Can Beirut Be Paris Again?

My latest essay in the print edition of City Journal is now available online. Here's the first part:

Before it became the poster child for urban disaster areas in the mid-1970s, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part. Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore city and country to pieces. More than 100,000 people were killed during a period when Lebanon’s population was under 4 million. The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Syria, not Lebanon, is suffering the horrors of civil war. With Syria’s Bashar al-Assad possibly on his way out—or at least too busy to export mayhem to his neighbors—will Beirut have the chance to regain its lost glory?


Before 1975, when Beirut was still Paris, Syria was the unstable place in the region. Indeed, it was among the least stable countries on earth. During the 1950s and early 1960s, military coups came as often as Christmas. Not until the Baath Party seized power in 1963 did Syria settle down, and then only because the Baathists erected a Soviet-style police state that terrorized the population into passivity.

Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, took power in 1970, and he cleverly figured out that Syria’s inherent instability could be exported to Lebanon. Roughly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population is Druze, with the rest divided evenly among Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. The Christians have historical ties to the West dating back to the Crusades; the Sunnis are backed by much of the Arab world (which, outside Iraq, is overwhelmingly Sunni); the Shiites’ patron is Iran, one of only a handful of Shiite-majority countries in the world. Lebanon’s three main communities agreed long ago that the best way to prevent one group from lording it over the others was to have a weak central government and share power. But a country that was small, divided by nature, and weak by design was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbor.

True, Syria didn’t start the Lebanese war, which was sparked in Beirut by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias. But the Syrian army invaded Lebanon during the war and became one of the most destructive belligerents there. After the war ended in 1990, the Syrian military continued to occupy Lebanon until 2005, when the Cedar Revolution forced it to withdraw. Even then, Damascus could lay waste to Lebanon from the inside via its violent local proxies: the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Amal (another party), and especially the Hezbollah militia. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities had required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place—partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel and partly because it could be used to subdue Beirut if Damascus’s new vassal got a little too uppity.

Hezbollah served both purposes after the Syrian army’s withdrawal. It started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And though Hezbollah and its local allies lost the most recent election, they’re in charge of the government anyway, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008.

So it hardly mattered that the Lebanese managed to evict the Syrians in the Cedar Revolution; Bashar al-Assad, who took power in Syria in 2000, could still rule from afar. But he won’t be able to do that if he loses the war that’s currently raging in Syria. The Free Syrian Army is battling alongside the al-Qaida-linked terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra to topple the Assad regime, which has already lost control of huge swaths of the country. The conflict is partly sectarian: the Assad family belongs to Syria’s heterodox Alawite minority, while the rebels, part of the Sunni Muslim majority, are getting money and guns from wealthy Sunni Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula. But the war has inevitably dragged in regional politics. Israel has launched air strikes against Syrian depots to prevent weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia and Iran are backing Assad to the end, as is Hezbollah. At the time of this writing, the United States has pledged to increase aid to the rebels, though it’s not clear what exactly that aid will be. In a word, Syria has become Lebanonized.

That’s not a brand-new development for the country. “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

The obvious analogy is Iraq: both countries were formed as a result of French and British negotiations after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. “Historically, there was never a state called Syria,” says Eli Khoury, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Levant and cofounder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. Syria, like Iraq, was wired together with a minority-backed Baath Party dictatorship. Neither country is an internally coherent nation like Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco. “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron,” Khoury points out. “It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.” Or as Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist, puts it: “I don’t see Syria as heading toward transition. I see Syria as heading toward disintegration.”


If that happens, how will it affect Beirut? To answer that question, it helps to understand this city’s strange ethnic geography. During the long civil war, Beirut split apart into mutually hostile cantons. Christian militias squared off against Palestinian and Sunni ones across a gash known as the Green Line, which ripped through the center of the city on a northwest-by-southeast axis. To this day, the city remains divided along that line: the eastern half is almost entirely Christian, the western half predominantly Sunni. And the southern suburbs are all but monolithically Shiite.

The Christian half of the city sustained less damage during the war than the Sunni half did, and it is consequently the more French-looking of the two today. Its culture is also more French, since many Lebanese Christians feel a political, cultural, and religious kinship with France and the French language that Lebanese Muslims do not. The western side of the city is more culturally Arab and also, since so many of its buildings were flattened during the war, architecturally bland. Though the Sunnis there are more liberal and cosmopolitan than most Sunni Arabs elsewhere, their culture, religion, language, and loyalties are, for the most part, in sync with those of their more conservative Middle Eastern neighbors.

Still, East and West Beirut seem nearly identical if you compare them with the southern suburbs. Collectively known as the dahiyeh, which means “suburb” in Arabic, they are Hezbollah’s de facto capital. The central government has no writ there. Hezbollah provides the security, schools, hospitals, and other public services. Drive down the streets, and you’ll see the flags of Hezbollah and Iran but rarely the flag of Lebanon. The dahiyeh looks and feels like a ramshackle Iranian satellite, even though you can walk there from central Beirut in an hour. Once known as the “belt of misery,” the area is still a slum. Most of the buildings are 12-story apartment towers built without permits or attention to aesthetics of any kind—especially the French kind. There are places in East Beirut where, if you try hard enough and squint, you could fool yourself into believing that you’re in France. You could never get away with that in the dahiyeh.

When armed conflict breaks out, the dividing lines among these three parts of Beirut are the flash points. At one of these, a half-mile south of the city center along the old Green Line, is what’s commonly called the Yellow House, or what’s left of it. This once-beautiful row of apartments and shops was the posh home of some of Beirut’s finest before the civil war. Now it’s a bullet-pocked stone skeleton. Though it’s finally being renovated after decades of sitting in ruin, the chewed-up facade will be encased in glass and only the interior refurbished. The building will become a war museum, its husk preserved as a constant reminder that urban civil war is one of the worst catastrophes that the human race can inflict on itself.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Diana West's Junk History

I'm a little slow this week since I'm out of town visiting family and attending a wedding, but I have some more material almost ready to go. In the meantime, take a look at historian Ron Radosh's masterful takedown, called “McCarthy on Steroids,” of Diana West's paranoid book, America Betrayal.

His review essay is epic length and you really need to read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt from the beginning.

Many Americans at both ends of the political spectrum view history in conspiratorial terms. The late Senator Joseph McCarthy set the bar very high when he claimed to have uncovered “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” In that famous speech to the Senate on June 14, 1951, McCarthy condemned former Chief of Staff of the Army and Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense as a traitor who made “common cause with Stalin on the strategy of the war in Europe,” who “took the strategic direction of the war out of Roosevelt’s hands and – who fought the British desire, shared by [General] Mark Clark, to advance from Italy into the eastern plains of Europe ahead of the Russians.”

Diana West, who expands the scope of this conspiracy in American Betrayal, is McCarthy’s heiress.  She argues that during the New Deal the United States was an occupied power, its government controlled by Kremlin agents who had infiltrated the Roosevelt administration and subverted it. Like McCarthy, whom West believes got everything correct, she believes a conspiracy was at work that effectively enabled the Soviets to be the sole victors in World War II and shape American policies in the postwar world.

Writing sixty years later, she claims that the evidence that has come to light in the interim not only vindicates McCarthy’s claims but goes well beyond anything he imagined.

Radosh and West are both conservatives, so it's important that his piece appears in a conservative magazine where it will be read by the right people instead of in a liberal magazine where it would be ignored by those who most need to know just how troublesome a figure West really is. Congratulations to Radosh for writing this and to David Horowitz for having the courage to publish it.

Hezbollah Plays the Israel Card

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah briefly emerged from his underground lair on Friday and delivered his first public speech in years urging his enemies to stop fretting over his involvement in the Syrian war and worry instead about the Jews. “Call us terrorists, criminals, try to kill us,” he said, “we Shiites will never abandon Palestine.”

But they have abandoned Palestine—for now, anyway—and are fighting instead to save their collective backside in Syria. If Bashar al-Assad falls to the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah will lose its weapons supply link with Iran and find itself cut off and encircles by enemies.

Hezbollah needs the Israel card now more than ever. It has worked in the past, and never before in its history has the so-called Party of God faced so much internal pressure. 

On the same day Nasrallah made his speech, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the de-facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, reiterated that he’s against the formation of a government cabinet that legitimizes Hezbollah’s weapons. This by itself isn’t surprising. Hariri has always been opposed to Hezbollah. Not only are they ideological opposites, and not only have their two communities been in an on-again off-again state of war for more than 1000 years, according to a United Nations indictment, Hezbollah murdered Hariri’s own father.

But just one day earlier, President Michel Suleiman, for the first time ever, publicly announced he can no longer sanction Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia in Lebanon. And last month, Michel Aoun—the buffoonish Maronite Christian politician who formed a hair-brained alliance with Hezbollah and the Syrian government—made a big show of visiting Saudi Arabia, a move widely interpreted to mean Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led “March 8” alliance is finally straining.

Hezbollah desperately needs the Israel card, but it won’t work this time unless Israel invades Lebanon. Yet Israel won’t invade Lebanon unless Hezbollah starts something. And Hezbollah wouldn’t dare start something now while it’s busy in Syria. The last thing it needs is open-ended conflict on two fronts at once. Hezbollah isn’t a superpower. It only has a few thousand fighters.

It’s obvious to just about everyone now that Nasrallah needs a distraction, but the truth is that his relentless war against Israel has always been partially a distraction. His hatred of Israel is real, no doubt, but it serves a dual purpose. It papers over the dangerous rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has led to so many wars, the majority of which the Shia lost.

Nearly all my Lebanese sources—Sunni, Shia, and Christian—insist that Hezbollah is and always has been more worried about Sunnis than Israelis and Jews. Of course that’s the case. Various Sunni-Shia wars have killed orders of magnitude more people during my lifetime—over a million—than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Sunni-Shia conflict is more than 1300 years old, the Arab-Israeli conflict less than 100.

And the Shia only joined the Arab-Israeli conflict 34 years ago. In the 1970s, and even into the 1980s, Middle Eastern Shias were Israel’s allies. It’s a bizarre, but it’s true.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to evict Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization in West Beirut and along the border with Israel, Lebanon’s Shias all but unanimously hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian (Sunni) oppression. Not until the Israelis overstayed their welcome, and not until Iranian Revolutionary Guard units stepped into Lebanon and created Hezbollah—which is effectively their Lebanese branch—did the attitudes of Lebanon’s Shias begin to change.

“Resistance” against Israel was the great Sunni cause at the time, and Lebanese civil war was the context. By adopting the Sunni cause as their own, Lebanon’s Shias, via Iran and Hezbollah, bought themselves protection from the Sunnis with guns and respect.

Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami hails from the part of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah today, and he understands this somewhat counterintuitive dynamic perfectly. “The Shia of the southern hinterland,” he wrote, “had endured Palestinian power, the rise in their midst of a Palestinian state within a state. The Palestinian gunmen and pamphleteers had had the run of that part of the country. Arab nationalists in distant lands had hailed that Palestinian sanctuary; Arab oil wealth had paid for it. The Shia relief in 1982, when Israel swept into Lebanon and shattered that dominion, was to the Arab nationalists proof that the Shia stepchildren were treasonous. Then a Shia militant movement, Hezbollah, rose to challenge Israel. Its homicide bombers, its policies of 'virtue and terror,' acquitted the Lebanese Shia in Arab eyes.”

A similar dynamic is at work in Tehran, where the idea of Hezbollah was hatched in the first place.

Jews have lived among Persians for thousands of years. The two haven’t always gotten along famously, but they’ve never been at each other’s throats the way Jews and Arabs have been, especially lately. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was Israel’s ally. It made sense for both parties. Israel needs whatever friends it can get in the region, and most Persians, like the Kurds, aren’t interested in aligning with their ancient Arab enemies against Jews or anyone else. The Arab-Israeli conflict is called the Arab-Israeli conflict for a reason. And until 1979, it was strictly a Sunni Arab-Israeli conflict.

Khomeini did his worst to change this, partly because he did really did hate Israel, but also because it served his strategic interests. Iran can’t very well become the hegemon of the Levant and the Persian Gulf regions if the entire Arab world is against it. But if the ancient ethnic and sectarian squabbles could be set aside in favor of a united front against Israel, Iran could, at least theoretically, become dominant.

In his book The Persian Night, Amir Taheri paraphrased Iran’s message to the Arab world this way: “Forget that Iran is Shiite, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to 'burn Israel,' but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian 'patriots' promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.”

Hezbollah leaders know perfectly well that Israel is not going to randomly invade Lebanon one day just for the hell of it. They tell their constituents and say Hezbollah’s military capabilities deter the Israelis, but it’s a lie and they know it’s a lie. On the contrary, the threat from Hezbollah is a magnet for Israeli invasions.

Nasrallah is likewise pulling a fast one when he tells his fellow Lebanese to focus on Israel while he’s ignoring Israel and fighting in Syria. It’s not going to work.

Is Morocco the Model for Arab Democracy?

I have another long essay in the current issue of The Tower magazine, this one about Morocco. I briefly cover a few things at the beginning that I’ve covered here at length, so I’m going to post an excerpt from the middle instead.

Americans love revolution. Why shouldn’t we? Ours was among the most successful in history. It endures more than 200 years later, and was not the result of gradual change. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

The French Revolution followed ours, and Jefferson naturally swooned while it was happening. But it didn’t end well. Instead of enjoying the blessings of liberty, the French inflicted the Terror on themselves and later reverted to monarchy. But those lessons are lost to time for all but the most historically-minded.

Thanks to the Russians, average Americans looked askance at revolution throughout much of the 20th century. The October Revolution of 1917 installed a totalitarian dictatorship that built a slave empire spanning most of two continents. Then it replicated itself, virus-like, by sponsoring similar revolutions all over the world, creating one ghastly police state after another. But Europe’s anti-communist revolutions in 1989 seemed to put everything right. Repressive regime after repressive regime fell to liberal dissidents like Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.

The 1989 revolutions echoed the American Revolution in some ways, and they’re fresher in everyone’s minds than their botched predecessors. None of us old enough to have witnessed it can forget the fall of the Berlin Wall. Freedom was spreading again after the terrible communist detour. The tide of history was washing tyrants away, as it should.

The Arab world seemed perfectly capable of replicating what Americans and Eastern Europeans had accomplished. During the Beirut Spring in 2005, the Lebanese evicted Syria’s smothering military occupation without firing a shot. The more or less free and fair elections that followed sent the liberal pacifist Fouad Seniora to the prime minister’s office. The model for Lebanon’s uprising was the revolutions in Eastern Europe. I know because I was there. The very name “Beirut Spring” harked back to the 1968 Prague Spring. Surely the same thing could happen in Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli and Damascus. Right?

Apparently not.

Tunisia’s revolution was mostly non-violent and has been at least partly successful; but Egypt’s, Libya’s, and especially Syria’s have been much darker affairs. The very name “Arab Spring” evokes the romantic image of the Prague Spring, but we should remember that the 1968 Czech uprising, like the 1956 Hungarian revolution before it, ultimately failed. Soviet troops rolled into Budapest and Prague and smashed both democratic movements under the treads of their tanks.

In celebrating the Arab Spring, too many failed to take into account what was unique about America in 1776, Eastern Europe in 1989, and Beirut in 2005. In all three cases, the people were resisting a tyrannical regime that was imposed from the outside: by the British crown, Soviet Russia, and Syria’s Arab Socialist Baath Party respectively. These revolutions were produced by a more or less democratic political culture that already existed and was being suppressed by force from abroad.

Democratic political cultures aren’t created by revolutions. They are created in advance of revolutions and reach their maturity during the aftermath. Lebanon and Tunisia are doing better than Egypt, Libya, and Syria because they already had partially democratic and pluralistic political cultures that were being suppressed by their rulers. But Egypt has never known anything but authoritarian rule, and before rebel fighters lynched Qaddafi outside Tripoli, he treated Libya like a mad scientist’s laboratory for longer than I’ve been alive.

America was an exceptional place in 1776. So was Eastern Europe in 1989 and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon in 2005.

So is Morocco. It’s not exceptional in the same way the American colonies and Eastern Europe were exceptional, but it is exceptional.


Morocco is doing better than most Arab countries because of its system of government, and it’s doing better than other Arab monarchies because of its history.

That history is unique in large part thanks to geography. When I visited the country, I drove from Rabat to Marrakech—a perfect city for tourists—and from there into the towering Atlas Mountains. Morocco is huge. It’s rugged and craggy. Much of it is green. Part of it is on the Mediterranean, but most is on the Atlantic coast.

It doesn’t look like any place in the Middle East, and nothing like the culturally vacuous Persian Gulf emirates. It doesn’t look like a Mediterranean country or an African country. Morocco is just Morocco; separated from Europe, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa by water, mountains, and the hottest desert on earth. Over the centuries, its history and geography have sculpted a culture that’s partly Arab, partly Berber, partly European, and even partly Jewish. Its government is so stable it’s an anachronism.

The capital is 3,000 miles away from Mecca, the center of the Islamic world; while the city of Tangier is so close to Europe that you can see Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. A fit enough person could swim there. The Spanish city of Ceuta on the north coast of Africa is actually contiguous with Morocco. It has been free of Muslim rule and either self-governing or Spanish for almost 600 years.

In the past, Morocco ruled parts of Spain. More recently, the Spanish ruled parts of Morocco. And there is no doubt that the two countries have influenced one another. One of the more striking things about Spain’s southern region of Andalusia is how it looks and feels vaguely Moroccan, especially compared with Madrid. No one can visit Morocco without noticing that parts of it look and feel vaguely European, especially compared to the heartland of Arabia.

Moroccan culture is also influenced by Sub-Saharan Africa and by Judaism, which has existed there for thousands of years. The new constitution defines Moroccan identity itself as partly Jewish.

What’s really striking about Morocco, however, is how much less Arab it is than other Arabic-speaking countries. That’s partly because nearly half the people aren’t even Arabs. They’re Berbers—or Amazigh as they call themselves—an indigenous people who predated the 7th century Arab invasion by millennia. Morocco is a diverse and polyglot place, but its people have managed to create a coherent and unified culture that is rarely prone to the sectarian and ethnic violence that has torn other Middle Eastern countries apart.

But it’s not just the Europeans, Berbers, Jews, and black Africans that make Morocco unique. It’s also the country’s distance from the Arabian Peninsula and the core of the Islamic world.

During my visit, I met with Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, who holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University Qaddi Ayaad in Marrakech. Before 1995, he taught comparative history of religions and Islamic thought. Today he teaches sociology in a cooperation program between the University Qaddi Ayyad and DePaul University in Chicago. He agrees that Morocco’s uniqueness is geographic in origin.

“Morocco used to be called the Far West before America was discovered,” he told me. “The Atlantic Ocean was known as the Sea of Darknesses. We didn’t know if there was anything out there beyond it.”

Indeed, when I stood on the beach in Rabat it felt strange to think that directly across the water lay not Turkey or Iran or Yemen or Pakistan, but Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Morocco is closer to the United States than most of Europe. Baghdad is as far from Rabat as Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

“We’re separated from the center of the Middle East by great distances and great mountains,” Abbadi said. “Because we are so far away, we have time to analyze everything that comes out before it gets here. Everything emanating from the Middle East arrives on our shores in milder form. To quote Frank Sinatra, we did it our way.”

The ancient Phoenicians helped establish the rudiments of civilization in Morocco, but the early Moroccans resisted the Roman Empire. “We also resisted the Umayyads,” Abbadi said. “We resisted the Fatimids. We did not accept the Ottomans. We stood at the border of Morocco and Algeria and told the Ottomans no.”

Robert D. Kaplan, in his fascinating book, The Revenge of Geography, notes that mountains are a conservative force. For good or bad, they block the spread of ideas. The Atlas mountains are a powerful conservative force; not only do its snow-capped peaks slow the progress of ideas and culture coming from the Middle East, they create hyper-local cultures within Morocco itself.

Port cities, moreover, are inherently liberal, and Morocco has lots of them. Because they are hubs for travel and trade, they provide access to foreign people, ideas, and culture; and they do it safely because the sea protects them from ground invasion. Morocco’s port cities are all right next to Europe.

In short, Morocco’s geography is a blessing. Its port cities near Europe tend to bring good ideas in, and its mountains keep some of the Middle East’s worst ideas out.

Arab nationalists like to claim that the Arab world is a single nation cruelly divided by European imperialists, but this is a fantasy. The Arab world is coherent as a civilization, but like all civilizations it’s splendidly diverse and tragically fractious. Not even Lebanon can hold itself together as a coherent nation, and it’s smaller in population than metropolitan Houston. So of course Morocco is different from other Arab countries. All Arab countries are different from other Arab countries.

When the Prophet Muhammad’s armies swept out of the Arabian Peninsula thirteen centuries ago, they spread their religion and language, but they didn’t exterminate and replace indigenous populations. And the natives often influenced their conquerors as much as vice-versa. In Egypt, Arabs became Egyptian even as most Egyptians eventually converted to Islam and learned Arabic. In Tunisia, the conquerors assimilated themselves and their religion into a highly advanced civilization that was Western in orientation. And in Morocco, they mixed with a Berber population linked to both Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe. This is how it always goes for imperial expansionists. Mexico, for example, is to this day a fusion of European and Aztec cultures.

Religions also change as they spread. Christianity is practiced in strikingly different ways in, say, Norway and Cuba. And both are very different from Christianity as practiced in Jerusalem, its birthplace. In the same way, Islam as practiced in Rabat is very different from how it’s practiced in Mecca. Like everything else in Morocco, it’s milder.

I asked Dr. Abbadi what he thinks of the term “moderate Islam.” Some Muslims don’t like it. Some non-Muslims think moderate Islam doesn’t exist. Even some Muslims insist that moderate Islam doesn’t exist.

“I prefer ‘ponderous and reflective’ Islam,” he said. “The word ‘moderate’ per se doesn’t mean anything. Islam should be modern, teleological, clear, contextualized, realistic, and feasible.”

“The reason I ask,” I said, “is because I want to know what you think about something Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said. ‘There is no moderate or immoderate Islam,’ he said. ‘Islam is Islam and that’s it.’”

“That’s very dangerous,” Dr. Abbadi said. “Islam is not absolute. It is yoked to the human dimension. It is we humans who understand Islam. It is subjected to my reason, my way of understanding the world, and my analysis. Religions encounter previous cultures, previous religions, previous visions and cosmologies. It merges with all of them. No religion falls from the sky onto bare ground.”

Read the whole thing in The Tower magazine.

Tunisia on the Brink

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and it’s lurching toward the brink again just weeks after the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government.

Last week an assassin took out left-wing opposition leader Mohammed Brahmi with a 9mm pistol. Ballistics reports indicate the killer used the exact same weapon to murder another opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, last winter. And this week Al Qaeda-linked terrorists dug in on Mount Chambi killed at least eight Tunisian soldiers.

Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is taking the heat. While they aren’t being fingered as directly responsible, they’re being blamed all the same because they dominate the government and they’ve gone easy on the extremists this past year and have sometimes even colluded with them.

Thousands of furious demonstrators converged on parliament this week, yelling, “the people want the fall of the assassins.” Police officers repelled them with tear gas. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh refuses to step down and is blasting the demonstrators as “anarchists.”

Unlike in Egypt, the Islamists won less than half the vote in the election. Tunisians are stuck with them anyway, though, because secularists split their votes among dozens of parties and the Islamists walked away with a plurality. And though they were forced into a coalition with liberal and secular parties, they still got to choose the prime minister.

Ennahda is described as “moderate” in almost every single article published by wire agency hacks, but the only reason it’s relatively moderate is because it’s forced to share power. Tunisia’s Islamists conceded to building a civil state instead of an Islamic state because they face massive resistance and they don’t have enough seats in the parliament to do anything else. Since the police and the army are loyal to the country and not the party, that’s that. If Ennahda had won a majority and had the strength to muscle everything through, we would be looking at a different Tunisia—an Egypt in the Maghreb.

But Tunisia is much more liberal, secular, prosperous, and politically developed than Egypt. Both countries have problems that look similar on the surface, but the difference between the two is enormous. Tunis looks and feels more like France than like Cairo. The northern part of the country, where most people live, is more culturally similar to Europe than anywhere else in the Arab world outside of Beirut, which is almost half Christian.

In Egypt’s parliamentary election in winter of 2011, the Salafists—the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden—won a shocking 28 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Salafist party is still banned in Tunisia, even with Ennahda in the government. It’s a marginal movement that scares the hell out of just about everyone, not just on ideological grounds, but also because it’s responsible for a spree of violent incidents since the Ben Ali government fell, including setting fire to an American school and threatening to kill all the Jews.

Algerian Salafists killed tens thousands of people during the 1990s. Most Americans haven’t heard word one about that horror show, but Tunisians won’t forget it any time soon. Algeria is next door. The border between the two in the Tunisian Sahara is unmarked and wide open. The Salafist Movement for Preaching and Combat is still active on the Algerian side, and terrorists are trickling into the country.

The Al Qaeda attack near Mount Chambi this week was the most lethal against Tunisian security officials in decades. I drove to the top of that mountain two years ago. It’s the tallest in the country and from the top you can see into Algeria. The entire south side is a national park, and it’s lovely. But today it’s a terrorist nest. You go there, you die.

Ennahda and the Salafists ostensibly hate each other, but they have things in common ideologically, and they have an on-again off-again modus vivendi that’s no longer a secret.

Last year someone leaked a video showing Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, delivering a speech to Salafist youth leaders. He winked and nudged and not-so subtly suggested they were on the same side, and he got busted. “I tell our young Salafists to be patient,” he said. “Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained.”

That video set the country on fire. The average Tunisian should have known Ennahda was little more than the “good cop” next to the Salafist “bad cop,” but at least they know it now, and it’s one of the reasons Ennahda’s popularity has cratered.

My Tunisian fixer Ahmed tells me he’s all but certain the labor parties will win the next election and that Ennahda will be out on its ass. He can’t really know that, but it’s certainly plausible. Ennahda might even fall sooner than that if one of the liberal parties resigns from the government or if demonstrations become an unstoppable tide like they did during the revolution a few years ago. The country’s political center of gravity has been moving away from the Islamists since the day they entered the government, and the only hard power leverage they have is the banned Salafist movement, and even that’s just theoretical.

Tunisia is mellow, even pacifist, compared with Algeria. The army is smaller than Egypt’s, and it is not—or at least it has not been—a political player. So I don’t expect a full-blown Algerian-style insurgency or an Egyptian-style military coup. Nor is a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in the cards. Tunisia is not a police state, and Ennahda admits it’s afraid of the army.

But tensions are rising, the situation is volatile, the country is more dangerous now than even a week ago, and the region is always surprising. Keep an eye out because even the “moderate” Islamists empowered by the Arab Spring are back on their heels. They thought they owned the future, but they do not.

Egypt’s Morsi Investigated for Conspiracy and Murder

Egyptian prosecutors are investigating the now-overthrown president Mohammad Morsi for his alleged involvement in a plot with Hamas to break Muslim Brotherhood members out of jail in 2011—including Morsi himself—that left fourteen prison guards dead.

The Brotherhood claims the charges are politically motivated. That may well be the case. Egyptian prosecutors aren’t exactly above board and honest, not now and not ever.

Far more interesting than whether or not Morsi was involved is that the charges cast Hamas as a bad actor that murders Egyptians. This is not the standard narrative we’re accustomed to hearing in Egypt.

Kickstarter Rewards Delivered

Those who donated to my Kickstarter project to fund my last trip to the Middle East have just received a full color e-book for their iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, etc.

This book is only available to my Kickstarter supporters. You can't get it anywhere else.

If you wish you had one of these, I’ll be running another Kickstarter project soon and you can guarantee yourself a copy of the next one.

If you donated to my Kickstarter project and did not receive your copy today, send an email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com.

Thanks very much to you all.

Not Even Zombies Can Save the Middle East

Israelis and Arabs aren’t likely to get along in the real world any time soon, but they briefly pull it off in the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ mega best-selling novel, World War Z. People who hate Israel for a living are giving the movie a big thumbs-down because of it.

As’ad AbuKhalil, the self-described “Angry Arab,” quotes a reader named Mohammad who describes the film as “Zionist pornography.”

Here is Jesse Benjamin at the relentlessly axe-grinding Mondoweiss Web site: “Not only is Israel’s fanatical Wall Building proven to be justified, against the hordes of undead invaders, and not only are Jewish victimizations paraded to justify the aggrandizement of Israeli military prowess, but it’s Israel’s supposed humanism, and multicultural inclusiveness, which in the end weakens the fragile post-apocalyptic state and allows the zombies to overrun everything.” He goes on from there on a bizarre racialist rant against Zionism and the American “empire” and concludes by yearning for a tonic against such evils with a story told from the zombie horde’s point of view.

The Associated Press rounds up negative reactions from the Arab world. “It's free propaganda for Israel at a time when it occupies other people,” says Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel. “It portrays Israel as a moral power that protects human beings. It justifies the wall. ... The Israeli occupation army in the movie is a humane army that protects the world.” “I don't think it was trying to justify Israel's occupation,” says Aleena Khan in Dubai, “but it was glorifying the Israelis by emphasizing peace and harmony of the two nations, which is far from the truth.”

World War Z does portray Israel and Israelis positively. No one is imagining that. But at no point is Israel positively portrayed at the expense of the Arabs.

Most of the kvetchers are tired and predictable, are they’re over-reacting. World War Z is a popcorn movie. It doesn’t even pretend to be a serious geopolitical film. The novel is complex and brilliant. The film version is not. It’s a straightforward summer blockbuster designed to get the main character Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) from one exotic locale to another so he can get chased by zombies.

The book is subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War. As in Studs Terkel’s classic oral histories, no one appears in the book for more than a handful of pages, so there is no main character. We get a few pages from a man in China who lives in the village where Patient Zero appears. Another chapter is narrated by a blind man in Japan who manages to flee the city and survive in the wilderness. An American soldier describes how the United States army sweeps and clears the continent from one coast to another. And so on.

Because the characters in the book span the entire world over a long sweep of time, there’s no plot in the conventional sense, but there is a story. The story is the human race’s struggle against an extinction event. Humans collectively are the protagonist, and the zombie horde—known by the United States Army as “Zack”—is the terrifying antagonist.

No one could film that in two hours. The movie, by necessity, is only glancingly similar. There is a main character, but he isn’t developed. Gerry Lane is a United Nations researcher who bounces from one part of the world to another trying to figure out where the outbreak started. His quest takes him from Philadelphia to East Asia, the Middle East, and to Europe. The film’s final stretch in Wales is by far the most suspenseful, but Lane’s visit to Israel provides the film’s most interesting, though brief, foray into international affairs, and this of course is where all the controversy is focused.

In the film version, Israel is one of only two countries that survives the initial zombie outbreak. The other is North Korea. Pyongyang pulls out the teeth of the entire population in 24 hours, making it impossible for the virus to spread. But Israel is not a totalitarian police state. The Israelis survive the initial wave intact because they have a clever intelligence tool at their disposal that no other country in the world possesses. I don’t want to spoil the film by revealing it here, but I will say that whoever developed this part of the story understands Israeli history and culture well enough to think of a semi-plausible explanation that, fortunately for the film’s reputation among mainstream filmgoers, has nothing to do with the Palestinians, the West Bank, or Gaza.

The Arab countries have been overrun with zombies, and the Israelis construct an enormous wall to keep them out. If you stop right there you could say the zombie wall is a thinly disguised metaphor for the real-world separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank and that the zombies represent Arabs. But in context that’s ludicrous. The movie makes it clear that zombies are zombies and Arabs are humans. The towering zombie wall is not a stand-in for the real wall separating Israelis from Arabs. In World War Z, the wall separates Israelis and Arabs from zombies. The Israelis let non-zombified Arab refugees pass through the wall to relative safety. The eternally squabbling neighbors are finally at peace, united against a common enemy. “Every human being we save,” says an Israeli intelligence agent, “is one less to fight.”

Israelis and Arabs banding together to fight zombies is the stuff of fantastical science-fiction, of course, but it’s a nice message all the same, one that has been a staple of the genre since its beginning. Our differences as human beings vanish when faced with zombies, alien invasions, killer asteroids, and so on. Harlan Ellison put it this way in his classic science fiction collection Dangerous Visions, originally published in 1967:

Between the time I wrote “The Day After the Day the Martians Came” and now, I met a minister from a small town in Alabama. Like many churches, not only in Alabama, his is torn on the question of integration. He has found a way, he thinks, to solve it—or at least to ameliorate it—among the white teen-agers in his congregation: he is encouraging them to read science fiction in the hope that they may learn, first, to worry about green-skinned Martians instead of black-skinned Americans and, second, that all men are brothers…at least in the face of a very large universe which is very likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.

It’s easy to botch that message and make it sound juvenile and pat, but World War Z takes it seriously. The antagonists in the film are so overwhelmingly violent and hostile that even a Middle Eastern pessimist like me managed to swallow it.

Unfortunately, World War Z’s message of common humanity is lost on much of the real Middle East and its legion of commentators.

You can watch the trailer here.

Israel Strikes Syria -- Again

The United States Defense Intelligence Agency confirms that the Israelis struck another Syrian weapons depot, this time in the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The Israelis are worried that Russian missiles will be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon and have repeatedly destroyed them on the ground before they can be moved.

Unlike the United States, Israel doesn't have a foreign policy in the Middle East. It has a defense policy. There is a difference. The Israelis don't have enough power or leverage to shape regional politics to their advantage. They learned that the hard way during the Lebanese civil war. All they can really do is defend themselves and quietly cooperate with the few friends they have over there.

Al Qaeda, including its Al Nusra Front franchise in Syria, has never been particularly interested in Israel. That might change if Assad falls, but so far all the recent Israeli strikes in Syria were against the Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah axis. None were against any faction on the rebel side.

Iran is striving to aquire nuclear weapons. Hezbollah has direct support from Syria and Iran and indirect support from Russsia. The Assad regime ties them all together. As a bloc they are much more dangerous, for now anyway, than ragtag stateless irregulars, and the Israelis are acting accordingly.

Out of Town This Week

I'm taking a professional writing and publishing workshop this week that will occupy me for twelve hours a day, so blogging might be slow. We'll see how much energy I have left at the end of each day. Either way, I'll be back to normal next week.

The Next Syrian War

It has been obvious for some time now that if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, the next big Syrian war will be fought between Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army. There’s no room for both. (There’s no room for anyone to co-exist peacefully with Al Qaeda.)

It made a certain amount of sense for them to wait until Assad is out of the way, but they might start fighting sooner than that.

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Friday the assassination of one of their top commanders by al Qaeda-linked militants was tantamount to a declaration of war, opening a new front for the Western-backed fighters struggling against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Rivalries have been growing between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamists, whose smaller but more effective forces control most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria more than two years after pro-democracy protests became an uprising.

"We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us," a senior FSA commander said on condition of anonymity after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant killed Kamal Hamami on Thursday.

"We are going to wipe the floor with them," he said.

Yesterday I wrote that nobody can really know anything about the future, but it's pretty unlikely that Al Qaeda will suddenly learn to play well with others.

Getting the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong

Everybody got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong, including me, and starting with the Egyptian people themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi won Egypt’s first free and fair election for its head of state. Picking him seemed like a good idea at the time to the typical Egyptian voter, but clearly it wasn’t since Egypt just vomited him and his party up into everyone’s lap.

I figured that would happen eventually, but I’m still astonished that it happened so quickly.

Genuine political liberals are thin on the ground in Egypt, but they do exist. I know several. Some are my friends. Most of them were wrong about the Brotherhood, too. They were right, of course, when they warned the rest of us that the Brothers would transform Egypt into a theocratic dictatorship, but they were wrong when they estimated how much support the Brotherhood had. Hardly any expected the Islamists to win most of the votes, though that’s exactly what happened.

American liberals made a different mistake. Despite warnings from secular Egyptians and former Islamists, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic party became an article of faith here in the States, particularly among academics and journalists who should have known better. Even James Clapper—who, as the Director of National Intelligence, really should have known better—said the Muslim Brotherhood is “a largely secular organization.” Surely that ranks among the dumbest things ever said about the organization in all of its 85 years.

Look: the Muslim Brotherhood is not a mysterious new group that no one knows anything about. It was founded in 1928, for crying out loud, and its ideology has been documented exhaustively. Not for even five minutes has it been a democratic or moderate party. It has been struggling for theocracy since the day it was born, sometimes peaceably and sometimes by force. Every Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the region is a spin-off of the Brotherhood or a spin-off of one of its spin-offs.  

Western liberals should have spent a lot more time listening to their Egyptian counterparts and no time at all swallowing the lies of faith-based gangsters with a Pharaonic complex. This whole business quite frankly baffles me. An American Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would be denounced as fascist by every Western-born liberal on earth. We’d hear no end of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, General Franco’s Falangists, and the Crusades. And yet so many Westerners proved incapable of applying the same political analytical skills to Egypt that they use every day in the US and Europe. I’ll leave it to them to explain how that happened once they figure it out.

American conservatives always understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bad news. Many also seemed to sense instinctively that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the election in Egypt. They were right on both counts.

But then the narrative among some parts of the American right went off the rails. Many argued that radical Islamists were bound to triumph everywhere in the Middle East since they had just triumphed in Egypt, as if nearly everyone who self-identifies as a Muslim yearns for political Islam as a matter of course. This point of view regularly appears in my comments section.

It didn’t seem to register that non-Islamists and anti-Islamists frequently do well in elections in Muslim countries, even in Arab countries and even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda won less than fifty percent of the vote and was forced into a coalition government with secular parties that block it routinely. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party lost big. In Lebanon, secular parties have won most of the votes since the nation’s founding, and, except for the Israelis, the Lebanese have held more elections in the region than anyone else. 

More recently, the citizens of Mali cheered the French as liberators when they invaded and routed Al Qaeda in the north. Mali, by the way, is not even close to being a largely atheist nation like the nominally Muslim countries of the former communist bloc.

Islamist victories happen sometimes, but they aren’t inevitable. Karl Marx cobbled together psuedo-scientific arguments for why socialism was destined to triumph over capitalism. He claimed history was teleological, that its endpoint could be delayed but not forever resisted, but that’s not how it worked out for communism, nor is it working that way for radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” is but one point of view among many. Sometimes its adherents win and sometimes they lose, just like the proponents of ideas everywhere else.

I got a few things wrong, too. Like Egypt’s liberals and America’s conservatives, I understood all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was theocratic and authoritarian. But I did not think they would win. I knew they’d do well—Egypt is the most Islamicized place I’ve ever been, after all—but I assumed they’d have a hard time breaking fifty percent.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood win, a huge percentage of Egyptians who voted against them went for the Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden. Egypt turned out to be even more politically Islamicized than I realized, and I knew it was bad.

Yet in the long sweep of Egyptian history, it lasted about as long as a hiccup.

I think it’s safe to say everyone, regardless of their political orientation and what they got right and wrong a year ago, was surprised by how quickly Egypt rejected the Brotherhood. The United States government has sound reasons for not describing what happened as a military coup, but that’s what it was. The rest of us shouldn’t kid ourselves. Yet it’s clear that the coup was a popular one. Morsi ended up more hated than Hosni Mubarak, and he achieved that dubious honor in one year instead of in thirty.

That ought to make American liberals rethink the notion that the Brotherhood is democratic and moderate. And it ought to show American conservatives that Muslims are perfectly capable of rejecting political Islam whether or not they’re secular Jeffersonian democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood might recover somewhat if the next government fails as badly as Morsi’s, but then again it might not.

No one can predict the future anywhere in the world. It’s even harder in the Middle East than in other places. History doesn’t move in straight lines over there. Sometimes it goes in circles. Other times it veers off in wild directions. Keen observers can figure out what’s happening now, but when it comes to the future, nobody really knows anything.

Terrorizing the Terrorists

Somebody just detonated a car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s de-facto capital. Fifty eight people were hurt. No one claimed credit.

One of the creepy things about Lebanon is that it’s not always obvious who is behind this sort of thing. It’s probably related to the Syrian war, but it might not be. 

From the Mouths of Babes

I’m afraid Walter Russell Mead is right when he says, “Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain.”

Democracy requires democrats, liberalism requires liberals, and Egypt doesn’t have many of either.

But Egypt has some! Take a look at this short video interview with a 12-year-old kid back in October. He’s startlingly sophisticated for someone so young, and he makes the adult person interviewing him sound like an ass.

I’ll have real hope for Egypt when its young people en masse rebel against their parents. It happens sometimes. And it needs to happen in Egypt.


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