Westerner or anyone for that matter.

We understand the plight that we have with Israel’s detaining of several Lebanese prisoners, we are facing the same with Syria which is politically detaining many Lebanese in its jails. We however do not believe in kidnapping Syrian soldiers or civilians to force the Syrian government to release the Lebanese that it detains. We know that such a move will bring severe military and economic retaliation from the Syrians and prefer to act in peaceful and diplomatic venues.

We hope that you understand that doing the same with an entity like Israel will cause severe military and economic backlash to the whole of the Lebanese Republic. I must stress also that our demands should cover Lebanese citizens per se, since nationals of other Arab countries should be recovered by their own governments, would you not agree? Would you not agree that Lebanon, as a small country, should relatively follow up on his own citizens and that other Arab nations which are stronger and more resourceful, that they should seek to get back their own nationals? Where is their duty towards them?

It is good to know that your orders are coming from Beirut, but are they coming from the Lebanese Republic? Are they coming from Mr. Sanioura or from the Commander of the Lebanese Army? If so, the Lebanese Army is never issuing any statements on your operations, they never claim to coordinate with you on your attacks, who is issuing your orders in Beirut?

We do not believe that the Syrian Baathist regime “freed” us from occupation. In fact more than 1.5 Million people believe that the Syrian army was occupying us.

We would like to remind you that International Law is above everyone. That the United Nations, while far from being perfect, are still the one and only institution recognized by all countries of the world, including Iran and Syria that are both cooperating with the UN on a number of issues.

We understand your enmity with Israel but could not accept the fact that you call death to the United States of America. You can show your hostility and disagreement with the policies of the United States Government but for the sake of international accountability, do not call for death on any country on our behalf or in the streets of our beautiful country who has given you the freedom of speech.

While the world is not perfect Mr. Nasrallah, we Lebanese deserve to live in peace after all this time. Your weapons and your aggressive policies are preventing us from doing so.

We do not believe that you are able to defend the country against a major Israeli offensive.

We do not believe that you are able to prevent Israel from destroying Lebanese infrastructure.

We do not believe in your claim that the Shebaa Farms are Lebanese.

Please respect our diverging points of view and refrain from using any military means that should be limited to the Lebanese National Army. We would highly appreciate it if you could comply to Lebanese laws and hand your weapons to the Lebanese authorities.

Thank you

I should add an update so she won’t get pounced on in the comments. I asked her why she criticized Nasrallah’s “Death to America” slogan but not his “Death to Israel” slogan. Here is her answer:

I am a supporter of a 2-state solution in Palestine; my own convictions about whether the state of Israel is rightfull or not will not influence my decision to have peace with this country, this is what’s best for Lebanon and we need to communicate with the Israelis in order to reach such a solution.

Criticizing the “death to Israel” slogans would also have been too much in a reply such as mine tipping the balance to a pro-Israel article that would be viewed negatively by many readers at a moment where the memory of Israel’s crimes in Lebanon is still very vivid in their memories.

America has not and is not administering death to Lebanon in the same manner Israel did and still are in some sense. Regardless of the views of Hezbollah militants, they remain Lebanese and I understand where they come from while being a staunch critic of many of their antics. The leadership of HA and its allegiance to the Syrian and Iranian regimes is an entirely different ballgame.

Finally, maybe when Israel’s name and existence stops being so synonymous of death and violence, I might criticize those who call “death to america” in the same manner than those who say “death to israel”….the intensity of objection is different.

Lest you think Lira represents only a miniscule minority of public opinion in Lebanon, here are some things to consider:

In a online poll at the Web site of the Free Patriotic Movement (the most popular Christian movement in Lebanon, but also fairly inclusive of disgruntled Shia who can’t stomach the Amal and Hezbollah parties), 78 percent voted for peace with Israel under certain conditions.

In another online poll at the Web site of the Future Movement (the most popular Sunni political party in Lebanon headed by Saad Hariri), respondents answered this way on the question of peace with Israel:

Yes and Now: 34.38 percent

Yes but after israel get out of shebaa valleys: 37.50 percent

Yes but after palestinian case is solved: 12.50 percent

No peace with Israel: 6.25 percent

Israel should be erased from the world: 9.38 percent

These polls are obviously not scientific. But I think they show that Lebanese public opinion isn’t some monolithic anti-Zionist hate machine. Dialogue with Lebanese is possible. One of these days it can and probably will take place beyond the comments section of blogs.

In the Footsteps of Zarqawi – From the Archives

While Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is still just barely in the news cycle for the last time in human history, here’s a piece of mine from the archives (in case you missed it) where I followed his footsteps to Biara, Iraq: Zarqawi Was Here.

Mister Zarqawi, He Dead

The world reacts:

Zoloft Pony: “Two 500lb bombs right on his safe house. NOT SO SAFE NOW, IS IT, BITCH?!”

Roger L. Simon: “Goodbye, good riddance, you human nightmare!”

Atrios: “I’m supposed to give the obligatory “YAY USA!” cheer here, but while it’s good to get the bad guys I don’t really think it’s going to improve much. Hopefully I’m wrong.”

Christopher Hitchens: “Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq’s experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads. Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan.”

Will Collier: “Rest in pieces.”

Loast at Fark.com: “Ok, so I’m a communist totally opposed to the US foreign policies at the moment with the exception of genuine humanitarian aid. BUT, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was a farkin’ animal. Murderer, reactionary, fanatic, what you will. Good riddance, that man was a cold blooded killer with no allegiance but his own cult. No shedding tears over a cold-blooded psychopath with hints of a messiah complex. That is, if he really is dead, which is only what the US states, and we all know how truthful those bastards are.”

Scorpinoc at Fark.com: “How about we start a “head on pike” collection in the White House mens room? One head on a pike per urinal. Get some video of the US Presidential staff pissing on the heads of dead terrorists and circulate that through the middle east.”

Caller on the Diane Rhem Show, in tears: “I woke up this morning and learned my country had dropped a bomb on someone’s head….”

Tony Blair: “Every day we hear of the death toll through the fomenting of civil strife: a campaign of murder, and kidnapping and brutality — all of it designed to stifle Iraqi democracy at birth, and al-Zarqawi was its most vicious prosecutor.”

Iraqi blogger Hammorabi: “There were celebrations going on now in the holly city of Najaf and Kerbala. On the other hands there are sadness and shock among his allies in the region and abroad like Al-Jazeera Qatari TV and other Arab pro-terrorists thugs.”

Official statement of Hamas, ie the Palestinian government: “With hearts full of faith, Hamas commends brother-fighter Abu Musab … who was martyred at the hands of the savage crusade campaign which targets the Arab homeland, starting in Iraq.”

MarcC in my comments section: “To paraphrase Jacques Chirac, Hamas missed a perfect opportunity to shut up, when they instead publicly mourned the death of Zarqawi at the hands of the savage crusader campaign aimed at the Arab heartland. And just when everybody was starting to forget the image of the Palestinian fatmas flashing V signs and tossing candies on 9/11. What a bunch of assholes.”

Beirut Daily Star Editorial: “In what now appears to have been his last audiotape, he unleashed a torrent of slurs against Shiites, hopefully revealing to a great many Iraqi Sunnis that his real purpose was not their welfare but rather their cousins’ subjugation and extermination. Without the presence of Zarqawi as a driving force for the perpetual acceleration of the conflict, it might be possible to engage hard-line Sunnis and convince them that their best interests lie in seeking an acceptable compromise that would permit all Iraqis to at last put conflict behind them and get on with the business of rebuilding their shattered country.”

One of Big Pharoah’s Egyptian Colleagues: “Man it’s all a conspiracy. The Americans killed him after he became useless to them. Just like Saddam.”

Egyptian Sandmonkey: “Ding Dong the asshole is dead! Zarqa is dead (He got killed on 6/6/06 nonetheless, anyone else noticed that?). The bloodthirsty Jihady fuckhead is no more, and is hopefully rotting in hell as we speak! Good-bye douchebag, it couldn’t have happend to a more appropriate person!”

Karim Elsahy, One Arab World: “Death aint never been prettier.”

Nouri Lumendifi, The (Algerian) Moor Next Door: “Is it bad that I am happy?”

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